Peter was sure he was about to be killed like James (v.2), but he was able to sleep (v.6), because he was comforted by verses like Psalm 3:2-5; 4:6-8. But just knowing your Bible doesn’t bring peace automatically. You have to learn to stay your mind on the Lord as well (Isa.26:3).
Peter must be in a deep sleep, for the light of that shiny angel didn’t wake him up. Angels aren’t described in the Old Testament, but they are in the New Testament, for the New Testament was the dawn of a new day for Israel (IIPe.1:19).
In verse 8, we’re not told what happened to the 2 soldiers Peter was sleeping between, but they probably fainted (cf. Mt.28:4). But Peter is free, thinking he saw “a vision” (Acts 12:9). That is, he thought he dreamed it (cf. Job 20:8).
We’re not told how the angel marched Peter through 16 soldiers (cf. Acts 12:4), but it was probably similar to how the Lord passed through the midst of men trying to kill Him (Jo. 8:59). And the “iron gate” (v.10) opened “of its own accord.”
But notice the angel doesn’t give Peter any instructions after he frees Peter (v.10,11). The first time an angel freed Peter from jail, he told him to go speak the words of eternal life to people (Acts 5:19,20), but not here. That’s because God was discontinuing His kingdom program through the 12 apostles, and starting up the grace program through the Apostle Paul. Paul was now in charge of speaking the words of eternal life, so the angel doesn’t recommission Peter to do so.
But why did God spare Peter, but allow James to be killed? There’s two answers. First, when the 12 were deciding whether Paul’s new ministry to the Gentiles was legit, Peter had to stand up and testify for him (Acts 15:7-11). But God allowed James to die because He wanted to make James and Peter types of the Lord’s resurrection, like the birds that lived and died (Lev.14:4-7), and the goats (Lev.16:3-10).
The Lord predicted James would be killed (Mark 10:35-40). The “cup” there was the Lord’s death (cf.Mt.26:39), as was the “baptism” (Lu.12:50). The word “baptism” in the Bible means identification. In the Bible’s first baptism, Pharaoh’s army was closing in on the Jews, so they said, as it were, “We’re with Moses,” and followed him into the Red Sea (ICor.10:1,2). They didn’t get wet (Ex.14:22). They were identified with Moses in the sea. And when James was killed he was baptized—or identified with—the Lord in His death.
James and Peter were types of Tribulation saints, some of whom will be killed, and some of whom won’t. But all Tribulation saints will be able to sleep in their cells, for they’ll know that they’ll someday safely enter the kingdom (Ps.4:8).
You too can sleep in your darkest hour, because you too have been identified with the Lord in His death when you believed (Rom.6:4), and so you can have the peace of knowing you’ll be identified with Him in His resurrection (Rom.6:5).
But God won’t break you out of jail. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t care about you. He just shows His care in a different way—a way you can see develop in Acts. He opened Paul’s prison door and released his chains like He did for Peter in Acts 16:26, but later He let Paul rot in jail two whole years (28:30). But He showed He cared by allowing “all” who wanted to visit him to come and minister to him (Phil.4:10, 18). Paul was “content” with that (Phil.4:11). Are you content when God doesn’t save you from your difficult circumstances, but ministers to you through His saints instead?
God told the Jews that someday their iron gate would open (Isa.45:1-3) and they’d rejoice in His riches. That first part happened when they were released from Babylon, but the second part won’t happen until the kingdom. Then they’ll think they’re dreaming (Ps.126:1-3) and sing God’s praises. And so will you someday when all your prisons are past!
A video of this sermon is available on YouTube: “Peter and The Jailbreaker” Acts 12:5-11