Acts 12 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Herod's Opposition at Jerusalem

Citizens of today's nation-states often succumb to an "almost religious reverence for the power of the state" (Willimon 1988:112). Theophilus and his peers lived under regimes where homage to the emperor was not only a civic duty but a welcome way of expressing appreciation for the "safety net" the emperor had provided. But the demand for total loyalty will turn into total opposition when the state faces Christians who confess, "Jesus is Lord!"

The narrative of Herod's opposition and demise can help Christians face political opposition with discerning confidence and lets the inquiring unbeliever know that the state cannot stop the church in its mission.A King Attacks (12:1-4)

Herod Agrippa I (10 B.C.-A.D. 44), grandson of Herod the Great (Lk 1:5) and nephew of Herod the Tetrarch (Lk 3:19; 13:31; 23:7-12), spent his childhood and some of his adult life in the highest imperial circles in Rome. He had recently returned to Palestine to rule over territory that by A.D. 41 extended as far as his grandfather's kingdom (see Schurer 1973:442-54 for a complete description). Committed to maintaining the Pax Romana by supporting the Jewish majority in Palestine, he was both a pious observer of Jewish practices and a ruthless suppressor of minorities when they became disruptive (Longenecker 1981:407-8).

Whether influenced by Pharisees or by Sadducees among the Jewish leadership, Herod decides to arrest (literally, "lay hands on"; compare 4:3; 5:18; 21:27) some of the church, presumably the apostolic leaders (Bruce 1988:233). We are not told explicitly why Herod intends to persecute (literally, "harm, mistreat"; 18:10; compare Ex 7:6, 17) them. He may be responding to a stir caused by the apostles' "apostate" fraternizing with the Gentiles (compare 21:27-32). Or, like his grandfather (Mt 2:16), he sees the movement's messianic claims posing a political threat. All Luke tells us is that the beheading of James (a fulfillment of Mk 10:39) pleases the people (contrast 5:26). In Jewish law death by the sword was the penalty for murder or apostasy (m. Sanhedrin 9:1; compare Deut 13:6-18).

The martyrdom of James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John (Lk 5:10; 8:51; 9:28), is an especially heavy blow to the church. Only some ten years after Jesus' resurrection/exaltation, one of the twelve apostles has been removed from the scene. To make matters worse, Herod seems bent on a systematic dismemberment of the movement, for next he arrests Peter. He places him under a secure guard of four squads of four soldiers each, rotating in three-hour shifts at night (Vegetius De Re Militari 3.8). Ever scrupulous in his Jewish observance, and possibly wishing to avoid an uproar at festival time (compare Mk 14:2), Herod leaves Peter in prison during the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, which immediately followed Passover.

Luke teaches us that Satan's sphere of control is directly related to political governance (Lk 4:6; 22:53). Jesus warned that its power would be used against his followers (Lk 12:11-12; 21:12-19). Will we stand for Jesus as our Lord, realizing that sooner or later we will pay the price for doing so? Those who have lived in religious freedom for generations have much to learn from brothers and sisters in Christ just now emerging from the oppression of totalitarianism.The Lord Delivers (12:5-11)

Luke skillfully juxtaposes the power of the state--so Peter was kept in prison--and the power of the church, prayer--but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. In continuous (the verb construction indicates duration), fervent (Lk 22:44; 1 Pet 1:22; 4:8), united prayer, the church intercedes for Peter. Prayer is the only weapon it has, but it is more than enough. Luke presents prayer as "the natural atmosphere of God's people and the normal context for divine activity" (Longenecker 1981:409; Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 6:4; 13:2). If extended, fervent, united prayer is not a church's first resort in a time of crisis, the church reveals that it is ultimately depending on something or someone other than God.

As if to test the church's faith to the limit and emphasize his consummate power over his enemies, the Lord waits to act until the eve of Peter's show trial and probable summary execution. By his sleep Peter models a deep trust in God's sovereignty (Ps 3:5; Lk 8:23). Herod takes extra security measures, for normally one chain was enough (Seneca Epistles 5.7; compare Herod's own experience as recounted in Josephus Jewish Antiquities 18.195-96; Williams 1985:200 disagrees and sees the two chains as normal security precautions); thus he betrays his inherent insecurity in the face of this movement (Acts 5:19-26).

Suddenly (literally, "and behold," a phrase consistently used to introduce angelic appearances--1:10; 10:30) an angel of the Lord appeared. We should not take this simply as another way of referring to divine intervention (compare Longenecker 1981:409), for Peter himself clearly distinguishes between the Lord and the angel he sends (12:11). For Luke the angel of the Lord not only provides deliverance for God's witnesses (5:19) but also gives strength (Lk 22:43), brings judgment (Acts 12:23) and above all reveals God's will about the advance of his saving purposes (Lk 1:11; 2:9; Acts 8:26; 10:3). The angel comes to Peter with the same suddenness as the church's enemies do when arresting believers (same term here and at 4:1; 6:12; 17:5).

At the same time a light shone in the cell. We are not told its source--is it a case of chiaroscuro, with the light actually coming from the angel? And we are not told its effects--are the guards rendered unconscious by it? Peter's absence is a total mystery to them (12:18), and this leaves us even more in the dark. With either a kick in the ribs or a push in the side, the angel rouses Peter and orders him to get up quickly and prepare to leave. Freed from sleep by the angel's action and command, and freed from his jailers by the miraculous falling away of the manacles from his hands, Peter can obey the further orders to put his belt around his tunic (Bruce 1990:283; not Put on your clothes, as in NIV), tie on his sandals, throw his cloak around himself and follow the angel. These step-by-step commands, like those given to a child, show that Peter is drowsy and disoriented. They certainly underline the fact that this escape is all the Lord's doing.

Luke relates Peter's evaluation of his experience. Though awake enough to obey the orders, he does not think what he is experiencing is real. He thinks he is seeing a vision. Quite naturally his prior experience of a vision in which he was commanded to act may be coloring his judgment here (10:10-16). Verses 11 and 12 chronicle his progressive realization of what is happening. Luke describes the escape in the most matter-of-fact terms. Peter and the angel pass two guards (possibly each one is standing at an entryway [Marshall 1980:209], or maybe the two are patrolling one corridor [Haenchen 1971:384]), then come to the final barrier, an iron gate leading to the city.

A street away from the prison and alone, the angel having withdrawn, Peter comes to himself--that is, to a correct interpretation of what has just happened. He affirms the reality, the source, the result and, by inference, the purpose of the rescue (12:11). Christianity is indeed a space-time faith that confesses that its Lord can and will act in history on behalf of his saints. Peter knows that the escape has happened "in truth" (NIV without a doubt; compare 26:25; 12:9). The Lord has the same power to rescue now as he did when he delivered Israel from Egypt (7:10, 34/Ex 3:8).

The reason that Peter is rescued while James was executed may be found in the term rescued. Acts 26:17 uses the word to describe God's protecting hand on his witnesses to make sure they fulfill their responsibilities. As long as it is necessary that a particular servant of the Lord be actively deployed in accomplishing Christ's mission, he or she will be rescued. Any martyrdom is still a mark of God's sovereignty, not a sign of his weakness; his gracious purposes, not his sadistic pleasure, may be traced in it. Any rescue is a sign of the triumphant advance of God's mission and a mark that nothing can thwart the accomplishment of his purposes.The Church Is Astonished (12:12-17)

Peter proceeds to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark (12:25; 13:5, 13; 15:37; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24; 1 Pet 5:13). From the description of the home's entryway, "door of the gate, gateway, or vestibule," we learn that the house was spacious. Its layout included at least a main building separated from a gatehouse or vestibule by an open court. Whether it was the site of the upper room (1:13) is disputed (E. F. Harrison [1986:203] says perhaps; Marshall [1980:210] says there is no positive evidence). It was probably the gathering place of the house church to which Peter belonged (compare 12:17). At the moment it was serving as the venue for extended fervent prayer for Peter, which evidently included all-night sessions.

In a playful touch of comic irony, which lends realism to the account, Luke relates how a maidservant named Rhoda ("rosebud"), charged with answering the door, is so overcome with joy (Lk 24:41) at the sound of Peter's voice that she leaves him standing there while she rushes in to announce (NIV exclaimed; compare Acts 5:22, 25; 12:17) his arrival. While the church members argue over the truthfulness of her report (Lk 24:22), Peter is left knocking and calling at the door. The very answer to their prayers is knocking, and they do not believe it! They declare Rhoda crazy. When she sticks to her story, they conclude that Peter's guardian angel--who according to their Jewish tradition would take on his attributes--has arrived either to bring good news or to announce Peter's death. Going to investigate, they are "beside themselves in astonishment" when they open the door and see Peter standing there (compare Lk 8:56; 24:22; Acts 2:7, 12; 10:45).

How does God answer prayer? He can do it while we are still praying. We should not receive God's surprises with disbelief but with joy born of expectation, that "blend of confident trust and sanctified imagination" (Ogilvie 1983:204).

Motioning with his hand for silence (13:16; 19:33; 21:40), Peter briefly recounts his rescue in terms of its ultimate source, the Lord, and instructs that James and the brothers be informed of his escape. James the half-brother of Jesus had some form of administrative leadership with the apostles by the mid-thirties (Gal 1:19; 2:9), presided at the Jerusalem Council in A.D. 49 (Acts 15:13) and by the late fifties was head of the Jerusalem church (21:18; Longenecker 1981:410-11; Bruce [1988:239] sees him in a position of undisputed leadership at this point). This is the first reference to him in Acts and may be another indicator of Luke's interest in presenting orderly transitions in the life of the Jerusalem church, showing its continuity even in the face of persecution (8:1; 9:31). Even though Peter must pass off the scene to another place, the church leadership is still in the capable hands of James and the brothers. Though Haenchen (1971:385) thinks brothers simply means "fellow Christians," it is better understood as a reference to church leaders or elders (compare E. F. Harrison 1986:205).

The Lord's deliverance is complete. With this rescue from the king's attack, the church remains unscathed. So today, even when there are changes in personnel, God will superintend the healthy advance of his church.The Persecutors Are Defeated (12:18-23)

In the morning there is not a little "consternation" among the guards over Peter's whereabouts (the term can refer to mental agitation as well as the commotion that flows from it). Herod interrogates the guards and according to Roman custom has them led away to suffer the same penalty, in this case execution that the escapee would have faced (Code of Justinian 9.4.4).

Though Herod had chosen Jerusalem as his place of residence, Caesarea on the coast was still the administrative capital. For whatever reason he now leaves the environs of Jerusalem (Judea should be understood here in this narrower sense) and goes to Caesarea.

Herod had power of life and death not only over individuals but also over regions, as the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon knew well. These coastal cities of northwest Palestine depended on the breadbasket of Judea for grain (compare Ezek 27:17). We are not told the cause of Herod's exasperation, even "fury" (NIV quarreling), with the cities. Haenchen (1971:386) suggests a trade war sparked by competition between Caesarea and these Phoenician ports. We do not know the precise action Herod took; it may have been an economic boycott. It was effective, for now the cities send a joint delegation with the aid of Blastus, the king's trusted personal servant, to ask peace for themselves (note the middle voice, etounto).

Herod was at the very zenith of his power. Not only had Rome granted him rule over as great a territory as his grandfather Herod the Great ruled, but he could force self-governing cities adjacent to his domain into submission. On the appointed day to conclude the peace, which was during games in honor of Caesar, as Josephus reports it, "clad in a garment woven completely of silver so that its texture was indeed wondrous, he entered the theatre at daybreak. There the silver, illumined 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 intently upon it" (Jewish Antiquities 19.343-44 [whole account 343-59]; note that the theater seats faced west). No wonder that as Herod addressed the assembly, which included the populace of Caesarea as well as the delegation from Tyre and Sidon (Bruce 1990:288 says the populace of Caesarea), they cried out, This is the voice of a god, and not of a man.

Herod does not refuse their homage. Immediately an angel of the Lord strikes him down and he is eaten by worms. He experiences pain in the heart and stomach--peritonitis from a perforated appendix, combined with intestinal roundworms, ten to sixteen inches long. (Bunches of these can obstruct the intestines, causing severe pain, copious vomiting and finally death.) This excruciating condition continues for five days until he dies.

Luke tells us why Herod experiences the Lord's immediate judgment: because he does not give "glory" (praise) to God (Lk 2:14; 19:38). In receiving the worship of people who are economically dependent on him (12:20; contrast 14:17), Herod made himself the object of false worship, violated the first two commandments and justly earned God's immediate judgment. All political leaders and followers in whatever day, Theophilus's or ours, and under whatever political system, must be duly warned by Herod's defeat. The Lord is "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36), and he will not share his glory with any other (Is 42:8; 48:11).The Word of God Triumphs (12:24-25)

With poignant contrast Luke summarizes the Lord's victory over political powers. Worms spread and devour Herod's body, but the word of God, the Christian message, also spreads and multiplies (see comment at 6:7; compare Acts 19:20; Lk 8:11). This should work confidence in our hearts. We need not cower before threatening political power. We will boldly continue to spread the message of life. Though those in power may stop us, even by death, they cannot stop the gospel!

Herod was cut off just four years into his reign, but the church's work knows no such incompleteness in any aspect. Barnabas and Saul, having finished their mission (literally, "service") at Jerusalem, return to Antioch, taking John Mark with them.

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