It’s amazing to me how involved angels seemed to be in the early church. This is at least the third time Peter has encountered one: the first was after Jesus’ ascension (since the story in John of Peter at Jesus’ empty tomb didn’t indicate that he encountered the angels there). The second time was when an angel had helped Peter to escape prison once before, in Acts 5. Historians date that escape in the same year as Pentecost. Given that, I’m not sure why Peter was so surprised to find himself delivered this time, though it was estimated to be about twelve years later. Perhaps it wasn’t the deliverance that surprised him necessarily, but simply the fact that he felt he was having a vision. Maybe there was a dreamlike quality to this encounter because it was in the middle of the night. Still, though, James the brother of John, one of Jesus’ core three disciples, had just been martyred publicly by the sword, to the delight of the Jewish mob (Acts 12:1-3). It certainly looked like Peter might die the next morning, too, and Jesus himself told the disciples that they could not expect to escape persecution (Matthew 24:9, Mark 10:30). Despite all this, Peter slept so peacefully that the angel had to strike him to wake him up. Either he was not bothered by the prospect of death, or perhaps he expected that he would escape somehow, given Jesus’ prophecy that he would not be martyred until he was an old man (John 21:18).
Since the story mentions that the church was praying for Peter constantly (Acts 12:5), perhaps it was their prayers that dispatched the angel to free him. We’re not told the exact cause and effect, though this seems to be the implication—even though they, too, were pretty shocked to see him when he showed up (Acts 12:14-16).
This Mary was mother of John Mark, who wasn’t one of Jesus’ original apostles, but instead was Barnabas’s cousin (Colossians 4:10). Barnabas and John Mark both traveled with Saul, later called Paul (Acts 12:25). At this point, Saul and Barnabas were in town (Acts 11:30), and since Mary was Barnabas’s relative, it’s possible they were staying with Mary when Peter showed up. Saul’s conversion was estimated to be not quite a decade before this, though it would be around another six years before he went on his first missionary journey—so I wonder if the other believers were still getting used to him. Neither Barnabas nor Saul are mentioned in the story, though.
Why in the world did the believers in Mary’s home suppose it was more likely that it was Peter’s angel at the door (presumably his guardian angel, as mentioned in Matthew 18:10) than Peter himself? Were their encounters with angels in the early church really so common as that? Perhaps… an angel again appeared at the end of the chapter, to strike down Herod for his arrogance (Acts 12:23), which presumably meant Peter could return to the city freely. Later, an angel also appeared to Paul during the tempest at sea (Acts 27:24), and the writer of Hebrews mentions that sometimes we can entertain angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2). At least the early church didn’t consider encounters with angels nearly so unusual as we might today.
Herod’s soldiers surrounded me even as I was in the middle of my sermon to the assembly of the Jews before the Temple. I had no hope of escape.
My listeners scattered, and I turned a resigned expression upon my captors. Even as they shackled my wrists and led me away, I marveled somewhere in the back of my mind at how much had changed, in how short a period of time. These were the days of Unleavened Bread, leading up to the twelfth Passover since Jesus had been crucified.
Nearly twelve years ago, I had denied Him. I’d feared for my own life, that I might share his fate. Now, even though my brother in the Lord, James, had been publicly executed by Herod only days before, a fate Herod surely intended for me to share, I was—incredibly—unafraid.
The difference was the Holy Spirit, I knew. I was a new man now.
At the same time, I also knew that my time to die had not yet come. Jesus Himself had told me before His ascension that I would indeed one day die a martyr, but not until I was an old man. Bizarrely enough, I’d been incredibly comforted by this—not because it meant I would live to old age, but because it meant I would not fail Him again. The second time, I would pass the test.
At any rate, though, I didn’t think early forties counted as “old.”
“We’re taking no chances with this one!” one of the officers who had arrested me barked at the soldiers standing guard at the prison. “Chain him between you this time!”
Two of the soldiers indeed moved forward, unshackling my wrists just long enough to chain me to themselves.
“When I have to relieve myself, this will be awkward,” I quipped, but nobody smiled.
I counted four squads, or sixteen soldiers, all of whom appeared to be assigned to just me. I decided not to comment. An angel of the Lord had delivered me from prison twelve years ago, shortly after Pentecost, and Herod didn’t want to chance that it would happen again.
As if more soldiers would make a difference.
Not that I knew whether the Lord intended to deliver me the same way again; perhaps I’d be imprisoned for years this time. All I knew was, if that happened, He would ultimately use it for good.
The next several days were quite miserable in the dank prison, with stale air and food, not enough water, no exercise, and no mobility of even my own limbs. I reminded myself that the soldiers chained to me had to be just as uncomfortable as I was, except that they took turns and could escape after their shifts were completed. Whenever I felt my spirit sink, or saw flashbacks in my mind’s eye of James as he fell by Herod’s sword, I started to sing to the Lord. This first annoyed, then enraged my captors. They struck me with their elbows in my stomach, which was the easiest part of me they could reach, commanding me to shut up. When I regained my breath after each blow, I told them stories of my time with Jesus—the good news of the gospel, of course, as well as some of the miracles I’d both witnessed and performed in His name. When blows failed to shut me up, the soldiers resorted to taunts and threats.
“You remember your buddy, how Herod gutted him before the people? That’ll be you in a few days, fisherman!”
I shrugged and told them, “I’m sure that’s what Herod intends,” and resumed my story of Jesus feeding the five thousand men, plus women and children.
“Intends?” one of them interrupted me. “Herod gets what Herod wants!”
I kept talking over him, nonplussed, describing now the twelve baskets we had left over.
Another of the soldiers, weary of striking me without effect, talked over my story and described in explicit detail how Herod might choose to have me executed tomorrow. Unable to completely tune out his words, I stopped talking, and instead went back to singing hymns to the Lord. The soldier trailed off in his vivid, violent descriptions with a shout of frustration.
“This is torture for us, not for him!” he cried out.
I looked at the soldier, past the angry mask he wore, and smiled. “The Lord loves you, too, you know.” One of the others scoffed and sneered, but the one I addressed ignored me entirely. “Don’t you want the same hope I have?”
“Don’t I want to be brutally murdered before the cheers of thousands of my own people, you mean?” he spat back at me. “Just like your Jesus was?”
“He was, yes,” I agreed, “but death could not hold Him, and He is still alive today. He pleads with you, through me, to accept what He did for you.”
“Stop arguing with him, Tobias,” muttered one of the other soldiers. “You’re just encouraging him.”
Tobias grumbled something unintelligible but said nothing more. For my part, I settled back into humming soft hymns to the Lord as day sank into twilight at the end of Passover—the last day of my life, if Herod had his way. I could not help but rejoice, as I remembered the depth of my despair this time twelve years ago, and how far the Lord had brought me since then. With this sweet thought, I drifted off to peaceful sleep.
“Oof!” I woke abruptly, as someone struck me in the side.
I blinked up into the radiant face hovering above me, backlit as if by the sun even though it was the middle of the night. I’d met enough angels by now to know one when I saw him. I obeyed at once, but when my wrists passed right through the shackles that still bound them to the soldiers sleeping on either side of me, I decided this must be a vision only, or possibly a dream.
“Get dressed. Put on your shoes,” the angel ordered. I did as I was bid, rather dreamily. Then the angel commanded, “Grab your coat and let’s get out of here!” I did so. Then I followed the angel, passing right through the bars of the cell and directly in front of the first squad, and then the second, standing watch outside the prison. They never saw us.
When we arrived at the iron gate into the city, it swung open on its own. I smiled, feeling like I almost floated as I followed the angel through the gate and into the city.
Then the angel vanished. I blinked, and turned around, thinking he must be behind me.
Suddenly I realized that I was wide awake, and still on the other side of the iron gate, now inside the city limits.
“I can’t believe it—this really happened!” I laughed aloud. “The Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod, and the spectacle the mob was looking forward to!” I ran into the city without stopping to consciously consider where I was going until I realized I was headed to Mary’s house, John Mark’s mother and Barnabas’s aunt. All of the believers met at her house regularly, so it was probably my best chance at finding several of them together—even though it was still the middle of the night.
When I came to the outer gate of Mary’s home, I knocked at the door within it, feeling elated by my sudden freedom, and excited to surprise whoever I might find inside. I waited for some time, shifting my weight from one foot to the other and wondering if they were all asleep and if I should knock louder. Then I heard a pair of footsteps on the other side of the gate, quick and light. Rhoda, the servant girl, I knew at once. She too had become a believer through her mistress, and often joined our prayer meetings.
“Rhoda!” I called to her softly through the gate. “Is that you?”
I heard her gasp. “Peter?”
I laughed softly. “Yes, it’s me!” But I stopped laughing in confusion when I heard the light, quick footsteps running away again, and back into the house. “Okay then,” I murmured, and knocked again.
It took several more minutes before I heard footsteps returning. There were more than just Rhoda this time.
“It’s Peter, I tell you!” I heard her insist to whoever came with her.
“Maybe it’s his angel,” said a voice I recognized as John Mark’s, doubtfully.
The door opened then, to reveal an astonished John Mark, with Mary and Rhoda behind him, along with Barnabas and Saul. All of them spoke at once.
“—we thought, after James—!”
“—after your first escape, Herod would take no chances—”
“—what are you doing here? Aren’t they looking for you?”
I held up my hands against all their questions, laughing. “Hush, and I’ll tell you!” I hugged each of them first, though I hesitated just for a split second before I hugged Saul. He did the same. It wasn’t so very long ago that he was one of the most zealous in persecuting the church. I’d forgiven him of course, as we all had, but I hadn’t quite gotten used to seeing him at our prayer meetings. He probably hesitated because he sensed that I did. Rhoda, meanwhile, jumped up and down a little in excitement as I released her.
Then, still standing at the gate because no one had thought to invite me inside, I told them how the angel had appeared to me and released me.
“We have been praying for that non-stop ever since you were arrested,” Mary confessed.
Her son laughed and said, “Yes, but evidently we didn’t believe it would happen! Shame on us.”
Mary finally thought to invite me inside after I’d finished my story, but I shook my head. “I don’t want to implicate any of you in my escape. Herod will be livid; I’m sure he was looking forward to appeasing the Jews with my death. Just make sure you tell James, the Lord’s brother, and the rest of the brothers that I escaped, and I’m all right.”
They agreed that they would do so, and I turned to go, though I wasn’t yet sure where. I needed to be far away from Judea for awhile, that was certain. I had presumably at least a few hours before the soldiers would rouse and discover my flight. I winced for them, knowing that Herod would order their deaths in my place. But there was nothing I could do about that.
“I pray that some of them heard me, and receive You before the end, Lord,” I whispered to the night air.
Wishing the angel had told me what to do next, I decided to go down to Caesarea, hoping Herod’s search for me wouldn’t extend that far. How long should I stay in hiding? I wondered. I wanted to continue to preach the gospel, not hide in someone’s spare room. All I could do was pray that I would know when it was time to speak freely again, that the Lord would make it plain to me.
“And thank you,” I finally remembered to add, smiling up at the stars. While I was glad that I had faced the prospect of death without shrinking back this time, I was also grateful that my work here was not yet done.