Acts 12:1–19: James Killed and Peter Imprisoned, Peter Is Rescued
This passage starts with a king named Herod starting to violently persecute Christians, including putting the Apostle James to death. (This Apostle James is not to be confused with the brother of Jesus of the same name, who wrote the Epistle of James in the New Testament Scriptures. He’ll be coming up later in this passage.) For context, the ESV Study Bible notes give some insight into who this Herod is:
Acts 12:1 … Herod was Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great … . He was reared in Rome, and because of boyhood playmates who later became emperors he was granted rule over various territories in Judea until his kingdom reached the full extent of his grandfather’s territory (A.D. 41–44). … His persecution of the Christians may have been an attempt to curry favor with the Jews (cf. Acts 12:3).
When he sees how his persecution of the Christians pleases his Jewish subjects, he decides to arrest Peter, too. The arrest takes place right before Passover, so Herod puts four squads of soldiers there to guard Peter, intending to bring him out (presumably to put him to death) after the Passover celebration. Some further detail from the ESV Study Bible notes:
Acts 12:4 The prison was probably the Tower of Antonia, which was at the northwestern corner of the temple complex and was the quarters of the Roman garrison. The use of four squads of soldiers reflects Roman practice: one squad of four soldiers for each of the four three-hour watches of the night. …
Other Christians are earnestly praying for him, however, and the night before Herod is about to bring him out he’s miraculously rescued. As the rescue begins he’s sleeping between two Roman soldiers, bound with chains—verse 6 says two chains, though I don’t know if that’s an important detail or not—and there are sentries guarding the door, but none of that is going to stop the Lord. An angel comes to him, striking him on the side (I presume to wake him up), tells him to get up and get dressed, and his chains fall off. He then follows the angel out of the prison, past the guards, out the prison’s iron gate (which had promptly and of its own accord opened for them), and onto the street, whereupon the angel leaves Peter. It’s only at this point that Peter realizes what he’s been experiencing is real; up to this point, he’d been assuming he was having a vision!
He immediately goes to a certain house (where he knows a bunch of Christians are gathered), to let them know the good news. When the servant girl, Rhoda, hears his voice she immediately runs joyfully into the house to let everyone know that he’s there—forgetting in her haste to actually let him in! The others argue back and forth with her as to whether it’s actually Peter or “his angel” (verse 15), and all the while he’s out on the street continuing to knock on the door! They finally answer the door properly, amazed to find that yes, it’s really him, and he motions them to be quiet and tells them all that’s happened, instructing them to, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers” (verse 17), and then leaves. In this case, the “James” he’s referring to is the brother of Jesus and author of the Epistle of James in the New Testament Scriptures. In fact, let’s get some more context from the ESV Study Bible notes:
Acts 12:17 James here is the brother of Jesus …, not James the brother of John (who was killed by Herod, Acts 12:2). From this point forward in Acts, James seems to have the most prominent leadership role among the apostles in Jerusalem (see 15:13–21; 21:18). Though James was not one of the original Twelve, he apparently became an apostle as well (cf. 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19; 2:9). The book of James also seems to be written on his own (apostolic) authority, not as a spokesman for someone else (see James 1:1). For some reason Peter no longer remained the leader and spokesman for the apostles in Jerusalem but went to another place. Luke does not specify where Peter went (some have suggested either Rome or Antioch); he was back in Jerusalem later for a conference (Acts 15:7–21).
The next day, “there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter” (verse 18), which is understandable! Peter was surrounded by soldiers, not just guarding the gates but literally on either side of him, and yet somehow they didn’t notice when the angel led him out! Reading this after the fact we see this as a miracle, but to them, at the time, these soldiers would have seemed like the least competent soldiers who’d ever lived. And, unfortunately, Herod sees it that way, having them put to death for their “incompetence.”
Knowing myself as I do, this doesn’t seem like the kind of passage I’d have a lot to talk about. (I have a history of saying little about passages where a lot happens, just relaying the facts, instead of thinking deeply. It’s a flaw.) However, there are some aspects that jump out at me: the instances of humour, the mention of Peter’s angel, and the death of the Roman soldiers.
The Story’s Humour
There are obviously a couple of comical aspects to this story:
- Peter not even realizing his rescue is real until it’s already over, and
- Peter standing out on the street, knocking on the door, while the people inside don’t even believe it’s him
(Another point from the ESV Study Bible notes: “Rhoda’s failure to open the gate on account of her joy adds a touch of humor and heightens the suspense.” In retrospect: humorous. At the moment, when Peter was in the middle of a jailbreak and standing out on the street in the open: suspenseful, to say the least.)
And it makes me wonder why this passage is so humorous! Why does Luke include two instances right after each other that are funny like this? Couldn’t he have told this story in a different way?
My guess—and this is only a guess—is that Luke got this story from Peter’s mouth, and that Peter himself was probably recounting it in a funny way. At the time he was out on the street knocking on that door his heart was probably in his mouth, but perhaps he was chuckling when he recounted it to Luke years later.
Or maybe Luke himself found the story funny, and just decided to tell it that way. I don’t know.
In verses 12–17—and especially in verse 15—the other Christians don’t believe Rhoda that it’s Peter at the door. To them, at the time, it’s much more likely that it’s Peter’s angel who’s there, not Peter himself. Which leads to the question: Wait… what?
What’s all this about “Peter’s angel?” Who’s that? Peter has his own personal angel? Does everyone have a personal angel? Is this passage where the concept of a “guardian angel” comes from? What does a personal angel do? Did Peter converse with his angel? Was this a superstition on the part of the early Christians or an actual thing?
And the answer to all of these questions is that I don’t know. I’m guessing that yes, this is where the concept of a “guardian angel” comes from (unless it predates this passage), but given that this is the only place in Scripture I can think of where such a concept comes up, and given that it’s just something that comes up in a conversation rather than an actual doctrine being articulated, I don’t think there’s much we can do with it. An important question from above, that would drive all other questions, is whether this was just a superstition among the early Christians or not. They believe that it’s Peter’s angel at the door because they think that’s more likely than it being Peter himself, but that doesn’t mean that they were right that Peter had an angel, or that we all have “guardian angels,” or if this was a 1st Century thing that didn’t extend into the present, or anything else.
Unfortunately, all Luke records for us here is that the folks in that house assumed it was Peter’s angel at the door. Luke doesn’t write, “and they kept saying, ‘It is his angel,’ to whom they’d spoken on many occasions,” and nor does he write, “and they kept saying, ‘It is his angel,’ which was silly because we all know that people don’t have their own angels.” He just recorded what the people were saying, and left out any discussion of theological issues.
And frankly, I’ll do the same. I don’t know if this is a real thing they were referring to (whether temporary or permanent), or superstition, or a figure of speech, or something else altogether. I do know that my behaviour doesn’t change either way: I’ll do my best to serve the Lord, I’ll try not to sin, I’ll ask for forgiveness when I do, and I’ll trust Him to watch over me. Whether He’s making use of an angel in some way as He watches over me, or if He’s not because that’s not really a thing, doesn’t actually impact my life or behaviour. I trust in Him regardless. (And let’s be clear: if there is an angel assigned to watch over me, that angel would prefer that God get the glory, not the angel.)
Death of the Soldiers
It is an unfortunate fact that the soldiers guarding Peter were put to death for something that wasn’t actually their fault. One thing the Bible doesn’t shy away from is the fact that we live in a fallen world, and tragedies happen all the time. The children who were killed by Herod (another Herod) in Matthew 2:16–18, or the tragedies mentioned in Luke 13:1–9, or numerous other examples all illustrate that the authors of the Bible know quite well that tragedies befall many, many people.
I’m not going to claim that these soldiers were worse than any other soldiers and that’s why they were killed, but neither am I going to pretend to understand everything, either.
One point that does come from this, however, is that it’s clear the soldiers didn’t fall asleep; as the ESV Study Bible notes say:
Acts 12:18–19 In executing the sentries (i.e., guards), Herod was following Roman practice, which specified that soldiers who lost their prisoners were subject to the same penalty as that due to the prisoners. Since the soldiers knew that their lives were at stake, they certainly would not have all fallen asleep apart from the miraculous intervention of the angel who rescued Peter. …