Acts: For the Cause of Christ #19
Title: Peter and Herod
Review of 11:1-30
Last time we saw how the church in Jerusalem was surprised and concerned about Peter going to the Gentiles, and how, after Peter’s explanation, they realized that God had been at work as was opening the door to the Gentiles as well. We then saw how the disciples that were scattered because of the previous persecution had made their way to Antioch and planted a new local church there. The Lord had allowed a few members to evangelize to Gentiles in the city and had blessed this work. Barnabas was sent to check on them. Barnabas then gets Saul from Tarsus to help in the teaching ministry of this new church. After some prophet of God arrive from Jerusalem, the church in Antioch are warned about a famine that will affect Jerusalem, so the church cares for their fellow believers by taking a special offering to be taken to Judea by Barnabas and Saul.
This week we see a new form of persecution from the King Herod Agrippa I and how the church responds.
1. James and Peter – vv 1-5
King Herod began a new round of persecution against members of the church. No, this is not the same King Herod who hunted for baby Jesus and killed thousands of infant boys in Bethlehem, that was Herod the Great. No, this is not the King Herod who beheaded John the Baptist or questioned Jesus before His crucifixion, that was Herod Antipas. This is Herod Agrippa I, nephew of Herod Antipas, and grandson of Herod the Great. Agrippa was raised in Rome after his father was executed in 7 BC. Agrippa befriended members of the Imperial Household while in Rome. Notably, he befriended two future emperors while he was in Rome, Gaius and Claudius, Gaius’ uncle. If you don’t recognize the name Gaius as a Roman Emperor, you may recognize the nickname he is most commonly known as, Caligula. Claudius we briefly mentioned last time, he is the current Emperor in the narrative of Acts. Agrippa’s friendship with these men allowed him to gain power and land. Gaius gave him two tetrarchies in southern Syria along with the title of “king”. Then Agrippa’s kingdom grew when Galilee was added, this was the tetrarchy of his uncle Antipas until Gaius banished him. Claudius began his rule after Gaius was assassinated in AD 41, he gave Agrippa the area of Judea as well, which until this time had been governed by Roman prefects. Agrippa was more popular with the Jewish populace than many of the others of the Herodian family, so he strove to win and keep their favor.
It is suggested that until this time, the Apostles had a degree of protection as the only members of the church the Jewish community were really persecuting was the Greek Speaking Jewish converts. Now it seems that Agrippa is singling out the Apostles, who may have lost favor with the Jewish people, but James the half-brother of Jesus, and others that may have been more intentional in keeping Jewish rites seem to be left alone. The first taken and killed is James, the brother of John the son of Zebedee. We are told here that he was killed by the sword, and this pleased the Jews. James was the first Apostle to be martyred, and the only one recorded in Scripture. Here we see the fulfillment of not only his and John’s promise to Jesus, but Jesus’ promise to them. In Mark 10, and the parallel in Matthew 20, the brothers, by their mother, ask to sit on either hand of Jesus in the Kingdom, places of honor. Jesus asked them if they were able to drink the cup He did or be baptized with the same baptism He would be baptized with, in 10:39 is the response, “‘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.’” Jesus didn’t say or imply that the brothers would have the same experience, it is probable that John was the last of the Apostles to die.
After seeing that James’ death pleased the Jewish people and leaders, Agrippa arrested Peter during the week long Feast of Unleavened Bread. This Jewish feast immediately follows the Passover Celebration, and many times as here, the two are grouped together under the name Passover. Since Agrippa was smart enough not to pollute the festival week, he did not execute Peter right away, but decided to wait. Why Peter and James? What about the rest of the Twelve? We don’t know, Peter maybe because he was the one who started reaching out to the gentiles, maybe James and Peter were the only ones in Jerusalem at the time. Scripture is silent here. Peter was kept in prison during this time. It is suggested that he may have been held in the Antonia fortress near the temple, where Paul would later be held in chapter 21. Peter having been held twice already, and having been freed once already, Agrippa was not taking any chances and placed 4 squads of 4 men to guard Peter. Two where chained to either of his hands, and two probably guarded cell door. During this time the church used its best weapon, the church prayed fervently for Peter.
So far we’ve seen that public opinion is fickle. Whatever the cause the Apostles fall from public opinion was, we need to know that we shouldn’t be surprised when the unsaved culture around us behave fickle, as one moment they like what we say or do, but then they call us intolerant. At the same time we see here that even in the first century, politicians were swayed by public opinion, this why we the Church need to pray for the leaders raised up, we need to pray for God to raise up godly leaders so we can, as Paul put it in 1 Timothy 2, “…lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Though James was executed, and Peter was arrested again, the church used the best and only weapon at its disposal, prayer. How quick are we to turn to God in prayer? We can’t turn to God in prayer just when we are experiencing trials, though sometimes God uses those times to bring us to our knees before Him, but we need to have a constant life of prayer in good times and the bad. I need that reminder as much as anyone else, it is human nature not to pray. But prayer is part of the Christian’s relationship and devotion to God, it is part of being a disciple of Jesus.
We are also reminded that Jesus keeps His promises, He is faithful and will do what He has said. Though James was martyred, this was a fulfillment of Jesus’ words to him. James died for being a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ, he gave his life for the Cause of Christ, as Stephen and others had done before him. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not about our safety or comfort. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is about imitating Christ’s humility, love, and sharing the gospel. Whatever the cost.
2. Peter Freed – vv 6-19
As the festival week drew to an end, Agrippa prepared for a public trial and probable execution of Peter. We see here how the guards were stationed around Peter. We are told that Peter is sleeping, so soundly that the angel had to strike Peter’s side to wake him up. I don’t know about you, but I might find it hard to sleep the night before my trial and possible execution. Peter I think was calmed by the Spirit, through his own prayers and the prayers of the church over the last week. He trusted in God to care for him no matter what. I think he was willing to die for the Cause of Christ, just as James had done a few days previous.
The Lord sends an angel to Peter. It is suggested whether this visitor was a divine messenger from God, or just a sympathetic human whom the Lord used to release Peter. From what I see in the passage and the other rescue from prison in chapter 5, I believe that God sent an angel. There are too many supernatural events in this section to make me think this was a human freeing Peter.
I wonder if Charles Wesley had this passage in mind when he wrote the 4th stanza of And Can It Be: “I woke; the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
Light fills the cell, after waking and removing the chains from Peter, the angel gives him a few simple commands. Get dressed, tie your sandals, put your cloak on, follow me. Peter was probably stripped down to the most basic tunic, so the angel told him to get ready for being outside. Put your belt on, tie your shoes, grab your coat. Peter obeys and they leave the cell. Peter probably in a state of half asleep, doesn’t quite realize what is happening is real. He thinks he is seeing a vision or is dreaming. Then as they get closer to the main gate of the prison, the gate opens for them on its own. After leading Peter down a street further away from the prison the angel vanishes and Peter left alone outside.
Once Peter realized what had happened and where he was, he went to a nearby house church. Since the Jerusalem church was so large they had no single location, so they met in homes of local Christians. So it is possible that Peter knew Mary’s home was nearby just because he knew his way around Jerusalem, or he went to Mary’s home because it was the home he may have been attended more regularly as we see that Rhoda recognized Peter’s voice, or both options are possible. We don’t know for sure why Peter went to the home of Mary and John Mark, but he did. Why did you go there before fleeing into hiding? Peter knew the church was praying for him, and he wanted to let them know he was safe and the Lord had rescued him. When Peter got the house, he knocked on the outer gate, Mary’s family must have been fairly wealthy to have a home large enough to have an outer gate and a servant in the house. Rhoda, the servant girl, came to answer it and hearing Peter’s voice, she becomes overjoyed and leaves him at the gate to tell the group that was meeting there to pray for Peter, that he was standing at the gate.
Rhoda announces that Peter is at the gate, and many reject her statement as one of madness. “You’re out of your mind”, “You’re crazy”. Be she is insistent, and some took her serious by saying it is his angel. “‘It is his angel’ (vs.15) may reflect a Jewish opinion that each person has a guardian angel who can assume the person’s own bodily shape and voice. Perhaps they [thought] that he had already been executed, and that his ‘ghost’ had appeared (Kent, Homer A. Jr., Jerusalem To Rome, © 1972, p 102).” However Luke used the word angelos, meaning angel or messenger, not phantasma meaning ghost. There’s a little humor in this. Peter on the run and probably concerned the alarm is going to sound any moment is stuck outside as those inside are trying to sort out what happened. Rhoda, either convinced them to come, or the thought that Peter’s angel was there may have brought someone or a few of them to come to the gate. Once he was inside Peter quieted them down to quickly explain what had happened. He told them to let “James and the brothers” know what had happened, then Peter fled. We don’t know where he went from here and we don’t see Peter in Acts again until he has returned to Jerusalem in Acts 15. Peter was, of course referring to James the half brother of Jesus. James seems to have become the leader for the Jerusalem church, and the “brothers” may refer to the rest of the Jerusalem church, or other elders that probably have included the Apostles and James. I tend to think it is the church at large. Peter knows he was being prayed for, he wants to let everyone know he is safe for the moment, but getting out town.
The next morning was not a good one for Agrippa or the soldiers guarding Peter. A search was carried out to find Peter. The guards were interrogated, then put to death for allowing Peter to escape, Agrippa may have thought it was inside job freeing Peter. These weren’t Roman soldiers, but Roman law stated that a guard who let a prisoner escape was responsible to face whatever punishment the prisoner would have faced. Scripture doesn’t specify, but I think this was not all 4 squads, but that single squad that was on duty when Peter was rescued. After this loss of face with the people of Jerusalem, Agrippa went to Caesarea for a time.
Proverbs 15:29 tells us that the Lord, “…hears the prayer of the righteous.” The church in Jerusalem was praying for Peter, probably for the Lord to have him released. The prayers of the church aligned with the will of God, and God sent an angel to free Peter from almost guaranteed martyrdom. Why God allowed James to be martyred and Peter spared, we don’t know. That is something only in the mind of God. He will do what He wills. But remember, that is His right as the Creator of the universe and of the human race, and who are we to question God?
3. The Death of Herod Agrippa – vv 20-25
We change scenes now. There may have been some time between Peter’s release and this section, but we don’t know how much. We do know that, since Agrippa is a historical character, he died in 44 AD in Caesarea. History record he was in Caesarea for games that were in the honor of Emperor Claudius. While in Caesarea, Luke gives us this information. It is possible that the famine that was prophesied in chapter 11 is affecting the region now, because Agrippa’s territory supplied food to Tyre and Sidon and he had stopped sending the food to those cities because of however they had upset him.
The cities seek to reconcile with Agrippa to have this embargo against them lifted. Somehow they won over Blastus. My translation reads that Blastus, “was in charge of the king’s bedroom”. Other translations call him a “chamberlain”. A chamberlain was something like a chief of staff and sometimes entailed being chief of the guard as well. The idea is that Blastus is close to the king, and was able to get a reconciliation between Phoenicia and Agrippa’s territory. After this peace was brokered, Agrippa gives a public speech. Neither Luke or the Jewish historian Josephus tells us what Agrippa said in his speech, but there is agreement that after the speech the crowd responded and compared Agrippa to a god.
Luke tells us that God had an angel strike down Agrippa for accepting the glory and not directing it to the God of Heaven. In Josephus’ parallel account we are told that Agrippa had not reacted or rebuked the crowd for their comparing him to a god, so Agrippa suffered from a painful stomach condition that lasted for five days, before he died. Luke’s phrase “he was eaten by worms” or “consumed by worms”, essentially means Agrippa had a severe disease and suffered a painful death. We don’t know what he disease he died from, but it seems that Luke’s placing the event here is that Agrippa was also judged for persecuting the church.
We then receive a brief update on the church and Barnabas and Saul. Even after suffering the loss of a prominent Apostle in James, and the uncertain times for the church, the Word of God still flourishes and more people are coming Jesus Christ. The church continues to expands.
We don’t know if Barnabas and Saul have been in Jerusalem or Judea during these events or not. Or if Luke decided not to discuss what they were doing until they had completed their mission of bringing the relief funds to James and the other elders. But we see that they pick up John Mark, whom we surmise is the same Mark that is mentioned in Colossians 4 as Barnabas’ cousin, and return to Antioch.
We see in this section that God is still active as the church continues to expand. God judged Agrippa for allowing himself to be declared equal to God and for persecuting God’s appointed messengers. This section serves as a warning to rulers not to take their power to seriously. God calls rulers to serve the people and not bask in their own glory. We see that even in times of uncertainty the church is in fervent prayer, displaying a kind of faithfulness that lends itself to the expansion of the Gospel. Are we this faithful? Are you this faithful?
So far we’ve seen that public opinion is fickle. We need to know that we shouldn’t be surprised when the unsaved culture around us behave fickle, as one moment they like what we say or do, but then they call us intolerant. Even in the first century, politicians were swayed by public opinion, this why we the Church need to pray for the leaders raised up, we need to pray for God to raise up godly leaders. How quick are we to turn to God in prayer? But prayer is part of the Christian’s relationship and devotion to God, it is part of being a disciple of Jesus.
We are also reminded that Jesus keeps His promises, He is faithful and will do what He has said. Though James was martyred, this was a fulfillment of Jesus’ words to him. James died for being a disciple of Jesus Christ, he gave his life for the Cause of Christ. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not about our safety or comfort. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is about imitating Christ’s humility, love, and sharing the gospel. Why God allowed James to be martyred and Peter spared, we don’t know. That is something only in the mind of God. He will do what He wills.
We see a warning to rulers not to take their power to seriously. God calls rulers to serve the people and not bask in their own glory.