I’ve always loved Acts 12. It is such a fascinating bit of writing—a little story in three acts, each of which fits so well with the others. I was reflecting on the chapter this morning and thought I’d share a little bit of that.
The chapter begins by describing the beginning of Herodian persecution against the church. Herod, the king, presumably to please his Jewish subjects, has the disciple James arrested and killed and then goes after Peter, having him thrown in prison as well. Knowing the popularity of these upstart Christians, Herod puts him under the care of four whole squads of soldiers. The first act ends with these words: “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” This earnest prayer is no incidental detail, but something the author offers as a foreshadowing of what will come.
The second act tells how Peter was delivered by God through one his angels. Peter, half asleep, sees his chains fall off and quickly passes by the first and second guards before waking up and realizing what is happening. He hurries quickly to the church, to the gathering of people who just happened to be praying for him at that very moment. There is a delightful bit of comedy injected into the text when Rhoda, the servant girl, so excited to hear Peter at the door, runs to tell everyone that he has arrived without ever bothering to let him in. With the prayer meeting having come to a prompt end, the people belittle Rhoda, refusing to believe that Peter has actually arrived. And yet, because of Peter’s persistent knocking, they soon come to realize that Peter really has been rescued. Peter quickly tells his story and then disappears, presumably opting to lay low for a little while, knowing that Herod is going to be mighty displeased in the morning.
In the third act we return to Herod who has ordered the execution of the soldiers who allowed Peter to escape. We find him accepting worship as a god. His Creator is most displeased and strikes him down so “he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” Herod bookends this chapter, appearing as a cruel tyrant at the beginning and as a pathetic worm-eaten corpse at the end. He has gone from holding the power of life and death in his hand to being struck down by the Lord himself. It’s a pathetic end to a pathetic ruler.
Acts 12 contains a great little story, a great little vignette of life in the early church. Despite the miraculous (Peter being rescued, Herod being struck down) there is such a human element to it. We see the church in prayer, undoubtedly begging God for the life of their friend and pastor Peter. Yet when God answers their earnest prayers, they refuse to believe it. “You are out of your mind,” they told Rhoda when she tried to tell them that God had answered them. Two thousand years later we laugh at them, wondering why they would bother praying if they did not think God would bother to answer. And then we realize that we do little better; we realize how much effort we put into pleading for God to act and how little effort we put into seeking answers to those prayers. I trust the lesson was not lost on the early church. I trust they learned from it that God’s miraculous rescue of Peter was not in any way separate from their prayers. Those prayers, offered as they were even with little faithful expectation of an answer, were undoubtedly instrumental in God rescuing Peter from his imprisonment. God answers prayer, even when we ask with little faith.
It is worth noticing as well that Peter, as soon as he arrived, shared all that God had done. Peter, the object of all those prayers, wanted to ensure that the church knew that it was God who had acted with such power and in such an unusual way. “He described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, ‘Tell these things to James and to the brothers.’” He wanted this great act of God to encourage all of the believers. And then he departed and went elsewhere, surely a smart move for one who had just managed to slip away from four squads of soldiers who were now facing execution.
The chapter closes with these familiar words: “the word of God increased and multiplied.” Have you ever noticed how often these words, or ones just like it, appear in Acts? Just a brief overview of the first chapters shows them in chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11 and 12. In every case, Luke wants us to know that God continued to build his church. In times of joy and pain, times of peace and persecution, God built his church. All that God did was for his own glory and served his ultimate purpose of drawing a people to himself.
And this God, who acted so faithfully, so consistently, so powerfully, is the same God we serve today.