James, son of Zebedee, is executed; Peter escapes miraculously from jail; Rhoda’s exuberance, and Herod Agrippa’s sudden death.
The translation and commentary are mine, just so I can learn. I also offer quick word studies. If you would like to see the verses in many translations, please go to biblegateway.com. And if you would like to study Greek with a short lexicon, go to biblehub.com, and click on the interlinear tab.
At the end of each passage and this post, I offer observations for discipleship. How can we apply these truths to our lives?
Links are provided for further study.
Martyrdom of James and Imprisonment of Peter (Acts 12:1-5)
1 At about that time, King Herod arrested certain ones from the church, to mistreat them. 2 He executed James the brother of John with the sword. 3 When he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews, he went further and arrested Peter, but it was the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 Seizing him, he put him in prison, handing him over to four squads of four soldiers to guard him, intending after Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 And so Peter was kept in prison. But there was earnest prayer taking place by the church to God for him.
Peterson: “Without explanation, one apostle is executed, but another is rescued, teaching the church to live with the mystery of God’s providence and rely afresh in each situation on the mercy and continuing care of God (cf. 4:24-31)” (comments on vv. 1-3). Peterson also notes that James’s death was not formally replaced by an apostle as we read in Acts 1. Instead he was replaced by James the Lord’s brother, who with a group of elders became the leaders of the Jerusalem church (see 11:30; 12:17; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 21:18). But I note that the replacement of Judas in Acts 1 did not involve Jesus’s brother, even though he was there (1:14). Instead, Matthias was selected. Could it be that James’s earlier unbelief disqualified him (John 7:5)? After all, he and his other brothers tried to take Jesus into custody, for they thought he was out of his mind (Mark 3:20-21). Jesus seems to have appeared to James later than to Peter and the other eleven (1 Cor. 15:7). Did Jesus have to restore James and move him away from his unbelief, much as he had to do this to Peter (John 21:15-19)? Did Jesus tell him that he would become a leader? So could it be that James grew into his leadership role later, in a process?
Herod Agrippa I (born in 9 B.C.) was appointed king of sorts over certain territories in Israel. He was very favorable to Judaism.
“At about that time”: Bock says that Agrippa was in Rome in AD 41 and died before Passover in 44, so these events in Acts 12 can be dated either in 42 or 43 (comment on vv. 1-2). Longenecker says that if the famine which Agabus predicted occurred in 44, then Luke is simply placing some of his material as a grouping, and evidently he wants to bring an end to this period of the Jerusalem church by mentioning the death of James and the escape of Peter. Historians can shift their material around a theme (Longenecker, comment on v. 1). In other words, Luke was being approximate and thematic.
“arrested”: Agrippa through his agents literally put his hands on or grabbed these certain members. But who are the certain ones? They were not just anybody but were probably leaders. Bruce (1990) says they were the apostles. The arrest of James and Peter indicates Bruce is right. We don’t know what happened to the others because the narrative focuses on James and then Peter.
Would you or I be ready to suffer for being Christians though we did nothing wrong? Only by God’s grace and strength.
“church”: In Greek it is ekklēsia (pronounced ek-klay-see-ah) and the meaning has roots in both Hebrew and Greek. It literally describes an assembly or gathering. It literally means “the ones called out” or “the called out” or “the summoned” who gather together.
Let’s look more deeply at the rich term. BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, has a long discussion, but let’s look at only one subpoint.
By far the most Scriptures where ekklēsia appears comes under this definition: “congregation or church as the totality of Christian living and meeting in a particular locality or large geographical area, but not necessarily limited to one meeting place” (Acts 5:11; 8:3; 9:31; 11:26; 12:5; 15:3; 18:22; 20:17; see also 12:1; 1 Cor. 4:7; Phil. 4:15; 1 Tim. 5:16; Jas. 5:14; 3 John 9). “More definitely of the Christians in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1; 11:22; see also 2:47) in Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1); in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1); Laodicea (Col. 4:16; Rev. 3:14); in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1); Colossae (Plm. 1, subscript). Plural churches (Acts 15:41; 16:5; Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 7:17; 2 Cor. 8:18, 23; 11:8, 28; 12:13; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13; 22; 22:16); the Christian community in Judea (Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:14); in Galatia (Gal. 1:2; 1 Cor. 16:1); in Asia (1 Cor. 16:19; Rev. 1:4, 11, 20); in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1).
Please see this post for BDAG’s fuller definition.
Fellowship is so important for believers. Don’t believe the lie circulating in American society, particularly in social media, that not going to church is good enough. People who skip constant fellowship are prone to sin and self-deception and satanic attacks. We need each other.
This link has a list of the famous “one another” verses, like “love one another.”
Further, since American Christianity is undergoing discussion on the sizes of churches, let me add: the earliest Christian community met either in houses (Acts 2:46) or in Solomon’s Colonnade in Jerusalem (Acts 3:11; 5:12) or a large number in Antioch (11:26), which could hold a large gathering—call it a mega-church—and presumably in mid-sized gatherings. Size does not matter, since it varies so widely.
Further, I’m not a church planter (or planner), but one thing that impresses me about all those above references, is that the apostles, as they planted churches, were guided by the Spirit—always—and they were also deliberate about setting them up and establishing them. Planning is Scriptural. So wisdom says: listen to the Spirit and plan. Listen as you plan and be ready to drop your plans at a moment notice, when the Spirit says so. God will grow the church as we proclaim the good news.
To hear the news that James was beheaded must have been a terrible shock to the Messianic Jews headquartered in Jerusalem. But it must be asked, where were their prayers? I have been arguing throughout this commentary series up to now that Luke does not need to mention every detail about the charismatic power of the church. He assumes we the readers would know this from the entire context of the book of Acts—it is supercharged with the power and presence of the Spirit. So maybe they were praying for James without Luke stating it. But it is odd that Luke describes the massive and extensive prayers for Peter, but not for James and the others. Let’s trust they were praying for them, as well. For a long discussion see the very last section, below.
“pleasing to the Jews”: This reminds me of John’s frequent reference to the Jews. Clearly Luke means the Jerusalem establishment. They could not carry out the death penalty, but Agrippa could. So of course the execution of church leaders pleased them. F. F. Bruce (1990) writes of Agrippa’s relations with the Jews: “In Palestine he sedulously cultivated the goodwill of his Jewish subjects, observing their customs and showing preference for their company, so that even the Pharisees thought well of him. On one occasions, when he publicly read Dt. 17:14-20 (the ‘law of kingship’) at the Feast of Tabernacles in [AD] 41, he is said to have wept at the words of v. 15 (‘you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother’), for he remembered his Edomite ancestry; but the people called out repeatedly, ‘Be not dismayed; you are indeed our brother!’ (mSota 7.8)” (1990, p. 280).
So he sought to curry favor from the Jerusalem establishment and the people.
Agrippa lived by the standards of Judaism and the Old Covenant, and by the end of Acts 12, he will suffer punishment laid out by the standards of the Old Covenant: an angel of the Lord will strike him down. Ananias and Sapphira also lived outside the New Covenant and inside the Old, and they too died on the spot (Acts 5:1-11).
See my post Ananias and Sapphira, which also mentions Agrippa.
But why did the Jewish leadership turn on the apostles? Bruce again rightly says it is because word got around that Peter ate with Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, the occupier and oppressor. So the earliest Messianic Jews were gradually breaking free from Judaism, but not enough that they have to flee Jerusalem (Acts 15). So again, the messages are mixed—the Jesus Movement was linked to Judaism, but still Jesus was the Messiah. And yet the Messianic Jews must have kept some (or much?) of the law, like kosher requirements and circumcision (Acts 15:1-5).
Jesus predicted that at least one of Zebedee’s sons would go through suffering:
37 They said to him, “Grant to us that we may sit one on your right and one on your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You don’t understand what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup which I will drink and to be baptized with the baptism with which I will be baptized?” 39 They said to him, “We are able.” But Jesus said to them, “You shall drink the cup which I drink and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. (Mark 10:37-39)
“Day of Unleavened Bread”: Since it immediately follows Passover (v. 4), let’s cover this feast first.
Time of year in OT: First Month: Aviv / Nisan 14th day (for one day)
Time of Year in Modern Calendar: March / April (second Passover is one month later according to Num. 9:10-11)
How to celebrate it:
(1) A whole lamb by the number of people in household, being ready to share with nearest neighbor; (2) one-year-old males without defects, taken from sheep and goats; (3) take care of them until the fourteenth day; (4) then all the community is to slaughter it at twilight; (5) put the blood on the tops and sides of the doorframes of the houses where the lambs are eaten, with bitter herbs and bread without yeast; (6) that night eat the lambs roasted over fire, with the head, legs and internal organs, not raw or boiled (7) do not leave any of it until morning; if there is any leftover, burn it; (8) the cloak must be tucked into belt; sandals on feet and staff in hand; (9) eat in haste in order to leave Egypt soon (Exod. 12:4-11).
Purpose: Exodus from Egypt and Protection from Judgment:
“The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt” (Exod. 12:13).
Other Scriptures: Exod. 12:4-14; Num. 28:16
(2). Unleavened Bread
Time of Year in OT: Same month, 15th to 21st days, for seven days
Time of Year in Modern Calendar: Same month, on the fifteenth day, which lasts for seven days
How to celebrate it:
Exod. 12:14-20 says that the Israelites were to eat bread without yeast for seven days, from the fourteenth day to the twenty-first day. On the first day they were to remove the yeast from their houses. If they eat anything with yeast from the first to the seventh days they shall be cut off (excommunicated), and this was true for foreigner or native-born. They must not do work on those days, except to prepare to prepare the food for everyone to eat. On the first days they are to hold a sacred assembly (meet at the tabernacle) and another one on the seventh day.
Other Scriptures: Exod. 12:14-20; Num. 28:16
Purpose: see the previous section “Passover.”
“Passover”: see v. 3 for more comments. Passover and Unleavened Bread are often bundled together and called “Passover” for short.
Peter was tightly guarded. Bock says that a squad was made up of four soldiers, and four squads add up to sixteen (comment on vv. 3-5). Each squad took the four shifts in the night (Peterson, comments on vv. 4-5). Bruce says that Peter was probably kept in the Antonia Fortress (1988, comment on vv. 5-9). Agrippa wanted to bring him out to the people for a public trial. They probably would have turned on him for his accepting the Gentiles into a sect of Judaism—the Way or the Jesus Movement. This brings up an interesting point. If Herod had been able to put the other apostles on public trial, would the people have accepted them because of all the signs and wonders and miracles they did and because they did not have table fellowship with the Gentiles, and with a Roman officer to boot? Maybe. We’ll never know. Whatever the case, Messianic Jews never felt the pressure to leave Jerusalem—or enough pressure actually to flee, since we see them guiding the church throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire from the capital of Israel (Acts 15).
It is good that prayers happened for Peter. Did they not pray for James?
“earnest”: it is the adverb ektenōs (pronounced ek-teh-nohss), which I treated as an adjective, and could be translated as “constant,” “earnest,” and “eager.” As noted in v. 2, it was a blessing that they prayed constantly for Peter, but where were these prayers for James and the others? Since the church was very charismatic and Spirit-empowered, let’s assume and trust that they were praying for them in the same way they were for Peter. Luke does not have to record every detail. NT narratives are elliptical (omit details). However, for a closer look, see the very last section, below.
“prayer”: it is the very common noun proseuchē (pronounced pros-yew-khay) and is used 36 times. Its verb proseuchomai (pronounced pros-yew-khoh-my) appears 85 times, so they are the most common words for prayer or pray in the NT. They are combined with the preposition pros, which means, among other things, “towards,” and euchē, which means a prayer, vow and even a mere wish. But Christians took over the word and directed it towards the living God. I like to believe that they leaned in toward him and prayed their requests fully expecting an answer. It is not a mere wish or heartfelt payer to a pagan deity.
In this case it is in the imperfect form so the prayers were continuous. Always pray and not give up, no matter how long it takes.
Prayer flows out of confidence before God that he will answer because we no longer have an uncondemned heart (1 John 3:19-24; Rom. 8:1); and we know him so intimately that we find out from him what is his will is and then we pray according to it (1 John 5:14-15); we pray with our Spirit-inspired languages and our native languages (1 Cor. 14:15-16). But that’s what all believers should do; however, too often theory outruns practice. Pray! For a theology on how to respond when God does not answer our prayers, as when James was executed by Herod, see the very last application section: Observations for Discipleship.
Prayer can be (1) for oneself, like overcoming sins and vices in your heart and mind or receiving wisdom from above (James 3:17) and not being double-minded about receiving it (Jas. 1:5-8), but (2) it is also for the needs of the community. It was coming under attack, so prayers were offered. Praying for boldness to reach out and spread the word is wonderful. We should do it more often. (3) Further, prayer brings down the manifest presence of God. God is omnipresent (everywhere) of course, but his presence can make itself felt and experienced. God showed up and shook the place where they were gathered.
Prayer can be visualized like a pebble in a pond, and the ripples go outward. (1) It starts with oneself and one’s needs; (2) then it goes outward to one’s own family and (3) to the Christian community (your home church). (4) It goes out to evangelism and the needs of the world around the community, (5) and finally to parts around the globe. But this prayer here in Acts varies the order, which you may do, if you like. Prayer is ultimately and most deeply a conversation with God.
GrowApp for Acts 12:1-5
A.. When personal tragedy occurs, pray! How is your prayer life?
B.. Have you joined an email list from an organization that keeps track of persecuted Christians around the globe? Do you pray for them?
C.. Would you be prepared to suffer persecution like this? How does on prepare? What about praying? What about developing your relationship with God?
An Angel Helps Peter Escape from Prison (Acts 12:6-19)
6 When Herod was about bring him out, that night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, as guards kept the jail door guarding the jail. 7 Then look! An angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. He hit Peter’s side and woke him up and said, “Get up, right now!” And his chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Tie your belt around your tunic and get your sandals on!” He did so. “Wrap your cloak around and follow me!” 9 And he left and followed. He did not realize that what was really happening was by an angel, but he was thinking that he saw a vision.
10 They passed through the first and second guard. They came upon the iron gate facing the city, which opened by itself for them. They went out and headed down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him. 11 And Peter came to himself and said, “Now I really know that the Lord sent forth his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and all the expectation of the Jewish people.” 12 He took stock of the situation and went to the house of Mary, the mother of John, also named Mark, where there were many gathered together praying.
13 While he knocked on the door of the gate, a servant girl named Rhoda went to answer. 14 But when she recognized Peter’s voice, from her joy she did not open the gate but ran inside and announced that Peter stood at the gate. 15 But they told her, “You’re crazy!” But she kept insisting even more that it was so. They kept telling her, “It’s his angel! 16 But Peter kept knocking. When they opened up and saw him, they were stunned. 17 Motioning to them with his hand to be quiet, he related to them how the Lord led him out of the jail. He told them, “Report this to James and the brothers.” And he left and went to another place.
18 At daybreak, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers. What became of Peter? 19 Herod searched for him and did not find him. He examined the guards and ordered them to be executed. Then he went down from Judea and remained in Caesarea for a while.
Once again, Luke describes Peter’s imprisonment. It is remarkable that Peter was sleeping—so soundly, in fact, that he was groggy all the way through the escape. Was Peter confident that God would recue him, even though God allowed James to die by the sword? This is a remarkable amount of faith. Whether he died or escaped, he enjoyed a confident sleep; he was not restless. As to the grubby prison, we can have no doubt that James and the others were in this awful jail and were kept in similar confinement.
“guards guarded”: that’s a literal translation. To spruce it up a little we could say, “guards watched.”
That very night, before the public trial—Luke wants narrow escapes in his true narrative.
“look!”: that’s an updated translation of the Greek (and Hebrew) term “Behold!”
Angels can do remarkable things. They can appear anywhere, shine a light in the cell, and the guards can be put fast asleep.
An angel, both in Hebrew and Greek, is really a messenger. Angels are created beings, while Jesus was the one who created all things, including angels (John 1:1-4). Renewalists believe that angels appear to people in their dreams or in person. It is God’s ongoing ministry through them to us.
Here is a multi-part study of angels in the area of systematic theology, but first, here is a summary list of the basics:
(a) Are messengers (in Hebrew mal’ak and in Greek angelos);
(b) Are created spirit beings;
(c) Have a beginning at their creation (not eternal);
(d) Have a beginning, but they are immortal (deathless).
(e) Have moral judgment;
(f) Have a certain measure of free will;
(g) Have high intelligence;
(h) Do not have physical bodies;
(i) But can manifest with immortal bodies before humans;
(j) They can show the emotion of joy.
“a light shone”: this is part of the glory of God they bring with them from heaven. But not all of the glory, or we would be blinded as Saul was when a fuller and brighter light shone (Acts 9:4-9).
“He hit Peter’s side”: No doubt he was sleeping on his side, so of course he would hit him on the “non-floor” side or the side facing upward. But the hit did not injure him, but woke him up—or he was still sleepy. I smile when I read of the angel doing that to Peter. Every time Peter is mentioned throughout the four Gospels and Acts, I always think of him as tall and husky. A big man. But of course I haver no proof, other than a few hints here and there.
“Get up, right now!” Or “quickly!” Peter obeyed this time without arguing.
His chains fell off his hands. Angels can do that. Never fear if you are in prison, whether a physical prison building or a prison inside your mind. God can set you free, and the chains can fall right off, whether those chains are around your mind or your hands.
Prepare yourself by putting on your clothes and sandals. Wrap yourself. It was chilly outside at that time of night. Sandals helped him run down the street at night. It is good to know that sometimes God’s commands are practical.
“angel”: see v. 7 for more comments.
Is this really an angel, or is it another vision? Peter was still groggy. The imperfect tense “was thinking” communicates that it took a while for him to get out of his grogginess.
“vision”: the noun horama (pronounced as it appears and where we get our word panorama). It is mostly translated as “vision,” or it could be a supernatural sight (Matt. 17:19; Acts 10:3, 17, 19; 18:9). You’ll know it when you see it, with no room for misinterpretation. And Renewalists believe that visions still happen today. They get them all the time. It’s biblical. But our visions must be submitted to the written Word because our vision may not be right, but self-serving. In contrast, Scripture has stood the test of time. Your dream or vision has not.
The angel made Peter invisible. I have heard of this in the Islamic world. A young woman was stripped and beaten in a would-be honor killing by her father and brother because she had converted to Christ. But she escaped and was covered with the presence of the Lord, so no one saw her nakedness as she ran out in public for safety.
“angel”: see v. 7 for more comments.
“which opened by itself for them”: it is where we get our word automatic. Angels are remarkable beings. They are God’s messengers and are powerful. There are many and numerous stories about angels leading people to safety, even today. One missionary in Africa was left alone in a fragile house. A band of armed men showed up at night and were going to rob, rape, beat, and kill her and her family, while her husband was away. But try as they might, the satanic drug addicts could not break down the flimsy door. They struggled for a long time—hours?—to break it down. Clearly an angel or a squad of them were protecting the defenseless family. The bandits eventually gave up and left.
Please see the post:
Peter came to himself and proclaimed his rescue. God will deliver you too. Please read Psalm 91. It is all about God’s protection over you. Herod did not have the last word.
“Expectation”: it is the Greek noun prosdokia (pronounced prohss-doh-kee-ah); and it combines pros (toward) and dok– (thinking and other things), so it can be said that the Jews of Jerusalem were mentally “leaning in” or “leaning towards” Peter’s conviction or guilty verdict.
It is a pity that the people turned against Peter, but that’s the price he had to pay for an open mind towards Gentiles’ receiving salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But he will return to Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-11).
“angel”: see v. 7 for more comments.
“took stock”: it comes from the one Greek verb sunoraō (pronounced soon-ohr-ah-oh) and combines the preposition sun (with) and the verb horaō (see or notice), so Peter looked around and became aware of the preceding events and where he was in the quiet streets of Jerusalem. That’s is, he finally came to himself and looked around and realized that he was out of the jail cell and an angel did this for him. It was real.
Notice that the verse does not say that the house belonged to Mary’s son John Mark. She owned and ran it. Owning a large house in Jerusalem indicates that Mary was rich. It turns out that John Mark and Barnabas were cousins (Col. 4:10), and Barnabas also owned land on the island of Cyprus, so he too was a landowner, probably wealthy. He sold a field (not his whole estate) and gave away the proceeds (Acts 4:36-37). So the Mary-Barnabas-John Mark family were wealthy landowners. Church history says that John Mark listened to Peter’s preaching and put together the second Gospel (the Gospel of Mark). Now it is clear why John Mark knew enough Greek to write his Gospel. He was wealthy enough to get a full and rounded education. He might have had a private tutor or a tutor who taught others boys with him. An example is Saul. Growing up in Tarsus, he knew Greek fluently. He could have been tutored with other rich Jewish boys in Greek. In any case, Mark must have written down Peter’s stories about Jesus when Peter preached them—or else he remembered them clearly later one. History also says that Mark and Peter worked together in Italy and more specifically in Rome to secure the gospel stories.
“praying”: see v. 5 for a closer look.
Many were gathered there, in Mary’s house. She was the hostess for a local church in Jerusalem. Was she an elder or pastor of sorts? Probably not officially, but it is easy to picture her caring for the needs of people in a leadership capacity. Pastors shepherd people, and elders lead by godly experience that comes with God dealing with them over a long time. Mary was probably carrying out both the role of a shepherd and elder, on some level and to some degree.
See v. 1 for a more formal definition of a church.
I love this section of Scripture! It is humorous and so human. I get the impression that Luke interviewed Rhoda or someone else in the house who retold this true story. (We will learn in Acts 21:17 that “we,” that is Paul, Luke and others, arrived in Jerusalem. That’s when Luke must have surely gathered much information for double writings, Luke-Acts.)
“Rhoda”: Her name means “rose” or “little rosebud.” Let’s not overlook the fact that she was probably a slave girl, but she worked in the household, and slavery back then was not anything like slavery in the New World. Rhoda was like a servant, which is why I translated it with this term.
“recognized”: it is the verb epiginōskō (pronounced eh-pea-gee-noh-skoh, and the “g” is hard as in “get,” and it is used 44 times in the NT). In any case here are the basic meanings, depending on the context: (1) “know exactly, completely”; “know again, recognize”; “acknowledge’; (2) “know, learn, find out, ascertain; notice; perceive, learn of; understand, know, learn to know.” Here the first one is best.
Rhoda rushes away because of her joy and excitement. Luke records another incident when joy and excitement clouded clear judgment of the disciples: “And saying this, he [Jesus] showed them his hands and feet. 41 While they were still not believing from joy and were astonished, he said to them, ‘Do you have food in this place here?’” (Luke 24:40-41)
Jesus asking for something to eat brought them back down to earth.
Wonderful. The fact that they were not expecting Peter may indicate that their prayers were too small. They had just experienced the death of James, so would Peter be rescued? How could that be? Still, the brief scene is charming and humorous.
In v. 15, “you’re crazy!” translates the Greek verb mainomai (pronounced my-noh-my), and our word mania is related to it. It means to be mad (crazy) or out of one’s mind.
“It is his angel”: It is humorously odd that the Messianic believers could more easily believe in an angelic visitation than Peter’s deliverance. Maybe the shock of James’s death still hung heavy over them and clouded or dragged down their faith and expectations of God’s deliverance.
Polhill on the angel comment: “This response reflects the Jewish belief that each person has a guardian angel as his or her spiritual counterpart. It was believed that one’s angel often appeared immediately after the person’s death, and that idea may lurk behind the response to Rhoda. ‘You’ve seen his ghost,’ we would say” (comment on vv. 15-16). In other words, don’t build an elaborate theology about angels on their confusion and doubts.
“stunned”: the Greek verb existēmi (pronounced (ex-ee-stay-mee) can be translated literally as “they were standing beside themselves” Or “they were beside themselves.” Most translations go with “stunned” or “astonished” or “amazed.”
Reporting this to James and the brothers probably means the elders. James was a pillar of the church (Gal. 1:19; see Mark 6:3 and 1 Cor. 15:7). He played a key role in the Jerusalem Council, being openminded towards the Gentiles and not placing too heavy a burden on them (Acts 15:13-21). Longenecker reminds us what church father Hegesippus (a second-century Christian who lived in Jerusalem, then renamed Aelia) said about James, the Lord’s brother: he was nicknamed “camel knees” because he spent so much time in prayer on his knees, so they got calloused (comment on v. 17).
“another place”: scholars do not know where it was. Did he go back up to Galilee, not to give up, but to do a tactical retreat? Somewhere in Judea? Back to the coast, like Caesarea? Eastward across the Jordan River? Antioch? Rome? (The least likely—too far). Corinth? Bock suggests an iterant ministry tour (comments on vv. 16-17). Wherever he went, he eventually returned to Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-11).
“to be executed”: that clause is not in Greek, but it is implied. It could be that they were simply led off to prison and not executed. They were in Jerusalem and may have been Jewish, so maybe some powerful Jewish leaders protected them. However, it is most likely that they were probably Romans. Guards who allowed a prisoner to escape were liable to the same punishment as their escaped prisoner was. Whatever happened to them, no wonder there was “no small disturbance” because of Peter’s escape. Keener suggests that out of the sixteen guards total, only the four who were watching when Peter’s escape would be executed (p. 322).
This phrasing (“no small”) is known as a litotes (pronounced lih-toh-tees), or an understatement that expresses the affirmative by a negative! Luke likes litotes: here, and in Acts 14:17, 28; 15:2; 17:4, 12, 27; 19:11, 23; 20:12; 21:39; 26:19; 27:20; 28:2.
GrowApp for Acts 12:6-19
A.. Heb. 11:34 says that some escaped the sword, while v. 37 says others were killed by the sword. James was executed; Peter escaped miraculously. How do you respond to disappointment when a mixed report of good and bad news hits home?
B.. How mature are you when faced with these puzzling, unanswerable situations? Would you walk away from your walk with God or remain trustful of him?
Divine Judgment on Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:20-23)
20 Now, he was angry with Tyre and Sidon. They appeared together before him. They had persuaded Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, and sought peace because their region was fed by the king’s realm. 21 On the appointed day, Herod put on royal clothes and sat on the throne and delivered an address to them. 22 The people starting shouting out, “The voice of a god and not a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down because he did not give glory to God. He was eaten by worms and breathed out his life-soul.
This story is recorded because Agrippa beheaded James and nearly martyred the lead apostle. Yes, v. 23 says that an angel truck him because he did not glorify God, but the second clear message is not to mess with God’s people!
Specialist scholars can’t figure out how those two coastal towns offended Herod.
“They persuaded Blastus”: No one knows who he was because he was a minor official and his name was common. He took care of the intimate part of Agrippa’s household. The leaders of Tyre and Sidon “persuaded” him, probably by slipping money to him, to win an audience with the king.
“throne”: it is the noun bēma (pronounced bay-mah) and it is used 12 times in the NT and literally means “a step or footsteps, space to set one’s foot on; an elevated place ascended by steps; a tribunal, throne” (Mounce, p. 1048). It is an official’s place or seat of judgment. Think of a judge sitting behind his “bench” today. Therefore it is often means “judgment seat.” Paul uses it in Rom. 14:10 for God’s judgment seat, and in 2 Cor. 5:10, for Christ’s judgment seat. It is clear where he got the image from—right here (and other places). In Acts 12:21, it is used of Herod’s throne, where he delivered a speech. Also see Acts 25:6, 10, 17.
“delivered an address”: it comes from one Greek verb dēmēgoreō (pronounced day-may-gor-eh-oh). It is found only here in the NT. It is a compound, made up of dēmē– (people) and the second half is related to the noun agora (marketplace) and evolved (or devolved) to mean public speaking in a gathering. Picture a politician addressing a crowd in the marketplace.
Only God gets all the glory. However, see my post: Do I Really Know God? He Is Glorious, which says that in the right circumstances he is willing to share it with his followers.
As noted at v. 3, above, Agrippa saw himself under the law of Moses. When one lives under the Old Sinai Covenant, one must expect to be punished by Old Sinai standards.
Please see my post Why Did Ananias and Sapphira Drop Dead? **** which also covers Agrippa and how God punished them under the Old Covenant and how this differs from his method today.
Angels struck people down in the OT: 2 Sam. 12:15 and 2 Kings 19:35. Keener points out that the same verb “strike” is used when an angel struck Peter’s side (v. 7) and Herod’s death (p. 326). I add: God is so careful that one strike can cause someone to wake up, while another strike can cause someone to die.
“Breathed out his soul-life”: my translation comes from one Greek verb, ekpsuchō, which appears in the NT only in Acts 5:5, 10 and here (pronounced ek-psoo-khoh; the “p” in ps- is pronounced). It literally means “out-soul.” It could be translated creatively as “he desouled.” But standard translations are “expired,” “gave up the ghost,” “breathed his last,” or just plain “died.”
“angel”: see v. 7 for more comments.
Agrippa did not shut down the crowd. In contrast, here is how Paul and Barnabas rebuked the crowd for honoring the apostles as gods:
8 In Lystra, a certain man sat with disabled feet, lame from birth, who had never walked. 9 He heard Paul speaking, who fixed his gaze on him. He saw that he had faith to be healed and 10 said with a loud voice, “Get up on your feet, upright!” He jumped up and walked. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul did, they raised their voice in the Lycaonian dialect, “The gods becoming like men have come down to us!” 12 And they began to call Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, since he was the lead speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus of the temple outside the town, along with the crowds, brought to the gates bulls and wreaths and were wanting to sacrifice them.
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and ran into the crowds and shouted out: 15 “Men! Why are you doing this? We too are men with the same natures as you! We proclaim the good news to you to turn away from these empty things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them! (Acts 14:8-15)
Jewish historian Josephus (lived A.D. 37 to post-100) writes of this same deadly incident in Herod Agrippa’s life:
[Agrippa] exhibited shows in honor of Caesar, knowing that this was celebrated as a festival for his welfare. There came together for this occasion a large number of provincial officials and others of distinguished position. On the second day of the shows, Agrippa put on a robe made of silver throughout, of quite wonderful weaving, and entered the theatre at break of day. Then the silver shone and glittered wonderfully as the sun’s first rays fell on it, and its resplendence inspired a sort of fear and trembling in those who gazed at it. Immediately his flatterers called out from various directions, in language which boded him no good, for they invoked him as a god: ‘Be gracious to us!’ they cried. ‘Hitherto we have reverenced you as a human being, but henceforth we confess you to be of more than mortal nature.’ He did not rebuke them, nor did he repudiate their impious flattery. But soon afterward he looked up and saw an owl sitting on a rope above his head and recognized it at once as a messenger of evil as on a former occasion it had been sent as a messenger of good; and a pang of grief pierced his heart. At the same time he was seized with a severe pain in his bowels, which quickly increased in intensity … He was hastily carried into the palace and … when he had suffered continuously for five days from the pain in his belly, he died in the fifty-fourth year of his life and the seventh year of his kingship (Antiquities, 19:343-50, qtd. in Bruce, 1988, comment on vv. 21-23)
Bruce teaches us that the first time Herod saw an owl he was in prison and a German fellow-prisoner told him the bird was a positive sign—he would soon be released. But if he saw it again, he would have only five days to live.
In any case, this account agrees with Luke’s account, but of course Luke’s version is much shorter. And no, it is not likely that Josephus borrowed from Luke, and Josephus wrote too late for Luke to borrow from Josephus. Luke got his story about Agrippa from another source. He traveled with Paul and his team to Caesarea (21:8). It must have been a famous and well-circulated story, since it was so remarkable for a king to die like this.
Keener produces this table:
|Josephus, Ant. 19:343-50||Acts 12:21-23|
|Agrippa was in Caesarea||Agrippa was in Caesarea|
|Games in theater in honor of Caesar; no mention of embassy||The embassy from Tyre and Sidon meet, and a theatre is likely the main place, because the populace of Caesarea is present|
|No mention of Agrippa’s speech before he is struck, but Josephus inserts one afterwards (19:347)||Agrippa is speaking when he is praised|
|Flatterers acclaim Agrippa as divine||Flatterers acclaim Agrippa as divine|
|Agrippa just struck afterwards||Agrippa is struck (by an angel) just afterwards|
|Because he did not deny the acclamation||Because he did not give glory to God|
|He suffered stomach pains for five days||He was eaten by worms|
|He died||He died|
|HT: Keener, p. 324|
Josephus’s version is longer, but there is nothing wrong with Luke’s shorter version, posing no problem for his historical reliability. Just the opposite. Josephus and Luke are remarkably close. The original story must have been remembered, since it was so unusual. So both historians mutually confirm that they recorded the main points accurately.
Progress of the Word of God (Acts 11:24)
24 And the word of God was increasing and multiplying.
This verse ends the third of the so-called six “panels” of Acts, each one lasting about five years. Here they are:
1:1 to 6:7
6:8 to 9:31
9:32 to 12:24
12:25 to 16:5
16:6 to 19:20
19:21 to 28:31
The verb tenses are imperfect, which denotes uncompleted action. To express this unfinished action, the NAS has “the Word of God continued to grow and to be multiplied.” The NIV: “The Word of God continued to grow and flourish.”
Peterson notes that the two verbs “increasing” and “multiplying” appear in 6:7. “Putting the two verbs together with the ‘word of God’ as subject in 12:24, Luke makes it absolutely clear that the gospel growth means church growth in term so conversions” (comments on vv. 24-25).
Renewalists believe that the Word of God, which assumes and describes the charismatic power of the early church, continues to this day.
“word of God”: here the word logos (pronounced either lah-goss or loh-gohss, the latter is more accurate) means how we usually take it: the proclamation of the Word. In their case it was the Old Testament, particularly the Messianic prophecies, and the storyline about Jesus: his life and ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation; in our case the Word is this storyline and the entire Bible, rightly interpreted. Always be a “Word guy” or a “Word girl.” Don’t listen to the voices around the web that dismiss or treat Scripture lightly. It can change your life.
Let’s look more deeply at the noun logos. It is rich and full of meaning. It always has built into it rationality and reason. It has spawned all sorts of English words that end in –log-, like theology or biology, or have the log– stem in them, like logic.
Let’s explore this versatile Greek noun a little more deeply.
I repeat the following comments throughout the entire commentary. Though certain Renewalists may not like to hear it, there is a rational side to the Word of God, and a moment’s thought proves it. The words you’re reading right now are placed in meaningful and logical and rational order. The Bible is also written in that way. If it weren’t, then it would be nonsense and confusing, and we couldn’t understand the gibberish. Even your prophecies have to make logical and rational sense on some level. Your Bible studies and Sunday morning sermons have to, also. Paul’s brief speech to the Gentiles, below, also has Bible-based logic and rational argumentation built into it. People need to be ministered to in this way. God gave us minds and brains and expects us to use them. Your preaching cannot always be flashy and shrieky and so outlandishly entertaining that people are not fed in the long term. Movements like that don’t last over the years without the Word. I have observed this from firsthand experience in certain sectors of the Renewal Movement.
People have the deepest need to receive solid teaching. Never become so outlandishly supernatural and entertaining that you neglect the reasonable and rational side of preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible. Yes, the book of Acts is very charismatic, but it is also very orderly and rational and logical.
On the other side of the word word, people get so intellectual that they build up an exclusive Christian caste of intelligentsia that believe they alone can teach and understand the Word. Not true. Just study Scripture with Bible helps and walk in the Spirit, as they did in Acts. Combining word and Spirit is the balanced life.
GrowApp for Acts 12:24
A.. Without being judgmental, do you belong to a church that preaches the word even when it hurts, or do you belong to a “feel-good” only church?
B.. If you do, do you know how to help out? Pray? Volunteer to teach Sunday School?
Barnabas and Saul Return to Antioch (Acts 12:25)
25 Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, after they carried out their mission, taking along John, also called Mark.
Recall that the Messianic Jewish prophet Agabus gave a predictive prophecy that a famine would hit the whole Roman world (Acts 11:27-30).
27 In those days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and indicated through the Spirit that there was about to be a severe famine in the whole world (which happened during the reign of Claudius). 29 In proportion to anyone of the disciples as he prospered, each one of them determined to send aid to the brothers and sisters residing in Judea. 30 This they did and sent it by the hand of Barnabas and Saul to the elders. (Acts 11:27-30)
The church in Antioch took action to help the Jerusalem church with finances from the wealthy citizens of Antioch. They sent Barnabas and Saul to transport the money to the capital of Israel. Now their service was done, so they returned to Antioch, taking Barnabas’s cousin with him. See v. 12 for a close look at Barnabas and John Mark. He will be mentioned as their assistant (Acts 13:5), but then leaving them (13:13). Paul did not like this decision and considered it a desertion (Acts 15:36-41).
“mission”: it is the Greek noun diakonia (pronounced dee-ah-koh-nee-ah), and it means, depending on the context, “service,” “office,” ministry,” or “aid, support, distribution.” Here I and the NAS and NIV use mission. Yes, we get our word deacon from it (1 Tim. 3:10, 13). It evolved into a position at church for a man (or woman) who did practical service, to help the pastor, so he (or she) could focus on the Word of God. But this does not limit the deacons’ service away from the Word, as we have observed with Philip and Stephen, who preached the gospel.
GrowApp for Acts 12:25
A.. Paul and Barnabas carried out their mission. They were faithful and consistent. How about you? Faithful and consistent? If not, how do you get these fruit?
Observations for Discipleship
An angel of the Lord released Peter, but not James. Why?
One option is that the church fell asleep at the switch and did not offer up constant, eager, fervent, and earnest prayers for James. They may have taken it for granted that God would deliver him. However, I have observed throughout this commentary that Luke omits details and assumes that we would fill in the omissions with the power of the Spirit flowing through the earliest church. So he asks us to assume they were praying. But the first option—their spiritually falling asleep—is still a live one. Pray!
Another option is that they were praying, but God did not answer their prayers. And now that brings up a deep issue. Why wouldn’t he answer their prayers? In Mark 10:35-45, James and John, brothers and two sons of their father Zebedee, asked Jesus for a special place in God’s kingdom. Jesus replied with a question: “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” Cup and baptism meant suffering and death (Mark 14:36). This question to James and John meant: can you go all in with me, even when I suffer? It looks like Jesus’s challenge came true for James, for he died young-ish, while his brother John lived a long time (John 21:23), so says church history and the writing of the Gospel of John and his first three epistles.
When you don’t get your prayers answered, lean in to God. Don’t run away from him. He is your helper, not your mean Father. Our life on earth is brief, compared to eternity. Get an eternal perspective. You have not lost a loved one, because you know where he is. He is with God. You will see him soon enough.
Let me blunt. All of the first generation of apostles and the church are dead. They served their purpose, but now they are gone. However, John and James and Zebedee and his wife (probably Salome) have been enjoying life together in heaven from then until now. No one suffered permanent scarring when James left them early. All healing happened the moment they took off their “earth suits” and put on their spirit bodies, awaiting their resurrection bodies. Eternity is a long “time,” and heaven is a great place.
When you get Up There, in heaven, you will find your early departed loved one laughing and feasting and happy and full of God’s presence. You will be reunited with him and all of your friends and family. It will be the happiest reunion you will ever have, and it will last forever. In fact, you will reach this conclusion: “I wish I had gotten here first! He has been so blessed! I was wrong to get bitter at God!”
Lean in to God, dear Christian. Lean in during your current disappointment. God still has a plan for you.
Bock, Darrell L. Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic, 2007.
Bruce, F. F. Acts. Rev. ed. Eerdmans, 1988. (I also used his earlier work Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Commentary, Eerdmans, 1951, 1952, 1990, 3rd ed.).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger. United Bible Society, 2014.
Keener, Craig, S. Acts. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge UP, 2020.
Longenecker, Richard N. Acts. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. Zondervan, 2007.
Marshall, I. Howard. Acts. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Tyndale, 1980.
Parsons, Mikeal C. and Martin M. Culy. Acts. A Handbook on the Greek Text. Baylor, UP, 2003.
Peterson, David G. The Acts of the Apostles. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Eerdmans, 2009.
Polhill, John B. Acts. New American Commentary. Vol. 26. Broadman and Holman, 1992.
Schnabel, Eckhard, J. Acts. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Zondervan, 2012.