God sets the prisoners free Acts 12:1-17

descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from slavery in Egypt. Throughout the Old Testament that wonderful liberation was the dominant picture of salvation for the Israelites. And time and again God promises freedom for the captives when His Messiah would come.
Isaiah 42: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
So it is no surprise that right at the beginning of His ministry in His first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus points to those promises quoting Isaiah 61.
Luke 4 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Freeing the prisoners, releasing those who sit in darkness from the dungeon, freedom for the prisoners and releasing the oppressed. These were the blessings of salvation God had promised and that Jesus came to bring. We recognise that these promises are primarily fulfilled spiritually as Jesus sets people free from the power of sin and the power of death and the power of the devil. But there were also occasions when the promises of freedom were fulfilled entirely literally and God worked miracles to bring followers of Jesus out of prison. These events act as visual aids demonstrating to us the truth that God sets prisoners free.
We thought about this as recently as February in the ministry of Jesus. We saw that people can be imprisoned by their circumstances. People can be imprisoned by their backgrounds. They can be imprisoned by the devil. And without Jesus all of us would spend our lives imprisoned by sin. But God delights in setting prisoners free. This is what Jesus taught us back in John 8.
John 8 32 (Jesus said) Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’
36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
God sets the prisoners free.
6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance.

Peter was bound in chains. Each of his arms was chained to a guard. And even if he had got out of those chains there were two more soldiers guarding the door of the cell. More guards in the corridor and then the big iron gate which of course was locked. No hope of escape there then! But God had other plans.
7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. ‘Quick, get up!’ he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8 Then the angel said to him, ‘Put on your clothes and sandals.’ And Peter did so. ‘Wrap your cloak round you and follow me,’ the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

Escape was totally impossible. It was so unthinkable that Peter could not believe for an instant that he was actually getting out of prison. He thought he was just dreaming. But the miracle was happening! God really was setting this prisoner free!

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.’

God can work miracles. It shouldn’t need saying, but we so easily forget. The God of the Bible is the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Nothing is impossible with God. And the ministry of Jesus and the story of the Early Church are full of miracles. In both the Gospels and in the Book of Acts around one third of those miracles are acts of physical healing, of lame people and blind people and even bringing dead people back to life again. God setting people free from sickness and suffering and pain. Then another third are miracles of deliverance, setting people free from the grip of demons. God setting prisoners free from evil. And alongside healing and deliverance there are other kinds of miracles which we can call “nature miracles” where God breaks in and suspends the rules of nature which govern our everyday lives. Jesus feeding 5000 people with just five loaves and two fishes. Turning water into wine and calming the storm and walking on the water. And the miracle we read about today. An angel bringing light into a dark cell. The chains falling off Peter’s wrists. The locked iron gate opening by itself so Peter could walk out. And all this time the guards who were on duty see and hear absolutely nothing. God can work miracles to set prisoners free.
Sometimes in His Sovereign grace God does work miracles. And sometimes in His Sovereign wisdom he does not.
Acts 12:1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
So sometimes it is not God’s will to work a miracle to bring Christians who are imprisoned for their faith out to freedom. Sometimes Christians who are imprisoned become martyrs. The first Christian martyr was John the Baptist. And the Book of Acts is honest about Christians who died for their faith, from Stephen, to James the brother of John, the first of Jesus’s inner circle to die for his faith out of Peter, James and John. In due course all of the eleven apostles apart from John would be put to death. Paul the apostle to the Gentiles would be imprisoned and eventually die still under house arrest. God does not always work miracles to set Christians free from prison.
So the New Testament encourages Christians to remember and to pray for our brothers and sisters who are imprisoned for their faith.
Hebrews 13 3 Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
It is very good for us to lift up the persecuted church around the world in prayer. While he himself was imprisoned for his faith, Paul encouraged his churches to pray for Him.
Ephesians 6 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
19 Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

So we should pray for our brothers and sisters who are in chains. The organisation Open Doors has been supporting persecuted Christians for more than 60 years. It started with the activities of God’s Smuggler missionary Brother Andrew who risked his life many times to take copies of the Bible illegally to the underground church in the former Soviet Union. Still today Open Doors is doing dangerous work in many countries around the world supporting Christians who are being persecuted and imprisoned for their faith. (Details on the Service Sheet www.opendoorsuk.org)
Colossians 4 2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. 3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
We should pray for Christians who are imprisoned and persecuted, because
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

Somebody has said, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” God can work miracles and often He does so in answer to the prayers of Christians. Jesus made some wonderful promises about prayer.
John 14: 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
For whoever believes in Jesus, God will continue to work the same kind of miracles we saw in the ministry of Jesus, and “even greater things than these.” I would be happy if we were just doing the same as Jesus, but the promise is of “even greater things than these”, when Christians pray in Jesus’s name.
Mark 11 22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
What marvellous promises. But I think sometimes Christians don’t dare pray for those kinds of miracles because it seems that the bar is set so high.
“whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it,”
(If anyone) does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him,
That is amazing faith. Does not doubt in his heart. Probably the main reason we don’t see many mountains moving is because we don’t dare ask those kinds of prayers. We knowwe just don’t have that much faith, so then we don’t pray. In the same way the letter of James expects us to have complete faith when we pray.
James 1 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
Believe and not doubt. Wow! Not many of us have that kind of unswerving faith! But this is where the story of Peter’s release from prison is so encouraging and inspiring. We may not have that much faith. But neither did Peter. He couldn’t believe God was bringing him out of the prison. He thought he was just dreaming.
11 Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.’

Peter wasn’t showing much faith that night. Nor were those Christians who were gathered praying for Peter.
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

Now read what happened when Peter went to find the church.
12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognised Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, ‘Peter is at the door!’
15 ‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, ‘It must be his angel.’

We are allowed to find the whole situation funny. The contradiction that the church were so busy praying for Peter, but that when their prayers were actually answered they couldn’t believe it! He knocks at the door and the servant girl Rhoda is so excited she rushes to tell everybody and leaves him on the doorstep. But nobody believes her – they think she is mad. Because in their hearts they don’t really believe God will answer the prayers they are asking.

Of course what makes this doubly hilarious is that Peter had already been miraculously released from prison before.
ACTS 5 17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 ‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people all about this new life.’
…. (They) sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 ‘We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.’
25 Then someone came and said, ‘Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.’

So Acts 12 was not the first time that an angel had brought Peter out of jail. When the church were praying they must have been remembering how God had miraculously released the apostles on the previous occasion. They weren’t praying for a miracle they had never seen before. I am sure they were praying for God to do again exactly what they had seen Him do last time. And at least some of those who were there praying actually had the experience of being miraculously released themselves. It had happened to them and still
their faith was feeble. Yet God answered their prayers!

Other apostles had already had that miraculous experience of being released from jail. Yet STILL when Peter turns up at the house nobody can believe that their prayers have been answered! They leave him on the doorstep.

16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.
God answers prayer. Even when our faith is weak. We often think we need to achieve a certain amount of faith before God will answer our prayers. Instead this passage shows us we don’t need great faith – just faith in a great God! Be encouraged. Those first Christians weren’t super-saints. Even the apostles who had been with Jesus were not so different from us. They had their doubts. They had their questions. They were very earnest in their praying – but not really believing that God would answer their prayers and certainly not expecting the miracle God which worked. But God answered their prayers even though their faith was weak. We may not have much faith. But we can demonstrate our faith simply by praying. Asking because we believe it is worth the time and the effort spent in asking!
The story is told of a saint who was on a tour around heaven and he was shown a vast warehouse filled to overflowing with all kinds of blessings. He asked, “What are all these blessings for?” The angel replied, “They are just a few of the answers to prayers people have never prayed”
God sets the prisoners free! God even works miracles. And he will answer our prayers. Watchman Nee wrote, “The Church should be heaven’s outlet, the channel of release for heaven’s power, the medium of accomplishment of God’s purpose. Many things have accumulated in heaven because God has not yet found his outlet on earth. The Church has not yet prayed.”

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