A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 12:5-19a Herod’s defeat.
The Jerusalem church will not have forgotten Peter’s two previous imprisonments, although they had been at the hand of the Sanhedrin (4:3; 5:18). Nor will they have forgotten how Peter and John, after their first release, had joined the rest of the church in prayer, affirming that God was sovereign and that Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the Jews, had conspired against Jesus to do only what his ‘power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ (4:23-28). As for the apostles’ second imprisonment, an angel of the Lord had opened the doors of the jail and set them free (5:19); could he not do it again? So, even while *Peter was kept in prison, the church was earnestly praying to God for him* (5). Luke uses the adverb *ektenos* (JB, ‘unremittingly’; NEB, ‘fervently’), which he has previously applied to Jesus’ intense agony in Gethsemane (Lk.22:44). They believed that somehow, whether or not by another miracle, God could grant release to the jailed apostle in answer to their prayers (cf. Phil.1:19; Phm.22). Here then were two communities, the world and the church, arrayed against one another, each wielding an appropriate weapon. On the one side was the authority of Herod, the power of the sword and the security of the prison. On the other side, the church turned to prayer, which is the only power which the powerless possess.
*The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance* (6). Luke deliberately stresses the thoroughness with which the apostle was being guarded against escape or rescue. Normally it was considered enough for a prisoner to be handcuffed to one soldier, but as a special precaution Peter had a soldier on each side of him and both his wrists were manacled, while outside the cell the other two soldiers of the squad were on duty. In spite of the seeming impossibility of liberation, and the extreme likelihood that on the following day he would suffer the same fate as James (in fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy that he would die as a martyr, Jn.21:18-19), Peter showed no sign of anxiety, let alone alarm. On the contrary, he fell fast asleep. Later Paul, in a similar situation in Philippi, was to pray and sing to God (16:25). This leads Chrysostom to comment: ‘It is beautiful that Paul sings hymns, whilst here Peter sleeps’. Both Luke’s heroes, Peter and Paul, showed themselves to be equally defiant of death.
Then *suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared*. Our understanding of who this ‘angel’ was will depend largely on our presuppositions, and in particular whether we believe in the existence of angels and the possibility of the miraculous. It is true that the word *angelos* can be translated simply ‘messenger’ and that Luke used it of human beings several times in his Gospel, for example of the messengers John the Baptist sent to Jesus (Lk.7:24), of John the Baptist himself (7:27) and of those Jesus sent on ahead to get things ready for him (9:52). Consequently, I suppose one could just argue that a human messenger is meant here. Moreover, according to William Neil, some would regard Peter’s release ‘as no less of a “miracle” if it were engineered by sympathizers among the guard’. And R.P.C.Hanson finds it ‘reasonable, to understand that Peter ‘managed to escape because of bribery, negligence or simply a change of mind on the part of the authorities’. But the key hermeneutical question is what Luke himself intended us to understand, and of that there is little doubt. He has already referred to supernatural angelic beings on about fifteen occasions in his Gospel and the early chapters of Acts, and his emphasis in this story is on a divine intervention through a heavenly agent. So, as if to make this fact unequivocal, *a light shone in the cell*, and the release was accomplished in a succession of swift actions, while Peter was still half asleep and uncertain if he was dreaming. Luke’s narrative needs no further comment.
Tomorrow: Herod’s defeat (continued)
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.