Acts 12:1–25 . . .
“James Is Martyred, Peter Is Set Free”
Our text today marks an important turning point in Luke's "Acts" volume. From this point on, Peter virtually disappears, except for a brief moment in chapter 15. In his place, Paul will dominate the remainder of the book. The gospel is nevertheless on its way to all the world. Today's text is filled with important lessons for us to learn, so let's ask God to illuminate our hearts and minds through his Spirit as we study it most heartily.
There are times when evil seems to be winning the day. Wicked men get away with murder; their popularity goes up, not down. The righteous suffer terribly; their loved ones are bereaved. It’s easy at such times to wonder, Where's God in all of this? Why did he allow this to happen? How can any good come out of such awful wickedness?
James and John had been close. They'd worked together in their father’s fishing business and spent three years in close contact with Jesus. They had hopes and dreams of how God would use them in spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. But now, James was suddenly gone, beheaded by Herod. John was left wondering, “Why?” This was a new development in the history of the church. James was the first of The Twelve followers of Jesus to be martyred. His death shattered the illusion that somehow, The Twelve enjoyed a unique "divine protection."
As chapter 12 begins, we find James dead, Peter in prison, and the tyrant Herod basking in his popularity and power. At the end of the chapter, we find Peter free, Herod eaten by worms and then dead, and the Word of God growing and multiplying. Luke is showing us that the gospel is unstoppable. If you oppose the gospel, you may temporarily win, but you'll finally lose, and lose big. However, if you stand firm for the truth and gift of the gospel, you may temporarily lose, . . . but you'll eventually win, and win big.
Herod vs. God (12:1–5)
There are four Herods cited in the New Testament. The Herod in today's text is the third in order: He's Herod Agrippa I. The first Herod was Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1–17) who ruled in Jerusalem when the magi came looking for the one who was born “King of the Jews”; he killed the babies of Bethlehem, seeking to destroy the newly born King. The second Herod was Herod Antipas who beheaded John the Baptist (Mark 6:14–29) and tried our Lord Jesus (Luke 23:7–12). The fourth Herod is Herod Agrippa II. This is the Herod before whom Paul would stand trial a little later in this volume (Acts 25:13–27).
For several years after Saul's conversion, the church enjoyed peace. Freedom from persecution helped the church grow rapidly. Preachers took the gospel to many new places and won multitudes of Jews and Gentiles to Christ. For a while, God held back Satan's efforts to stop the church. But the time came when God allowed Satan to rekindle the fires of persecution. The instrument Satan chose for attacking the church was the most powerful ruler in the region: Herod Agrippa I.
We aren't told why this Herod suddenly turned against the church. Perhaps it was growing too large, becoming too influential. Perhaps it was because Christians had a higher allegiance to God than to governmental authority (see 4:19; 5:29). Herod appears to be opposing the church by systematically executing its top leadership. James was arrested and executed first; then Peter was arrested with the intent of executing him as well (v. 4). Remember our Lord’s “inner circle,” composed of Peter, James, and John (see, for example, Matt. 17:1; Mark 5:37). One cannot help but think that John is Herod’s next target, perhaps to be followed by the remaining apostles.
It would appear that Herod put James to death for his own reasons and without pressure. When he did, it became apparent that his action won the favor of many of the Jews. Herod’s popularity suddenly increased — and Herod was all about popularity (he was a politician after all). His decision to arrest Peter and put him to death was influenced by the favor he'd gained by executing James with the sword (no crucifixion for him).
James was with his Lord; and it appeared that Peter would soon follow. But there was one problem — the Feast of Unleavened Bread had begun. This was the week-long feast that immediately followed Passover, which wouldn't have been a good time to execute Peter. He'd have to wait until the feast was over — a few days or more. Herod must have heard about Peter’s earlier escape (Acts 5:17–25) because he took extreme measures to insure that that didn't happen again. Peter was, for all intents and purposes, in maximum security. Four squads of soldiers guarded him; four men during every six-hour shift; twenty-four hours a day. Peter was chained to two guards, one on each side; every exit from the building was attended by armed men; outside, the prison was secured by a strong gate.
Luke makes a point of putting obstacles and dangers alongside the statement that “those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him” (v. 5). Indeed, God has raised the level of difficulty to the maximum. Peter's escape would testify to God's power, thus glorifying the Lord. James had already died; Peter’s death appears to be a certainty, since there's no way he can possibly escape. It's just hours before his trial and death. It's only now that God acts to deliver him.
A Miraculous Escape (vv. 6–11)
In the middle of the night, an angel came to deliver Peter. First, the angel made the soldiers unconscious; then he awakened the apostle. Notice that Peter was sleeping soundly. His ability to find rest on the night before he was scheduled to die demonstrates that he'd become a man of great courage and faith.
Here's the first of a number of humorous touches in this story. It's obvious that Luke enjoyed writing this chapter. So, where's the humor? Peter was so deep in sleep that the angel couldn't waken him gently; he had to give Peter a hard smack on his side. But rough treatment hardly fazed an old fisherman such as Peter, whose body had been toughened by years of hard work.
When Peter opened his eyes, he saw a light shining in his cell. The angel raised him to his feet and told him to move quickly. The chains fell off, as if unlocked by invisible hands. Recognizing that Peter's mind was still foggy, the angel told him everything he had to do: First he needed to gird up his robe, i.e., to tie a belt around his inner garment because it was hanging loose; he needed to put on his sandals; he needed to wrap himself in his outer garment, probably because it was chilly outside.
The angel instructed Peter to follow him, and he obeyed. All this time, Peter wasn't fully awake; he thought he was seeing a vision. The angel led him past the unconscious guards at two guard stations, bringing him to the street-side iron gate, which seemingly opened of its "own accord." In other words, Peter couldn't see anyone's hand pushing the gate. Doubtless there were unseen angels assisting the one whom Peter was able to see. The angelic deliverer led Peter to a spot about a block away from the prison gate before vanishing suddenly.
Realize for a moment why this escape is seen as miraculous. The guards were fully anesthetized in some miraculous way. These fellows wouldn't have awakened no matter how much noise Peter made. An angel of the Lord appeared, accompanied by a bright light (v. 7). He struck Peter on his side, probably prompting a protest from him — at least a few groans. The chains fell from Peter’s hands; this, too, wouldn't have been accomplished without noise. Most interesting is the fact that the angel spoke aloud to Peter three times; yet not one word is recorded about keeping silent (such as "whispering"). The angel was fully confident that they had nothing to fear from these guards, who would remain “out like a light.”
Peter wasn't one to take a passive role. But in this account, it's very clear that God is the One taking action. Peter had to be awakened from sleep when the angel appeared; he wasn't wide awake (with fear), nor was he looking to find an escape route. He didn't force the front gate open or even push it open; it opened by itself (by an unseen hand [v. 10]). During this release, he was unable to appreciate the fact that this was really happening. He assumed that it was a vision (which wasn't unreasonable, given the fact that he recently had a vision (see Warren's summary of Acts 10:1–23).
In Peter’s mind, he was asleep throughout the entire escape. Only after he became completely liberated did Peter comprehend that his experience was real. Verse 11 is significant because it informs us that Peter finally grasped what had happened: He was delivered by the Lord’s angel, not only from Herod’s hand, but also from what the Jewish people were expecting. It wasn't just Herod who'd set himself in opposition to the church and thus to our Lord, it was the Jewish people as well. Once again, opposition to our Lord had spread to the general population, not only its leaders.
Rhoda’s Thoughtlessness (vv. 12–19)
Peter's mind had cleared. He fully realized what happened. With a heart thrilled to be free and safe, he praised God for taking him out of his enemies' hands. But he now had a new problem. Where should he go? Authorities would soon search for him. So he decided that he should inform the church of his deliverance. Not wanting their anxiety to continue longer than necessary, he set out for the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where a large group of believers was at a prayer meeting. John Mark was the same Mark who later wrote his own gospel.
When Peter knocked at "the outer entrance," a young girl named Rhoda, perhaps a servant girl, came to the door, which brings us to another humorous scene. Peter was standing outside in the middle of night. It was late March or early April when nights were still cold. As far as Peter knew, soldiers were pursuing him. But when Rhoda recognized his voice, she failed to do the sensible thing — to promptly bring him in for his safety. Instead, she was so overcome with joy that she rushed back to exclaim to everyone that it was who was knocking. Notice in the text and the adjacent cartoon the contrast between Peter's ease of getting out of prison and his difficulty getting into Mary's house. Add to that the fact that the "good news" that Rhoda carried to the adults fell on "deaf ears." Perhaps it was because she was young; nevertheless, those inside her house didn't believe her. They even accused her of being crazy.
As Peter stood outside, wondering what was causing the delay, he kept pounding on the door. At last someone besides Rhoda heard him. When the people inside finally opened the door, they were amazed: There, indeed, stood Peter. Their first impulse was to cry out in surprise and joy, but he motioned to them to keep quiet. He didn't want them to waken the neighbors who might betray his presence. As quickly as possible, he told how the angel delivered him, then he instructed them to tell James and the other believers about his escape. (This James was Jesus' brother, the author of the Epistle of James who, in time, became the principal leader of the church in Jerusalem, filling a vacuum left by other apostles who'd departed to carry the gospel to distant places.)
Verse 18 states, "There was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter." That's one of the great understatements of the Bible; Herod was furious that his prized prisoner had escaped! The subsequent execution of the guards (v. 19) was customary when a guard's prisoner escaped. How ironic! The same guards who'd have led Peter to trial and death were now being led away to their death, while Peter remained alive and free.
Herod’s End before God’s Word Triumphed (vv. 20–25)
Herod decided it was time to leave town. Peter’s empty cell was as impossible to explain as Jesus' empty tomb. If Herod strove to abolish the church by arresting and executing it leaders, he wasn't doing very well at it. He'd succeeded at killing James; but Peter and the others had disappeared. Herod wasn't doing well at opposing the church or pleasing those Jews who hated the church. It was a good time for him to depart.
Herod appeared before the people in all his royal splendor, at which time he also gave a speech. The people of Tyre and Sidon seized on the occasion to heap inappropriate praise upon the king: “This is the voice of a god, not of a man,” they shouted. Having opposed God by opposing his church, Herod was now playing god. Doing so quickly cost him his life. An angel of the Lord struck him with a miserable illness, causing him to have been eaten by worms and dying as a result. It wasn't a dignified death.
Things sometimes end very differently from the way they began. In our text, it appeared as though Herod would annihilate the Church by executing its top leaders. The final words of our passage tell us that the Word of God triumphed. Herod couldn't stop the progress of the gospel, nor could he destroy the Church. The last verse takes us back to Barnabas and Saul, who'll play a dominant role advancing the gospel in the remaining chapters of Acts.
- Q. 1 If the Christians were prayerfully asking God to deliver Peter from jail, why were they surprised when he showed up at the door?
- Q. 2 How do you feel about the fact that God saved Apostle Peter but not Apostle James?
- Q. 3 Who truly has power here? Herod or the Lord of the Church? What does this tell you about how Christians ought to deal with opposition and persecution?
- Q. 4 What worldly forces seem all powerful to you? How does this chapter put them in perspective?
- Q. 5 Although Peter was miraculously rescued from prison, he hid to avoid Herod. Where do you see an overlap between God's power and human common sense in the ways things work out for your deliverance?
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 12.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 11:10–12:25, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
Peter’s Miraculous Escape From Prison
12 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
6The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
11Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”
12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door.14When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
15“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
18In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.
21On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
24But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.
Barnabas and Saul Sent Off
25When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.