Interim Part 1 Acts 12

ACTS 12 

(Interim Part 1)


As we mentioned during the preaching through The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Tiberious Claudius Nero Germanicus became Roman emperor in early 41 AD.  And he ruled the empire until AD54… almost fourteen years.

One of his first appointments in his vast empire was a king – just one – over all that area from the Euphrates to the north to the River of Egypt to the south.  That includes all of Israel.  Up until this time the region had been ruled for forty five years by two tetrarchs and one ethnarch (all three of them from the Herodian family).

But Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great,  who had been imprisoned in Rome in the 30’s, and who was later named one of the tetrarchs by Caligula, was named king of all Palestine in 41AD by Nero Claudius.

Agrippa was the first king of the whole region since his grandfather Herod the Great back in 43BC.  And, rather than the cities of Philippi or Caesarea (the ruling cities of his Herodian forbears), he made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom.

And he made it a point to court the favor of the hypocritical pharisees, and the priests, and the elders of the tribes, playing the role of protector of judaism.  The hostility which had developed some years before toward this new “Jesus sect”, and which brought forth the public stoning of Stephen (mentioned in The Acts chapter 11), found  a new protagonist in king Agrippa.

Between his enthronement in 41 and his death after the 44AD passover (seen in the latter part of this chapter), Agrippa’s hypocrisy in protecting judaism manifested itself in antagonism toward, and intense persecution of, Jesus’ followers.

Agrippa was a foul and treacherous man.  And, for all three years of his reign, his bloody work included the arrest and scourging and killing of prominent followers of Jesus.  And, as we see in verse two, apostle James, the brother of apostle John, was one of the ones who he had executed.

The terminology used here in verse two is the same as with John the Baptizer; so we can assume that James was also beheaded after being arrested and brought before the king.

One of the issues that has been raised here is, why, since James was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, did Luke (the writer of the Acts of the Apostles) not provide us with a full account of the incident?  He only seems to mention it in passing!  Surely he knew the whole story – beginning to end – and, after all, James was one of Jesus’ apostles!

Well, I think the answer to that is two-fold.  And we have part of the answer back in Matthew chapter ten where Jesus is quoted extensively by the apostle in His preparation of them for what they were about to endure.  He told them there that they were to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom, and find all of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and relocate them in advance of the great tribulation to come.

Jesus had told them that they were going to be hated and mal-treated and scourged; and they would be falsely accused by even friends and family members; and they would be taken to governors and kings and tortured and killed.

And as far as the three-year persecution by King Agrippa is concerned, it is also assumed that many Christians were abused and killed… James being one of the many; for Jesus had warned that all of the elect of the tribes of Jacob would be pursued and persecuted for His Name’s sake.

So, Luke, knowing that it’s already known what Jesus said (from Matthew’s Gospel); and not having the goal of writing a “history” of the Church, simply mentions the most prominent of the martyrs of that three-year period… James.

Further (and considering that “goal” of Luke, which is to set forth the Gospel of the Kingdom as it spread into the nations), James’ martyrdom didn’t significantly increase the “flight” of the remnant into the nations.  Luke had already spent a considerable amount of time on Stephen’s martyrdom.  And the murder of Stephen (and the sharp persecution of believers thereafter) generated a massive egress of the remnant from Israel.

Therefore, Herod Agrippa’s persecution of believers, resulting in the death of James, didn’t affect Luke’s goal for his letter in any significant way.  The “flight” of Christians from Israel was already well under way, and had been for some time, and would continue to the last day.

So, the murder of James is mentioned because he was an apostle, and because it confirmed the words of Jesus to His disciples (they were going to be persecuted and killed).  But, as far as Luke’s goal for this letter was concerned, it was a “continuation” of the events which had already been detailed for us in the chapter just before this, with the stoning of Stephen.

However, that’s not the case with regard to the apostle Peter, is it?  Luke is careful to detail all the events having to do with Agrippa’s attempt on Peter’s life.  And it is such a remarkable event….  And Peter was so very vital to the further extension of the Kingdom.  So, it furthered Luke’s goal in his letter to detail the Providential care of the King of Kings for His Church and His Kingdom.

And (just as an “aside” here), the apostle John, the brother of James  (who was executed by Agrippa) remained faithful and persevered to the end, even though his brother was murdered.  In his three letters, and the Revelation of Jesus Christ, he demonstrated not one instance of wavering or disillusionment or discouragement as a result of his brother’s execution.  His letters, and the Revelation, are full of love for the brethren and vision for the Kingdom of Christ, and for the salvation of the world.

The Lord Himself had told them what to expect.  And every one of the apostles suffered shame and humiliation and loss.  But they persevered.  And they found every last one of the lost sheep; they got them all out of the land; they instructed the Church in their preaching and their letters; they laid the foundation of the Kingdom.

And, as recorded in Revelation twenty one, John saw the foundation stones of the wall of the New Jerusalem.  They had the twelve apostles’ names on them.  And that included his own name.

And the apostle John, the last prophet, was used by the Lord to give His Church intimate details of what was going on in the heavens as the Lord readied His great judgment on Israel.  (That’s found, as you know, all through the Revelation.)


But Peter, at the point (here in the text) on the way to Jerusalem, may not have even heard yet about the execution of James, since it had just happened.  But it was passover 44 AD (fourteen years after the crucifixion of Christ); and Peter had come to the city.  And what he found when he got there was the Church in hiding!

The believers who had thus far remained in Jerusalem were under siege, and were being persecuted by Agrippa, who was trying to please the judaizers; and James had been killed.  The Church had gone underground.  And all of the work in getting the remnant out of Israel had been interrupted.

And the reaction that the new king had received from the Sanhedrin shored up his resolve to eradicate this “Jesus sect”.  The hypocrite judaists were, if nothing else, political animals.  And “legal” murder of the followers of the “Nazarethite”, by Rome’s appointed king, easily fit their agenda. 

So, the more King Agrippa persecuted the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the better the political climate in Jerusalem became for him!  And the more the judaists fit into the king’s agenda, the better his kingdom fit into Rome’s plans!  That was good for Agrippa!

So, harassment, persecution and murder of members of this new Christian sect was as much political as it was religious.  Maybe more so.  And the collaboration between Agrippa and the judaists brought Rome and judaism together, under one banner, against Christ and His Church.  At least they were collaborating on this one thing – if nothing else.

Now, the implication underlying verse three of our text is that Peter entered Jerusalem somewhat unaware of the height of severity to which the persecution of believers had proceeded.

Remember, Jesus had instructed the disciples to go to every location in Israel – every city, every town, every village – in order to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom, and to find every last one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 

And when found, they had to be taught; they had to be housed; they had to be fed… money had to be collected; locations and transportation for them had to be arranged in order to get them all out of Israel before the last day.

And here it is fourteen years after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and His ascension to The Father; and the apostles and disciples were still doing that… they were still searching  There’s no indication here of how long Peter had been gone.  But he, along with other apostles, was itinerating through the towns and villages and communities of Israel, doing what he was instructed to do by Jesus:  “find My people and get them out of Israel before the end of the age”.

James had apparently come into Jerusalem some time before him; and he had been picked up and executed.  And when Peter entered the city he, too, was arrested!

But, because it was passover week (the days of unleavened bread), verse three, he was imprisoned until after the Passover meal was celebrated.  Remember, this is the same thing that happened to Jesus.  His arrest and unlawful secret trial was so that Passover wouldn’t be interrupted.

And Herod Agrippa wasn’t going to interrupt the traditions of the judaists by staging a public trial and an execution right in the middle of judaism’s passover!

So, apparently Agrippa was conflicted.  On the one hand he wished to please the priests and pharisees and elders of Israel by doing away with this idolater/infidel.  That would certainly further their agenda – and his!  But, on the other hand, he didn’t wish to risk irritating them at a time which was wholly given to the highest festival of the judaists.

So, Peter was “seized” – i.e., arrested – until the next appropriate time.  Israel celebrated the passover meal on Thursday night.  (That was when Jesus was arrested, remember… in Gethsemane, during passover.  But His trial and execution didn’t occur until Friday; and it was in secret).

So, I’m assuming the same thing happened here with Peter.  Peter came into town sometime before Thursday night.  And he was arrested and thrown into prison until he could be brought before the king (and whoever else was interested) on Friday.

And to make sure that his plan could be brought to fruition, Agrippa delivered him over to four squads of soldiers and had the apostle Peter put in prison.  So the king’s plans were made; and due measures were put in place to see that they were carried out.

But apparently all of this didn’t go unnoticed by the Church.  As verse five indicates, the Church, which was hiding from the terror and persecution, was aware of Peter’s incarceration.  Somebody saw it all go down.  And, with the recent execution of the beloved James still in their minds, their first fear and dread was that the leader of the apostles (and therefore the leader of the relocation of the true Israel) was about to be taken away from them.  And all their efforts to follow Jesus’ instructions would be put at great risk!

They had all these people to teach, and to provide for; and to get them out of Israel and into the Churches in the nations.  And they didn’t know when the last day was!  They didn’t know how much time they had!  And the fear of persecution and death; and the intrigue of being driven into hiding… and now, the arrest of Peter.

And, at this point, realizing that they had no way, in and of themselves, to alleviate the situation – i.e. break him out of prison – they began to petition the Lord on Peter’s behalf.  Verse five says that there was constant prayer concerning him.

So, Stephen had been taken from them.  And James.  And perhaps many others that we know nothing about. And there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what Agrippa had in store for Peter first thing in the morning.

After Passover, Peter would be brought, in his chains, from the “cage” in the dungeon, to the hall of trial, where everyone who wished to do so could witness the king’s great zeal for judaism.

And there would be no appeal.  The sentence would be carried out immediately – Friday morning – also for all to witness.

Now there were thousands of people from all over the world in Jerusalem for passover.  And an entire cohort of the king’s troops would have been on duty, making sure that there were no embarrassing incidents.  So, in addition to the sixteen guards that were assigned to Peter – to guard him at the risk of their own lives – there was a military presence everywhere in the city.

Also there were the temple guards themselves… and spies and informants and deception and trickery.

Peter was sleeping between two of his guards, verse six; and he was chained on both sides.  This probably means that his chains were attached to the wall of his cell.  The guards knew that if he were somehow to escape, King Agrippa would surely put all sixteen of them to death.  So two of them were in the cell with Peter – one on each side.  And two others were at the cell door.  The sixteen guards, four at a time, would have been rotating through six-hour shifts.

Another event had occurred, you remember, in which the apostles had just “disappeared” from prison; and nobody knew how it had happened.  And so this time everybody was making sure it didn’t happen again!

Luke tells us that it was almost time for Agrippa to “bring him out”.  So it was early Friday morning, before dawn.

And what happens next has been described by many as “fanciful”; and “mythological”.  All kinds of explanations have been put out there … many of them attempting to explain the events by “ordinary, natural phenomena”.  The great light in the building, for example, has been said to have been “lightning”.  And it’s said that Peter was “sleepy”; so he “imagined” he saw some creature. 

The fact that Peter and the messenger from God passed right by the guards at the cell, and guards at the great, massive iron door from the complex and into the city, is said to occur, somehow, at the changing of the guards.  Therefore they were able to slip through unawares.  The iron cuffs on Peter’s hands weren’t fastened property… so he was able to slip out of them.

And the list of explanations goes on and on.

But Luke, having spoken to Peter personally about all of this, and being inspired by the Spirit of Christ to write, is lucid – and clear – and very specific about the details. 

Just as clear as that occurrence in Matthew chapter ten in which the disciples were imprisoned by the Sanhedrin, the apostle Peter here was freed from prison and spared execution by Agrippa.

So, there can’t be any “natural phenomena explanations” here.  Those who try to do that simply don’t believe that our Lord was directing the events that occurred by the Word of His mouth!

With the prayers of the saints rising before Him, and the “finding of the lost sheep of the house of Israel yet incomplete, and the spread of the Gospel and the Kingdom into the nations yet to go forward, the newly-crowned King of Kings purposefully “spoke” the release of Peter from the murderous plans of Agrippa and the judaists!

Just as the Lord “spoke”, and the earth came to be; just as He “spoke”, and light came to be; just as He “spoke”, and all the stars in the heavens came to be; just as He “spoke”, and plants and animals came to be; just as He “spoke”, and man was created, our Lord “spoke”, and Peter was freed from bondage and removed from danger!

The Scripture is just filled with instances in which the speech of God “created”, and “directed”, and “sustained”.  God “spoke” and the waters in the deep erupted; and the waters in the heavens fell; and the earth was inundated.  And he “spoke” and the waters receded!

We all could quote hundreds of instances in which the “speech” of God is the cause of majestic events… including the very existence of the heavens and the earth!

And, yet, this (relatively) “humble” event of the freeing of Peter from prison gives men such terrible difficulty!  So much so that they have to try to find “natural explanations” (quote/unquote) in order to explain it.

Just as we’ve said numbers of times in the past, those who attempt to “explain away” occurrences such as this one have very little (or NO) understanding of the ultimate, sovereign source of “being” and “existence”.  To them, the existence of the earth, and the universe, is a result of “natural causes”.  To disbelieve the “freeing of Peter from prison” is to disbelieve the first cause of existence Himself!

And, since they disbelieve God’s “calling all things into being by the Word of His mouth”, they can’t comprehend things like “the cuffs falling off of Peter’s hands”; or the doors and gates of the prison opening – seemingly of themselves!

And, further, there are those who (with some ideas of God’s omnipotent power) will admit that the Lord “intervened” in the natural course of things!  To which admission we must shout “NO”!  “Even though you’re admitting the power of God, you’ve still got it all wrong!”

God did not “intervene” in the “natural course of things”!  There is no “natural course of things”!  Because things don’t occur “naturally”!

By saying that there are “miracles” (in the common usage of the word), and that God “intervened” in nature, one denies the sovereignty and omnipotence of God and His reigning King!

The common, evangelical use of the word “miracle” has, at the very foundation of its assumptions, a very “naturalistic” view of the creation and its history.  And that view is that God has had to “break into the creation and its history” and “intervene” in the natural order of things!  If He didn’t like the way things were going, He is powerful enough to reach down and change it!

But, as you can see, that view assumes that this creation operates on its own; and that it has some basis for its existence, and its history, other than the Word of God!

So, the events here in this text having to do with Peter being freed from prison can’t in any way be explained by “natural phenomena”.  And neither can they be explained by a powerful god doing “miracles” and breaking into history and changing the course of events.

This release from prison is not the “unnatural” supplanting the “natural”.  It is not a “supernatural” event overriding that which is occurring “naturally”.

In fact, it is as “natural” as it can be!  It is our sovereign God doing what He has always done… calling all things into being by the Word of His mouth; sustaining all things by the Word of His mouth; directing all things by the Word of His mouth….

And, considering all the rest of Scripture, it is as “natural” as it can be for Him to do something considered “extraordinary”.  After all, He has done extraordinary things all through His history of His creation!  The prophets and apostles always praise the “Mighty deeds” of God.  And they are not “unnatural”; and they are not “supernatural”; and they are not “abnormal” – in the sense we think of that word.  They are very “natural”.  He not only “causes” the ordinary; but He also, by the same Word, causes that which seems “extraordinary”!

God “spoke” (as He had spoken so many times).  And the messenger directly from His mouth lit up the entire building with its brightness.  And it awakened Peter, dropped the chains off his hands, directed Peter to dress, opened the doors and gates of the prison, completely insensitized the guards, and led Peter to a side street of escape.  Then, the message complete, it went away.

And, lastly, Luke even allows us a little glimpse into the state of Peter’s awareness through all of this, doesn’t he?  He thought maybe that everything that was happening was a "vision”.  He didn’t know whether it was really happening!  Although he did everything he was told to do, he couldn’t tell whether he was “seeing” it happen or participating in it happening!

And this same thing is attested to on many occasions in Scripture in which a Word from the mouth of God “appears” to men – saying and doing extraordinary things.  Mighty things.

Again, those who would doubt the veracity of the Scripture would simply say that Peter was “sleepy”.  But that doesn’t say anything, does it?

But witnessing the visible message from God isn’t like seeing a human being walk into a room through the door; or like having a casual conversation with a neighbor!  After all, it is directly from God; and it therefore carries His glorious perfections and His Own Light and Brightness.  And although immanently involved in His creation, and Providentially directing all to His Own ends, He is still pre-eminently superior to it all.

And that accounts for the “mode” in which God reveals His glory and His Word to men.  This is an adaptation to the limitations of the creature in order that they continue to exist in the Presence of His glorious Person.

And, now, let’s be aware that all of the power of the God-head rests in Christ Jesus, Who has been given all authority and dominion over all creation.  He was birthed in the lowliest of conditions; but now He is preeminent in all His domain.

Every sparrow is accounted for; and every hair on every head is numbered.  And therefore every thought that proceeds from our minds must be brought captive to His Lordship.

And, lastly, let’s also see that Luke’s detailed account of Peter’s captivity and release is important to the Church from another aspect as well, for it is emblematic… a prophetic precursor, of the release from death unto life in Christ Jesus.  John explained, in Revelation chapter twenty, that it is the “first resurrection”.

All through the Gospel of Matthew we were made aware of the condition of the “lost sheep of the house of Jacob”, weren’t we?  They were left in a prison of darkness by the “false prophet” – i.e. the priests and pharisees and elders of Israel.

They were the “prey” of wolves and jackals who left them destitute and in ruin… having fallen into the pit of despair.

They were blind and deaf and crooked and sick and demon-possessed.  Judaizers, who were to be the teachers and builders and leaders of Israel, were hypocrite sons of the devil who left the elect remnant of Jacob in weeping and darkness and despair,

They were in bondage to the fourth beast of world history; they were in bondage to Herod’s sons and grandsons; they were in bondage to the false prophet and sons of satan in Israel.  There was no light; and there was no hope.

Then Jesus came… at the end of the age (in the fullness of the time).  And they heard His voice.  And they heard His voice through His disciples; and they followed Him.  And He saved them from the wrath to come… every last one of them.

They were given light and life and the white robes of righteousness.  They were freed from bondage and captivity and raised up from the pit of darkness and death just as the apostle Peter had been freed by a word sent directly from the mouth of God.

These hundred and forty four thousands of the tribes of Jacob were the firstfruits of the resurrection, raised up out of the bondage of darkness and death into the glorious light and freedom of the Son of God.

They were the first inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, the tabernacle of God with man, that John saw coming down from the heaven at the Parousia of the Christ… free men and women – freed from the confines of  their depravity and the curse of God.  They were the first emissaries of the Kingdom to the Gentile nations of the earth.

They were the first messengers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.  They were the first to thirst for the water of life; and from them poured forth a river into the nations – ever deeper and ever wider.

And wherever the Gospel message went, Gentiles everywhere were freed from bondage!

They were the firsts!  And their names are on the gates through the wall into the New Jerusalem.

Freed from captivity by the Word of God, the multitudes of the nations make their way to the tabernacle of God-With-Us; and the first thing they see is the foundation stones of the apostles of Jesus Christ.  And then they see the gates of the twelve tribes of Jacob.

And the gates are wide open for all who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.  The remnant of the tribes of Jacob are the firstfruits of the resurrection; and we are their “seed”……

Just as the apostle Peter was loosed by the Word of God from captivity and darkness and death, so we – loved of God our Father from all eternity – are loosed from our pit of darkness and death and the curse of God, and raised up to new life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

One last thing here, and we’ll stop.

Anyone who doesn’t understand that God raised up Herod the Great and the Roman Empire and Caligula and Nero in order to further His Own purpose, doesn’t yet know all of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Anyone who doesn’t understand that God raised up Agrippa to be king over all of Israel in order to further His Own purpose, doesn’t yet know all of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Anyone who doesn’t understand that God raised up the false prophet in Israel to collaborate with Rome for His Own purpose, doesn’t yet know all of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And, by extension, those who just will not believe that The King of Kings now raises up kings and rulers and leaders of men for His Own purpose don’t yet fully understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But we live in the tabernacle of God.  He is with us.  And our Lord is subduing the nations as we messengers speak the Gospel to men and call all to repentance.  And we can watch, with great fascination and anticipation, and with comfort and assurance, as He proceeds with His Own purpose.

Even under the most vicious and insidious tyrant kingdom the world has ever known, our original forebears of the tribes of Jacob were told not to despair or to fear – but to hold the testimony of Jesus and keep His Commandments.  They were told to anticipate the coming Parousia of the Christ and His Kingdom; for God would be with them.

And we are to do no less!

Fear of petty tyrants, and despair over the state of our nation isn’t who we are; for God is with us.  We are free and alive in Christ.  We live in the New Jerusalem.  And our Lord Jesus Christ will complete all of His work.

Next Lord’s Day… another text from the same period of time between our Lord’s advent and His Parousia; and we’ll celebrate the new sign and seal of the covenant.