Luke-Acts: Acts 12

We have often reminded ourselves that the chapters and verses are a later development in the history of the texts of the Bible. They aren’t part of the many earliest copies we have, and over time they developed as a tool for cross-referencing and reading in parts. It might surprise you to know that the chapters and verses that we know now as standard have been around for less than five hundred years.

Why do we mention that now? Other than another reminder, Acts 12 is a good example of where it makes sense to see this text as a “chapter”. It begins and ends with a main subject: Herod Agrippa and attempts to stop the spread of the Gospel.

12:1 The Herod spoken of here isn’t Herod the Great who was in power at the time of Jesus’ birth, with whom we’re most familiar because of the events surrounding Christmas (e.g. Luke 1:5, Matthew 2). Nor is he Herod Antipas, who was a son of Herod the Great (e.g. Luke 3:1). This is Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod the Great (but nephew to Herod Antipas’, not his son). He “laid violent hands” (ESV) on some Christians. In other words, he mistreated and harmed them, mostly through his agents.

12:2 Those who were martyred included one of the Twelve, James the brother of John, the son of Zebedee, one of the first to be called as an Apostle (Matthew 4:18-22) who was often mentioned with Peter and John (e.g. Luke 9:28, Matthew 26:36-38). A tragic earthly ending, to be sure, and also a fulfillment of what Jesus said would come about, that great suffering would come to the Twelve on account of His Name (e.g. John 15:18-21). Yet it was also James’ entry into eternity to be with Christ and the Church forever.

12:3-6 The audacious decision to murder such a prominent member of the Christian Church surely created the stir he was intending. Though this chapter deals with Herod’s evil actions, it is related to all that’s come before; remember that Peter has been fraternizing with Gentiles and as such was opposed by some. It seems that there were still a significant number of Jewish people who approved of the death of Christians. So Herod, seeking their favour, goes after Peter as well.

Herod has Peter arrested during a festival and kept him in prison until the end of the festival, when it seems evident that the plan was to have him killed. Peter was under heavy (we might think excessive!) guard: four rotating teams of four guards, two immediately with Peter and two outside the door of his cell.

12:7-11 Peter’s miraculous escape is the result of God’s work through one of his angels. Peter initially thought it was just a vision, and it wasn’t until he was actually free from prison that he realized it was for real. In this account we might hear echoes of Jesus’ own resurrection: being unjustly sentenced, under heavy (excessive?) guard, a supernatural release, and the presence of God’s angels/messengers/agents.

12:12-17 There is much joy at Peter’s release, and some humour along with it: when he goes to connect with other believers at Mary’s house, the girl Rhoda—who greeted Peter—was so overjoyed by seeing him that she didn’t even let him into the house! They who hear Rhoda’s report don’t believe her, and Peter is left to stand outside and keep knocking until they realized that it was actually him.

Peter, evidently concerned about too much of a noise being made—it was likely that the house was known to the authorities as a place where Christians met—quiets them, tells the story, and then departs.

The man James referred to here is not James the son of Zebedee, who we heard had just been martyred, but evidently is James “the Just”, who was the half brother of Jesus, another son of Mary. He was a leader in the Jerusalem Christian church, who we will hear about more in upcoming chapters.

12:12 Mary here is not Mary the mother of Jesus, but a different Mary. Luke often highlights the prominent women involved in the work of the Church; here he tells us that she was hosting a group of Christians for prayer. So she was evidently a woman of some means. She is the mother of a disciple named John (which was a Hebrew name), or Mark (a Roman one). John Mark, as he’s commonly known, because a missionary companion of Barnabas and Saul/Paul, and the author of the Gospel according to Mark.

12:18-19 It was standard procedure for guards to receive the punishment that their prisoners were due should their prisoner escape. The Greek text doesn’t explicitly say that they were to be put to death, but that is the clear implication (see also Acts 16:27 and 27:42).

12:20-23 We hear now about the end of Herod’s life which was brought about by the judgment of God, because he accepted worship of people who acclaimed him to be a divine figure. The Jewish historian Josephus (an important source about the history of this time and place because he seemed not to be a Christian and independently corroborates the Biblical record about things like this) gives more detail about this episode in his Antiquities of the Jews.

Tyre and Sidon weren’t part of Herod’s jurisdiction, and so this false worship isn’t committed by Jewish people. Yet Herod accepts their false worship, and thereby condemns himself for the sin of blasphemy. Contrast his response to false worship to that of the Apostles (e.g. Acts 3:11-16, Acts 14:11-15) who redirect people’s praise to the One True God.

12:24 This is a striking note that we’ve seen before (e.g. in Acts 8 and 9 where the Word spreads, even as result of persecution against Jesus’ body, the Church).

Returning to the note about chapters and verses, if we were going to quibble about where chapter 12 should end, we might say it should be here after verse 24. At the same time, though, 12:25 is an excellent connection back to the end of chapter 11, as it returns us in the narrative to Antioch, describing how Barnabas and Saul have completed what they’d been commissioned to do by the believers in Antioch as they sent aid through the two men to Jerusalem (11:27-30).

We also see here in 12:25 another instance of the word diakonia (“service”, “ministry”) that we spent considerable time on in Acts 6. One further nuance of this diakon- word group is the idea of commissioning; someone who fulfills this service is doing so not of their own accord but at the commissioning of others (i.e. a specific group of Christians). It’s worth noting that this idea is in common use even outside the Church; in our system of government, for example, no “minister” takes on the role of his/her own accord. He/she is commissioned more directly by the people (e.g. when it comes to the role of Prime Minister - commissioned by the political party to lead it and then also by the people who elect that party to government), or more indirectly (e.g. a Minister of Education is appointed by a Premier in a provincial government).

So that idea of diakonia can be more broad (where it might be better translated into English as “service’”, as it is here in 12:25) or more narrow (where “ministry” might be a better translation to avoid confusion when it comes to specifically churchly tasks, e.g. “the ministry of the Word” in 6:4). As we consider the idea and apply it to our own situations today, it’s helpful to be more specific; when using the word “ministry” or “service”, we can ask, ministry/service of what? That can help us to clarify what we’re talking about.