James is Killed and Peter Imprisoned
12:1 About that time King Herod laid hands on some from the church to harm them. 12:2 He had James, the brother of John, executed with a sword. 12:3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too. (This took place during the feast of Unleavened Bread.) 12:4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison, handing him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him. Herod planned to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
Outline: Herod – Peter – Prison – Angel – Rescue
Luke is about to chronicle Paul’s 1st missionary journey, and the expansion of the church into the gentile world. Before doing so, however, he notes a threat to the progress of the gospel in Jerusalem itself as James is killed by Herod and Peter comes under acute threat. In extending the borders of Christianity the centre is not to be forgotten. Here in this account we see the familiar contrast between the destructive power of evil and the saving power of God. ‘Indeed, throughout church history the pendulum has swung between expansion and opposition, growth and shrinkage, advance and retreat, although with the assurance that even the powers of death and hell will never prevail against Christ’s church, since it is built securely on the rock.’ (Stott)
‘The narrative of Herod’s opposition and demise can help Christians face political opposition with discerning confidence and lets the inquiring unbeliever know that the state cannot stop the church in its mission.’ (IVP NT Commentary)
‘Luke teaches us that Satan’s sphere of control is directly related to political governance. (Lk 4:6 22:53) Jesus warned that its power would be used against his followers. (Lk 12:11-12 21:12-19) Will we stand for Jesus as our Lord, realizing that sooner or later we will pay the price for doing so? Those who have lived in religious freedom for generations have much to learn from brothers and sisters in Christ just now emerging from the oppression of totalitarianism.’ (IVP NT Commentary)
King Herod – This is Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great. He had been given large amounts of territory to rule by emperors Gaius and Claudius. The Jews would have tended to despise him, on account of his Edomite ancestry and Roman upbringing. He was therefore keen to win their favour, and especially the Pharisees. The title Luke uses is the one that Caligula had given him. Herod would have been well informed about Jesus and his followers, since his uncle Antipas had tried Jesus, Lk 23:7ff Acts 4:27.
Some questions to explore:-
1. What did Herod intend to do to Peter? (Jn 16:33 “In this world you will have trouble.”)
2. How many soldiers were responsible for guarding Peter? (Lk 1:37 Nothing is impossible with God.”)
3. In v5 we read that the church was earnestly praying for Peter. What do you think they asked God to do? (Eph 3:20, God ‘is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.’)
4. What does Luke tell us in this passage about why God allowed James to be killed, but Peter to be rescued? (Php 1:23, ‘I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.’)
Jn 16:33 “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
He had James…put to death with the sword – This is quite in keeping with the known character of Herod. It is also in keeping with the prediction of Mk 10:39.
‘Formerly performed with an ax, in this period beheading was performed with the sword and was the more merciful form of execution given to Roman citizens and others for whom crucifixion was considered too cruel. As king, Agrippa had the right of life and death that had been denied the Sanhedrin before and after him. Like Judaism, early Christians believed that death did not come apart from the sovereign purpose of God.’ (IVP Background Commentary)
‘This must have been especially difficult for the Apostle John. As we see in the Gospels, he and James were always together. They were the two for whom their mother tried to get special thrones at Jesus’ side in the Kingdom. Jesus affectionately called them “Sons of Thunder” (Mk 3:17) -apostolic buccaneers. Now with the sudden word of a mad despot, James was gone. That must have shaken John terribly. And the church was certainly in shock as well. The believers had not expected this to happen to one of their leaders.’ (R. Kent Hughes)
The present passage shows that God can and does work miraculously to deliver his people from danger. It is, however a mystery of providence that God allowed Peter to be spared, but James to be killed. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. The present passage attempts no explanation; it simply notes the fact. It would, of course, be ‘highly perverse’ (Marshall) to deduce from v5 that the church had prayed for Peter, but not for James.
When he saw that this pleased the Jews – ‘Herod had been educated at Rome, but he sedulously cultivated the good graces of the Jewish people by meticulously keeping the Law and all Jewish observances. For these reasons he was popular with the people; and it was no doubt in order to achieve further popularity with the orthodox Jews that he decided to attack the Christian Church and its leaders. Even his conduct in the arrest of Peter shows his desire to conciliate the Jews. The Passover Feast was on 14th Nisan; for that day and the seven following no leaven must be used and the week was called the days of unleavened bread. During that time no trial or execution could be carried out and that is why Herod purposed to defer Peter’s execution until the week was finished. ‘ (DSB)
This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread – This followed directly on from the Passover: the two feasts were virtually one. Technically, Passover is 14 Nisan and the Days of Unleavened Bread are 15-21 Nisan. This explains why no immediate action could be taken against Peter, v4. It is amazing how assiduously some people will observe religious rules even in the pursuit of their wicked plans.
‘The beleaguered Jerusalem church seemed overwhelmed and helpless. There was nothing they could do. Their despair undoubtedly moved to even darker levels because it was Passover week, the same week Christ had been earlier murdered. Grim associations inevitably flooded their minds.’ (R. Kent Hughes)
Guarded by four squads of four soldiers each – one squad for each of the four watches of the night. Peter was kept under conditions of maximum security. Perhaps the authorities were nervous because they had had trouble keeping Peter in prison before, 5:22-24. But any number of human defences are powerless against God: we do well to remember this when human opposition seems so strong. The details spelt out in this verse serve to emphasise the miraculous nature of Peter’s escape.
Herod intended to bring him out for public trial – what we today would call a show trial.
12:5 So Peter was kept in prison, but those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him. 12:6 On that very night before Herod was going to bring him out for trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison.
Peter was kept in prison – ‘The situation looked extremely bleak, even hopeless. There appeared to be no possibility of Peter’s escape. What could the little community of Jesus, in its powerlessness, do against the armed might of Rome?’ (Stott)
The church was earnestly praying to God for him – yet they would have great difficulty in believing that God had actually answered those prayers.
‘The Jerusalem church will not have forgotten Peter’s two previous imprisonments, although they had been at the hand of the Sanhedrin, Acts 4:3; 5:18. Nor will they have forgotten how Peter and John, after their first release had joined the rest of the church in prayer, affirming that God was sovereign and that Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the Jews, had conspired against Jesus to do only what his “power and will had decided beforehand should happen,” Acts 4:23-28. As for the apostles’ second imprisonment, an angel of the Lord had opened the doors of the jail and set them free, Acts 5:19; could he not do it again?’ (Stott)
‘Here then were two communities, the world and the church, arrayed against one another, each wielding an appropriate weapon. On the one side was the authority of Herod, the power of the sword and the security of the prison. On the other side, the church turned to prayer, which is the only power which powerless possess.’ (Stott)
‘”Peter was in prison, but prayer was made without ceasing of the church to God for him?” (Ac 12:5) What greater happiness than to have God’s promises and the saints’ prayers!’ (Thomas Watson)
‘Their apparent weakness was underlined by the fact that all they could do was pray. (Ac 12:5) Sometimes Christians today feel the same way about situations they face-cancer in a loved one, unemployment and an inability to find a good job, trying to turn a straying son or daughter back to the Lord, seeking to reverse the tides of evil in our land (abortion, murder, open immorality). Does anything look more ridiculous to oppressors than a ragtag, harried group of believers praying for God’s help in the midst of oppressive darkness? To those outside the family of God, this is terminal weakness. The Christians should have been planning a terrorist reprisal or a kidnapping. What good would this effeminate praying do?’ (R. Kent Hughes)
It is clear that Peter was kept in prison for some time – probably several days. Herod’s intention, no doubt, was to bring Peter before the people, v4, for trial and summary execution.
Luke deliberately emphasises Peter’s humanly impossible predicament. He is handcuffed to a soldier on each side, and two more soldiers guard the door. This makes it all the more remarkable that some commentators equivocate on the miraculous element within the account. For example: ‘In this story we do not necessarily see a miracle. It may well be the story of a thrilling rescue; but, however it happened, the hand of God was most definitely in it.’ (DSB)
12:7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the prison cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly!” And the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. 12:8 The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” Peter did so. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.” 12:9 Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.
An angel of the Lord appeared – Although the word angelos can simply mean ‘messenger’, and so Luke uses in on several occasions, Lk 7:24,27 9:52, the language and context here require that we understand in the usual sense of a supernatural messenger from God.
‘He seemed as one abandoned by men, yet not forgotten of his God; The Lord thinketh upon him. Gates and guards kept all his friends from him, but could not keep the angels of God from him: and they invisibly encamp round about those that fear God, to deliver them, (Ps 34:7) and therefore they need not fear, though a host of enemies encamp against them, Ps 27:3. Wherever the people of God are, and however surrounded, they have a way open heavenward, nor can any thing intercept their intercourse with God.’ (MHC)
He struck Peter on the side and woke him up – Despite the prospect of probable death the next day, Peter is so fast asleep that the angel (rather comically) has to poke him to wake him up. Even then, Peter thinks that this must be a dream, and it is some time before he comes to his senses.
Peter’s calm repose makes us think of Paul, in prison in Philippi, singing and praying. ‘It is beautiful that Paul sings hymns, whilst here Peter sleeps.’ (Chrysostom)
‘I question whether Herod himself slept so well that night as this his prisoner did.’ (Gurnall)
He thought he was seeing a vision – ‘In a popular Greek story, Dionysus had made chains drop off and locked doors open; doors opening “by themselves” appear in ancient literature from Homer to Josephus. Thus we can understand why Peter might think he is dreaming.’ (NT Background Commentary)
‘Peter, when he recollected himself, perceived of a truth what great things God had done for him, which at first he could not believe for joy. Thus souls who are delivered out of a spiritual bondage are not at first aware what God has wrought in them. Many have the truth of grace that want the evidence of it. They are questioning whether there be indeed this change wrought in them, or whether they have not been all this while in a dream.’ (MHC)
If Peter had such difficulty in believing his ears and eyes, no wonder that we sometimes struggle to believe in the great works that God has done.
12:10 After they had passed the first and second guards, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went outside and walked down one narrow street, when at once the angel left him. 12:11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from everything the Jewish people were expecting to happen.”
Peter is led out through no less than three doors, the last of which – a massive iron gate – swings open by itself.
The angel left him – ‘He was out of danger from his enemies, and needed no guard. He knew where he was, and how to find out his friends, and needed no guide, and therefore his heavenly guard and guide bids him farewell. Note, Miracles are not to be expected when ordinary means are to be used. When Peter has now no more wards to pass, nor iron gates to get through, he needs only the ordinary invisible ministration of the angels, who encamp round about those that fear God, and deliver them.’ (MHC)
12:12 When Peter realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many people had gathered together and were praying. 12:13 When he knocked at the door of the outer gate, a slave girl named Rhoda answered. 12:14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she did not open the gate, but ran back in and told them that Peter was standing at the gate. 12:15 But they said to her, “You’ve lost your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was Peter, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!”
The house of Mary the mother of John – ‘Some commentators have speculated that this house of Mary contained the ‘large upper room, furnished and ready’, which Mark himself mentions (Mk 14:15) as the place where Jesus ate the passover with the Twelve before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Perhaps it was also the house where the Twelve lived, and they and others met to pray, during the ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost (1:12-14). It was certainly spacious, for it had an outer entrance or vestibule where Peter knocked, and presumably a courtyard between this and the main house.’ (Stott)
John, also called Mark – he was a cousin of Barnabas, Col 4:10. He will figure again in the ongoing story very soon, v25. He may well have been the one who provided Luke with information about the present story and others in the life of the early church.
She recognised Peter’s voice – It was customary for visitors to call out as well as to knock.
There is humour in the obtuseness of the reaction of the maid and the others. ‘In the story of Peter’s rescue from prison and his subsequent inability to get into a prayer meeting, (Ac 12:12-17) the maid Rhoda, recognizing Peter’s voice at the gate, runs to the group instead of letting Peter in. The rest of the group is equally obtuse, concluding that it cannot be Peter but must be “his angel!”‘ (DBI) But remember that even Peter could scarcely believe what was happening to him, v9.
“You’re out of your mind” – ‘It is ironical that the group who were praying fervently and persistently for Peter’s deliverance should regard as mad the person who informed them that their prayers had been answered!’ (Stott)
She kept insisting that is was so – The simple joy of a servant girl is contrasted with the incredulity of the majority.
“It must be his angel” – ‘It is unclear whether they mean by this his angelic double (Mt 18:10) or they believe he has died and his spirit hovers near.’ (Lk 24:37 Mt 22:30) (DLNT). According to Vine, angelos in this verse is better understood as ‘ghost’.
‘The exclamation, “It is his angel!” (Ac 12:15) reveals their belief in “guardian angels.” (Mt 18:10 Heb 1:14) Of course, the logical question is, “Why would an angel bother to knock?” All he had to do was simply walk right in! ‘ (Wiersbe)
Of course, this could simply be an example of superstitious belief on the part of the servant girl. This is supported by Barnes, who comments: ‘Any way of accounting for it rather than to admit the simple”] fact, or to ascertain the simple”] truth. All this was produced by the little hope which they had of his release, and their earnest desire that it should be so. It was just such a state of mind as is indicated when we say, “the news is too good to be believed.” The expression it is his angel may mean, that they supposed the tutelary guardian, or angel appointed to attend Peter, had come to announce something respecting him, and that he had assumed the voice and form of Peter, in order to render them certain that he came from him. This notion arose from the common belief of the Jews, that each individual had assigned to him, at birth, a celestial spirit, whose office it was to guard and defend him through life. That the Jews entertained this opinion is clear from their writings. Lightfoot thinks that they who were assembled supposed that this angel had assumed the voice and manner of Peter, in order to intimate to them that he was about to die, and to excite them to earnest prayer that he might die with constancy and firmness. Whatever their opinions were, however, it proves nothing on these points. There is no evidence that they were inspired in these opinions; nor are their notions countenanced by the Scriptures. They were the mere common traditions of the Jews, and prove nothing in regard to the truth of the opinion one way or the other.’
12:16 Now Peter continued knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were greatly astonished. 12:17 He motioned to them with his hand to be quiet and then related how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, “Tell James and the brothers these things,” and then he left and went to another place.
The Lord had brought him out of prison – ‘The dramatic details Luke includes all seem to emphasize the intervention of God and the passivity of Peter. Peter was asleep, and the angel had to nudge him awake. His chains fell off. The order to dress was given as though by numbers: ‘Get up; put on your clothes and sandals; wrap your cloak around you; and follow me’. They passed the guards on duty in the corridor, who were presumably in a deep sleep, and the external prison gate opened automatically. Peter himself did not know if it was all fact or fantasy, reality or dream.’ (Stott)
James – This James is the brother of the Lord, Mk 6:3, who later became a leader of the church in Jerusalem, Acts 15:13 21:18, and was regarded by Paul as one of the ‘pillars’ of the church, Gal 2:9, along with Peter and John. ‘In the East it would have been the natural thing for the next brother to take on the work of an elder brother who had been killed; but from the gospels we learn that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him (Jn 7:5) and that they actually thought him mad. (Mk 3:21) During his lifetime James was not a supporter of Jesus. But the Risen Christ made a special appearance to James.’ (1 Cor 15:7) (DSB)
Then he left for another place – to avoid detection and re-imprisonment. ‘This was definitely not Rome, as the apocryphal ‘Acts of Peter’ suggested, and as some Roman Catholic commentators used to argue, adding that he stayed there for twenty-five years as the first pope. Luke means simply that he went into temporary hiding, whether or not anybody knew where.’ (Stott)
12:18 At daybreak there was great consternation among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 12:19 When Herod had searched for him and did not find him, he questioned the guards and commanded that they be led away to execution.
Herod’s Death, 19b-25
Acts 12:19b Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while.
Herod…ordered that they be executed – Typical behaviour in ancient times, and yet also another indication of Herod’s brutal ruthlessness. ‘In Roman law a gaoler who allowed his charge to escape was liable to the penalty to which the prisoner had been condemned.’ (cf. Acts 16:27 27:42) (Stott)
Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
12:20 Now Herod was having an angry quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they joined together and presented themselves before him. And after convincing Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, to help them, they asked for peace, because their country’s food supply was provided by the king’s country. 12:21 On a day determined in advance, Herod put on his royal robes, sat down on the judgment seat, and made a speech to them.
12:22 But the crowd began to shout, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 12:23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck Herod down because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died. 12:24 But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying.
The word of God continued to increase and spread – It is, of course, an underlying theme of Luke in Acts that in fulfilment of the Lord promise, Acts 1:8, and in spite of all opposition, the gospel continues to spread and the church continues to grow. And all this, despite the death of one apostle and the imprisonment of another. ‘When the church prays, the cause of God will go forward, and his enemies will come to naught, even if this does not exempt the church from suffering and martyrdom; Luke’s belief in the victory of the gospel is thoroughly realistic and recognises that though the word of God is not fettered, its servants may well have to suffer and be bound, 2 Tim 2:9.’ (Marshall)