Chapter 49.1 Miraculous Escape
Day of Pentecost, upper room in Jerusalem (ten days after ascension,
fifty days after Passover), and acts of Christ through his apostles, A.D. 30 to 45
Liberation of Saint Peter by an Angel, original oil painting on canvas by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), 1591-1666, size 41 inches x 53.5 inches, circa 1622-23
Liberation of Saint Peter by an Angel, original oil painting on canvas by
Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), 1591-1666, size 41 inches x 53.5 inches, circa 1622-23
(CLICK on the image above for a LARGER version)

Peter Reports to Jerusalem

Caesarea marked a great turning point in Peter’s personal ministry. He was certain that Judaism and the Old Covenant had ended; from now on there was only the New Covenant of his Lord and Savior. The new era of God’s grace for all people must be proclaimed.

He returned to Jerusalem to give his report, bringing the men of Joppa with him who had been eyewitnesses in Cornelius’ home. When they arrived, the leaders of the Jerusalem congregation were gathered in the upper room of Mary’s house. She was now a widow and owner of the home, and John Mark had completed his studies.

Peter stood before them and began his explanation, “It was the Lord himself who directed me to go to Caesarea and speak to Gentiles there.” Then he went on to tell everything that had happened and what Christ had revealed to him on his journey: the vision of Cornelius, his own dream at Joppa, and his visit to the centurion’s home, ending the account with the final and irrefutable proof that Jesus himself had ordained the spreading of the gospel to Gentiles—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those who believed. He concluded with, “This occurrence is verified by these eyewitnesses from Joppa who had accompanied me to Cornelius’ home.”

Pastor James and the others had no choice except to agree, however reluctantly, that it was indeed the Lord’s will that the gift of eternal life be given to Gentiles, if they repented and accepted Jesus as the Christ.

Peter’s experience in Caesarea was not the only evidence of the widening sphere of the work to which Jesus had committed his followers. A report had come from Barnabas in the great Syrian capital of Antioch that the Spirit’s work was progressing rapidly there. Both Jews and Gentiles were coming to the Lord in great numbers—to such an extent that Barnabas needed permission to bring Saul from Tarsus to help carry it on. This further confirmed Peter’s findings to the elders at Jerusalem; and after agreeing that Saul was ready, they granted Barnabas’ request.

Barnabas’ New Assistant

One day Saul opened the door of his home in Tarsus to find a tall man with red hair standing outside. He was both surprised and delighted, “Barnabas, my friend! It is so good to see you!” For a moment the friends were too moved with emotion for words. Finally Saul invited him into the house, calling for a servant to bring refreshment for the visitor.

“You have done well,” Barnabas said, looking around the room and out into the court, where a great sycamore tree spread its shade over the enclosed area of his tent-making workshop.

“Besides crafting tents, I’ve been busy with the Lord’s work,” Saul told him, “particularly since Cornelius came with news of the revelation to Peter confirming that the gospel must be preached to the Gentiles.”

“We’ve heard good reports of you.”

“How does the work go in Jerusalem?”

“James still pastors the church and Peter stays there part of the time—I think because he feels that he must support James and the others. But we all know the real future of the church lies elsewhere, particularly at Antioch in Syria, where I am living now. There is already a large colony of Christians in the city.”

“Christians? I never heard the term before.”

“The people started calling us that name in Antioch, a short version of “Christ ones,” so we adopted it.”

“It is a good one; I like it. Why did you come?”

“The church there is growing so fast that I need your help right away. I think your heart will tell you after you hear what we are doing,” Barnabas assured him.

They sat and talked together over a meal and Saul became excited at the possibilities of making Antioch a major Christian center. This time Jesus called him in another way, but the call was as clear as the voice that had spoken to him on the Damascus road. He told Barnabas, “Jesus said those who follow him must always be ready to take up the cross. I am going to Antioch with you!”

Antioch was the capital for the Roman province of Syria, which exerted authority over the areas to the south—including Israel under King Herod Agrippa. The city was a trade center, both for its neighboring seaport city Seleucia, and overland by means of caravans from east to west, north and south. A cultural center for a vast area, Antioch teemed with people of all nationalities and had been governed by a succession of legates who had been intelligent enough to see the value of holding only a loose rein upon the many diverse elements that made up the population.

With little persecution, Barnabas and Saul stayed there strengthening the church and teaching multitudes of people for a full year. At last Saul was able to step out onto the stage where his particular talents would be developed. The city became headquarters for the Gospel to flourish and spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Peter Imprisoned by Agrippa

In A.D. 44, while the church flourished in Antioch, it suffered persecution in Jerusalem under King Agrippa. Due to connections with former Emperor Caligula and now Claudius, Herod Agrippa ruled the entire Herodian kingdom, including Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and Perea.

To gain favor of the temple hierarchy and leaders among the Pharisees in Jerusalem, Herod began a fresh persecution of the remaining Christians in Jerusalem. Just before the beginning of the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread in April, Agrippa arrested James the son of Zebedee and had him beheaded. He was the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom.

When the king saw how this pleased the Jewish leaders, he proceeded to arrest Peter who was also there for the feast. As the apostle spoke from the Porch of Solomon according to his custom, he was taken to prison, but not to the small jail of the temple where malefactors were often locked up pending trial before the Great Sanhedrin. Instead he was placed in the Roman fortress of Antonia. Peter learned from his captors that Agrippa was determined to make a public spectacle of his execution immediately following the religious festival. Many pilgrims would still be in the city, and the king could be sure that news of Peter’s death would spread rapidly to other parts of the world, discouraging the followers of Jesus everywhere.

The fact that he had been taken to the Roman prison warned Peter that he would almost certainly be tried before Agrippa himself and not before the Sanhedrin, as he had hoped. He was not, however, concerned primarily for his own safety. On that day when Jesus had sent him back to Jerusalem with the command to “feed my sheep,” he had put his future into the hands of the Lord. But he was greatly concerned about Pastor James and the harassed congregation in Jerusalem, and what the new persecution might hold out for them.

Temple authorities who sought so long to destroy Peter had already warned Agrippa of the miraculous power he possessed. For, not only was he forced to stand or lie between two Roman soldiers, bound by a chain to each, but two additional guards were posted at all times outside the gate of the cell in which he lay. The apostle remembered the previous time he had been in prison, and had faith in the possibility of another miracle. He knew he had not yet finished his commission and began to pray. Comforted by the Lord, he finally fell asleep between the two guards.

While Peter was kept in prison, all through the day and far into the night the church earnestly prayed to God for his release.

Miraculous Escape

On the night before his scheduled trial and execution, Peter was awakened by a touch on his shoulder. He turned upon his back, feeling the chain attached to his right wrist tug against the wrist of his Roman guard. He peered up at a shining visitor and recognized the same angel who had released him before.

The heavenly visitor spoke, “Rise up quickly.” To Peter’s amazement, when he rose to his feet the chains binding his wrists and ankles fell to the floor, though without making any sound. Nor did the guards between him show any signs of awakening.

“Get dressed and put on your sandals,” the angel commanded. “Throw your cloak around you and follow me.” Half awake, Peter dressed quickly and went through the motions of following the young man in the white robe; but when his guide crossed the cell and opened the door, he still felt this must be a dream about his previous escape.

The guards outside were sitting beside the door with their backs to the wall. But, like everyone else in the prison, they too seemed to be asleep and paid no attention to Peter and the angel as they hurried through the corridor toward the outer door. The massive iron gate also opened at the touch of the young man.

Outside the prison the street was narrow, ending in one of the stairways leading downward to the Tyropean Valley and the lower part of the city. Hurrying to keep up with his heavenly guide, Peter was startled when he turned a corner and found himself alone, with no sign of the angel. Suddenly feeling the cold night, he realized it was not a dream and said to himself, “Now I know it’s true! The Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” As quickly as possible he must place himself beyond the reach of the king.

Peter hastened through the deserted streets and up the hill to Mount Zion, but he met none of the night guards who patrolled Jerusalem during the religious festivals. When he came to the home of Mary and Mark, he saw chinks of light showing through the tightly drawn blinds in the upper room and heard the murmur of voices inside praying—surely for his deliverance.

Stepping into the shadow of a nearby terebinth tree, Peter knocked on the door to the courtyard. There was no response, but he could still hear the voices of those inside, so he knocked again as loud as he dared. Finally the door was opened a mere crack, enough for him to recognize Mary’s servant girl Rhoda peering out at him.

“It is I, Rhoda,” he whispered, “Simon Peter.”

The girl gasped and was so stunned that she disappeared inside the house without opening the door, and left Peter standing outside in the cold street. Trying to push the door open, he found that it was guarded by a chain; but could see through the small opening and heard Rhoda telling those inside, “Peter is at the door!”

“You are seeing things,” someone said.

“I tell you I did see him, and he spoke to me!” the girl protested.

“It must be his guardian angel. We know he’s solidly locked in prison,” another voice said.

The apostle became impatient and knocked again, this time louder. Pastor James was not there and one of the deacons peered through the door’s small opening, then his eyes widened in amazement. Instantly he removed the chain and finally let Peter in. Once inside the courtyard, he was surrounded by a happy group, rejoicing and eagerly asking questions about his escape. He motioned with his hands for them to keep quiet and led them to the upper room so they could talk.

“Where is your faith? Were you not praying for this very thing?” he asked them. “Your prayers have been answered. The Lord sent an angel and delivered me out of the hands of Herod. I wanted to let you know I was safe, but now I must leave at once. This is the first place they will look, and the king will punish all of you if they find me here. Tell these things to James and the rest of the brethren.”

“Where will you go?” Mark asked. “Agrippa will surely send soldiers to bring you back.”

“I cannot tell you so that when you are asked, you can honestly reply that you do not know.”

Mark’s face brightened. “Cornelius is in Jerusalem for the Passover to make sure it is a peaceful one. He was very concerned when I told him you had been arrested.”

“Do you know where he is staying?” Peter asked quickly.

“Not far away, at the home of a Roman believer. The centurion will be glad to help you escape to safe location that only he will know. I can take you to him.”

The apostle was pleased, “That is a wise plan, Mark. You have grown in wisdom as well.”

Peter ate hurriedly and put on clean clothing while he gave instructions to the disciples to leave Jerusalem at once before Agrippa could vent his wrath on them.

After a short prayer and tearful goodbyes, Peter followed Mark down the deserted streets to the home where Cornelius was a guest. The centurion was overjoyed to see that his friend was alive and had come to him for help. He quickly saddled his horse and was given one for Peter. Only a little more than an hour after his miraculous escape, the apostle and the Roman officer departed by way of the Water Gate, which was left open at night for any who might need to bring water from the pools outside the walls.

Once they were away from the city, the moon broke through the clouds and illuminated their secret journey of over fifty miles. Cornelius had traveled between Jerusalem and Caesarea many times and knew the fastest way there, using several shortcuts. From Jerusalem, the travelers took a general route leading northwest to Antipatris, then along the lovely Plain of Sharon on the seaward side of Samaria, and then northwest to Caesarea, reaching that city before dawn. A cargo ship was preparing to leave for Antioch that morning at daybreak. The two friends bid each other a hasty farewell, and Peter boarded the ship just before sailing. Since the festival in Jerusalem was over, Cornelius stayed in Caesarea and returned to his command. No one knew where the apostle had gone.

Afterwards, a furious Herod Agrippa left Judea to reside for a while in Caesarea. Later in the year on an appointed day, the king’s wickedness resulted in his sudden dramatic death in front of all the people. Once again Judea came under the rule of a Roman procurator that sharply limited the powers the high priest and the temple hierarchy. The danger to Peter as well as to Pastor James and the others at Jerusalem was ended for the moment, and those who had fled were able to return safely.

However, a change was in the wind. After Peter’s flight from the Holy City, he traveled with his wife from one city to another, from Palestine to Asia Minor, encouraging the small Christian communities. Leadership of the Jerusalem church passed to Pastor James, who was somewhat more conservative than Peter. Though lenient concerning the mission to the Gentiles, James strictly observed Jewish laws and rituals.

From that time on, the Jerusalem church began to lose its authority over the rapidly growing Christian communities in distant lands. It had accomplished its purpose and would always be revered as the birthplace of Christianity, and it would continue to administer funds and make important theological decisions. But the word of God grew and multiplied so rapidly that Jerusalem could no longer contain it. The Gentiles became the dominant mission and Antioch had become the true center of the Christian faith.

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