Bible penngrovechurchofchristorgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 12:1-5

James Killed and Peter Imprisoned

12 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

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In Acts 11 — read here and here — St Luke described how the Church expanded into Gentile lands, particularly Antioch.

The end of the chapter mentions a famine affecting Judea during the Emperor Claudius’s reign. Paul and Barnabas, who were teaching in Antioch at the time, collected charitable donations from the church there which they personally delivered to the church in Jerusalem.

They were there as the events of Acts 12 unfolded.

A period of peace for the church in Jerusalem — Acts 9:31 — ended with Herod’s persecution of converts in Jerusalem.

This Herod is not the one who had John the Baptist beheaded. That was Herod Antipas. This Herod was Herod Agrippa I. He was Herod the Great’s grandson. Herod the Great was the one who ordered infant boys to be killed at the time of Christ’s birth.

The Herods were Edomites, descended from Esau who sold his birthright to Jacob. GotQuestions.org tells us that they were pagans until the Maccabean wars. (The Books of the Maccabees are not in Protestant editions of the Bible but are still in Catholic versions.) GotQuestions states:

During the Maccabean wars, the Edomites were subjugated by the Jews and forced to convert to Judaism. Through it all, the Edomites maintained much of their old hatred for the Jews. When Greek became the common language, the Edomites were called Idumaeans. With the rise of the Roman Empire, an Idumaean whose father had converted to Judaism was named king of Judea. That Idumaean is known in history as King Herod the Great, the tyrant who ordered a massacre in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Christ child (Matthew 2:16-18).

Herod the great sent young Herod Agrippa to Rome to study. He resided in the imperial court. Tiberius, the emperor at the time, was most fond of him. Agrippa studied alongside Tiberius’s son Drusus and the future emperor Claudius. Agrippa was tetrarch when Claudius was emperor.

Agrippa decided to persecute the church (verse 1), no doubt to curry favour with the Jews and, possibly, Rome.

He beheaded James, the son of Zebedee, John’s brother (verse 2). The King James Version tells us that Jesus called the two brothers the sons of thunder (Mark 3:17):

17 And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:

It is possible that having had such a moniker he was forceful in his preaching and made many converts, thereby angering Herod Agrippa. The Church designated him St James the Great.

Both Matthew Henry and John MacArthur say that James’s martyrdom could have been a fulfilment of Matthew 20:23. Not all versions have this expanded verse, but the King James Version does (emphases mine below):

20 Then came to him the mother of Zebedees children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him.

21 And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.

22 But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.

23 And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.

John, possibly because he was at the Crucifixion, did not die a martyr but as an exile on Patmos.

However, James did receive a bloody death by beheading. That is what the two commentators are referring to.

Beheading someone was a rare occurrence in Jewish society. Matthew Henry says that the Romans considered using a sword more demeaning than an axe:

He was slain with the sword, that is, his head was cut off with a sword, which was looked upon by the Romans to be a more disgraceful way of being beheaded than with an axe; so Lorinus. Beheading was not ordinarily used among the Jews; but, when kings gave verbal orders for private and sudden executions, this manner of death was used, as most expeditious; and it is probable that this Herod killed James, as the other Herod killed John Baptist, privately in the prison.

John MacArthur adds another interesting detail:

according to the Talmud, people died of the sword when they had led people after false gods. They had accused then perhaps James of leading the people after false gods, a false god in Christianity, not the true God, and therefore they executed him. And the interesting thing about it, the irony is that it’s all political by Herod. That Herod is not anti church or anti Christian in the pure sense, he is just pro Herod and so it’s a political thing. He was a typical Roman playboy adventurer.

After beheading James, Herod Agrippa decided to go further and have Peter imprisoned during Passover, ‘the days of Unleavened Bread’ (verse 3). Recall that the whole of the Jewish world travelled to Jerusalem for Passover, so this would have attracted much attention.

He seized Peter and had him put in prison, guarded by 16 soldiers (verse 4). The squads referred to were comprised of four guards each. From the KJV:

And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.

‘Quaternions’ begins with the number ‘four’ in Latin. Four multiplied by four is 16.

Both commentators point out that the KJV compilers should not have put ‘Easter’ in that verse, by the way.

While Peter was in prison, the church in Jerusalem prayed for him (verse 5). The KJV expresses their prayer as follows:

Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.

The church in Jerusalem understood the primacy of prayer, which we, today, so often forget, trivialise or ridicule. Yet, prayer can move mountains and, next week, we will see that it did for Peter.

It would not surprise me if they had round the clock prayer vigils. However, MacArthur says:

That word just doesn’t mean without ceasing nearly as much as it means intensely. It’s the word ektenoce. It comes in the form of ektenace and so forth and what it means it’s a medical term and it has to do with stretching a muscle to its limit. It means total effort. They were totally lost in prayer.

Herod Agrippa’s idea was to keep Peter in prison until Passover ended then put him on trial. Henry offers this analysis:

Herod’s design was, after Easter, to bring him forth unto the people. (1.) He would make a spectacle of him. Probably he had put James to death privately, which the people had complained of, not because it was an unjust thing to put a man to death without giving him a public hearing, but because it deprived them of the satisfaction of seeing him executed; and therefore Herod, now he knows their minds, will gratify them with the sight of Peter in bonds, of Peter upon the block, that they may feed their eyes with such a pleasing spectacle. And very ambitious surely he was to please the people who was willing thus to please them! (2.) He would do this after Easter, meta to pascha–after the passover, certainly so it ought to be read, for it is the same word that is always so rendered; and to insinuate the introducing of a gospel-feast, instead of the passover, when we have nothing in the New Testament of such a thing, is to mingle Judaism with our Christianity. Herod would not condemn him till the passover was over, some think, for fear lest he should have such an interest among the people that they should demand the release of him, according to the custom of the feast: or, after the hurry of the feast was over, and the town was empty, he would entertain them with Peter’s public trial and execution. Thus was the plot laid, and both Herod and the people long to have the feast over, that they may gratify themselves with this barbarous entertainment.

James was the second martyr in Acts, the first being Stephen (Acts 7), whose death involved Saul of Tarsus (Acts 8).

Acts is a fascinating book about the growth and expansion of the Church. It is indeed a treasure to read again and again.

Next time — Acts 12:6-11

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