ACTS OF THE APOSTLES COMMENTARY
12.1-2 The Martyrdom of James the Apostle by the sword
Herod Agrippa I was a grandson of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1, 16). He was appointed King over Jerusalem by the Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD). One of the first acts of this Herod's reign (41-44) was to have the Apostle James killed. This was done to please his new Jewish subjects in Jerusalem (see 12:3). Luke notes that he soon met his untimely death (aged 54) for claiming that he was God (12:21-23). Eight years before, the first Christian martyr, Stephen, had been stoned by Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem (7:59). At that time the Hebrew speaking church in Jerusalem was not persecuted. But this was the first execution of one of the twelve apostles by Roman authority.. That event, and the imprisonment and near death of the Apostle Peter that followed, probably resulted in Mark being urgently commissioned to write the Gospel of Mark. It was a brief account of what Peter remembered of the life and death of his Lord, and it was sent out to the churches with his apostolic authority (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History Book 1, Chapter 15).
12:1-2 Herod Agrippa I was the father of Agrippa II (mentioned in 25:3). James and John were the sons of Zebedee. Jesus had said they would drink the cup of suffering that Jesus was going to drink. In the case of James it was martyrdom. John was exiled and died patiently far from home on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9). This James, who was martyred is not to be confused with James the brother of the Lord (see 12:17).
12:3-19 Peter freed from prison as Christians were gathered for prayer
12:3-4 Having received enthusiastic approval from the Jewish community for executing the apostle James, Herod had Peter arrested during the Passover (Feast of Unleavened Bread) celebrations. The king announced he would suffer the same fate as the Apostle James as soon as the week of obligatory rest was over. The four squads of four soldiers would have been on guard for six hours each, and two of four soldiers on guard were actually sleeping next to Peter.
12:5-6 Peter was in chains, awaiting his execution at dawn, but he apparently slept peacefully. Meanwhile Christians gathered for an all-night prayer meeting at the home of Mary, the mother of Mark the Gospel writer (12:12, see note above). They had already prayed for several days, and God seemed to be doing nothing till the very last moment.
12:7-8 When Luke (or whoever) interviewed him, Peter remembered the exact details of the astonishing events that night. An angel appeared and he awoke with the pitch darkness of his cell flooded with light. He was tapped on the side by the angel's hand, and made to get up immediately (egeiro can mean wake up or raise up, and in this case he was already awake). As he got up the two chains fell off his wrists. He was told to do up his belt (taken off for the night), put on his sandals, wrap his cloak around him (it was cold at Passover time, and he probably used it as a bedcover), and follow the angel. The two soldiers sleeping next to Peter (12:6) did not wake up.
12:9 Peter remembered vividly that he could not believe that all this was for real, and he imagined he was dreaming.
12:10 As Peter left with the angel two of the guards remained asleep in the cell. Another was outside the door, and the fourth was by the iron gate of the jail. But apparently these did not see Peter and the angel, or they were asleep on duty. Now the gate opened "of itself" (see 5:19, 16:26) and as they were walking away from the jail the angel disappeared.
12:11-12 Only then did Peter come to the realization that he had indeed been rescued miraculously. Though it was in the middle of the night, he knew his Christian brothers and sisters would be praying at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, so he went there immediately
12:13 Although it was still night time, he knocked, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to the door. When she heard Peter's voice, she was so excited that she left him outside where he continued knocking (12:16).
12:14-16 Although they were praying fervently for Peter's release, those praying refused to believe Peter could be knocking outside. So they accused Rhoda of being crazy, and then explained the one knocking must be his angel (as in Matthew 18:10, two intimations that we may each have a guardian angel?).
12:17 Finally when they let him in they were all talking so excitedly that he had to signal for them to be quiet. He told them what had happened, and he told them to give the news to James, the brother of the Lord, who by now was the presiding elder (ruler of the synagogue) of the Hebrew congregation in Jerusalem (see 15:13, 21:18, 1 Corinthians 15:7, Galatians 1:19, 2:12, James 1:1). Peter then went away to a quiet place, presumably to thank God and get some sleep.
12:18-19 When the day dawned, we can imagine the consternation in the squad of four soldiers. Presumably Peter had explained to them the good news, and we hope they faced death with faith in their resurrection. Knowing that he was in danger in Jerusalem, Peter moved to the church that had been established in Caesarea (8:40, 9:32, 10:1, 47-48) where the Centurion and his friends would perhaps be able to shelter him.
12:20-23 The Gruesome end of Herod Agrippa 1
As an aside Luke was interested in the fate of Herod Agrippa I who died suddenly in 44 AD when he was only 54 years old. He unjustly had James beheaded (as his grandfather Herod had done to John the Baptist, Mark 6:27), and his final impiety was allowing himself to be worshiped as God.
12:20 Judea often sent grain to Tyre and Sidon in exchange for lumber. Herod Agrippa I had obviously been heavy-handed with them, and they sent a delegation to plead for a reconciliation..
12:21-22 To impress and humiliate this delegation he sat on a platform in his royal robes to receive them. As he made an oration, people (probably Jews from Jerusalem) called him a God.
12:23 Everyone came to know that he died a gruesome death, perhaps from gangrene and maggots eating his rotting flesh.
12:24 Luke makes clear that James' martyrdom, and Herod's determination to have Peter also beheaded, did not stop the growth of the churches (as in 2:47, 4:4, 5:14, 6:1, 6:7, 9:31,35, 42, 11:21).
12:25 Barnabas and Saul had been sent with aid from the church in Antioch (11:29-30). Their coming not only provided funds for the predicted famine, but also served to support the church in Jerusalem in the traumatic time when James was martyred, Peter was imprisoned, and Herod was enraged. When they returned to their home church they took John Mark (see 12:12) with them, perhaps after completing his Gospel. In the next chapter we find him accompanying Barnabas and Saul on the first missionary journey (13:5).