When Peter was in prison awaiting his execution that was to take place the next day, we read in Acts 12 that the church conducted an all-night prayer service for him. God responded, sending an angel to release him from his imprisonment. When Peter showed up at the door of the house where the prayer meeting was taking place and knocked to come in, the servant girl Rhoda was so astonished at his appearance that she left him there and ran to tell the others. In a rather ironic moment in redemptive history, we are told the very people praying for Peter’s release denied it could be him. “You’re out of your mind,” they told her (Acts 12:15).
In reading this, we might be tempted to shake our head at their unbelief. Yet we ought to do so humbly rather than condescendingly if we do. For what they said next is especially fascinating. “When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, ‘It must be his angel.'” That the early church would rather think it was an angel at the door than Peter himself shows an acute awareness of the spiritual realm that they had which we moderns often lack. Then, notice the possessive in their statement. “It must be his angel.”
Did Peter have a guardian angel? Do we?
Only once in my life have I had an occasion that brought me face-to-face with that question.
On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day of 2003, while returning home following a Bible study in another town, I fell asleep behind the wheel of my car (one that I had owned for all of one week!). The car was traveling about 50 miles per hour when it left the right side of the road and started down a ditch. According to witnesses, the car ramped up the embankment of a driveway, became airborne and traveled three or four car lengths, then slammed down on the other side of the ditch. Moments after this, I awoke, feeling the sensation of the car being off the road, seeing my airbags had exploded and my windshield had shattered, and having smoke fill the car. Roused from my stupor, I was able to bring the car to a stop about 75 yards from where it had landed, with my horn blaring in what ended up being the front yard of a very kind, understanding lady.
Though Miriam and I had planned to go out and celebrate our love that night, we ended up having a quiet and stunned evening at home. Had I gone off a short distance before or after that point, I would have hit trees or homes and possibly people. Had my car veered to the left instead of the right, the folks who witnessed what some have called my “Dukes of Hazzard” routine would have instead had a head-on collision with me. Life and property would have been lost. Had I hit that ditch anywhere else, the deputy who attended the scene said I would have rolled or smashed my car and myself to bits. Instead, I slept through almost the whole thing and got out of my car without a scrape, bruise, or even a sore muscle. A busy week including the flu, the smooth ride of my Buick versus the bouncy ride of the large van I had been accustomed to driving, and a propensity to get drowsy when driving explain the human side of why it happened. Yet what about my safe deliverance?
In the immediate moment that followed, as I stood by the car, even with all the noise of the horns and people gathering around me with questions, a sense of other worldly peace came upon me. Later in reflection, this peace only grew. Did I survive that wreck because God sent an angel to save me? If so, was it a personal guardian angel?
One person who has aided me tremendously in questions about angels is none other than John Calvin himself. He regularly addresses the subject of angels.
Calvin shows from the Scriptures how these mighty beings are constantly employed by God in his providential work of governing the earth. They send forth his winds and rains. They bring war to nations. But they also serve Christ in the protection of His people. Calvin says in the Institutes, “Like horses trembling at a starting gate, eager to explode forth to please their riders, so angels stand in trembling readiness to fulfill the every wish of Christ.” He then quotes from the ninety-first psalm, “He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.” Then from Psalm 34 he again references Scripture, “The angel of the Lord encamps round about them that fear him, and delivers them.” Calvin goes on to say, “By these passages the Lord shows that the protection of those whom he has undertaken to defend he has delegated to his angels,” and then gives examples of such.
Then Calvin comes to the question of whether a believer has his or her own guardian angel. Note his reference to Acts 12.
…I dare not positively affirm…when Christ says that the angels of children always behold the face of his Father, he insinuates that there are certain angels to whom their safety has been entrusted. But I know not if it can be inferred from this, that each believer has his own angel…There is one passage which seems to intimate somewhat more clearly that each individual has a separate angel. When Peter, after his deliverance from prison, knocked at the door of the house where the brethren were assembled, being unable to think it could be himself, they said that it was his angel.” –Calvin (Institutes I.14.6-7)
However, Calvin goes on to answer the question about guardian angels to say the Biblical record is inconclusive. This statement by the early church may not have been a solidly rooted theological confession on guardian angels (clearly they were not thinking entirely straight!), but rather a common belief at the time. Calvin then gives a comforting answer to the question. “If any one does not think it enough to know that all the orders of the heavenly host are perpetually watching for his safety, I do not see what he could gain by knowing that he has one angel as a special guardian.”
So, yes indeed, whether one angel or twelve legions, let us just rest knowing that these magnificent beings are sent in a manner that their Lord – and ours – determines is best.