Around “that time” seemingly relates to the time when Barnabas and Saul left Syrian Antioch to bring contributed funds to aid believers in Judea during the period of the foretold famine. It was then that Herod Agrippa I “laid hands” on some members of the congregation. (12:1; see http://bibleplaces.com/antiochorontes.htm for pictures of and comments about Antioch.)
His laying hands on believers to mistreat them could refer to his arresting them and then acting against them with violence. Another significance could be that the laying of hands on the believers involved cruel mistreatment. Both meanings are reflected in the renderings of modern translations. “About this time, King Herod arrested some people who belonged to the church. He planned to make them suffer greatly.” (NIRV) “Now, about that time, King Herod arrested certain members of the Church, in order to ill-treat them.” (Weymouth) “About that time King Herod cruelly attacked some who belonged to the church.” (HCSB) “At that time King Herod caused terrible suffering for some members of the church.” (CEV) “It was about this time that King Herod launched an attack on certain members of the church.” (REB) Herod Agrippa I had James, the brother of John, executed with the sword, probably meaning that the apostle James was beheaded. (12:1, 2)
On seeing that the execution of James had pleased the unbelieving Jews, Herod Agrippa I had Peter arrested. This occurred during the time the Jews observed the festival of unleavened bread (Passover and the festival that followed) in the month of Nisan (mid-March to mid-April). (12:3; see the Notes section.)
After having Peter arrested, Agrippa had him imprisoned, keeping him securely guarded by four squads of soldiers. Each squad consisted of four men. At night, each squad appears to have served on a rotational basis for each of the four night watches that lasted three hours, starting at about six o’clock in the evening and ending at about six o’clock the next morning. Agrippa planned to “bring [Peter] to the people” after the Festival of Unleavened Bread had ended. This could mean that his purpose was to hold a public trial, which would have led to Peter’s condemnation and execution. A number of translations make this significance explicit in their renderings. “Herod planned to put him on trial in public after the festival.” (CEV) “Herod planned to bring Peter before the people for trial after the Passover Feast.” (NCV) While Peter was being closely guarded in prison, the community of believers prayed intensely to God for him. According to fifth century Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), “much prayer” was being directed “in earnestness” to God for Peter. (12:4, 5)
Matters, however, did not work out as Herod Agrippa I had purposed when he was about to make a public spectacle with Peter. Agrippa’s plan was thwarted during the very night before the day he had intended to carry it out. Peter slept between two soldiers, with each of his wrists chained to one of the soldiers. At the door of the prison, two other soldiers stood guard. (12:6) Suddenly, an “angel of the Lord,” either one whom the Lord Jesus Christ had sent or one of his Father’s angels, stood in the prison cell, and a bright light illuminated it. “Striking” or tapping (“nudging” [form of nýsso], according to Codex Bezae) Peter on the side, the angel woke him up, telling him, “Rise quickly!” Then the confining chains fell from his wrists. (12:7; see the Notes section.)
The angel instructed him to gird himself and to put on his sandals. Peter would have been sleeping in his tunic or inner garment, and so would only have needed to tie his girdle and then to put on his sandals. As the angel wanted Peter to leave with him, he told him to put on his outer garment and then to follow him. (12:8)
Although he exited the prison cell and followed the angel, Peter did not then realize that the angel had freed him. He imagined that “he was seeing a vision.” (12:9)
After passing the first and the second guard, Peter and the angel came to the “iron gate leading into the city.” Of itself, the gate opened to them. After they passed through the opened gate, they continued walking down one street. (12:10; see the Notes section.) Suddenly, the angel departed from Peter, and he became aware of what had happened to him, saying to himself, “Now I truly know that the Lord sent his angel and delivered me from the hand of Herod and from everything the Jewish people expected [to happen].” Peter’s words suggest that certain Jews were expecting that he would be condemned. The Lord to whom Peter attributed the sending of his angel to deliver him from death at the instigation of Herod Agrippa I could either be the Father or the Son (the King of kings and Lord of lords by his Father’s appointment). (12:10, 11; Revelation 19:16)
Realizing what had actually occurred, Peter headed for the home of Mary, the mother of John (also known as Mark). The young man Mark was the cousin of Barnabas. (Colossians 4:10) From very early times, he has been regarded as the writer of the Gospel that bears the name Mark, with Peter being considered the primary source for its content. Besides his association with Peter, Mark also labored in the service of Christ with his cousin Barnabas and with Saul (Paul). (12:25; 13:13; 15:36-39; 2 Timothy 4:11) Quite a number of believers had gathered at Mary’s home and were praying for Peter. (12:5, 12)
Arriving at the house, Peter knocked at the gate. This would have been the gate leading from the street into the courtyard of the home. A servant girl named Rhoda then left to respond to the knock. (12:13)
She became so overjoyed and apparently so overcome by great excitement upon recognizing Peter’s voice that she forgot to open the gate and ran back into the house, telling everyone that Peter was standing in front of the gate. The fact that Rhoda recognized his voice without even seeing him may indicate that he had often been at the home of Mary. His Galilean accent would have been particularly noticeable to those who lived in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judea (Matthew 26:73), and so Rhoda’s having heard him speak at various times likely would have been sufficient for her to have recognized his voice. (12:14)
Although the believers had been praying for Peter, they just could not believe that he had actually arrived on the scene. The thought of a miraculous deliverance in answer to their prayers did not even suggest itself to them. They concluded that Rhoda had lost her senses or was seriously mistaken. She, however, continued to insist that he was there, and so they reasoned that it must be his angel standing before the gate. Possibly they thought that the personage was Peter’s guardian angel. Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) quotes them as saying to Rhoda, “Perhaps it is his angel.” According to ancient rabbinical views, an angel could appear in the form of the person who was under his protective care. (12:15)
Peter continued to knock, and so they went to the gate and opened it. Seeing him, they were astonished, doubtless puzzled as to how he had been able to get out of prison. (12:16)
He motioned with his hand for them to be silent, doubtless not wanting to have any expressions of excitement overheard at nearby homes, which could have jeopardized his safety and also put them at risk if Herod Agrippa I had come to know about it. Peter did tell them how the Lord (either the Lord Jesus Christ or his Father) had brought him out of prison and asked them to inform James (the brother of the Lord Jesus Christ), the one to whom the first-century Jewish historian Josephus refers as James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” (Antiquities, XX, ix, 1) Additionally, Peter requested that the “brothers,” or other fellow believers who were not there in the home, also be told about his deliverance. To secure his own safety, Peter then left for another place. The account does not give any indication as to where this might have been. (12:17; see the Notes section.)
With the arrival of day, the soldiers who had been on guard duty came to be in a state of great turmoil about the disappearance of Peter. They knew that for a prisoner to escape during their watch would be punishable by death. (12:18)
After having a search made for Peter and not finding him, Herod Agrippa I had the guards examined, likely under torture, and then they were “led off.” According to Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), he ordered that the guards “be put to death.” After this, Herod Aggripa I traveled from Judea to the city of Caesarea, staying there for some time. (12:19; see http://bibleplaces.com/caesarea.htm for pictures of and comments about Caesarea.)
For an undisclosed reason, Agrippa was furious with the people of the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. Therefore, they were at risk of being deprived of food imports from the territory under his rule and so of the food (doubtless mainly grain) on which they depended. In order to be able to present their case before Agrippa, they, as a group that likely consisted of prominent representatives from Tyre and Sidon, first approached his chamberlain Blastus. Probably with a significant bribe, they won him over to intervene for them. As chamberlain, Blastus was in charge of Agrippa’s private quarters. By reason of being in close contact with Agrippa, he would have been in a good position to influence him. The representatives from Tyre and Sidon apparently succeeded in having Blastus gain a hearing for them with Agrippa, making it possible for them to ask for “peace” or reconciliation. (12:20)
On an appointed day, Herod Agrippa I, dressed in royal apparel, seated himself on the raised platform that served as the place for rendering judgments or for speaking publicly to an assembly. From the seat on the platform, he addressed the people. (12:21) They began to shout, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” (12:22)
In the case of the community of believers, what next happened to Agrippa was regarded as a divine judgment for failing to give “glory” or praise to God. The account says that the “angel of the Lord” (either an angel of the Lord Jesus Christ or of his Father) struck him at once. For believers, Agrippa’s failure to give glory to God may have included his ordering the execution of the apostle James and arresting Peter with the intent of also having him killed. Herod breathed his last (literally, “gave up [his] soul”) as one “eaten by worms.” His death occurred in the year 44 CE. (12:23; see the Notes section.)
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus comments in greater detail about this event. Although mentioning that Herod Agrippa I died in Caesarea shortly after being addressed as a “god,” Josephus does not include any reference to his being “eaten by worms.” To an extent, the account in Acts and that in Josephus may be regarded as complementary. Herod Agrippa I came to the city of Caesarea after having reigned “three years over all Judea.” In honor of Caesar, he arranged for shows in the theater. On the second day of the shows, Agrippa wore a garment made from silver. When he entered the theater early in the morning, the silver garment, being illuminated by the sun, shone in such a spectacular manner that it had a fear-inspiring effect on those who gazed upon him. From various locations, flatterers cried out that he was a god, adding, “Be merciful to us; for although we have formerly reverenced you only as a man, yet we shall henceforth consider you as superior to mortal nature.” He did not “rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery.” Then, when Agrippa looked up, “he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him.” He “fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner.” Realizing that he would soon die, he said to his friends, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life.” After he had spoken to his friends, his pain became violent, and he was carried into the palace. Worn out by the intense pain in his belly for five days, he died in the fifty-fourth year of his life. (Antiquities, XIX, viii, 2)
As far as the community of believers was concerned, “the word of God [‘the Lord,’ according to fourth-century Codex Vaticanus] kept on growing and multiplying.” This may mean that God’s message, with its specific focus on the Lord Jesus Christ and what his Father has accomplished through him, continued to be spread extensively and resulted in many responding in faith. (12:24) The Greek text has been variously rendered. “But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” (NRSV) “God’s message continued to spread and reach people.” (NCV) “But the Word of the Lord continued to gain ground and increase its influence.” (J. B. Phillips) “The word of God continued to spread and to gain followers.” (NJB)
It appears that, during the general period that the narrated events occurred, Barnabas and Saul had come to Jerusalem from Antioch with contributed funds for believers who would be in need on account of the famine Agabus had foretold. After completing their relief ministry, they returned to Antioch, and John (also called Mark), the son of Mary and the cousin of Barnabas, accompanied them. (12:25; see the Notes section.)
The text for verse 3 is longer in Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis). It says that Herod saw that his “attack on believers” pleased the Jews.
In verse 7, Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) indicates that the light shone forth from the angel instead of saying that the light shone in the prison cell.
In verse 10, Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) says that Peter and the angel “descended seven steps” when leaving the prison.
Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), in verse 17, indicates that Peter did not continue standing at the gate but, after motioning with his hand for fellow believers to be silent, entered and then explained to them what had happened to him.
In verse 23, Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) indicates that Herod did not die on the spot but came down from the “platform” (béma) and that, while “still alive,” was eaten by worms.
In verse 25, fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus read “into Jerusalem,” which would indicate that Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem. This, though, was not the case, as they left the city with Mark. One way “into Jerusalem” has been understood is to take it as meaning that Barnabas and Saul returned after they had fulfilled their service in Jerusalem. “Barnabas and Saul completed their task at Jerusalem and came back, bringing John Mark with them.” (NJB) “After Barnabas and Saul finished their task in Jerusalem, they returned to Antioch.” (NCV) Fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus and a number of other manuscripts read “out of” (ex) Jerusalem, whereas fifth-century Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) and numerous other manuscripts say “from” (apó) Jerusalem. Still other manuscripts read that Barnabas and Saul returned “to [literally, ‘into’] Antioch.”