Acts 12 Bible Study
Who or what was "Herod" (Acts 12:1)?
The Herods were the Edomite family that ruled Israel during the time of Jesus' earthly ministry and the first Christian church. The Jewish ruling council, called Sanhedrin, was under the authority of the Herods, who were in turn under the authority of the Roman emperor.
Who were the "Edomites"?
Edomites occupied the land south of the Dead Sea. Edomites were the descendents of Esau, the older twin brother of Jacob, whom God later renamed, "Israel" and whose twelve sons became the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel: "Now this is the genealogy of Esau, who is Edom. Esau took his wives from the daughters of Canaan: Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite; Aholibamah the daughter of Anah, the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite; and Basemath, Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebajoth. Now Adah bore Eliphaz to Esau, and Basemath bore Reuel. And Aholibamah bore Jeush, Jaalam, and Korah. These were the sons of Esau who were born to him in the land of Canaan. Then Esau took his wives, his sons, his daughters, and all the persons of his household, his cattle and all his animals, and all his goods which he had gained in the land of Canaan, and went to a country away from the presence of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too great for them to dwell together, and the land where they were strangers could not support them because of their livestock. So Esau dwelt in Mount Seir. Esau is Edom. And this is the genealogy of Esau the father of the Edomites in Mount Seir." (Genesis 36:1-9)
How did Edomites come to rule over the Jews?
In 47 BC, Julius Caesar appointed Antipater, the son of the Edomite governor of Edom, to be the governor of Judea, and Herod was one of Antipater's two sons. In 40 BC, Parthians (Iranians today) attacked the Roman empire's eastern fringes and briefly conquered Judea. Herod escaped to Rome, where the Roman Senate named him "King of the Jews" and commissioned him to retake Judea, which he did in 37 BC.
Is this the same Herod as the one named in Acts 12:1?
No, the first Herod was called, "Herod the Great", mainly because he built great monuments, including the second temple of Jerusalem. He is the Herod who killed all boys under 2 years of age in Bethlehem after Jesus was born there: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.” Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead." (Matthew 2:1-20) After the death of Herod the Great, his territory was split into three, one for each of his three sons. Herod Antipas was one of them and is the one who tried Jesus. The Herod named above is Herod Agrippa I, who is the nephew of Herod Antipas. By endearing himself to successive Roman emperors, Herod Agrippa I received the three territories upon the deaths of his father and two uncles, thereby reunited the territory of his grandfather, albeit still under the rule of Rome.
When was "that time" (Acts 12:1) and why did he kill James?
It was the time of the Jewish persecution of the first church, during which time a famine (see Acts 11:27-30) broke out. Seeing persecution of Christians become a popular agenda for his subjects, the shrewd politician most likely wanted "to harass" (Acts 12:1) the church to strengthen the Jews' acceptance, if not loyalty, of his rule.
Who was James?
He was the "brother of John" (Acts 12:2), who wrote the Gospel of John, and therefore was the first of Jesus' Apostles to be martyred.
Why did Herod Agrippa I proceed to "seize Peter also" (Acts 12:3)?
Seeing that killing one of Jesus' Apostles "pleased the Jews" (Acts 12:3), he was going to murder the top leader of the budding Church and really be feted by the Jews.
Why didn't he kill Peter upon his arrest?
Executing anyone during "the Days of Unleavened Bread" (Acts 12:3), another name for "Passover" (Acts 12:4) - unleavened bread is the bread that God commanded the Jews to eat during the night when the Lord passed over Egypt - would have violated Jewish law and therefore displeased the Jews.
What is meant by "four squads of soldiers" (Acts 12:4)?
The maximum security arrangement at the time, this meant there were 4 squads of 4 soldiers guarding Peter around the clock in shifts of 3 hours during the night and 6 hours during the day. During each shift, 2 soldiers were inside the cell actually chained to the prisoner and 2 were outside the cell.
Why did Herod do that?
Peter had a habit of disappearing from prisons: "Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison. But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life." (Acts 5:17-20)
Did the church try to storm the prison to rescue Peter?
No, "but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church" (Acts 12:5)
How many obstacles stood between Peter and freedom?
At least 10: "two chains" (Acts 12:6) on "his hands" (Acts 12:7), the "two soldiers" (Acts 12:6) at the other end of those chains, "the door" (Acts 12:6) of his prison cell, the "guards" (Acts 12:6) on the other side of that door, "the first and the second guard posts" (Acts 12:10) and "the iron gate" (Acts 12:10).
How stealthy was the "angel of the Lord" (Acts 12:7)?
He wasn't. Upon arrival, he lit up the prison - "light shone in the prison" (Acts 12:7). He "struck" (Acts 12:7) Peter, talked to him, and since Peter had been "raised... up" (Acts 12:7), "his chains" (Acts 12:7) probably made more noise when they "fell off his hands" (Acts 12:7).
Then why didn't the soldiers guarding Peter wake up?
They weren't asleep. They "were keeping the prison" (Acts 12:6) as they were supposed to, but the angel of the Lord had made them see and hear nothing.
How rushed was this prison break?
It wasn't. The angel even told and waited for Peter to get dressed properly: "Then the angel said to him, 'Gird yourself and tie on your sandals'; and so he did. And he said to him, 'Put on your garment and follow me.'" (Acts 12:8)
When did Peter think was happening to him?
Since he had been sleeping and "did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision" (Acts 12:9) until after the fact, he probably thought he was enjoying a good dream.
What must have been the demeanor of those who were
"praying" (Acts 12:12) in this house?
James already had been murdered, and since "Herod was about to bring [Peter] out" (Acts 12:6), this was the night before Peter's execution, so they most likely had been praying their hearts out. The Lord doesn't always let us see His answers to our prayers so readily. When He does, it's quite spectacular, as it must have been on this occasion. Yet the Bible without fanfare simply states matter-of-factly that they were "astonished". (Acts 12:16)
What 4 errors did the occupants of the house make?
Rhoda should have opened the gate "when she recognized Peter’s voice". (Acts 12:14). An "angel" (Acts 12:15) would go right through a gate, not knock on it to ask humans to let him inside. And if an angel did choose to knock on your gate, you should still let him inside, not just verbalize "It is his angel." (Acts 12:15). But the most serious error - a sin - was their unbelief. They undoubted had been praying fervently for the Lord to save Peter. When Rhoda "announced that Peter stood before the gate" (Acts 12:14), the faithful reaction would have been jubilation at the Lord's answer to their prayers. Instead, they accused her, "You are beside yourself!" (Acts 12:15), and then surmised that she had heard Peter's angel, which means that they thought the Lord had not answered their prayers, that Peter was already dead and in spirit form. To her credit, Rhoda, most likely a lowly servant girl, was the one who had the faith to attribute Peter's voice to an answered prayer.
Why would Peter say, "Go, tell these things to James..." (Acts 12:17)?
This wasn't the James who had been killed by Herod. This James was the half-brother of Jesus - "Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” So they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house." (Mark 6:3-4) - who had come to believe in Christ after His resurrection and who had since become one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
Why would God save Peter but let James get murdered?
For those who truly believe in heaven, the question is re-phrased, "Why did God promote James to heaven but not Peter?" Every God-ordained Christian martyrdom is a fast-track promotion to heaven.
When did the Lord open the eyes of the "soldiers" (Acts 12:18) to His miracle, and why?
The next "day" (Acts 12:18), most likely to delay Herod's manhunt until Peter had safely reached the "another place". (Acts 12:17)
Why did Herod have the guards "put to death" (Acts 12:19)?
If the guards were truthful, they would have told Herod that they have no idea how Peter disappeared, which would have been incredible to Herod, who would have surmised that the guards either had colluded with Peter to let him escape or had fallen asleep while on duty. In addition, Herod most likely was angry and wished to take it out on someone. After all, he had awoken with the intent to kill.
Why did Herod then go "down from Judea to Caesarea" (Acts 12:19) and stay there?
By killing Peter, he would have demonstrated his power and won accolades from the Jewish rulers, who would have feted him for helping them crush the local church. By arresting and then losing Peter, he had instead demonstrated his impotence against and emboldened the local church, much to the displeasure of the Jewish rulers, who most likely gave him the cold shoulder for making matters worse for them. What better place for Herod to go and lick his wounds than Caesarea, the home of the local legion and the governor of his Roman overlords? Josephus, the Jewish historian from the era also adds that an opportune feast in Caesar's honor was being held at Caesarea at the time.
Where are Tyre and Sidon (Acts 12:20)?
They are coastal cities in today's Lebanon, which is north of Caesarea.
Why did the people from Tyre and Sidon shout, "The voice of
a god and not of a man" (Acts 12:22)?
"Having made Blastus the king’s personal aide their friend" (Acts 12:20), they might have been tipped by their friend that a little bit of ego boost then may be particularly appreciated by Herod.
Who struck Herod and why?
"An angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God." (Acts 12:23) This passage should encourage all Christians and especially pastors to take a moment to ponder if they have or are receiving glory due God.
Is the strike what killed Herod?
No, "he was eaten by worms and died". (Acts 12:23)
Given that this happened to a king, isn't there any
corroboration from extra-Biblical sources?
There is. Josephus, the aforementioned Jewish historian, recorded that on this occasion, the people hailed Herod as a god, and confirmed, "Upon this, the king did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery... A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner... He was carried into the palace... and when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life." (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 19, Chapter 8)
What was the result of the persecution of the church?
"The word of God grew and multiplied." (Acts 12:23)
What was Barnabas and Saul's ministry in Jerusalem, and to where did they return?
They brought the "relief" from Antioch, where they "returned" (Acts 12:25): "And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul." (Acts 11:27-30)
Who did Barnabas and Saul/Paul take with them from Jerusalem?
"John whose surname was Mark" (Acts 12:25) who was "the cousin of Barnabas" (Colossians 4:10) and the son of "Mary" (Acts 12:12) on whose gate Peter had knocked after his escape. If Paul and Barnabas had been among those praying at the house of Barnabas' aunt, Peter's escape and visit would have been a valuable lesson in faith orchestrated by the Lord, who was about to send them out on their exciting but dangerous missionary journeys.