Acts 12

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The Death of James

Verse 1: About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. (NRSV)

  • ”Some” does not seem an accurate term for just James. Other believers were evidently arrested and presumably killed along with James, though we know nothing of them.
  • ”About this time” referred back to the famine of the end of Acts 11. This is a problem with the famine happening after Herod died, however, so perhaps these accounts are flipped and this event happened chronologically between Acts 11:18-26 and Acts 11:27-30 (Longenecker 203).
  • This is not king Herod of Jesus' birth. That Herod died long before. This is not even the Herod of Jesus' death. This is Herod the Great's Grandson, Agrippa I.
    • He is only ever called “Herod” here in Acts as a family name (Barrett 181).
    • Agrippa I died in 44 AD (Marshall 207).
    • Thanks to a friendship with the emperor Claudius, Herod Agrippa eventually got the entire old kingdom of his grandfather (Longenecker 203).
  • Throughout Acts and the early Church there is a slow but steady progression of who persecutes. First it is single Pharisees (ie Saul), then the High Priests, then Herod, and finally the emperor himself starts to persecute the Church by the time people would be reading this.

Verse 2: He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. (NRSV)

  • This James is one of the apostles (Johnson 211), but there are other people names James in the New Testament, namely the brother of Jesus mentioned in verse 17.
    • This James is the son of Zebedee, whose brother John wrote the fourth gospel and more. He was probably in Jerusalem when his brother was killed.
    • There is the first apostle to die after Judas, but we have no written account of the apostles trying to become 12 again. Though it could be argued that James, Jesus' brother, replaced him.
  • This Herod is doing the same thing as his relatives have before. He kills people just to make others happy. This is very reminiscent of the death of John the Baptist.
  • Putting someone to death with a literal sword is unlikely. However, it is the metaphorical statement of dying by violence that is important.
    • Beheading is mentioned in Deuteronomy 13:15 as the punishment for a city that has fallen to the worship of idols instead of God, and so this type of beheading is a way of showing support for the Judaic majority (Johnson 211).
  • There is no talk about a trial for James. Perhaps this is left out, or perhaps it never happened.

Verse 3: After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) (NRSV)

  • Even though this is theoretically Jerusalem, it doesn't say that this action pleased the people, but pleased the Jews.
    • This indicates that either the secular and Roman state that the city was in at the time, that Jews were just a part of it, or that Christians had grown apart from the Jews enough that they could be considered separately.
  • Herod's family was very hated, and so this was probably some amount of self-preservation as Herod really needed the Jews' approval and support.
  • The Feast of Unleavened Bread is the seven days after Passover where no one eats leavened bread (Fitzmyer 487).

Verse 4: When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. (NRSV)

  • No one knows for sure where Peter was in jail, possibly the fortress Antonia itself.
  • This is extreme protection for someone who is a pacifist. Perhaps the Jewish leaders had told Agrippa about the problems they had with keeping the apostles in jail Acts 5:19.
  • Normally, prisoners were only chained to one guard (Longenecker 205)
  • Herod was well known for being very religious when ruling, and so he is here honoring the festival.
  • Passover marks the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, not the end. But over time the two festivals were just referred to as Passover.
  • Many translations supply “for trial” here. However, that is not in the text. Literally, it reads “lead him to the people.”
    • Given that James was killed without apparent trial there is no certainly that this meant trial.
    • The other option is obviously that Herod meant a public execution.

Verse 5: While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him. (NRSV)

  • It doesn't say that Peter was praying for his release, oddly enough. It only says that the other believers were praying.
  • We also aren't told whether the Church prayed for James when he was about to die, but we can assume they did and James was not rescued like this.
  • By spending the entire time
  • The adverb used here translated as “fervent” can also mean “constantly” or “passionately” (Bauer 245).
  • Literally, this verse reads “but prayers were constantly coming from the Church, to God, about him.”
    • The term for “coming” here is more correctly “becoming” and there is the literary idea of prayers being actual things created by the Church and sent on a journey.
    • There is also sense of movement here, of the prayers moving from the Church and to God. Both prepositions used have a sense of movement with them.
  • That the Church was praying for Peter throughout all of the Feast of Unleavened Bread

An Angel Takes Peter From Prison

Verse 6: The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. (NRSV)

  • The maximum time that Peter was in jail, then, was eight days. This is assuming that James was killed before Passover, and Peter was immediately arrested afterwards.
  • We shouldn't assume that the guards were sleeping as well. Doing that while on duty was punishable by death, as was losing your prisoner we will see.

Verse 7: Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. (NRSV)

  • Light shining is a standard way of talking about God appearing, speaking, or sending a messenger. Compare this with Saul's encounter with Jesus in Acts 9.
  • This is not a theophany, however. It is an angel, a messenger, appearing.
  • The word used here for “strike” is literally a hard blow, one that cab be fatal (TDNT vol. 5, pg 939).
    • This word is usually used in terms of “smiting” an enemy of God, including Herod in a few verses (Johnson 212).
  • It is interesting that the angel is violent with Peter, but does not break the chains or even touch them. They just fall off.
  • After striking Peter, the angel “rose him up”, which is a term that is used to talk about the dead “rising”.
    • It can be used to mean someone waking up as well, of course, as the dead are often talked about as “asleep.”
    • The use of this word, however, in conjunction with the angel striking him with a term that sometimes means to kill someone, brings to mind death and resurrection imagery, which is only reinforced later in the story with the people saying that it was Peter's angel coming to visit. It is also reinforced with how he disappears at the end.
  • Some people have seen Peter's death story in this passage.
    • Peter only appears once more in Acts 15 and that is very briefly. Other than that he vanishes from the second half of the book.
      • Traditionally, though, Peter dies in Rome through crucifixion.
      • The main thing about Peter's death in tradition, though, is that it is very similar to Jesus' death, which this is.
    • The parallels to Jesus' death is striking, as are the repeated death language and dream-like qualities.

Verse 8: The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” (NRSV)

  • Apparently, Peter was naked, or nearly naked. This isn't removing a prison uniform
    • To continue the death analogy, the idea of the day was that we would get new clothes to wear upon death.
    • This also is an interesting parallel to John 21:18-19, where Jesus tells him that when he dies someone will dress him and lead him where he doesn't want to go.
  • The dreamlike state of Peter is evident by how much the angel needs to tell him to do. Everything, even fastening his belt, is dictated by the angel.

Verse 9: Petera went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel's help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. (NRSV)

  • There is no explanation as to how they got out of the prison, just that he did.
  • As well as the dream-like qualities of the text, Peter himself thought it was a dream/vision.
  • The term for “dream” here is just “sight”. Peter thought he was “seeing a sight”. He thought he was seeing things in other words, though not in a delusional sense.

Verse 10: After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. (NRSV)

  • There isn't any discussion about how they got past the guards, they just did.
  • That the outside prison gate is made of iron is worthy of note because it emphasizes the difficulty they would have had moving it themselves, and the power of the obstacles in their way.
  • It is important to note that the angel did not give him any instruction about what to do then. Nor did

Verse 11: Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (NRSV)

  • This verse seems to indicate that Peter really was in a dream-like state during this escape, and that he came back to it now.
  • The Jewish people are presented as unified in looking forward to killing Peter.
  • Interestingly, Peter does not talk about God saving him from death, but from Herod's hands, and from the “expectations” of the Jewish people. While those imply death, they also imply that the power was take away from Herod and the people didn't get a show. Death is not explicitly mentioned.

Verse 12: As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. (NRSV)

  • This is not referred to as the entire Church, but only as where some of them had gathered. Presumably there were other locations as well.
  • The house is referred to by the woman's name, which is unusual.
  • John-Mark mentioned here is the one who joins Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. He is also mentioned in Colossians as being the cousin of Barnabas.
  • This is the middle of the night, and yet people were still praying, possibly indicating that the early Church usually prayed at night (Marshall 210).

Verse 13: When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. (NRSV)

  • After the extreme dreamlike qualities of the account of Peter escaping, the detail found here in even mentioning the servant's name is remarkable. It makes it very obvious that this is no longer a dream or vision.
  • Rhoda is a common Greek name of servants, and means “Rose” (Polhill 281).

Verse 14: On recognizing Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. (NRSV)

  • The servant recognized Peter's voice and cared that he was alright. This seems to indicate close contact between the leadership and the help, possibly even indicating that she is a Christian.
  • There are a lot of parallels with Jesus' resurrection here.
    • In Luke 24:41, the apostles couldn't believe it was him “from their joy” the same as here.
    • A woman announces to believers gathered together that someone is alive and gets ignored, but with a few people going to check it out.

Verse 15: They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.” (NRSV)

  • This isn't a glass door, or probably even a metal grate. She probably didn't see Peter, but only heard him. So the suggestion that this is his angel isn't that far out of the realm of possibility.
  • Thinking Peter was an angel raises some serious theological problems.
    • This could reflect a belief that some Christians believed we become angels after we die.
    • Another, probably more likely, option is that they thought this was Peter's guardian angel, which was a duplicate of the person (Fitzmyer 489).
    • These spiritual doubles of our earthly forms were thought to appear after death at times (Polhill 282).
    • For more on guardian angels, see the non-canonical Tobit 5:4-16.
  • Here is another parallel with Jesus' resurrection. The disciples then thought they were seeing Jesus' ghost when he showed up too.

Verse 16: Meanwhile Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed (NRSV)

  • Note that more than one person came to the door this time, possibly simply because if they believed it was Peter's angel, then Peter was dead and they could stop praying.
  • Even in the early Church there is surprise when their prayers got answered in such a direct way.

Verse 17: He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, “Tell this to James and to the believers." Then he left and went to another place. (NRSV)

  • There isn't really an explanation for why Peter leaves again, he just does. Perhaps he was discouraged with the reaction of the other believers. Most likely, however, he needed to get away from the people who would be seeking him out after his escape.
  • Where Peter went after this is something of a mystery. It adds to the metaphor that Peter died at the end of this. Tradition places him traveling all over and ending up in Rome many years later.
  • The James mentioned here is of course not the one who had just been killed, but Jesus brother who became the head of the Jerusalem Church.
    • Throughout the book of Acts, James takes on more leadership in the Jerusalem Church and Peter seems to take on less. But we don't know why. Perhaps some of that is because Peter couldn't be there for a while, he was running.

Verse 18: 18 When morning came, there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. (NRSV)

  • This is naturally an understatement.
  • The verse is a little ambiguous. It doesn't say Peter had left, only that there was problems over “what became” of Peter.
  • Soldiers who lost a prisoner under their care were under whatever punishment the prisoner would have gotten (Longenecker 207).

Verse 19: When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. (NRSV)

  • There is some confusion about just what the original text was. Some versions have the guard “carried off” and others have them be executed (Johnson 214).

Message Ideas/Scripts/Liturgy That Use This Chapter

Meet Me at the GateA Bible study centered around encounters people had at city gates in the Bible.WomenGeneralCurriculum