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Acts 12

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

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Verses 1-25

Acts 12:1 . About that time, when the word of the Lord prevailed so remarkably in Antioch and the northern provinces, and when Paul and Barnabas had brought alms to Jerusalem, as in Acts 12:25, Herod the king stretched forth his hand to vex certain of the church, by imprisonment, fines, and banishment. This was not Herod the Askelonite, whose son was slain among the infants of Bethlehem; nor Herod Antipas, who had beheaded John; but Herod Agrippa, brother of the incestuous Herodias, the son of Aristobulus, and grandson of Herod the Great. The splendour of names gives splendour to crimes. The fourth Herod, before whom Paul spake, was son of this Antipas. Acts 26:0.

Acts 12:2 . He killed James the brother of John. Eusebius cites here a remark from a book of St. Clement, now lost, that when St. James was arraigned, the person who had accused him observing the courage with which he bore his testimony of the christian religion, was converted, and suffered martyrdom at the same time. In the death of this apostle was fulfilled the prophecy of our Saviour to his mother, when she had solicited that her two sons might sit, the one on his right hand and the other on his left. “Ye shall drink indeed, said he, of the cup of which I drink.” Matthew 20:23.

Acts 12:3 . He proceeded further to take Peter also. Those two apostles were the pillars of the church in Jerusalem; they stood in the front, like Jachin and Booz in the ancient temple. The Lord having allowed one to fall, would not suffer a second to be cut off. Peter had a great work to do in following “the saints, scattered abroad throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia, to whom also he addresses his first epistle. He had yet to move in his western sphere with Mark, among the churches of Greece and Rome.

Acts 12:4 . When he had apprehended him, he put him in prison intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people, that the dogs, the concision, might shout against him, as once they had shouted against his Lord and Master. This reservation of Peter, it is thought, was not for fear of tumult, but that the religious services of the paschal week might not be disturbed. Meanwhile, he placed a guard over him of four quaternions of soldiers, that is four times four, a strong guard equal to any duty over a prisoner indicted for the highest crimes against the state. The word Easter in our version is copied from more ancient versions. But Dr. Comber, who has professedly written on the Common Prayer, learned no doubt in Latin and Greek, but ignorant of English, has strangely failed in giving the etymon of that word. I have by me an Anglo-Saxon sermon in die sancta pascæ, in which the word is of frequent occurrence. Men tha leofostan. gelome eow is ge-saed ymbe ures Hælendes ærist. hu he on thisum andweardan daeye æfter his throwung mightiglice of deathe aras. That is, in modern English, “Men beloved, discourses have often been addressed to you about our Healer’s Erist, [Easter] how he on this festival day, after his throes, mightily of death arose.” The word Easter then is equivalent to Christ, the firstbegotten from the dead; or the firstfruits of them that slept. See the Lexicons on the word, arra, arrhabo, αρραβων , ערבון arabon. French arrhes, earnest, gage, pledge. Dr. Comber equally fails in telling us that Lent is derived from the Saxon Langtene, or long fast.

Acts 12:5 . Prayer was made without ceasing. Fervent and importunate prayer was made by the whole church on Peter’s behalf. With the united strength of their whole souls they stormed heaven, and took him by force out of Herod’s hand. When the church is plunged into deep perplexities, the only help she can hope for must come in the way of prayer. When God suffers any of the ministers of the church to fall under the rage of persecutors, it is the church’s duty to wrestle by prayer in an extraordinary manner on their behalf; and when God intends to bestow any extraordinary mercy upon his church, he stirs up the hearts of his people to pray for it in a very extraordinary manner. That such prayers are prevalent for the preservation of very eminent members of the church, we learn from those words of St. Paul: I know that this shall turn to my preservation, through your prayers. Philippians 1:19. I hope, through your prayers, I shall be given to you. Philemon 1:22. The word εκτενης primarily signifies extended, but because the fervency of our desire is usually the cause that we pray much for any thing; therefore to pray ectenos, is also to pray fervently and importunately. Luke 22:14. Thus the litany, or supplication of the church, frequently, for some space, to several matters applying the same words, We beseech thee to hear us, and the like, is, in the ancient liturgies, called ectenes, the vehement, fervent, importunate form of supplication. And hence the deacon was wont to call often upon the people, Ectenos deethomen, let us pray “earnestly;” and then again, ectenesteron, “more earnestly.” The same vehemence and earnest devotion does our church call for in these words, “Let us pray;” warning us thereby to lay aside all wandering thoughts, and to attend to the great work we are about. See the notes on Luke 18:1.

Acts 12:6 . Peter was sleeping. How soft and secure a pillow is a good conscience, even in the confines of death, and in the very jaws of danger. God takes most care of Peter, when he was able to take least care of himself. When asleep, and altogether insensible of his danger, God was awake, and acting effectually in order to his deliverance. Happy men, who have God with them in prison: such are prisoners of hope indeed, and shall certainly experience divine help. The more a good man is treated like a criminal, the more ought he to comfort himself in bearing the resemblance of Christ, humbled under the injustice of men. He who can sleep in such circumstances as these, shows plainly the extraordinary peace and tranquility of his mind in the greatest dangers, his exceeding contempt of life, and his firm trust and confidence in God.

Acts 12:10 . When they had passed the first and second ward. Castles and strong places had ward after ward, so that when the assailants had taken one castle, they had a second and a third to take. The castle of Chepstow in Monmouthshire still subsists as a fair specimen. Atheism with all its finesse cannot here find a plea how Peter could have been delivered from chains, and walls, and wards so strong, without a supernatural agency. Critics understand the Greek word, φυλακην , phulaken, as signifying both a prison, and confinement, which occasions some variation of expositions.

Acts 12:12 . He came to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, the very house where they were spending the night in prayer. Who will dare to limit the Holy One of Israel. How soon was prayer turned to praise!

Acts 12:15 . It is his angel. Such was the faith of the ancient world with regard to the existence of angels, and the spirits of men after death. The doctrine is fully admitted by Hesiod and Plutarch, by Indians, and by philosophers. And, as the love of a future existence is the first law of nature, why should we think that the Creator has written a lying sentiment on every heart? The word angel properly designates an immortal spirit.

Acts 12:17 . Show these things to James, the son of Alpheus, then the presiding apostle of the church in Jerusalem.

Acts 12:20 . Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon. Polybius and Diodorus indicate that this anger was a menace of war: those cities were under the Romans, but still preserved a semblance of liberty. Though Luke assigns no cause for this anger, yet he names Peter as having fled to Cæsarea, the adjacent city. Josephus speaks of Herod’s coming to that city to celebrate the games he had established in honour of Cæsar. Antiq. Jud. lib. 17. Peace and reconciliation being effected, the games ensued; and Herod, on an appointed day, in his robes wove with threads of silver, made a popular oration. The people, maddened with wine, said, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.” Alas, alas, neither Herod nor they were aware that the great and holy One was about to visit them for their awful presumption.

Acts 12:23 . The angel of the Lord smote him. That Herod was smitten by the Lord, immediately on his receiving this impious flattery, is evident from Josephus, who says that after awhile he saw the owl, which was the messenger of his calamity; that a sudden torment came upon him, and that thereupon he instantly tells the same auditors that he must die. Josephus does not say that he was eaten up of worms, but that he had vehement torments in his bowels, which encreasing upon him, in five days he died; and they in that time might breed worms in him, as he confesses they did in his grandfather. Many similar examples of persecutors of the christian faith, we have in church history. Tertullian says of one Claudius Heminianus a persecutor, that when worms broke forth of him whilst he was alive, he said, let no man know it, lest the christians should rejoice. Eusebius also says of Maximinian, that sudden ulcers rose in the lower parts of his body, from which sprung an incredible multitude of worms. Of the uncle of Julian the apostate, who persecuted the christians, and trampled upon the sacred vessels, Theodoret and St. Chrysostom inform us, that he perished by this disease. An instance like to this we have in Pherecydes Syrus, who was eaten up of lice, for boasting of his great wisdom and his pleasant life, though he sacrificed, says Elian, to no god at all. So also was it under the jewish state; for of Antiochus Epiphanes we read, that worms sprung out of the body of this wicked man. 2Ma 9:9 . And of Herod the great, Josephus owns that he had a putrefaction producing worms. Antiq. lib. 17. See Bochart, Hieroz. part 2. lib. 4. cap. 26. pp. 626, 627.

Eusebius, citing this passage from Josephus, omits all that is said of the owl, and instead of that has substituted an angel: mente quidem pia, at mala fide. But probably he might see both. The Greeks are peculiarly happy in their compound words. Two or three beautiful words in this noble language naturally and easily incorporate together, to make one very elegant and very expressive word. This composition multiplies the stores and beauties of that language, and enables the writers to express themselves with compactness, variety, and magnificence, superior to most languages that mankind speak. Thus, as the word θυμομαχων thumomachon, in Acts 12:20, is strong both in sound and signification, so the ignominy and torture of that most odious and insupportable disease, with which this haughty spirited and tyrannous mortal was immediately punished, are here expressed in proper words, harsh sounding and suitable to the direful occasion: γενομενος σκωληκοβρωτος εξεψυξεν , genominos skolekobrotos exepsuxen. He expired, being devoured by vermin.

Acts 12:24 . The word of God grew and multiplied. Herod the tyrant being dead, the gospel prospered, and was preached with great success. Persecutors, by their weak endeavours to pull down the church, build it up the stronger. The number of believers encreased through the preaching of the word, as seed is multiplied by the scattering of the hand: the word preached is the seed sown in the furrows of the field. The ground was now harrowed by the hand of the persecutors, and the seed grew the better, and the fruits of faith and obedience did by every shower of persecution more and more abound.


This chapter, like many other of the great scenes of providence, begins with crimes and ends with punishments; and if my estimations be correct, persecutions and wastings of the church are among the consummations of crime; they fill up the measure in open war with heaven.

The unbelieving jews were allowed to persecute and scatter the flock, yet many of the saints, even in Jerusalem, survived the storms they had endured, and again recovered their strength. The deliverance of Peter was a special mark of the divine interposition, and an evident answer to prayer. The Lord suffered James, the first of the twelve, to be immolated, but sacrifices so dear to heaven were designed for the conversion of others, and to make surviving saints envious of the martyr’s crown.

See Peter, the father of the church, loaded with chains, immured within strong walls, cut off from all access to the saints, and living on bread and water, yet he sleeps in peace at night. His hands galled with iron, do not interrupt his repose. His confidence in the Redeemer’s care is unremitting and unmoved. The dungeon is dark, the bed is hard, yet he sleeps serene. The seven days of the feast pass away, yet he rests in the Lord. Behold in the city, scaffolds erecting to see the tragedy, or windows hired to enjoy the sight. On the other hand, heaven was making counter preparations, to the terror of Peter’s foes, and the salvation of his servant. God came, by his angel, at midnight, while his enemies slumbered in their sins. Peter is unconsciously awoke by a visitor, whose presence creates light. Peter obeys. His chains fall off; the doors and bolts, the bars and iron gates give way before a presence so divine. They enter the city, and into the second street, taking a direction to the house of prayer. Here the mission closed in a happy exchange of the dungeon for the church. What has God wrought! The power of prayer is equal to Jehovah’s arm.

Alas, for you, oh poor gaolers and soldiers. It is dangerous work to turn your arms against the Lord. The most powerful men in Nebuchadnezzar’s army perished in casting the three heroes into the fiery furnace. You, instead of Peter, must now die the death. The king will roar against you like a lion robbed of his prey.

But what a disappointment to you, oh doctors and rulers, who thought to enjoy the tragedy almost unseen, behind the windows and bye corners. It is not long before many others will be the victims. Jerusalem will soon abound with sacrifices, for the day shall burn as an oven; and the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be as stubble. Your recent joys at the sight of Herod’s strokes on the church, shall be of short duration. You; yes you, of all others, ought to have instructed the king in the duties of the throne, to be just, to be humane, to reign in righteousness, and be the common father of his people. It is you, oh doctors, who have laid the foundation of Herod’s ruin, by flattering the royal passion, no matter how vindictive and depraved it might be. Had you taught him better, his reign had been happy, and your nation blessed. You have forgotten the grand maxim of your seers, that the throne is established in righteousness.

But in the case of Peter there is instruction for the unregenerate world. See him lie fast asleep, bound with two chains, and in the prison-house. Such is the condition of a sinner, tied and bound with the chains of his sins, the strong chains of unrighteous habits, the tutored slave of sin and iniquity. See him sleeping and dreaming. And oh that your dreams were as innocent as Peter’s, and as happy in their issues. Be that as it may, it is high time to awake out of sleep. Yes, sinners, it is time that you were awoke, and before the midnight cry when oil cannot be bought. It is time that you followed a better guide than those that dwell in the dungeons. This heavenly guide would lead you to Mary’s house the house of prayer. There only will you find counsel and comfort, and escape the calamities coming on a guilty world.

If you sleep on, remember that to-morrow may be the day of execution. God will fight against those that fight against him. If you obey not his voice, and his awakening calls, you obey the voice of Satan. The fate of Herod awaits you. Satan, having hurried him from sin to sin, destroyed him at last. He was hurled from the throne in the zenith of his pride, to the most degrading exit out of time; and to the bar of that God, who will render to every man according to his works.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 12". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/acts-12.html. 1835.
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