BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 34
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons
One of the major themes of the book of Acts is that Christ’s servants follow in His footsteps. For instance, if we compare the lives of Jesus and Paul, we find that each engaged in several years of travelling and preaching. Each set his face toward Jerusalem. In each case the man’s followers knew in advance that he would be arrested and tried to talk him out of it (Mt. 16:21-22; Acts 21:11-12). Each had confrontations in the Temple. Each was tried by three courts: the Jewish Sanhedrin, a Roman Governor, and an Edomite Herod. But, Jesus was silent while Paul proclaimed the gospel. Jesus was convicted while Paul was found innocent. Both the parallels and the contrasts are instructive.
Except for Acts 15:7, Acts 12 records the last incident in the life of Peter. It is interesting to take note of the structure and imagery of this chapter. In verses 1-2 we find that Herod has put James the brother of John to death. Then he arrested Peter (see Luke 22:33), during the days of Unleavened Bread. This was the same time of year Jesus was arrested.
Herod intended to put Peter on trial after Passover. Remember, at Passover one prisoner was released, and Herod did not want it to be Peter (John 18:39; Luke 23:17). Now we have a contrast: Everyone abandoned Jesus, but the Church prayed for Peter continually (Acts 12:5).
An angel came to Peter in prison and told him to get up, get dressed, and follow him. The angel led Peter past the guards and into the city, and then left him. This recapitulates the exoduses in the Bible, particularly Lot’s exodus from Sodom and Israel’s exodus from Egypt (led by the angel of the Lord).
This is analogous to Jesus’ exodus (Luke 9:31; Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus concerning His "exodus" that He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem). Jesus’ exodus was His resurrection, the ultimate deliverance from the bondage of death. Here in Acts, we have one picture of actual death (James’s) followed by a picture of symbolic death (Peter’s imprisonment). James’s exodus in union with Christ took him to heaven; while Peter’s exodus in union with Christ took him out of prison and back into service.
Just as Joseph’s deliverance from prison and Israel’s exodus from Egypt were foreshadowings of Jesus’ resurrection, so Peter’s deliverance from prison is a retro-reflection of Jesus’ resurrection. The servant follows in the steps of the Master.
Peter realized that God had delivered him from Herod and from the Jews. This positions the Jews as Egyptians, and the Church as true Israel (Acts 12:11).
Now watch how closely the next events recapitulate the resurrection of Jesus. The first persons to encounter Jesus were women, and the first to encounter Peter was Rhoda. As the women ran back to tell the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection, Rhoda ran back to tell the Christians that Peter was at the gate. As the disciples did not believe the testimony of the women, so the Church did not believe Rhoda. Just as the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost until he ate a fish, so the Christians said that Rhoda had seen Peter’s angel (=ghost; Mt. 22:30) (Acts 12:12-16).
Finally they let Peter in, and he told them what had happened. He then said, "Report these things to James and the brethren" (compare Jesus, Mt. 28:10). Then surprisingly "he departed and went to another place" (Acts 12:17). We don’t know where Peter went or why, but his immediate departure reminds us of the post-resurrection appearances and disappearances of Jesus.
A last parallel pointed out in the text is that consternation of the rulers. Both the gospels and Acts 12:18-19 record that the leaders were upset about what happened, and both record what was done to the soldier-guards.
God orchestrates history so that it has meaning. He arranged the events in Acts 12 to communicate to us that He will continue to deliver us from Egypt (prison; death). He caused Luke to record the events in such a way that we see the parallels between Jesus and ourselves. Whether we die like James or are delivered like Peter, we are following in the steps of the Master.
A New Exodus
The exodus from Egypt is woven into the resurrection of Jesus as background to Peter’s deliverance. Both men were arrested at the time of Unleavened Bread, the Passover, which celebrated the exodus from Egypt. It was customary to release one prisoner at this time as a memorial of the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. God released both Jesus and Peter at this time.
But there is another and broader exodus taking place in Acts 12 as well. The story actually begins in Antioch in Acts 11:27, where Agabus prophesies a great famine all over the world. This refers back to the famine of Joseph’s day. Barnabas and Saul go to Jerusalem to take food there. This is equivalent to the descent of the Hebrews into Egypt. While Barnabas and Saul are in Jerusalem-Egypt, the Herod-Pharaoh kills James and imprisons Peter. Peter is miraculously delivered from prison-Egypt. The Jerusalem-Egyptian soldiers are killed, and Herod-Pharaoh is also killed (Acts 12:19-23). Then at the end of the story Barnabas and Saul leave Jerusalem and go back to Antioch.
Thus, the formal structure of this story identifies Jerusalem with Egypt (Rev. 11:8). While a plague of famine came upon Jerusalem, those in the Goshen-Church were protected by the relief brought by Barnabas and Saul (compare the last seven plagues on Egypt; Ex. 8:22). When Herod-Pharaoh tried to destroy the Church, he himself was destroyed. The Church makes an exodus in the person of Saul, who returns to Antioch. Antioch becomes the new capital of the Church, and missionaries are immediately sent out from there (Acts 13:1-3). After the exodus from Jerusalem-Egypt comes the conquest of the world (Canaan).
Jesus’s death and resurrection, and then disappearance (ascension) gave birth to the mission to Jerusalem. After His exodus came the conquest of Jerusalem and Judea. Now parallel to this, Peter’s imprisonment and resurrection, and then disappearance, gives birth to the worldwide mission. Jesus’ exodus put Peter in charge of the conquest of Jerusalem and Judea. Peter’s exodus puts Paul in charge of the world conquest.
The Structure of Acts
Now we are in a position to see more fully the overall structure of Acts. First we have, in Luke’s first volume, the work of Jesus: His preaching, His raising up disciples, His suffering, death, and resurrection. This was the initial microcosm of the gospel. It happened to one Man alone.
The first application of that work was to the Jews ("to the Jew first, then to the Greek"). Peter was put in charge of that work. Acts 2-12 shows Peter recapitulating the work of Jesus. We see Peter preach. We see him raise up disciples (Stephen and Philip) who go out and preach (as Jesus sent His disciples to preach). In Acts 12 we find Peter’s suffering, imprisonment, and resurrection. This was the second microcosm of the gospel. It happened with Jerusalem and Israel as center, according to the pattern of the Old Covenant.
This stage of the gospel established that gentiles were to be included with Jews on the same level. The opponents of the gospel at this stage were the apostate Jews.
Just as the travail of Jesus gave birth to the Jewish Church (and ultimately to the whole Church), so the travail of the Jewish Church gives rise to the world-wide Church. I discussed this at length in Biblical Horizons 27-29, "The Future of Israel Reexamined." I focussed in that essay on the final step in the process of the change from the Old Covenant Jew-Gentile bipolarity to the New Covenant unified Church. Acts shows us an intermediate stages: one centered in Peter and the next in Paul.
The focus of the Jerusalem-Israel Church is Peter, and his imprisonment and resurrection passes the torch to Paul. It is immediately after Acts 12 that Saul becomes Paul, that Antioch becomes the center, and that the world-wide Gentile mission goes into gear. In Acts 12, Peter passes the torch of the Jerusalem church to James, who was an elder not an apostle (Acts 12:17; Acts 15). The torch of the gentile mission is passed to Paul. Peter disappears from view in the same way Jesus did after His ascension.
In this stage Paul is primary and James secondary, since Paul was an apostle and James was not. This stage shows the Church moving out of the womb of Israel and becoming primarily Gentile. The primary enemies during this stage are not apostate Jews but apostate Jewish Christians, the Judaizers. There are two centers of the Church during this stage. Antioch is primary, with Paul as leader, and Jerusalem is secondary, with James as leader. The bipolarity is still being overcome during this stage, and Paul always goes first to the synagogue when he visits a city to preach, but the center of attention has shifted from Jerusalem to the gentile world.
Now Paul recapitulates the work of Jesus. In Acts we see Paul preaching. We see him raise up disciples and send them letters (Timothy & Titus). We find Paul arrested in Jerusalem, tried by the same courts that tried Jesus and Peter, and being delivered.
The joining of Jew and Gentile into one body is still going on and has not yet been completed. But in Acts 28, Paul finally and definitively turns from the Jews. As Peter was the focus of the Jerusalem-Israel Church, so Paul is the focus of the Antioch-centered but Jew-first Church. Peter’s imprisonment and resurrection passed the torch to Paul, and Paul’s imprisonment and resurrection passes the torch out of the New Testament to the ongoing unified Church. The transformation has been completed.
Thus, we have four stages in the coming of the Kingdom. The first stage is in Jesus Christ and His definitive work alone. The second stage is in Peter as head of the Jerusalem-centered Jewish Church that begins to minister to the gentiles. The third stage is in Paul as head of the world-wide Church that is still going to the Jew first and seeking to unite Jew and gentile into one body. The fourth and final stage, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of Paul, is the stage when Jew and gentile are completely united into one Church and the bipolarity no longer exists.
I believe that not only does the book of Acts show us how the Church came into being, but it also shows us how the Church will continue to advance. Each time there was a "death & resurrection" experience, the Church emerged stronger, coming out of "Egypt" with spoils. Jesus’ death and resurrection led to the conquest of Jerusalem. Peter’s imprisonment and resurrection led to Paul’s gentile conquests. Paul’s imprisonment and resurrection, connected with the events of A.D. 70, led to the birth of the Church into the world (see Biblical Horizons 27-29). Since that time, whenever the Church has been attacked and put to death, she emerges stronger than before. The blood of the martyrs is always the seed of the Church. The suffering of believers always works to the advancement of the gospel. (For another slant on this theme, see my paper, "The Whole Burnt Offering: Its Liturgy & Meaning," available from Biblical Horizons.)