1. Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church.
About this time a new development arises in Israel. The believers have had rest since God removed Saul as a persecutor in chapter 9. Now, however, a new persecutor arises. Herod the king takes it upon himself to start to cause trouble for some from the ekklesia. Why he decided to do this we are not told. The believers, as we know, were peaceable, and no threat to the established order. Though God was building His Own government, He was doing so without destroying or dissolving the present governments that then existed. Yet the holy lifestyle they lived may have grated upon an ungodly man like Herod.
This Herod is not the same as the one who took part in the trial of the Lord Jesus Christ, but another in that same dynasty. This is the only place in Scripture we read about this particular Herod. He did not survive beyond this chapter. Bullinger identifies him as Herod Agrippa I, not to be confused with Agrippa II of Acts 25-26, who was his son.
The ones Herod was persecuting were some from the ekklesia. These were not the common believers, but rather their leadership. Thus, we will see that particularly he moved against the twelve apostles themselves.
2. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword.
A tragedy results from Herod’s wicked actions at this time. He kills James the brother of John with the sword. Thus, James became the first of the twelve to suffer martyrdom, though most of the rest of the twelve probably followed him in this. This was a severe blow to the believers, for up until now they had had all the twelve to support them. Now, that number is cut by one.
Remember that this was not anything that the Lord had not said would happen. He had told His disciples while He was with them that they would face persecution. In John 15:20, He had promised them that they would be treated like He had been.
20. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.
So they would have known that those who killed the Lord would have the same kind of attitude towards them. Moreover, James and John in particular knew something of their coming fate. We can discover this in the very interesting story in Mark 10:35-40.
35. Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”
36. And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
37. They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.”
38. But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
39. They said to Him, “We are able.”
So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; 40. but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.”
The Lord was speaking about a baptism He had yet to be baptized with. We know this was neither His water baptism, which took place long before this, or His baptism with the Holy Spirit, which also took place before this. Rather, this baptism refers to His death. And His words here told James and John that they would be baptized with the same thing. In other words, they would be identified with a martyr’s death, just like the Lord was.
Thus, it was expected, at least for James, John, and Peter, (whom the Lord told he would die a martyr’s death in John 21:18-19,) that they would die for the cause of Christ. Thus, this would not have surprised them. It certainly was a sad thing, however, that the twelve would be missing one of their number.
Now we know that God’s government was at work in the Acts period, and it was at work through these men whom God had chosen. Up to this point, the Lord had more or less ignored the governments of this world, at least, other than the Sanhedrin, whom He had worked with, and who rejected Him, as we saw in Acts 4-7. So far, He seems to have ignored Herod. Yet now, Herod has certainly brought himself to God’s attention, and has proven to be an enemy of God’s government. We will see how God’s government acts against its enemies in the upcoming verses.
Interestingly, though he survived many years beyond this point, this reference is also the last mention of John we have in this book. We know nothing of his further history beyond what we can learn of him from the books he wrote.
3. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread.
Herod sees that his actions in killing James pleased the Jews. This does not refer to the common people, who largely were on the apostles’ side. Rather, these were the religious leaders, the powerful men who had already rejected the message of Christ. They had not been brave enough to start another persecution themselves after God had dealt with Saul of Tarsus, yet they were certainly not opposed to anyone else starting a persecution. Thus, they are certainly pleased by Herod murdering James in this way. They are happy to let Herod do the work, and take all the risks.
Herod is apparently not smart enough to realize that the Jews are happy he has done this because they were afraid to do it themselves. Or else he does not realize the danger he has just placed himself in. Likely, both are true. At any rate, he is a politician. Though what he did would not have pleased the common people, Herod did not care so much about them. However, he sees that this has pleased the Jews, themselves powerful governmental leaders. Herod knows that these are good men to have on your side, and so he is happy to have won their favor. He is quick to act to try to win more favor. He does this by arresting Peter as well.
Now we read that this took place during the Days of Unleavened Bread. We know that according to Exodus 12, the days of unleavened bread took place immediately after the day of Passover, and lasted for one week or seven days. Passover was on the fourteenth of the month Abib, the first month of their religious calendar (though Nisan was the first month of their “secular” calendar.) Unleavened Bread followed on the fifteenth through the twenty-first.
Yet we also have to realize the tendency we human beings have to refer to the season around holidays in less-than-technical ways. For example, few of us have not said that it was Christmas when we nevertheless knew that technically the date was not December 25th. We know that we are referring to the season as Christmas, rather than the day that is technically Christmas. I would suggest that it was the same way with Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. The whole season could be referred to as “Passover,” or it could be referred to as “Unleavened Bread.” Of course, this was not accurate, but this is the way holidays are often referred to.
Here, we will see in verse 4 that the Passover was not yet over. Yet in verse 3, the time is referred to as “during the Days of Unleavened Bread.” Since Unleavened Bread follows Passover, there would seem to be a discrepancy here, unless Herod intended to keep Peter imprisoned for nearly a year before dealing with him! Yet when we consider that the “Days of Unleavened Bread” is not being used in its technical sense here, but probably could refer to a period beginning as they prepared the Passover lambs or kids on the tenth of Abib, and then could continue until the twenty-second when the actual Feast of Unleavened Bread was over with, then we can understand what is being said here. Also, the word “Passover” is probably being used in the same way, and for the same period of time. Basically, Herod seized Peter during the holiday, intending to put him on trial to decide his fate after the celebration was over.
4. So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover.
Herod, having arrested Peter, puts him in prison. Perhaps Herod has some inkling of Peter’s popularity, in that he delivers him to four squads of soldiers to keep him. One of these squads would have been assigned to keeping watch over him during each of the four watches of the day and night. Of course, this also made a very good show of it, because it makes Peter look like a rather desperate criminal to have so many resources assigned to keeping him. It could be as Cornelius Stam suggests in his book on Acts Dispensationally Considered that Herod was remembering the miraculous deliverance of the twelve from prison in Acts 5:19-25. That had resulted in great embarrassment for the Jewish leaders. They had probably never quite figured out what had happened, and Herod did not want a repeat of such a prison break. What Herod did not understand is that in taking up this cause it was not simply those men who were friends with Peter that he had to contend with. Rather, by doing this, he had taken up arms against the government of God, and God is not bothered by soldiers, be they many or few.
Herod’s intention, as I said before, was to bring Peter out before the people, no doubt largely the Sanhedrin and their cronies, in order to try him. Yet he planned to do this once the holiday was over, and Jerusalem went back to its normal population again. He probably figured that to be a much more stable time to have such a trial, and that many of Peter’s friends would have gone back home by then. However, he is going to find that his well-laid plans will go awry.
5. Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.
So Peter remains in prison as the holiday runs its course, and the set time of his trial, which it was a foregone conclusion would result in his death, draws ever closer. Yet Peter’s friends and followers are not inactive during this time. Constantly they are praying to God for him. Surely they had the right focus in this. What Peter needed was not an open revolt of the people, but rather the intervention of God. He was the One Who could save Peter, and they relied upon Him to do it. Peter was His governor in His kingdom, and it was up to Him to justify Peter and to rescue him from his enemies, if He wished to do so.
Those who were praying are called “the church” here. Again, this is the Greek word ekklesia, and means the out-called or out-positioned. This was not some religious organization that was praying for him. Rather, these were people, individuals who were followers of the Lord Jesus Christ and had been given a position out of Him. They were praying for Peter’s deliverance, and they had every right to do so. Yet it was up to God to determine whether or not He would answer their request.
6. And when Herod was about to bring him out, that night Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers; and the guards before the door were keeping the prison.
Finally the last night came before Peter’s show trial and execution were to take place. We read that that night Peter was sleeping. This in and of itself is a marvelous thing. I suppose if any of us were going on trial for our lives the next day, and did not expect to live through the trial, we would probably have trouble sleeping the night before. Yet Peter is sleeping here. How could anyone sleep the night before his own execution? I believe that this had to do with Peter’s trust in God.
Peter was basically ready to die for his Lord here. Remember what happened to Peter with his denials of the Lord Jesus. He had insisted to the Lord that he would lay down his life for the Lord’s sake (John 13:37.) Yet when the time came, he was unable to live up to his boast, and had vehemently denied even knowing the Lord (Mark 14:71.) This must have weighed heavily on his heart during the time the Lord was in His grave, and when the Lord rose, though this must have comforted Peter greatly, still he must have felt like a total failure, and that he didn’t deserve to follow this One that the Lord had proven Himself to be, the Victor over death.
Then we have the dialogue between Peter and the Lord in John 21:15-19. Here, the Lord three times asked Peter if he loved Him, corresponding with Peter’s three denials. Then, He told Peter, “Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” (John 21:18) We are not left to wonder what this means, for the next verse tells us: “This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God.” So Peter knew from this time on that he was to die a martyr’s death, proving faithful in contrast to the unfaithfulness of his denials. No doubt this cheered Peter greatly at the time.
Now, many years have passed since the Lord told Peter this. James has just died by Herod’s hands, and Peter is in prison, about to be condemned to death. Peter must have believed that the time had come for the Lord’s words to him to come to pass. Yet Peter is now a much-changed man from the one who so fearfully denied the Lord in the house of the high priest. Now, Peter has learned trust and confidence in the Lord. Now, he is ready to die, if his service to the Lord requires him to do so. His trust in Him is so complete that he sleeps, even the night before his death. The Lord had made a great man of faith out of Peter, indeed!
Peter is well-guarded on his last night, consistent with what we read in verse 4. He is bound with two chains to two soldiers, one on each side of him. The rest of the soldiers who are on shift at this time are stationed before the doors keeping the prison. There was not just one set of doors, either. Like many prisons today, one would have to pass through several wards and several locked doors in order to get out of the prison. Guards would have been posted at each one of these doors. As far as was humanly possible, these men were making sure that Peter could not escape. Again, this was probably partially to make him look like a worse criminal than he was, and partially because of how many friends Peter had.
7. Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, “Arise quickly!” And his chains fell off his hands.
Now the Lord steps in. Though He may have allowed the death of James, consistent as it was with His Own word and prophecy that both James and his brother John would die a martyr’s death, He was not going to allow Peter’s death here. Though Peter was eventually to die as a martyr, now was not the time, as the Lord was not yet done using Peter. Therefore, the government of God steps in, and it works to reverse the plans that the governments of this world had set in motion.
So it is that an angel of the Lord stands by Peter. The Greek word angelos just means a messenger, though there can be little doubt that it was a heavenly messenger that appears here. At the same time, a light shines in the prison. The word for prison here is a Greek word for a dwelling, and means Peter’s cell here. Remember, it was night and all were sleeping, besides the fact that prisons are dark places to begin with, so no doubt Peter’s cell was very dark before this. But now God has shined a light into the situation, and by that light He will change the course of events.
Neither the arrival of the angel nor the light serves to awaken Peter, so the angel strikes Peter roughly on the side to wake him. Then, the angel helps him to his feet, urging him to arise quickly. As Peter stands, the chains that were meant to bind him fall off his hands. This, of course, was nothing less than a miracle. The Lord was striking off Peter’s chains. The Lord was setting Peter free.
8. Then the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and tie on your sandals”; and so he did. And he said to him, “Put on your garment and follow me.”
Though the angel woke him quickly, he does not urge him to run with him out of the prison immediately. Rather, he stops, and has Peter gird himself. Apparently he was not fully clothed. Whether he was undressed for bed, or whether he was locked up without much on in the way of the clothing it is hard to say. He no doubt would have been fully dressed when he appeared in court the next day, though they would have stripped him again to execute him. So his clothes were right there waiting for him, and the angel instructs Peter to put them on. The instructions to gird himself are interesting in the light of John 21:18. There, the Lord informed Peter of his eventual martyrdom by telling him that “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” So that is what would happen when it was time for Peter to die for his testimony of the Lord. Yet now he is to gird himself. By this, then angel seems to be telling him that it is not yet his time to die. Indeed, he is not old enough yet.
The angel also instructs Peter to tie on his sandals, which he does. Then he is to throw on his outer garment, something like what we would call a coat. Finally, he is to follow the angel. He was getting step-by-step instructions, and we can be sure he followed them to the letter.
9. So he went out and followed him, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.
Peter does all the things the angel tells him. We can imagine that this was a rather surreal event. Not only does he wake out of a sound sleep to see this glorious angel in the middle of his dark prison, but the angel calmly instructs him to dress himself step by step, waits while he does it, and then tells him to follow him. This sounds more like the angel was preparing him for a leisurely stroll than for a prison break. No wonder Peter had the impression that this was a vision, not a real event. Remember that Peter has had visions before. We saw one of them just back in chapter 10. He must have known they could seem quite real. He might also have been rather groggy from sleep. Yet Peter may also have been purposefully kept in a bit of an unreal mood so that he did think this was a vision. It is hard to say if this was just his mistake, or if this is what the Lord wanted him to think. But at least we can say for certain that the angel did not speak up to correct his mistake and to tell him that this was really happening.
10. When they were past the first and the second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord; and they went out and went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.
Now Peter and the angel proceed on their way out of the prison. As mentioned before, the Romans being excellent engineers designed their prisons so that you would actually have to break out of three jails before you would be out of their prison. You would have an outer gate with guards, then a gate leading into the second jail with guards, and finally a third gate leading into the inner prison with guards. Thus to get out of this prison, you would have to break out of all three.
So the angel leads Peter first out of the inner prison past the guards there, then out of the second prison past its guards and into the outer prison. We are not told how they got past the gates and guards for each of these, but we are given more details now about how they got out of the outer prison. There, they come to the final, iron gate that leads out of the prison into the city. This gate opens to them of its own accord. Interestingly, the Greek word is automate, from which we get our word automatic. The Lord is telling us that the door opened automatically! In our day, we have doors that are made to open by themselves, but we know that this is done with machinery, and even today we would be quite surprised if a door without this machinery should open by itself. For Peter, who had never seen such a thing, this must have been quite a sight!
Now they go out of the gate and into the streets of the city. The angel conducts Peter one block until they are well away from the prison, and then departs from him. Peter has been granted his freedom by the intervention of his Lord!
11. And when Peter had come to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.”
Remember that Peter had been supposing that this was a vision. He was probably waiting for some revelation or message bearing instructions or lesson for him to come at any time during these events. Therefore, when the angel disappears and he is left to his own devices, it takes him a moment to realize that he is not experiencing a vision, but reality. Finally, he realizes this, and concludes that the things he has seen and experienced were really happening.
The Lord had delivered Peter from the power of Herod and from all the expectation of the corrupt religious leaders called the Jews. He seems to take some measure of delight in the Lord having done this, and we too can glory in with what ease and almost nonchalance God’s government overcame all that human powers could throw against it. In the same way, when His government comes again to earth, there will not be a power in this world that will be able to stand against it or stop it from achieving its goal.
The word Peter uses for “sent” here is exapostello. Peter meant that the Lord had “apostled out” this angel, or commissioned him out of the other angels with authority to do what God desired to free Peter. Remember, this book is the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and even this angel is an apostle, doing what the Lord sent him to do.
While Peter does seem to express a certain glee at the way the Lord has outmaneuvered all His enemies, we do not read of any great rejoicing or relief on his part. While no one is particularly eager to die, I believe that Peter was ready at this point to give his life for his Lord. He knew that this would eventually be his fate, and he was prepared for it to be now. Thus, when he was delivered and realized that this was not yet his time to die as a martyr, we do not read of him being thrilled, as we might expect. He was ready to die for his Lord, but now he knows that it is his part to live for Him a while longer. This he is willing to do, just as he was willing to die if need be. This was a changed Peter from the one who denied his Lord three times!