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Tuesday, June 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Acts 12

Dunagan's Commentary on the BibleDunagan's Commentary

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I. Herod's plot (12:1-4)

II. Herod's defeat (12:5-19)

III. Herod's death (12:20-24)

Verse 1

12:1 "Now about that time" "Perhaps the time referred to is the time of the famine, predicted by Agabus. Perhaps the time is the time Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem. It is near the year 44 A.D." (Reese p. 426). "Herod the king" This is Herod Agrippa I. He appears only here in Act_12:1-25 in pages of the New Testament. He was born around 10 B.C., the son of Aristobulus and Bernice, and thus he was the grandson of Herod the Great and a brother of the Herodias who asked for John the Baptist's head. When the emperor Caligula died, Herod Agrippa I supported the claims of Claudius to be the next emperor, and when Claudius become emperor he repaid Agrippa by confirming him in his kingdom. Claudius became emperor early in 41 A.D., and added Judea and Samaria to the lands that Agrippa I already ruled. This appointment and confirmation made Agrippa I an independent sovereign as far as any Roman provincial governor was concerned. "When Agrippa, newly confirmed as king of Judea, arrived in Judea, he presented himself to the Jewish people as a devout worshipper, almost Pharisaic in his piety. He gained the favor of his new subjects by attaching himself to the companies of Nazarites when they came to the Temple to offer sacrifices on the completion of their vows" (Reese p. 427). "The king" Luke accurately uses the title that the emperor had given him.

12:1 "Laid hands" The same expression is used in 4:3 and 5:18 and indicates an arrest in which the prisoner is roughly handled. "On some who belonged to the church" Early in the book of Acts the persecutions have come from the Jewish religious leaders, but this time persecution is encouraged by a civil ruler. From this point in Acts, it has been some eight years since Stephen was murdered and the persecution of Act_8:1 ff. In view of Herod's character and what is said in the rest of this section, it would appear that Herod started this persecution so he would win political favor with the Jews. Such a move would make him popular with both the Sadducees and Pharisees. "He must have been well informed about Jesus and His followers, for his uncle Antipas had known and tried Jesus ( Luk_23:7 ff; Act_4:27 ). He is also known to have been anxious to preserve the Roman peace in Palestine and therefore to have disliked minorities which threatened to disrupt it" (Stott p. 207).

Verse 2

12:2 "He had James the brother of John put to death with the sword" This was James the son of Zebedee, one of the original twelve apostles. Being executed with the sword either meant being beheaded or pierced through. It also indicated that the sentence had been pronounced by a civil ruler (compare with the case of John the Baptist). The death of James surely must have been a tremendous blow to the early Christians. McGarvey notes, "To an uninspired historian, it would have furnished matter for many pages of eloquent writing; what shall we think, then, of Luke as a writer, who disposes of it in a sentence of seven words in the Greek? Surely there is an indication here of some supernatural restraint upon the impulses of the writer, and it is accounted for only by his inspiration" (p. 232).

Verse 3

12:3 "When he saw it pleased the Jews" "Luke is telling us that Herod's motives were simply political expediency. It wasn't that he had any real anti-Christian fanaticism, nor was he particularly interested in justice or protecting the innocent" (Reese p. 428). Yes, there are politicians who really have no set convictions except to do whatever is necessary to stay in office. At this point in history Herod ruled over the largest realm in Palestine since the days of Herod the great some forty-five years previously. "He proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread" Notice that James was arrested first, which indicates that Peter was not viewed as the leader or pope of this new movement. The days of Unleavened Bread were seven days that followed the Passover celebration. Herod may have arrested Peter during this celebration because a larger number of Jews than ordinary would be in Jerusalem and this meant more people would be able to see his supposed "zeal for the Law".

Verse 4

12:4 "Delivering him to four squads of soldiers" Each squad consisted of four men, thus sixteen soldiers guards were responsible for his safekeeping around the clock. "If the question be asked why such security measures were taken for this prisoner, it must be remembered that this is the third time Peter has been in jail; and the last time he escaped through what must have appeared to the authorities to be mysterious circumstances ( Act_4:3 ; Act_5:18 )" (Reese p. 429). These soldiers may have taken shifts, for the night was divided into four different watches, each three hours long. We do know that two soldiers were in the cell with him (12:6) and two more kept watch before the door. "Intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people" The trial and execution were delayed because it was deemed improper to do such during the feast. "Passover" Here the King James Version has "Easter", yet the Greek word here is the same word translated other places for "Passover". Clearly, Herod who is arresting Christians is not observing "Easter". The translation "Easter" entered the King James Version because the translators were told that they were not to change any of the accepted terms found in the Bishops' Bible (which was more or less the basis for the KJV). Before that version, Tyndale and Coverdale had used the word "Easter" at this place; and hence, it had become a customary rendering. Actually, the word "Easter" is Anglo-Saxon in origin. "The Anglo-Saxon races had a spring festival, celebrations at which they offered sacrifice to the Teutonic goddess Estera (or Eastre). She was the goddess of light and spring, so the sacrifice and festival was observed in April; and by coincidence the time of the festival corresponded roughly with the time of Christ's resurrection. Sometime about the 8th century, the name Easter was transferred to the Christian festival which had by then been observed some 300 years in honor of the resurrection of Christ" (Dale p. 138). Thus the annual celebration of Jesus' resurrection did not begin until some 500 years after lifetime of the apostles. Remember, the early Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on every first day of the week ( Act_20:7 ; 1Co_11:26 ). They did not celebrate His resurrection, birth, or any other event in His life with a special service one time a year.

Verse 5

12:5 "But prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God" The adverb "fervently" implies both intensity and continuity. This term has been previously used of Jesus' intense agony in Gethsemane ( Luk_22:44 ). "Here we have two communities, the world and the church, arrayed against one another, each wielding an appropriate weapon. On the one side was the authority of Herod, the power of the sword and the security of the prison. On the other side, the church turned to prayer, which is the only power which the powerless possess" (Stott pp. 208-209). Notice that the church will be astonished when God answered! (12:15) "Nevertheless the spiritual power which prayer unleashed was more than a match for Herod" (Kent p. 102).

Verse 6

12:6 "On the very night" On the very night before his scheduled trial and execution. "Peter was sleeping" It is difficult to sleep when the mind is filled with worry and apprehension, yet Peter does not seem to be alarmed about his impending death. Notice that Peter probably does not expect deliverance because God had not intervened when James had been arrested. Later when Paul is arrested, he is singing. Thus Luke pictures both Peter and Paul as being equally defiant of death. "Between two soldiers, bound with chains" "Luke deliberately stresses the thoroughness with which the apostle was being guarded against escape or rescue. Normally it was considered enough for a prisoner to be handcuffed to one soldier" (Stott p. 209). From a human perspective this certainly looks like a hopeless situation for Peter.

Verse 7

12:7 "Behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared" "God is able to deliver in spite of all the precautions of men, soldiers, prison, chains, iron gates. The wisdom of God so surpasses the wisdom of men, that He is able to overcome even the most ingenious plans of men" (Reese p. 432). In our own times people have tried to legislate God out of the schools, and so on, but God can go anywhere He pleases! "Struck Peter's side and woke him up" Peter was a very sound sleeper! "His chains fell off his hands" The instant removal of the chains without a key is a miraculous element.

Verse 8

12:8 Peter is instructed to put on his outer garments and his sandals. "When lying down to sleep, people of the first century naturally laid aside their outer garments (or used them for a cover), loosened the belt that bound the inner garment to the waist, and took off their sandals" (Reese p. 433).

Verse 9

12:9 Peter thinks he is involved in some sort of vision, (remember such had happened to him in Act_10:1-48 .) "Peter may have felt as the proverb states, ‘Don't pinch me, I may be dreaming'" (Reese p. 433). This does reveal how "realistic" many visions were (compare with 2Co_12:1 ff). Notice that his release was accomplished by a series of swift actions, and that the angel does not have the attitude, "Hey, God can do anything, no need to rush".

Verse 10

12:10 "The first and second guard" The soldiers outside the cell were apparently stationed at intervals in the entry way to the prison cell. These guards they passed without the guards even seeing them (compare with Luk_24:16 ). "The iron gate" The gate simply opened by itself! The Greek word here is automate, from which we get the English "automatically". "There was no key used, nor force of any kind like a battering ram or a kick. As they approached it, it just swung open to allow them to pass" (Reese p. 434). Wow! God is so powerful that He does not even have to kick the door open! "Went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him" The angel stayed with Peter until he was one block from the prison. He stayed with him until there was no further need for supernatural aid

Verse 11

12:11 "Peter came to himself" That is, he realized that this was no vision! He was actually free and outside the prison walls, and he knew this for sure. "And from all that the Jewish people were expecting" That is, Peter knew that the Jewish people wanted another execution (12:3). Many in Jerusalem were talking about and anticipating Peter's death. Remember, many probably hated Peter because he had taken the gospel to Gentiles.

Verse 12

12:12 "When he realized this" "He quickly surveys the situation as a whole, weighing the possibilities of what he should do" (Reese p. 435). "The house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark" This family of Christians had stayed in Jerusalem despite the persecution of Act_8:1 ff. This is the Mark who wrote the gospel of Mark, and who would later travel with Paul and Peter ( Act_13:5 ; Act_15:39 ; 2Ti_4:11 ; 1Pe_5:13 ). Mark was his Latin name and John was his Hebrew name. In Col_4:10 , this Mark will be called the "cousin" of Barnabas. "Where many were gathered together and were praying" It appears to have been a large house and one that was frequently used by the Christians in Jerusalem.

Verse 13

12:13 "The task of being doorkeeper was commonly assigned to a young female slave. Visitors, upon arriving at the door, would call out. If the girl recognized the voice, she would unbolt the door and allow them to enter" (Reese pp. 436-437). The name "Rhoda" is Greek and means "a rose". "Came to answer" Is an idiom of the time that meant "came to answer the door".

Verse 14

12:14 "Because of her joy she did not open the gate" This is both humorous and true to life. She is so excited that she forgets to let Peter in! "She is so eager to share the good news she feels that she fails for the moment to have presence of mind to open to the one standing outside" (Reese p. 437).

Verse 15

12:15 "You are out of your mind" Notice that they had been praying for Peter-but not for his release. The last person they expected to see at the door that night was Peter. Do we pray for too little? "It is ironical that the group who was praying fervently and persistently for Peter's deliverance should regard was mad the person who informed them that their prayers had been answered! Rhoda's simple joy shines brightly against the dark background for the church's incredulity" (Stott p. 211). "But she kept insisting that it was so" Good for her! "They kept saying, ‘It is his angel'" Note the Greek word here is the word for angel, it is not the word for ghost or spirit. Historians tell us that Jewish people of the time had a common belief that every Israelite had a guardian angel, and such an angel could assume the human word of the person he guarded. "The angel is here conceived of as a man's spiritual counterpart, capable of assuming his appearance and being mistaken for him" (Stott p. 211). Carefully observe that these Christians had held on to this old Jewish belief, even though there is no biblical evidence for it. The Holy Spirit is not endorsing this idea, rather He is simply recording what these people said (this text is not endorsing such an idea), and on this occasion, they were wrong. Peter was actually at the door!

Verse 16

12:16 "But Peter continued knocking" This is also humorous, why they are debating about "who" or "what" is at the door, Peter keeps on knocking! Will someone let the poor man in! In addition, notice the suspense. First, what was Peter thinking? "Hey, open the door before some Roman soldier sees me!" And secondly, who on the inside of the house really wanted to open the door-especially if you believe that some supernatural being was on the other side.

Verse 17

12:17 "Motioning to them with his hand" This is what a person does when they wish the audience to become silent so he can be heard. "Report these things to James and the brethren" The James referred to is probably James the Lord's brother who becomes a prominent member in the Jerusalem congregation ( Gal_1:19 ). The brethren may either refer to the rest of the church in Jerusalem that obviously could not all fit into Mary's residence that night and or the other apostles. "Departed and went to another place" Mary's home probably would not have been a safe place, and maybe one of the first homes searched as the authorities looked for Peter. We are not told where Peter went or even if he left Jerusalem, however in Act_15:1-41 he is in Jerusalem.

Verse 18

12:18 "There was no small disturbance among the soldiers" Peter is not discovered missing until dawn, which indicates that Peter was probably delivered around midnight and the soldiers did not change shifts until dawn. What we have in this verse is sheer panic among the soldiers as they rush around desperately trying to find the prisoner. This searching is frantic because all these soldiers will lose their lives if Peter is not found ( Act_16:27 ; Act_27:42 ). 12:19 Notice that Herod is given an opportunity to believe. He should have learned that as his grandfather had failed to kill the Messiah, so he had failed. The soldiers are subject to cross-examination and then are executed. Herod refused to believe the obvious, that is, Peter had been delivered by God's own hand. Herod was determined not to believe that a miracle had happened so he deliberately chooses to execute several innocent soldiers. There is also another lesson here. Siding with evil men in power is safe and comfortable until God acts!

Verse 19


"Although Herod's victim had escaped his clutches, Herod himself was still at large" (Stott p. 212).

12:19 "He went down from Judea to Caesarea" Josephus informs us that Herod died in 44 A.D. Apparently he caused no further persecution against Christians. The reader should note that Josephus also describes Herod's death and informs us that he was in Caesarea at the time. Remember, this is where the Roman governor lived when he was not present in Jerusalem.

Verse 20

12:20 "He was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon" The phrase very angry indicates that he was angry enough to go to war with them. We are not told what the cause of this anger was. Tyre and Sidon were cities in the Roman province of Syria, and therefore were not in Herod's jurisdiction. But the situation was very serious, for ambassadors from both cities came to Herod. "Having won over Blastus the king's chamberlain" "Blastus" is a Roman name, and a chamberlain was an officer in charge of the king's bed chamber and thus one of his confidential aides. They won him over possibly through means of bribery. Eventually Blastus convinced Herod to give them an audience and then they arrived they pleaded for terms of peace. "Because their country was fed by the king's country" "Tyre and Sidon had large populations, and there was not enough farm land nearby to raise food for all the people. Therefore the cities were dependent on Galilee for their food supply. Now Galilee was part of Herod's kingdom" (Reese p. 442). Many people in Tyre and Sidon would starve to death if Herod decided to act upon his anger.

Verse 21

12:21 Josephus tells us that this appointed day was the second day of the sports and games held in Caesarea, at Herod's insistence, in honor of Claudius Caesar (Antiquities, XIX. 8.2.) "His royal apparel" Josephus tells us he had put on a robe of silver tissue, such a Caligula used to wear at banquets.

Verse 22

12:22 "The people kept crying out" The verb tense shows that they kept it up. "The voice of a god and not a man" And this is exactly the type of praise and false flattery that Herod so earnestly wanted. This was probably proclaimed by the Gentiles in the audience who would address Caesar in similar language. Yet God holds rulers accountable and expects them not only to rule justly, but also to recognize their place under His rule. Herod does not correct the audience and neither does he reject their impious flattery. Note the contrast between Herod, who longed for such worship, and Peter who immediately rejected it in Act_10:1-48 .

Verse 23

12:23 "Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory" God holds pagan rulers accountable! Both Luke and Josephus agree that God's judgment fell on Herod because he glorified himself rather than God. It is a terrible crime against God to not give Him the glory. Are we seeking glory for ourselves or for Him? "He was eaten by worms and died" These may have been intestinal worms similar in size and appearance to what we call earthworms. Josephus informs us how a terrible pain in the abdomen seized Herod as he addressed the crowd. He collapsed in his box at the theater, and was carried out a dying man. He lingered five days before he died. At this death, his son Agrippa II was seventeen, and power was shifted into the hands of a Roman governor, which gave the Christians a temporary respite from persecution.

Verse 24

12:24 Herod had intended to bring Christianity to an end, but the church instead only grew. Notice that the church grows when the word of the Lord is spread by Christians. There is no substitute for personal evangelism.

Verse 25

12:25 Barnabas and Saul come back from Jerusalem to Antioch with John Mark after spreading the relief funds that were mentioned in 11:27-30. Thus now we are prepared for the first missionary journey that is mentioned in the next chapter.

"Indeed, one cannot fail to admire the artistry with which Luke depicts the complete reversal of the church's situation. At the beginning of the chapter Herod is on the rampage-arresting and persecuting; at the end he is himself struck down and dies. The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing. Such is the power of God to overthrow hostile human plans and to establish His own in their place. Tyrants may be permitted for a time to boast and bluster, oppressing the church and hindering the spread of the gospel, but they will not last. In the end, their empire will be broken and their pride abased" (Stott p. 213).

Bibliographical Information
Dunagan, Mark. "Commentary on Acts 12". "Dunagan's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dun/acts-12.html. 1999-2014.
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