Peter is in Jerusalem, along with the other disciples. Some believers have been scattered to other parts of the world by persecution, but the church is enjoying a season of relative peace and is growing again daily. Evangelism has begun to reach outside Jerusalem, but only to Jews. Jewish believers still consider gentiles to be unclean and consequently to be avoided. So did Peter until his encounter with Cornelius, where God showed him that the gospel was for gentiles too. Peter’s report to the church in Jerusalem met with resistance at first, and then acceptance. However, a mindset of separation persisted in the Jerusalem church long after these events, even from James (see Gal. 2:11-13). Saul (Paul) has been in Antioch for some time now, working with Barnabas and teaching new believers in that location. Very soon they will be sent on their first missionary journey, taking John Mark with them. But we are getting ahead of ourselves…
Luke relates yet another miraculous occurrence in Acts 12. Remember, the purpose of miracles is to certify the power and presence of God. This is not a public miracle (such as a healing), but rather is intended for the benefit of those in authority and the high-ranking Jewish leaders that continue to goad them on against the Jerusalem church and the apostles. For the third time they discover that they are powerless against these crazy people who say they follow Jesus of Nazareth. Does it faze them? Let’s find out!
If you have not already done so, please read Acts 11:27 through 12:25 now.
Before we begin… There is very little to explain or interpret in this passage. It should be taken at face value. The only stumbling block is recognizing whether the entire episode is part of Israel’s Kingdom program or part of the hidden mystery we know as the church today in the Age of Grace. You should know the clues to look for by now — miracles and a focus on Peter and the Jerusalem church, which are written all over the passage.
Why did I ask you to back up and re-read Acts 11:27-30? Only so that you would make the connection with Acts 12:25. The entire episode we are about to study apparently took place while Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem to deliver the monetary gift sent by the Antioch church as a hedge against the coming famine. Paul and Barnabas, although not otherwise mentioned in the passage, were apparently eye-witnesses of these things.
Luke begins by describing the political situation in Jerusalem. As usual, the unpredictable and ruthless Herod is living up to his ancestors’ reputation. He “laid hands on” some of the believers — not to confer a blessing, but to make trouble for them. The NASB translates kakoo (to harm or do evil to) as “mistreat” them. Herod’s idea of mistreatment included beheading James, the brother of John! Why did he pick on James, and not Peter? Peter was the more obvious target. It seems like he was sort of testing the water to see what the political fallout would be. When he saw that it pleased the Jewish leaders, then he went after Peter.
There is an important historic clue here. Luke says this took place during the “Feast of Unleavened Bread,” a week-long festival which begins with Passover. Was this the first Passover after the crucifixion of Jesus? Most likely. Luke has taken us on several rabbit trails into the future, but this seems to indicate only a year has elapsed in his main narrative. If so, the Jewish leaders have had a year to scheme and do their best to manipulate Herod into attacking the church. Herod has picked this high holy week to take Peter out of circulation, and intends to cap off the week by doing the same thing to Peter that he did to James.
Peter’s previous two arrests were apparently performed by the Temple guard, and he was put in a “public jail.” No mention of his imprisonment particulars was made. This time Herod apparently has Roman authority and has Peter put in a Roman jail under “four squads” of Roman soldiers (lit. four quaternions, a contingent of four soldiers). He no doubt knew of Peter’s previous escape and thought he was taking no chances. As Peter was in jail several days, apparently these squads took turns guarding him in rotation. The next verses give us additional clues about the conditions of his imprisonment.
All the while, the church was praying desperately for him, knowing what had happened to James.
God often waits until the last possible minute to provide deliverance. I think He does so because the dramatic impact drives us more effectively to learn to trust Him in all things. Of course, in this case, it also gave the Jewish leaders, the soldiers, and even Herod himself opportunity to become smug and complacent. And so on the very night before Peter was to be brought before Herod for execution, he vanishes!
His prison restraints remind us of a Harry Houdini routine. His left arm was chained to one guard, his right arm to another. All three were inside the prison cell, and the remaining soldiers of the quaternion stood outside the cell door. Who could possibly overcome such security?
An angel appears suddenly in the dark cell, lighting it up. The angel had to kick Peter in the side, he was sleeping so soundly. (I’ll bet he was snoring…) The Angel tells him to get up quickly, and as he does the chains fall off his wrists. The angel tells him to get dressed, including his sandals. They’re leaving.
The angel leads him out of the cell, past two additional sets of guards, and out of the jail into the city. The main gate opened as if by an invisible hand. It all happened so fast — and so unbelievably — that Peter thought it was all a dream. A block later the angel vanished, and Peter realized it was for real. Peter, ready to meet the same fate as James, realizes that God just sprung him from jail miraculously. Of greater importance, he realizes that God has completely thwarted a year of scheming by the Jewish leadership and Herod! Under God’s protection, Peter realized that they could not touch him.
Once Peter understood this, he headed for the home of one of the believers, knowing that there would be a prayer meeting going on. Note that he did not immediately return to the other apostles (see v17). At this point we have the amusing story of Rhoda the servant girl, who left Peter standing outside in the street instead of letting him in to safety. Obviously all inside, in spite of fervent prayer, were expecting the worst. It could not possibly be Peter himself! Finally, after knocking repeatedly over several minutes, one of them goes with Rhoda to the door at her insistence, and he is finally let inside. Peter relates the entire episode to those gathered there, leaves instructions for them to pass this information on to “James and the brethren” (James the half-brother of Jesus, not the James who had already been beheaded), and departs for safer unspecified environs.
At daybreak the escape was discovered. The penalty for a Roman soldier who let his prisoner escape was death. Luke says there was “no small disturbance” among the soldiers who had been on duty. In the course of investigation, Herod sent out more troops to search for Peter, but to no avail. Herod passed the required judgment on the errant guards and they were led away to execution.
Herod frequently traveled among several palaces at his whim or as civic duty demanded. Following these events he traveled to Caesarea, northwest of Jerusalem near the Mediterranean coast near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. These cities had in some way offended Herod (it wasn’t difficult), and they were greatly concerned because they were economically dependent on trade with Herod’s home country. They managed to win over Herod’s butler. Deals were brokered, and on the appointed day the leaders and citizens of Tyre and Sidon gathered in Caesarea to hear a speech. Arrayed in all the pomp and circumstance at his disposal, Herod began to address them. Someone in the crowd yelled, “It is the voice of a god and not of a man!” Others took up the cry. Herod did nothing to silence them, basking in their blasphemous praise. Luke tells us that Herod was stricken immediately by an angel of the Lord. He died of a severe case of worms. What kind and how quickly Luke doesn’t indicate.
In contrast to the worm-eaten words of Herod, the Word of the Lord prospered. Barnabas and Saul, having completed their mission of delivering financial aid to the apostles in Jerusalem, returned to Antioch. They brought John Mark, the son of one Mary, the woman to whose house Peter had gone when he was led out of jail.
Where do we put this episode — into Israel’s Kingdom program or into the Mystery? Luke’s chronology is clear — the focus is still on the Jerusalem church, Peter, and the other apostles. The miraculous nature of Peter’s delivery and Herod’s demise underscore its Kingdom nature. For whatever His reason, God is still allowing this program to move forward at this point in the grand scheme. To try to claim such miracles and promises for ourselves today would be improper, for that program has now been set aside temporarily. And the focus is about to shift from Jerusalem to Antioch and beyond!