Hendrick Terbrugghen, The Liberation of Saint Peter

Acts Devotional Commentary [Acts 12:6-19] Peter’s Miraculous Escape From Prison


Peter’s Miraculous Escape From Prison


Acts 12:6-19

The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

8 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. 9 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. 10 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 him.

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”

12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”

15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”

16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.


Observations


The story of Peter’s prison escape is the quintessential Christian miracle story. Just when it appeared that Peter would suffer the same fate as James, God stepped in to change the course of history. Naturally, one wonders why Peter was spared but James was not and the only thing I can assume is that Peter’s work was not yet finished. The conditions of Peter’s imprisonment are quite serious. Luke describes Peter as being bound to and placed between two guards.

Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains (Acts 12:6)

The Greek text is not perfectly clear as to whether or not Peter was merely bound between two guards by two chains, or bound between two guards and those bindings being attached to the guards. However, I believe the intent was to show Peter was bound physically to the guards which is why Luke mentions “two chains”. Being bound to those guards would also explain why he was sleeping between them, not merely near them. However, most translations follow the Greek quite rigidly rather than making the interpretation that he was bound to the guards which was not explicitly mentioned.

Certainly, if Peter was bound physically to the guards it would be even more remarkable that he escaped. Nevertheless, the details of Peter’s escape raises a few questions. How was it that the light in the cell woke no one up?

Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. (Acts 12:7)

There were at least four guards in the cell and none of them saw the light. Apparently, Peter also slept through the light as the angel had to “strike” him in order to wake him up. Furthermore, it is strange that one of the guards at the door did not notice the light nor Peter waking up. It is possible that the nature of the prison was that the guards at the main door were in another part of the complex, namely the main entrance of the prison. This seems plausible since the text says they were stationed at the “entrance” but no further clarity was given. The nature of Peter’s temporary stay is not clear. If he was in a long term prison then it was likely just an underground dungeon, not a complex of many individual “cells”. If this is true of Peter’s situation then one would have to assume that the guards at the entrance were not in the cell but standing guard outside which would explain why they did not see the light when it appeared or Peter waking up.

If Peter was staying in a temporary jail, like the one attached to Herod’s temple fortress, then there are a number of possibilities. The Antonia Fortress was a large complex building with four towers. One of those towers still stands today (Image below). The 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus described the fortress thusly,

And as the entire structure resembled that of a tower, it contained also four other distinct towers at its four corners; whereof the others were but fifty cubits high; whereas that which lay upon the southeast corner was seventy cubits high, that from thence the whole temple might be viewed; but on the corner where it joined to the two cloisters of the temple, it had passages down to them both, through which the guard (for there always lay in this tower a Roman legion) went several ways among the cloisters, with their arms, on the Jewish festivals, in order to watch the people, that they might not there attempt to make any innovations; for the temple was a fortress that guarded the city, as was the tower of Antonia a guard to the temple; and in that tower were the guards of those three.  (Josephus, Wars, Book V)

Old Jerusalem Antonia tower

(CC) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Jerusalem_Antonia_tower.jpg

If Peter was staying at the Tower of Antonia then would appear that Peter was possibly being housed in this complex structure would have included some cells or rooms. nevertheless, Peter and the angel would still have to pass by the guards on the way out. Nothing is said in the text about how this escape was accomplished without notice.

Another interesting thing is that it was the night before Peter was to be executed and he was asleep. If it was the night before my execution, the last thing I would be doing is sleeping and if I had dozed off, I certainly would not be sleeping deep enough to not wake up when the cell was filled with light. (UPDATE: A facebook commenter recently raised a good point which is that people who are incredibly hungry will find it difficult to stay awake. This could certainly have played a part in the sleeping situation). Nevertheless, it is possible that Peter’s ability to rest in this situation was because was confident in the Lord rescuing him or just that he was not bothered by what awaited him after his death.

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. (Acts 2:8)

The actual escape appears to have happened rather quickly, even though Peter seems to have been asleep without his outer cloak or sandals. Naturally, many people in that era would have slept in a similar manner for comfort. The heat was overwhelming and little relief would be found in the jail. In fact, many people slept on the roof of their homes if the heat was severe. It was cooler out in the open than in an enclosed space with no airflow. However, Peter merely needed to put on his outer garments and sandals before he was off. The cloak which Peter wrapped around him was done so because it allowed him to move swiftly. It’s akin to “girding” one’s loin cloth or cloak. It must be lifted up and secured to enable the legs to move freely.

Peter’s behavior once out of the prison seems fairly reasonable. He went to find his friends. However, he did not stay sheltered there for the night.

Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place. (Acts 12:17)

Peter went on to go find others, presumably to tell them about his escape. Where he ended up staying the night is not told to us by Luke but it should be assumed that it was a safe place because the next day the Roman’s were in an uproar about what happened to Peter. They would have almost certainly sent people out searching for Peter while interrogating the guards.

In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. (Acts 12:18)

In the end, Peter’s jailers were the ones who lost their lives. I pray that when my time is up that I can rest at night like Peter did.


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