Simon Peter ‑ Fisher of Men
12 The vengeance of Herod Acts 12 & 15
The prison was very quiet. The flickering lamps set at intervals along the halls and corridors cast grotesque shadows on walls and ceilings, illumining but dimly their surroundings. Outside, the moon shone serenely, for it was Passover time, and the streets of Jerusalem were brightly lit by its radiance. Inside the cell where Peter was sleeping, between two soldiers to whom he was chained so that attempts at escape were impossible, one solitary lamp, a piece of wick lying in a dish of olive oil, sputtered feebly to reveal the gaunt stone walls and the heavy barred door. The two soldiers were fast asleep; they were accustomed to this kind of duty and would quickly be jerked into wakefulness by any unaccustomed movement of their charge, but while he was quiet and still they could sleep in peace.
There was not much hope for Peter. Herod the king, nephew of the Herod who slew John the Baptist and figured in the trial of Jesus, had already, after the mockery of a trial, put to death James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Following the recall to Rome of Pontius Pilate four years after the Crucifixion, the Emperor Caligula had placed Judea under the rule of the Herods, and this Herod, desiring to ingratiate himself with the priesthood, had first condemned and killed James and now proposed to do the same with Peter. There was no Roman governor and no appeal to Roman justice; the will of the king was paramount, and as Peter lay in his cell he must have been feeling that this indeed was the end. Perhaps he wondered why his life of service should be so summarily cut short. He was still a relatively young man, only in his mid-forties, and had seen but eleven years' ministry of the Gospel since his Master had been put to death. "You shall be my witnesses.., to the uttermost ends of the earth" had been the promise, but so far he had not been outside the confines of Judea and Samaria. There was so much yet to be done, and the Church was still looking to him for leadership. Paul, the other great leader of the Church, he had not seen for seven years and in any case Paul was at this very moment setting out on his first missionary journey far away in the wilds of Asia, preaching to the Dispersion and the Greeks. After all the triumphs of faith he had known in these past hectic days of preaching and conversion was he now to accept as the will of his Lord that his time of service was finished? The fury and enmity of the priests had been nullified and rendered impotent and the power by which the Church had gone from strength to strength in all the regions of Judea, Samaria and Galilee was wonderful but was it now for him the end? Whatever his feelings as he pondered these things, his faith in the Lord was of that calibre which gave him perfect peace, for presently he too was sleeping quietly between his guards.
It was while thus sleeping that he became conscious of his dream; at least it seemed to him that it was a dream. He was still in his cell; the soldiers were still on either side and the chains were still there. The guttering lamp still cast its flickering shadows on the rough walls, but among those shadows there was a faint light, a dim radiance, which was not of the lamp. It moved, taking shape, the appearance of garments, and a face. The cell was suddenly full of light, and Peter saw that there was a fourth person present, one who was free, one who had not been there just previously; Peter knew intuitively that he was looking upon an angel of the Lord.
Was it a voice, and had the angel of the Lord spoken to him, or was it an impression suddenly formed in his mind? The words were clear enough, "Rise up quickly!" He did so, and the chains with which he was fastened to his guards fell away and subsided to the ground, silently and without noise. He looked down at the still sleeping men. The movement should have awakened them, but they slept on, undisturbed, as though he was still tethered between them. He looked again towards the angel. "Fasten your belt and put on your sandals!" Stepping carefully over the recumbent men, he obeyed. "Put your cloak round you, and come with me! "Picking up his outer coat, he draped it round his burly frame. As he did so the massive door swung open, silently revealing two fully armed and very wakeful soldiers standing on guard outside. Peter waited for the denouement, but it did not come. The guards stood there unseeingly, as though nothing untoward was happening. His angelic guide was already passing between them without let or hindrance, and, after a moment's hesitation, Peter followed. There was not a flicker of recognition in their eyes when he drew level with them. As he turned the corner of the corridor he glanced back for a moment. The bright light in the cell had gone and the heavy door was already closing. The guards were standing there, their long spears moving slightly as they stood, giving no sign that they had seen or heard anything unusual. This, thought Peter, is certainly a dream. But his guide was already well along the corridor and he hastened to follow him. At its end was another door which opened silently at their approach and closed again behind them. Two more guards betrayed no sign of perception as they passed. Now they were in the main hall of the prison. On the opposite side, the main entrance door, closed and locked, with more guards on duty; to the right, a great fire burning, around which were grouped several soldiers, evidently off duty, some sleeping and others talking together and playing some kind of dice game. No one took any notice of the intruders. They walked across the hall, the great door swung open, letting in a strong blast of cold night air, but no one took any notice of that either. In another moment they had crossed the outer court and stood before the iron gate which gave access to the city. Four armed soldiers paced slowly to and fro across the gateway but none of them appeared to perceive it slowly opening, the two hurrying figures pass out into the city and the gate as slowly closed again.
Round the corner, out of sight of the prison, Peter suddenly realised that his angelic guide was no longer with him. Moreover, he was cold; night-time in Judea is always cold. He began to realise that this was no dream; it was reality. Perhaps he pinched himself. More likely he suddenly remembered that previous occasion when the angel of the Lord had delivered both himself and his fellow apostles from prison in much the same fashion, and full realization came. "Now I know that it is really true!" he said to himself " the Lord sent his angel to rescue me from Herod's power and from everything the Jewish people expected to happen."
He stood still for a while in the bright moonlight, considering this wonderful happening. Slowly he became conscious of a tremendous suffusion of new faith, faith that because his Lord was behind him with heavenly power, he was indeed invincible until his work was finished. Twice had he been delivered from the clutches of the priesthood who would themselves, had they the power, have had him put to death. Now he had been saved from what had seemed certain death at the hands of a king who possessed the power and would not scruple to use it. The noble words of the Second Psalm came unbidden to his mind; "the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed. . . . He that sits in the heavens shall laugh. . . . then shall he speak to them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure". Silently he lifted his heart in praise to God for his deliverance and in unspoken prayer for guidance as to his next move.
The cold night air decided that for him. Also he was still in uncomfortable proximity to Herod's prison. It was true that the Lord had delivered him from that and put him down in the open street, but it was now surely incumbent upon him to take all reasonable steps to keep out of further trouble. The more he thought about it, the more he felt he would be well advised to get out of Herod's way for a while. And as an immediate first step he knew exactly where to go, to the house of Mary the mother of the lad John Mark. The house of Mary had become a gathering-place for the early Christian community in Jerusalem. It was traditionally the house in which the Last Supper took place and according to legend the first meeting-place of the first converts. It had been the scene of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. All the indications are that Mary was a woman of sterling character who was not afraid to make her home the headquarters of the new movement heedless of possible consequences at the hands of the authorities. Instinctively, therefore, Peter directed his steps to the house of Mary. He could not have known that at that very moment a fully attended prayer meeting was in session at the house beseeching the Lord to effect Peter's release. They knew that from the human point of view Peter was doomed, but they also knew that God could deliver if such were His will and they were waiting upon Him with constant supplication that He would effect deliverance and restore Peter to their midst. Such was the intensity and fervour of their entreaty that when Peter arrived at the door in the outer wall no one heard him save the fifteen-year old Rhoda. At least, if any one else did hear the knock Rhoda was the only one who had the courage to go and see who was there. Visitors at that time of night were usually from the ecclesiastical or military authorities and the consequences often far from pleasant.
Peter, of course, would be well acquainted with Rhoda, and when her, probably rather tremulous, fresh young voice floated across the wall enquiring the identity of the visitor his gruff tones quickly assured her "Peter, open the door quickly". He was still looking over his shoulder for signs of Herod's soldiers in the street. But instead of entry into the haven he sought all he heard was the sound of flying footsteps and then…silence. Rhoda, in the reaction of relief and gladness, had omitted the formality of opening the door and had run back into the house with the news that Peter was out of prison and standing outside waiting for admittance. The next part of that story is well known, how that the assembled brethren flatly refused to believe her. "You are mad" they said. Peter was in Herod's prison and could not possibly get out; the fact that God might conceivably have here and now answered their prayers and released him does not seem to have occurred to them at the moment. Apparently the argument went on for some time. Had Peter been safely inside the garden he might have registered some grim humour at the situation of his being presented as the answer to prayer and the supplicants refusing to believe it. But Peter was not inside; he was still outside. The more he thought of Herod's soldiers possibly searching the streets of the city the more thunderous became his knocking, until at last for very shame's sake someone went and opened the door: "and when they saw him they were amazed"
Peter quickly cut short the excited babble of questions and congratulations, interspersed with shouts of praise to God for the deliverance. "He motioned with his hand for them to be quiet." He then related the circumstances of his release. He told them to pass the news to James the Lord's brother, who was rapidly coming into the position of acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church, and to others who were not present, and then made preparations for his own departure "to another place". By this time it would be morning and Mary would be sure to insist that he partook of a substantial meal before leaving. By then the streets would be full of the Passover crowds and Peter could mingle with them and get out of the city unnoticed. Where he went is not stated. Probably it was to a Christian home in some Judean or Galilean village where he could 'lie low' for a while until the search for him was called off and Herod had forgotten the matter. But the Lord had no intention of suspending his active service for long. Within a few months, and in that same year, A.D. 44, Herod was dead. The new Emperor, Claudius, felt that Herod's son, the Agrippa before whom Paul later appeared (Acts 26), was too young to succeed as king, and decided to restore the system of Roman governors which had ended seven years earlier with Pontius Pilate. So, late in AD 44, the Roman Cuspius Fadus arrived to take over the administration of Judea and Samaria. He was an unprincipled and rapacious tyrant, but while the civil power was in his hands that of the priesthood was curbed. Without much doubt Peter was able after only a few months in seclusion to resume his activities and his preaching, and the believers were left in tolerable peace.
There is only one more definite mention of Peter in the Book of Acts, and that is in connection with the celebrated Jerusalem Conference six years later, recorded in Acts 15. It would seem that the Apostle was able to pursue his evangelical work throughout the length and breadth of the country during that six years without interference. His headquarters was at Jerusalem but he was probably not often there. James, the brother of Jesus, became the recognised leader of the Jerusalem church and under his administration and guidance it flourished and became solidly established. But it also was avowedly Judaistic. Despite their Christianity, the believers at Jerusalem held rigidly to the Law of Moses and the rite of circumcision. Perhaps it was only natural. They had been brought up under the Law. Jesus himself had said he was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. They had never had contact with Gentiles and knew little about them. To these Jewish be1ievers the teaching and precepts of Jesus constituted a reformation within the Jewish system but at first sight gave no reason for thinking that the Jewish law and ritual was out-dated and to be rejected. So, naturally enough, when some of them visited the more liberally-minded Church at Antioch and found a different current of thought there they insisted that all, Gentile and Jew alike, must conform to the Mosaic Law if they were to be saved.
This was the question that gave rise to the Jerusalem Conference, the first theological conference of the Christian church on record. Paul and Barnabas, with several other members of the Antioch Church, were commissioned to go to Jerusalem and discuss this problem with the apostles and elders. They gave their account of the manifest manner in which God had used them to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles of Roman Asia, and of the churches that had thus been established in many cities. Against this the Pharisaic element in the Jerusalem Church set their inflexible opinion that adherence to the Mosaic Law must be accepted as an integral part of the Christian faith. Here was deadlock, and here it is that Peter comes back into the story.
The conference was under the supervision of James, himself a rigid Judaist. Peter, nevertheless, was respected and accepted by all as the senior Apostle, and when he rose to speak there was quiet attention. In a few well-chosen words he reminded his Jerusalem colleagues of his own experience of thirteen years previously, long before Paul had commenced his work among the Gentiles, when Peter had been sent to receive into the Church the Gentile Cornelius with all his house. "You know" he declared in his characteristic forceful fashion " that a long time ago God chose me from among you to preach the Good News to the Gentiles so that they could hear and believe". God had witnessed to the fact by the visible giving of the Holy Spirit, as He had previously done to the Jews. "He made no difference between us and them" he stressed. "We believe and are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are."(GNB). Peter's forthright championship of the Antioch cause carried the day. Peter, unlike Paul, was their own man, and even the most bigoted of the opposing party would hesitate before challenging him. Perhaps also some of them remembered that past day when Peter returned from Caesarea with his news of the Gentile converts and how, after explanations made, they had glorified God in that He had granted the Gentiles the opportunity of repentance unto life. So the entire assembly listened approvingly whilst James summed up what had been said and conceded freedom from the Mosaic Law to all non-Jewish converts. Largely the insight and resolution of the rugged fisherman avoided what could easily have developed into a major schism between the Pauline and the Petrine churches.
There was to be another twenty years of active service for Peter, but there was no Luke, as in the case of Paul, to record for posterity where he went and what he did. From this time onward nothing certain is known about Peter's life, only vague deductions from obscure references and from the epistles which bear his name, and to a lesser extent from tradition. What is definitely known about Peter is all crowded into the first twenty years of his discipleship; the second twenty years is virtually blank.
To be concluded