At the time of Jesus’ trial, Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judea, and Herod Antipas was king of Galilee and Peraea.
Pilate was relieved of his command in AD 37. Herod Agrippa I took over Galilee and Peraea from Herod Antipas (his nephew) in AD 39, and finally became ruler of Judea and Samaria in AD 41
Dates in the Bible are often difficult to establish, but we can conclude that the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the consequent birth of the Christian church in Jerusalem, took place before AD 37, and the events of Acts chapter 12 must have taken place after AD 41. This means that at least four years have elapsed, before we get to the events of Acts 12.
1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.
Possibly Herod, newly installed king over Judea, was seeking to establish good relations with the local leaders. He would have been informed of the way the dissident group called Christians had come to dominance following a previous Passover, so here was a good way to exercise his authority on behalf of ‘The Jews’.
2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
James and John were the two sons of Zebedee. In Matthew 20:20-
21 ‘What is it you want?’ he asked.
She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’
22 ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’
‘We can,’ they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, ‘You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father.’
James and John were both Apostles; here it seems that Herod quite arbitrarily chose to execute one of his prisoners, at Passover – truly sharing in the ‘cup of suffering’ as Jesus had predicted.
3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
(Remember the festival of ‘Unleavened Bread’ begins with Passover and lasts a week. It was a major festival with vast numbers attending.)
Rather than seeking to avoid trouble during the festival, Herod here seems to be encouraging it, seeking to gain favour with as many of the ‘faithful’ Jews as possible while they were gathered in Jerusalem.
4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
Herod singled out Peter as a ringleader; perhaps he intended that a public trial and subsequent death penalty would be sufficient to demoralise this new ‘Christian’ uprising, and so he would finish what Saul had failed to do.
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
The death of James had been sudden and unannounced. But here the imprisonment of Peter had deliberately been very public. The believers knew they had a powerful weapon with which to respond– so they prayed earnestly, and it seems they were prepared to continue all night.
6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance.
Probably Herod had heard how Jesus had evaded the guards at the Tomb. So here he has him chained to two soldiers, with two others outside the gate to prevent any rescue attempt. There were four shifts of soldiers, and possibly the midnight to 6am shift had just taken over, so they would be wide awake – besides, it was a capital offence for a soldier to lose a prisoner and the soldiers would have been on high alert.
What was Peter doing? Desperately praying for his release?
No – he was sleeping peacefully!
How could he do that?
7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. ‘Quick, get up!’ he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8 Then the angel said to him, ‘Put on your clothes and sandals.’ And Peter did so. ‘Wrap your cloak round you and follow me,’ the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision.
It would have been total darkness in the inner cell. Peter ‘saw the light’ but the soldiers either side did not, nor did they hear the angel or notice Peter getting dressed!
But I believe that they remained wide awake and alert with the Angel simply closing their minds to what was happening. When the Angel and Peter had gone, and while it was still dark, the soldiers had no reason to suspect that their prisoner was no longer between them.
10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
Again, the guards were temporarily blinded and the gate obediently unlocked, opened and closed, and relocked itself.
At the end of the street:
11 Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.’
Peter thought it was a dream (v9) but once the angel had left it became obvious to him that he was very much awake – and free!
12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.
13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognised Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, ‘Peter is at the door!’
15 ‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, ‘It must be his angel.’
When we pray, how is it possible to discern when our prayers have been answered?
16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. ‘Tell James (the Lord’s brother – see below) and the other brothers and sisters about this,’ he said, and then he left for another place.
These were very dangerous times. We are not told of what happened to the other believers that Herod had imprisoned (v1). It seems that Peter, and maybe others of the apostles, had to go into hiding. He is back in Jerusalem in Acts 15 (v7), but apart from the two letters he wrote, we hear no more about him. It seems that Jesus’ brother James may have eventually become leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13, 21:18, Galatians 1:19).
18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter.
As daylight gradually filtered into the cell and the soldiers woke up – or maybe when the next shift arrived to take over – they were totally mystified; the chains that had held Peter’s wrists were still fastened, and the gates still locked. We can only imagine what ‘no small commotion’ meant!
19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-
Herod’s grand plan had backfired and his captive audience of Jews from all over the known world soon heard of Peter’s miraculous escape. For them, the parallel with Jesus’ resurrection from a sealed tomb at a previous Passover would surely not go unnoticed. The Christians too would be quick to explain that salvation comes from the Lord!
Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
I can’t help feeling that he stormed off in a fit of pique! Caesarea was about 55 miles to the northwest. It was a predominantly Roman city, built on the coast by Herod the Great between 25-
20 He had been quarrelling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.
We saw in chapter 11 that famine was a real problem. Possibly the quarrel had been because Herod wanted control over the lands to the north. He was obviously full of himself and wanted to impress the leaders of Tyre and Sidon.
21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’ 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
He had only reigned for four years.
24 But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.
As far as Luke (the author of Acts) was concerned, what happened to Herod was of little importance. Much more importantly he had had little effect on the continuing spread of the Gospel – it even flourished!
In the meantime, Barnabus and Saul had been visiting the Apostles in Jerusalem (Chapter 11) and possibly they too had to lie low for a while before they could return to Antioch.
25 When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.
Antioch was a city wide open to the Gospel and young John Mark (Barnabus’ cousin) would be safer there, and would be a most useful addition to the ministry team.
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