Up to this point in Acts we have studied the unfolding of God’s eschatological plan as it relates to the salvation of the nations. While the Old Testament promised a kingdom salvation for nations besides Israel, there wasn’t a concept for individual salvation of Gentiles, apart from becoming proselytes to Judaism, nor was there a concept of this happening in the period between the first and second comings of Christ. Of course, our Lord explains in Matthew 13 that the kingdom promised in the Old Testament—the eschatological, end-times kingdom where God will actively assert His rule and restore His creation and His people from the ravages of sin—is not limited to the Millennial Empire. Rather, the kingdom will be established in stages, progressively. It is one kingdom and one program. Between His ascension and His bodily return to restore the nation of Israel and establish his thousand-year earthly reign, His kingdom would yet be inaugurated. The King would rule from heaven in an initial way, and in the time of Israel’s national exile He would turn to Gentiles to show them mercy.
This is the context of Acts. Chapter 11 completed a lengthy discussion of the Jewish believers’ initial acceptance of Gentile salvation through Christ. Moreover, these Gentile believers are now—at the behest of prophets possibly Jew and Gentile—giving money in faith to support the exclusively (?) Jewish church in Jerusalem for a famine that hasn’t even happened yet. Barnabas and Saul take the money to the Jerusalem church.
Around or during their stay in Jerusalem (it is possible it took place beforehand, and Luke is departing from his usual strict chronology to make a thematic point), the narrative of Acts 12 takes place. It demonstrates the sovereign watch-care of God over His church and His program, and thus provides much-needed encouragement to us as we seek to further that program for the glory of Christ.
A. Persecution will not overcome God’s church (vv. 1-12)
Acts 1-12 focuses almost exclusively on the ministry of Peter—as the chief apostle among the twelve and initial leader of the (Jewish) church. The rest of Acts will focus on Paul, as God brings him into a greater position of both prominence and authority as the apostle to the Gentiles. AS if to conclude his focus on Peter, Luke gives us this chapter which discusses Peter as it were handing the baton of leadership, at least implicitly, to the Lord’s half-brother.
Verse 1 tells us that King Herod captured some church members, possibly all of them apostles, in order to mistreat them. Herod was not liked by the Jewish population (the entire family was loathed by Judea). Herod made sure to follow the Mosaic Law as a way of currying favor with the Jews, and since Christianity was at that point loathed by everyone—but especially Jewish people, as it was considered a bastard, renegade sect of Judaism only followed by the most foolish, ungodly, and deviant—Herod found it politically expedient to attack the church’s leadership.
Having arrested church members, he decides to execute James—John’s brother—with a sword. Of note is the fact that Deuteronomy commands people to be executed in that fashion for tempting Jews to worship other gods than Yahweh (13:12-15). While the text isn’t explicit, it is most difficult to not see this as a fairly obvious reference to the early apostolic proclamation of the fully deity of the Lord Jesus. Why else would James be executed in a fashion reserved for idolaters, especially given the aggressive and systematic evangelism practiced by the early church. James was viewed as enticing, though his preaching, the Jews to follow a god other than Yahweh. That the Jews were pleased with Herod’s execution means they felt this way too. Of course, Herod thinks he is on a roll and to keep himself in the Jews’ good graces, he arrests Peter, too.
Think of it this way: James was one of Jesus’ inner circle along with Peter and John. He was likely married and had children. He was clearly in leadership to some extent (Herod would likely not capture rank-and-file people, unless he had already attacked the leadership). Yet God allows him to be dispatched to heaven. Doubtless his wife and children were among those praying for him, just as the church (thousands of them!) were praying for Peter. Now another leader is imprisoned and he will likely be executed too.
But the church isn’t afraid. They simply pray fervently (v. 5). “Fervent” is from a Greek word that refers to intensity, endurance, and persistence. It is passionate and deep and whole-souled. It’s used in 1 Peter 1:22 to refer to the kind of love believers should have for one another (Bengal’s old Latin translation renders it as “vehement”). They believe God can intervene—and look! God actually does something in response to their prayers. Do not ever let anyone tell you God’s sovereignty means we should not pray, because “God is just going to do what He already decreed.” God does decree all things from before the foundation of the world, but he brings them to pass through the faith and prayers of His people—and we have not, because we ask not (James 4:2). I do not know how all of that first together, but O! What bad Calvinists we are if we think faith means passive acquiescence to circumstances!
God miraculously gets Peter out of prison through an angel (vv. 6-11). It wasn’t until Peter was literally outside the prison and walking down the street that he realized he wasn’t dreaming (v. 11)! He knows God has intervened and answered, delivering him so he can have a continued ministry (including the two precious epistles he wrote). Paul goes to Mark’s mother’s home, where the elders, apostles, wives and children have gathered and are still praying for Peter.
B. God raises up a powerful leader for His church (vv. 13-17)
Here is the interesting part: They are praying for his release, and when he is standing there at the door, they don’t believe it! How fickle we can be. Yet God in grace uses our feeble, mixed prayers to accomplish His will and bless and enrich us—and in grace still gives them to us when we don’t believe Him!
Rhoda answers the door, recognizing Peter’s vice. Elated, she runs upstairs to tell the others…who don’t believe her. Peter continues knocking, and when the rest of them come downstairs to open the door, they are amazed (almost as if God was actually listening and capable of intervening). He tells them how the angel brought him out of the prison and exhorts them to tell these things to James and the others, before he leaves—possibly to go into hiding, possibly to take the advantage for further ministry (v. 17).
But wait: James? Tell James? Isn’t he dead? But this is a different James, the only logical option: James, the Lord’s brother (Mark 6:3), who wrote the epistle that bears his name. For Peter to leave the burgeoning Jerusalem church in his hands means James has distinguished himself as a competent, godly elder and leader. It is also noteworthy that this James was not the apostle James—he was a layman, who had rejected Christ quite vociferously during His ministry at that. This already indicates a kind of transition from apostle-led churches to elder-led ones. James is the first. Peter’s absence and transition out of visible ministry does not mean the church is without a leader or that God does not have a plan. He uses Peter’s escape to raise up James and give him vital ministry experience and spiritual growth so he too can be an effective servant of God’s people and further His program.
C. Divine intervention is never off the table (vv. 18-23)
As if the story of Peter’s escape wasn’t enough, Luke includes the death of Herod to underscore God is never not at work in the building of His kingdom. Peter’s experience was more overtly miraculous, while Herod’s is more providential (notwithstanding a spiritual immediate cause through the angel striking him).
The people of Tyre and Sidon were supported in some sense by Herod’s kingdom (verse 20 says they were fed by his country, so likely there was a trade system set up between the cities), and for some textually-unspecified reason, Herod was angry with them and likely withholding food and trade. But the people had won over (likely through bribes) Herod’s treasurer, who acted as an intermediary. They went to him asking for peace. So he sets up a time for them to come hear him speak—he wants to exalt himself before them, make them understand he holds their lives and flourishing in his hands. Piper says in his sermon on this text, “[Herod] likes to be pleased by having himself exalted as powerful. If that takes killing Christian apostles, then he will do that. If it takes giving public speeches with regal pomp and glory, then he will do that. …he made every effort to let these folks from Tyre and Sidon see that he was really somebody. They were not just coming to beg from a tenant farmer. He held sway over their food supply more like God than like a farmer.”
Herod insists upon obeisance and submission that is God’s alone. So naturally God responds in judgment. An angel strikes Herod and he instantly develops an awful gangrene-like disease that quite literally caused him to rot away from the inside out (through the help of intestinal worms via infection). Josephus tells us Herod lingered in pain for five days before he died (and he still found time to order the execution of two rabbis who decorated an idol he had set up, after which his disease only intensified). God neutralized the threat to His church and His glory. He is jealous for both and because of that can be trusted to be blazingly holy and fastidiously merciful to His people.
D. God causes His Word to triumph and gives His ministers success (vv. 24-25)
I love the “but” at the beginning of verse 24. While Herod grows weak and dies under God’s judgment, the instrument God uses to bring life spreads everywhere—and has the victory as many identified with it and submitted to it in repentant faith. Barnabas and Saul (and John Mark) return to Antioch having encouraged the church in Jerusalem. The sovereign God is on the move, building and defending His church and asserting the victory that will soon be fully His.