When Life Doesn’t Go As Expected

Acts 12:1-19     |    Sermon Resources      17 May 2020


Luke takes us back to Jerusalem to record one final story concerning the apostle Peter.  While the church may have been growing in other parts of the Roman empire, it was under serious attack in Jerusalem.  The apostle James was dead by the hand of Herod, and Peter had been, for the third time, locked away in prison.  While Peter slept in prison, the church made earnest prayer for him, and on the final night before his almost certain execution God sent an angel to deliver him from his prison cell.  His deliverance was so unlikely that even those who were praying for him couldn’t believe that God actually answered their prayers.



#1 Why Everyone Expected Herod to Win


-1- Herod was a formidable opponent.

The stark disparity between the little church in Jerusalem and the Roman empire could hardly have been any greater.  On one hand was Herod the king (v.1), grandson of Herod the Great and otherwise known as Herod Agrippa I.  And on the other, was what was left of the persecuted church.  Many of the believers had already fled town.  Herod had great political and military power; the apostles did not.  Herod had nearly endless material resources; the apostles had very little.  This is not just the story of David versus Goliath; it’s more like David versus the entire Philistine army.


-2- Herod had a proven track record of violence.

The danger that Peter found himself in was real.  We have the benefit of looking back and knowing how the story would end and so perhaps we miss the intensity and the uncertainty of the entire situation.  And, of course, for Peter it was not a forgone conclusion that he would escape.  Jesus himself had already explained to Peter some details concerning his death (c.f. John 21:18-19).

Herod had already proven what he could do.  He had James the brother of John put to death with the sword (v.2), potentially by beheading him.  This was James the Son of Zebedee (i.e. one of the Sons of Thunder), and Jesus also spoke of his death (c.f. Mark 10:39).  When Herod saw that this pleased the Jews (v.3), he was encouraged all the more to continue.

Often we tell ourselves that nothing bad will ever happen to us.  You can’t help but wonder if while Peter was locked up he was praying through something like Psalm 91:7 – “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”  But isn’t it possible that James was praying through the same verse?  If James was allowed to die, couldn’t Peter be allowed to die as well?


-3- There was no obvious way out for Peter.

Peter had been in prison at least twice before (c.f. Acts 4:3, Acts 5:18), but this time was different.  Herod had arranged for four squads of soldiers to guard him (v.4), for a total of sixteen men.  On top of this he was bound with not one, but two chains, most likely attached to the two soldiers he was seated between (v.6).  Perhaps Herod was aware of Peter’s previous escape from prison and was going to take no chances this time around.

What was there left for Peter to do?  He had been rescued before but this situation was different.  His dear friend and ministry partner James was already dead.  Can you picture Peter in that prison cell – chained up, his heart broken, and waiting for his own execution to come?  There was no obvious way out of this predicament.


#2 How God Foiled Everyone’s Expectations


-1- The church began to pray.

And now comes the key verse in this entire passage: So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church (v.5).

Peter was not forgotten by the church.  Even as they grieve the loss of James, they rally together in prayer for Peter.  It is sometimes said that “when all else fails, we should pray.”  It’s a shame that prayer is often seen as a last resort and not as a first resort.  We see the early church in Acts praying on all sort of occasions and not just as a “last resort.”

The church in Jerusalem was praying earnestly for him with their whole heart.  We are told that they were gathered together and were praying (v.12), apparently through the night. It is remarkable that while Peter slept in prison (v.7), the church gathered to pray.


-2- God answered in his perfect timing.  

As far as anyone knew, it was Peter’s last night, the very night before Herod was about to bring him out (v.6).  We are not given an exact timeline, but it seems that this was not his first night in prison.  He sat there day by day, hour by hour, and no help arrived.  And now it was his final night.  His fate would have appeared to others to have been sealed.

When an angel of the Lord appeared in Peter’s cell accompanied by a bright light (v.7), it was not enough to wake Peter up.  He slept so soundly that the angel struck him on the side (v.7) to get him out of bed.  After his chains fell off (v.7) and he had gotten dressed, Peter watched as the heavy iron gate of the prison opened of its own accord (v.10).  He was convinced this entire time he was just seeing a vision, and it was not until he walked through the city streets that he was sure that he had been rescued…from the hand of Herod (v.11).


-3- The prison doors opened quicker than the church doors.

Even though the believers were on that very night praying for his rescue, they could not believe that God actually had answered their prayers.  When Peter arrived at the place where they were praying, he was met out on the street by a servant girl named Rhoda (v.13) who in her excitement ran away.  Those inside the house insisted that either she was crazy or that it was Peter’s angel (v.15) who had appeared.


4- Peter’s rescue came at a heavy price.

Herod also found it hard to believe that Peter had managed to escape and subsequently ordered the prison guards be put to death (v.19).  What a sobering reminder for us that our own redemption comes at a heavy price as well.  We are set free from the wrath of God because Jesus stood in our place.  By his wounds we are healed!


#3 How God Foils Our Expectations

Just as God defied the expectations of all involved in this story, so he defies our own expectations as well.  The question is, where do you find yourself in this story?

-1- Herod 

Perhaps you identify with Herod, attempting to move your own agenda forward in your own strength.  You are certain you will succeed because of your own might and your own cunning.

-2- The Praying Church

Or perhaps you can identify with the believers in this passage who were gathered together in prayer seeking Peter’s release, but not actually ready to see their prayers answered.  You believe God can do the impossible but you don’t expect that he actually will.

-3- Peter

I hope everyone is able to see their place in this story in Peter’s ordeal.  His story matches our story so well.  The great hymn writer Charles Wesley found himself in Peter.  It was while reflecting on this passage that he was led to compose one of his most treasured hymns And Can It Be.  One of the memorable lines from the hymn goes like this:

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.

Like Charles Wesley, it is in the prison cell with Peter that we should find ourselves.  We were once dead in our sins, imprisoned in our flesh, and without any hope of escape.  In the midst of our despair and darkness, Christ came to us.  He filled our prison cells with light and broke the chains that held us tight.  Because of what he has done we can rise and walk in freedom with him.


Discussion Questions

  1. OPENING QUESTION: Is it wrong to have expectations? How can you tell if your expectations are good, bad, or indifferent?
  2. What motivations do you think drove Herod to kill James and to arrest Peter?
  3. Explain why everyone would have expected Herod to get his way.
  4. Why do you think Peter was sound asleep on what could have been his last night alive?
  5. What lessons do you think the believers in Jerusalem learned from this whole incident?
  6. Who do you most identify with in this passage?
  • Herod: doing things in your own strength
  • The church: praying and believing that God could do the impossible but not expecting an answer to your prayers
  • Peter: trapped in sin or some other entanglement and thankful for deliverance (or still waiting for deliverance)
  1. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?

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