A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 12:1-25) 2). Opposition: the church in Jerusalem.
Luke has been recording one marvellous conversion after another – the three thousand on the Day of Pentecost, the Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul of Tarsus, the Gentile centurion Cornelius and the mixed crowd in Antioch. In concentric circles the word of God was spreading. Luke is about to describe that great leap forward we call the first missionary journey. But first he has to chronicle a serious setback in the death of James and the imprisonment of Peter, both of whom were apostles and leaders of the Jerusalem church. Herod Agrippa 1 was the tyrant responsible for this double assault upon the work of God. At the time it must have seemed a grave crisis, although Luke is able to go on to chronicle the rescue of Peter by the intervention of God. Thus the destructive power of Herod and the saving power of God are contrasted. Indeed, throughout church history the pendulum has swung between expansion and opposition, growth and shrinkage, advance and retreat, although with the assurance that even the powers of death and hell will never prevail against Christ’s church, since it is built securely on the rock.
Herod Agrippa 1 was the grandson of Herod the Great. He shared some of his grandfather’s characteristics, and after the emperors Caligula and Claudius had given him successive portions of Palestine territory, his kingdom was as extensive as his grandfather’s.
a) Herod’s plot (12:1-4).
*It was about this time* (Luke is deliberately vague, and scholars dispute the exact order of the events he chronicles in Acts 10 to 12) *that King Herod* (Luke accurately uses the title which the emperor Caligula had given him) *arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them* (1). He must have been well informed about Jesus and his followers, for his uncle Antipas had known and tried Jesus (Lk.23:7ff, Acts 4:27). He is also known to have been anxious to preserve the Roman peace in Palestine and therefore to have disliked minorities which threatened to disrupt it. It is fully in keeping with this policy that he sought to ingratiate himself with the Jews (who naturally despised him for his Roman upbringing and Edomite ancestry) by conscientiously observing the law and now by persecuting the church. So *he had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword* (2) or ‘beheaded’ (NEB). Jesus had warned both James and John, who had asked for the best seats in the kingdom, that they would drink his cup and share his baptism (Mk.10:38-39), that is, participate in his sufferings. But it belongs to the mystery of God’s providence why this was to mean execution for James and exile for John (Rev.1:9), whereas for the time being Peter escaped James’ fate which Herod intended for him also. For *when he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the feast of unleavened bread* (3), which immediately followed Passover, and during which Jewish law permitted neither trials nor sentencing. *After arresting him*, therefore, Herod *put him in prison*, perhaps in the Tower of Antonia at the north-west corner of the temple area, *handing him over to be guarded*, in a maximum-security arrangement, *by four squads of four soldiers each*, working by shifts so that each squad would be on duty for six hours at a time, or perhaps for only three hours during the night watches. *Herod intended to bring him out for public trial*, what today we might call a ‘show trial’, *after the Passover*, including the days which the festival of unleavened bread lasted (4). Peter’s trial would then, of course, be followed by his execution.
The situation looked extremely bleak, even hopeless. There appeared to be no possibility of Peter’s escape. What could the little community of Jesus, in its powerlessness, do against the armed might of Rome?
Tomorrow: Acts 12:5-19a. b). Herod’s defeat.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.