The above warning is not necessarily alarmist. It follows sober advice from the Saviour (John 15:18-21). Persecution broke out early for the apostolic church (Acts 8:1-3). Paul himself was notorious for his cruel action against believers. Herod, the perpetrator of violence against James and vicious intent against Peter, characterizes the nature of persecution. The outrage was expected by the Jews among whom were the agitators for this policy. Herod was the willing ally and agent. As a non-Jew and Edomite he was always uneasy about his position as ruler. A campaign of terror against the Messianic movement would please the people and purchase popularity. Guidance “by the polls” is not a new phenomenon. Principle is often sacrificed by reason of the sway of public opinion. Bad government gives in to popular preference and acclaim. Herod is a prime example – a man with a religious facade but a faithless heart. By his hand James was murdered and Peter arrested.
In Peter's incarceration nothing was left to chance. He was heavily guarded until the show trial. The religious and civic leaders were salivating over the prospect. Persecution is always the product of pure and blind hatred. Any possibility of justice is set aside. Peter is in grave and imminent danger. The fate of James is proof of that. Everyone knows what is likely. The church doesn't seem to panic but resorts to fervent prayer (v5). How ominous the night before the trial could have been for the apostle. It is difficult to contemplate Peter's mood. It may have been sombre but he doesn't seem to have been intimidated. He sleeps. Was it soundly or through nervous exhaustion? We notice from the prison writings of the English martyr in the time of “bloody Mary”, John Bradford, the composure of God's people in the crucible. The measures taken by the authorities in Peter's case seem extreme (vv4&6). It is evidence of the paranoia of the Herods. What excessive precautions he ordered against one solitary prisoner and his peaceable companions.
The fortress, the stronghold of evil, is quiet and confident in its malicious grip upon Peter. Meanwhile the church is praying – a blend, perhaps, of fear and faith. This is often the very human condition of the Christian heart in crisis. We know the power of God. We also observe his sovereignty – but James was not delivered. What about Peter? What is the will of the Lord in this particular situation? It is shown in the divine SUDDENLY! (V7). The people's intercession is accompanied by God's intervention. In the cell where Peter was kept there was an air of urgency. Verse seven describes it: an angelic appearance, shining light, Peter is struck on his side, which causes a sudden awakening. He is given a sharp command: “Quick, get up!” Iron chains fall from Peter's wrists as if suddenly dissolved. Peter the captive is loosened by God's power. Nothing can hold God's people down when he is resolved to deliver. Peter is advised to dress and prepare himself for the night air. God's sovereign intent is echoed down the ages in the apt cry, “Let my people go!” It is a command no enemy of the Lord can ever resist. Nothing can frustrate his act of liberation. Not a king. Not a prison. No amount of guards. No chains of iron. The Lord is setting Peter free.
The process dazes the fisherman used to early rising. Mentally he cannot keep pace with developments. Physically he complies. With sleep in his eyes he supposes he sees a vision. But it is real. His rescue is underway (v10). God makes the progress smooth and easy. The power that awoke Peter probably deepened the slumbers of the soldiers – for God is in command. Past the first watch goes Peter – no one stirred. Past the second watch – they were probably snoring. So far so good. But, Peter and the angel remain in the prison precincts still. What about the awesome prison gate? More iron to contend with – the forbidding barrier to freedom. It opened for them – the arrested one and the angel pass through the exit that opened by itself. An automatic way out was provided for the Lord's cherished servant who still had much work to do. God flung the obstruction wide open. What he opens no man can shut until his will is performed. He is the invisible power in this remarkable event. One moment ago Peter was helplessly in chains. Now he is in the street. The angel accompanies him to safety and suddenly leaves him.
Peter rubs his eyes and clears his head. It was not a dream based on fragile hope. His extrication from confinement was wonderfully real just as it was for Sundar Singh the great preacher and evangelist from India. When he was cast to the bottom of a grim Tibetan death pit littered with the bones of the dead Singh was visited by a mysterious individual who tossed him a rope and led him from the gloomy jail. When the lama enquired as to who had stolen the key in order to release Singh he found the only one available still securely attached to his person. Such are the divine marvels sometimes wrought in dire situations on behalf of God's dear ones if their task is yet uncompleted.
Herod's clutches had been broken. He came to a miserable end (vv12-23). His campaign did not proceed as he designed and the leaders of the Jewish people desired. Peter was released, and, so it is recorded, was the word of God (v24). But all of this is not equivalent to a pleasant fairy tale. Persecution is to be expected. In fact, it is promised as part of our preparation for glory. It need not automatically end in deliverance but may often bring suffering, injury, heartbreak, and even death – the ultimate deliverance from the point of view of faith. To our eyes God's interim purposes in his ultimate plan vary.
We are to be expectant of the world's hatred. Perhaps we should anticipate its persecutory action soon. It is evident everywhere in various degrees and can be readily inflamed through perverse public opinion that drives the exercise of political and judicial authority. But we have the resort of prayer and the protection of God as our refuge against foe and flame. God will deliver us in time of acute danger – even if it is deliverance into the kingdom through the ultimate means of martyrdom. James was as beloved as Peter. God had simply designed for each his own particular schedule.
Peter's episode exhorts us to be prepared for whatever God has prepared for us in his wise and gracious providence.
“Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. [this was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and said, 'Lord, who is going to betray you?'] When Peter saw him, he asked, 'Lord, what about him?' Jesus answered, 'If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me'”
Our different fates, as it were, bear no hint of favouritism. They are premised on vocation, and every believer's vocation is honourable. Whatever the duration of our calling in the mind of God so the extent of our earthly life shall be. We leave the field of labour at different intervals but the same constant love enfolds us all.