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Life of Peter


Acts 12:1-19

Lesson audio

The genesis of this lesson is a little unusual. When I reviewed our previous study on the book of Acts, I found a rather good study on the subject of intercession. It would seem appropriate to update this a bit, but I found myself copying more than updating. As a result we are taking a different tack. While the subject is entirely serious, it has its comic elements. Those elements will form the core of the lesson for this last episode in the life of Peter.

Acts 12:1-19 NASB  Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them.  (2)  And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.  (3)  When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread.  (4)  When he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people.  (5)  So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.  (6)  On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison.  (7)  And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter's side and woke him up, saying, "Get up quickly." And his chains fell off his hands.  (8)  And the angel said to him, "Gird 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 continued to follow, and 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 second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.  (11)  When Peter came to himself, he said, "Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."  (12)  And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.  (13)  When he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer.  (14)  When she recognized Peter's voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate.  (15)  They said to her, "You are out of your mind!" But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, "It is his angel."  (16)  But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed.  (17)  But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, "Report these things to James and the brethren." Then he left and went to another place.  (18)  Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter.  (19)  When Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.



Perhaps things were different in those days, but I suspect most of us would not sleep soundly the night before our execution. Peter, somehow, did.

Why the Last Day?

Concealed in this passage is the fact that Peter was probably in jail for about seven days. The expression, "days of Unleavened Bread", denotes a period of seven days in which the devout Jew did not eat bread with yeast in it. Herod evidently was waiting until this period was over to execute Peter. So God had seven days in which to rescue Peter from jail — and he picked the last one. Why?

·         One reason would be to teach the church to pray without ceasing – and never give up. So many of us do not persist in prayer; it is a lesson that must be learned in each generation.

·         Similarly, this long period would be something which would test — and therefore strengthen — Peter's faith.

·         One reason which you might not guess at first: Peter is a man of action. He is now chained up and given plenty of opportunity to do something abnormal: think. The man of action is forced to become a man of contemplation. It's a step towards maturity.

Peter Can Sleep

I suppose that experts on the subject of getting to sleep would probably not recommend spending your night chained up, with a guard on either side of you, knowing that your head was going to be cut off the next morning. Herod, after all, had beheaded James just before this incident starts. Peter can't even roll over and sleep on his side. Why is it that Peter can sleep?

·         Peter sleeps because he trusts the Lord — even in life or death situations.

·         Peter can sleep because he has thought the matter through; to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

·         Peter can sleep because he knows the master of sea and sky, and has seen his power displayed.

The Angel's Conduct

Angels seem to be a funny species. Peter thinks he's dreaming, or seeing a vision, when the angel arrives. But we might note a couple of things about the angel’s behavior which should have alerted Peter to the truth:

·         The angel is in a hurry. You can picture him kicking Peter in the side and telling them to get up as if he was dealing with the lazy schoolboy.

·         This is a very businesslike angel. He gets Peter out of jail, then out of the site of the jail, and leaves.

There is nothing dreamlike here. But Peter state of mind is such that until the angel departs, he thinks he's having a vision. Some people are really hard to convince.


If you want to see the center of the comedy here, look at Rhoda. If we had to cast this as a play, I would want Lucille Ball playing the part of Rhoda.

Why Answer the Door?

If someone knocks on the door of my house in the middle of the night, we have to undo four different locks to get them access into the house. We don't live in a particularly violent or tough neighborhood; it's just the reasonable precautions of living in America in the 21st century. Things were quite a bit worse then. Opening the gate — or at least answering the knock — is not particularly normal behavior in the dark of night before the invention of the electric light bulb. There are scary things out there that go bump in the dark. If you're going to answer the gate, you don't send a woman to do the job.

That's the normal state of affairs. In this instance, you would also have to consider the possibility that the knock at the gate with came from the authorities who were persecuting the church. A quick glance out of the top story window and hit the back door would be very useful.

So why did the servant girl answer the gate? I suspect it's because of the habit of hospitality. The household would be accustomed to receiving guests; Rhoda was probably doing something she had done a hundred times before.

Why Didn't She Open the Gate?

In every two-person comedy there are two players: the schlemiel and the schlemozzle. The schlemiel is the guy who is always spilling the soup. The schlemozzle is the guy spilling the soup on. Peter is the schlemozzle.

In a sense, Rhoda’s response was quite normal. She had good news; she was going to share it. If you remember the woman at the well in Samaria, her first reaction was to share the good news of Christ with her fellow Samaritans. Rhoda is doing much the same thing.

What makes it funny is that she leaves Peter at the gate, knocking. St. Francis had an interesting observation concerning such things. He was once asked what he would do if he was gardening and someone came up and told him that the Lord Jesus had returned. His reply simply was that he would finish his gardening, and then go see the Lord. It is important for the Christian to remember to do the task at hand, no matter what the state of our emotions might be.

"They" Opened the Gate

Apparently Rhoda had a reputation before this incident. The group of believers in the house evidently thinks that she's having a blonde moment. So they tell her she's nuts.

Then we see one of the most common — and often comic — reactions of human beings. They experienced the perils of, "it could be." Since they are quite convinced that Peter, in bodily form, is still in jail there is the question of just exactly who Rhoda heard at the gate. No good explanation presents itself, so some investigation must be made. But the answer could be something really spooky. So what we get is a vision: a crowd full of people, each telling the other, "You go first." Think of Don Knotts leading Tim Conway to the gate.

Believers Who Didn't Believe

One of the reasons that you are encouraged to read the Scriptures on a daily basis is so that you will see, regularly, the wonders and the glory of God. This is most necessary for our education. We would otherwise conclude that God had little interest in us, no interest at all in doing great things while where around, and otherwise was generally boring. As these folks discover, none of this is true.

Just Been Praying For

Faith is not the same thing as magic. Some people approach their prayers with the idea that if they just chant the right formula God will give them what they want. That's an attempt at magic; that's not faith. Those who act in true faith know that it is not there incantation but the power of God which does the work. Perhaps as important, God does his work in his own way — usually ignoring or going counter to our own advice. One can imagine the church praying that Herod would be merciful towards Peter and not lock him up too long. God is open to our pleas; however, he does things his own way.

These people did not believe; they wanted, instead. We are often like that. We approach our prayers with the idea that God probably isn't going to do what we ask, but would be nice if he did. We really don't expect any results, though. We're like the kid and the Volkswagen commercial — you remember, the one wearing a Darth Vader costume. You remember the shock when he focuses his hands on the car — and it starts? You have an idea of how these people felt.[1]

Invite Him In

If you accept the idea that they thought this was Peter's guardian angel, you would think they would invite him in. After all, Abraham entertained angels. On the other hand, angels are scary. Their first words are usually, "fear not." We usually make the assumption that the Christian life is supposed to be boring. Dullness is our usual fare. When something comes along that is not boring and dull in the matters of God, we are in unfamiliar territory and we act like it.

Did you notice that they're still astonished after they invite Peter in?

At the Wrong House

Peter, to his credit, does not get angry. Instead he tells his story in a simple and direct manner – probably glancing over his shoulder all the time, wondering when the local Gestapo will arrive. After all, it's not like he was greeted with stealth. He takes the reasonable precaution of asking them to tell the other apostles about his release; reasonable, because his presence might reveal where they are meeting. He then leaves for another location — and even years later, Luke, writing this account, isn't going to tell you where he went.

This is fitting. Peter does not presume upon the favor of God. He's been released jail, but that doesn't mean he can go out and struck that fact in front of the local authorities with impunity. Christ commanded him that when he was persecuted it was to flee to the next city. We don't know what that city was, but flee he did.

There's a lesson there for us. Indeed, the whole quality has one big lesson for us. That lesson is that we presume upon God far too much:

·         We presume that he won't act. Even though we ask him in prayer to do something, we have this attitude that it's not likely to happen. That is not how he told us to pray.

·         We presume that because we are in the right, God will not allow anything evil to befall us. Yet he tells us, in this world we will have trouble.

·         We presume that he will do what we ask in our own way. This underestimates the wisdom and power of the Almighty most quickly.


So ends our study of the life of Peter. If we had to pick one lesson from his life, it might be this: God will take the material we provided him and make greatness of it — if we will let him. Neither our past, nor our personality, nor our pride is a barrier to what God can do – if we will let him.

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