Online Bible Commentary
The Execution of the First Apostle
Acts 12:1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. 2 Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. 3 And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread. 4 So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover. (NKJV)
This passage begins with the phrase “Now about that time” which refers to the previous passage (v. 1a). The time was when the famine occurred in Judea in the early A.D. 40’s. Saul and Barnabas were sent from the church in Antioch with relief food supplies to deliver to the Christians in Judea.
King Herod Agrippa I ruled over Judea and Galilee from A.D. 37 to 44. Herod, a Jewish sympathizer, took it upon himself to persecute the church as a favor to the Jews (v. 1b). Herod “killed James the brother of John with the sword” in A.D. 44 (v. 2).
James, the son of Zebedee, was one of the twelve apostles. He was the older brother of John. The sons of Zebedee were known as “the sons of Thunder” for their burning and impetuous spirit.
The mother of James and John, Salome, had requested that they might sit beside the Lord in His kingdom (Mt. 20:20). James was present with Jesus in the garden the night before the crucifixion. Now, 14 years later almost to the day, James was executed shortly before the Passover. John went on to live into his nineties, when he wrote the book of Revelation.
When Herod saw that the Jews were pleased with James’ execution he later also arrested Peter (v. 3a). However, now was the time “during the Days of Unleavened Bread. So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison” (v. 3b-4a).
If it had not been for these religious holidays Herod would have executed Peter at this time. However, he recognized that an execution during the religious holidays might not be appropriate. Not to mention, Herod likely did not want to share his spotlight with the religious holidays.
While in prison, Peter was guarded by 16 guards, four groups of four each, who traded off shifts (v. 4b). Herod intended to execute him “before the people after Passover” (v. 4c). As we learn later, Peter escaped before that could happen. Thankfully, it was not Peter’s time.
Peter went on to be used greatly by the Lord. He would live about another 23 or 24 years before being executed, like Paul, by Nero in A. D. 67 or 68. Paul was beheaded, and Peter was crucified on the cross, upside down at his own request because he did not feel worthy of the same death as Christ.
James was the first apostle to be executed, but not the first to die. The traitor Judas died first, but his death was by his own hand, a hanging. James was probably in his mid forties when he died. We will never know what he may have accomplished for the Lord if he had lived a long life like his brother.
It is a mystery why some die young and others live a long life. We only know that it is all a part of God’s perfect plan. Perhaps it was better for James because he got to the good stuff sooner. And, who knows, maybe, in Heaven, he did sit at the side of Jesus as his mother had requested.