In the sequence that Luke is following in the unfolding drama of Acts, Gentile Christianity is beginning to take center stage. In the middle of this growing emphasis, a series of startling stories are recorded that show God is Sovereign, and HE is still active in the Jewish church. This chapter gives us a realistic picture of some tragedies and triumphs in the early church.
I. The Unfolding Drama in Judea:
Acts 12 begins with persecution. Satan’s relentless attacks on the church continue, and this time the persecution came from Herod, the king. This was Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great. He was appointed king over Judea by the Roman Emperor Claudius. An observer of the Law of Moses, he went to great lengths to please the Jews. It was in pursuance of this policy that he afflicted some from the church and killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. This James had been with Peter and John on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus; and it was his mother who had requested that her 2 sons might sit beside Christ in His Kingdom.
This chapter is an interesting study of God’s ways in connection with His people. James was put to death by the enemy, yet Peter was miraculously delivered. Human reason would ask why such preference should be shown to Peter, but our faith rests on the love and wisdom of God. Some Jews responded so enthusiastically to the execution of James that Herod was encouraged to do the same with Peter. However, it was by then the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and executions were not exactly appropriate during religious holidays. Also, the Jews would be too busy with their ceremonies to appreciate the favor, so Herod ordered Peter to be put in jail until his execution. The apostle was guarded by sixteen soldiers, in four shifts of four soldiers each. The church in Jerusalem prayed earnestly for Peter, especially as the death of James was so vivid in their minds.
Peter Delivered from Prison by an Angel -Acts 12:6-17
The night before Herod planned to bring Peter out, the apostle was sleeping soundly, handcuffed to two soldiers. Some would call his sleeping a triumph of faith. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and the cell was flooded with light. Tapping Peter on the side, the angel ordered him to get up quickly.
Immediately the handcuffs fell off. Then, the angel told Peter to dress, put on his sandals, throw his cloak around him, and to follow. Though in a daze, Peter followed the angel past the first and second guards of the prison. When they came to the iron gate, it opened supernaturally. It was only after they had passed through one street of the city, and the angel had vanished that Peter realized it was not a dream, but that God had miraculously delivered him from the hands of Herod and of the Jews.
Then Peter stopped to consider the situation, and decided to go to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark (12:12). Some scholars suggest this was the house where Jesus’ Last Supper was eaten and that it continued to be the meeting place of believers in Jerusalem. Notice, the Christians were praying there. When they were desperate, facing impossible situations, they turned to God together. It must have been an all-night prayer meeting since Peter’s escape from prison probably took place during the early morning hours.
Peter knocked at the door of the gate and waited. A maid named Rhoda (same as Rose) came to answer, but was so excited when she saw Peter that she failed to open the gate. She ran back to announce the good news to those who were praying. They thought she was crazy, and did not hesitate to tell her so, but she kept insisting that Peter was really at the gate. They said, “It must be his guardian angel” (or “his disembodied spirit”), but she stated positively that it was the apostle.
These believers have often been chided for their unbelieving prayers, because they were actually surprised when the prayers were answered. However, instead of criticizing, we should be greatly comforted that God answers such faithless prayers.
Meanwhile, Peter had been standing on the doorstep, knocking. When they finally opened the door and he stepped in, all their doubts vanished and they broke out into great expressions of joy. He quickly quieted them down, gave a brief account of his miraculous deliverance, asked them to convey the news to James (probably the son of Alphaeus) and the brethren. Then he departed, and we do not know where he went.
Herod’s Anger over Peter’s Escape -Acts 12:18, 19
When morning came and Peter was missing, the soldiers were thrown into a state of panic. For Herod, also, it was a traumatic experience to be so outwitted. Nothing that the soldiers could say sounded at all convincing. In fact, the lameness of their testimony probably infuriated the king all the more. So he ordered them to be executed. He then left for Caesarea to nurse his wounded pride.
For some unknown reason, Herod had become very angry with Tyre and Sidon, two commercial ports on the Mediterranean. The people of these cities took advantage of his holiday in Caesarea to try to gain favor for themselves, because they depended on business with Judea. They did this by befriending Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, and through him requesting restoration of diplomatic relations. One day Herod came forth in all his royal finery to address the people. They shouted deliriously that his was the voice of god and not of a man. He made no effort to refuse such divine honors, or to give God the glory. Therefore, an angel of the Lord struck him and he died. This was in 44 A.D.
Immediately, after the report of Herod’s death, Luke gives a report of the growth of the church he had brutally tried to oppress. Through it all, the Gospel expands its outreach continually (Acts 12:24). Although the early popularity of the church has given way to hostility, that doesn’t hinder the life-giving power or forward movement of the Word of God.
This is also believed to be about the time Barnabas and Saul were in Jerusalem, delivering the “support gift” (Acts 11:30). When they returned to Antioch, they took John Mark with them. John Mark was a nephew of Barnabas, and was the writer of the second Gospel. It is impossible to tell whether Barnabas and Saul were in Jerusalem at the time of the death of James, the imprisonment of Peter, or the death of Herod.
II. Important Insights from These Stories:
The Sovereignty of God…
We find here, both miraculous rescues and what seem to be untimely deaths?!?
When reading these stories, it’s easy to focus on God’s deliverance of Peter in answer to fervent prayer and to ignore the non-deliverance of James, which resulted in martyrdom. But the fact that Luke placed these 2 events side by side suggests that the 2 ways in which God’s sovereignty is expressed—physical rescue and no physical rescue—should both be considered when thinking about God’s help in times of trouble.
What is common to these situations is that both James and Peter were faithful to Christ. Just as these disciples prayed for Peter’s release, we too may pray earnestly for deliverance or miracles. But we must leave it to God to express His sovereignty over a situation in a way He regards best. What is most important is that we trust God, pray in difficulty and remain faithful and obedient to Him regardless of the outcome of a crisis we face. God may be moving in mysterious ways to bring special blessings, manifest His glory or empower life-changing testimonies in yet unforeseen ways.
The death of Herod is difficult for some to understand. It says an angel struck him, but we are not told the exact cause of death. Most historians of the time say he was struck with violent abdominal pains, collapsed and died a few days later of intestinal worms. This arrogant and brutal politician was glorious on the outside and rotting on the inside. He had adamantly opposed the work of God and brutally oppressed HIS people. Although evil may hold sway and wicked rulers may look invincible and hurt Christians for a time, they will be judged. Luke says Herod’s punishment was (in part) because he did not praise God when idolized and deified by the fickle crowd’s flattery.
Judgment is a subject too big to teach here. But for now, know that judgment is an action of God whereby HE holds people accountable for their thoughts and deeds. It is when God ‘decides about and deals with’ someone. 1Tim.5:24 says, “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of time; the sins of others trail behind them.” Herod reaped what he sowed. Ultimately, we are all to stand before God’s judgment seat, however as Christians, we have nothing to fear; for we will be proclaimed “Not guilty!” for putting our trust in Christ and the finished work of His cross.
*Excerpt from previous Acts study: Many ask if God judges people like that today? The answer is God can, but won’t usually. This shocking judgment has 4 likely reasons: 1. Judgment as a culmination of and overflow from a series of sinful acts and evil deeds; it was reaping what was sowed or the removal of God’s mercy/protection (Jer.2:19, Gal.6:7). 2. The law of firstfruits, where God makes a clear or typical example in the natural for whatever comes 1st or is devoted (Adam, Moses, Achan-Ai, Ananias+). 3. The manifest Presence of God in revivals is a serious thing! It’s unwise to oppose the purposes or people of God. That has been the ruin of some empires and emperors. 4. It’s a prophetic preview, an example of the full expression of the powers of the day of the Lord. In conclusion, the resulting reverence of God from judgments may provoke awesome worship, Christian unity, respect from unbelievers, and many salvations.
The Power of Earnest Prayer!
Acts is a study of the Christian prayer life and praying Church. It is full of stories for inspiring and instructing our prayers. Here, we are provided examples of successful prayer that may increase our expectation for answers to prayers. It’s also important to notice that the believers in Acts were not so much interested in reading and studying about prayer, as they were committed to a lifestyle of actually praying (12:5,12). The sequence of vs. 5 and 7 has often been repeated in Bible and church history. It began with “so,” followed by a bad-discouraging report; then came a hopeful “but” and a report of people praying; leading to “behold” (Gr. idou at the beginning of vs.7; not included in the NIV), followed by a report of God’s Divine intervention. “Suddenly” God answered, an angel appeared, a light filled the darkness, the prisoner was set free! Just as the words “constantly” or “prevailing” express the duration of powerful praying, “earnestly, passionately, fervently” expresses the mood of powerful praying. We don’t always receive the answers we ask for in prayer, but Acts is proof, and the Bible is clear that “the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective!”-Jas.5:16. When we recover the Biblical vision of God and His truth, we recover Biblical passion and piety. Fired afresh by the desire to see all that God wishes for us, we are emboldened to pray earnestly, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, here and now!” As G. Campbell Morgan said, “That force of earnest, halting prayer was mightier than Herod and mightier than hell.” Dear friends, let us put our faith in the Living God and passion in our prayers, for “History belongs to the intercessors!”
The Ministry of Angels?!?
Angels are mentioned 7 times in this passage. Angels are supernatural, created beings that serve God, are sent as messengers, fight in strategic spiritual warfare and serve as guardians and helpers for Christians. Angels are prominent in Acts—directing people (8:26; 10:3-6) and helping them in times of trouble (5:19-20; 12:7-10). These ministering Spirits also bring encouragement (27:23), and may act as agents of judgment (12:23). Here the apostle Peter is freed from prison by an angel, and then is thought to be one. Notice in vs.15, they believe they see “his (Peter’s) angel,” which shows the Jewish belief in guardian angels. We also find in the Bible that angels are assigned to territories; in Rev.1-3, angels are assigned to churches; and in Mt.18:10, Jesus says ‘little ones have angels in heaven before the face of God.’ Jesus may be saying that there are special angels that represent some in heaven. Nevertheless, we can be sure that angels are real and certain that a key role of many of them is to help us.
It’s good to know we’re not alone, there is another higher-invisible realm of the Spirit, angels are watching over us—have been given the privilege and duty of protecting us, and there’s more with us than against us! Angels are real and anything is possible.