Chapter 12

Acts 12  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The last chapter began with liberty for the Gentiles, vindicated in Jerusalem, and ended with love flowing out to the brethren in Judæa from the assembly at Antioch. This drew Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem. God had not forgotten Jerusalem because He was gathering souls in Antioch; nor was He unmindful of the apostles of the circumcision because He had raised up a suited and energetic envoy for the nations. Nevertheless it is not in the same way that His name was to be celebrated even in the same outburst of persecution. The former had scattered the saints except the apostles; the new trial broke out against the apostles, and in particular against James and Cephas, two of the foremost, one slain and the other kept to be slain: so at least the king had purposed.
“Now at that season Herod the king put forth his hands to injure some of those from the assembly. And he slew James, the brother of John, with [the] sword. And seeing that it was agreeable to the Jews, he went on to seize Peter also (but they were the1 days of unleavened bread); whom, having taken, he also put in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep, purposing after the passover to bring him forth unto the people.
“Peter, then, was kept in the prison; but prayer was earnestly2 made by the assembly unto God concerning him. And when Herod was about to bring him forward, on that night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards before the door were keeping the prison. And, behold, an angel of [the] Lord stood by, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck the side of Peter, and awoke him, saying, Rise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals; and he did so. And he saith to him, Throw thy cloak round thee and follow me. And going out he followed3 and knew not that what was being done by the angel was true, but thought he was seeing a vision. And when they came through a first guard and a second, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city, which of itself opened to them; and having gone out they went forth one street; and immediately the angel departed from him. And Peter, on coming to himself, said, Now I know truly that [the] Lord sent forth His angel and took me out of Herod’s hand and all the expectation of the people of the Jews. And, being conscious, he came unto the house of Mary the mother of John that was surnamed Mark, where were many assembled and praying. And when he4 knocked at the door of the gate-way, there came forward a maid to listen, by name Rhoda; and, recognizing Peter’s voice, she did not for joy open the gate, but ran in and reported that Peter was standing before the gate-way. And, they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she kept maintaining that it was so; and (hey said, It is his angel. But Peter continued knocking, and on opening they saw him and were amazed. And, beckoning to them with his hand to be silent, he related to them how the Lord brought him out of the prison; and he said, Report these things to James and to the brethren. And he went out and proceeded unto another place.
And when it was day there was no small disturbance among the soldiers, what was become of Peter. But Herod, having sought him out without finding [him], examined the guards and commanded [them] to be led away [? to execution], and he went down from Judea unto Cæsarea and stayed [there]” (vers. 1-19).
Thus, if one of the sons of Zebedee was to be preserved the last of the twelve, the other fell a victim to the sword of Herod Agrippa, the first martyr among the apostles. The king was in no way a violent arbitrary monarch, like his grandfather, Herod the Great; but as he sought to ingratiate himself with the Romans, so did this grandson of his with the Jews. And those who seemed to be pillars in the church afforded the readiest means and objects to gratify Jewish spite. But God’s thoughts are not as man’s; and, though the Lord had already shown by what death Peter should glorify God, the time was not yet come; “When thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee and carry thee whither thou wouldest not” (John 21:1818Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. (John 21:18)). Herod meant not merely to imprison Peter but to bring him before the people, perhaps for sentence, for execution certainly as a public example. But the Passover intervened; and Herod was too scrupulous a devotee to slight the days of unleavened bread.
Meanwhile the assembly made earnest prayer, whilst the king delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep. Deliverance was at hand, which the church scarcely expected more than the king feared it. As usual, it was just before the critical moment. “At evening time there shall be light.” That night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, not only bound with two chains, but sentinels before the door keeping guard of the prison. All seemed sure on the world’s side; and on the other Peter rested in peace through the grace of the Lord Who neither slumbers nor sleeps; when, behold, His angel stood by and roused him, freeing Peter of his chains, and minutely directing him, who, as in a vision, complied with each word as he was bidden. Nor did he come to himself till they had passed the two-fold watch, and the iron gate opened of its own accord, not to let the angel in but to let Peter out; and they had advanced one street off, when the angel departed. Then Peter realized his deliverance, and in full consciousness of all went to Mary’s, where many were met for prayer—we cannot surely doubt—about him who knocked at the door. Nor was it fear but jay that led the maid Rhoda (or as we would say, Rose), who recognized the well-known voice, to run back and tell the news, that Peter was standing without. Luke, who all through presents the truth vividly, in no way hides the scanty faith of the saints, who could scarcely have forgotten how Jehovah’s angel before now opened the prison-doors and brought out the apostles when placed in public custody by the envious high priest and his Sadducean party. Faith appropriates as well as remembers for present need.
Now it was neither the priest nor the people, but the king, to please the Jews; but what of God? If magnified in the death of James, He would be more in preserving Peter alive, whatever the pleasure of the people or their rulers. The testimony had been already fully given, even in the temple; and there was no command now to stand and speak there “all the words of this fife.” They had heard and despised the gospel of Him risen and glorified, Whom they had rejected and crucified. Peter therefore was not to make a similar stand now, though the miracle was as great, but, according to the Lord’s ordinary rule, when persecuted in this city, to flee into the other; as, after explaining all to the astonished company, he does at this time.
Cardinal Baronius treats with prudent reserve the story in the Breviary of James’s preaching in Spain (where Compostella claims his burial!) with an equally curt reference to what is noted in the Roman Martyrology (“que consulat qui haec cupit”5); but he has much to say of the alleged history of the other apostles, and above all of Peter at this juncture, as it had practical aims for the papacy. That he went to Rome then, and began his first year of reigning five and twenty years there as Pope, is the wildest of dreams; which is not only without a shred of scripture proof but in the strongest way is set aside by all that scripture does tell us. For God Who foreknew the vain and selfish wishes of men has taken care, not indeed so to speak that superstition and infidelity cannot pursue their several paths of shameless and disastrous self-will, but to give the faithful ample evidence for confuting the adversary and for establishing in truth and peace all who honor His own written word.
The apostle Paul, long after A.D. 44 (15 or 16 years), writes to the Romans in terms which imply that no apostle had as yet visited the capital of the Gentile world, in terms expressive of his own ardent desire to impart some spiritual gift to the saints there, as one who built not on another man’s foundation but recognized in Rome part of that measured province which God apportioned to him. This, which is but a single testimony out of several, is enough to dissipate the tale into thin air. How can upright Christians attach the least weight even to Eusebius of Cæsarea, who retails the fable of “another Cephas” to screen the apostle of the circumcision from the reluctant but necessary and instructive censure of the apostle of the Gentiles? And this is but a sample of his departure from plain scripture or contradiction of it. The word is silent where Peter went; and though one may not agree with the late Dean Alford that the expression in the end of verse 17 only implies that Peter left the house of Mary and may have stayed secretly in Jerusalem, we can think of intimations of places, not in Palestine only but among the Gentiles, where the apostle, according to the New Testament, was known. But for believers to build on conjectures is worse than idle, and tends to shake solid truth in the hands of those who least of all should allow themselves such a license. That natural men should have most to say where scripture is reticent one can too well understand: they receive not the things of the Spirit of God, and cannot know them because they are spiritually discerned.
It is beautiful to remark the ways of God with His servants traceable already in this brief Book. First of all (chap. 4.) we see Peter and John in custody and no miracle to abridge its short duration. Next, the twelve are imprisoned; but during the night Jehovah’s angel opened the door and led them out to bear testimony in the temple to the exalted Jesus: whence they are brought before the council, beaten and dismissed, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonored for the Name. Now, one apostle is stain with the sword, and another is delivered by Jehovah’s angel on the eve of a similar design by a king whose habitual mildness toward the people (if we are to credit Josephus6) did not certainly hinder extreme persecution of the truth when his religious zeal and his political vanity were offended. And his chagrin burst ruthlessly on the guards, as we learn in verses 18, 19; though not a tittle of evidence pointed to any guilty connivance on their part at the prisoner’s escape. No wonder he saw fit to go down from Judæa unto Cæsarea.
But this is not all. “And he7 was at bitter enmity with them of Tire and Sidon; but with one consent they came to him, and, having won over Blasius the chamberlain of the king, sought peace, because their country was nourished by the king’s. And on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel and seated on the throne,8 made an harangue unto them. And the people shouted thereon, A god’s voice and not a man’s. And immediately an angel of [the) Lord smote him, because he gave not the glory to God; and becoming worm-eaten he expired” (vers. 20-23). Such was the last act of this solemn drama, if so one may speak of a succession of scenes as full of interest as of profound instruction for man with God: one apostle slain; and another delivered by an angel: the church’s prayers answered beyond their faith; the mortified tyrant next wreaking his vengeance on his guards, not on his intended victim; himself struck at the moment that he accepted the deifying homage of the multitude, when he that gave not the glory to God was given up to worms, even before he gave up the ghost. “But the word of God grew and multiplied” (vs. 24).
What a descent, after this tale so simply but most graphically told and pregnant with moral truth, to read the account of the same circumstances in the statement of the eminent Josephus! “When the third year of his reign over all Judaea was completed, he went to the city of Caesarea, which formerly was called Straton’s Tower. There he instituted shows in honor of the emperor, knowing there was a festival for his safety. Thither flocked a multitude of the men of rank and distinction throughout the province. On the second day of the show, having put on a robe wrought all over with silver of astonishing texture, he came into the theater early in the day. There the first beams of the sun shone on the silver, and dazzled with such surprising luster as to fill with fear and awe those who gazed on him. Forthwith flatterers here and there, far from good to him, began their loud acclamations, calling him a god, and saying, Be propitious; and if hitherto we reproved thee as a man, henceforth we confess thee superior to human nature. The king rebuked them not, nor rejected the impious flattery; but after a little looked up and saw an owl sitting on a cord over his head, and understood that this was a messenger (or angel) of evil as it had formerly been of good (XVIII. vii. I), and was struck with grief to the heart. Incessant torment to the bowels supervened with vehemence from the first. Then looking toward his friends he says, I your god am already ordered to depart this life, fate instantly confuting those expressions just now falsely said of me; for I that was called immortal by you am being hurried away already a dead man. The decision that God has willed must be accepted. Yet our life has been by no means despicable, but in a splendor that is counted happy. Saying this, he was tormented with an increase of agony, and in haste was borne into the palace; and rumor spread among all that the king was at the point of death. Then immediately the multitude with wives and children clothed in sackcloth by their country’s law were supplicating God on behalf of the king. And all was full of wailing and lamentations. And the king lying in a chamber on high gave himself up to tears as he saw them prostrate below on their faces; but after five days’ continual pains in the bowels he departed this life in the fifty-fourth year of his age and the seventeenth of his reign” (Opera 871-872, ed. Hudson).
Even J. D. Michaelis remarks that this may be better Greek than Luke’s, but is far less probable history. I should say it is a Jew’s history of what substantially was undeniable fact among the Jews, written to please, and ingratiate them with, their Roman masters. Luke gives us the mind of Christ, as far removed as possible from the taint of ecclesiastical legends. See even the comparatively sober Eusebius H.E. II. 10, where he tells us that the consequences of the king’s attempt against the apostles were not long deferred, but the avenging minister of divine justice soon overtook him after his plots against the apostles. Now it is on the face of the inspired narrative that Luke calmly states the facts (not without laying bare the motive) of James’s death and Peter’s imprisonment with a like close designed. But all is said with grace and dignity: expressed feeling is wholly absent. The stroke which cut short the self-exalting monarch beyond doubt turns on his acceptance of the impious incense which the unhallowed fawning of his court and the multitude of to him. People may talk of similar profanity unpunished in Roman emperors or others; but Herod Agrippa professed scrupulous Judaism, and therefore fell under His hand, Who waits for a later day before dealing with the nations that know not God. How different man’s word from God’s!
But, further, Eusebius goes on to notice the coincidence of Josephus’s account with that of scripture; but in citing formally the Jewish historian he leaves out “the owl”, and simply quotes “an angel sitting above his head”. Such is the honesty of the Christian father. It is not improbable that “the owl” was introduced once, or perhaps both times, in the talc of Agrippa to meet Roman taste for auguries; but we can have no hesitation in branding the bad faith of the Bishop of Cæsarea in dropping, without a word of explanation, “the owl” from the cited language of Josephus. It is easy, after this fashion, to make stories agree, and to express one’s admiration of it; but such a deceitful handling of things, not uncommon in the early writers, and in full bloom among the mediaevals, deserves the reprobation of all who love the truth.
How chastened the triumphant note that follows! “But the word of God grew and multiplied” (vs. 24). Compare 6:7; 19:20. Its sphere enlarged as its agents increased; the weakness of too many that received it could not hide its own weight and value, any more than the mighty adversaries who had to fall before a Mightier that was behind it.
The last verse is a transition to the still more important movement from Antioch which follows. It shows us two of the highest rank in the assembly not ashamed to render diaconal service toward the poor saints in Jerusalem. Such remembrance had the pillars there; and certainly Paul could say later with truth that he was zealous to do this very thing, as we know how near it had ever been to the heart of Barnabas. We shall hear more ere long of John Mark. “And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, having fulfilled the service, taking also with them John surnamed Mark” (vs. 25). But we may remark even here that there is no real reason to doubt that he was the future writer of the second Gospel, which traces by divine inspiration the blessed and only perfect service of our Lord Jesus. Mark was now for a while the companion of His servants, one of them to be unequaled in labors and sufferings for Christ. We shall soon see how Mark fared. If he failed, love failed not. And recovery by grace is precious in its way, as is yet more the grace that enables the weak to stand by faith.