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The Spreading Flame - Series 3: Episode 5

Peter’s escape from prison

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 12:1-24

Herod Agrippa attacked the leadership of the Church. He executed James the brother of John and imprisoned Peter under heavy guard. An angel led Peter out of the prison. He visited the church who were praying together and then left Jerusalem. An angel carried out God's judgement on Herod Agrippa and he died.  

Herod Agrippa attacked the leadership of the Church. He executed James the brother of John and imprisoned Peter under heavy guard. An angel led Peter out of the prison. He visited the church who were praying together and then left Jerusalem. An angel carried out God's judgement on Herod Agrippa and he died.  


Welcome to the final episode of Series 3. And if you’ve been following through Series 3, you’ll realise that this is Luke telling the story of how the Christian Gospel started spreading to the Gentile world.

Background and introduction

We have two astonishing stories that Luke has already told - one of Cornelius the Roman centurion and his family who were miraculously converted in the city of Caesarea, through Peter’s preaching, and that event was very symbolic for the Church, showing a shift in emphasis and an opportunity to spread out. Then in the last episode, we looked at an equally remarkable story about how a very large Roman city, the city of Antioch, 600 km north of Jerusalem, suddenly found a church developing within it amongst the Gentile community. This church grew very fast. This is the first church we know of in the Gentile world, through spontaneous evangelism of refugees from Jerusalem, who’d arrived there after the first persecution. The church developed, and the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to head it up. He brought Paul in from nearby Tarsus. The church grew and matured dramatically during the time that Paul and Barnabas were there, which was for at least a year, working together in the city.

It looks as though everything is ready for the Gospel to just go far and wide. Antioch is a strategic city, very well located to reach further areas to the north, largely in the country we would call Turkey today, known as Asia or Asia Minor with a number of provinces in it - a huge area that was the obvious next step for the Gospel to go to. You would imagine at this point that Luke, our author, would start telling that story, because we know it happened, but he doesn’t do that. There’s a sudden change of gear now in the story, because he takes us all the way back to Jerusalem. We’re 600 km north of Jerusalem; this whole chapter is about Jerusalem. Something happens in Jerusalem, which has the appearance of a satanic attempt to crush this movement of expansion by eliminating the overall Church leader, Peter, which could be a massive setback. It centres around a ruler called King Herod, King Herod Agrippa the First. This is an explanatory story that Luke gives because here there’s a real setback, another outburst of persecution, which God miraculously overturns. Let’s follow this very interesting part of the story which begins to illustrate the spiritual battle that we’re in as a Church. What we see in our Christian lives, most of us, is times of advance and times of setback. That’s a common experience. What I want to tell you, as you’re listening to this is, this is the very same process; in the Early Church, the same thing happened. Luke is telling us a story strategically to help us interpret our own Christian experience as well.

King Herod Agrippa’s Persecution

1 ‘It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.’

Acts 12:1-4, NIV

Who is this Herod? The name Herod appears in the New Testament, in the Gospels and Acts, a number of times. There is a family who all have the name Herod, but there are different Kings. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the King in Judea was Herod the Great and you’ll remember his story from the story of Jesus’ birth, when Herod the Great tried to kill the infant boys in Bethlehem. He died shortly after Jesus was born. When Jesus was in ministry in Galilee, one of his sons, Herod the Tetrarch, or Herod Antipas, was ruling that part of the country. We see Jesus engaging with another King Herod, and he’s ruling on behalf of the Romans in the northern part of the country. But the King we’re talking about here, is the grandson of Herod the Great - the next generation, and his full name is Herod Agrippa the First. He only ruled for about three years, and the Romans consolidated a lot of power in him. They trusted him and so, they gave him more power than any of the other kings in the area who were working for them. He was very powerful. He had the authority to punish people with execution, which the Jewish authorities had not previously had. This explains why he had the power to make such a drastic intervention in the Church.

Herod Agrippa the First, is the man who is initiating another round of persecution. You will remember that the first round of persecution, described in earlier chapters at the time of Stephen and his martyrdom, was initiated by the religious leaders, the Sanhedrin, and taken forward by a man called Saul, or Paul, until his conversion on the road to Damascus when it all fizzled out, and the persecution stopped. Luke makes it clear that the Church experienced a time of peace, because that came to an end. There has been a time when the Church has been able to act freely and move freely with very little hindrance from the authorities. But Herod Agrippa comes in and he changes that. He decides, ‘I’m going to stop this Church’, for reasons that we don’t fully know historically; he was really against the Church. He felt that the Jewish people generally would be favourable to him if he took action against the Church.

James - the Martyr

One of the most important Apostles in Jesus’ team - James, the brother of John was taken into prison and executed. If you read the Gospels, you’ll know there were Twelve Apostles, but there was an inner circle of three close associates with Jesus, who he often met with privately - Peter, James and John. They would naturally be senior in the team in Jerusalem. King Herod, for reasons we don’t know, is able to get hold and take into captivity one of these three, James, and he executes him; the first Apostle to be martyred and one of the first martyrs at all. The first one recorded was Stephen who wasn’t an Apostle, but he was a well-known preacher and leader in the Jerusalem church. Something really drastic has happened in the city of Jerusalem. Antioch is doing really well, but a crisis is emerging in the mother church, because James has been killed, and not only that, shortly afterwards, Herod Agrippa, manages to identify Peter and take him into captivity. His strategy appears to be to take out the top people in the Church. That’s a strategy of the opponents of the Church all over the world today. Many of you will know exactly what I mean, when hostile governments and regimes will identify the key leaders and feel that if they can take them out, the Church will wither away. That was Herod Agrippa’s strategy and so, he took Peter into prison.

Peter Imprisoned

Luke notes in the narrative that it’s one of the religious festivals, the feast of Unleavened Bread, or the feast of the Passover. That means that lots of people were visiting Jerusalem. Peter was taken into captivity when the city was very crowded with lots of people coming in. Herod took the decision, it says clearly here, to wait until that had all died down before putting Peter on trial and executing him. In other words, to do it quietly. Another strategy of the opponents of the Church, very often, is to get rid of people quietly. It’s not a good idea to do it when the city is overcrowded with people who may turn against your action, because there was some sympathy for the Church amongst the Jewish people, especially people coming in from other places. His strategy was to eliminate the top people.

He must have heard the story of what happened to the Apostles when they were previously imprisoned by the Sanhedrin briefly, as recorded by Luke in an earlier episode of Acts, when the twelve Apostles were imprisoned and an angel came and released them from the prison, miraculously. The reason I think he’s heard of this story is, there’s a detail here, which is really surprising. It’s about the guard. He handed him over, Acts 12:4, ‘to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each’. That’s a lot of people to guard one man who is in chains. He’s put a heavy guard on Peter because he doesn’t want something odd to happen to him while he’s in prison. He’s taking no chances because he’s heard these rumours about them escaping from the prison previously. He’s secured him in prison and he’s waiting for the Passover to finish and then he’s going to execute Peter. The goal is to neutralise the effect of the Church, to demoralise the Church so much that it just runs out of energy. This, of course, will have an impact on this Gentile mission in Antioch, which is being supported by the Jerusalem church. Can you see what’s happening here? Just as God is moving in one place, satanic forces, using human wickedness, are trying to thwart or prevent the development of God’s purposes. This is commonplace in the experience of the Church, and it’s important to discern what’s happening and to understand it, and Luke is telling us this is what happens here. As Herod’s malicious plan is reaching its climax, and Peter is going to be executed, God intervenes. We have to always remember God is sovereign, even when opposition is very dangerous and we can’t defend ourselves against it. An important lesson for some of us listening to this today.

A Miraculous Release

We move on to the next part of this chapter because we see another astonishing miracle taking place. Bear in mind as we read this what I said about the guards. There’s almost a sense of humour in the way Luke is telling this story; despite these extra precautions, God is greater. Acts 12:5 - 11,

5 ‘So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. 6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. 8 Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. 11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”’

Acts 12:5-11, NIV

You can’t get a more dramatic story than that. Can you see how many precautions the authorities have put in place; so many guards; so many chains; a locked cell; a locked gate to the prison? But who woke up while the angel and Peter were walking through the prison? Who noticed what was happening? Those who were awake must have not seen anything. The level of miraculous intervention of this story is staggering and it’s just the night before he was going on trial. If he’d gone on trial he might have been executed, literally the next day. But no, God has other plans. Here we have another example of angelic intervention in the life of the Church. This theme emerges through the story of Acts time and time again. We’ll see two very different examples in this passage. This first one is remarkable and it reminds me yet again to go back to a verse I’ve mentioned in the past, but I’m very happy to mention it again, that explains the work of angels. Hebrews 1: 14,

‘Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?’

This angel served the church and served Peter, and helped the church unbelievably at a moment of tremendous crisis. What would the church have done if two, out of the three inner circle of Jesus’, had been executed in a short time? They knew that Herod would then pursue the other Apostles and other leaders. He’d be dismantling the Church, bit by bit, until there was nothing left. The story moves in a totally different direction. There’s an element of humour in the story. There’s some humour about the angel and the guards, and the extraordinary way that God overturned the greatest of precautions. That humour continues in our story, because there’s another remarkable connection here. Remember the church? They’d been praying. They’ve been calling on the Lord, “Please Lord, save Peter from execution.” They knew exactly what could happen because it had happened to James just a very short period beforehand.

The Praying Church

Peter is on his own in the middle of the night, in the city. The angel has disappeared. Where did he go, where will he go next? Luke tells us the story, Acts 12:12 - 17,

12 ‘When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” 15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” 16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.’

Acts 12:12-17, NIV

I sincerely sympathise with Rhoda. She was so overwhelmed by this experience that she forgot to open the door. She had to go and tell everybody else and then was saddened when they didn’t believe her. But of course, it really was Peter. No, it wasn’t a ghost; no, it wasn’t his angel; no, it wasn’t a dream she was having; it’s really Peter! It was the middle of the night so people were disorientated; some may be resting; some awake; some praying; some talking; some eating. We don’t know what they were doing, but it’s in the night that this event takes place. It takes place in a prominent house in Jerusalem owned by a lady called Mary, whose son, John Mark, is an important member of the team. His story is very important in the future, so we just need to take note of him. He is the same person who is the author of Mark’s Gospel. We’ll talk more about him later on when he reappears in our next episode.

When Peter comes, it’s interesting that he doesn’t stay. He doesn’t stay because the authorities would quickly know that he’d escaped, and where would they go? They would go to the prominent meeting places of the church, and they must have known this was a prominent meeting place. We know there are lots of people gathered together; people in the street would know. Jerusalem is a small place, you can’t keep many secrets. It would be likely that they would be knocking on the door so he didn’t stay. He wanted to keep himself safe, but he gave them a message, “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this”. Which James is this? We’ve just heard that James the Apostle has been executed but there’s another important James in the Jerusalem church who will feature in the future story. The James mentioned here is not one of the Twelve, but he’s Jesus’ half-brother, who, in the time of Jesus’ resurrection had also been added to the group of Apostles. Paul mentions James particularly, in 1 Corinthians 15, as having had a resurrection appearance. He then becomes the pastor and leader of the Jerusalem church, which was probably the function he had at this time; it certainly was later on when Luke tells us more about it. James is like the pastor of the church, the half-brother of Jesus, and his story is a remarkable one too, which we’ll tell you more about in a future episode. Peter wanted to reassure James and the other Apostles, and the other members of the church that he was okay.

God’s Judgement on Herod

And so, we move on to the final part of our story. We’re reading Acts 12: 18 - 23,

18 ‘In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 He had been quarrelling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply. 21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.’

Acts 12:18-23, NIV

You can hardly get a more dramatic story than this. At the beginning of the story, Herod is in total control; he’s executed one Apostle; he’s just about to execute another; he’s going to dismantle the Church; he’s got tremendous power from the Romans. By the end of the story, all the guards appear to have been executed and the king himself has died unexpectedly in a public location. By the way, this event is recorded also by the Jewish historian Josephus - that he died suddenly and unexpectedly. This is an incredible turn round that takes place in these few verses.

An angel appears; angels appear in two different contexts in this story. One is to help the Church and the other is another function that God gives to angels from time to time - to be the agents of his judgement. God in his sovereignty took Herod Agrippa the First, out of the situation. He only reigned for three years because of the sovereignty of God. The persecution that he started could have been enormous because he had more power than any Jewish ruler or any religious council had ever had before; more collaboration with the Romans; and more resources at his disposal across the whole country. He could have persecuted the Church across the whole country, not just in the city of Jerusalem. That was undoubtedly his plan but it came to a sudden end. That’s where our story ends. Luke tells us this story to show us how human wickedness and opposition to the Gospel, inspired no doubt by evil spiritual power, tried to crush the Church a second time and failed. That meant that the Gentile mission was going to be able to go ahead freely and that’s the topic of our next series. Luke brings the story to an end now and we bring this series to an end, because we’re moving onto a different series, and a different focus of mission in the next talk.

Summary Statement

Luke brings it to an end with a summary statement, one short sentence. In Series 1 and Series 2, we found there was a summary statement at the end. There was a summary statement at the end of the situation of the church in Jerusalem, in Acts 6:7, which reads:

‘So, the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.’

Acts 6:7, NIV

Then, concerning Series 2 in Judea and Samaria and the surrounding area, Acts 9:31 concludes with:

‘Then the Church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.’

Acts 9:31, NIV

Now we come to the end of Series 3 and we have a similar but shorter statement about this particular period:

‘But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.’

Acts 12:24, NIV

God’s purposes are proving unstoppable, despite demonic and human resistance.


As we bring this episode to an end, a couple of thoughts by way of reflection. First of all, about martyrdom. Martyrdom is a real cost that the Church pays in every generation when it is expanding and taking risks and receiving opposition. But martyrdom ultimately doesn’t hold the Church up. There’s a great cost to the individual, their family and friends, but in their sacrifice, the next generation and those who follow are able to continue and are inspired by the example. The example of James the Apostle, who died, inspired that generation to carry forward.

There’s an interesting contrast, by way of reflection, between James and John, the two brothers close to Jesus. James is the first to die out of the Twelve, and John is the last. He lived the longest and probably died a natural death at a great age. They were brothers together and their lives had totally different outcomes on the same mission. This can happen. On mission, people’s lives have different outcomes. Some minister and work for a short period and things are held up or they have difficulties or they die early and others God gives grace for many years. We never know which it’s going to be for us. We see faithfulness in James who faced death, true to Christ, and we see faithfulness in John who was true to Christ through decades of service in many different contexts.

My final reflection is, to say again, that angels are a reality who are still ministering spirits serving the Church today in the 21st century, unseen and miraculously intervening. They will intervene frequently when we are praying, as the church was doing at the beginning of this episode. We don’t look for them; we don’t worship them; we very rarely see them; but they are serving us, so that the Kingdom may advance. At this point, we end our series. Come and join us for Series 4 as the story expands in a very exciting way through the leadership of Paul and Barnabas. I hope to see you for Series 4.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Can you name any martyrs - in history or present day?
  • Discipleship
    1. What can we learn from James’ death at such an early stage in the life of the church?
    2. Pray for the persecuted church today.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Why does Herod Agrippa want to persecute the church?
    2. Use tagging to see the importance of prayer for the Early Church.
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