The first of Jesus’ twelve apostles to be killed for his involvement in spreading the gospel was James the brother of John (Acts 12:2). “This event took place about tens years after Jesus’ death and resurrection” (note on Acts 12:1). Herod, the king responsible for beheading John the Baptist, appeared to be trying to increase his popularity with the Jews. It says in Acts 12:3, “And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to take Peter also.” The hostility between Jews and Christians seemed to stem from a political agenda that promoted peace at any cost. The reason Jesus was killed was because Jewish religious leaders thought his ministry would lead to Roman persecution (John 11:48). Caiaphas, the high priest that condemned Jesus to death, said it would be better for the Jews if Jesus’ ministry was terminated than to have the nation of Israel cease to exist (John 11:50).
Peter’s imprisonment seemed to signal that an end to Christianity in Jerusalem was approaching. After his arrest, it says in Acts 12:5, “Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.” Peter attributed his miraculous escape from prison to the Lord, who sent an angel to deliver him out of the hand of Herod, “and from the expectation of the people of the Jews” (Acts 12:11), but Luke’s account of the situation made it clear that prayer was the force behind Peter’s deliverance (Acts 12:12). The interesting thing about Peter’s release was that it was completely unexpected. When he arrived at the home of Mary where many were gathered together praying, he was mistaken for a ghost. Luke reported:
And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda. And when she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate. And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel. But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished.
The Greek word translated astonished, existemi (ex-is´-tay-mee) suggests that the people who saw Peter probably thought they had lost their minds or were actually in a state of shock as a result of seeing him standing in front of them (G1839). It wasn’t until Peter explained how the angel of the Lord had physically removed his chains and led him out of the prison past all the guards that the people praying for him realized their prayers had been answered (Acts 12:17).
Peter’s escape from prison was the impetus for Herod returning to Caesarea and looking for entertainment elsewhere. Herod focused his attention on Tyre and Sidon, perhaps as a way of distracting himself from the frustration of not being able to stop the spread of the gospel. Luke’s account of Herod’s death showed that the prayers of the church were having a significant impact on the Roman empire. He said, “And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost” (Acts 12:21-23).