From: All God’s Angels
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 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. 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.
So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
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. 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. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did do. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 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. 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.
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.” (Acts 12:1-11)
Luke’s record of the deliverance of Peter from prison is a fascinating story in its own right, and it also introduces an idea that has been treasured and handed down through centuries of Judeo-Christian tradition: guardian angels. In this chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, tragic circumstances are mixed with an almost humorous account of Peter’s experience with one of these divinely appointed protectors.
The persecution of the early church had begun in earnest and, after Stephen (Acts 7), one of the first to fall victim to its cruelty, was James the brother of John. At the hands of Herod Agrippa (grandson of Herod the Great), it looked as if Peter would be next. All that the church could do was to pray…which was apparently enough. In his description of what comes next, Luke is very particular about the details, which serve to emphasize the impossibility of Peter’s situation as well as the miraculous method of his deliverance. And it does not escape Luke that Peter will languish in prison on the Passover, the very day that the Jewish people are celebrating their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
Herod has taken every precaution to prevent Peter’s rescue or escape – clearly never considering that, like the fiery furnace of the three men in the book of Daniel, Peter’s chamber might have room for a visitor. Step by step, Luke leads us through the angel’s method: illuminating the room; rousing Peter with a smack to his side; releasing the chains; instructing Peter on how to get dressed (can you see the apostle fumbling for his sandals in a barely woken daze?); leading him past the guards; remotely opening the gate; and, finally, delivering Peter safely to the nighttime street, where the angel (as usual, dare we say?) promptly disappears.
Clearly, Luke wants us to see both the hand of the church at work through its prayers and intercessions, and the hand of God at work through the angel’s oversight. It is the tender condescension, the careful and personal nature, of this oversight that leads many to say this is Peter’s guardian angel. (For other examples of guardian angels, see Matthew 18:10; Genesis 48:16; and the wonderful story of Tobias and the archangel Raphael in Tobit 5.) Apparently, by the apostles’ time, it was thought that a guardian angel took on the characteristics of his charge, for Peter’s indignant friends conclude that it cannot be Peter standing outside their door but rather “his angel” (Acts 12:15).
Like many other early church teachers, Saint Basil said that some angels are responsible for the welfare of individual men and women. An angel guards each believer’s soul, he says, acting as teacher and shepherd. The apostle Peter’s guardian angel certainly fulfills such a duty on that Passover night in Jerusalem.