Reading: The Prisoner and the Dictator (David Feddes)
By David Feddes
The dictator was evil; the prisoner was innocent. The dictator was in charge; the prisoner was in chains. The dictator was on a roll; the prisoner was on a losing streak. The dictator was about to gain more power; the prisoner was about to die. But the prisoner ended up free, and the dictator ended up dead.
The Bible tells the story in Acts 12. The dictator, King Herod, arrested the apostle Peter. Peter wasn’t a criminal, and Herod had nothing personal against him. It was just politics. Important people wanted Peter dead and Christian activities shut down. Herod figured it would pay politically to keep those people happy, so he had Peter arrested.
Peter was kept in a cell. Beyond the walls and door of his cell was another walled area with another door. If he somehow got past that, he still wouldn’t be free. He’d find himself in a courtyard facing an even higher, stronger wall, with the only exit being a locked iron gate. Escape looked impossible. Peter was between two soldiers at all times, with one of his wrists chained to one soldier, and the other wrist chained to the other soldier. A third soldier guarded the door to the cell, a fourth guarded the next door, and various soldiers patrolled the outer courtyard. A total of sixteen soldiers—four squads of four soldiers each—took turns guarding Peter around the clock. Herod was taking no chances that Peter might disappear.
“So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (Acts 12:5). They prayed because they were devout and were supposed to pray, and they prayed because they were desperate and couldn’t do much else. But they didn’t expect much. They figured Peter was a goner.
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. 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.
Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 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. 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.
Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches…”
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. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. (Acts 12:6-17)
That story reminds me of a farming community that was hit by a long period of hot, dry weather. Parched plants began to shrivel. If it didn’t rain soon, the crops would die. There would be no harvest. Many farmers would be ruined. As the situation became more and more desperate, the local Christians decided to have a special prayer meeting to ask God to send rain. When they had gathered in the church, the pastor looked around at them and said, “This is a prayer meeting for rain. Why didn’t any of you bring your umbrellas?”
When Peter was in prison and the Christians met to pray for him, they didn’t bring umbrellas. They didn’t expect their prayers to be answered. When Peter knocked at their door, Rhoda was so amazed to hear Peter’s voice that she forgot to open the door for him. When she told the others, they thought she must be hysterical. When she kept insisting that Peter was there, they figured that Peter’s guardian angel—unemployed now that Peter was dead—had come to pay them a visit. In their minds, anything was more likely than Peter himself, in the flesh, knocking at the door. But it was Peter!
When people prayed for Peter, shouldn’t they have been expecting Peter to show up? When people pray for rain, shouldn’t they have umbrellas standing by? When you pray for something, shouldn’t you pray with confidence? Well, it’s not easy to pray with confidence when you’re on a losing streak. If you’ve prayed again and again for rain but the drought continues, it’s easy to assume that you’ll come up dry on the next prayer too. Why bring any umbrellas to this particular prayer meeting? If you’ve prayed on various occasions for God to save someone’s life but they’ve died anyway, why expect God to rescue the person you’re praying for now? If your praying seems to be on a losing streak, if God himself seems to be on a losing streak, it’s hard to pray with high expectations.
Peter’s friends might have had higher expectations if they had been praying while they were still on a winning streak. There had been a period of time when God was doing one amazing thing after another. The winning streak started when God raised Jesus from the dead after his enemies had killed him. The winning streak continued when Jesus ascended to the throne of heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to his followers on Pentecost. They received such power in preaching that thousands of people put their faith in Jesus. The apostles did amazing miracles, and many more people became Christians. Even when enemies opposed them, the Christian winning streak continued. The first time the apostles were arrested, their enemies couldn’t decide how to punish them, and they let them go. A bit later the apostles were arrested again. “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out” (Acts 5:19).
Now, if it had been right at that point that Herod arrested Peter, those Christians would have prayed with confidence for Peter’s release. They would not have been shocked to see Peter standing at their door. There had already been one angel rescue from prison, so why not expect another? But between that first rescue and the later rescue of Peter, a lot had happened. The winning streak had come to an end. The rescues had stopped. The momentum had apparently shifted to God’s enemies.
God seemed to be on a losing streak. It began when the apostles were arrested yet again. Some of their enemies wanted to kill the apostles but were talked out of it and settled for whipping them severely (Acts 5:40). After that whipping, things went from bad to worse. A deacon named Stephen, a key leader among the Christians, was killed by an angry mob, who pelted him with rocks until he died. Then the problems went beyond mob violence to a planned campaign by the government to destroy the church’s leadership. King Herod arrested some Christians. The dictator ordered that the apostle James, one of the three top leaders of the church, have his head chopped off. I’m sure the church was praying for James, but he was not rescued. James was killed at Herod’s command. And then Herod had Peter, the chief spokesman of the apostles, arrested and held under the tightest possible security.
What a losing streak! First a savage whipping, then a key leader murdered by a mob, then an even more important leader executed by the government, then the most important leader of all arrested and scheduled for death. In a losing streak like that, it was hard to expect much in answer to prayer. Sure, God had done great things in the past, but what had God done lately? What if the era of miracles was over? What if God was no longer answering prayers as he did earlier?
Maybe you know the feeling. You enjoy a period of time when things go well for you and many prayers are answered the way you hoped, and it’s easy to pray with confidence. But then the momentum seems to shift. One thing after another goes wrong, and your prayers seem to make no difference. In fact, the more you pray, the worse things seem to get. Even then, you still pray, but not with confidence. You pray mainly out of duty or desperation. Duty says praying is what you ought to do, and desperation says praying is the only thing you can do, so you do it. You pray. But you have low expectations or none at all. That’s what a losing streak can do to your confidence in prayer.
Name It And Claim It?
One way people try to build more confidence in prayer is by trying to convince themselves that God will do whatever they ask, if only they can get themselves to believe strongly enough. Their philosophy is, “Name it, and claim it.” State what you want, declare that it’s yours, and it will be yours. In this view, the key to getting results in prayer is to want something eagerly enough and to believe firmly enough.
But is this true? Did God rescue Peter from prison because people prayed with such certainty? Far from it! When they prayed, they didn’t believe Peter would be rescued. Even after it happened, they still could hardly believe it. God’s action obviously did not depend on their level of confidence. They had far less confidence when they prayed for Peter than when they prayed for James. When they prayed for James, an earlier rescue was still in their minds, and they probably expected it to happen again. But James was killed. When they prayed for Peter, they didn’t expect much. But God rescued Peter anyway. So God’s answers to prayer don’t always depend on our level of certainty but on his wise choice of what’s best.
The “name it and claim it” approach is right to emphasize confidence in God’s power to do anything we ask, but it’s wrong to assume that we always know God’s will ahead of time or that getting the result we desire is as simple as stating what we want and feeling certain we’ll get it.
This approach isn’t just incorrect; it’s harmful in at least three ways. The first problem is that it degrades God by putting him under our control. God has no choice but to do what we tell him to do. All it takes is for us to psych ourselves into being sure. If only we can pump up our confidence enough, God has to do it. The power comes from him, but the decision is ours. Once we name and claim something, God must do what we say. We call the shots, and God follows our orders. This approach degrades God. It fails to recognize that God is always free to follow his own mysterious wisdom rather than do what we want—no matter how sincerely and confidently we might be praying.
A second problem with this approach is that it judges and blames people. If “name it and claim it” is true, then if you can’t get a problem solved or get a prayer answered the way you want, it’s your own fault. Someone suffering from cancer is told, “The reason you haven’t been healed is that you don’t have enough faith.” Someone struggling with financial setbacks or other problems is told, “You must have some secret sin that blocks you from the prosperity God can give you.” A person paralyzed in an accident is told, “If you would simply name it and claim it, you could walk again. But you have too much doubt.” This is terribly wrong. If it is God’s will not to grant a prayer request, then it is cruel to blame someone’s sin or lack of faith for their problem. It harms those who need help. It discourages those who need encouragement.
A third problem with “name it and claim it” thinking is that it puffs up those who ought to be more humble. If things are going your way and you’re prosperous and healthy, you say to yourself, “Ah, this is because of my strong faith and clean living. I don’t have hidden sins that block me from God’s blessing, and I have a high-quality faith that makes good things keep flowing from God to me.” Instead of humbly thanking God for undeserved blessings, you feel proud that you’ve impressed God.
God’s ways are not so easy to figure out. James was beheaded; Peter was rescued. Was that because James was more sinful than Peter? Was that because the church’s prayers for Peter were more expectant than the prayers for James? No, the prayers for Peter were less expectant, and James was no more sinful than Peter—both were saved by Jesus’ blood, not by their own goodness. Why did James die while Peter went on living? For reasons known only to God.
You might think Peter got a better deal than James, but keep in mind that James was taken straight to heaven, while Peter had to go on working hard leading people to Jesus and struggling with obstacles. Years later Peter was killed by being crucified upside down. Even an apostle rescued from death ended up being killed later on. At some point, even faith healers end up dying of something that their faith doesn’t heal. It’s clear, then, that God doesn’t always spare us from trouble, and the Lord doesn’t always give us exactly what we pray for. All of us will have times when our prayers don’t get the answers we were hoping for, and all of us end up dying of something, no matter how much faith we have.
“Name it and claim it” thinking is wrong, but there’s another way to go wrong. Many of us go the opposite extreme. Our problem isn’t that we expect too much of prayer but too little. We might pray, but we’re stunned when we get a joyous answer to prayer. We’re shocked when God actually does what we ask him to do. Our expectations are often far too low.
If we have a prayer meeting for rain, God might choose not to send the rain—but shouldn’t we take an umbrella to the prayer meeting just in case? If Peter is in prison and the church is praying for him to be rescued, God might not rescue him—but shouldn’t someone at least be watching for him just in case God does rescue him? If you bring your requests to God, shouldn’t you be looking for his answer?
Many of us need to expect far more than we do. Let’s not only think it’s possible God will do what we ask, but let’s consider it certain that God will give what we pray for, unless he chooses to answer in a way that’s even better than what we prayed for. Some of God’s answers are thrilling, while others are at first disappointing, even shattering. But when God’s people pray, God always answers in the way that’s best, even if it doesn’t always seem that way at the time.
No obstacle can prevent God from doing what he chooses. His answer doesn’t depend on the difficulty of the situation or on whether you feel like you’re on a winning streak or a losing streak. God is not affected by momentum. Sports announcers often talk about momentum. One team has the upper hand for awhile, but then the momentum swings to the other team. Well, God never loses momentum. God never has a losing streak, even when it seems that way to us. God never fails. He works all things according to his own purposes and for the good of his people. You can be sure of that. If you pray for something, you might not be absolutely sure that God will do what you ask, but you can be absolutely sure that if it’s best, God will indeed do it. You might sometimes be unclear about what God will decide, but never be unsure of God’s power to do what he decides. When God decided to free Peter, cells and doors and iron gates couldn’t stop him. Chains and soldiers and a nasty dictator couldn’t stop him. If God wanted Peter to be free, then Peter would be free.
Peter himself did not need to be rescued from death in order to be okay. He was as ready to die as he was ready to live. Peter was not afraid of death. I sometimes think that the biggest miracle in the story is how soundly Peter slept the night before he was supposed to be executed. Would you sleep that soundly if it looked as though you would die the next day? Peter was so deep in sleep that the angel struck him on the side to wake him up. Even then Peter was so sleepy that he thought he was dreaming until he found himself a block away from the dungeon with the night breeze in his face. How could Peter rest so well? The Bible says, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8), and that was Peter’s attitude. He was ready to die and spend eternity with Christ, but he was also delighted to go on living and serve Christ awhile longer.
What a difference it makes when you know Jesus as your comfort in life and in death. You can have peace in your heart when death threatens you, and you can have joy in your heart when God extends your life. In all circumstances, count on the Lord. He never fails. He will either do what you pray for or do something that even more effectively honors his name, advances his kingdom, and enhances the good of all his people. When God allowed James to die, it was not because God couldn’t handle the power of Herod. It was because God in his wisdom chose to bring James home to Jesus. When God decided to rescue Peter, Herod couldn’t stop him. No power on earth or in heaven can stop God.
Death of a Dictator
The story of the prisoner and the dictator shows God’s kindness and help for his friends. It also shows God’s judgment of his enemies. When Peter turned up missing from the prison, the soldiers couldn’t figure out what happened. Herod ordered a search, but Peter was nowhere to be found. Herod questioned the guards (probably using torture) but the guards couldn’t explain what happened to Peter, so the dictator had them executed.
Then Herod attended to other political matters. He had a dispute with some cities in a neighboring country, but Herod had the upper hand, since they depended on the dictator’s country for their food supply. So Herod went to visit them and scheduled a speech in a stadium. Modern politicians have media experts and image consultants, but they couldn’t top Herod’s talent in this department. Josephus, a historian who lived at that time, wrote that Herod had a special robe made with silver woven into the fabric so that light would gleam from it. He timed his speech for early morning, starting at sunrise, so that the first rays of the sun would shine on the king’s silver robe and dazzle the people. As Herod spoke, the people responded by shouting, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Whether the people were dazzled into thinking Herod was divine or were simply hungry and wanted to flatter Herod into supplying them with food, their shouts were exactly what the dictator wanted to hear. It felt good to have absolute power and to be praised as a god.
In the Bible God says, “I am the Lord… I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah 42:8). The position of absolute power and deity is already occupied, and not by Herod. God had been patient with Herod and had allowed him to go on living despite committing many sins, but at that point, God decided that Herod was finished. “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms, and died” (Acts 12:23). Josephus the historian parallels the Bible’s account and reports that Herod suffered terribly for five days before died. He was 54 years old.
Acts 12 starts with Herod at the height of his powers, with Peter in prison, and with the church afraid and apparently in danger of being wiped out. Acts 12 ends with Herod dead, with Peter spreading the gospel, and with the church growing by leaps and bounds. Indeed, after the Bible describes all these events, Acts 12:24 says, “But the word of God continued to increase and spread.” That’s what it’s all about. Some people may be martyred while others may be rescued, depending on what God decides. Dictators may attack the church or be struck down. But through it all, the word of God keeps spreading, and its impact keeps growing, bringing people to faith in Jesus, transforming lives, affecting societies and nations. If you pray for God to rescue you from a particular problem, he might do it, and he might not. Either way, you may be sure that God will do what you ask when you pray, “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s name will be vindicated, and those who defile God’s name will perish. God’s kingdom will flourish, and God’s enemies will end up as worm food.
The story of the prisoner and the dictator is a sweet promise and a stern warning. Those who belong to Jesus have the sweet promise that nothing can separate them from his love and that they have divine power to triumph over every enemy. Those who reject the Lord and make themselves their own supreme authority have the stern warning that God’s enemies will perish. When God rescued Peter and destroyed Herod, he gave a snapshot view of what’s at stake for every one of us. God’s angel rescued Peter, and Jesus promises that he will someday come again with all his holy angels to rescue his people and renew the world. God’s angel struck Herod with worms that gnawed inside his body, and Jesus warns that after death, God’s enemies will suffer in “hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Each of us will either be rescued from all evils by the Lord’s saving power, or we will perish under his wrath. There is no third option, only salvation or damnation. The lowliest prisoner who has Christ is better off than the mightiest ruler without Christ.