SET FREE! Peter’s Imprisonment and Release – Acts 12:1-19

The account of Peter’s imprisonment under King Herod and his subsequent release by an angel of the Lord (Acts 12) is not only a dramatic example of what God can do in the life of a Christian, but also a dynamic picture of what He can do in the life of a non-Christian as well. Cast into prison with James for his witness for Christ, Peter was a prime target of wicked king Herod whose hope was to quash this new movement of faith. He promptly executed James with the sword — a fulfillment of the very words of Christ that he would indeed drink of the same cup from which the Lord drank. (Matt. 22.20) Then, seeing that this pleased the Jews and that it would work to his political advantage, Herod made plans to execute Peter also, intending to do so as soon as the Passover celebration in Jerusalem was completed. Thrown into prison, Peter was bound with fetters and guarded with four squads of soldiers in order to prevent his release. Amazingly, on the very night before his scheduled execution, Peter was fast asleep! No doubt, he was resting in the Lord having recalled the words of the Saviour spoken to him just weeks before that he would have a unique testimony for the Lord when he was old. (John 21.18) If so, it is a suberb example of resting in the Lord and tremendous reminder to believers to take Him at His word. In addition to the lessons that this episode in Peter’s life has for Christians, it also depicts the power of the Gospel in the life of someone outside the Christian faith.

First, Peter was imprisoned. His imprisonment prohibited his freedom. Likewise, the Bible teaches that apart from Christ, a person is imprisoned — unable to experience true freedom in life because of the rule of someone more powerful in their lives who is intent on their destruction. The Bible calls this person Satan who comes to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. (John 10.10) Like Israel in Egypt under Pharaoh, (Ex. 1) they are under the control of an authority that keeps them subject to his own harsh and hardened environment.

But not only was Peter imprisoned, he was also bound — bound by chains that held him fast. Many are also bound by “chains” — those things that maintain a grip on a person’s heart and mind. For some, it may be drugs and alcohol, partying, marital infidelity or illicit or immoral activity. — to the point that it reaches an all-consuming (and often destructive) conclusion. For others however, being bound takes other forms. It may take a more “respectable” path but underneath there may be an intense craving to get ahead or to climb the corporate ladder or to accumulate goods and possessions in the chase after the “good life”. All these can be ways in which a person is bound.

But Peter was also kept by guards posted both inside and outside his cell. This is also a picture of the internal and external forces at work in this world that keep an unbeliever imprisoned in their helpless condition. Fears, and worrries, family, and “friends”are all examples of elements in this world at work to exert a pressure both inwardly and outwardly to keep a person coming to Christ. Further, the fact that Peter was asleep and seemingly indifferent to his plight only strengthens the picture of the person alseep in their sin and unconscious of their true condition.

Though Peter’s condition seemed helpless, it certainly was not hopeless. God sent His messenger — an angel, a messenger from God to deliver Peter from his imprisonment. Likewise God has sent His Messenger, the Lord Jesus to deliver those who are appointed to death. Psalm 102.19-20 states: “For he hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the LORD behold the earth; to hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death.” His loosing of the prisoner follows the same course that it did with Peter. First, a light shone in the prison. (v. 7) “The entrance of thy words giveth light…” (Psalm 119.130) God’s Word gives light to the soul, which begins the process of salvation. His light shines into darkness of this world and overcomes the darkness. (John 1.5) “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4.5) Then, Peter was struck on the side. After the Word begins to work in and on a person, they are “struck”–struck in their conscience by their sin and it’s guilt; by a timely witness of a faithful believer; by a chain of events or circumstances that remind that individual of their need for the Lord. Then Peter was told by this divine messenger to “arise”. Raising him up, Peter’s chains fell off. Charles Wesley, a great hymnwriter from the 18th-century captured this biblical account in verse in his beloved hymn,“And Can It Be”:

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

Church history is filled with the testimonies of multitudes who can attest to the life-liberating power of the Gospel and can see the outline of their own testimony vividly portrayed in this dramatic episode in Peter’s life.
But the story does not end here! The angel said to Peter to gird himself and tie on his sandals, put on his garment and follow him — all representative of what occurs in a spiritual sense to a new person in Christ — they are “clothed” in the righteousness of Christ just as the prodigal son (Luke 15) was given new clothes after he “had come to himself”. The fact that Peter followed the angel outside the prison walls only further confirmed he was truly free. Now on his own, Peter steps took him immediately to a group of Christians, symbolic of the reality of a changed life. Strange that after it was reported to this group that Peter was outside, that they did noteven believe it — and that after praying for his release! (v. 15) How disappointing that believers have such a problem with unbelief! But Peter continued knocking. Any true Christian will continue to “knock” despite the doubts even of those who know the Lord who might question the Lord’s mighty working on their behalf.. Their persistence in their stand for the Lord serves to validate their faith. Peter’s persistence gave way to his verbal testimony as to how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. Not only will a new Christian prove his faith by his actions but also by his words. “Let the redeemed of the LORD say so.” (Psalm 107.2)

The imprisonment and release of Peter does indeed have many lessons for Christians. It helps us to see that God allows some believers like James to suffer more than others; how the Church needs to be in constant prayer and dependence upon the Lord and believe that He can and does respond to prayer. But just as importantly, it serves to remind us that God is able to free a person from the shackles of sin to testify of the power of God.

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