Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 11-27-12:3

Prophets from Jerusalem (11:27)

Luke now breaks off his discussion of the church’s mission in Antioch to tell his readers about some church prophets who come from Jerusalem. However, he mentions only a single prophecy by a man named Agabus.

Prophets are important in the early church. Luke mentions them several times in Acts (13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10). Paul lists prophets as belonging to a God-ordained function in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28Ephesians 4:11). The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and he ranks the latter next after apostles (Ephesians 2:20). He also recognizes prophets as having an important charismatic function (1 Corinthians 14:29-33Ephesians 3:5).

Prophets in the Old Testament had a dual function, to foretell and to forth-tell. In speaking forth, they foretold the future and/or told God’s will. Agabus apparently is known for his foretelling, that is, his predictions. We shall hear from him again later in Acts (21:10).

Agabus tells of famine (11:28)

At Antioch, Agabus prophesies “through the Spirit” that a severe famine will spread over the entire Roman world (11:28). Luke wants his readers to understand that Agabus’ prediction is not a hoax. The Holy Spirit inspires him, and thus his prophecy has important meaning for the church. Agabus apparently doesn’t say exactly when the famine will occur. But Luke, writing many years after the event, inserts the parenthetical statement that, “This happened during the reign of Claudius” (11:28). Emperor Claudius rules from A.D. 41-54.

In speaking of a severe famine that will spread over the entire “Roman world,” Luke uses the Greek word oikoumene. It literally means the “inhabited world,” and is commonly used to refer to the Roman Empire, in Latin the orbis terrarum. We have no record of a single famine ravaging the whole empire in the time of Claudius. However, there is good supporting evidence from secular historians that extensive famines did occur throughout his reign. Agabus may mean that a series of famines in various parts of the empire would strike at different times. Taken together, the Roman Empire as a whole suffers from famine.

A number of Roman historians refer to various crop failures and famine conditions during the reign of Claudius. [Suetonius, Life of Claudius 18.2; Tacitus, Annals 12.43; Dio Cassius, History of Rome 60.11; Orosious, History 7.6.17.] Josephus writes of a severe famine that hits Judea in what is thought to be about A.D. 45-47. [Antiquities 20:49-53, 101; 3:320-321.]

F.F. Bruce says, “We know from other sources that Claudius’s principate was marked by a succession of bad harvests and consequent scarcity in various parts of the empire — in Rome, Greece, and Egypt as well as in Judaea.” [230.] This includes famine conditions in Rome itself at the beginning of Claudius’ rule, in Egypt during his fifth year, throughout Greece in his eighth or ninth year, and in Rome again between his ninth and eleventh year. Suetonius speaks of “a series of droughts” that cause “a scarcity of grain” that hits Rome especially hard. [Claudius 18.2.]

Josephus tells the story of Helena, queen-mother of the territory of Adiabene, and a Jewish proselyte. [Antiquities 20:49-53.] During a severe famine in Judea, she purchases grain in Egypt and figs in Cyprus. Helena has these transported to Jerusalem for distribution to the famine-stricken population. Meanwhile, her son King Izates sends a large sum of money to the Jerusalem authorities to be used for famine relief. Josephus said this famine occurs during the rule of Cuspius Fadus and Tiberius Julius Alexander. [Ibid., 20:101.] That would be between A.D. 44 and 48.

Disciples help other believers (11:29)

Just as queen Helena and her son Izates helped the Jews in Jerusalem, the disciples at Antioch organize a relief fund for the mother-church. Luke says, “As each one was able, [they] decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea” (11:29). The members apparently contribute money and goods to this special fund. In a later collection, organized by Paul for the churches in Judea, he advises that the Greeks should “set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income” (1 Corinthians 16:2).

Luke’s mention of the relief fund for Judea ends the section on Antioch. It may seem to be an abrupt conclusion, but it is a fitting one. In the words of William Willimon, “The new congregation in Antioch — composed of gentiles who a short time before were considered questionable subjects for the gospel — responds generously to the appeal for help in Judea.” [108.] Thus, the Gentile and Hellenistic Christians of Antioch prove their faith and love (and their unity with the mother church) by sharing their material possessions with those less fortunate. While less dramatic than the story of the Jerusalem Christians sharing their goods (2:44-45 and 4:32-37), this also illustrates the continuing church practice to aid its poor.

The church, under the encouragement of its leading apostles, will “continue to remember the poor,” something that Paul says he is “eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). Paul will call his own future multi-church relief fund a “contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25-31, with 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 8-9).

Gift is sent to elders (11:30)

It seems that the Jerusalem church is living on the edge of destitution. Its more wealthy members may have been the Hellenists who fled the city. The early practice of selling personal property to contribute to the common fund may have reduced the economic strength of the church community. Thus, it is ill-prepared to cope with a famine that strains its resources to the breaking point. But the brothers and sisters in Antioch save the day.

Once the relief fund is collected, Barnabas and Paul carry it to the elders in Jerusalem for disposition (11:30). This is the first time “elders” are mentioned in the church at Jerusalem, and they now seem to have charge of the relief fund. Earlier, the apostles delegated this responsibility to people who were known as the “Seven” (6:1-6). Perhaps some of them, as well as others, became known as “elders.” Apparently, elders are leaders appointed to serve in the churches (14:23; 20:17). They seem to function just below the apostles (15:4, 6, 22; 16:4; 21:18).

Perhaps more than coincidentally, “elders” is the name given to leaders of Jewish synagogues. With the influence of Judaism strong in the early church, it’s possible that the early church is following the Jewish form of organization, at least to some degree.

Paul’s trip to Jerusalem (11:30)

Paul brings the relief fund to Jerusalem; this brings up the question of the relationship of this visit to the two visits he mentions in Galatians (1:18; 2:1). Most commentators correlate the first visit of Galatians with the one of Acts 9:26-29, and that is not a problem. The real question revolves around the second visit of Galatians 2:1-10, the one he makes 14 years after his conversion. Often, this is identified with Paul’s trip to attend the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

Others, however, feel that this visit correlates better with the famine-relief visit here in Acts 11. In the words of Richard N. Longenecker, “The simplest solution that provides the most satisfactory and convincing reconstruction and leaves the fewest loose ends” is to correlate the visit of Galatians 2:1-10 with this famine visit of Acts 11. [Longenecker, 405.] If that be the case, then Paul’s comment that he goes to Jerusalem “in response to a revelation” (Galatians 2:2) is explained by Acts 11:28. The revelation is Agabus’ prophecy of famines around the Empire. That means that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15 is a third visit to the city, one he doesn’t mention in Galatians. (Perhaps Galatians was written before he went to Jerusalem for the Acts 15 council.)

Peter Freed From Prison (Acts 12)

About this time (12:1)

Luke next turns his attention to an important episode of persecution against the Jerusalem church, which results in one item of sad news, and another of joy. He relates the death of the apostle James (the brother of John) (12:2), Peter’s arrest and miraculous escape from prison (12:3-19), and the death of Herod (12:19-23). As we shall see, the three events form one unit with a special message for readers.

These things apparently happen during the same general period of time as the growth of the church in Antioch (11:19-26), and before Paul’s trip to Jerusalem (11:27-30). Using secular records, historians place Herod’s death (12:20-23) in a.d. 44, while Paul’s visit to Jerusalem (11:30) may be two years later. Therefore, in recording the events of chapter 12, Luke backtracks, going behind the story of the Antioch church and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem.

The persecution of James and Peter may be connected to bringing Cornelius into the church fellowship. Hence, chapter 12 describes events beginning sometime soon after Peter’s defense of his visit to Cornelius in front of the Jerusalem church (11:1-18).

Herod the king

Luke begins his account of persecution against the Jerusalem church by writing: “It was about this time King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them” (12:1). The King Herod mentioned here is the grandson of “Herod the Great,” who ruled Judea before Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:5), tried to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2), and died in 4 b.c. He was a Jew of Idumaean (Edomite) descent on his father’s side. He refurbished the Jerusalem temple and built a splendid complex around it. [Herod was a brutal and self-aggrandizing ruler. His building projects included the temple in Jerusalem, the artificial harbor at Caesarea Maritima, and pagan temples in other cities.]

The second Herod prominent in the biblical account is “Herod the Tetrarch,” or Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea. He pops in and out of Luke’s account throughout Jesus’ life. [Luke 3:1198:39:7-913:3123:7-15Acts 4:27.] He is the Herod who executes John the Baptist and meets Jesus just before his crucifixion. The Romans depose him in a.d. 39.

The King Herod of Acts 12 is more precisely called “Herod Agrippa I.” He dies in a.d. 44, as Luke will soon describe. Over time, various emperors give him more territories to rule, and his kingdom becomes larger than his grandfather’s. Herod Agrippa I is a descendant of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty through his grandmother Mariamne. The Hasmoneans, also called Maccabees, were a family of high priests and kings who descended from Hashmon. They ruled Judea between 165 and 37 b.c.

Apostles are persecuted

Probably in the early spring of a.d. 43, or perhaps 44, Herod begins to persecute the church, particularly in Jerusalem. It appears that this time the apostles and leaders of the church are the intended victims. Rome holds Herod responsible for keeping peace in his territories. Almost certainly, then, he does not undertake the persecution without a reason, or apart from the desires of the Jewish authorities and populace in general.

The persecution of the apostles signals a change in the attitude of the Jewish community in Jerusalem and Judea. Earlier, after Stephen’s death, the Hellenistic Christian Jews were singled out for persecution. However, the apostles and Hebraic Jewish Christians were apparently not persecuted or suppressed (8:1). The apostles were still respected by the people since they remained observant Jews (3:1). Their miraculous works caused the populace to hold them in awe as God’s instruments for good (3:9; 5:13). The Pharisees were cautious about persecuting the apostles (5:34-39); only the Sadducee-dominated Sanhedrin had threatened them.

What turns the people of Jerusalem and Judea against the apostles? The answer may lie with Peter’s evangelizing work. First, he teaches among the despised Samaritans. Worse still, he fellowships with and baptizes the Gentile Cornelius, without requiring that he live as a Jew. We know that the church in Jerusalem quickly hears about Peter eating with “uncircumcised men,” referring to Cornelius and those with him (11:3). He is severely criticized even by the Jewish Christians; the scandal is presumably much greater for unconverted Jews. The rumor quickly spreads that Peter allows “unclean” Gentiles to taint the community of Israel.

People may see Peter, and by implication the other apostles, as abandoning the Torah and committing a terrible offense against the community. The Jewish leaders enlist the help of Herod to rid the land of the heretic Peter and his co-workers. Peter’s action has the potential to cause riots in Jerusalem, creating a problem for Herod, who is accountable to Rome for revolts and disturbances within his jurisdiction. He may feel threatened politically by the results of Peter’s action, because the Jews are making an issue of it.

Agrippa’s policy was the Pax Romana through the preservation of the status quo. He supported the majority within the land and ruthlessly suppressed minorities when they became disruptive. He viewed Jewish Christians as divisive and felt their activities could only disturb the people and inflame antagonisms. [Richard Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), page 408.]

James, the brother of John (12:2)

To deal with the problem, Herod Agrippa I arrests some of the church leaders at Jerusalem. He singles out James, the brother of John, and has him killed. When the Jews voice their pleasure at this, Herod imprisons Peter, intending to put him on trial after Passover (12:3-4). It’s not clear why James is singled out first. Perhaps as one of the “sons of thunder” he thundered out a Stephen-like defense of Peter’s action before Jewish groups. Perhaps he is chosen as an object lesson to the others. It is obvious that Herod means business, and that Peter will die, too, unless God intervenes.

Herod wants to get into the good graces of his Jewish subjects. He knows that they hate him and his family, so he takes whatever opportunity he can find to gain their cooperation. In Jerusalem, Herod even acts the part of an observant Jew. Now, a new ploy is available. Executing the leaders of the heretical Christian community will (he hopes) make his subjects more favorably disposed toward him.

In his short reign of three years (A.D. 41-4) he sought to counter the distaste on the part of the Jewish religious leaders for his Roman background and Edomite ancestry by his sedulous observance of Jewish customs and support of the Jewish faith; it was, no doubt, as part of this policy that he sought to win general approval by this attack on the Nazarenes [the Christians]. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 148.]

By beheading James, Herod is making a gesture of solidarity with the Jewish majority. It is a public relations ploy to demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism.

Peter is jailed (12:3-4)

The seven days of the festival of Unleavened Bread are just beginning when Peter is arrested (12:3). (Luke also refers to the entire festival as the “Passover” in 12:4.) Peter remains in jail until the festival is over. Herod intends to put Peter on trial and then execute him. But he waits until the festival ends because a public execution during the sacred season would offend the people. We remember that the chief priests didn’t want to arrest and execute Jesus during the festival of Unleavened Bread “or the people may riot” (Mark 14:2).

Ironically, Peter’s imprisonment comes during Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, the great and festive day of deliverance from Egyptian slavery. This day finds Peter languishing in bondage, not celebrating liberation. The people who once saw God deliver them from slavery now make prisoners of their own kin during the feast of liberation — a bitter irony Luke does not want us to miss. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 112.]

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012