Acts Lesson Twenty-five: Acts 12:1-19 – Persecution Intensifies

About that time King Herod cruelly attacked some who belonged to the church, and he killed James, John’s brother, with the sword. When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too, during the days of Unleavened Bread. After the arrest, he put him in prison and assigned four squads of four soldiers each to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. So Peter was kept in prison, but prayer was being made earnestly to God for him by the church. 

On the night before Herod was to bring him out for execution, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while the sentries in front of the door guarded the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord  appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” Then the chains fell off his wrists. “Get dressed,” the angel told him, “and put on your sandals.” And he did so. “Wrap your cloak around you,” he told him, “and follow me.” So he went out and followed, and he did not know that what took place through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they passed the first and second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened to them by itself. They went outside and passed one street, and immediately the angel left him. 

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.” 12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had assembled and were praying. 13 He knocked at the door in the gateway, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer. 14 She recognized Peter’s voice, and because of her joy, she did not open the gate but ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gateway. 

15 “You’re crazy!” they told her. But she kept insisting that it was true. Then they said, “It’s his angel!” 16 Peter, however, kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astounded. 

17 Motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he explained to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. “Report these things to James and the brothers,” he said. Then he departed and went to a different place. 

18 At daylight, there was a great commotion among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. 19 After Herod had searched and did not find him, he interrogated the guards and ordered their execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. (HCSB)

In this passage, two significant things occur. 

  • First, the persecution against the church reaches a new level of intensity. 
  • Second, the transition from Peter and the Apostles being the main participants to Paul in the remainder of Acts occurs. 

The passage itself contains two storylines. 

  • The first is the martyrdom of James.
  • The second is the arrest and subsequent miraculous escape of Peter.

James is Martyred – verses 1-5.

Before we get into the passage itself, let’s have a detailed look at the main protagonist in this narrative, King Herod. Here are details about King Herod, which should shed additional light on the events in this passage.

  • This is Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great.
    • The Herods were Edomites, descendants of Esau.
      • In a sense, we see Esau persecuting Jacob once again.
      • James is another form of the name Jacob.
    • The picture here is a time of tribulation the Jews will endure in the last days.
      • In Matthew 20:20-23, James and John were promised a baptism of suffering.
      • James was the first of the Apostles to be martyred.
      • John was the last to die and lived a life of suffering.
  • He was the nephew of Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded.
  • The family was despised by the Jews, who resented having Edomites rule over them.
  • Herod the Great had Agrippa’s father, Aristobulus, executed because Herod the Great feared an assassination attempt.
  • Herod the Great then had Agrippa, and his mother sent to Rome, where he could grow up and be educated along with the children of Roman aristocracy.
    • The friendships he developed during this time eventually led to his ruling over a swath of the Jewish kingdom nearly as large as the one Herod the Great ruled.
    • In 37 A.D., the emperor Caligula gave him the title of king.
      • He initially ruled over the lands of the Transjordan and the Ten Cities (Decapolis) north of Galilee.
      • In 39 A.D., his area of rule was expanded to include Galilee and Perea, areas formerly under the control of his uncle, Antipas, who had been sent into exile.
      • In 41 A.D., his former classmate, Claudius, now installed as the emperor, gave his control of Judea and Samaria.
      • He was now “king of the Jews” as he ruled over all of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, the Transjordan, and the Decapolis.
  • Much, if not all, of his good fortune, was due to his friendships with Caligula and Claudius.
  • Because of the fact that the Herod family descended from the Edomites, the general population hated them, which drove Agrippa to try and gain favor with the Jews by doing them “favors.”
  • The events in this passage likely took place in the spring of 42 or 43 A.D., at the height of his power and influence.

In verse two, we read that Agrippa had James killed with the sword. Although it is not necessary for understanding the passage, we don’t know which method, Roman or Jewish, was used to kill James.

  • Roman method – beheading.
  • Jewish method – because Jewish customs forbade beheading as a desecration to the body, they would thrust the sword through the body.
  • Because Agrippa would be concerned with gaining favor with the Jews, it would seem more likely that the Jewish method would be preferred.

Since Agrippa saw that he, indeed, did gain favor with the Jews for the execution of James, he decided to arrest the ringleader, Peter, as the next person to be tried, convicted, and executed. However, because he didn’t want to offend anyone, he decided to postpone the trial until after the Passover festival was complete, as a guilty verdict and subsequent execution during Passover would be considered a desecration.

Assigning four squads of four soldiers to each squad was standard Roman practice. This would involve changing the guard every three hours throughout the twelve hours of the night to ensure that alertness was maintained. Looking ahead to verse six, we also read that Peter was bound with two chains. It’s possible, given historical records, that Peter was chained to the guards. Why would Agrippa use such a large contingent for a peaceful prisoner? It was probably likely that the Sanhedrin had informed Agrippa of Peter’s previous Houdini-like escape, and he didn’t want a repeat performance.

We also see the spiritual characteristics of the church on display during Peter’s imprisonment. They were earnestly praying for him during this time. This is a lesson for all of us, regardless of the trials or difficulties we may be going through. Bring it before the Lord in humble supplication. Often, that is the only thing we are able to do, but at the same time, the most effective.

We could ask one question before moving on to discuss the deliverance of Peter. Why was James allowed to be martyred, and Peter was rescued? Both were faithful servants of God and needed by the church. The only answer is the sovereign will of God. This was the very thing that the church prayed about after their experience with persecution in Acts 4:24-30. Herod had attempted to “stretch forth” his hand to destroy the church in Acts 4, but God stretched forth His hand to perform signs and wonders and to glorify Jesus, Acts 4:28-30. God allowed James to be killed but kept Peter from harm. Almighty God was in control, not any person.

The Rescue of Peter – verses 6-19.

Possibly the most striking statement in this passage is found in verse six, “Peter…was sleeping.” 

How could Peter possibly be sleeping when he knew the next day he was to be executed?

  • The prayers of the church surely provided comfort to him. They were praying day and night for about a week.
  • Faith in the Word of God and Jesus’ promises were the key.
    • Let’s review what Jesus told Peter in John 21:18-19.
      • Peter would not die until he was older.
      • Peter would die by crucifixion, not by the sword.
    • Peter’s faith in what Jesus told him allowed him to be at peace and understand that against all odds, he would not die at this time.
  • We should all ask ourselves if we have the same sense of peace as we face the trials, almost certainly not a threat of execution, in our lives. How we act reflects the level of faith we have in God.

In verses seven to eleven, we see Peter obeying what the angel told him to do. At first, Peter thought he was having a dream, and the events were not real. It wasn’t until after they passed through two sets of guard posts and the gate leading to the city, passed the first street, and the angel left him, that Peter finally realized that this wasn’t a dream, he was free! He proclaims that the Lord sent the angel to rescue him from the clutches of the enemy. He then makes his way to the house where the believers had gathered in prayer for him during the Passover festival. 

This was a sensible choice for two reasons. First, surely Peter understood that the prayers of the saints were heard in heaven and directly contributed to his release. Second, he wanted to let them know their prayers were heard and answered. There are four points connected to the prayers of the believers.

  • Many people were involved in praying.
  • They were praying earnestly.
  • They prayed day and night for about a week.
  • They prayed specifically for Peter’s release.

The scene at Mary’s house is almost comical. Peter knocks on the door; a servant named Rhoda recognizes his voice but is so overwhelmed with joy that instead of opening the door, she runs and tells the others that Peter is at their door. Their response indicates a couple of things.

  • A lack of faith in the power of their prayers.
    • They had prayed for about a week for Peter’s release.
    • Peter was now knocking on the door, but they didn’t believe it was him.
  • Their belief in angels.
    • The Jews believed in guardian angels.
      • Matthew 18:10.
      • Hebrews 1:14.
    • Each person had a guardian angel as their spiritual counterpart.
      • They believed that the angel appeared immediately after the person’s death.
      • This is why they responded to Rhoda with the phrase, “It’s his angel.”

Verse seventeen has three components.

  • Peter gives them the details of his miraculous deliverance.
  • He tells them to report what had happened to James and the brothers.
  • He departs from them and goes to “a different place.”
    • He could have done this for two reasons.
      • To avoid the likely wrath of Agrippa.
      • To prevent the gathered believers from being connected to his escape.
    • We don’t know where the “different place” was located.
      • It could have been a safer place in Jerusalem.
      • It could have been a location outside the city.

The narrative now switches from the events surrounding Peter to the consequences of his escape.

  • When the guards woke up, Peter was gone, but there was no indication of how his escape occurred.
  • A search was made to find Peter, but it was not successful.
  • Herod then had the guards interrogated to find out how Peter escaped. 
    • One has to wonder whether Peter’s previous escapes had entered Agrippa’s thoughts.
    • Agrippa’s plan to curry additional favor with the Jews had now come undone.
  • We also see evidence of Roman law coming into play.
    • A guard that allowed a prisoner to escape was subject to the same penalty the escapee would have suffered.
    • The fate that befalls the guards leaves little doubt that Agrippa had intended to execute Peter.
  • With his plan unraveled, Agrippa now makes his way back to his residence in Caesarea, likely embarrassed and in a foul mood.

Applications

  • Believers are to pray. Although Peter’s situation appeared grim, there was a large group of believers who gathered to pray for about a week for his release. The same is expected of us. No matter how dark the situation may appear, we are to bring our prayers before God. We see once again in this passage that the early church was a church of prayer, a model that should be part of every New Testament church.
  • Believers are to have peace regardless of the circumstances, trusting that God is in control and He will work according to His sovereign plan for the good of all. If we are absorbed with feelings of anxiety or worry, it indicates that we don’t trust God. Rest in the assurance of His Word. Jesus said He would never leave us nor forsake us. Do you believe that?
  • No matter how others hurt us, actual or intended, remember that it isn’t our place to retaliate. God will bring judgment in His time according to His plan. We’ll read in the next section that Agrippa met a swift end after his failed attempt to execute Peter. We are to follow Jesus and leave judgment to the Lord.

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