Chapter 12 is an intermission in the story of Paul that Luke includes to show that God takes care of His church. Herod Agrippa I takes on the Jerusalem church, and though he puts James the brother of John to death he ultimately finds out that God is God and – notwithstanding his people’s proclamations – he is not. In the telling of the story Luke gives us great encouragement about prayer and how God can intervene in the most hopeless of situations.
The chronology of this story is difficult to pinpoint. Luke begins it by saying about that time – leading the reader to assume this happens around the same time as the events in Chapter 11. However, the reign of the Herod in this story ends in 44 AD, which means this event likely happens a few years before Paul and Barnabas bring the relief offering from Antioch. Luke is obviously not concerned with writing chronologically and includes this story not to explain events in Jerusalem as Paul and Barnabas travel there, but simply to give another example of God intervening on behalf of the new movement.
The Herod of verse 1 is Herod Agrippa I (see appendix to these notes – A Quick History of all Things Herod)
- He is a grandson of Herod the Great – the original Herod who interacted with the wise men and had all the male infants in Bethlehem killed.
- Agrippa’s father was Aristobulus, who was the second heir to the throne of Herod the Great until his father executed him after his half-brother – Antipater – accused him of betrayal.
- Agrippa’s sister is Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas (another son of Herod the Great – her husband is also her half-uncle) who executed John the Baptist. She is also the mother of Salome who danced for Antipas and asked for John’s head (Matt 14). Herodias left her first husband – Philip I (also a son of Herod the Great) – to marry Antipas after Antipas visited them and fell in love with her. Philip is not in the line for the throne because his mother knew of an attempt to usurp Herod the Great and did not alert her husband. Thus Herodias left him for the chance to marry a man with a realm. John the Baptist was arrested by Antipas after condemning him for taking his brother’s wife.
- Agrippa I is the father of Agrippa II who will hear Paul’s testimony in Acts 25-26 and will tell Paul that he is “almost persuaded” to become a Christian. Agrippa II will carry on an immoral relationship with his sister, Bernice (Acts 25:13).
Agrippa I is the first Herod since his grandfather to have the title of “king” (note verse 1). This was bestowed on him by Emperor Caligula with whom he developed a friendship before Caligula became Emperor. Agrippa’s sister, Herodias, became jealous of his title and encouraged her husband to seek it as well. When the appeal was made to the emperor, Agrippa outmaneuvered his sister and her husband – he accused them of conspiracy – and ended up being granted their rule and lands while they were banished to Gaul. Agrippa I is Jewish – unlike his grandfather – and is popular with the Jewish people (VERY unlike his grandfather). He is pro-Pharisee and frequents the temple and defers to the Jews’ beliefs and laws. This explains his opposition to Christianity and his desire to please the religious leaders by persecuting the leaders of the new movement.
Agrippa arrests and executes – likely by beheading – James, the brother of John. Jesus told James and John when they asked to sit at His right hand in glory (Matt 20:20-23) that they would in fact drink of the same cup that He would drink. This event seems to bring that prophecy to fruition. It is somewhat sad that the life of one from the inner circle of disciples comes to an end so suddenly and without comment. Luke understates this in a big way, but James’ death almost certainly reverberates throughout the church and strikes fear into the adherents living in Jerusalem.
James’ execution pleases the Jews so Agrippa decides to do it again. If James was good, Peter – the recognized leader of the new movement – will be even better. The king has Peter arrested during the days of Unleavened Bread – the seven days of Passover – and imprisons him with the intention of bringing him out for trial and execution once the holy days are over. The text does not specify on what day Peter is imprisoned, but it is possible he is in prison for the whole week.
It is surely not lost on Peter that he is arrested during Passover just as Jesus was. Knowing that Jesus prophesied that he would die as a martyr, he may very well assume he will die during – or just after – Passover as Jesus did also.
Herod turns him over to four squads of soldiers (text does not say if these are Roman or just his own force) to guard him. Each squads consist of four soldiers and take turns guarding Peter in shifts. The maximum security aspect of this arrangement shows Agrippa does not want to allow for any possibility of escape. It also could be that he is aware of Peter and the apostles’ earlier escape from the temple jail (5:17-20) and does not want to risk that embarrassment.
Verse 5 is in many ways an incredibly encouraging verse. It does not necessarily jump out upon first reading as it is simply a descriptive verse setting the scene for what is about to happen, but read a certain way it gives a wonderful contrast that has meaning for any believer reading it.
So Peter was kept in the prison, BUT PRAYER for him was being made fervently by the church to God.
We sometimes treat prayer as the minimum of what we can do and as what we turn to only after all other options are exhausted. We even sometimes look at it as a throw-away encouragement line that shows we are not really going to do anything. We may be smart enough not to come right out and say it, but we can sometimes look at prayer with the attitude of, “I know we can pray – absolutely – but what are we going to DO?”
That is not how this story presents it. The bad guys have a king, four squads of soldiers, a prison, and the authority to put people they do not like to death. The good guys have prayer. From a human standpoint the fight does not look fair. But at the risk of giving too much of the rest of the story away, the reader should know that prayer wins. Prayer and the word of God are the strongest weapons the believer has in his arsenal as he faces a sin-cursed world. Prayer is our gateway to God’s strength and power. Prayer is what a sovereign God uses – in ways we do not understand – to move on His children’s behalf. Prayer versus the most powerful man in Judea and the forces of Rome? Take prayer.
Verse 6 is another encouraging verse in its own way. It describes about as bleak a situation as you can imagine from the standpoint of a trial. Luke gives us the details of Peter’s situation very clearly so the reader understands just how out-of-the-question escape is. There is no hope here. There is no opening or possibility of something good happening. No bright spot, nothing that says, “Hang in there, your circumstances are about to change.” There is no reason for Peter to believe that anything other than his execution is on the horizon.
He sleeps between two guards, and though he is asleep they are almost assuredly awake. He is chained with two chains. Immediately outside of his cell are two more guards standing watch. Outside of the prison is an iron gate that bars entrance into the city. Not only that, but this is apparently the last night of the religious holiday because Herod plans to bring him out for trial and execution tomorrow. That means that Peter has been in prison for several nights in this exact situation. Plus, since the soldiers currently guarding him are the ones who will answer to Herod in the morning, this apparently is the last watch of the night. He is in the last watch of the last night of his imprisonment with his execution only hours away. This is his status immediately before God acts. NOTHING IN VERSE 6 GIVES ANY INDICATION THAT GOD IS ABOUT TO INTERVENE.
There is encouragement here. God is not bound by inertia. Just because He has not acted does not mean He will not act. And just because the trial we are in has not lessened does not mean that it never will or that it could not end soon. And bleak, seemingly never-ending circumstances are not indicative of God’s interest or intentions. God can act in an instant and in a way that is entirely unexpected. His ways are not our ways and His timing is most assuredly not our timing. We must not judge the future by looking at the present or the past and we must not limit God by what we see. We must walk by faith and not by sight.
Do not miss that Peter sleeps. It is the night before he is to die (and he probably knows it is his last night because he knows when Passover ends) and he is chained between two soldiers. He knows Jesus told him he would die a martyr’s death (Jn 21:18-19) and he knows James was beheaded. He must assume his death is imminent. Yet he sleeps soundly because he knows he belongs to his Savior and his life is in His hands.
It is interesting from another standpoint that God does not deliver him until the last watch of the last night of his imprisonment. He could have sprung him at any time, but He allows Peter to sit in prison under guard for perhaps as many as seven nights. It is as last minute as it possibly can be. There is no way to know the reason for this definitively, but perhaps God does this so His people pray for as long as possible. God loves being pursued.
In the midst of the hopeless situation an angel of the Lord shows up. He appears in the midst of light that shines in the cell – although apparently none of the guards see it. The angel tells Peter to get up and get dressed as the chains that bind him fall away. He then leads Peter out of the prison (past all the guards who somehow do not notice or realize what is happening) and into the city, through the iron gate that mysteriously opens on its own and allows them to enter. As soon as Peter is safely in the city the angel departs.
As Peter follows the angel out of the prison he assumes he is dreaming or seeing a vision. It is not until the angel leaves and he realizes he is really outside of the prison that he understands what has happened. Luke says he actually speaks to himself and says, “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.”
As soon as Peter fully realizes his situation he makes his way to the house of Mary, the mother of John who is also called Mark. This is the same Mark who will accompany Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey and turn back in the middle of it (13:13), thus becoming the reason the pair do not work together during the second journey (15:37). He is the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10) and the author of the gospel that bears his name. His mother’s house is apparently a known gathering spot for Jerusalem believers as Peter knows to go there.
Peter knocks at the door of the gate – Mary must have money as not all houses have an outer gate – and a servant girl named Rhoda comes to answer. Hearing Peter’s voice – this is very early in the morning while it is still dark when people do not necessarily come calling so she assuredly asks who is at the door – she becomes very excited and goes back into the house – without letting Peter in – to tell the gathered pray-ers that Peter has arrived. The group of believers – who are praying fervently for Peter – do not believe her and actually accuse of her of being out of her mind for suggesting it. When she adamantly insists that Peter is really there they tell her it must be his angel.
Their conjecture that Peter’s angel may be at the door is difficult to understand. Some commentators think this is a reference to a guardian angel that some Jewish traditions teach is similar in appearance to the one guarded. The justification for this belief comes from references like Ps 91:11, Matt 18:10, and Heb 1:14. It is impossible to know for certain if that is what they mean (and the inclusion of their comment is not proof that their theology of angels is correct). What is interesting, however, is that they do not believe Peter is there but are willing to believe his angel is. That means they think an angel showing up is more likely than Peter escaping from Herod’s prison (which goes back to the point from verse 6 that nothing in Peter’s circumstance hinted at what was about to happen).
Regardless of what their musing on angels means, they finally go to the door and realize that Peter is in fact there. They apparently react very excitedly and loudly because Peter motions for them to be quiet (he is, after all, an escaped prisoner so it makes sense not to wake a lot of people with their celebration). He tells them everything that has just happened and how God delivered him from Herod’s prison and the soldiers. He then instructs them to tell James – obviously not the same James who was just beheaded, but James the brother of Jesus who is a leader in the Jerusalem church – and the brethren what has happened.
After giving them instructions Peter leaves and goes to another place. There is no way to know for sure what this means. It could simply mean that he goes into hiding. However, the fact that he tells them to report to James and the brethren seems to imply that he is going away for a long while and will not see James himself. This could mark the official change of leadership in Jerusalem from Peter to James. We know from Gal 2 that he spends some time in Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Regardless of the details, what seems to make sense is that Peter uses this event to leave Jerusalem and perhaps focus his ministry on missionary activities outside of Herod’s jurisdiction.
The people’s disbelief that Peter is actually at the door is worth discussing. They are praying fervently for Peter (vs 5). Their prayer time has likely gone on for days. The fact that it is the middle of the night and they are still awake and praying shows their devotion and commitment. Yet, when they first hear that their prayers have been answered in a huge way they react with disbelief. This means either that they were not praying for deliverance (maybe just for strength and a good testimony during the trial?), or that they prayed with something less than strong faith that they would be successful. Perhaps they are simply worn out and since they know the feast is over and Peter’s death is imminent they just cannot fathom that God could still act.
But here is the encouragement we can draw from their reaction. God apparently answers both weak prayers and prayers that do not even ask for the right thing. He answered in a more miraculous and powerful way than they could imagine. They could not picture Peter getting out of prison alive so they either did not ask for it to happen or did not believe it could happen though they asked. Yet God answered their prayer as if they did in fact ask for the right thing and did have full faith that it could occur. We do not have to be perfect in our coming to the throne, we just have to single-mindedly come to God in the power of His Spirit. And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27).
Things do not go well for the guards when morning comes and Peter is discovered to be gone. It is amazing that they apparently have no idea what happened. All four guards were standing at their posts and two of them were on either side of a chained and sleeping prisoner and yet none of them can explain what happened or where Peter is. They did not see the angel or the light in the cell when he came. They did not see Peter walk past them, they did not see him come out of the cell and they apparently did not realize he was gone until daybreak.
As might be expected, Herod does not react well to this news. Roman custom dictates that the people responsible for an escaped prisoner suffer the punishment the prisoner was supposed to receive. Thus the guards are executed (collateral damage that Luke reports without comment).
Luke ends this story with an explanation of what happens to Herod Agrippa I after Peter’s escape. Agrippa leaves Jerusalem and goes to Caesarea. While there he receives a delegation from Tyre and Sidon – two Phoenician cities to the north of Galilee with whom he has been feuding (for unknown reasons). The delegation comes to smooth over the dispute because Phoenicia depends on Herod’s province for food, and the people of Tyre and Sidon want to make sure that the food trade is not threatened by Herod’s anger.
On an appointed day Herod addresses the delegation – and perhaps the people of Caesarea. The reason for the address – according to Josephus (see full account below) – is more than the presence of the delegation but is also the occasion of a festival honoring Caesar. He puts on his royal apparel (which according to Josephus is made of silver and shines fantastically in the sun as he stands) and speaks to the people. The people’s reaction both to his speaking and to the reflection off his silver clothes is to cry out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!”
Herod apparently drinks this all in and does not dispute their cries of divinity. As he stands there hearing their praise an angel of the Lord (same angel who delivered Peter?) strikes him because he does not give God the glory. The angel causes him to be eaten by worms – likely intestinal worms. Josephus says he dies five days later in great pain.
Verse 24 is the epilogue to the whole story of Herod and the church. Though Herod executed James and was the most powerful ruler in Palestine with the whole might of Rome behind him; and though he could imprison and persecute the members of the Jerusalem church; he is now dead because of intestinal worms. And the church he persecuted and tried to destroy continues to grow and to be multiplied. The moral to the story – God is God and Herod is not.
No matter what circumstances look like from man’s vantage point and no matter how powerful the forces of evil appear to be, God is God and they are not. Regardless of how many battles seem to go the Enemy’s way, and how many times evil seems a lot more powerful than good, and sin seems to have so many more adherents than righteousness, God is God and they are not.
15 Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master ! What shall we do ?” 16 So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (II Kings 6:15-17)
The story of Herod’s death from Josephus, Antiquities 19.8.2: “Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited spectacles in honor of Caesar, for whose well-being he’d been informed that a certain festival was being celebrated. At this festival a great number were gathered together of the principal persons of dignity of his province. On the second day of the spectacles he put on a garment made wholly of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theater early in the morning. There the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays, shone out in a wonderful manner, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, just as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.” When he had said this, his pain became violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad everywhere that he would certainly die soon. The multitude sat in sackcloth, men, women and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground he could not keep himself from weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age and in the seventh year of his reign. He ruled four years under Caius Caesar, three of them were over Philip’s tetrarchy only, and on the fourth that of Herod was added to it; and he reigned, besides those, three years under Claudius Caesar, during which time he had Judea added to his lands, as well as Samaria and Cesarea. The revenues that he received out of them were very great, no less than twelve millions of drachmae. But he borrowed great sums from others, for he was so very liberal that his expenses exceeded his incomes, and his generosity was boundless.”
A Quick History of All Things Herod
The following is quite extensive (especially for Bible study notes), but a basic knowledge of the family of Herod can be helpful in understanding the context of Acts 12. Beyond that, it will also clear up the confusion over the many times Herod is referenced in the Gospels and Acts, showing that the passages are not all referring to the same man who seemingly was immortal and omnipresent. Understanding the genealogy of Herod’s family and some of the major events that happened among family members should make texts like the one we are studying come alive.
Herod the Great (Patriarch of the family)
- The most famous of the Herods referenced in the Bible. He was the king who interacted with the wise men in Matthew 2, and who had all male children under two years old in Bethlehem killed in an effort to eliminate the Messiah.
- He was the first and most powerful ruler of Palestine once it came under Roman rule. He effectively took over the kingdom from the Hasmoneans, descendants of the Maccabees.
- He executed a wife, a mother-in-law, two brothers-in-law and three sons all because he suspected them of sedition.
- He had a total of 10 wives and numerous children; however, only five of the wives gave birth to seven possible heirs (detailed by name below).
- Per his will, his kingdom was split into three parts at his death and given to three of his four living sons (Antipas, Archelaus, and Philip).
- Right before his death, he had one male representative from each of the leading families in Jerusalem imprisoned. He then gave orders that they were to be killed immediately upon his death. His reasoning was that he did not think anyone would grieve for his death and this way he could be assured that there would be mourning throughout Jerusalem. Thankfully, his orders were not carried out.
- Per Josephus, he died an enormously painful death. Josephus describes his illness as follows: His entrails were exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, farther, his privy-member was putrified, and produced worms; and when he sat upright he had difficulty breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased in strength to an insufferable degree. Josephus goes on to say that this was God’s judgment on a horrible life.
Antipater (Heir #1 to Herod the Great)
- Son of Doris.
- Oldest of the potential heirs.
- Was largely responsible for the death of the two sons of Mariamne I (Aristobulus & Alexander) – his half brothers and rivals for the throne. He accused them of betrayal to his father and his father eventually had them executed.
- He was imprisoned shortly before the death of his father when his plot to poison Herod was discovered. While in prison he received false information of his father’s death and tried to bribe his jailer with promises of what he would do for him once he took over the kingdom from his brothers. The jailer reported Antipater’s plans to Herod who then had his son executed as one of his last acts before dying.
Aristobulus & Alexander (Heirs #2&3 to Herod the Great)
- Sons of Mariamne I (the one woman Herod probably actually loved). Mariamne was a descendant of the Hasmoneans – the line that Herod usurped to take the throne of Palestine. He married her largely because of her lineage – it gave him more credibility as king. Her lineage also led to her downfall as he became paranoid that as long as she and her sons were alive someone could use them to reclaim the throne for the Hasmoneans. Thus, he had her and her mother executed (and mourned her death afterwards).
- Aristobulus and Alexander were executed after being accused of betrayal by their half-brother Antipater.
- Aristobulus was the father of Herodias. This explains how someone named Herod in the story of Matt 14:1-12 could be married to a woman named Herodias – she was actually his half-niece and was named for her grandfather (who executed her father).
- Aristobulus was also the father of Herod Agrippa I referenced in Acts 12. Agrippa I is famous for his persecution of the church and for being struck down by God and eaten by worms after a rousing speech that his listeners worshiped him for. His son, Agrippa II, is the king referenced in Acts 25 and 26 at the trial of Paul who told Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” Agrippa II carried on an immoral relationship with his sister, Bernice (Acts 25:13).
Herod Philip I (Heir #4 to Herod the Great)
- Son of Mariamne II.
- Not to be confused with Philip the Tetrarch referenced in Luke 3:1.
- First husband of Herodias (who left him – her half uncle – for his half-brother who was also her half-uncle). Philip I was the father of Salome.
- First in line to the throne after the execution of Antipater, but given no rule because his mother knew of Antipater’s plot to poison Herod and did not report it.
- Lived as private citizen in Rome after receiving no rule in Palestine.
Archelaus (Heir #5 to Herod the Great) ahr-kee-LAY-uhs
- Son of Malthace (a Samaritan) and full brother of Antipas.
- Given half of Herod the Great’s kingdom upon Herod’s death. This included all of Judea.
- The son most like his father; consequently, when Joseph and Mary returned from Egypt they decided to return to Nazareth so as not to be under his rule (Matt 2:22).
- Of the three sons who inherited Herod’s kingdom, Archelaus’ rule was the shortest. Rome eventually deposed him because of his ruthlessness. He was banished to Gaul after ruling for ten years.
Antipas (Heir #6 to Herod the Great)
- Younger son of Malthace and full brother of Archelaus.
- The Herod referenced in Matt 14:1-12 and the ruler Pilate sent Jesus to during His trial in Luke 23.
- Given rule over Galilee and Perea (region on the east side of the Jordan, south of the Sea of Galilee) at the death of Herod.
- First wife was the daughter of the king of Nabatea – a land that bordered Perea on the southeast.
- While spending time in Rome with his half-brother Philip, he fell in love with his brother’s wife Herodias. Herodias, ambitious and attracted by the rule of Antipas that was withheld from her husband, agreed to marry Antipas if he first banished his current wife.
- First wife returned to her father who later made war with Antipas. The war proved costly as Antipas’ forces were defeated. Emperor Tiberius intervened and saved Antipas and his lands.
- Ruled for 43 years until Herodias encouraged him to seek the title ‘King’ from the emperor after learning that it had been bestowed on her brother, Agrippa I. Agrippa I outmaneuvered Antipas at the court in Rome and, largely because of Agrippa’s accusations, Antipas and Herodias were banished to Gaul, their money and lands given to Agrippa (Herodias was actually offered freedom, but refused and said her place was with her husband).
Herod Philip II (Heir #7 to Herod the Great)
- Son of Cleopatra.
- Given rule of northern and western parts of Herod’s kingdom (parts of modern-day Syria) at Herod’s death.
- Per Josephus, he married Salome – the dancing girl of Matthew 14. This is somewhat hard to believe as the age difference seemingly would have been large. It WOULD fit with the family history, however.
- Mentioned in Luke 3:1.