The martyrdom of James, and the imprisonment of Peter. (1-5) He is delivered from prison by an angel. (6-11) Peter departs, Herod's rage. (12-19) The death of Herod. (20-25)
Verses 1-5 James was one of the sons of Zebedee, whom Christ told that they should drink of the cup that he was to drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that he was to be baptized with, Mt. 20:23 . Now the words of Christ were made good in him; and if we suffer with Christ, we shall reign with him. Herod imprisoned Peter: the way of persecution, as of other sins, is downhill; when men are in it, they cannot easily stop. Those make themselves an easy prey to Satan, who make it their business to please men. Thus James finished his course. But Peter, being designed for further services, was safe; though he seemed now marked out for a speedy sacrifice. We that live in a cold, prayerless generation, can hardly form an idea of the earnestness of these holy men of old. But if the Lord should bring on the church an awful persecution like this of Herod, the faithful in Christ would learn what soul-felt prayer is.
Verses 6-11 A peaceful conscience, a lively hope, and the consolations of the Holy Spirit, can keep men calm in the full prospect of death; even those very persons who have been most distracted with terrors on that account. God's time to help, is when things are brought to the last extremity. Peter was assured that the Lord would cause this trial to end in the way that should be most for his glory. Those who are delivered out of spiritual imprisonment must follow their Deliverer, like the Israelites when they went out of the house of bondage. They knew not whither they went, but knew whom they followed. When God will work salvation for his people, all difficulties in their way will be overcome, even gates of iron are made to open of their own accord. This deliverance of Peter represents our redemption by Christ, which not only proclaims liberty to the captives, but brings them out of the prison-house. Peter, when he recollected himself, perceived what great things God had done for him. Thus souls delivered out of spiritual bondage, are not at first aware what God has wrought in them; many have the truth of grace, that want evidence of it. But when the Comforter comes, whom the Father will send, sooner or later, he will let them know what a blessed change is wrought.
Verses 12-19 God's providence leaves room for the use of our prudence, though he has undertaken to perform and perfect what he has begun. These Christians continued in prayer for Peter, for they were truly in earnest. Thus men ought always to pray, and not to faint. As long as we are kept waiting for a mercy, we must continue praying for it. But sometimes that which we most earnestly wish for, we are most backward to believe. The Christian law of self-denial and of suffering for Christ, has not done away the natural law of caring for our own safety by lawful means. In times of public danger, all believers have God for their hiding-place; which is so secret, that the world cannot find them. Also, the instruments of persecution are themselves exposed to danger; the wrath of God hangs over all that engage in this hateful work. And the range of persecutors often vents itself on all in its way.
Verses 20-25 Many heathen princes claimed and received Divine honours, but it was far more horrible impiety in Herod, who knew the word and worship of the living God, to accept such idolatrous honours without rebuking the blasphemy. And such men as Herod, when puffed with pride and vanity, are ripening fast for signal vengeance. God is very jealous for his own honour, and will be glorified upon those whom he is not glorified by. See what vile bodies we carry about with us; they have in them the seeds of their own dissolution, by which they will soon be destroyed, whenever God does but speak the word. We may learn wisdom from the people of Tyre and Sidon, for we have offended the Lord with our sins. We depend on him for life, and breath, and all things; it surely then behoves us to humble ourselves before him, that through the appointed Mediator, who is ever ready to befriend us, we may be reconciled to him, lest wrath come upon us to the utmost.
Acts 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.
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." 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.
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 ( Exodus 12:15 Exodus 12:19 ).
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.
5, 6. prayer was made without ceasing--rather, "instant," "earnest," "urgent" (Margin); as in Luke 22:44 , Acts 26:7 and 1 Peter 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 ( Acts 12:12 ). And this was kept up during all the days of unleavened bread.
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 ( Deuteronomy 32:36
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 Acts 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.
7-11. the angel of the Lord--rather, "an angel."
came upon him--so in Luke 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.
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.
9. wist not that it was true; but thought he saw a vision--So little did the apostle look for deliverance!
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 ).
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.
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 ( Colossians 4:10 ) was a person of substance ( Acts 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.
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.
14. opened not for gladness, but ran in and told, &c.--How exquisite is this touch of nature!
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.
16. Peter continued knocking--delay being dangerous.
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" ( Galatians 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 ( Acts 15:1-29 ).
And he departed, and went into another place--according to his Lord's express command ( Matthew 10:23 ). When told, on a former miraculous liberation from prison, to go and speak unto the people ( Acts 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.
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].
19. examined the keepers--who, either like the keepers of our Lord's sepulchre, had "shaken and become as dead men" ( Matthew 28:4 ), or had slept on their watch and been divinely kept from awaking.
commanded that they should be put to death--Impotent vengeance!
Acts 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 1 Kings 5:11 , Ezra 3:7 , Ezekiel 27:17 . Perhaps the famine ( Acts 11:28 ) made them the more urgent for reconciliation.
21. And upon a set day Herod . . . made an oration unto them--to the Tyrians and Sidonians especially.
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.
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!
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 Acts 11:29 Acts 11:30 .
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 ( 1 Peter 5:13 ).