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Studies in the Book of Acts Persecution from Within and Without (Acts 12:1-25)

by Larry Miles

The Death of James: Acts 12:1-2

            In verse 1 of the 12th chapter of Acts, we are given this statement,” Herod the king.” Which Herod was this? There were many in the New Testament with that name. The Herod spoken of here was Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. The last 3 years of his life is covered in the events in Acts 12.

            The text tells us that Herod in about 44 A.D. laid hands on the church to mistreat them. Apparently, many members of the Lord’s Body were persecuted. Luke chooses to give us the account of 2 who were singled out for persecution, in one case, led to death.

            In the second verse we’re told that Herod had James the brother of John executed. This was the James who was one of the Twelve. He was the first to be martyred.  It is said that he was put to death by the sword. This would imply that he was beheaded. James death is the only one of the Twelve mentioned in the New Testament writings.  J. W. McGarvey wrote the following,

            “The death of James, the first apostle who suffered martyrdom must have been a source of indescribable grief to the church in Jerusalem; and to an uninspired historian, it would have furnished matter for many pages of eloquent writings; what shall we think, then of Luke as a writer, who disposes of it in a sentence of seven words in the Greek? Surely, there is an indication here of some supernatural restraint upon the impulses of the writer, and it is accounted for only by his inspiration.”

The Arrest of Peter (Acts 12:2-3)

            After King Herod found out that the killing of James pleased the people, he thought he would go after another of the leaders of the Christian community. He chose the Apostle Peter. Garreth Reese writes the following,

            “Peter was one of the apostles of Christ, just as was James. He was a leader in the Church. And he would be a special target of this persecution if it were triggered by the church’s acceptance of the Gentiles to fellowship without demanding of them all the old Jewish customs and taboos, for he was the one who went to the home of Cornelius and preached the Gospel to them; and he was the one instructed all Christians to do likewise as he defended his actions before the brethren in Jerusalem. Such actions would so infuriate the fanatical Jews. When Peter was arrested did, he thinks that perhaps the time had come for Jesus’ prediction about the manner of death would be fulfilled.”

            It is said that this took place during the days of the Unleavened Bread. This is the Passover and the seven days afterward. Herod knew that there would be many Jews in the city at this time. H. Leo Boles wrote the following,

            “Luke the historian, here indirectly locates the time of the year when Peter was arrested; those were the days of unleavened bread. The Feast of Passover came on the fourteenth day of the first month Abib, or Nisan; the feast of unleavened bread followed the Passover; and continued seven days (Exodus 12:12, 13, 29,30; Lev. 23:5-8; Deut. 16:1-8).”

            In verse four Herod has Peter thrust into prison. It further tells us that he was delivered to four squads of soldiers. Each squad contained four men who were responsible for guarding Peter around the clock. Herod wanted to make sure there was no way that Peter could escape. The text further tells us that Herod, after the Passover intended to bring Peter out before the people. This would imply a public trial and execution.

Peter is Released through the Power of God (Acts 12:5-11)

            The very night before Herod was to bring Peter before the people for execution the power of God began to manifest itself. The Passover would end at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday. Thus, King Herod could have had Peter executed the next day. The text tells us that Peter was sleeping between two soldiers bound with chains. There was no way humanly speaking that he could escape martyrdom for his Lord. But the God of Heaven had further need for the services of Peter. It says further that two more soldiers were stationed at the front of the door.

In verse seven the angel of the Lord appeared on the scene. We’re told that a light shone in the prison. The angel had to wake Peter from his sleep. Then his chains fell off. In verse 8 the angel told Peter to get dressed and put on his sandals. Peter followed the instructions of the angel. The angel told Peter to put on his outer garment and follow him. Peter though that he was seeing a vision.

The power of God caused the soldiers to not see what was happening. The angel of the Lord led Peter past the first and second guards to the iron gate that leads into the city. The door opened by itself. After they were safely outside the angel departed. In verse 11 we’re told that Peter came to himself and gives God the praise for delivering him from certain death.

Peter Returns to His Fellow Believers (Acts 12:12-17)

            After Peter realized that he was free he made his way to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. This was one of the major meeting houses in the city of Jerusalem. There were many gathered there praying.

            Peter is found knocking at the door of the gate. A servant girl named Rhoda goes to see who is knocking. Verse 14 tells us that she recognizes Peter’s voice but because of joy did not let him in but went to tell the occupants of his arrival. Verse 15 gives tells us that they did not believe her. She kept insisting and peter kept knocking. Finally, they went to the door and opened it and sure enough there was Peter in the flesh.

            Peter motioned to them to be silent. He then described how God had released him from the clutches of Herod Agrippa. He told them to report these things to James and the brethren. This James was the Lord’s half-brother and the one who presided over the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15. He was one of the leaders of the Jerusalem Church. Peter then departed and went to another place. The text does not say where he went.

Herod Executes the Guards (Acts 12:18-19)

            The next morning it was discovered that Peter was gone. Nobody had an explanation for his escape. Verse 19 informs us that Herod came to look for him and upon examining the guards personally he had them executed. It was said that he went down from Judea to Caesarea. This would put the events in the next few verse happening in 44 A.D.

The Death of Herod (Acts 12:20-23)

            The texts tell us that Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. The people from these areas came to Herod. It says that they won over Blastus, the kings chamberlain. The were asking for peace.

            Verse 21 states, “And on the appointed day…” Josephus tells us that this was the second day of the games held in Caesarea in honor of Caesar. The texts tell us that Herod put on his royal apparel and took his seat on the rostrum and began an address to the people. What it was about neither Luke or Josephus tell us. In verse 22 the people were overcome and were shouting, “the voice of a god and not of a man.”  At this time an angel of the Lord struck him. Herod Agrippa, I had been willing to let the people regard him as a god and it cost him his life. Why? Because he did not give God the glory. The text tells us that he was eaten up with worms and died.

The Return of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 12:24-25)

            Verse 24 informs us that the Word of the Lord continued to grow and be multiplied. In verse 25 we’re reintroduced to Barnabas and Saul who have return from they’re their journey. Returned where? To Antioch of Syria. When they returned they brought John Mark with them.

            We invite you to be with us as we study Acts 13. This chapter starts the events of the First Missionary Journey. It’s a long chapter. We ask that you read it in anticipation of this study. Until next time MARANATHA!

      Larry Miles is Co-Editor of Word & Work and attends Cherry St. Church of Christ

                                                                                                                    in New Albany, In.




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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8