- In Acts 11 we read about Peter explaining to those of the circumcision about baptizing Gentiles for the forgiveness of sins without them keeping the old covenant law of circumcision prior to baptism. Recall that Peter had a vision of four-footed animals of the earth and birds of the sky. Peter was instructed to get up, kill, and eat these animals. This happened three times, teaching Peter to not call common what God had made clean. Also, the Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius and his household, signifying that Gentiles could also be baptized to receive the forgiveness of sins.
- After those things we saw the generosity of the Gentile Christians in Antioch. Upon hearing the news of an upcoming famine in the region of Judea, the Christians sent relief to the Christians living in Judea. In chapter 12, our attention turns back to events in Jerusalem.
I. The Death of James (12:1-3)
A. The crisis
- Chapter 12 begins recording the violent deeds of Herod Agrippa. A little history concerning Herod Agrippa will help our understanding the scene recorded by Luke. Herod was sent by his mother to Rome for education. While in Rome, Herod became friends with a man named Gaius, who we know more appropriately as Caligula, who eventually became emperor of the Roman Empire. When Caligula became emperor, he appointed Herod as king over much of the lands east of the Jordan River.
- Herod Agrippa’s uncle Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea. Antipas petitioned Caligula for a similar title which Agrippa had received. Obviously influenced by Agrippa, Antipas was deposed and exiled and the land was given to Agrippa. After Caligula’s death in 41 A.D., Agrippa appealed to Claudius and received from him Judea and Samaria. Therefore, Herod Agrippa became king over all the areas of Israel.
- Through his grandmother, Herod Agrippa was able to claim Jewish ancestry. Agrippa used this to become popular among the Jewish people. He made it known that he enjoyed living in Jerusalem. Herod observed the Jewish laws and traditions. He offered sacrifices the temple and was given the honor by the Jewish leaders of reading publicly a passage from the law during the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jews accepted Herod as one of their number (information taken from Kistemaker’s New Testament Commentary on Acts).
- In verse 1 we read that Herod begins attacking the church. We read in verse 2 some devastating information that Herod had the apostle James arrested and killed with the sword. Since history tells us that Herod attempted to follow the Jewish laws to maintain favor with the people, it is surmised that the charge against James was that he persuaded the whole city to serve other gods. Deuteronomy 13:6-18 says is someone was engaged in idolatry they were to be stoned, but if they caused the whole city to serve other gods, they were to be killed by the sword. It would be no surprise that the Jewish authorities would lay the charge that James was leading the city astray by preaching Jesus as the Son of God.
- It truly is amazing how concise the information is concerning the death of James. Any human writer would certain record the reason for the arrest and the circumstances that led up to the death of the first apostle. This is just one more among many proofs we have for the inspiration of the scriptures. None of us could have left the information at the mere sentence: he killed James with the sword.
- James’ death was the fulfillment of the words Jesus had spoken to James and his brother John. Matthew 20:20-28 records for us James and John’s mother coming to Jesus with her sons, requesting that they sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in the kingdom. Jesus’ response to the request was: "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" James and John answered that they could. Jesus replied, "You will indeed drink from my cup." Jesus is clearly referring to mistreat, persecution, and death. James experienced these things first, being the first apostle recorded to have been killed for the Lord.
B. The effect
- One can only imagine the trauma the death of the apostle James caused upon the minds of the first century Christians. One can only imagine the tone as Christians gathered to hear the news of the death of James. One can only envision what worship on the next Lord’s day was like in Jerusalem for those Christians. We have a very hard time when we lose someone close to us among our assembly.
- Should we not multiply that feeling when we would find out the one of Jesus’ chosen men, an apostle of the Lord who had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry and witnessed the resurrection, had been killed by a brutal tyrant? Horror must have swept through those Christians.
- Now read verse 3 and see how things went from bad to worse. After Herod saw that the death of James pleased the Jews, Herod proceeds to arrest Peter. The clear implication is that Peter is about to suffer the same fate. If the death of James made Herod popular, how much more would the striking down of Peter cause the popularity of Herod to skyrocket! Peter had been one of the most vocal apostles we read of in the book of Acts. Peter is the one who gave the speech in Acts 2, an event that happened some 10 years previous to what we are reading now. Peter had been preaching and teaching the risen Jesus all over the region of Judea.
II. The Release of Peter (12:4-19)
A. The circumstances
- Peter is in prison and is being guarded by four squads of soldiers. A squad consisted of four soldiers, so there are sixteen soldiers watching over Peter. This is heavy security. Perhaps the Jews recall the situation we read about in Acts 5 when the apostles were arrested but an angel let them out in the night. Not only are there 16 soldiers on watch, but two soldiers are chained to Peter, one to his right hand and one to his left hand (12:6). After the Passover was completed, Herod intended to bring Peter out and have him killed, to the delight of the Jews.
- While Peter is in prison, verse 5 tells us that the church prayed fervently to God for him. The first century Christians had put their faith in God that maybe something can be done for Peter to spare him from Herod’s evil. The night before Peter was to be brought out, Peter is sleeping while chained between the soldiers.
B. Peter’s release
- Suddenly, an angel appears in the prison. The angel taps Peter on his side to wake him and instructs him to get up quickly. The chains fall off of Peter’s hands. Peter is told to fasten his belt and put on his sandals as he is about to leave the prison. Peter wraps his cloak around him and follows the angel.
- What is interesting is that Peter nearly thinks he is dreaming as all of this is going on. He thinks he is simply seeing another vision and at the time does not realize that he truly is escaping from the clutches of Herod. Peter and the angel pass the first and second guard posts. They come to an iron gate that leads into the city of Jerusalem and the gates opens itself. Once outside and past a street, the angel disappears. What a tremendous miracle that took place!
- Peter now realizes that this is truly happening and says, "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." So Peter goes to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many Christians had assembled praying for Peter.
- Peter knocks at the door and a servant named Rhoda came to answer. She immediately recognizes Peter’s voice. Rather than opening the door, she runs back into the house and announces to the Christians praying that Peter is standing at the door. They respond that she is out of her mind, but she continues to insist that it was so. Some of them say that it is Peter’s angel. The Jewish Talmud helps us understand what the people were saying. The Jews taught that guardian angels assumed the appearance of the persons they protected and thus served as their doubles. I do not know of any place in the law itself that taught such a concept. However, it seems this concept was a Jewish tradition. So they opened the door and were astounded to see Peter standing there. Peter explained to them all that had just happened to him. Peter tells the Christians to report these things to James, the brother of Jesus and the rest of Jesus’ brothers. Then Peter leaves and goes to another place.
- The next morning there is a great commotion among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. One can only imagine the soldiers with their chains still attached to their arms but no longer attached to Peter. Herod searched and did not find Peter and also interrogates the soldiers. Afterward, Herod orders the execution of the soldiers, a common practice in those days for soldiers who failed at their duties.
III. The Death of Herod (12:20-25)
A. The event
- Our story concludes with a look at the end of Herod Agrippa’s life. On an appointed day, Herod put on his royal robes and made a public address. Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century, records that Herod had come to Caesarea to celebrate a festival held in honor of Emperor Claudius.
- After the address, the people kept shouting, "the voice of a god, and not of a man!" Immediately, Herod was struck by an angel of the Lord. Herod was eaten by worms and died. He suffered an extremely painful death. The reason the Lord afflicted him was "because he did not give the glory to God."
B. Glorify the Lord
- How many times we have seen in the scriptures death inflicted upon people who would not give glory to God. We noted this to be the problem in Acts 5 concerning Ananias and Sapphira. They lied about how much their property sold for in an effort to bring glory to themselves concerning how much they had given to the Lord. Because they did not give glory to God, they were struck dead.
- Similarly, in Leviticus 10 we read about Nadab and Abihu who offered a fire that was not authorized by God for sacrifice. They also were immediately consumed by God because they did not treat God as holy and did not give him the glory. We can also remember the lesson from the life of Moses who struck the rock to bring water rather than speaking to rock as the Lord had commanded. Because Moses did not give the glory to the Lord, he was not allowed to enter into the rest of the promised land, but died on the other side of the Jordan River.
C. Ways we do not glorify God
- There are many ways that we do not glorify God. I would like to take a moment to mention a few before we close. We do not glorify God when we look for our own exaltation. Too often we want to receive glory for our actions. All of us have a desire to be recognized for our actions. Remember that this was the sin of king Saul who requested that Samuel honor him before the people. Have you ever had a complex about what other people think? The younger we are, the more this is a problem. It seems as we get older, we are able to not care so much about what people think about us. But what will people think about our house, our car, or ourselves? All of these things are futile because we are spending our efforts trying to bring glory to ourselves and not too God.
- Not deflecting praise from ourselves toward God. The problem we see with Herod is that he did not deflect the praise he was getting. He readily accepted the praise the people offered. Recall that any time the apostles were elevated by people, they would tear their clothes and demand that all glory be given to God. Peter, as he entered Cornelius’ house, found the household bowing to him. He immediately instructed them to stand up for Peter was also just a man. God demands we deflect praise from ourselves. It is curious that religion has the greatest problem with this. We see in the religious world titles given to bring praise to man. We have titles for popes, pastors, bishops, reverends, and so forth. We are not glorify man and to accept such a title is error as Herod did.
- Disobedience is to not glorify God. When we choose to do what we want to do and not want to live our lives to God’s law, then we are openly stating that we will not glorify God. We are glorify our knowledge and capabilities when we choose to our lifestyle over serving God.