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Bible Commentaries
Acts 12

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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A. The extension of the church to Syrian Antioch 9:32-12:24

As Jerusalem had been the Palestinian center for the evangelization of Jews, Antioch of Syria became the Hellenistic center for Gentile evangelization in Asia Minor and Europe. The gospel spread increasingly to Gentiles, which Luke emphasized in this section of Acts. He recorded three episodes: Peter’s ministry in the maritime plain of Palestine (Acts 9:32-43), the conversion of Cornelius and his friends in Caesarea (Acts 10:1 to Acts 11:18), and the founding of the Antioch church (Acts 11:19-30). Luke then looked back to Jerusalem again to update us on what was happening there (Acts 12:1-23). He concluded this section with another summary statement of the church’s growth (Acts 12:24).

Verses 1-2

"About that time" probably harks back to the famine visit of Barnabas and Saul mentioned in Acts 11:30. If this took place in A.D. 46, and Herod died in A.D. 44, then the event Luke related in chapter 12 antedated the famine visit, and probably all of Acts 11:27-30, by about two years.

". . . Luke seems to have wanted to close his portrayals of the Christian mission within the Jewish world (Acts 2:42 to Acts 12:24) with two vignettes having to do with God’s continued activity on behalf of the Jerusalem church." [Note: Longenecker, p. 407.]

"Herod the king" was Herod Agrippa I whom the Roman emperor Gaius appointed king over Palestine in A.D. 37. He ruled Judea for three years, A.D. 41-44 [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 19:8:2; idem, The Wars . . ., 2:11:6; Bruce, "Chronological Questions . . .," pp. 276-78.] (cf. Acts 12:23), and moved his headquarters to Jerusalem. Herod Agrippa I had Jewish blood in his veins and consistently sought to maintain favor with and the support of the Jews over whom he ruled, which he did effectively. [Note: See Longenecker, pp. 407-8, for a brief biography of Herod Agrippa I.] As the Christian Jews became increasingly offensive to their racial brethren (cf. Acts 11:18), Herod took advantage of an opportunity to please his subjects by mistreating some believers and by executing the Apostle James, the brother of John (cf. Matthew 20:23). This is the only apostle’s death that the New Testament recorded. James was the second Christian martyr whom Luke identified (cf. Acts 7:54-60). Persecution of the Christians now swung from religious to include political motivation.

It is noteworthy that the Christians evidently did not seek to perpetuate the apostalate by selecting a replacement for James as they had for Judas (ch. 1). They probably believed that God would reestablish The Twelve in the resurrestion. [Note: Bock, Acts, p. 422.]

Roman Emperors in New Testament Times
EmperorImportant EventsBible Books Written
Augustus(31 B.C.-A.D. 15)Ordered the census that took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1).
Tiberius(A.D. 15-35)Jesus’ earthly ministry conducted during his reign (Luke 3:1; Luke 20:22; Luke 20:25; Luke 23:2; John 19:12; John 19:15).
Gaius(A.D. 35-41)Appointed Herod Agrippa I king over Palestine (Acts 12:1).Matthew (A.D. 40-70)
Claudius(A.D. 41-54)Extensive famines (Acts 11:28).Expelled the Jews, including Priscilla and Aquilla, from Rome (Acts 18:2).James (A.D. 45-48)
Galatians (A.D. 49)
1 & 2 Thess. (A.D. 51)
Nero(A.D. 54-68)Paul appealed for trial before him (Acts 25:11).Favored Christianity early in his reign, but when Rome burned in 64 A.D. he blamed the Christians and from then on persecuted them.Had Paul and Peter executed (according to early Christian tradition).1 & 2 Cor. (A.D. 56)
Romans (A.D. 57)
Luke (A.D. 57-59)
Prison Epistles (A.D. 60-62)
Acts (A.D. 60-62)
1 Tim. (A.D. 62-66)
Titus (A.D. 62-66)
Mark (A.D. 63-70)
1 Pet. (A.D. 64)
2 Tim. (A.D. 67)
2 Pet. (A.D. 67-68)
Jude (A.D. 67-80)
Galba(A.D. 68-69)Hebrews (A.D. 68-69)
Otho(A.D. 69)
Vitellius(A.D. 69)
Vespasian(A.D. 69-79)Crushed the Jewish revolt against Rome (A.D. 66-70).His son, Titus, destroyed Jerusalem (A.D. 70).
Titus(A.D. 75-81)
Domition(A.D. 81-96)John (A.D. 85-95)
1, 2 & 3 John (A.D. 90-95)
Revelation (A.D. 95-96)
Nerva(A.D. 96-98)

Verses 1-19

The supernatural deliverance of Peter 12:1-19

"Peter’s rescue from prison is an unusually vivid episode in Acts even when simply taken as a story about Peter. Because it is not connected with events in the chapters immediately before and after it, however, it may seem rather isolated and unimportant for Acts as a whole. Yet it becomes more than a vivid account of an isolated miracle when we probe below the surface, for this story is an echo of other stories in Luke-Acts and in Jewish Scripture. An event that is unique, and vividly presented as such, takes on the importance of the typical when it reminds us of other similar events. It recalls the power of God to rescue those chosen for God’s mission, a power repeatedly demonstrated in the past." [Note: Ibid., 2:151.]

Verses 1-24

4. The persecution of the Jerusalem church 12:1-24

The saints in Jerusalem not only suffered as a result of the famine, they also suffered because Jewish and Roman governmental opposition against them intensified as time passed. Luke recorded the events in this section to illustrate God’s supernatural protection and blessing of the church, even though the Christians suffered increased persecution, and Israel’s continued rejection of her Messiah. Looked at another way, this section confirms Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. This is why the church advanced more dramatically in Gentile territory, as the rest of Acts shows. Contrasts mark Acts 12:1-23: James dies, God delivers Peter, and Herod dies.

Verse 3

The Feast of Unleavened Bread was a seven-day celebration that began on the day after Passover each spring. This was one of the three yearly feasts in Jerusalem that the Mosaic Law required all Jewish males to attend. As on the day of Pentecost (ch. 2), the city would have been swarming with patriotic Jews when Herod made his grandstand political move of arresting Peter. These Jews knew Peter as the leading apostle among the Christians and as a Jew who fraternized with Gentiles (ch. 10). This was the third arrest of Peter that Luke recorded (cf. Acts 4:3; Acts 5:18). Note that this persecution of the Christians did not arise from anything they had done but simply because Herod wanted to gain popularity with the Jews.

Verse 4

Four squads of soldiers-four soldiers made up each squad-guarded Peter in six-hour shifts so he would not escape as he had done previously (Acts 5:19-24). Evidently two of the soldiers on each shift chained themselves to Peter and the other two guarded his cell door (Acts 12:6; Acts 12:10). "Passover" was the popular term for the continuous eight-day combined Passover and Unleavened Bread festival.

Verse 5

His captors probably imprisoned Peter in the Roman fortress of Antonia. It stood against the north wall of the temple enclosure and on the western end of this wall. [Note: See the diagram of Herod’s Temple Area near my comments on 3:12-15 above.] Prisons are no match for prayers, however, as everyone was to learn. The Christians prayed fervently about Peter’s fate believing that God could effect his release again. [Note: See Hiebert, pp. 30-32, for some helpful and motivating comments on their praying.]

"The church used its only available weapon-prayer." [Note: Kent, p. 102.]

Verse 6

The night before Peter’s trial and probable execution he lay sound asleep in his cell. How could he sleep soundly when God had allowed James to die? Peter, of course, had a record of sleeping when he should have been praying (cf. Matthew 26:36-46). He had no problem with insomnia. Nevertheless on this occasion God may have wanted him to sleep. Perhaps he did not fear for his life because Jesus had implied that he would live to an old age (John 21:18). Normally the Romans chained a prisoner by his right hand to his guard’s left hand, but each of Peter’s hands was chained to a guard on either side of him. [Note: Barclay, p. 101; Longenecker, p. 409.] Herod wanted to make sure Peter did not get away.

Verse 7

Again an angel of the Lord (Gr. angelos kyriou) visited Peter in prison (Acts 5:19; cf. Acts 8:26; Acts 12:23). A light also illuminated his cell (cf. Acts 9:3). The angel instructed him to get up quickly, and when he did his chains fell from his hands. Peter’s guards slept through the whole event.

"Luke clearly regards Peter’s escape as a miracle, a divine intervention by a supernatural visitant (cf. Luke 2:9) . . ." [Note: Neil, p. 149.]

Thomas Watson, the Puritan preacher, reportedly said, "The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:452-53.]

Verses 8-9

The angel coached Peter as a parent to get dressed and to follow him out of the prison. Peter was so groggy that he did not know that he was really being set free. He thought he might be having another vision (Acts 10:10, cf. Acts 9:10).

Verses 10-11

Luke related this incident as though God was orchestrating Peter’s release (cf. Acts 5:18-20; Acts 16:23-29). There is no reason to take the account as anything less than this. Once outside the prison and left alone by his angelic guide Peter realized that his release was genuine. God did here for Peter what He had done for the Israelites in leading them out of their Egyptian prison in the Exodus. God’s enemies can never frustrate His plans (Matthew 16:18).

Why did God allow Herod to kill James but not Peter?

"The answer is that this is the sovereign will of God. He still moves like this in the contemporary church. I have been in the ministry for many years, and I have seen the Lord reach in and take certain wonderful members out of the church by death. And then there are others whom He has left. Why would He do that? If He had asked me, from my viewpoint as the pastor, I would say that He took the wrong one and He left the wrong one! But life and death are in the hands of a sovereign God. . . . This is His universe, not ours. It is God’s church, not ours. The hand of a sovereign God moves in the church." [Note: McGee, 4:562.]

Verse 12

Peter went directly to a home where he may have known that Christians would be praying for him. This was the house of Mary the mother of John (Jewish name) Mark (Greek name). Barnabas sold his land and gave it to the church (Acts 4:37), but Mary kept her house. This shows that communal living was not required among the early Christians. John Mark was the man who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5). He was Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10) who travelled with Barnabas to Cyprus when Paul chose Silas as his companion for his second missionary journey (Acts 15:37-39). Mark later accompanied Paul again (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24), as well as Peter (1 Peter 5:13). According to early church tradition he wrote the Gospel that bears his name, served as Peter’s interpreter in Rome, and founded the church in Alexandria, Egypt. [Note: The Ecclesiastical History . . ., pp. 34-35, 79, 188.]

Verses 13-16

This amusing incident is very true to life. Rhoda’s (Rosebud’s) joy at finding Peter at the gate, which admitted people from the street into a courtyard, overpowered her common sense. Instead of letting him in she ran inside the house and announced his arrival. The believers could not believe that God had answered their prayers so directly and dramatically. Peter meanwhile stood outside still trying to get in. Finally they let him in hardly able to believe that it really was Peter.

Evidently the Christians thought Peter’s guardian angel had appeared (Acts 12:15; Daniel 10:21; Matthew 18:10). Another explanation is that we should understand "angel" as a reference to a human messenger that Peter had sent. A third possibility is that the Christians thought that Herod had killed Peter and that the apostle’s spirit had come to visit them. [Note: See Witherington, p. 387, for additional options.]

Verse 17

The James Luke mentioned here was the half brother of Jesus (cf. Acts 15:13; Acts 21:18; Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9; Galatians 2:12: James 1:1). He became the foremost leader of the Jerusalem church after Peter’s departure. Peter proceeded to disappear from Jerusalem. Scripture does not tell us where he went immediately. Probably he left Judea (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:5). Many other believers in Jerusalem were not present in Mary’s house that night. Peter wanted to be sure they learned of his release, too.

Earlier Peter had returned from prison to the temple to resume preaching at the Lord’s command (Acts 5:19-21). Now the Jews were much more hostile to the Christians. Saul had previously left Jerusalem for his own safety (Acts 9:29-30), and this time Peter followed his example. Peter had become infamous among the Jews in Jerusalem for associating with Samaritans and Gentiles as well as for being the leader of the Christians. Corinth and Rome are two places that Peter evidently visited (1 Corinthians 1:12; 1 Corinthians 9:5; 1 Peter 5:13), and various church fathers wrote that he ministered throughout the Jewish Diaspora. [Note: For many sources, see Longenecker, p. 411.] Peter also may have been in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21), and he was in Jerusalem again for the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7-11; Acts 15:14), though perhaps only as a visitor.

Verses 18-19

Understandably there was "no small disturbance" (a litotes, cf. Acts 14:28; Acts 15:2; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:12; Acts 19:23-24) when the authorities found Peter’s cell empty. Herod evidently concluded that the guards had cooperated with Peter’s escape or at least had been negligent. Roman guards who allowed their prisoners to escape suffered the punishment of those prisoners. [Note: Barclay, p. 101; Witherington, p. 389, footnote 107.] These guards died. Herod then left Judea (the old Jewish name for the area around Jerusalem) and returned to Caesarea, the nominal capital of the Roman province of Judea. One wonders if Peter’s escape played a role in Herod’s decision to leave the center of Jewish life and so save face. Even a Roman authority could not prevent the church from growing.

Verse 20

King Herod had become displeased with his subjects who lived in Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast north of Caesarea. Because these towns depended on Galilee, part of King Herod’s country, for their food supply, they were eager to get on his good side again. One writer pointed out parallels between King Herod and the King of Tyre in Ezekiel 27:17; Ezekiel 28:4. [Note: Mark R. Strom, "An Old Testament Background to Acts 12:20-23," New Testament Studies 32:2 (April 1986):289-92.] Blastus, Herod’s chamberlain (Gr. koitonos), was one of the king’s trusted servants.

Verses 20-23

The supernatural death of Herod Agrippa I 12:20-23

Herod viewed Peter as the enemy of the unbelieving Jews, which he was not. Really Herod was the enemy of the believing Christians. Having set the innocent Christian leader free, God now put the guilty Jewish Roman leader to death.

Verses 21-23

Josephus recorded this incident in more detail than Luke did. He added that Herod appeared in the outdoor theater at Caesarea. He stood before the officials from Tyre, Sidon, and his other provinces on a festival day dressed in a silver robe. When the sun shone brilliantly on his shiny robe some flatterers in the theater began to call out words of praise acclaiming him a god. Immediately severe stomach pains attacked him. Attendants had to carry him out of the theater, and five days later he died. [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 18:6:7; cf. 19:8:2.] Doctor Luke saw Herod’s attack as a judgment from God and gave a more medical explanation of his death than Josephus did. One writer suggested that Herod suffered from appendicitis that led to peritonitis complicated by roundworms. [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 213; cf. Longenecker, p. 413.] Another diagnosed him as having a cyst caused by a tapeworm. [Note: Neil, p. 152.] More important than the effect was the cause, namely, Herod’s pride (cf. Isaiah 42:8; Daniel 4:30).

"The pride of man had ended in the wrath of God." [Note: Barclay, p. 103.]

"The angel of the Lord who had delivered Peter was now to smite Herod the persecutor. He had ’smitten’ Peter, and we see that the same divine visitation may be for life or for death. Herod Agrippa is the NT antitype of Pharaoh and Sennacherib, the oppressor smitten by the angel of the Lord." [Note: Rackham, p. 381.]

McGee regarded him as a miniature of Antichrist. [Note: McGee, 4:565.]

Verse 24

The continuing growth of the church 12:24

In contrast to Herod and like Peter, the word of the Lord, the gospel, continued to grow and multiply through God’s supernatural blessing. Therefore the church continued to flourish in Jewish territory as well as among the Gentiles. This verse is another of Luke’s progress reports that concludes a section of his history (cf. Acts 6:7; Acts 9:31). Nothing seemed capable of stopping the expansion of the church. Corruption and contention in its ranks did not kill it (Acts 5:1-11; Acts 6:1-7). Its religious enemies could not contain it (Acts 4:1; Acts 8:1; Acts 8:3; Acts 11:19). Even Roman officials could not control it (Acts 12:1-23). In the next section we see that it broke out into Asia Minor. Jesus’ prediction that even the gates of Hades could not overpower it was proving true (Matthew 16:18; Acts 1:8). God’s purposes will prevail!

1. The divine appointment of Barnabas and Saul 12:25-13:3

Luke recorded these verses to set the stage for the account of Barnabas and Saul’s first missionary journey that follows.

"The world ministry which thus began was destined to change the history of Europe and the world." [Note: Blaiklock, p. 102.]

B. The extension of the church to Cyprus and Asia Minor 12:25-16:5

Luke recorded that Jesus came to bring deliverance to the Jews and to the whole world (Luke 4:14-30). In his Gospel, Luke told the story of Jesus’ personal ministry, primarily to the Jews. In Acts the emphasis is mainly on Jesus’ ministry, through His apostles, to the Gentile world. As the mission to the Gentiles unfolds in Acts we can see that Luke took pains to show that the ministry to the Gentiles paralleled the ministry to the Jews. He did this by relating many things that the missionaries to the Gentiles did that were very similar to what the missionaries to the Jews did. This demonstrates that God was indeed behind both missions and that they are really two aspects of His worldwide plan to bring the gospel to all people and to build a worldwide church.

The present section of text (Acts 12:25 to Acts 16:5) does more than just present the geographical expansion of the church into Asia Minor (modern western Turkey). Primarily it shows the legitimacy of dealing with Gentiles as Gentiles rather than through Judaism before and after their conversion. It becomes increasingly clear that the church and Judaism are two separate entities. God was not renewing the remnant in Israel and refreshing it with Gentile’s who believed in Jesus. He was creating a new body: the church. This section culminates in the Jerusalem Council (ch. 15) in which the issue of the Gentiles’ relationship to the church came to a head. The last verse (Acts 16:5) summarizes these events and issues.

Verse 25

After delivering the Antioch Christians’ gift to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30), Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch taking with them John Mark (Acts 12:12) who was Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10). The round trip between Antioch and Jerusalem would have been a distance of about 560 miles. This verse bridges what follows with the earlier account of the virile Antioch church (Acts 11:19-30). The reference to John Mark here also connects the preceding section about the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:1-24) with what follows. The effect is to give the reader the impression that what follows has a solid basis in both the Gentile Antioch church and the Jewish Jerusalem church, which it did.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Acts 12". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/acts-12.html. 2012.
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