Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.Acts 12:1-12. Herod’s persecution of the Church. Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison
1. Now about that time] The events here narrated must have shortly preceded Herod’s death, and so the chronological note here given must refer to some date near a.d. 43.
Herod the king] This was Herod Agrippa I. He was the son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great. See Dictionary of the Bible.
stretched forth his hands to vex (injure) certain of the church] Agrippa, according to Josephus (xix. 7. 3), was anxious to be esteemed a devout Jew: “He loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure, nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.” Such a man might easily be roused, by the Jews whom he was so anxious to please, to the perpetration of cruelties upon the Christians.
And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.2. And he killed James the brother of John] One of the two sons of Zebedee, who had been among the three specially favoured disciples of Jesus. It is therefore likely that he would take a leading part in the labours of the Church, and so Agrippa’s attention would be drawn to him as a proper person to be first struck down. All the accusations which had been laid against Stephen, that the Christian leader spake against the Temple and the Law, would be used with effect to such a zealous observer of Mosaic ritual as Herod Agrippa was.
with the sword] This was the third in order of the modes of execution appointed among the Jews. These are stoning, burning, decapitation, and strangulation. In connection with the execution of James the words of the Mishna are interesting: “The manner of putting to death by the sword is as follows: the man’s head is cut off with the sword as is wont to be done by royal command.” See Surenhusius on Sanhedrin p. 238 (misprinted 248), where there is a discussion about the position of the prisoner, whether he should stand erect or have his head on a block.
And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.)3. And because he saw it pleased the Jews] Which was so great an object with him. This Josephus notices (Antiq. xix. 7. 3), for, comparing Agrippa with the Herod who ruled before him, he mentions that the latter “was more friendly to the Greeks than to the Jews,” in which matter he says Agrippa “was not at all like him.”
he proceeded further to take Peter also] The Greek is a rendering of a common Hebrew form. Literally, “he added to take Peter also.” Peter was the other most conspicuous figure among the twelve, for John, as in his Gospel he keeps himself from view under the designation “that other disciple” (John 20:2-3; John 21:20; John 21:23), so in the work of the early Church he is but little noticed after the first persecution at Jerusalem.
Then were the days of unleavened bread] Literally, “and those were,” &c. The expression refers to the whole feast, as may be seen from Luke 22:1, “The feast of unleavened bread, which is called the Passover.”
And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.4. And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison] To keep him a prisoner till the termination of the feast.
and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep [guard] him] A quaternion was a set of four men, which number was at one time occupied in the work of the guard, two soldiers being chained to the prisoner, and two keeping guard outside. These latter are called (Acts 12:10) “the first and second ward.” There were four such sets appointed to have charge of Peter, one company for each of the four watches by day and by night.
intending after Easter (the Passover)] The rendering “Easter” is an attempt to give by an English word the notion of the whole feast. That this meaning and not the single day of the Paschal feast is intended by the Greek seems clear from the elaborate preparation made, as for a longer imprisonment than was the rule among the Jews. Peter was arrested at the commencement of the Passover feast (14th of Nisan), and the king’s intention was to proceed to sentence and punish him when the feast was at an end on the 21st of Nisan.
to bring him forth to the people] that they might take notice of the zeal for Judaism which would be shewn by the sentence passed upon Peter. The verb is employed by St Luke about the trial of Jesus (Luke 22:66), “As soon as it was day … they led him into their council.”
Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.5. Peter therefore was kept in prison] Another indication of the longer duration of the imprisonment, and that he was not arrested on the day of the Paschal sacrifice with the purpose of being brought forth on the morning of the 15th of Nisan, as some have maintained.
but prayer was made without ceasing [earnestly] of the church unto God for him] The same Greek word is used in the description of our Lord’s prayer (Luke 22:44), “Being in an agony he prayed more earnestly.” The prayers of the Church were offered by assemblies of Christians meeting in various private houses (see Acts 12:12), for the persecution would now render public Christian services dangerous, as we know was often the case in the early days of Christianity.
And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.6. And when Herod would have brought him forth] Literally, “was about to bring him forth,” and this should be expressed, because it is an additional note of the delay and lapse of time between the arrest and the intended punishment.
and the keepers before the door] Read, “and guards before the door,” i.e. the two soldiers of the quaternion who were not chained to the prisoner.
And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.7. And behold, the [an] angel of the Lord came upon him] The verb is the same which is used (Luke 2:9) of the angel appearing to the shepherds. The idea conveyed is that the heavenly visitor appeared over those to whom he was sent. The passage just quoted continues “and the glory of the Lord shone round about them,” words which are strikingly parallel with this description of St Peter’s release, “and a light shined in the prison.”
in the prison] The word is not the same as in the last verse. To make the distinction clear read here “cell” or “chamber.” The light was due to the presence of the angel who came with the glory of the Lord.
and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up] Rather, roused him up. The verb indicates that he awoke him from his sleep, but not that he helped him to arise.
And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.8. Gird thyself] A binding up of the loose Oriental robe, so as to be fit for expeditious movement. Thus the Passover was to be eaten (Exodus 12:11) as if by persons prepared to depart at once. So Gehazi was bidden (2 Kings 4:29) to make himself ready for his journey to the house of the Shunammite.
Cast thy garment about thee] The Greek word signifies the outer dress as distinguished from the under tunic.
And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision.
When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him.10. When they were past the first and the second ward] i.e. the warders, who were stationed one nearer to the inner door of the prison and another at some further distance away.
they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto [into] the city] This description, with the words which immediately follow about the street into which they came, make it probable that the prison in which Peter was kept was in the midst of the city.
which opened to them of his own accord] It is better to discard in sentences like the present the old English form “his” and read “its.” “His” was good and almost the only English use when the A. V. was made, but is now obsolete.
For the expression “of its own accord” cp. Leviticus 25:5, “That which groweth of its own accord;” Wis 17:6, “A fire kindled of itself,” where, as here, what is meant is that there was no human agency employed in what was done.
the angel departed from him] Leaving the other steps, in which supernatural aid was unnecessary, to be taken by the Apostle of himself.
And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.11. And when Peter was come to himself] This and other subjective features of the narrative shew that the account must have been derived from St Peter himself. No one else could describe the astonishment and the after realization that all was truly enacted and no vision.
all the expectation of the people of the Jews] Whose gratification at the death of James had been great, and who now hoped to see another of the Apostles put to death.
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 praying.12. And when he had considered the thing] Rather, “when he comprehended it.” At first he had been “like them that dream” (Psalm 126:1) at his deliverance from captivity, but at length his mind grasped the whole truth and he could act upon it.
Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark] This Mary was sister to Barnabas, as we learn Colossians 4:10, where Mark is called sister’s son to Barnabas. This relationship accounts for the way in which the uncle clung to his nephew, even when St Paul declined to have Mark as a companion on their second proposed missionary journey. We do not read of the father of Mark anywhere, so it is probable that Mary was a widow, and, like her brother, was possessed of means which enabled her to put a house, or a part thereof, at the service of the Church, as a meeting-place for prayer.
gathered together praying] The Greek has “and praying.” The introduction of the conjunction seems to indicate not that this was a special or solitary occasion when the disciples were gathered at the house of Mary, but rather that this house was a place in which such gatherings were usual, and at the time when Peter was delivered such an assembly was there and making supplication (Acts 12:5) for his deliverance.
And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda.13–19. Surprise of the brethren, and anger of Herod
13. at the door of the gate] The first named is the wicket which was opened for anyone’s admission; the second is the porch into which admission was obtained by the small door.
a damsel came to hearken] Perhaps we have here a trace of the danger which at this time surrounded the disciples from this zeal for Judaism on the part of Herod. Saul had entered into every house and carried off men and women to prison (Acts 8:3), and there was a prospect of a like persecution. So Rhoda was not minded to open till she knew who was seeking for admission.
And when she knew Peter's voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate.14. And when she knew Peter’s voice] We know that his speech was the cause of his being recognized on a previous occasion (Matthew 26:73).
she opened not the gate for gladness] Cp. with this action the description of the disciples (Luke 24:41) when they recognized Jesus, “they believed not for joy.”
And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel.15. she constantly affirmed] i.e. confidently, with determination; which was the old meaning of the word in the A. V. Cp. Frith, Workes, Life, fol. 3, “he so constantly defended himself, that he had prevailed, if he might have been heard.”
It is his angel] The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Acts 1:14) expresses in part the opinion of the Jews concerning angels when he asks, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” The Jewish belief was that each man had a guardian angel assigned to him. Cp. Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 4:4, where it is said that “six hundred thousand of the angels of the presence came down on Sinai at the giving of the Law, and each one bore a crown to crown Israel, one for each Israelite.” Cp. also our Lord’s language (Matthew 18:10).
But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished.
But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place.17. the Lord had brought him out of the prison] Which had been his exclamation when he came to himself, “The Lord hath sent his angel.”
Go shew] There is only one verb in the Greek, which signifies “to bear word.” This the A.V. has attempted to render fully by the two verbs.
unto James] This is no doubt the James who is afterwards (Acts 15:13) described as presiding over the council at Jerusalem concerning circumcision, and giving his sentence on that question. Thus he seems to have been at the head of the Church at Jerusalem, and to him it was natural for Peter to send the first news of his deliverance.
This James must have been either the son of Alphæus or the James who is one of the Lord’s brethren, but it is not easy to decide whether the persons called by these names were one and the same. It seems however safest not to identify the Apostle, James the son of Alphæus, with the Lord’s brother, for these brethren of Jesus did not believe in Him till a very late period of His ministerial life, long after the twelve were chosen. But the James in our narrative is probably the Lord’s brother, because St Paul gives to the James who was one of the pillars of the Church at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9) when St Paul visited that city, the express title of “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). This James, bishop of Jerusalem, was, as we learn from a tradition preserved by Eusebius (H. E. ii. 23), cast down from the pinnacle of the Temple, whither the Jews had brought him, in the expectation that he would disown Christ. When, on the contrary, he still held to his belief, he was thrown down, and not being killed by the fall, was slain by a blow from the club of a fuller.
and to the brethren] Though it was in the middle of the night when his deliverance took place, Peter sends to the various centres where, as in the house of Mary, prayer was also being offered to God for his deliverance.
went into another place] The peril of death was so imminent, if he had been seized, that he takes refuge by hiding where he cannot be found. The times are altered since the day when after his former deliverance he could dare to go and speak in the day-dawn to the people in the Temple. Then the populace were a protection to the Church, and saved them from violence of the authorities, now the Jewish people are in expectation of a second execution.
Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter.18. stir among the soldiers] For the guards who had been chained to the prisoner would discover as soon as they awoke, that he had escaped from between them, and they would know that their lives would probably answer for the life of Peter.
And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and there abode.19. commanded that they should be put to death] The Greek is literally, “commanded that they should be led forth,” implying however that such a proceeding was the prelude to their execution. It is the verb so often rendered “lead away” in the accounts which the Gospels give of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
And he went down from Judea to Cesarea, and there abode] By Caligula there had been conferred on Herod Agrippa the tetrarchies of Herod, Philip and Lysanias mentioned Luke 3:1. He afterwards received the tetrarchy of Antipas, and was honoured with the title of king. He therefore, and not a Roman governor, was in power at Cæsarea at this date, for Josephus tells us (Antiq. xx. 8. 2) that he had received from Claudius Judæa and Samaria, in addition to the districts over which he had ruled under Caligula.
And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon: but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king's chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king's country.20–25. Death of Herod Agrippa I. Growth of the Church
20. And Herod was highly displeased] The oldest MSS. omit Herod. Read, “Now he,” &c. The verb implies a deep-seated feeling of anger. It is not found elsewhere in the N. T.
with them of Tyre and Sidon] They were still seats of maritime industry, and perhaps Herod’s regard for the people of Berytus (Beyrout), another Phœnician seaport a little north of Sidon, may have been connected as cause or effect with his anger at the people of the two older cities. Josephus (xix.7. 5) gives an account of splendid buildings which this king provided for Berytus. It is clear that the way in which the royal anger had made itself felt was one which interfered with the commercial prosperity of Tyre and Sidon.
but they came with one accord to him] i.e. they joined in a common embassy and sent persons from both towns to make representations and use their influence to appease Herod’s anger.
Blastus the king’s chamberlain] Probably, as his name implies, some Roman who had taken office under this Eastern king who rejoiced in the favour of the Roman Emperor.
desired (asked for) peace] We are not to understand from these words that Agrippa was making war on Tyre and Sidon, but only that he was on unfriendly terms with them and was impeding their trade.
nourished by the king’s country] The extent of Herod’s rule was very great, and if he encouraged another port, and made regulations by which traffic was diverted from the towns of Tyre and Sidon, it was in his power to take away from them at least one-half of the commerce which was their support.
And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.21. And upon a set day] The day was one appointed (as Josephus tells us) for holding a festival on which to make vows for Cæsar’s safety.
Herod, arrayed (having arrayed himself) in royal apparel] See the extract from Josephus given below.
And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.
And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.23. And immediately the (an) angel of the Lord smote him … and he was eaten of worms] Cp. the fate of Antiochus Epiphanes (2Ma 9:9), and Herod the Great’s death (Josephus, Ant. xvii. 6. 5). The passage in which Josephus describes these events is so important in its bearing on the N. Test. narrative that it deserves to be read in its entirety. He writes (Antiq. xix. 8. 2), “Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judæa, he came to the city Cæsarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower, and there he exhibited shows in honour of Cæsar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons and such as were of dignity throughout his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning, at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflexion of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a dread and shuddering over those that looked intently upon it, and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place and another from another (though not for his good) that he was a god. And they added ‘Be thou 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.’ Upon this the King did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterwards looked up he saw an owl sitting upon a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A violent pain also arose in his belly, having begun with great severity. He therefore looked upon his friends and said, ‘I whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life, while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I who was called by you immortal am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept what Providence allots as it pleases God, for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.’ When he had said this his pain became violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumour went abroad everywhere that he would certainly die in a little time … And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his bowels for five days he departed this life.”
We can see from this extract that among the throng who flattered Herod, there were some who were suing for mercy to be shewn to them; that the day was a set day, that Herod was clad in royal robes, that the flattery consisted in calling him a god, that he did not rebuke them; that he was stricken immediately so that he had to be carried to his palace, that he acknowledged that the stroke came from God as a rebuke for accepting such flattery, and everybody expected him to die at once.
With reference to the latter portion in which Josephus speaks of a violent pain increasing in vehemence very rapidly, and the N. Test. says he was eaten of worms; it is noticeable that, in the account of the death of Antiochus, already alluded to, we have these two features of the same disease mentioned and that they are described separately. First, 2Ma 9:5, “The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, smote him with an incurable and invisible plague, for as soon as he had spoken these words a pain of the bowels that was remediless came upon him and sore torments of the inner parts.” Then after a verse or two describing the pride of Antiochus we read, “So that the worms rose up out of the body of this wicked man.”
Josephus (by whom Herod, as one who favoured Jews, was regarded as of no bad character, and was moreover looked upon with an eye of admiration as having been raised to the highest pitch of power through Roman influence, to which Josephus himself was very ready to pay court) has merely described the form in which the malady made itself apparent at first, and has left out the more loathsome details from the death story of one who in his eyes was a great king; while Holy Writ has given the fuller account, because the object of the writer of the Acts was to emphasize in all its enormity the sin for which Josephus tells us that Herod himself felt that he was stricken. The points of accord in the two accounts are so many, and the difference so slight and so easy to be accounted for, that this extract from Josephus must always be regarded as a most weighty testimony to the historic accuracy and faithfulness of St Luke’s narrative. For other instances of death by this loathsome malady, see Herodotus iv. 205; Eusebius viii. 16; Tertullian ad Scapul. iii. A similar account is given of the death of Philip II. of Spain.
But the word of God grew and multiplied.24. But the word of God grew and multiplied] Cp. Acts 6:7 and Acts 19:20. “The seed is the word,” said Christ, and so the Christian historian tells us that the word was as seed, when it was cast forth diligently it waxed and brought forth fruit
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.25. And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem] i.e. to their labours among the Gentile converts in Antioch.
when they had fulfilled their ministry [ministration] viz., the giving into the care of the Church the contributions of the disciples in Antioch for the support of their brethren in Judæa during the famine which Agabus had foretold (Acts 11:28).
John, whose surname was Mark] See above on Acts 12:12.