Prayer Changes Things
How an Angel Sprung Peter from Prison (Acts 12)
Herod was on a rampage. He hated the early church and attacked its’ members whenever he could. James, the brother of John had been the leader of the church in Jerusalem and Herod arrested him and had him killed with the sword. James, who wrote the Epistle of James in the Bible, was probably the first of Jesus’ disciples to be martyred. Jesus had warned his disciples of their coming persecutions, (Mt. 20:23) but it still came as a shock. The Jewish religious leaders were pleased with Herod for killing James, so Herod was encouraged to go ahead and kill more disciples. (Acts 12:2-3) He had his soldiers seize Peter with plans to have him killed as well.
But Peter just happened to be arrested during the Days of Unleavened Bread (the seven days after the Passover), which was an awkward time to perform an execution. It would not have been correct procedure for a prisoner to be tried and executed on a religious holy day. Herod figured he would make a better impression on his religious friends if he waited until after the holidays to bring Peter out. So Peter was thrown into prison under a heavy guard consisting of four squads, (sixteen soldiers) to await his execution. Herod didn’t want to take any chances that his valuable prisoner might get away.
The night before Peter was to die, he was sleeping on the dirty prison floor between two guards and chained to both. There were also several sentries guarding the locked gates inside the dark prison. (Acts 12:6) Things were looking pretty bleak for Peter. As Scripture records these details, just one little passage stands out as a glimmer of hope! It reads: “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” (Acts 12:5) Could a house full of believers holding a prayer meeting all week really make any difference in this grim situation?
But back at the prison in the darkness of night while Peter was chained and asleep, everything changed! Let’s read what happened. “Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. The angel struck Peter on the side and woke him up. ‘Quick, get up!’ he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. Then the angel said to him, ‘Put on your clothes and sandals.’ And Peter did so. ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,’ the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening: he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the Iron Gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left Peter.” (Acts 12:7-10)
All the while Peter had been chained in the dungeon waiting to die, the believers had been together on their knees before God begging for his release. And God had heard their prayers. He had sent an angel to Peter in prison who had anesthetized the guards and removed Peters’ chains. The Iron Gate had opened by itself and no one could stop them as Peter escaped. It was so miraculous that at first Peter couldn’t believe that the angel was real. And when the angel left, Peter finally came to himself and the true significance of what had happened came home to him. God had delivered him from death.
Peter quickly walked away from the jail and through the dark streets of Jerusalem to Mary’s house. Even though it was the middle of the night Peter knew that the believers would be there praying. Let’s listen to what happens next. “Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, ‘Peter is at the door!’ ‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, ‘It must be his angel.’ But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.” (Acts 12:13-16) Peter told the excited believers all about how the angel had sprung him out of prison and how their prayers had been answered. And then he left and went into hiding so that Herod’s soldiers wouldn’t find him again.
This story of Peter’s dramatic deliverance from prison by a bright angel occurred about ten years after Jesus ascended back to heaven. The early believers at that time were extremely enthusiastic in their love for God. You might say that they were all “hot” or “on fire” for the Lord. They took care of one another, believed the Word of God, gave to the poor and spent much time together in prayer. Their hearts were right before God. I believe that this is why the Holy Spirit moved so powerfully among them. Why their prayers brought down angels to shake things up. I also believe this is why the early believers experienced so many miracles and healings in their gatherings. And why so many thousands were converted to Christ through their ministry.
Everywhere in Scripture we are told to pray often and to pray in groups. Prayer changes things. Here are just a couple of the many Bible passages instructing us to pray. “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) And: “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
Prayer is not a formula for getting things out of God. I think prayer is a heart thing-our hearts need to be humble and open to God when we pray. The passage in James says that the prayer of a RIGHTEOUS man is powerful and effective. To be righteous doesn’t mean to be perfect. It means that we are confessing our sins and trying to obey His will. We will be imperfect and sinful but we need to be willing to be willing. We need to open the door enough so God can move us. He won’t bash down the door of our heart. God sees our hearts – whether they are right or not. If we come to pray and haven’t forgiven someone, we need to first go and forgive that person. Our hearts are not right as long as we refuse to forgive another person. We have to be willing to be willing to let God help us forgive, even if we aren’t there yet.
This short Bible story of Peter and the angel leaves us with some important lessons, doesn’t it? For one, we should pray often and prayer should have a central place in our church life. If it doesn’t, could we start a prayer group or prayer meeting at our church? Perhaps we could pray that our fellow church members love God and one another the way those early believers loved God and each other. And we need to learn to pray the way that early church prayed. Maybe our prayers, like theirs, can bring down an angel to open up the prison doors in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones.