God’s Word for You
Acts 12:1-5 Under arrest
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, April 24, 2020
12 About this time King Herod stretched out his hands to persecute some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James the brother of John killed with the sword.
Luke is recalling some chronology here that would be good to review:
41 - Herod (Herod Agrippa I) made King of Palestine by Claudius
43 - Prophecy of Agabus about the coming famine
43/44 Winter? - James is executed or murdered by Herod
44 Spring (Passover) - Peter is arrested
44 Late Spring - Death of Herod “eaten by worms” (Acts 12:23)
44 Late (Autumn) - Famine begins
45 - Famine continues and ends with autumn harvest
Herod’s persecution involved abuse, probably beatings and imprisonment, of some members of the Jerusalem church. Since Luke does not say more than “persecute” (Greek kakóō, “treat cruelly”), we may assume that they were not killed. But one of the apostles was killed. This was James, the brother of John. He had been one of the original four disciples (Matthew 4:18-22), called by Jesus from working in his father Zebedee’s boat. James had been part of Jesus’ ‘inner circle’ of disciples along with John and Peter. It was those three who saw Jairus’ daughter raised from the dead (Mark 5:37). It was those three who witnessed the transfiguration (Mark 9:2). It was those three who were near Jesus when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). James and John were eager to defend their Lord; it was they who asked if they should call down fire to smite the Samaritans who rejected Christ (Luke 9:54). And it was they who asked to sit at the Lord’s right and left in glory in heaven (Mark 10:35-37). James must have been a powerful preacher. Jesus gave him together with his brother the nickname “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), and it can only have been his preaching and teaching that drew the jealous attention of Herod Agrippa. Herod was new to his throne, and he certainly didn’t want trouble from a popular preacher. He had James killed with a sword, but we can’t say whether James was even arrested. It’s possible that Herod just had him murdered. Those who say that “by the sword” means that James was beheaded like John the Baptist have, I think, gone too far. This sad incident shows Herod’s temper and the lengths he was willing to go.
3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he also had Peter arrested (this was during the Feast of Unleavened Bread).
If someone were reading the Book of Acts for the first time, this would be a chilling verse. James was dead; would Peter be killed by Herod as well? Certainly Peter had to have assumed that his life was close to its end. More than that, there was an echo of Jesus’ crucifixion here, since it was once again the time of the Passover, which was when Jesus was arrested and put to death.
4 After he had Peter arrested, he put him in prison, handing him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him. He intended to bring him before the people after Passover. 5 So Peter was kept under guard in prison, but prayers were being constantly made to God for him by the church.
This is the only time in the Bible that the word “squad of soldiers” (Greek tetradion, Latin quaternion) is used, although we know that the detachment that crucified Jesus was the same thing. This we know because John says: “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them” (John 19:23).
Here, four such squads (sixteen men) were ordered to guard the apostle who was under arrest in Jerusalem (probably one squad on duty every six hours, see 12:6). Why weren’t more apostles arrested? We have said before that all the evidence points to the apostles being absent from the city in those days, working around Judea and Galilee and perhaps farther away among the Christian churches as they were forming. James happened to be in the city when Herod had him killed, and now Peter arrived, only to be arrested with an eye toward making more of a show of his execution after the Passover feast was over. Perhaps Herod was worried, as the Jews had been during Jesus’ trial, that the crowds would riot if they killed him during the feast (Matthew 26:5). In Peter’s case, the Christians at least might protest, and if their numbers were sufficient, it would be a real problem for the new king.
Peter was bound in some guardhouse on the edge of the city (a gate leading “into the city” is mentioned in verse 10). It doesn’t matter, but this was either the large fortress or tower of Antonia on the northwest corner of the temple, or in Herod’s own palace.
As Peter nodded off to sleep, the Christians of the city prayed “constantly” for his release. Would the prison walls and bars prove to be stronger than the prayers of the saints? Stephen had died; now James had died, too. Was Peter going to be another martyr for the faith? The question “Would the prison walls prove stronger” is wrongly worded, though. It wasn’t a question of stone and iron vs. prayer. It was a question of stone and iron vs. the Creator of the stone and iron. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), but only because of the power of the one who is prayed to. We can only say, “Your will be done,” and give God glory for whatever happens. Everything is in the hands of God, and we trust that what he does is for our eternal good, and for his eternal glory.
Pastor Timothy Smith