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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 12

 

 

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Verse 1

‘Now about that time Herod the king put forth his hands to afflict certain of the church.’

Note Luke’s description of him as ‘the king’. It was, of course strictly correct, but here it draws out that Israel now have a king.

Herod Agrippa was a lover of Jerusalem, and ‘about that time’, around the time that the Gentiles began to collect in order to meet the needs of the churches of Judaea, he determined that he would purify Jerusalem. It was at the time of the Passover, and he took the opportunity it afforded as the festal crowds gathered to ‘mistreat’ the Christians in Jerusalem in order to gain popularity. He set himself against ‘certain of the church’. It may well be that in the end James was his first and only victim, although that was certainly not originally his intention. It would not be difficult to find James. The leaders of the church were prominent enough to be well known, they were not in hiding and they were caught unprepared. But whatever was the case James was arrested, and the church reeled.

‘About that time.’ This happened just when things appeared to be becoming brighter because of the love and generosity of the church in Syrian Antioch which they knew would soon be coming their way. It must thus have come as a great blow to the church in Jerusalem who had probably thought that persecution was behind them.

However it may be that it is just a rough time indicator, for the events in chapter 12 take place in 44 AD whereas the visit of Barnabas and Saul may well have been in 46 AD, although preparation for the latter would have commenced earlier.


Verses 1-24

Jerusalem Finally Rejects the Apostles, Kingship Ceases in Israel, And The Word Of God Goes On Multiplying (12:1-24).

The new centre for world evangelisation having been set up (unknowingly at the time) at Antioch, Luke wants us to know that the old will now be dispensed with. The message of chapter 12 is simple. Jerusalem was faced with the choice between a new ‘king of Israel’ appointed by Rome, but beloved to their hearts, and the Messiah sent by God. This was not just the case of another tyrant whom they did not want. This was a king whom they respected and loved. And so they chose the king sent by Rome, and sought to destroy those who represented the King sent from God and enthroned in heaven. The result will be that Peter ‘departs for another place’, the king is smitten for blasphemy and Jerusalem will no longer be required in furthering God’s purposes.

The point is being emphasised here that, as had their fathers of old, they have chosen a Roman appointed self-exalting king-god, and rejected the God-appointed, God-exalted Holy and Righteous One. The words of Stephen are being borne out yet again.

In order to consider this chapter in context we shall once again consider the plan of the first part of Acts which leads up to it. In chapter 1 we analysed the first twelve chapters as follows. It will be noted that they follow out a telling chiastic pattern:

a Jesus speaks of the things concerning the Kingly Rule of God (Acts 1:3). He is asked, ‘Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6). His reply indicates that God’s present concern was to be the establishment of the Kingly Rule of God throughout the world in accordance with the teaching of Jesus, through the preaching of the word. Any other idea of a kingdom was to be left with God.

b He declares the Great Commission - they are to be His witnesses and the Good News is to be taken to the uttermost parts of the world, and the resulting preparations for this are described (Acts 1:7-26).

c Through the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, life is given to the people of God at Pentecost. God is revealed as among His own new people (Acts 12:2).

d Through Peter’s ministry the lame man is made to leap like a deer indicating that Messianic expectation is being fulfilled (Acts 12:3).

e Persecution comes under the High Priest and its results are described, resulting in the proclamation and further revelation of the Messiah (Acts 12:4-5).

f Within this scenario comes sin within the church - Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

g The ministry of the Hellenist Stephen (Acts 12:6).

h The pivotal speech of Stephen and his martyrdom (Acts 12:7).

g The ministry of the Hellenist Philip (Acts 12:8).

f Within this scenario comes sin within the church - Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:18-24).

e Persecution comes under the High Priest and its results are described, resulting in the further proclamation of the Messiah (Acts 9:1-31).

d Through Peter’s ministry the paralysed man is made to walk (Acts 9:32-35).

c Through the resurrection, life is given to Tabitha - and to Joppa - God is revealed as among His people (Acts 9:36-42).

b The Good News goes out to the Gentiles confirming thatGod has given to the Gentiles ‘repentance unto life’(Acts 9:43 to Acts 11:30).

a Israel choose their last and final earthly king who is destroyed because of blasphemy (thus following the ancient pattern) and because he has attacked the Kingly Rule of God and rebelled against God’s Messiah. The kingdom is definitely not to be physically restored to Israel, and Jerusalem itself is now no longer important in God’s saving purposes (Acts 12:12).

It will be noted that in ‘a’ the proclamation of the Kingly Rule of God is emphasised, with the instruction that they should ignore the idea of an earthly Kingdom, and in the parallel in chapter 12 the Kingly Rule of God is contrasted with a physical earthly Kingdom of Israel, a Kingdom whose king is brought into judgment and whose people are rejected. God will not at this time restore the kingdom to Israel. In ‘b’ the commission is to go as witnesses to the end of the earth and in the parallel the Good News has been offered to the Gentiles who have been granted ‘repentance unto life’ with the result that a large church has been established in Antioch.

It is clear therefore that according to Luke’s literary pattern, and by comparison of ‘a’ with ‘a’, chapter 12 is closely related to both the idea of the Kingly Rule of God being promulgated by the Apostles as described in chapter 1, and to the idea of a setting up of an earthly kingdom in Israel, which takes place here under Herod. Two ideas of kingship are in opposition. And this is evidenced by the attacks on the Apostles whose position as representatives of the true Messiah can be contrasted with the rule of ‘Herod the king’, which is a false attempt at the restoration of the physical kingdom by the Jews. Theoretically it could have been a triumph. The king could have recognised the Messiah (Psalms 110:1) and the Kingly Rule of God could have been given a physical dimension. But it was not to be so. Jerusalem wanted anything rather than its Messiah.

As a result Israel’s physical king then sought to destroy the representatives of the true King, the Messiah, and the true Kingly Rule of God, in order to try to prop up and establish his own kingdom under the old Israel. It was Satan’s further attempt to set up his own Messiah (compare Luke 4:6). But as this chapter will reveal, the Lord will step in to rescue His own, and will destroy the Usurper, from then on dispensing with the services of Jerusalem. From now on Jerusalem will drop out of the frame, the hope of the earthly kingdom will cease, and the outreach to the world will take over as being what is of prime importance, carried out through the Holy Spirit from centres such as Syrian Antioch, which has already been prepared as a full functioning church ready for takeover (Acts 11:19-30).

It is true that the facts of history prevent Luke from dropping Jerusalem completely (while using history he never alters it to suit his purpose). He has to introduce it in chapter 15 because what is described there happened in Jerusalem, but it was there as a venue where they could establish the rules which would galvanise the Gentile mission, not as an attempt to evangelise Jerusalem or to reach out to the world. And it is later seen to be the trap by which Satan seeks to destroy Paul in chapter 21. Otherwise, as far as Luke is concerned, Jerusalem no longer has any evangelistic importance to the great commission. The main task of the church in Jerusalem was now the maintenance of the faith of those thousands of Hebrew and Pharisaic Jews who still remained (Acts 21:20) who would affect no one but themselves (except harmfully). By its acceptance of Agrippa and its rejection of the Apostles Jerusalem had made its final choice. How often Christ would have gathered them under His wings, but they would not. From now on the Good News would go out to the Gentiles, and it would start from Antioch.

The chapter begins by revealing that in the reign of the Emperor Claudius Israel once more had a genuine king. His name was Herod Agrippa I and he now ruled over all Palestine, over the equivalent of ‘Israel’, with the given title of ‘King’. Although he was a grandson of Herod the Great, and had spent much of his time growing up in Rome, (where he had had a doubtful past), he was the first recent king who was pleasing to the Jews, and that was because his grandmother was Mariamne, who was descended from the Maccabees, and he was therefore seen as a Hasmonean. In turn he himself sought to please the Jews and piously observed the Jewish faith in accordance with the tenets of the Pharisees, and at the same time defrayed the costs of large numbers of Nazirites. Josephus eulogised him, and expressed the views of most Jews when he said, ‘It was his pleasure to reside continually in Jerusalem, and he meticulously observed the precepts of his fathers. He neglected no rite of purification, and not a day passed without its appointed sacrifice.’ (This behaviour was for home consumption. He behaved differently when abroad).

The Mishnah also portrays him as a king approved by the people. It describes an incident when he was performing the reading of the Law at the Feast of Tabernacles, saying, “King Agrippa received it (the scroll) standing, and read it standing, and for this the Sages praised him. And when he reached, ‘You may not put a foreigner (he was half-Edomite) over you who is not your brother’ (Deuteronomy 17:15) his eyes flowed with tears, but they called out to him, ‘You are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother’.” (M Sotah Acts 7:8). Thus it is clear that they who rejected the trueborn Messiah according to the Law, were willing to ignore the Law and accept a half-Jewish king contrary to the Law. It is illustrative of the continual attitude of the Jews in those days.

The growth of his rulership, which built up gradually, commenced with his ruling territory north east of Palestine. It then continued with the taking over of Galilee and Peraea under Gaius (Caligula), whom he had known in his youth and to whom he had given support, and was further augmented by the rulership of Judaea and Samaria, given to him by Claudius, whom he had aided in his bid to become emperor. (He was good at wooing the right people). His reign and seeming piety probably stirred up many hopes in Israel of the possible arrival of the Messianic kingdom, for he was the first recent king that they had really been willing to acknowledge, and they loved him for his seeming love of Israel.

This now meant that in Jerusalem two kings were in competition. There were two rival claimants to the loyalty of Israel. The first was Jesus through His Apostles. He had been declared Messiah and Lord, and His Apostles had been seeking to bring men under His Kingly Rule for a number of years, and had been working vigorously in Jerusalem to that end. They wanted Him ‘crowned’ as King of Jerusalem. The other was King Agrippa I, one of Satan’s upraising as his final end shows, who would begin to seek vigorously to dispose of the Apostles of the Messiah Who was claiming Jerusalem. And Jerusalem had to choose between them as to whom they would have to reign over them.

In Acts 1:6 Jesus had been asked, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingship to Israel?’ And Jesus had simply pointed out to them that what God would do in the future, and when, was at that time no business of theirs. But now a physical kingship had arisen over Israel, one that was accepted by most of the people, and it faced all Jerusalem with a stark choice, Christ or Agrippa.

In the face of the choice Jerusalem did not sit on the fence. It made its selection. And its selection meant that it chose Agrippa and rejected Christ, and therefore encouraged the execution of the Apostles. This comes out in that for the first time since the initial outreach, it is the people as well as the leaders who approved the targeting and slaying of the Apostles and revealed their willingness to uphold Agrippa in doing so.

But Luke points out that as soon as ‘Herod the king’ began to target those of the twelve Apostles who were in Jerusalem, and slew the first one, (as with Stephen, Satan was only allowed one of the leaders), things began to go wrong for him. Such opposition to God could only have one result, and after being humiliated by the rescue of Peter by a Greater than he, Herod Agrippa withdrew from Jerusalem and was himself finally destroyed. His reign had proved a false dawn. His kingdom was revealed to be like the kingdom that had been offered to Jesus by Satan, which He had turned down (Luke 4:6), earthly and based on false and unenduring premises. And the consequence was that from now on Jerusalem became almost ignored as far as evangelism was concerned. It had indicated its final rejection of the Messiah. It had made itself impossible as a source for the evangelising of the world.

So Jerusalem had failed to recognise that God’s everlasting kingdom, promised to the prophets, could not be of this world, as Jesus had clearly told Pilate (John 18:36). This should have been obvious, for if it was earthly it could neither be heavenly nor everlasting. But as Stephen had already pointed out they clung too much to physical things and failed as ever in the recognition of God’s Saviour. The truth now was that the Kingly Rule of God must rather be eternal, and therefore enjoyed in the presence of God in the Beyond, with the picture presented by the prophets being fulfilled in a deeper dimension, in spirit rather than in word (compare John 4:21-24), as a result of the resurrection, and man’s final reception of the spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44; compare Isaiah 26:19, the latter still thinking of a physical body).

Yet even today there are some who want to hold on to the dream of a Millennial earthly kingdom, an idea nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. But it is only a dream, and it simply arises from a literalism with regard to Old Testament prophecies which could never be fulfilled, and if taken literally as a whole is merely contradictory. Consider what they tell us. Outside the Temple the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the calf with the young lion, and the leopard with the kid, the children will be playing with the asp. There will be no shedding of blood. All is at peace. Meanwhile, it is only the children’s fathers, inside the Temple, who unaware of this idyll outside. They will be shedding gallons of blood and butchering animals galore, and these not as genuine offerings and sacrifices as the Old Testament demands and as the prophets prophesied if taken literally, but as a totally unscriptural and unnecessary ‘memorial offering’ with no atoning purpose, and described as such nowhere in the Old Testament or the New. That is the illogical picture demanded by extreme literalism. But as will be observed, they do not treat the text literally after all, for as soon as they come to a problem like the sacrifices and offerings they begin to alter their significance to suit their purpose, imagining things the prophets never dreamed of. Perhaps we should thus have said that theirs was a nightmare and not a dream. What we need to recognise is that all such prophecies were pointing forward to greater spiritual realities, in the same way as the Jerusalem and heavenly garden in Revelation 21-22.

But turning back to this solemn chapter it is clear that Luke, by his use of the material in the way in which he does use it, is seeking to indicate that Jerusalem has hereby forfeited its last chance. Its kingship has died horribly, it has rejected the Apostles, who have left it ‘for another place’, and thus apart from the small, rather inward looking Jewish Christian church, whose light glows on but is relatively dim, (there are no signs and wonders, although healing by the anointing with oil goes on - James 5:14), Jerusalem is left with no witness to that Kingly Rule of God which it has rejected by its rejection of the Apostles. From this time on the Apostles will no more be depicted as openly witnessing in Jerusalem. No more will signs and wonders be described as taking place there. From this chapter onwards there will be no further thought of massive outreach and evangelism, or signs and wonders in or from Jerusalem. It will be as though all such had ceased. Rather, in Acts, the only use for Jerusalem will be as a base where the Apostles and elders come together in order to agree decisions with the Jerusalem church for the benefit of the Gentiles (Acts 15:1-29), and as a snare with which Satan seeks to entrap the Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 21:17 onwards), although with the assurance that the Jerusalem church itself continues to flourish (Acts 21:20).

It is not, of course, strictly true to say thatallwitness immediately died in Jerusalem, but there can be no doubt that it had grown less strident. Some of the Apostles did gather there from where they were ministering when called on to do so (Acts 15:2; Acts 15:6), but only Peter and James, the Lord’s brother, are actually mentioned as being there, while by Acts 21:18 it certainly seems that only James, the Lord’s brother, remained, and he as a very Jewish Christian in a position of leadership in the Jewish Jerusalem church. He was held in high respect by both Christian and Jew, and after the death of Jesus was heir to the throne of David, which while it had no practical relevance, would give him standing in Jerusalem. He was very Jewish as a Christian, continuing the practise of circumcision, demanding conformity to the whole law by Jewish Christians in accordance with general Pharisaic teaching, stressing Sabbath keeping on the Jewish pattern, and observing worship and daily prayer in the Temple (in other words continuing very much like Jesus had while living on earth). However, he remained true to the Gospel as his letter makes clear.

He was to be martyred by an angry crowd as a result of the jealousy of the High Priest Ananus, at a time of Roman inter-regnum, a martyrdom which the Pharisees, who admired James’ religious fervour, strongly opposed, but such persecution was rare. And that was probably because the church in Jerusalem became smaller and more inward looking, with those who wanted to enjoy the freedom of the Gospel going elsewhere, and ever more accommodating to its Jewish neighbours, burdened down by its need to satisfy the full requirements of the Law (Acts 21:20), its submission to circumcision, and its loyalty to the Temple which remained paramount, although these no doubt continued along with its belief in Christ and presumably the maintenance of baptism and the Lord’ Supper, which were now its only distinguishing features. By remaining so Jewish it escaped much persecution, which only arose spasmodically in exceptional circumstances, but its witness was thereby more limited. And finally it fled to Pella prior to the final invasion of Jerusalem, where as far as we know it died a slow and lingering death, although clinging on for centuries as an oddity, and possibly dividing up into two (or more) sections, the Nazarenes who continued to be very legalistic but remained in fellowship with the worldwide church and believed in the virgin birth, and the Ebionites who were also heavily legalistic, but became seen as heretics because of their rejection of the virgin birth and some lack in their teaching about Christ. They both clung to a Hebrew ‘Gospel of Matthew’. It must be recognised, however, that the information we have is scanty and based on unreliable information, with its detail not certain, for the groups were isolated and mainly ignored for centuries.

However, returning to chapter 12, it must surely be seen as significant that once this chapter is completed, apart from the gathering of the Apostles and prophets to consider the question of what Gentiles should be required to observe of Jewish Law in chapter 15 and Paul’s last abortive visit, Jerusalem fades from the scene. In the beginning of Acts everything had centred on Jerusalem, but from now on it ceased to be the centre of the ongoing of the word. As far as Luke is concerned it has descended into insignificance. That privilege now goes to Syrian Antioch. Luke seems to be saying that Jerusalem has had its opportunity, and is now dropped. The Good News is to go to the rest of the world, but it will no longer be from Jerusalem. We could apply to it the words of Paul in Acts 18:6. Jerusalem is put aside. Only its church lives on.

At the same time Jerusalem’s final attempt at establishing a kingdom of God in Israel is also seen as having collapsed. It is as though in this chapter the earthly city and the earthly kingdom are being written off as far as Luke is concerned, as a result of their having finally taken their decision to slay those who are the foundation of God’s everlasting future (Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14). It is a signal that Christians must no longer look to the earthly Jerusalem, but to the Jerusalem which is above (Galatians 4:25-26; compare Hebrews 12:22 - where the heavenly Jerusalem is the city of the living God), and to the everlasting Kingly Rule of God ruled over by Jesus Christ in heavenly glory, in which they now partake, and in which they will rejoice hereafter. This is what the first eleven chapter of Acts have led up to. And to the question, ‘will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?’ they receive the firm answer, ‘No!’ (See the analysis above). And we could add, ‘and Jerusalem no longer counts in the purposes of God’.

With regard to Herod Agrippa I and his behaviour which we must now examine, it is clear that the animosity of the Pharisees and Sadducees towards the Jewish church must have contributed heavily towards it, together possibly with the fact that Christians were said to follow a Messiah and be looking for the Kingly Rule of God. This would have been enough in itself to set him against Christians, but his desire to ingratiate himself with the Jews as a whole no doubt increased his willingness even more. And this may well be why he began to ‘lay hands on’ certain of the church on the grounds that these troublemakers needed teaching a lesson. (Even so, in spite of the dark days, ‘the word grew and multiplied’ (Acts 12:24)).


Verse 2

‘And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.’

To the horror of all Christians James, the brother of John, one of the select three of Peter, James and John, was put to death by being beheaded with a sword. In Jewish law death by the sword was the penalty for murder or apostasy (m. Sanhedrin Acts 9:1; compare Deuteronomy 13:2-15). The Apostles were therefore being treated as apostates from Judaism. It was the first death of an Apostle that we know of and must have baffled the church. Why had God allowed this to happen to an Apostle? Previously the Apostles had been sacrosanct.

But as with Stephen, James was allowed to be martyred, as Jesus had strongly hinted might be the case (see Mark 10:39; compare John 16:2, literally fulfilled here). God did not intervene. He was ‘making up that which was behind of the sufferings of Christ’, for the principle of Scripture and the purpose of God is that righteousness advances through suffering (Colossians 1:24). The Servant is the suffering Servant. It is through much tribulation that we will enter under the Kingly Rule of God (Acts 14:22). And the Apostles could not be excluded, now that the church was no longer so dependent on them. Note that James died at the same feast as his Lord. He followed in His steps.

It is not for us to ask why James was taken and Peter was spared. Some perish by the sword, others are saved from the sword (Hebrews 11:34; Hebrews 11:37). That is God’s pattern and it is He Who holds the reins. But it is interesting in the light of the great commission of Acts 1:8 that both James and Peter were still in Jerusalem. Perhaps this was to be a strong hint to the Apostles that it was now time that they were moving on, in the same way as the martyrdom of Stephen had been a means of despatching the witnessing church out among the nations.


Verse 3

‘And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. And those were the days of unleavened bread.’

In some way the king took on board the fact that he had pleased the Jews, possibly through the expressed approval of the Sanhedrin who informed him how delighted the people were, for he then proceeded to arrest Peter in order to please them even more. It was at the time of the feast of unleavened bread, the seven days following the day of the Passover. It may be that James, like Jesus, had been slain on the day of the Passover as ‘a false prophet’ so that the people might hear and fear (Deuteronomy 17:12-13). But now the following celebrations were in progress and so the decision was made to keep Peter in prison until the feast was over so as to avoid an uproar at festival time (compare Mark 14:2).


Verse 4

‘And when he had taken him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him forth to the people.

So Peter was taken and imprisoned, probably in the Castle Antonia, and he was placed under a secure guard of four squads of four soldiers each, rotating in three-hour shifts day and night, with two of them chained to Peter at any one time. Escape or rescue was therefore an impossibility - to man. His intention was to bring him out once the seven days were over.

The excessive precautions taken indicate Agrippa’s determination to destroy Peter, and reveal his view of how dangerous the Jerusalem church was. He had no doubt been warned how Peter, together with his companions, had previously managed to escape and he wanted to ensure that it did not happen this time. (Incidentally this strict treatment helps to confirm that there must have been a previous escape, otherwise why the precautions?) He wanted to ensure that he kept the people of the Messiah in chains.


Verse 5

‘Peter therefore was kept in the prison. But prayer was made earnestly by the church to God for him.’

He was right to be worried, but wrong to think that he could do anything against it. Here we have one of those sublime contrasts that so often appear in the Scriptures. On the one hand Peter was kept safely in prison, constantly chained to his two guards. All the power of the earthly kingdom was being called on to keep him chained up. The God of the Apostles was being challenged. But on the other the church met together and made earnest prayer to God for him. They had a power the king knew nothing of. All the power of the Kingly Rule of Heaven was being brought to bear (compare 2 Corinthians 10:4; Hebrews 11:34). Thus two great kingdoms were face to face, the earthly, temporary ‘kingdom of God’ (as they saw it), and the heavenly, permanent and powerful Kingly Rule of God.


Verse 6-7

‘And when Herod was about to bring him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards before the door kept the prison. And behold, an angel (or ‘messenger’) of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the cell, and he smote Peter on the side, and awoke him, saying, “Rise up quickly.” And his chains fell off from his hands.’

The night arrived prior to the day when Peter was to be brought out, the night following the Sabbath of the seventh day of unleavened bread. It was the time when ‘Herod was about to bring him forth.’ Peter was asleep between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while a further two soldiers watched the door. They were determined to keep him safe. And as for Peter, there was no tremor on his brow. He was sleeping like a babe (compare Psalms 3:5; Luke 8:23). He was ready to go to meet his Lord. (Or he may simply have always been a very heavy sleeper. But Luke does go to great pains to stress how heavily he had been sleeping so that it took him a good while to wake up properly).

But then all heaven broke loose. He found himself rudely awakened by a blow to his side, and saw a light shining in the cell, and found there ‘the angel (messenger) of the Lord’ who urged him to rise up quickly. And when he sought to do so the chains fell off his hands.

‘The chains fell off his hands.’ Whether as a result of being unlocked or simply by a move of the visitant’s hand is unimportant. What was important was the ease with which God disposed of them. All the king’s efforts were in vain. They were as chaff before the Almighty’s wind.

‘The angel of the Lord.’ This could mean ‘the messenger of the Lord’ and be referring to a human agency. On the other hand in Acts 12:23 the angel of the Lord is undoubtedly an angelic agency, and the same applies in Acts 8:26 (as is also the case in the Old Testament). Thus the most natural meaning here would be of specific divine intervention.


Verse 8

‘And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself, and bind on your sandals.” And he did so. And he says to him, “Throw your robe about you, and follow me.”

We must presume that Peter was heavy with sleep, such was the clarity of his conscience, so that the angel had to urgently prod him into action. He bade him to gird himself, that is put his belt on in order to keep his clothing off the ground for fast walking, and bind on his sandals. He wanted Peter to know that he would be coming with him. And Peter did as he was told. Then he urged him to throw his robe around him and follow him.

The detail given suggests that Luke wants us to see Peter as in a daze, and this is brought out in what follows. That the visitant was God-sent is certain, but there is nothing here that necessarily requires that it be a heavenly visitant, apart from the description ‘angel of the Lord’ itself. Had it not been for that it could equally have been a messenger of God on earth.


Verse 9

‘And he went out, and followed, and he did not know that what was done by the angel was true, but thought he saw a vision.’

Peter did as he was bid as though in a dream. He went out and followed the angel, totally unconvinced that it was really happening. He knew that it could not be true. Soon he would wake up and it would be all a dream. Luke is bringing out that his escape was totally due to God. Peter, as it were, just stood by, half asleep, and watched the salvation of God.


Verse 10

‘And when they were past the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city; which opened to them of its own accord, and they went out, and passed on through one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.’

If it was a dream it was a good dream. Out they went past the first and second guard, both not interfering and seemingly unconscious of their passing, until they came to the iron gates that led out of the castle into the city. And the gate ‘opened of its own accord’. That was how it appeared to Peter. Again we are being impressed with the ease with which God had it all arranged. All man’s attempts to thwart God were as nothing. So they passed out and into one street and then moved into the next. And there the angel left him. He was free. None could bind the representative of the Kingly Rule of God.

Here we may stop and pause for a moment and possibly ask ourselves, was this angel (messenger) of the Lord a heavenly visitant or an earthly one? It actually does not really matter. Whoever it was, it was undoubtedly of God. But while nothing has been said that could not be true of an earthly and carefully planned rescue by a group of sympathisers (but with heavenly assistance), who possessed the necessary keys and had drugged the guards, as described by someone who was half asleep at the time, the mention of the ‘angel of the Lord’ is against it. The ‘angel of the Lord’ is usually a very specific divine figure. But the description of the whole incident is itself evidence of the genuineness of the story, with its picture of a dazed Peter doing just as he was told, and then suddenly finding himself alone. It rings true.

Whether the deliverer was earthly or heavenly is a question we must decide for ourselves. We may make our own choice. What we do know is that God was behind it, and that when God does such work we can only look on in awe, and leave to Him the method that He uses. I am reminded here of another saint of God, the Sadhu Sundar Singh. He too was imprisoned because of his Christian witness, knowing no one, and with no hope of escape or rescue, until awoken at the dead of night by a stealthy figure whom he thought to be an angel, who led him out to safety. But this visitant then whispered ere he left him, ‘the Sanyasi mission’, and he later learned that the whispered words of this ‘messenger of God’ was a member of a secret group of Indian Christians who, he discovered, claimed to trace their origins back to Thomas the Apostle. But who could doubt that he too was a messenger sent from God, and an ‘angel of God?


Verse 11

‘And when Peter was come to himself, he said, “Now I know of a truth, that the Lord has sent forth his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.” ’

Once Peter had gathered his wits, he could only marvel and say, “God has sent His messenger, his angel, and has delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all that the Jews anticipated that they could do to me.” The words express what Luke is seeking to put over. It was the whole of Jerusalem that was rejoicing at what it could do to this man of God, but God had totally thwarted them. They were waiting in expectancy for his demise.

Peter had been in no doubt about what his fate was going to be in the morning. But now all his enemies had been put to shame. The king of Israel and the people of Israel had planned together his demise, but both had now been thwarted. The rulers and the people had taken counsel against the Lord and against His anointed (Psalms 1), and they had been defeated. He would march on in triumph with God ‘in another place’. But in contrast the king would die a horrible death and Israel, ‘the people of the Jews’, would be left in darkness, and in the not too distant future many of them would perish in the flames of the destruction of Jerusalem. Peter, however, would ‘go to another place’. And as so often in Acts, Peter speaks for all the Apostles.

We note here a similar phrase to that which he had used with Cornelius. There he had spoken of ‘the land of the Jews’. Here he spoke of ‘the people of the Jews’. It was distancing what was spoken of from speaker and hearer. It was now Peter, the Apostles and the church who represented the true Israel (Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:9). This people were no longer so. ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel’, Paul would later declare (Romans 9:6). These were simply now ‘the people of the Jews’.


Verse 12

‘And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.’

And once he had thought everything through (as far as he could) he sought out the house of the mother of John (Yohen - Hebrew) Mark (Markos - Greek), where he knew that Christians would be gathered and waiting anxiously to hear news of him, and where indeed many were gathered and were praying.

John Mark was the man who would shortly accompany Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5). He was Barnabas' cousin (Colossians 4:10) who would later travel with Barnabas to Cyprus when Paul chose Silas as his companion for his second missionary journey (Acts 15:37-39) after a disagreement over Mark. Mark later accompanied Paul again (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24) as well as Peter (1 Peter 5:13). According to early church tradition he wrote the Gospel that bears his name, served as Peter's ‘interpreter’ in Rome, thus obtaining much of his information from Peter, and later established the church in Alexandria, in Egypt


Verse 13-14

‘And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a maid came to answer, named Rhoda, and when she knew Peter’s voice, she did not open the gate for joy, but ran in, and told that Peter stood before the gate.’

The prison gate had swung open of its own accord. It would be a little more difficult getting into this house. That was barred to him. For when the maid, Rhoda, recognised Peter’s voice she was so overjoyed that she raced off to tell all the gathered people that Peter was at the gate, and simply forgot to let him in. The story is so natural that it has to be the record of someone who was there.


Verse 15

‘And they said to her, “You are mad.” But she confidently affirmed that it was even so. And they said, “It is his angel.” ’

Then, while Peter continued knocking, they first told her that she was mad, and then, when she continued to affirm that it was true, began a discussion as to what it could be that was at the door. ‘It is his angel’, they said. Perhaps they were saying ‘He is dead and his angel has come to visit us to tell us.’ They had been praying for his safety all night and now they could not believe it. Or perhaps they thought that he was still alive although awaiting the worst and that his angel had come to reassure them. Jesus had spoken of ‘little ones’ having their own angels watching over them (Matthew 18:10; Hebrews 1:14). This may have been what was in their minds. But one thing is clear. They did not believe that God could have answered their prayers.


Verse 16

‘But Peter continued knocking, and when they had opened, they saw him, and were amazed.’

Peter, however, continued knocking, and when eventually they opened the gate they were amazed. This part of the story may only have been recounted in such detail because it was amusing, but the idea of the Lord knocking at the door at His second coming was so well known that perhaps this was intended to be a reminder that as His people pray so the Lord is knocking at the door and they should be ready to open immediately in readiness for anything that is coming (Luke 12:36; Revelation 3:20). The hint is that they should have been on the ready. For time is passing, and then it will be too late. This is all of a piece with the fact that this chapter deals with the battle between two kingdoms.


Verse 17

‘And he departed, and went to another place.’

There is a finality about these words which suggests that they are intended to be seen as significant. Jerusalem had lost its opportunity, and now Peter (and his fellow Apostles if any remained there) were departing from Jerusalem for other horizons. Jerusalem was being left to its unbelief. He was going ‘to another place’. This is backed up by a comparison with Acts 5:25. There the response to release was to return to the Temple to proclaim the name of Jesus at the command of God. Here it is the opposite. It is to depart, to simply to disappear. Jerusalem had refused its second chance.

Of course it was important that Peter vanish immediately, for once his escape was discovered he would be sought for, and must not be found with the people of God, or they would suffer too. But the lack of mention of any destination (it need only have been vague) is surely indicative of a symbolic significance. It is no coincidence that the coming spread of the Good News to the Gentiles also takes place from another place, from Antioch. We do not know where Peter went. It was not considered important. What mattered was that he had left Jerusalem.

And it will be noted how much from this point on, wherever Paul went, although many Jews welcomed him, it was the intransigent Jews who soon incited trouble against him, beginning almost immediately with the Jewish Bar-jesus (Acts 13:6). See Acts 13:45; Acts 13:50; Acts 14:2; Acts 14:5; Acts 14:19; Acts 15:1; Acts 17:5; Acts 17:13; Acts 18:12; Acts 20:3.


Verse 18

‘Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter.’

We could put it another way. A bombshell had been dropped among his guards. They must have been appalled. They just could not comprehend what had happened. Here they all were, safely in place, but Peter had gone. It was inexplicable. And they had no doubt as to what the consequences would be.


Verse 19

‘And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the guards, and commanded that they should be put to death (literally ‘led away’). And he went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and stayed there.’

Herod was of course displeased. He was being made to look a complete fool. ‘He sought for him, but found him not.’ But what did he expect when he touched the Lord’s anointed? Here he was making a great show for the people of eradicating these followers of a Messiah, and now this one who was the most important of all had escaped him. He was so embarrassed that he went down from Judaea to Caesarea and stayed there, not realising that he was going to the place where Peter had had his earlier great triumph with the representative of the legions of Rome. This was no small thing for Agrippa. He loved living in Jerusalem.

Sadly the soldiers suffered the fate of all who appear to have neglected their duty. The rule was regularly that if a prisoner was allowed to escape, the negligent guards would suffer the fate that had been intended for the prisoner. And in this case they were probably put to death (they were ‘led away’ to be punished).


Verse 20

‘Now he was highly displeased with those of Tyre and Sidon, and they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was fed from the king’s country.’

The king had played fast and loose with God, and now God would play fast and loose with him. He became highly displeased with the people of Tyre and Sidon (we do not know why). He was playing God and trying to boost his ego. This was unpleasant for them, for not only could he interfere with their trade, but they were also dependent on his territory for their food supplies.

So they ‘made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend’, presumably by slipping him a nice present, and sued for peace between them and the king.

It may be that there is a hint here that this is what Jerusalem should have been doing with God, making a friend of His anointed Representative, and seeking peace (Acts 10:36). These people at least knew what was good for them. But he had not.


Verse 21

‘And on a set day Herod arrayed himself in royal apparel, and sat on the throne, and made an oration to them.’

The day came for the royal triumph. On the set day Herod clothed himself regally and sat on his throne and made a great speech to them. The purpose was to make an impression and bring glory on himself. The Messiah rejecter was now exalting himself.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, describes how, on the second day of the festival, Agrippa entered the theatre clad in a robe of silver cloth, with the sun glinting on the silver, producing such an effect that the people (who of course wanted to please him) cried out that this was a god come to them. Josephus then goes on to tell us that at once a sudden and terrible illness fell on him from which he never recovered, and he died of severe abdominal pains five days later.


Verse 22

‘And the people shouted, saying, “The voice of a god, and not of a man.” ’

In response to his great show of self-aggrandisement the people responded in a way that could only please him. They cried out flatteringly, “The voice of a god, and not of a man.” He was not the first king to be ready to accept divine honours, but he had professed to be the king of Israel. And furthermore Luke might intend us to be reminded here of the fact that he had sought to destroy those who did serve the God-Man. Thus by his folly in imitating the Messiah his fate was sealed. There is a direct contrast here with Acts 10:26. Peter would not even accept homage, this king wanted full worship. Compare also Acts 14:11-18 where Paul and Barnabas rejected such worship.


Verse 23

‘And immediately an angel of the Lord smote him, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten of worms, and gave up his breath.’

Immediately the angel of the Lord smote him so that he died, because he did not give God the glory, and the result was that he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. ‘Immediately’ need not be taken literally, merely signifying within a short period. This is, of course, a summary of what happened and much of it would only come out on medical examination. But the point is clear, his death was sudden and ignominious, as Josephus had also testified. He who had set himself up against God and His Anointed had suffered his deserved end. And when his body was examined worms were discovered in it. This is the fate of all such blasphemers (compare Isaiah 14:11; Isaiah 66:24).


Verse 24

‘But the word of God grew and multiplied.’

And in contrast to the end of the pretender, and in spite of what man could do, ‘the word of God grew and multiplied.’ The word of God marched on in triumph, sweeping all before it. Nothing could hold it back as what follows will now reveal.

We may perhaps close this section of the Book of Acts by pointing out the pattern in the chapter above. It began with the king setting himself up against God and His anointed, followed by the people expressing their approval of his attitude, and their strike against the representative of the Messiah, it continued with the deliverance of His representative, and ended with the people being deserted by God’s anointed who departed for another place, and with the king himself being toppled from his throne. Jerusalem which had for so long resisted Him had received its deserts. From now on attention will turn to Antioch. To us this may seem commonplace. In Luke’s day for the early Christians it was revolutionary. It produced a whole new way of thinking.


Verse 25

The Call To Evangelise Asia Minor (12:25-13:3).

‘And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministration, taking with them John whose surname was Mark.’

Accepting the text as here (with A and p74) Barnabas and Saul had come to Jerusalem and had ministered to the true people of God the love of the church at Antioch. Having accomplished their task and demonstrated the love and unity between the two churches, they now returned to Antioch, and took with them John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin.

However, certain good manuscripts (Aleph & B (a powerful combination) together with P) support the reading ‘returned to Jerusalem’. This can make good sense as indicating that they had been distributing the Antiochene gifts among the elders of Judaea and then returned to Jerusalem, having fulfilled their ministry to them.

It actually makes little difference which we take for they then clearly had to return to Antioch in order that what happened next might follow. If we accept the latter texts then their return is just assumed. However, as they took Mark with them, it suggests that in this rare case the more difficult text is wrong so that it should read ‘from Jerusalem’, unless we take it to mean, ‘returned to Jerusalem (and then left there) taking Mark with them’, with the words in brackets simply assumed.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 12:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/acts-12.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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