Men Who Slept
4. Peter (3)
The Bible is a most impartial Book, It does not make paragons of its characters. There are no heroes whose lives are faultless. Abraham is not perfect; on occasions he deceived. Jacob has faults, deceiver, cheat and supplanter. David sins grievously, John Baptist has his hours of depression and doubt. Peter is guilty of misunderstanding and denial, and he is found sleeping when he should have been awake. Yet how gloriously those same characters shine on the Sacred Page. Abraham is called ‘The Friend of God’. David is ‘a man after God’s own heart’. Jacob becomes ‘Israel’, the Prince who prevailed with God. John Baptist had this said about him, ‘Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater’ (Matt. 11:11). Peter who slept in the Garden of Gethsemane retrieved his character by sleeping peacefully in prison during the night before his purposed execution.
The story in Acts 12 is one of the most touching in the New Testament. It places Peter in the company of that illustrious group of people who bore witness to their faith in God by having that peace which possesses the mind of him whose confidence is in the God of deliverances. Read the account of his unusual experience.
“When Herod had apprehended him, he put him in pirson and delivered him to four quarternions of soldiers to keep him intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. Peter therefore was kept in prison; but prayer was made without ceasing by the church unto God for him. And behold, an angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shone in the prison, and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. And the angel said to him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me” (Acts 12:6-8).
The imprisonment recorded was the result of a determined effort by Herod the king to suppress the New Society which was making unwelcome progress among the people despite the growing opposition from those in authority in Jerusalem. Peter and the apostles had had previous clashes with the religious hierarchy, but they had been delivered by the intervention of the Lord.
After the miracle of the healing of the cripple at the Gate Beautiful, the Sanhedrin was so perturbed by the favourable reaction of the people that they attempted to suppress the witness of the Apostles, and put Peter and John in prison until they could be examined on the following day. So popular had the Apostles become, and so boldly did Peter and John contend for the truth before the Sanhedrin that, after being threatened, they were let go (Acts 3:5-21).
A second time the Apostles were apprehended and put in the common prison, and placed under strict guard. “But an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, and brought them forth.” The report which was given by the officers sent to escort them to the Temple for trial is most interesting. “The prison truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing outside before the doors, but when we had opened we found no man within” (See Acts 5:17-25). Perhaps it was the recollection of such an experience which set the church praying in Mary’s house, and gave Peter composure of mind as he considered that the omnipotent God could repeat the miracle.
Peter’s deliverance from the death intended by Herod must be considered against the background of that monarch’s life. He was Herod Agrippa I, a title conferred upon him by the Roman Emperor, and he is, by Luke, accurately styled King of the Jews, the first to be so named for many years. His life was one of intrigue, treachery and blood shedding, one evidence of that last being the order to slay the soldiers who had been on guard on the night in which Peter escaped. He had all the obnoxious characteristics of the Herodian family. Like his predecessors he could not suffer any one who stood in the way of his selfish ambitions, or who disturbed his conscience, and like those predecessors he was a callous murderer. Herod Antipas had murdered John Baptist because he unnerved him when he said, “It is not lawful.” Herod the Great, when he was afraid of One who was born to be King of the Jews, slaughtered the Innocents in Bethlehem and its environs. It is not surprising then, that we read, “Now about that time Herod the King stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.”
Herod’s action was evidently governed by the desire to be popular with the Jews, for “because he saw that it pleased the Jews he proceeded further to take Peter … and when he had apprehended him he put him in prison.” His intention was to allow the festive season to pass, then as an additional piece of excitement, after Easter to bring Peter forth to the people. But man proposes and God disposes. The monarch who had intended to slay Peter as a spectacle for the people was himself cut down without warning, “When, arrayed in royal apparel he ‘sat upon his throne and made an oration’.” God is not mocked. As a man sows he shall reap.
How unsearchable are God’s judgements and His ways past finding out! James suffered martyrdom, and there is no evidence that the church had time to pray for him. We are astonished that there was no divine intercession on his behalf, yet James must have been a most valuable leader in the church in Jerusalem. He was a marked man. What a contrast there is between the account of the stoning of Stephen, and the martyrdom of James! The brief record reminds us that many a martyr passes to his reward in heaven, unsung, unhonoured on earth.
On the other hand Peter was miraculously saved, and escaped for further service in the spread of the gospel and the conservation of his fellow Christians. The astonishing feature in this narrative is preserved in these words, “When Herod would have brought him forth the same night Peter was sleeping”, evidently so soundly that when the angel came he had to smite Peter on the side. Observe these aspects of the incident.
1. The Security Precautions. Herod made sure that his prisoner would not escape. Peter was delivered to four quartenions of soldiers, sixteen in all, so that there were always four on duty, two in the prison cell, and one at each of the two doors, so that escape seemed impossible. Moreover, there was an iron gate opening on to the street. For further precaution against escape the prisoner was chained to two soldiers, one on either side while he slept. How quickly Herod was disillusioned if he thought that his soldiers, and bolts, and bars, and chains could baffle the power of Omnipotence! Human devices are no match for God. Peter slept, while Herod wondered if his plan would succeed. God accomplished the defeat of His enemy by the simple strategy of an angel. Sennacherib discovered that he was no match for God, “when the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold.” Nebucchadnezzar had to admit that God was stronger than he when he was recovered from his madness. Belshazzar paid with inglorious death for his blasphemous behaviour when the hand on the wall warned him of his approaching end. Many another has made the same discovery, even in this century.
2. The Remarkable Composure. Peter was sleeping soundly on the night preceeding his intended execution. He did not have any sedative to induce sleep. Conscious of the presence of God and knowing that death had no terrors for those who knew the risen and living Saviour, he slept although he had no downy pillow, had chains round his arms and lay between two soldiers. The changing of the guard at intervals would waken him, yet when the angel came he was fast asleep, perhaps just before break of day. In the circumstances his composure was remarkable. One wonders if, being acquainted with the Old. Testament Psalms, Peter recalled the experience of David at the time of the Great Rebellion when Absolom hunted him like a partridge.” I cried unto the Lord… and he heard me … I laid me down and slept; I awakened; for the Lord sustained me” (Psa. 3:4-5).
3. The Leisurely Preparation. There was no haste with the angel after he had roused Peter, the angel raised him up, and the chains were loosed from his arms. The girdle round the inner garment was fixed. Then the sandals were put on. The outer cloak was then cast over all before the angel said, “Follow me”. The narrative gives the impression that the angel was in no hurry.
4. The Miraculous Escape. The soldiers did not wake up. The guards at the two doors did not hinder their passage. The huge iron gate which opened on to the street let them through without human effort. It opened of its own accord. Evidently there were no people on the street, as the angel led the way through one street and then immediately departed.
5. The Divine Intervention. The deliverance of Peter was an act of Providence designed to synchronize with the all night prayer meeting of the church in the house of Mary. Providence literally means “fore-vision, and hence, foreaction —preparation for what is foreseen, expressing a divine, invisible rule of the world, including care, control, guidance, as exercised over both the animate and inanimate creation. In its largest scope it involves foreknowledge and foreordination, preservation and administration, exercised in all places and at all time” (A. T. Pierson). How well those features are seen in the escape of Peter! Yet it should be remembered that the providential interference is closely associated with the prayers of the church. Note the interesting “But” in verse 5, “Peter was kept in prison, but prayer was made without ceasing by the church unto God for him.” Two features are linked together, the prayers and the composure of Peter, and his commonsense attitude when he was left alone in the street. He made for Mary’s house, and after he had made himself known, he wisely departed to an undisclosed destination.
Others have had similar experience to that of Peter, sleeping calmly before the day of execution. Take the example of Nicholas Ridley who with Bishop Latimer was martyred in 1555. His brother offered to spend the last night with him in his prison cell. He refused, saying that he meant to go to bed and sleep quietly, quoting the words, “I will lay me down in peace and take my rest, For it is Thou, Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety.” On the morrow, he was chained to a stake near to Balliol College, Oxford. As the flames licked his person, in a loud voice he exclaimed, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit”.
The death bed of many a saint has been robbed of its fearssomeness, because the cross of Christ, “takes its terror from the grave, And gilds the bed of death with light”.