This page is a verse by verse study of Acts 12:1-17. These verses describe James’s death, Peter’s imprisonment and escape.
James dies, Peter is imprisoned and escapes.
¶ "Now about that time, King Herod laid hands on some of the church to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death by the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he also arrested Peter. This happened during the days of unleavened bread."(Acts 12:1-3).
King Herod. The Herod of Acts 12:1 was Herod Agrippa I. He was the grandson of Herod the Great who slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem, and nephew of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who killed John the Baptist (Matthew 2:16, 14:1ffLuke 9:9).
James the brother of John. The James of Acts 12:1 was James the son of Zebedee, and was one of the twelve apostles. There are four lists of the apostles in the New Testament (Luke 6:14-16,Acts 1:13,Matthew 10:2-4,Mark 3:16-19). The following list combines these four sources. You'll note there was another apostle called James: James the son of Alphaeus.
Simon Peter (Cephas)
James the son of Zebedee
John (the brother of the above James)
Andrew (Peter's brother)
Philip (not Philip the evangelist)
Matthew the tax collector
James the son of Alphaeus
Simon the Zealot, the Canaanite
Judas Thaddaeus son of James
Judas Iscariot (the betrayerreplaced by Matthias)
The Prophecy About James. Jesus predicted that James and John would, like Jesus, be put to death. (Matthew 20:20-23). The prophecy is fulfilled for James by Herod, who has James killed by sword —probably beheaded.
Herod’s purpose. Herod acted out of a desire to please the Jews who were opposing the Christians. Now he arrests Peter, not for any just reason, but for political gain.
¶ "When Herod had Peter arrested, he sent him to prison, with four squads of four soldiers each to guard him. He was intending to bring him before the people after the Passover. So Peter was kept in the prison, but the church prayed to God for Peter fervently. Now on the very night that Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains. Guards in front of the door kept the prison secure."(Acts 12:4-6).
Sixteen Soldiers. Herod was ensuring that Peter would be there for the show, nicely timed for when Jerusalem would be crowded. Herod has 16 soldiers assigned to guard Peter day and night. During the night, Peter has two soldiers bound to him by chains.
The church prayed. The Christians didn't attempt to break Peter out of his heavily guarded prison. They resorted to prayer. This did not guarantee Peter would be set free. After all, James had not escaped death. As we shall see, however, God did rescue Peter, but the Christians who were praying for him couldn't believe it.
¶ "And behold, an angel of the Lord stood beside Peter, and a light shone in the cell. The angel struck Peter on the side, and woke him up. He said, “Quickly! Stand up!” and the chains fell from Peter’s hands. The angel said to him, “Get dressed and put your sandals on.” Peter did so. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your cloak, and follow me.” Peter followed him out, but he did not know that the angel’s actions were real. Peter thought he was seeing a vision. When they'd passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city. The gate opened for them by itself. They went out, and down one street, and then the angel departed from Peter. (Acts 12:7-10).
An angel of the Lord. Angels of God do things for people that people can't do for themselves. The angel made Peter’s chains fall off, but he told Peter to put his clothes and sandals on all by himself. The angel led Peter through locked doors, past vigilant guards, and through an iron gate, but he still expected Peter to walk on his own two feet. The angel took Peter down one street only, then left him alone to use his own wits. Don't expect angels to do for you what you can do for yourself.
Thought he was seeing a vision. The “laws of nature” operate in the real world. If we experience something against those laws, we assume it to be an hallucination, or a dream, or perhaps a vision, not something real. But Peter’s escape from prison was all quite real.
¶ "When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I truly know that the Lord has sent forth his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from everything the Jewish people were expecting.” Having realised this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. When Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so excited with joy that she didn't open the gate. She ran inside, and told everyone that Peter was standing in front of the gate. They said to her, “You are crazy!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It must be his angel.”"(Acts 12:11-15).
Think before you pray. Peter stands knocking at a house where he expects brethren to be gathered. They are, and they are praying for Peter. But when their prayers are answered, they are not expecting it. The servant girl who comes to the door gets into such a state when she hears Peter’s voice that she runs back inside not thinking to let him in. Then, when she tells the folk inside that Peter is outside, they can't believe it and think the girl is imagining things. Meanwhile Peter has to just keep knocking.
The door of the gate. The door within a larger entrance, where you go in from the public street to the private house. The door would be latched at night.
¶ "But Peter kept knocking. When they opened up, they saw him, and were amazed. But he made a sign with his hand to be silent. He told them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, “Tell these things to James, and to the brethren.” Then he departed, and went to another place."(Acts 12:16-17).
No time for commotion. When, after quite a delay, they open the door for Peter, their amazement bubbles over. But Peter signals for silence. The last thing he needs is a commotion to attract attention and waste more time. He quickly explains what happened, asks them to pass on the information to others, especially to James. Then he goes off to a refuge somewhere before his escape is discovered at the prison.
James. As we saw above, there were two apostles named James. One was now dead. The other was James the son of Alphaeus.