A Study of Acts 12
Introduction: Several years ago, I wrote a book on the subject of what the Bible has to say about angels. Recently we reformatted that book and have expanded it to include the subject of fall angels, or demons (The Angel Answer Book, which will be released in August). Every time I revisit this subject, I’m amazed all over again at how thoroughly the Bible treats this subject. Angels and demons are everywhere in the Scripture, and the biblical narrative would not make sense without them. Recently as we’ve worked our way through the book of Acts, I’ve noticed afresh how Luke keeps bringing angels into the story of the early church. There is a lot here about the intervention of angels. In case you’ve missed it, let’s just review the chapters we’re already looked at – Acts 1- 11.
- The book of Acts begins with two angels – men dressed in white – appearing beside the disciples at the ascension of Christ and promising them His return (Acts 1:10-11).
- In chapter 5, angels broke the apostles out of jail. Verses 18-20 say: “They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. ‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people all about this new life.’”
- Stephen referred to angels four times in his sermon in Acts 7, and we’re told that his face became like the face of an angel.
- In Acts 8:26, an angel of the Lord appeared to Philip and told him to go down to the road to Gaza to meet the Ethiopian eunuch.
- In Acts 10, an angel appeared to a centurion in Caesarea named Cornelius and told him to send for Peter.
Now, angels do not have the starring role in Acts – this is the book of the Acts of the Apostles, not the acts of the Angels. Spirit-filled Christians are the ones at the heart of the story. But angels do have a very strong supporting role. I think that’s still true. I see no reason to believe that angelic intervention ended with Acts 28. I think angels are still active. I believe they are still aiding the work of the church. It makes me wonder what angels have done so far this year to aid and assist our ministries, even though we’re not fully aware of it. Well, in the passage we’re coning to today – Acts 12 – we have a lot of angelic activity.
Verse 1: It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.
This is not the same Herod who killed the babies in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. This was his grandson, Herod Agrippa I. It’s very helpful to know this, but it helps us date the passage. We know from ancient historians that Herod Agrippa died in A.D. 44. He actually dies at the end of this chapter, so the events of this chapter take place in A.D. 44, which is over a dozen years after Pentecost. When you just sit down and read Acts 1-12, you can do that in fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s easy to think the events there happened in a short span of time. But it really amounts to about a year per chapter on average. You can read a chapter in one or two minutes, but in Luke’s record each chapter covers, on average, about a year.
Verse 2: They had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
You remember the many stories of John and James in the Gospels. They were the sons of Zebedee. James was the first of the apostolic band to die (omitting Judas) and John was the last. James the Apostle was the first of the apostles to die for his faith.
Verse 3: When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
That is, the Passover Season, the same Jewish holiday during which Christ was crucified.
Verse 4: After arresting him, he put him in prison, heading him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
Harry Houdini couldn’t have escaped. Remember back in Acts 5, when Peter and the apostles escaped from prison? Herod didn’t want to take a change of that happening again. Peter was the best-known Christian on earth, the leader of the church. So he was chained and placed in the innermost section of the jail and guarded by sixteen soldiers.
Verse 5: So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
Someone said, “Peter was bound, but prayer was loosed.”
Verses 6: 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.
Perhaps Peter was sleeping because he was exhausted, but perhaps he was sleeping because he was at total peace with being in the will of God, whatever that meant.
Verse 7: Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
It doesn’t actually say that the angel kicked Peter in the side, but that’s the image that comes to mind.
Verses 8-10: Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed by the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
Notice the supernatural abilities of this angel:
- He could suddenly materialize in a secure area.
- He could move through solid walls.
- He could put trained soldiers into a deep sleep.
- He could cause locks to open and solid chains to fall off.
- He could cause Peter to move from the innermost part of the prison to the exit without being seen.
- He could cause iron gates to open.
- He could disappear into the thin air.
Verses 11-12: Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen. When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.
John Mark was a young man whose mother, Mary, was evidently well to do. It’s reasonably thought that her house was a center of activity for Christ and for the early church. God had blessed her with a big house, and she used it for him. It’s possible that this is where Jesus met with His disciples in the Upper Room, and this may be where the 120 were on the Day of Pentecost.
Verses 13-15: Peter knocked at the outer entrance and a servant name Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
I don’t know what that means. Some believe that there was an ancient belief that everyone has a guardian angel and that the angel even looks like the person he is guarding. At any rate, Peter found it easier to get out of prison than to get into a prayer meeting.
Verses 16-17: But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then the left for another place.
Now, who is this James? It’s clearly not James the son of Zebedee who was martyred at the beginning of the chapter. This James is almost certain the man who was the half-brother of Jesus – James the son of Joseph and Mary, who was converted after our Lord’s resurrection and who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the writer of the epistle of James.
Verse 18-10: In the morning, there was no small commotion among the solders as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
Ironically, this Caesarea is where the Gentile church had been birthed, as we read about in chapter 10. And here, at the end of the chapter we have another angelic intervention. This time, it wasn’t to release a Christian from jail but to put to death a wicked ruler.
Verses 20-23: He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply. On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
It’s very interesting to me that we have a basic confirmation of these events from an extra-biblical historian. Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, wrote in his Antiquities of the Jews:
Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited spectacles in honor of Caesar… Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another… that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.
Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings… and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death… When he had said this, his pain became violent…. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age and in the seventh year of his reign.
Josephus gives us the headlines, but Luke told us the real story behind the headlines. This man was executed by an angel at God’s direction. And there is a powerful lesson here. At the beginning of the chapter, it looks like Herod is having his way. He seized the apostle James and put him in prison and executed him. But the story comes full circle by the end of the book, and Herod Agrippa I is the one who is judged and condemned by God. In the final analysis, God always balances the books.
Verses 24-25: But the word of God continued to spread and flourish. When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.
Conclusion: I want to go back now to my original thesis. I don’t think angelic interventions ended with the book of Acts. It’s a tremendous comfort to me to contemplate that angels are very active today, working behind the scenes both in the church and on the stage of this world. The Bible even tells us to treat strangers well, for some in entertaining strangers have entertained strangers unaware. Remember when you read the headlines, there may very well be angelic activity happening behind the curtain. Let’s stay dedicated to our cause, for we have invisible allies helping us at every turn though we know it not.
 Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, book 19, chapter 8, Section 2.