One of the better known stories from the book of Acts involves an angel breaking Peter out of a Roman prison. The story is found in Acts 12:1-19. Herod Agrippa I had Peter arrested with the intention of formally trying him and executing him to gain favor with the Jewish religious leaders. However, Herod couldn’t carry out that trial and execution during the Jewish feast time of Passover and the following seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, lest he stir the Jews to riot. So, Peter was left to languish in prison, awaiting his trial and certain execution, until the week long Feast of Unleavened Bread was completed.
Peter was kept in chains and guarded by four tetrads of Roman soldiers. Each tetrad consisted of four soldiers, and the tetrads worked in rotating shifts. When Peter laid down to sleep at night, he slept in chains between two soldiers while two other soldiers guarded the prison door. His situation couldn’t have been more dire.
All that Peter had working in his favor were the constant prayers the church in Jerusalem were offering up on his behalf. But those prayers turned out to be enough as on the night before Peter’s trial and execution, God sent an angel to lead a jailbreak. While Peter was sleeping, the prison suddenly became filled with light as the angel appeared. The angel struck Peter on the side to rouse him up, caused the chains to fall from his hands, told him to put on his garments, and then supernaturally walked him straight out of that prison without any guards seeing them. When the two got to the iron gate that led out into the city of Jerusalem, the gate opened all by itself. The angel accompanied Peter down the adjoining street and then departed from him.
After the angel’s departure, Peter made his way to the nearby house of Mary (the mother of Mark, the writer of the gospel of Mark) and knocked on the door. A group of Christians were gathered at Mary’s home to pray, and no doubt the top item on the prayer list that night was Peter and his trial and execution the next day. The way the story plays out is somewhat humorous as it takes a while for Peter to convince those Christians that it’s really him and that they should open the door.
There are several details that are worth noting from this story. Here are four of them:
- Peter was sleeping soundly on the eve of his trial and execution. The angel actually had to strike him to wake him up. Obviously, Peter was at perfect peace either with living or dying. It was Paul who would later say in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” but Peter knew that feeling too.
- Even though Peter, along with the other apostles, had previously been broken out of prison by an angel (Acts 5:17-42), Peter wasn’t expecting a repeat jailbreak that night. When he saw the angel, he didn’t think the angel was real or that what was happening was actually taking place. Instead, he thought he was seeing a vision. He didn’t realize that his jailbreak had really occurred until he was out on that street and the angel had departed.
- That group of Christians were willing to believe that it was Peter’s angel who was standing at the door, but they had a hard time believing it was actually the man himself. This shows us that prayers prayed with imperfect faith can still produce desired results if the requests are God’s will.
- The next day, after Herod Agrippa I had thoroughly questioned the soldiers who had been assigned to guard Peter, he had them put to death. We aren’t told if the entire group of sixteen were put to death or if it was just the four who were on duty the night of the escape, but either way it makes for an unpleasant part of the story, a part that we Christians usually gloss over. I doubt that those Christians who prayed so earnestly for God to rescue Peter realized that their prayer request would lead to the deaths of at least four men. I don’t mean to imply that those Christians were wrong to ask God to rescue Peter. I’m simply pointing out that we should acknowledge that our prayer requests, if granted by God, might produce unintended consequences – sometimes unpleasant ones.
In the end, though, the main thought that I’ll leave with you from this story is this: God can make a way where there seems to be no way. If He chooses to do so, He can fix your situation by natural means or by supernatural means, by using people or by using angels. Whatever problem you are facing right now, it would have to go a long way to be on par with the one that Peter faced as he lay there asleep in that prison that night. But God made a way for him where there didn’t seem to be a way. So, don’t underestimate what God can do. He is still on the throne, His angels still walk among us, and He still responds to prayer.