1. The Problem (v.1-4)
The Gospel was spreading, the Christian church was growing, and this was seen to be a threat to the ruling authorities. Why? This was causing a stir, thus upsetting the peace, and was questioning the status quo with the good news of Jesus (which was certainly counter-cultural)! Peter had recently led an important Roman officer named Cornelius (and his whole family) to follow Jesus.
So, we see that there was serious violent intent against the leaders of the Jesus movement – the disciple James (son of Zebedee) had already been executed. Now Peter was their target. If Herod is able to get rid of Peter, this might bring an end to this Jesus movement. This is where persecution, although in itself a bad thing, can be seen as a compliment … because something significant is happening!
Persecution can be inevitable for those who stand out against an unsympathetic majority when they challenge the status quo. Facing up to Herod was full on – he was a pragmatist who was quite prepared to execute Christians if that would gain him popularity. And what a family legacy! His uncle was Herod Antipas who was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist. His grandfather was ‘Herod the Great’ who sought the whereabouts of Jesus when he was born through the ‘wise men’, and when this failed, slaughtered all the children of Bethlehem under two years old.
The comments about waiting until after the Passover until Peter is brought out (v.4), suggests that he too is facing execution in a few days’ time; and probably publicly too, as a warning to others. To highlight both the seriousness of the situation and the greatness of the miracle that occurs, we read in verses 4 & 6, that Peter was heavily guarded – by twice the normal number of guards, meaning there was very little chance of escape. Verse 6 clearly states the dire situation Peter was in. This was a crisis of some magnitude for the Christian community. Was it all to end here for Peter?
Now there would be obvious concern for Peter’s personal well-being. But what was also at stake? God’s ongoing mission and Peter’s major leadership role within it! Probably also at stake was the fledgling Christian community’s faith in the God who was leading them in mission and in the Jesus who said he would be with them always. There was probably some confusion concerning why Peter would be in such a situation, given that God had brought him so far and there were so many opportunities up ahead – why had God allowed this to happen?
2. The Response (v.5)
So when the church, which would have meant a collection of house churches, heard about this what did they do??
While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
And what sort of prayer was it??
(a) Collective – this was an occasion for coordinated effort.
(b) “Fervent” – to pray “fervently” means what?? Earnest, intense, heartfelt, passionate, committed, faithful, persistent, ongoing, united. Later, after his escape, when Peter arrived at Mary’s house (v.12), we note that many people were still praying! So we can certainly conclude that God worked this ‘great escape’ while the church people were praying.
(c) Focussed (on God) – such praying was not just a talk-fest, it was completely focussed on God. These church groups didn’t just talk about prayer – they actually prayed! This shows that they understood where their hope lay, and where Peter’s safety ultimately depended. When we pray, our ultimate reference point is the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, especially where it says, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. In this way, we can come to accept that God’s answer may be different to what we asked or expected.
(d) Targeted (on Peter) – the praying was targeted on the crisis of the moment … there was a definite subject for their praying … the prayers were for Peter.
The church could have been deterred or distracted by their confusion or fear, but it seems they were not!
We should always remember, that when things seem very dire, we don’t have to feel helpless, but rather we have the great resource of prayer. This, of course, as we see in this passage, is not only for individual situations, but also, and very significantly, a resource for the whole church collectively, as it faces certain corporate challenges.
So … Peter’s fate was NOT wholly in Herod’s evil hands (as Herod may have thought).
3. The Outcome (v.7-10)
The outcome was simply miraculous and extraordinary. The situation was really dire, but not anymore! Peter was able to escape and return to his friends. The chains securing Peter to the guards fell off his wrists, and those guards were powerless to stop events unfolding. Having got dressed, Peter was able to slip past the other guards, walking through a previously locked iron gate that “opened of its own accord”. Peter was free.
When he finally came to his senses, Peter’s faith was strengthened in the full realisation of what had happened. And with God like this on their side, all of the remaining disciples and Jesus-followers would have been enlivened in their faith going forward. Such was God’s presence with Peter while in jail, and such was God’s identification with his plight, that we read, “[The gate] opened for them of it own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane” (v.10). The “angel of the Lord” here represents the very presence of God in this situation and liberation.
It is interesting that this great outcome was not dependent on Peter’s own prayers for himself (for this isn’t mentioned), neither was this outcome dependent on Peter’s obedience (for it seems that Peter is just carried along as if in a dream). This ‘great escape’ is conveyed as God’s response to the church’s prayer!! There was no other possible explanation than that God had acted.
4. The Curiosity (v.15)
Do you notice something curious though???
Those who were praying were NOT actually expecting the answer they got!
When the maid Rhoda went and reported that Peter was at the gate (v.13-15), the people there said to her, “You are out of your mind”! When Rhoda insisted, the people suggested that it must be “his angel”, perhaps thinking of some sort of ‘ghostlike’ appearance (which would indicate that they thought Peter had already been executed). When they actually saw him for themselves (v.16), they were “amazed”.
What is the point of mentioning this??
(a) The need for us to be expectant that our prayers will be answered, and to be attentive to how God may be working.
i. If these pray-ers were not expecting Peter’s release, then what had they been praying for?
Something less perhaps … like God being with Peter, or that Peter might be able to endure his suffering, or that his suffering would be minimal, or even maybe (if they were honest) that they themselves wouldn’t be next!!!
Whereas these might be normal sincere prayer options, maybe sometimes our prayers are too small (or limited) – our vision is not big enough.
Did this church community actually doubt God’s power!?! Did the problem seem too big?
ii. If indeed they were praying for Peter’s release, then they couldn’t have truly believed that God could do it! They still harboured doubts (with the exception of Rhoda the maid).
At the very least, they were surprised about the speed and decisiveness of God’s response!
Do we sometimes pray simply because it seems the right thing to do, while at the same time dismissing the possibility that God will actually bring about the impossible?
Maybe this early church community was just learning what God could do!?!
In any case, it is reassuring, we see that God acted far above and beyond what was expected.
(b) But maybe this was not judgemental about their praying after all – rather just highlighting that God responds to honest sincere pray-ers no matter how much insight they have into either the problem or the solution. God just wants a praying people, and He will do the rest. So the church people had no idea that it would turn out this way for Peter, but their simple commitment to prayer allowed God to act in whatever way was best!
5. The Call to Prayer
Even though faith may be shaky, and words might feel inadequate, there is a clear call in this passage to pray with high expectations. We don’t have to have answers before we come to pray, indeed it is our lack of ideas that draws us to prayer. We might start to consider some of the barriers that the local church faces and pray about these. Clearly we should pray for any on the front-line, in terms of the blockages they might encounter. We might also think about some of the local community’s issues and start praying about those things [hospital funding, high-care needs], so that ultimately God may receive the glory. Not to mention current world events! It is the biblical teaching, that prayer unleashes the resources of God in the direction of our concerns.
God protects and advances the spread of the good news of Jesus. Just a few verses later we read, “The word of the Lord continued to advance and gain adherents” (12:24). The Herod of each generation would not win!! Yet some prayers do seem to go unanswered. But then, perhaps they have been answered in a way that we are yet to recognise and understand. Sometimes we are unable to see the big picture, that only God really sees. Sometimes we have to wait for God’s right timing. Sometimes the freewill of individuals expressed stubbornly means that there is a significant waiting period involved. Part of our faithfulness in prayer will involve continuing to trust God through disappointment and uncertainty! In this we are personally bound to grow!!
Prayer is the first way in which we can partner with God in what he wants to achieve in the church, community and world. Prayer exhibits our faithfulness to God’s cause. And there are no limitations to the possibilities of how God might answer prayer. Prayer indeed opens previously closed doors! Rhoda, the ‘maid’, is a very important character in this narrative, for she represents those of us who can be fully expectant concerning God’s answer (recognising and not doubting that she heard Peter’s voice v.14). But also, involved in this great outcome, were all those church members who simply prayed, even though they may have been unsure in their praying. Their commitment to pray was enough to see a major threat against Christian mission averted.