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Peter’s Angelic Deliverance From Prison

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present meditation is on: Peter’s Angelic Deliverance From Prison

As we know, St. Luke is the great historian of the New Testament.  His Acts of the Apostles are literally a continuation of the third gospel.  But the gospel ends with the Risen Christ promising to send the Holy Spirit, the Acts of the Apostles tell us what happened when the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost Sunday.

Just as Christ’s death on Calvary marked the birth of the Church, coming into existence, so Pentecost marked the birthday of the Church as the mystical body whose graces would be radiated to the whole human race.

Christ was embarrassingly clear when He told the disciples, just before His ascension, that they were to be His martyrs, “in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth.”

It is not for nothing that we identify the first three centuries of Christian history as the Age of Martyrs.  No sooner had Christ ascended into heaven, than the martyrdom of His followers began.  Hundreds of thousands of Christians were watched in the coliseums as they were burnt, stoned, and beaten to death because of their love for Christ, their Savior.  Steven’s long discourse, recorded by St. Luke, is only a summary of what we have come to call The Acts of the Martyrs which are the record of the Church Militant.

Christ’s enemies made a big mistake when they killed Jesus and bribed the guards to lie about the Savior’s Resurrection from the dead.  They thought that would be the end of the matter.  This strange fanatic, who claimed to work miracles and whose followers believed He rose from the dead, did not disappear.  So far from stifling Christ’s teaching, the very opposition increased the Church’s fertility.  Understandably, those who crucified the Master would want to do the same to His followers.  Among these followers none was more prominent than Peter.

Eventually, Peter was put to death by the Romans who envied the rising tide of Christians in the empire.  The Romans feared, as it turns out, justifiably, that they would lose their empire.  They did.  In the first three centuries of the Church’s history, every one of the bishops of Rome was martyred for the faith.  Peter began the phenomenon.  Pope John Paul II is only the latest example of a successor of Peter whose assassination was almost successful in our day.

Christ had predicted what Peter would experience.  St. Luke devotes no less than twenty-five extensive verses to the experience that Peter had of being imprisoned for his faith, being delivered from jail by an angel and then what happened to the tyrant Herod who had carefully planned out Peter’s murder.

St. Luke’s narrative of Peter’s imprisonment and deliverance, and the punishment of Herod is a compendium of what the Church’s history would be experiencing even to the end of time.  How we need, in today’s world, the inspiration of what St. Luke tells us about the angelic experience of Peter’s deliverance by the angel.  We are now ready to take up the narrative.

After Christ’s ascension, Herod Agrippa was king of the Jewish nation.  Totally subservient to the Roman governor, Herod did everything he could to placate the Jews after they had crucified Jesus.  The hatred of those who had rejected Christ did not abate after the Savior’s crucifixion.  If anything, their hatred of Christ became more intense in the hatred of Christ’s followers.

To please the Jews, Herod had the apostle James, brother of John, put to death with a sword.  Seeing how much this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter with the same intention.  Knowing that Peter was leader of the Christians, the king had no less than four guards of soldiers, four in each group, a total of sixteen military men to insure that Peter would either not escape be delivered by a mob of Christians.  All the while that Peter was in prison, the mob that Herod feared was quietly praying for the first vicar of Christ chained in prison.  It was night before Herod planned to have Peter brought before the angry Jews and have him condemned to death.  Then the author of the Acts describes in dramatic detail what happened.

Now when Herod was about to bring him forth, that same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and outside the door sentries guarded the prison.  And behold, an angel of the Lord stood beside him, and a light shone in the room, and he struck Peter on the side, and spoke to him, saying, “Get up quickly.”  The chains dropped from his hands. And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.”  And he did so, and he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.”  And he followed him out without knowing what was being done by the angel was real, for he thought he was having a vision.  They passed through the first and second guard and came to the iron gate that leads into the city; and this opened to them of its own accord.  They ran out and passed on to one street, and straight away the angel left him.  Then Peter came to himself, and he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from the power of Herod and from all of the Jewish people who were expecting me.”

Once Peter realized the situation, he went to find lodging among the believing Christians.  He went to the nearby house of the mother of John Mark, the author of the second gospel.  When Peter knocked at the gate, the maid heard Peter’s voice but in her excitement she forgot to let Peter in.  When she reported hearing Peter’s voice, the people told her, “You are mad.  It cannot be Peter,” they said, “It is his angel.”  Peter kept knocking until someone finally opened the gate and led him into the house.  The apostle told everyone how an angel of the Lord had delivered him from prison.  After a short stay, he told the Christians to, “Tell this to the brethren.”

We get some idea of the cruelty of Herod when we read what St. Luke tells us.  Herod had all the guards in the prison put to death because they had allowed Peter, as he thought, to escape.

Soon after, Herod called a solemn assembly of the leaders of the people.  He was arrayed in kingly apparel and sat on his royal throne.  As he began to speak, the people shouted, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.”  No sooner do the crowd deify the king then, said the evangelist, “immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down because he had not given the honor to God; and he was eaten by worms and died.”

Thus in one chapter we have one angel of the Lord delivering Peter from certain death, and another angel sent by God to put to death the enemy of Peter for failing to honor God.

Now some explanation.  Among the implications of Peter’s deliverance from prison by an angel, two especially deserve prayerful reflection.  Here we see the first visible vicar of Christ released from prison by an angel, and an enemy of Christ suddenly put to death by an angel sent from God.

Among the role of the angelic hosts is to protect those who believe in Christ and are faithful to His will.  The history of the Church is filled with episodes of what could only be angelic interventions to safeguard the people of God.

The Church’s earliest tradition first tells us that, “The apostles have the angels to assist them in the accomplishment in the ministry of teaching, in the completion of their gospel work.  This does not mean only angelic assistance in the missionary work of the apostles but also the angelic guardianship of the apostles.  Again we are told, “There is an angel of Peter just as there is an angel of Paul and the valid lesser servants” of God.  In a later meditation we shall look more closely at our own Guardian angels.

What needs to be stressed here is that God provides for the protection of His Church a special concern for the Church’s leaders, namely the vicar of Christ in Rome and the bishops as successors of the apostles throughout the world.  As we look back over the history of Divine Revelation, we find that the angels of God have had a special mission to safeguard the lives and activity of the leaders, first in Israel and then in Christianity.

You might say this stands to revealed wisdom.  The forces of evil that are bent on destroying the work of God are mainly lead by the angelic hosts of the fallen spirits.  There is no one better equipped by their vocation and by the special help from God to engage in what may be called an angelic crusade to safeguard the work of Christ in a world that has been so widely seduced by the powers of demonic evil.

You might say it takes angels to cope with angels.  It takes the angelic spirits who glorify God to cope with the angelic spirits who are not only estranged from God but positively hostile to the Divine interests in the world of human history.  Only in heaven shall we know how many wars and strategic persecutions the devil has planned, organized and executed.

We have one more section to cover, the implications in our own spiritual lives.  First, there are more practical consequences in our lives from this narrative of Peter’s angelic deliverance than we realize.  It is a law of Christian history that the followers of Christ were, are, and will be persecuted by Christ’s enemies until the end of time.  It is so easy to attribute the trials through which the Church is undergoing to merely natural causes.  But that is a mistake.  There are preternatural powers constantly at work planning, scheming on how to undermine the work of Christ in the Church which He founded.  Not to know this is to be living in a dreamworld of unreality.

Part of this strategy of the evil spirit, and almost its foundation, is to seduce the Church’s leaders from their allegiance to Christ.  If the devil induced Judas to betray his Master and Peter to deny that he knew Christ, is it any wonder that over the centuries there have been so many unfaithful successors of the apostle.  No heresy in Christian history, I keep repeating, has ever succeeded without cooperation and support from the episcopate.  In a conversation that Pope Pius XI had in the mid-twenties with a Jesuit priest, Father Edmund Walsh, the Pope told him that the Church’s worst enemies were the unfaithful members of the hierarchy.

St. Peter’s imprisonment was part of God’s providence.  His miraculous deliverance from prison was an act of divine benevolence.  It took an angel to release Peter from prison against all human odds.  What we dare not forget is that angels are the ordinary agents used by God to protect and deliver His faithful servant from the machinations of evil men inspired by the evil spirit.

St. Luke did not have to go into so much detail to explain how the angel managed to get Peter out of jail.  He was writing under divine inspiration.  The Holy Spirit inspired him to go into so much detail to make it clear that every step of Peter’s deliverance was the supernatural work of angelic cooperation.  Angels have a phenomenal influence over the forces of nature, whether human or material.  They exercise this influence constantly for our benefit.

Perhaps the most sobering fact recounted by St. Luke is what happened to king Herod who had planned to murder the apostle Peter.  No less than a good angel was sent from God to release Peter by angelic strategy from certain death; so another surprisingly good angel was the immediate miraculous cause of the death of Herod.  The angels of God are engaged in two kinds of protection of human beings on earth.  They are commissioned to deliver the servants of God from the harm which their enemies wished to cause them, but good angels are also used by the Lord to destroy those who are enemies of the servants of God.  The most famous act of the good angels causing harm to the enemies of God’s friends was the ‘angel of death’ sent by Yahweh to slay all the first born of the Egyptian pharaoh who would not free the Israelites from their bondage.

Life and death are the two opposites in God’s providence to safeguard those who are loyal to His name.  His angels work miracles of benevolence in favor of those who are loyal to the Creator and, shall we say, acts of malevolence against those who interfere with God’s plans in favor of those who serve Him.

Mary, Queen of Angels and Mother of the Church, obtain from Jesus a deep understanding of how constantly the angels are used by God to protect the followers of your Son.  We ask you to help us realize that we are always protected, even miraculously, from the enemies of Divine Truth.  Help us to realize that, as long as we are faithful to the teachings of your Son, we have nothing to fear in this valley of tears.  Your Son told us, “I have overcome the world,” which means, “I have mastery over the prince of this world.”  Walking in your company in following Jesus Christ, we are secure on our way to that heavenly kingdom where the evil spirit has no more power over the children of God.  Amen.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #18, Friday 3/1/96, 9:30 AM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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