About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’
Mostly when we look at this passage we ignore the beginning and move straight onto the part where Peter is in prison and his miraculous escape. Perhaps too, if you are like me, you find yourselves singing the verse of Wesley’s famous hymn “And can it be” where “my chains fell off”.
This is to be rather unfair to James, the brother of John. He, of course, is one of the sons of Zebedee and we learned his name very early on in the story of the Gospels as he and his brother are two of the earliest disciples to answer Jesus’ call.
Another famous name crops up – Herod, there were lots of them. The last we heard of a Herod was as one of the players in the drama of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. That was a different one, Herod Antipas; this is Herod, sometimes called Agrippa I, and confusingly his son, Herod Agrippa II appears later in the book of Acts. One thing the Herods all had in common was cruelty and ruthlessness. They were the Kings of the Jews, friends of the Romans, and jealous of their position.
The timing was interesting. We don’t know how long after the death of Jesus this was but it takes place at Passover, bringing an extra frisson to the story. Luke is nothing if not a good story teller, who points out parallels without labouring the point. Obviously killing Jesus has not killed his teaching nor the idea that he was somehow the real king. Trouble is still brewing so Herod tries an experiment. He has James taken and killed with a sword.
If James were guilty of blasphemy, he would have been stoned like Stephen but by the use of the sword, this shows that James’ execution is a political act. There is no uprising, in fact the people seem pleased, so Herod goes for a bigger fish- Peter. The conditions that Peter was kept in should have meant there was no chance of escape and, as soon as Passover is over, Herod means to give the people what they seem to want, the death of Peter.
What happens is nothing short of a miracle, or the most complicated system of bribery and fixing that seems equally impossible. What soldier would face the anger of Herod? It is so unbelievable that Peter himself can’t believe it and it is only when he finds himself outside the iron gate in a little lane that he realises it isn’t a vivid dream. Luke’s description of Peter’s escape is so matter of fact that it highlights the dreamlike quality. The rest of the Christians have been praying fervently for Peter’s release and when it happens, it is unbelievable. Does this resonate with us and our attitude to prayer? Do we pray, thinking secretly, it won’t happen? There are many similarities between us and the early church: our faith is often confused; we are not sure what to do for the best. Here the answer is simple – trust God and he will work miracles.
Lord, We so often pray to you and don’t really expect an answer, Help us to recognise your answer to us whether it is yes, no or something completely different Help us to put our trust in you and surrender our futures into your hands for you know us better than we know ourselves. Amen
Chris Eddowes is a Lay Preacher and elder at St George’s, Hartlepool