When we began this series, we said that Acts is the continuing adventures of Jesus, that Acts is a book of action and adventure driven by the Spirit of God, and here we see that point in high relief. Walking with God is the greatest adventure.
The Text: “Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:1-25).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
After killing James (one of the sons of thunder), Herod arrested Peter and put him under close guard, intending to put him to death after Easter (Passover) (Acts 12:1-4). The whole church was praying to God for Peter, and if this is referring to the Jewish Passover, and if Herod was planning to kill Peter the very next day, then that “same night” would be the Saturday of our Christian Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead (Acts 12:5-6).
Guarded by four soldiers and chains, an angel of the Lord appeared in the prison, struck Peter on the side (presumably to wake him up), and the chains fell from his hands and following the angel’s instructions, he was led out of the prison, with the iron gate of the city opening by itself (Acts 12:7-10). Thinking it was a vision, when Peter was fully awake, he realized he had been delivered from Herod and the Jews and went to one of the houses where he knew they would be praying (Acts 12:11-12). Knocking at the gate, a young lady named Rhoda recognized Peter’s voice and told the disciples but they didn’t believe her, saying it was merely Peter’s angel (Acts 12:13-15). After knocking some more, they finally opened the door, were astonished, and heard his story, before he disappeared, and the next day there was a fierce commotion at the prison (Acts 12:16-19).
This episode closes with pagan politics, manipulation and flattery among the people of Tyre and Sidon, which ends with the people calling Herod a god and the angel of the Lord shows up once more to strike him with worms that kill him (Acts 12:20-23). And the word of God continued to multiply and Saul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with John Mark (Acts 12:24-25).
A BRIEF THEOLOGY OF ANGELS
God may have created angels when He said let there be light, or since there is a close connection between stars and angels in Scripture (Jdg. 5:20, Lk. 2:13), maybe they were made on the fourth day with the other heavenly lights, but regardless, they sang for joy as God created the world (Job 38:7).
Cherubim are sphinx-like creatures, having some sort of beastly body with different faces (lion, eagle, ox, man), having arms like men and large wings (Ez. 1, 10). They guarded the entrance of the garden (Gen. 3:24) and their carved forms were over the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 37:7).
Seraphim are dragon-like creatures with six wings and famously cleansed Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal (Is. 6), and their name means “burning ones.” In Numbers 21, God sent “fiery serpents” (literally “seraphim serpents”) to bite the people and many died. When the people pray for deliverance, God instructs Moses to make a bronze “seraph” and pierce it on a pole, and all who look upon it are healed (Num. 21:7-9).
The only other kind of angels appear as shining men (e.g. Gabriel, Michael, armies), and the “Angel of the Lord” is God Himself, the second person of the Trinity (e.g. Gen. 18, 32:24ff, Ex. 3:2ff, Josh. 5:13, Dan. 3:25). The angels of God are described as being “ministers of flame” (Ps. 104:4) whom God gives assignments to guard and protect His people (Ps. 91, sometimes incognito, e.g. Heb. 13:2), particularly the weak and vulnerable (Gen. 16, Mt. 18:10). The Bible also describes the spirits of people as having a similar appearance to their bodies (e.g. Samuel, 1 Sam. 28:14). And it may be that this is what the disciples are referring to when they heard Rhoda’s report that Peter is at the door.
Related to the fact that angels really do exist: we live in a magical world. God created the world in six days by His spoken word, and He upholds all things by the word of His power (Gen. 1, Heb. 1). This means we live in God’s personal world, not an impersonal machine. This doesn’t negate the ordinary order of creation, but sometimes God suspends His usual patterns and donkeys talk, men ride into heaven in fiery whirlwinds, the sun stands still, men survive fiery furnaces, a man may walk on water, and sometimes chains fall apart and gates open by themselves, and men are supernaturally struck with worms (Acts 12:7, 23).
CONCLUSION: DELIVERED OUT OF THEM ALL
According to tradition, Peter was eventually crucified upside down in Rome under Nero, but here he disappears from the pages of Scripture a wanted man, with his letters as the only other evidence of his ongoing ministry. But Peter is clearly presented here as a type of the resurrection life that all believers are promised in Christ: sealed and guarded in a prison as good as a tomb, struck on the side, and broken out by God’s miraculous power. As Paul says at the end of his life: “Persecutions I endured, but out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution… And I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom…” (2 Tim. 3:11-12, 4:17).
Stories disciple our imaginations and faith. Immerse yourself in the stories of the Bible but also stories that stoke biblical imagination: Dante (Divine Comedy), Edmund Spenser (Fairy Queen), John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress), C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia, Ransom Trilogy), J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings), John Buchan (Richard Hannay series), P.G. Wodehouse, N.D. Wilson, etc.
By faith, we conquer armies and endure great hardships (Heb. 11). Some are murdered by the sword; others are delivered from the sword. Some go to glory devoured by lions; some tame them. Jesus has the keys to death and Hades (Rev. 1) and His angels guard our every step (Ps. 91). He is the captain of the Lord’s Hosts, and this is how the Church and the Kingdom grow (Acts 12:24). Walking in the light is walking with God and His angels. And all will be well.