Key Verse: 12:5
“So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”
In last week’s message on Acts 11, Shepherd Bruce shared how the Holy Spirit led Apostle Peter to bridge the great divide between Jewish believers in Jesus Christ and the Gentile believes in Jesus. Once this divide was bridged we learned the Holy Spirit did not waste time turning the gentile church of Antioch into an exemplary place of Bible study and source of blessing for its mother church in Judea. Now in our study of Acts 12 we find events taking place that normally we could only see fictionalize in movies like “Mission Impossible.” However, these were not factious events. In fact if we lived during the days of Acts 12 we probably would have read about them in the newspaper of the day. First was Peter’s rescue from certain execution by Herod. Second was Herod’s own executing death. What would not be told in the newspaper was that it was earnest prayer, which is what led to Peter’s rescue and Herod’s sin of accepting praise for himself that only should have been redirected to God. From this chapter we will see it is the unseen spiritual world that often controls this visible physical world we live in. We will learn how the believers in the first church, received their life saving help from the invisible God of the spiritual world. Moreover since all of us are vulnerable to falling into pride we can learn from Herod the importance of re-directing all praise that may come our way to Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
Part 1. The Church earnestly prays, and God answers (1-19a)
Look at verses 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.” Since there is more than one King Herod and men named James in the Bible, let us first identify these men mentioned in these verses. The Herod mentioned here was Herod Agrippa I. He was the nephew to Herod Antipas who beheaded John the Baptist and was a minor figure in Jesus’ crucifixion. This Herod was also the grandson to Herod the Great who unsuccessfully tried to kill baby Jesus and he then turned his wrath on every baby boy under two in Bethlehem and its vicinity by killing them. In these two verses we see this Herod Agrippa I continue the brutal legacy of the Herod’s by having James put to death with the sword. This James was one of Jesus’ top apostles. He was the brother to the Gospel writer John. James was one of Jesus’ more ambitious disciples. In Mark’s Gospel 10 we are told he and his brother John asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and the other at his left in his glory. Jesus told them they would have to drink a cup of suffering to be able to sit with him in glory. Both said they would drink the cup. Now we see in Acts 12 James did drink the cup of suffering by being put to death with the sword. Using the information given us in Acts 11,12 we can see why Herod executed James. A great famine had spread over the entire Roman world. The need in Jerusalem was great. In fact Paul and Barnabas were sent by the church in Antioch with gifts to help the brothers living in Judea. Just as our country always blames the President for a bad economy the Jews were probably blaming Herod for their hard times during the famine. Herod needed some way to redirect the Jews’ discontent. He found his solution by persecuting some who belonged to the Church. First he killed James. Now look at verse 3: “When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the feast of Unleavened Bread.” Right on the heels of James’s death, Herod had Peter, Jesus’ top apostle arrested for no other purpose than keeping the Jews pleased. If it was up to Herod he would gladly had executed every Christian he could get his hands on, just to keep the majority of the people under his authority pleased.
When Peter was arrested it was during the feast of Unleavened Bread, a feast connected to the Passover Feast. Jews from all over the world were now in Jerusalem to attend this feast. Herod wanted to milk as much public support as he could gain from Peter’s imprisonment, trial and execution. He may have sent his Public affairs personnel to every corner of Jerusalem with this announcement: Hear ye, Hear ye, Herod your beloved King will put Peter, the leader of those who believe Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, on Public trial. All Jews are welcome to attend this public trial!”
To make sure Peter wouldn’t escape nor could anyone break in and aid him in an escape, verse 4 tells us: “After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Peter was locked down deep in a prison. He was chained at all times to at least two guards. A total of 16 guards with orders that told them it was their life for his life if he escaped. These guards guarded Peter as a matter of life and death. They allowed no one to see him nor did they disclose to anyone where in the maze of the prison was Peter securely chained and locked down. One day before Peter’s public trial a Jewish Journalist may have written: “This time Peter doesn’t have a prayer.”
Let us now bring our attention back to the other believers still staying in Jerusalem. One of their leaders just had been executed with a sword. Their top leader was now locked securely in Herod’s prison system which had a history of once you go in, you never come out. What should they do? Should they pack up and leave so they won’t be the next ones that are arrested. Or should they stand outside the prison protesting: “We demand justice. Free Peter!” Or should they arrange some kind of suicide rescue mission? Verse 5 shows us what they did. “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” Notice how the author uses the little word: “but” as if to insert a shaft of divine light that shows what they must do to help Peter escape his dark, ominous, doom and gloomy situation. We see the church found the solution to Peter’s rescue by gathering together and earnestly praying to God for him. From verse 5 we can learn a few very applicable lesson about the power and responsibility of earnest prayer.
When we think of power we may think of America’s aircraft carriers that can carry weapons of destruction and elite soldiers to the doors steps of any adversity in the world. Verse 5 shows us the non-violent believers have even a greater power at their disposal at all times if they chose to use it. It is called earnest prayer to God. This earnest prayer has been called the thin tendon God has given to man to move the muscle of God. We find in 2 Chron. 32:20,21 King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah prayer is what moved the muscle of God. In response to their prayer, the Lord sent one angel, who annihilated all the fighting men and the leaders and officers of the Assyrian army that was laying siege to Jerusalem. Let us now examine and learn from these believers how they exercised effective earnest prayer to God.
First, earnest prayer prays to God with the mind that God and only God alone can accomplish the task at hand. Sometimes we pray and as we pray we are actually thinking: How can I answer this prayer? All we are doing is think how we can answer our prayer topic. This is not the kind of prayer these believers in Acts 12 prayed. They prayed: “God we can’t, but you can and you alone by your Almighty power can rescue Peter in Jesus Christ name.”
Second, earnest prayer prays with a clear topic or point. Verse 5 reads: “praying for him”. This is not to discourage a big prayer list. But if we really want to see results to our prayer we need to pray specifically. For example in the late 80’s and early 90’s UBF was given the specific prayer for pioneering Russia in ten years. With in that time we saw Russia open up. It allowed missionaries to come in and allowed its people again to freely study the Bible. Another example of one who prayed with one clear prayer topic was Hannah. She poured out her soul in prayer for a son. The Lord answered her prayer and gave her a son. Hannah named her son Samuel, which means: “Because I asked the Lord for him.” She prayed earnestly and specifically for a son. The Lord specifically answered her prayer.
Third, earnest prayer prays together. Look at verse 12. “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.” When prayer is at its most powerful is when believers gather together and pray with one heart and mind for one prayer topic. Many believers were in this house. All of them were praying for one topic. The prayer topic was Peter’s rescue from Herod’s prison and execution. Once at a construction site because I wasn’t wearing a hard hat an object fell on my head and caved my head in. The timing of the accident you can say was providential. It happened on the first day of a leaders’ conference. Those of us who have been to UBF conferences know how earnestly people pray at those conferences. I was told morning, noon and night through out the whole conference everyone kept praying for me while I was in the hospital intensive care unit. Because of their prayers God spared my life. Now I have a dent in my head to remind me how together my co-workers in UBF prayed for me.
Fourth, we learn these believers made it their responsibility to pray for Peter. It is easy to talk about people who are in trouble but the true sign of those who believe in the power of prayer are those who pray for those in trouble. Heb13: 3 teaches us: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
Fifth, earnest prayer prays to the end. We are not told how many days Peter was in prison. We are told the night the Lord rescued him was the night before his trial and most likely then it would be his last night on earth. On this last night the believers continued to pray. They made up their minds they would pray and pray until they saw concrete resolution in this matter.
Now let us turn our attention to Peter the one everyone is earnestly praying for. Look at verse 6: “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.” For believers outside of prison the best thing they could be doing was to pray for Peter. For Peter the best thing he could do was sleep. It is like a sick person in the hospital. The sick person in the hospital should rest and sleep while his or her friends who are healthy should be using their strength to pray for them. Time and again the newspapers have stories about prisoners who commit suicide while being locked up. A good healthy sleep often is the best mental and physical act one can do to be able to survive under the very stressful conditions of imprisonment. Certainly Peter learned how to sleep under such harsh conditions from his Lord. He witnesses Jesus sleeping in a boat that was being swamp by a furious squall in Mark 4. Later he heard Jesus’ words on the cross in Luke 23:46 “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” With a similar prayer Peter may have prayed: “Father into your hands I commit my life.” With that prayer of faith he was able to fall into a deep sleep though he was locked in a prison and bound with a chain attached to two guards.
It was now late at night. Herod, the Jews and Peter were all asleep. Both prey and predator slept while the believers were still praying. Tick, tick, tick… All was quiet then “Suddenly” verse 7 tells us: “an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in Peter’s cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.”
Peter had fallen almost into a dead man’s sleep. The angel needed to strike him hard in his side just to awake him. As you know when you just wake up from a deep sleep your movements are slow; Peter was no different. He just wanted to lie there a few minutes to clear the fog of his mind. Even when an angel of the Lord rescues you every second is critical. “Quick, get up!” the angel said. Now things were really beginning to change. Look at verses 8-10. These verses describe Peter’s moves and steps to freedom. Notice none of his moves and steps originated from his own idea and inspiration. Each step to freedom came after following the angel’s instructions: “Quick, get up!” then Peter’s chains fell off. The angel told him: “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” When Peter followed the angel’s direction, the angel led him like an invisible man before all the guards out of the prison. Even the heavy iron gate opened itself making way for Peter’s escape. Imminent objects such as gates and chains come to life and obey the will of the one who created all things. Men who are trained to be alert and fight to the death stand as if they had become wax figures. Here we see the absolute control God has over his creation. Murphy’s Law does not apply to God’s rescue mission when he does it himself. There is no hang-ups or breakdowns. As we read and re-read Peter’s steps to freedom we see it came by absolute obedience to the angel of the Lord’s direction. He didn’t argue or question it. He didn’t say a word. He just obeyed and followed him. We see Peter’s road to freedom came by following God’s servant’s direction. When I think of this I think of Omy R. in Baltimore who was given job opportunities in Texas. Her bible teacher Faith S. told her not to accept them but look in this area. She obeyed and God provided her employment here. More important she has mission here and God’s people are here to help her not to drift away. We may think the road to freedom is doing whatever we would like to do. Actually we start to experience true freedom when we give our will over to do the will of God.
Look at verse 11. Peter gives all credit to the Lord for rescuing him from Herod’s clutches and everything the Jews were anticipating. Similarly in this world Satan has men in his clutches. There are many who anticipate and hope the believer will fail. However, as long as we have faith in Jesus Christ every step, every hour, every day he will keep rescuing us until he finally brings us to live with him in the Kingdom of God.
The next immediate events that happen are kind of comical. Look at verses 12-16: Here all these people are praying for one point. Peter’s divine rescue. Now Peter is knocking at their door. The first woman named Rhoda, because she is overjoyed to hear Peter’s voice, leaves Peter standing outside. Next after Rhoda tells the other people in the house that Peter is outside, the first words out of their mouth were: “You’re out of your mind.” Here we see God answered their prayer by bringing the point of their prayer knocking on their doors. When this happened, they couldn’t believe it. Their good point was that they earnestly prayed. What they next had to work on is not to put a limit on how God could answer their prayer. God isn’t limited like we are. He can do far above more than we can ever imagine or ask. When we pray we must then be ready to struggle and believe God will answer our prayers. While we pray and after we pray we must anticipate God will answer our prayers. Then when he answers our prayer, we must not be surprised but thank him and give praise God and Jesus Christ.
Peter kept knocking. His knuckles became tender and started to hurt so he used his foot to knock. Finally they opened the door for him. When they saw it was Peter, the men loudly praised God and gave each other hi fives. The women screamed with voices that could wake up all of Jerusalem. Peter had to motion with his hand to be quiet. He gave them a detail account of how the Lord had rescued him. His final words before he left to another place were to tell James. This James was one of Jesus’ earthly brothers who later took over Peter’s position as leader of the Jerusalem Church. Peter now slipped away into the underground church. He also slips out of the book of Acts to make way for Apostle Paul.
Look at verses 18 and 19. Under Roman law, guards who allowed a prisoner to escape were subject to the same punishment the prisoner was to receive. Thus these 16 guards were sentenced to death. Every problem Herod faced he would try to solve it by killing someone. He showed no mercy.
Part 2. Herod did not give praise to God (19B-25)
After having the four squads of soldiers executed, Herod left Judea to go and stay in Caesarea. Caesarea was where Herod Agrippa 1 lived. It was a beautiful coastal city along the Mediterranean Sea. Every night Herod could watch the sun set below the Mediterranean Sea. North of Caesarea were the cities Sidon and Tyre for some unknown reason they had a quarrel with Herod. Herod in turn cut off their food supplies. Once their stomachs began to be hungry they quickly learn it wasn’t a good idea to quarrel with Herod. In verses19b-20 somehow they secured the support of Blastus a trusted personnel servant of Herod. Through him they were able to arrange an audience with the king for the purpose of asking for peace between the two.
Again Herod tried to make himself out to be a larger than life person. Look at verse 21: “On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people.” A historian named Josephus wrote on the day Herod delivered this address he wore a royal robe made of silver. When the Mediterranean sun would reflect from it gave the impression he was some kind of supernatural being.
Herod was also a well- trained and experienced orator. It was easy for him to arouse the emotions of his Middle Eastern audience. After listening to his public address verse 22 reads: “They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’” Once in Lystra in Acts 14 Paul healed a crippled man. The Lycaonians when they saw this shouted to Paul and Barnabas: “The gods have come down to us in human form.” Paul and Barnabas tore their cloths when they heard this and told the Lycaonians: “We too are only men, human like you.” Acts 14:15. Actions and words similar to this is what Herod should have said to the people when they shouted to him: “This is the voice of god not of man.” Instead he welcomed this praise of being called god.” This is a type of pride. Proverbs 16:18 teaches: “Pride goes before destruction.” Look at verse 23: “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. It is interesting one angel struck Peter on the side to wake him and deliver him from Herod’s clutches. Now again an angle strikes Herod. This time because that man did not give praise to God. The angel’s strike was the touch of death. Herod died a horrible death accompanied by intense pain; he was literally eaten alive, from the inside out by worms. Pride is a serious sin. In this case God chose to punish it immediately. Pride is a sin we must not take lightly. When sin growing within us, we must repent and ask God to forgive us by our faith in the blood of his Son Jesus Christ.
Look at verse 24: “But the word of God continued to increase and spread.” Again we see the word “But” as it is connected with Herod. The first “but” showed a shaft of light leading to God’s deliverance from Herod’s persecution. This second “but” shows Herod was nothing more than cut grass but the word of the Lord endures, grows and spreads forever. 1 Peter 1:24, 25: “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” Verse 24 shows us what work the God of Bible wants to see increase and spread throughout this world. It is the increase of the word of God and spreading it throughout the world. Herod and the Jews of Jerusalem tried to stop it but God foiled their plans through the earnest prayers of the first Church. God continues to answer the prayers of his believers when they pray for his word to increase and to spread throughout the world. We must continuously pray God will increase his word and spread it throughout North Korea and the Muslim world.
Look at verse 25: “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” Barnabas and Saul were among the believers in Mary’s house who prayed for Peter. When it came time for them to return to Antioch they took with them Mark the son of Mary. Later the Holy Spirit would use this Mark to write Mark’s gospel.
Some people might ask, “Why did God allow James to be put to death with the sword?” It is not for us to know such questions. What is important is that God listened to the earnest believers’ prayers. When they earnestly prayed, God answered their prayer beyond any of their highest expectations. Therefore, we must never become discouraged and stop our earnest prayer to God. Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.