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Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 12
God gave Peter the mercy of being released from prison the night before his execution, but did not give James that mercy. The church was confused and startled, but Peter took it as a chance to take his ministry to new places. When God answers our bold prayers, are we ready to thank Him and act accordingly?
Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. (12:7)
[This was originally a printed newsletter for teachers. I'm putting older resources online for easy reference.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Dreams and Visions
Have you ever had a dream that you were absolutely convinced was real? Of course you have. We all have. As long as you keep things from getting weird, letting people talk about their realistic dreams could be a fun icebreaker. Follow that up with another question: have you ever had an experience that you were convinced wasn’t real because you were so out of it? (Teacher warning: I'm think of situations like being very tired, having taken Benadryl, coming out from anethesia -- this is not a time for tripping stories.) We say, “It was like being in a dream,” and we all have stories that are kind of like that. If you can keep people on track, that can also be a fun discussion.
The point is that Peter had an experience he was convinced was a dream, only to find out that it had really happened! It turned out to be the sort of encounter with God that we have all prayed for at one time or another. The question we have to answer is “Why did God give Peter that experience? What did He want Peter to do?”
People Who Declare Themselves God.
This is obviously a scary one—anyone who declares himself God is messed up (and that’s why they dealt with Jesus so harshly, so let me fix that to say “anyone who wrongly declares himself God”). It’s not uncommon. You remember that the pharaohs were thought of as gods. The Roman imperial cult (emperor-worship) developed during Jesus’ lifetime, and it was Caligula (37-41) who seemed to first take being considered a god to heart.
But plenty of other people have called themselves god!
Jehovah Wanyoni of Kenya (who just died last year) claimed to be the father of Jesus Christ, and he threatened the country with judgment if they didn’t give him money. He had 70 wives and 95 children.
Jim Jones would claim to be god when it suited him.
Hulon Mitchell, a black supremacist from Oklahoma, declared himself Yahweh ben Yahweh and was eventually arrested for racketeering and murder.
Mitsuo Matayoshi formed the World Economic Community Party in Japan in 1997 under the doctrine that he is god and Jesus Christ and has run for Prime Minister of Japan every year since. He has not been elected.
Sergey Torop founded the Church of the Last Testament in Russia in 1991 on the conviction that he is Jesus reincarnated. He has 10,000 followers.
Moon Sun Myung (who just died in 2009) formed the Unification Church as Jesus Christ reincarnated; millions of people have been associated with it.
Ryuho Okawa of Japan currently claims 10 million followers in his church of “happy science” based on the idea that he is the living Buddha and savior.
In the background of our passage today is King Herod, a man who acted as the god over the church—a man who could determine life and death for Christians. The One True God eventually judged him for such blasphemy, but that hasn’t stopped others.
Summarizing Our Quarter in Acts
Would you believe that our time in Acts is done for a while? We will pick up the rest of it in a few quarters, but we are off to 1 Samuel next week. I strongly encourage you to remind your class of everything we covered this quarter. After all, it is a description of the church God wants us to be.
Entrusted (Acts 1). Jesus has given the church a very specific and concrete purpose: to be His witnesses all over the world. That’s why we’re here.
Empowered (Acts 2). Jesus has also given us the means by which to accomplish His purpose (and it’s not our own efforts!): the Holy Spirit of God.
Unified (Acts 2). In order to survive in a hostile culture, the early church had to work together financially, socially, and spiritually. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Courageous (Acts 4). The early church was challenged and threatened from the get-go, but they stood up for Jesus with great courage and were blessed.
Integrity (Acts 4/5). (Just a brief soapbox about how annoyed I get when writers fail to use proper parallelism . . .) Because they were so dependent on one another, the early church had to be completely trustworthy.
Faithful (Acts 5). When God miraculously provided for His church, they responded not by disappearing but standing even more boldly for His message.
Selfless (Acts 6). Again, related to the truth that these people needed one another, the early church survived because they put others above themselves.
Obedient (Acts 8). Using Philip as the example, we know that God blessed the church when they obeyed His commands and commission.
Converted (Acts 9). The early church took very seriously the idea that only true Christians should be considered part of the church. We should too!
Bold (Acts 9). While I think the lesson was a bit of a stretch, there is no doubt that the early church was bold in their expectations of God and their mission.
Accepting (Acts 10). It took blunt actions by God, but the early church finally realized that people from every race and culture could become a Christian.
Extraordinary (Acts 12). Kinda summarizing the whole quarter, we learn that when God is involved, extraordinary things happen; to be a church of God is to be more and expect more than a country club or activist society.
If you have time, talk about these again. Remind them that we specifically talked about bold prayer and using our testimony to share the gospel. How are we doing as a church? How are you doing as a class? What do we need to emphasize or change? Encourage your group to pray boldly for those things (be specific!) and to pray for change and revival in our community.
You might also email or print this list for your group members. Ask them to put it somewhere they can see it regularly and then pray for their class and church with respect to each of these characteristics.
Where We Are in Acts
Luke is changing the focus at this point of Acts from Peter to Paul, but Peter gets to go out with a bang, as they say. In Acts 11, Peter has some ‘splaining to do to the other apostles in Jerusalem for sharing the gospel with Gentiles. He does so, and Luke does not record any opposition to Peter’s claim the Gentiles can be a part of the church (we know from the rest of the Bible that prejudice continued). Then we find out that other, unnamed disciples had also been sharing the gospel with Gentiles and even started a church in Antioch. The apostles sent Barnabas to investigate, and Barnabas invited Paul to come along. Barnabas and Paul were in Antioch for a year until a famine led this new church to send aid to Jerusalem via Barnabas and Paul. Chapter 12 functions as a “Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem . . .” aside whose sole purpose is to wrap up the stories of Jesus’ inner circle: Peter and James. In chapter 13, Luke picks up again with Barnabas and Paul, and the focus will remain on Paul for the rest of the book (this is why the quarterly stops with chapter 12). Luke does not tell us what happens to Peter after he leaves Jerusalem. Chapter 12 also puts a bow on the story of the Herods, who had mercilessly persecuted the early church. I will recommend continuing to read all the way through Herod’s ugly death at the end of the chapter.
Part 1: Deliverance (12:7-10)
Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” Then the chains fell off his wrists. “Get dressed,” the angel told him, “and put on your sandals.” And he did so. “Wrap your cloak around you,” he told him, “and follow me.” So he went out and followed, and he did not know that what took place through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. After they passed the first and second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened to them by itself. They went outside and passed one street, and immediately the angel left him.
This is one of those times where the outline subheadings really aren’t helpful. It looks a lot like a sermon outline. Really, all you need to worry about is the big picture: God miraculously delivered Peter from Herod’s clutches so he could continue God’s work. But make sure to point out the context so as to head off a possible misinterpretation. Some people might try to take away from this passage that if we just pray more earnestly, God will answer our prayers. That’s not true! Peter is in prison because Herod is trying to make the Jews happy, and Herod has already put the apostle James to death. Don’t you think the church was praying for James’ release as well? Herod has no doubt heard the stories of how Peter escaped from the Jewish prison next to the Temple—he won’t make the same mistake. Quadruple the guards! Chain them to Peter! He won’t get away from Romans! Is Peter terrified knowing that this kind of guard surely means a public execution. He doesn’t seem to be—he’s sleeping soundly enough that the angel has to forcibly wake him up. :)
Based on the circumstances, it should be clear that it was humanly impossible for Peter to escape. Just as before, an angel appeared, opened the doors, and unchained Peter. This time, he seems to have kept the guards asleep somehow (Roman soldiers were the best in the world) enabling Peter to tie up his loose tunic and cloak (for running purposes) and put on his sandals.
This goes back to my suggestion for an icebreaker; Peter really didn’t know what was going on. It was all too surreal (and remember that he had recently seen a very realistic vision while at Simon the tanner’s house!). One commenter said it must have seemed like sleepwalking, which I have never done to know if that is accurate. If this was the Tower of Antonia, it was a true fortress, and Peter’s only hope of escape was a miraculous intervention where he followed the orders of the angel precisely. But God does not always grant these deliverances . . .
Aside: The Tower of Antonia
Many scholars believe that Peter was being held in the Tower of Antonia (named for Mark Antony). It was a multipurpose fortress attached to the Temple complex. It served as the king’s palace, barracks for the local Roman cohort (600 men), residence for important Roman officials, prison for sensitive criminals, and lockbox for the robes of the high priest (so the Romans could control the priesthood). Its location and design were such that Herod could respond quickly to any major uprising in Jerusalem while keeping officials safe. By building it so close to the Temple, Herod also knew that his ability to control access to the Temple would keep most Jews from doing anything too foolish. The Tower was apparently very ornate, with all of the comforts of Rome, including baths and courtyards. This makes Peter’s miraculous escape even more remarkable, noting how well-defended the Tower was, how many doors and gates would have separated the prison from the outside, and how unfamiliar Peter would have been with its passages.
Note that the Tower is never named explicitly in the Bible, so all of this is conjecture based on early accounts by the historian Josephus.
Part 2: Delight (12:11-12)
Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had assembled and were praying.
[Just an observation -- when I talk to myself, it doesn't sound like that.]
Every once in a while, I get the feeling that Peter was just really, really dense. How else do you think you escaped from prison, Peter???!?? This is also a reminder that the outline as given isn’t really useful. I’m just not sure what “Delight” and “Determined” have to do with helping us teach this passage in Sunday School.
Anyway, there are a few things to point out here and in the verses the lesson skips. First, the church was gathered and praying. They couldn’t march on the prison (and that’s not how God wants us to resolve these threats), but they could pray, and they did so earnestly and intently. Second, Peter knew where they would be, and he knew that would be the best place to go. Wouldn’t that be nice to realize that we had a safe place to go in times of trouble? Third, the house belonged to Mark’s mother (see below). Fourth, humorously, the girl who went to the door (Rhoda) was so shocked that she left Peter in the street where he easily could have been captured again! And fifth, the disciples say something about “Peter’s angel”. If anyone asks about this, tell them that this is not a belief that people became angels when they died. That’s what “ghosts” were, and the disciples knew that Peter wasn’t dead yet (there was going to be a fancy public execution). Rather, this is the belief that every human has a “guardian angel” (see perhaps Matt 18:10), and Peter’s angel had come to warn them about something, taking Peter’s form to make the message easier.
Aside: John Mark’s Connections
Barnabas, as we’ve learned, is a true unsung hero for the early church. Part of the reason for his importance was the family connections he had in the early church. For example, his aunt was a wealthy woman named Mary—wealthy enough to own a very large home in Jerusalem with at least one servant (note that she did not feel compelled to sell this property and give the proceeds to the poor). Indeed, many scholars surmise that Mary owned the home where the disciples shared the Last Supper, the same home where the disciples were gathered before Pentecost, and where the disciples were praying in our passage today.
Well, Mary had a son named John Mark. According to a tradition that goes back to the first century, this is the same Mark that wrote that gospel. That being the case, this means that Mary also owned the Garden of Gethsemane and that Mark want sent there to man the watchtower (of course, he fell asleep and later fled terrified).
When Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch having completed their aid mission, they took Mark with them. Famously, Mark would not make it all the way through the “first missionary journey” before returning home to Jerusalem. Because Barnabas and Paul would later have an irreconcilable difference over whether or not Mark should get another chance, we have to assume that Mark left at least in part because he did not like that Paul was building more authority than his cousin Barnabas. He may also not have liked this new turn to the Gentiles. It would be many years before Mark and Paul reconciled (2 Tim 4:11).
Part 3: Determined (12:16-17)
Peter, however, kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astounded. Motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he explained to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. “Report these things to James and the brothers,” he said. Then he departed and went to a different place.
Of course Peter was “determined.” What else was he going to do?? You might have a funny story to tell about a family gathering that went awry or fell into chaos. Luke describes this event in vivid terms. Eventually, the disciples realize they should probably let Peter in, and it takes quite a while before Peter can get their attention enough to say what’s going on! He tells them the story and then departs, and this is the last we hear of Peter (except for his presence at the Jerusalem Council). Most likely, he escapes Jerusalem to go to Antioch; the floor now belongs to Paul.
You can point out that “James” is the half-brother of Jesus who becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem with the departure of Peter. James the apostle is recently executed.
Part 4: Disturbance (12:18-19)
At daylight, there was a great commotion among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. After Herod had searched and did not find him, he interrogated the guards and ordered their execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
I would encourage you to take your group through the rest of the chapter. Unlike the Jewish soldiers who “let” Peter escape the first time, Roman soldiers are executed for such failures (note the jailer who tried to kill himself Acts 16:27 or the prisoners Acts 27:42 under similar circumstances). Frankly, that’s a tough pill to swallow because there was really nothing they could have done (unless this is retribution for a lifetime of heinous action!).
Herod then left Jerusalem for Caesarea, where he resolved some kind of trade dispute with Tyre and Sidon. To butter him up, the people called him a god, and he approved. Therefore, God struck him down and he died of worms. (Note that Josephus also records this event in his History, but says that Herod suffered for 5 days before finally dying.) Something to point out is that God’s judgment eventually comes on all people. Herod had no trouble killing apostles and otherwise thumbing his nose at God. Eventually, he paid for it with his life. We won’t always have the personal satisfaction of seeing clear evidence of God’s retribution, and it won’t always happen in what we consider a “timely” manner (although Herod died within weeks of putting James to death, he committed many other heinous sins in the years before that act). But we do have to trust and know that God holds the power of ultimate judgment, and not a sin will be overlooked.
Extraordinary. You can wrap everything up by calling attention to the title of the lesson: “extraordinary.” The truth is that most of us probably do not feel extraordinary—at least not in the sense of the amazing things the apostles experienced. We haven’t seen people raised from the dead or prisoners miraculously escape their chains. What’s so extraordinary about us? Well, take a step back. Have we seen people miraculously saved through the grace of Christ and witness of our church? Have we seen lives miraculously changed through the working of the Holy Spirit and the encouragement of our church? Have we seen illnesses miraculously healed through the power of God and the prayers of our church? Yes, we have. With greater boldness and belief, we may see even more of those things happen . . .
Aside: King Herod
You might remember that I put a pretty long feature about Herod the Great (the king from Jesus’ birth) when we went through Matthew a little while back. The Herod in our story today is his grandson, Herod Agrippa I. Herod the Great was a true megalomaniac, but he was so successful in controlling Judea that he ingratiated himself to a long list of Roman rulers. I mentioned that the Romans excused a lot of bad behavior in the Herod family tree because Herod the Great was such a great and ruthless politician. He had several of his sons killed, and at least one of his grandsons (Herod Agrippa) was sent to live in Rome as a good faith offering for his continued support of the Empire.
Not surprisingly, Herod Agrippa was very good at making friends (having been brought up in a paranoid power-hungry household). Two of the boys he trained and went to school with went on to become emperor(!): Caligula and Claudius. When Caligula became emperor in AD 37, he began giving territory to Herod Agrippa that Herod the Great had bequeathed to his uncles, Herod Philip and Antipas. No record of how those uncles felt about this. Then, when Caligula died and Claudius became emperor in AD 41, Claudius appointed Herod Agrippa as ruler over Judea and Samaria. Technically, this means that Herod Agrippa was king over Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Transjordan, and the Decapolis—that’s a territory almost as large as Herod the Great’s. Acts 12 probably takes place around AD 43, when Herod Agrippa would have been trying to appease his new Jewish territories.
Closing Thoughts: Praying about Persecution
Your leader guide places a heavy emphasis on persecution, which is completely appropriate for this lesson, but I shied away from it because I have hit the topic pretty hard twice recently. If you have not done so, then by all means talk about persecution in our world today! More Christians are persecuted at this moment than have ever been in the history of the human race. Here are the resources I suggested:
erlc.com (this is an SBC site)
And here are the three reasons I suggested for persecution:
(1) authoritarian governments that want to control their people,
(2) natural hostility toward all “nontraditional” groups (including minority religions), and
(3) the lack of basic human rights in those countries.
We see all of those at play in Acts, meaning that there is nothing new under the sun. We also see a roadmap as to what to pray for with respect to persecution.
Pray that leaders will be forced to recognize that all people have basic human rights.
Pray that instigators will be forced to have meaningful dialog with Christians (or other minorities) and realize that they are not enemies.
Pray that the wicked intentions of authoritarian leaders will be exposed and that people will wake up to the untrustworthiness of such leaders.
Pray that Christians in those places will have such a good reputation for character and good works that the people will start to listen to them.
Pray that those individuals who are protecting those under persecution will themselves be protected from harm.
Pray that God would restrain the spirit of lawlessness more so that the gospel message can move unhindered.
Pray that Christians who live in freedom would pray more earnestly for those under persecution.
Find the names of those in prison and pray that God would have them released.