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Acts 12

Scripture: Acts 12:1-25

Highlights:

  • King Herod (Agrippa I) decides to start persecuting the church which leads to James (the apostle) losing his head
  • Herod sees that he can win favor with the Jews if he starts killing Christians, so he nabs Peter
  • Peter is being kept under guard by 16 soldiers until the Passover festival is over, at which point Herod plans to off him
  • The night before his execution Peter is awoken by an angel (via a swift kick in the side (paraphrase))
  • The angel tells Petey to get dressed and follow him (which he does) and leads him out of prison and into the city
  • Peter finds his way to the house of Mary (the mother of John Mark) and knocks on the door
  • Rhoda (the servant) tells everyone inside that Peter is at the door. They tell her she’s cray cray and that it’s probably only Peter’s guardian angel.
  • Peter keeps a knockin’ and they finally let him in, at which point they are suitably astounded, and then Peter skips town
  • When Herod finds Pete missing the next day he has the jail guards executed
  • Later, Herod is at a shindig where everyone remarks that he’s so awesome he reminds them of a god
  • The real God is unimpressed with Herod, so Herod dies of worms

Historical Context:

Herod:

Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great and nephew of Herod the Tetrarch. He was king of Palestine from 42 to 44 AD. He ruled over “Israel, including Judea, Galilee, Batanaea and Perea. From Galilee his territory extended east to Trachonitis.” (Wikipedia)

When Agrippa was younger, his father was  murdered, so Herod the Great sent him to live in the imperial court in Rome. While living in Rome, Agrippa became a favorite of (current emperor) Tiberius as well as a friend of (the future emperor) Claudius.

However, one day Agrippa was over heard saying he hoped Tiberius would die so that Caligula could become emperor, and so he was cast into prison.

When Tiberius did die and Caligula was made emperor, Agrippa was “set free and made governor first of the territories of Batanaea and Trachonitis that his cousin Philip the Tetrarch had held, then of the tetrarchy of Lysanias, with the title of ‘king’. Caligula also presented him with a golden chain of a weight equal to the iron one he had worn in prison. In 39, Agrippa returned to Rome, and brought about the banishment of his uncle, Herod Antipas, whose tetrarchy over Galilee and Peraea he then was granted.” (Wikipedia)

“Agrippa’s policy was the Pax Romana [Roman Peace] through the preservation of the status quo. He supported the majority within the land and ruthlessly suppressed minorities when they became disruptive.” (Longenecker)

Agrippa was “anxious to placate his Jewish subjects while retaining the favour of the Romans. So he built theatres and held games for the Romans and Greeks and slew the Christians to please the Jews.” (Baker)

Right before he died, Agrippa was a the height of his power. Rome had given him lots of territory to rule over, and as a result of the famine, the surrounding cities were dependent on him for sustenance. The event that preceded Agrippa’s death may have been either a festival celebrated every five years in honor of the foundation of Caesarea, (March 5, a.d. 44 ), or the emperor’s birthday (August 1, a.d. 44), or even a celebration of emperor Claudius’ return from Britain (an event widely celebrated around the Roman empire). According to the first-century historian Josephus, after a few days of festivities Agrippa “put on a garment made wholly of silver, truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning, the silver of his garment reflecting the sun’s rays, spreading a horror over those that looked …. His flatterers cried, from one place, and another, that he was a god, adding, Be merciful to us; for, although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature …. Presently a severe pain arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner …. Herod said, ‘I whom you call a god am presently commanded to depart this life …. I am bound to accept what Providence allots.'”

Josephus also reported that Agrippa lingered for five days and said that the rotting of his flesh produced worms.

James:

James and his brother John are among the first disciples to join Jesus. The two brothers were fishermen by trade, and earned the nickname “sons of thunder,” most likely due to their fiery tempers (as exemplified by their desire to call down fire on a Samaritan town). James was also among the select few apostles who bore witness to Jesus’ Transfiguration.

James is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament, and the method of his death (beheading by a sword) would’ve been considered a shameful way to die by Jewish standards. (Baker)

“It should be noted that the New Testament records no appointment of a successor to James. Why? He is still an apostle, still ‘reigning over the twelve tribes of (spiritual) Israel’ as Jesus promised (Matthew 19). Death never removed an apostle. It was not death but transgression that removed Judas.” (Coffman)

In an interesting side note, James was the first apostle to die and John, his brother, was probably the last.

Observations:

  • James death most likely took place about 10 years after Jesus’ resurrection.
  • Herod’s persecution may have stemmed from word of Peter’s interaction with Cornelius. The event may have revived the anti-orthodox threat (disrespect for the temple and Moses) the Jews felt from Christians as they did when Stephen gained traction among the Grecian Jews (Acts 7).
  • “Days of unleavened bread” refers to the annual Passover feast. Once more, Peter is likened to Jesus in that is was at Passover that Christ faced death.
  • Herod was waiting to kill Peter because “the stricter Jews regarded it as a profanation to put a person to death during a religious festival” (Hackett)
  • “Four squads of four soldiers each” would be sixteen men appointed to guard Peter. It is probable that Herod heard of Peter’s former escape from the Sanhedrin’s imprisonment.
  • Peter was probably kept in the Antonia fortress, the military barracks where Paul would later be confined (Acts 21) (GCI)
  • The Greek words translated as “earnestly praying ” implies that “it was incessantly kept up, always going on. Thus it was a kind of perpetual prayer meeting that the church organized on behalf of Peter.” (Coffman)
  • Peter was probably awoken between 3 A.M. and 6 A.M., the hours between when changes in the guards would’ve been made.
  • It is thought that the “iron gate leading to the city” took twenty-five men to open and close.
  • Mary, the mother of John Mark (the author of the Gospel of Mark), and aunt of Barnabas, was most likely a wealthy woman. She had a house large enough to contain a church gathering, a courtyard and a gate attended by a servant. It was probable that the disciples had been in the habit of meeting in her house and that Rhoda knew Peter and his voice from his frequent visits there.
  • Many first century Jews believed that every person had a guardian angel; Jesus even hints at this belief during his reference to the angels of little children in Matthew 18:10, as being angels of the highest rank. (Coffman) The angel would’ve been perceived as a “kind of spirit counterpart resembling the person.” (GCI)
  • Regarding the believer’s response to Peter’s knocking at the door, it is interesting to note that the apostles had a similar reaction to the women who claimed to  to have seen Jesus risen from the dead. “The disciples said [the womens’] words ‘seemed to them like nonsense.'” (GCI)
  • The “Code of Justinian shows that a guard who allows a prisoner to escape is subject to the same penalty the escaped prisoner would have suffered. This explains why the jailor at Philippi is about to kill himself when he thinks the prisoners have escaped (Acts 16:27). It’s the reason the soldiers want to kill the prisoners, including Paul, who are on the shipwrecked boat. They don’t want the prisoners to escape, because if the prisoners escape, the guards will have to suffer their penalty.” (GCI)
  • The chapter begins “with the future of the Jerusalem church being in grave doubt, with one of its leaders killed and its chief spokesperson awaiting trial and execution. But the tale ends with Peter’s escape, the death of the despot, and the church growing and spreading.” (GCI)

Discussion:

  • Why was Peter saved but not James?
  • Even though the Christians were praying for Peter’s rescue, why do you think they failed to believe it when it actually happened?
  • What point is Luke trying to make by contrasting Peter’s escape from prison and Herod’s own exaltation and subsequent death?

References:

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • Regarding Herod’s death: Luke saw it as God’s judgment (most likely for persecuting the Christians), whereas Josephus told it as the unfortunate death of a great man. Which perspective is true? How can we determine God’s actions from those of nature? Couldn’t Herod have been sick for a long time and it was just coincidence that he keeled over after being praised as a God?
  • Since the Enlightenment there has been a division between what can be explained by science and reason and what can be attributed to God. There is still the perception that only that which we can’t explain (either through ignorance or lack of discovery) can be called God. “God is the unexplainable,” is the belief many still hold (which is ironic given that what we have in scripture is God constantly revealing his nature, character and motivations). Many people (both Christian and non Christian) think that if science can explain it, it must not be “supernatural” and therefore unrelated to God. Perhaps it’s time to challenge this belief. Why can’t God act in nature? Is there really such a thing as “supernatural” or is there simply things we haven’t explained yet. By following the logic of the Enlightenment, at some point we will be able to explain everything in the universe via science, and therefore there would be no God. Can this be true? Can’t something be explained by science and reason and still be a statement of faith in God?
  • Maybe the most important thing about determining if something is God’s actions or simply science is people having the discussion/debate. “What if it was God’s intent? Or what if it wasn’t?” is a powerful conversation to have.
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