Introduction: Peter gave a lengthy explanation  concerning his visit to the house of Cornelius at the instruction of the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit came on them when he preached. The church in Jerusalem heard the message, were convinced that the Gentiles had been brought in and “glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (11:1-18). As the word of the gospel spread at the dispersion caused by the persecution that arose at the time of Stephen’s execution, many of those so scattered went solely to Jewish centers preaching the gospel, including Antioch. Some that went to Antioch, however, also spoke to Greek-speaking Gentiles to whom the Lord blessed the preaching with converting grace. The conversion of both Jews and Greeks there, led to the existence of a mixed congregation that led to one of the most formative, as well as famous, confrontations of the New Testament (Galatians 2:11-14). In the meantime, continued Jewish opposition in Jerusalem, caused Herod, desiring to curry favor with these Jewish leaders to execute one of the leading apostles. James, one of the sons of thunder, brother to John, was executed with the sword by Herod, and, in order to further his pleasure among the Jews, arrested Peter also intending to execute him.

I. Prayer in opposition to the Prison – Verses 5, 6

A. Verse five sets the context for this narrative by referring to two co-existent realities: the powers of the world operate in accord with their desires and quests for power and dominance while the church, having been taught by its Lord to pray about everything earnestly solicits the omnipotent one to intervene. These two coexistent realities coincide with two biblical truths: one, the world is fallen, is on a path to sure corruption, and its rebellion against God will become more aggressive and its apparent dominance will seem insuperable; two, God continues his redemptive purpose through Christ claiming people as his own through the powerful operations of the gospel and will use every apparent victory of the world to press forward the transcendent rule of his kingdom. In all its prayers, the church prays, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

B. The world, as manifest in the care with which Herod approached the securing and execution of Peter, sets its face utterly to ruin the claims of gospel revelation and its spokesmen. That very night would be Peter’s last night alive n this world, and by no means at the disposal of the church according to worldly means could Peter be rescued. He was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and had sentries stationed before the doors. The church, however, quickly learned that the enemy is not flesh and blood and that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but through praying always in the Spirit with all prayer and supplication we have divine power to destroy strongholds (Ephesians 6:12, 18 and 2 Corinthians 10:4).

II. God again sends an angel – Verses 7 – 11.

A. Note how this angel worked in the framework of the material world within which Peter was bound. The angel stood beside him, did not hover above him. His radiance provided light in the cell, and he struck Peter on the side to wake him and spoke to him.

B. His movement had to be rapid to avoid detection. He got up quickly, put on his sandals, wrapped his cloak around him, and followed the angel. This happened so quickly, and so counter to what he suspected, and, given the recent experience with visions, he thought for a brief time that all this movement was only a part of a vision.

C. Two things happened by the exertion of supernatural power over natural barriers; one, the chains fell off his hands (7); two, the door into the city opened by itself (10).  All things always are under the immediate power of the creative word of the Son of God (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17), and operate in consistent order according to his infinite rationality; sometimes he shows that nothing happens apart from the immediate operation of his sustaining energy by setting aside what we normally observe as cause and effect dependency to show that all things function as he will—the chains and the gates operated immediately according to the purpose of Christ. We are mostly unaware of the operations of angels, but we see clearly that their presence and power, their position as powerful servants of God, must be included in our worldview. Even as God uses humans to preach the gospel and to show compassion to the needy, so he uses angels as his messengers and has them always operative for the sake of those who are the heirs of salvation (Hebrews 1:14; Revelation 22:8, 9).

D. We cannot answer the question as to why Peter was delivered and James was killed. The ways of God with his people transcend our capacity for comprehension. Of the three men in the inner circle of Christ, James was taken the earliest while Peter and John survived and preached for decades before their exit from this world. Even the former persecutor Saul, Paul, of Tarsus, was given longevity of ministry.  (2 Timothy 4:6; 2 Peter 1:14, 15). Even so, we must live with confidence that God will work the counsel of his will toward us that we might learn to invest every hour with gratitude for his presence and fruitful service to his glory. See Paul’s contemplation of this in Philippians 1:19-26.

E. When Peter entered the city and was placed on a street that would lead to the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother, he became fully aware that all this had happened in real time and space and that God had rescued him from Herod and the intentions of his Jewish opposition. Training ourselves to be aware of God’s gracious actions toward us and contemplation of the wisdom of his providence is a necessary spiritual discipline. The more we live in the awareness of God’s presence with us here, the more we will have our minds set on our citizenship in heaven (Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1-4).

III. An immediate and palpable answer to prayer. Verses 12-17 a, b

A. Verse 12 – Peter went to the house where the prayer meeting for his release was ongoing. John Mark becomes an important figure later in Acts, so it is important to observe that his house was a place where persecuted Christians in Jerusalem met and that his mother was active as a Christian leader, and perhaps a woman of wealth with a home large enough to hold such a meeting.

B. When Peter arrived he knocked on an outer gate that was placed before the door that entered immediately into the house. A servant girl, Rhoda, heard the knock and opened the door, but was so startled and excited by the fact that Peter himself, for whom they were praying was at the gate, that she went back into the house without opening the gate. The text says that she recognized his voice. The darkness kept her from seeing him clearly, but obviously she had heard him speak on many occasions for his voice to be so quickly discerned. This touch of structural and historical realism gives the sense of veracity to the narrative.

C. Knowing Herod’s intention and the care with which he would guard such a prize prisoner, they prayed, but prayed in a sense of despair. They could not receive the news that God actually had rescued Peter from the malicious actions of this tyrant. They brought their case to God but seemed to have little confidence that his purpose could indeed be the rescue and continued ministry of Peter. Knowing that we do not have special insight into the purpose of God, we must not conclude beforehand that certain answers to prayer are impossible. We pray earnestly, according to the best light we have concerning the will of God, and leave it with the mediator.

D. Not only did they have low expectations concerning the answer to their prayer, they considered the person who reported Peter’s presence as deluded. They could not, however, ignore the continued knocking of Peter at the gate. While careful investigation of claims to spiritual experiences has biblical warrant and even is the duty of Christians (1 John 4:1-3), we must not turn skeptic concerning the gracious visitation that God often gives his people and the specific answers to prayer that come to them. We are admonished to pray with the expectation that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us with the result that we have the petitions we desire of him (1 John 5:14, 15). He encourages, no, requires us, to ask him for anything in his name (John 14:13, 14).

E. Verifying that his release indeed was a work of divine intervention, Peter told them the entire event. He surmised that an attempt personally to find James and the other brothers to be imprudent, even dangerous, at the time. He requested, therefore, that someone in that group tell James and the brothers of his rescue. This James, of course, is the brother of Jesus and lead elder of the church in Jerusalem.

IV. A wise precaution –  17c-19

A. Having given the report of God’s answer to prayer, Peter knew that a search would soon be in place for him. He left their company and “went to another place.” Our awareness of God’s intervention in our lives does not diminish the responsibility we have for wisdom and for seeking the most efficient way to execute a godly strategy to fulfill his calling on our lives. If we are called to ministry, we must not expect blessing on our ministry apart from serious study of the word. Those called should learn all they can about truth and the evidences of its presence and power in Christians and in churches. A high calling does not exempt from the necessity of careful government of life and mind. When the crowds began to seek Jesus in order to kill him, he hid from them (John 8:59). Peter had been delivered miraculously, but that did not mean that caution was unnecessary. He knew that one day he would be martyred, but he would not walk into it through unwarranted carelessness.

B. Herod does set up a search for Peter and was unable to find him. As a manifestation of his undiminished brutality, he had the sentries that had guarded the doors put to death.

C. Herod’s unmitigated self-promotion (12:20-23) and his arrogant and approving reception of inordinate praise led to a judgment in which God struck him down, sent worms to devour him while he still lived, and then gave him his last breath. This is a visible and striking judgment in this life of a peculiarly despicable figure. Herod had rejected every advantage of his knowledge of Scripture and had exercised irrational cruelty upon godly people. Such judgment will not always occur in this life, but will certainly come to pass at the return of the Son of God (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Revelation 6:12-17; 22:12-15).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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