The Bittersweet​ Jailbreak

Acts 12:1-19

Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And 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. So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. And 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. And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and roused him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands. 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.” 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. And 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. And 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.” 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. And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. And 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. And they said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was so. And they kept saying, “It is his angel.” But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed. 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.” And he departed and went to another place. Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. And when Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. And he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.

Matthew 24:7-9 “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name.”

Should I start a checklist for every one of the Lord’s prophecies concerning this generation as we see them unfold in Acts? Have we seen earthquakes, famine, tribulation, hatred and killing?Check, check, check, check and unfortunately, check. Quickly but concisely, Luke covers the assassination of James, the apostle and brother to John the apostle–part of the dynamic duo dubbed, “the sons of thunder.” Herod, not Herod the Great, but Agrippa, had James, who was part of Jesus’ inner circle–present at the Transfiguration–put to death by the sword, and the jubilant Jews who hated Jesus were thrilled. Although Luke covers the account quickly, we remember that James was no ordinary person. He was one of the first-called disciples, was present to see Jesus glorified with Peter and John, part of the inner circle of Jesus. This is no small loss yet promised by Jesus. James had the honor of being one of the first called and first to be martyred. But it doesn’t make any sense, how can the Kingdom grow if its primary people are purged and placed in prison? Yet that is not the real question, the real question is why? Asking the correct questions gives us the correct answers. Therefore as we consider the context, wonder why all these trials and tribulations take place. Why was James killed but Peter escaped–for now?

“Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” Remember that I didn’t write this but that we are reading it together, considering the context, aspiring to illuminate the author’s aspirations to his audience, keeping it within the genre of historical narrative, examining examples and dividing rightly what was written. I’ve written before how as a youth director I would upset parents who heard of words that came out of my mouth. Coming to me in person, citing Matthew 18 as if I had sinned against them, they would say, “you can’t say that.” To which I would reply, “I didn’t say it, I read it.”

I have a feeling that I am entering similar territory today, because their is a giant juxtaposition between the church and the Jews that is established. Again, I didn’t write it, Luke did, yet it is obvious to anyone who is considering the context. “Church” is not a good translation of the Greek, but we are stuck with it. Literally it is a “called out” assembly or group. Similar to the word synagogue which means “bring together,” it is an assembly but ekklesia is different in that rather than bring together, it is a calling out. It’s a call to be different, strange, set apart, holy, heavenly minded, the Lord’s own possession. The latter being how we got the word church, “Lord’s (house).”

Therefore let’s read the first few verses a little more literally. “Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the called out ones of Jesus, in order to mistreat them (the Lord’s called out people). And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” James, John and Peter were all Jews yet Luke refers to them as “called out.” The church as it is called, now has no ethnic barriers yet is still made up of primarily Jewish people. However Luke no longer makes a distinction in the church, it’s simply the church. And I didn’t write this, Luke did, in a historical narrative; “he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”

“Russell P, we know what you are implying.” I’m not implying anything, see what Luke continues to write: “Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And 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. So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.”

Because of their traditions, Herod had to wait until the feast was over before delivering Peter over to death. A lesson learned after the unlawful trial and crucifixion of Christ. Please see the irony and the hand of God throughout all of history. While they observed their feast, God used this time to hear the prayers of his church–it is right there in the context. “Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.”

The Jews observed their time-honered traditions, waiting to put another church member to death without a trial, while the called-out church prayed fervently for Peter. Make no mistake, there are two sides, both thinking that they are honoring God. Like any good story, their is conflict. Notice to whom God responded and which party was peaceful.

“And 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. And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and roused him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands. 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.’ 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. And 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. And 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.'”

Even though James had been slain by the sword, Peter is preserved for the time being. In a grand fashion, because Peter was chained and guarded by many gaurds, an angel of the Lord freed Peter from not only prison, but certain death. God heard the prayers of his people and answered. This escape was so surreal and grandiose that Peter thought it must have been a vision. It wasn’t until he was alone on the street that he understood that this incredible jailbreak had actually happened. Chains fell off, by numerous gaurds Peter walked, the gate opened by itself and an angel of the Lord told Peter what to do. It’s not difficult to see why Peter thought it was a vision. But when he was free, notice what Peter 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.” It is apparent, based on the context, that the Jewish people and the church were expecting the same thing. The Jews; jubilant but the church was in great sorrow, still reeling from the death of James.

“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. And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. And 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. And they said to her, ‘You are out of your mind!’ But she kept insisting that it was so. And they kept saying, ‘It is his angel.’

What we do know is that the people present, of the church, in the house, prayed fervently but didn’t believe that Peter had been released–this goes to the severity of the situation–Herod and the Jews wanted Peter dead. Nor did the church believe that Peter could have escaped–this goes to the fact that Peter was well guarded and that they lived in the real world which has already seen the murder of James. It also goes to the fact that Jesus promised them persecution in Matthew 24–they expect the apostles to be martyred. Yet they still prayed fervently. What we don’t know is neither how nor what they prayed nor why they thought Rhoda saw an angel.

Perhaps they prayed for a quick, painless death for Peter. Perhaps they prayed for Peter’s death to light a fire of evangelism. But based on the context I believe, in my opinion, that they prayed for a miracle–for Peter to be released. We pray in the same way; like I quoted last time, we “train for ill and not for good.” As to why they repeatedly said and thought it was an angel outside and not Peter, we can only speculate. Perhaps they thought that the angel came to deliver the bad news–angel means messenger. However we remember that the church was very young and immature, perhaps they thought it was the ghost of Peter–we don’t know. What we do know is that it was Peter and he was on the lam.

“But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed. 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.’ And he departed and went to another place. Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. And when Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. And he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.”

Did Peter “shhhhhh” the people present, placing his index finger vertically over his pursed lips? I think that is the universal sign for, shhhhhhh! If not, we still get the point. Peter is now a fugitive from injustice. Don’t think Herod is going to let this slide, remember, he executed the gaurds who let Peter escape. By the shhhhhing we greater-still see the severity of the situation. Because it is the Bible and because most only consult it looking for contemporary council to current curious questions concerning currency or cases of conflict, confusion or calamity, we cannot consider the context and see that Peter was an escaped, death-row fugitive.

Think about all the things we miss when we don’t read the Bible as it was written. In Acts alone, we see Jesus, our Great God and Savior, a Jewish man, commanding his Jewish disciples to reproduce, being his witnesses to Judea (circumcised Jewish people), Samaria (circumcised descendants of Jacob considered dogs by Judeans), and to the remotest parts of the world (everyone else). There is an ebb and flow, persecution takes place but in the midst of persecution, peace. Now the church, made up of Christians, as it will be called henceforth, is at complete odds with those who are called Jews. Again, I didn’t write it I’m reading it. Not by eisegesis but through exegesis. Luke is clear in his writing, the church is God’s people and the Jews apposed the church. This is not antisemitic, this is fact. We cannot be antisemitic or ethnocentric because we all opposed Jesus and his people at some point in our lives and Jesus came to save sinners from every tongue and tribe. The Jews are representative of the world and self-righteousness. Notice that they observed their tradition but the church prayed. They wanted their opponents killed while the church sought God.

The point, Luke’s aspiration to his audience is the juxtaposition between the church, mostly still made up of ethnic Jews and the Jews in practice of self-righteous, Judaism. God favored the church–to the extent that they didn’t believe Peter could possibly be outside because that would be more than impossible. He had chains, several gaurds, a gate, and a ruler and a people who wanted him dead. Only the hand of God could do this. Giving to the church Peter, meant that God took Peter from the Jews–perceive God’s personal preference in Peter.

No dogmatic dispensationalist would ever argue that the God of christianity is the God of Islam. Yet they will argue that he is the God of the nation Israel. The nation Israel is the “apple of God’s eye,” they claim. As Kanye West would say, “what’s the basis?” (That lyric is ripped out of context, don’t look for any metaphorical meaning. I am thrilled to have Kanye as a fellow follower of the faith flock. I pray he will find a solid church and stay away from these mega-church pastors. If you know Kanye, direct him to my missives.) On what basis does the dogmatic dispensationalist develop the distinction between Jew with the “God of the Old Testament,” and christianity with Jesus, the God of all things?

Simply put, ethnicity, color, creed, religion or any other distinction between people is not a distinction with the gospel. Jew, Muslim, atheist, Hindu and even Christians daily, need Jesus. Make no mistake, outside of Christ is the distinction. In Christ there is no distinction. “For God so loved the world” that he sent Jesus. Those who believe in Jesus are considered heirs. “No one has seen the Father at any time.” Jesus is the exact representation of the father–Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. Jesus was and is the God of Abraham. If one is offended or not believing in Jesus they are not children of God. The only distinction is belief or unbelief and this belief is open to all peoples of all nations.

A fact to which James, the apostle had to give his life. A fact to which the persecuted people prayed for Peter. A fact to which Peter was willing to be on the run. A fact to which James, the brother of Jesus was willing to stay in Jerusalem, the lion’s den, to continue preaching Jesus there. Remind me again how we have it so bad? Remind me how the world is spinning out of control? I am not making light of our “first-world problems” in the United States but asking us to compare our situations to those of our brothers and sisters around the globe who are asked to be thrown in prison or die for their faith. I think of my pastor friend–about my age, with children of the same age as mine and also a wife the same age as my wife–who had to flee from his home. Not because they promised him prison or death, but that he would witness his wife and children’s murder. My friend–I and many brothers from Maine, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and North Carolina have been to his home multiple times, in his country and he has even visited us in our country, staying in some of our homes. It’s that close. Some of you are even closer, living it, seeing brethren die in it. Peter lived it, James died for it but in Huston Texas, in the mega-church of mega-churches, money and medical reports reign.

Starting with something funny makes us forget about the persecuted Christians all over the globe. Dogmatic dispensationalism makes us think that time is up and God is about to go back to his true people, the Jews because God has two distinct people with two distinct plans. Western world prophecy and problems pale in comparison to the true, underground church in other nations. Persecution is not a sign of the second coming, it’s evidence of the first. And when Jesus left following his first coming he said to his apostles and disciples to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the rest of the world. Does this include money and medical reports? I would be more scared of a lack of persecution than an abundance of persecution. It’s kind of romantic to think about Peter on the run, after all, isn’t it? I love living in relative peace but we in the west cannot forget our brothers and sisters scattered throughout the globe who live and die with persistent persecution.

Why then does persecution exist? Because Jesus said so. It’s a demonstration of faith and in this particular passage a demonstration of a lack of faith. A horrific holocaust is about to happen to the Jewish and Christian people present in which massive amounts are killed and the rest scattered, the temple toppled and the Holy city burned to the ground in a great tribulation. Nevertheless the people present are culpable in the persecution of the Christians. Though it seems counterintuitive, persecution produces faith. The harder the world tries to eradicate the faith flock, the larger the faith flock grows. Peace and prosperity bring about fear, persecution brings peace and prosperity. There is an ebb and flow but in every way, the gospel grows the faith flock, bittersweet as it is.

 

 

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