Acts, Lesson 13: Persecution Begins From the State

Peter in Prison (610x352)Last week, we had a look into the church at Antioch, the first place where Christians were labelled with the disparaging term, “Christian,” one belonging to Christ. Today, we find such disparaging words grow into an even greater persecution.


Martyrdom and Imprisonment

Read Acts 12:1-5

Herod and his descendants, also called “Herod” ruled Judea (renamed Palestine after 70 AD) under the authority of Rome from 63 BC through 100 AD. Most likely the Herod to whom Luke referred was Herod Agrippa I, who ruled from 37 – 44 AD (from 41-44 AD in Judea, when the Roman Emperor increased his territory). He was the grandson of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5), who tried to kill Jesus as an infant (Mt 2:16. Herod I’s uncle, Herod Antipas, was the man who beheaded John the Baptizer and who wanted Jesus to do a miracle at his trial. This persecution took place near the end of Herod I’s reign.

  • Which James was this whom Herod had killed?


  • When were the “days of unleavened bread”?


  • What does this say about Herod and many of the Jews’ attitudes toward Christians?


  • What happened to Peter?


  • How did the Church respond?


John Chrysostom (347-497 AD, Archbishop of Constantinople), preaching on this text, said:

Notice the feelings of the faithful toward their pastors. They do not riot or rebel. They went to prayer, to that invincible alliance [with God]. They do not say to themselves: “We do not count; there’s no point in praying for him.” Their love led them to pray and they did not think along those lines. Have you noticed what those persecutors did without intending to? They made [their victims] more determined to stand the test, and [the faithful] more zealous and loving. [Homilies on Acts, homily 26]

  • How was this persecution different the first persecution described in Acts 5:17-32 and 8:1-3?


  • What does the Church not do after the death of one of her Apostles, James?


  • What does this say about the Church’s understanding of the role of the Apostles?


Peter’s Rescue from Prison

Read Acts 12:6-11

  • Who comes to Peter during the night?


  • Luke recorded that “an angel of the Lord” rescued Peter. What does this mean when it comes to God affirming the reality of the New Covenant?


  • What does the angel do?


  • From Peter’s perception, how is his rescue taking place?


This was Peter’s third imprisonment of Peter in Acts (Acts 4:3 and 5:18), but the second time he is rescued by an angel (Acts 5:19 and 12:7). We should not miss the connections that Luke makes to show that the New Covenant is from God, not the invention of a heretical sect of Judaism. Peter’s deliverance during Passover evokes memories of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Like the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:12), Peter’s rescue occurs “on the very night,” and Peter, like the Israelites, has to move quickly and be clothed for departure (Exodus 12:11). Like Israel in the Old Covenant, Peter is “brought… out” of bondage (Acts 12:17; Exodus 12:51) and rescued “from the hand” of his enemies (Acts 12:11, Exodus 3:8) during “Passover” (Acts 12:4, Ex 12:11-12) by an “angel of the Lord” (12:7, Exodus 14:19) after dressing himself and putting “sandals” on his feet (Acts 12:8, Exodus 12:11)


Excursus: Why Don’t Such Miracles Happen Today?

In today’s lesson, we see an angel of the Lord free Peter from prison. That really happened. But why don’t we see such miracles like that today? We know God can do them, but experience shows us that He chooses not to do so.

A careful reading of the book of Acts and the Epistles reveals that during apostolic times a general and gradual withdrawal of miraculous events took place. It would seem that when the Gospels and Apostolic epistles began to be circulated, God saw fit to take away the miraculous events that marked the birth of the New-Covenant Church.

God’s written Word was becoming the last divine revelation of God. The Holy Spirit would work faith through the inspired Word. From now on, faith would come by hearing the Word of God. And this matches what Jesus told His Church to do until He returns.

The Book of Hebrews even points to this changed reality in passing. Pastors in the Church, following after the Apostles, did not have the same abilities that Jesus gave to His Apostles, nor did they see the same miraculous events. “. . . how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first [this implies that what followed was no longer happening] began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him [the original disciples and Apostle Paul], God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Hebrews 2:3-4).


Read Acts 12:12-15

Here, Luke introduces us to John Mark, often simply called “Mark.” This is the same person who would later compose the Gospel of Mark, become a coworker with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 12:25, Colossians 4:10) and later with Peter (1Peter 5:13). Mark’s mother is known and remembered in the Church as a woman who opened her home for believers to worship there.

  • Where does Peter go?


  • What were the Christians doing?


  • Mark’s mother had a servant/slave. What does that say about her economic status?


  • How do the Christians react to Rhoda’s pronouncement that Peter was at the gate?



Excursus: “It’s His Angel!”

The earliest Christian Church adopted the Jewish and scriptural worldview that God’s angels had a special, watchful relationship with humans.

  • Genesis 48:16: [Jacob was close to death and wanted to bless his grandsons, Manasseh and Ephraim:] “The Angel, who has delivered me from all harm, bless these boys.”
  • Psalm 91:11: [This psalm speaks to those “who dwell in the shelter of the Most High”:] He [God] will command his angels concerning you, to protect you in all your ways.
  • Psalm 103:20: Praise the Lord, all his angels, you mighty ones who do his [God’s] bidding, obedient to his command.
  • Tobit 5:22: [When the mother of Tobias worried about the safety of her son, her husband, Tobias, said:] “A good angel will go with him, and his journey will be successful. He will return in good health.”
  • Matthew 18:10: [Jesus responding to His disciples after they asked Him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”:] “See that you don’t despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
  • Hebrews 1:14: Are not all angels ministering spirits sent out to serve those who are going to inherit salvation? [Note: “those who are going to inherit salvation” refers to those who are already Christians who will receive the fullness of their salvation on the Last Day.]

The above verses support the teaching that God watches over and protects His people through angels, all according to His will. From the early Church we get the teaching that God assigns to every Christian an angel to watch over him throughout his life. We must be honest and say that Scripture does not explicitly teach the doctrine that each Christian has his own “guardian angel.” However, it is not a doctrine contrary to Scripture or the Christian faith, and Lutherans being “catholic Christians” can hold to such a belief.

What hasn’t carried over into our day from the early Church (and the Jewish thinking of that era) is the idea that the angel watching over someone became a “double” of the person he guarded when he made himself visible. That’s why the Christians responded as they did to Rhoda. They could more easily believe that an angel looking like Peter came to the gate than Peter, since Peter had four soldiers guarding him at all times while imprisoned.


Read Acts 12:16-17

  • What did Peter continue doing because people inside the house discussing who was really at the gate?


  • Peter told the Christians at the house (in Jerusalem) to tell these events to “James and his brothers.” What’s the significance of that?


Read Acts 12:18-29

  • Why would there be “no little disturbance” among the soldiers that Peter was gone?


Herod Dies

Read Acts 12:20-23a

Note: Herod I was a favorite of Roman Emperor Claudius, who allowed Herod to use the title of “king.” So, the “king” in vs. 20 refers to Herod.

  • Why would the people say that Herod was the “voice of God”?


  • What happened to Herod?


The Roman historian Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 AD) recorded Herod I’s death. Like Luke’s description, Herod listened to the people’s praises. Herod was immediately struck with pain and had to be carried away. According to Josephus, Herod died five days later.

Flavius Josephus on Herod I’s death:

The crowds then began to shout from various parts of the theater, words which in truth were not for his best, addressing him as a god, and crying out, “We have in the past honored you as a man, but now we honor you as one with a nature greater than any mortal being.”

The king did not rebuke, nor disagree with the flattery of the crowd… Shortly afterwards he experienced a violent attack with a severe pain in his stomach… The king was carried quickly into the palace and word of this account reached the ears of all his subjects, and that it would not be long before he died… And when he had suffered for five straight days from the pain in his stomach, he died at the age of fifty-four after ruling for seven years.


Barnabas and Saul

Read Acts 12:23b-25

  • Despite persecution from the Jewish religious and secular authorities, what was the state of the Church?


Luke now transfers his narrative from Jerusalem to Antioch. We know this because Luke wrote when “Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem.” Luke doesn’t say where they returned to. We’re supposed to remember that Paul and Barnabas left Antioch to bring aid to the Jerusalem church because of the famine that Agabus had predicted (Acts 11:27-30).


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