The Chains of Saint Peter


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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Saint Peter's chains in Rome
Saint Peter’s chains at the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome

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In a short textual passage In the Acts of the Apostles is the story of “The Liberation of Saint Peter” in which an angel rescues Saint Peter from a prison. This tale has given rise to theological discussions and has been the subject of a number of works of art.

English: Saint Luke the Evangelist. Russian Ea...
Saint Luke the Evangelist. Russian Eastern Orthodox icon from Russia. 18th century. Wood, tempera. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Acts of the Apostles (Latin: Acta Apostolorum; Greek: Práxeis tôn Apostólōn), the fifth book of the New Testament usually called Acts, outlines the history of the Apostolic Age. The author of Acts is traditionally identified as Luke the Evangelist, the author of The Gospel of Luke because both books share certain repeating themes and were originally written in a refined Koine Greek. Some biblical scholars even argue that the two books were originally a single unified work. The prefaces in both books address Theophilus:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. (Luke 1:3-4)

In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. (Acts 1:1-2)

In the preface of Acts the phrase “the first book” could certainly mean The Gospel of Luke.

No one knows the true identity of Theophilus and there are several conjectures and traditions around this word. The Greek word Theophilus (θεόφιλος) also written as Theophilos means a lover of God, friend of God, (be) loved by God, or loving God. So, Theophilus could mean the name of the author’s patron, or perhaps a label for a Christian community.

It is likely that the narrative in the Acts telescopes events that took place over a time period and on a less dramatic scale. The Twelve disciples were not yet ready to proclaim publicly the Messianic office of Jesus without incurring immediate reprisal from the religious authorities in Jerusalem who had brought about Jesus’ death precisely to stem the rising tide in his favor.

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

The author of the Acts focuses mainly on the roles of Peter and Paul. Peter was the object of divine care for he was rescued from the prisons a couple of times. Here is the first narrative in the Acts of his escape from a prison:

Trial before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-42)

Then the high priest rose up and all his companions, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and, filled with jealousy, laid hands upon the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, “Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life.”

When they heard this, they went to the temple early in the morning and taught. When the high priest and his companions arrived, they convened the Sanhedrin, the full senate of the Israelites, and sent to the jail to have them brought in. But the court officers who went did not find them in the prison, so they came back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked and the guards stationed outside the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.”

When they heard this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss about them, as to what this would come to. Then someone came in and reported to them, “The men whom you put in prison are in the temple area and are teaching the people.”

Then the captain and the court officers went and brought them in, but without force, because they were afraid of being stoned by the people.

When they had brought them in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin, the high priest questioned them, “We gave you strict orders [did we not?] to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

But Peter and the apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. We are witnesses of these things, as is the holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him.”

When they heard this, they became infuriated and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up, ordered the men to be put outside for a short time, and said to them, “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be someone important, and about four hundred men joined him, but he was killed, and all those who were loyal to him were disbanded and came to nothing. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census. He also drew people after him, but he too perished and all who were loyal to him were scattered. So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”

They were persuaded by him. After recalling the apostles, they had them flogged, ordered them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them. So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus.

Herod Agrippa ruled Judea A.D. 41-44. While Luke does not assign a motive for Herod’s execution of James and his intended execution of Peter, it was due to Herod’s support of Pharisaic Judaism. The Jewish Christians had lost the popularity they had in Jerusalem (Acts 2:47), perhaps because of suspicions against them traceable to the teaching of Stephen.

Herod’s Persecution of the Christians (Acts 12:1–11)

About that time King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword, and when he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (It was [the] feast of Unleavened Bread.) 

He had him taken into custody and put in prison under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. He intended to bring him before the people after Passover. Peter thus was being kept in prison, but prayer by the church was fervently being made to God on his behalf.

On the very night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter, secured by double chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while outside the door guards kept watch on the prison. Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood by him and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying, “Get up quickly.” The chains fell from his wrists.

The angel said to him, “Put on your belt and your sandals.”

He did so. Then he said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.”

So he followed him out, not realizing that what was happening through the angel was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.

They passed the first guard, then the second, and came to the iron gate leading out to the city, which opened for them by itself. They emerged and made their way down an alley, and suddenly the angel left him.

Then Peter recovered his senses and said, “Now I know for certain that [the] Lord sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people had been expecting.”

The bishop of Jerusalem, luvenalis, known in English as Juvenal, presented the chains used to bind Saint Peter in prison as a gift to the Empress Aelia Eudocia, consort of Emperor Valentinian II. She in turn presented them to her daughter the Empress Eudoxia, wife of Emperor Valentinian III. Eudoxia then presented the chains to Pope Leo I.

The chains are now kept in a reliquary under the main altar in the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, a Roman Catholic titular church and minor basilica in Rome, Italy. A number of churches are named after “Saint Peter in Chains” (Latin: Sancti Petri ad vincula, Italian: San Pietro in Vincoli), in Rome, in Pisa, in London, and in Cincinnati.

The Methodist minister and hymn writer Charles Wesley wrote the hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” based on:

Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood by him and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying, “Get up quickly.” The chains fell from his wrists. (Acts 12:7)

And Can It Be That I Should Gain?
by Charles Wesley

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood!
Died he for me, who caused his pain!
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Tis mystery all: th‘ Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.
Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine;
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th‘ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th‘ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

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The following artists have depicted this event:

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