Persecution Renewed

Acts 12:1

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.

Delving Deeper

Agrippa's background

Agrippa’s father, Aristobulus, and his uncle, Alexander, were sons of Herod the Great by his favorite wife, Mariamne.1 At the height of his reign, in about 29 BC, Herod put her to death when her enemies persuaded him that she was plotting against his life.2 Yet her sons continued to enjoy his favor. Eventually he declared them as his heirs if their older brother, Antipater, could not take the throne.3 But the party supporting Antipater later accused Mariamne’s sons of treason. Always willing to believe the worst, Herod had them executed by strangling in about 7 BC.4

Aristobulus’s son Agrippa grew up in luxury at Rome, having members of Caesar’s family among his friends.5 As an adult, he followed a rather troubled path before he found the road to success. He so antagonized the emperor Tiberius that he was sent to jail.6 But the next emperor, Caligula, released him in AD 37 and made him king over two territories in northern Palestine.7 In AD 40 he also received the tetrarchy of his uncle, Herod Antipas, who was banished to Gaul when Agrippa accused him of conspiring against Caligula.8

It was greatly to Agrippa’s advantage that the next emperor, Claudius, was a childhood friend.9 In AD 40, Claudius added Judea and Samaria to Agrippa’s kingdom, making it equal in extent to the entire kingdom of his grandfather.10

Delving Deeper

Order of events

The events recorded in Acts 12 took place in the year of Agrippa’s death, AD 44.11 In the context of Luke’s reference in Acts 11 to the famine that required relief for the poor in Jerusalem, Acts 12 appears to be a flashback to a time slightly earlier. Yet the author is not misleading us. He says nothing to suggest that his account in these chapters is strictly chronological. As a historian committed to telling his story well, he chose to narrate related events from start to finish without digression to unrelated events. To signal his break from strict sequence, he starts his account of Herod’s repression with "about that time."

Delving Deeper

Agrippa’s policy toward the Jewish nation

From ancient sources, especially Josephus and the Mishnah (a compilation of rabbinical traditions dating from the second century AD), we learn of Agrippa’s painstaking maneuvers to secure the support of the Jews.12 He relocated his seat of government to Jerusalem, giving it the preeminence that the Jewish people thought appropriate.13 He cultivated among them a reputation for defending Jewish interests. They knew, for example, that he was primarily responsible for convincing Caligula that he should not violate the Temple by erecting there a statue honoring himself as god.14 Agrippa went so far as to attend the Temple on high feast days and participate in worship ceremonies, thus representing himself as a believer in the God of Israel.15

Attack on Church Leaders

Acts 12:2-5

The time came when Herod decided to suppress the church.

Pondering a Question

What was Herod's motive?

His friends among the Jewish leaders probably accused Christians of being disloyal to Caesar. It was well known that they viewed Jesus as their King. Also, the leaders probably complained that the new religion was hurting them. It was weakening their position by creating sympathy for a man they crucified and by reducing revenues at the Temple. Rather than put their money into the Temple treasury, the followers of Jesus were using it to help each other and support preachers.

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.

Delving Deeper

Execution by beheading

That Luke gives beheading as the method of execution is a touch of realism, since any author of religious fiction would surely have named another method. A quick and relatively painless death by beheading was normally reserved as capital punishment for Roman citizens.16 The usual fate of non-Romans suspected of seditious designs against Roman authority was death by crucifixion, although burning alive and other gruesome methods also came into wide use.

Why then did James suffer no worse than beheading? Probably Herod was making a show of compliance with Jewish standards of justice. According to the Mishnah, the rabbis considered beheading to be the right punishment for religious apostates.17 Although no worse than stoning in terms of pain inflicted, beheading was seen by the Jews as far more disgraceful.18

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

Pondering a Question

Why did Herod take such extraordinary measures to ensure security at the jail?

He had good reason to fear Peter's escape. No doubt he heard that when the Sanhedrin arrested the apostles a few years earlier, the apostles disappeared from prison during the night (Acts 5:17–24). What happened was still an unsolved mystery as far as the authorities were concerned.

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

Acts 12:6-10

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.

Delving Deeper

The Roman fortress in Jerusalem

Many commentators have suggested that the place of Peter’s incarceration was the Fortress of Antonia, the headquarters of Roman forces in Jerusalem.22 Sitting at the northwest corner of the Temple complex, it was strategically designed to overlook the Temple wall and also to allow access both to the Temple courtyard and to surrounding streets.23 This fortress, originally a palace built by Herod the Great, furnished the Romans a large and secure facility.24

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.

Getting Practical

Why Peter was unafraid

As Peter sat in jail, he knew without any murmur of doubt in his heart that Herod was not going to kill him. In one of his last conversations with the risen Lord, he heard these words of prophecy: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not" (John 21:18). Jesus was evidently referring to the dressing of Peter's corpse and its removal to a place of burial. To amplify the Lord's meaning, John adds, "This spake he, signifying by what death he [Peter] should glorify God" (John 21:19). What in Jesus' words points to the manner of Peter's death? They imply that the arms of his corpse would be outstretched. Of the various modes of execution in Jesus’ day, the one that produced a corpse with arms disposed in this peculiar manner was crucifixion. According to tradition, Peter was indeed crucified, and by his own choice he was crucified head down.25

But notice that Jesus also told Peter the time of his death. He would not come to it until he was an old man. Therefore, the imprisoned Peter knew that his life was secure for two reasons. There was virtually no prospect that Herod would try to crucify him. He would use a Jewish method of execution, perhaps stoning, but more likely beheading, which would compound the disgrace already brought upon the church by the beheading of James. But whatever method Herod might prefer was irrelevant to Peter's view of tomorrow, for the apostle was by no means an old man. Perhaps he was in his forties, so he knew as a certainty that neither tomorrow nor any day soon would be his last.

By pointing out the basis of Peter's calm spirit in prison, we are in no way detracting from his courage. The basis of his courage was faith in God's Word. That faith produces courage, but courage is also the grounds of that faith. The choice to believe God despite all the voices disputing or mocking faith is the road of valor.

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.

Rhoda's Thoughtlessness

Acts 12:11-17

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.

Getting Practical

Faithless prayer

The adults did not believe Rhoda because they did not believe God. They were praying for Peter's deliverance, yet when Peter appeared at the door, they were incredulous. They lashed out in scorn at the person who told them that their prayers had been answered. It is evident that their prayers had very little foundation in faith. That God answered their prayers anyway is a testimony to His goodness and mercy.

We have all had the same experience. We have prayed for something with very little confidence that God would grant it, yet He did grant it because He is good and He wants us to see and praise His goodness. How much better if we pray with faith! Not only will faith accomplish more, but also it will please God. Instead of doubting His goodness, faith exalts it and proves our love.

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.

Delving Deeper

Peter’s angel

Their rejoinder in an attempt to silence Rhoda has always baffled commentators, for it makes no sense. Why would they think that an angel might knock on the door instead of passing through it? If they supposed that the door really denied him entrance, why would they fail to let him in? Why, in their view, would Rhoda mistake Peter’s angel, presumably his guardian angel, for Peter himself?

Under the circumstances, their words could not have been mere banter. Many commentators have therefore suggested that the adults were voicing a superstition current among the Jews: namely, that a man’s guardian angel might assume his appearance and impersonate him.30 The search for evidence of this superstition in other ancient writings has yielded only a few questionable traces at a later period in history,31 but unless it was a familiar way of thinking in the mid-first century, the adults telling Rhoda that she heard Peter's angel could not have expected her to believe them.

Did they themselves believe an angel was outside the door? Probably not. More likely, they supposed that Rhoda was imagining things, and they hoped she would keep quiet if she thought that she had heard an angel, not Peter. It was not a lie exactly, just a fanciful possibility that they themselves did not take seriously.

One key to explaining their behavior is their previous response to Rhoda. They said, "Thou art mad." These do not sound like the words of responsible church leaders; rather, like the words of some ordinary believers so distraught by Peter’s peril and theirs that they reacted resentfully to good news which, in their view, was certainly false. Their next words, treating Rhoda with condescension, proceeded from the same troubled spirit.

Luke’s reason for telling us about their belittling treatment of Rhoda may be to emphasize that a breakdown in faith can lead to a breakdown in other virtues, such as simple kindness.

Getting Practical

Danger in being thoughtless

Rhoda was like many young people. They easily let their feelings blind them to the larger picture. If they are having a good time, they may not realize it when they are going too far and putting themselves in danger. In the end, someone gets hurt and everyone is sorry. But the sad outcome could have been avoided if they had been more thoughtful.

We must teach young people to be thoughtful, not thoughtless like Rhoda, who was so eager to tell of Peter's arrival that she left him out in the cold.

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

Acts 12:18-19

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

Acts 12:18-19

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.

Pondering a Question

Why did Herod accept being hailed as a god?

The principal reason, of course, was that he was extremely vain. Yet to treat a ruler as divine was by no means unusual. Among the many other rulers in the ancient world who demanded worship were the Caesars, Herod's overlords. Therefore, when Herod's own subjects hailed him as a god, he did not think it improper.

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

Delving Deeper

Another account of Agrippa’s death

The dramatic downfall of Herod Agrippa was a a major news story in the ancient world. Josephus recalls his last speech and its aftermath in some detail.39 He agrees that what happened to Herod was divine judgment. He even claims that Herod himself understood why he was suffering, for after his body was seized with agony, he cried out that God was punishing him for accepting blasphemous praise.

According to Josephus, the ripples of acclamation that Herod was divine started when he came before the people dressed in a robe woven of silver threads, which gleamed so brightly in the sunshine that he appeared to be radiant.

Josephus supplements Luke’s account with some information that might be useful in diagnosing Herod’s condition. He says that the king was suddenly stricken in his belly with severe pain. In that same region the pain continued without respite until he died.

Pondering a Question

What does it mean that Herod was eaten by worms?

Here we have a wide difference of opinion. A good many commentators dismiss Luke's account as dubious melodrama, inventing worms to make Agrippa's suffering as graphic as possible.40 Other commentators more respectful of the account have proposed various conditions that could lead to observation of real worms. What kind? According to William Hobart in his classic work, The Medical Language of St. Luke, the term for worms might refer to either worms in sores or intestinal worms.41

Any worms appearing on a body's wounded surface are maggots, the larvae of flies, which deposit their eggs in flesh that has become necrotic—in other words, that has died. Maggots can appear on dead tissue within twenty-four hours after flies have visited the site.42 Unaware of the true origin of maggots, ancient caregivers did not necessarily shield a wound from flies. Even in modern times, as the physician E. M. Merrins observed, "Maggots . . . [are] often found on ulcers and sores, where there is a lack of proper care and cleanliness."43 The chief difficulty in blaming flies for the worms consuming Agrippa is Josephus's report that his malady began with sudden and acute belly pain.

Others seeking to explain the symptoms recorded by Josephus and Luke have suggested some kind of parasite, such as roundworms, tapeworms, or flukes. Yet all parasitic conditions tend to develop gradually, without severe pain in the early stages.44

What then is the correct explanation? The most plausible explanations of Agrippa's death suppose that he had already, for some time, been afflicted with roundworms. These were pervasive in the ancient Middle East. Merrins, writing in 1904, said, "They are found in the inhabitants of every land, and are so common in hot countries that scarcely an individual is free from them."45 He suggested that the immediate cause of Agrippa's death was peritonitis brought on by appendicitis or, less likely, by another morbid condition in the abdominal region, such as a ruptured gall bladder. He noted that roundworms have a tendency to quit their victim's body when death approaches due to disease in the alimentary canal.

An even more convincing diagnosis was proposed by the prominent British physician A. Rendle Short. Also assuming prior infection by roundworms, he held them directly responsible for Agrippa’s fatal illness. He relayed the report of another doctor who knew "of three cases in Palestine where roundworms caused acute intestinal obstruction by forming a tight ball. It is well known that after a patient is dead worms my crawl out of the body. Sometimes they are vomited."46 Longenecker expanded the same diagnosis: "Luke's reference to worms suggests an infection by intestinal roundworms (Ascaris lumbricoides), which grow as long as ten to sixteen inches and feed on the nutrient fluids in the intestines. Bunches of roundworms can obstruct the intestines, causing severe pain, copious vomiting of worms, and death."47 This analysis matches given facts. The onset of pain was sudden. It remained intense. Either the vomiting of worms before death or their egress afterward showed observers that worms had been feeding on the victim internally. Death followed in a matter of days.

Delving Deeper

Type and antitype

Agrippa's affliction was by no means unique. The Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, who, in about 165 BC, cruelly persecuted the Jews in an effort to destroy their religion, died in a similar manner. According to Second Maccabees (2 Macc. 9:5, 7-12, 28),

5 But the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, smote him with an incurable and invisible plague: or as soon as he had spoken these words, a pain of the bowels that was remediless came upon him, and sore torments of the inner parts; . . . .

7 Howbeit he nothing at all ceased from his bragging, but still was filled with pride, breathing out fire in his rage against the Jews, and commanding to haste the journey: but it came to pass that he fell down from his chariot, carried violently; so that having a sore fall, all the members of his body were much pained.

8 And thus he that a little afore thought he might command the waves of the sea, (so proud was he beyond the condition of man) and weigh the high mountains in a balance, was now cast on the ground, and carried in an horselitter, shewing forth unto all the manifest power of God.

9 So that the worms rose up out of the body of this wicked man, and whiles he lived in sorrow and pain, his flesh fell away, and the filthiness of his smell was noisome to all his army.

10 And the man, that thought a little afore he could reach to the stars of heaven, no man could endure to carry for his intolerable stink. . . .

11 Here therefore, being plagued, he began to leave off his great pride, and to come to the knowledge of himself by the scourge of God, his pain increasing every moment.

12 And when he himself could not abide his own smell, he said these words, It is meet to be subject unto God, and that a man that is mortal should not proudly think of himself if he were God. . . .

28 Thus the murderer and blasphemer having suffered most grievously, as he entreated other men, so died he a miserable death in a strange country in the mountains.

The parallels between this story and the story of Agrippa's death are, to say the least, striking. In both cases, a man with divine pretensions was smitten with severe pain in the bowels, this leading in some manner to worms either issuing from his body or appearing on its surface, and soon afterward he was overwhelmed by agonizing death. Any suspicion that the later story has been invented or doctored to match its earlier counterpart can be altogether dismissed, since the parallels emerge only when we combine two independent accounts of Agrippa's death. The differences between the accounts of Luke and Josephus guarantee that neither has borrowed from the other.

In our studies on Daniel, we have argued at length that Antiochus was a type of the coming Antichrist.48 No doubt we should view Agrippa in the same light. For all his pretense of religion, Agrippa was another king who was fundamentally a self-promoter, with no higher object in life than to seek his own glory.

The types foreshadow the antitype in several respects. Like Antiochus and Agrippa, the Antichrist will present himself as an object of worship, but instead of rising to the level of a god, he will, as they did, suffer a horrific downfall (2 Thess. 2:7–10). He too will come to an end that is sudden, inescapable, and full of agony.

Pondering a Question

If Herod was not the only ruler who claimed to be divine, why did God single him out for severe punishment?

As we have said before, judgment is partly according to knowledge. Unlike most other rulers who committed blasphemy, Herod was familiar with the religion of the Jews. He knew full well that his claim to be a god violated the First Commandment.

Moreover, it is no coincidence that the account of his death comes right after the account of his attack on the church. The author wishes us to understand that God had other reasons for punishing Herod besides his blasphemy. Herod took the life of James and intended to take the life of Peter. But by God's intervention, Peter did not die. Instead, justice was served. It was Herod the persecutor who died.

Getting Practical

Like grandfather, like grandson

The horrible manner of Herod's death recalled the death of his grandfather, Herod the Great. He too suffered severe divine judgment. Josephus says of his death that it involved ghastly suffering. "A fire glowed in him slowly. . . . The chief . . . pain lay on his colon; a fluid also had settled itself about his feet, and . . . at the bottom of his belly. Nay, further, his loins putrefied and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns. He also had convulsions in all parts of his body. His afflictions seemed greater than any one could bear."49

The terrible fate of both Herods was entirely just, for both were wicked beyond measure. Both brought upon themselves the wrath of God. What they suffered reminds us of the warning in Heb. 10:31: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

Delving Deeper

Full justice

There was another kind of justice in God viewing Herod’s offense as especially severe. He had accepted the flattery that he spoke like a god. James, the man he killed, and his brother John received from Jesus the surname Boanerges, which means "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17), no doubt a reference to the power of their voices when they spoke with divine enablement. Herod was therefore guilty not only of killing James, but of imagining that it was not James’s voice, but his own, that came from a divine source.

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).

Peace Again

Acts 12:24-25

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.


  1. Martin Goodman, "Judaea," in The Augustan Empire, 43 B.C.—A.D. 69, vol. 10 of The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., edited by Alan K. Bowman et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 744.
  2. Jos. Ant. 15.7.1–6; Goodman, 741; D. S. Russell, The Jews from Alexander to Herod, vol. 5 of The New Clarendon Bible: Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 94–95.
  3. Jos. Ant. 16.4.6; Goodman., 742; Russell, 101.
  4. Jos. Ant. 16.11.7; Goodman, 742; Russell, 101.
  5. Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.—A.D. 135), A New English Version, rev. and ed. Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd, 1973), 1.443; Goodman, 744; Richard N. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 407; F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 279.
  6. Schürer, new ed., 1.443–444; Goodman, 744–745; Longenecker, 407; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 279.
  7. Schürer, new ed., 1.444; Longenecker, 407; Goodman, 745; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 279.
  8. Schürer, new ed., 1.445; Goodman, 744; Longenecker, 407; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 280.
  9. Longenecker, 407.
  10. Schürer, new ed., 1.445; Goodman, 745; Longenecker, 407; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 280.
  11. Schürer, new ed., 1.452; Goodman, 745; Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 117; Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, revised ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 378–379.
  12. Jos. Ant. 19.6.1–3, 19.7.3; TB Pesachim 88b; Schürer, new ed., 1.445–448; Longenecker, 407–408; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 280.
  13. Jos. Ant. 19.7.3; Schürer, new ed., 1.446; Longenecker, 408.
  14. Schürer, new ed., 1.388–397; Longenecker, 408; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 280.
  15. Mish. Bikkurim 3.4; Mish. Sotah 7.8; Longenecker, 408.
  16. "Execution by beheading (decapitation)," Capital Punishment UK, Web (, June 6, 2017; "Decapitation," Wikipedia, Web (, June 5, 2017.
  17. Mish. Sanhedrin 9.1, evidently on the authority of Deut. 13:12–16; Longenecker, 408; Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007), 425.
  18. Mish. Sanhedrin 7.3; Bock 425.
  19. George Ricker Berry, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (N.p., 1897; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981), 470.
  20. Also in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 22:1), the whole festival bears the name "Passover." See full discussion in Ed Rickard, "The Crucifixion of Christ: Calendar Date," Bible Studies at The Moorings, Web (, June 5, 2017.
  21. Vegetius De Re Militari 3.7; Longenecker, 408.
  22. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 283; Longenecker, 408; Kirsopp Lake and Henry J. Cadbury, English Translation and Commentary, vol. 4 of The Acts of the Apostles, part 1 of The Beginnings of Christianity, ed. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1933), 136; Bock, 426.
  23. John Wilkinson, The Jerusalem Jesus Knew: An Archaeological Guide to the Gospels (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1978), 58–61; W. Harold Mare, The Archaeology of the Jerusalem Area (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987), 160–166.
  24. Mare, 160–161.
  25. William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1973), 66–75; Eusebius Church History 2.25.
  26. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 283.
  27. I. Howard Marshall, Acts, vol. 5 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 222; Bock, 428.
  28. Berry, 471.
  29. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 285.
  30. Thomas Walker, Acts of the Apostles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965; repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1984), 300; Marshall, 222; Bock, 428–429; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 286.
  31. Marshall, 222. Bock, 429, cites Pseudo-Philo's Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 59.4 (first century AD), Shepherd of Hermas's Mandate 6.2.2 (late-first century or second century AD), the Testament of Jacob 1.10 (perhaps second to third century AD), and Genesis Rabbah 78 [50a] on Gen. 33:10 (AD 300–500). Dates for the first and third documents come from James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1985); for the second, from J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, eds., The Apostolic Fathers: Revised Greek Texts with Introductions and English Translations (London: Macmillan and Co., 1891; repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1984), 293–294; for the last, from "Genesis Rabbah," Wikipedia, Web (, June 7, 2017.
  32. Code of Justinian 9.4.4.
  33. Pandects of Justinian
  34. Ibid.,
  35. Ibid., 49.16.16.
  36. Ibid.,
  37. Longenecker, 412; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 288.
  38. Jos. Ant. 19.8.2.
  39. Ibid.
  40. William Hobart, The Medical Language of St. Luke (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & Co., 1882), 43.
  41. "Maggot," Wikipedia, Web (, June 8, 2017.
  42. Edward M. Merrins, M.D., "The Deaths of Antiochus IV., Herod the Great, and Herod Agrippa I.," Bibliotheca Sacra 61 (1904), 550.
  43. "Intestinal parasites," University of Maryland Medical Center, Web (, June 9, 2017.
  44. Merrins, 551.
  45. A. Rendle Short, The Bible and Modern Medicine: A Survey of Health and Healing in the Old and New Testaments (Exeter, Devon, England: Paternoster Press, 1953; repr., Chicago: Moody Press, 1967), 74–75.
  46. Longenecker, 413.
  47. Ed Rickard, Daniel Explained, 3rd ed. (n.p.: The Moorings Press, 2017), 337–339.
  48. Jos. Ant. 17.6.5.
  49. Schürer, new ed., 1.452; Goodman, 745; Riesner, 117; Finegan, Handbook, 378–379.
  50. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, reprinted in An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, by W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 1049; William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 65; Berry, 718.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.