Peter’s Angelic Jailbreak | Acts 12:1-19 Commentary

An Angel Frees Peter From Prison (Ac 12:1-19)

Though I usually upload PowerPoint slideshows of previous Sunday School and Bible Study lessons, this time around (6.2.19) we did not have access to the projector. So, I figured I would just share the text of the notes I used during the lesson instead.

The bulleted notes include in-text citations; sources can be found at the bottom of the page. Feel free to peruse using the hyperlinked outline below:

Context

  • Up to this point in Acts, there have been a string a marvelous conversions as the word of God spread: 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the Samaritans (Ac 8:25); the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), Saul/Saul (Ac 9:1-31), the Gentile centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10), the mixed crowd in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30).(Stott, 207)
  • But this seems to be a major setback (Stott, 207)
  • In this account, the destructive power of Herod is contrasted with the saving power of God (Stott,207)
  • As we have seen throughout Church History, the pendulum swings between expansion and opposition (Stott, 207)
  • Peter was previously imprisoned twice by the Sanhedrin (Ac 4:3; Ac 5:18) in episodes demonstrating God’s sovereignty (Stott, 208)
  • Angel of the Lord had opened doors of the jail and set Peter and the apostles free before (Ac 5:19)(Stott, 208)

Acts 12:1 — Herod Agrippa I

  • 1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them (Ac 12:1, NIV) Lit: “laid violent hands” (Polhill, 277; Bock, 424)
  • Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great (Bruce, 232; Schnabel), who died around AD 44 (Marshall, 219)
  • Grandson of Hasmonaean queen Mariamne (Bruce, 232; Keener IVP; Schnabel); father Aristobulus was executed in 7 BC (Bruce, 232; Schnabel) for fear of usurpation (Polhill, 277). He was Jewish and Idumean (in contrast to Herod the Great who was just Idumean) (Keener IVP)
  • Grew up in Rome, where he was sent by his mother, and became friends with some members of the imperial family, including future emperor Claudius (Bruce, 232; Polhill, 277)
  • Was given territories by Emperors Gaius Caligula and Claudius; in AD 41 his kingdom was about the same size as his grandfather (Marshall, 219, Stott, 207; Polhill, 277); was given the title “king” (Bruce, 232; Polhill, 277; Keener IVP; Schnabel)
  • Very popular among Jews (Keener IVP). Known for currying their favor (Marshall, 219; Stott, 207; Polhill, 278) – especially Pharisees (Marshall, 219; Keener IVP); Hasmonaen heritage helped (Bruce, 232).
  • “Jewishnesss” may have been a face he put on while in Judea. He did as the Romans did while in Rome (Polhill, 278); Spent a lot of money currying favor in Rome (Schnabel)
  • Herod’s uncle was Herod Antipas who tried and killed Jesus (Stott, 207)

Acts 12:2 — James Drinks the Cup (of Martyrdom)

  • 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword (Ac 12:2, NIV) (cf. Lk 6:14; Ac 1:13; Lk 5:10; Schnabel)
  • James died by execution as Jesus predicted earlier…
  • 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” (Mk 10:37-40. NIV cf. Marshall, 219; Stott, 207; Bruce, 233; Polhill, 278; Bock, 425).
  • God’s providence to preserve one and not the other (Stott, 208)
  • Herod was probably well-informed about Jesus and His movement from his uncle (Stott, 207)
  • James was likely beheaded (Stott, 208; Schnabel; Keener IVP; Witherington, 385), like John the Baptist was (Bock, 425) but if the Jewish method was employed, he was ran through with a sword (Polhill, 278; Bock, 425)
  • As king, Herod Agrippa I had the right of life and death that the Sanhedrin lacked (Keener IVP)
  • Indicates shift in attitude of the people of Jerusalem towards the apostles (Bruce, 233) since Stephen’s martyrdom. The early church no longer had admiration after 10 or 11 years (Witherington, 386)
  • James was the first apostle who was martyred and second martyr in Acts after Stephen (Bock, 425 cf. Acts 7)

Acts 12:3 — If Some is Good, More is Better?

  • 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 (Ac 12:3, NIV)
  • Feast of Unleavened Bread followed the Passover, terms were used interchangeably (Marshall, 219)
  • Like with Jesus (cf. Mk 14:1f.), leaders did not want to execute someone during the festival (Marshall, 220; cf. Lk 22:7; Keener IVP); neither trials nor sentencing were permitted during festival time (Stott, 208)
  • “Approval” may be due to the inclusion of (the despised) Gentiles into the early Christian movement (cf. Acts 10; Bruce, 233)
  • If some is good, more is better (Bruce, 234; Schnabel); Herod “won points” with the Jews (Polhill, 279) (i.e., the Jewish leaders; Bock, 425)

Acts 12:4 — Maximum Security

  • 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover (Ac 12:4, NIV)
  • Feast of Unleavened Bread lasted seven days (Bruce, 234; Polhill, 279); Agrippa wanted to try and execute Peter the day after it was over (Schnabel)
  • Chief priests also plotted to kill Jesus (Lk 22:2) around the time of the Passover (Lk 22:1) (Keener, 1879)
  • Typical Roman practice: four groups of four soldiers, who would change guards during each of the four watch-periods throughout the night (Marshall, 220; Bruce, 234; Witherington, 385) – perhaps three hour night watches (Stott, 208; Polhill, 278; Witherington, 385)
  • Likely two on either side of him and two at the cell door (Bruce, 234)
  • Herod Agrippa basically calls for maximum security (Marshall, 220; Witherington, 386) – perhaps because what happened with the Sanhedrin (cf. Ac 5:19; Polhill, 279; Schnabel). Soldiers could be Romans or Jewish (Keener IVP; Witherington, 385)
  • “Show-trial” (Stott, 208; Keener IVP; Schnabel), to be followed by execution (Polhill, 279; Witherington, 385)
  • Situation looks very bleak (Stott, 208)

Acts 12:5 — Prayer Meeting

  • 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him (Ac 12:5, NIV)
  • Perhaps praying as Jesus did: 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42, NIV cf. Marshall, 220; Bock, 426)
  • earnestly/fervently – same word used to describe Jesus’ fervent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:44; Marshall, 220)
  • They knew God could deliver Peter (Stott, 208)
  • The world and the church warring with different weapons (Stott, 208)
  • May have prayed for lesser punishment like flogging (cf. Ac 5:40) or courage to endure (Schnabel; Bock, 426)

Acts 12:6 — Sleeping Heavenly Peace?

  • 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 (Ac 12:6, NIV)
  • Considering he was about to be executed, it’s interesting that he is sound asleep.
  • “the calm sleep that springs from a good conscience and quiet confidence in God”(Bruce,235)
  • The imprisonment likely lasted several days (Marshall, 221)
  • Last minute! (Polhill, 280) likely during the third night watch between 4 and 6AM (Schnabel)
  • Usually was enough to shackle a prisoner to one soldier. Again emphasizing the extent of how much Peter was guarded (Stott, 209) – no human hope of escaping (Keener IVP)
  • Jesus had predicted that Peter would die like him (Jn 21:18-19) (Stott, 209)
  • Likely imprisoned in Antonia fortress, which was in the temple area (Bruce, 235; Polhill, 281; Keener IVP; Witherington, 386)

Acts 12:7 — Wake up…

  • 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 (Ac 12:7, NIV)
  • Supernatural light (Marshall, 221); Luke has mentioned supernatural, angelic beings on about 15 occasions already in Luke-Acts (Stott, 209)
  • Peter was sleeping soundly, apparently untroubled by what might happen the next day (Marshall, 221; Stott, 209; Bruce, 235; Schnabel)
  • Peter is apparently half-awake during his escape (Witherington, 386), likely thinking it was a dream (Bruce, 235). He slept-walk out of jail! (Bruce, 235)
  • Perhaps kicked in the ribs (Polhill, 280); the Greek verb (πατάσσω | patassō)usually means “to strike a heavy blow” (Louw-Nida, 222)
  • Not Peter’s escape, but his deliverance! (Polhill, 280)

Acts 12:8 — …And Get Dressed (for Passover?)!

  • 8 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 (Ac 12:8, NIV)
  • Similar language to the first Passover (Keener, 1879)
  • 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover. (Ex 12:11)
  • Both accounts have angels (Ex 3:2 cf. Ac 12:7), opening of sea (Ex 14:21-22) / gate (Ac 12:10), etc. But parallels should not be pressed too far (Keener, 1879)

Acts 12:9 — (Sleep)walking…

  • 9 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 (Ac 12:9, NIV)
  • Guards may have been put in a deep sleep from the Lord (cf. 1 Sam 26:12; Polhill, 281; Schnabel, 12:7-8)

Acts 12:10 — …Out the Front Door

  • 10 They passed 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 (Ac 12:10, NIV)
  • Third door was the prison’s massive external gate/door (Marshall, 221)
  • Swung open automatically (i.e., miraculously) (Marshall, 221; Polhill, 281; Schnabel)

Acts 12:11 — Human Recognition of Divine Rescue

  • 11 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.” (Ac 12:11, NIV)
  • Peter recognizes divine intervention (Bruce, 236) when he is alone (Schnabel)
  • Written to be understood miraculously at every turn (Marshall, 221)
  • By faith, some escaped the edge of the sword, while others were killed with the sword (Heb 11:34, 37; Bruce, 237)

Acts 12:12 — Peter Goes to Prayer Meeting

  • 12 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 (Ac 12:12, NIV)
  • Some have suggested that this was the same house of the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost (Stott, 210), but there is no positive evidence for this (Marshall, 222)
  • John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas (Stott, 210); he traveled with Paul and Barnabas on missionary journeys (Stott, 210 cf. Ac 12:25,;13:5, 13; 15:37, 39; Polhill, 281; Schnabel)
  • John is his Jewish name, Mark is his Latin/Roman name (cf. Saul/Paul, Ac 13:9; Bruce, 238; Keener IVP)
  • Also mentioned elsewhere in the NT (Col. 4:10; Philem. 1:24; 2 Tim. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:13; Bruce, 238)
  • Likely the author of Second Gospel (Bruce, 238)
  • Unusual to be identified by children, likely many “Mary’s” during that time, however. (Polhill, 281)

Acts 12:13 — Knock, Knock

  • 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door (Ac 12:13, NIV)
  • Normal to see who was at the door, lest one invite a marauder in (Marshall, 222); customary for visitors to call out their names (Stott, 210-11)
  • Likely may have thought it was the secret police at first (Stott, 210)
  • Rhoda was a common Greek name, especially for slaves. It means rose (Polhill, 282) or rosebush (Witherington, 387)
  • Keeping the gate was probably part of her duties (cf. Jn 18:16f.; Polhill, 282); she was probably praying too (Witherington, 387)
  • “Outer entrance” indicates that it was a large property (Stott, 210; Bruce, 238; Schnabel); church of Jerusalem too large to meet in any one building; it was divided into house churches (Bruce, 238; Witherington, 386).
  • Probably a relatively wealthy family (Keener IVP; Schnabel) led by a widow (Schnabel; Witherington, 386)

Acts 12:14 — You Forgot Something…

  • 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” (Ac 12:14, NIV)
  • Indicates she was likely a believer who was surprised (Schnabel)
  • She forgets to open the gate (Schnabel)!

Acts 12:15 — You Must Be Crazy

  • 15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” (Ac 12:15, NIV)
  • Irony: people praying for Peter’s deliverance don’t believe he has been delivered (Stott, 211)
  • Paul is called “out of your mind” by Festus later in Acts (Ac 26:25; Bock, 428)
  • Some Jews thought people had guardian angels (cf. Mt 18:10) (Marshall, 222; Stott, 211; Bruce, 238; Polhill, 282; Schnabel; Witherington, 387). Writings penned after the NT display how people thought guardian angels resembled people whom they protected (Marshall, 222; Stott, 211; Witherington, 387)
  • Some believe that one’s angel appeared immediately after a person’s death; we might say, “You saw his ghost” (Polhill, 282; Keener IVP; cf. Lk 24:37; Witherington, 387)
  • Luke does not present this as sound doctrine, however (Marshall, 223)
  • Found it easier to believe that Peter had died and gone to heaven than had been delivered (Polhill, 282)
  • Disbelieve the woman like the apostles disbelieved the women at the tomb who saw the Resurrected Christ (Lk 24:10-11; Bock, 428)

Acts 12:16 — Meanwhile…

  • 16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished (Ac 12:16, NIV)
  • In an area where the authorities would have searched first, probably not knocking too loudly (Bruce, 238) – likely also in a wealthy area of aristocratic priestly families who would report to the authorities (Keener IVP)
  • Liable to recapture (Polhill, 282)

Acts 12:17 –Tell That, Run

  • 17 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 he left for another place. (Ac 12:17, NIV)
  • This James is the half-brother of Jesus (Mk 6:3) (Marshall, 223; Stott, 211; Bruce, 239; Polhill, 283).
  • James was later the esteemed leader of the Jerusalem church (Ac 15:13, 21:18) (Marshall, 223; Stott, 211; Bruce, 239; Polhill, 283).
  • Paul described James as one of the three pillars of the church (Gal 2:9) (Marshall, 223; Stott, 211; Bruce, 239). Paul called him an apostle (Gal 1:19) (Marshall, 223; Stott, 211). He had seen the Resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:7) (Marshall, 223; Stott, 211). James eventually took Peter’s place as the recognized leader of the Jerusalem church (Marshall, 223) (cf. Keener IVP; Schnabel; Witherington, 387-88)
  • Known for his ascetic life, regular temple prayer services; well-regarded in Jerusalem (Bruce, 239). Stoned in AD 62 by high priest Annas II; people were gravely surprised and protested (Keener IVP). Thought the subsequent disasters in the city were due to the cessation of His prayers (Bruce, 239)
  • Brethren can mean other members of the church in general (Marshall, 223; Schnabel) or the elders/leaders of the church (Marshall, 223; Bruce, 239; Polhill, 283; Schnabel)
  • “Other place” is controversial but probably not Rome (cf. Rom 15:20; Polhill, 283; Witherington, 388; cf. Schnabel). Peter needs to get out of town – out of the reach of Agrippa (Polhill, 283; Schnabel; Witherington, 389)

Acts 12:18 — What the Heaven Happened?

  • 18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter.
  • According to Roman law, a guard who let a prisoner escape was to be punished with the penalty the prisoner would have faced (Stott, 212 cf. Ac 16:27; 27:42; Polhill, 283; Keener IVP; Witherington, 389)

Acts 12:19 — Severance

  • 19 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 (Ac 12:19, NIV)
  • Guards were probably tortured (Schnabel)
  • Given all the precautions, it was humanly impossible to escape without help (Keener IVP)

Conclusion

  • This account explains why Peter no longer led the Jerusalem church (Bock, 421)
  • Emphasizes divine intervention (Schnabel) and human passivity (Stott, 211)
  • Being a witness for Christ often entails persecution and even death (2 Cor 11:23-28; Jn 15:18, 16:33; Mt 10:22;
  • But God is able to preserve us for His purpose – if He so chooses; Just as he did at the First Passover
  • Let’s not be surprised when He does

Bibliography

  • Bock, Darrell L. Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
  • Bruce, F. F. The Book of the Acts. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988.
  • Marshall, I. Howard. Acts: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 5. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.
  • Keener, Craig S. Acts: An Exegetical Commentary & 2: Introduction and 1:1–14:28. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012–2013.
  • Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
  • Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.
  • Polhill, John B. Acts. Vol. 26. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.
  • Schnabel, Eckhard J. Acts. Expanded Digital Edition. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
  • Stott, John R. W. The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
  • Witherington, Ben, III. The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

 

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Imperfect servant striving to be an unapologetically apologetic ambassador for Jesus the Christ. Princeton University Alum | Palmer Theological Seminary Student