The Book of ACTS
James J. Barker

Lesson 21

Text: ACTS 12:1-25


  1. This is the fifth recorded persecution of the apostolic church (12:1-4; cf. 4:1-3; 5:17, 18; 6:8-15; 8:1-3).
  2. In order to please the Jews, "Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword" (12:1, 2).
  3. This "Herod the king" was Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says the name Herod signifies "heroic," but the Herods were "characterized by craft and knavery rather than by heroism."
  4. The ISBE goes on to say, "The fortunes of the Herodian family are inseparably connected with the last flickerings of the flame of Judaism, as a national power, before it was forever extinguished" in 70 AD, when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem.
  5. The Herods were marked by their "insufferable egotism which disfigured the family, root and branch. Some of the Herodian princes were undeniably talented; but these talents, wrongly used, left no marks for the good of the people of Israel. Of nearly all the kings of the house of Herod it may truly be said that at their death 'they went without being desired,' unmissed, unmourned. The entire family history is one of incessant brawls, suspicion, intrigue and shocking immorality. In the baleful and waning light of the rule of the Herodians, Christ lived and died, and under it the foundations of the Christian church were laid" (ISBE).
  6. The Herodians were not of Jewish stock; they were Edomites. Herod the Great was the Roman-appointed king of Judea when Jesus born (Matthew 2:1). This was the Herod who "slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under" (Matt. 2:16).
  7. Matthew 2:19 and 20 says, "But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life."
  8. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who became the tetrarch of Galilee and ruled throughout Jesus' ministry. When he took up with Herodias, his brother's wife, John the Baptist confronted Herod with his sin and said, "It is not lawful for thee to have her" (Matt. 14:4).
  9. Herodias' daughter said to Herod, "Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger" (Matt. 14:8), Herod granted her request and had John's head chopped off.
  10. "Herod the king" (12:1), the Herod referred to in Acts 12, was the grandson of Herod the Great, but not the son of Herod Antipas.
  11. In fact, Herod the Great murdered his father Aristobulus.
  12. Our Lord said the devil "was a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44). The devil tried to kill our Lord at the time of His birth; he had John the Baptist killed; and then later he had James killed (Acts 12:1, 2).
  13. The devil used Herod the Great to try and kill the baby Jesus, Herod’s son to kill John the Baptist, and Herod’s grandson to kill James.
  14. The devil uses different people, but his objective is always the same – to destroy the work of God.



  1. Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword (12:1, 2). He was the first of the apostles to be martyred, and our Lord had predicted his death (cf. Mark 10:35-39). James was the first to be martyred, and his brother John the last.
  2. Herod was getting ready to kill Peter, but he did not want to kill Peter until after the Passover (12:1-4).
  3. Acts 12:5 says, "but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him (Peter)."
  4. After the first persecution, the church prayed. It is interesting that they did not pray for relief from persecution, but for boldness (4:29-31).
  5. And here in Acts 12:5 we read, "prayer was made without ceasing."
  6. In Romans 1:9, the apostle Paul said, "without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers."
  7. And Paul said in I Thessalonians 2:13, "For this cause also thank we God without ceasing."
  8. And again in I Thessalonians 5:17, Paul said, "Pray without ceasing."
  9. Paul told Timothy, "without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day" (II Timothy 1:3).
  10. The apostolic church was a church in a constant state of revival. If we want revival, we need to do what they did and that is to "pray without ceasing" (cf. Acts 12:5).
  11. Peter was scheduled to be executed in the morning but he had perfect peace. He knew he was in the perfect will of God. The Bible says he "was sleeping between two soldiers" (Acts 12:6).
  12. In 1735, John Wesley was traveling to Savannah, Georgia from his home in England. On board his ship was a group of German Moravians. When a storm started shaking the ship, Wesley, who also happened to be the chaplain of the vessel, feared for his life.
  13. But he noticed that the group of German Moravians, who were on their way to preach to American Indians, were not afraid at all. In fact, throughout the storm, they calmly prayed and sang hymns.
  14. When the storm finally passed, and the trip ended, John Wesley asked the Moravian leader about his serenity, and the Moravian responded with a question: Did he, Wesley, have faith in Christ? Wesley said he did, but he later reflected, "I fear they were vain words."
  15. In fact, though Wesley was the son of a preacher, and was himself an ordained Anglican minister, he was confused by the experience, but his perplexity led him to a period of soul searching and finally to one of the most famous and consequential conversions in church history.
  16. Perhaps Peter was sleeping peacefully because he knew he would not be killed until he was "old."  That is what our Lord had told him in John 21:18.
  17. We often wonder at the permissive will of God. Why didn't God deliver both Peter and James?  Charles Ryrie says, "Inscrutable are the ways of God."
  18. Another perplexing question: why did the prison guards have to die (12:19)?    They were innocent men just doing their job.  They were not responsible for Peter's imprisonment, nor were they responsible for his escape, yet they were put to death.  
  19. We just have to trust God, who has said, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8, 9).
  20. Apparently Peter was dreaming because when the angel came to rescue him he "thought he saw a vision" (12:7-9).
  21. Peter followed the angel "past the first and the second ward" (12:10), i.e., past the first and second prison guards.  Then they came to "the iron gate that leadeth unto the city" (12:10).
  22. The heavy gate opened by itself as they approached it.  Then after walking together down a street, the angel departed from Peter (12:10).
  23. It was at this time that Peter realized what was happening, and he headed over to the house of Mary the mother of John Mark; where many were gathered together praying. (12:11, 12).
  24. Notice that this was not your typical Wednesday night prayer meeting with only a handful of people present – there were "many" people "gathered together praying" (Acts 12:12).
  25. "The expectation of the people of the Jews" (12:12) means the Jews were eagerly expecting Peter to be executed.  But God heard the prayers of His people, and their earnest praying moved the hand of God.
  26. Though their prayers were answered they didn't believe it at first.  They said unto Rhoda, the lady who answered the door, "Thou art mad" (12:15).  "But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel" (12:15).
  27. So Rhoda kept insisting it was Peter, and Peter kept on knocking on the door.  Finally they opened the door and "were astonished" (12:16).
  28. Peter told them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, "Go shew these things unto James (our Lord's brother), and to the brethren" (12:17).
  29. "And he departed, and went into another place" (12:17b).  Probably into hiding.
  30. The expression "no small stir" (12:18) indicates there was an uproar.  Luke uses this term, and similar terms, elsewhere in the book of Acts.
  • Acts 15:2 says Paul and Barnabas "had no small dissension and disputation with" the Judaizers.
  • Acts 19:23 says, "And the same time there arose no small stir about that way" (describing a riot in Ephesus started by a silversmith named Demetrius, which made silver shrines for Diana).
  • Acts 19:24 says, "For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen."
  • Acts 27:20 says, "No small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away."
  1. Since Herod did not believe in divine intervention, he blamed the prison guards for Peter's escape (12:18, 19).


II. THE DEATH OF HEROD (12:19-23).

  1. After Peter's escape, Herod "went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and there abode" (12:19b).
  2. At this time, Herod had been "highly displeased" with the people of Tyre and Sidon, but they came to visit him "with one accord," and having made Blastus, the king's chamberlain (the officer who is over the king's bed chamber, his personal valet) their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food by Caesarea (12:20).
  3. "And upon a set day, Herod, the persecutor of the church, was killed (Acts 12:21-23). Herod had crossed that invisible (to man) line between God's mercy and His wrath.
  4. W. Graham Scroggie said, "Pride goes too far when it reaches to the throne of God (12:22)" (The Acts of the Apostles).
  5. Note that the angel of the Lord "smote" Peter to wake him up and rescue him (12:7), and the angel of the Lord "smote" Herod to judge him (Acts 12:23).
  6. Matthew Henry said, "See how God delights not only to bring down proud men, but to bring them down in such a way as is most mortifying, and pours most contempt upon them. Herod is not only destroyed, but destroyed by worms, that the pride of his glory may be effectually stained."
  7. The horrible death of Herod is recorded by the famous Jewish historian Josephus: "That Herod came down to Caesarea, to celebrate a festival in honour of Caesar; that the second day of the festival he went in the morning to the theatre, clothed with that splendid robe mentioned before; that his flatterers saluted him as a god, begged that he would be propitious to them; that hitherto they had reverenced him as a man, but now they would confess to be in him something more excellent than a mortal nature. That he did not refuse nor correct this impious flattery...and was at the same instant seized with a most violent pain in his bowels, and gripes in his belly, which were exquisite from the very first; that he turned his eyes upon his friends, and said to this purpose: 'Now I, whom you called a god, and therefore immortal, must be proved a man, and mortal.’"
  8. Historians all date Herod's death at AD 44.



  1. The devil used the Jewish religious leaders, as well as government officials, to suppress the Gospel but Acts 12:24 says, "But the word of God grew and multiplied."
  2. We see similar language throughout the book of Acts. Acts 6:7 says, "And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly."
  3. Persecution did not slow down the growth of the church. Tertullian wrote that, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
  4. Meanwhile, Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry of bringing relief money, and took with them John Mark (12:25; cf. 12:12).
  5. John Mark would later write the Gospel of Mark.
  6. We are told in Colossians 4:10 that John Mark was a nephew of Barnabas. Mary was the sister of Barnabas (12:12).



  1. When people are dead and buried, worms eat their bodies.
  2. And Jesus said that in hell, lost sinners are eaten by worms. Three times in Mark 9, our Lord said, "Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (9:44, 46, 48).
  3. But here is a frightening story of a man being eaten by worms before he "gave up the ghost" (Acts 12:23).
  4. Josephus says he suffered in agony, being eaten by worms for five days before he finally died.

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