Acts 12 opens with Herod arresting and killing James the apostle. Then, “When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (v3). Peter’s fate is to be the same as James’—just as soon as the Passover feast has ended. On the night before Herod plans on bringing Peter out to the bloodthirsty masses, we are astounded at what we find Peter doing. “Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison” (v6). The point is not that Peter is able to sleep soundly in uncomfortable quarters without his “special pillow,” but that he sleeps like a baby on the night before he knows he’s to be executed.
It’s the sleep of a man with blessed assurance, fully convinced that God takes care of his people. Perhaps he had full faith all along that God would deliver him as he did. Maybe he fully expected to be martyred like James and that was perfectly fine with him. Or what if he entertained both of these possibilities and either one was acceptable to him?
Paul found himself in a similar dilemma as he sat in his own prison cell. He could easily die for Jesus at any time or he could be delivered and live longer. In either case,“Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil 1:20-24).
It seems to me that Peter had a similar mindset: “I could die tomorrow like my brother James and that would mean I would be with Christ again. Or I could be delivered from death, enabling me to work for the Lord here and now a little longer.”
All disciples ought to have this same happy dilemma. “Is it better to live longer to serve the Lord and advance his kingdom or to die and be with the Lord that much sooner? Either way, Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Now that mindset is impossible if we want to live longer simply for our own selfish goals. But if we are seeking first the kingdom of God, we will be excited to meet the Lord whose kingdom we belong to when we die, and in the time before that, we will be quite happy propagating his kingdom. That attitude allows a person to sleep like a baby in a dank prison cell while chained between two Roman soldiers the night before his execution date.