Acts 12 is a pivotal chapter. It is the last time Luke speaks of Peter except for mentioning him in chapter 15 where he defended Paul. After this, the book of Acts is all about Paul and his Gospel to the gentiles.
Chapter 12 begins with the slaying of James the brother of John. For years this had puzzled me. Why was James killed; after all, wasn’t the persecution of the church over (Acts 9:31)? It has been only since I understood Stephen’s message and the reason for his death that James’ death makes sense. Indeed there was an uneasy “peace” between the Jewish religious authorities and the believers in Jerusalem. The hated Hellenistic believers had been driven out of Jerusalem during the persecution, but the believers who had always lived in Palestine had not been driven out, nor were their lives sought as prey, until now. What happened?
The first clue is the method of James’ death. He was beheaded with the sword. He died a traitor’s death, not that of a criminal. A criminal’s death would have been stoning or crucifixion. Secondly, look who was killed—it was James the brother of John. Why is this important? Well, Jesus had surnamed both James and John, Boanerges (Mark 3:17), meaning the sons of thunder. Recall, if you will, in Luke 9 when it was Jesus’ intention to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, it was not well received by the Samaritans. They wanted him to celebrate the feast with them, so they refused to receive him, because they felt he was showing favoritism toward the Jews. Both James and John asked Jesus to allow them to call down fire (lightening) from heaven to destroy them like Elijah had done to his enemies. Jesus chided them by saying they didn’t know what Spirit they were of and merely passed by Samaria.
Knowing this and what occurred in Acts 10 concerning the conversion of Cornelius, this ‘son of thunder’ could never be quite about what Peter had told them. James was probably discussing and debating God’s receiving the gentiles with Jewish unbelievers for quite some time—3 years to be exact. It was now 43 CE and James was arrested probably for provoking a commotion in the city—perhaps the Temple—and executed as a traitor. When Herod, the crowd-pleaser that he was, understood that the Jewish authorities appreciated what he had done, he then arrested Peter and decided he would meet the same fate after the Passover Holy Days. It was not lawful for any execution to take place during the festival, and Herod prided himself on observing the Jewish laws.
This was Herod Agrippa the Great, the grandson of Herod the Great. He had helped Claudius gain his high office of Emperor of Rome, and Caesar rewarded him by giving him all the territories of his grandfather, allowing him to rule over virtually all the lands ruled by both David and Solomon. It must have been quite an embarrassment for him when Peter escaped his hands. So, he left Jerusalem after the feast days and went to Caesarea. It was there and approximately one year later (44CE) that he met his fate while celebrating the games to honor Caesar. He allowed the crowd to call him a god. This was against the faith of his fathers—Jewish or Edomite. Both families are rooted in Isaac. It was because of this thing that God slew him. Herod Agrippa received the same death of his grandfather before him—a painful disease where worms just ate his body away. Herod claimed to worship the God of Israel, but he permitted others to worship him has god, as well, thus elevating himself to the very throne of God. This would not be permitted to go unpunished. It was one thing for the pagans to worship men as gods, but quite another for one who claimed to worship the true God to embrace this practice.