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"Jail Break!"


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          This week, we move into chapter 12 of our study in the book of Acts.  It’s in this chapter that we read Luke’s final major discussion of the church in Jerusalem.  In chapter 15, we will read of the Jerusalem council, but the focus of the council is not on the church in Jerusalem, but on the question of how to handle this sudden influx of Gentile believers outside Judea.  It’s in this chapter that Luke first portrays the Jews as the opposition.  We know from verse two that Herod executed James “when he saw that it pleased the Jews.   In the approximately ten years since the church began in Jerusalem, there has been a radical shift in the Jews’ attitude toward the church.  In Acts 2:47, Luke tells us that the church had favor with all the people in Jerusalem. That favor has now been replaced by a disposition that takes pleasure over the execution of the church’s apostles.  Herod Agrippa ruled at this time over Palestine and was very popular among the Jews—unlike most of their past leaders.  What motivated Herod to rule the Jews with such generosity we don’t know.  He had obviously learned that the more he did to curry favor among the Jews, the better it was for him as he ruled over this notoriously hard to govern people.  He also, at least publically--observed Jewish law.

          His empathetic relationship with the Jews meant that when popular Jewish sentiment turned against the church of Christ—(probably because they had started accepting uncircumcised Gentiles,) Herod’s heart turned against it as well.  For Herod, killing the leaders of the church in Jerusalem was just good politics.  It carried very little cost to him—or so he thought—and the Jews loved him for it.  This was a political no-brainer for him.  Killing Christians would only strengthen his bond with the Jews.  It only made sense for him to “kill James the brother of John with the sword.  That speaks of beheading him and in so doing; Herod makes James the first martyr among the apostles. 

This execution would have hit the church like a ton of bricks.  We mustn’t forget that James, along with John and Peter comprised THE inner apostolic circle around Jesus.  This was not Matthias or Nathaniel—this was James—one of the sons of thunder.  Jesus called him and John by that name because these were aggressive men.  They wanted to call down fire from heaven on the enemies of Jesus.  James was one of the first apostles Jesus called.  How could James be executed? And yet, Luke records his death in a very matter-of-fact way.  There is no record of his trial and no lengthy pursuit of him.  Herod has him arrested and then kills him—just like that.  One minute, James is a leader of the church in Jerusalem and the next, he’s dead and believers are crying at his grave.  To put it in human terms, God didn’t life a finger to save James.  There was no divine intervention to keep him alive or out of harm’s way.  James died young and without fanfare.  Where was Jesus?  This must have been a bitter pill for the church around Jerusalem to swallow.  Jesus invests three years in this man, commissions him for ministry, invests him with his authority and miraculous gifts and when a smarmy, arrogant king takes a notion, he gives the word and James is taken to a chopping block and with one stroke of the axe, he’s dead—just like that.  How’s that work?  How can that BE? 

          When we read this chapter, it’s easy to skip over this first section about James and move quickly into the story of Peter’s escape from prison.  This story has everything.  There’s high drama as God pulls off this miraculous prison rescue of Peter by an angel.  In answer to the prayers of the church, the prison gates miraculously spring open before him and he slips away from Jerusalem unmissed until daybreak when the guards discover his absence.  There’s even humor as Peter goes to one of the house churches that is praying for his release.  When he shows up at the door, the servant girl doesn’t even open it, but at the sound of his voice reports this miracle of Peter’s rescue to those praying for him.  Those who hear this report literally accuse the girl of being insane and as they argue with one another about whether this could be Peter’s angel.  All that--as Peter just keeps pounding away on the door—this man who God had rescued in response to the prayers of these people who, when it happens, don’t believe God could have rescued him. 

          It’s not hard to understand why we treat the account of James’ martyrdom a bit like the appetizer before the main course, but that is not Luke’s intent.  Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he puts these two apostolic accounts side by side and that parallel context of Peter and James’ accounts tells us something about Luke’s intention.  When you read them together as one unit, it begs a question, doesn’t it?  That is—Why did God go to such extreme measures to rescue Peter, while permitting James to die without intervention?  This morning we want to try to answer that question and like many questions of this sort in the Bible, there are many options—some true and others not.  A first possible reason one might posit for Peter’s rescue is—because of his great faith. It certainly appears at points here that Peter is showing great faith.  How many men are in a sound sleep on the night before their execution—so sound that an angel has to hit him hard to wake him?  This is not a man eaten up with anxiety over his impending death.  There is faith here.  Yet, it's equally clear that Peter wasn’t expecting this rescue at all.  During the jail break, Peter is in something of a fog—perhaps still half asleep.  In verse nine we read about Peter, “…He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.”   Verse 11 says, “When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and for all that the Jewish people were expecting.” 

The point is—it’s not as if Peter says to the angel, “Well, it’s about time you got here—another few hours and my head would have been on platter.” This deliverance took Peter completely by surprise.  Peter’s faith is manifest in his complete peace about his impending death.  The problem with this answer is--in spite of what the health and wealth prosperity crowd wrongly teaches, faith is never described in the Bible as something that keeps us from harm.  We see this dramatically in the faith chapter, Hebrews 11.  On the one hand, in verse 34 we read that great men of faith,  34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”  If you only read that far, you might think that faith does in fact cause people to escape the sword.  Maybe the difference between Peter and James was that Peter had more faith.  The fatal flaw in that thinking is found three verses later in Hebrews 11:37, where it says that other men were by faith37 …stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated...   Some men by faith were rescued from the sword and other men by faith were killed by the sword.  That is—they chose to trust God and face death by the sword rather than deny God.  Or, they faced their execution with such peace and serenity that only their faith could explain it.  From Hebrews 11 we see that James in his execution might have had as much or even more faith than Peter.  No, it wasn’t faith that made the difference between James and Peter.

One answer that we know at least partially explains Peter’s rescue is—because Peter had angelic assistance and James did not.  Peter’s rescue required, not only outside assistance, but supernatural outside assistance. The lengths to which King Herod goes to keep Peter secure are extreme. Perhaps he had heard of the incident several years earlier that we read in chapter five when the apostles mysteriously escaped from prison.  Verse four tells us “And when he [Herod] had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him.”  A squad had four soldiers, which means there were 16 soldiers who were tasked with guarding Peter.  Only four men would guard him at once, but the guard would change every three hours to insure that the guards wouldn’t fall asleep.  We get the idea in verse six, “Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison.”  So there is Peter in the middle of two guards, chained to both of them; while two more guards stand watch at the door of the prison.  And every three hours a fresh crew comes on.  Herod didn’t want Peter going anywhere. 

God’s angel shows how futile it is to fight with God.  Luke reports, “7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. It’s pretty clear from Luke’s account that if there is no angel there is no unexplained lapse by the guards chained to him, no chains falling off his hands, no unexplained failure of the other two fresh guards and no iron gate opening of its own accord. 

Everything else being equal, without the angel’s assistance, Peter is a dead man.  The Psalmist says, “11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. 12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.  This is what happened to Peter here.  The immediate cause of Peter’s escape is the angelic assistance but it’s equally clear from the Scripture that angels don’t always protect suffering people.  It’s not as if every time a saint is in prison or suffering horribly, an angel is dispatched to rescue him.  In Luke 22:41-44 we read of Jesus in Gethsemane,41 And he withdrew …and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

          Here in Luke’s account of the excruciating suffering of Jesus, the angel doesn’t deliver him from this trial.  In ways we are not told, the angel strengthens Jesus as he suffers, but he’s still in agony—even with the strengthening.  Later, in Matthew 26:53, at Jesus’ arrest, he tells his captors, “53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”  Here, Jesus pronounces that angels could have been at his disposal, but only upon his request to his father.  The point is that angels don’t act on their own initiative.  It’s not as if an angel was buzzing over Jerusalem, notices Peter in jail and thinks to himself, “Ya know, I’ve always liked that Peter—I’ll get him outa’ there” Angels must be dispatched by God—they serve him.  There’s no record of Peter calling on God to send an angel for help and had he done so, Luke would certainly have included it.

James, on the other hand didn’t get an angel—at least not one to deliver him.  We know from church history that sometimes angels deliver God’s people and sometimes they don’t.  Listen to two brief angel stories.  First, a story about John G. Paton, a Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific where he began ministering during the American Civil War.  He is a hero of modern day missionary history.  Before he left for the mission field a man came up to him and told him that he was a fool for going to the field because he would just be eaten by cannibals.  Paton responded, “If I die here in Glasgow, I shall be eaten by worms;  If I can but live and die serving the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms;  for in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.”

One night on the field, hostile tribesmen surrounded his mission headquarters, intending to burn it, killing Paton and his wife.  The two of them prayed all through that terror-filled night, asking God to deliver them.  When daylight came, they were surprised to see the tribesmen leaving.  A year later, the chief of the tribe was converted to Christ, and Paton asked him what had kept them from burning the house and killing them.  The chief replied, “Who were all those men who were there with you?”  Paton said, “There were no men there; only my wife and I.”  But the chief said that they had seen hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands.  They had circled the mission station, so the tribesmen were afraid to attack.  It was clear to Paton that God had sent angels to protect him and his wife.[1]

Contrast that to another story of missionaries who were facing fierce tribal opposition.  I’m speaking of those five men who were speared to death in the jungles of Ecuador as they tried to reach the Auca Indians--Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed Mccully, Peter Fleming and Roger Youderian.  Years after their martyrdom, Nate Saint’s son Steve went back to Ecuador and spoke with those Aucas who had murdered his father and the others.  They told Steve that angels had been present when his father and the other missionaries were killed.  The Aucas, who became Christians a few years after they killed these missionaries, told Steve that as they were killing these five missionaries to death, they saw a multitude of angels in the sky and heard them singing. The angels did nothing to prevent the spearing of these missionaries by the Indians, but the Aucas said that the presence of these angels singing played an important role in their eventual conversion to Christ.[2]  Maybe there were angels at James’ execution too, but they did nothing to stop it.

The reason for Peter’s escape that Luke states most explicitly is—because other believers were praying for him.  Verse five says, “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.”  Luke writes that the way he does so that we are forced to conclude that the only hope for Peter is the prayers of God’s people.  Luke wants us to see a cause and effect relationship between the prayers of these believers and Peter’s rescue.  Luke reiterates the pervasiveness of these prayers for Peter in verse 12—even after he had been released.  Speaking of Peter it says, “…he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.”  In these two verses, we see two different venues for prayer.  In verse five, it’s clear the entire church in Jerusalem was praying for Peter.  In verse 12, we see one local expression of this corporate prayer.  Evidently, Mary was a woman of some means and a house church met in her home—probably 40 people or so.  So, we see that the entire city of believers is praying in some way for Peter, but we also see that believers were gathering together in smaller groups to pray.  It wasn’t just that each believer was praying individually—this was gathered, corporate prayer as we see so many times in the book of Acts and which should serve as an example for us to pray together.

This was not only corporate prayer, but Luke tells us in verse five that the church was making ‘earnest” prayer for Peter.  The word translated “earnest” literally means “at full stretch.” These were fully extended prayers as the people with their petitions s t r e t c h e d to reach God with their prayers.  This wasn’t “Lord, please bless Peter…”  This was an energetic, intense, laborious stretching to reach God in prayer.  These people meant business—there was doubtless tears and loud praying—desperation.  They were calling on God to do something that only he could do—break Peter out of a heavily guarded cell and heavily guarded prison.  You had to have some faith to even ask for this.  As it turns out, these believers had enough faith to pray for Peter’s rescue, but not quite enough faith to believe he had been rescued when Peter came knocking on their door.  Like the response to Jesus’ resurrection, these believers had a hard time believing this good news.

It’s interesting to note that even though these people didn’t have enough faith to actually expect God to answer the prayers for deliverance, God honors the faith they showed in praying so fervently for Peter.  Prayer is consistently pictured in the Bible as moving God’s hand to cause him to supernaturally intervene in impossible situations.  James the brother of Jesus, who was probably present in Jerusalem during this episode, may have been thinking of this incident when he wrote in James 5:16, 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”  The apostle Paul saw prayer as the indispensible, ministry-empowering lifeline of his ministry.  In Philippians 1:19 while he was sitting in prison he wrote to Philippi, “19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,” Paul is confident of his deliverance from prison, but his confidence rests not on God in a general sense, but more specifically his confidence rested on God’s response to the prayers of the Philippians.
          Paul had a heavy sense of dependency on the prayers of the saints for his ministry as he shows in Ephesians 6:19-20.  Within his treatment of spiritual warfare he writes, “9 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”   Paul knew that as he stood against the spiritual enemies of the gospel, he not only needed to be arrayed in the full armor of God, he also needed to enlist others to fight with him in prayer. He is specific here and repetitive in his prayer.  He wants boldness—that his words would be bold and that he would declare the gospel boldly.  That repetition indicates the fervency of Paul’s sense of need for boldness and he asks for prayer to be given boldness.  So, Luke reveals that Peter is rescued in some large measure in response to the prayers of the saints. But it’s probably also true that people prayed for James.  We don’t know, but it would be strange if James was taken to prison and the church wasn’t praying.  People were certainly praying for John the Baptist when he was arrested and he was not only beheaded, but his life was surrendered by a half-drunken, perverse king who was tricked by his angry common law wife.  John’s head was reduced to becoming a publically displayed prize in a godless dispute between two fools.  And people had been praying for him!

That tells us that, although prayer played a very important role in Peter’s release, there was something even more fundamental at work here.  A final reason why Peter was rescued was because it was God’s sovereign will to rescue him, not James.  Ultimately, the reason we are forced to give as to why James was executed while Peter was spared to live another 30 years is because--that was God’s will.  In truth, it would have been impossible for Peter to have died at this point because it would have broken a promise Jesus made to him in John 21:18.   As Jesus is restoring Peter following his betrayals of him, he tells him, “18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. Jesus promised Peter that he would be crucified when he is old and the word for old there is “old, old.”  A related Greek word is translated “senility.”  Peter wasn’t going to die by the sword like James, but by the cross like his Master and he was in his 30’s when James was executed—far too young to be considered old.  There’s no way Peter could have died here.   It was neither his time nor place to die.

It wasn’t God’s will that Peter should die and so when he is imprisoned by Herod, he moves all these people to fervently pray for him, which moves God’s hand to dispatch this angel who supernaturally rescues Peter.  In this story we see a good example of the difference between what philosophers call immediate causes and ultimate causes.  The angel was the immediate cause of Peter’s release—he was on the immediate scene.  The mediate cause was the prayers of the saints that God worked through to dispatch the angel and the ultimate cause of Peter’s release was God’s sovereign will to rescue Peter.  This helps us see how there is no conflict between prayer and God’s sovereign control over the universe.  Some say—“Why pray if God is absolutely sovereign over the universe?”   The short answer to that question is that God seeks to partner with his people to bring about his sovereign will.  God has various means of grace that he uses to bring his will into existence and one of the most frequent and powerful means of grace God uses to bring about his will is the prayers of his people.  If you read Ephesians chapter one and Romans chapter nine, you become aware of how impressed Paul was with God’s sovereignty over all things.  But at the same time he calls for prayer for himself and calls the church to pray without ceasing.  There was obviously no contradiction in his mind between God’s sovereignty and prayer.

Let me close with two brief points of application.  First, we must pray and expect God to do miracles in response.  Luke wants us to know that God used prayer to get Peter out of prison—that was the means of grace used to move his hand.  One reason God uses prayer this way is because it brings him so much glory.  If God would have rescued Peter quickly and without any prayer, he would have been glorified in his power to deliver Peter from prison.  But because God delivered Peter in response to the prayer of his children, he was not only glorified in his power of deliverance, he was also glorified first, in the prayer that he burdened his people to cry out.  And second, he was glorified in his faithfulness to answer their prayers.  There was much more praise to God from God’s people for Peter’s rescue because God had heard their prayers!! 

It’s true that God doesn’t answer all prayers as we want, but that shouldn’t keep us from getting together and praying for God to move in areas that require miraculous intervention.  Think of it this way.  If you have a car that only starts about 50% of the time and you need to make a trip, would you say to yourself, “I’m not even going to put the key in the ignition because it probably won’t start?  NO!  You’re going to turn that key because, although it doesn’t guarantee the car will start—it is absolutely certain you won’t be going anywhere if you don’t turn the key.  God doesn’t say yes to all our requests, but if we don’t make our request, he is far less likely to move.  James 4:2 tells us, “You do not have because you do not ask.”  When we read stories like this one in Acts 12 where God draws a direct correlation between the prayer of God’s people and a miracle, we need to meditate on it—allow it to sink in so that the truth of it can increase our faith and cause us to increasingly pray for things that we would not have previously because in our unbelief, we were sure God would never do that.

Second, we can trust God to do the right thing whether he rescues us in trial or not.  The good news for children of God is—no matter what happens, if we are in Christ we win.  If God is for us, who can be against us?”  As we’ll see next time, Jesus avenges James’ death—Herod didn’t get away with anything and James’ death allowed him to be the first apostle to leave this dark world and go be with Jesus in heaven.  James’ death by the sword was much more humane and quick that Peter’s death by crucifixion as an old man.  All things considered, from a Biblical perspective, it would be hard to argue that James got the short end of the stick.  The truth is—sometimes God sends angels to rescue us and sometimes they praise God as we die—but in either case, God is glorified on account of us and if we love God—that’s the important thing isn’t it—God’s glory.  God was glorified through Peter’s rescue, but he was also glorified by his faith that allowed him to sleep like a rock on the eve of his execution.  God was also glorified in James’ death.  Psalm 116:15 says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”  All things work for good—God redeems all things—he makes bad things into good things.  That means that nothing can happen to a believer that is permanently bad.  All the bad a believer experiences is temporary and Paul says it’s not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.  That’s what the man meant when he said of believers, “You can’t head them off if you cut off their head.”  We always win in Jesus!

So, something bad happens and we pray fervently. If God answers in the affirmative, then we celebrate as we see his victory.  But if we pray fervently and he doesn’t answer in the affirmative, we still celebrate by faith for the certain future victory we can’t yet see.  May God give us grace to live by faith as seen in our fervent prayers for God’s glory and our joy.

[1] Fernando, Adjith, “The NIV Application Commentary, Acts” 1998—electronic version.

[2] Fernando, Adjith, NIV Application Commentary, Acts, 1998, electronic edition


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