ACTS CHAPTER 12.
Herod Persecutes the Church at Jerusalem and is Punished by God. Acts 12, 1-25.
James beheaded, Peter imprisoned: V.1. Now about that time Herod the, king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the Church. V.2. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. V.3. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) V.4. And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him, intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. V.5. Peter, therefore, was kept in prison; but prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for him. At that time, at the time when Barnabas and Saul were sent on their embassy of charity, very probably in the year 45 or early in 46 A.D. Since the year 41 Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great, occupied the entire country which had formerly been governed by his grandfather, with the title of king, under Roman supremacy. His power exceeded that of an ordinary governor, and he took good care to maintain his standing by a proper attitude of flattering deference to the emperor. He had risen to his present station by a gradual promotion, having been given first the tetrarchy of Philip (Batanea, Trachonitis, and Auranitis), a little later the tetrarchy of Lysanias, with the title of king, soon afterward the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas (Galilee and Perea), and finally Samaria and Judea. Without any special occasion, apparently merely for the sake of showing his tyrantís power, this Herod let his heavy hand strike certain members of the church at Jerusalem, to treat them badly, to torture and vex them. First of all he killed, deliberately murdered, James, the brother of John, with the sword. Luke purposely does not use a word to designate an execution, even with some show of right, but he applies the proper, fitting word: murder. This James the Greater, the son of Zebedee, must be distinguished from James the Less, the son of Alphaeus. The prediction of the Lord, Matt. 20, 23, was here fulfilled: James, the first martyr from the ranks of the apostles, drank of the Lordís cup, and was baptized with His baptism. This cruel and absolutely unjustified act of the king must have been the cause of great grief to the congregation at Jerusalem, removing, as it did, one of the foremost teachers of the young Church. The fires of persecution had died down to a few smoldering embers, but the action of Herod fanned them into new flame; the Jews, inveterate enemies of the Cross, were pleased with the removal of a leader of the hated sect; they found the action in total accord with their wishes. Herod, therefore, who prided himself upon his Pharisaic piety, added a second unjustified act, that of taking Peter captive, of arresting him without reason or charge, simply because it suited his fancy. Since just at that time, however, the Festival of Unleavened Bread was being celebrated, Herod, eager to show his zeal for Jewish religious customs by all means, had Peter arrested and placed into prison, his intention being to arraign him in the presence of the people after the days of the Passover Festival. The names of the feast are here interchanged, since they were applied indiscriminately. To be sure that his victim would not escape, Herod took unusual precautions, delivering him to four quaternions of soldiers, four soldiers for each of the four watches of the night, for safe-keeping. The Roman custom was probably followed, according to which the prisoner was chained to two guards in the cell, while two watched outside. With great numbers of people in Jerusalem for the festival, Herod hoped to gain further popularity by these measures: but especially by the final condemnation of the apostle in the presence of the people. He did not realize that by his action he was pitting his puny strength against the power of Almighty God and of the exalted Christ, a fact which Luke brings out by the contrast: Now Peter indeed was guarded in the prison, but prayer was made without ceasing by the congregation to God on his account. It is a sad fact that the might of prayer is not realized sufficiently in our days. If the congregations individually and collectively would but make use of prayer, unceasing, importunate prayer, the success of a great many enterprises would be a foregone conclusion. Note that the prayer of the Christians was made in behalf of Peter, very likely not exclusively for his release, though they knew that this was an easy matter for the Lord, but for strength and fortitude to bear persecution and martyrdom, if need be, for the sake of his Lord.
The miraculous deliverance: V.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. V.7. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison; and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. V.8. And the angel said unto him, Gird thy self, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee and follow me. V.9. And he went out and followed him, and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel, but thought he saw a vision. V.10. When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto their on gate that leadeth unto the city, which opened to them of his own accord; and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forth with the angel departed from him. In the mean time, while the tyrant Herod was anticipating new triumphs, and the members of the congregation were making prayer unceasing for Peter, the last day of the festival was brought to a close. And that very night, the night before Herod intended to produce his prisoner before the people to be put to death in their presence, extraordinary precautions were taken lest Peter escape. But Peter seemed little concerned about the events of the next day. He was sleeping between two soldiers delegated for that purpose, fastened to them with two chains, probably so that he was bound on either hand to each of the soldiers, ďthe two chains being used perhaps for greater security on account of the former escape,Ē chap. 5, 19. In addition to this, sentries before the doors guarded the prison, to forestall any attempt at deliverance from without. But the Lord cannot be hindered and deterred in His plans by such flimsy precautions. The angel of the Lord, whose coming neither guards nor locked doors can prevent, suddenly appeared, standing by the side of Peter. Incidentally, a light shone in the cell, for it was needed in the dense darkness of the inner prison. It was necessary for the angel to give Peter a sharp blow on the side to rouse him from his deep sleep, for so completely did the apostle place his trust for the coming day in the Lord that he rested and slept as soundly as ever in the quietness of his own home, Ps. 127, 2. Having roused Peter, the angel raised him up, bidding him, at the same time, to get up in haste. This was made possible, at the same moment, by the fact that the chains fell from his hands. But Peter was still in a half-dreamy, dazed state, not realizing what was happening, and the angel was obliged to give him directions. He was to fasten his girdle about his tunic and lace up his sandals. Peter automatically obeyed. He was to put on his thick upper mantle, throwing it around him before going out into the cold night. And Peter, in the same detached, automatic manner, followed. Note the vivid narrative, the picturesque description. Peter now followed the angel out, but his mind was not yet clear enough to tell whether that which was done to him by the messenger of God was real; he still imagined that he was seeing a vision. In this manner they passed through the first ward, where the sentries of the watch were stationed, then also through the second, where the guards of the whole prison were on duty. They came to the great iron door which leads to the city, heavy and solid enough to bar the way effectually at ordinary times. But now the heavy gate opened of its own accord, automatically, yielding them a wide opening for escape. Stepping out, they went along one street, until there were no further hindrances to the apostleís flight, when the angel, just as suddenly as he had appeared, made his departure. It was a miraculous deliverance from prison and martyrdom which the Lord here granted to His servant, because it pleased Him to use him for the spread of His Gospel. If the Lordís plans are to be carried out, He will deliver them that are His from chains and prison and from the very mouth of death. The army of the angels about the small band of believers protects them against all assaults and persecutions, but by the permission of the Lord.
Peter in the house of Mary: V.11. And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath sent His angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews. V.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. V.13. And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda. V.14. And when she knew Peterís voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in and told how Peter stood before the gate. V.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. V.16. But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished. After the departure of the angel, whom he had till then followed in such a dazed fashion, Peter at last came to himself, he became fully awake, he shook off the lethargy of sleep and regained the proper use of his senses. And now he realized also what the Lord had done for him. Now he knew for sure that the Lord had sent His angel and had delivered him from the hand of Herod and from all the earnest expectation of the people of the Jews. In no other way could it be explained that the heavy chains had been removed from his arms, that the sleep of the soldiers at his side had been so unnaturally sound, that the sentries of the two stations had been stricken with blindness and deafness, and that he was standing here, free, safe and sound. And so Peter pictured to himself the scene of the next day, the disappointment of the people, and the annoyance of the monarch whose hand and power had proved so feeble. This side of the matter presented itself to him first. But as he became still more fully conscious of the situation, it occurred to him that the Lord was here giving him a hint. And thus came the thought of escape, of what immediate steps he should take to save himself. So he turned his steps to the house of one of the disciples, Mary, the mother of John, with the surname Mark, where many of the brethren and sisters were assembled together as a congregation, busily engaged in prayer. Note: In spite of the lateness of the hour, the night being far advanced at this time, the disciples were kept awake by their loving solicitude and reverent regard for their teacher, not growing weary in praying for him and his welfare, an example which should be borne in mind at all times. Peter, having fully regained his bearings, had no difficulty, by the light of the moon now in the last quarter, in finding the house of Mary. He knocked at the wicket door of the gate leading to the vaulted entrance passage, and a maid-servant, or slave girl, by the name of Rhoda, came to answer his knock. But when, upon her challenge, she recognized the voice of Peter, she was almost beside herself with joy, forgetting even to open the gate to Peter. In fluttering eagerness she rushed back into the house and announced to the assembled disciples that Peter was standing outside. But her confident message was received with the incredulous cry: You must have lost your mind. And when she insisted with great vehemence that it was really so, that she could not be wrong in her recognition of the voice, they still would not believe, but declared that it must be his angel, Matt. 18, 10; Heb. 1, 14. They were of the opinion that Peterís guardian angel had assumed his form and voice and was standing before the door. Meanwhile Peter continued his knocking at the door, anxious to be off the street, where there was always some danger of a late pedestrianís recognizing him. So they finally opened the door, saw and recognized him, and were greatly astonished. Their prayers had been heard far beyond their own expectations; the miracle was too great for them to grasp. Thus the Lordís hand is with His servants to protect them in all their work of ministry for Him. Note the kindly, intimate relations between the servant Rhoda and the other members of the household. If this story were taken as an example by masters and employees alike, there would be no servant problem in our days.
Peter leaves Jerusalem: V.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 show these things unto James and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place. V.18. Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers what was become of Peter. V.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 Judea to Caesarea, and there abode. Peter was now again completely master of himself and of the situation. He realized that any outburst of joy might not only attract attention in the neighborhood, but would also result in the loss of valuable time. So he raised his hand in a gesture commanding silence, and quickly narrated to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison by a supernatural deliverance through His angel. Then he asked them to tell, notify, James and the other brethren of the turn of events. This James was most likely not James the son of Alphaeus, but James the brother of the Lord, who was associated with Peter in Jerusalem at the time of Paulís first visit and was very prominent among the elders of the congregation, Gal. 1, 19; 2, 9. But Peter, acting upon Godís plain suggestion, went away and journeyed to another place. His presence was no longer required in Jerusalem, but the Lord had need of him and his services elsewhere. When the morning dawned, there was great commotion and excitement among the soldiers. They had been given a prisoner to guard, very likely with instructions that they must vouch for his presence the next morning with their lives, and now the prisoner was gone; they had no idea what had become of Peter. Naturally the report had to be made to the officer in charge of the prison, who, in turn, brought it to the attention of Herod. And it may well be that the tyrant, indignant at being foiled in the very last moment, came to the prison in person to make a thorough investigation. But it availed him nothing; he did not find Peter. And so, after the peevish manner of unreasonable tyrants, he examined the guards once more and then ordered them to be put to death, very likely for gross negligence of duty or for connivance in liberating a dangerous prisoner. Just the same, Jerusalem did not seem to Herod a safe place to stay after this. Whether his conscience bothered him, or whether he dreaded the reproachful and probably triumphant glances of the Jewish leaders, does not appear. He left Judea proper and spent some time in Caesarea. The conscience of a tyrant, willfully guilty of unjustifiable crimes, will not permit him much rest. In the midst of luxury he feels ill at ease and is driven from one place to another.
The judgment of God upon Herod: V.20. And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon; but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus, the kingís chamberlain, their friend, desired peace, because their country was nourished by the kingís country. V.21. And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. V.22. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. V.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. V.24. But the Word of God grew and multiplied. V.25. And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark. Luke here adds a few words in regard to the cause of the death of Herod Agrippa I to round out the narrative. Herod was king of Palestine and of all the provinces south of Syria, but Phenicia, which belonged to Syria, was a thorn in his side. Whether it was merely a case of commercial warfare or of jealousy on account of some other advantage which the maritime province enjoyed, Herod was engaged in a violent quarrel with them, which might easily have culminated in some sort of bitter clash. But the cities along the coast could not afford to have such a condition obtain, since they received their grain and other foods from Palestine. Therefore they waited on him unanimously, having instructed their delegates to that effect. In addition, they managed to gain the good will of Blastus, the chamberlain, or minister of finance, of Herod, securing his good will in using his good offices for maintaining peace and removing the cause of the feud. It is by no means outside of the pale of the story or beyond reasonable possibility to suppose that bribery was resorted to, and that the kingís good will was gained in this manner. Herod was highly pleased with his success in this matter, and so on a certain set day he received the embassy of the Phenicians, arrayed in the splendor of all his royal garments and sitting upon his throne, from which he formally addressed the commissioners and the assembled people. And the entire multitude of the people, knowing that flattery will obtain in the case of a tyrant what reasonable arguments should in the case of a sensible person, cried out: The voice of a god and not of a man! Instead of reproving the flatterers with all signs of horror, the tyrant was highly pleased with their shouting. And therefore the punishment of God struck Herod at once. An angel of the Lord, as minister of the divine will, smote him for taking the glory away from God and thus becoming guilty of the basest blasphemy. He was seized with violent pains in the abdomen, caused by the fact that he was eaten by worms, lingered in great agony for five days, and then breathed his last. That was a visible judgment of God upon the persecutor of the Church. And many a tyrant since has felt the heavy hand of the Lord on account of his blasphemy, and has had a terrible end. But the death of Herod removed the pressure upon the congregations everywhere. The Word of God grew. spread, and multiplied. The removal of this obstacle gave a new impetus to the preaching of the Gospel. And Barnabas and Saul, having carried out their commission and fulfilled their service of mercy by transmitting the money that had been entrusted to them for the use of the sufferers, with the sincere good wishes of the congregation at Antioch, returned from Jerusalem, taking along with them John, with the surname Mark. He was their companion on this journey back to Antioch, and incidentally received some training in actual ministerial work, always of value to a young man that intends to enter the service of the Lord as a preacher.
Summary. Herod has James beheaded and Peter imprisoned, the latter being delivered by an angel of the Lord, while the king is stricken by God; whereupon the Church again enters upon a season of prosperity.