Acts 12:1-25
The Power of Fervent Prayer

© 2006, J.W. Carter. Scripture quotes from KJV
Bible Study, Cedar Rock FBC, August 2, 2006

In Chapter 11 of the book of Acts we see the beginning of the spread of Christianity into the Gentile community. Peter was initially questioned for this practice by the church in Jerusalem, but gave a convincing testimony of how God had ordained this new concept of righteousness, one that was very difficult for the Jewish culture to accept. However, the church did accept this change, and Barnabas was sent to check on the new Gentile church in Antioch. Upon arrival, Barnabas encouraged them in their ministry and introduced Saul of Tarsus to that ministry. It is here that Saul and Barnabas work together in the ministry for the first recorded time.

Acts 12:1.

Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.

The King Herod we meet here should not be confused with the King Herod who reigned during the birth of Christ. Several Herods ruled Palestine during the period of the early church, appointed by the Roman Emperor, they were to maintain control of the people, and assure the collection of the tribute that is to be sent to Rome. We recall Herod the Great as the tyrant who murdered all Jewish male children in an attempt to kill the Christ child The Herod mentioned in this verse was the son of Aristobulus and Princess Mariamne (of royal Jewish family), and the grandson of Herod the Great. When Herod had Aristobulus murdered in 7 B.C., the young Herod was taken to Rome for protection. He developed a friendship with Gaius Caligula who would become the Roman Emperor in 37 A.D. That friendship would provide Herod with a restored Kingship of Galillee. When Caligula was murdered and Claudius took the throne, Herod’s kingdom was expanded to include Judea. He was a ruthless leader, much like his Grandfather, and thought little of killing people in order to maintain peace, and to maintain his own authority.

Acts 12:2-4.

And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. 3And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) 4And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.

Herod took advantage of his Jewish heritage and began to practice Judaism, much to the acceptance of the Jewish leadership. His approval by the Jewish leaders invoked him to persecute the Christian community, seen by that leadership as a dangerous and heretical cult. The Apostle James, brother of John, son of Zebedee was killed in a skirmish that was part of this persecution. When Herod saw how much the Jews were pleased by James’ death, Herod commanded that Peter be brought to prison as well. Why Peter? Peter was one of, if not the, most revered Christian leader of the day. Also, Peter’s "fraternization" with the Gentiles had brought him under the further condemnation of the Jewish leaders. Herod thought that if he were to kill Peter, this "Christian uprising" would be dealt a serious blow, and the act would place himself in even greater favor with the Jewish leadership.

When Herod took Peter into custody, he put him in prison rather than to deal with his execution at the time. This was the time of the feast of unleavened bread, prior to the feast of the Passover, and such an action would be inappropriate at this time of celebration since he was attempting to follow the Jewish customs. Herod placed Peter in prison, and charged sixteen guards to watch him. They were organized as four squads of four men each. Four men would watch him in three-hour shifts. While on shift, two guards would be shackled to him, one at each arm. The other two would be guarding the door. Why did Herod place such a heavy guard on Peter? Undoubtedly, Herod knew of Peter’s previous escape from prison (Acts 5:17-21). However, he was certainly not interested in the Pharisee Gamaliel’s advice to the Jewish leaders when Peter escaped the first time when he said,

Acts 5:38-39: "Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

So, Peter would reside in the jail until the day following the Passover when he would be brought out for a mock trial and executed.

Acts 12:5.

Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.

What was happening in the church while Peter was in prison? The church was in prayer. This was not just any ordinary prayer meeting. The people knew that Peter was doomed, taken prisoner by the one who had already killed James. The word that is translated "earnestly" in the NIV and "without ceasing" in the KJV refers to an extended period of prayer. We might consider this a prayer vigil where the prayers were constantly raised by people who were desperate for God’s intervention. These were people of faith, and they knew that God could intervene. They had seen this when Peter was imprisoned by the Jewish leaders, as recorded in Chapter 5. They were praying for the repeat of such a miracle.

What happens when we pray? Certainly we are drawn closer to God through this act of obedience and communication/communion. We are not telling God anything He does not already know, but we are acknowledging that God is our God, and expressing our desire to be in His will. Often we must also consider that when God has placed a concern on our hearts that inspires us to prayer, He might be also inspiring us to action. He may be calling us to be part of the answer to that prayer. In the case of this church, they could not have any part in Peter’s release. Any attempt at freeing him from the Roman prison would be suicide. They were left only to pray.

Oftentimes we are pitted against circumstances over which we have absolutely no control, yet we have keen interest. It is at these times that we are left only to prayer, and it is also these times when our prayer can be the most meaningful and earnest. Such circumstances may include severe illness or the imminent death of a loved one. This is not much different from the way the church felt towards Peter at this time.

Acts 12:6-7.

And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. 7And, behold, the angel of the LORD came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.

We find Peter in the cell on the night before his arraignment before Herod, a mock trial that would certainly be terminated by his death. He is chained between two Roman guards. What is Peter doing? He is sleeping. How many of us would be sleeping at a time like this? Peter is sitting on death row, knowing he is going to be subject to this trial and he would face death in the next few hours. How could he sleep? Certainly, he must have been confident in God’s plan for him. He knew that God had a plan that went far beyond the musings of this puppet king. He had such confidence in God that he was at peace. This was a peace that enabled him to sleep; to get the rest he would need for whatever might be required of him the next day.

How many times have you stayed awake at night, unable to sleep because of the burden of anxious thoughts?  What are some of the issues that have brought sleepless nights?  Perhaps it is concern over broken or strained relationships or worry over debts or unfinished tasks.  When we find ourselves kept awake by anxious thoughts, we are presented with an opportunity to pray.  If our concern involves our relationship with another, we can pray for that other person.  We can pray for God's wisdom and guidance as we face unresolved circumstances.  We can also simply pray for a peaceful spirit and ask the LORD to take away the anxious thoughts so that a good night of sleep can be obtained.  We often forget to pray at such times of opportunity.

Paul's sleep was interrupted. What happened? An angel of the LORD appeared to him, and the glory of the LORD shown around him. This sounds something like the messenger that was sent to the shepherds to announce the birth of the Messiah  (Luke 2), does it not? Somewhere we get this mythical idea that a messenger from God is some mystical apparition rather than a bodily messenger. There is no basis for the thesis that angels are without substance. This one certainly was, as he poked Peter in the ribs for the purpose of waking him. He gave Peter a command to get up, and upon doing so, the shackles that attached him to the Roman guards fell off of his wrists.

What were the Roman guards doing at a time like this? Could they have been sleeping? Could they have been blinded by the light? By the circumstances of the following verses, it is probably safe to speculate that the guards were quite awake and alert, but in some way incapacitated by God.

Acts 12:8-12.

And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me. 9And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision. 10When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him. 11And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the LORD hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews. 12And 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 praying.

The events of Peter’s release were so surreal that he thought he was still sleeping, simply participating in a dramatic and vivid dream. However, when the angel left him some distance from the prison, the surrealism left him, and the cool clear night of the outdoors brought him out of his confusion and Peter realized that all that he had just seen and done actually happened. He went directly to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark where the prayer vigil was taking place. His visit would have to be brief, because certainly by now his absence has been discovered. However, Peter knew that the church needed to know that he had been freed through yet another miracle of God. This news would further encourage and strengthen the believers’ knowledge of the truth of the gospel.

We do not often see such miraculous acts that are done by God for the benefit of the faithful, but we do occasionally hear of such things. When we read or hear of miracles taking place we probably respond with a critical and doubting spirit, particularly when these things transpire around Christians of different cultural denominations. We might cast dispersion when we hear of some Holiness/Full-Gospel/Pentecostal testimonies of tongues of fire, or of healings and the raising of the dead on the mission field. This inability for our natural spirit to willingly accept the acts of God results in a situation in Peterís life that is almost amusing:

Acts 12:13-14.

And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda. 14And when she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate.

Rhoda was a servant girl who worked in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. Though of no other known notoriety in the events of the early church, her response to Peter’s knocking at the door has given her eternal fame. What did she do when Peter knocked at the gate? She was so excited she ran to tell those who were praying that he was here, and safe. She neglected to open the door for Peter. How could she do such a thing? This act only serves to support the earnestness of their prayers. They had, most likely, been praying for days, and praying for only one thing: Peter’s safe release and return to them. They were so fervent in this prayer that they were still at it in the middle of the night. The good news could not wait long enough for her to greet Peter at the door; the people inside were now the ones in need of relief. They would certainly respond in great joy and run with her to the gate to greet Peter. However the response of the people who were praying was more like what ours might be when we hear reports of miracles happening around the world.

Acts 12:15.

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

How did they respond? They said, "you are crazy!" Is it not typical that God would reveal his mighty act to a servant girl. We see this time and time again through scripture: God reveals himself in the mightiest ways to normal, everyday, people. We might think that God should communicate with mankind through some great emissary or government leader, but he rarely does so. Sometimes we think that our pastors and priests have a special connection with God, that somehow God favors these ministers with his special messages.  However, there is no biblical basis for such a position.  God always empowers the weak, and humbles the strong. This servant girl held no social rank with these people, and even though they were a body of believers, that old-nature sin of stereotyping one another was still strong. They did not hold the servant girl in enough respect to listen to what she was saying.

When she continued to insist, they answered with a strange response, "It must be his angel." What does this mean? Their culture held more firmly to the belief in guardian angels than does this modern one, though in the past few years there has been more interest in the concept. They are referring to Peter’s guardian angel. Therefore, under what circumstances would Peter’s guardian angel be contacting them? If this angel was to be guarding Peter in prison, then Peter must be dead. All of their prayer would be for naught. Even when faced with the report of Peter’s release, their doubts were so great that it was easier for them to accept that Peter had been killed, and they were being visited (at the gate, no less) by Peter’s guardian angel. We must also realize that they were still mourning the death of the apostle James, and most likely some others who were not named in this book. However firmly the people tried to convince the servant girl that Peter could not be at the door, her response to them remained insistent.

Acts 12:16-17.

But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished. 17But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the LORD had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go show these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place.

It would certainly be interesting to speculate as to what Peter was thinking while he was continuing to knock at the gate. When they finally came to the door they were all excited, necessitating Peter to signal them to quiet down. He has been miraculously freed from prison, but Herod’s guards could be searching for him even now. He certainly does not want the people of the church endangered, but it is needful that they see the fruition of their prayers. So, Peter described to them, in considerable detail, what happened, and how the LORD miraculously brought him out of the prison. Then, upon telling them, Peter left. Where did Peter go? Why is there no record of where Peter went? Peter was going to have to go into hiding for a little while. The repercussions of this prison escape would not be as mild as those recorded in Chapter 5.

It is also interesting to note that at this point another shift in the leadership of the new church takes place. From this point on, it would be James who would be the leader of the church in Jerusalem. This James is obviously not the Apostle, since James the son of Thunder was just recently killed by Herod. This James is the half-brother of Jesus, who like his other half-brother Jude, did not accept Jesus as LORD until after the resurrection. He is also the man who is attributed as the author of the epistle of James: a letter that was written to encourage Christians who are enduring unfair treatment or persecution, something that this James was witnessing quite regularly. Peter wanted to make sure that James and the other brothers who were not there were told the complete story of what had happened, because he was about to leave them for a while.

Acts 12:18-19.

Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter. 19And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and there abode.

If the Roman guards were sleeping through the escape of Peter, it was certainly a God-induced sleep. The penalty for falling asleep on watch was clear to any Roman soldier: it is death. What happened to the soldiers who were on guard that night? Herod had them executed. Most likely, he did not just execute the four who were there when the event took place. Herod would have executed all sixteen of the Roman guards. This would lead one to think that as soon as Peter’s escape had been discovered, the guards would have been searching the city to find Peter. This speculation is corroborated by Peter’s short visit with his prayer partners and his escape into the darkness. Herod continued that search, and when Peter was not found, the Roman guards were executed.  Up to sixteen men died that day, victims of the evil king.

Acts 12:20-23.

And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon: but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king’s country. 21And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. 22And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. 23And immediately the angel of the LORD smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.

There had been a time of famine in the Northwestern communities of Tyre and Sidon, outside of King Herod’s reign. They did not respect the position of King Herod, nor did they appreciate his ruthlessness. This kept them in conflict with him. However, their hunger was overshadowing their principles, so they sought an audience with King Herod through Blastus, a servant of the King with whom some of them had contact. All of this is presented to shed light on the event that follows. On the day that the peace agreement was to be established, Herod put on the ornate royal robes of the Jewish King. Note again, that he was half-Jewish, and acted the Jewish part with these people in order to curry their favor.   He had not been anointed as a Jewish king. His presentation to them as a Jew was a sham, and his taking on the Jewish royalty was an insult to every righteous King that ever wore them, and an effrontery to the Spirit of God Himself. Herod delivered an address to the people, and whether the people in the crowd who shouted were planted or not, as some like to speculate, their shouts declared Herod to be a god. Herod was setting himself up as an idol, a god, and doing so in the guise of a Jewish king. Rather than using his position of Jewish royalty to lead people to God, as was the charge of the position, Herod was using the position to bring personal acclamation and power. The scripture says that he was stricken immediately by a messenger from God, and died; eaten by worms. The phrase "eaten by worms," may be idiomatic, and not literal. In any event, Herod paid for his effrontery of the Holy Spirit in a manner similar to that of Ananias and Saphira. He dropped dead.

Acts 12:24-25.

But the word of God grew and multiplied. 25And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.

With the death of Herod came another period of peace when the gospel continued to spread throughout the region. Barnabas and Saul had been serving the church in Antioch for some time now. Why were they in Jerusalem and not in Antioch? They would have come to Jerusalem for the holidays, the feast of unleavened bread and Passover. This was Easter, and the church came together to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, only to have it interrupted by the grief of the killing of the Apostle James and the imprisonment of Peter. Now that Herod had died and peace was restored, Barnabas and Saul were free to return to Antioch. This time they took yet another individual with them, a young "missionary apprentice" by the name of John Mark. We will hear more of John Mark as we continue to study the book of Acts. Also, it is John Mark who is attributed to have written the gospel of Mark, actually more accurately, the gospel of Peter, as Mark presents the gospel through the context of Peter’s experience.

Acts, Chapter 12 contains several significant historical events that were experienced in the life of the early church over a period of just a few days. Not the least of these is the evidence of the fervent prayers of the faithful that went on for days and ended finally with a miraculous answer to those prayers. When we are faced with seemingly impossible circumstances, our first and natural reaction is to try to take the situation into our own hands and seek to author the solution. The experience of these people is a reminder to us that our first response to crisis should be to pray. When things get really-really- tough, it is time to really-really pray. We should be praying in faith that God will be true to his promise that God is at work in all things for His glory and purpose. (Romans 8:28)