Persecution & Prayer – Acts 12:1-24

Grace Bible Church

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

February 19, 2006

Persecution & Prayer

Acts 12:1-24

What do you believe about God? The beliefs about Him are as wide ranging as they are contrasting. Some think He is good while others think he is bad. Some think He is indifferent while other think He is intimately involved in their life. Some view Him as sovereign while others think Him to be either incapable are inept. Some even deny that He exists. What do you believe about God?

A second question, perhaps even more serious is why do you believe what you do about God? I say this second question is more serious because depending on the source of your beliefs you will either come to a knowledge of the truth or you will be led even further from the truth about God. Why do you believe what you do?

There are many things commonly believed about God even among evangelical Christians that are simply not true, and the reason they are believed is because too many professing Christians develop their belief systems based on traditions or their own thoughts rather than what God has revealed about Himself in the Scriptures.

This morning we come to Acts 12 and a story that will greatly challenge those who believe that God will not let bad things happen to Christians, or at least to good Christians. Much like Job’s counselors, most Christians have adopted beliefs that will seek to exclude them from anything bad happening to them. Too often the gospel is presented as salvation from bad things happening to you instead of salvation from sin. Yes, God does love you, but that does not remove you from the world which hates you and will persecute you because of your relationship with Jesus Christ. So Jesus warned us at the conclusion of the beatitudes in Matthew 5:10-12 and John 16:33 in which He said that in this world we would have tribulation. Our hope is in the fact that He has overcome the world so that our eternal future is assured, but in this world, as Paul told Timothy, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12)

This morning we will also see an example of God’s mercy and grace poured out on an individual in a miraculous way. God rescues one, but not both. The chapter concludes with God’s judgement on an evil man that welcomed for himself glory that only belongs to God. God does not fit well into our own preconceived ideas. You must set aside your traditions and personal bias and let Him be who He reveals Himself to be. Turn to Acts 12.

Herodian Persecution


The Martyrdom of James (1,2)

Acts 12:1 (NASB) Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. 2 And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.

The passage begins,

“Now about that time,” which is a very general time marker pointing back to an earlier time. Acts 11 & 12 are not sequential in time. Recall that I mentioned that the famine mentioned in Acts 11:28 occurred in A.D. 45/46. At the end of chapter 12 we have the record of Herod’s death which occurred in A.D. 44, at least a year earlier. The time being referred to would be the coming of the prophets to Antioch mentioned in 11:27 with the famine occurring a couple of years later as was predicted.Herod the king is Herod Agrippa I, born in 10 BC and reigned A.D. 37-44. His grandfather was Herod the Great who ruled 47 BC to shortly after Jesus’ birth (Mt 2:15). His grandmother was Mariamne, a Jewess. Agrippa’s father was Aristobulus who had been murdered by his own father, Herod the Great in 7 BC. Herod Agrippa was educated in Rome and became friends with Gauis (Caligula) who became the Roman Emperor in 37 AD. Though his grandmother, Herod claimed Jewish ancestry and he exploited that. He enjoyed living in Jerusalem and when he was there he would scrupulously observe Jewish law and tradition including daily sacrifices and the festivals. He was even given the honor of publically reading the law during the Feast of Tabernacles. Jewish leaders accepted him as a Jew.

Herod had gained his position by intrigue and making friends with the right people. He desires to keep his position and continues to use those same practices to his advantage. Herod’s persecution of the early church was a means to continue to keep favor with the Jewish religious leaders. He “lays hands on” some of the Christians for the purpose of harming them.

Luke only mentions the murder of

James the brother of John by name, but it is possible that others may have suffered the same fate. It was important to mention James by name since he is the first Apostle to be martyred. He is executed by the sword which suggests that perhaps the charges against him included leading the people astray after false gods. Deut. 13:12-15 commanded that those who lead people to serve another God were to be destroyed with the edge of the sword. If this is true, then they are no longer viewing the disciples as just being part of a sect of Judaism, but rather as those who belong to a false religion. Remember that the accusations against Stephen were blasphemy against Moses, God, the Law and the Temple. They did not accuse him of leading people to another God.

Some have wondered why another apostle was not chosen to replace James as Matthais had been chosen to replace Judas. The simple answer is that Judas had not fulfilled his office so another fulfilled it in his place. James had fulfilled his office and ministry. No replacement was needed. There would be no replacement for any of the other apostles either.

Peter Imprisoned (3-6)

3 And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people. 5 So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. 6 And on the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains; and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison.

Herod gained what he had wanted by persecuting the church. The Jews were so pleased with Herod’s persecution of the church and his execution of James that Herod continued on in his effort by arresting Peter. His plan was to “bring him out,” which refers to a public trial, after the completion of Feast of Unleavened Bread. This would avoid interfering with the Passover celebrations, yet still take advantage of large crowds that would be present.

Herod made sure that Peter was securely imprisoned. Four squads of four soldiers each were charged to guard him. Two guards were chained to Peter and two were outside the door. Remember that Peter had escaped prison before in Acts 5. Remember as well that the Sadducees did not believe in angels, so they would have denied that explanation. They would have believed that the apostles had escaped before through a conspiracy of some kind among the guards. Herod does not want that happening again. The place of imprisonment was probably Fort Antonius which is on the NW side of the Temple Mount. That is where Paul would be imprisoned in the future.

While Peter is in prison we find that the church is fervently praying. The word used here is

ektenwV ektenôs which means “to stretch out” as in a muscle being flexed. Their prayer was intense. The same description is used in Luke 22:44 of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. We find in other Scriptures that Christians are to have fervent love (1 Pet 4:8), service (Acts 26:7) and prayer.

We do not know on what day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread Peter was arrested, but on the last night of it, Luke notes that Peter was not only bound and securely guarded, but he was also sleeping. The next day Peter would be brought out for trial, and Peter was well aware of what Herod had just recently done to James, but Peter is sleeping. He could rest peacefully knowing God was in control regardless of what the future would bring. Peter comments 1 Peter 5:7 that we Christians can cast all of their cares upon God, because He cares for us. Perhaps Peter also remembered what Jesus said to him in John 21:18 that he would not die until he was old when someone else would gird him and take him were he did not wish to go, signifying the kind of death by which he would glorify God. Peter knew that he would die as a martyr, but that time was not yet. Verse 7-10 tells us about the Lord’s protection of him.

Peter Released by an Angel (7-10)

And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and roused him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he ^said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. And when they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street; and immediately the angel departed from him.

Peter was so soundly asleep that though the cell was lit up when the angel appeared, the angel still had to awaken Peter by hitting him on the side. This word here for hit (

patavssw patassô) is generic and can be used for either violent or gentle striking. We would take it here as just strong enough to wake him up.

The angel then instructed Peter to get up quickly and the chains that bound him to the two guards then fell off. Peter was then told to get dressed including his cloak and sandals. Peter follows the angel, but thinks he is dreaming. It does not seem real to him. You or I would have probably thought the same think. Amazing things can happen in a dream, but chains don’t just fall off and Roman guards do stay asleep in real life. Peter and the angel go past both the first and second guard and then the iron gate opens by itself. It would have been like a modern automatic door. In fact, the Greek word here for “by itself” is

automatoV automatos from which we get our word “automatic.” Peter goes into the street & the angel leaves. This is not one miracle, but a series of miracles that are all taking place while the saints were praying.

Verses 11-17 tell us what occurred when Peter finally realized what had happened.

Peter Reports to the Brethren (11-17)

11 And when Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” 12 And when he realized [this,] he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 And when she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate. 15 And they said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was so. And they kept saying, “It is his angel.” 16 But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened [the door], they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, “Report these things to James and the brethren.” And he departed and went to another place.

It is only after the angel leaves that Peter realizes that he is not having a dream and that the Lord has rescued him. He then goes to the house of Mary. Luke notes that this is the mother of John Mark because he later goes with Paul and Barnabas on part of the first missionary journey. John Mark and Barnabas are cousins (Col. 4:10). This is the same Mark that according to church tradition wrote the gospel of Mark with Peter’s help and approval.

Peter goes to Mary’s house because wants to let the church know about his release before he leaves Jerusalem to get away from Herod. Note that Peter obeys whatever instructions the Angel gives him. Back in Acts 5 the apostles were told to return to the Temple and continue preaching, which they then did. This time Peter is not told to do that, so he is wisely planning to leave as soon as he lets the other believes know that has been freed.

Our text tells us that there many people praying at Mary’s house, but Peter would not have known that. Luke does not tell us the particular reason that he chose to go Mary’s house instead of somewhere else. Perhaps it was because it was close by, or perhaps because Peter did not think anyone would be watching Mary’s house like they might have been watching the homes where other Apostles were staying. Perhaps it was both of these reasons and more.

When Peter gets there, he knocks at the gate and a servant girl named Rhoda answers. A house big enough to hold a large group of people would have had a gated entry that would lead to a courtyard through which the house would be reached. The proper thing to have done was let Peter in once she identified him, but she is so shocked she leaves the gate locked and runs back in her excitement to tell the others that Peter was at the gate.

This seems like a very strange report to them and they do not believe her. Some were saying Rhoda was “out her mind,” but she kept insisting so strongly that they thought she must have seen something, so perhaps it was Peter’s angel. In Jewish thought of that time, they believed that a guardian angel could assume the appearance of a person, so they thought this was Peter’s guardian angel who had assumed Peter’s appearance. How often do we pray, but do not believe God will answer it?

Meanwhile, Peter is still at the gate and continues knocking. If the gate had been unlocked, he could have just gone in, but with Herod persecuting the church, the gate was locked as a measure of safety. You can imagine what Peter is feeling at that time. He just escaped from prison. How long would it be that is discovered and they come looking for him? Yet, here he is still outside on the street knocking trying to get inside.

Finally someone went and opened the gate for Peter, and he came in to the amazement of them all. Peter quickly quiets them down and tells them what happened, then instructs them to specifically tell James and the other brethren. (The James mentioned is the Lord’s brother, remember that James, the brother of John, had just been murdered by Herod. This indicates to us that James, the brother of the Lord, was already a primary leader in the church. We will see that even more clearly in Acts 15). After letting the church know that he was free, Peter left for an undisclosed location.

Almost needless to say, Herod was quite upset when he found out that Peter was gone.

Herod’s Wrath (18-19)

18 Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers [as to] what could have become of Peter. 19 And when Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away [to execution.] And he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.

There was “no small disturbance,” meaning there was a very large uproar the next morning. It started among those who had been charged with guarding Peter. They knew immediately that they were in serious trouble that Peter escaped while on their watch, and so they made every effort to find him. We assume their search included looking for him in the homes of the known believers in Jerusalem. When Peter could not be found Herod examined the guards, and what could they say in their defense? They did not know how Peter escaped because they had not even seen the angel. The only conclusion left is that they were either negligent in their duties or they were part of a conspiracy to free Peter. Herod had them “led away” which in this context strongly suggests that they were executed for their loss of their prisoner. Herod then went to Caesarea.

Peter had been wise to leave Jerusalem. There are times to boldly stay and face danger as Peter had done in the past. There are other times to leave and avoid further danger which Peter does here. We must rely on the Lord to direct us to discern what He desires for us at that moment. We must always keep in mind that we exist for the Lord’s purposes and not our own. It is up to God to determine how He wants to use us, and we must recognize that we will not always understand the reasons why on this side of eternity. For example, in what we have read so far in Acts 12, we do not know why the Lord allowed the persecution by Herod to result in the death of James. God had previously sent an angel to release James along with the other apostles in Acts 5, but he does not do that this time. Yet, during the same time of persecution God does send an angel to rescue Peter. We could speculate on reasons, but we will not know the truth until we are in heaven.

Earlier I asked what you believed about God and why you believed it. Those who think God is bad or indifferent will point out the death of James and make their accusations against God. Those who think God is good and personally involved will point out the angelic rescue of Peter and make their defense of God. However, truth does not allow us to pick and choose from a passage what we want to believe. We must accept the whole passage and develop a more comprehensive understanding of both God and ourselves. To err in our understanding of either God or ourselves is to fall not only into wrong thinking, but even heresy and blasphemy.

Let me point out first that when we think wrongly of ourselves we will always think wrongly of God. Many people want to judge God to be either good, bad, involved or indifferent based on their own reasoning and perceptions. Since when is the creature in a position to judge its creator? Yet, that is what many, perhaps even most people do. They judge God by the standards they have made up for themselves or have been given to them by others. We must remember that not only are we but creatures who are limited both physically and mentally, but we are also sinful. We do not know all things. We can not discover all things, and even if we could, we could not comprehend all things. We are not omniscient, but God is. Even those things we do understand are perverted by our sin so that we both believe lies and tell lies. If we are going to understand the truth about ourselves or about God, we must receive it from a source that is not tainted by sin and does know all things. That source is God Himself through what He has revealed to us through His word.

Is God good? Yes. Part of the reason we believe God is good is because of His good activities toward us. Paul even says in Romans 2:4 (NKJV) that the goodness, forbearance and longsuffering of God should lead the sinner to repentance. Even our limited understanding should bring us to that conclusion. Another reason we believe God is good is because of His other attributes including his grace, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, patience, justice, truthfulness, and love. But the final reason we believe God is good is because He says He is (cf. 1 Chron. 16:34; Ps. 86:5; 100:5; Nahum 1:7; etc). Everything He created was good because He is good (Gen. 1). That is why Psalm 34:8 even invites people to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Is God sovereign and personally involved in our lives? Yes. Part of the reason we believe that is His many actions recorded throughout Scripture that record His sovereignty and direct intervention into the lives of men. That even occurred with those that had opposed Him such as Nebuchadnezzar who concluded in Daniel 4:34,35 “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, “What hast Thou done?’” We also believe that because of His many attributes upon which sovereignty is based including being eternal, Creator, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. The final reason we believe it is because God declares it to be so. He declares the end from the beginning for He brings to pass whatever He speaks (Isa. 46:10,11). He is from eternity and none can deliver out of His hand or reverse any act that He does (Isa. 43:13). He is the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15). Yet, He takes interest in His creation even to the point of numbering the hairs on our head (Mt. 10:30).

We may not know or understand God’s plan, but He does, and because of His character we can rest in peace in His hand even when things look bad from our human perspective. God had a plan for both James and Peter. They and we can joyfully submit to God’s plan whether it means suffering or escape (cf. Acts 5:41).

God also had a plan for dealing with the evil king Herod Agrippa I. We are told about God’s judgement of him in verses 20-23.

Herod’s Death


20 Now he was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and with one accord they came to him, and having won over Blastus the king’s chamberlain, they were asking for peace, because their country was fed by the king’s country. 21 And on an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and [began] delivering an address to them. 22 And the people kept crying out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Luke’s comments here about the death of Herod explains both God’s justice toward a man who was unjust and the reason peace returned to the believers in Jerusalem.

Josephus relates that Herod had gone to Caesarea in order to celebrate a festival held in the honor of Emperor Claudius. This included athletic games and occurred every 5 years. It is thought that it was held on the first of August to coincide with the Emperor’s birthday.

Luke also points out the current political situation. Herod was angry for some unstated reason with the people of Tyre and Sidon. These were normal trading partners with Israel and it was not good for them to have Herod angry with them. They were dependent on receiving grain from Judea, and Herod either had or was threatening to cut off that trade. They came to Caesarea to reconcile with Herod and won over Blastus, the king’s Chamberlain to be the intermediary. A chamberlain is the officer in charge of the room in which the king would sleep. This would include not only making sure the king was comfortable, but also secure. He would have had a close relationship with the king and therefore opportunity to bring before the king the petition of the men from Tyre and Sidon.

On an appointed day, which may have been the day of the feast held in the honor of Emperor Claudius who was Herod’s patron, Herod put on royal apparel and delivered a speech to the crowds. Josephus tells us that it was a robe made with silver in it, and when the sun shone on it early in the morning it reflected the sunlight so that Herod looked bright, shiny, dazzling. Josephus comments ” Straightway his flatterers raised their voices from various directions – though hardly for his own good – addressing him as a god. ‘May you be propitious to us,’ they added, ‘ and if we have hitherto feared you as a man, yet henceforth we agree that you are more than mortal in your being. The King did not rebuke them, nor reject their flattery as impious.

While we might understand the people saying such flattery, especially those who were trying to gain the king’s favor, it was the kind of flattery that no mortal should accept. It was praise that only belongs to God for only the Lord is God. Herod accepted the praise, so God’s response upon him was swift. Verse 23 says that he was immediately struck by an angel of the Lord because he did not give God the glory.

Luke says he was eaten by worms. Remember that Luke is a physician, so his description is important. The word here (

skwlhkobrwtoV skôlêkobrôtos) is a possible reference to the tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus which is common to that area. It will form cysts on the liver, and when they rupture upwards to 2 million scolices or new tapeworms can be released into the body. This can cause extreme pain and even death. Josephus says that Herod was struck and then was in terrible pain for 5 days before dying. He took the glory that belongs only to God, and God judged him. It was a very serious matter. That God does not so quickly judge others even today that accept for themselves the glory that should only be given to Him is a demonstration of God’s patience and longsuffering. However, that should never be presumed upon for there is no promise that God will continue to with hold judgement. In fact, we are told the opposite. There will be a day in which God will judge. It may start in this life as it did for Herod, but it will most certainly be done when entering eternity, and there is no escape from it except through faith in Jesus Christ.

The Continuing Spread of the Word


24 But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.

After Herod’s death, the gospel continued to spread. Many were turning from their sin to the savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Through faith in Him, they were not only escaping God’s judgement, for there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), but were being brought into a new relationship with their Creator so that they might live in righteousness and glorify Him.

That is still the message God has to all who will hear and heed. If you do not know if you would go to heaven when you die, then talk with myself or another church leader today. You can get right with your Creator today. If you already know Jesus Christ, then be faithful to proclaim him to those that do not whether they be family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, business acquaintances, or even strangers. God can and will use you to spread His word.


Sermon Study Sheets


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.

Young Children

– draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch.

Older Children –

Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up. 2) Count how many times “Herod” is mentioned. Talk with your parents about why God judged Herod in the manner He did.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

What do you believe about God? Why do you believe it? Does God allow bad things happen to good Christians? Why or why not? Who is Herod the King in Acts 12:1? What was is his background? What is he like? Why is he persecuting the church? Why is James mentioned by name? Why isn’t there another apostle chosen to replace James? When is Peter imprisoned? What is Herod’s plan? How does Peter react? Describe how the Angel freed Peter? When does Peter realize that he is not dreaming? What does he do? Who is John Mark?  Why does Luke mention him by name? Why doesn’t Rhoda let Peter in? Why did they say it was Peter’s “angel” instead of believing Rhoda? What does Peter tell to report it to James? Who is James? Where does Peter go? What happens at the jail the next day? Why does Herod execute the guards? Was that right to do? How can you discern God’s will? Why does a wrong view about yourself result in wrong beliefs about God? Explain. What is the source of truth about God? Is God good? Why or why not? Is God sovereign? Why or why not? Is God involved in the lives of individuals? Why or why not? What should we do when we do not understand why God is doing something? Why did God kill Herod? How did He die? Are you faithful to tell others about Jesus Christ? If not, why not?

Sermon Notes – February 19, 2006

Persecution & Prayer – Acts 12:1-24


Herodian Persecution (vs. 1-19)

The Martyrdom of James (vs. 1,2)


Peter Imprisoned (vs. 3-6)


Peter Released by an Angel (vs. 7-10)


Peter Report to the Brethren (vs. 11-17)


Herod’s Wrath (vs. 18-19)


Understanding God


Herod’s Death


The Continuing Spread of the Word


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