Peter’s Miraculous Jail-Break
Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, February 21, 2021
Persecution of Christians is a constant theme
in the history of the early Church
that we find in the Bible book of Acts.
At John 15:20, our Lord Jesus said,
“If they persecuted me,
they will also persecute you.”
And so, it continues today, as well.
But the intensity of that persecution
has fluctuated from time to time
and from place to place.
In the world today, reports say 215 million believers
face intense persecution.
Tens of thousands of these are currently in jail—
at least 50,000 in North Korea alone.
Here in the United States,
Christians have enjoyed a long period of peace,
but we can see opposition to biblical Christianity
rising up again.
So, we can benefit from looking at how the early church
endured the persecution it faced from the beginning.
Acts Chapter 4 tells how Peter and John
were arrested for the first time.
Chapter 5 tells how all the Apostles were jailed,
but miraculously set free by God’s angel,
and then were arrested again
and publicly beaten.
Chapters 6 & 7 relate the case of deacon Stephen
who was arrested and then executed by stoning
for preaching about Jesus.
The 8th Chapter of Acts goes on to say
that a wave of intense persecution
broke out at that time.
And Ch. 9 tells how Jesus stopped the lead persecutor
and converted him to become the Apostle Paul.
That led to a period of peace for the churches
in Judea, Galilee and Samaria.
Chapter 12 jumps ahead a few years
to a time when a change in government leaders
led to renewed persecution.
1 Now about that time, King Herod stretched out his hands to oppress some of the assembly.
About what time?
The previous chapter had just ended with a reference
to Paul and Barnabas carrying money to Jerusalem
to help the Christians there
survive the food shortage
while Claudius was Emperor of Rome.
And secular history tells us
Claudius was Emperor from AD 41 to AD 54.
So, that helps us pin down what time is meant,
when this chapter says “about that time.”
“King Herod stretched out his hands
to oppress some of the assembly.”
This was not Herod the Great
who was visited by the Wise Men—
and who killed the babies of Bethlehem.
No, it wasn’t him, because he died
shortly after that incident,
while Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus were in Egypt.
And it wasn’t Herod Antipas
who conspired with Pontius Pilate
some 30 years later to crucify Jesus.
That particular Herod ruled Galilee,
and never ruled over Judea where Jerusalem was.
In fact, during most of the life of Christ
the Romans governed Judea
with Roman governors, instead of local kings.
A half-dozen-or-so Roman governors ruled Judea
from 6 AD until 41 AD.
Pontius Pilate was one of those.
Then the Roman Emperor Caligula was assassinated
by the bodyguards who were supposed to protect him,
and his uncle Claudius replaced him as Emperor.
That new Caesar appointed Herod Agrippa the 1st—
a grandson of Herod the Great—
as king over Jerusalem.
And he ruled Judea from AD 41 to AD 44.
That narrows it down further,
to a 3-year window when the events of Acts Ch. 12
I’m not reciting all these historical references
to bore you to death.
I’m pointing them out, because they may
lead to eternal life for someone listening
who previously viewed the Bible as a fairytale—
‘once-upon-a-time in a land far away.’
The Bible is real history, intersecting precisely
with people and events in secular history books.
And that realization can help people
put faith in the Scriptures
and in their life-saving message.
I know that to be true, in my own case,
because it was seeing
that historical accuracy of the Bible
that helped turn me from skeptical unbelief
to belief in the Bible as the Word of God.
So, Acts Chapter 12 begins by telling us,
1 Now about that time, King Herod stretched out his hands to oppress some of the assembly. 2 He killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.
The “assembly” Herod was oppressing
was the Christian church in Jerusalem,
which included the Apostles.
That church had enjoyed a period of peace for some time,
but now Herod began
and new episode of persecution.
And one of his first acts was to order the execution
of “James, the brother of John.”
James and John were the sons of Zebedee
who our Lord Jesus first called years earlier
to leave their father’s fishing business
and follow him.
The came to be among the 12 Apostles.
And John was the longest-living of those 12 Apostles—
the one who wrote the book of Revelation
and the letters we call 1st, 2nd and 3rd John.
He survived longer than any of the other Apostles
and was an old man when he wrote.
But John’s brother James was the first of the Apostles
to die a martyr’s death,
when Herod had him executed with a sword.
And Herod wasn’t satisfied with leaving it at that.
Herod Agrippa the 1st was a political animal.
He grew up among the Caesars
and was a boyhood friend of Roman Emperor Caligula
who enabled his rise to power.
And now he saw persecuting the Christians
as a way to gain more political support
among the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.
First, he had the Apostle James arrested and killed.
Then Verse 3 tells us,
When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.
Whatever worked politically for Herod,
that’s what he would do.
He would have given orders for Peter
to be executed immediately.
But, again, there were political considerations.
Killing Peter would please Jerusalem’s religious leaders,
but killing him during Jewish holidays
would have angered them.
Passover was part of a 7-day festival
commanded in the 12th Chapter of Exodus,
where Moses reported that God said,
18 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. 19 There shall be no yeast found in your houses for seven days, for whoever eats that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel.
The 7-day festival began with Passover Day, and so
the whole week-long time of unleavened bread
was often referred to as “Passover.”
And it was during that period
that Herod’s agents arrested the Apostle Peter.
Acts goes on to tell us,
This was during the days of unleavened bread. 4 When he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of four soldiers each to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.
So Herod’s plan was to keep Peter in jail
until the Jewish holidays were over,
and then bring him out for a public execution.
And he was doing it all for political reasons—
to gain support among the religious leaders.
Peter’s imprisonment was
not just a run-of-the-mill jailing.
He wasn’t put in with the general prison population.
It was a very special jailing
with sixteen soldiers specially assigned
to guard this V.I.P. prisoner.
That would allow for 4 teams of 4 soldiers each
to guard Peter round-the-clock in 6-hour shifts.
Herod didn’t want to take any chances
that someone might bungle
the political circus he was putting on
as he executed Jesus’ Apostles one by one.
It would be show-time as soon as the Passover was over,
and the show that Herod planned to put on
was Peter’s public execution.
But the whole church was praying for Peter.
They were praying earnestly
for Peter to be released, unharmed.
But they knew that the Lord had allowed James to be killed,
despite their earnest prayers for him, too.
This should be a lesson for us
in the matter of unanswered prayer.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord Jesus
prayed to the Father,
asking for the ‘cup’ to pass from him,
but expressing willingness to drink that ‘cup’
if it was the Father’s will.
And he did ‘drink’ it by going to the cross.
Similarly, the Apostle Paul asked the Lord 3 times
to remove an affliction that made him suffer,
but the Lord’s answer was that his power
was made perfect in Paul’s weakness.
God is sovereign,
and like any good parent,
he knows what is best for us in the long run.
We don’t know why it was God’s will
to allow James to be executed at that time,
but God’s will is sovereign.
The disciples who were praying for Peter
knew that Jesus had called all of us, his followers,
to pick up our cross, and follow him—
to be prepared for persecution,
which could lead to death.
Church tradition tells us that most, if not all of
eventually faced violent deaths
at the hands of persecutors.
But the Jerusalem church asked God
to do something miraculous at that time
to keep Peter from being killed.
It would seem tough, if not impossible,
from a human standpoint.
The Passover holidays would soon be over,
and Peter’s time would be up.
Verse 5 continues,
5 Peter therefore was kept in the prison, but constant prayer was made by the assembly to God for him. 6 The same night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains. Guards in front of the door kept the prison.
This V.I.P. prisoner was being held
in the tightest security I’ve ever heard of—
two chains fastening him to the bed,
and a guard right next to him on each side.
But no challenge is too hard for God.
7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side, and woke him up, saying, “Stand up quickly!” His chains fell off from his hands. 8 The angel said to him, “Get dressed and put on your sandals.” He did so. He said to him, “Put on your cloak, and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him.
Waking up from a sound sleep,
Peter must have thought he was dreaming.
The account goes on to say:
He didn’t know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he saw a vision.
It seemed too impossible to be real.
Besides, a jail is more than just a guarded cell.
Prisons typically have layer upon layer of enclosures,
each well-guarded and secured.
But the angel led Peter past one layer of security after another.
10 When they were past the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened to them by itself. They went out, and went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.
Left alone there, on the city street,
Peter finally realized that he wasn’t dreaming.
A miraculous jail-break had actually occurred.
He had really been set free from prison
by a visiting angel.
The account continues,
11 When Peter had come to himself, he said, “Now I truly know that the Lord has sent out his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from everything the Jewish people were expecting.”
God had miraculously answered Peter’s prayers
and the prayers of the Jerusalem church.
Now that he grasped this wonderful fact himself,
he wanted to share the news with others.
He was familiar with the street where the angel left him,
and he knew that believers lived nearby.
12 Thinking about that, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 When Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she didn’t open the gate for joy, but ran in, and reported that Peter was standing in front of the gate.
“John who was called Mark” is believed to be
the writer of the Gospel of Mark—
who later traveled with Paul and Barnabas
on their missionary tour.
Peter found himself near John Mark’s mother’s house,
and many from the church
were there at the time, praying—
praying for Peter’s release from jail.
But, when Peter knocked at the door,
the maid Rhoda was so excited
that she left him there,
while she ran back to the prayer group
to report that he was outside.
No one believed her.
15 They said to her, “You are crazy!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.”
Literal translations say "his messenger"
rather than "his angel."
And this makes a lot more sense.
Angels can show up inside without waiting to be let in.
And it makes more sense
that the believers meeting in Mary’s house
would have assumed someone arrived
with a message from Peter, rather than
to assume an angel was at the door.
In any case, they didn’t believe
their prayers were being answered.
They didn’t believe Peter was at the door—
even though they had been pleading with God
to set Peter free from prison.
Are we like that?
Do we ask God for a miracle—
but find it hard to believe,
when he actually does it?
Well, in the midst of all this,
Peter was still standing outside in the dark
knocking at the door.
Verse 16 says,
16 But Peter continued knocking. When they had opened, they saw him, and were amazed. 17 But he, beckoning to them with his hand to be silent, declared to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, “Tell these things to James, and to the brothers.” Then he departed, and went to another place.
Not the Apostle James,
who had already been executed by Herod,
but James the half-brother of Jesus
was taking the lead in the Jerusalem church,
and so Peter named him, when he said,
“Tell these things to James,
and to the brothers.”
The good news of this miraculous jail-break
that rescued Peter from certain death—
needed to be told throughout the church,
to encourage all the believers.
But Peter’s escape was bad news for others.
The account continues,
18 Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers about what had become of Peter. 19 When Herod had sought for him, and didn’t find him, he examined the guards, and commanded that they should be put to death. He went down from Judea to Caesarea, and stayed there.
It was common practice among the Romans
to make soldiers pay with their own lives
if they allowed a prisoner to escape.
And that’s the penalty Herod imposed on the guards.
But the one who really deserved punishment
was Herod himself.
He had had the Apostle James executed.
And he had arranged to kill Peter next—
all for his own political gain.
Punishment for evil rulers often awaits the time
when they stand before the judgment seat of God.
But, for wicked Herod, his punishment
began much sooner than that.
The account goes on to tell what happened to him:
20 Now Herod was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. They came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus, the king’s personal aide, their friend, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food.
21 On an appointed day, Herod dressed himself in royal clothing, sat on the throne, and gave a speech to them. 22 The people shouted, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he didn’t give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Secular history, too, reports
that Herod died in this horrible way—
evidently a parasitic disease,
where worms ate him alive.
He had abused the Church by killing the Apostle James
and by trying to kill Peter,
and he let himself be called a ‘god’—
but the true God
brought appropriate punishment upon him.
So, what do we learn from this account?
Actually, a number of lessons.
First of all, we saw the historicity of the Bible—
that it ties in precisely with secular history.
And we saw that God can do the impossible—
breaking Peter out of a high-security jail cell.
But we also saw that prayers did not prevent James
from being killed earlier,
just as Jesus’ prayer in the Garden
did not take away the ordeal he faced.
So, another lesson is that God’s will is sovereign,
and he knows what is best for us in the long run.
He may provide a miraculous release, as with Peter,
or may help us endure tribulation that can’t be avoided.
We learned, too, that persecution
is the lot of Christians.
At John 15:20, Jesus said,
“If they persecuted me,
they will also persecute you.”
Most, if not all, of the Apostles were killed by persecutors.
And, as in the case of Herod, we learned
that God will punish wicked persecutors in due time—
whether in this world or the next.
I have personally seen miraculous answers to prayer—
sometimes immediately, within seconds
or before the prayer was even finished—
and sometimes much later
after years of persistent prayer.
Our God is still in the business of doing miracles,
and still in the business of blessing his people.
But, at the same time,
we can’t escape the fact that Christ said,
at John 16:33,
“In the world you will have tribulation.
But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Like James and Peter and the other early disciples,
we face trouble and persecution in this world.
But, it’s the final outcome that matters the most,
and our final outcome is
an everlasting life of peace and joy
with our Savior in heaven.
As Paul wrote at 1 Corinthians 15:19,
if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.
20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.
James was executed with the sword,
but he is now alive with Christ forever more.
Peter escaped death at Herod’s hand,
but died at the hands of other persecutors years later.
He, too, rose to Christ’s heavenly throne.
And that is our hope, as well.
God blesses us wonderfully in this world,
but, while here, we also face troubles and tribulations.
Our hope is the sure knowledge
that Jesus rose from the dead
and is now at the right hand of power in heaven.
And he has promised to take us home
to live with him forever,
amid endless blessings
that we can’t even imagine.
That’s the hope that enabled James and Peter
and the early church
to face persecution—even death.
And that’s the same hope that keeps us strong today.