AN EXPOSITION OF ACTS 12
1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the Church.
As Jesus had predicted, there would be times of famine in Israel. One such time was when Barnabas and Saul went up to Jerusalem during the fifth or sixth year of the reign of the Roman emperor, Claudius. This Herod was Agrippa I. He was the grandson of Herod the Great, the nephew of Herod Antipas, and the brother of Herodias. He ruled over Palestine. Agrippa’s father, Aristobulus, had been murdered by his own father, Herod the Great.
2 And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.
This James was the son of Zebedee. With his murder, either by beheading, or being pierced through, the prophecy of Christ concerning his violent death was fulfilled. “And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father” (Matt. 20:23).
3 And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.)
It was not an act of justice that motivated Herod Agrippa I to move against James, but political expediency. Once blood lust is unleashed with popular approval, there is a desire for more. The Roman Colosseum was so popular because it spilled blood freely for recreational purposes alone. The heart of the Christian should be appalled at blood sports for pleasure.
There was another reason why Herod Agrippa I was willing to spill innocent blood. The Jews submitted to foreign rulers, and Rome was now in charge. In order to keep civil rest, Christians were freely sacrificed lest word get back to Rome of civil disobedience. Therefore, Agrippa I turned his attention to arresting a prominent Christian leader named Peter. However, there was a practical issue to consider. The arrest had to take place during a holy week, for these were the days of unleavened bread.
The seven days immediately following the Passover were observed by keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread. During this holy week, the Jews were required to eat bread without leaven, according to Exodus 12:15.
With a show of religious solemnity, and a willingness to identify with the Jewish ceremonies, Herod Agrippa I issued a royal decree, and Peter, the Christian, was arrested.
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.
It took sixteen soldiers to secure Peter, in Agrippa’s mind. The Romans divided the night into four watches so that the guards could be relieved and rested every three hours. Of the four who were on guard, two were with Peter in the prison. One has to wonder who the prisoners really were, Peter, or the guards. Two kept watch before the door of the prison. This was the Roman equivalent of a maximum secure prison. Everyone thought it would be impossible for Peter to escape. Following the Passover, Agrippa thought he would make a public display of Peter, and execute him before the people for their pleasure.
5 Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for him.
This is a lovely picture of the church at its best. While some saints suffer, others offer supplications to God. Prayer is proper, for in the providence of God, He has ordained not only what will come to pass, but the means by which events will occur.
No doubt the church had prayed when James was arrested, but his fate had been decreed in eternity past, and the Lord said no to the supplications. On this occasion, there would be a different answer to the pleading petitioners. The church must actually engage in prayer. We have not because we ask not. The church, on occasions, must pray without ceasing. Half-hearted praying is shameful. The church prayed for a prolonged period of time. The church must pray to God. Only God can do what humans cannot do. The church must pray for others specifically. Prayer was made “for him”, for Peter.
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.
It was the intention of Herod Agrippa I to bring Peter out of prison, and put him on public display as soon as the Passover was over. However, the night preceding, a miracle occurred. The miracle began while Peter was sleeping. Peter knew what Herod Agrippa I had done to James. He knew what the king was about to do to him, and yet, Peter slept. Here is a case of remarkable composure and grace under pressure. It is easy to admonish God’s people not to fear the future. It is very human to be concerned, and even terrified of the loss of life, especially as a martyr. What allowed Peter to sleep in peace was a clear conscience before God, and faith that in life, or in death, the Lord would be honored, and his own future was certain. The psalmist said, “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me” (Psalm 3:5).
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.
While Peter slept, the angel of the Lord came to him, surrounded by a light. After briefly gazing upon Peter, the angel gave the apostle a heavenly, gentile poke on his side to get his attention. The angel spoke saying, “Arise up quickly.” Without hesitation, Peter obeyed, “and his chains fell off from his hands.” The angel of the Lord had several more directives for Peter.
8 And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.
Peter was instructed to get dressed, put on his sandals, gather his outer garment about him against any chill in the night air, and follow.
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.
While all of this activity was taking place, Peter’s state of mind is revealed. He thought he was part of a vision. He “wist not,” meaning, he did not know that the events were being conducted in real time. There are some spiritual experiences that are so uplifting, a person’s soul is raptured unto God.
10 When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron 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 forthwith the angel departed from him.
The angel of the Lord led Peter past the first and second set of guards, who were probably asleep themselves, either through boredom, or by divine design. Finally, Peter and the angel came to the Iron Gate leading from the prison into the city. Once Peter was safely outside the prison wall, the angel departed from him, leaving as suddenly as he had appeared. Peter was safe from the Roman guards, and free to find his own way to the home of his friends.
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.
Finding himself on the outside of the prison, in the middle of a street, Peter had a sobering realization. This was no vision. This was no dream. This was really happening. Another thought crossed his mind. The Lord had sent an angel to deliver him out of the hand of Herod, and from the expectation of the people of the Jews. Peter knew that he was not going to die the death of a martyr, at least not on this occasion. It is instructive that Peter remembered that it was the Lord who had shown him mercy and grace. Many times people forget to give God the glory. They forget to be grateful.
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.
Standing in the street in the middle of the night, Peter considered where he should go. There is nothing wrong with using common sense as a Christian. Peter decided he should go to the house of Mary, the mother of John, whose surname was Mark. John Mark was a native of Jerusalem, and a relative to Barnabas. He would become known to the church in the near future, after he met the apostle Paul. It was in the home of Mary and John Mark that many Christians were gathered and praying. What happened next is all to human, and reveals that God does have a sense of humor.
13 And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda.
Finding his way to the house he sought, Peter knocked at the door of the gate. A damsel, a household servant perhaps, heard the knock and went to investigate. Her name was Rhoda, which means, rose. It was not unusual for the Hebrews to give the name of flowers to their daughters. Susanna, a lily. Hadassah, myrtle. Tamar, a palm tree.
14 And when she knew Peters voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate.
Though Rhoda recognized the voice of Peter, in her great excitement, she forgot to open the gate, but instead ran to tell all the others in the household that Peter stood before the gate. What happened next is even more ironic.
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.
When the praying church was told that their prayers had been answered, and Peter stood at the door, they said to Rhoda, “You are insane!” This is the testimony of many Christians, if the truth were told. There is belief in God and His goodness, but there is no faith that God will answer our prayers. Nevertheless, where faith is weak, or nonexistent, and God’s people pray, He might still have mercy, and answer their prayers. A lesson is learned about prayer. Prayer should be persevered in, and Christians should place themselves in a waiting posture to discern the first indication that God is listening.
16 But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished.
Finally, because Peter continued to knock, others heard what Rhoda had been saying. The door was opened, and the church saw Peter. Everyone was astonished. God really does answer prayers. With a sudden burst of excitement, everyone had a question for Peter. “How did it happen?” “Who let you out of prison, Peter?” “Peter, were you released legally?” There were so many questions. There was so much excitement.
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.
In order to answer all of the questions, and to calm the excitement in the house, Peter had to lift up his hand in a signal for silence. Once the people were calm, Peter declared unto them how the Lord had miraculously delivered him out of prison. Then, through his angelic servant, the Lord had said, “Peter, go show yourself unto James, and to the brethren.” Then, the angel departed. Peter was not to go into exile. Rather, he was to be bold, and return to the church. He was to lead by example. Peter was to establish the principle that every Christian is indestructible until God is through with their ministry on earth.
18 Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter.
While Peter remained in the household of faith the rest of the night, the Biblical narrative returns to the prison where there was great alarm among the soldiers who had been guarding Peter. What in the world happened to him? Where is he? Where did he go? One of the great truths of the Bible is that God loves to laugh. In particular, God laughs at the foolishness of men whom He has confounded. The Psalmist wrote, “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision” (Psa. 2:4).
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.
Unfortunately for the soldiers, because they had allowed a prisoner to escape, they were put to death. It did not matter to Herod that the soldiers could not have prevented the escape of Peter. Herod was not a spiritual man. He was a practical man with a practical solution to being politically embarrassed. After giving his petty order, Herod Agrippa I left Judea to go to Caesarea, where he stayed until his own death, which occurred shortly after.
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 kings chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the kings country.
After arriving in Caesarea, Herod assessed the political situation of the region, and was not pleased with what he discovered. In fact, Herod was so displeased that he became hostile towards Tyre and Sidon to the point he intended to wage war upon the ancient cities located north of Caesarea, along the Mediterranean Sea. Why Herod Agrippa I became angry with Tyre and Sidon is unknown, but it would not be difficult to surmise it might have something to do with regulations respecting commerce. Tyre and Sidon were wealthy trade cities. They probably did not like Rome confiscating their resources.
Whatever the particular issue was, the officials of each city realized that Rome could cut off their resources. Something had to be done to change Herod’s attitude. The solution proved to be simple enough. The officials of Tyre and Sidon befriended an important man named Blastus. He is called the kings chamberlain. Blastus was in charge with the direction and management of Herod’s bed-chamber. With such close proximity to the king, Blastus had his ear, and thus had influence. It is not unusual for those close to a political leader to wield great influence. There is “power behind the throne.” Blastus was able to help resolve the political crisis between Herod and the citizens of Tyre and Sidon.
21 And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.
With the crisis over Tyre and Sidon resolved, Herod made a public appearance to speak to the people. Secular history provides some interesting details about this “set day”. It was the second day of the sports and game which Herod celebrated in Caesarea in honor of the emperor Claudius Caesar. Josephus, the Jewish historian, provides the following account. “Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity throughout his province.
On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of wonderful contexture, and early in the morning came into the theater [place of the shows and games], at which time the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the first reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently on him” (Antiquities of the Jews, 19.8.2). Little did Herod know that this was to be the day of his death, for after he spoke, the people, wanting to please Herod, did something foolish.
22 And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.
The people cried out in praise of Herod saying, “He speaks with the voice of a god, and not with the voice of a man.” Herod Agrippa I embraced the praise that was lavished upon him.
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.
What Herod Agrippa I heard, God heard. What pleased Herod, made the Lord angry. Because Herod did not deflect the unwarranted glory from himself to the Lord, the angel of the Lord killed him. Then worms ate his body. Scientifically, this is a disease known as morbus pedicularis. It is a putrid, and painful disease.
24 But the word of God grew and multiplied.
With the death of Herod Agrippa I, a period of peace came to the church, allowing the Word of God to grow and multiply in the hearts of those whom God had elected to salvation. The stage was now set for the next gospel adventure.
25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.
The stage was set for now drama in the Acts of the Apostles.