The account of Peter’s deliverance, contrasted against the death of James, is to be understood in the light of several earlier incidents. The biblical accounts of these incidents are given below:
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (NIV).
14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” 20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” 24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true (John 21:14-24, NIV).
17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.” 21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were puzzled, wondering what would come of this. 25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them (Acts 5:17-26, NIV).
The first incident pertains to the request of James and John to be given privileged positions, above the other disciples, by allowing them to sit at the right and left hand of the Lord in His kingdom. Jesus told them that giving such status was not His to grant but that such was already foreordained. Instead of talking about these honored positions, Jesus turned the subject to His “baptism,” His suffering and death. He asked Peter and John if they were able to drink the cup which He was to drink. Ignorantly, they assured Jesus that they were able. Jesus responded by telling them that they would indeed drink of that cup, the cup of death. Little did either James or John realize how soon it would be before James would drink of that cup. And little did they realize the privilege and glory in so doing. They wanted status, and Jesus granted them suffering, for in this was glory.
The next incident took place after our Lord’s death and resurrection and is recorded in the last chapter of John’s Gospel (chapter 21). Peter, James, and John, along with some of the other disciples, went fishing, with no success. Jesus gave them instructions to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and when they did, they made a great catch. Peter jumped into the water and swam to shore, once he realized that it was the Lord who was standing there. Three times Jesus questioned Peter about his love for Him, and three times He commanded Peter in response to feed His sheep. Immediately following this, Jesus told Peter to follow Him. In the context, it is absolutely clear that he was to follow Jesus in death.
Peter then turned the conversation to John, asking Jesus what would become of him. Jesus told Peter that even if He wanted John to remain (alive) until His return, that was not a matter with which he was to concern himself. He was to follow Jesus and not worry about others, such as John. John then goes on to explain that some misunderstood Jesus’ words, thinking He had indicated that John would not die. John corrects this misconception by saying that Jesus was speaking rhetorically and asking a hypothetical question, rather than speaking prophetically. If Peter was concerned that he would die and John would not, he was not correct. John would die later than Peter, but it would be James, and not Peter, who would die first. And so it is in our text that James is put to death while Peter is divinely delivered. This event is surely a divine commentary on John’s words, and John’s words in chapter 21 are a helpful backdrop to our text in Acts.
The third incident is recorded by Luke earlier in the Book of Acts. It is the account of the deliverance of the apostles from their prison cell, where they had been kept in custody for an appearance before the Sanhedrin the following day. We do not know how many of the apostles were arrested or imprisoned, but these men were released during the night by an angel of the Lord and were commanded to return to the temple and to continue to preach there the “whole message of this life.” Their disappearance was the cause of great distress and embarrassment and was but another evidence to the Sanhedrin that they were actually fighting against God. I believe the release of the apostles from their incarceration was a significant factor in the decision of the Sanhedrin to officially “back off” of their opposition to the church and to the apostles, a decision recorded by Luke later in chapter 5 in accordance with the wise counsel of Gamaliel. This divine release of the apostles in Acts 5 provides the backdrop for Peter’s release in chapter 12 and is likely one reason for the intense security measures taken by Herod to assure that Peter does not escape again. He has no intention of being embarrassed by the disappearance of a prisoner, as was the Sanhedrin.
The structure of our passage may be summarized as outlined below:
For the Soldiers (vv. 18-19)
For Herod (vv. 20-23)
Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat236 them. 2 And he had James the brother of John put to death237 with a sword.238 3 And when he saw that it pleased the Jews,239 he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people. 5 So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.
The time of these events can be fairly tightly determined, because we know that Herod died in AD 44. Luke, however, links the timing of these events to the surrounding context. The arrest and escape of Peter came some time after his visit to the house of Cornelius and his return to Jerusalem, at which point the purpose of God to save the Gentiles was acknowledged by the Jerusalem church (Acts 10-11). His arrest and escape also took place shortly before the first missionary campaign of the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1ff.), aimed at reaching both Jews and Gentiles. Specifically, Peter’s brush with Herod came between the time the world-wide famine was prophesied (Acts 11:27-30) and the time Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, after delivering the collection of the saints at Antioch to the church in Judea (Acts 12:25).
The arrest of Peter is but one part of an overall campaign on the part of Herod to destroy the church. For some unstated reason, Herod240 had it in for the church. His intention quite evidently seems to be to destroy the church—to put it out of commission. His approach was to do away with the church by eliminating the leaders of the church. The same method has been used by totalitarian governments throughout the history of the church and can be seen in recent years in the actions of the Communists, as they seek to overtake a nation.
The death of James at the hand of Herod serves to signal us to two very important changes. First, the actions of Herod reveals a fundamental change in the attitude of this Herod compared to the attitude of his predecessor, under whose authority Jesus was put to death. The gospel accounts of the (political) trials and resulting crucifixion of Jesus consistently describe both Herod and Pilate as unconvinced of Jesus’ guilt and unwilling (even opposed) to putting Him to death. These political powers acted as they did because they were forced, by political pressure, to do as the religious leaders urged. It is different here. No one is pushing Herod. He is acting on his own initiative and for his own purposes. He is delighted to have the support of the people, but he is the active force.
Second, the response of the people to the actions of Herod reveal a change in the attitude of the masses toward the followers of Jesus, the church. Throughout the gospels, the masses generally were enthusiastic about Jesus. It was the leaders of the nation who opposed Him. They had to act very carefully so as not to stir up the people (cf. Luke 22:2, 6). Even at the crucifixion one has the sense that many of the people were not in favor of Jesus’ death. After the resurrection of Christ and the birth of the church, the church (and the apostles) were held in high regard by the masses. Thus, in Acts 4, the Sanhedrin had to take the masses into account when they persecuted the apostles (4:16-17). But here, in Acts 12, there are no religious leaders present or active. It is the people, the masses, the Jews as a whole, who seem to have changed in their attitude toward the church.
What do you suppose brought about this change in the attitude of the masses of Jews toward the apostles and the church? Allow me to offer two suggestions. The first is that the apostles may not have been as present in Jerusalem, due to their traveling to other places (like Samaria), where new congregations of believers were being established. If the apostles were not as present and visible, and their signs and wonders not as frequent, the people may have lost their fear or reverence for them. And secondly, the actions of the apostles in response to the salvation of “non-Jews” may have offended their prejudices and aroused their intense anger and opposition. Hellenistic Jews were gaining prominence and power over the native Hebrews. Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch were brought to faith and a church was being established, separate from Judaism. And now, the final straw seems to have been Peter’s visit to the house of a Gentile and all of these folks being converted. And the church in Jerusalem, after hearing Peter’s defense, accepted this as the plan and purpose of God. This was too much to endure! The church had to go!
The resolve of Herod and the Jews to do away with the church, and the risk for Peter, is underscored by Luke’s reference to the death of James, the brother of John (v. 2). Herod had already put him to death. The arrest of Peter was intended to result in a similar execution for Peter. But there was a difference. While it was God’s purpose for James to die, and thus to glorify Himself, it was His will to rescue Peter, and thus to bring glory to Himself.
God providentially delayed the execution of Peter so that his escape could be arranged. These were the “days of the unleavened bread,” and this is mentioned by Luke as the reason for Peter’s imprisonment. He was being held until he could be executed. In Mark 14:1-2 a similar matter is mentioned. The chief priests and scribes wanted to kill Jesus but not during the feast lest the people riot. And so it was with Herod and Peter. The fact that it was the week of the feast of unleavened bread required the postponing of an immediate trial and execution. Thus, in the providence of God, Peter’s execution was delayed, and his “release” was facilitated.
If Peter could not be executed for several days, Herod was intent on keeping him in custody, and thus he placed him in what would have to be called “maximum security.” Having visited in a number of maximum security prisons, I have never seen security measures as strong as those taken with Peter:
“Four soldiers in each quaternion, … two on the inside with the prisoner (chained to him) and two on the outside, in shifts of six hours each, sixteen soldiers in all, the usual Roman custom.”241
Did Herod learn of Peter’s previous escape, along with the other apostles, as reported in Acts 5? If so, he did not want to suffer the same measure of embarrassment by losing his prisoner. Thus, the highest level of security was insured. These measures remind me of Elijah’s instructions to “pour on the water” over the sacrifice and the wood, which he would pray that God would ignite. The more intense the efforts to prevent it, the more the evidence of God’s presence and power (cf. 1 Kings 18:32-35).
Peter’s plight is indeed a dangerous one. Herod, encouraged by the Jews, is trying to destroy the church by executing its leaders. James has already been put to death by the sword. Peter is in prison, heavily guarded. It seems to be only a matter of time before he is killed as well. But Luke, the literary genius, uses the art of understatement skillfully, when he sets all of the opposition of the Jews and their king in contrast to the prayers of the church and the power of God:
So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God (Acts 12:5).
We do not know what the church prayed for,242 but we do know that the church prayed fervently. I believe this was because they saw the church itself as being in grave danger. It was not just Peter’s life or safety which concerned them. Indeed, they should have been able to rejoice (as Paul would speak of his own death later—cf. Philippians 1:18-26) at the death of Peter, knowing that our Lord Himself had spoken of his death as glorifying God (John 21:19). But the church knew that if Herod was successful in carrying out his plans, the church could be eliminated, or at least greatly hurt.
It was an impossible situation. It was one in which the saints had little that they could do. In a sense, they were restricted to prayer. It was all they could do. In our day and time I can believe that there would be phone call campaigns to Washington D.C. and protest marches in front of city hall. I can believe that all kinds of human endeavors would be launched, so much so that there would be little (or no) time for prayer. “All” they could do was to pray. All? In spite of what they may have asked for, or believed would happen, God acted, and Luke would have us know that it was, in part, due to the prayers of His people. Prayer would certainly “change things” on this particular night.
6 And on the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains; and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and roused him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 And when they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street; and immediately the angel departed from him. 11 And when Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” 12 And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 And when she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate. 15 And they said to her, “You are out of your mind! But she kept insisting that it was so. And they kept saying, “It is his angel.” 16 But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, “Report these things to James243 and the brethren.”244 And he departed and went to another place.
Peter may have spent several nights in that jail cell, for the feast of unleavened bread lasted for a week. This was the final night, the “very night when Herod was going to bring him forward” to allow the crowd to call for his death and to further his own purposes by putting him to death. The time was late, very late, and there was no human hope of escape. Two guards were chained to Peter, one on each arm. Two more were stationed outside the door or the gate of his cell.
Let us pause a moment to consider these guards. We know there are four of them on duty. We know that two are chained to Peter. We also know from Luke’s account of the aftermath of Peter’s escape that none of the guards “saw” anything that happened. When Peter was found missing in the morning, no one had any explanation for what had happened. This informs me that throughout this entire escape process not one guard was awake, nor was any guard conscious of what was happening. I do not think the guards were merely asleep, for there was too much happening that night which should have awakened even the sleepiest person. There was a supernatural deadening of the senses or consciousness of these guards which produced something similar to unconsciousness.
Such “unconsciousness” was not always the case. At the cross of our Lord, for example, the centurion standing nearby was fully aware of what had happened, and as a result he exclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54). So too with our Lord’s resurrection. Those who guarded the tomb of our Lord beheld the earthquake and the angel of the Lord who rolled away the stone, and “they shook for fear of him, and became like dead men” (Matthew 28:2-4). Later, they reported all that had happened to the chief priests and were bribed to keep quiet about what they witnessed (Matthew 28:11-15).
At other times then men actually saw the supernatural hand of God, but not the at the release of Peter. Why not? Why did God not purpose for these men to see His mighty hand and to know that it was He who had delivered His servant Peter from death? I think it is for the same reason He did not instruct Peter to go to the temple and to preach publicly as He had done in Acts 5. It was too late. The time for repentance was past. It was now time for judgment.
And judgment came, first to these guards who would have played a role in the execution of Peter (if only by keeping him confined in his cell until the feast was over), and then to Herod himself. Because God had kept their unbelieving eyes from seeing Peter’s miraculous rescue, they had no explanation to offer,245 and Herod had but one conclusion to draw. It had to have been an “inside job.” No one, he seemed to reason, could have been loosed from their chains and passed through those doors and gates unless someone on the inside let them out, and the others did nothing to stop it. And so after examining them all and finding no explanation, Herod concluded that all were guilty, and he had all the guards put to death. How amazing! The executioners (so to speak) were executed, and the condemned was set free.
In addition to the blindness of the guards, I want you to notice the boldness of the escape. As a young lad attending summer camp (I would never do this now), I was known to “sneak out” from my cabin and do some silly prank. I can assure you that what I did was sneaky, and not bold. Boldness characterizes (as a rule) the actions of the righteous, while stealth and sneakiness characterizes the one doing what is wrong (Proverbs 28:1). The best that an evil man can do is to pretend to be bold (Proverbs 21:29). This escape is marked by boldness. The angel appears (unseen) boldly, virtually ignoring the guards. There is a bright light. The chains fell from Peter’s wrists (I think not silently, either). They walked past the guards, through the various gates, and out, as it were, the front door. The angel left Peter standing in the street. There is a boldness to this escape which is characteristic of righteousness.
Finally, there is a strong evidence of passivity on the part of Peter. The escape was not Peter’s plan and not his doing. Peter is sound asleep when the angel appears and hardly awake until after the entire incident is over. In considering this, it occurred to me that the deliverance of Peter was very similar to the awakening of one of our “sleepy-headed,” “non-morning person” children. Think about it. How do you awaken one of your slow-to-rise children? About the way the angel did. First, the angel came into the room (cell) and turned on the light—a very bright light. That always works for starters, but it isn’t enough. And so the angel did about what we do—he struck Peter on the side. We may shake our children gently, but the physical stimulation helps the process. And then, just like we do, the angel told Peter what to do—exactly what to do—step by step. Peter was instructed to put on his “foundation garments,” then to put on his sandals (slippers or shoes for us), and then to wrap a cloak around him (we would probably have our child put on his or her bathrobe or put on a coat). I can almost see Peter, at each command, sleepily complying, with but a grunt or a muffled “okay.” Did Peter think the angel was his wife?
The point is made. Peter was not sitting up, awake, with black-saucered eyes, agonizing about the events of the next day. He was sound asleep. He was not trying to pick the lock on his chains or dig a tunnel. He did not scold the angel for coming so late nor did he propose an escape plan. Peter’s deliverance, like the salvation of every saint, was the work of God, and not of man. Peter participated, but he did not plan nor produce the escape.246
Not until Peter was outside the gate, some distance from the prison, standing in the street, did he realize that what he had experienced was not a vision, but reality. Can you not see him mumbling to himself all through the experience, “Wow, this vision is even better than the one about the animals coming down from heaven!”? He realized that his escape was God’s deliverance—from the evil intent of Herod and from the expectations of the Jews. Man proposes, but God disposes. It was God’s time for James to die, but it was not yet time for Peter to die. I cannot help but wonder if this experience was instrumental in Peter’s life in removing the fear of death. If Peter was able to sleep those last few hours before his death (and soundly too!), how he could rest in His Lord, even when men wished him dead and were determined to bring it to pass.
Was it the cool night air that suddenly brought him to full consciousness? Regardless, Peter’s first conscious thoughts were not of himself or of completing his escape, but of those who were most concerned about him. He went to Mary’s house,247 where many had gathered to pray. He may not have known that all would be gathered there, although he may have been present with this group if there was a similar prayer meeting held for James.
The only door which failed to open that night was the door of Mary’s house. This was due to the joy of Rhoda, the servant-girl who answered it, and the unbelief of those who had gathered to pray. They were willing to believe that Peter’s “angel” had appeared after his death, but they were not willing to believe that God’s angel had delivered him from death. Peter reported to these saints that which neither the guards nor Herod ever knew. He wanted them to know that he was safe, thanks to God’s intervention, and that he was going to drop “out of sight” for a time. Until Herod’s plan was somehow terminated, Peter would keep his identity and his address a secret, even, it would seem, from his fellow-saints. This may well have been for their own protection, since Herod would not be above torturing any of them to learn his whereabouts.
Notice one final thing about this group that had gathered for prayer. There were no leaders present, it would seem. James was dead. John was not mentioned. And James, the half-brother of our Lord who was emerging as a key leader in the Jerusalem church, was not present but was to be notified of Peter’s deliverance. The other “brothers” who were to be told may have also been leaders in the church. I believe the church’s leaders were not present because it would have made it easy for Herod to kill off the church’s leaders at one time and in one place. The church leaders, at this point in time, had gone underground.
18 Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. 19 And when Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. And he went down from Judea to Caesarea248 and was spending time there. 20 Now he was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and with one accord they came to him, and having won over Blastus the king’s chamberlain, they were asking for peace because their country was fed by the king’s country. 21 And on an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. 22 And the people kept crying out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.
The prayers of the saints gathered at the home of Mary were answered much more fully than they imagined. Not only was Peter spared execution at the hand of Herod, but the opposition of Herod was nullified by his own death.249 God removed Herod’s resistance by removing Herod. This too was an answer to the prayers of the saints, another answer far beyond what they asked or thought. Their prayers were answered by saving one man, Peter, from death, and by delivering another, Herod, to death. Preceding the death of Herod was the death of Peter’s guards, by Herod’s orders.
What an understatement we see here in verse 18! “There was no small disturbance among the soldiers.” It was sheer panic. These men recognized not only that Peter was missing, but that Herod was furious. They knew that they were now the endangered species. Their doom was the same as Peter’s a few hours before, but there was no one to deliver them from the wrath of Herod. And what was worse—they did not have the foggiest idea what had actually happened. It is one thing to get caught doing wrong and to have to suffer the consequences. It is another to be condemned and not even know what happened, or what part you had in it all. They were called to give an account of the previous night by Herod, and they suffered from a divinely imposed amnesia. No small disturbance indeed!
Peter could not be found, and no explanation could be found either. Imagine finding the handcuffs fixed to the hands of the soldiers, and yet Peter’s hands somehow extracted, with the cuffs locked. Imagine finding no evidence of a tunnel, and no clue of any typical escape effort. There was only one human explanation: the guards had to have let Peter go, and all of the guards on duty had to play a part in this. And so these men experienced the death by the sword to which Peter was sentenced and which they were to play a part in executing. I wonder how many soldiers would be eager to guard a Christian after this.
Probably more agitated than ever, Herod left Judea and went down to Caesarea, the “seat of government of Judea under the Romans.”250 Some time seems to have passed before this incident recorded by Luke took place, but Luke makes it very clear that Herod’s death is directly related to the death of James, the deliverance of Peter, the prayers of the saints, and the end of the persecution which kept the apostles in hiding.
Herod not only had a grudge against the church, but he was also embittered against the people of Tyre and Sidon. They were not his subjects, but they were the recipients of government aid, which seems to have been distributed by Herod. The people of Tyre and Sidon were very eager to appease the wrath of this king, for their own benefit. And thus they played the game of politics to the hilt. They got to Herod through his chamberlain, Blastus, and arranged for a meeting with him. Perhaps they invited him to be the speaker of a festive banquet. In one way or another, they arranged with him to speak to them, and as he did so they called out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” Such statements were not unusual in those days, but they were both untrue and damnable. He was no god! He was not, in many ways, much of a king. The words were sheer flattery. As a much wiser king said, A man who flatters his neighbor Is spreading a net for his steps (Proverbs 29:5).
Have you ever heard a politician’s speech which would tempt you to say that the speaker was a god and not a man? Neither have I. If one observes the politicians when they do speak to their peers, they are virtually ignored. There is little chance of such flattery as we see here, but there is a great possibility of boredom. The words were empty and false and failing to recognize them as such killed Herod, from one point of view. Did the pleasure of the Jews at the death of James spur Herod on to try to kill Peter? The crowd which Herod sat before now would kill him with false kindness. Did Herod play politics with the church? Politics would now kill the politician.
Herod died because he did not give God the glory. This crowd had, in Jesus’ words, rendered to Caesar what belonged only to God. Herod must have known better, but he liked hearing these words too well. His failure to reject such adoration and worship was tantamount to accepting this statement as true. His silence was also fatal.
There is a kind of “poetic justice” in the death of Herod. He killed James and sought to kill Peter, and so God took his life. He played the politician, and politics killed him. He dressed in such a way as to project a splendor which was divine, yet he died the ignoble death of being eaten by worms. There could not be a more humiliating way to die. There was great glory in the death of James, but there was no glory in the death of Herod.
But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.
This is surely not a new statement. All through the Book of Acts thus far we have seen periodic reference to the growth of the church. But it is a very fitting conclusion to this incident. It contrasts the results of God’s work against the resistance of men like Herod and the Jews. Herod had commenced an attack on the church at Jerusalem, focusing on the execution of the leaders of the church. God purposed for James to die for the sake of the gospel and to save Peter for the sake of the gospel. He also purposed to remove Herod and some of the prison guards and to bring his opposition to a halt. And so we see the alpha and omega of this story, as it were. We see the beginning contrasted with the end. If all is well that ends well, then all is well here. James may have died, but the church is not dead. Much more, the church is not only alive; it is continuing to grow, even when the masses and their king oppose it, and seek to remove it from the face of the earth. How futile is man’s opposition to God and to His church!
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.
Luke has set the death of James and the deliverance of Peter in the midst of the offering of the saints of Antioch to the saints in Judea. Just prior to chapter 12 we are told that the offering was sent with Barnabas and Saul (11:30), and the last verse of our chapter (12:25) reports the return of Barnabas and Saul to Antioch, accompanied by John Mark. The death of James and the deliverance of Peter are surely meant to be understood in conjunction with the surrounding context. In our conclusion we shall seek to learn what Luke is telling us.
The first lesson to understand from our passage, and its broader context, is that this is a clear point of transition. Acts 12 is the end of one era, and chapter 13 is the beginning of another. Acts 12 is the account of the passing of Peter. Not that Peter passes from the scene by virtue of his death, but he passes from the scene by virtue of his absence. Chapter 12, in large measure, is a farewell to Peter, as chapter 13 is the commencement of a strong emphasis on Paul’s ministry.
But it is not merely the passing from the scene of one leader (Peter) and the rise to prominence of another (Paul). This change in personalities is but a signal, a pointer, to a much larger change—the transition from the Jews to the Gentiles, and from Jerusalem to Antioch. From here on out, the churches that are founded and that grow are predominantly Gentile in makeup. The Jewish church in Jerusalem and those saints who gathered in synagogues around the world of that day faded away, much like Peter. The reason is explained by Paul in Romans 9-11. The times of the Gentiles have begun, and the time of Israel’s hardening has come as well. Many Gentiles will be saved, but few Jews. Because of this, the church will become predominantly Gentile for centuries to come, until the return of our Lord which is yet future.
The arrest of Peter, and the intent of Herod and the Jews to kill him, is a very significant and final element in the judicial hardening of the Jews by God and in the conversion of many Gentiles. Up to this point in time, the gospel continued to be proclaimed in Israel. God’s arms were opened wide, and the Jews were urged to turn to Jesus as God’s Messiah. But now, virtually all Israel has heard the good news, and all Israel (with the exception of those saved) has rejected the gospel. The final rebellion and rejection of Israel is reported here, in Acts 12, just prior to the sending out of Barnabas and Saul from Antioch. God’s evangelistic thrust to the Gentiles in chapter 13, Luke is saying, is the result of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Christ (and of His church).
Think through the Gospels and Acts with me for a moment, and see what I am suggesting here. At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, there was a foreshadowing of the rejection of the masses in the rejection of Jesus by those at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), after He made it clear that the Gentiles would be blessed by His Messianic ministry, as well as the Jews (indeed, in the context, instead of the Jews). In spite of this one outburst of opposition from the Jews as a group, Jesus was generally highly regarded by the people. It was the leaders of the nation Israel who initially opposed Jesus and who orchestrated His execution.
When Jesus began to associate with “sinners” early in His ministry, this was the source of great offense to the Pharisees, the separatists, who viewed holiness in terms of separation from those (others) who were sinners. Sin was conceived of as breaking their rules, rather than as the violation of God’s Word (although they tended to see their traditions as virtually synonymous with the Law of God). And so by Luke chapter 5 we find the Pharisees hot on Jesus’ trail, seeking to show Him up, jealous because He would associate with sinners, and not exclusively associate with them. The scribes too opposed Jesus and often in league with the Pharisees. These were the scholars and Bible students of the day. Their interpretations of the Old Testament were the basis for much that the Pharisees practiced. When Jesus attacked their teaching of the Law as shallow, inaccurate, or merely their own traditions, they were offended. They frequently opposed Him, seeking to show Him up as a fraud.
Eventually, the scribes and Pharisees were joined by another group, the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the liberals of that day, not believing in miracles, the resurrection of the dead, or angels and demons. The Sadducees were the “establishment” of that day, the pragmatists who got ahead in life by collaborating with the Romans and by cutting corners with God’s Law. Those who ran the money changing concession in the temple precincts were of this group. They were offended by Jesus when they saw that He came to do away with their practices. They saw Jesus as a threat to their position, wealth, and future. The opposition of the Sadducees became most intense once Jesus got to Jerusalem, their “turf.” He had to be gotten rid of, not so much because He was wrong, but because He would do away with them if He could.
The scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees joined forces to do away with Jesus. It was through their pressure that Herod and Pilate were virtually forced to execute Jesus, even though they did not really feel Him to be a threat to society, or even to themselves. The common people were kept under control and some were undoubtedly manipulated into opposition to Jesus, but the masses were a group that favored Jesus and disliked their leaders, even down to the final days of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. The leaders of the nation had to deal with the masses most carefully.
Once Jesus was crucified and had risen from the dead, the nature of the opposition to Him and to His church changed. Now, it was not the Pharisees but the Sadducees who took up the torch of opposition to Jesus. This was, to some degree, the result of the fact that the Pharisees believed (at least in principle) the things which the church did. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and miracles and heaven and hell. They began to lose their zeal to oppose the church. The Sadducees, however, rejected such doctrines as the resurrection of the dead, and thus the preaching of the apostles (that Jesus had been put to death by sinful men, but raised to life by God) was not at all welcomed. And so the Sadducees took the lead in opposing the church after Pentecost.
But in Acts 5, there is another transition in the opposition to the church. After the supernatural release of the apostles in this chapter, the advice of Gamaliel seemed much more appealing. Why should they work so hard to oppose the church, especially since it did no good; the church continued to grow—even faster, and they were made to look like fools? Thus, the decision of the Sanhedrin in Acts 5 seems to stand. The opposition of the Sanhedrin, from this point on, fades away.
In Acts 6 the torch of opposition to the church is taken up by yet another group, those who were Hellenistic Jews. Saul seems to be one of the ringleaders, if not the primary driving force behind the movement. And so these Hellenistic Jews bring about the death of Stephen251 and bring about with it an intense persecution of the church in Jerusalem and Judea. The unwitting effect is that the church is disbursed, and the gospel is proclaimed abroad. The salvation of Saul takes the wind out of the sails of this movement, however, and the church returns to a season of peace after Saul’s dramatic conversion.
Now, in Acts 12, we see the final opposition movement in Jerusalem and Judea, before the destruction of that city by the Roman armies in 70 AD. It is not the leaders of the Jews who oppose the church here, but Herod and the Jewish people at large. Herod, not due to the pressure of the Jewish religious leaders, but by his own initiative, goes after the apostles and seeks to destroy the church. And the masses of the Jewish people love it, spurring him on. This is the last straw, for now virtually every segment of the society of Jerusalem has rejected Jesus and His church. Will God commence the conversion of Gentiles en masse? It is because Israel, en masse, has rejected the gospel. Now the gospel will go to the Gentiles. Thus, the actions of Herod and of the Jewish people become the basis for God’s turning His back upon this people and this place for many years to come, even to the present day. There will be a remnant saved, but only a small segment of the Jews, during this time of the Gentiles. This is the rejection foreseen by our Lord at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with its subsequent judgment. No wonder our Lord wept over this city and its fate. The day of salvation for Israel as a nation has passed.252
The death of James and the deliverance of Peter is another lesson in the sovereignty of God. There are tremendous contrasts present here, and they have profound implications. Peter, James, and John, were a trio of men, to whom Jesus gave privileged access, information, and experience. These three alone (of the twelve) were present on the mount of transfiguration, for example. One would think from the evidence of the gospels that Jesus had a very significant role and ministry for each—and He did, but not as we would have supposed.
How different was the fate of these three men, all of whom had such similar experiences and privileges at the feet of Jesus. James and John were brothers. James died first; John last. James wrote no books; John authored five. Peter and James were both arrested by Herod, who intended to kill both. James was not delivered from death; Peter was. But James was not shortchanged by his death. When Jesus foretold the deaths of James and John in Mark 10 (cf. vv. 38-39), it was a privilege; it was a sharing of the very cup of which Jesus drank. In his early death, James was privileged to be one of the first to “depart, and to be with Christ” which is far better. In this death, he glorified His Lord and shared in His glory. By his death, he went to glory. This was no “raw deal” for James.
What a commentary Acts 12 provides us on the words of John, recorded in the last chapter of his gospel. Peter, James, and John were all present when Jesus appeared to them. Peter was asked the three-fold question (“Do you love Me …”), and was given a three-fold command (“Feed My sheep.”). He was also given the command to follow Christ, with a specific reference to his death. And yet Peter wanted to know about John’s death, about what God had purposed for John. The result was a popular misconception of Jesus’ words, as though He had said that John would not die, and (perhaps) as though Peter would die first. Here were Peter and John, thinking of their deaths, and now we see that in God’s plan and purpose it was neither of them who would be honored by the privilege of dying first. That privilege was saved for James.
There is nothing mechanical about the Christian life. God is not obliged to treat all Christians alike, and the record of Acts (among other books of the Bible) is that God deals differently with each individual. Summed up in one word, God is sovereign. He works all things according to His own good pleasure. Men cannot and do not manipulate God; God manipulates men, for His glory and for their glory and good. How evident this is in the lives of these three men, all of whom experienced such different fates, all of whom served God in such different ways.
There is, in this text (as in Acts as a whole), a strong emphasis on prayer. We are shown that the deliverance of Peter and the death of Herod (and thus, the termination of this period of official, governmental, persecution) is directly related to the prayers of the saints, made in Peter’s behalf. It was not that these prayers were so accurate or that the saints had so much faith, but that these saints acknowledged their dependence upon a sovereign God, who is in control of this world, including its kings. In Acts and in life, the prayers of the saints accomplish much.
Finally, these two incidents recorded in Acts 12 teach us a truth on which we can live or lose our lives in His service. Years later, Peter wrote to those saints who lived dispersed among the heathen, speaking the truths which he had learned from his own experience:253
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation,254 and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:4-9).
Do you see what Peter is saying in verse 9? It is the very lesson which is graphically taught and illustrated in Acts 12: GOD IS ABLE TO DELIVER HIS SAINTS FROM EVIL MEN, AND TO DELIVER EVIL MEN TO DIVINE JUDGMENT.
If we were to consistently live our daily lives on this principle, our lives would be radically transformed. We need not fear men, but only God. And those who fear God as a loving Father need not fear His divine wrath, but can be assured that evil men will be judged by God in the end. God will deliver His saints from evil men, and He will deliver evil men to eternal judgment.
May I ask you this question: What is the nature of the deliverance with which God will deliver you? Will God deliver you from the snares of evil men into the blessings of His kingdom, or will He deliver you to judgment? The difference in these two destinies is determined by your response to the person of Jesus Christ. If you receive Him as God’s Savior, as the One who died for your sins, and who gives to you His righteousness, you will be delivered to the blessings of heaven. If you reject Him, you have the fate of Herod awaiting you. May God grant that you make the decision to trust in Jesus and to be delivered from divine wrath.
One final word. In this sense of deliverance, James too was delivered from evil men. He was delivered from their presence by his death. Peter was delivered from Herod by Herod’s death. James was delivered from evil men, to the glory and blessedness of God’s presence. Peter was delivered from death to a further time of earthly service. But both saints were delivered. God always delivers His own!
236 To “mistreat” is to deliberately do evil to someone, and thus it would seem that Herod sought to do evil against the church. This expression “mistreat” is only found elsewhere in Acts 7:6, 19, of Pharaoh’s mistreatment of Israel, and in 1 Peter 3:13.
237 “Eusebius (HE 2.9.2-3) preserves the tradition from the seventh book of Clement of Alexandria’s Hypotyposes that the officer who guarded James was so impressed by his witness the he professed himself a Christian and was beheaded along with him.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 234, fn. 7.
238 The “sword” is the instrument of government, which is divinely charged with rewarding those who do good and with punishing those who do evil (cf. Romans 13:1-4). It was with the “sword” that John the Baptist was executed by Herod Antipas. Both in John’s case, and now with James, the “sword” was misused by men in a position of power, to achieve their own purposes.
239 The tendency of some commentators is to explain the actions of Herod here as his seeking the favor of the Jews. This is evidently true, but it was not Herod’s initial reason or motivation for putting James to death. Herod executed James to do away with him and thus to cripple the church. (It would seem to me that he was after the inner three: Peter, James, and John. Perhaps John was out of town, as he and Peter were gone from Jerusalem to go down to Samaria in Acts 8:14ff.) To Herod’s delight, the majority of the Jews were pleased at the execution of James. This only served to intensify his efforts, but this does not seem to be the cause for his actions in the first place. Pleasing the Jews may have been Herod’s motivation to kill Peter, but it was not his motivation for killing James, as I read Luke’s account of it.
240 “Herod in this context is Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great, who after a somewhat tempestuous youth was granted ever-increasing areas to rule by the Emperors Gaius and Claudius; by AD 41 he had acceded to a kingdom of similar extent to that of his grandfather. He did his best to win the favour of the Jews and especially cultivated the Pharisees.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 207.
241 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 165.
242 One does indeed wonder if they even prayed for his release, in the light of their response to his release and appearance to them at the door of Mary’s house. Did they pray for a quick and painless death? It is at least possible.
243 “The James mentioned here is the brother of Jesus (Mk. 6:3) who later figured as the leader of the church in Jerusalem (15:13; 21:18); Paul regarded him, along with Peter and John, as one of the three ‘pillars’ of the church (Gal. 2:9). He had been a witness of a resurrection appearance of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7), and hence Paul recognized him as an apostle (Gal. 1:19). It seems probable that from an early stage he was one of the leaders in the church, and at some point he took Peter’s place as the recognized leader.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), pp. 210-211.
244 “The brethren can simply mean the other members of the church, but it is just possible that the word has here the technical sense of the leaders in the church.” Marshall, p. 211.
245 In find in their failure to explain Peter’s disappearance a parallel to the rapture of the saints. Like Peter, we who are alive at the time of the rapture, will suddenly disappear. Those who are left behind, who have refused to believe in the Lord Jesus or in His word, will have no excuse at all.
246 I am often involved in prison ministry, and so let me say a word or two about “escapes.” This text does not sanction escapes. This escape is right because God planned and executed it. If an angel suddenly appears in your cell, your shackles fall from your hands, and the doors of the prison swing open, while the guards are not conscious of a thing, then by all means walk away from that prison. But don’t make this text an excuse for an escape. Even those wrongly arrested and confined are not given such license. Remember James!
247 Luke includes the detail that this Mary was also the mother of John Mark, who was also a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), and who would accompany Barnabas and Saul back to Antioch (Acts 12:25), and then go with them on their first missionary journey (13:5). He was later to leave them in Perga of Pamphylia (13:13). Disagreement between Barnabas and Paul over whether or not he should accompany them on their next journey brought about the separation of Barnabas and Paul as a missionary team, resulting in two teams (Acts 15:36-41). Eventually Paul spoke highly of Mark and urged that he be sent to him (2 Timothy 4:11).
248 “Soon afterward, Agrippa left Jerusalem for Caesarea, the seat of government of Judaea under the Romans. When it is said that he ‘went down from Judaea,’ Judaea is used in its narrower sense of the territory of the Jews. Caesarea, although it belonged politically to Judaea, was not in strictly Jewish territory: from its foundation by Herod the Great it was a predominantly Gentile city.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 240.
249 It would seem that Herod’s departure (followed by his death, and thus, no return) insured Peter’s future safety, for surely Herod would have made every effort to find Peter, no matter how long it took.
250 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 240.
251 It is true that Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, but they never pronounced sentence, so far as I can tell. It turned into a mob situation, with Stephen being drug from the meeting place and stoned. It was not the Sanhedrin that was in charge here, in my opinion.
252 This helps to explain one of the key differences between the deliverance of the apostles from prison in Acts 5 and the deliverance of Peter in Acts 12. In Acts 5, the deliverance of the apostles is done very publicly. They are sent right back to the temple, to continue preaching the good news. The public nature of the apostles’ escape was intended to be a witness to the people of the nation Israel that Jesus was their Messiah. But in Acts 12, no one but the disciples knew what had happened to Peter, or how. This is because God was no longer calling this nation to repentance, but was commencing the time of their divine discipline.
253 The more I read and study the gospels, Acts, and the epistles, I am convinced that our Lord gave the authors of Scripture experiences which became the basis of their later writings. Having studied the lives of Peter and Paul in the Book of Acts, I come to their epistles with a whole new outlook. I come to see that these men wrote about the very things which the gospels and Acts say they experienced. In our day and culture in which we emphasize “head knowledge” and minimize experience, let me remind you that Jesus taught His disciples less in the classroom or by means of a textbook than He did by means of experiences. Truth that is not experienced is hypothetical. Those who have not experienced God’s truth, at least in some measure, are handicapped in their ability to communicate. Our most powerful witness is that which comes from the truth which we have experienced. Let us keep a proper balance of intellectual knowledge and practical experience. Indeed, the “knowledge” of which the Bible often speaks is an “experiential knowledge,” not just an academic understanding.
254 I do not like the rendering “temptation” here. The marginal note in the NASB suggests the better rendering, I believe, “trial.” God knows how to deliver His saints from the afflictions imposed by evil men, and how to deliver evil men to judgment.