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Grown-Up Bible Stories

All They Did Was Show Up for Work

One thing that has changed in modern times is the role of the soldier. At least here in the United States, our laws prohibit the military from serving as a police force. There are exceptions and special circumstances, but in general, if a civilian sees a soldier on the street, he doesn’t expect to be stopped, questioned, fined, or arrested. In the old Roman Empire, on the other hand, the distinction between lawman and soldier was blurry at best. While the Romans had civilian law-enforcement people, the army also handled police matters. This was probably especially true in conquered areas such as Palestine. For instance, in Jerusalem, troops from a military barracks adjacent to the temple kept the peace. Hence it was that when Simon Peter found himself in prison, he wasn’t guarded by deputies, but by soldiers.

The Roman-placed king, Herod Agrippa, wasn’t quite as secure in his position as had been the kings of the traditional Jewish royal line, the House of David. He needed to play politics in order to keep his subjects happy enough not to pressure Rome for a replacement. As part of this ongoing international power play, Herod had sided with the Jewish religious leaders against what many still saw as a new sect of Judaism, Christianity.

As too often happens when the separation of church and state breaks down, the religious leaders weren’t true to the best ideals of their faith. They were only too happy to imprison and kill members of the new religion. These officials weren’t allowed to exterminate Christianity on their own. They had to operate under Herod’s authority. Sometimes it proved convenient to let Herod do their dirty work for them.

Herod obliged. He arrested and executed James the brother of John, one of Christ’s original twelve apostles. Next, he jailed Peter.

Peter was a good target. The outspoken former fisherman was a nobody socially. He was often the spokesman of and a major leader in the Christian church. His miracles gave credibility to his ministry. He also had the power of an eyewitness when he accused the local officials of murdering Jesus Christ. His declaration that God had raised Jesus from the dead and offered forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those who would believe was widely accepted. The officials couldn’t handle the competition.

For a time, Herod kept Peter imprisoned. The plan was to wait until after the Passover celebration, then bring him out for public condemnation and execution. The mess was politics at its worst with a good man being killed by a foreign king to make corrupt religious leaders happy. Since the people involved are historic, it is easy to point fingers and cast blame, but such scenarios hardly began or ended in ancient Jerusalem. For that matter, they aren’t limited to the Near East or to any one ethnic group.

Whatever happened at the top, the people living out the hard realities of the situation were commoners. Peter was working class. His guards were soldiers. Both he and they were pawns in the hands of the big boys. None of their lives mattered to the man making the decisions.

Of course, Peter was the only one slated to die, but it was the job of the soldiers to see to it that he stayed put until they or their comrades carried out the sentence. Like military men through the ages, they lived in a rigid, life-and-death-world where failure was punished severely. They had no choice but to take their responsibility seriously. They kept Peter under lock and key in the prison. At least two iron gates stood between him and freedom, and there was likely another checkpoint or two in between. Not content with prison bars, two guards stood watch in front of the prison. To further security, Peter was kept in chains, and the chains were attached to another pair of soldiers. Taking chances wasn’t on the soldiers’ list of options.

Once before, Peter had been jailed. That time, however, his captors had been a step down the ladder. They had been officers of the religious authorities rather than of Herod. They seem to have escaped serious trouble when they found an escaped Peter teaching in the temple the next day. Peter claimed a miracle in that escape, but then, anybody on the side of the opposing religion would have a hard time accepting his claim.

One has to feel for Peter’s guards. They weren’t the ones in trouble, but they were chained in prison. Presumably, the sixteen men detailed to guard him would have rotated in and out of their duty. Of course, they were getting paid to be there. Peter wasn’t. Money aside, spending day after day chained to a doomed man couldn’t have been the sweetest job in town.

Time drug on. Peter’s guards reported for work. They locked on their chains and settled in for the long wait. Prison life went on in its mind-numbing regularity. The night that put these soldiers in the Bible was no exception. The chains, locks, and guards were all in place. Peter was going nowhere. Keeping him was well within their abilities. It was just another routine night in the prison.

Only, the next morning, the guards came to a sickening realization. Their prisoner was missing! The Bible tells us that there was no small stir among the soldiers. They’d done their part. It isn’t clear whether they slept—or were allowed to sleep--that night, but it is clear that they’d stayed at their posts and done everything humanly possible to keep their prisoner. They’d done a good, professional job and got bad results. Now, they had to face the music.

Chapter twelve of the Biblical book of Acts tells how an angel led an incredulous Peter out of the prison. It tells how the newly freed prisoner stopped to visit a home prayer meeting, only to have his fellow Christians leave him locked out for a few minutes while they argued that it was impossible for Peter to be anywhere but jail. Scripture also records that Peter made the obvious next move and made himself scarce.

Peter’s guards didn’t have the option of hiding. Drug in before Herod, they were unable to defend themselves. Military men generally aren’t allowed to make excuses, and they really had no excuse. First, they hadn’t seen what had happened. If they were asleep, that was their responsibility. Second, they themselves didn’t know what had happened. Had they known, “An angel took him” might have sounded a bit too much like “The dog ate my homework” to the king. Like failing guards throughout much of history, the soldiers were executed.

Those soldiers have my sympathy. They did everything in their power. Even if they broke orders and slept on the job, their sleep was of supernatural origin, and they were powerless against it. They had no way of fighting a spirit being. They had no way of knowing that such a thing was likely to happen. They died as criminals without having done anything wrong. They’d done their best and essentially died for having showed up for work on the wrong day.

Yet, there is one other factor. They were soldiers, but they were soldiers on the wrong side. Their king was in rebellion against the King of the Universe. True, they hadn’t known when they enlisted that they’d be pitted against God. They may have even believed in Herod as a man they could trust—he was highly thought of in some circles.

But they made a choice nonetheless. They could have said, “Peter is God’s man. It is immoral to imprison and execute him. We won’t do it.” Of course, the end result would have been similar. Herod would have killed them, but we’d remember them as heroes and martyrs. As it was, they died in disgrace, not because of the quality of their soldiering, but because they were on the wrong side.

Jesus said:

No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Luke 16:13) [Mammon is another word for money]

He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad. (Jesus Christ in Matthew 12:30)

To find out how to be on the right side, click here: How to Have a Relationship with God

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How to Have a Relationship with God

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