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The Book of Acts Series
Acts, Chapter 12
Acts 12 (New American Standard Bible)
Significant events in Acts, Chapter 12
- Persecution of the Church by Herod
o The death of James
o Peter placed in Prison
o Peter freed from prison
- Herodís Death
- Barnabas, Saul and John Mark return to Antioch
James Killed by Herod
1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
Luke begins Chapter 12 telling about the persecution against the Jerusalem church. The key players in his story are Herod the King, James, the brother of John and Peter.
About This Time:
Lukeís telling of the persecution of the Jerusalem church occur during the same general time as the growth of the church in Antioch (Acts 11: 19-26) and before Paulís trip to Jerusalem (Acts 11: 27-30).
Historians, following secular records, place Herodís death (Acts 12: 20-23) in A.D. 44, and Paulís visit to Jerusalem (11:30) about two years later.
The persecution of James and Peter may be connected to bringing Cornelius into the church fellowship, with the events Luke reports beginning sometime after Peterís defense of his visit to Cornelius in front of the Jerusalem church (Acts 11: 1-18).
The Several ďHerod the king(s)Ē
Luke begins his account of persecution against the Jerusalem church by writing: "It was about this time King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them" (Acts 12: 1). The King Herod mentioned here is the grandson of "Herod the Great," who died in 4 B.C. He ruled Judea at the time of Jesusí birth (Luke 1:5) and tried to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2). Herod the Great was a Jew of Idumaean (Edomite) descent on his fatherís side. He refurbished the Jerusalem temple and built a splendid complex around it (and also built temples to pagan deities).
The second Herod prominent in the biblical account is "Herod the Tetrarch." He pops in and out of Lukeís account throughout Jesusí life (Luke 3:1, 19; 8:3; 9:7-9; 13:31; 23:7-15; Acts 4:27). He is the Herod who executes John the Baptist and meets with Jesus just before his crucifixion. The Romans depose him in A.D. 39.
The King Herod of Acts Chapter 12 is "Herod Agrippa I." He dies in A.D. 44, as Luke reports at the end of Chapter 12. Herod Agrippa grew up in Rome with the imperial family and eventually came to rule over Palestine.
Apostles are persecuted
Probably in the early spring of A.D. 43, or perhaps 44, (about 12 years after Jesus was crucified) (As Luke reports in Acts 12:1) Herod Agrippa began to persecute the church, particularly in Jerusalem. From What Luke reports, it appears that this time the apostles and leaders of the church are the intended victims. Herod is held responsible by the Roman authorities for keeping peace in Palestine. Evidently, his acts against the church were intended to pacify the Jewish Authorities and the Jewish population of Jerusalem.
James, The Brother of John
As a part of his persecution, Herod Agrippa has James arrested, along with others in the Jerusalem church. Evidently, he singles out James, the brother of John. Luke says specific things about this action:
1 - Herod intended to persecute the Jerusalem
church through this action.
Luke does not say why Herod did this (why he had James killed).
1 - A possible (speculative) reason could be
related to James and Johnís nicknames ďSons of ThunderĒ given to them when
Christ was still teaching and preparing them for ministry. Perhaps in a
ďthunderousĒ manner, James spoke out in defense of the church to Herod in the
same way that Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin.†
Peter in Prison
3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After 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.
It is obvious that Herod means business in his persecution of the church. He shows a fatal character flaw when he has James killed. The church has done nothing to Herod to justify this action against James. More so, when he sees that having James killed pleases the Jews, he moves against Peter also. He has him seized during the feast of unleavened bread (Passover) and has him thrown into prison, intending to deal with him in a public trial after the Passover feast.
The seven days of the festival of Unleavened Bread are just beginning when Peter is arrested. There can be no doubt that the outcome of any public trial of Peter would end in a death sentence that would be quickly carried out by the Roman executioners. The delay until the end of the Passover celebration is an intent by Herod to avoid offending the Jews by execution anyone during the celebration. It should be remembered that the Priests did not want to arrest and execute Jesus during the same festival. In Markís gospel he says that the priests (about twelve years earlier) believed that if they had arrested and executed Jesus during Passover that the people might riot (Mark 14:2).
5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. 6The 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.
It is obvious that Herod means business and obvious what will happen to Peter unless God intervenes. That is what the church was praying for when they prayed for Peter. Throughout Acts, Luke points out that prayer is a central part of the life of the church. Here, the church is facing a life-threatening crisis and they do exactly what they need to do. They pray earnestly to God for Peter.
As all of this is taking place, Herod is taking no chances. He has Peter in Prison, well guarded. In Herodís mind, there is no way the church will take Peter by force. In the mind of the church, the only answer will come from God.
During this time, Peter is probably in the Antonia fortress, the military barracks where Paul is later confined (Acts 21:31 Ė Acts 23:32). The fortress overlooks the Jerusalem temple. Peter is guarded by four squads of four soldiers each, probably on a rotating basis. He sleeps bound with two chains between two soldiers, with sentries standing guard at the entrance of his cell.
7Suddenly 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.
8Then the angel said to him, "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. 9Peter 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. 10They 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.
Suddenly, an angel appears, and a light shins into Peterís cell, lighting it up. The angel strikes him sharply in the side (evidently he is sleeping soundly) to wake him up. "
Quick, get up!" the angel demands. At this point Luke reports that the chains fall from Peterís wrists.
The angel then tells Peter to put on his clothes and wrap his outer garment around him. There is no doubt in the mind of the angel. They are leaving the prison, but Peter does not understand. I am certain that he later told Luke, ďMan, I had no idea what was going on. I thought I was having a dream or vision at that point and I just stumbled along behind, having no idea what was happening. We passed right by all of the guards and no one woke up. When we came to the city gates, they swung open all by themselves and we simply entered the city. After we had walked the length of a street the guy I was following simply disappeared!Ē
At this point Peter is still in a daze, half asleep, thinking that his experience with the angel is simply a vivid dream. One can understand Peterís confusion, as everything that is happening is in all respects contrary to normal.
11Then Peter came to himself and said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating."
Finally, Luke tells us that Peter "comes to himself" and realizes the dream-like scene is real. Luke records Peterís thoughts as he walks along the quiet streets: "Now I know without a doubt the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herodís clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating" (Acts 12:11).
The power of the resurrected Jesus is working mightily in his apostles and church. It might be reasonable to ask why God allowed Peter to escape but left James to die. There is no easy answer to that question except that the answer lies among the mysteries of God.
It has always been that way among Godís people. God rescues some of his servants to do his work and others are killed while doing it (Hebrews 11:32-37). In Peterís case, God steps in and saves him (and almost certainly the Jerusalem church). Whatever plans Herod and the Sanhedrin may have to destroy the community of believers is stopped for the moment.
12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.
When Peter comes to his senses, he makes his way to the house where the church is waiting and praying for a miracle. That place is the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. We know that since the house is mentioned as ďthe house of MaryĒ that she is a widow. The house must be large, because there are ďmany peopleĒ gathered there. As Luke has already mentioned, they are still praying. When I read this, the words from the King James Version Acts 12:5 come to mind
therefore was kept in prison: but prayer
was made without ceasing
The church was praying without ceasing. They began doing that when they learned that Peter had been taken to prison and they still (several days later) were when he returned to them.
Mary , the mother of John Mark
Maryís son, had both a Jewish name (John) and a Roman one (Mark) as did many others mentioned in Acts and the epistles. John Mark will later become an important figure in Lukeís story and the life of the early missionary workers Barnabas and Saul/Paul (another man with both Jewish and Roman names).
Christian historians refer to Mark as "the interpreter of Peter" and the founder of the church in Alexandria. Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, who was regarded by his contemporaries as the greatest Christian scholar of his time and ďthe father of church history," recounted a number of traditions about Mark in his writings. Among other things, he is called "the companion" and "interpreter" of Peter, as well as the writer of a Gospel at Rome.
13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door!"
15"You're out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel."
16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. "Tell James and the brothers about this," he said, and then he left for another place.
Evidently, Mary had a house servant named Rhoda and this is the person who comes to the door as Peter continues to knock. She recognizes Peterís voice and is so overjoyed that she forgets to open the door. Rhoda runs back into the house to announce, "Peter is at the door".
"Youíre out of your mind," the church tells her in unison. This response should help all of us deal with our failures of prayer life when we pray continuously ďwithout ceasingĒ and never expect God to answer our prayers. How slow we are to respond to the words of God, especially when they contradict our understanding of reality!
When Rhoda keeps insisting that it is Peterís voice, the church answers, "It must be his angel". They apparently think, as many people in the first century do, that guardian angels exist, and are a kind of spirit counterpart resembling the person. Meanwhile, Peter keeps banging on the door. Someone finally opens it, and a thoroughly astonished church gapes at him as though he is a ghost.
It is almost silly to read this account of Peterís escape and the churchís refusal to believe it really is him standing at its door. Just as comical is the scene immediately before this, where Herodís so seriously attempts to assure Peter is held for trail only to lose him from between guards in the night as all of them sleep during the escape. Perhaps these lighthearted recollections are intended to make a very serious point: God works his purpose in mysterious ways that humans find hard to understand.
The story Luke shares here is one of confusion and joyful humor. It must have been a source of great joy and hilarity every time it was repeated among the early believers.
Imagine the joy of hearing again and again the story of Peterís knocking, becoming more and more urgent as he stood on the dark street beating on the locked door. Imagine hearing all about Rhodaís joy when she heard Peterís voice; such joy that she forgets to open the door, followed by the believersí refusal to believe it was Peter, even though they had just been praying for him. All of this continues as they belittle Rhoda ("You are out of your mind.") when she insists that it is him outside and then the conclusion that, "It must be his angel". All of this humor comes to a close when they said something like, ďAnd we opened the door and it was him, and we let him come in.Ē
"Tell James" (Acts 12:17)
There was a joyous outcry when the disciples at Maryís house finally realized that Peter was standing there. He probably had to ask the group to be quite so that he could explain how God had rescued him from prison. After finishing his explanation and saying his goodbyes, Peter asks his listeners to:
"tell James and the brothers about this"
This is the first direct mention of James in Acts.
The James mentioned here is Jesusí half-brother, not James the apostle, since James the apostle, the brother of John, had been killed a few days earlier.
Along with his brothers and sisters, James did not believe in Jesus before the Resurrection. But, as Luke has already written, James and the other brothers and sisters were among the disciples meeting together before Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
It is obvious from the way that Peter singles out James in Acts 12:17 that he is prominent in the Jerusalem church. Peter and the other original apostles are the primary spiritual leaders of the Christian community at large, but James seems to have a more visible leadership role in the Jerusalem church. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul calls James "the Lordís brother" and implies that he is one of its "pillars" (Galatians 1:19, 2:9).
Luke describes James as the leader of the Jerusalem church about a decade later (Acts 21:18). At that time, he is known as "James the Just".
Hegesippus, a second-century Christian of Jerusalem, wrote (and Eusebius repeated), that Jamesí knees are like camelís knees from his frequent prayers for the people. Eusebius also wrote that the apostles chose James to be the leader of the Jerusalem church.
At the time Luke reports Peterís escape from Herod in the mid-A.D. 40s, James already seems to be the leader of the Jerusalem church. A few years later, in A.D. 49, James presides over the Jerusalem Council as chief spokesperson of the church. He has authority to finalize what churches located in areas outside Jerusalem should practice (Acts 15:13-21).
James continues to lead the church in Jerusalem for many years (Acts 21:17-25) until (as reported by Josephus) the high priest has him killed in perhaps A.D. 62. Eusebius wrote that James is thrown from a wing of the temple and beaten to death with a club. This is done because James and some others (probably Christians) are condemned as "breakers of the law." This happens between the death of the Roman governor Festus in about A.D. 62 and the coming of the next governor, Albinus.
"Another place" (12:17)
Immediately after telling the story of his escape and asking the church to give James the details, Peter goes into hiding. To tell us this, Luke simply writes "He left for another place" (12:17). Perhaps the other apostles left Jerusalem at this time also.
Where did Peter go? No one knows. Some would say that he went to Rome, but this is not supported by any evidence. Only at the end of his life is there any biblical (1 Peter 5:13) and any other evidence linking him with the capital of the Roman Empire.
The Problem With Peterís Escape
18In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
Luke writes that the next morning there was ďno small commotionĒ among the soldiers about Peterís whereabouts (Acts 12:18). Recriminations probably fly fast and furious about who is responsible for letting him escape. In my mind, I can see fingers pointing in all directions as attempts are made to shift the blaim onto someone else. The simple fact was that soldiersí lives were on the line. Whomever was responsible for the escape was to die.
For his part, Herod has a thorough search made for the missing prisoner. When he cannot be found, Herod cross examines (tortures) the guards to see if they have any information and then has them (Four squads = 16 soldiers) executed (Acts 18:19).
The later Code of Justinian shows that a guard who allows a prisoner to escape is subject to the same penalty the escaped prisoner would have suffered. This explains why later in Acts, the jailor at Philippi is about to kill himself when he thinks the prisoners have escaped (Acts 16:27). Itís the reason the soldiers want to kill the prisoners, including Paul, who are on the shipwrecked boat. They donít want the prisoners to escape, because if the prisoners escape, the guards will have to suffer their penalty (Acts 27:42).
Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. 20He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king's country for their food supply.
21On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22They shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man." 23Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
As he turns away from Peter, Luke provides details of the fate of Herod Agrippa.
After the prison incident, Herod returned to Caesarea (12:19). Apparently there was some problem between him and the cities of Tyre and Sidon. Luke says they were quarreling. Together with the support (probably through bribery) of Herodís trusted aide, a man named Blastus, these two cities hope to gain an audience with Herod and sue for peace. Luke says the reason they want to make a pact with Herod is economic: "They depended on the kingís country for their food supply" (12:20).
Tyre and Sidon were large cities on the coast of Phoenicia, in the territory adjacent to Herodís kingdom. They had been centers of commerce and shipping since Old Testament times, but they were dependent on Galilee for their food supply. Lukeís indicates some sort of agreement was reached between Herod and the coastal cities and was to be publicly ratified at a festival, at which Herod was to speak.
Luke wrote that after Herod delivered his speech, his listeners shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man". Immediately after this flattery, Herod was struck down with an illness because he did "not give praise to God". Luke concluded the story of Herodís fatal illness by writing "he was eaten by worms and died".
This could have happened immediately or over some period of time.
Josephus writes about this incident also. In it he describes Herod as donning a silver robe and entering the theater on the day of his death. He looks so wonderful that the flattering mobs begin saying that he is a god. About this, Josephus writes: "Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery". Josephus writes immediately after this, Herod begins having severe stomach pains and dies five days later, after being king of Judea for three years. His death is placed in A.D. 44, in the fourth year of the Roman emperor Claudius.
24But the word of God continued to increase and spread.
Luke moves from his report of the death of Herod Agrippa to good news about the church. Herod dies, "but the word of God continued to increase and spread" (12:24).
At the conclusion of each section of Acts, Luke shows the continued growth of the church.
25When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.
The word of God grew and multiplied, despite all the opposition. And two men were there whom God particularly wanted to instruct in how to handle tough situations -- Barnabas and Saul. They were keen observers of all that took place in Jerusalem at this time. Saul would draw upon his experience many times later in his turbulent career -- remembering how God could work to set people free, to open prison doors, to change a situation, to move a tyrannical ruler -- all in response to the believing prayer of his people. Paul would never forget what prayer can do.
At this point (the end of Chapter 12) there is another fundamental change in the book of Acts. Up to this point, Lukeís story could be called "The Acts of Peter." But Peter (except for a brief appearance in Chapter 15) is about to pass out of Lukeís narrative history. From now on, Lukeís account will be about "The Acts of Paul."
This ends the study of Acts, Chapter 12
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