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Acts 12

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Excursus. On the Deliverance of Peter by the Angel.

Grave indeed had been the danger which had threatened the Church of Christ in the year 44. The Christian community had enjoyed for a considerable period comparative peace and security. This quiet season had been a time of blessed work: the little Church now numbered its thousands; humanly speaking, however, it was yet in its infancy, and if it encountered any great shock, there was still danger that the faith of Jesus might be trampled out, before it had taken permanent root in the hearts and homes of men. Such a shock threatened the little community in the eleventh year of its life. A new state of things had come into existence in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land; instead of a stern, law-loving, but indifferent and scornful Roman governor, a prince of the great Herodian house, through the friendship of the reigning Cæsar, ruled with the title of king over a dominion comprising most of the old territories of the kings of Israel.

As we have already remarked, Herod Agrippa’s policy led him in all ways to court the Jewish hierarchy. To please these men and the party in the state which followed their lead, King Herod arrested and scourged (for this is doubtless the meaning of Acts 12:1 of this chapter) certain nameless but prominent members of the Christian sect; he then, pleased with the popularity his cruel policy won him among that party whose affections he longed to conciliate, arrested and judicially murdered one of the most notorious leaders of the new sect, James the son of Zebedee, one of the famous three whom the great Master had chosen as His closest and dearest friends. This arrest and execution was followed by the imprisonment of Peter, whose death was also resolved upon.

Now Peter was the foremost leader of the Christians. Peter, the martyred James, and perhaps John (who, however, in these first years of Christian history is comparatively little spoken of), were the acknowledged leaders of the sect, as the chosen friends of the Lord; all the congregations seem to have recognised their authority. But James, the fiery and earnest preacher, with a martyr’s patient suffering, had passed to his rest, and Peter lay in Herod’s prison waiting death. When he was gone, to whom would the Church have looked for earthly guidance in this moment of extreme peril, when king and Sanhedrim had determined to trample out the name and memory of the Crucified?

John in those early days surely was unfit to undertake so grave a charge; he needed those long years of preparation, of study, and of thought which moulded him into the great master of the theology of Christendom. His retiring, contemplative nature would never have fitted him to be the bold, wise leader in those terrible hours when Herod and the Sanhedrim stretched forth their hands to vex the Church.

James, [1] who presided over the Jerusalem Church, was not one of the Twelve; and Stephen, whose great gifts seemed at first to mark him out as a prominent leader, years ago had ‘fallen asleep.’ It was truly a time of awful peril for the little Church, a peril the congregations were well aware of; so night and day prayer was made without ceasing to God for the safety of their loved and honoured teacher. Had Peter died then, they would indeed have been sheep without a shepherd. And Peter, when the angel left him alone and free in the street of Jerusalem, at once recognised with loving gratitude whence came his great deliverance, the answer to those most earnest prayers: ‘Now I know that the Lord hath sent His angel.’

[1] The strong Judaistic tendencies besides of this saintly and ascetic (so called) ‘brother of the Lord,’ were an effectual bar to his exercising any widespread influence in the rapidly-developing church.

Years after, when the old man Peter had done his work, when others had succeeded him in his office of guide and ruler of the Church, a beautiful ecclesiastical legend tells us how again the old man Peter lay in prison at Rome waiting a martyr’s death, and how with merely human aid he escaped; then it relates: As he went along the way outside the walls of Rome, he met his Lord bearing a cross; Peter asked Him, ‘Domine, quo vadis? (‘Lord, whither goest Thou?’) Jesus answered, ‘I go to Rome to be crucified afresh;’ and the old man, we read, saw quickly the meaning of the Master’s words. This time he would serve the cause of Jesus better by remaining in prison, and by bravely dying for His name. This most touching ‘memory’ of Peter no doubt possesses a groundwork of truth, and, taken together with the account in the ‘Acts’ of the miraculous escape from Herod’s prison, teaches a lesson which many of God’s true martyrs have not been slow to learn. How guarded must His servants be before they accept deliverance from any bitter suffering, or freedom from any hard and painful work which may glorify their Master!

Before they accept the deliverance or the freedom, they must be sure it is an angel’s hand which withdraws from the lips the cup of suffering, the cup they should remember their Redeemer drank from without shrinking.

The details of this angel’s visit are strangely circumstantial. Everything is told us, even Peter’s feelings in the matter. At first, when he found himself in the street and free, it seemed to him as though he were dreaming, but as he stood and thought over each circumstance, how he was awakened by the touch of a bright-shining one; how the radiant visitor spoke to him calmly and without haste, and as it were handed to him his girdle, his sandals, and his cloak; how the chains which linked him to the two sleeping guards were snapped noiselessly asunder; how they passed through the corridors of the prison, through doors and gates which opened silently before them, till he found himself alone in the deep dawn of the cold spring morning in the silent streets of the sleeping city, then the conviction came upon him that all this was no dream, but that God had indeed sent His angel, and had delivered him from prison and from death.

All rationalistic explanations of the angel’s visit are obliged to supply new matter, such as a flash of lightning, a sleeping draught given to the guards, etc., and with all these additions utterly fail to account for the miraculous occurrence. Renan ( Les Apôtres, cap. xiv.), one of the latest of the writers of this cheerless and unhappy school, frankly tells us that the narrative of the ‘Acts’ here ( est tellement vif et juste) ‘is so lifelike and so just that it is difficult to find any place in it for legendary elaboration.’

Verse 1

Acts 12:1. Now about that time. The events related in this twelfth chapter took place in the year 44. Paul and Barnabas were then on their mission, bearing alms from the Christians in Antioch to the Church of Jerusalem and Palestine. The famine alluded to (chap. Acts 11:29-30) happened after the death of Herod.

Herod the king. Herod Agrippa I. was the grandson of Herod the Great, and was brought up at Rome with Drusus and Claudius, but he fell into disgrace with the Emperor Tiberius towards the end of his reign. He was imprisoned, but released by Caligula on his accession. The new emperor treated him with distinguished honour, changing his iron chain for one of gold of equal weight. He bestowed on him the tetrarchies of Philip and Lysanias, with the title of king. To these countries this emperor subsequently added the territories ruled over by Herod Antipas, when the prince with his wife Herodias fell into disgrace with Rome. King Herod Agrippa had the good fortune to render some considerable services to Claudius, who in return, on his accession to the empire, added to the extensive dominions bestowed by his predecessor Caligula, the wealthy provinces of Judea and Samaria; so that, in the year 41, this prince ruled over a kingdom equal in extent to the dominions of the great Herod his grandfather.

The descent of the princes of the Herod family has in all times been the subject of much dispute. One tradition represents Herod I. as the grandson of a slave; another, probably invented by the jealous partisans of the royal house, relates how the Herods were descended from one of the noble Hebrew families which returned from Babylon. It is far more probable, however, that they were of Idumsean descent. These Idumæans had been conquered and brought over to Judaism by John Hyrcanus B.C. 130, and from that time they seem to have been steadily constant to the Hebrew religion, and to have styled themselves Jews.

King Herod Agrippa I. in many particulars adopted a line of policy quite different from that followed by the other princes of his house. His wish was in all things to conciliate and win the heart of the Jewish people.

He appears to have succeeded to a considerable extent, and Josephus describes him as a generous and able monarch. The Jewish historian evidently wrote of this Herod with a strong bias in his favour, and his partial estimate of his character must be received with great caution. A curious legend related by Jost ( Geschichte des Judenthums) well illustrates the ruling passion of the king, and the warm feelings of the Jews towards him: ‘Once, when reading in a public service (Deuteronomy 17:15) “one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother,” Agrippa burst into tears, whereupon the people cried out, Be not distressed, Agrippa, thou art our brother.

At this time both the ruling parties in Jerusalem were bitterly hostile to the followers of Jesus. The Pharisee who at first, in his hatred to the Sadducee who filled the chief place in the Great Council at the time of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, was inclined to favour the new sect, had come to dread the rapidly-increasing congregations of the Nazarenes. Pharisee and Sadducee now joined together in a common hatred of a sect whose rapidly-advancing prosperity was dangerous to the very existence of Judaism.

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The ‘rest’ which the Church enjoyed (Acts 9:31) was in great measure owing to the hostile and insulting policy of Rome in the reign of Caligula. The Jewish rulers were too uneasy and alarmed for themselves and the Temple to have any leisure to devise a special persecution against the followers of Jesus; but now a new era had commenced for Israel. Once more and (though they knew it not) for the last time, the ancient monarchy was united under the sceptre of one sovereign, who, thanks to his private friendship with the emperor, was allowed to rule the ancient people, and who, while still under the protection of the awful name of Rome, was apparently independent: and, as it happened, this sovereign so favoured of Rome was intensely desirous to win for himself popular favour among the Jews. No policy was more likely to secure this, than to persecute and attempt to stamp out that increasing sect which was so hated and dreaded by all the Jewish party rulers. This was the reason why ‘Herod stretched forth his hand to vex certain of the Church.’ The persecution of A.D. 44 was the greatest danger to which the Church of Christ was ever exposed. In that year its relentless enemies, the judges of the Sanhedrim, both Pharisee and Sadducee, were united against their common Christian foes. For a brief moment, after centuries of captivity and bitter national misfortune, a Jew was again master in the Holy Land, a favourite of Caesar, and one who intensely longed to be considered a true Jew, was king. It seemed likely that the whole power of the nation, supported by the authority of Rome in the background, would be devotee to the destruction of the Christian sect.

In the year 44 the work was begun in good earnest. As far as men could see, there was no help for the doomed Nazarene. Before the year closed, however, the king from whom the Jews hoped so much was dead; stricken in the height of his power and magnificence by a terrible and mysterious disease, King Herod passed from the scene. The policy of Rome, or the caprice of the Cæsar, gave him no successor; once more the Holy Land was degraded to the rank of a mere province of the great empire. No Jewish sovereign after King Herod’s death has reigned over the Jewish people.

The rulers in Jerusalem were never able again to organize a general persecution of the Christians, and after the death of Herod, and the consequent downfall of their hopes, the relations between the Roman and the Jew became each year more hostile. In less than thirty years from this time we read of the awful fate of the sacred city, and the final dispersion of the people.

Verse 2

Acts 12:2. And he killed James the brother of John. After eleven years of patient noble work, the brother of John received one portion of the high reward which Salome had asked for her sons (Matthew 20:21). He was the first of the Twelve to drink of the cup of which Christ drank, and to be baptized with the baptism with which He was baptized. James the Elder, the son of Zebedee the fisherman of Galilee, and of his wife Salome, the brother of John, was marked out by the Lord early in His ministry for a chief place among the future leaders of His Church. The chosen companions of Jesus, the two sons of Zebedee, with Peter, were alone permitted to witness the raising of the little daughter of Jairus from the dead, they only were present at the mysterious Transfiguration of the Lord, they were the solitary witnesses of the agony in Gethsemane.

The name of these chosen brothers, ‘Sons of Thunder,’ gives us the clue to the reason of the Master’s choice. This singular name bears witness to the burning and impetuous spirit which later in John found vent in his Gospel, and still more in the thunder-voices of his Apocalypse; and with James in those bold vigorous words in which, so often during his eleven years of ministry to the churches of the Holy Land, he had caused the thunder of the Divine displeasure against hypocrisy, formalism, and darker sins than these to be heard. His burning words, backed up by the noble testimony of a saintly life, no doubt won him the proud honour among the Twelve of the first martyr crown. Chrysostom tells us that Herod, wishful to gratify the Jews, could think of no gift likely to be so acceptable to the people as the life of one so honoured and yet so dreaded. The very few words with which the writer of the ‘Acts’ relates the fate of this distinguished Christian leader have been supplemented by a great mass of legendary stories, which connect the martyred apostle with Spain. These legends relate how the remains of James were translated to Compostella, and explain how it came to pass that he was adopted as the favourite saint, the hero of romance, and the protector of the chivalry of Spain. One tradition only is well supported, and we may accept it as most probably historically true. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) relates it, and expressly states that the account was giver him by those who went before him. Clement relates ‘how the prosecutor of St. James was so moved by witnessing his bold confession that he declared himself a Christian on the spot; accused and accuser were therefore hurried off together, and on the road the latter begged St. James to grant him forgiveness. The apostle after a moment’s hesitation kissed him, saying, “Peace be to thee,” and they were both beheaded together.

With the sword. This mode of punishment was regarded among the Jews as a disgraceful death. Various reasons have been given for the extreme brevity of the account of the martyrdom of one so eminent in the early Church. Meyer suggests that in the original plan of the writer of the ‘Acts’ a third book was contemplated. The first, the ‘Gospel of St. Luke:’ an Account of the Life and Teaching of the Lord; the second, the ‘Acts:’ the History of the Working of Peter and Paul; the third, which was never undertaken, was to be the relation of the ‘Acts’ of the other apostles. But this, though an ingenious, is a purely arbitrary supposition. Wordsworth’s note here is very striking: ‘It was no part of St. Luke’s plan to write a martyrology. His work is the book of their acts in life, not of their sufferings by death. He does not describe deathbeds, the martyrdom of life is what he teaches; he fixes the reader’s attention on that, and thus leads us to conclude that they who live as martyrs will die as martyrs, and that the true way to die well is to live well. . . . Having described one martyrdom, that of St. Stephen, ... he leaves his readers to infer that the same Spirit who encouraged and animated the first martyr in his death, was with the whole of the noble army of martyrs who followed him on the road of suffering to glory; he therefore will not describe the martyrdom of St. James . . . nor even of St. Paul.’

Verse 3

Acts 12:3. And because he saw it pleased the Jews. See note on Acts 12:1, in which the policy and character of King Herod are discussed at length.

Then were the days of unleavened bread. During seven days at the feast of Passover no leaven was allowed in the houses of the Jews. St. Jerome on Ezekiel 43:0, quoted by Wordsworth, appears to say that St. James was martyred on the second day of the Passover, i.e. on the 15th Nisan, the same day as the crucifixion of the Lord. The precise date (15th Nisan) is probably fanciful, as Jewish custom was opposed to judicial sentences being carried out during the feast. The martyrdom more likely took place just before the feast of Passover, some twenty-one years after the crucifixion of Jesus. The son of Zebedee and Salome, when he asked that he should drink of the Master’s cup and be baptized with the Master’s baptism (St. Matthew 20:21), then little dreamed that the prayer would so soon be granted.

This Passover was the gloomiest and saddest the Church had kept since the great Pentecost morning: one leading personage had been taken away from the little society by a bloody death, another was in prison and condemned. The absolute king of Israel united with the Sanhedrim, the relentless enemies of the Christian sect, in a determination to crush the followers of Jesus.

These days of gloom must have reminded some of that company of another Passover, eleven years before, when the Master they loved so well lay dead in His grave; but they must have remembered well, too, the joyous Easter which succeeded that awful Passover, when the Master, loving as ever, but robed with new robes of life and majesty, gathered His mourning friends together again; for we find them asking from Him, their risen Friend, not from King Herod, Peter’s life, for ‘prayer without ceasing of the Church was made to God for Peter’ (Acts 12:5).

Verse 4

Acts 12:4. And delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers. That is, to four bands of soldiers, each band consisting of four. These were to relieve each other in guarding the prisoner. The Roman practice of dividing the night into four watches of three hours each was generally adopted by the Jews of this period.

Intending after Easter. (Literally, ‘after the Passover.’) King Herod wished to be considered a strict observer of the law. The more rigid Jews, we learn from the Talmud, deemed it unlawful to defile their solemn feasts with executions (see St. John 18:28, where this dread of defilement affected the murderers of Jesus).

To bring him forth to the people. That is, for trial and execution.

Verse 5

Acts 12:5. Peter therefore was kept in prison; but prayer was made without ceasing of the church to God for him. This verse is introduced between the account of the arrest and the miraculous deliverance. It suggests the thought that the angel’s interference was without doubt the result of the prayer.

Verse 6

Acts 12:6. The same night. That is, the night before the day fixed for the execution. Peter was not missed by the guards till sunrise about six o’clock (see Acts 12:18). It was, then, in the fourth watch, some time between three and six o’clock, that the angel - presence entered the prison chamber. Peter was chained to two soldiers, while the other two as sentinels kept a useless watch at the prison-room door.

Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains. It was the usual Roman custom to chain a prisoner only to one soldier. Meyer supposes that in the case of Peter the additional severity of the double chain was adopted as an extra precaution to secure an important prisoner lying under sentence of death.

Verse 7

Acts 12:7. And, behold, the angel of the Lord. This should be rendered, ‘an angel of the Lord,’ one of that glorious host of Spirits of whom mention so often is made in this book of the ‘Acts’ with reference to their office toward the faithful servants of God.

A light shined in the prison. In the deep darkness of that early spring morning, a strange light from a radiant form suddenly lit up the cell, with the sleeping figures of the two soldiers and their prisoner.

He smote Peter on the side in order to rouse him from slumber. In the beautiful fancy of Keble, the wearied apostle, sleeping as he thought his last sleep, and dreaming of the glorious witness to his Lord he was to witness when the day dawned, would naturally mistake the angel’s touch and voice for the summons to execution:

‘His dream is changed the tyrant’s voice

Calls to that last of glorious deeds;

But as he rises to rejoice,

Not Herod, but an angel leads.’

Christian Year, ‘ St. Peter’s Day.’

Verse 8

Acts 12:8. Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. The angel gives these various directions 1st, to indicate the reality of the appearance; 2d, to show there was no need for haste. The prisoner was to arise at once; he would find the iron fetters which bound him to the two sleeping soldiers already snapped by the Divine touch. He was to tighten the girdle which confined his tunic, to strap on the light sandals he had laid aside before he slept. ‘Tarry not to bind on your sandals’ was a usual saying among the Greeks when they urged one to hasten. He was to throw round him his heavy cloak as a protection against the sharp air of the early spring morning.

Verses 9-10

Acts 12:9-10. And he went out, and followed him. . . . When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city. Silently, without a word, the radiant Messenger from heaven and the amazed apostle passed through the galleries of the fortress (the prison in which Peter was confined was most probably the tower of Antonia), past the first sleeping guard, then past the second, then through the great gates of iron which communicated with the city beyond, down a flight of seven steps, as one most ancient MS. (Codex D) tells us, into the street; and there the angel passed back into the unseen, leaving Peter alone, but free.

Verse 11

Acts 12:11. And when Peter was come to himself. Up to this time, all that had happened had seemed to Peter as a dream; but now, when he stood alone in the midst of the city, and he called to mind distinctly all the varied circumstances of his deliverance, and the angel’s calm, deliberate directions, he at once with deep gratitude recognised whence came his deliverance, he perceived that the radiant Messenger was from his Master.

Verse 12

Acts 12:12. He came to the house of Mary. It was natural that Peter should betake himself to Mary’s house, for it is evident that between this family and himself there existed some close tie of friendship. Mary, we believe, was the sister of the famous Barnabas the Cypriote (see Colossians 4:10), who, in the first days of the Church’s existence, sold a portion of his property and gave it to the apostles (Acts 4:36-37), and who subsequently introduced Paul to the apostles at Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). The family was evidently one of some consideration, and possessed considerable wealth. The house of Mary was large enough, for instance, to form one of the meeting-places for the believers of Jerusalem. It is probable that Saul and Barnabas had already arrived in the city on the charitable mission alluded to in Acts 11:30; in which case, on this solemn night of prayer, no doubt Peter met in the house of Mary, among many other Christian brethren, Barnabas, Saul of Tarsus, and Mark.

The mother of John, whose surname was Mark. This Mark is generally identified by the early Church with Mark the Evangelist: he was nephew of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), and his friend and companion (Acts 12:25; Acts 15:39). A close connection and warm friendship from the earliest times seems to have existed between Peter and Barnabas. The influence of Peter over Barnabas is alluded to in the Galatian Epistle (Acts 2:13), written in the year 56-57, some twenty-two years after Barnabas’ first generous gift to the Church of Jerusalem. No doubt it was owing to this long friendship with the uncle, that John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, became so intimately associated with Peter, who in his First Epistle even calls him his ‘son’ (1 Peter 5:13). The early Church believed that St. Mark’s Gospel was in reality the Gospel of St. Peter, and that Mark simply put down the words and memories of his master and friend the Apostle Peter.

Where many were gathered together praying. These Christians were gathered together in the still hours of the night, perhaps for fear of the Jews, but more probably on account of the extreme peril which menaced the Christian cause. The special object, however, for which this solemn assembly was convened, was to pray for that dear brother and sainted teacher who was to die a martyr’s death when the next day dawned. These nocturnal assemblies of Christians for prayer were continued in many places in more quiet times, partly owing to the solemnity which belongs to these still hours, partly owing to a deep-rooted persuasion that the Lord Jesus would come again during the night. Wordsworth beautifully writes on this verse: ‘Herod’s soldiers were watching under arms at the door of the prison; Christ’s soldiers were watching unto prayer in the house of Mary. Christ’s soldiers are more powerful with their arms than Herod’s soldiers with theirs: they unlock the prison-doors and bring Peter to the house of Mary.’

Verse 13

Acts 12:13. And as Peter knocked. Peter’s knock startled and alarmed the anxious, troubled assembly. It suggested fresh arrests and new cares and anxieties.

At the door of the gate. The door was most probably that small outer door by which one entered through the large gate from the street into the court or area where the house was.

A damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda or, as we should render the Greek name, ‘Rose.’ The names of plants and flowers were favourite names for the daughters of Israel. So Susannah signifies ‘a lily,’ Esther ‘a myrtle,’ Tamar ‘a palm.’

Verse 14

Acts 12:14. And when she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness. So eager was Rhoda, the servant, perhaps the slave, of Mary, to make the others assembled there that night partakers of the great joy she felt in beholding Peter again alive and free, that she ran back and forgot to open the door when she heard his well-known, loved voice.

This is a striking incident, and shows how the apostle was loved by all orders and ranks. Chrysostom draws attention here to the fact that slaves and servants in the early Church shared in the hopes and fears of those socially above them.

Verse 15

Acts 12:15. Then said they, It is his angel. Some have tried to explain away this difficult passage by suggesting that the word rendered ‘angel’ in the original signified ‘messenger’ simply; but this is most improbable, for how could they have expected a messenger from the prison at such an hour? Besides, Rhoda knew the voice of Peter.

It is evident that the Christians (or at least some of them) who were present that night in Mary’s house believed that Peter’s guardian angel had assumed his voice and was standing before the door. The whole question of the ‘unseen ministry of angels’ is a very mysterious one; some of the weightiest of the fathers have taught definitely that every believer has a guardian angel. So Basil and Chrysostom. Very little is told us concerning these Beings and their work and office among us in Holy Scripture. Our Lord’s words (Matthew 18:10), ‘I say unto you, that in heaven ‘heir angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven,’ simply teach us that these blessed Ones are concerned more or less closely with the words and works of men; they tell us, too, that very blender is the partition which separates the world we know from the other unseen world, that the spirit-world, which seems so infinitely far, is perhaps all the while close beside us. But the guarded reticence of all inspired teaching on this question warns us from inquiring too closely into a mysterious subject with an aimless curiosity.

For the comfort of believers the Master has told them of the existence of these blessed spirits, and of the intense interest they take in every life battling here with evil; more than this the Holy Spirit has not vouchsafed to disclose. The whole subject of angelic ministry has been exhaustively discussed in Bishop Bull’s noble sermons on the ‘Existence of Angels,’ and on the ‘Office of the Holy Angels towards the Faithful’ (Bull’s Works, vol. i., Sermons xi. xii.).

Verse 17

Acts 12:17. Beckoning onto them with the hand. These are evidently the words of an eye-witness of Peter’s visit to the house of Mary after his escape from prison.

Go show these things unto James. James the brother of the Lord is here specially mentioned, as he held a peculiar position of authority among the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 15:13). For a full account of this eminent man, see note on chap. Acts 15:12.

And he departed and went into another place. It is most probable that he left the city for a time, as after his miraculous deliverance he would not needlessly expose himself to fresh danger. We find Peter again at Jerusalem a few years after this: the bitter persecution was doubtless stopped after the death of King Herod Agrippa, which took place in the summer of this same year, 44. Very many Romish writers believe that Peter after leaving Jerusalem proceeded to Rome, and there laid the foundations of the Church in that city. The total absence, however, of any reference to Peter and his work in the Epistle to the Roman Church, written by Paul about the year 58, seems fatal to any such theory. Peter must have visited Rome at a much later period.

Verse 18

Acts 12:18. As soon as it was day. The angel’s visit and Peter’s escape must have taken place during the last watch of the night, between the hours of three and six; otherwise the absence of the prisoner would have been discovered before the break of day, when the guard of four soldiers was changed.

There was no small stir among the soldiers what was become of Peter. The inquiry on the following morning in the fortress endeavoured to discover whether any possible explanation could be given of the strange escape of the important prisoner who had been so carefully guarded.

Gloag remarks that we are not to think this execution of the guards an extraordinary act of cruelty on the part of Herod. A soldier to whom a prisoner was entrusted, and who permitted his escape, was guilty of a capital offence.

Verse 19

Acts 12:19. And he went down from Jerusalem to Cæsarea. No doubt bitterly disappointed at not being able to comply with the Jewish desire in the matter of putting to death the famous Nazarene leader, Herod left his Jewish capital for a short season, as he thought, and went down to Cæsarea, then the second city in his broad kingdom. Josephus mentions a desire to be present at games to be celebrated in honour of Claudius Cæsar as a reason for this removal of the king to Cæsarea.

Verse 20

Acts 12:20. And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon. The angry feeling which had sprung up between King Herod and the inhabitants of the Phoenician cities was no doubt owing to the commercial rivalry which existed between these ancient ports and the newly built and highly favoured Roman harbour of Cæsarea.

Blastus the king’s chamberlain. Not a Hebrew, but a man evidently from his name of Roman extraction. He occupied the confidential position of principal chamberlain to the king. It must be remembered that Herod had resided much in Rome; hence the probability of his having Romans about him in the principal positions of his court.

Desired peace, because their country was nourished by the king’s country. The narrow strip of Phoenician territory was of course utterly inadequate to furnish corn, oil, and other necessaries for the important maritime cities of Tyre and Sidon. From very early times the neighbouring fertile regions were in the habit of furnishing supplies for the markets of Tyre; Solomon, for instance, sent gifts of wheat and oil to Hiram of Tyre (1 Kings 5:11). Ezekiel (chap. Acts 27:17) tells how ‘Israel and Judah were the merchants of Tyre, and traded with her in wheat and honey, oil and balm.’ Herod no doubt in his anger forbade all intercommunication and traffic between Israel and the Phoenician cities. Very likely the first scarcity, the beginning of that great famine predicted in Acts 11:28, was already felt to some extent in Phoenicia and Palestine. The famine in question began in the year 44, and lasted three or four years, occasioning terrible sufferings.

Verse 21

Acts 12:21. And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. Some fifty years before, Herod the Great, grandfather of the present king, had established a festival in honour of the Roman Cæsar, to be observed every five years (Quinquennalia).

This festival was kept in the month of August in the year 44: the king had appointed the second day of the festival to receive the Tyrian ambassadors, and to convey to them his gracious assurance of favour and pardon. Josephus, whose graphic account of the incident well supplements the brief stern summary of the ‘Acts,’ tells us that on that morning of the 2d August the king entered the vast, crowded theatre of Cæsarea, clothed in a magnificent dress of silver tissue; the sun’s rays fell on the royal robes of silver, and the eyes of the beholders were dazzled with the brightness which surrounded the monarch. Herod then from his throne spoke to the assembled multitude, the majority of whom were idolaters, Cæsarea was almost exclusively a Gentile city. Courtly voices among the crowd cried aloud that the monarch who stood before them in all his magnificence was no man, but a god; and the crowd, dazzled with the brilliancy of his appearance, took up the shout, saying, ‘It is the voice of a god and not of a man;’ and the king, whose pride had been that he belonged to the idol-abhorring Hebrew people, was well pleased with the impious homage. While listening approvingly to this blasphemous flattery, the king suddenly looked up and saw an owl sitting on a rope above his head, and immediately understood that the bird was the messenger to him of evil tidings (an old prediction he had heard at Rome had warned him that the appearance of this bird would betoken grave evil to him). He fell into a deep melancholy, and very soon was seized with agonizing pain in his bowels: he then said to the audience, ‘I whom you called a god am commanded now to depart this life;’ and the pain becoming more violent, he was carried into his palace, where he lingered in extreme suffering for five days and then expired. It was in the midst of the impious shouts of flattery that the writer of the ‘Acts’ says ‘the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory.’ The Holy Ghost in the sacred record of the ‘Acts’ simply confirms the historical account written by a hand friendly to Herod but hostile to the Christian cause; but while confirming the record of the historian, the writer of the ‘Acts’ discloses to us the invisible agency by which the great events related were produced.

After the death of King Herod, the crowds who shouted their impious praises of him on the day of the festival openly rejoiced over his death, heaping cowardly insults on his mourning daughters.

Verse 23

Acts 12:23. He was eaten of worm. Josephus speaks of violent and torturing pains. The writer of the ‘Acts,’ whom we believe to have been identical with Luke, the beloved physician, gives a more accurate description of the mysterious and terrible disease which closed the brilliant career of the ‘last king of Israel.’ It has been suggested that this fearful malady is especially reserved by God for princes who have cruelly misused their power over their subjects. The instances we possess of victims to this disease are few in number: Antiochus Epiphanes, who bitterly persecuted the Jews; Pheretima, Queen of Cyrene, celebrated for her cruelty; C. L. Herminianus, Roman governor of Cappadocia, who cruelly persecuted the Christians (see Tertul. ad Scapulam); and the Emperor Galerius, the last persecutor of the Church (Eusebius). To this list Niebuhr adds the name of Philip II.

The following table shows the descendants of King Herod Agrippa I:

Click image for full-size version

After the death of Herod Agrippa I., Jerusalem was never ruled again by a native prince; a Roman procurator in Jerusalem, Cuspius Fadus, was appointed by the Government of Rome. A portion of the kingdom of his father was given to the young prince, who, under the name of Herod Agrippa 11., received from Claudius, who was personally attached to the boy, the kingly title. But this sovereign, of whom in the ‘Acts we shall hear more, never seems to have adopted, as did his father, the feelings of the Jewish patriot party.

Verse 24

Acts 12:24. But the word of God grew and multiplied. In strong contrast to the mournful end of the powerful enemy of the Christians, the Church of Christ kept on increasing in numbers and in power. These few rejoicing words sound like the Christians’ victory hymn: the powerful king who hated the Christians and their God is eaten of worms, while the Church of Christ holds on unchecked its quiet but triumphal way. Again the sufferings of the faithful had done their work, and fresh believers were added in numbers to a Church which could teach men and women to suffer and to rejoice; and Chrysostom loves to tell us how the blood of James, the friend of Christ and the martyr of Christ, had watered the garden of the Church and made it fruitful.

Verse 25

Acts 12:25. Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their ministry. The thread of the history is here taken up again from chap. Acts 11:30. Barnabas and Saul, after the prediction of Agabus, had been sent from Antioch to Judea with alms for the poor saints of Jerusalem and the churches of Palestine. It seems most probable that they had sojourned during the Passover at Jerusalem, and had been eye-witnesses of the events related in this chapter. They now returned to Antioch, taking with them John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas and the son of that Mary at whose house the solemn assembly was held on the night of Peter’s escape. Chrysostom remarks that the writer of the ‘Acts’ still mentions Barnabas first, for Paul was not yet famous; he had not as yet wrought any sign.

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 12". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/acts-12.html. 1879-90.
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