James: first apostle executed
- 12:1 That’s about the time Herod1 the king started arresting people in the church and hurting them.
- 12:2 He killed John’s brother, James—ordering him executed.
- 12:3 When he saw how happy that made the Jews, he had Peter2 arrested. Herod did this during the Jewish holiday of Passover.3
- 12:4 After Herod arrested Peter, he put him in prison. Herod ordered 16 soldiers to guard Peter—four squads with four soldiers to a squad. Herod intended to bring Peter out to the people after the Passover.
- 12:5 With Peter in prison, people of the church got together. They started praying passionately to God for him.
Peter breaks out of prison
- 12:6 On the very night before Herod planned to present Peter to the crowd,4 Peter slept chained by the wrists to two soldiers. Sentries guarded the prison door as well.5
- 12:7 All of a sudden an angel from God showed up. Light poured into the prison cell. The angel tapped Peter on the side to wake him up. The angel said, “Get up. Hurry.” The chains dropped right off of Peter’s wrists.
- 12:8 The angel told Peter, “Get dressed. Put on your sandals.” Peter did it. Then the angel said, “Get your cloak on and follow me out of here.”
- 12:9 Peter did just that, following him out. But Peter found it hard to believe this was happening. He actually wondered if he was having another vision, instead.
- 12:10 They walked past the first guard at the prison door. Then the second. Outside, they walked to the iron gate—one of several gates into the city.6 That huge door opened by itself. Peter and the angel walked inside the city and down one of the streets. Then the angel left.
- 12:11 Peter finally realized this wasn’t a dream. It was real. Right out loud he said to himself, “Well, there’s no doubt now. The Lord actually sent me an angel. That angel saved me from what Herod planned to do to me and from what the Jews expected to see.”7
- 12:12 After this finally sunk in for Peter, he rushed to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark.8 That’s where many believers had gotten together to pray for him.
- 12:13 He knocked on the door. A young slave girl named Rhoda went to find out who was there.
Rhoda leaves Peter standing outside
- 12:14 When she recognized Peter’s voice outside, she got so excited that she forgot to open the door. She ran to tell everyone praying for Peter that their prayers were answered because Peter was here, standing at the door.
- 12:15 The prayer warriors said, “Girl, you are all kinds of crazy.” But she argued with them. She insisted Peter was here. But the prayer warriors said it couldn’t be him. They said, “It’s gotta be his angel.”9
- 12:16 Knock, knock. That was Peter, still standing outside the door. With all the arguing going on, no one had bothered to let him in. So he kept knocking. When they finally answered the door and saw Peter, they were stunned.
- 12:17 Peter raised his hand to silence the chatter that erupted. Then he told them how the good Lord broke him out of jail. He asked the group a favor: “Please report this news to James10 and the other leaders.” Then he left.
- 12:18 At daybreak, when Peter’s guards woke up, they got pretty animated as they tried to figure out what happened to their prisoner.
- 12:19 Herod sent out patrols looking for Peter. Nobody found him. Herod interrogated the soldiers assigned to guard him. Then he had them executed. Afterward, Herod left the hills of Judea11 and went down to the seaside city of Caesarea,12 and stayed there.
Herod dies, worm-eaten
- 12:20 Herod was angry with the neighboring city kingdoms of Tyre and Sidon. Leaders of Tyre and Sidon13 realized this was a big problem for them because they got a lot of their food from Herod’s nation. So both cities teamed up and sent a peace delegation to Herod. The peacemakers somehow got the support of Herod’s personal chief of staff, a man named Blastus.
- 12:21 The peacemakers got on Herod’s calendar. When the meeting day came, Herod dressed up in his royal robes, took a seat on the throne, and gave them a speech.
- 12:22 The people listening responded with over-the-top praise: “Wow! That wasn’t the voice of a human being! It was a god!”
- 12:23 Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod sick because the king didn’t take the opportunity to give some praise to the real God. Maggots14 feasted on Herod until he died.15
- 12:24 God’s message continued to spread. More and more people joined the church.
- 12:25 Barnabas and Saul left Jerusalem and went back to their home in Antioch, Syria. They took John Mark with them.
Herod Agrippa I (ruled AD 37-44) was a grandson of Herod the Great. His friend since childhood, Roman emperor Caligula, appointed him ruler over the Jewish homeland. Herod reported directly to the emperor, as a subordinate.
Peter led the original disciples of Jesus. Many Christians recognized him as one of the most influential leaders of the emerging Christian movement.
Passover took place the same time of year Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. Then, as today, Jews from all over the world traveled to Jerusalem each spring—around Eastertime—to celebrate Passover, one of their most important holidays. Passover commemorates God freeing their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, during the time of Moses. Jews call the holiday Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) because of the miracle that finally convinced a hard-headed king of Egypt to release them. God brought death to the oldest child in each family, but he passed over Jewish homes without harming them (Exodus 12).
Herod may have wanted to make a spectacle out of Peter by executing him at the end of the weeklong Passover observance.
These four soldiers apparently represented one of the four squads of soldiers guarding Peter. Roman guards worked on a schedule of four shifts during the night: 6-9 p.m., 9 p.m.-midnight; midnight-3 a.m.; 3 a.m.-6a.m. Perhaps the four squads each took a turn guarding Peter at night.
The city is Jerusalem, crowded during the Passover holiday.
Herod and the Jews weren’t planning a square dance. Many Bible experts agree that Herod and the Jews likely expected a sequel to the execution of James.
This isn’t John the apostle, who was one of Jesus’ 12 original disciples. It was another John, apparently nicknamed Mark. Or maybe his mom liked the name “John” and his dad liked “Mark.” Who knows? Bible writers sometimes called him “John,” sometimes “Mark,” and sometimes “John, also called Mark.” He was a cousin of Barnabas and an associate of Paul, who sometimes traveled with Paul on mission trips (Colossians 4:10).
Some Jews said each person not only has a guardian angel, but that guardian angels look like the people they guard. This idea isn’t in the Bible, but it’s in other revered Jewish writings and rabbi-written commentaries from ancient times.
This is the first time James, whom many consider the brother of Jesus, shows up in the Bible as a leader of the Christian movement. He apparently pastored the mother church in Jerusalem. He also chaired a Jerusalem Council meeting to settle problems in the church (see Acts 15). Paul called this James, along with apostles Peter and John “pillars of the church” (Galatians 2:9 New Living Translation).
Judea was the region, perhaps comparable to a county, that included Jerusalem. Samaria was a region north, in what is now the central part of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Caesarea was a Roman-style city that Herod the Great built about 50 miles (80 km) north of Azotus (Ashdod). Rome’s capital of the entire region, Caesarea sat on the coast, a little south of the Mount Carmel ridge of hills.
Tyre and Sidon are Mediterranean seaside cities in what is now the Arab nation of Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border.
Herod’s grandfather, Herod the Great, also suffered from maggots before he died. First-century Jewish historian Josephus said Herod the Great had “gangrene of the genitals.” Doctors today speculate that Herod the Great’s gangrene may have come from gonorrhea and continued scratching of it, or perhaps from an abdominal infection that spread to the groin. The disease that struck his grandson, Herod Agrippa, also remains a mystery.
First-century Jewish historian Josephus tells a similar story about Herod: In Caesarea the crowd declared him a god, he didn’t deny it, he got sick and died with severe stomach pains.
The writer of Acts says pitifully little about Herod’s execution of James, who was one of Jesus’ best friends, along with Peter and James’ brother John. Why do you think he would breeze over it so quickly?
When Herod saw that the execution of James delighted Jewish leaders, he promptly arrested Peter—probably planning to kill him, too. Why do you think a king like Herod gave two matzo balls’ worth of concern about what the Jews thought?
Based on how you read the story of Peter’s jailbreak in Acts 12:6-10, why do you think the guards didn’t stop him?
While an angel was breaking Peter out of prison, Peter “wondered if he was having another vision” (12:9). Like the vision he saw before he met Cornelius (Acts 10:9-16). What do you think that says about the kind of visions Peter had?
The story of this jailbreak could read like an exaggeration to Bible newcomers—what with Peter’s chains falling off, guards not paying attention, and the massive iron gate into the city opening “by itself,” (12:10). Would it erode your confidence in the Bible if the writer accurately reported what he had heard about the story, but if some of what he had heard was a mixture of fact and rumor?
When the slave girl Rhoda told the people praying for Peter that Peter was at the front door, why do you think the group argued with her instead of rushing to the front door to find out who or what was standing there? They called her “all kinds of crazy” (12:15), but readers today might argue that they sounded a tad tipped, too.
When peacemakers who met with King Herod praised his speech as “the voice of…a god” (12:22), what do you think was really going on?
The writer said “an angel of the Lord struck Herod sick” (12:23). How could he know that? Would it bother you if the writer merely presumed that God caused the sickness, since many Jews said God controlled everything and that if someone got sick, God was punishing them? (See John 9:2, where the disciples of Jesus ask what sin caused a man to be born blind.)
The writer says Herod died of a disease that involved maggots, which apparently fed on infected tissue. That’s what first-century Jewish historian Josephus said happened to Herod’s grandpa, King Herod the Great. Do you think we should take literally this story about grandson Herod? Or might the writer have been trying to put Herod in his place, as a vicious enemy of God who, like his grandpa, got a dose of divine justice?
First-century Jewish historian Josephus tells a similar story about the death of Herod Agrippa I. In his book, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus reported that a crowd in Caesarea called Herod “a god…superior to mortals.” After hearing that “the king didn’t deny it or reject the unholy flattery,” Josephus says the king soon saw something he interpreted as a bad omen: an owl sitting on a rope above his head. “Severe pain erupted in his belly, striking with violent intensity.” Herod told his friends: “I, whom you called a god, am ordered to leave this life…. I, whom you called immortal, will be quickly carried away by death.” What do you think about the fact that the Bible and a first-century book by a Jewish historian tell such similar accounts?
LIFE APPLICATION. God took extreme measures to save Peter’s life by sending an angel to break him out of prison. When have you felt God stepping into your life or into the life of someone you know to help?