Acts: Chapter 12
Let’s begin by reading (Acts 12:1-11).
(Verse 1)(NKJV) “Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church.”
This “Herod” is Herod Agrippa I (11 B.C. – 44 A.D.). He reigned from 37 – 44 A.D.. Following is a list of his family:
Herod the Great – Grandfather (He was the king who ordered all Israelite children 2 and under to be killed in seeking to destroy the child Jesus [Mt Ch. 2].)
Aristobulus IV – Father (Executed by strangulation in 7 B.C.)
Berenice – Mother
Cypros – Wife
Herodias – Sister (She asked for John the Baptist to be murdered: [Mt 14:6-12][Mk 6:19-29].)
Herod Antipas – Uncle (Ordered John the Baptist to be “beheaded” [Mt 14:3-13][Mk 6:14-29], and later tried Jesus [Lk 23:7-12].)
Herod Agrippa II – Son (He put Paul on trial: [Acts 25:13 – 26:32]. He was the 8th, and last king of the “Herodian dynasty.”)
Berenice, Drusilla, Mariamne – Daughters
(Verse 2) “And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.”
James is the first of Jesus’ 12 disciples to be martyred, and the only one whose martyrdom is mentioned in the New Testament (Judas Iscariot committed suicide after betraying Jesus: Mt 27:3-5, Acts 1:18). This fulfilled a prophecy Jesus made to James and John in (Mt 20:23)(Mk 10:39), where he said, “Ye shall drink indeed of My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with” (meaning they would be persecuted and killed, just as He had been). In (Rev 1:9), we see that John was exiled to an island (Patmos). Nearly all scholars believe that “with the sword” means that James was “beheaded” (just as John the Baptist had been).
***Note: Certainly very respected as one of three in Jesus’ “inner circle” (i.e. Mt 17:1-2, Lk 8:49-56, Mt 26:36-38), his death was likely a big blow to the early church.
***Small rabbit trail: Following is how historical writings and tradition say the other 10 disciples died:
There are differing accounts on some of these, but according to most, Peter, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, James (Son of Alphaeus), Simon, and Thaddeus (Judas) were all crucified.
Apparently, Peter was crucified (prophesied by Jesus in Jn 21:18-19) upside down, and Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross, because both felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.
Matthew was killed by a sword or some kind of weapon, and Thomas was killed by a spear. (Interesting to me in light of the fact that Thomas wouldn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he had put his hand in Jesus’ side where a spear had been used: Jn 20:25.)
John was the only disciple of the 12 to die of natural causes.
(Verse 3) “And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.)”
History and tradition (i.e. Josephus, Philo) tell us that it was important to Herod Agrippa I to have favor with the Jews that he ruled over. In persecuting Christians, and killing James, Herod found that it “pleased the Jews.” Therefore, he decided to “please” the Jews even more by arresting and killing Peter too.
Herod had Peter arrested at the beginning of the Jewish “Feast of Unleavened Bread” (see: Ex 13:3-10, Lev 23:6-8). Arresting him at this time would maximize the number of Jews who would know what he had done for them. However, it is said that according to Jewish tradition (I couldn’t find where), no one could be “tried or convicted” during the week long Jewish feast, therefore, Herod left Peter in prison until the end of the “Feast.”
***Note: This is now the 3rd time Peter has been arrested: 1st: (Acts 4:1-3), 2nd: (Acts 5:17-18).
(Verse 4)(NASB) “When he had arrested him, he put him in prison, turning him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending only after the Passover to bring him before the people.”
While in prison, Peter was guarded by “four squads of soldiers.” Each squad consisted of 4 men, therefore, 16 soldiers in total guarded Peter. At night, these “squads” worked in four 3 hour shifts: First squad: (6:00 – 9:00 p.m.), Second squad: (9:00 p.m. – midnight), Third squad: (midnight – 3:00 a.m.), Fourth squad: (3:00 – 6:00 a.m.).
As we see in (verse 6), in Peter’s case, Peter was “bound with two chains between two soldiers,” and two more soldiers stood outside the door.
The Zondervan NIV Study Bible says this of the “prison” – “Probably the tower of Antonia, located at the northwest corner of the temple – the “barracks” where Paul was later held (see 21:34).”
***Note: In the KJV Bible, the word “Easter” is used instead of “Passover.” This is a translation error.
(Verse 5) “Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.”
The proper translation of this KJV verse is “fervent prayer” (Gr. = “ektenes,” as is used in 1 Pet 4:8), rather than “prayer without ceasing” (Gr. = “adialeiptos,” as is used in 1 Th 5:19). In other words, “fervent” prayer was being made for Peter by the “church.” As Peter was arrested at the beginning of the “Feast,” and was to be tried at the end of it, this prayer went on for a whole week.
(Verse 6) “And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.”
Isn’t it interesting to note that hours before Peter was to have been “brought forth” to be tried, and likely killed just like James had been, that he was “sleeping?” And, from the verses which follow, it sounds like it was “deep” sleep. How was Peter able to do this?
(Verse 7)(NASB) “And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly stood near Peter, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands.”
Just as had happened with Peter (and other disciples) in (Acts 5:17-25), “an angel of the Lord” again appeared in the cell with Peter to set him free. (Was this the same “angel?”) Here, however, we are told that “a light shone in the prison” as the angel appeared (compare with: Lk 2:9, Lk 24:4). Keeping with what we just said above, it seems clear that Peter was sleeping so soundly that the “light” didn’t wake him up. The angel had to “strike Peter on the side” to wake him up.
Why didn’t the “soldiers” who he was chained to, or the “soldiers” stationed outside of the door see what was going on, and try to stop this?
(Verses 8-10)(NASB) “And the angel said to him, “Put on your belt and strap on your sandals.” And he did so. And he *said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” (9) And he went out and continued to follow, and yet he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. (10) Now when they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.”
The “angel” told Peter to “get up quickly,” get dressed (put on his belt, cloak, and sandals), and follow him. Peter wasn’t sure if what was happening was a vision (like he had previously received in Acts 10:9-17), or if it was “real.” Have you ever had those times (like me) when you are suddenly awakened from a “deep sleep,” and it takes you a minute or two to gather your senses, and figure out where you are, and what is going on? Perhaps that is going on here.
Peter followed the “angel,” which after leading him out of the cell, led him past the “first and second guard.” The “first guard” may have been a man of the “squad” of 4 assigned to Peter, who was standing right outside of Peter’s cell, and the “second guard” may have been another man of the 4 assigned to Peter, who was guarding a door leading into the cell block. (Or), perhaps it was two sets of guards (“first” and “second”) of the prison who were stationed between the prison cells and the door to the city.
When they came to the “iron gate that led into the city,” it “opened for them by itself!” This gate weighed several tons, and was securely fastened shut. Normally, It likely took several men to unlock, and open it. Once outside of the “gate,” and onto what was likely a side street, the angel suddenly disappeared.
(Verse 11)(NKJV) “And when Peter had come to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.” “
Peter is now “wide” awake! He realizes this is not a vision, and he is free! So, now what?
Quoting Matthew Henry here, he says, “This deliverance of Peter represents our redemption by Christ, which not only proclaims liberty to the captives, but brings them out of the prison-house.”
“Delivered me…. from all the expectation of the Jewish people.” – It certainly appears that the Jews (including the many who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the “Feast”) were eagerly awaiting the death of Peter, in the same manner that James had been murdered.
So, what would you say if someone asked you, “Why did God save Peter, but allow James to be murdered (martyred)?”
Finally, let’s read (Acts 12:12-25).
(Verse 12) “And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.”
“the house of Mary” – The fact that so many gathered here seems to point to it being a fairly large house. Some believe it may have been a “house church,” and may have been the “upper room” (Mk 14:13-16)(Lk 22:7-13)(Acts 1:13).
“Mary, the mother of John…Mark” – Most scholars agree that this is the “Mark” who wrote the Gospel of Mark. He accompanied Paul (and Barnabas) on his first mission trip (Acts 13:5), but left before it was done (Acts 13:13). This upset Paul, and later caused a rift between Paul and Barnabas over whether or not to take him on Paul’s second missionary trip (Acts 15:37-41). Paul refused to do so, therefore, Barnabas took Mark, and went one direction, and Paul took Silas, and went another direction. Years later though, Paul speaks of Mark in favorable terms (Col 4:10)(Phile 1:24)(2 Tim 4:11). In (1 Pet 5:13), Peter refers to Mark as “my son.” This may have been because of his closeness to Mark, or perhaps because he had led Mark to the Lord. (Paul also calls Timothy “my son” i.e. 1 Tim 1:2 – see: https://jesusalive.cc/timothy-pauls-son.) It is believed by most scholars that Peter played a big part in helping Mark write his Gospel.
***Note: There is a big debate over whether Mark was the “cousin” or “nephew” of Barnabas. I was very tempted to get into this discussion on a “rabbit trail” here, but I resisted it. However, I “do” believe that Biblical evidence strongly points to Mark being the “cousin” of Barnabas. You can find my proofs for this here: https://jesusalive.cc/mark-cousin-or-nephew-barnabas.
This being very late night / early morning, and hours before Peter was to be tried and likely executed, it looks like the “many gathered together” for what was an all night prayer vigil on Peter’s behalf.
(Verses 13-15) “And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken (answer), named Rhoda. (14) And when she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate. (15) And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel.”
The Greek word for “damsel” is “paidiske,” and Strong’s defines it as: “a girl, i.e. (spec.) a female slave or servant. (“Paidiske“) refers to a female in late childhood and early youth.” This “servant girl” was named Rhoda, meaning “rose.” The name “Rhoda” is used nowhere else in the Bible.
Rhoda became so excited upon hearing Peter’s voice that she forgot to let him in, and ran to tell those who were “gathered together praying” that Peter was “at the door of the gate!”
At first, they told Rhoda she “was mad” (“out of her mind” – other versions), however, after she kept insisting he was there, they said, “It is his angel.” The MacArthur Study Bible says, ” According to Jewish superstition, each person had his own guardian angel who could assume that person’s form.”
There is a HUGE lesson for all Christians in this. The large gathering was praying for Peter’s safety and release, but then, when he shows up at the house they are praying in, they don’t believe it could be Peter. How many times do we pray, but lack the faith to believe that God will answer our prayers?
(Verses 16-17) “But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished. (17) But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place.”
“But Peter continued knocking” – I have to wonder if Peter is thinking, “I have just escaped from prison, and they may be out searching for me, and now here I am standing out in the open, and no one will let me in!”
Their prayers have been answered! I am sure there was much celebrating! However, Peter asks them to “hold their peace” (“be silent” – other versions). Then, he tells them the story of “how the Lord brought him out of prison.”
Afterwards, Peter tells them to go and tell “James, and the brethren.” This “James” was most likely the Lord’s brother (Mt 13:55)(Mk 6:3)(Gal 1:19). While Jesus was on earth, James was an unbeliever (Jn 7:3-5), however, he became a believer (Acts 1:14) after Jesus appeared to him after His resurrection (1 Cor 15:7). He went on to become the head of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21)(Gal 2:9,12), and write the “Book of James.”
Why did Peter want them to tell “James, and the brethren?”
After Peter says these things, he “departs, and goes to another place.” Except for a few words spoken at the Jerusalem Council in (Acts 15: 6-11), we won’t see Peter again in the Book of Acts. The focus in Acts now shifts to Paul.
***Note: It is interesting to note that when Peter (and the apostles) was released from prison in (Acts 5:17-25), he was told to go back to the Temple and preach, and he did so (Acts 5:21,25). Here, however, Peter is not told to go back, and he doesn’t.
(Verses 18-19) “Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter. (19) And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and there abode.”
“As soon as it was day,” the soldiers find Peter missing! “Day” would occur around 6:00 a.m., therefore, it seems likely that when the “first squad” (6:00 – 9:00 a.m.) came to relieve the “fourth squad” (3:00 – 6:00 a.m.), that was when they found Peter missing (indicating he likely escaped between 3:00 – 6:00 a.m.).
While the soldiers are trying to figure out what has happened, suddenly Herod shows up to take Peter. Where is he?? Herod questions the soldiers who were charged with guarding Peter, and when they can’t explain what happened (I wonder what excuses they were using?), he orders that they “be put to death!”
The MacArthur Study Bible says this, “According to Justinian’s Code (ix. 4:4) [a compilation of Roman law made between 529-534 A.D.], a guard who allowed a prisoner to escape would suffer the same fatal penalty that awaited the prisoner.” If this Roman law was being followed here, then it is clear that Peter was going to be executed, just as James had been earlier.
Certainly humiliated before the Jews at his failure to convict, and murder Peter, Herod returns back to his home in Caesarea.
(Verse 20)(NKJV) “Now Herod had been very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; but they came to him with one accord, and having made Blastus the king’s personal aide (“chamberlain” – KJV) their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food by the king’s country.
We aren’t told why Herod was so angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, however, this was of great concern to these people. They asked for “peace,” and befriended the king’s personal aide, named Blastus, so that he could help them with this. It was likely Blastus who arranged for them to be able to go “with one accord” to meet with the king.
As we mentioned in the previous chapter (Acts 11:19), Tyre and Sidon were major ports located in the coastal country of Phoenicia, on the northeast Mediterranean Sea (modern Lebanon). Because of their seaside location, they had limited land to grow food on. Therefore, they were helped (for centuries) with their food supply by the king of Judea (see: 1 Kin 5:1-11, Ezra 3:7, Ezek 27:17). Having Herod upset with them could threaten their supply of food (mainly grain).
(Verses 21-23) “And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. (22) And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. (23) And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.”
In a writing from Josephus, (Antiquities 19.8.2), we learn several things about these verses:
#1. This “set day” was a “festival” that Herod set up to honor Claudius Caesar.
#2. Herod put on this “royal apparel” on the 2nd day of the “festival,” and it was “made wholly of silver.” When he arrived wearing it “early in the morning,” it was “illuminated by the sun’s rays,” and “was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those who looked intently on him.”
#3. Josephus confirms (verse 22), and adds a little more detail, saying: “presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery.”
#4. Josephus confirms (verse 23), saying that: “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner.” And adds, “And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.” (This was in 44 A.D.)
“eaten of worms” – Herod’s innards were literally being eaten away worms! Can you imagine the pain?
“gave up the ghost” -This phrase (or a form of it) is used 19 times in the Bible. In the Old Testament, two Hebrew words are used for the word “ghost” in this phrase: “gava” and “nephesh.” In the New Testament, two Greek words are used: “ekpneo” and “ekpsucho.” The literal meaning is basically “to breathe out” or “to expire.” In short, to “give up the ghost” is a euphemism for dying.
(Verses 24-25) “But the word of God grew and multiplied. (25) And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.”
“the word of God grew and multiplied” – This is one of a number of places in Acts where Luke talks about the “growth of the church” (2:41,47, 4:4, 5:14, 6:7, 9:31, 13:49, 16:5, 19:20).
As we saw at the end of the previous chapter (Acts 11:27-30), Paul and Barnabas had gone to Judea (Jerusalem) to take money that the church at Antioch had gathered to help those in Judea who were suffering from famine. As we started this chapter, (verse 1) says “about that (the) time” that Paul and Barnabas went, Herod killed James. Now, after Herod has died, we see that they have returned from their “ministry” to Jerusalem. They pick up Mark, and as we see in the next chapter (13), they will take him on Paul’s first missionary trip (Acts 13:5).