Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lessons from Peter’s deliverance from prison in Acts 12

1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.
2 And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.
3 And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) (Acts 12:1-3)
This seems to indicate how Herod is being affected spiritually by his past action. After having killed one righteous man, the killing is not liable to stop. (see also verses 19-20)
4 And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. (Acts 12:4)
I wonder exactly what Herod intended to do. If we measure this attributed intention by how Pilate tried to release Jesus to the Jews during the Passover, it seems like Herod planned to release Peter, but if we look at what Peter says to himself after leaving prison, it seems like Herod intended to kill Peter. (Peter said to himself, “the Lord hath…delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews” (Acts 12:11) I’m kind of unclear on this.
5 Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. (Acts 12:5)
This seems to show the power of prayer and how it can help not just us in our troubles, but our friends in their troubles too. It seems to show that uniting in prayer with others has great power.
6 And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.
7 And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.
8 And the angel said unto 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.
9 And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision.
10 When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him.
11 And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews. (Acts 12:6-11)
Peter’s reaction of “Now I know” is very interesting. It is almost as if he hadn’t expected this miracle. Maybe after James had been martyred Peter thought it was his turn next; being resigned to die for his witness was commendable. The cool thing is, that resignation would certainly make it all the more of a pleasant surprise to be delivered.

Also, I see something of myself in his delayed reaction. When I’m in the midst of something miraculous, I hardly ever realize it until I get to the end and start thinking about how improbable it all really would have been without the Lord. Every obstacle overcome strengthens my sense of the Lord’s power.
12 And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.
13 And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda.
14 And when she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate.
15 And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel.
16 But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished. (Acts 12:12-16)
This is a cute little story that seems so true to life—the excitement that so addles Rhoda that she forgets to open the door but has to go tell everybody Peter’s there.
Yet she also shows us a pattern of faithful witness. When Peter knocked, she came to listen. She knew Peter’s voice. (Recognize when the prophets speak.) She told others Peter was there. (Prepare others to hear the prophets.) And even when people said she was crazy, she constantly affirmed the truth. (Stick to your testimony of what you know is true.) And of course, when they all find out that she was telling the truth, they are astonished. (Just think how astonished the world will be when they finally find out that we’ve been telling the truth all along.)

In this story, it seems odd that the church was gathered together to pray for Peter, yet they had such a hard time believing that he was knocking at the door. We often assume that the church was praying for his deliverance, but based upon their reaction to Rhoda’s news, it almost seems like deliverance was one of the furthest things from their minds. What could they have been praying for besides that? Perhaps it was prayer similar to that in Acts 4:27-30, that he would be bold and have the Spirit, that he would be strong even in the face of martyrdom. This might be why they thought Rhoda had seen Peter’s “angel” (his resurrected body); they thought he had already been martyred.

Thinking about this has showed me there is great wisdom in praying for strength in trials more than to be delivered from them. Deliverance is a wonderful thing and I like it just as much as anyone, but I’m beginning to see that if I ONLY pray to be delivered from trials, then I tend to think that only deliverance from trial shows the Lord's care for me. It makes my understanding of God’s love dependent upon the quality of my circumstances. But the quality of my circumstances is definitely a bad way to measure of God’s love. God’s love is independent of our circumstances, and His care for us is tailored to both our needs and His purposes.

But this line of thought also makes me wonder how I can keep my “faith to endure” from shrinking my “faith in God’s power to deliver.”
17 But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place.
18 Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter. (Acts 12:17-18)
That “no small stir” makes it sound like an understatement even when it isn’t. We see it over and over that guards of escaped prisoners are put to death. That’s why the guards of Jesus’s tomb were concerned; the body was gone and they could be put to death for dereliction of duty. The soldiers guarding Peter would be executed for losing Peter, even though they didn’t know how it happened. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas’s jailer was about to commit suicide when the earthquake opened all the prison doors; he thought all the prisoners were gone and that he would be executed. The way this happens over and over, it is obvious that guarding apostles and prophets in prison is extremely risky business.
19 And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judæa to Cæsarea, and there abode. (Acts 12:19)
I wonder how Herod took Peter’s escape. Considering Herod was trying to please the Jews, he must have known that he was imprisoning Peter unjustly. Peter’s escape should have been a message to him that God is in charge, and if Herod would not do justice to a holy man, then God would override him and could remove him. All Herod does is execute the keepers and move to some other city.
20 ¶And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon: but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king’s country. (Acts 12:20)
Although it doesn’t say why Herod was highly displeased with people of Tyre and Sidon, I think I can speculate a little, based on Herod’s character and the situation. Herod had imprisoned Peter to please the Jews, so when Peter escaped maximum security prison, it made Herod look really bad. (The Jews must have said to themselves,“If someone like Peter can escape prison, none of us are really safe from the ‘real criminals.’”) Verse 19 says Herod “sought for [Peter], and found him not,”; we can imagine this desperate manhunt with soldiers swarming everywhere. When manhunts are unsuccessful, it’s always the man in charge who looks bad, so Herod’s reputation must have suffered even more when Peter couldn’t be found. I don’t assume that there was enough free speech at that time for people to openly mock Herod in safety, but there must have been whispers and rumors noting that Herod’s failures were signs of incompetence. This would have made Herod really mad at whoever seemed to be originating the rumors. Suffering from a damaged reputation would have driven him to try to overcompensate somehow with a display of greatness.
21 And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.
22 And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.
23 And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.
24 ¶But the word of God grew and multiplied. (Acts 12:1-24)
Even with all Herod’s attempts to stop the church by targeting its leaders, he failed. Instead, the work grew and multiplied, and Herod suffered. I think this story is valuable because it shows that even though persecution from government leaders is difficult to go through, that opposition still can’t stop the Lord’s work.

Now here’s a few extra random insights I gained from this story.

Extra #1: It is interesting to see what obstacles Peter overcomes when the angel leads him out of the prison. He was bound with two chains, one to each soldier, who were right next to him (v6). He had 16 soldiers guarding him (v4). He was in a cell in a prison ward, which was in another ward, which was inside an iron gate. (v9-10) It is clear the Peter was in extra-high security imprisonment, probably because of the previous time that James and Peter were released from prison by an angel in Acts 5:17-21. If God can get Peter out of a high security prison, then how much more can He get us out of our spiritual prisons!

Extra #2: For a long time I overlooked that all this occurred at Easter time, or rather, at Passover. Looking at this incident in terms of the celebration of Passover, it is perfectly fitting that the Lord commemorated Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage by delivering Peter from Herod’s prison. The opening of the gate by itself was like the parting of the Red Sea. It is a fitting sign of the Lord’s favor to the church. Further, this gives us some insight as to why Herod’s death is described afterward. The writer wanted to show how Herod also played the part of Pharaoh, with his opposition leading to his death.

Extra #3: This story seems to make a comparison between Peter and Herod as leaders. Compare their reactions to their success. When Peter is miraculously delivered, he told everyone how the Lord did it. When Herod made his grand speech, he takes all the credit for himself and allows the people to ascribe to him the powers of a god. (Except God doesn’t let that go on for long; sudden smiting and being eaten by worms make it obvious that Herod isn’t really a god.)

Extra #4: Compare the actions of the followers of these two leaders. The members of the church pray FOR Peter when he is in danger. They don’t pray TO him. On the other hand, Herod’s people desire peace with Herod and they flatter him that he’s a god when he makes a great speech. One wonders if any of them prayed to him (or for him) when he got smitten with his worm-eaten disease.

To sum up, what principles do we get from this story?
  • Uniting in prayer with others is powerful.
  • Pray to be strong in troubles, and deliverance will be a wonderful surprise.
  • Thinking about miracles after they occur and realizing what parts were miraculous helps us learn about the Lord’s power.
  • By sharing with others what the Lord has done for you, others can learn about the Lord’s power too.
  • Constantly affirm what you know to be true, and eventually (whether early or late) people will discover the truth.
  • The Lord can deliver from maximum-security prisons and from maximum-security sins.
  • Not even hostile government leaders can stop the Lord’s work from going forward.

3 comments:

Kimberly said...

I especially liked when you talked about how we shouldn't pray for deliverance since it blinds us to the Lord's love and hand in our lives. That is a really profound (and useful) insight. Thank you.

Michaela Stephens said...

I was able to practice that principle just this last weekend when I had an adverse reaction to some medicine I had started. The negative effects (in the form of attacks of panic at 15-minute intervals) lasted several days and every time an attack would come, I prayed that the Lord would help me endure it and overcome it. He did.

Clifford said...

Powerful comments. I love the Acts of the Apostles for its clear picture of the organization and modus operandi of the true Church of Christ.