The entire Bible is a book of exodus. The Gospel is the good news of exodus, the announcement that the God of exodus has entered our broken world to lead His children from the tomb to His table. The God of exodus comes to lead creation itself into the glorious freedom of the sons of God.
And the living God doesn’t stop being the God of exodus after the resurrection of Jesus. He keeps doing exodus. Because Jesus accomplishes an exodus in Jerusalem, exodus becomes the very form of the church’s life. That’s what Acts 12 is all about.
The chapter begins with “Herod the king.” He’s a descendant of Herod the Great, who slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem, and he’s related to Herod Antipas, who beheaded John the Baptist and consented to Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Herod of Acts 12 is every inch his grandfather’s grandson. Like all the diabolical Herods, he does evil to the saints, putting James the brother of John, the son of Zebedee, to the sword.
During the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the week-long festival that follows Passover, Herod arrests Peter and puts him in prison. Peter has been arrested and imprisoned before, but this time the threat is intensified. Once Passover is over, Herod plans to bring Peter out before the people – perhaps to subject him to a public trial, more likely to display him in a public execution.
While Peter is in prison, an angel comes by night, filling the dungeon with heavenly light. He strikes off Peter’s chains, ushers him past the four guards, and opens the iron gate that leads into the street. Peter goes to the house where the disciples are praying.
A servant girl, Rhoda, comes to the gate, sees him, and rushes back inside with the glad news. The others don’t believe her, but Peter keeps knocking, like the rejected Bridegroom of the Song of Songs, until they open the gate and bring him inside.
We’ve seen this before, every bit of it. Peter is sleeping, and sleep is a symbolic form of death. Prison is a symbolic grave. Peter expects to receive a death sentence the next morning. He goes into Sheol, yet comes out the other side, a resurrected man led by the angel of the Lord.
He appears unexpectedly at Mary’s gate, and is himself mistaken for an “angel.” Women discover the empty tomb of Jesus and tell the apostles, but the apostles don’t believe until Jesus appears to them. So too, Peter appears to Rhoda, who announces his presence, while others doubt.
Raised from the dead, Jesus is reunited with His disciples, and Peter too rejoins the believers in Mary’s house. Peter and John visit Jesus’ tomb; after his resurrection, Peter goes to the home of John, who is also called Mark.
Like the risen Jesus, Peter commissions a new leader for the Jerusalem church – another James, this one the brother of Jesus. Like the risen Jesus, Peter mysteriously slips away to another place.
Jesus passes through an exodus during the feast of unleavened bread – arrest, trial, death, burial, resurrection, appearance, and ascension. By the Spirit, Jesus replicates the same exodus in the life of Peter – arrest, imprisonment, miraculous release, appearance, departure.
And Peter’s prison break is also another variation on the original Passover and exodus. Like Israel’s, Peter’s exodus is on the heels of a famine, which spreads through the entire Roman empire. Peter is arrested by a king who slaughters innocents.
Sitting in Herod’s prison, he’s like Israel, “prisoners in misery and chains” (Psalm 107:10). While Peter languishes, others pray for his release, their prayers rising like the cries of Israel from Goshen. Peter is plucked up at night by the angel of the Lord, now an angel of life.
Israel ate the Passover with their robes girded, sandals on their feet, and staffs in their hands (Exodus 12). They ate in haste, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Peter too dresses hastily for his journey out of the iron prison: “Gird yourself and put on your sandals . . . wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” says the angel (Acts 12:8).
Israel’s escape takes down Pharaoh’s army; Peter’s exodus takes down four quartets of soldiers from Herod’s forces. Herod intended to bring Peter out to kill him; instead, the Lord brings Peter out and Herod has to content himself with killing his own soldiers, who die like the firstborn sons of Egypt at the first Passover.
The last verses of Acts 12 look like a detached addendum, but they’re not. The chapter ends where it began, with the bloodthirsty opportunist, “King Herod.” Everything about him is royal. Blastus is his “royal chamberlain.” Tyre and Sidon are fed by the king’s country. When Herod meets with representatives of Tyre and Sidon, he puts on his royal robes and takes his royal throne.
But Herod aspires to be more than a king; he thinks of his arrival as a theophany, the appearance of a god. When the people shout that he speaks with the voice of a god, Herod doesn’t correct them or give glory to the true God.
To Herod, the angel of the Lord is an angel of death, striking him and turning him into maggot-food. Like household gods of Laban, like the gods of Egypt, like the gods of Babylon, Herod the godling is ground to powder.
Herod plays the role of Pharaoh, and he plays Pharaoh to the end. Like Pharaoh, his hands are covered in blood; like Pharaoh, he claims divine status; like Pharaoh, he dies like a man. A Satan, Herod falls like lightning.
Behold the kindness and severity of God: To Peter and the church, deliverance from darkness and reunion in Mary’s house; to Herod and his soldiers, a descent into hell.
The entire Bible is a book of exodus. The Gospel is the good news of exodus. The church’s history is a history of repeated exodus, for the church is the stone that crushes every Pharaoh. Those who destroy God’s holy temple, God will destroy.
No Herod with sword and scepter, crown imperial, intertissued robe can arrest the progress of the church. Herod notwithstanding, the word of the Lord continues to grow and to multiply (12:24). This is the good news of Peter’s exodus: “Every Herod dies, and comes alone / To stand before the Lamb upon the throne” (Malcolm Guite).
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