Peter is delivered, and persecution fails to stop the spread of the good news
Based on Acts 12:1-25
1-4. What difficult situation does Peter face, and how would you feel if you were in his place?
WITH a resounding clang, the massive iron gate swings shut behind Peter. Shackled between two Roman guards, he is led off to his cell. He then endures long hours, perhaps days, of waiting to learn what is to be done with him. There is little for his gaze to fall on but his prison walls and bars, his chains, and his guards.
2 The news, when it comes, is grim. King Herod Agrippa I is determined to see Peter dead.a In fact, Peter is to be presented to the people after the Passover, his death sentence a gift to delight the crowds. This is no empty threat. One of Peter’s fellow apostles—James—has recently been executed by this same ruler.
3 It is the evening before the scheduled execution. What is Peter thinking in the gloom of his prison cell? Does he recall that years before, Jesus revealed that Peter would one day be bound and led against his will—to his death? (John 21:18, 19) Perhaps Peter wonders if that time has arrived.
4 If you were in Peter’s situation, how would you feel? Many would despair, thinking that all hope is lost. For a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, however, is any situation truly hopeless? What can we learn from how Peter and his fellow Christians reacted to the persecution that befell them? Let us see.
“The Congregation Was Intensely Praying” (Acts 12:1-5)
5, 6. (a) Why and how did King Herod Agrippa I attack the Christian congregation? (b) Why was the death of James a trial for the congregation?
5 As we learned in the preceding chapter of this publication, the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius and his family was a thrilling development for the Christian congregation. But nonbelieving Jews must have been shocked to learn that many Jewish Christians were now worshipping freely with non-Jews.
6 Herod, a canny politician, saw in this an opportunity to curry favor with the Jews, so he set about mistreating the Christians. No doubt, he learned that the apostle James had been especially close to Jesus Christ. Hence, Herod “put James the brother of John to death by the sword.” (Acts 12:2) What a trial for the congregation! James was one of the three who had witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration and other miracles not revealed to the other apostles. (Matt. 17:1, 2; Mark 5:37-42) Jesus had called James and his brother John “Sons of Thunder” because of their fiery enthusiasm. (Mark 3:17) So the congregation lost a bold, faithful witness and beloved apostle.
7, 8. How did the congregation respond to Peter’s imprisonment?
7 The execution of James pleased the Jews, just as Agrippa had hoped. Thus emboldened, he went after Peter next. As described at the outset, he had Peter arrested. Agrippa likely recalled, though, that prisons had not always proved effective in containing the apostles, as noted in Chapter 5 of this book. Taking no chances, Herod had Peter chained between 2 guards, with 16 guards working in shifts day and night to make sure that this apostle did not escape. If he did, those guards would themselves face Peter’s sentence. Under such dire circumstances, what could Peter’s fellow Christians do?
8 The congregation knew well what to do. Acts 12:5 reads: “So Peter was being kept in the prison, but the congregation was intensely praying to God for him.” Yes, their prayers in behalf of their beloved brother were intense, heartfelt pleas. The death of James had not plunged them into despair; nor had it caused them to view prayer as valueless. Prayers mean a great deal to Jehovah. If they are in harmony with his will, he will answer them. (Heb. 13:18, 19; Jas. 5:16) This is a lesson that Christians today will want to take to heart.
9. What can we learn from the example set by Peter’s fellow Christians in the matter of prayer?
9 Do you know of fellow believers who are beset by trials? They may be enduring persecution, governmental bans, or natural disasters. Why not make them the subject of your heartfelt prayers? You may also know of some who are undergoing less noticeable forms of hardship, such as family troubles, discouragement, or some challenge to their faith. If you meditate before praying, you may think of a number of people to mention by name as you speak to Jehovah, the “Hearer of prayer.” (Ps. 65:2) After all, you need your brothers and sisters to do the same for you, should you come upon hard times.
“Keep Following Me” (Acts 12:6-11)
10, 11. Describe the way that Jehovah’s angel delivered Peter from imprisonment.
10 Was Peter anxious about the danger he faced? We cannot say for sure, but during that final night in prison, he was fast asleep between his two vigilant guards. This man of faith surely knew that whatever tomorrow might bring, he was safe with Jehovah. (Rom. 14:7, 8) At any rate, Peter could not have anticipated the amazing events that were about to unfold. Suddenly, a bright light filled his cell. An angel stood there, evidently unseen by the guards, and urgently awakened Peter. And those chains binding his hands—chains that had seemed so unbreakable—simply fell off!
11 The angel gave Peter a series of terse commands: “Get up quickly! . . . Get dressed and put on your sandals. . . . Put your outer garment on.” Peter readily complied. Finally, the angel said: “Keep following me,” and Peter did so. They left the cell, walked right by the sentinel guards stationed outside, and made their way silently to the massive iron gate. How could they get through that? If such a thought even formed in Peter’s mind, it was short-lived. As they approached the gate, it “opened to them by itself.” Before Peter knew it, they passed through the gate and into the street, and then the angel vanished. Peter was left there, and the realization dawned on him that all of this had really happened. This was no vision. He was free!—Acts 12:7-11.
12. Why may we find it comforting to contemplate Jehovah’s rescue of Peter?
12 Is it not comforting to contemplate Jehovah’s limitless power to rescue his servants? Peter was held captive by a king who was backed by the strongest governmental power the world had ever seen. Yet, Peter walked right out of prison! Granted, Jehovah does not perform such miracles for all his servants. He had not done so for James; nor did He do so for Peter later, when Jesus’ words about this apostle were finally fulfilled. Christians today do not expect miraculous deliverance. However, we keep in mind that Jehovah has not changed. (Mal. 3:6) And he will soon use his Son to free countless millions from that most unyielding of prisons, death. (John 5:28, 29) We can draw tremendous courage from such promises when we face trials today.
“They Saw Him and Were Astonished” (Acts 12:12-17)
13-15. (a) How did the congregation members meeting at Mary’s house react to Peter’s arrival? (b) To what does the book of Acts shift its focus, but what effect did Peter continue to have on his spiritual brothers and sisters?
13 Peter stood in the dark street, deciding where to go next. Then he knew. Living nearby was a Christian woman named Mary. Evidently a widow of some means, Mary owned a house that was large enough to accommodate a congregation. She was the mother of John Mark, whom the Acts account mentions for the first time here and who eventually became like a son to Peter. (1 Pet. 5:13) On this night, many in that congregation were at Mary’s house despite the late hour, praying earnestly. No doubt they were praying for Peter’s release—but they were not prepared for Jehovah’s answer!
14 Peter knocked at the door of the gateway, which opened into a courtyard in front of the house. A servant girl named Rhoda—a common Greek name meaning “Rose”—came to the gate. She could not believe her ears. It was Peter’s voice! Instead of opening the gate, the excited girl left Peter standing in the street, ran back into the house, and tried to convince the congregation that Peter was there. They said she was mad, but she was not the type to be dissuaded. She kept asserting what she knew to be true. Giving in a bit, some suggested that it might be an angel who was representing Peter. (Acts 12:12-15) All the while, Peter kept knocking until, finally, they went to the gate and opened it.
15 At the gate, “they saw him and were astonished”! (Acts 12:16) Peter had to quiet their happy hubbub so that he could tell his story, direct that it be passed along to the disciple James and the brothers, and then take his leave before Herod’s soldiers could find him. Peter went off to continue his faithful service somewhere safer. Except for his contribution toward resolving the circumcision issue, as mentioned in Acts chapter 15, he exits the account. The book of Acts next turns its focus to the work and travels of the apostle Paul. However, we can be sure that Peter strengthened the faith of his brothers and sisters wherever he went. When he left that group at Mary’s house, they were certainly in a joyful frame of mind.
16. Why is the future sure to bring us many occasions for rejoicing?
16 Sometimes Jehovah gives his servants more than they could possibly expect, leaving them almost incredulous with joy. That was how Peter’s spiritual brothers and sisters felt that night. It is how we may at times feel when we experience Jehovah’s rich blessing today. (Prov. 10:22) In the future, we will see all of Jehovah’s promises being fulfilled on a global scale. The glorious realities will surely far exceed anything we can imagine today. So, as long as we remain faithful, we can count on many happy times ahead.
“The Angel of Jehovah Struck Him” (Acts 12:18-25)
17, 18. What led up to the flattering of Herod?
17 Peter’s escape also astonished Herod—but his was no pleasant surprise. Herod quickly ordered a thorough search, then had Peter’s guards interrogated. They were “led off to punishment,” likely execution. (Acts 12:19) Herod Agrippa will not be remembered for compassion or mercy. Was this cruel man ever punished?
18 Agrippa may have felt humiliated over his failure to execute Peter, but he soon found solace for his wounded pride. A diplomatic function arose wherein some of his enemies had to sue for peace, and he was no doubt eager to make a speech before a large audience. Luke reported that in preparation, “Herod clothed himself with royal raiment.” The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Herod’s garment was made of silver, so that when the light fell upon the king, he seemed to be lit up with glory. The pompous politician then gave a speech. The fawning crowd cried out: “A god’s voice, and not a man’s!”—Acts 12:20-22.
19, 20. (a) Why was Herod punished by Jehovah? (b) What comfort may we find in the account of Herod Agrippa’s sudden demise?
19 Such glory belonged to God, and God was watching! Herod had a chance to avoid disaster. He could have rebuked the crowd or could at least have disagreed with them. Instead, he became a vivid illustration of the proverb: “Pride is before a crash.” (Prov. 16:18) “Instantly the angel of Jehovah struck him,” causing that puffed-up egomaniac to suffer a gruesome death. Herod “was eaten up with worms and died.” (Acts 12:23) Josephus too noted that Agrippa was stricken suddenly and added that the king concluded that he was dying because of accepting the flattery of the crowd. Josephus wrote that Agrippa lingered for five days before he expired.b
20 Sometimes it may seem that ungodly people get away with all manner of wickedness. That should not surprise us, since “the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19) Still, faithful servants of God are sometimes troubled when evil people seem to escape justice. That is one reason why accounts such as this one are comforting. In effect, we see Jehovah stepping in, reminding all his servants that he is a lover of justice. (Ps. 33:5) Sooner or later, his justice will prevail.
21. What is the primary lesson contained in Acts chapter 12, and why may it comfort us today?
21 This account concludes with an even more encouraging lesson: “The word of Jehovah went on growing and spreading.” (Acts 12:24) This progress report on the expansion of the preaching work may remind us of the way that Jehovah has blessed the same work in modern times. Clearly, the record contained in Acts chapter 12 is not primarily about the death of one apostle and the escape of another. It is about Jehovah and his thwarting of Satan’s attempts to crush the Christian congregation and to quell its zealous preaching work. Those attacks failed, just as all such schemes must fail. (Isa. 54:17) On the other hand, those who side with Jehovah and Jesus Christ are part of a work that will never fail. Is that not an encouraging thought? What a privilege we have to help spread “the word of Jehovah” today!
b One doctor and author wrote that the symptoms described by Josephus and Luke might have been caused by roundworms forming a deadly intestinal obstruction. Such worms are sometimes vomited up, or they crawl from the patient’s body at the time of death. Notes one reference work: “Luke’s professional exactness as a physician brings out the horror of [Herod’s] death.”