Peter Freed From Prison (Acts 12)
About this time (12:1)
Luke next turns his attention to an important episode of persecution against the Jerusalem church, which results in one item of sad news, and another of joy. He relates the death of the apostle James (the brother of John) (12:2), Peter’s arrest and miraculous escape from prison (12:3-19), and the death of Herod (12:19-23). As we shall see, the three events form one unit with a special message for readers.
These things apparently happen during the same general period of time as the growth of the church in Antioch (11:19-26), and before Paul’s trip to Jerusalem (11:27-30). Using secular records, historians place Herod’s death (12:20-23) in a.d. 44, while Paul’s visit to Jerusalem (11:30) may be two years later. Therefore, in recording the events of chapter 12, Luke backtracks, going behind the story of the Antioch church and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem.
The persecution of James and Peter may be connected to bringing Cornelius into the church fellowship. Hence, chapter 12 describes events beginning sometime soon after Peter’s defense of his visit to Cornelius in front of the Jerusalem church (11:1-18).
Herod the king
Luke begins his account of persecution against the Jerusalem church by writing: “It was about this time King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them” (12:1). The King Herod mentioned here is the grandson of “Herod the Great,” who ruled Judea before Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:5), tried to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2), and died in 4 b.c. He was a Jew of Idumaean (Edomite) descent on his father’s side. He refurbished the Jerusalem temple and built a splendid complex around it. [Herod was a brutal and self-aggrandizing ruler. His building projects included the temple in Jerusalem, the artificial harbor at Caesarea Maritima, and pagan temples in other cities.]
The second Herod prominent in the biblical account is “Herod the Tetrarch,” or Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea. He pops in and out of Luke’s account throughout Jesus’ life. [Luke 3:1, 19; 8:3; 9:7-9; 13:31; 23:7-15; Acts 4:27.] He is the Herod who executes John the Baptist and meets Jesus just before his crucifixion. The Romans depose him in a.d. 39.
The King Herod of Acts 12 is more precisely called “Herod Agrippa I.” He dies in a.d. 44, as Luke will soon describe. Over time, various emperors give him more territories to rule, and his kingdom becomes larger than his grandfather’s. Herod Agrippa I is a descendant of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty through his grandmother Mariamne. The Hasmoneans, also called Maccabees, were a family of high priests and kings who descended from Hashmon. They ruled Judea between 165 and 37 b.c.
Apostles are persecuted
Probably in the early spring of a.d. 43, or perhaps 44, Herod begins to persecute the church, particularly in Jerusalem. It appears that this time the apostles and leaders of the church are the intended victims. Rome holds Herod responsible for keeping peace in his territories. Almost certainly, then, he does not undertake the persecution without a reason, or apart from the desires of the Jewish authorities and populace in general.
The persecution of the apostles signals a change in the attitude of the Jewish community in Jerusalem and Judea. Earlier, after Stephen’s death, the Hellenistic Christian Jews were singled out for persecution. However, the apostles and Hebraic Jewish Christians were apparently not persecuted or suppressed (8:1). The apostles were still respected by the people since they remained observant Jews (3:1). Their miraculous works caused the populace to hold them in awe as God’s instruments for good (3:9; 5:13). The Pharisees were cautious about persecuting the apostles (5:34-39); only the Sadducee-dominated Sanhedrin had threatened them.
What turns the people of Jerusalem and Judea against the apostles? The answer may lie with Peter’s evangelizing work. First, he teaches among the despised Samaritans. Worse still, he fellowships with and baptizes the Gentile Cornelius, without requiring that he live as a Jew. We know that the church in Jerusalem quickly hears about Peter eating with “uncircumcised men,” referring to Cornelius and those with him (11:3). He is severely criticized even by the Jewish Christians; the scandal is presumably much greater for unconverted Jews. The rumor quickly spreads that Peter allows “unclean” Gentiles to taint the community of Israel.
People may see Peter, and by implication the other apostles, as abandoning the Torah and committing a terrible offense against the community. The Jewish leaders enlist the help of Herod to rid the land of the heretic Peter and his co-workers. Peter’s action has the potential to cause riots in Jerusalem, creating a problem for Herod, who is accountable to Rome for revolts and disturbances within his jurisdiction. He may feel threatened politically by the results of Peter’s action, because the Jews are making an issue of it.
Agrippa’s policy was the Pax Romana through the preservation of the status quo. He supported the majority within the land and ruthlessly suppressed minorities when they became disruptive. He viewed Jewish Christians as divisive and felt their activities could only disturb the people and inflame antagonisms. [Richard Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), page 408.]
James, the brother of John (12:2)
To deal with the problem, Herod Agrippa I arrests some of the church leaders at Jerusalem. He singles out James, the brother of John, and has him killed. When the Jews voice their pleasure at this, Herod imprisons Peter, intending to put him on trial after Passover (12:3-4). It’s not clear why James is singled out first. Perhaps as one of the “sons of thunder” he thundered out a Stephen-like defense of Peter’s action before Jewish groups. Perhaps he is chosen as an object lesson to the others. It is obvious that Herod means business, and that Peter will die, too, unless God intervenes.
Herod wants to get into the good graces of his Jewish subjects. He knows that they hate him and his family, so he takes whatever opportunity he can find to gain their cooperation. In Jerusalem, Herod even acts the part of an observant Jew. Now, a new ploy is available. Executing the leaders of the heretical Christian community will (he hopes) make his subjects more favorably disposed toward him.
In his short reign of three years (A.D. 41-4) he sought to counter the distaste on the part of the Jewish religious leaders for his Roman background and Edomite ancestry by his sedulous observance of Jewish customs and support of the Jewish faith; it was, no doubt, as part of this policy that he sought to win general approval by this attack on the Nazarenes [the Christians]. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 148.]
By beheading James, Herod is making a gesture of solidarity with the Jewish majority. It is a public relations ploy to demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism.
Peter is jailed (12:3-4)
The seven days of the festival of Unleavened Bread are just beginning when Peter is arrested (12:3). (Luke also refers to the entire festival as the “Passover” in 12:4.) Peter remains in jail until the festival is over. Herod intends to put Peter on trial and then execute him. But he waits until the festival ends because a public execution during the sacred season would offend the people. We remember that the chief priests didn’t want to arrest and execute Jesus during the festival of Unleavened Bread “or the people may riot” (Mark 14:2).
Ironically, Peter’s imprisonment comes during Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, the great and festive day of deliverance from Egyptian slavery. This day finds Peter languishing in bondage, not celebrating liberation. The people who once saw God deliver them from slavery now make prisoners of their own kin during the feast of liberation — a bitter irony Luke does not want us to miss. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 112.]
Church prays earnestly (12:5)
While Peter is in prison, the church is “earnestly praying to God for him” (12:5). Here and throughout Acts Luke points out to his readers that prayer is central to the life of the church. In this case, the Jerusalem church is facing a life-threatening crisis. There is no doubt as to what Herod, and the Sanhedrin with him, are intending to do. The goal is to eliminate the leaders of the church and persecute the believers who accept Gentiles.
The church has no weapons against the forces arrayed against it. Their only recourse is to depend on God to make his will known, with the hope that Peter will be rescued and the church saved. Meanwhile, the apostle is languishing in the dungeon. Herod takes every precaution to make sure that Peter does not escape — he may know about Peter’s former escape (5:19-24).
Peter is probably in the Antonia fortress, the military barracks where Paul is later confined (21:31-23:32). The fortress overlooks the temple. Peter is guarded by four squads of four soldiers each, probably on a rotating basis. He sleeps bound with two chains between two soldiers, with sentries standing guard at the entrance of his cell. Luke notes that Peter is sleeping peacefully on the eve of his trial and execution (12:6). He has faith in his Savior that whatever happens to him, his life is safe in Christ. Perhaps he also remembers that Jesus said he would live to old age (John 21:18).
Peter escapes (12:7-10)
Suddenly, an angel appears, and Peter’s cell is lit up. The angel nudges him sharply and he wakes up. “Quick, get up!” the angel demands (12:7). The angel tells Peter to put on his day clothes and wrap his outer garment around him. He follows the angel out of the prison. On the way out, they pass two guard posts, and as they approach the prison gate, it opens by itself. Peter is now in the city streets of Jerusalem, and the angel leaves him.
Peter is still in a daze, half asleep, thinking that his experience with the angel is simply a vivid dream. One can understand Peter’s confusion, as everything that is happening is in all respects contrary to normal. Finally, Peter “comes to himself” and realizes the dream-like scene is real. Luke records Peter’s thoughts as he walks along the quiet streets: “Now I know without a doubt the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen” (12:11).
The power of the resurrected Jesus is working mightily in his apostles and church. We may wonder why God allows Peter to escape but James to die. There is no easy answer except that they are among the mysteries of God. It has always been that way among God’s people. God rescues some of his servants to do his work and others are killed while doing it (Hebrews 11:32-37). In Peter’s case, God steps in and saves him (and with him, the rest of the Jerusalem church). Whatever plans Herod and the Sanhedrin may have to destroy the community of believers is stopped for the moment. As we shall soon see, the power behind the plot, Herod, will soon be eliminated.
Mary, mother of Mark (12:12)
After his release, Peter heads for the place where a house-church of the Jerusalem congregation is meeting. This one is in the home of Mary, the mother of Mark (12:12). (The fact that she is mentioned as the head of the household indicates that she is a widow.) This is apparently a sizable home, for “many people” gathered there (12:12). Mary has at least one house servant, Rhoda. Obviously, the faithful Christian Jews did not sell all their possessions to donate to the common fund (2:44-45; 4:32-35). Donations are made on an as-needed basis and do not necessarily involve selling everything one owns. The fact that Mary keeps this home turns out to be a great and continuing benefit to the church in that it has a private place to meet.
As for Mary’s son, he has both a Jewish name (John) and a Roman one (Mark, or Marcus), as do various other characters in Acts, including Paul (1:23; 13:9). John Mark will become an important figure in Luke’s story. He will accompany Barnabas and Paul to Antioch after they complete their relief-mission to Jerusalem (12:25). Then, he will accompany the pair on their first missionary journey (13:5). However, for some reason, Mark will abandon the mission and return to Jerusalem (13:13). This will result in a contentious split between Barnabas and Paul (15:37-39). In later years, both Paul and Peter will mention a person named Mark as a co-worker in their missionary work (2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24; 1 Peter 5:12). He is thought to be the Mark mentioned here.
Post-apostolic Christian writers refer to Mark as “the interpreter of Peter” and the founder of the church in Alexandria. Eusebius (c. a.d. 260-339), bishop of Caesarea, regarded by his contemporaries as the greatest Christian scholar of his time and “the father of church history,” recounts a number of traditions about Mark. Among other things, he is called “the companion” and “interpreter” of Peter, as well as the writer of a Gospel at Rome. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.15-16; 3.39; 5.8; 6.14.]
Church astonished (12:13-17)
When Peter knocks on the outer entrance of Mary’s house, the servant Rhoda answers. She recognizes Peter’s voice and is so overjoyed that she forgets to open the door. Rhoda runs back into the house to announce, “Peter is at the door” (12:14). “You’re out of your mind,” the church tells her in unison (12:15).
Earlier, the apostles (Peter included) had a similar response to the women’s claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty. There, the disciples said their words “seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). Note, also, the fearful and incredulous reaction of the disciples (Peter included again) to Jesus suddenly appearing in their midst (Luke 24:36-40). How slow we are to respond to the words of God, especially when they contradict our understanding of reality!
When Rhoda keeps insisting that it is Peter’s voice, the church answers, “It must be his angel” (12:15). They apparently think, as many people in the first century do, that guardian angels exist, and are a kind of spirit counterpart resembling the person. Meanwhile, Peter keeps banging on the door. Someone finally opens it, and a thoroughly astonished church gapes at him as though he is a ghost.
Commentators often remark about Luke’s almost slapstick account of Peter’s escape and the church’s refusal to believe it really is him standing at its door. It begins with the comic scene of Peter’s escape from jail juxtaposed with Herod’s serious intent to keep him safely locked away. The disbelieving reaction to Peter’s release by a church who is earnestly praying for God to save Peter is also ironic. These purposely lighthearted scenes are meant to make a serious point: God works his purpose in mysterious ways that humans find hard to understand.
The unfolding scene is one of confusion and joyful humor, which must have led to hilarity every time it was repeated among the early believers. There was Peter’s knocking, becoming more and more urgent as he beat on the door; Rhoda’s losing her wits for joy and forgetting to open the door; the Christians’ refusal to believe it was Peter, even though they had just been praying for him; their belittling of Rhoda (“You are out of your mind.”)… and of her saying she had heard Peter’s voice at the door (“It must be his angel”); Rhoda’s frantic persistence; and their utter astonishment when they finally opened the door and let him in. [Longenecker, 410.]
“Tell James” (12:17)
There is probably a joyous outcry when the disciples at Mary’s house finally realize that Peter is really there. He has to quiet the group to explain how God rescued him from prison. After finishing his explanation and saying his goodbyes, Peter asks his listeners to “tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this” (12:17). The James mentioned here is Jesus’ half-brother, [Mark 3:21; 6:3; Matthew 13:55; John 7:5.] not the apostle. (James the apostle, the brother of John, was killed a few days ago.) Along with his brothers and sisters, James did not believe in Jesus before the Resurrection. But, as Luke has told us, James and his siblings were among the disciples meeting together before Pentecost (1:14). (In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul mentions that the resurrected Jesus appeared to James.)
This is the first mention of this James in the book of Acts. It is obvious from the way that Peter singles out James in Acts 12:17 that he is prominent in the Jerusalem church. Peter and the other original apostles are the primary spiritual leaders of the Christian community at large, but James seems to have a more visible leadership role in the Jerusalem church. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul calls James “the Lord’s brother” and implies that he is one of its “pillars” (1:19, 2:9). Luke describes James as the leader of the Jerusalem church about a decade later (21:18).
Luke doesn’t explain how or why the shift in leadership from Peter to James occurs in the Jerusalem church. (Luke focuses on the expansion of Christianity toward Rome, not the details of one particular congregation.) Antagonism in Jerusalem against people who seem to be untrue to Israel’s traditions may cause the church to choose James as the leader, because he is acceptable to the Jewish community.
Also, growing numbers of Jews from a Pharisaic and priestly background are being converted in Jerusalem (6:7; 15:5; 21:20). Someone who is regarded as scrupulously Jewish, who respects the traditions, is needed to lead the congregation. Peter is tainted because of his association with Samaritans and Gentiles like Cornelius. The church in the city needs to be represented by someone known to be respectful of Jewish traditions, and whose qualifications in that regard are beyond reproach. The obvious person is James, who is called “the Just” because of his fastidious piety.
Hegesippus, a second-century Christian of Jerusalem, preserves a tradition, repeated by Eusebius, that James’ knees are like camel’s knees from his frequent prayers for the people. Such is his reputation as a pious man. Eusebius also preserves an ancient tradition that says it is the apostles themselves who chose James to be the leader of the Jerusalem church. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23, 2.1.]
James acquires this authority in the church fairly early. At the time of Peter’s escape from Herod in the mid-a.d. 40s, James seems to be the leader of the Jerusalem church (12:17). A few years later, in a.d. 49, James presides over the Jerusalem Council as chief spokesperson of the church. He has authority to finalize what churches in areas outside Jerusalem should practice (15:13-21).
James continues to maintain his presence in Jerusalem for many years (21:17-25) until the high priest has him killed in perhaps a.d. 62. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:200-201.] Eusebius preserves a tradition that James is thrown from a wing of the temple and beaten to death with a club. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1, 23.] This is done because James and some others (probably Christians) are condemned as “breakers of the law.” This happens between the death of the Roman governor Festus in about a.d. 62 and the coming of the next governor, Albinus. (That is, when there is no Roman ruler to maintain order.)
Josephus has a brief account of this, in which he criticizes the high priest for having James murdered. The Pharisees protest this travesty of justice to Herod Agrippa II, and eventually the high priest has his office taken away from him. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:197-203.]
James had a statesmanlike breadth of vision, as appears from his policy at the Council of Jerusalem (15:13-21). But he was careful to retain the confidence of the ordinary church members in Jerusalem, many of whom were “zealots for the law” (21:20). In addition, he continued to the end to command the respect of the Jerusalem populace, largely because of his ascetic way of life and his regular participation in the temple services of prayer, where he interceded for the people and their city…. When he was stoned to death in a.d. 62, at the instance of the high priest Ananus II, many of the people were gravely shocked; and some years later some ascribed the calamity which overtook the city and its inhabitants to the cessation of James’s prayers on their behalf. [F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), page 239.]
“Another place” (12:17)
Immediately after telling the story of his escape and asking the church to give James the details, Peter goes into hiding. Luke tersely describes it: “He left for another place” (12:17). Any of the other apostles remaining in Jerusalem probably leave the city as well. Thus, a shift in authority within the Jerusalem church occurs, leaving James with the task of keeping the church from looking like a threat to the Jewish authorities.
Where does Peter go? No one knows. The idea that he goes to Rome is not supported by any evidence. Only at the end of his life do we have biblical and extra-biblical evidence linking him with the capital of the Empire. [1 Peter 5:13; 1 Clement 5:4; Acts of Peter 7.] Perhaps Peter goes to Antioch in Syria. Here he will remain until “certain men came from James” and then he has a confrontation with Paul over table fellowship with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). From Paul’s letters, we have circumstantial evidence that Peter also goes to Corinth, and is at least known to this Jewish-Gentile church (1 Corinthians 1:10; 9:5).
As a postscript to this part of the story, Luke says that the next morning there is a great stir among the soldiers about Peter’s whereabouts (12:18). Recriminations probably fly fast and furious about who is responsible for letting him escape. The soldiers’ lives are on the line. Herod has a thorough search made for the missing prisoner. When Peter cannot be found, Herod tortures the guards to see if they have any information and then has them executed (18:19).
The later Code of Justinian shows that a guard who allows a prisoner to escape is subject to the same penalty the escaped prisoner would have suffered. This explains why the jailor at Philippi is about to kill himself when he thinks the prisoners have escaped (16:27). It’s the reason the soldiers want to kill the prisoners, including Paul, who are on the shipwrecked boat. They don’t want the prisoners to escape, because if the prisoners escape, the guards will have to suffer their penalty (27:42).
Herod dies (12:19-23)
Luke now turns to record the shocking death of Herod Agrippa I. After the prison incident, Herod returns to Caesarea (12:19). Apparently there was some problem between him and the cities of Tyre and Sidon. Together with the support (probably through bribery) of Herod’s trusted aide, a man named Blastus, these two cities hope to gain an audience with Herod and sue for peace. Luke says the reason they want to make a pact with Herod is economic: “They depended on the king’s country for their food supply” (12:20).
Tyre and Sidon are the chief cities on the coast of Phoenicia, in the territory adjacent to Herod’s kingdom. They have been centers of commerce and shipping since Old Testament times, but they are dependent on Galilee for their food supply. Josephus gives a parallel account to the event, from which we can fill in some important historical details Luke does not include. [Josephus, Antiquities 19:339-352.] Josephus alludes to a dispute between Herod and Marcus the governor of Syria. He doesn’t mention Tyre and Sidon in connection with the dispute, however. In any case, Luke’s account implies some agreement has been reached between Herod and the coastal cities. Apparently, it is to be ratified publicly at a festival, at which Herod is to speak.
Luke writes that after Herod delivers the speech, his listeners shout, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man” (12:22). Immediately after this flattery, Herod is struck down with an illness because he does “not give praise to God” (12:23). Luke concludes the story of Herod’s ghastly illness by saying “he was eaten by worms and died” (12:23). (Luke doesn’t necessarily mean that Herod is eaten by worms on the spot, nor that he dies immediately.)
In Josephus’ account, the occasion during which the Phoenicians are to be publicly reconciled with Herod is a festival in honor of Caesar at Caesarea. A large number of provincial officials and other important dignitaries are in attendance. Josephus is probably referring to a festival celebrated every five years in honor of the foundation of Caesarea. [Suetonius, Claudius 2.1.] There are two possibilities for the date of the festival. It may be March 5, a.d. 44 — the anniversary of the founding of Caesarea — or on August 1, a.d. 44, the emperor’s birthday.
Josephus describes Herod as donning a silver robe and entering the amphitheater early in the morning on the day of his death. He looks so utterly resplendent that the flattering mobs say he is a god. Josephus observes: “Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery.” [Josephus, Antiquities 19:346.] Immediately after, Herod begins having severe stomach pains. He dies five days later, after being king of Judea for three years. His death is placed in a.d. 44, in the fourth year of the Roman emperor Claudius.
Both Luke and Josephus attribute Herod’s death to God’s judgment on him. The king allows the crowd to hail him as a god, accepting the glory that belongs only to God. Thus, God punishes a vain king. Of course, many other despots and rulers accept — and even encourage — similar accolades. God doesn’t strike them down with worms or a horrible death. So what is special here?
In times when God manifests his glory through miracles, he does so both to vindicate the church and to judge people opposed to his will. God heals the lame man at the temple gate through Peter and he also strikes Ananias dead after Peter accused him. God here strikes down Herod to make a point, to protect his church and further its work. Herod has become the chief enemy of the church. Working with the Jewish leaders, he is planning to have the apostles killed, and perhaps even ordinary church members martyred. By killing off the king, God effectively puts a stop to the conspiracy against the church. (After Herod’s death, Rome sends Cuspius Fadus to be procurator of Judea.)
God also sends a message to the conspirators that their plot against the church isn’t going to work. By ending the persecution and creating a chilling effect against any future attempt on the believers, God saves the church in Jerusalem for a few more years. The church is greatly encouraged, in that a major persecution is nipped in the bud. Having seen God’s miraculous hand in its affairs since Pentecost, the church can read between the lines of Herod’s death and know that God is involved.
Word increases and spreads (12:24)
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
Luke juxtaposes the story of the death of Herod with good news about the church. Herod dies, “but the word of God continued to increase and spread” (12:24). Earlier we saw that Luke comments briefly on the progress of the church at regular intervals (6:7; 9:31). Here he does so again. This summary illustrates the pattern of reversals in Luke’s account. The story begins with the future of the Jerusalem church being in grave doubt, with one of its leaders killed and its chief spokesperson awaiting trial and execution. But the tale ends with Peter’s escape, the death of the despot, and the church growing and spreading.
There is also another fundamental change in the book of Acts. Up to now, Luke’s story could be called “The Acts of Peter.” But Peter is about to pass out of Luke’s narrative, except for a brief appearance in chapter 15. From now on, Luke’s account will be about “The Acts of Paul.”
Barnabas and Saul take Mark (12:25)
The closing verse of Acts 12 picks up the story of the trip of Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem to deliver the relief fund, which is mentioned in 11:30. In neither place does Luke give any details about what happens in Jerusalem. In 12:25, Luke simply notes that Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch after the relief visit. Luke mentions that John Mark accompanies them from Jerusalem to Antioch. His presence will be important to a later disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.
As mentioned earlier, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem probably occurs after Herod dies. His death may be what makes Paul’s trip to Jerusalem safe and feasible. (If Herod imprisoned Peter to please the Jews, he surely would have put Paul in prison, too, because that would have pleased them even more.)