Deliverance versus judgment


Acts 12:1-19

This chapter is exciting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it marks the watershed between local and international evangelism. The end of this chapter clearly draws the line under Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and sets the stage for Acts chapter thirteen: the advance of the gospel into the rest of the world. Secondly, it demonstrates to us the power of prayer: something that we have either ignored or forgotten in our busy, everyday world where we compete in every area of our lives. Thirdly, it demonstrates the absolute authority of God over human and personal structures, systems, kingdoms and all other types of authority. Nothing in this world happens either by chance or without the knowledge of God. Nothing takes Him by surprise!

He knows everything about us and every single thought we have. (Psalm 139:4) He is well aware of the problems we are going through and He is waiting to help. However, He needs us to take a step towards Him. We cannot manage on our own – in isolation - so we need to be willing to ask God to step into our circumstances. He will do just that and, at the end of our lives, when we look back, we will be surprised at just how far He has carried us and supported us.

Initially, it was the Jewish religious authorities who moved against the believers; then (with their backing) it was Saul and now we find King Herod himself taking up the cause against those who were following Jesus. He started by killing the apostle James, John’s brother. When he saw that this pleased the Jewish people, he thought he would deploy the same "bully-boy" tactics towards another "important" believer: Peter. (Acts 12:1-4)

Herods Family Tree

This "King Herod" was Herod Agrippa I, the son of Aristobulus and grandson of "Herod the Great" (who reconstructed the Jewish temple). His sister was Herodias, who was responsible for the death of John the Baptist. (Mark 6:17-28) Herod Agrippa I was only partly Jewish. The Romans had appointed him to rule over most of Palestine, including the territories of Galilee, Perea, Judea and Samaria. (See the map of political boundaries in Study 10.) He persecuted the Christians in order to please the Jewish leaders and in the hope that it would solidify his own position. Agrippa I died suddenly in A.D. 44. (Acts 12:20-23) His death was also recorded by the historian Josephus.

The death of James had been at the hands of Herod. This time, Herod intended that the religious authorities would execute Peter. But God had other ideas and He let the growing congregation of believers have a hand in His work. While they were praying for Peter, amazing things happened. (Acts 12:5-10)

Notice that this was not just a little, "one-off" prayer or even a powerful "one-off" prayer. The believers prayed for Peter throughout the time that he was in prison. They prayed for his safety and they prayed in earnest. They knew that the only one who could help was God Himself. Prison is not a very pleasant experience today. It was even less so in those days and, more especially, as Peter was on death row.

Now word must have gone around the authorities that some mighty strange things happened when believers and prisons were put together. When we studied Acts 5, we read that: “the apostles did many remarkable miracles among the people... and more and more believers were added to the Lord.” The High Priest and his relatives and friends among the Sadducees reacted with violent jealousy and arrested the apostles. They put them in the public jail. But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail and brought them out. Then he told them, "Go to the temple and preach about this life!" (Acts 5:12-20)

So, this time, Herod was taking no chances. He placed Peter under the guard of sixteen soldiers. On the night before his execution, Peter lay between two of them – asleep! (If that had been you or me, I wonder if we would have been asleep?) Not only was Peter asleep but, when the angel came to wake him up, he had to slap him on the side to get a response! Peter had long since ceased to worry about what man could do to him. He had seen the glory of the risen Lord and he was convinced that what was in store for him was far greater than anything that any human authorities could do to try to destroy him. (Matthew 10:28-31)

When Peter awoke, he thought he was dreaming. He heard the angel say, "Quickly! Get up!" and he obeyed. It is in obedience that God chooses to work with us. We cannot expect Him to operate favourably in our lives if we are opposing what He has asked us to do. Remember Jonah. He is a good example of what God can do with someone who chooses to go off in the opposite direction from the task to which He has called them. Jonah set off by boat in a bid to run away from God's calling. He found himself pitched into a storm and had to own up to the crew that it was because he was running away from God that the storm had come and was in the process of wrecking their boat. (Jonah 1:8-12) At his own request, they threw him over the side, where he was swallowed by a "large fish" that eventually regurgitated him on to a distant beach. (See Jonah 2:7-10.) Finally, Jonah returned to do what God had asked him to do in the first place. (Jonah 3:1-3)

As Peter was obedient to the word of God through the angel, his chains fell off! Even if we are in the prison of our circumstances, as we are obedient to the word of God, the "chains" that bind our hearts, minds or circumstances will fall off. We may not be physically released from prison, but our inner selves, our spirits will be set free to worship God and to communicate with the Holy Spirit. As we then follow His leading, we will be amazed at the different way we approach things.

The angel gave Peter further instructions and, again, he was obedient. He collected his things together and, together with the angel, walked out of his cell. The prison gates and bars, which just a few minutes before had been so secure, opened up before them. Nobody stopped them and they simply walked out! As we continue to be obedient to what God instructs us to do, amazing things will begin to open up in our life. We, like Peter, will be able to look back over what God has done in our lives and see the amazing things He has done for us. (Acts 12:11) What experiences of God’s mercy, protection and deliverance have we had? Perhaps we are in a place where we would rather not be, because we have not done what God has asked of us. If that is the case, we need to turn round and go back to God, asking Him to forgive us and resolving in future to respond to Him as soon as we hear His voice.

Why did Jonah not want to give God’s message to Nineveh to repent? He was unwilling to share God's message with a "Gentile" (non-Jewish) nation. This was a common sentiment among his compatriots then, just as it was in the apostle Paul's day. God's "chosen people" had forgotten that their original purpose as a nation was to be a blessing to the rest of the world, by sharing God's message with other nations. "Then the angel of God called again to Abraham from heaven. 'I, the LORD, have sworn by myself that, because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your beloved son from me, I will bless you with incredible blessings and multiply your descendants into countless thousands and millions, like the stars above you in the sky, and like the sands along the seashore. They will conquer their enemies and your offspring will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth - all because you have obeyed me.'" (Genesis 22:15-18 - Living Bible version) Jonah thought that God should not freely give his salvation to a wicked, pagan nation. Yet this is exactly what God does for all who come to him today in faith.

The angel did not simply leave Peter alone once he had walked through the outer gate of the prison. Instead, he walked with him some distance away so that, when Peter finally realised that what had just happened was real and not just a dream, he did not have to concern himself immediately with what was going on behind him and could plan what he was going to do next. (Acts 12:12)

John-Mark was the disciple who wrote the book of Mark (one of the four "gospels"). His mother’s house was large enough to accommodate many believers and this is where they had come together to pray. In fact, even as they prayed, their prayers were answered but, when the answer arrived at the front door, they didn't believe it! (Acts 12:13-15) We need to be people of faith, who believe that God answers the prayers of those who want to do (and are doing) His will. When we pray, let's believe that we will get an answer and, when that answer comes, let's not be surprised but thankful! If we are praying about all the little things in our life and seeing answers and keeping a log of our answered prayers, then we can encourage ourselves when circumstances imprison us. "Let us then, fearlessly and confidently and boldly, draw near to the throne of grace (the throne of God's unmerited favour to us sinners), that we may receive mercy (for our failures) and find grace to help in good time for every need (appropriate help and well-timed help, coming just when we need it)". (Hebrews 4:16 - Amplified Version)

We can bring all things to the Father who loves us and only has our good in mind. As our prayers are answered, our faith will increase and we will draw closer to Him and know Him better. If there are certain prayers that we cannot see being answered, there is always an opportunity to ask the Father whether we are praying according to His will. Ask Him to show you His perspective on the situation. Is there some sin in your own life that is preventing God from listening to you or is there anyone who you have not forgiven? "For this reason I am telling you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe (trust and be confident) that it is granted to you, and you will (get it). And, whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive that person and let it drop (leave it, let it go), in order that your Father who is in heaven may also forgive you your failings and shortcomings and let them drop." (Mark 11:24,25 - Amplified Version)

Do you think that the believers praying for Peter were remembering what Jesus had said about prayer: "Keep on asking and it will be given you; keep on seeking and you will find; keep on knocking (reverently) and (the door) will be opened to you. For everyone who keeps on asking receives; those who keep on seeking find; and to those who keep on knocking, (the door) will be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8 Amplified Version) The believers at John-Mark's house certainly got the result that they were looking for!

Peter was left out in the cold while the believers discussed the possibility that what Rhoda (the maid-servant) had seen might be true! But Peter was persistent and, eventually, someone went to let him in! Maybe Peter was also remembering what Jesus said about the need to keep on knocking! (Acts 12:16-17) After they had recovered from their shock, can you imagine the joy and amazement as Peter shared what had happened to him? The excitement of seeing God do such amazing things must have been invigorating and life-changing for those believers!

So, we should expect God to answer our prayers as well when we pray. Let's not be afraid, either, to pray some challenging prayers. Let's remember what the Lord has said to us in His word: He actually wants us to pray; He encourages us to use His Name because all authority in heaven and on earth and under the earth has been given to Him. "At that time you won't need to ask me for anything, for you can go directly to the Father and ask Him and He will give you what you ask for because you use My name. You haven't tried this before, but begin now. Ask, using my name, and you will receive and your cup of joy will overflow." (John 16:23-24 Living Bible version) What are we waiting for?

Meanwhile, Peter left for safer accommodation – somewhere the Jewish and Roman authorities would find it hard to track him down. God does not expect us to be naive in how we live. He created us as practical beings to live in a dangerous world. There are times to be outspoken and times to remain quiet. When the disciples were imprisoned the first time (Acts 5), the angel who released them told them to go straight back to preaching and, in obedience, they did just that. This time, there was no such requirement and Peter was more circumspect.

Israel - political map

At daybreak, when it was discovered that Peter was missing from the jail, there was a great commotion. No doubt they searched everywhere with no result. Eventually, the worst happened: Herod the king sent for Peter. There was now nowhere for the guards to hide! They had to admit that he had escaped. Under the law of the time, guards who allowed a prisoner to escape were subject to the same punishment that the prisoner was due to receive. Hence, these sixteen guards were sentenced to death. (Acts 12:19) Although Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, the Romans made Caesarea their headquarters (see the map), so Herod went off to live there for a while.

Acts 12:20-25

It appears that, for some reason, Herod had fallen out with the authorities in the cities of Tyre and Sidon. (See the map on the previous page.) These were coastal cities, free and self-governing, but economically dependent on Judea. We don't know why Herod had quarreled with them, but now representatives from those cities were trying to appease his anger and had contacted his personal servant, Blastus. (Acts 12:20-22) Herod was a politically motivated and self-opinionated man. He had to be in order to survive under the Roman occupation of the day. Whilst the Romans were prepared to delegate some authority to local rulers, it was always on the proviso that strict control was kept. If there was insurrection, then the ruler would be called (or recalled) to Rome – invariably with unpleasant consequences. This was the situation that Pontius Pilate found himself in at the trial of Jesus, when Pilate was confronted by the Jewish authorities and a mob of people threatening to riot. "Then Pilate, afraid of a riot and anxious to please the people, released Barabbas to them, ordered Jesus flogged with a leaded whip, and handed him over to be crucified." (Mark 15:11-15)

Following an intervention from Blastus, Herod received a delegation from Tyre and Sidon and delivered a grand speech to them. In response, the delegates, doubtless wishing to flatter him, proclaimed him a "god". (This is how emperors were addressed in the latter days of the Roman Empire.) Being a proud man, Herod readily accepted their adulation. He did indeed have great power, but it paled into insignificance when compared to the power of the Almighty God of Israel. God decided that such presumption deserved an object lesson at this particular point in history. Herod was struck down by a sudden attack of intestinal pain. According to Luke's account, Herod was afflicted with worms that literally ate him alive from the inside out. Hardly a pleasant way to die!

God does not immediately punish all sin, but he will bring all people to judgment in due course. (Hebrews 9:27) Herod served as a powerful example of God's presence and control over the affairs of human beings. His fate would have become known throughout the country and underlined the seriousness of the spiritual situation in which all people stood. The church grew rapidly because people saw God's power and presence and the difference that Jesus made to the lives of believers. (Acts 12:24)

In this way, Peter's imprisonment actually served to accelerate the growth of the church, moving it into a position where it would step out into its greatest challenge yet: the evangelisation of the "Gentiles" (non-Jewish people). Barnabas and Paul visited Jerusalem and, as soon as they had finished their business, they took John-Mark with them to Antioch. From this point on, the explosion of Christian faith knew no bounds. It crossed national and continental boundaries. At its humble beginnings, the church could hardly have anticipated that it would one day face such a massive challenge. In our day and in Western countries, the body of Christ finds itself in a position where the tide of faith has ebbed, leaving only "rock pools" and shallows. However, many believe that we now stand on the edge of a revival that will match the breathtaking expansion described in the book of Acts. Let us be prepared for the greatest opportunity ever!

Click on the button below to load the QUESTIONS for this study in a new browser tab. You can opt to print the question sheet or simply follow the questions and write down your answers in a notebook or a separate file on a computing device, such as a laptop or mobile 'phone.