Acts 12 – Persecution in Jerusalem

If Luke has been tracking the story of the movement of the Spirit to the “fringes” of Judaism, then we might wonder what the point of chapter 12 is in that development.  It is possible to see persecution from Herod (Agrippa I) as a demonstration of how far out of step the leadership of Israel was with the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Herod was considered to be the best of his line with respect to Jewish roots.  But as we shall see, he was quite Roman in his thinking. With this story, we have in many ways crossed the line to “outsiders,” and it is therefore quite surprising to find the “King of the Jews” on the outside of the growing movement of the Spirit.

Because the death of Herod Agrippa is well know from Josephus, we can date the events of this chapter fairly precisely to A.D. 43-44, some 14 years after Pentecost.  If Herod is celebrating Claudius’ birthday, then he died about Aug 1, 44 and Peter was arrested in April of 44.  If Herod was celebrating the founding of Caesarea, then he died about March 5 and Peter would have been arrested the previous year at Passover (April 43).

The king Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I.  Later in Acts we meet Agrippa II (Acts 25-26; Agrippa II’s full name was Marcus Julius Agrippa).  Born about 10 B.C., Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, the son of Aristobolus and Bernice. He was raised in Rome, and was a friend of Caligula and Claudius as well as Tiberius’ son Drusus. He was able to exploit the relationships in order to gain wealth and power. He sought the favor of Caligula to the point that the Emperor Tiberius imprisoned him for six-months on charges of treason.  In A.D. 41 Agrippa used his relationship with Caligula to help prevent the installation of a statue of the emperor in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Caligula was assassinated, Claudius made Agrippa ruler over considerable territory in Judea.

We are not told why he persecuted the church in Jerusalem, although it may be that Agrippa was in some respects interested in his Jewish roots.  This piety was demonstrated upon his return to Judea.  He donated a golden chain, given to him by Caligula when he was freed from his imprisonment, to the Temple.  In addition, he undertook the sponsorship of a large number of Nazarite vows in the temple (Antiq., 12.6.1, Schürer 2:155).  During a Sabbath year, Agrippa read from the book of Deuteronomy and was moved to tears when he read the words of Deut 17:15, forbidding the appointment of a stranger over the “brothers” (i.e., a non-Israelite over Israel.)  The crowd which witnesses this responded “Thou art our brother!” (See m.Sota 7.8).  According to Josephus:

“He loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure; nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.” Antiq. 19.7.3

Schürer argues that Agrippa was favorable to Pharisism and even to some extent a Jewish nationalism (2:159).  This may be plausible given his zealous persecution of the Jewish Christians in Acts 12.

James’ death is about eleven years after the martyrdom of Stephen.  It therefore appears that the people of Jerusalem no longer support the Jewish Christians. Witherington makes this point:   the city of Jerusalem has “turned against” the Jewish church (Acts, 386 ).   Agrippa is therefore demonstrating his piousness by pursuing the leaders of the Christian community.  Luke demonstrates that the leadership of Israel has rejected the gift of the Spirit.

Bibliography: David C. Braund, “Agrippa” ABD 1:98-99; Schürer , 2:150-159.

11 thoughts on “Acts 12 – Persecution in Jerusalem

  1. My first reaction when I read acts 12, is that King Herod killed James and pursued Peter and many other believers to please the Jews. If Herod was a Jew this would have been protecting his religion, and getting back at the new messianic believers who have given the whole idea of Judaism and Church Seekers. I think the point of this story is to show that God will spread the Gospel and no person will stop it from being told to others. Another part that stuck put to me is that God was not recognized so or praised by Herod, so he was killed. The point of chapter 12, Praise be to God, who is delivering and spreading his Gospel to all.

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  2. This story reminds me a little of Hitler. It’s obviously not the same magnitude, but Herod is at the beginning stages of attempting to wipe out the Christians. The “Jewish nationalism” mentioned in the post seems about right. In order to gain “approval” from the Jews, Herod starts killing Christian leaders, thus fortifying his future position with the Jews, and ridding the world of the pesky sect that challenged his religion. He seemed like a powerful & zealous guy (a dangerous combination), and if God hadn’t intervened, he probably would have done some major damage to Christianity. Also, he couldn’t have been that “good” of a Jew if he had 16 guards murdered, and then placed himself in the position of an idol to be worshipped.

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  3. Yeah, I mean it is smart what Herod is doing here. If you somebody to agree with you, get rid of your opposition. It is defiantly a good thing that God did something. He can change anybody’s heart if He wants to. I would not call anyone a “good” anything if they murdered sixteen guards and wanting to be worshipped as an idol.

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  4. I see a correlation between King Herod Agrippa and Saul (pre the road to Damascus and Jesus incident). 1, they both appear to be “good” law abiding Jews, for the most part. Although the above posts do mention that King Herod had somewhat “Roman thinking” and did some things that would not be Jew approved, like considering himself a god…2, they both persecuted Christians. If Herod is a good Jew then his motives could be the same as Saul , that they view Christianity as a threat to their own religion…3, neither of them seem to be filled with the Holy Spirit. If they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they would have realized that this new Christian “movement” was/is of God and therefore does not need to be stopped.

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    • What about Gamaliel, who did think that it was unwise to try to stop the preaching of the Apostles? Would he be an example of someone who was filled with the Spirit? Perhaps this was just a wise spirit, not the Holy Spirit.

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  5. It always amazes me to think of the persecution that was so prevalent during these times. Anytime I read of events like this, and how James was the very first martyr to die for Jesus Christ (12:2; Arnold 109), I begin to think if I would be willing to do the same. Am I so in love with Christ that I would be willing to die for Him? It is a tough thing to think about; I want to eventually be as confident about my willingness to die for Him, as I am about my salvation in Him. The two go hand in hand. It just fascinates me to read about these people that were tortured and killed, and I long for that same zeal. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:20-21)

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  6. I completely agree with Stefan. I think that in many ways this is a great example of how God’s plans will not be deterred. God is the driving force behind the Gospel message. And, Acts 12 is a great example of that. We see that in most Christian doctrine as well. We work for God, but He makes things happen. Even those who work against him, whether intended or not, will fail in the end.

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  7. Acts 12 is one of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible because of this reality that persecution is real and is a part of the Christian life, but also it goes to show that God is God. He is the One who does the work and brings the growth, not by any works that we can do or think of. He allows us to go through hard times, but then, as soon as we start to worry, He simply rescues us.
    I also like how Luke points out how the Church body plays a role in this story of Peter’s imprisonment and escape. When Peter comes to his senses he doesn’t just run out of the city or get as far away as he can, instead he goes to Mary’s house, where many other believers were gathered. Peter went to the Body first. I love it!
    I also wonder if Herod was trying to show off with detaining Peter. He first killed James and realized that the Jews, the ones he wanted to fit in with, enjoyed that, so he then proceeds to imprison Peter. I wonder if he was simply trying to keep the favor of the Jews headed his direction so he kept persecuting the people of the Way. He couldn’t just stop with the killing of James, he had to one up himself, so he imprisoned one of the main leaders, Peter.

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  8. Well said, Chrissy!

    It seems to me that this chapter is incredibly dramatic. It has a long serious of death, imprisonment, lack of faith by those praying. Then Herod, the source of the persecution, claims himself as a god and is killed. If that were not dramatic enough, the next verse, 24, states, “but the word of God increased and multiplied.” Whoa. That gives me chills. (It even gets its own paragraph line on biblegateway…)
    Luke, time and time again, seems to be the master of the dramatic scenario. This chapter hinges on the depressing, but is subtly rooted in the rejoicing of the gospel. Despite everything that is happening, God’s word is still prevailing. Even today… if that’s not encouragement, I don’t know what is!

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  9. I wonder if Agrippa were to live in a pre-Christ Israel, would he have been seen as a king who “walked in the ways of his father David” even though he was not a Davidic king? He walks, talks and acts like he is a Jew by practice and even seems to have Jewish convictions. It would seem likely that if Agrippa, despite having Greco-Roman influence, was in fact a Jew, his appointment by Rome was a smart move. Having the guise of one of their own over them instead of a Roman ruler directly governing them would have been most difficult. If he were a type of half-breed, then I think it is telling that the Israelites have bigger fish to fry than one of their own petty squabbles with their personal prejudices.

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  10. I am trying to wrap my mind around if Herod claimed to be king of the Jews, or if the Jewish people appointed him King of the Jews. From my perspective this would make a difference in the reasoning behind his persecution. He could be the leader of a nation and still disagree with the practices of the people, or he could hereditary be the king of the Jewish race who is trying to lead people of his same background and history. Based upon the original post, I would conclude that Herod Agrippa II was appointed as the ruler of Judea based upon political reasons and not merely because of his Jewish roots. It could have been possible that Herod knew of his Jewish background but chose not to associate with it, much like how some people may recognize the actions of their ancestors and yet choose to do the exact opposite in order to guide their life. We often see throughout Luke-Acts the local government siding with the people in the majority or maybe peer pressured into making decisions according to the desires of the powerful and not necessarily in accordance to appropriate moral side of the issue (Luke 23). In regards to the persecution of James, maybe it is as simple as being a scene in the overall drama that builds up to the Jewish people recognizing their disconnection and misunderstanding of the Messiah and the gospel.

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