For the past month we’ve seen how the Holy Spirit worked mightily in the young church. (If you've missed any, check them out in the archive for July and August.) Philip baptizes the servant of the Queen of the Ethiopians who takes the Gospel back to Ethiopia, an arch-enemy of the new movement is converted when Saul has a vision on the way to Damascus, Peter himself shares the good news with Gentiles in Cornelius’ house and then the church makes dramatic growth in Antioch under the direction of Saul and Barnabas. This is all very wonderful and it seems that everything is going well. The Gospel is being preached further and further into the Roman Empire. Men and women are turning to God and there is very little opposition (at least on the surface).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, (i.e. Jerusalem) as they used to say in really old Westerns-there is still opposition from the Jewish leaders and the secular head of state. Herod Agrippa (grandson of Herod the Great, who was King when Christ was born) “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2) This must have sent shock waves through the community, but Herod’s next act is even more devastating. “He proceeded to arrest Peter also.” (Acts 12:3) The arrest was made during Passover, so Peter is put in prison with “four squads of soldiers to guard him” until after the Holy Days. Herod was taking no chances on the leader of this ‘sect’ escaping.
Herod had not counted on the Holy Spirit, however. We are told the “church prayed fervently to God for [Peter].” (Acts 12:5). And their prayers were answered. “The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.” (Acts 12:6-9)
How would you have felt if you were Peter? Imprisoned by the King and expecting the same fate as James, you suddenly see an angel telling you to follow him. The painting above by Bartolome Esteban Murillo shows Peter as he is awakened by the angel, Peter thinks he is seeing a vision of what will happen and it isn’t until they are outside the prison and “the angel left him [that] Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’” (Acts 10-11)
When Peter shows up at the “house of Mary, the mother of John Mark…a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind!’ But she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel.’ Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, ‘Tell this to James [the Lesser] and to the believers.’ Then he left and went to another place.” (Acts 12:13-17)
I can understand the doubt of those gathered in Mary’s house praying. They knew that Peter was in prison. How could he be at the door? Sometimes when something we pray for actually happens, we don’t or can’t believe it at first.
The response by the authorities was not as joyous. “There was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death.” (Acts 12:18-19) It does seem a bit unfair that the guards were put to death, but that is what we are told in the Bible. Herod then goes to Caesarea where “an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” Sic simper tyrannis (cartoon courtesy of thebackpew.com). “But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” (Acts 12:24)
What a contrast. Herod tried to take all the glory and all the power for himself. He died in his pride. Peter knew that God is in control and believed the angel was showing him a vision of his release. Then he realized it was real and he was free. He went to another place to rejoice and to preach the Good News. I imagine his testimony was even deeper because of his experience in prison where everything about his life was out of his control and he could only depend on his faith in Christ. Sometimes it takes a time of having our life out of our control for us to look to God for the answers.