Freedom in PrisonErwin W. Lutzer | June 14, 1992
Selected highlights from this sermon
Behind the workings of God there are always His footprints. Sometimes He has to teach us lessons by walking with us through prisons—prisons made for us by other people, prisons in our own homes, prisons of our own making, prisons that can be emotional, spiritual, or physical. But even if the lessons take us into the darkest times of our lives, God is with us. He will never abandon us.
You know, God expects us to see Him even in some of the darkest times of our life. He expects us to see His footprint during times of difficulty when we least expect to see His loving hand, because He is with us.
Now if you have been joining us for the last couple of months, you know that this happens to be number twelve in a series of messages on the life of Peter. Peter, as we have already noticed, was a great man of faith. He was impulsive. In the Gospels we have many stories that bear that out. He also loved Christ fervently. And even though he loved a lot, he also failed a lot. But God worked mightily in his life to bring him to the point where he would be a great spiritual leader because, after all, Jesus did say, “Peter, you’re the one to whom I give the keys of the Kingdom.” And we know that Peter was the one that God used to open the Gospel up to the Samaritans and to the Gentiles, and he became a great leader in the Christian church.
Today we’re going to look at a rather remarkable story found in Acts 12. Acts happens to be the fifth book in the New Testament, and if you have your Bibles you may turn to that passage. Acts 12: It’s a story that involves a miracle, a story that involves the real commitment of Christ to His people. What I’d like to do is to have you notice three links in a chain, a chain really of providential circumstances that take place here in the twelfth chapter of Acts. And the first link is that Peter is arrested. Let’s read the story.
“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church.” And by the way this is Herod Agrippa the First. There are six Herods in the New Testament, and it’s sometimes difficult to keep them all straight. Herod Agrippa the First was the grandson of Herod the Great, the man who killed the babies – the infants – during the time of Christ. Remember that about fourteen years have passed since Jesus ascended into heaven. Sometimes when we read the book of Acts we forget that. Paul had already been converted. There has been a lot of activity going on that the Apostles were involved in, and so many years have passed now, and this Herod took some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. And he had James, the brother of John, put to death with a sword. That is, of course, one of the Apostles.
“He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread.” Verse 4: “And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.”
Peter arrested! Put yourself in his sandals. Here was a man who was arrested, not because he did anything wrong, and he had no political or legal resource. It was an unjust arrest for sure, but in addition to being unjust, it was also very cruel. The intention was to mercilessly kill him because, after all, Peter was a leader in the church, and furthermore many people recognized him to be a leader among the Gentiles, so to please the Jews, Herod said, “I want to behead him, just like I did to the Apostle James.”
He had no recourse politically, legally. You know it’s one thing to be accused by Ivan the Terrible, but at least you may have an American court or an Israeli court that might listen to you. Whether they believe you or not is another story, but you always hope that in civilized countries there is some kind of legal redress of the situation.
My friend, in those days, as in many countries today, there was no such thing as justice - a court of justice to which people can appeal. But I want you to see this injustice as being part of God’s will for Peter’s life because God did not abandon him in prison. God went with him behind the gate into the prison. God always does that with His people.
It’s not like when you are in an airport. You’ve had the experience, as I have. You go along and your friends accompany you, as David Goldman did when I was in Morocco last fall, but then he gets to the sign there in Morocco that says, “Passengers Only,” and we have to say goodbye. No, God goes behind those signs. God goes everywhere. He even crosses borders from one country to another because He is always with His people.
I remember when I was 18 years old, attending a Bible college in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Now that’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there. I had come from the province of Saskatchewan, and that is the end of the world. I remember in my first year being so lonely during those first few weeks because I was always a very shy person. When I was five or six years old and we had company, my sisters and brothers would have to drag me out from under the bed. But I remember, even at the age of 18, thinking to myself, “I wonder if God is here in Winnipeg. Does He come this far?” Well, yes, God comes that far, and a lot farther. God never abandons His people. He is with them because He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Notice how Peter was guarded. The text says that he was brought into the prison in verse 4, and there were four squads of soldiers. Four times four – sixteen were assigned to take care of him. Perhaps they were on some kind of a rotation basis. Every six hours they were rotating and so you had some men come in. Two were chained to Peter. That’s what the text says later. And then there was another one that was guarding the dungeon, and then another that was guarding the gate to the prison itself.
What chance did Peter have? Here you had all of the Roman authorities against him. There was the dungeon and there were soldiers that were assigned to guard him, and there was no way out. No way out! But there is a little phrase that we just read. It says that prayer was made by the church to God on his behalf. Peter was arrested.
Let’s look at the second link in the chain, and that is Peter was rescued, and what an amazing story this is.
“And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, ‘Dress yourself and put on your sandals.’ (In other words, take time to get dressed when you go out.) And he did so. And he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord (It was as if they were walking out of a Jewel store), and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. (Peter by now has had some good breaths of fresh air.) When Peter came to himself, he said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’”
Peter is delivered! I want you to grasp something of the power of God in this experience. First of all, God’s power over people! Here were guards who had to sleep through this experience, so the Lord gave them some sort of cosmic sleeping pill so that they wouldn’t wake up when the angel came in.
You can see God’s power also over matter. The Bible says that the chains fell off. They just broke apart. And then that gate that opened up of itself! The Lord just miraculously intervened and He did this amazing miracle, and Peter walked out of that prison without being seen.
Last week my secretary told me that there was a report out on the East Coast from someone who contacted someone within this church - The Moody Church - because they had heard that we are going liberal. I don’t know where those rumors came from. We are liberal, hopefully, in our generosity, but we are not theologically liberal. So just in case you are visiting and you wonder where we stand, I want you to know that we here at Moody Church actually believe this stuff. It happened, and what a miracle it was.
Now you know the rest of the story, which involves actually some humor. Peter goes to where the prayer meeting is being held. It says in verse 13, “And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. (I tend to think that she was a teenager. Servant girls oftentimes were very young.)Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.”
“And they with one accord shouted ‘Amen.’ We’ve been praying for this and we knew he would be there.” Not! (laughter) My children keep me up to date, you understand.
Verse 15: “They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind.’ (You are crazy, Rhoda.) But she kept insisting that it was so.” No, he is there. So these seasoned saints who have an explanation for everything come up with another idea, and the say “It is his angel!” And Peter continues to knock. Do you see the irony? I mean Peter is able to get out of the gate of the prison, but he can’t get into the gate of the prayer meeting. And so eventually they come and they are absolutely amazed, and they say, “It is Peter.” And he continued to knock until they opened.
Now, isn’t it interesting that God answered their prayer even though apparently it was not prayed in a whole lot of faith? But because of God’s will and because of God’s purposes the Lord was gracious in granting this miracle to preserve Peter’s life. That’s the second link in the chain.
First of all, he is arrested. Secondly, he is delivered.
Thirdly, and very briefly, he is vindicated. What do I mean by that? Eventually God got Herod. This wicked king who was unscrupulous and who is known in history as being cruel, you’ll notice he took all of the people who were responsible to guard Peter and had them executed, the text says. But one day Herod was going down to Caesarea, and there in Caesarea there is a big amphitheater, and people were gathered together. If you ever go to Israel you can actually go to that amphitheater, and you can be there where Herod was and where he put on a show. And according to Josephus, this Herod dressed himself in a shimmering silver robe, and as the sun shone on him, everybody shouted, “This is the voice of a god, and not of a man!”
And you know that Herod didn’t correct them. He should have said, “Hey, you guys, you’re all wrong. I’m just a man. Really, I’m not into the New Age Movement. Take me seriously. I’m not God.” He should have said that, but he didn’t. He took the credit, and notice what it says in verse 23. “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” And according to Josephus, it took seven days, but he died. What an awful way to go.
Interestingly (verse 7 in your Bibles), notice it says that an angel of the Lord (appeared and) struck Peter. And here we are in verse 23 and it says that an angel of the Lord appeared and struck Herod. I tend to think it was the same angel. I can’t prove that, but it may have been.
The first one strikes Peter to awaken him so that he can be delivered. And the other time the angel comes, he strikes Herod to kill him because of his pride and because of his ruthlessness. And Peter is vindicated, and Herod is the one who dies rather than Peter.
Now let me ask you a question. Why is it that God allows this story to be in the Bible? Is it just so that Peter would have a fantastic story to tell so that he could stand up and give his testimony and say, “Folks, I’ve got something to tell you that you have never experienced; Listen to what I have to say?” That’s not why the experience was given. It may have been alright to repeat it. I’m not arguing about that. I’m just simply saying that God doesn’t do things just for the sake of doing them. Behind the workings of God there are always His footprints to teach lessons to us that we might not learn in any other way.
Let me give you three lessons that Peter learned as a result of his prison experience. First of all, he learned something about the sovereignty of God, the absolute sovereignty and control of God over His people. You did catch it at the beginning of the chapter, didn’t you? Notice what it says. Herod took James and killed him with a sword. Was it because James wasn’t as spiritual as Peter? No, of course not! But God allows James to die, and it’s not because the church wasn’t praying for James. And God could have delivered James without the prayer of the church. He could have delivered Peter without the prayer of the church. God can do as He wills. His purpose was that James would die, and Peter would go on and live because there was still work for Peter to do.
But how can we pry into God’s secret councils and figure out why He would allow James to die and Peter to live? We don’t have an answer to those kinds of questions on this side of Glory. Those are the kinds of questions we will ask God someday.
We like to tell the story of Daniel, how that he was there in the lion’s den and the Lord came and sent an angel and closed the mouths of those lions so Daniel was there, and the hungry lions did not eat him. And it’s a true story, and we believe it. But my wife and I have been to Rome and we’ve walked through the Circus Maximus, and we’ve been to the Coliseum and we have seen areas of the city there where Christians died by the hundreds, and they were thrown to wild beasts, and there was no angel that came to close the mouths of those lions.
We like to tell the story of the Old Testament Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (or as the Sunday school pupil said – my shack, your shack, and a bungalow). What a remarkable story that one is. You remember that they were thrown into the furnace, and even though it was made seven times hotter, a fourth man walked with them, and they came out of that furnace, and there was not even the smell of smoke on them. It’s an amazing story and a true story! And yet we think of others like John Huss and hundreds like him who were burned at the stake, and there was no man who walked with them through the flames. The sovereign purposes of God!
Now let me tell you why I think Peter was sleeping that night when he was in prison. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I’m quite positive. I guess that’s nine on a scale of ten. I’m quite positive that Peter knew he would not die the next day, and he knew that because of the promise that Jesus had made to him. Take your New Testaments and just turn back a bit to John 21. This is Jesus and Peter. Do you remember that I preached on this a few weeks ago regarding Peter’s restoration?
Jesus is talking to him and says in verse 18: “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ This he said to show by what kind of death he (Peter) was to glorify God.)”
Think that through. Tradition says Peter actually was crucified. Apparently he was crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same position on a cross as the Lord whom he loved. That’s just like Peter, isn’t it? But Peter knew, therefore, that several things were very clear about the death that he was to die. First of all, he would grow old, and secondly his hands would be stretched out. It was a prediction regarding the way in which he would die – crucified. Peter, possibly remembering that promise, knew that there was no chance in the world that Herod was going to behead him the next day.
Later in 2 Peter, Peter says, “It is almost time now for me to die as the Lord has spoken to me.” In other words, “The time is going to come for my martyrdom,” but he knew that he would die an old man. Peter was able to sleep because he believed the promise of Christ.
You say, “Well, yes, that was fine for Peter because he had a specific promise, but what about me? Jesus has never talked to me.” Well, I have a promise for you from Jesus today. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you, not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
Please remember that Jesus Christ wants us to believe His promises and rest in His sovereign will. There are some people who live long lives. There are some people who live short lives. We may say, “Well why is it that children sometimes die? Why is it that so many people die young?” I can only think of the words of Jim Elliott, who said, “God is peopling heaven. Why should He limit Himself to old people?”
Let me remind you, as I remind myself, that our lives are in the hands of a sovereign God, and only God knows the kind of death that we are all going to die by which we are going to glorify God. You didn’t miss that statement in John 21, did you? It’s a beautiful reminder of the fact that every believer who dies, whether it is the death of crucifixion or whether it is the death of cancer, every believer who dies glorifies God.
So Peter had to learn about God’s sovereignty. Secondly, he had to learn about God’s triumph. The triumph of God is very clear. You begin the 12th chapter, and who is the one who is winning? It’s Herod. All the cards are on his lap. He has killed James, and now he’s going to kill Peter. He is in control, but by the time the chapter ends there’s been a reversal of fortune.
It seemed that Herod was in ascendency, but Herod dies a shameful, excruciating death, and Peter is free. Please let me remind you that Satan never wins so much as a single battle, not even one. Oh, you say, “Well, that’s not true. Think of all of the people that he has killed. Think of all of the people whose marriages he has destroyed. Think of all of the evil that he has instigated.” Yes, I know, I know! But remember that for all the evil that he does, his judgment and his humiliation and his eternal shame is going to be just that much greater. Never once will God let Satan win a permanent eternal victory. Peter had to learn that. He had to learn that God always triumphs.
And then thirdly, Peter had to learn something about God’s power because, you see, Peter needed to understand that there was no situation that he was in that was too much for the Almighty. There is no prison that is so great and strong but that God is greater still. And the bottom line is that there is no chain that is greater than God. No chain greater than God!
Some of you are in prisons that have been made for you by other people. Even tomorrow when you go to work, in your mind it’s almost as if you are checking into a prison because there are people there who are waiting for you, and they would like to do you harm if only they could. And you are praying that either you will get a new job, or the manager will leave. And God may do none of those. He may sustain you through that prison that you are experiencing.
Some of you are prisoners in your own home because of relationships that have been broken and torn. And there are emotional and spiritual gaping wounds within your soul. And even as you leave here you feel as if you are going back to a prison. I want you to know today that God will go back there with you. God never forsakes His people.
But then there are some of you who are listening who also are in a prison, but it is a prison of your own making. It is a prison because of your own sins, because of your own moral failure, because of your own wrong decisions. And you say, “Is God able to help me in that prison?” And the answer, of course, is “Yes, yes, yes and yes!”
When Jesus was on earth He went into the synagogue there at Capernaum and took down the scroll, and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach liberty to the captives, and give freedom to those who are bruised, and to set those emotional and spiritual prisoners free.” Jesus does things just like that. Because of His death on the cross, His death purchased redemption for those who believe. It was an affirmation of Christ’s triumph so that you and I could be set free. Have you ever believed in Christ for yourself? Are you free inside? Do you know that you belong to Him?
Many years ago there was a man by the name of Charles Wesley. He was, of course, the brother of the famous revivalist, John Wesley. And Charles wrote many hymns, and one day he was converted, and he wrote hymns that we even sing today with great blessing. And in order to convey his own spiritual experience, he decided to use the analogy of a prison. Listen to these words.
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.
I want you to know today that there is no chain that is too strong. There is no dungeon that is too deep. There is no gate that is too high that God can’t deliver. In another song we sometimes sing,
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free,
His blood can makes the foulest clean,
Do you think that you have sinned too greatly for God? Do you think that the pushes and the pulls within your heart are too strong for the Almighty? You are wrong!
His blood availed for thee.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what is the step to my deliverance?” The first step to your deliverance is to open your life to Christ and say, “Lord Jesus, I am bound. Deliver me.”
Did you know that that’s the hardest to say? You have all kinds of people who are totally bound, unwilling to admit it, living with years of denial, years of façade, years of rationalization? And they still think that they are not totally bound and in need of the touch of Christ. Your first step is to recognize your need. And the second is to open your life to somebody qualified to speak a word and set you free. Let me help you.
Our Father, I come to You, first of all, on behalf of the brothers and sisters in Christ who know You as Savior but are not free. Today, in the name of Jesus, we pray that we might see You as being stronger than the very chains that we ourselves have forged – habit patterns, decision-making processes, relationships that are destructive and hurtful. Oh Father, today I pray that no person may ever feel that he or she is destined of necessity to keep walking in defeat. You do set the prisoner free. You come in and You nudge us and You say, “Get up.”
Then, Father, we think of all those who are here today who have never believed on You personally, who even are skeptical, filled with unbelief, but wondering if indeed it could all be true. We pray that You might graciously draw them to Yourself. Speak the word of light, the word of help, the word of forgiveness.
And now, before I close this prayer, those of you who have never trusted Christ as your Savior, why don’t you pray this prayer in your heart to God?
Oh Lord, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I am bound in my own prison, and today as best as I know how, I look to You for my forgiveness and deliverance. Speak the word that I might be free, and help me to be willing to do anything that You ask of me that I might be free indeed. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.