Acts 12:1-25

A Bible Study Led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

June 18, 2009 


Acts 12:1-25


Acts 12 marks a new era in the persecution of the Christians.  To this point in time the Romans had pretty much taken a hands-off attitude toward Christianity.  The Romans tended to few Christianity as nothing more than a sect of Judaism.  To them, the conflict between Jews and Christians was an internal religious fight of little concern to the Romans.  However, in this chapter we see a Roman official persecuting Christians.  To understand the significance of this event, two questions must be addressed:

  • Who was the Roman official who joined in the persecution of Christians?
  • What was his motive for doing so?


Question:  Who was the Roman official who joined in the persecution of Christians?  Acts 12:1 identifies him as “Herod the king…”  Actually, a number of different “Herods” ruled in the area of ancient Palestine. 

  • Herod the Great ruled as King of Judea from 37 – 4 B.C.  He is the one who rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was under his reign that Jesus was born.  In an attempt to destroy the newborn king, Herod ordered the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:16-18).  He was a very ruthless man who even killed members of his own family if he thought they were his political rivals.  It was said that it was better to be Herod’s dog than his son!  When Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., his kingdom was divided between three of his sons:
    • Herod the Ethnarch (the word means ruler of a people) also known as Archeleus (see Matthew 2:22).  He ruled over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea from 4 BC – 6 AD.  He was an incompetent leader liked by virtually no-one.  The Romans replaced him with a governor.
    • Herod the Tetrarch (the word means ruler of a fourth part) also known as Herod Antipas.  He was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and eventually beheaded (see Matthew 14:1-12).  He ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 BC – 39 AD.  He was the Herod before whom Jesus was taken in Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion.
    • Herod Philip was tetrarch over the northern areas of Palestine.  He was the one who founded Caesarea Philippi at the base of Mt. Hermon where Jesus and the disciples spent some time (see Matthew 16:13).
  • Herod the King, also known as Herod Agrippa I, is the Herod in Acts 12.  He was the grandson of Herod the Great.  His father was Aristobulus and his mother was of a royal Jewish line.  Herod the Great had Aristobulus murdered in 7 BC.  When that occurred, young Agrippa was taken to Rome to get him away from his evil grandfather.  While in Rome he became friends with Caligula who became Emperor in 37 AD.  Since Agrippa helped Caligula become Emperor, the Emperor rewarded him with the title of “king.”  Over a period of years, he become ruler over roughly the same area his grandfather, Herod the Great, had ruled.  He died in 44 AD, so we know the events in Acts 12 took place in that year.
  • Herod Agrippa II was the son of Herod the King.  He was the ruler before whom the Apostle Paul appeared in Acts 25 and 26.


Question:  What was Herod’s motivation for persecuting Christians?   Herod was a conniving politician who would do anything to court popularity with the people.  He knew that to rule effectively over Palestine, he needed the support of the elite Jewish leaders.  Because his mother was Jewish royalty and because he kept the Jewish law when convenient and observed Jewish holy days, he was well liked by many of the Jews.  When he saw the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem struggling with the growing Christian movement, he saw an opportunity to win more favor with the Jews.  His attack against Christians was motivated by raw political ambition.


The story of Herod’s persecution of Christians is told in four movements:

  • The execution of James (Acts 12:1-2)
  • The arrest and miraculous release of Peter (Acts 12:3-19)
  • The death of Herod (Acts 12:20-23)
  • The continue growth of the church (Acts 12:24-25)


The Execution of James (Acts 12:1-2)

Verse 1 is a general statement summarizing the persecution of key Christians instigated by Herod Agrippa I. 

“about that time” – This event took place about the time the church was dealing with the issue of allowing Gentiles come in without first becoming Jews.  Up to this point in time, it had not been wise for the religious or civil leaders to be to harsh with the apostles because of their popularity with the people (see Acts 5:26).  It may have been the apostles’ acceptance of Gentiles which began to turn public opinion and which made it politically expedient for Herod to move against the church.

“laid hands” – The verb carries the idea of taking hold of someone to inflict hardship or damage.

“some who belonged to the church” – The persecution involved more than a couple of members.  James is singled out because of the prominent place he had among the apostles.


Verse 2 is a specific statement concerning the death of James.

“James” – Several people in the New Testament are identified by the name of James.  Later in this chapter we will meet another James.  But the James in this verse is identified as “the brother of John.”  His father was named Zebedee.  By occupation, James was a fisherman.  Along with his brother John and father Zebedee, he fished the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.  Jesus called them to follow Him one day as they were working at their trade (see Matthew 4:21-22).    Along with John and Peter, James was part of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.  He was allowed to be a witness of the transfiguration of Jesus (see Mark 9:1-7).   He was also invited by Jesus to pray with Him privately along with John and Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest.  The events in this verse are actually a fulfillment of a prediction that Jesus made about James drinking the same cup (of suffering) and baptism (of death) that Jesus experienced (see Mark 10:37-39).

“with a sword” – Luke does not tell us precisely how James died.  He may have been pierced through with a sword, hacked to death, or more likely, beheaded.  One writer points out how remarkable it is that so little is said about the martyrdom of the first apostle.  The way Luke tells of this event is a reminder that individuals were not glorified in the early church and death was not viewed as the ultimate tragedy.


The Arrest and Miraculous Release of Peter (Acts 12:3-19)

Verses 3-4 describe the arrest.

“when he saw that it pleased the Jews” – Ever the politician, Herod Agrippa I figured if the Jews were pleased with the death of James, they would be ecstatic with the death of Peter.  After all, he was the recognized leader of the Christians in Jerusalem.

“proceeded to arrest Peter also” – This is the fourth time Peter is arrested.

·        In Acts 4 he was arrested along with John for preaching after they healed a lame man in the Temple.  He was threatened and released.

·        In the Acts 5:17 he was arrested along with the other apostles because the Sadducees were jealous of the attention they were getting from the people.  In this case, they were miraculously freed from jail by an angel and went right back into the temple to continue preaching.

·        In Acts 5:26 Peter and the apostles were re-arrested.  This time they were flogged and threatened before being released.

“during the days of Unleavened Bread” – It was the Passover season.  No doubt Peter was thinking about the experience of Jesus during the Passover when He was arrested and crucified.

“four squads of soldiers to guard him” – Because of his previous miraculous release, the Romans were taking no chances with Peter.  Sixteen soldiers were assigned to guard him, four at a time working in six hour shifts.

“to bring him out before the people” – Perhaps as Jesus was brought out when the crowd shouted for His death.


Verses 5-19 tell of the deliverance of Peter.  In the interest of time and space, I am going to just list several key things about this account. 

  • Peter’s deliverance was timely.  It occurred on “the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward” (v.6).  God left Peter in that situation until the last minute.  And notice was Peter was doing.  Knowing what had happened to James and knowing what Herod was planning to do to him, “Peter was sleeping…”  That is a beautiful picture of a person who feared neither death nor life.
  • Peter’s deliverance was supernatural.   There is no way to explain Peter’s release except to attribute it to the supernatural intervention of the Lord.  Peter was “between two soldiers, bound with chains; and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison” (v.6).  Also, pass the guards was an “iron gate” to secure the prison (v.10).  Luke gives a detailed account of the security surrounding Peter to remind us that his release was undoubtedly the work of the Lord.
  • Peter did nothing to cause his release.  On the contrary, he had to be directed every step of the way.  Notice the instructions given to him by the angel:
    • “Get up quickly.” (v.7)
    • “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” (v.8)
    • “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.”(v.8)

This release was not the work of Peter.  He was a passive participant in what occurred.

  • The prayers of the church played a key role in Peter’s release.  Verse 5 says “prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God…”  Verse 12 says that in the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, “…many were gathered together and were praying…” 
  • The church was surprised when their prayers were answered.  When they finally realized Peter had been released, verse 16 says they “were amazed.”  Dr. Curtis Vaughan points out that “God often gives us more than we expect and always more than we deserve.”
  • Peter instructed the group to let James know what had happened.  This, of course, is not the same James mentioned in the first part of this chapter who had been martyred by Herod.  This James refers to the half-brother of Jesus who became a believer after the resurrection.  From this point on, he is portrayed as the key leader of the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 15:13ff and Acts 21:18).


The Death of Herod (Acts 12:20-23)

Herod had become angry with the people in Tyre and Sidon for some reason that Luke does not explain.  Since these Phoenician cities depended on the other areas Herod ruled for their food supply, having the king angry at them was a serious threat to their survival.  A delegation was sent to seek peace with Herod, and to gain access they apparently bribed his treasurer, Blastus.  Herod received these emissaries from Tyre and Sidon in great splendor.  Falvius Josephus, the early Jewish historian, describes the event this way:

[Agrippa] entered the theater at daybreak.  There the silver [in his royal robe] illuminated by the touch of the first rays of the sun, was wondrously radiant and by its glitter inspired fear and awe in those who gazed upon it.  Straightway the flatterers raised their voices from various directions … addressing him as a god.  “May you be propitious [benevolent, favorable] toward us,” they added, “and if we have hitherto feared you as a man, yet henceforth we agree that you are more than mortal in your being.”   [Quoted in The Book of Acts, the Smart Guide to Bible Study Series, pp.151-152] 


“an angel of the Lord struck him…” – The death of Herod is portrayed as an act of God.  While Luke does not specifically say it, the implication is that his death was at least partially caused by his persecution of believers.


“because he did not give God the glory” – What a contrast between Herod’s actions here  and Peter’s actions in Acts 4:12 and Acts 11:26  and the actions of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:11-15.


“he was eaten by worms and died” – There has been much speculation over how Herod died.  Whatever the specific cause, God was behind it!  Jospehus says Herod was stricken with severe abdominal pains on one day and died five days later.


The Continued Growth of the Church (Acts 12:24-25)

Verse 24 is another of those summary statements that are scattered throughout the book of Acts to provide us an account of the state of the church at various points in time.  This verse is the sixth of nine such summary accounts in the book.  Most are very brief consisting of just a sentence or two.  These summaries are located in Acts 1:14; 2:43-47; 4:32-35; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:30-31.  There is an interesting contrast in verb tenses between this verse and the previous verse.  The verb “died” in verse 23 is in the aorist tense which denotes completed action in past time.  The verb tense describes something that is over and one with.  Herod died.  He came to an end.  He was no longer a threat to the church.  But the verb tenses in verse 24 are imperfect, denoting continuing action.  In contrast to Herod who was stopped, the church continued to progress, to grow and multiply.


Verse 25 is a transition statement setting the stage for what is to follow.  The stage is now set for launching a great missionary effort toward the Gentile world, and that effort begins in earnest in the next chapter of Acts.


Practical Application of Acts 12:1-25:

  1. Commitment to God is costly.  There is no such thing as easy commitment.  For James, commitment meant death.  For Peter, it meant imprisonment.  For all who choose to follow Jesus, it involves sacrifice.  Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24)
  2. Failing to commit to God is costly.  Herod paid a steep price for his rejection of Christians.  The deeper lesson here is not merely that we will experience physical death if we reject God.  Even worse, we experience spiritual death and we miss the very essence of life.  Those who fail to commit their lives to God exist without really living.
  3. There is a mystery about the workings of God in this world that we are unable to discern.  God spared the life of Peter (at least temporarily) and allowed James to be martyred.  In the great chapter of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 are two statements that sum up this mystery.  In Hebrews 11:34 we are told that by faith some “escaped the edge of the sword.”  But in almost the same breath in Hebrews 11:37 we are told that by faith some “were put to death with the sword.”  The reality is that  we are inadequate to understand the mysterious ways of God!