Our story begins by carrying forward the story that began in chapter seven with the persecution of Christians that broke out after Stephen was martyred, and advancing the narrative about what happened to those Christians who were forced to flee from their homes into Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.
The apostle Paul came to Antioch for a year to help establish the Church there and the Christians who had settled there began taking up collections to send relief support back to Jerusalem to help with the coming famine that God had warned them would come.
King Herod Agrippa I began “laying violent hands” on some of the Christians in Jerusalem sometime around A.D. 42-43.
To understand why Herod would do this it is necessary to understand a little bit about Herod Agrippa and his relationship to the Jews:
- Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great
- His father, Aristobulus, was executed in 7 B.C. by his grandfather for fear that he might usurp his throne
- Then Agrippa was sent to Rome as a child to be educated with the children of the Roman aristocracy
- These childhood friendships were instrumental in leading to his ruling over the Jewish kingdom later in life
- In A.D. 37, emperor Caligula made him king over the Transjordan and the Ten Cities (Decapolis) north of Galilee
- In A.D. 39, Caligula extended Agrippa’s rule by giving him Galilee and Perea
- In A.D. 41, when his former schoolmate Claudius became emperor, he was given rule of Judea and Samaria
Herod Agrippa I was truly considered to be “the king of the Jews” – even though he was an Arab – and had gained control over all of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, the Transjordan, and the Decapolis.
However, his rule was not secure because his standing depended on his friendship with Caligula, who was very unpopular with the Romans. Agrippa needed to win the favor of the Jews so that he could extend his rule if Caligula fell out of power or was killed.
The Jews were angry with the Christians because:
- Stephen held them accountable for murdering Jesus (Acts 7:51-54)
- Christians were extending the gospel to those who were not circumcised (Acts 11:2)
The Christians become caught up in Herod Agrippa’s political maneuvering to gain favor with the Jews and secure his political power in Rome if Caligula falls from power.
Verse 2: James Executed
Acts 12:2 (CSB) — 2 and he executed James, John’s brother, with the sword.
James and John were among the first disciples of Jesus:
- They were fishermen from Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee
- They were business partners with Peter and his brother Andrew
- James is always named first when James and John were mentioned, suggesting that he was the oldest brother
- They were often called “the sons of Zebedee”, suggesting that Zebedee was well known in the community
- They owned their own boats and had servants, meaning they were very prosperous merchants and lived successful middle-class lives.
But James and John left everything to follow Christ when he called them because they found in him something more precious than gold: the words of eternal life (Jn. 6:68-69).
Indeed, Peter, James, and John were among Jesus’ inner circle of apostles:
- They were the only ones allowed to come with Jesus when he raised Jarius’ daughter to life
- They were the only three allowed to come onto the Mount of Transfiguration
- They were the three apostles that Jesus brought with him to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed.
Early Church tradition says that James went to Spain before his execution and successfully established the Church there.
When we read that James is captured and executed by Herod Agrippa, our minds go back to the time when James and John approached Jesus and asked him to allow them to sit next to him when he rules in glory:
Mark 10:38–40 (CSB) — 38 Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink or to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We are able,” they told him. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink, and you will be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with. 40 But to sit at my right or left is not mine to give; instead, it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When Jesus asks them if they can “drink his cup”, he’s using a figure of speech that means “can you endure suffering for my name?”
James’ execution during Herod Agrippa’s persecution of the Church is the fulfillment of Jesus’ acknowledgment that they would endure his suffering with him.
However, James is also realizing the blessing of Christ:
Matthew 5:11–12 (CSB) — 11 “You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. 12 Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Philippians 1:21 (CSB) — 21 For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
You see, the focus of the Christian faith shifts our hope off of temporary worldly gains – all of which can be taken away from you – and makes Jesus Christ the focus of our hope.
James did not lose anything by being put to death: he gained everything.
The persecution that the Church experiences here as the result of Herod’s political ambitions serve to demonstrate how the early Church endured opposition by faith.
Verse 3: Peter Arrested
Acts 12:3 (CSB) — 3 When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too, during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread began after the Passover and happened every year sometime between March and April.
- The Passover and unleavened bread feasts were known as the “days of unleavened bread”
- They celebrated Israel’s deliverance from the power of Egypt by divine intervention
- They remembered that God was always ready to act on behalf of a faithful and obedient covenant people
Herod does not have any particular grievance against the Church himself, but he saw an opportunity to advance his standing with the Jews by persecuting their enemy; their hate fueled Herod’s political ambition.
Likewise, Herod could not execute Peter during this holy festival since that would be considered a desecration; he would wait until after the festival to hold Peter’s trial and make a great spectacle out of his execution in order to gain as much favor with the Jews as possible.
Verse 5: The Church Prays
Acts 12:5 (CSB) — 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was praying fervently to God for him.
The contrast that Luke is creating here is very important:
- Arguably the most important leader in the Christian faith is now in jail and awaiting execution
- But the Christians turn to God and seek his divine protection in prayer
Prayer is the natural environment of God’s people and the normal context for divine activity (cf. 1:14, 24; 2:42; 4:24–31; 6:4, 6; 9:40; 10:2, 4, 9, 31; 11:5; 13:3; 14:23; 16:25; 22:17; 28:8).
Prayer is how Christians:
- Seek God’s help and divine response
- Experience the divine peace of Christ
- Grow and mature in the presence of God
They turned to God in prayer because they believed that God was listening to them and that he would answer them:
Acts 4:29–30 (CSB) — 29 And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
1 John 5:14–15 (CSB) — 14 This is the confidence we have before him: If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked of him.
In my experience and conviction from Scripture, prayer is where Christians:
- Bring their heart into alignment with God’s heart
- Put their devotion for God into practice
- Receive what I call “the burning heart” for Christ
Here is something I want to challenge all of you with: “When prayer is the first thing you discard in your life, your relationship with Christ is the least important thing in your life.”
This is a good time to examine yourself to see if your spiritual life is healthy: are you praying and seeking to pray with others? <<<Pastoral Exhortations>>>
Verses 7-11: Peter delivered
Acts 12:7–11 (CSB) — 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.”
When we pray to God, we are praying to him as his children and he answers us as our Father.
As a father, there are times that I say “no” to Naomi because:
- what she wants isn’t good for her
- it’s good for her not to get everything she wants
- I have something better in store for her
God allowed Herod to execute the apostle James because God had allowed James to drink the Lord’s cup of suffering, but God hears the fervent prayers of his children and stretches out his hand with power to deliver Peter from certain death in order to vindicate the name of Jesus Christ and show that he is with the Church.
The lesson that we need to take from this story is that God “hears” us.
- God listens to our prayers and responds to us in wisdom according to the wisdom of a divine Father
- Therefore, we should be a praying people – “a house of prayer” – because we have a listening Father
The other apostle called James wrote this:
James 4:2–3 (CSB) — 2 You desire and do not have… You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
Verses 13-14: Rhoda’s Joy
Acts 12:13–14 (CSB) — 13 He knocked at the door of the outer gate, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer. 14 She recognized Peter’s voice, and because of her joy, she did not open the gate but ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the outer gate.
One of the fruits of prayer is that it builds expectation.
Prayer builds expectation, which is the heart of faith, as you fervently come to God and ask him for his help.
Now the Church had been engaged in fervent prayer all night long for Peter’s sake. So, when the answer to their prayers knocks on their door, the servant Rhoda was so overcome with joy that she did not even open the door to their answered prayer!
I love this story because it illustrates another fruit of prayer: JOY!
Answered prayer yields unlimited joy in the Christian life.
Verse 22: Herod’s Pride and God’s Wrath
Acts 12:21-22 (CSB) — 21 On an appointed day, dressed in royal robes and seated on the throne, Herod delivered a speech to them. 22 The assembled people began to shout, “It’s the voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 At once an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Herod left Jerusalem to deal with an economic war between his territories and the Phoenician coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon. Agrippa had the upper hand in this economic war since these coastal towns were totally dependent on the inland territories that Agrippa ruled for their food.
This is the second climax to Luke’s account of Agrippa’s persecution.
- The first climax to this account tells us that God supernaturally delivered Peter from Agrippa’s hands
- The second climax tells us that God executes divine justice against Agrippa for his sin
The non-Christian Jewish historian, Josephus, gives us almost the exact same details that Luke describes in this account, which shows us Luke’s historic accuracy in recording the events of this time. Luke was very careful to research the facts and details of his account.
You can find Josephus’ historic account of Agrippa’s death in his book, Antiquities, chapter 19, pages 343-352.
The lesson that we learn in this story is that God is not only a God who listens to his people, but God is also a Judge who executes justice on earth:
Proverbs 6:16–19 (CSB) — 16 The Lord hates six things; in fact, seven are detestable to him: 17 arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet eager to run to evil, 19 a lying witness who gives false testimony, and one who stirs up trouble among brothers.
Romans 2:2 (CSB) — 2 We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is based on the truth.
Romans 2:4–11 (CSB) — 4 Or do you despise the riches of his kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? 5 Because of your hardened and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. 6 He will repay each one according to his works: 7 eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality; 8 but wrath and anger to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth while obeying unrighteousness. 9 There will be affliction and distress for every human being who does evil, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek; 10 but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. 11 For there is no favoritism with God.
Verse 24: God’s Word Flourishes
Acts 12:24 (CSB) — 24 But the word of God flourished and multiplied.
The conclusion to Agrippa’s terrible persecution against the Christians is that God’s word flourished and continued to multiply throughout Rome. Herod failed to stop God’s plan, as all who try to oppose God fail to stop him, and the message of salvation spread to more and more people.
This story is particularly encouraging to us because it tells us of God’s incredible work in spreading the gospel to all nations:
- After Jesus’ death, his 11 apostles were scattered in fear
- Jesus raises to life and brings his apostles back together
- Then 120 men and women gather together to pray until God sends the Holy Spirit
- These 120 people begin spreading the gospel in a city that hates their message and tried to kill their leader
- God confirms the gospel with mighty signs and wonders
- Thousands begin converting to Christianity because of the message of hope that Christ has given them
- Worse persecution breaks out and forces Christians to flee from their homes to other cities
- The gospel grows even faster as God continues to work in and among his people
Today we are living nearly 2,000 years later and the gospel has spread to almost every nation on earth with over 2.2 billion people calling themselves “Christian”.
The beauty of this story illustrates how the Christian faith spread throughout the world: it did not spread by the sword. Islam spread much faster than Christianity because its history is one of conquest. But Christianity overcame persecution by faith, hope, and love.
In this story about Herod Agrippa’s persecution of the Church we learn that Christians have a unique hope in Christ; our hope is not merely to avoid trouble, but that in Christ we find deliverance from our problems and ultimate victory in eternal life!
How do you live your life? Do you live your life in fear that trouble will come, or with confidence that God will give you victory when trouble does come?
Another lesson that we learn from Herod’s persecution of the Church is that our victory does not come from taking vengeance on our enemies, but instead, our victory comes from the mighty hand of God.
This enables you and I to carry out Christ’s teaching that Christians should “bless those who persecute you”. The love of God has given us a new heart so that we can even love our enemies.
You see, Christians believe in a just God and we trust God to deliver justice to the wicked: we trust him both to “save” and to “punish”.
And we find in these lessons another important lesson: our confidence to face the troubles of this world in Christ and walk in love even towards our enemies is fueled by the amount of time we spend with God in prayer!
How do you live your life? Are you a praying Christian? Or are you a sleeping Christian?