But the word of God grew and multiplied. — Acts 12:24
In the centuries that have gone by since Luke penned the Book of Acts, followers of Christ have endured persecution. James and Peter, whose sufferings for the faith are recorded in today’s text, were just two of thousands upon thousands of believers who have experienced intimidation, opposition, assaults, imprisonment, and even martyrdom.
Nik Ripken wrote about his travels to some of the spiritually darkest locations on earth to meet with those who have triumphed despite intense persecution. One of the believers Ripken met was Dmitri, a pastor in Eastern Europe who had been jailed for seventeen years. Imprisoned with fifteen hundred hardened criminals and subjected to terrible physical torture, Dmitri began two routines that he continued throughout his confinement: he would write Scriptures on any scrap of paper he could find, and every morning he would stand, raise his arms in praise to God, and sing a hymn. This went on for years, even though the prison officials did everything in their power to stop him.
Finally, Dmitri was told he would be executed. As he was dragged down the prison corridor toward the courtyard, an amazing thing happened. Fifteen hundred hardened criminals rose to their feet, faced the east, and began to sing the song they had heard Dmitri sing every morning. The jailors were so shocked that they took the pastor back to his cell. What an impact that simple act of honoring God had made on those imprisoned with this faithful pastor! Sometime later, Dmitri was released and allowed to return to his family.(1)
Dmitri’s story, and those of other Christians whose faithful witness endured in the most difficult of circumstances, led Nik Ripken to an amazing conclusion: the Gospel message not only can survive under persecution, but many times it thrives! When stalwart believers do not allow their tormentors to silence their testimony, their courageous behavior often inspires others to faith in Christ. Our focus verse bears that out — in the face of intense persecution, the Early Church stood fast and “the word of God grew and multiplied.”
Those of us who live in regions of the world that are safe from overt persecution (at least for now) have a challenge of our own: we must withstand the trend toward the secularization of the Gospel, and survive in an environment where our spiritual values seem increasingly strange in our culture. We should not only pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters; we should also learn from them how to live with courage and undaunted commitment to our Lord in spite of opposition. As we follow their examples, we can trust God that our lives will impact others, and that the Gospel will continue to grow and multiply in all areas of the world.
In verse 19 of chapter 11, Luke had resumed his theme of the evangelism that took place due to the persecution and scattering of the believing Jews after the martyrdom of Stephen. Chapter 12 continues the theme of persecution, mentioning the death of James and describing the arrest, imprisonment, and miraculous release of Peter. Except for a brief mention in chapter 15, this is the last Luke spoke of Peter, who was the focus of the first twelve chapters of the Book of Acts. Peter subsequently met Paul in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14), and later wrote two letters to suffering Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor, the Epistles of 1 and 2 Peter. Tradition says both Peter and Paul were martyred, likely after the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64, but before the last year of Nero’s reign in A.D. 68.
Verse 1 records that King Herod vexed (ill-treated, afflicted, or distressed) the followers of Christ. This was Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great — the ruler in the days of Jesus’ birth. Herod Agrippa I was also the nephew of Herod Antipas, who had a role in the trial of Jesus, and the brother of Herodias, who was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist. After a thirty-five year period in which Judea had been administrated by seven different procurators (governors), Herod Agrippa I had been appointed by the Romans to rule over Judea. Although he was partly Jewish and observed the Jewish feasts and sacrifices, he was a classic politician, aligning himself against the followers of Christ in the hope that his actions would solidify his position with the Jewish leaders who hated Christians.
One of Herod’s first actions was to execute James, the brother of John. James was the first of the original twelve disciples to suffer martyrdom, and the only one whose death is mentioned in Scripture. (His brother John was the last of the Apostles to die.) The Greek historian Eusebius (A. D. 260/265 – 339/340) related that the soldier who guarded James was so impacted by his witness that he declared himself a Christian before the court, and was willingly executed alongside of James.
When Herod saw that his action pleased the Jewish populace, he had Peter apprehended. The Apostle was placed under the supervision of four quaternions of soldiers — sixteen men, with groups of four taking each three-hour watch period. Herod’s intention to bring Peter out after the Passover (translated from the Greek pascha as “Easter”) was probably based on the fact that the large crowds gathered for the festival potentially would laud him for his zeal in killing someone they believed to be a heretic.
Peter’s imprisonment stirred the believers to prayer on his behalf. In verse 5, the phrase translated “without ceasing” is from the Greek word ektenos, which has the idea of earnestly and fervently. Luke used this same word to portray the agonizing prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44).
Verse 6 describes how the quaternion of soldiers was stationed around Peter. No doubt Herod knew that Peter had escaped from prison once before (see Acts 5:19), and was intent upon ensuring that would not happen again. However, an angel awoke the sleeping Apostle and led him out of the prison.
The home Peter went to following his deliverance was that of the mother of John Mark (the writer of the Gospel of Mark). Apparently the house was large enough to serve as a meeting place for a congregation; some Bible scholars suggest this may have been where the Last Supper was held and Pentecost occurred. After Peter explained to the assembled group what had happened, he instructed them to “go show” (or report) his escape to James and the brethren. This James was the one Paul referred to as “James the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19 — the leader of the church in Jerusalem.
Verses 18-19 indicate that Herod executed the guards who had been charged with supervising Peter’s imprisonment. It was a Roman custom to execute any guard who allowed a prisoner to escape.
Herod then went to Caesarea, which was the headquarters of the Roman government in Judea, and where he had a palace. At this time, his relationship with the people of the self-governing but economically dependent cities of Tyre and Sidon had been one of antagonism, and he had cut off their food supply. However, the people petitioned Herod for peace after gaining an audience through Blastus, his chief of staff.
According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the “set day” (verse 21) at which Herod was to make an oration to the people of Tyre and Sidon was a festival during which vows would be made regarding the safety of the Roman emperor. While Luke related only that Herod was “arrayed in royal apparel” as he came into this event, Josephus noted that Herod’s garment was made entirely of silver and was very resplendent, causing him to appear to be illuminated. In response to his vivid appearance, and perhaps to gain his favor, the people cried out “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.” There is no record that he rebuked the people, nor in any way rejected their impious assertions. Divine retribution was poured out, and Herod was smitten with worms. Josephus recorded that he endured great pain for five days before he finally died.
(Hannah's Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
III. The witness in Judea and Samaria
D. The witness of the persecuted church
2. The persecution in Jerusalem (12:1-25)
a. Herod’s persecution of the church (12:1)
b. The death of James (12:2)
c. The confinement of Peter (12:3-23)
(1) Peter’s arrest (12:3-4)
(2) The prayer of the church (12:5)
(3) Peter’s deliverance (12:6-17)
(4) Herod’s confession (12:18-19)
(5) Herod’s death (12:20-23)
d. The growth of the church (12:24-25)
Hostility and hatred do not thwart the advance of God’s kingdom. We can learn from persecuted believers to hold fast to our confidence in God through whatever trials He allows to come our way.
1 Nik Ripken with Gregg Lewis, The Insanity of God, Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013, 151-160.