Sermon title:

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.

It begins,

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.”

 

It says,

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

took place.

 

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

the Apostles

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.

 

We read,

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.

 

We read,

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.

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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.