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Calvin's Commentaries 

 Acts 12:1-11


1. About that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to afflict certain of the Church. 2. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. 3. And when he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to take Peter also. (Then were the days of sweet [unleavened] bread.) 4. When he had taken him also, he put him in prison, delivering him to four quaternions of soldiers to be kept; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. 5. Therefore, Peter was kept in prison; but continual prayer was made for him of the Church of [to] God.

1. Here followeth new persecution raised by Herod. We see that the Church had some short truce, that it might, as it were, by a short breathing, recover some courage against the time to come, and that it might then fight afresh. So at this day there is no cause why the faithful, having borne the brunts of one or two conflicts, should promise themselves rest, [Note: Perpetuam. quietem,” perpetual rest.] or should desire such a calling [Note: Vacationem,” discharge.] as old overworn soldiers use to have. Let this suffice them if the Lord grant them some time wherein they may recover their strength. This Herod was Agrippa the greater, [elder,] the son of Aristobulus, whom his father slew. Josephus doth no where call him Herod, it may be, because he had a brother who was king of Chalcis, whose name was Herod. This man was incensed to afflict the Church not so much for any love he had to religion, as that by this means he might flatter the common people which did otherwise not greatly favor him; or rather, he was moved hereunto with tyrannical cruelty, because he was afraid of innovation, which tyrants do always fear, lest it trouble the quiet estate of their dominion. Yet it is likely that he did shed innocent blood, that, according to the common craft of kings, he might gratify a furious people; because St. Luke will shortly after declare that Peter the apostle was put into prison that he might be a pleasant spectacle.

He killed James. Undoubtedly the cruelty of this mad man was restrained and bridled by the secret power of God. For assuredly he would never have been content with one or two murders, and so have abstained from persecuting the rest, but he would rather have piled up martyrs upon heaps, unless God had set his hand against him, and defended his flock. So when we see that the enemies of godliness, being full of fury, do not commit horrible slaughters, that they may mix and imbrue all things with blood, let us know that we need not thank their moderation and clemency for this; but because, when the Lord doth spare his sheep, he doth not suffer them to do so much hurt as they would. This Herod was not so courteous, that he would stick to win peace or the people’s favor with the punishment of an hundred men or more.

Wherefore, we must think with ourselves that he was tied by one that had the rule over him, that he might not more vehemently oppress the Church. He slew James, as, when any sedition is raised, the heads and captains go first to the pot, [Note: In duces et capita animadverti solet,” punishment is usually inflicted on the heads and captains.] that the common riff-raft may by their punishment be terrified. Nevertheless, the Lord suffered him whom he had furnished with constancy to be put to death, that by death he might get the victory as a strong and invincible champion. So that the attempts of tyrants notwithstanding, God maketh choice of sweet-smelling sacrifices to establish the faith of his gospel. Luke calleth this games which was slain the brother of John, that he may distinguish him from the son of Alpheus. For whereas some make him a third cousin of Christ’s, who was only some one of the disciples, I do not like of that, because I am by strong reasons persuaded to think that there were no more. Let him that will, repair to the second to the Galatians. Therefore, I think that the apostle and the son of Alpheus were all one, whom the Jews threw down headlong from the top of the temple, whose death was so highly Commended for his singular praise of holiness.

3. Seeing that it pleased the Jews. It appeareth more plainly by this that Herod was not moved either with any zeal that he had to Moses’ law or with any hatred of the gospel, thus to persecute the Church; but that he might provide for his own private affairs, for he proceedeth in his cruelty that he may win the people’s favor; therefore we must know that there be diverse causes for which the Church is assaulted on every side. Oftentimes perverse zeal driveth the wicked headlong to fight for their superstitions, and that they may sacrifice an offering to their idols by shedding innocent blood; but the more part is moved with private commodities only, so in times past, at such time as Nero knew, after the burning of the city, that he was loathed and hated of the people, he sought by this subtle means to get into favor again, or, at least, he went about to stay their slanders and complaints, by putting certain thousands of the godly to death.

In like sort, that Herod may win the people’s favor, who did love him but a little, he putteth the Christians to death. as a price wherewith he might redeem their favor; and such is our estate at this day, for though all men run by troops upon the members of Christ, [Note: Insaniant,” rage against. yet few are pooked [Note: Incitat,” instigated by.] forward with superstition; but some sell themselves to antichrist, like profitable bond-slaves; other some bear with, and commend the outrageous outcries of monks and the common people. But we, in the mean season, being abjects, must be glad to bear their mocks; yet there is one comfort which doth excellently keep us on foot, in that we know that our blood is precious in the sight of Almighty God, which the world cloth shamefully abuse; yea, the more shamefully and reproachfully the wicked do handle us, so much the less shall God’s goodness forsake us.

4. Adding four quaternions of soldiers. Luke doth, in this place, declare by circumstances that Peter was, as it were, shut up in his grave, so that it might seem that he was quite past hope; for as they divided the day and night into four parts by three hours, so Herod divided the watches, that four soldiers might always keep watch, and that one quaternion might succeed another every third hour. He showeth the cause why he was not forthwith put to death, because it had been an heinous offense to put him to death in the Easter holidays; therefore, Herod doth not delay the time as doubtful what to do, but doth only wait for opportunity; yea, he maketh choice of a time, when as his gift may be more plausible, because there came a great multitude together from all parts unto the holy day. [Note: Ad diem festum,” to the feast, or festival.]

5. But prayers were made. Luke teacheth here that the faithful did not, in the mean season, foreslow [neglect] their duty, Peter stood in the forward [Note: In prima acie,” in the front rank, the van.] alone; but all the rest fought with their prayers together with him, and they aided him so much as they were able. Hereby we do also gather, that they were not discouraged, for by prayer they testify that they persist so much as they are able in defense of the cause, for which Peter is in danger of life. This place teacheth, first, how we ought to be affected when we see our brethren persecuted by the wicked for the testimony of the gospel, for if we be slothful, and if we be not inwardly touched with their dangers, we do not only defy and them of the due duty of love, but also treacherously forsake the confession of our faith; and, assuredly, if the cause be common, yea, if they fight for our safety and salvation, we do not only forsake them, but even Christ and ourselves; and the present necessity requireth, that they be far more fervent in prayer than commonly they are, whosoever will be counted Christians. We see some of our brethren (being brought to extreme poverty) live in exile, others we see imprisoned, many cast into stinking dungeons, many consumed with fire, yea, we see new torments oftentimes invented, whereby being long tormented they may feel death. Unless these provocations sharpen our desire to pray, we be more than blockish; therefore, so soon as any persecution ariseth, let us by and by get ourselves to prayer.

Also, it is a likely thing that the Church took greater thought for Peter’s life, because they should have suffered great loss if he had gone. [Note: In ejus morte,” in his death. Neither doth Luke say barely that prayer was made; but he addeth also, that it was earnest and continual, whereby he giveth us to understand that the faithful prayed not coldly or over fields; [Note: Defunctorie,” perfunctorily.] but so long as Peter was in the conflict, the faithful did what they could to help him, and that without wearisomeness. We must always understand the name of God, which is here expressed, whensoever mention is made of prayer in the Scripture, for this is one of the chiefest and first principles of faith, that we ought to direct our prayers unto God alone, as he challengeth to himself this peculiar worship, “Call upon me in the day of tribulation,” (Psalm 50:15.)


6. And when Herod was about to bring him forth, the same night slept Peter between two soldiers, bound with two chains; and the keepers kept the prison before the door. 7. And, behold, the angel of the Lord stood, and a light shined in the habitation: and he smote Peter’s side, saying, Arise straightway; and his chains felt from his hands, 8. And the angel said to him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And he did so. Then he saith to him, Put thy garment about thee, and follow me. 9. And going out, he followed him, neither understood he that that was true which was done by the angel; but he thought that he saw a vision. 10. And when they were past the first watch, and the second, they came to the iron gate, which leadeth into the city, which opened to them of its own accord; and when they were come out, they passed through one street, and by and by the angel departed from him. 11. Then Peter returning to himself, said, Now of a truth I know that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the waiting of the people of the Jews.

6. When he was about to bring him forth. It seemeth at the first blush that the Church prayeth to small purpose, for the day was now appointed wherein Peter should be put to death, and he is within one night of death, and yet the faithful cease not to pray, because they know that when the Lord doth purpose to deliver his, he taketh his time oftentimes in the last and farthest point of necessity, and that he hath in his hand diverse ways to deliver. Secondly, we may think that they did not so much pray for Peter’s life, as that the Lord would arm him with invincible fortitude, for the glory of the gospel, and that God would [not] set the gospel of his Son open to the reproaches and slanders of the wicked.

That night he slept. All these circumstances do more set forth the wonderful power of God, for who would not have thought that Peter was already swallowed up of death? for though he drew breath as yet, yet he had no chinch [chink] to creep out at, for as much as he was beset with many deaths. Therefore, whereas he escapeth from amidst deaths, whereas he goeth safely among the hands of his hangmen, whereas the chains are molten and are loosed, whereas the iron gate openeth itself to him; hereby it appeareth that it was a mere divine kind of deliverance, and it was profitable for Peter to be thus taught by these signs, that he might with more assurance forthwith declare unto men the grace of God thus known. Again, it appeareth by this strait keeping that Herod meant nothing less [Note: Nihil Herocli fuisse minus in animo,” that there was nothing Herod less intended.] than to let Peter go away alive.

7. A light shined, It is to be thought that Peter alone saw this light, and that the soldiers did either sleep so soundly, or else were so amazed, that they neither felt nor perceived any thing, And there might be two causes why God would have the light to shine; either that Peter might have the use thereof, and that the darkness might be no hindrance to him, or that it might be to him a sign and token of the heavenly glory. For we read oftentimes that the angels appeared with glistering brightness, even when the sun did shine, Assuredly, Peter might have gathered by the strange light that God was present, and also he ought to have made his profit thereof. When as the angel smiteth Peter’s side, it appeareth hereby what a care God hath for his, who watcheth over them when they sleep, and raiseth them when they are drowsy. And surely there were nothing more miserable than we, if the continuance of our prayers alone did keep God in his watching over us; for such is the infirmity of our flesh that we faint and quail, and we stand most of all in need of his help when our minds, being drawn away, do not seek him. Sleep is a certain image of death, and doth choke and drown all the senses, what should become of us if God should then cease to have respect to us? But forasmuch as when the faithful go to sleep, they commit their safety to God, it cometh to pass by this means, that even their sleep doth call upon God.

Whereas he saith, that immediately after the angel had said the word the chains were loosed, we gather by this, that there is power enough in the commandment of God alone to remove all manner [of] lets, when all ways seem to be stopt on all sides, so that if he intend to appease the motions and tumults of war, although the whole world were appointed in armor, their spears and swords shall forthwith fall out of their hands; on the other side, if he be determined to punish us and our sins with war, in a moment, (in the twinkling of an eye,) their minds, which were before given to peace, shall wax hot, and they shall lay hand on their swords. Whereas Luke setteth down severally both the words of the angel, and also the course of the matter, it serveth for the more certainty of the history, that it may in every respect appear that Peter was delivered by God.

9. He knew not that it was true. He did not think that it was a vain or false visor, as Satan doth oftentimes delude men with jugglings; but true is taken in this place for that which is done naturally and after the manner of men. For we must note the contrariety [antithesis] that is between the thing itself and the vision. Furthermore, though he think that it is a vision, yet doth he willingly obey; whereby his obedience is proved, whilst that being content with the commandment of the angel alone, he doth not inquire nor reason what he must de, but doth that which he is commanded to do.

10. When they were past. God was able to have carried Peter away in the turning of an hand; [Note: Momento uno,” in one moment.] but he overcometh diverse straits one after another, that the glory of the miracle might be the greater. So he created the world in six days, (Genesis 1.) not because he had any need of space of thee, but that he might the better stay us in the meditating upon his works, (Exodus 20:11,) for he applieth the manner of doing unto our capacity, and unto the increase of faith. If Peter had at a sudden been carried unto the house where the brethren were assembled, then should one only deliverance have been acknowledged, but now we see, as it were with our eyes, that he was delivered more than ten times.

11. Then Peter returning to himself. It is word for word, being made in himself, because, being before astonied with a strange and incredible thing, he was, as it were, without himself. But now at length, as it were after a trance, he knoweth that he is delivered from death. His words set down by Luke contain a thanksgiving; for he extolleth with himself the benefit of God which he had tried, [experienced,] and whereof he had tasted, and he doth highly commend it with himself, until he find some other witnesses. He saith that the angel was sent of God, according to the common meaning of the godly, who hold that the angels are appointed to be ministers, to be careful for, and to take charge of their safety; for unless he had been thus persuaded, he would not have spoken of the angel. And yet he doth not commend the angel as the author of the grace, but he ascribeth all the whole praise of the work to God alone, neither do the angels help us to this end, that they may derive unto themselves even the least jot of God’s glory. Whereas he saith that he was delivered out of the hand of Herod, he amplifieth the goodness and benefit of God, by the power of his enemy. To the same end tendeth that which he addeth of the Jews; for the greater the number of the enemies was, the more excellent was the grace of God toward his servant; for it is a great matter that God alone being favorable, the deadly hatred of all the whole world should come to nought.


[With gratitude to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library for this text.]