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Bible Commentaries
Acts 12

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

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Verse 1


1. James Slain; Peter Imprisoned and Released, Acts 12:1-19 .

1. Now Luke now narrates a persecution less sweeping than the Sauline “havoc,” but severe enough, in addition to the departure of the apostles, to give the Jerusalem Church another check, while the Gentile Church is rising into power.

About that time Contemporaneously with the Antiochian benefaction.

Herod the king This Herod Agrippa I. was the accomplished and fascinating, but wicked, grandson of Herod the Great and Mariamne; his father being the unfortunate Aristobulus, and his sister, Herodias, the adulterous wife of his uncle, Herod Antipas. (See notes on Matthew 2:1; Matthew 16:1-11.) He was born at once a prince and a pauper, with a splendid rank, but no other support than the purses of princely friends. He was the brilliant accident of a variety of romantic fortunes. In the palace of the Emperor Tiberius, having been the special mate of the emperor’s son, he was driven from court at the son’s death, because Tiberius could not bear the sight of one reminding him of the deceased. He wandered into Idumea, and would have committed suicide but for the kindness of his sister, Herodias, who induced her husband, Herod Antipas, to give him an office in the town of Tiberius. Being insulted for his dependence by Antipas, he departed, after various vicissitudes, for Italy, when Tiberius, made aware of his heavy indebtedness to the treasury, forbade him his presence. But having borrowed the whole amount from Antonia, the mother of Claudius, (who was afterward emperor,) Herod Agrippa paid the debt, and became intimate with young Caligula, who was prospective heir to the sceptre. But Tiberius, being informed that Herod Agrippa had expressed to Caligula a wish for the emperor’s speedy death in order that he, Caligula, might succeed, ordered Herod to be chained, clothed as he was in purple, and sent him to prison preparatory for execution. Suddenly news was received of Tiberius’ death, and the jailer forthwith releasing Herod Agrippa, invited him to his table; when, suddenly again, the news being contradicted, he sent the unlucky prince back again in chains to prison. Again the news was confirmed, and Caligula, at the earliest practical period, took him from prison, and made him king of the tetrarchy of Herod Philip. When he came into his new dominions a king, Herodias, whose husband, Antipas, was but a tetrarch, fired with jealousy, forthwith started with her husband to the Roman court to obtain a like royal title. But the object of their embassy being known to Herod Agrippa, when the unhappy pair arrived into the presence of the Emperor Caligula, the emperor received a letter from Herod Agrippa charging Antipas with having seventy thousand stand of arms accumulated for rebellious purposes, and they received sentence of banishment into Lyons, in France, and their tetrarchy was conferred upon Herod Agrippa. Upon Caligula’s death, Claudius, whose friend Herod Agrippa had taken care to be, conferred upon him the kingdom of Judea, so that this man of strange fortunes became, as here we now find him, sovereign of all the dominions of Herod the Great!

Certain of the Church Rather, certain selected from the Church; being, doubtless, its leaders, since if the shepherds are slain the sheep are scattered.

The king Paley remarks upon the striking proof of Luke’s historical accuracy here exhibited. Save the three years of Herod Agrippa’s reign, there had been no king of Judea for thirty years; there never was one after him; yet Luke perfectly incidentally places a king with the right name in the right place.

Hug, in his Introduction to the New Testament, has some striking remarks upon the impossibility that a forger, or even a truthful writer of a later age, should not commit geographical or historical mistakes. Of truthful writers Curtius, Virgil, and even Livy, are found applying the geography of a later to an earlier period. Of forgers, the author of the Life of Apollonius, (a book written as rival to the Gospels,) though claiming to copy his facts from ancient authority, largely describes Babylon as a stupendous city when it was a desert, and confounds the Spartans with the Lacedemonians, making them a free republic when they were the subjects of the Romans. Difficulties of avoiding mistakes are immensely increased when great changes are sweeping in succession for a long time over a country. But seldom in history have revolutions so vast, so constant, so swept a country as these did over Judea during the century of Christ. Changes of geographical names, of forms of government, of boundary lines of countries, were constantly succeeding each other. “Under Hadrian,” says Hug, “fifty important places and nine hundred and eighty-five villages and hamlets were razed to the ground.” The very language of the New Testament writers, a dialect of blended Grecism and Hebraism, was swept away with the overthrow of the Jewish state, and by the next century no one wrote or spoke it.

Verses 1-25



Through this Second Part of his history Luke traces in perfectly regular progress the successive steps by which Christianity emerges from her Jewish trammels into a free and universal Church. The Samaritans are first evangelized, and the eunuch is the first apostle to Africa. The Gentile apostle is next converted and put in preparation for his work. Peter, emerging from Jerusalem, is taught by the case of Cornelius the lesson of the direct convertibility of Gentiles to Christianity. The refugee Christians, driven from Jerusalem by the Stephanic dispersion, gather a Gentile Church in ANTIOCH, the capital and sallying point of Gentile Christianity. A second check is given to the Jerusalem Church by the Herodian persecution. Thenceforth old Jerusalem, abandoned by the twelve, wanes to her final destruction, and we are prepared to behold in chapter thirteen the Third Part of Luke’s history, opening with Gentile missions issuing forth from Gentile Antioch.

Verse 2

2. James, the brother of John Son of Zebedee, “son of thunder,” first of apostolic martyrs, brother of an evangelist, one of the elect three of the elect twelve. His prominence, even though Peter was near, made him the first victim of the persecutor’s experiment.

Sword The instrument of his beheading, ordered summarily and without trial. Thus under a Roman procurator the Jews were restrained from taking Christian life; but the moment a native king ruled blood began to flow. (See note on Matthew 10:3.)

Verse 3

3. Pleased the Jews Favour with the emperor of Rome, and popularity with the Jewish people, were the special objects for which the Herods were ready to sacrifice religion or right, the law, Moses, or Christianity.

Unleavened bread The Passover. No criminal was executed during that week. (See next verse.)

Verse 4

4. Quaternions A body of four soldiers. Four such bodies succeeded each other during the four watches of the night. Two soldiers would be stationed in the prison and two at the gates.

Easter The Passover.

Bring him forth For trial.

Verse 6

6. Two chains A light chain each, attached by the one end to the prisoner, by the other to a soldier. “The same chain,” says Seneca, “couples the prisoner and the guard.”

Verse 7

7. A light shined The angel brings to the prisoner no lantern, lamp, or candle; yet he brings a light, the beaming of his own person. Peter sees by it his prison, his chains, his cloak, his sandals, and his emancipator.

Verse 8

8. Bind… sandals The minuteness of the details are ample answer to the irrational drivel of the so-called rationalists, who endeavour to explain this transaction by natural means. We may add, that before this chapter closes we shall find that even a secular historian, Josephus, discloses a supernaturalism in close sequence to this narrative.

Verse 10

10. First and the second ward The terms ward and guard are but different forms of the same word. The first guard was the two keepers of the four to whom Peter was chained; the second was the two of the quaternion at the door of his particular room or cell; having passed both he would come to the great outside iron gate of the whole prison building, which let them into the street.

Of his (its) own accord Striking emblem how God may cause obstacles to move themselves out of the way of those who tread the path of his assignment.

Passed on through one street One street’s length, by which Peter was brought to a locality which he could recognise.

Verse 11

11. Come to himself From the bewilderment of his sudden waking and strange surroundings. It aided his coming to himself to be in a familiar spot with no company but himself.

He said, Now I Having no company but himself Peter talks to himself.

From all the expectation What that expectation was the fate of James had assured him.

Verse 12

12. Mary the mother… Mark She was sister of Barnabas. (See life of Mark prefacing our Gospel of Mark.)

Verse 13

13. The gate The street gate entering into the area in front of the house. (See note in vol. i, p. 326.)

Rhoda Signifying rose bush. The mention of this name, with the maiden’s behaviour, marks the thorough minuteness of the narrative. Luke may have derived it from John Mark himself.

Verse 15

15. His angel To translate this his messenger, as some do, makes no intelligible sense. The damsel’s reason for knowing it to be Peter must have been her recognition of his voice; and how would it explain that fact to say that it was a messenger from Peter? But the Jews did popularly entertain the belief that a man had a guardian angel who sometimes assumed his form and voice. This belief, entertained by the present company, can be no valid proof of the doctrine for us. They were not inspired persons, as their mistaken talk to Rhoda shows, and they only expressed a personal belief.

Verse 17

17. With the hand Because their clamour was so great that he could not make them hear his voice to hush them.

Unto James The apostle James is slain, Peter is banished, the entire apostolic body has probably disappeared, and the supervision of the Christian cause seems to devolve upon the Lord’s brother. (See note on Matthew 10:3.)

Into another place Commentators have been as much exercised to tell where Peter went on this occasion as Herod Agrippa doubtless was, and with quite as little success. The Romanists say that he went to Rome and there founded the popedom; had the which been true, Luke would have known it and told it. Luke simply means that Peter sought some other locality than Jerusalem for safety.

Verse 19

19. To Cesarea Very possibly after having put his soldiers to death he may have suspected some supernatural fact about it, and have withdrawn in perplexity if not guilty terror. At any rate he retires defeated in regard to the purposes with which the present chapter opens. Josephus says that he went to Cesarea at this time to attend a great celebration of public games in honour of the Emperor Claudius.

Cesarea See notes on Acts 8:40.

Verse 20

2. Herod’s Judicial Death , Acts 12:20-23 .

20. Displeased Fighting in mind, is the literal force of the Greek; quarrelling, carrying on, perhaps, a war of commercial hostilities.

Tyre and Sidon Two great commercial towns on the Mediterranean coast, to whom Herod’s new city, Cesarea, was very probably a troublesome rival, and Herod would, of course, espouse the quarrel of his Cesareans.

One accord The embassies of both cities visiting Herod together.

Chamberlain Superintendent of his bedchamber, and so very intimate, and thereby influential, with Herod. And as the funds were often retained in these inner apartments the chamberlain was often the treasurer.

Desired peace The cessation of all quarrel, and the removal of all restrictions upon trade.

Nourished They were large cities with small inland territories; for Phenicia was but a narrow strip of sea coast. They were, therefore, largely dependent on Herod’s territories of Palestine both for country supplies and for all their trade with the East.

Verse 21

21. Upon a set day A day appointed for a public interview with the ambassadors in presence of the citizens of Cesarea. Josephus is unaware of the facts furnished by Luke, Acts 12:20. He informs us that the stated day was the second day of the games in honour of the emperor, which would, of course, be a suitable day for the ambassadors to attend, as Luke says, and for Herod to make his personal display.

Herod, arrayed in royal apparel A long robe reaching to the feet. Josephus adds here that the robe was wholly overlaid with silver, and that, the assembly being at sunrise, the rays shining on the silver robe wrapt Herod’s person in a wonderful splendour. He omits the mention of the harangue, as he had omitted all account of the ambassadors of Tyre and Sidon.

Sat upon his throne Rather, sat upon a ( bema) platform or rostrum, his throne being placed upon it. Thence he could either see the games or harangue the people.

Oration unto them The word oration is in Greek a compound; literally, a people-harangue. The address was, therefore, made in presence of the ambassadors, and on the affairs of the State, but probably directed to the people. It may have been a congratulatory one on the restoration of amity and the great consequent prosperity of the various sections and cities, and so was likely to be in the highest degree popular.

Verses 21-23

21-23. Of the event related in this passage Josephus also gives a narrative, adding some statements and omitting some points, so that the two narrations complement each other without contradiction, thus demonstrating the reality of the extraordinary event.

Verse 22

22. The people Josephus, knowing nothing about the ambassadors or the harangue, has no other cause to furnish for the applause than the splendour of Herod’s appearance, which Luke implies, and supplies more, namely, the king’s oratory. As to the applause, Josephus furnishes some details. He says the applause began with Herod’s flatterers, who, acclaiming to him as a god, said, “Be propitious to us, and, although thus far we have revered thee as a man, in the future we will esteem thee greater than mortal.” Of course the attendant crowd of people joined in, and gave a shout, and pronounced his oratory the voice of a god.

Verse 23

23. The angel Josephus gives the pagan form of the story. He says that at that moment Herod, looking up, beheld an owl, a bird of evil omen, perched upon a cord! “Herod,” says Josephus, “thought the owl to be the ( αγγελος , angel) messenger of evil things as he had once been of good.” For some years before, when Herod was imprisoned by Tiberius preparatory to execution, an owl appeared to him, and a German soothsayer explained it as a sign of his release and future greatness, but warned him that when he should see the owl again he would expire in five days after. The appearance of an owl in so public a place in a great city, on a splendid morning, is very improbable as a natural event.

Gave not God the glory Heathen princes often received divine titles. But for Herod, a Jew, whose instruction in the oracles of God taught him the great crime of such blasphemy, the indulgence of these Gentiles in such flattery was a heinous sin. It was the culmination of that same blasphemous vainglory which prompted him to the murder of the apostles to win the applause of the Jews, and so was really identical with his spirit of persecution.

Eaten of worms A bowel complaint seized him; putrefaction, producing worms, and death in five days, ensued.

Verse 25

25. Returned See notes on Acts 11:27-30.

Took… John… Mark See note on Acts 12:12; Acts 13:4; Acts 13:13; Acts 15:37.

The death of Herod Agrippa is one of those events by which we gauge the chronology of the Acts. Josephus tells us that he received the entire dominions of his grandfather, the first Herod, on the accession of Claudius, namely, A.D. 41, and that he had completed his third year from this event at the time of his death. He died, therefore, A.D. 44. From this we know the time of James’ martyrdom, of Peter’s arrest and departure from Jerusalem, and of Paul’s beneficent visit thither.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Acts 12". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/acts-12.html. 1874-1909.
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