The church had suffered relatively little persecution since the period of persecution that followed the death of Stephen. But in chapter 12 we read about another: “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them” (v. 1). As a result of the last persecution, the Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and carried the Gospel to those areas. At this point the church will begin to expand again, this time by the missionary journeys of Paul which we are told about beginning with chapter 13. We are to understand that, however intently the church is persecuted, the result is always the extension of the faith into new areas.
The new wave of persecution unleashed against the church was probably connected with the expansion of the Gospel to the Gentiles. That was the issue at the time of Stephen’s death too. As I said before, it is not that God did not save Gentiles. Gentiles had always had an opportunity to be saved. The thing that bothered Jews was the thought that Gentiles could be saved without becoming Jews first, as Gentiles, plus the corresponding thought that traditional Judaism would be superseded by a largely Gentile Christianity. Stephen had suggested this in his speech to the Sanhedrin, and he was martyred for it. Now the Gospel was expanding to Gentiles in exactly the manner Stephen suggested. Peter had become the leader of this new openness, and renewed persecution broke out.
It began when Herod arrested James and had him executed. James was one of the three most prominent leaders of the Jerusalem church. These “firsts among equals” were Peter, James and John. It would seem from the story that Herod arrested James as a test. This was Herod Agrippa I, and one thing we know about him is that he was very anxious to please the Jewish people. He seems to have thought, “If the Jews are against this new movement, I’ll strike out against the Christians and see how things go.” So he arrested James and executed him. I suppose Herod waited a bit at that point, stepping back to see what the reaction would be. But when he was informed that the execution pleased the Jewish leaders, he thought, “Well, I’ll just move on to the next one.” So he arrested Peter and was undoubtedly planning to have him killed also. It was Passover time, however, and since Herod did not want to break any of the rules surrounding these special days in the Jewish calendar, he put Peter in prison, intending to bring him out afterwards and kill him.
Peter was guarded by “four squads of four soldiers each” (v. 4). It is hard to imagine Peter being as dangerous as all this, but that is the way Herod and the others seemed to be thinking about him in those days. By the way the situation is described—Peter chained to a soldier on the right and another on the left, with two remaining outside the door of the prison to keep watch—it sounds as if Peter was being regarded as Public Enemy Number One. And in a certain sense, he was. He was no real enemy to the public, but he was a threat to the public order that his enemies knew.
We remember that at the time of Christ’s arrest, Pilate presented the people with a choice: Barabbas or Jesus? Barabbas was a zealot and a murderer besides. We would think that a person like that would be a major enemy to be kept in jail at all costs. Jesus had gone about doing good. Jesus should be released. But that is not what happened. Barabbas was released and Jesus was executed. The people preferred a murderer to Jesus, because Jesus was turning the world upside down by His preaching, and truth was more dangerous to them than Barabbas.
In the same way, the Jews considered Peter, who had done nothing but preach the truth about Jesus, to be their chief enemy now. That is all Peter had done. But he was upsetting their world by his teaching. So here he was in prison, chained to soldiers.
What was Peter’s reaction to all this? A little later on in his life, when he came to write his first letter, he advised the believers to whom he was writing to “cast all your anxiety on him [that is, God] because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Apparently, the man who wrote those words practiced them, because in prison on what was to be his last night, Peter was found sleeping. Sleeping! Obviously Peter knew what it meant to have cast all one’s care upon God.