We have in Acts 12 the closing scene in Peter’s Judean ministry. When we open the next chapter, he recedes into the background and Paul becomes the leading figure. There had been persecution before, and at that time all the disciples had been scattered abroad—except the apostles. We read in Acts 12:1, “Now about that time Herod the king [this was Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of the Herod under whom our Lord Jesus was born] stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.”
You will remember there were three apostles most intimately linked with our Lord’s earthly ministry—Peter, James, and John. These three were together with Christ on the mount of transfiguration and in the house of Jairus when Jesus raised from the dead the daughter of that synagogue leader. These three were in the garden of sorrow when He bowed before the Father and cried, “If thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” Now one was taken away by death—James the Great (to be distinguished from James the Less, the Son of Alphaeus). Herod saw that the death of James pleased the enemies of the gospel so he proceeded to take Peter also.
“Then were the days of unleavened bread,” following the Passover, and since Herod did not want to start a riot at such a time he decided to imprison Peter until after the feast of weeks. The kjv says “Easter,” but in the original it is “Pentecost.” Then he intended to bring him forth and put him to death. But now we find God’s people using that resource which He has given His own in every trial: “Prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.” What a wonderful privilege!
People say sometimes, “Why do we need to pray? Does not our gracious God know all about us and what we need far better than we do?” But we learn from God’s Word that He has chosen to do in answer to prayer what He might not do apart from prayer. He gives in answer to prayer some things He will not give apart from it—“Ye have not, because ye ask not.” So prayer is the resource of God’s needy people—prayer for ourselves, prayer in behalf of others.
Here you have the whole church in Jerusalem praying for Peter. And while they were praying, God was working. Things had gone on until it looked as though there was no hope for Peter. God had permitted him to remain in prison many days. He gave no sign, yet all the time He was working. We often say that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. Peter had come to the last night he was to live on earth—if Herod’s judgment was to be carried out.
“Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.” This suggests absolute hopelessness. There was nothing Peter could do to free himself—and in that sense this becomes an illustration of the sinner’s condition. We can see pictured here every one of us in our unconverted days—asleep, indifferent, bound in the chains of our sins, guarded by Satan’s emissaries, doomed to die. This is the state of man without Christ. Peter was a man who could do nothing for himself, when suddenly a messenger came from Heaven. Thank God, He has sent us a messenger—His own blessed Son! “And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison.” We read in Psalms, “The entrance of thy words giveth light.” That is why we preach the gospel and proclaim the way of salvation to men who are sleeping in sin, so they may be brought to the Light and realize their needy condition, and then go on to follow the gleam.
The angel “smote Peter on the side.” I do not know whether Peter enjoyed that or not! He was sleeping soundly, comfortable even in his chains. And so it is when we seek to bring people to see their lost condition, many of them say, as the sluggard in the book of Proverbs, “Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep.” Oh, unsaved man or woman, sleeping in your sins, hear me! A little more sleep, a little more slumber—and you will wake up in a lost eternity! “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”
Peter was awakened roughly by the angel who said, “Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.” As he acted in obedience to the angel’s command, though he thought it a vision or a dream, his chains fell off. So it is today when men hear the Word and act on it. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24). One of our own dear brethren told me that after having been bound by the chains of strong drink, and useless to himself and everyone else, he came under the spell of the gospel. “I heard the Word, and in one moment my chains fell off. I have never again walked the drunkard’s pathway.” That is what the gospel can do for anyone who accepts the message.
“And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals.” In other words, “You are a free man. Now act as a free man.” The angel continued, “Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.” First then, the sinner must be awakened; then he is brought to see his true condition and, trusting in his Deliverer, he is to follow Him. In other words, we are to follow Christ because we are saved. We are saved through what He did on Calvary’s cross.
And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision. When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord (Acts 12:9-10).
If Peter had passed through that iron gate the following day in his chains, he would have gone out, under the Roman guard, to the place of execution—to die. That is what Herod intended. But Peter, obeying the word of God, having received the message of the angel, walked through the wards until he came to the iron gate. He might have said, “I have no power to open that portal.” But in a moment it opened by itself and Peter went through, not to die, but to live and to spend many years in service for the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so it is today: If you and I had passed through the iron gate of death in our sins we would have gone out into everlasting judgment. But thank God, Christ has died for us and therefore His death becomes our death. The iron gate is open and we pass through the gate in Him.
“And they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him.” Now Peter is alone and for the first time he realizes what has taken place. Up to this moment he thought he was in a dream, but “when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all expectation of the people of the Jews.” So you have two illustrations here: The illustration of God dealing in grace with sinners sleeping in chains and, on the other hand, you see His marvelous power in delivering His servant in answer to prayer. For while the church was praying, God was working. That is the way it always is. Do you know why we do not see a greater demonstration of divine power among us? Because there is so little prayer. The church was praying and God sent His angel and delivered Peter.
When Peter had considered the situation I think he reasoned something like this: “Let me see, where had I better go? I am a marked man, and if I stay in the streets I shall be caught again. I think I shall go to the prayer meeting!” That is a good place for a man to go! Peter knew they were having a prayer meeting at the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, the author of the second Gospel. His mother was apparently very wealthy, and had a large house in Jerusalem in which she set aside one room for prayer.
But now we have a remarkable story of people praying—without really expecting an immediate answer. We are told that “As Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda”—that is, Rose. I think the gate was probably like one of those doors which you and I have seen in old fashioned barns, where either the upper or lower half opens and the other half still remains locked. Little Rose opened one half and looked out and saw Peter. She became so excited she forgot to open the other half! They were praying, “Lord deliver Peter,” but when Rhoda ran in and told them that Peter stood at the gate, they said to her in effect, “You’re mad. Nonsense! Don’t tell us that—we know he is bound in the prison.” They argued with her, declaring he could not be there. What an indictment against even praying Christians! Little Rhoda “constantly affirmed that it was so.” But they said, “It is his angel.” (They used the word
spirit.) In other words, “It is his spirit. He has already been executed. Poor Peter has been slain and you have seen his spirit!” And all the while Peter continued to knock. I have heard of spirits rapping, but I don’t think any ever continued to knock like Peter. By and by someone decided they had better go see what it meant, “and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished.” They should have been expecting him: they should have said, “We are praying you might be freed and here you are! God has answered prayer.”
Have you never had an experience like that where you prayed and prayed and asked God for something, then when He came in grace and answered, you could hardly believe it to be true? You thought there must have been a mistake somewhere. It shows how we dishonor God with our lack of faith. “But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison.” And knowing that Herod would be desirous of apprehending him again, Peter said, “Go show these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed and went into another place”—just where, we are not told.
“Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter.” When they came to change the guard, I suppose they said, “Whatever has happened to Peter? Last night he was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and the keepers before the door kept the prison, but now he has disappeared!” When word reached Herod, he was furious. He examined the keepers and, tyrant that he was, ordered their execution.
Then Herod went into Caesarea—and here we have an incident of which Josephus also wrote. He tells how the citizens of Caesarea, at odds with Herod, sent for him. To them he delivered a great speech. They then made some kind of treaty and burst into round after round of applause, exclaiming, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.” Instead of denying that and saying, “I am just a mortal man; I am not to be worshiped or adored,” Herod complacently took all the honor to himself. Because he dared to receive the glory that belongs to God, God smote him. Josephus tells how he was smitten with an incurable disease and died within a few days. Dr. Luke (for remember he was a physician who knew all the facts and understood the malady) told exactly what it was: “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” And so Herod, this bitter enemy of the church of God, perished.
This ends the record of the special work God had given Peter to do in connection with Israel and the opening of the door of faith to the Gentiles. From this time on we see the river of grace becoming wider and wider, deeper and deeper, reaching to the uttermost parts of the earth. “The word of God grew and multiplied.” Barnabas and Saul, who had gone up to Jerusalem, bringing assistance to those afflicted by the famine, “returned from Jerusalem [that is, they went back to Antioch in Syria where that mighty work of God had already begun] and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.”This young man was intimately related to Barnabas and so he went along with Barnabas and Saul to enter into the ministry,
Acts 12 is a good reminder of the words of the psalmist—”Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me” (Psalm 50:15).