Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.
Ac 12:1-19. Persecution of the Church by Herod Agrippa I—Martyrdom of James and Miraculous Deliverance of Peter.
1-3. Herod the king—grandson of Herod the Great, and son of Aristobulus. He at this time ruled over all his father's dominions. Paley has remarked the accuracy of the historian here. For thirty years before this there was no king at Jerusalem exercising supreme authority over Judea, nor was there ever afterwards, save during the three last years of Herod's life, within which the transactions occurred.
And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.
2. killed James … with the sword—beheaded him; a most ignominious mode of punishment, according to the Jews. Blessed martyr! Thou hast indeed "drunk of thy Lord's cup, and hast been baptized with his baptism." (See on Mr 10:38-40.) A grievous loss this would be to the Church; for though nothing is known of him beyond what we read in the Gospels, the place which he had as one of the three whom the Lord admitted to His closest intimacy would lead the Church to look up to him with a reverence and affection which even their enemies would come to hear of. They could spring only upon one more prized victim; and flushed with their first success, they prevail upon Herod to seize him also.
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—Popularity was the ruling passion of this Herod, not naturally so cruel as some of the family [Josephus, Antiquities, 19.7.3].
to take Peter also—whose loss, at this stage of the Church, would have been, so far as we can see, irreparable.
Then were the days of unleavened bread—seven in number, during which, after killing and eating the Passover, no leaven was allowed in Jewish houses (Ex 12:15, 19).
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—that is, to four parties of four each, corresponding to the four Roman watches; two watching in prison and two at the gates, and each party being on duty for the space of one watch.
intending after Easter—rather, "after the Passover"; that is, after the whole festival was over. (The word in our King James Version is an ecclesiastical term of later date, and ought not to have been employed here).
to bring him forth to the people—for execution; for during "the days of unleavened bread," or the currency of any religious festival, the Jews had a prejudice against trying or putting anyone to death.
Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.
5, 6. prayer was made without ceasing—rather, "instant," "earnest," "urgent" (Margin); as in Lu 22:44; Ac 26:7; and 1Pe 4:8 (see Greek).
of the church unto God for him—not in public assembly, for it was evidently not safe to meet thus; but in little groups in private houses, one of which was Mary's (Ac 12:12). And this was kept up during all the days of unleavened bread.
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. And when Herod would have brought him forth—"was going to bring him forth."
the same night—but a few hours before the intended execution. Thus long were the disciples kept waiting; their prayers apparently unavailing, and their faith, as would seem from the sequel, waxing feeble. Such, however, is the "law" of God's procedure (De 32:36 and see on Joh 21:3).
Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains—Roman prisoners had a chain fastened at one end to the wrist of their fight hand, and at the other to the wrist of a soldier's left hand, leaving the right arm of the keeper free in case of any attempt to escape. For greater security the prisoner was sometimes, as here, chained to two soldiers, one on each side. (See Ac 21:23.) Ye think your prey secure, bloodthirsty priests and thou obsequious tyrant who, to "please the Jews," hast shut in this most eminent of the servants of Christ within double gates, guarded by double sentinels, while double keepers and double chains seem to defy all rescue! So thought the chief priests, who "made the sepulchre of the Lord sure, sealing the stone and setting a watch." But "He that sitteth in heaven shall laugh at you." Meanwhile, "Peter is sleeping!" In a few hours he expects a stingless death; "neither counts he his life dear unto him, so that he may finish his course with joy and the ministry which he has received of the Lord Jesus." In this frame of spirit he has dropped asleep, and lies the picture of peace.
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.
7-11. the angel of the Lord—rather, "an angel."
came upon him—so in Lu 2:9, expressive of the unexpected nature of the visit.
smote Peter on the side … Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off … Gird thyself … And so he did … Cast thy garment—tunic, which he had thrown off for the night.
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. about thee … follow me—In such graphic minuteness of detail we have a charming mark of reality: while the rapidity and curtness of the orders, and the promptitude with which they were obeyed, betoken the despatch which, in the circumstances, was necessary.
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. wist not that it was true; but thought he saw a vision—So little did the apostle look for deliverance!
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. first and the second ward … the iron gate that leadeth unto the city—We can only conjecture the precise meaning of all this, not knowing the position of the prison.
passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him—when he had placed him beyond pursuit. Thus "He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their heads cannot perform their enterprise" (Job 5:12).
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—recovered from his bewilderment, and had time to look back upon all the steps that had followed each other in such rapid succession.
Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me, &c.—another evidence that Peter expected nothing but to seal his testimony with his blood on this occasion.
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.
12-17. he came to the house of Mary, &c.—who "must have had a house of some pretensions to receive a large number; and, accordingly, we read that her brother Barnabas (Col 4:10) was a person of substance (Ac 4:37). She must also have been distinguished for faith and courage to allow such a meeting in the face of persecution" [Webster and Wilkinson]. To such a house it was natural that Peter should come.
mother of John … Mark—so called to distinguish him from the apostle of that name, and to distinguish her from the other Marys.
where many were gathered together praying—doubtless for Peter's deliverance, and continuing, no doubt, on this the last of the days of unleavened bread, which was their last hope, all night in prayer to God.
And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda.
13. came to hearken—not to open; for neither was it a time nor an hour of night for that, but to listen who was there.
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. opened not for gladness, but ran in and told, &c.—How exquisite is this touch of nature!
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. Thou art mad—one of those exclamations which one can hardly resist on hearing what seems far "too good to be true."
she constantly affirmed—"kept steadfastly affirming."
that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel—his disembodied spirit, his ghost; anything, in fact, rather than himself. Though this had been the burden of their fervent prayers during all the days of unleavened bread, they dispute themselves out of it as a thing incredible. Still, it is but the unbelief of the disciples who "believed not for joy and wondered" at the tidings of their Lord's resurrection. How often do we pray for what we can hardly credit the bestowment of, when it comes in answer to our prayers! This, however, argues not so much hard unbelief as that kind of it incident to the best in this land of shadows, which perceives not so clearly as it might how very near heaven and earth, the Lord and His praying people, are to each other.
But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished.
16. Peter continued knocking—delay being dangerous.
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. But he, beckoning … with his hand to hold their peace—a lively touch this. In the hubbub of joyful and wondering interrogatories there might mingle reflections, thrown out by one against another, for holding out so long against the testimony of Rhoda; while the emotion of the apostle's own spirit would be too deep and solemn to take part in such demonstrations or utter a word till, with his hand, he had signified his wish for perfect silence.
Go show these things unto James and to the brethren—Whether James the son of Alpheus, one of the Twelve, usually known as "James the Less," and "James the Lord's brother" (Ga 1:19), were the same person; and if not, whether the James here referred to was the former or the latter, critics are singularly divided, and the whole question is one of the most difficult. To us, it appears that there are strong reasons for thinking that they were not the same person, and that the one here meant, and throughout the Acts, is the apostle James. (But on this more hereafter). James is singled out, because he had probably begun to take the oversight of the Church in Jerusalem, which we afterwards find him exercising (Ac 15:1-29).
And he departed, and went into another place—according to his Lord's express command (Mt 10:23). When told, on a former miraculous liberation from prison, to go and speak unto the people (Ac 5:20), he did it; but in this case to present himself in public would have been to tempt God by rushing upon certain destruction.
Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter.
18, 19. as soon as it was day, &c.—His deliverance must have been during the fourth watch (three to six A.M.); else he must have been missed by the keepers at the change of the watch [Wies].
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. examined the keepers—who, either like the keepers of our Lord's sepulchre, had "shaken and become as dead men" (Mt 28:4), or had slept on their watch and been divinely kept from awaking.
commanded that they should be put to death—Impotent vengeance!
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.
Ac 12:20-25. Herod's Miserable End—Growing Success of the Gospel—Barnabas and Saul Return to Antioch.
20. Herod was … displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon—for some reason unknown; but the effect on their commercial relations made the latter glad to sue for peace.
their country was nourished by the king's country—See 1Ki 5:11; Ezr 3:7; Eze 27:17. Perhaps the famine (Ac 11:28) made them the more urgent for reconciliation.
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 Herod … made an oration unto them—to the Tyrians and Sidonians especially.
And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.
22, 23. the people gave a shout, &c.—Josephus' account of his death is remarkably similar to this [Antiquities, 19.8.2]. Several cases of such deaths occur in history. Thus was this wretched man nearer his end than he of whom he had thought to make a public spectacle.
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.
But the word of God grew and multiplied.
24. But the word grew, &c.—that is, Not only was the royal representative ignominiously swept from the stage, while his intended victim was spared to the Church, but the cause which he and his Jewish instigators sought to crush was only furthered and glorified. How full of encouragement and consolation is all this to the Christian Church in every age!
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.
25. Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem—where, it thus appears, they had remained during all this persecution.
when they had fulfilled their ministry—or service; that mentioned on Ac 11:29, 30.
took with them John … Mark—(See on Ac 12:12), not to be confounded with the second Evangelist, as is often done. As his uncle was Barnabas, so his spiritual father was Peter (1Pe 5:13).