In the last essay we studied Acts 11:19-30, in which we saw the expansion of the church to Syrian Antioch by anonymous Christian evangelists. As we move into chapter 12 we see a new wave of persecution of the Christians. The Herod seen here, who pressed this persecution, was Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. At an early age, following the death of his father, Agrippa was sent to Rome and raised there in close association with the imperial family. Therefore he became a friend of the young man who later became the emperor Caligula. He also knew Claudius, the emperor who followed Caligula. Both emperors favored Agrippa. When Caligula became emperor in AD 37, he gave Agrippa a portion of Palestine to rule over as “King” (the former tetrarchies of Philip and Lysanias). In AD 39 Caligula awarded Agrippa another portion (Galilee and Perea); and in AD 41, Claudius enlarged his kingdom again (adding Judea), so that by that time Agrippa’s kingdom was as large as his grandfather’s when he ruled the region. However Agrippa only ruled until AD 44 when, as we shall see momentarily, he died a horrible death.
Agrippa killed James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, with the sword (v. 2). No details are given. Since the Jews were happy about that, Agrippa arrested Peter, presumably with the intent to kill him after the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread (v. 4). As you can see, Agrippa took special pains to make sure Peter could not escape. Meanwhile the church prayed for Peter (v. 5).
In verses 6-11 we see that the night before Agrippa intended to bring Peter out for trial and execution, an angel of the Lord entered Peter’s cell. Peter was asleep between two guards to whom he was chained. Two additional guards were outside the cell keeping watch (v. 6). The angel awoke Peter, though Peter didn’t realize he was awake. He thought he was seeing a vision, or perhaps dreaming. At any rate, his chains fell off, and the angel led Peter out of the cell past the two outer guards and then on out of the prison when the iron gate opened “of its own accord” (vv. 7-10). Then the angel left Peter, and Peter realized that he wasn’t dreaming (v. 11).
Peter went immediately “to the house of Mary,” the mother of John Mark (v. 12). This is the Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark. Mary apparently was a person of some wealth, because she had a large enough house to accommodate a fairly large group, and she had at least one servant. When Peter knocked on the door, the maid, Rhoda, answered. She was so surprised to hear Peter’s voice that she ran to tell the others without letting him in. The others refused to believe her. Some thought it might be his angel, meaning his guardian angel. In those days, many believed that guardian angels could take the form of their charges and be mistaken for them (vv. 13-15).
They finally let Peter in and listened to his story. He told them to share the story with James, meaning James the brother of Jesus, and the other believers. Then he left (vv. 16-17). As you see, in verses 18-19, Agrippa had Peter’s guards killed because of Peter’s escape. And then we are told that he went to Caesarea and stayed there for a while. Unfortunately, we don’t know if the person Luke was talking about here was Peter or Agrippa. You can’t tell from the Greek. The NRSV interprets it as Peter, and the NIV as Herod. It isn’t a crucial decision.
Peter’s request that they tell James is the first indication in Acts that James, the brother of Jesus, had become the leader of the Jerusalem church (v. 17). Let’s look at one other scripture to establish in our minds the leadership of the Jerusalem church by James the brother of Jesus. This was rather important. Please turn to and read Acts 15:6-20.
The context there is the famous Jerusalem Council, which we will study later. In verses 6-11, Peter spoke to the council. Then in verse 12 Paul and Barnabas addressed them (v. 12). And finally, in verses 13-20 James spoke and rendered a decision. The fact that James spoke last and rendered a decision clearly indicates that he was the presiding leader. Other passages in Acts and Galatians that you can look up if you like are Acts 21:18, Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12.
Coming back to chapter twelve, I have two matters that I would raise in relation to this story. First is the interesting and ironic thing about it; namely, the obvious difficulty the Christians gathered in Mary’s house to pray for Peter had believing that their prayers had been answered. Isn’t that just like us many times?
Second, there is a question raised by the story that troubles some people. It is a question that often comes up in our own experience. Why did God intervene on behalf of Peter and not on behalf of James, the brother of John, whom Agrippa successfully executed?
My answer to that question is that it is the wrong question. According to what I see in Scripture and what I have experienced, God rarely miraculously intervenes in human affairs. Therefore the proper question is not, Why did God fail to intervene on behalf of James? Rather, the proper question is, Why did he intervene on behalf of Peter? In other words God’s general rule is not to intervene. Therefore his intervention on behalf of Peter was an exception to the rule, not the rule. And since we cannot know the motives of God, we must by faith believe that he has good reasons for his occasional miraculous interventions. I believe that when God chooses to intervene miraculously in someone’s life, it is not because he loves that person more than those for whom he does not intervene. Rather it has something to do with God’s larger plan, of which we generally are not aware.
Luke begins verses 20-25 by telling us that the cities of the Phoenician seaboard, Tyre and Sidon, depended on Agrippa’s country for food (v. 20). This is interesting, because centuries earlier, way back in the days of David and Solomon, the same thing was true. Hiram, who was the king of Phoenicia back in those days, traded cypress and cedar logs to both David and Solomon for food (1 Kings 5:1-12).
Luke does not tell us how the Phoenicians offended Agrippa, but they were anxious to make amends, because they needed the food. So in order to arrange an audience with Agrippa to make peace with him, they established a friendship, perhaps by means of a bribe, with a man named Blastus, who was an attendant in Agrippa’s bedchamber. In English, a chamberlain is a bedroom attendant, which is why the translators used that word.
Now then, if we only had Luke’s account, we might think that Agrippa’s speech was only for the Phoenicians. But in this case we have a parallel account of the death of Agrippa by Josephus, the great first-century Jewish historian. Josephus tells us that Agrippa, in order to honor Caesar, was putting on a kind of festival for a large number of provincial officials, which involved a variety of entertainment shows. According to Josephus, on the second day of the celebration, Agrippa put on a robe made entirely of silver that caught the sun’s rays in a wondrous way that inspired fear and trembling in those who saw it. Immediately flatterers in the crowd began to call out to him as though he were a god and invoked him with the cry, “Be gracious unto us! Hitherto we have reverenced thee as a man, but henceforth we acknowledge thee to be more than mortal nature.” Luke sums it up quite well when he says, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal” (v. 22).
Josephus rightly declares that Agrippa should have rebuked those calling him a god. At the very least he should have rejected what the flatterers were saying, but he did not. Instead he received the talk of his divinity as though it were true. Thus he failed to give praise to God and indeed usurped for himself the honor due to God. God’s judgment was swift. As Luke tells us, an angel of the Lord immediately struck Agrippa down. Luke describes Agrippa’s condition as being “eaten by worms (v. 23).” That description does not help us identify what the condition actually was. Josephus gives a bit more information. He informs us that Agrippa immediately was hit with severe pain in his belly. His attendants carried him into his palace, and five days later, he died. He was fifty-four years old and in the seventh year of his reign (Antiquities, xix.8.2).
After the death of Agrippa, Rome decided to govern the province of Judea by procurators instead of by a local king. Local kings had some autonomy, but Procurators were Romans who functioned directly within the Roman command structure.
In verse 24 Luke tells us that these events did not slow the progress of the gospel. “The word of the Lord continued to advance and gain adherents.” That has been a consistent theme in Acts. Regardless of what was happening economically or politically, the “word of the Lord” kept advancing. Many people continued to be converted to Christ.
In verse 25 Luke inserts a note about the movements of Barnabas and Saul. Unfortunately, the Greek manuscripts do not agree on whether Luke wrote that they returned to Jerusalem, or from Jerusalem. The NRSV translates “to Jerusalem;” and the NIV translates “from Jerusalem.”
The problem is that the famine visit of Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem, which Luke reported in 11:27-30 did not take place until AD 46-47, and Agrippa died in AD 44. According to F.F. Bruce, Luke is not to be charged with inaccuracy of dating. He is following the standard practice of ancient historians. They would carry on with a particular source to a good stopping point before beginning with another source. At the end of chapter 11, he records the eventual result of Agabus’ prophecy about the famine, namely, that Barnabas and Saul took a freewill offering to the Judean Christians. And in 12:25 the note is about their return from Jerusalem after completing their mission.
John Stott summarizes the chapter really well in these words, “One cannot fail to admire the artistry with which Luke depicts the complete reversal of the church’s situation. At the beginning of the chapter Herod is on the rampage – arresting and persecuting church leaders; at the end he is himself struck down and dies. The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing. Such is the power of God to overthrow hostile human plans and to establish his own in their place.”