A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 12:5-19a. b). Herod’s defeat. (continued).
*When this had dawned on him*, for Peter was fully awake now, *he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark* (12). That it was natural for him to go straight there suggests that it was a well-known (even the principal) meeting place of the Jerusalem believers. The Mary to whom it belonged is known only as the mother of John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), who is here mentioned by Luke for the first time and is soon to feature in his story again as the renegade member of the first missionary journey (12:25; 13:5, 13). Some commentators have speculated that this house of Mary contained the ‘large upper room, furnished and ready’, which Mark himself mentions (Mk. 14:15) as the place where Jesus ate the passover with the Twelve before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Perhaps it was also the house where the Twelve lived, and they and others met to pray, during the ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost (1:12-14). It was certainly spacious, for it had an outer entrance or vestibule where Peter knocked, and presumably a courtyard between this and the main house. It was here at all events, although it was in the middle of the night, that *many people had gathered and were praying* (12).
When *Peter knocked at the outer entrance*, the praying group must have immediately imagined that they had received a visit from the secret police. As they waited in suspense, *a servant girl named Rhoda* (who figured so prominently in this episode that her name was remembered and recorded) *came to answer the door (13). When she recognised Peter’s voice*, because it was customary in those days for visitors to call out as well as to knock, *she was so overjoyed that she ran back*, leaving Peter standing outside the door, *without opening it, and exclaimed, ‘Peter is at the door!’ (14). ‘You’re out of your mind,’* they told her. It is ironical that the group who were praying fervently and persistently for Peter’s deliverance should regard as mad the person who informed them that their prayers had been answered! Rhoda’s simple joy shines brightly against the dark background of the church’s incredulity. *When she kept insisting that it was so*, because she was sure she had rightly identified Peter’s voice, they changed their tune and said, ‘*It must be his angel*’ (15), referring to what are rather loosely called ‘guardian angels’ (cf. Mt. 18:10). As F.F.Bruce puts it, ‘The angel is here conceived of as a man’s spiritual counterpart, capable of assuming his appearance and being mistaken for him’. *But Peter kept on knocking and when*, at last, *they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished* (16). They must also have broken into a chorus of noisy greetings, for *Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet*, perhaps fearful of the danger if the clamour woke the neighbours, *and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison*. He then gave them a single instruction: ‘*Tell James* (that is, the Lord’s brother, who seems already to be recognized as the leader of the Jerusalem church, cf. 15:13, 21:18; Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12) *and the brothers* (the rest of the Christian assembly in Jerusalem) *about this.’ Then he left foranother place* (17). This was definitely not Rome, as the apocryphal *Acts of Peter* suggested, and as some Roman Catholic commentators used to argue, adding that he stayed there for twenty-five years as the first pope. Luke means simply that he went into temporary hiding, whether or not anybody knew where. What we do know is that a year or two later he was in Antioch (Gal. 2:11), and then back in Jerusalem for the meeting of the Council (15:7ff).
Perhaps the most important statement of the whole narrative of Peter’s deliverance is in verse 17: ‘the Lord had brought him out of prison.’ The dramatic details Luke includes all seem to emphasize the intervention of God and the passivity of Peter. Peter was asleep, and the angel had to nudge him awake. His chains fell off. The order to dress was given as though by numbers: ‘Get up; put on your clothes and sandals; wrap your cloak around you; and follow me’. They passed the guards on duty in the corridor, who were presumably in a deep sleep, and the external prison gate opened automatically. Peter himself did not know if it was all fact or fantasy, reality or dream.
*In the morning*, on the very day on which Peter was to be tried and executed, *there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter*, for their prisoner was nowhere to be found (18). When the news reached Herod, he first *had a thorough search made for him*, and then, when he *did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and*, because in Roman law a goaler who allowed his charge to escape was liable to the penalty to which the prisoner had been condemned (cf. 16:27; 27:42), *ordered that they be executed.* (19a).
Tomorrow: Acts 12:19b-24. c). Herod’s death
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.