Acts 12:5
Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.
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(5) Prayer was made without ceasing.—The adjective is rendered by “fervent” in 1Peter 4:8, and implies, as in the marginal reading, intensity as well as continuity. The words imply that the members of the Church continued, in spite of the persecution, to meet as usual, probably, as in Acts 12:12, in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark.



Acts 12:5

The narrative of Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison is full of little vivid touches which can only have come from himself. The whole tone of it reminds us of the Gospel according to St. Mark, which is in like manner stamped with peculiar minuteness and abundance of detail. One remembers that at a late period in the life of the Apostle Paul, Mark and Luke were together with him; and no doubt in those days in Rome, Mark, who had been Peter’s special companion and is called by one of the old Christian writers his ‘interpreter,’ was busy in telling Luke the details about Peter which appear in the first part of this Book of the Acts.

The whole story seems to me to be full of instruction as well as of picturesque detail; and I desire to bring out the various lessons which appear to me to lie in it.

I. The first of them is this: the strength of the helpless.

Look at that eloquent ‘but’ in the verse that I have taken as a starting-point: ‘Peter therefore was kept in prison, but prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him.’ There is another similarly eloquent ‘but’ at the end of the chapter:

‘Herod . . . was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost, but the Word of God grew and multiplied.’ Here you get, on the one hand, all the pompous and elaborate preparations-’four quaternions of soldiers’- four times four is sixteen-sixteen soldiers, two chains, three gates with guards at each of them, Herod’s grim determination, the people’s malicious expectation of having an execution as a pleasant sensation with which to wind up the Passover Feast. And what had the handful of Christian people? Well, they had prayer; and they had Jesus Christ. That was all, and that is more than enough. How ridiculous all the preparation looks when you let the light of that great ‘but’ in upon it! Prayer, earnest prayer, ‘was made of the Church unto God for him.’ And evidently, from the place in which that fact is stated, it is intended that we should say to ourselves that it was because prayer was made for him that what came to pass did come to pass. It is not jerked out as an unconnected incident; it is set in a logical sequence. ‘Prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him’ -and so when Herod would have brought him forth, behold, the angel of the Lord came, and the light shined into the prison. It is the same sequence of thought that occurs in that grand theophany in the eighteenth Psalm, ‘My cry entered into His ears; then the earth shook and trembled’; and there came all the magnificence of the thunderstorm and the earthquake and the divine manifestation; and this was the purpose of it all-’He sent from above, He took me, He drew me out of many waters.’ The whole energy of the divine nature is set in motion and comes swooping down from highest heaven to the trembling earth. And of that fact the one end is one poor man’s cry, and the other end is his deliverance. The moving spring of the divine manifestation was an individual’s prayer; the aim of it was the individual’s deliverance. A little water is put into a hydraulic ram at the right place, and the outcome is the lifting of tons. So the helpless men who could only pray are stronger than Herod and his quaternions and his chains and his gates. ‘Prayer was made,’ therefore all that happened was brought to pass, and Peter was delivered.

Peter’s companion, James, was killed off, as we read in a verse or two before. Did not the Church pray for him? Surely they did. Why was their prayer not answered, then? God has not any step-children. James was as dear to God as Peter was. One prayer was answered; was the other left unanswered? It was the divine purpose that Peter, being prayed for, should be delivered; and we may reverently say that, if there had not been the many in Mary’s house praying, there would have been no angel in Peter’s cell.

So here are revealed the strength of the weak, the armour of the unarmed, the defence of the defenceless. If the Christian Church in its times of persecution and affliction had kept itself to the one weapon that is allowed it, it would have been more conspicuously victorious. And if we, in our individual lives-where, indeed, we have to do something else besides pray-would remember the lesson of that eloquent ‘but,’ we should be less frequently brought to perplexity and reduced to something bordering on despair. So my first lesson is the strength of the weak.

II. My next is the delay of deliverance.

Peter had been in prison for some time before the Passover, and the praying had been going on all the while, and there was no answer. Day after day ‘of the unleavened bread’ and of the festival was slipping away. The last night had come; ‘and the same night’ the light shone, and the angel appeared. Why did Jesus Christ not hear the cry of these poor suppliants sooner? For their sakes; for Peter’s sake; for our sakes; for His own sake. For the eventual intervention, at the very last moment, and yet at a sufficiently early moment, tested faith. And look how beautifully all bore the test. The Apostle who was to be killed to-morrow is lying quietly sleeping in his cell. Not a very comfortable pillow he had to lay his head upon, with a chain on each arm and a legionary on each side of him. But he slept; and whilst he was asleep Christ was awake, and the brethren were awake. Their faith was tested, and it stood the test, and thereby was strengthened. And Peter’s patience and faith, being tested in like manner and in like manner standing the test, were deepened and confirmed. Depend upon it, he was a better man all his days, because he had been brought close up to Death and looked it in the fleshless eye-sockets, unwinking and unterrified. And I dare say if, long after, he had been asked, ‘Would you not have liked to have escaped those two or three days of suspense, and to have been let go at an earlier moment?’ he would have said, ‘Not for worlds! For I learned in those days that my Lord’s time is the best. I learned patience’-a lesson which Peter especially needed-’and I learned trust.’

Do you remember another incident, singularly parallel in essence, though entirely unlike in circumstances, to this one? The two weeping sisters at Bethany send their messenger across the Jordan, grudging every moment that he takes to travel to the far-off spot where Jesus is. The message sent is only this: ‘He whom Thou lovest is sick.’ What an infinite trust in Christ’s heart that form of the message showed! They would not say ‘Come!’; they would not ask Him to do anything; they did not think that to do so was needful: they were quite sure that what He would do would be right.

And how was the message received? ‘Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus.’ Well, did that not make Him hurry as fast as He could to the bedside? No; it rooted Him to the spot. ‘He abode, therefore’- because He loved them-’two days still in the same place where He was,’ to give him plenty of time to die, and the sisters plenty of time to test their confidence in Him. Their confidence does not seem to have altogether stood the test. ‘Lord, if Thou hadst been here my brother had not died.’ ‘And why wast Thou not here?’ is implied. Christ’s time was the best time. It was better to get a dead brother back to their arms and to their house than that they should not have lost him for those dreary four days. So delay tests faith, and makes the deliverance, when it comes, not only the sweeter, but the more conspicuously divine. So, brother, ‘men ought always to pray, and not to faint’-always to trust that ‘the Lord will help them, and that right early.’

III. The next lesson that I would suggest is the leisureliness of the deliverance.

A prisoner escaping might be glad to make a bolt for it, dressed or undressed, anyhow. But when the angel comes into the cell, and the light shines, look how slowly and, as I say, leisurely, he goes about it. ‘Put on thy shoes.’ He had taken them off, with his girdle and his upper garment, that he might lie the less uncomfortably. ‘Put on thy shoes; lace them; make them all right. Never mind about these two legionaries; they will not wake. Gird thyself; tighten thy girdle. Put on thy garment. Do not be afraid. Do not be in a hurry; there is plenty of time. Now, are you ready? Come!’ It would have been quite as easy for the angel to have whisked him out of the cell and put him down at Mary’s door; but that was not to be the way. Peter was led past all the obstacles-’the first ward,’ and the soldiers at it; ‘the second ward,’ and the soldiers at it; ‘and the third gate that leads into the city,’ which was no doubt bolted and barred. There was a leisurely procession through the prison.

Why? Because Omnipotence is never in a hurry, and God, not only in His judgments but in His mercies, very often works slowly, as becomes His majesty. ‘Ye shall not go out with haste; nor go by flight, for the Lord will go before you; and the God of Israel shall be your rereward.’ We are impatient, and hurry our work over; God works slowly; for He works certainly. That is the law of the divine working in all regions; and we have to regulate the pace of our eager expectation so as to fall in with the slow, solemn march of the divine purposes, both in regard to our individual salvation and the providences that affect us individually, and in regard to the world’s deliverance from the world’s evils. ‘An inheritance may be gotten hastily in the beginning, but the end thereof shall not be blessed.’ ‘He that believeth shall not make haste.’

IV. We see here, too, the delivered prisoner left to act for himself as soon as possible.

As long as the angel was with Peter, he was dazed and amazed. He did not know-and small blame to him-whether he was sleeping or waking; but he gets through the gates, and out into the empty street, glimmering in the morning twilight, and the angel disappears, and the slumbering city is lying around him. When he is left to himself, he comes to himself. He could not have passed the wards without a miracle, but he can find his way to Mary’s house without one. He needed the angel to bring him as far as the gate and down into the street, but he did not need him any longer. So the angel vanished into the morning light, and then he felt himself, and steadied himself, when responsibility came to him. That is the thing to sober a man. So he stood in the middle of the unpeopled street, and ‘he considered the thing,’ and found in his own wits sufficient guidance, so that he did not miss the angel. He said to himself, ‘I will go to Mary’s house.’ Probably he did not know that there were any praying there, but it was near, and it was, no doubt, convenient in other respects that we do not know of. The economy of miraculous power is a remarkable feature in Scriptural miracles. God never does anything for us that we could do for ourselves. Not but that our doing for ourselves is, in a deeper sense, His working on us and in us, but He desires us to take the share that belongs to us in completing the deliverance which must begin by supernatural intervention of a Mightier than the angel, even the Lord of angels.

And so this little picture of the angel leading Peter through the prison, and then leaving him to his own common sense and courage as soon as he came out into the street, is just a practical illustration of the great text, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you.’

Acts 12:5-6. Peter therefore — Till the day of his execution came; was kept in prison — Under the continual guard of the fore-mentioned soldiers. But prayer without ceasing — (The original expression, προσευχη εκτενης, signifies, earnest and importunate, as well as continual prayer;) was made of the church for him — That is, for his deliverance, yet when their prayer was answered, they could scarce believe it, Acts 12:15. But why had they not prayed for James’s deliverance also? Doubtless because he was put to death as soon as apprehended. And when Herod would have brought him forth — For execution; the same night — That is, the night before he had designed to do it; Peter was sleeping — Easy and void of fear; between two soldiers, bound with two chains — It is well known that this way of securing prisoners of consequence was practised among the Romans, as Grotius has shown in his note on Acts 28:16. One end of one chain was fastened to Peter’s right hand, and the other end to the left arm of one of the soldiers; the other chain was, in like manner, fastened to Peter’s left arm, and to the soldier’s right arm; so that, humanly speaking, it was impossible he should have risen without immediately awaking them. And the keepers before the door — The other two guards, then on duty, stood sentry before the prison doors, that there might be no attempt of any kind made to rescue him. So that he was sufficiently secured, to all human appearance. It is likely the Jews remembered how all the apostles had escaped, when they had formerly put them in prison; and, perhaps, they suspected the fidelity of the guards. It was, therefore, most probably at their request that such a number of soldiers were appointed to guard Peter. But though the persecutors thus showed themselves skilful in taking measures to destroy, they soon found, by experience, that no device can avail against any whom God is determined to preserve.

12:1-5 James was one of the sons of Zebedee, whom Christ told that they should drink of the cup that he was to drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that he was to be baptized with, Mt 20:23. Now the words of Christ were made good in him; and if we suffer with Christ, we shall reign with him. Herod imprisoned Peter: the way of persecution, as of other sins, is downhill; when men are in it, they cannot easily stop. Those make themselves an easy prey to Satan, who make it their business to please men. Thus James finished his course. But Peter, being designed for further services, was safe; though he seemed now marked out for a speedy sacrifice. We that live in a cold, prayerless generation, can hardly form an idea of the earnestness of these holy men of old. But if the Lord should bring on the church an awful persecution like this of Herod, the faithful in Christ would learn what soul-felt prayer is.But prayer was made - The church was apprised of his imprisonment and danger, and had no resource but to apply to God by prayer. In scenes of danger there is no other refuge; and the result shows that even in most discouraging circumstances God can hear prayer. Nothing scarcely could appear more hopeless than the idea of rescuing Peter out of the hands of Herod, and out of the prison, and out of the custody of sixteen men, by prayer. But the prayer of faith Was prevalent with God.

Without ceasing - Intense, steady, ardent prayer. The word used here ἐκτενής ektenēs is found in only one other place in the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:8, "Have fervent charity among yourselves." The word has rather the idea that their prayer was earnest and fervent than that it was constant.

Of the church - By the church.

5, 6. prayer was made without ceasing—rather, "instant," "earnest," "urgent" (Margin); as in Lu 22:44; Ac 26:7; and 1Pe 4:8 (see Greek).

of the church unto God for him—not in public assembly, for it was evidently not safe to meet thus; but in little groups in private houses, one of which was Mary's (Ac 12:12). And this was kept up during all the days of unleavened bread.

Peter therefore was kept in prison, till a fit time to offer him up as a sacrifice unto the people: so basely do wicked men stoop for their ends.

But prayer was made: the only help or hope poor Christians had, was from prayer (preces et lachrymae); there are no quaternions of soldiers can keep the passage shut that is towards heaven.

Without ceasing; continued, long prayers, without intermission; but also fervent and earnest prayers, oloqucwv, with all the might of their souls; remembering the apostle now in bonds, as bound with him, Hebrews 13:3.

Peter therefore was kept in prison,.... Till the feast of the passover was at an end:

but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him; this was not done by them as a body together, but either by them in several bands at different places, or by some of the principal of the church at some one certain place, and where they might frequently change companies, and keep on a continual incessant prayer for days together; and whereas it is very likely it might be at the beginning of the passover, when Peter was taken up, and it was now at the close of it, when he was delivered, the church might be engaged by companies alternately, a whole week together, in prayer, on this occasion.

{4} Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.

(4) The prayers of the godly overturn the counsel of tyrants, obtain angels from God, break the prison, unloose the chains, put Satan to flight, and preserve the Church.

Acts 12:5-6. But there was earnest prayer made by the church to God for him. On ἐκτενής, peculiar to the later Greek (1 Peter 4:5; Luke 22:44), see Lobeck, ad Phryn. p. 311.

προάγειν] to bring publicly forward. See on Acts 12:4.

τῇ νυκτὶ ἐκείνῃ] on that night; when, namely, Herod had already resolved on the bringing forward, which was to be accomplished on the day immediately following.

According to the Roman method of strict military custody, Peter was bound by chain to his guard. Comp. Joseph. Antt. xviii. 6. 7; Plin. ep. x. 65; Senec. Ephesians 5, al. This binding, however, not by one chain to one soldier, but by two chains, and so with each hand attached to a soldier, was an aggravation, which may be explained from the fact that the execution was already determined. See, generally, Wieseler, pp. 381, 395. Two soldiers of the τετράδιον on guard were in the prison, fastened to Peter asleep (κοιμωμ.), and, indeed, sleeping profoundly (see Acts 12:7) in the peace of the righteous (Psalm 3:6); and two as guards (φύλακες) were stationed outside at some distance from each other, forming the πρώτην φυλακὴν καὶ δευτέραν (Acts 12:10).

Acts 12:5. ὁ μὲν οὖνπροσευχὴ δὲ: both A. and R.V. regard προσ. δὲ in the same verse as the antithesis, but see Page’s note, where the antithesis is found in Acts 12:6, ὅτε δέ. If we retain the former interpretation, Acts 12:5 may be regarded as a kind of parenthesis, the ὅτε δέ in Acts 12:6 forming a kind of antithesis to Acts 12:4.—ἐκτενής, see critical notes; if we read ἐκτενῶς = “earnestly,” R.V. (Latin, intente), adverb is Hellenistic, used (by St.Luke 22:44, and) once elsewhere in 1 Peter 1:22 (cf. the adjective in 1 Peter 4:8), so of prayer in Clem. Rom., Cor[248], xxxiv., 7. In LXX cf. the use of the word in Joel 1:14 (but see H. and R.), Jonah 3:8, Jdt 4:12 (see H. and R.), 3Ma 5:9. The adjective is also found in 3Ma 3:10; 3Ma 5:29. Their praying shows “non fuisse animis fractos,” Calvin. The word passed into the services of the Church, and was often repeated by the deacon: δεηθῶμεν ἐκ. or ἐκτενέστερον.

[248] Corinth, Corinthian or Corinthians.

5. Peter therefore was kept in prison] Another indication of the longer duration of the imprisonment, and that he was not arrested on the day of the Paschal sacrifice with the purpose of being brought forth on the morning of the 15th of Nisan, as some have maintained.

but prayer was made without ceasing [earnestly] of the church unto God for him] The same Greek word is used in the description of our Lord’s prayer (Luke 22:44), “Being in an agony he prayed more earnestly.” The prayers of the Church were offered by assemblies of Christians meeting in various private houses (see Acts 12:12), for the persecution would now render public Christian services dangerous, as we know was often the case in the early days of Christianity.

Acts 12:5. Προσευχὴ, prayer) Philem., Acts 12:22, “I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.”—ἐχτενὴς) instant and earnest,—ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ, for him) They prayed concerning a thing which was even of such a kind that, when it was come to pass, it seemed incredible to them, Acts 12:15. How marvellous and subtle (recondite) is the nature of faith and prayer! Why did they not also pray for James? Because he had been speedily slain.

Verse 5. - The prison for prison, A.V.; earnestly for without ceasing, A.V. (ἐκτενὴς, or as in the R.T. ἐκτενῶς, has the sense of intensity rather than duration; see Luke 22:14, T.R.; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 Peter 4:8). As the last of the days of unleavened bread approached, the prayers of the Church would be more and more intense in their earnestness. We have but to read the preceding chapters to judge how precious to the Church the life of Peter must have been. Acts 12:5Without ceasing (ἐκτενὴς)

Wrong. The word means earnest. See on fervently, 1 Peter 1:22; and compare instantly, Acts 26:7; more earnestly, Luke 22:44; fervent, 1 Peter 4:8. The idea of continuance is, however, expressed here by the finite verb with the participle. Very literally, prayer was arising earnest.

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