Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.XII.
(1) Herod the king.—The previous life of this prince had been full of strange vicissitudes. The son of Aristobulus and Bernice, grandson of Herod the Great, brother of the Herodias who appears in the Gospel history, named after the statesman who was the chief minister of Augustus, he had been sent, after his father had fallen a victim (B.C. 6) to his grandfather’s suspicions, to Rome, partly, perhaps, as a hostage, partly to be out of the way of Palestine intrigues. There he had grown up on terms of intimacy with the prince afterwards known as Caligula. On the marriage of Herod Antipas with his sister, he was made the ruler of Tiberias, but soon quarrelled with the Tetrarch and went to Rome, and falling under the displeasure of Tiberius, as having rashly given utterance to a wish for the succession of Caligula, was imprisoned by him and remained in confinement till the death of that emperor. When Caligula came to the throne, he loaded his friend with honours, gave him the tetrarchies first of Philip, and then that of Lysanias (Luke 3:1), and conferred on him the title of King. Antipas, prompted by Herodias, came to Rome to claim a like honour for himself, but fell under the emperor’s displeasure, and was banished to Lugdunum in Gaul, whither his wife accompanied him. His tetrarchy also was conferred on Agrippa. Coins are extant, minted at Cæsarea, and bearing inscriptions in which he is styled the Great King, with the epithets sometimes of Philo-Cæsar, sometimes of Philo-Claudios. At the time when Caligula’s insanity took the form of a resolve to place his statue in the Temple at Jerusalem, Agrippa rendered an essential service to his people, by using all his influence to deter the emperor from carrying his purpose into execution, and, backed as he was by Petronius, the Governor of Syria, was at last successful. On the death of Caligula, Claudius, whose claims to the empire he had supported, confirmed him in his kingdom. When he came to Judæa, he presented himself to the people in the character of a devout worshipper, and gained their favour by attaching himself to the companies of Nazarites (as we find St. Paul doing in Acts 21:26) when they came to the Temple to offer sacrifices on the completion of their vows (Jos. Ant. xix. 7, § 3). It would seem that he found a strong popular excitement against the believers in Christ, caused probably by the new step which had recently been taken in the admission of the Gentiles, and fomented by the Sadducean priesthood, and it seemed to him politic to gain the favour of both priests and people, by making himself the instrument of their jealousy.
And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.(2) He killed James the brother of John with the sword.—Had the Apostle been tried by the Sanhedrin on a charge of blasphemy and heresy, the sentence would have been death by stoning. Decapitation showed, as in the case of John the Baptist, that the sentence was pronounced by a civil ruler, adopting Roman modes of punishment, and striking terror by them in proportion as they were hateful to the Jews. The death of James reminds us of his Lord’s prediction that he, too, should drink of His cup, and be baptised with His baptism (Matthew 20:23). The fulfilment of that prophecy was found for one brother in his being the proto-martyr of the apostolic company, as it was found for the other in his being the last survivor of it. What led to his being selected as the first victim we can only conjecture; but the prominent position which he occupies in the Gospels, in company with Peter and John, probably continued, and the natural vehemence indicated in the name of Son of Thunder may have marked him out as among the foremost teachers of the Church. The brevity of St. Luke’s record presents a marked contrast to the fulness of later martyrologies. A tradition preserved by Eusebius (Hist. ii. 9) as coming from Clement of Alexandria, records that his accuser was converted by beholding his faith and patience, confessed his new faith, and was led to execution in company with the Apostle, who bestowed on him the parting benediction of “Peace be with thee.”
And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.)(3) Because he saw it pleased the Jews.—This was throughout the ruling policy of the Herodian house. The persecution did not spring from any fanatic zeal against the new faith, but simply from motives of political expediency. A somewhat touching incident is recorded, illustrating the king’s sensitiveness to popular praise or blame. It was at the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Law was read, and he heard the words of Deuteronomy 17:15 : “Thou shalt not set a stranger over thee,” and he burst into tears at the thought of his own Idumæan descent. The people saw him weeping, and cried out: “Trouble not thyself, Agrippa; thou also art our brother,” and the king’s heart was comforted (Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums, I., p. 420).
Then were the days of unleavened bread.—The crowds of Hellenistic and other Jews who were gathered to keep the feast at Jerusalem naturally made this a favourable opportunity for courting the favour of the people. A tradition recorded by St. Jerome states that St. James was beheaded on the 15th of Nisan, i.e., on the same day as that of the Crucifixion. Peter was arrested probably at the same time; but the trial and execution were deferred till the seven days of the feast were over.
And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.(4) Delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers.—Agrippa apparently followed the lessons of Roman practice which he had learnt by his own experience. The four quaternions relieved each other at set times, and the prisoner was chained to two of the soldiers of each company, while the others were stationed as sentinels at the door of the dungeon. (Comp. St. Paul’s chains in Acts 28:20; Ephesians 6:20.)
Intending after Easter.—Better, after the Passover, as elsewhere. In this solitary instance the translators have introduced, with a singular infelicity, the term which was definitely appropriate only to the Christian festival which took the place of the Passover.
Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.(5) Prayer was made without ceasing.—The adjective is rendered by “fervent” in 1Peter 4:8, and implies, as in the marginal reading, intensity as well as continuity. The words imply that the members of the Church continued, in spite of the persecution, to meet as usual, probably, as in Acts 12:12, in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark.
And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.(6) Peter was sleeping between two soldiers.—The picture of the calm repose of the Apostle as of one to whom God had given the sleep of His beloved (Psalm 127:2), undisturbed by the fear of coming suffering and death, will be felt by most readers to be one of singular interest.
And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.(7) The angel of the Lord came upon him.—The phrase is identical with that of Luke 2:9. The absence of the article in the Greek leaves it open to render it either as “the angel” or “an angel.” The “light” in this instance corresponds to the “glory of the Lord” in that.
In the prison.—Literally, in the dwelling, or chamber. The term appears to be used as an euphemism for “prison.”
And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.(8) Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals.—In lying down to sleep the Apostle had naturally laid aside his “cloak,” loosened the girdle that bound his tunic, and put off his sandals. As regards the latter we note his continued observance of the rule of Mark 6:9.
And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision.(9) And wist not that it was true . . .—The kind of introspective analysis of the Apostle’s consciousness suggests the thought that he was himself, possibly through some intermediate channel, St. Luke’s informant. As in the activity of somnambulism, the will directed the actions of the body, and yet was only half-conscious of what it did. It may be noted that his experience of the trance and vision narrated in Acts 10 would tend to suggest the impression that he was passing through phenomena of a like kind.
When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him.(10) When they were past the first and the second ward.—It would seem from this that Peter had been placed in the innermost dungeon, and had to pass the two court-yards. Lightfoot supposes the prison to have been between the inner and outer walls of the city, the direction of Peter’s movements being from the outer to the inner.
The iron gate.—The touch of topographical precision may be noticed as characteristic of St. Luke.
Passed on through one street.—The word implies one of the narrow streets or lanes of the city. (See Note on Matthew 6:2.)
And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.(11) When Peter was come to himself.—Here again we find the tone of a personal reminiscence. He finds himself at night, free, in the open street. It was no dream. As before (Acts 5:19), his Master had sent His angel to deliver him.
And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.(12) Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark.—On the probable identity of this Mark with the evangelist of that name, see Introduction to St. Mark’s Gospel. Here we may note (1) that as being mentioned by St. Peter as his “son” (1Peter 5:13) he was probably converted by him; (2) that he was cousin to Barnabas, probably through his mother, and was therefore at least connected with the tribe of Levi (Acts 4:36), and possibly belonging to it; (3) that the fact that Mary’s house was the meeting-place of the Church indicates comparative wealth, as did Barnabas’s sale of his estate; (4) that the absence of any mention of Mark’s father makes it probable that she was a widow; (5) that the Latin name of Marcus indicates some point of contact with Romans or Roman Jews.
Many were gathered together praying.—The facts of the case show that the meeting was held at night, possibly to avoid persecution, or, it may be, as the sequel of the evening gathering to “break bread.”
And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda.(13) A damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda.—The mention of the name of the slave indicates St. Luke’s care in ascertaining details, as far as his opportunities allowed. The office of opening the door to strangers was commonly assigned, as in the case even of the high priest’s palace (Matthew 26:69; Matthew 26:71), to a female slave. The name, which means “a rose,” is of the same class as Tamar = a palm tree; Deborah = a bee; Margarita = a pearl; Dorcas = an antelope.
And when she knew Peter's voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate.(14) She opened not the gate for gladness.—The slave, it would seem, had shared the anxiety and borne her part in the prayers of the Church; and the eager desire to tell the good news that their prayers had been answered overpowers her presence of mind. There is something characteristic of the writer in this analysis of a state of consciousness. (See Note on Acts 12:9, and Luke 24:14.)
And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel.(15) It is his angel.—The language expresses the common belief of the Jews, that every true Israelite had a guardian angel specially assigned to him, who, when he appeared in human form, assumed the likeness of the man whom he protected. It is obvious that the record of the casual utterance of such a belief cannot be taken as an authoritative sanction of it.
But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place.(17) Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren.—The James, or Jacob, thus spoken of may have been either James the son of Alphæus or James the brother of the Lord. Many writers have maintained the identity of the person described under these two names; but reasons have been given in the Notes on Matthew 10:3; Matthew 12:47; Matthew 13:55, for believing that they were two distinct persons, and that the brother of the Lord was therefore not an Apostle. It is obvious that about this time, probably in consequence of the death of his namesake, the son of Zebedee, James the brother of the Lord comes into a fresh prominence. He is named as receiving St. Paul in Galatians 1:19, and as being, with Peter and John, one of the pillars of the Church (Galatians 2:9). Probably about this time (but see Introduction to the Epistle of St. James) he addressed the letter that bears his name to the Twelve Tribes that were scattered abroad. He presides at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:13, and acted as bishop of the Church at Jerusalem. According to the statement of Hegesippus, a Jewish Christian writer of the second century, preserved by Eusebius (Hist. ii. 23). he led the life of a Nazarite in all its rigour, was regarded by the Jews as having a priestly character, wore the linen ephod, and the golden petalon or plate, fitting on the brow of the priests, and as such was admitted to the Holy Place in the Temple. In A.D. 62 or 63 he was tempted by the priestly rulers, especially by the high-priest Ananias, to declare that the Christ was a deceiver, and on proclaiming his faith in Him was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple, and as he lay on the ground, received a coup de grace from a fuller’s club. The way in which St. Peter here speaks of him implies that he was, in some way, the head and representative of the Christian community at Jerusalem.
He departed, and went into another place.—The act was in accordance with the precept which had been given to the Twelve in Matthew 10:23. What the “other place” was we can only conjecture. Some Romish writers have hazarded the wild guess that he went to Rome, and having founded the Church there, returned to Jerusalem in time for the council in Acts 15. Others have assumed Antioch, which is, perhaps, less improbable; but there are no traces of his presence there till after the council (Galatians 2:12). Some nearer city, such as Lydda or Joppa, might, however, have been sufficient as a place of refuge, and the absence of the name of the place suggests the inference that it was comparatively unimportant, and that Peter had carried on no conspicuous work there.
And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and there abode.(19) Commanded that they should be put to death.—Literally, that they should be led away—i.e., to execution. The phrase was half-technical, half-euphemistic. Capital punishment was, according to Roman usage, the almost inevitable penalty for allowing a prisoner to escape. So at Philippi, the gaoler, when he thought the prisoners had escaped, was on the point of anticipating the sentence by suicide (Acts 16:28). See Note on Acts 27:42.
And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon: but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king's chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king's country.(20) Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon.—Literally, as in the margin, was in a hostile state of mind; was, in modern phrase, “contemplating hostilities.” The two Phœnician cities were not subject to Agrippa, but were under the control of Rome with a nominal independence.
Desired peace.—Literally, were seeking peace. They apparently feared that Herod would show his displeasure by prohibiting the export of corn, and oil, and wine, on which the Phœnician cities, with their large population and narrow strips of territory, were dependent for subsistence. Comp. 1Kings 5:11, and Ezekiel 27:17, as showing the identity of the commercial relations of the two countries at long intervals in their history.
And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.(21) And upon a set day . . .—Josephus (Ant. xix. 8, § 2) gives an account of the incident that follows substantially agreeing with that here recorded. The scene was the theatre at Cæsarea, which had been built by Herod the Great. Agrippa was celebrating games in honour of the Emperor Claudius, who had succeeded Caligula in A.D. 41, possibly in honour of his return from Britain in A.D. 44. He was arrayed in a robe of silver tissue, such as Caligula had been wont to wear at banquets and games in Rome, which glittered with a dazzling brightness under the rays of the morning sun. His courtiers, taking up the Roman fashion of showing honour to kings and emperors, hailed him as a god, and prayed him, as such, to be propitious to them. The king did not repress the flattery, which fell on the ears of all Jewish by-standers as a fearful blasphemy. He accepted for himself the divine honours which he had dissuaded Caligula from claiming. He looked up, and saw an owl perched on a rope behind him, and recognised in it an omen of evil, fulfilling a prediction which had been made to him by a fellow-prisoner during his confinement at Rome (Jos. Ant. xviii. 8). Sharp pain fell on him, and in five days he died.
Comparing St. Luke’s narrative with this, it seems probable that the delegates from Tyre and Sidon were among those who raised the cry, “Be thou propitious to us,” and that their friend Blastus, knowing the weak point in Herod’s character, had instructed them that this was the way to obtain his favour. We feel, as we read the narrative, the contrast between St. Peter’s refusal even of Cornelius’s attitude of homage, and Agrippa’s acceptance of the profane apotheosis of the multitude.
And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.(23) The angel of the Lord smote him.—The intervention of the angel is obviously regarded by St. Luke as the only adequate explanation at once of the death of the persecutor and of the escape of his victim, and in the former he recognised not only what has been called the irony of history, or an instance of the law of Nemesis, bringing down the haughty in the very hour of their triumph, but a direct chastisement for an act of impiety.
Because he gave not God the glory.—The words probably mean something more than that he did not ascribe to God the praise which was due to Him, and Him only. To “give God the glory” was a phrase always connected with the confession of sin and weakness, as in Joshua 7:19. (See Note on John 9:24.)
He was eaten of worms.—The specific form of the disease is not named by Josephus, and St. Luke’s precision in describing it may fairly be regarded as characteristic of his calling. The form of the disease, probably of the nature of phtheiriasis, or the morbus pedicularis, from its exceptionally loathsome character, had always been regarded as of the nature of a divine chastisement. The more memorable instances of it recorded in history are those of Pheretimo of Cyrene (Herod. iv. 205), Sylla, Antiochus the Great (2 Maccabees 9:2), Herod the Great (Jos. Ant. xvii. 8), and Maximinus, among the persecutors of the Church (Euseb. viii. 16; ix. 10, 11; Lactant, De mort. Persecut. c. 33). The death of Agrippa took place A.D. 44, in the seventh year of his reign, and at the age of fifty-three.
But the word of God grew and multiplied.(24) But the word of God grew and multiplied.—The words describe a continuous expansion. The death of the chief persecutor left free scope for the activity of the preachers of the gospel, of which they were not slow to avail themselves.
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.(25) When they had fulfilled their ministry.—The same noun is used as that translated “relief” in Acts 11:29. We may, perhaps, assign the vision related in Acts 22:17-21, to this visit; but see Note there.
Took with them John, whose surname was Mark.—The choice is, of course, partly explained by his relationship to Barnabas, but it shows also that he entered heartily into the work of the conversion of the Gentiles; and owing, as he did, his own conversion to Peter, it would naturally be regarded as a proof of that Apostle’s interest in it.