Acts (Part 18) - Peter's Escape
As this section of Acts (chapters 7 through 13) continues to unfold, the focus continues to highlight activity in places other than the Jerusalem church. In chapter 11 verse 19, we read that the scattering from Saul’s chapter 8 persecution has served to send Christian Jews up the coast to Phoenicia (Tyre and Sidon area), out to the island of Cyprus, and even as far as Cyrene, a city on the northern coast of modern-day Libya. Some of these people and converts have traveled to Antioch, a city north of Israel in Syria, a few miles inland from the Mediterranean coast. Mostly, they spoke to other Jews about Christ. But some of them from Cyrene and Cyprus, found it as natural to speak to the Gentiles as well. These could well be converts from Philip’s ministry. He had traveled up the coast to Caesarea, preaching the gospel. Luke does not continue his story beyond Caesarea, but we could imagine that there he boarded a vessel sailing for either Cyprus or Cyrene. In Philip’s discourse with others, he surely told them about the Ethiopian eunuch—a Gentile—that came to trust in Christ. So those that heard Philip, naturally would not limit their gospel witness to Jews only, but spread the good news among all people.
The success in Antioch prompted a report to the church in Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was the home of the apostles and unofficially headquartered the church at large, they wanted to send someone to Antioch to determine whether the right message had indeed been delivered. Barnabas was chosen to perform this task. He appeared to be a good choice, being a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (11:24).
Barnabas found that the Antiochans were indeed recipients of the grace of God. And when he saw the fields ripe for harvest, he went to Tarsus to find Saul to help with that work. He knew Saul to be bold and sound in doctrine from his acquaintance with him in Jerusalem. Tarsus was within a day or two walking distance, so Barnabas sought him out, brought him back, and enjoyed a year of witness in that city.
Luke tells us that followers of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch. The term was probably spat out derisively by their enemies. Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew messiah, which means the anointed one. For the Jews, the anointed one was the one by whom God would bring them salvation. Recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, his followers went about anointed by him to share this news of salvation. So their detractors apparently thought it derogatory to call them “little anointed ones” or “little saviors” using the term “Christian.” Although the term is used only two other times in the New Testament, it is interesting to note what Peter says. Many believe he is referring to the appellation “Christian” when he writes in I Peter 4:14, 16: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you….Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
In verses 27 through 30 of Acts 11, we read that some prophets came to Antioch from Jerusalem. One of them named Agabus prophesies that a famine would occur, and it did come about in the years AD 44-45 when Claudius was emperor. However, the time period of Agabus’ prophecy was a few years early, probably around AD 41. That gave people time to prepare, most likely gathering grain as that which would make up most of the offering to be sent to Jerusalem.
Barnabas and Saul are chosen to take the offering to Jerusalem. Notice that they would take it to the elders of the Jerusalem church—not to the apostles. We have already read in Acts 6 that the apostles did not consider organizational authority as part of their duties. Elders and deacons had been selected to handle those affairs.
Acts 12 begins by mentioning Herod’s execution of James the apostle (brother of John, son of Zebedee, one of the inner circle of disciples of Jesus). This Herod is Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great. Agrippa had spent most of his life in Rome where he had made friends of both Caligula and Claudius. Caligula gave him the area that Agrippa’s uncle Philip had ruled north and east of the Sea of Galilee. When another uncle, Herod Antipas (the one who had John the Baptist beheaded) fell out of favor with Caligula and was banished to Gaul, Agrippa was also given the land he controlled—Galilee and Perea (east of the Jordan and Dead Sea). Caligula was assassinated in AD 41. When Claudius then became emperor, he granted the previously Roman-controlled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea to him, making Agrippa king over the entire area—an area equal or greater than the kingdom of Herod the Great.
So the year is AD 41 and Herod Agrippa, a Jew, becomes king over Jerusalem and Judea. Do you think that the Jews of the region were glad?--Roman role removed in favor of a Jewish king? There probably was dancing in the streets. And Agrippa took full advantage of the favor of the Jews. He moved his residence to Jerusalem, observed Jewish law and tradition, and even offered sacrifices in the temple. And the Sanhedrin was very pleased.
No doubt the Sanhedrin told Agrippa about the problems they were having with this new sect—these Nazarenes—these Christians. The old saying “Kill the head and the body dies” was alive and well back at this time. So Agrippa arrests one of the “head”—James the apostle. Agrippa executes him the Roman way by beheading with a sword. Again the Sanhedrin is pleased, and Agrippa looks for another leader of the Christians to put to death. He settles on Peter. But the Passover has begun, and not willing to smudge the festival, Agrippa puts Peter in prison until the week of the Unleavened Bread is complete.
As an aside, the activity that we have seen so far in Acts—the persecution but perseverance of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and the establishment of the broader church, encompassing Gentiles as well is illustrated in the book of Revelation in chapter 12. (See Revelation series, Parts 23-25 for more detail.)
Agrippa assigns four squads to guard Peter. This is the Roman way. The night (6 PM to 6 AM) was divided into 4 watches—three hours each. Each squad, made up of four guards, would guard Peter for one watch. Peter was chained on each side to a guard, and the remaining two guards stood watch at the prison door.
This is at least the fifth or sixth night that Peter has been in this prison, so he is sleeping soundly when an angel appears in his cell. Apparently either the other guards are asleep or merely prevented from seeing what happens. The angel strikes Peter to wake him up. Peter, already used to seeing visions (as in Joppa), thinks he is dreaming. He obeys the simple commands to get up, get dressed, and follow. The chains fall off; they pass the guards without incident; the gate to the city opens of its own accord. Then the angel departs. The light is gone, and Peter stands fully awake in a street of Jerusalem, finally recognizing that this was no dream—God had indeed rescued him from the prison.
Immediately Peter heads for the house that has become a sort of headquarters for the Jerusalem church—the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. Remember this was the place at which Christ had the Last Supper, and the disciples were gathered here on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit first came. Peter, after moving so easily past guards and through gates of the enemy stands outside at the house of friends banging at the gate, trying to be admitted. The servant girl, Rhoda, sees him across the atrium, but in her joy, runs to tell those inside praying rather than granting him entrance.
Those inside think she is crazy. Peter couldn’t be inside; he was in prison. Sure, they were praying for him, but their prayers were for the next day when Peter was to face the executioner. They certainly were not expecting him to show up at their door that night. But then a thought strikes them—What if Peter has already been executed! There was an old Hebrew tradition that each covenant member had a guardian angel, and that guardian angel would take on the look of the person being guarded. When a person died, it was thought that the guardian angel lingered still here on the earth for a few days afterwards. That’s why when Christ was raised, many thought he was only a spirit—a lookalike angel. Christ insisted on eating with them and having them touch him to show that he was a material being—the actual resurrected Jesus.
So now, the praying band of Christians believe that Peter must have been executed and Rhoda is seeing his spirit at the door. But on checking they find that it is the real, live Peter having escaped from the prison. Peter tells them to report this news to James. This James is the brother of Jesus who has become a Christian himself and now is head elder in the Jerusalem Church. Notice Peter doesn’t say to tell John or the other apostles. Those apostles all belonged to the Jerusalem Church. There is no set hierarchy of position. Peter wants James to know because James has organizational authority and will see to it that they others learn the news.