Lesson for November 1, 2015
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 12:1-11
In this passage, Luke shifts his attention away from the amazing developments involving the conversion of Gentiles in chapters 10 and 11 and the advance of the church into Antioch. Now he turns to new challenges facing the believers in Jerusalem.
Acts 12:1-2: — Herod kills James
Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, is identified as King Herod by Luke. As a puppet ruler he benefited from his numerous connections to powerful Roman officials to maintain and expand his political control of Palestine. He was especially eager to strengthen his popularity with his Jewish subjects. The Mishnah records that Herod read the law at the Feast of Tabernacles and was warmly received by the people.
Probably to curry favor with his Jewish subjects, Herod decided to persecute members of the Jerusalem church. His first victim was the apostle James, the brother of John and one of the earliest followers of Jesus. Herod arranged to have James killed — probably beheaded — which pleased Herod’s Jewish constituency. The church historian Eusebius preserves a tradition attributed to Clement of Alexandria that a guard was so impressed by James that he became a Christian and was beheaded along with him.
Acts 12:3-5 — Peter arrested
Herod’s evil plan was not finished with the death of James. He decided to make Peter his next victim. Luke emphasizes that this happened “during the festival of unleavened bread” when the celebration of Passover occurred. Luke’s Christian readers would no doubt recognize that this was the same time of the year that Jesus had been arrested and crucified.
Herod had Peter arrested and imprisoned under very heavy security. Four groups of four soldiers each were assigned to guard Peter in three-hour shifts throughout the night. Herod probably wanted to avoid the embarrassment that would result if Peter escaped from prison again as he had before (see Acts 5:19-20).
Peter’s imprisonment became a matter of fervent prayer by the Jerusalem Christians. For Luke, the church is defined as a praying community. John Calvin wrote that this verse tells us how we should react when Christians are persecuted. Addressing his congregation in Geneva he said, “If we do nothing… we are treacherously abandoning the confession of our faith… [and] we are failing not so much them as ourselves and Christ.” The Jerusalem Christians prayed earnestly for their imprisoned leader.
Acts 12:6-11 — Peter is freed
The night before Herod intended to put Peter to death Peter was sleeping chained to his guards when God intervened in the form of an angel. The angel, accompanied by a bright light, awakened Peter as the chains fell from his wrists. Peter obeyed the angel’s command to get dressed and follow.
Luke’s account masterfully describes how a bewildered Peter, thinking he was dreaming, followed the angel past two guards and up to an iron gate that led out of prison and into the city. Luke reports that this gate opened of its own accord.
As Peter walked down the street, his angelic guide suddenly disappeared and Peter came to his senses. Now fully awake and aware of his miraculous escape from prison, Peter realized that God was the one who had liberated him. According to Luke’s report, Peter exclaimed, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” Here Luke refers to the Jews as a religious group distinct from Christians, a self-designation quite possibly selected by the followers of Jesus first in Antioch (Acts 11:26).
Peter immediately went to the home of a prominent Christian leader, Mary the mother of John Mark, who will have a significant role later in Luke’s history of the early church. For a brief time John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas (Acts 12:25). Early Christian tradition links John Mark with Peter in Rome and suggests that he was the author of the Gospel of Mark.
Today we frequently hear very disturbing reports of violent persecution of Christians in Syria, Nigeria, Egypt and Israel. In this passage, the Christian community in Jerusalem prayed fervently when James was killed and Peter was imprisoned. Do you agree with John Calvin’s call for Christians to support their persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith? What should we do today to support persecuted Christians? Do you believe in angels? What is your opinion of claims that a “guardian angel” protected a person from harm?