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Adventures Of A Prison Escapee
Acts 12

In speaking at family conferences for the last thirty or forty years, I have heard many questions about good ways to handle family worship. Apparently many Christian families struggle with this. I shall never forget an incident which occurred approximately 1967 or 1968 when our daughter, then 4 or 5 years of age, was in charge of family devotions. Julie was telling the very story in the text before us, particularly the part where the angel comes to Peter in prison to release him. In her own words which I still remember, “The angel said to Peter, grab your coat and grab your thongs, we’re getting out of here.”

Events of this chapter took place in the spring of A.D. 44 and represent the first demonstration of church-state relations, an issue that haunts us well into the 21st century: how much and where should Christians be allowed to speak the gospel in public venues? The problem arose first in Acts 4 and now we see it again in Acts 12. A cruel and powerful king is about to learn that God is always in control.

I. A Powerful King and a Praying Church (Acts 12:1-5)

The Death of James (Acts 12:1-2)

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword (Acts 12:1-2).

The “King Herod” of verse 1 is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great of Matthew 2 and the father of Herod Agrippa II who shows up later in Acts. In Jerusalem He was literally the voice of Rome. The two brothers in prison, James and John, had been inseparable. Now one becomes the first disciple to die and the other will be the last, since John lived beyond A.D. 90. Actually this is the only record of an apostolic death in the New Testament (Stephen was not an apostle) and it teaches us a basic and crucial principle: there is no premature death with God.

I have been forced to grapple with this issue numerous times during the long years of my life. While serving on the faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1970s, Paul Little died in a severe car crash in Ontario in an area I knew well from my travels in that region. Perhaps you have read some of his books: Know What You Believe, Know Why You Believe, and How to Give Away Your Faith. Paul was one of the greatest personal evangelists I ever knew and a fireball for Christ. Why did he go home so early?

Within two years Phil Armstrong, then Executive Director of Far Eastern Gospel Crusade, was killed in a plane crash in Alaska and I asked the same question. Ben Byong Cato stepped off a plank in Africa, fell into the water and drowned. How could God need these men in heaven when we so desperately needed them here on earth? The answer of course is that we have no idea and we either give in or cave in to the sovereignty of God.

The Fate of Peter (Acts 12:3-4)

When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover (Acts 12:3-4).

As we read about Peter’s situation we are reminded again of John 21:18: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Perhaps John thought of those remarks by Jesus when he recorded this incident. Peter was under an unusual guard of sixteen officers and doubtless expected to follow his friend and fellow disciple in death.

We find no indication in the text that Peter behaved with fear or depression. We almost feel an aura of calm over the first five verses of this chapter. When reading them I am always reminded of the record of John Wesley returning to England from the failure of his missionary work in Georgia. The little ship on which he sailed encountered a terrible storm and Wesley was, as we might put it, “scared to death.” It was at that time that he heard the Moravian Christians on board singing, and it was also at that time that Wesley the missionary concluded, “I have not been saved.” Imagine that — a missionary who did not know that God is always in control.

The Prayer of the Church (Acts 12:5)

“So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (Acts 12:5).

We find the church praying many times in Acts (Acts 1:14; Acts 2:42; Acts 4:24; Acts 6:4; Acts 9:11). Why not? It was their only available weapon. What about marches, sit-ins, protests, letters to the editor, calls to a congressman or better yet, hiring a lawyer? In our day we don’t seem to understand that the early Christians did not think like that. Even though persecution was by now universal in Israel from the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the king, they understood the real meaning of 2 Corinthians 10:8a: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world.”

But, we ask, surely the church prayed for James as well? That’s exactly right. And we learn that the popular motto commonly found in Christian bookstores is wrong. I refer, of course, to “Prayer Changes Things.” If prayer changed things, James and Peter would both have come out of this experience alive. Prayer does not change things — God changes things. That is exactly what Jesus meant in the Garden when He said, “Your will be done.” Jesus had no doubt that His Father was in control.

II. An Awful King and an Awkward Church (Acts 12:6-19)

The Release From Prison (Acts 12:6-11)

The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating” (John 12:6-11).

Peter knew all about visions since he had a horrendous one at Joppa recorded in Acts 10. He never wanted to see that cursed sheet with the pork chops again. But the record here tells us about a very different kind of vision, an impatient angel who “struck Peter on the side and woke him up” and said, in effect, “Grab your coat and grab your thongs, we’re getting out of here.” We have to love Acts 10:9 when we think about ourselves and our relationships with a sovereign, omnipotent God: “Peter followed him out the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening.”

There is a wonderful phrase in Acts 12:10 that we dare not miss. Luke tells us that the iron gate leading to the city “opened for them by itself.” Here we have the Greek word automatē from which we get our words automatic or automatically.

The Reaction from the Church (Acts 12:12-17)

When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the brothers about this,” and he said, and then he left for another place (Acts 12:12-17).

Supernatural deliverance does not preclude common sense so the text tells us that the event finally “dawned on him” and he went to the place he knew the church met, the home of Mary the mother of John Mark, who, in the next chapter, will make a premature entry into Christian service in the form of the first missionary journey.

Here also we have one of most humorous passages of the Bible. Get the picture clearly: the church has been desperately praying for the deliverance of Peter, knowing already that James is dead. So Peter knocks at the door of the prayer meeting, speaks to a servant girl who recognizes his voice and goes back to announce, “Peter is at the door!” What is the response of this faithful praying church? “You are out of your mind.” The word is mainē meaning “You are a maniac.” I smile every time I think of the early Christians telling this story over and over again for the next 50 years, reminding themselves how naïve they were to forget that God is always in control.

But Peter has instructions: “Tell James and the brothers about this.” This is a new wrinkle. This is not only the first appearance of James the Lord’s brother in the New Testament, but it also establishes him as the leader of the New Testament church in Jerusalem. Later we see in him the first demonstration of the gift of administration in the church in Acts 15. He was recognized by Paul in Galatians 2:9 as one of the three pillars of the church — Peter, James and John.

Revenge from Herod (Acts 12:18-19)

In the morning, there was a great commotion among the soldiers. “What could have happened to Peter?” they asked. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed (Acts 12:18-19).

Herod had planned an execution for that day and so, in lieu of Peter’s head, he lopped off the heads of sixteen guards. Was that the angel’s fault? God’s fault? Peter’s fault? None of the above. It was the fault of sin, particularly Herod’s sin.

It demonstrated the reality of life in an unjust world. Herod was perfectly safe in whatever he wanted to do since he had a close friendship with Gaius Caligula. Herod had been imprisoned by Tiberius Caesar and secured with an iron chain. Six months later when Caligula came to the throne, he released Herod Agrippa I and gave him a golden chain of the same weight that he wore in prison. But the sovereign God is not yet finished.

III. A Dead King and a Dynamic Church (Acts 12:19-24)

An Opportunity for Truth (Acts 12:19-20)

Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply (Acts 12:19-20).

God never boxes in the wicked until they force themselves into the box. We see that with Cain, Pharaoh, Judas, Ananias and Sapphira and many other Bible characters. Perhaps Pharaoh is the classic example against whom God didn’t really bring judgment until he had rejected truth nine times.

On the other hand, God does not necessarily remove temptation from Christians or non-Christians. I love the story about the man on a diet who one day brought a large, calorie-filled coffee cake to work. When teased by his co-workers he announced, “God wanted me to have it.” They were curious about this until he explained, “I prayed that if God wanted me to have coffee cake this morning He would give me a parking place in front of the bakery, and sure enough, on my eighth time around the block, there was a place.”

Herod’s political squabbles with the people of Tyre and Sidon after he went to Caesarea are of little interest to us except that Luke is setting up another execution, and it won’t be a disciple. It must be a terrible thing to come to the end of an ungodly life. The great poet Lord Byron wrote his last poem when he was 36 and titled it “Upon My Thirty-Sixth Birthday.” In it he wrote,

My days are in the yellow leaf,
The flower and the fruits of love are gone.
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!

Apparently neither Herod nor Byron grasped the foundational fact that God is in control.

Judgment for Pride (Acts 12:21-23)

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:21-23).

This death was recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus who quotes Herod as saying, “I, who was called immortal by you, am now under sentence of death. But I must accept my lot as God wills it. In fact I have lived in no ordinary fashion but in the grand style that is hailed as true bliss.” Then Josephus comments, “Even as he was speaking these words, he was overcome by more intense pain. They hastened, therefore, to convey him to the palace; and the word flashed about to everyone that he was on the very verge of death . . . . Exhausted after five straight days by the pain in his abdomen, he departed this life in the fifty-fourth year of his life and the seventh of his reign” (Antiquities of the Jews XIX, 343-50).

Why did God kill Herod? Because he had killed James? No, that could have been done earlier. The text could not be more clear: “because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down.” Accepting praise as a god would have been common Roman behavior, but Herod was a Jew and knew better. Throughout the annals of history we have seen this arrogance over and over again as flimsy human leaders act like gods and don’t even recognize that they merely model the forthcoming Antichrist.

Impetuous for the Gospel (Acts 12:24)

The close of this chapter is very much like Luke’s writing. His transitions end on an upbeat note. James is dead; Herod was eaten by worms; “But the word of God continued to increase and spread.” This is the end of Act III in the book of Acts. Act I ends at Acts 5:42 and Act II at Acts 9:31. But here we have the closing of the Jerusalem section and the next chapter will take us around the Mediterranean world.

What lessons have we learned in this chapter? Prayer changes things, but only what a sovereign God wants changed. The present world is full of prejudice and injustice, but God is in charge of His world and His church. Whatever happens, we always look to the future as Acts 11:25 reminds us: “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” The first great missionary journey is about to begin.

Many years ago a bishop from the east coast visited a college president in the Midwest. The bishop explained to the president that the millennium must be coming soon because nothing more could possibly be invented. The president disagreed with that conclusion and claimed that human beings would fly within fifty years. The bishop was so angered by such a bizarre notion that he left the president’s house immediately. The bishop’s name was Wright, and he had two sons named Wilbur and Orville.

Whether you are in prison, your head is on the chopping block, or you are walking free in the street on the way to prayer meeting, never forget that God is in control of your life.

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