John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: November 20

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: November 20

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Peter in Prison


It will be remembered that the apostles had formerly been delivered from prison—probably from the same prison in which Peter was now confined. We may suppose that it was the remembrance of this by the Jews, and their mention of it to Herod, that caused the latter to take extraordinary care in securing the prisoner. He was assigned to the custody of “four quaternions of soldiers,” and he was bound with two chains. A quaternion was a picket of four soldiers, and four of these made sixteen men. Each picket of four men was to take in turn the duty of watching the apostle, two at the doors, and two chained to him. It was not usual to chain a prisoner to more than one soldier, and thus Herod Agrippa himself had been chained at Rome, and hereafter we shall see Saul himself so chained in the same city. When two chains were employed, as in the case before us, one end of the chain was fastened to the right arm of the prisoner, and the other end of it to the left arm of one of the soldiers; and in like manner the other chain was fastened to the left arm of the prisoner and the right arm of the other soldier. It is difficult to see how a prisoner could be more completely secured than Peter thus was, or how his escape could by any means be rendered less possible, shut up as he was in a strong prison, the gates of which were not only locked and barred, but guarded by sentinels, and his person being besides attached to living men, who would hear and feel his slightest movement. But the walls were never built, the chains never forged, the guards never breathed, that could hold in bondage him whom God willed to be free. So it proved now.

The passover week had already ended; and it was the night before the morning in which Peter was to be led to his death that the deliverance was effected. But the prospect that seemed before him troubled not the apostle, and he lay between the two soldiers to whom he was chained, enjoying that sweet sleep which God gives to his beloved. To die in his Lord’s cause and for the honor of His name, was not a doom to cause any dismay or unrest to him who, when far less enlightened, and possessed of a far less distinctly realized sense of his Lord’s love to him, had declared to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for thy sake.” It may be, however, that he entertained a conviction that it would be the Lord’s pleasure to interpose in some way, even if at the last moment, for his release. He had grounds for such a conviction: He could not but remember the last words which his risen Lord had addressed to him personally; and these words assured him, that although he was destined to seal with his blood his testimony for Christ, it would not be till he was old, and by a form of death not at this time (since it was no longer a Roman province) in use in Judea. “When thou wast young then girdedest thyself, and wentest whither thou wouldest; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” This clearly points to death by crucifixion. Indeed it was so understood, for the Evangelist who records the circumstances adds: “This spike He, signifying by what death he should glorify God,” Joh_21:18-19.

As Peter thus lay in sleep, an angel of the Lord entered the prison, and filled it with the light of his presence. A sudden access of light usually rouses a man from sleep. But the apostle’s repose was too sound to be thus disturbed. The angel therefore smote him on the side to arouse him. He then awoke; and before he could recover his surprise or collect his ideas, and perhaps before he could see distinctly, the angel’s voice bade him “Rise up, quickly;” and as the words were uttered, he felt the chains, which bound him to the soldiers fall from his hands. The Orientals, when they go to rest, do not undress fully as we do; or rather, do not change their dress—they simply loosen their girdle, and lay aside then outer garment. Peter had done this; and the angel seeing him still confused and amazed, directed him to fasten his girdle and put on his cloak, and also to bind on his sandals. The latter direction intimated that he was to leave the place, as the Orientals only use their shoes or sandals when they leave their apartments. Accordingly, when this was done, the angel bade Peter follow him. So they passed on; and when they came to the outermost gate, which was strengthened with iron, it flew open of its own accord, and the two passed into the street. The angel then disappeared. All this took but a few moments, and Peter, still confused, deemed all that was passing to be a vision or a dream. But the brisk night air soon brought him to complete recollection; and he perceived that his deliverance was real. “Now I know of a surety,” he said, “that the Lord hath sent his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from the expectation of the Jews.” As he walked on considering this matter, he reached the nearest house occupied by a disciple. This disciple was Mary—“the mother of John, whose surname was Mark”—or rather, who was called Mark, for the Jews had no surnames; but many had two names, one by which they were known among the Jews, and the other among the Greeks or Romans. This was very necessary for those who dwelt with or among them, or had any intercourse with them; for they were curiously averse to be troubled with the utterance of Hebrew proper names, whether places or persons; and it was therefore needful to a Jew, even for his own comfort, that he should adopt some name which they were familiar with and could readily pronounce. In the present instance the John also called Mark, was probably Mark the Evangelist; but this is not altogether certain.

Peter paused before the door of Mary’s house. In that house there were many believers assembled, late as it was, for prayer—and their prayers were doubtless for him. He was to die the next day; and while he had slept, very many remained awake in prayer to God in his behalf. The case seemed to become more hopeless as the last hour of possible deliverance approached, yet they relaxed not in fervency of prayer; for when hope has, perhaps unconsciously, abated, the trained spiritual mind persists in prayer, because only in that intercourse with God can it find adequate support and relief.

Peter knocked at the door. He knocked with his staff probably; for there are no knockers, far less bells, to Eastern doors. He was heard within; and a girl soon came to the gate. The girl’s name was Rhoda, which is Greek for rose—another instance of the pleasant practice of giving to females the names of flowers. At that late hour Rhoda would not open the door till she knew who it was that applied for admittance; and when she heard that it was Peter, and recognized his well-known voice, the girl, by a natural impulse, rushed in to tell the joyful news without opening the gate. How far expectation had become depressed, is shown by the persistent incredulity with which they received the tidings which Rhoda with so much eager joy imparted. They told her she was mad; and when she still affirmed the fact, they said, “Then it is his angel.” What did they mean by that? This is not perfectly clear. Some think that as “angel” means a “messenger,” in which sense it is often used both in the Old and New Testaments, they meant to say, that some messenger had come from Peter, and that he had used his name in such a manner as to lead the girl, in her haste, to suppose that it was Peter himself. Others suppose, that they fancied it was the apostle’s ghost or spirit; from which they might have inferred that he had already been put to death—probably that night in his prison, as John the Baptist had been. But it is more generally conceived that they supposed it to be his guardian angel, who had taken the form and voice of Peter, in order to comfort them for his loss, or supposing that he yet lived, to incite them to renewed fervency of prayer on his behalf. We know that it was the prevalent belief of the Jews that every one had assigned to him at his birth an angel, whose office it was to guard and defend him through life—to incite him to good, and to deter him from evil. How far this notion may be true we need not now inquire; and as it cannot be shown to be true from Scripture, we are not bound to receive it merely because it may appear to have been entertained by persons brought up in Judaism.

However, by this time, Peter had become a little impatient of his detention outside the gate—which also might have been dangerous to him. He, therefore, resumed his knocking. They then ventured to go and open the gate; and when they saw that it was really Peter, their astonishment and joy were both beyond measure great. It was also loud in its expression; but Peter, to whom every moment was precious, held up his hand to beckon for silence. He then recited to them how it was that the Lord had brought him out of prison; and requesting them to report these particulars to the surviving James and to the brethren at large, he took his departure. “He went to another place,” where he might for the time be more safe. Where he went we know not. The Roman Catholics suppose that he went to Rome; but there is no evidence for this, nor does it seem at all likely at this time, whatever may have been the case at a later period.