Acts 12 contains one of my favorite stories of the early church. It is a great little bit of writing—a short story in three acts. I was reflecting on that story recently and just had to tell you about it.
The chapter begins with a description of Herod’s persecution against the church. In order to please his Jewish subjects Herod has James arrested and killed. This makes his subjects so happy that he then goes after Peter, throwing him in prison as well. Knowing the popularity of these upstart Christians, Herod puts Peter under the care of four whole squads of soldiers. The first act ends with these words: “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” This earnest prayer is no incidental detail; it is a little fact, some narrative tension, that the author offers to foreshadow what will come.
The second act tells how Peter is delivered by God through one his angels. Peter, half asleep, sees his chains fall off and quickly passes all the guards before waking up and realizing what is happening. He hurries quickly to the church, to the gathering of people who just happen to be praying for him at that very moment. There is a delightful bit of comedy injected into the text when Rhoda, the servant girl, so excited to hear Peter at the door, runs to tell everyone that he has arrived. But she forgets to let him in; he is left standing on the street, pounding at the door. With the prayer meeting coming to a prompt end, the people belittle Rhoda, refusing to believe that Peter has actually arrived. And yet, because of Peter’s persistent knocking, they soon come to realize that he really has been rescued. Peter quickly tells his story and then disappears, presumably opting to lay low for a little while.
In the third act we return to Herod. Herod has ordered the execution of the soldiers who allowed Peter to escape. And then we find him accepting worship as a god. His Creator is most displeased and strikes him down so “he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” Herod bookends this story, appearing as a cruel tyrant at the beginning and as a pathetic worm-eaten corpse at the end. He has gone from holding the power of life and death in his hand to being struck down by the Lord himself. It’s a pathetic end to a pathetic ruler.