Formations 11.19.2017: Faith and Violence

Acts 12:1-10, 20-23

Guillaume Rouille, Herod Agrippa I, 1553

Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great and a nephew of Herod Antipas. The book of Acts remembers him mainly as a persecutor of the early church. Somewhat like the Apostle Paul, this king’s zeal for the law was apparently what drove him to persecute the church.

In fact, most Jews of his era praised Herod Agrippa I for his devout faith. A passage in the Mishnah tells a story where Agrippa, reading the law in the presence of the people, stumbled at the commandment in Deuteronomy 17:15 that Israel must not have a foreigner as their king. Remembering his Idumean heritage, the king began to weep until the people shouted, “Don’t fear, Agrippa. You are our brother, you are our brother!” (m. Sotah 7:8). The Jewish historian Josephus describes him mainly as a pious king who defended the Jews against Emperor Caligula’s attempted desecration of the temple.

Isn’t it funny how one person’s devotion is another’s fanaticism? Isn’t it frightening that one person’s definition of sincere faith can involve committing terrible acts of violence against those who believe differently?

Of course, this week’s lesson isn’t really about Agrippa. It’s about the ways that sincere, devout believers can get it in their minds that committing unthinkable acts would be pleasing to God. Agrippa had James put to death and arrested Peter for preaching the gospel. Within his limited religious horizons, those must have seemed like logical and even praiseworthy things to do.

Today’s text begs to differ. As sincere as Agrippa was, he was sincerely wrong. His gruesome end in Acts 12 is Luke’s assessment of the state of Agrippa’s soul.

Discussion

• When have you observed apparently sincere religious people behaving in an ungodly way? Do you think they noticed the disconnect between their words and their actions? Explain.
• What might this passage teach us about the dangers of unbridled zealotry—especially when an adoring crowd praises our extremism?
• What does the manner of Agrippa’s death reveal about the true state of his heart? How do we run the risk of being metaphorically “eaten by worms”?

Reference Shelf

Persecution in the New Testament

The narratives of the NT portray early conflict between Christians and the Jewish authorities. Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities led to his crucifixion. The Gospels certainly place the blame for that crucifixion at the feet of the Jews, even though they are also quite clear that the Roman government actually executed Jesus. In Acts, the Jewish persecution of Christianity intensified. Paul is introduced during Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:58). Stephen’s death inaugurated a systematic oppression of Palestinian Christians, and Paul led the fight to stamp out “the Way” (Acts 8:1).

Acts also narrates the official persecution of Christian leaders in Jerusalem by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1-5). Peter was imprisoned; James was executed. Herod may well have been acting on his own, though he imprisoned Peter because he wanted to please the Jews, which implies some Jewish influence in the ongoing official persecution of Christians (Acts 12:3). The fourth Gospel also indicates that Christians had been forced out of the synagogues, a less drastic, but every bit as official, form of religious persecution (John 9).

Steven Sheeley, “Persecution in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 668.

Herod and “the Jews”

The scene opens with the dramatic notification that it was the eve before Herod planned to take Peter out before the people (v. 6a). Peter has been in prison now for a number of days, given that the period of his imprisonment was during the “Days of Unleavened Bread” (see v. 3). To this point, the earnest prayers of the community have seemingly gone unanswered. Time is running out on Peter. The hope for an escape seems diminished by the fact that Peter is chained to two of the soldiers responsible for guarding him, a practice documented by ancient historians (see, e.g., Josephus, Ant. 18.196, who reports that Herod the Great was so guarded while imprisoned in Rome). As Haenchen writes, “All possibility of escape seems precluded.”

Perhaps in contrast to readers’ anxiety over Peter’s dilemma, the narrative portrays Peter as sleeping calmly, with the angel having to “tap” (v. 7, NRSV; the Greek word patasso, the same word employed later in 12:23, implies something more than a gentle nudge) the apostle to rouse him from sleep. The angel clearly controls the action, commanding Peter to “get up” (v. 7), get dressed (v. 8), and follow him out of the prison (v. 8). The angel is also responsible for loosing the chains from Peter’s hands without disturbing the guards (v. 7).

Angelic control of the action continues as he leads Peter past the guards to the final gate that opens of its own accord (v. 10). The narrator impresses upon readers the passivity of Peter, who suspects that what is happening is not real, but a vision (v. 9). It is only after Peter finds himself in the street outside the prison that he realizes the Lord has delivered him (v. 11).

Peter’s musing to himself in v. 11 is primarily for the benefit of readers, who are told explicitly through his voice that the Lord had rescued Peter both from Herod and the expectations of “the Jewish people.” The reference to “the Jewish people” is telling, for to this point Luke has used the word “people” (laos) in a more positive sense, regularly portraying the people as receptive to the apostolic word, in contrast with their leaders (see, e.g., 2:47; 3:9-10, 11-12; 4:1-2, 8, 10; 5:13, 25, 26; but cf. 6:12). In 12:2 Luke employed the term “the Jews” as a sweeping term to denote a group siding with Herod and opposed to the Christians. Luke has used “the Jews” before to denote those opposed to Jesus (10:39) or his followers (9:22, 23). But this is the first time that he has used “people” and “Jews” together, as if to say that “the people” who have failed to join the disciples are now aligned with “the Jews” who are opposed to the Messiah and his people. All this represents a tragic point in the progression of the narrative, for “the Jewish people,” as a whole, have now elected to join the ranks of the leadership, a leadership consistently opposed to the gospel and its messengers.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 197–98.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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