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Acts 12 is a fascinating chapter. It contains some stupendous miracles and great applications for us as well. I want to begin with an overview of the chapter and then go straight to the applications. What happens in this chapter?
Summary of Events in Acts 12
1. The apostle James is killed.
I want to quickly go over these eight points and make a few comments before we look at some applications from this chapter. There are three powerful applications from this chapter but first let’s review what happens.
1. The apostle James is killed by King Herod.
Who is Herod here? Which James is this who is killed? There are several Herods in the Bible. This Herod is Herod Agrippa I. Herod is not so much a name. It was a title, a dynastic title, like Pharaoh or Caesar. This is not the Herod who murdered all of the babies in Bethlehem under the age of two. This was his grandson. He had murder in his DNA. He came from a violent family.
Who is James? What do we know about him? We know a few things.
- We know about his FAMILY.
Luke says that he was the brother of John. James and John were brothers. Their father was named Zebedee.
- We know about his OCCUPATION.
Before he was saved, he was a fisherman. He left the fishing business and followed Jesus (Matthew 4:18-20).
- We know about his PERSONALITY.
Jesus called James and John “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). They had an incredible zeal for Jesus, even though it was sometimes misguided. It was a nickname and Jesus gave it to them. What kind of nickname would he give to you?
- We know about his POSITION.
He was an apostle. Out of all of Jesus followers, he was one of the twelve men that Jesus hand-picked to be part of the Twelve Apostles. Not only was he an apostle, he was part of Christ’s inner circle. Peter, James and John were the inner circle. Of those apostles, Jesus had three men that he was even closer to than the Twelve. These three were the only apostles to see the Transfiguration. They were the only ones to be with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested.
- We know about his DEATH.
Herod killed James. He did this around 44 AD. We know this because that is when Herod died, according to secular history. James dies a very painful death. He is beheaded. His head is cut off. We have seen persecution in Acts before. This is actually the fifth persecution in Acts. The early church was persecuted in Acts 4, Acts 5, Acts 7, and Acts 8 but when we get to Acts 12 something is different. Two things are different.
a) For the first time the persecution comes from THE STATE.
Up to this time, persecution was done by the religious authorities (chief priest, Sanhedrin). Now, it is being done by the political authorities. It is not religiously motivated but state-sponsored persecution. Now the king is going after the church and hunting down believers.
b) For the first time in history AN APOSTLE is martyred.
There had been persecution of the church before Acts 12. There had been martyrdom of the church before Acts 12. Stephen was martyred in Acts 7. A deacon was martyred by a group of thugs. Now for the first time ever one of the apostles is martyred and that is done by the state. James was not the first apostle to die (Judas) but he was the first one to be martyred.
2. The apostle Peter is arrested and Herod plans to kill him.
Acts 12:3 says, “When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.” Herod did these things for political reasons.
Herod worked for Rome. His job was to control the Jews. As long as they are happy, everything is fine. Once they start to revolt or rebel, Herod may be out of a job. He took out the number two man in the church and that pleased the Jews, so he now goes after the number one man. Peter is the leader of the church of Jerusalem. As you can see, Herod is more concerned about pleasing the Jews than he is pleasing the Lord. So he arrested Peter as well.
3. The church prays for Peter.
The church knew that Peter was supposed to be executed the next day. James had already been executed, so what did they do? They prayed and prayed for hours. It was an all-night prayer meeting. Prayer was their one weapon. As one old Puritan writer put it, “the angel fetched Peter out of prison but prayer fetched the angel”.
4. An angel delivers Peter from prison.
We will look more at this angelic prison break later in the lesson as we look at some applications from this section.
5. Peter goes to the house of Mary.
Who is Mary? She does not mean much to us but was extremely important in the early church for three reasons.
a) Her brother was Barnabas (Colossians 4:10)
Barnabas was one of the leaders of the Jerusalem Church. He was known for his generosity. He was one of the ones who sold some of his land and gave it to the church to help the poor. He was the only one who was brave enough to befriend Saul after he professed to be a Christian.
He was the type of person who reached out to people and saw their potential when no one else did. That is why he is called “the son of encouragement”. That is what Barnabas means. He also went with Paul on his first missionary journey.
b) Her son was John Mark (12:12)
He was important as well. He also went with Paul on his first missionary journey (13:5). He later wrote one of the gospels (Gospel of Mark). He was important. He wrote a book of Scripture.
c) She had a house church.
A church met in her house. They were having a prayer meeting there that night. They turned her house into a prayer meeting. She was probably wealthy. She was rich enough to have servants and a house big enough for a church to meet in it.
6. Peter leaves town for safety.
Was this a lack of faith on Peter’s part? No. As one person put it, “supernatural deliverance does not preclude common sense”. Peter was already marked for death. He just escaped prison. He wasn’t going to stay in town. He left Jerusalem and no one knows where he went. That is the last we hear of him in Acts (with the exception of one appearance in Acts 15).
7. James takes over the leadership of the Jerusalem Church.
Before Peter leaves Jerusalem but before he does he hands the leadership of the church over to James. James makes the final decision at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Why does he take over? He was not one of the apostles. He was the brother of Jesus.
James the Just was the oldest brother of Jesus. He was also known in history as “James the Righteous” or “James the Just”. He was also martyred twenty years later by a mob. Both the Jewish historian Josephus and the church historian Eusebius describe his death around 62 AD. He was thrown off of a building, stoned to death and his skull was broken with a club. He died a violent death.
8. Herod suddenly and mysteriously drops dead.
There are two very funny situations in these verses. One has to do with believers and one has to do with unbelievers. The first funny situation had to do with this prayer meeting. Peter had more trouble getting through the door of Mary’s house than he did getting through locked a prison door. He walked right out of prison but when he got to Mary’s house, he couldn’t get in and they would not let him in at first.
Peter was able to walk right out of prison but when he got to Mary’s house, he couldn’t get in. He knocked and no one would let him in. The first person to discover Peter there was Rhoda. She didn’t see him. She just recognized his voice (12:14). She was so excited when she heard his voice that her first instinct was not to let him in but to run and tell everyone who was praying for Peter. She ran to them and said “Peter is at the door!” (12:14).
Their reaction was priceless. The church was busy storming the gates of heaven when this servant girl interrupted them. They thought she was bothering them while they were doing important work. They made three mistakes when they talked to her. This is really embarrassing.
- They said that Peter was NOT outside the door.
That was their first mistake. He was outside. They did not believe her when she said that Peter was there. They were thinking that she is young. She is a slave. She doesn’t know anything but the servant girl was right and they were wrong.
- They said Rhoda was crazy (12:15).
That was their second mistake. They thought she was out of her mind but Rhoda was not crazy at all. That is a strange reaction. You tell someone the truth and not only do they not believe you, they think you are out of your mind.
- They said Peter’s angel is outside (12:15)
That wasn’t true. It was Peter, not an angel, who was knocking at the door. That was their third mistake. An angel would not need to knock. An angel could go right through a locked door.
Another funny situation had to do with Herod. The last time Peter was in prison he escaped (5:18-20) and Herod didn’t want to take any chances so he put sixteen men on him. He was guarded by four squads of soldiers. A squad is made up of four soldiers and Peter was guarded by four squads of soldiers. He was guarded by sixteen soldiers.
They guarded him in shifts one squad at a time (four at a time every six hours). Two were chained to him. Two guarded the locked door. This was maximum security. There are guards on the inside and outside of his cell. Herod did everything to keep Peter in jail and he still escaped. God in heaven was laughing.
What lessons can we learn from Peter’s release from prison that night? There are three very important lessons that we can learn.
Lesson on the Sovereignty of God
How do we see the sovereignty of God in this chapter? There are three ways how we see God as sovereign in this chapter.
a) God is in control when our circumstances are not good
In the beginning of the chapter, the church seems to be in decline. It does not look good for the church. James is killed. Peter is arrested. The number two man is killed and the number one man is arrested. At the end of the chapter, the Word of God multiplies. It spread. The end of the chapter the church is growing (12:24-25).
Peter’s circumstances were not good. He was not just in prison, he was chained up in prison. He not only lost his freedom, he lost his privacy. He was guarded by four squads of soldiers (12:4).
There were two soldiers, two chains and two guards and he is scheduled for execution. In fact, they couldn’t be any worse but God was in control and Peter knew it. That is why we see him sleeping on the night before his execution. When most people would be full of worry and fear and anxiety and depression, he was sleeping like a baby. He doesn’t seem to be worried about dying.
Why? There were two reasons. One, he had complete trust in the sovereignty of God. He knew that God was in control, even if it looked like Herod was in control.
Two, he probably did not think that he was going to die the next day. The last time he was in jail, an angel opened the doors of the prison and let him out (5:17-19). He was used to this. Furthermore, Jesus promised that he would live to be an old man (John 21:18).
b) God is in control when people do bad things
It looks like Herod is in control but he is not. At the beginning of the chapter, Herod kills James. At the end of the chapter, God kills Herod. At the beginning of the chapter Herod is killing people.
He killed James. He tries to kill Peter. When Peter escapes, he kills the guards because he knew that there was no way Peter could have gotten out on his own. He had to have some help, so he assumed that it was an inside job. At the end of the chapter, he is killed himself. At the beginning of the chapter, Herod is all-powerful. At the end of the chapter, he is weak and in incredible pain as he is eaten of worms.
c) God is in control when life does not seem fair
Peter is released from prison and James is beheaded. God lets James die and Peter live. That is strange. If God could send an angel to save Peter, then why didn’t He send an angel to save James? Why is James killed and Peter delivered?
Why would God deliver one of his servants and not deliver another one of his servants? Was Peter a better Christian than James? No. Did God love Peter more than He loved James? No.
The answer is that God is sovereign. He had a different plan for Peter than he had for James. Both involved suffering interestingly, just at different times. James was just martyred first. Peter was released here by an angel but he is martyred twenty years later in Rome. James was beheaded but Peter was crucified, an even worse death. It takes much longer to die.
God is sovereign, even when life does not seem fair. James was one of the first apostles to die and his brother John was the last apostle to die. James was martyred and his brother John not even martyred.
As far as we know, John was the only one of the twelve apostles who was not martyred. He was persecuted for his faith. He was sent to the Island of Patmos but he was not martyred.
God is sovereign. He is in control and He has a different will for each of us. This is a very unpopular doctrine. God calls some people to live a short life. God calls some people to be martyred.
God calls some people to live a long healthy life and die of natural causes. God calls some people to get cancer. God calls some women to have many kids and other women to be infertile (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Lessons on the Power of Prayer
“So Peter was kept in prison, BUT the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (12:5).
We can learn here some principles on prayer. How did the church pray for Peter?
- Their prayer was specific.
“The church was earnestly praying TO God FOR him” (12:5). Their requests were not general. They were very specific. They did not just pray for God to bless Peter, to be with Peter and to give him a really good day. They prayed for God to release him from prison and to save his life. Our prayers should be specific.
- Their prayer was corporate.
They did not just pray privately; they prayed publicly. Their prayer was not just individual; it was corporate. Is Jesus present if you pray alone? Yes. Can he answer when you pray alone? Yes. Private prayer is biblical but the early church also prayed corporately. When they got together, they prayed (2:42). This wasn’t one or two people at this prayer meeting. Luke says “many people” were there that night (12:12)
- Their prayer was united.
Everyone was in agreement. There is power in united prayer. There is power when there is agreement in prayer, even when it is just two or three people (Matthew 18:19-20).
- Their prayer was fervent.
This was not a “now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep” prayer. This was earnest, passionate, fervent prayer. Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. He uses the same Greek word translated “earnestly” (NIV) in Acts 12:5 and Luke 22:44.
Apparently, the night before Peter was to die, this church prayed the same way that Jesus did the night before He died when he prayed so fervently that he was sweating like drops of blood. How often do we work up a sweat when we pray? This prayer meeting went late in the night. They prayed around the clock for him.
- Their prayer was powerful
This prayer got the angels to work. This prayer released Peter from prison supernaturally. It was so powerful that it went far beyond any of their expectations. They prayed for Peter to be released from prison but none of them thought he would be released that night. None of them thought that he would be walking in the doors of that prayer meeting and that they would see his face before they left that house that night.
James says, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (5:16). James gave the example of Elijah. Elijah’s prayers were so powerful that they controlled the weather. James saw the power of prayer at work in his day as well. James was in the Jerusalem Church when Peter was released. He was the one who took over the church after Peter left town.
Peter was in prison. The prison door was locked. He was chained up. The place was heavily guarded by soldiers and he still got out. Does God do this today? Yes. God answers prayer today. He still uses angels to do His work. He still performs miracles in the lives of believers. Does He always do this today? No. No doubt the disciples prayed for James, too, when Herod seized him and yet he was beheaded.
Lesson on the Ministry of Angels
There are two miracles in this chapter. God frees Peter and God kills Herod. Both of these miracles were done by angels. An angel took Peter’s chains off and let Peter out of prison. An angel of the Lord also smote Herod.
In Acts 12, we see two ministries of angels. These are not the only ministry of angels but we see two ministries that angels are clearly involved in. The first thing that angels do in this chapter is to protect believers.
1. Angels Protect Believers
The Bible teaches that angels are ministering spirits. Hebrews 1:14 says, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” That verse says that angels are spirits. They do not have a physical body. It also teaches that they minister to believers.
They help believers. It does not say that they help and serve unbelievers. That is an incredible thought. If you are a believer, you have angels who serve YOU. You may not know when they do it but that is their job and angels are greater than us. They are greater beings that we are and they serve us.
This does not necessarily mean that we all have a guardian angel who follows us around wherever we go. That could get a little embarrassing but it does mean that one of the jobs of angels is to protect and deliver believers.
There are many examples in Scripture of this. When God was getting ready to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, He sent two angels to Lot’s house to deliver them (Genesis 19:1-29). They looked like men. They were called men (19:12) but they were angels (19:1).
When Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den, he was protected by an angel (Daniel 6:21-23). It was an angel that shut the mouths of the lions. When Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego were tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace, they were protected by an angel (Daniel 3:24-28).
Psalm 34:7 says, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.” It is a promise not only of protection but of supernatural angelic protection but it is a promise only for those who fear God. It is a special promise of protection just for believers.
Are believers ALWAYS delivered by angels? No. We saw that in Acts 12. James was not delivered by an angel. Why do bad things happen to believers? Why aren’t they always delivered by angels? There is a very good reason for that.
Angels only do the will of God. Psalm 103:20-21 says, “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will.”
They go around doing the will of God. On Easter Sunday, God sent an angel down from heaven to move a huge stone that covered Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 28:2). They do whatever God wants them to do. If it is God’s will for a believer to be delivered, He sometimes uses angels to do that.
What does the angel in Acts 12 do for Peter? He does five things.
1) The angel woke Peter up.
This was no small task. Peter was a heavy sleeper. Here you have Peter asleep on death row. An angel appeared with a bright light began to shine in his cell (12:7) but that didn’t wake him up. The angel called his name but that didn’t work, so the angel had to hit him to wake him up. He had to smack him a few times. It reminds me of trying to get teenagers up to go to school.
2) The angel took off Peter’s chains.
The text says that his chains just fell off his wrists. That would be cool to watch.
3) The angel escorted him out of jail.
The angel went first and Peter followed him (14:9). You have to feel pretty safe with an angel going first. No one even saw them leave because when they asked the guards the next day what happened, no one knew. They walked right past two guards without being detected.
4) The angel opens the gate of the prison
Luke says these big iron gates opened by themselves (12:10). He even tells us what Peter was thinking at the time. He thought it was a vision. He did not know it was real. We have had dreams we thought were real. Peter thought reality was a dream. Things were so good that he thought he must be dreaming. This angel was incredible.
I don’t know how he did this. Not only did he deliver Peter but he was able to do it without the guards knowing and without Peter knowing. He did not realize until afterwards what really took place. He realized after Peter “came to himself” (12:11).
Most of the time that angels help believers they do not draw attention to themselves. Many times they put on a disguise. You cannot even tell that they are angels. The look like ordinary people. Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
2. Angels Judge the Wicked
The second thing that angels do in this chapter is to judge the wicked. At the end of the chapter, an angel makes someone sick? Does this happen anywhere else in Scripture? There are many examples in Scripture of angels judging the wicked.
- An angel destroyed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in (II Kings 19:35). One single angel did that.
- Angels pour out bowls of wrath on the earth during the Tribulation Period (Revelation 16:1).
- Angels will judge people at the Second Coming (Matthew 13:39-41, 49).
- Angels are involved in Herod’s death.
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:21-23)
Six things take place in these short verses.
1) King Herod attended a festival.
2) During the festival, he delivered a speech.
3) The people responded by worshiping Herod.
They publicly called him “a god”. They said, “when you speak, we hear a god speaking, not a man”. They did not just say it, they shouted it.
4) Herod did not reject the worship of himself.
He accepted it. He was flattered. It stroked his ego. The apostles stopped it.
5) God judges King Herod
6) Herod suddenly dies.
He died a horrible death. He was literally eaten to death by worms from the inside out. Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived in the first century. He described his death. He said that he was sick for five days and had incredible pain in his stomach.
Josephus was a first century Jewish historian but he was not a Christian. He gives the natural explanation for his death. He got sick and died. Luke the doctor is more specific.
He tells you why he stomach hurt. He had worms in his stomach. He had a parasite in his intestines. Luke also tells you what caused this condition. An angel of the Lord struck him down (12:23). It was not a natural condition but a supernatural one.
One preacher called this section the “Diet of Worms”. It is a play on words. There was a Diet of Worms in 1521 in Germany. The town of Worms (pronounced vorms in German) was the place in Germany where Martin Luther appeared in to respond to charges of heresy.
The Roman Catholic Church put Luther was on trial for heresy and asked him whether he actually wrote the books attributed to him and if so, whether he would recent.
That is when he made his famous statement, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments. Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise. God help me!” In Acts 12, we see a different diet of worms. There worms are dieting on Herod.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 19.8.2