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Acts 12:1-24

After Jesus ascended back into heaven, and He poured out His Spirit on His Body of believers on earth,
they immediately began witnessing to Him – first to the nation of Israel, the nation God made for Himself,
to bring forth His Christ.

But as a nation, Israel rejected that witness; so the Lord had to set aside His people for a time, while He
continued to send that witness out to the ends of the earth – to the Gentiles. The first predominantly
Gentile assembly grew up in Antioch, and was taught by both Barnabas and Saul.

This week, we’re going to take a look at the historical account in Acts chapter 12. There is symbolic
significance to it as well, which we will look at next week. Now the events in chapter 12 are thought to
have followed chronologically from chapter 11, with the exception of the last verse (v. 30).

The first Gentile assembly was established in Antioch, and had been meeting for about a year. Prophets
came up from Jerusalem, presumably to help in the teaching of this new assembly. One of these prophets
foretold of a great famine, which would affect the entire Roman Empire.

There were in fact several famines that occurred within the decade, during the reign of Claudius Caesar.
One famine that hit Judea particularly hard occurred around 45-48 AD, probably about one or more years
after the prophecy was made.

When the disciples in Antioch heard the prophecy, they began to set aside money, specifically for the
brethren in Judea. Perhaps they realized that this impoverished community of believers would be hardest
hit by a famine.

By the time the famine became a reality, they were able to send relief to Judea – to brethren they had never
met, from whom they were separated geographically, as well as culturally – for the Antioch assembly was
predominantly Greek-speaking Gentiles, and the church in Judea, Aramaic-speaking Jews. The unity of the
Spirit among the brethren erased all lines of distinction; in its place was brotherly love.

The account in chapter 12 takes place some time after the prophecy was made, but before it was fulfilled;
that is, some time before the famine actually hit, and the relief was sent. We can know this because chapter
12 speaks of King Herod, who died in 44 AD, which was some time before the famine in Judea came, in
45-48 AD. So we see that Luke interrupted the chronology in 11:30 for the purpose of showing how the
brethren responded to the prophecy.

Let’s continue with the account in chapter 12.

v. 1 Herod was the family name of a dynasty that ruled over various territories of the Near East around the
time of Christ. This particular Herod cited here is Herod Agrippa the First, who was the grandson of Herod
the Great. Herod the Great was the king who built the temple, and who sought to slay Jesus as a child.

Herod Agrippa was raised from his youth in Rome, in the company of the imperial family. He developed
close associations with Caligula and Claudius, both of whom would one day rule the Roman Empire.

When Caligula became emperor, he gave Herod Agrippa rule over southern Syria, and the title of king (see
map). Two years later, Caligula also gave Agrippa Galilee and Perea. When Claudius ascended to the
throne, he additionally gave Agrippa Judea and Samaria. All of the land promised to the Jews was thus
united, north to south, under the rule of Herod Agrippa.
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The Herods were Idumeans – descendants of the Edomites, who were the ancient enemies of Israel. As
such – foreigners, former enemies - the Herods tended not to be popular as rulers over the Jews.

But Herod Agrippa was also descended from the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty, which gave him favor with
the Jews. His attendance at the temple and good relations with the Pharisees also increased his popularity.
And, as a shrewd king, Agrippa was always seeking further opportunities to enhance his image among the
people over whom he ruled. It made his job easier.

The church in Jerusalem presented Herod with just such an opportunity. Herod learned that the followers
of Jesus were viewed with great disfavor among the Jews – particularly among the rulers, but more
recently, among the common people, as well.

Despite the efforts of the Jewish rulers to crush the movement, the church managed to survive, and even to
grow. Though the Jewish community had shunned the disciples of Jesus, creating financial hardship;
though they had persecuted their leaders – nothing seemed to ultimately prevail against the church.

Even a great number of the Levitical priests had become believers (Acts 6:7). In fact, an outstanding young
Pharisee who had become one of the chief antagonists of the church - Saul – had abandoned the faith of his
fathers, and joined ranks with the church. Clearly, the church was a menace to Judaism.

Of course, because Rome restricted the power of the Sanhedrin, the judicial ruling council of the Jews, the
Jewish rulers were limited in their effectiveness against the followers of Jesus. Arrest them they could, but
it was exceedingly difficult to get them executed – and they had a way of getting out of prison.

But Rome had made Herod king; he was not limited, as the Sanhedrin had been; as a king, he had the power
of life and death. Herod saw that he could do the rulers in Jerusalem – indeed, all the people – a wonderful
favor.

If Herod was to arrest the leaders of the church, and have them put to death, the movement was sure to fall
into disarray, and dissolve. And even if it didn’t – Herod had the authority to execute every single member
of the church, if he so desired – in Jerusalem, and throughout his domain. That would surely put the Jews
in Herod’s debt – and help him consolidate his power over his latest acquisition of territory.

Now, who do you suppose would have introduced such a thought into Herod’s mind? The god of this world
– Satan. You can see who the power was behind Herod’s throne.

Satan had already made several attempts to destroy this new creation in Christ – he had tried to corrupt the
church from within (Acts 5:1-13); to divide it (Acts 6:1), to destroy it through threats (Acts 4:17-18),
beatings (Acts 5:40), imprisonment (Acts 8:3), and even the death of its members (Acts 7:58-60). Now,
Satan would work through the power of an earthly king, to try to systematically destroy this new creation,
to the last man.

The word “harass” in verse one means to do evil to someone. Herod had some from the church seized and
put in custody, with the intent of harming them. Herod began his harm with just one man, because Herod
wanted to be sure that it was what the Jewish rulers and the people wanted – and therefore what would
increase his popularity with them. After all, the people could be fickle.
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v. 2-6 Herod had the apostle James – the brother of John – put to death by the sword; that is, Herod had
him beheaded, in a public execution. In that Herod professed to be an adherent of Judaism himself, he may
have been making a point with the method of death that he chose for James. In the Law of Moses, those
who led the people to follow false gods were to be put to death by the sword (Deut 13:12-15). And people
who followed those leaders were to be given a similar end.

The death of James was a fulfillment of a prophecy that Jesus had given to him, together with his brother,
John – that they would drink of His cup, and share in His baptism – that is, that they, too, would suffer and
die (Mk 10:39). At the time, it would never have occurred to James and John that they might do this
without one another – for many, many decades would lie between the brothers’ deaths.

This is the second martyr that Luke records in Acts; but unlike Luke’s account of Stephen’s death, there are
no details given. The brother of John - one of the inner circle of the disciples with Jesus, receives no
further mention – the reason for his being singled out; the manner of his arrest; anything he might have said
or done, the Scriptures are silent on the subject. We will have to wait till we get to heaven to hear his story.

The point here is that it’s not about James; and it’s not about his death. James went from life to Life, just as
Stephen did. The details of Stephen’s end were necessary; the details of James’ end were not - because it is
all about what God is doing. Likewise, we have more detail concerning James’ life – and virtually none
concerning Stephen’s – because the details of James coming to the Lord, and his witness to Him, were
important.

The detailed record of Stephen’s death is God’s record of His own final rejection by His people; it is an
essential point in the Story of Redemption. That’s the Story of God, who is in Christ, presently in His
Body, reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:18-19). James’ part in the story was complete.

James was the first of the apostles to be martyred. It signifies that there had been a change in the attitude of
the people of Jerusalem.

After the death of Stephen, great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, but it was particularly
targeted against those of the church who formerly were Hellenist Jews, as was Stephen. The former
Hebrew Jews, including the apostles, experienced less hostility, because the inhabitants of Jerusalem
identified with them culturally; the common people accepted them still as Jews.

But clearly, by now there had been a change in the atmosphere in Jerusalem, whereby all the church was
now experiencing the hostility of the Jewish people, and particularly the apostles, as its leaders. The whole
movement had fallen into disfavor. It is likely that this was a result of the recent extension of the gospel to
the Gentiles, of which the Jews would have been aware.

The Jews had their Gentile proselytes, but they were never considered the equals of the Jews. The Gentiles
were regarded as unclean; they were still, and always, the “Gentile dogs”.

The idea of Jews and Gentiles, with no barriers between them; of Jews entering Gentile homes, and even
eating meals with them; of Jews and Gentiles worshiping God together, as equals before Him – this was
completely revolting to the Jews; an abomination. Now the Jews began to recognize that the followers of
Jesus were no longer adherents of Judaism.
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This may have been why Herod’s second target, after his success with James, was Peter. As the apostle
who had fraternized with the Gentiles - lodging with them, entering their homes, eating with them - and had
then come back to Jerusalem to convince others of the rightness of his actions, the Jewish rulers would no
doubt have singled Peter out to Herod. And Herod was only too glad to oblige.

Luke lets us know when it was that Peter was thrown into prison. It was during the days of Unleavened
Bread. You remember that Passover and Unleavened Bread were celebrated together, being on consecutive
days; but Unleavened Bread then continued for seven days. So it was sometime during this period that
Peter was imprisoned.

Herod intended to wait until the days of the feast were complete, in deference to the Jews, then bring Peter
out for a summary trial and quick execution – no doubt in the same manner as James.

Perhaps Herod had been warned by the Jewish rulers that Peter had managed to make his way out of prison
before (Acts 5:17-26). This may explain why he took such pains to ensure that Peter could not escape.
Most likely, the place where Peter was imprisoned was the Fortress of Antonia, where the Roman garrison
was stationed in Jerusalem (see map). It was connected to the temple grounds. It wasn’t called a fortress
for nothing; it was virtually impregnable.

In addition, Peter was guarded by four squads of soldiers. These squads were what was termed
“quaternions”; a party of four soldiers. That’s a total of sixteen soldiers, all to guard one man. Each
quaternion took one of the four watches through the night (a three-hour period), so that there would be no
possibility of them sleeping, and losing track of their prisoner.

But it would have been hard for them to lose track of their prisoner, anyway – because Herod had Peter
chained between two of the soldiers. The remaining two kept guard of the door of his cell. Peter had no
human hope of escaping.

By his power, Herod had Peter arrested. By his power, Herod made sure Peter was held fast in his prison.
By his power, Herod intended to have Peter put to death – much as he had James. Herod was determined,
by his power, not to miss this opportunity, to curry the Jews’ favor.

But there is another power at work in this world - the power of God. John wrote, “He who is in you is
greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4). Jesus would use Herod’s seeming opportunity to display
His own power, through the members of His Body.

Now, the church was powerless to do anything for Peter. They had been unable to keep him out of prison;
they were unable to free him; and they would be unable to prevent Herod from putting Peter to death. The
church, in itself, had no power; but they knew the One who had all power and authority in heaven and on
earth (Mt 28:18); and to Him, they fervently prayed, on Peter’s behalf.

Through the weakness of these men, Jesus would show Himself strong on their behalf (2 Cor 12:9), with
the power with which He has already overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He would do exceedingly abundantly
above all that they asked or thought (Eph 3:20).

So the very night before Peter was to be brought out and executed, a visitor came to Peter’s cell.

v. 7-10 So Peter was sleeping – we’ve seen this before, in times of crisis! But I think this sleep was a little
different. I would say that Peter was completely at peace – even though his scheduled execution was just
hours away.
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It would seem this was Peter’s last night on earth, and yet Peter could sleep, because the power of God was
in effect in his life. The same power that had made him so bold before the Sanhedrin allowed him to sleep
in the face of death. Later, Peter would write to those who were suffering various trials, “May the God of
all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect,
establish, strengthen, and settle you” (1 Pet 5:10). Peter was settled.

But then – behold, an angel. The Lord sent an angel to Peter’s cell. Having come from the presence of
God, the angel was radiant with the light of heaven, and he illuminated the cell – no flashlight needed here.

Apparently, Peter was a sound sleeper; the light didn’t rouse him, so the angel struck him on his side, and
raised him up with the words, “Arise quickly!” Peter quickly found his feet; and as he did, the shackles fell
off his wrists.

Following the angel’s instructions, Peter tied his girdle around his waist, securing his tunic; put on his
sandals; and threw his outer cloak around his shoulders, then followed the angel out of the cell. The
soldiers were apparently insensible to all that transpired.

I imagine that Peter was somewhat groggy during this whole episode, having been suddenly awakened.
You could see that it would have seemed more likely to him to be a vision than reality – remember, he had
already experienced being delivered from the jail of the Sanhedrin by an angel, but that was hardly as
secure as the Fortress of Antonia.

Peter followed the angel past the security checkpoints, with their guards, until they came to the outer door
of the fortress, no doubt guarded, also. This gate was secured with iron, but opened to them all by itself;
the first automatic door. Peter and the angel went through, and down the street into the city; then the angel
disappeared.

With the disappearance of the angel, Peter came to himself.

v. 11 Who did Peter say delivered him? The Lord. He used a heavenly messenger, but it was the Lord
who delivered Peter.

And what a deliverance! Who would have guessed? No one on earth could have delivered Peter from that
prison, from those soldiers, from those chains. That required a Heavenly Man. And nothing, or no one,
could stand in the way of Him delivering Peter.

What a sore disappointment this would be for Herod – and for the Jews, who allied themselves with Herod.
Not only would they be powerless to put Peter to death, they would be powerless to secure him again – as
you will see. This was a complete deliverance. The Lord had ordained that Peter would live.

For Peter, it was life; but for James, death. Why? We don’t know, except to say that it fulfilled the
sovereign purposes of God. Sometimes, we can understand His purposes; sometimes, we can’t; but His
purposes are always good (Ps 119:68).

This mystery of divine providence has been repeated countless times in the history of the church. It’s one
mystery that God has not revealed; it must wait for heaven. The author to the Hebrews wrote that by faith,
some escaped the edge of the sword (Heb 11:34); a few verses later, he wrote that by faith, others were
slain with the sword (Heb 11:37). It takes faith to live – and to die.
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So we see that Peter was led by the angel out of the prison. Then, after the angel disappeared, Peter simply
resumed his life of faith; of being led by the Unseen.

v. 12-17 Luke probably got the details of this humorous account from John Mark, with whom he would
later spend time in Rome during Paul’s imprisonment there (Col 4:10, Philemon 24).

Peter realized that he needed to inform the community of believers that the Lord had delivered him from
prison, and then go into hiding, for he surmised that Herod would search the city for him. He made his way
to a house that must have been one of the chief meeting places for the church in Jerusalem, one that Peter
himself had probably attended. This would have been one of several such homes, as the church in
Jerusalem was too large to meet in any one building.

The home was that of a woman named Mary. John Mark is her son, and incidentally, Barnabas’ cousin (Col
4:10). John Mark was a young convert of Peter (1 Pet 5:13). This is the Mark who would write the second
gospel. We’ll hear more about him later in Luke’s record.

Now, Mary must have been a woman of means, because her home had a gate, or outer door, facing the
street. This door led into a porch into which visitors could be received. The fact that Mary had a servant,
and that her home was large enough for a fellowship of believers to meet are also indications of her wealth.
Such a home would be found in the Upper City in Jerusalem, which is quite close to the temple mount –
and the Fortress of Antonia.

There was a prayer meeting going on in Mary’s house that night – can you guess what the subject of it was?
Certainly, they were still praying fervently for Peter, who was in prison – or so they thought. But no –
Peter was at the door, and knocking to come in!

A girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. The Greek word used for “girl” indicates that Rhoda was a
servant of the household. By this time, Peter was knocking and calling through the door; but not too
loudly, as he didn’t want to arouse the neighbors – and maybe the authorities.

Well, Rhoda recognized Peter’s voice, and was so ecstatic that she ran back to tell the others – without
opening the door. Her joy so bubbled over, that it overwhelmed her common sense.

Notice how Rhoda was apparently familiar with Peter, enough to know his voice. This shows Peter must
have been a regular visitor at Mary’s home. Also, there is the sense that, although Rhoda was a servant girl,
and was certainly doing her job, she related to the others in the home on an equal level, as their fellow
believer – which could only be due to the unity of the Spirit – for there is neither slave nor free; all are one
in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).

Well, the rest of the household did not believe Rhoda, initially, even insisting that she was out of her mind,
or that it was his angel – meaning either his spirit, or his guardian angel – a Jewish superstition, that the
angel could assume the bodily appearance of the person whom he protected. But Rhoda kept insisting; and
meanwhile, Peter kept knocking.

Finally, someone’s common sense kicked in, and they thought to open the door, and - voila! There was
Peter – to their utter amazement.

But why were they so amazed? Hadn’t they been praying for this very thing – that Peter would be set free?
Perhaps – or perhaps they prayed that Peter would be strong through his final ordeal, especially with what
happened to James. Their prayers may have moved more and more in that direction, as the days of the feast
approached their end.
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Still, you can see how the Lord made the sudden, last-minute deliverance of Peter a surprise and a delight
to them. Love does take joy in surprising the object of His love. He had done exceedingly abundantly
above all that they asked or thought (Eph 3:20).

Peter quickly quieted the believers down, then related what the Lord had done for him, asking them to pass
along the report to James and the brethren. This James is the Lord’s half-brother, who even by this time
oversaw the church in Jerusalem, with other elders. It is likely that James met with another group of
believers in another home church.

After that, Peter made himself scarce, as he intended to hold on to the freedom that the Lord had given to
him. No one knows what place he went to, but it proved to be an effective hideout, for as long as needed;
which was not too long.

v. 18-19 Now, you might have asked, why didn’t the soldiers who were chained to Peter, and guarding
Peter, see the angel, and see Peter escaping? Were they asleep? I can tell you that they would not
ordinarily have been asleep; it was death for a Roman soldier to be found sleeping at his post.

But the Lord either caused them to sleep, or made the actions of the angel and Peter invisible to them, for it
wasn’t until the light of day that they realized Peter was gone. There was a great commotion to find Peter,
first on the part of the guards, who rightly feared for their lives, and then on the part of Herod, probably
throughout the whole city; but Peter was not to be found.

Herod questioned his guards, and then put them to death. There could be no natural explanation for how
Peter could have disappeared; but Herod insisted on framing it in the natural, for all who were looking on;
he had the guards put to death, as if they were negligent.

Then Herod retired to Caesarea for a time, no doubt to quell his fury. So Herod stopped his persecution of
the church – did he do so out of a superstitious fear, because he saw that Peter could not have escaped –
without divine intervention? We don’t know for certain.

v. 20-23 This remarkable account of Herod’s demise can also be found in its essential details in the works
of Josephus, the Jewish historian (Antiquities of the Jews, 19.8.2).

For some unstated reason, Herod became enraged with Tyre and Sidon - the people of Phoenicia. The term
“enraged” means Herod was “fighting mad”, that is, considering going to war with them. Since the cities
of Tyre and Sidon depended on Galilee for their food supply, they realized that they needed to reconcile
with Herod, and sent a delegation to make peace with him.

The delegation bribed one of Herod’s court officials, Blastus, who arranged a private audience for them
with Herod, which brought about a settlement. The settlement was to be made known on a feast day in
honor of Caesar – “a set day”, verse 21.

Josephus wrote that on that day, Herod came into the theater at Caesarea early in the morning, arrayed in a
robe of woven silver thread, which reflected the rays of the early morning sun. Herod sat on his throne –
the official judgment seat – and announced in an oration his reconciliation with the people of Tyre and
Sidon.

Seeing the resplendent Herod, the people fawned over him, hailing him as “of more than mortal nature”,
literally – a god. Herod proudly accepted their adulation, and was promptly struck down by a divine
judgment – for he was willing to accept the worship due to God alone.
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Luke records that Herod was consumed by worms - a fate in the ancient world often imputed to great men
who had offended. His demise was graphically described by Josephus.

So the angel of the Lord had freed Peter; but he struck down Herod. This was a case of divine intervention,
through which the Lord preserved His church, in order to realize His plans for mankind.

The Jewish rulers may very well have seen the sudden death of Herod as a warning from God concerning
the persecution of the church. In any event, Rome replaced Herod with a Roman governor again. The Jews
no longer had a king who was eager to accommodate them concerning the followers of Jesus.

Luke records the result of all these circumstances.

v. 24 Despite the designs of the enemy, God’s word continued to multiply; the seed of the word continued
to be sown, and to bring forth fruit.

Next week, we will dig deeper into chapter 12, to see the token that the Lord planted there for His people -
the nation of Israel.

Next week: Read Acts chapter 12; Matt 24; Rev 12, 13, 19:11-21.