In chapter twelve, the attention turns to King Herod, i.e., King Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the great of Luke 1:5, and second cousin of Herod Antipas, who had ruled Galilee during Jesus’s ministry, and his attack against the disciples. It shifts to the death of James, one of the Apostles, Peter’s miraculous release from a prison cell, the death of King Herod, and the introduction again of Barnabas and Saul, and John Mark.
King Herod laid violent hands on some of those who belonged to the church. “For the first time, it is not the priests and temple leadership that opposed the new Christian community.”[i] James, the brother of John, was killed with the sword and became the first martyr among the Apostles. “The early church lives in a situation of arbitrary power, in which believers could be abused, arrested, and killed without hearing or trial.”[ii] When Herod saw that it pleased the Jews, he had Peter arrested. His intent was to bring him out during Passover. “Peter’s arrest at this time is parallel to that of Jesus.”[iii] While Peter was in prison, the church prayed fervently for him.
The night before Herod was to bring Peter out, an angel showed up in Peter’s cell. A light filled his cell; the angel gave him specific instructions to “get up quickly.” The chain fell off his wrists. The angel instructed him to fasten his belt and to put on his sandals, to get his cloak, wrap it around him, and follow him. Peter went out and followed the angel, not knowing if it was real or a vision. “Real for Luke means in the space-time world, objective reality observable by anyone, in contrast to a ‘vision’ which is also real but belongs to another (and higher) order of reality.”[iv] They passed two guard stations, and the iron gate leading to the city opened of its own accord; as they walked along the lane, the angel left Peter. 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 the Jewish people were expecting.”
When Peter realized what was happening, he went to the house of Mary, where many had been gathering and praying. (The commentary notes that this is where we see the first introduction of Mark in the Acts story). A maid named Rhoda came to the gate where Peter knocked. Recognizing Peter’s voice, she was overcome with joy, left Peter at the gate, and went to tell those gathered that Peter was standing at the gate. They told her that she was out of her mind. But she insisted that it was Peter. They insisted that it was Peter’s angel, while Peter continued to knock. “Folk religion had come to believe in guardian angels that were the double of the person to whom they were assigned.”[v] They opened the gate and realized that it was Peter. “The story provides an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of answered prayer. Its main point is to show God’s care for the developing church; despite the opposition of the King, the church continues to worship and to grow.”[vi] The commentary also emphasizes that whether God answers our prayer or not, “God continues to act, whether God’s actions fit our mental modes or not, i.e., our prayers were answered because of our faith, as opposed to our prayers were not answered because we don’t have enough faith.”[vii] For an in-depth explanation of the power of prayer, see the commentary.
Peter motioned for them to be silent and told them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He instructed them to tell James and the believers. “James, the brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the Jerusalem church – we do not know how or when leadership shifted from Peter to James, or whether it involved some internal power struggle within the developing church.”[viii] He left there and went to another place.
In the meantime, back at the jail, there was no small commotion over what had become of Peter. Herod searched for him. The guards had no explanation for what happened to him. Herod ordered the guards to be put to death for their neglect. Here the commentary gets into an extensive explanation of confessional and objectifying language (simplistic formulas in reporter-type language) – see under the explanation of prayer on pg. 408. The reader should note that if all this is taken as objectifying language, then one must regard the God and the angel standing idly by while innocent people are put to death for an event, they had no way of comprehending.”[ix] What do we think about the wives and the children of the guards who were killed? Why would a God who delivered Peter, did not deliver the innocent soldiers, or James (who was put to death) for that matter?
Herod left that place and went to Caesarea. He was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon (two leading cities of Phoenicia). They asked for a body (meeting). After winning over Blastus, the King’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation because they depended on the King for food. On the appointed day, King Herod put on his royal clothes and took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address. The people shouted, “the voice of a god, and not of a mortal.” And immediately, because King Herod had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. “The motif of the horrible death of those who arrogantly oppose God (or the gods) was widespread in antiquity.”[x] The story has one point; God brings down the arrogant ruler. “Luke does not permit any other inferences such as that it is even worse to take credit for a good speech than to commit murder.”[xi] I could say more on that, but I will stop right here.
The word of the Lord continued to advance and gain believers. After completing their mission, Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John Mark.
[i]Boring, Eugene M., and Fred B. Craddock, The New Testament Commentary, pg. 407.
[v] Ibid., pg. 408.
[ix][ix] Ibid., pg. 409.