No matter the pages to which the reader turns, the Scriptures grip the soul and give us to see that which of value. It is, for example, very noticeable that God is the greatest mathematician. He adds, He subtracts, He divides and He multiplies. In Acts 12 we see two of these features at work.
It begins with subtraction: James (v.2) is put to death; but it ends with multiplication: "the word of God grew and multiplied" (v.24). Over against the death of one man we have the deliverance of another (vv.6-10). We wonder why this is, but is it that, years before, James and John had desired recognition in the kingdom (Mk 10.35-40) and were forewarned of its implications? Herod, to please the Jews, ensured that James was put to death with the sword. The Lord takes home at times those whom we consider to be of utmost value to the assembly.
Note the first contrast in what takes place in the case of Peter. There is no subtraction. Peter is arrested and imprisoned (v.3), and it appeared that the plan was that he would be put to death. In that prison (v.4), although doubtless the authorities were unaware of what was taking place in John Mark's mother's house, Peter was being strongly guarded, but the saints were engaged in a prayer meeting. It was in a collective way that they gathered together there (v.12). The prayers were persistent (without ceasing), they were united (of the church), they were definite (unto God) and they were objective (for him). The death of James did not cause the Christians to cease their prayers, nor did it cause them to lose their confidence in prayer.
In verses 6-7 the second contrast is between armed security and angelic salvation. At first sight the position seemed hopeless to Peter - four guards keeping watch over a man in chains. Peter was bound to these soldiers, possibly two on each side. But God is the God of the impossible. Peter could prove the Scriptures to be true: "Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped" (Ps 124.7). "The angel of the Lord came upon him" (v.7), and the chains fell from his hands. There was no panic, but quietly and in an orderly way the angel told him to put on his sandals and "Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me" (v.8). With the angel he passed the first and the second wards, and then before him the iron-gate that led out to the city opened. At that point the angel departed from him. Such a mighty deliverance can be wrought by our God. If it is His will iron gates will open to us of their own accord, barriers can be removed, and enemies will be set aside. Israel of old thought that she was trapped by the vast sea ahead and the galloping hordes behind. But the Lord said, "go on dry ground through the midst of the sea" (Ex 14.16) and that was enough.
The third contrast is that between the smiting of Peter and the smiting of Herod (vv.7,23). Peter was "smitten" on his side by the angel of the Lord (v.7) to give him liberty. Herod was "smitten" by the angel and lost his life "because he gave not God the glory" (v.23). Due to this there was subtraction among his people. The numbers of those who followed the Lord "multiplied". God, not us, is in control.
It is noteworthy that we cannot put much, if anything, on great men if they are not godly men, and we may be sure that the Caesars and Herods have had their day and are no more! But the humble men of God who seek not their own glory, but the glory of Him that sent them, will in the coming day, have His approval at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Peter passes out of this chapter and only once appears again, in ch.15, as a powerful witness to the grace of God in the calling of the Gentiles. He wrote two epistles which are of great comfort for the saints today. If we are reproached for that worthy name by which we are called, let us rejoice in view of the glory that has to be revealed. Even today we can note that there are no limitations with God if it be His will. Even today He subtracts (not always by death) and multiplies. He is still in control.