For several years after the conversion of Saul, the church enjoyed peace. Freedom from persecution helped the church to grow rapidly. Preachers took the gospel to many new places and won multitudes of both Jews and gentiles to Christ. For a while, God held back Satan's efforts to stop the church. But the time came when God allowed Satan to rekindle the fires of persecution.
The instrument Satan chose for attacking the church was the most powerful ruler in the region, Herod Agrippa I. This was not the same Herod who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16), nor the same Herod who killed John the Baptist after John rebuked him for marrying his brother's wife (Matt. 14:3–12). Rather, Agrippa was a grandson of the first Herod (Herod the Great) and a nephew of the second (Herod Antipas).
Agrippa was an extremely skillful politician who made himself one of Caesar's favorites. Caesar bestowed on him a domain as large as his grandfather's, including the entire land of Palestine. While Agrippa pursued good relations with Rome, he also sought the favor of the Jews. Recognizing that they were always a hard people to govern, he did his best to make them happy.
Attack on Church Leaders
The time came when Herod decided to suppress the church.
Herod might have unleashed a mass persecution, but instead he arrested only one man, James the brother of John. James and John belonged to Jesus' inner circle, which also included Peter. Herod's arrest of James was therefore an attempt to cripple the church by striking down a leading figure. James was killed "with the sword." In other words, like John the Baptist, he was beheaded. Perhaps Herod hoped that by killing James he would frighten the other leaders into silence.
Delighted, the Jewish leaders loudly praised Herod for moving against the church. Their approval was exactly what he wanted. He therefore stepped up the persecution, singling out Peter as his next target.
Herod arrested Peter during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when Jerusalem was crowded with Jews from Palestine and regions beyond. The likely reason is that he wanted as many Jews as possible to know what he was doing. He expected to be applauded as a defender of Jewish religion.
Peter was not killed on the spot, but placed in prison until the end of the feast, which lasted eight days. "After Easter" in the KJV is a mistranslation. The Greek says "after the passover."19 Originally, Passover referred solely to the first day of the feast, 14 Nisan, but in the days of the early church, the same term was commonly used for the whole duration of the feast, from the fourteenth to the twenty-first.20 Herod intended to "bring him forth to the people." In other words, his plan was to make a public spectacle out of Peter's trial and execution.
While the king waited, he put Peter under heavy guard. No less than sixteen soldiers—four quaternions with four men each—were assigned to the task of watching the prisoner. All sixteen remained with him at all times. During the night, each quaternion took guard duty for four hours while the other three slept.21
The church prayed fervently and "without ceasing" that God would spare Peter's life. It had been hard enough to lose Stephen and then James, but to lose the chief apostle would have been extremely demoralizing. The church needed his strength and wisdom.
A Miraculous Escape
On the night before Peter was to be taken for trial and execution, God answered the church's prayers. Security at the prison was so tight that escape seemed impossible. Peter was chained to a soldier on either side. Another two were standing nearby, probably at the door of his cell, and twelve more were sleeping not far away. Every exit from the building was attended by armed men. Outside, the prison was closed by a strong gate. But all of Herod's measures to prevent the prisoner's escape were useless against God.
In the middle of the night, an angel came to deliver Peter. First, the angel made the soldiers unconscious. Then he wakened the apostle. Notice that Peter was sleeping soundly. His ability to find rest on the night before he was scheduled to die shows that he had become a man of great courage and faith.
Here is the first of several humorous touches in the story. It is obvious that Luke enjoyed writing this chapter. What is humorous? Peter was so deep in sleep that the angel could not waken him gently. He had to give Peter a hard smack on the side. But rough treatment hardly fazed an old fisherman like Peter, whose body had been toughened by years of hard work.
When Peter opened his eyes, he saw a light shining in the cell. The angel raised him to his feet and told him to move quickly. The chains fell off, as if unlocked by invisible hands.
Recognizing that Peter's mind was still befogged, the angel told him everything he needed to do. He needed to gird up his robe—that is, to tie a belt around his inner garment because it was hanging loose.26 He needed to put on his sandals. And he needed to wrap himself in his outer garment, probably because it was chilly outside.
The angel instructed him to follow, and Peter obeyed. All this time, Peter was not fully awake. He thought he was seeing a vision.
The angel led him past the unconscious guards at two guard stations and brought him to the iron gate at the street. The gate opened seemingly of its "own accord." In other words, Peter could not see any hand pushing it. Doubtless there were unseen angels assisting the one that Peter was able to see.
The angelic deliverer conducted Peter to a spot about a block away from the prison gate and suddenly vanished.
Then Peter's mind cleared, and he fully realized what happened. With a heart thrilled to be free and safe, Peter praised God for taking him out of the hands of his enemies.
But now he had a problem. Where should he go? Once his escape was detected, the authorities would start searching for him. He decided that first he should inform the church of his deliverance. He did not want their anxiety to continue any longer than necessary. He therefore set out for the house of John Mark, where a large group of believers was having a prayer meeting.
John Mark was the same Mark who later wrote the Gospel. Some commentators have proposed that his house held the upper room where the believers received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and where Jesus shared the Last Supper with His disciples,27 but lack of evidence leaves the matter wholly uncertain.
When Peter knocked at the "door of the porch"28 (presumably, the outer door of a courtyard or vestibule at the entrance),29 a young girl named Rhoda, perhaps a servant girl, came to the door. Here is another humorous scene. Peter was standing outside in the middle of night. It was late March or early April, when nights were still cold. As far as Peter knew, soldiers were pursuing him. But when Rhoda recognized his voice, she failed to do the sensible thing—to let him in. Instead, she was so overcome with joy that she rushed back to tell everyone who was knocking.
To excuse Rhoda, we might suppose that she was not free to open the door. After all, the whole church had become a target of renewed persecution. The adults inside might have decided that it was unsafe to let a servant girl decide who could enter the house. But we have no evidence that in leaving the door closed, she was just obeying orders. Luke affirms that a rush of gladness overwhelming her better judgment was the only reason she left Peter outside.
The good news that Rhoda carried to the adults fell on deaf ears. Why? She was young, and perhaps she did not have a reputation for good sense. For whatever reasons, they did not believe her. They even accused her of being crazy.
When Rhoda insisted that Peter really was standing at the door, the adults tried to convince her that it was not Peter, but his angel.
As Peter stood outside, wondering what was causing the delay, he kept pounding on the door, and at last someone besides Rhoda heard him. When the people inside finally opened the door, they were amazed. There indeed stood Peter. Their first impulse was to cry out in surprise and joy, but he motioned to them to keep quiet. He did not want them to waken the neighbors and betray his presence.
As quickly as possible, he told how the angel delivered him, and he gave them some instructions. He wanted them to tell James and the other believers about his escape. This was James the brother of Jesus and author of the Epistle of James. In time, he became the principal leader of the church in Jerusalem, filling a vacuum left by the other apostles when they departed to carry the gospel to distant places.
Then Peter left John Mark's house and went to another place, which is not named. Perhaps he went into hiding until the authorities lost interest in searching for him.
Panic among the Guards
The next morning, the guards at the prison made a shocking discovery. The prisoner was gone. The soldiers were in a frenzy of fear and despair because they all knew what the consequences would be. The Romans did not tolerate failure in guard duty. Every single man stationed at the prison was responsible for its security. Thus, if there was a breakdown in security, every single man would be punished, and the punishment for letting a man escape who was jailed for a capital offense was death.
Proof that capital punishment was the normal penalty does not appear until the Code of Justinian, a compilation of Roman laws dating from the sixth century AD,32 but indirect evidence places it also in the first century. In two incidents recorded later in Acts, guards reacting to the escape or possible escape of prisoners showed fear for their own lives (Acts 16:27; 27:42). Failure in guard duty has been a capital offense even in modern armies.
The demands upon a Roman soldier were rigorous, and if he failed to meet them, he could expect no mercy. In Justinian's time, the nearly twenty offenses he could commit that were punishable by death included striking an officer,33 disposing of arms,34 disturbing the peace,35 and violating the secure boundaries of camp by secretly leaving or returning.36
When Herod heard that Peter was gone, he sent out search parties into the city. Then he questioned the guards, perhaps suspecting that some were secret Christians who helped Peter escape. But he found no trace of Peter and no explanation for his disappearance. From his standpoint, the guards were guilty of either conspiracy or gross incompetence. Therefore, to make an example of them, he ordered them put to death.
Herod then left Jerusalem and traveled to Caesarea, which, under the Romans, had become the provincial capital. Its importance was due in part to its harbor, renowned as the best in the region. Unlike Jerusalem, which was old and dirty and noisy, Caesarea was a much newer city, better suited to a king. It probably offered all the latest Roman comforts. Although Herod lived in Jerusalem to please the Jews, no doubt he always looked forward to his next getaway in Caesarea.
Herod Swiftly Judged
Not long after his arrival, a delegation came to him from Tyre and Sidon, two cities in Phoenicia, which was just north of Palestine on the Mediterranean coast. For a long time Herod had been displeased with these cities. Why, we do not know. Outside of the Book of Acts, we find no historical records that shed light on the tensions that arose between these cities and Herod.37 Yet they desired to regain good relations with him because his territory surrounded them and supplied them with food. To win Herod's favor, they enlisted the help of Blastus, one of his high officials, and through the efforts of this intermediary, they succeeded.
Perhaps to mark the beginning of new friendship with Tyre and Sidon, Herod gave a speech to their delegates as well as to his own people in Caesarea. In all his royal finery, he came before them and sat upon a throne. He was an educated man, and very likely he had considerable training and skill as an orator, so when he began to speak, the people marveled. They shouted that his voice was like the voice of a god. Herod, who was pleased rather than displeased, raised no objection.
The people elevated Herod to godhood. But the true God was of another opinion. God is a jealous God, who refuses to share His glory with any other being (Deut. 5:6–10).
Herod was well acquainted with God's revelation of Himself in the Old Testament. He knew that when the people cried out that he spoke like a god, he should have refused such praise. He should have given God the glory for his abilities as a ruler and orator. But instead, he accepted the title "god." For this blasphemy, he suffered immediate judgment. An angel struck him with a deadly disease. He was eaten by worms, and, according to Josephus, he died five days later.38
The death of Agrippa serves as one anchor for our chronology of events reported in the Book of Acts, for among historians there is no doubt that he died in AD 44.50 It is therefore reasonable to assign the same year to Peter's deliverance shortly after Passover. James's martyrdom probably took place in the preceding months (see Appendix 1).
After Herod's death, God again lifted persecution from the church. Again, the church was able to do its work without being troubled by enemies. Those transformed by the gospel bore the gospel to others, and so "the word of God grew and multiplied."
About this time, Saul and Barnabas completed their stay in Jerusalem and returned to Antioch. They took with them John Mark, the same young man whose house had become a meeting place for the church. They chose him as a helper, no doubt because he was an earnest young man with great promise as a servant of God. But another consideration was his close tie to Barnabas, who was his cousin (Col. 4:10, where "cousin" is the meaning of the word appearing as "sister's son" in the KJV51). The coming of these three to Antioch had great significance, because it led to Saul's first missionary journey. This journey set the pattern for missions ever since.