1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
Johann Spangenberg, a lesser known reformer, once pointed to the weather as an analogy for the way that persecutions come and go in the life of the early Church.
Christianity is like April weather, which is erratic and changes nearly every hour: now it is snowing, soon it begins to rain, now the sun is shining, but then it is cloudy. So it went in the early church: Christ preached in Judea and Galilee in good peace for a season, then came a storm. Christ was imprisoned, crucified and killed. But this storm dissipated quickly, Christ arose from the dead, ascended to heaven, sent his Holy Spirit. Whenever the dear Son shone, the Christians rejoiced, but before they could look around, it thundered and there was lightning again! But this thunder and lightning also had an end; the dear Son broke out again.
I daresay we might extend this analogy to our own day as well. Honestly, which of us does not turn on the news with some hesitation these days, praying that we do not see yet another person in an orange jump suit on their knees beside a knife-wielding member of Isis? Some of these men are journalists, of course, but many of them have been Christians, and there can be no doubt that the Church has been the special object of Isis’ murderous rage.
The early Church experienced the same unsettling dynamic. They knew not what would come from one day to the next, so they rooted and grounded themselves in the changeless person of Christ Jesus the Lord. There were periods of suffering. There were periods of peace. But the secret of the Church was that it transcended these temporal things and took its hope from the very throne of Heaven, at the right hand of which Christ was interceding for His people.
The Church suffers as a result of the political calculations of wicked men.
There is a uniquely political element in the persecution described in Acts 12, an element that mirrors the dynamics surrounding the trial of Jesus.
1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church.
Here we find yet another Herod breathing out yet more murder and hatred against Christ and His followers. This Herod is not the Herod who sat on the throne at the birth of Christ. This is his grandson. Let us consider some interesting and helpful information about this Herod. We will begin with some insights from A.T. Robertson.
Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, was King of Palestine A.D. 42-44; only for these three years was a Herod king over Palestine since the death of Herod the Great and never afterwards…Herod Agrippa I was an Idumean through his grandfather Herod the Great and a grandson of Mariamne the Maccabean princess. He was a favourite of Caligula the Roman Emporer and was anxious to placate his Jewish subjects while retaining the favour of the Romans. So he built theatres and held games for the Romans and Greeks and slew the Christians to please the Jews.
Robertson hit on the key political dynamic at this point in the story by pointing out that Herod “was anxious to placate his Jewish subjects while retaining the favour of the Romans.” R. Kent Hughes has passed on even more fascinating background information:
His father, Aristobulus, had been murdered by his own father, Herod the Great, the ruler who had ordered the slaughter of innocent babies at Christ’s birth. After the death of Aristobulus, the Herod of Acts 12 was sent to Rome to be educated, and there he grew up as a close friend of the imperial family. He was something of a playboy, and in A.D. 23 he fled to Palestine to escape his creditors. In Palestine he lived in humility and poverty under his uncle, Herod Antipas.
Upon his return to Rome, he was imprisoned by the Emperor Tiberius for some critical remarks he had made. His life had hit bottom. But then Tiberius died, and Herod’s childhood friend, Caligula, came to power – not only freeing him from prison, but giving him a gold chain weighing as much as his iron fetters in prison. Soon Herod was named ruler of some Palestinian provinces. When another childhood friend, Claudius, succeeded Caligula, Herod became ruler of Judea and Samaria. Murder and intrigue had been the currency of his entire life.
Herod was preeminently a politician. When he was with the Romans he did as the Romans did. Though he was Jewish only by race and not by conviction, when he was with the Jews he acted like a Jew. The Mishnah records that during the annual procession bearing the first fruits to the temple, “when they reached the temple Mount, Agrippa the king [Herod] would take his basket on his shoulder and enter as far as the Temple Court.” He would do anything to maintain his popularity with the Jewish people.
The picture that emerges is one of a conniving, posturing opportunist who came from a wicked, pernicious family and whose primary interest was the securing of his own comfort and favor in the eyes of even more powerful men. This is our Herod. He was a Jew when he needed to be and a Roman when he needed to be. Like Herod, he found himself faced with an opportunity to placate his Jewish subjects and to endear himself to his Roman overlords. The opportunity came in the form of the new Jesus movement that was unsettling the Jews and, as a result, the Romans as well.
Thus, Herod strikes out, laying “violent hands” on the Church. This is a stark contrast to the merciful hands of Christ, the saving hands of Christ. Herod’s hands bore murder and mayhem. Christ’s hands bear life and peace.
We should not miss, however, that the Church suffers as a result of the political calculations of wicked men. Herod, like Pilate, strikes out at Christ with his own security in mind. In so doing, he was striking out against the Lord of life. There is a bitter irony here: in seeking to secure himself, he undid himself, for Christ will not be conquered by anybody, much less by wicked kings. David said as much in Psalm 2.
1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Herod refused to “kiss the Son.” Instead, he struck out at the Son. As a result, he would pay a terrible price, but not before the Church suffered as a result of his demonic arrogance.
Some are killed and some suffer, but the Church rallies in prayer.
The specific objects of Herod’s persecution are James and Peter.
2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
Peter is imprisoned because they cannot kill him immediately due to the holy days of the Jewish Passover. We will deal more with Peter in the verses to come, but let us consider the heartbreaking words of verse 2: “He killed James the brother of John with the sword.” This is almost certainly a way of describing beheading.
This James is not James, the brother of Jesus. This is the disciple James, the brother of John. In Mark 3:17 we see James and John referenced as “James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder).”
I am struck by the understated nature of Luke’s description of his martyrdom. We do not get the full and detailed account that we get in the martyrdom of Stephen. Here the words are as bare and simple as a knife thrust. They unsettle us.
There is a 1722 painting, “Martyrdom of St James” by Giacomo Piazzetta, that captures well the martyrdom of James. In the painting, James is being restrained by a rope that is held by his persecutor. He is being bound for his martyrdom, his execution. As I look at this painting, I cannot help but think of an earlier scene involving James. It is in Matthew 20 and, initially, it does not cast James or his brother John in a good light. But read in the knowledge of what we know happens in Acts 12:1, there is something powerful about this.
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
The mother of the Sons of Thunder, apparently with their agreement, asks for positions of authority and favor for her sons. Jesus dismisses the request but asks a deeper more probing question of the James and John: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” “We are able,” they respond.
“Can you really suffer as I am going to suffer,” Christ asks?
“I can,” James responds.
At the time, he could have had no real idea what he was saying, but in Acts 12:1 he did. And we can be sure that the immature James of Matthew 20 had grown a great deal before he became the martyr James of Acts 12.
Did he remember the question Jesus had asked him when they put the sword to his neck? Did he perhaps repeat his answer again? “We are able. We are able.”
James did indeed take the cup of suffering, and, in so doing, he sealed his testimony with his blood. He identified with Christ in that powerful way that only a martyr can understand. He drank the cup to the full and bled for the truth of the gospel.
The Church’s reaction was telling. They prayed. They did not protest. They prayed. John Chrysostom noted that “they did not divide into factions or make an uproar but turned to prayer, that true alliance which is invincible. In this they sought refuge.”
This truly is the great refuge of the Church: prayer. This is not passivity. It is anything but. This is a weapon against the darkness. Prayer beseeches the throne of Heaven to hear and act. Prayer is the heart’s cry of the people of God for God to rise up and vindicate His name on the earth.
The devil wounded the Church, but Christ would yet crush the devil’s head. Johann Spangenberg put it succinctly and well.
The more Christians are persecuted and slaughtered, the more Christians are born…And in Christians’ blood the devil must be drowned.
Amen and amen.
 Esther Chung-Kim and Todd R. Hains, eds. Acts. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.VI. Timothy George, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p.160.
 A.T. Robertson, Acts. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.III (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.163-164.
 R. Kent Hughes, Acts. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), p.164.
 Francis Martin, ed. Acts. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.V. Thomas C. Oden, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.152.
 Esther Chung-Kim and Tood R. Hains, p.155.