9 May 2017

Acts 5:12-32

“But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’” (vv. 19-20)

Psalm: Psalm 150


Angels? Someone once calculated how large a breastbone an angel would need to have enough muscle to gain lift off with those wings we see in Victorian pictures. It would stick out about six feet in old money! Ridiculous! And I'm already losing the plot. That's the problem with visual images. They stay in your mind. Sometimes it's better to read the language of the Bible rather than try to make sense of the pictures it excavates from our memories.

Translated literally 'angel' means messenger. Now bring that into today's world and we have a messenger opening the prison doors. Get rid of that ethereal, other-worldly sketch and the narrative takes on a courageous sense of reality. What if the 'angel' is another Christian, perhaps a persuaded member of the prison guards, taking a risk, acting in resistance against those who would wish to silence and put out of business these people who are threatening the 'true religion' handed down over generations?

This makes sense of the encouragement that the angel gives to the erstwhile captives. Hold onto the angelic, the miraculous if you will, but for me the story makes more sense without it and is more true to the situation and, crucially, the meaning of the words, the biblical narrative.

What comes next? Those men are '"are standing in the temple and teaching the people" (v. 25). What we read here is also telling: "Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people" (v. 26). Brought without violence: now there might be a fear of some metaphysical force, but the weight of resistance of the people is immediately prevalent, physically on their doorstep. And if one of them is actually on the inside, as it were, this is thoroughly problematic.

Take my suggestions or leave them, what shines through is the tenacity and courage of those who persist in doing good and in perpetuating love in the presence of tyranny, even at the risk of imprisonment or their lives.

To Ponder

  • How much do you love your neighbours? Enough to risk prosecution or death when you demonstrate that love?
  • How should you resist tyranny in the world today?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Pratt

Andrew is a Methodist supernumerary presbyter, Honorary Research Fellow at Luther King House, Manchester, and author. He has written over 1,300 hymns.