June 5, 2014


Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe



Lesson: III.F.1: James Put to Death. (12:1, 2)                                           


Note: The Revised Standard Version is used throughout, except for the text, which uses the King James Version.                                 



Scripture (Acts 12:1, 2; KJV)

1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.

2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword;




After the brief glimpse of the Antioch church that we had in chapter 11, attention focused once more on Jerusalem in chapter 12. If the apostles remained largely untouched by the persecution that followed Stephen’s death, the situation radically changed when Herod Agrippa assumed rule over Judea. The apostles then became the specific targets of the king’s efforts to suppress the Christians. James was beheaded and Peter was put in prison in anticipation of the same fate. But not even the king was able to stem the tide when God was behind it. Indeed, the king found himself fighting against God and suffered the consequences. [“But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" (Acts 5:39). “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17).]





1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.


The story begins with a vague time reference. It was “about this time.” Evidently Luke meant about the time the Antioch church was preparing its relief offering for the Jerusalem church. [“Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Ag'abus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius. And the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:27-30).] Considering the history of Herod Agrippa I, the Herod of this story, the time most likely would have been the Spring of a.d. 42 or 43. The Greek of verse 1 is quite vivid: Herod “laid violent hands” on some of the Christians. To understand why he would do this, it is necessary to understand something of Herod Agrippa I and his relationship to the Jews.


In 1 Peter 3:12, we read, “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous . . .” God watched and noted what Herod Agrippa I was doing to His people. This evil man was the grandson of Herod the Great, who ordered the Bethlehem children to be murdered, and the nephew of Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded. His father Aristobulus, had been executed in 7 b.c. by his grandfather for fear that he might usurp his throne. After his father’s death, while still a child, Agrippa was sent to Rome with his mother, where he was reared and educated along with the children of Roman aristocracy. These childhood friendships eventually led to his ruling over a Jewish kingdom nearly the extent of that of his grandfather. In a.d. 37 the emperor Caligula gave him the title of king and more territory to rule. He was truly “king of the Jews” now, ruling over all of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, the Transjordan, and the Decapolis. A scheming and murderous family, the Herods were despised by the Jews, who resented having Edomites ruling over them [Herod Agrippa I was in reality partially Jewish, being of Hasmonean descent.]. Of course, Herod knew this, so he persecuted the church to convince the Jewish people of his loyalty to the traditions of the fathers. Now that the Gentiles were openly part of the Church, Herod’s plan was even more agreeable to the nationalistic Jews who had no place for “pagans.”


Though king, Agrippa was hardly secure. Much of his good fortune was due to his friendship with Caligula, and Caligula had not been a popular emperor with the Romans. In fact, Agrippa could not count on always being in the good graces of Rome. It became all the more important for him to win the loyalty of his Jewish subjects in order to give him at least a firm footing at home. Everything Josephus said about Agrippa would indicate that he made every attempt to please the Jews, particularly currying the favor of the influential Pharisees. His “Jewishness,” however, seems to have been largely a face he put on when at home. When away he lived in a thoroughly Roman fashion. Why persecution of the Christians was particularly pleasing to them at this time is not stated. Perhaps the acceptance of uncircumcised Gentiles as related in chapter 11 had something to do with their disfavor.


The following article taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica probably has more information about Herod Agrippa I than you want to know.


Herod Agrippa I, original name Marcus Julius Agrippa    (born c. 10 bc—died ad 44), king of Judaea (ad 41–44), a clever diplomat who through his friendship with the Roman imperial family obtained the kingdom of his grandfather, Herod I the Great. He displayed great acumen in conciliating the Romans and Jews.


When Antipater, the son of Herod and the father of Agrippa, was executed by the suspicious Herod, Agrippa was sent to Rome for education and safety. There he grew up in company with the emperor Tiberius’s son Drusus. After his mother’s death he quickly spent his family’s wealth and acquired serious debts. When Drusus died in ad 23, Agrippa left Rome, settling near Beersheba, in Palestine. An appeal to his uncle Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, won him a minor official post but he soon vacated it.


In 36, having raised a sizable loan in Alexandria, Agrippa returned to Rome, where the emperor Tiberius received him but refused to allow him to stay at the court until his debt was paid. A new loan covered the obligation, and he secured a post as tutor to Tiberius’s grandson. Agrippa also became a friend of Caligula, Tiberius’s heir. An intemperate remark about Tiberius, overheard by a servant, landed Agrippa in prison, but Caligula remained his friend. Within a year Tiberius was dead, and Agrippa’s fortunes were reversed.


In 37 Caligula made him king of the former realm of his uncle Philip the Tetrarch and of an adjoining region. Antipas attempted to stop his rise by denouncing him to Caligula; Agrippa made counteraccusations. The confrontation before Caligula ended with Antipas’s banishment, and Agrippa acquired his territory as well. About 41, Agrippa, on the advice of the governor of Syria, dissuaded Caligula from introducing emperor worship at Jerusalem. Later, Caligula decided to restore Agrippa to his grandfather’s throne but was assassinated before he could effect this plan (41). In the delicate question of the imperial succession, Agrippa supported Claudius, who emerged successful and added Judaea and Samaria to Agrippa’s kingdom.


In Judaea, Agrippa zealously pursued orthodox Jewish policies, earning the friendship of the Jews and vigorously repressing the Jewish Christians. According to the New Testament of the Bible (Acts of the Apostles, where he is called Herod), he imprisoned Peter the Apostle and executed James, son of Zebedee. Nonetheless, mindful of maintaining Roman friendship, he contributed public buildings to Beirut in Lebanon, struck coins in emulation of Rome, and in the spring of 44 was host at a spectacular series of games at Caesarea to honour Claudius. There he died, prematurely terminating the compromise he had striven to achieve between Roman authority and Jewish autonomy. Because his son was only 17 years old, Judaea once more returned to provincial status.



2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword;


Herod had several believers arrested, among them James, the brother of John, whom he had killed “with a sword.” James, who was that apostle called “the son of Zebedee,” became the first of the apostles to be martyred. When you think about his death in the light of Matthew 20:20-28, it takes on special significance. There we read that James and John, with their mother, had asked Jesus for thrones, but Jesus made it clear that there can be no glory apart from suffering. “But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able” (Matthew 20:22). Their bold reply was “We are able.”


Of course, they did not know what they were saying, but they eventually discovered the high cost of winning a throne of glory. James was arrested and killed, and John became an exile on the Isle of Patmos, a prisoner of Rome. [“I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9).] Indeed, they did drink of the cup and share in the baptism of suffering that their Lord had experienced.


If Herod executed James in the Roman fashion “with the sword,” he was beheaded. If he used the Jewish mode of execution, which forbade beheading as a desecration to the body, he had “the edge of the sword” thrust through his body.  The execution of James is reported with the utmost brevity. Luke did not want to dwell on it but used the incident to set the stage for his main emphasis—God’s deliverance of Peter.


This article from Foxe's Book of Martyrs, by 'John Foxe' sheds a bit more light upon the martyrdom of the Apostle James.


The next martyr we meet with, according to St. Luke, in the History of the Apostles' Acts, was James the son of Zebedee, the elder brother of John, and a relative of our Lord; for his mother Salome was cousin-german to the Virgin Mary. It was not until ten years after the death of Stephen that the second martyrdom took place; for no sooner had Herod Agrippa been appointed governor of Judea, than, with a view to ingratiate himself with them, he raised a sharp persecution against the Christians, and determined to make an effectual blow, by striking at their leaders. The account given us by an eminent primitive writer, Clemens Alexandrinus, ought not to be overlooked; that, as James was led to the place of martyrdom, his accuser was brought to repent of his conduct by the apostle's extraordinary courage and undauntedness, and fell down at his feet to request his pardon, professing himself a Christian, and resolving that James should not receive the crown of martyrdom alone. Hence they were both beheaded at the same time. Thus did the first apostolic martyr cheerfully and resolutely receive that cup, which he had told our Savior he was ready to drink. Timon and Parmenas suffered martyrdom about the same time; the one at Philippi, and the other in Macedonia. These events took place A.D. 44.