Acts Chapter 12
Herod Agrippa I vs. Jesus
Today we’ll continue reading in Acts, at the beginning of chapter twelve. Last week, we read through the end of chapter eleven Acts 11:19-30 together, which tells us about how God blessed the church in Antioch, the first predominantly Gentile church, and how they responded to God’s grace and mission.
The Church in Antioch was:
- Sharing their faith.
- Accepting of those who were different.
- Studying to grow in their faith.
- Generous with what they received.
May we in this Church also be known for:
- Sharing our faith.
- Accepting those who are different.
- Studying to grow in our faith.
- Being generous with what we receive.
Chapter twelve brings us away from Antioch, back to Jerusalem, to tell us of trouble brewing with Agrippa, the Jewish “king” appointed by the Roman empire to rule over his countrymen in this region.
We’ll talk more about him in a minute, but first let’s read through the chapter together:
Acts 12 (NLT): About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword. When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. (This took place during the Passover celebration.) Then he imprisoned him, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring Peter out for public trial after the Passover. But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him. The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers. Others stood guard at the prison gate. Suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of the Lord stood before Peter. The angel struck him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists. Then the angel told him, “Get dressed and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Now put on your coat and follow me,” the angel ordered. So Peter left the cell, following the angel. But all the time he thought it was a vision. He didn’t realize it was actually happening. They passed the first and second guard posts and came to the iron gate leading to the city, and this opened for them all by itself. So they passed through and started walking down the street, and then the angel suddenly left him. Peter finally came to his senses. “It’s really true!” he said. “The Lord has sent his angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jewish leaders had planned to do to me!” When he realized this, he went to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many were gathered for prayer. He knocked at the door in the gate, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to open it. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the door, she ran back inside and told everyone, “Peter is standing at the door!” “You’re out of your mind!” they said. When she insisted, they decided, “It must be his angel.” Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking. When they finally opened the door and saw him, they were amazed. He motioned for them to quiet down and told them how the Lord had led him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers what happened,” he said. And then he went to another place. At dawn there was a great commotion among the soldiers about what had happened to Peter. Herod Agrippa ordered a thorough search for him. When he couldn’t be found, Herod interrogated the guards and sentenced them to death. Afterward Herod left Judea to stay in Caesarea for a while. Now Herod was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they sent a delegation to make peace with him because their cities were dependent upon Herod’s country for food. The delegates won the support of Blastus, Herod’s personal assistant, and an appointment with Herod was granted. When the day arrived, Herod put on his royal robes, sat on his throne, and made a speech to them. The people gave him a great ovation, shouting, “It’s the voice of a god, not of a man!” Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a sickness, because he accepted the people’s worship instead of giving the glory to God. So he was consumed with worms and died. Meanwhile, the word of God continued to spread, and there were many new believers. When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission to Jerusalem, they returned, taking John Mark with them.
The action continues! It seems like we keep going back and forth between peace and conflict, good news and bad news. We left off on a pretty positive note at the end of chapter 11, and chapter 12 comes in with the other hand, which is then followed up by an awesome provision of protection, and even a bit of humor in the midst of tragedy. This chapter is a real mix of loss and triumph.
While it ends on a positive note, we need to first address the problem the church faced…the challenge of a king set against them, going back to the first three verses:
Acts 12:1–3 (LSB)
1 Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to harm them. 2 And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. 3 And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread.
"Herod the king”
This is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of “Herod the Great” from the beginning of the New Testament story. His son, Agrippa II will show up later in Acts chapters 25-26.
Josephus writes about how this Agrippa enjoyed a good relationship with the Jewish people, in stark contrast to his predecessors. He is described very favorably, if not entirely truthfully, but it reflects the popular Jewish sentiment when he says this:
The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition Chapter 7: Concerning Silas,—And on What Account It Was that King Agrippa Was Angry at Him. Now Agrippa Began to Encompass Jerusalem with a Wall; and What Benefits He Bestowed on the Inhabitants of Berytus
Now, this king was by nature very beneficent, and liberal in his gifts, and very ambitious to oblige people with such large donations; and he made himself very illustrious by the many chargeable presents he made them. He took delight in giving, and rejoiced in living with good reputation. He was not at all like that Herod who reigned before him; (329) for that Herod was ill-natured, and severe in his punishments, and had no mercy on them that he hated; and everyone perceived that he was more friendly to the Greeks than to the Jews; for he adorned foreign cities with large presents in money; with building them baths and theatres besides: nay, in some of those places, he erected temples, and porticoes in others; but he did not vouchsafe to raise one of the least edifices in any Jewish city, or make them any donation that was worth mentioning. (330) But Agrippa’s temper was mild, and equally liberal to all men. He was humane to foreigners, and made them sensible of his liberality. He was in like manner rather of a gentle and compassionate temper. (331) Accordingly, he loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure: nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.
With the omission of a few other details, this guy sounds pretty great, doesn’t he? Until you find out from Luke that he also had James killed, and was likely to do the same with Peter. A broader picture paints a bit of a different story.
Listen to this description of Agrippa’s rather unscrupulous ascent to power:
New Living Translation Study Bible Chapter 12
While at school in Rome, Agrippa lived a wanton life, incurring many debts. At one point he stated that he wished his friend Gaius Caligula were emperor rather than Tiberius. This was reported to Tiberius, who imprisoned him. He remained in prison until Tiberius’s death six months later.
Upon Caligula’s accession to the throne, he rewarded Agrippa by releasing him and giving him Philip the Tetrarch’s territories and the northern part of Lysanias’s territory as well as the title of king. The title of king aroused the jealousy of Herodias, and Herod Antipas (her husband) was both critical and jealous of Agrippa. Agrippa responded by accusing Antipas of conspiracy and orchestrating Antipas’s banishment. Agrippa then acquired all of Antipas’s territories and property (AD 39).
When his friend Caligula died in AD 41, Agrippa curried the favor of the new emperor, Claudius, whereupon Claudius added Judea and Samaria to Agrippa’s domain—territory once ruled by his grandfather, Herod the Great.
Agrippa was an active persecutor of the early Christians. He is remembered for killing the apostle James and having Peter arrested—acts which gained him the favor of the Jews (12:1–4). The Jews, for their part, liked him more than any of the other Herods. Agrippa died suddenly in AD 44 shortly after his subjects hailed him as a god
So, while some may have been impressed by his accomplishments, he was far from a figure to be admired. Agrippa’s persecution of the church, his execution of James, is just one symptom of the rot of his misguided heart.
“James the brother of John”
So, who is James again? This is one of the original disciples, if you recall James and John were both called “sons of Zebedee,” brothers who Jesus called to follow him early in his ministry. He called them “Sons of Thunder.”
The fact that Herod executed James “with the sword” shows that he saw the Christian community as a dangerous threat…but a threat to what? To whom?
Himself? Surely, some of his motive was to keep himself in power, but that motive, while inherently selfish, was fully supported by the populace. So for him, attacking the church was an easy way to win popularity with his people.
“When he saw that it pleased the Jews”
Herod, being the “head” authority commanding this military system which allowed him to put people to death at will, is pictured as a terrible villain, and rightly so! This is villainous, hateful vile behavior. But you know what is even more disturbing to me? It’s that his actions pleased the Jews. They should have grieved over this man’s death, at the very least, and if at all possible worked towards ending the violence. Instead, they were pleased. Maybe they applauded. Maybe they cheered. Whatever they did or said to express their approval. Even worse, beyond cold or dismissive approval, their pleasure, their desires and motives were revealed, to the encouragement of their king, their leader. Herod was encouraged. He must have been hearing, in his head, something like “hooray for Herod, the hero, the real king of the Jews! Hip hip hooray for quelling the usurpers and the blasphemers!”
It was the hateful and deathly desires of these people who professed Godliness that led to the perpetuation of their leader’s hateful and deathly decisions against godly people.
This is a great and grave darkness, into which the light nonetheless shines, but which is heavy, and heavy still.
No matter how heavy the darkness, God’s mission remains unstoppable.
Acts 12:4–5 (LSB)
4 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.
“After the Passover” … “Prayer for him”
In order to really give the people what they wanted, he would have to make a big event out of whatever happened to Peter, but there was already an event underway, and interrupting the days of unleavened bread (the passover observance) would not have gone over well with the people he was aiming to please. At the same time, he probably didn’t want Peter to be alerted as to his intentions and somehow slip away from his grasp. So, he ordered to have him held in prison, basically thrown into jail without bail, with an assumed verdict of guilty, pending final sentencing.
He was guarded by four sets of four guards - that’s sixteen armed guards keeping watch to make sure one guy can’t escape the double chains holding him captive. It would have been impossible.
Remember, to Herod and the majority of the Jews, he’s acting as the keeper of justice…rounding up members of a dangerous mob so as to restore order.
To the Jesus followers, he’s terrorizing innocent messengers of the gospel of peace. So, what do they do in response? Storm the prison and fight for his release? No, they pray, but they pray fervently. Eagerly. Constantly. In their fervor, the heat of their passion, stretching out and extending their prayers to God for Peter.
Through this conflict between two groups of people claiming to be doing His will (quite literally the power of the sword vs. the power of prayer in this situation) God will reveal who is in the right, and who is in the wrong.
In this case, we don’t have to read much further to find out:
Acts 12:6–9 (LSB)
6 Now 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 woke him up, saying, “Rise 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 garment around yourself 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 was thinking he was seeing a vision.
Acts 12:10–11 (LSB)
10 And when they had passed the first and second guard posts, 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 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now truly I know that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
This is amazing!!!
I love the detail we get here, that gives us a small glimpse into the mind of Peter. He went to sleep in chains (!!!), and in the middle of the night, found himself free of those chains, with an angel beckoning for him to follow.
Logically, he concludes he must be dreaming.
Even after everything he’s seen, including literally being let out of prison by an angel before, back in chapter 5, there is a measure of critical cynicism when it comes to the supernatural, which I would characterize as healthy! It’s the humility of neglecting the assumption that our brain always interprets things accurately.
Not that if he realized right away what was happening he would have behaved any differently, which I suppose is the point: whether in a dream-state of consciousness, or fully awake in reality, if angel of God appears save him, he’s going to go with the flow and see what happens. Maybe he was just expecting some sort of message from God, but in this case the reality was even better: he was simply freed, no further questions or requirements, and when he “woke up” he realized he was awake the whole time!
Acts 12:12 (LSB)
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.
Apparently, John Mark’s Mom’s place was a hot spot to gather, it seems Peter just kind of assumes there will be people there.
Acts 12:13–15 (LSB)
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 she ran in and reported 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. They kept saying, “It is his angel.”
How funny is this!
Rhoda is so excited to hear Peter that she just leaves him standing there to tell the others! And the others are so caught up in praying for Peter and grieving for him, they can’t even fathom that God actually answered their prayers in such a bold, astonishing, and swift manner!
So Peter just stands there and continues knocking…LOL!
Acts 12:16–17 (LSB)
16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened the door, they saw him and were astounded. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he recounted to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, “Report these things to James and the brothers.” Then he left and went to another place.
So, he stayed just long enough to tell them what happened, make sure they knew he was safe, and move on. He brings up James, which is obviously not the James who was previously killed, but this time is referring to James the brother of Jesus, who soon after (if not during) these events wrote the book of James.
Let’s ponder for a moment how Herod handles this whole situation and how his pride ultimately leads to his untimely demise.
Acts 12:18–19 (LSB)
18 Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what had 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. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.
Herod seems..mad…that Peter was able to slip through his grasp…and takes it out on the poor guards who he must assume were paid off by someone, because how else could he have escaped?
CSB Study Bible: Notes Chapter 12
According to the Roman code of Justinian, soldiers who allowed a captive to escape would suffer the same penalty their charge was to suffer. Thus we see Peter was to be executed.
But his fit of fury doesn’t end there, does it? He continues to make himself quite haughty, continues thinking of himself mighty highly, and worthy of wielding judgment against those with whom he may be angry.
Acts 12:20–23 (LSB)
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 and sitting on the judgment seat, began delivering an address to them. 22 And the assembly 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 breathed his last.
Wow! What a sudden and gruesome end for this character!
Even Josephus, who spoke so highly of Agrippa, describes this event as a humiliating, fatal error with enigmatically lethal cause and effect:
The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition Chapter 8: What Other Acts Were Done by Agrippa until His Death; and after What Manner He Died
Now, when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Cesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival, a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. (344) On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; (345) and 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.” (346) Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But, as he presently afterwards looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner.
I’ll spare you from the rest of Josephus’s description of Agrippa’s abrupt death, but according to him, it was even by Agrippa’s own admission that his death was a direct result of his acceptance of being worshipped by those present.
This story is held in direct contrast to what happened when Cornelius, the Centurion of high esteem, offered his worship to Simon Peter, who immediately declined it. In neither case is the worshipper held accountable for offering their worship, but the one being worshipped without redirecting it appropriately is the one upon whom judgment falls.
Acts 12:24–25 (LSB)
24 But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied. 25 And Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem, fulfilling their ministry, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.
So, with Herod out of the way, the gospel continued to spread without as much hindrance for a while, and the focus here shifts back again to Saul, who was able to return to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and spend some time assimilating into leadership alongside the apostles.
What fun times!
In this chapter, we have seen how God’s power and sovereignty are greater than any human opposition or persecution. God allowed Herod to kill James, the first apostle to be martyred, but He also delivered Peter from prison by sending an angel to rescue him. God also judged Herod for his pride and arrogance, and struck him down with a fatal disease. Meanwhile, the church continued to pray, to preach, and to grow, despite the challenges and dangers they faced. The gospel was unstoppable, and nothing could hinder God’s plan and purpose for His people. This chapter challenges us to trust in God’s wisdom and goodness, even when we don’t understand His ways or His will. It also encourages us to pray fervently and faithfully, knowing that God hears and answers our prayers according to His perfect timing and will. It also inspires us to share the gospel boldly and joyfully, knowing that God is with us and for us, and that He will accomplish His work through us.