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Earlier this month, a schoolboy found a coin dating from the New Testament era whilst on a class trip in Israel.

On January 27, 2019, The Times of Israel reported:

A boy found a 2,000-year-old coin from the Second Temple-era rule of Herod Agrippa, the last king of Judea, during a hike last week in the northern West Bank.

The rare piece was uncovered in the Shilo stream during a school trip, according to a Sunday statement from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israeli body that administers civilian matters in the West Bank under the Defense Ministry.

The coin features three stalks of grain on one side, and a royal canopy surrounded by an engraving reading “King Agrippa” on the other side.

The boy notified his tour guide, who, in turn, contacted an employee of the Archaeology Unit at COGAT’s Civil Administration. The boy gave the employee the coin, which was duly analysed.

The coin will soon join the Israel Antiquities Authority’s collection of National Treasures.

I was excited to see this article, even happier when the journalist carefully identified the Herod involved:

Herod Agrippa ruled Judea from 41 CE until his death three years later. He was the grandson of Herod the Great and the father of Herod Agrippa II, the last king of the Herodian Dynasty. He ruled the territory to the satisfaction of the Jews, and was hailed at the time as “Agrippa the Great,” according to Josephus.

In Acts 12, St Luke — the author of Acts — wrote of how Agrippa had James (John’s brother, the sons of Zebedee) beheaded, put Peter in prison and not long afterwards, after an angel of the Lord released Peter from prison, he received a divine judgement: death by worms, which ate him alive.

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that it took five days for the worms to consume his body.

I am amazed by the ancient finds that continue to turn up.

In London, as the exciting new Crossrail line is being built, archaeologists are still examining sets of skulls unearthed during construction a few years ago. The skulls date to around 100-110 AD, so, during the Roman rule of Britain — and not that long, relatively speaking, after Herod Agrippa I’s death. But I digress.

In closing, when I get to Acts 26 in my Forbidden Bible Verses series, I will be writing about St Paul’s encounter with Herod Agrippa II.

Bible and crossThe 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 have omitted — 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 12:20-23

The Death of Herod

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain,[a] they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

——————————————————————————————-

Last week’s post described Herod Agrippa I’s ire and humiliation over the disappearance of Peter, who makes no more significant appearances in Acts, other than in Chapter 15.

As my post explains, Herod Agrippa I — i.e. his men — searched for Peter but could not find him. Herod then sentenced his 16 guards assigned to Peter to death.

Matthew Henry thought that their sentence was commuted — because of the events in today’s post. John MacArthur says that they did die.

Regardless, my post said that the death penalty was Roman law for a guard who, even inadvertently, allowed a prisoner to escape.

In any event, Herod Agrippa was completely humiliated. He wanted to put Peter on stage for a kangaroo trial and bloody death after Passover that year. He had already had the apostle James — St James the Great — beheaded in a more low-key way. Peter was to be the great public spectacle, akin to Jesus before the Crucifixion.

However, God foiled Herod’s evil plan for Peter at every stage.

And God wasn’t finished yet.

As I wrote last week, after Herod was humiliated, he left Judea for Caesarea, where he staged lavish performances praising Caesar, who had just returned from a triumphant trip to Britain. He was surrounded by the great and the good of the day. They went to sponge off Herod, enjoying his hospitality. They went to honour Caesar, not Herod.

Herod Agrippa was saturated with sin. Not only was he angry with the most devout followers of Christ, he was also infuriated by others, as Matthew Henry’s commentary tells us, possibly for trivial reasons.

In verse 20, we discover that he was angry with the people of two ancient cities, Tyre and Sidon. Those cities appear occasionally in both the Old and New Testaments. In 2015, I wrote about Matthew 11:20-24, saying that Sidon was a Phoenecian port city, first mentioned in Genesis 10. The Egyptians sent their wheat to Sidon. From there, ships sent the wheat to Mediterranean ports. Tyre was a nearby fortified city, mentioned in Judges 19. It provided the cedars of Lebanon for Solomon’s temple. The two cities were — not surprisingly — steeped in idolatry, corruption and vice. This is why Jesus’s comment about the two cities — a judgment against the Jews of his time — was such a stinging curse (i.e. ‘Woe to you’):

21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.

Also see the parallel in Luke 10:13-15, with more about the two cities.

MacArthur explains that, at the time of Herod Agrippa, who was their king for all intents and purposes:

Tyre and Sidon are two free cities north of Caesarea. Caesarea is right on the Mediterranean Sea west of Jerusalem. And up north in Syria, north of Galilee is Tyre and Sidon, coastal cities, free cities, technically belonging to Syria. They were the neighbors of Galilee and of Herod’s territory, so there was a necessary interdependence.

That interdependence had to do with foodstuffs passing through those cities. Both depended on food from Galilee. Tyre and Sidon did not produce their own, as they traded.

MacArthur tells us:

Herod was mad. Maybe he didn’t like the duties or the tariffs that Tyre and Sidon were charging him for his movement of materials. So he got mad at them and he cut off all supplies and they were hurting badly. Herod was very angry and when Tyre and Sidon couldn’t get the food they needed and the supply they needed from Galilee and Israel they were in trouble. And so they knew they needed to make a treaty with Herod.

The people of Tyre and Sidon made an ally out of a man named Blastus, the king’s chamberlain — his trusted attendant or treasurer — who acted as their intermediary. Henry wrote that they likely used bribes.

In any event, they asked for peace, because they were in danger of going hungry.

Herod agreed a date to speak to them. This was a situation he must have relished: having two powerful ports — comparable to city states — being forced to grovel at his feet.

Herod made sure he donned his most royal robes, looked majestic on his throne and delivered an oration to them (verse 21). He milked this for all it was worth. MacArthur says:

He decided that the whole world would know how super he was, how great he was, and watch these two nations bow at his feet, these two cities.

MacArthur adds that all the great and the good who saw the performances lauding Caesar were likely to have been in attendance. The performances had taken place the day before.

Henry agrees with MacArthur that the Jewish historian Josephus also wrote about this event (emphases mine):

he had all the mucky mucks and the leaders all arriving in Caesarea and they met in the amphitheatre that had been built by his grandfather, Herod the Great. I was in that place where that is, big massive amphitheatre and there he had his big throne and all the people were sitting around cheer upon cheer cheering people and he comes out splendid in his royal apparel and Josephus said he had a silver robe on, made of silver. And the sun just came and splattered off of that thing and he just looked resplend[ent] in all of his glory, which is just what he wanted. He was going to get out there and sit in his throne and the cheering people, and he was going to watch all the Tyre and Sidon people bowing down to him and … eat up every second of it. This was day one, the tip of the hat to Caesar, day two my day, see. So he got day one out of the way and the second day comes in his silver robe and he’s the glory of man at its pinnacle. All the Rome pomp and circumstances there, the soldiers, the whole shot, everything is set up and all the little mealy mouth favor seekers are sitting in the chairs cheering, crowds lining everywhere.

This was a big deal. If this were to happen today, it would have been discussed for days on all the cable news channels, on Internet sites, tweeted about and hyped beyond reason. It would have been in all the newspapers and analysed endlessly. It would have been filmed live as a great televisual showdown.

So, duly puffed up with himself, Herod Agrippa gave an oration. Henry paints the picture for us:

He made a speech to the men of Tyre and Sidon, a fine oration, in which, probably, after he had aggravated their fault, and commended their submission, he concluded with an assurance that he would pass by their offence and receive them into his favour again–proud enough that he had it in his power whom he would to keep alive, as well as whom he would to slay; and probably he kept them in suspense as to what their doom should be, till he made this oration to them, that the act of grace might come to them with the more pleasing surprise.

If that had occurred today, there would have been a lengthy commercial break between oration and conclusion of perceived mercy.

Amazingly, those who heard the oration — and, frankly, this isn’t too different to our times — pronounced the ‘voice of a god, and not of man’ (verse 22).

Immediately, an angel of the Lord struck him down. He breathed his last, but not before being eaten by worms (verse 23).

N.B.: Herod Agrippa was sentenced to death by worms. Those worms did not eat him in his grave. They ate him alive. We all know how hideous maggots and grubs are. Imagine being eaten by them. Talk about a spectacle. That was God’s — and Jesus Christ’s — message to him, those watching and us.

Henry analyses this for us, including Herod’s quasi-Judaism:

his fault was that he said nothing, did not rebuke their flattery, nor disown the title they had given him, nor give God the glory (Acts 12:23); but he took it to himself, was very willing it should terminate in himself, and that he should be thought a god and have divine honours paid him. Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur–if the people will be deceived, let them. And it was worse in him who was a Jew, and professed to believe in one God only, than it was in the heathen emperors, who had gods many and lords many.

This brings us back to Jesus’s curse on Chorazin and Bethsaida cited above. If we know and ignore God’s will and Christ Jesus, we will surely perish.

We cannot know God unless we truly believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Saviour.

As Henry explains:

Now he was reckoned with for vexing the church of Christ, killing James, imprisoning Peter, and all the other mischiefs he had done.

Also:

The angel smote him with a sore disease just at that instant when he was strutting at the applauses of the people, and adoring his own shadow. Thus the king of Tyre said in his pride, I am a god, I sit in the seat of God; and set his heart as the heart of God; but he shall be a man, and no God, a weak mortal man, in the hand of him that slayeth him (Ezekiel 28:2-9), so Herod here. Potent princes must know, not only that God is omnipotent, but that angels also are greater in power and might than they. The angel smote him, because he gave not the glory to God; angels are jealous for God’s honour, and as soon as ever they have commission are ready to smite those that usurp his prerogatives, and rob God of his honour.

Henry adds the following for his audience, as the microscope was in its infancy then. His words are also pertinent for us today, four centuries later:

Surprising discoveries have of late been made by microscopes of the multitude of worms that there are in human bodies, and how much they contribute to the diseases of them, which is a good reason why we should not be proud of our bodies, or of any of their accomplishments, and why we should not pamper our bodies, for this is but feeding the worms, and feeding them for the worms.

Yes! A thousand times yes!

Of the worms, MacArthur tells us:

Josephus says they ate him for five days before he died. That’s a sickening debasing terrible way to die. Just when a man thinks he has exalted himself to the place of glory God crushes him to a place of humility. And I say to you, you can’t fight God because his power can’t be contested and His punishment can’t be avoided. Don’t fight God. He was painfully smitten. The pompous fool done in by worms.

God will never be defeated by unbelievers or mockers.

Next time — Acts 12:24-25

bible-wornThe 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 have omitted — 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 12:18-19

18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.

————————————————————————————–

Last week’s post discussed Peter’s visit to the house of Mary, a relative of Barnabas and mother of John Mark — Mark of the Gospel — to tell those praying in her house for him that he was safe and well. Recall that an angel of the Lord released him from prison. Those chains were there for all to see and were passed down through the centuries. Peter left quickly to get out of Jerusalem and continue his ministry out of reach of Herod Agrippa I and his men.

The day referred to in verse 18 was to be that of Peter’s public trial and beheading. However, the soldiers were in an uproar over Peter’s disappearance and the broken chains.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says that, under Roman law, letting a prisoner escape was a capital offence.

The guards did not know an angel led Peter out of the cell. There were 16 men guarding him at various points in the prison to prevent his escape, which took place in the middle of the night. There were divine ways to turn their attention away from their prisoner, e.g. sleep. St Luke, the author of Acts, did not tell us how God worked through the angel.

Henry says the guards no doubt played the blame game in an attempt to avoid the death penalty:

They thought themselves as sure as could be of him but last night; yet now the bird is flown, and they can hear no tale nor tidings of him. This set them together by the ears; one says, “It was your fault;” the other, “Nay, but it was yours;” having no other way to clear themselves, but by accusing one another.

Herod — i.e. his men — searched for Peter in vain (verse 19). They might even have conducted house-to-house searches in a concerted effort to protect their lives. Luke did not give us details.

Incidentally, Acts 16:27 mentions a Philippian jailer who feared for his life when he thought Paul and Silas had escaped during an earthquake. That is how awful this was.

He was ready to commit suicide rather than be executed (emphases mine):

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer[e] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas.

The experience was so significant that he converted then and there:

30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Herod sentenced the guards to death. MacArthur says that the guards were executed. However, Henry’s commentary says that they might not have died, because Herod died before the sentence could be carried out. We’ll get to Herod’s death next week — not to be missed.

Herod then left Judea for Caesarea. He was completely humiliated. If you’ve been following this series, you will recall that Acts 12 opens with Herod’s beheading of James the Apostle, the brother of John (sons of Zebedee).

James’s beheading proved popular among the Jews, so Herod wanted to create a bigger spectacle with Peter after that Passover, putting him on trial before the people and executing him.

Henry offers this analysis:

He was vexed to the heart, as a lion disappointed of his prey; and the more because he had so much raised the expectation of the people of the Jews concerning Peter, had told them how he would very shortly gratify them with the sight of Peter’s head in a charger, which would oblige them as much as John Baptist’s did Herodias; it made him ashamed to be robbed of this boasting, and to see himself, notwithstanding his confidence, disabled to make his words good. This is such a mortification to his proud spirit that he cannot bear to stay in Judea, but away he goes to Cesarea.

Herod’s departure entered the annals of the historian Josephus:

Josephus mentions this coming of Herod to Cesarea, at the end of the third year of his reign over all Judea (Antiq. 19. 343) …

Josephus recorded that, in Caesarea, Herod attended plays that honoured Caesar. Herod was rubbing shoulders with the wealthiest and most powerful people there. MacArthur puts it this way:

It was very likely under the pretense of a celebration for Claudius Caesar, because to throw a party for Herod, for Herod to throw a party for himself was really ridiculous. Nobody would come. And it wasn’t official enough to bring the big wheels, so he threw a big thing for Caesar. Caesar had just returned safely from Britain. Hail Caesar his great work in Britain. Not only that some historians tell us it was Caesar’s birthday.

The moral of this episode is that God will not be challenged. He also protects His people. MacArthur tells us:

His power can’t be contested. Herod amassed all the power that he had and it was nothing, it was a drip against the ocean of God’s power.

That is something to keep in mind at all times — especially for unbelievers and mockers.

God had more plans for Herod Agrippa I. Tune in next week for drama.

Next time: Acts 12:20-23

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.

——————————————————————————————–

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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