Chapter 6: Easier to escape from prison than to enter church
1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. 2 Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. 3 And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread. 4 So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover. 5 Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church. 6 And when Herod was about to bring him out, that night Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers; and the guards before the door were keeping the prison.
7 Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, ‘Arise quickly!’ And his chains fell off his hands. 8 Then the angel said to him, ‘Gird yourself and tie on your sandals’; and so he did. And he said to him, ‘Put on your garment and follow me.’ 9 So he went out and followed him, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they were past the first and the second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord; and they went out and went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.
11 And when Peter had come to himself, he said, ‘Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.’ 12 So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.
13 And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a girl named Rhoda came to answer.
14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate. 15 But they said to her, ‘You are beside yourself!’ Yet she kept insisting that it was so. So they said, ‘It is his angel.’ 16 Now Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to keep silent, he declared to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, ‘Go, tell these things to James and to the brethren.’ And he departed and went to another place.
18 Then, as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers about what had become of Peter. 19 But when Herod had searched for him and not found him, he examined the guards and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judea to Caesarea, and stayed there.
James killed and Peter imprisoned
King Herod is the grandson of the notorious king, Herod the Great, who massacred the young children after the birth of Jesus Christ. Known as Herod Agrippa he reigns between ad 37 and 44. He had been imprisoned by Emperor Tiberius. Before that, he was hugely in debt and fled from Rome to Palestine. After Tiberius’s death he became ruler of northern Palestine, to which in AD 41, Judea and Samaria were added. John MacArthur suggests that Herod wants to keep on the right side of the Jews because he is so unsure of the security of his continuing relationship with Rome.1 So now, to please and pacify the Jews, Herod violently harasses and persecutes the church.
The apostle James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John,2 becomes the first apostle to be martyred. Peter, whose profile is so high since the events of that famous Pentecost in Jerusalem, is next on the hit list. He is taken into custody during the week-long feast, ‘the Days of Unleavened Bread’, that follows the Passover. After his arrest Peter is placed in custody with no fewer than sixteen soldiers3 being commissioned to guard him. Peter is asleep, ‘bound with two chains between two soldiers’. Some other soldiers act as ‘sentries’4 or as ‘guards before the door’. They guard the prison. The intention regarding Peter is ‘to bring him before the people after Passover’. Even Houdini, the great escape artist, would not be able to escape without strong outside assistance! But Peter sleeps. He is at peace in the centre of God’s will for him. Meanwhile the church prays earnestly for him.
It seems surreal to Peter: a break-out without breaking anything inside!
It amuses me that ‘Break-out’ is the name of an excellent café across the road from London’s Pentonville prison. There are very few break-outs from English prisons, but we now learn of one in a Jerusalem jail by its most compliant and heavily guarded prisoner, namely Peter. For him it all seems surreal. He feels as if he is in a dream or vision.
An angel suddenly appears beside him in his now illuminated cell. Amazingly none of the guarding soldiers wake up during this unexpected escape. After his chains fall off his hands, the angel strikes Peter on the side to wake him up. He tells him to ‘Arise quickly’ and to get dressed. He even reminds confused Peter to put his sandals on—presumably he forgot. Then he instructs him to put on his cloak, or ‘garment’, and follow him. Peter does so and, passing by the two guards, he leaves the prison with the angel as the gate opened miraculously before them. He then walks down a street towards the city. In all this Peter still feels he is in a vision. The angel then immediately leaves him. Peter is outside prison. He is free! Remember that God can rescue the most hopeless sinner from the prison of sin and death and set him free in Christ.
Peter wakes up and looks for those who pray
Peter recovers from the confusion caused by the angel’s miraculous interruption of his sleep. He gratefully reasons that the Lord rescued him from cruel King Herod by sending His angel. He recognises that he has also escaped from the many Jewish people now present from all over the world in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Many of them will be disappointed not to witness their hoped-for execution of Peter after his interrogation before the Council.
Peter now goes on to the best and safest place he knows. His brothers and sisters in Christ pray together constantly through the night at the house of Mary. She is the mother of John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas and known to Peter.5
Being set free from prison by an angel is not a new experience for Peter.6 Attending prayer meetings is obviously something he has done far more. It is now part of the apostle’s lifestyle, as it should still be now for all who have come to new life in Christ. Peter certainly knows where and when the prayer meeting is held. He makes sure he goes there. If only every born again person alive today could be as keen to pray with other Christians as Peter is. What a difference the church of Christ would see in its daily living and on its impact on a lost and godless world.
Why are Christians sometimes amazed when God answers prayer?
Those making ‘constant prayer’ for Peter at Mary’s house are still praying for him right now. If one of your church’s Christian leaders is in prison, facing hostile interrogation and maybe execution as a result, will you not join your praying friends to intercede for him unceasingly?
Peter knocks at the door of Mary’s house. A young girl called Rhoda goes to answer. She is so overjoyed when she hears his voice that she forgets to open the door! She immediately runs to the praying Christians to tell them that Peter is at the door. They reply that she is mad. They too ‘know’ that it ‘cannot’ be Peter because he is in prison. So it seems to them that the great God to whom they pray cannot answer their prayers and deliver Peter from prison! We Christians are inconsistent and slow at times to trust that almighty God will answer our prayers. When Rhoda insists that it really is Peter who is knocking, they repeat over and over that it must be ‘his angel’. How strange! If Peter’s guardian ‘angel’ exists, as they know he does, can he not arrive at their prayer meeting either with or without Peter? In fact the angel who has facilitated Peter’s escape has given Peter some much needed time alone, for recovery and in which to think, during his walk to Mary’s house. By now Peter’s knuckles must be red raw as he keeps knocking at the gate! At last they open it. As Peter enters, the praying Christians see him and are ‘amazed’. (Why are we so amazed when God answers prayer?)
One Sunday morning I left a Liverpool prison, after sharing the gospel there, to go and visit a church in Liverpool that had been vandalised a short time before. The church doors were so securely locked that I was unable to enter in time to preach! So I can understand why, in this time of persecution for the Jerusalem Christians, it is far harder for Peter to get inside the church prayer meeting than to get out of a very securely locked and guarded prison! Sadly, throughout Western Christianity, it seems increasingly difficult for some Christians to get into their church prayer meetings.
Peter takes over and explains what has happened, and how ‘the Lord had brought him out of the prison’. Before he moves on ‘to another place’, presumably to avoid detection, he asks that a report be given to his brothers in Christ and especially to James, Jesus’ half-brother, president of the apostles, and leader of the church at Jerusalem.7
Although Peter is a pro-active man of great enthusiasm and energy, he happily and responsibly is a member of the team. Each person who has received Christ must live and witness personally for the Lord, but he or she must also be a loyal and loving member of the fellowship of local church believers and be accountable to its leadership.8
‘No small stir’
At daybreak there is ‘no small stir’ over Peter’s absence. Under Roman law the sentries are given the same penalty that Peter would have received, had he not escaped. They are ‘put to death’.9 Peter moves on to spend time at Caesarea. God has more work to do in the cause of Christ through him.
Questions on Chapter 6
Acts 12:1–19 Easier to escape from prison than to enter church
A. Contrast Herod and Peter. Who would you rather be in the events covered by Acts 12:1–6? Why? Who would you prefer to be a thousand years later? Why?
Acts 12:1–6, Isaiah 26:3, Isaiah 57:21, Matthew 7:13–14, John 3:36
B. From what you read in Acts 12:1–19, and especially in Acts 12:7–12, try to deduce how Peter thinks and feels, and the reason he acts the way he does. What five words would you use to describe him?
Acts 12:7–12, Proverbs 3:5–6, Psalm 37:23, Hebrews 13:5–6
C. What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the people mentioned below in Acts 12:13–19?Rhoda, Peter, Those praying in Mary’s house, The soldiers, King Herod
Acts 12:13–19, Daniel 11:32, 2 Corinthians 12:10, Galatians 6:7
- See notes on Acts 12:1–4 in the MacArthur Study Bible, published by WORD. ↩
- Matthew 10:2 ↩
- One ‘squad’ consists of four soldiers. There are four squads. ↩
- ESV refers to them as ‘sentries’—NKJV uses the word ‘guards’. ↩
- Colossians 4:10, 1 Peter 5:13 ↩
- Acts 5:19 ↩
- Acts 15:13, Acts 15:19 ↩
- Hebrews 10:24-25 ↩
- Justinian’s Code (ix.iv, iv) ↩