Acts 12: Peter’s Prison Escape: “A Fitting Allegory”

Acts 12 KJV
Acts 12

A comparison of the last verses of Acts 11 and this chapter (Acts 12) suggests that Barnabas and Paul made that trip to Jerusalem with relief for the victims of the famine at about the time of the events given in Acts 12, this being in 44 A.D., a date determined by the death of Herod Agrippa I. That monarch had succeeded in putting together the whole domain of his grandfather Herod the Great, and had also been given the title of king by Claudius. He was a staunch friend of the Jews and was no doubt influenced by them to make the move to destroy Christianity.

He martyred James, seized and imprisoned Peter, planning to execute him publicly after the Passover festivities. Nowhere in the New Testament does the intervention of Almighty God on behalf of his church appear any more timely and dramatic than in this chapter. With their friend on the throne, the Jewish hierarchy decided to exterminate Christianity; and there was no reason why they could not have succeeded, except for the intervention of the Father in heaven.

When the earthly fortunes of the Christians seemed the most precarious, however, providential events took place with sudden finality, lifting the threat completely. At the precise instant when one apostle was already dead, another imprisoned and condemned, and the entire Twelve proscribed by an all-powerful ruler acting as a Jewish deputy in the whole procedure, out of a desire to please his subjects, at that very moment God sent an angel to release Peter and shortly thereafter struck Agrippa dead. The same event doomed secular Israel.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has this regarding Herod’s death:

His sudden death in 44 A.D. … at Caesarea during games in honor of Claudius was a disaster for Jewry, because with all his faults of sycophancy and ostentation he had successfully kept the balance between Rome and the Jews and shown that the two could co-exist to the advantage of both.[1]
It is ironic that the Jews who had, in the elevation of Herod Agrippa I, achieved for themselves tolerance and accommodation, should at the same time have refused so adamantly to extend the same to Christians; and that God’s thwarting of their campaign against the body of Christ, by the summary execution of Herod, also by that same event removed the one man who could have preserved their own toleration by Rome. The final result of what took place when God sent an angel to destroy Herod Agrippa was realized some 20 years later when Titus and Vespasian destroyed Jerusalem. The finger of God is clearly seen in this chapter.

And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. And those were the days of unleavened bread.

Only seven words in the Greek, translated by eleven in English, recount the martyrdom of the first apostle; and such restraint by the sacred historian shows how different are the words of inspiration from those of ordinary writers. It should be noted that the New Testament records no appointment of a successor to James. Why? He is still an apostle, still “reigning over the twelve tribes of (spiritual) Israel” as Jesus promised (Matthew 19:28). Death never removed an apostle. It was not death but transgression that removed Judas (Acts 1:25).

As Wesley said, “So one of the brothers went to God the first, the other the last, of the apostles.”[2] This has been viewed by some as a kind of mystical fulfillment of the desire of James and John to sit “one on the right hand, the other on the left” of the Lord in his kingdom.

Days of unleavened bread … This refers to the great annual Passover feast of the Jews; and, as it was at Passover that our Lord suffered, Peter must have associated his own imprisonment and impending death with the events of our Lord’s Passion.

And when he had taken him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to guard him; intending after the Passover to bring him forth to the people.

Quarternions … This was the name of a group of four soldiers, and four quaternions would be sixteen men appointed to guard Peter.

After the Passover … This refers not to Passover day, but to the whole celebration of Passover which lasted eight days.

Intending to bring him forth … Herod planned a public execution of Peter, an event which the Jewish hierarchy and the Jerusalem rabble would have celebrated with the utmost enthusiasm. Things looked very bleak for the Christian faith at that moment.

Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made earnestly of the church unto God for him.

Prayer … for him … Webster and Wilkinson’s Greek Testament declares that “The Greek intimates that it was incessantly kept up, always going on.”[3] Thus it was a kind of perpetual prayer meeting that the church organized on behalf of Peter. If it is wondered why this was not done for James, answer probably lies in the suddenness with which he was executed almost as soon as he was apprehended, giving no time for such an effort as this on behalf of Peter.

With regard to all the snide remarks commentators have made about the church’s praying for Peter’s release and their total surprise when it occurred, two things are pertinent: (1) It is not declared that they prayed for Peter’s release. It could be that they were praying that Peter’s faith would not fail, as it had so conspicuously failed when he denied the Lord. (2) If they were praying for his release, this being not at all unlikely, then the surprise would have been at the dramatic suddenness and manner of it.

And when Herod was about to bring him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the guards before the door kept the prison.

PETER’S CONDITION WAS A TYPE OF SIN

Many of the old commentators allegorized this remarkable episode; and despite the fact that the New Testament does not refer to it as an allegory, there are undeniably elements of an astounding allegory in this event. Just as Paul allegorized the history of Abraham and his two wives in Galatians, we shall allege an allegory here, but at the same time receiving the episode as history. The visit of the wisemen to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1) has been allegorized for ages, as more particularly noted in my Commentary on Matthew, Matthew 2:1.

The deliverance of Peter in this chapter was declared by Matthew Henry to “represent our redemption by Christ, which is not only the proclaiming of liberty to the captives, but the bringing them out of the prison house.[4]

Of course, this making of Peter’s condition a fitting allegory, or illustration, of the terror, helplessness, and shame of man’s condition in sin, should not be read as applicable to Peter’s character. He was not only free from any unusual degree of sin, but he was a worthy member of the sacred Twelve, one of the most glorious characters earth ever knew. It was his condition in Herod’s prison that is referred to here. Note the following:

Peter was a captive … all sinners are captives of Satan (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
He was guarded … Satan likes to stand watch over his victims to prevent their escape. Every Bible teacher knows that as soon as some young person has learned enough to obey the gospel and is ready to be baptized, someone over in another part of town will elect him president of a Sunday school class he hasn’t attended in a year. It is the old strategy of Satan to post a guard and set a watch to keep a man from obeying the gospel even when he has already made up his mind to do it.

He was bound with two chains … Everyone in sin is bound with chains, even if they are nothing but the chains of habit. Procrastination from day to day becomes at last a chain stronger than iron.

He was asleep … Sleep is a state of insensitivity, inactivity, insecurity, and illusion. In the spiritual sense, every sinner is asleep (Romans 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:6).

He was in darkness … Like the night of sin, the blackness of midnight had settled over Herod’s prison.

He was naked … Peter had cast off his garment in order to be relieved of the suffocating heat of the dungeon. All sin and spiritual deficiency are nakedness (Revelation 3:17,18).

He was condemned to death … This is the state of every unredeemed sinner on earth (John 3:18).

Thus, Peter’s condition in that dungeon of Herod is remarkably suggestive of the sin-condition of every unredeemed person on earth. It is likewise true that his deliverance had overtones of applicability to the soul’s conversion from sin.

And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shined in the cell: and he smote Peter on the side, and awoke him, saying, Rise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.

Several things entered into Peter’s deliverance. (1) There was a prayer meeting, mentioned later in Luke’s narrative here, but already going on, and for days previously. (2) There was a messenger, in this case an angel of the Lord; but always there is a messenger when people are to be saved. “How shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). (3) There was light in that prison. The angel delivered the word of God to Peter; but the word of God is always light (Psalms 119:105); and like the “light” delivered to every sinner by faithful preachers of the word of God, it consisted of a command to arise and act. “Why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins” (Acts 22:16). (4) Here the angel commanded Peter to get up and put on his sandals, and follow.

He smote Peter on the side … Older readers of these lines will recall the manner of Pullman porters on passenger trains who always awakened their charges in exactly the same manner as here, striking them gently on the side, through the curtains, there never having been devised a better way of doing it without startling or frightening the sleeper. Thus, in an infinitesimal detail such as this, one sees the glorious truth of the word of God.

And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And he did so. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.

And he did so … Peter’s response to God’s message was exactly what it should have been. If the apostle had been like many today who are commanded to obey the word of God, he might have said, “Sh-sh-sh, Angel, don’t wake up the guard!” Or he might have said, “Well, thanks, Angel, I’ll think about it! Some other time, I just might do what you say.” Still another possible response was, “Well, Angel, I won’t promise you anything. You know how it is. I’d like to get out of here all right; but you know we might wake somebody up, and that would be bad. The jailer would not like that!” Are not the excuses which men make ridiculous?

(5) The fifth thing that entered into Peter’s deliverance was the falling off of his chains. They fell off when he rose to obey the word of the angel. The application is in this, that men’s chains of sin will fall off when they arise and are baptized into Christ; and they will never fall off until this is done.

(6) Then Peter followed the angel. See next verse.

And he went out, and followed; and he knew not that it was true which was done by the angel, but thought he saw a vision.

Think of the importance of following. Peter’s chains had fallen off, but he was still in Herod’s dungeon; and his deliverance would be meaningful only when the iron gates closed behind him as he went out.

And when they were past the first and the second guard, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth into the city; which opened to them of its own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and straightway the angel departed from him.

That great iron gate stands for death in this allegory. No man is safe from the fury of the evil one until death has ended his probation. To leave off following the Lord before death is to die in Satan’s dominion and under his control. That is why an apostle said, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13). Peter did not leave off following the angel until the iron gate opened and closed behind him. That gate took twenty-five men to open and close it. It was the gate of a fortress so impregnable that soldiers were not even stationed to guard it. It did not need it. They just locked it and left it, unlocking it only as needed, and leaving it unattended the rest of the time.

Which opened unto them of its own accord … The gate of death opened for Stephen who saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God (7:56); and every true Christian may expect the Lord to bless him in the hour of death. Its iron gates will open of their own accord (Psalms 23).

It should be noted that Peter was destined to go through that iron gate in one of two ways. Had he passed through it the next morning it would have been in custody of Herod’s soldiers on the way to his execution; but to go through it with an angel of God was a far different thing. So also, every Christian and every man will pass through the iron gate of death; but for some, alas, it will be the gate to everlasting sorrow; and for others it will be the gate of everlasting joy.

And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a truth, that the Lord hath sent forth his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and all the expectation of the people of the Jews.

As in the sacred records throughout the New Testament, God left here a nail where the unbeliever can hang his hat. “When Peter was come to himself …” Ah, does not that mean that this event never really happened, but that Peter dreamed it? Not at all; but what is meant is that Peter’s deliverance was so fantastic and contrary to all natural things that he found it nearly impossible to believe it himself until the press of events brought him to the full realization of what had happened, yes, HAPPENED. Profane history records Peter’s deliverance thus:

Herod Agrippa I was popular with his subjects, and his brief reign marked the peak of their material felicity. He did all in his power to crush the nascent Christian church, and after executing James the son of Zebedee, he arrested Peter, WHO ESCAPED FROM PRISON![5]
The only explanation of that escape from prison is that of Luke in this chapter. The stupid and unreasonable conclusion by Herod that his own soldiers had released Peter was the only alternative to such a supernatural deliverance as actually occurred; and Herod’s execution of his own guard proves only how determined that evil ruler was to deny the true explanation of Peter’s escape. Not very long after this, God would deliver another message to Herod which he would find no way to deny.

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 and were praying.

When he had considered the thing … Peter no doubt recalled that when the angel had released him and the other apostles, he was commanded, not to leave Jerusalem, but to continue preaching in the temple. Peter honored that instruction here by not fleeing for safety, but by taking his place with the praying disciples.

Where many were gathered … This cannot mean that the entire church were gathered in a single residence, but that the place mentioned was one among many such gatherings throughout the city. The church at this time numbered many thousands of faithful Christians. The choice of Mary’s residence as the place where Peter went might have turned on the deep personal attachment of the apostle to John Mark, who in time, after a long companionship with Peter, would write the apostle’s gospel under the title of MARK.

And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a maid came to answer, named Rhoda.

The scene that emerges here is one of affluence, if not wealth. Mary’s was a house large enough to contain a gathering for prayer meeting, having a courtyard and a gate attended by a servant. From Mary’s example, we may conclude that there were many who had not sold all their possessions during those occasions mentioned earlier in Acts.

And when she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for joy, but ran in and told that Peter stood before the gate.

It is of interest that class distinctions did not exist in the primitive church. This serving girl was as happy to see Peter as were any the others; and, in her joy, she forgot to open the gate.

And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she confidently affirmed that it was even so. And they said, It is his angel.

For reasons underlying the surprise of the church that their prayers had been answered, see under Acts 12:5.

It is his angel … This verse proves that in the apostolic church the Christians believed that every person has a guardian angel; but it is uncertain what deductions should be made from this fact. Jesus apparently justified such a view by his reference to the angels of little children in Matthew 18:10, as being angels of the highest rank. See in my Commentary on Matthew, under Matthew 18:10, and in my Commentary on Hebrews, Hebrews 1:14. The thinking of those who said this seems to be that “Since Herod has already killed Peter, it must be his personal angel who is knocking at the gate.”

Peter kept on knocking, however; and the stunned hearers finally let him in.

It's Your Turn. Write Something. Say Something.