In Acts 12 Luke pits two kings against one another. King Jesus is powerful, but since the dawn of time others claim his throne, sowing chaos, death and destruction.
In this chapter, opposition to Jesus appears in the form of Herod, whom Luke portrays as a king who is sovereign over life and death, killing whoever he wants. As the story begins this king kills James (brother of John), and, recognising the political value of this act, moves to eliminate Peter.
Luke employs all the means at his disposal to convey the danger. Using King Agrippa’s dynastic name, Herod, he reminds his readers of the king who killed babies upon hearing of the birth of Jesus, and the king who examined Jesus before his crucifixion. Mentioning the Passover further ties Peter’s trial to Jesus’ death. Luke is telling us that death is imminent and inescapable. Sometimes, servants of King Jesus will die for his name.
But is this all that Luke wants us to glean from the story? I want to suggest there is much more.
In verse 5 we learn that the church has gathered to pray for Peter. It takes little imagination to conclude that they prayed for his deliverance. No doubt some added that whatever happens, the Lord’s will be done. The soul crushing anxiety of this night would have been unbearable. Sometimes, servants of King Jesus will pray desperately.
But of course Peter doesn’t die for preaching about Jesus (yet): he is released from the hands of Herod and the people who oppose the gospel. God acts dramatically and conclusively.
But there is more. The aftermath of the divine rescue shows Peter dazed and confused. He quickly recovers and makes his way through the streets of Jerusalem, presumably under cover of darkness, to the home where the church was gathered to pray for him. To this point, the gates of the prison and the city open to him, but the door of the church remains closed. Rhoda, the servant girl who responds to the knocking, returns to the prayer meeting, leaving Peter outside, to report that he is at the door.
Sermons customarily mock Rhoda at this point. The silly girl fails to invite Peter in, leaving him standing (dangerously) in the street, and fails to convince the church that Peter has arrived. Her report meets with two objections: either Rhoda is a bit nutty or it must be Peter’s angel rather than Peter himself. In this Luke provides a glimpse of how difficult faith can be. Sometimes the evidence of God’s good work is knocking at our door and we provide psychological or even supernatural explanations, never quite grappling with the truth.
Rather than ridicule Rhoda, however, there are three reasons for reassessing Rhoda’s appearance in the story. First, it should be observed that we don’t know anything about the etiquette of a servant girl’s response to someone at the door. Is it something like in Downton Abbey, where a servant identifies the visitor and communicates the person’s identity to the household? It may be that Rhoda did exactly as expected. Second, Luke as much as any NT writer is committed to elevating the status of women. It would be out of character for him to introduce and (unnecessarily) name a woman for the purpose of shaming her. Third, in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection, women were given the special privilege of being the first witnesses, and first bearing testimony, to the fact that Jesus had been released from the tyranny of death. Here again a woman, this time a servant girl named Rhoda, bears witness to God’s work of deliverance. Those who testify to God’s work will regularly meet with ridicule—sometimes it will take the form that Rhoda encountered, and sometimes it will even come from within the church.
So what are we to make of the confusion and disorientation in the church? Why are believers so slow to recognise God’s rescuing work? And what can this teach us about our own faith-response to God’s works? Perhaps we can find answers in revisiting Peter’s reaction to his rescue. In verse 9 Luke tells us that Peter didn’t know the rescue was real: the seer of visions (Acts 10:9-16) assumed he was seeing another one. Verse 11 tells us that Peter ‘came to himself’. Verse 12, repeating the fact, says that when Peter ‘realised this…’, he at last goes to the church. Thus Luke tells us in triplicate that Peter himself, in the midst of divine rescue, has failed to grasp what was happening. How often are we so close to events that we can’t see the Lord’s work?
In this we are reminded of some of Scripture’s great promises. It won’t do, of course, to find in Acts 12 the promise that God rescues his faithful servants from prison. If that is Luke’s purpose, then he can only offer a 50-50 chance. James dies at Herod’s hands. There is no hint that James had less faith, was less useful to God, or that the Lord loved him less than Peter. We simply encounter the emotionally barren report of his death.
So what promises can we find in chapter 12? The first is that God is able to rescue his servant. Sometimes such knowledge is all-important, a healing balm, no matter the outcome of a particular trial. The second is that God is always at work, and may be performing one of his saving miracles, even though we don’t see anything. Sometimes servants of the king fail to understand what God is doing.
Is it a lack of faith or spiritual insight on our part when we don’t grasp the sum of God’s plan? This chapter would suggest otherwise: faith is not synonymous with insight, and understanding is often withheld or at least deferred—sometimes until after God has finished his work.
A still greater promise may be at work in this chapter, one that courses through the argument of Acts as a whole. Many observe that this account of Peter’s rescue echoes the Passover, including reference to sandals, haste, and the particular way clothes are to be worn. Luke seeks to define the nature of God’s rescued people, and does so by drawing parallels with the OT story of God delivering Israel to form a nation. Now again God is rescuing his people to form a new ‘nation’ based on one’s confession of the Christ.
So this portrait indicates that the same God, the one who saved his people by the blood of the lamb in the Exodus, now saves his people by the death of his son and by the proclamation which ensues. And just as God then could not be overcome, so the word of Christ cannot be silenced. Despite the best efforts of religious leaders in Jerusalem, Herod, Saul, and a host of others (even some insiders to the movement), the preaching that Jesus is the saving Lord of all endures. So James may die, and beyond the pages of Acts, Peter, John, and Paul may give their lives for the gospel. But within God’s sovereign plan, with all the messiness and joys of life, the church trumpets the fact that Jesus, the crucified and risen, is Lord of all. And the sound of this gospel echoes down the ages.
We live in turbulent times. In some places the church appears to be in retreat. This is nothing new: great Christian centres of the past such as Alexandria and Antioch have long since been eclipsed. Nevertheless, the faith that we confess bears its fruit in season.
The chapter goes on to demonstrate that Herod was in fact not sovereign over life and death—even if he holds the sword. Peter lives to preach another day; Herod dies. More to the point, the king who in Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:27,31) and Paul’s first sermon (Acts 13:35-37) is said to never see decay, is proven stronger than the king who decays even before he dies (Acts 12:23). Jesus is Lord and King. Just as those who then opposed the gospel found themselves to be opposing God, so those who today oppose the gospel, whether by political, social, or personal forces, will one day bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Our task remains the same, whether seeing clearly or wandering in the dark—even to the edge of despair. In word and deed we join in this proclamation: the king who has conquered death gives life to those who trust in him.