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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 12



Other Authors
Verse 2


‘And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.’

Acts 12:2

The death of St. James is one of those events which, at first sight, seems so unintelligible to our minds. He was one of the first groups of the Apostles; and yet, almost without notice, according to the narrative, he is dispatched just at the caprice of a monarch. And then, when we come to the account of his death, it seems as summary as the death itself. Simply one short sentence describes the death of him who is the first apostolic martyr.

I. Its counterpart in modern life.—How often, in the range of our own experience, does not this event find counterpart in the more ordinary events of human life! How often it is that what seems to be a life full of promise, a life which might be almost regarded, by those who witness it, as indispensable to the well-being, the advantage of those among whom it is lived, is brought to a sudden and unexpected end!

II. The littleness of posthumous fame.—What does it matter, as regards ourselves, whether in future ages our deeds or our own sufferings are known and thought of? What does it matter to any Apostle to-day? James and John are household words, they are names which are familiar to us all, and yet, beyond just a few circumstances here and there in the books of the New Testament, we know very little whatever about them.

III. The littleness of death.—St. James passed out of this world. ‘Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword.’ To all outward appearances his work is done. Is that really so? His activities certainly in this life have come to an end, but his work is not over. The Apostles are the foundations of the Church of God, Jesus Christ Himself being the head corner-stone. The work which they accomplished during the years of their mortal life, being done in His Name, and by His power and influence, is a work which survives those who were instrumental in its fulfilment. The work of St. Peter, and St. James, and John, is day by day reaping its fruit; day by day producing some active and living effect in the Church of God. Their mortal life may be over, but that which they effected during its continuance in the Name and by the might of their Divine Master goes on and on.

IV. In the hands of God.—There are other points, too, which it is well for us to notice. Notice the great contrast between St. James and St. Peter. St. Peter was in prison at the same time. Why was it that of the two, one was taken and the other left? We cannot fathom the inscrutable decrees of God. The great mystery of life and death we must leave in His Hands—we know not. Or take the contrast in the dealings of God with St. Peter. We know that God, by the angel, delivered the Apostle Peter from the bondage of prison, and that He, at the same time, provided an angel who stood behind the headsman to receive the soul of the martyred Apostle St. James, and take it to the Kingdom above. We know the life of God was equally manifested in the death of him who died as in the prolongation of the life of him who continued to live. And so in the case of St. James by contrast with John, his brother. Both had expressed the wish that their participation in the Kingdom should not in any way separate the one from the other. Why was it that the one was called so soon, and the other lingered to such length of years? Again, we know not; so let us learn to leave the question of living and dying in the hands of God, whether of ourselves or of those who are near and dear.

—Rev. G. R. Hogg.


‘No one can carefully read the history of “the glorious company of the Apostles” without noticing how our Lord taught them and trained them, and how their natural characters became quite changed. As Whittier says—

“They touched His garment’s fold, and soon

The Heavenly Alchemist transformed their very dust to gold.”

St. James at one time desired great things for himself, but at last he dies for the faith of Christ and becomes one of “the noble army of martyrs”; in fact, he was the first martyr of the Apostles.’



The early death of the Apostle instructs us as to certain principles that have ruled throughout the history of the Church of Christ. In his death we see—

I. The permitted power of evil.—Herod, whose character was without a single virtue, assails, and assails successfully, the infant Church of Christ. One of the Apostles is slain, and another imprisoned with murderous design. The Church of Christ is not made sacred and inviolate from the power of wicked men.

II. The restrained power of evil.—‘Because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also.’ But he is not permitted to accomplish this portion of his cruel purpose. St. James is slain, but St. Peter is wonderfully rescued. The power of wickedness is a restrained and limited power.

III. The overruled power of evil.—The slaying of St. James was not an unmixed evil. The Church needed the death of St. James as much as the life of St. Peter; in other words, the Church of Christ requires martyrs as well as teachers.


‘Every sapling of the Lord’s planting has required a plentiful watering of tears and blood before it has taken root and grown in the world. Liberty, truth, religion, have never made much way until men have died for them. Erasmus, a great and good man, to whom Christianity owes much, a man not without faults, and not the kind of man to make a martyr, has this entry in one of his works: “Two monks were yesterday burned for Lutheranism, the first victims in this place; and now the whole city has begun to favour strenuously the Reformed Religion.”’



On the Apostle’s side we are called to notice—

I. Death putting the stamp of greatness upon a man.—We had not known how great St. James was but for his death. He was a man whom Herod, and common report on which he acted, recognised as one of the first and chief in the Church of Christ. Only as death takes them do we come to know how truly great and noble Christ’s servants are.

II. Death abruptly closing the early possibilities of the man.—Who can tell what this man might have been and might have done had he lived to the years of St. Peter, or for the half century during which his brother John survived. All these possibilities were suddenly and roughly ended by Herod’s sword. Death often steps in and blights the fair promise made; and better death should do it than dishonour and sin.

III. Death exhibiting the diversities of life and service appointed to men.—Three names are here brought together: St. James and St. Peter and John. The first is cut off early and suddenly, his course not half run. The second lives and labours on to the limit of threescore years and ten. The third is spared to extreme old age, and dies naturally towards the close of the first Christian century. Here is a wonderful diversity of life and service still manifested. Let us not be anxious for ourselves or for others. Let us leave all with Christ.

IV. Death rendering a future life necessary and sure.—If there be no hereafter, the darkness around this scene is deep and awful. An act like this makes the future certain. A good man cannot thus be made to perish. Herod’s sword was to the Apostle the stroke of freedom, and with a bound his spirit passed into the presence of Jesus, to renew under nobler conditions the fellowship begun on earth.


‘Ask not of Him more than this,

Leave it in his Saviour’s breast,

Whether, early called to bliss,

He in youth shall find his rest,

Or armèd in his station wait,

Till the Lord be at the gate.’

Verse 5


‘Prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for him.’

Acts 12:5

‘More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,’ or that the Church dreams of either, for that matter. When this prayer was answered, the Church could not believe it true, and as for St. Peter, he thought it was a dream. After all, who can blame him? ‘When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion we were like them that dream’ (Psalms 126:1). And yet though unbelief mingled with the Church’s prayers, we may all take a lesson from that prayer-meeting. If we want souls prayed out of prison we must learn how to pray. There were three things about it that characterise prevailing prayer.

I. There was unity—the Church met together. Like Daniel of old (Daniel 2:17-18) the early Church believed in the power of united prayer. There were no dissentients, they were of one heart and one soul. Their prayer-meeting was held at ‘the house of Mary, the mother of John, whose surname was Mark’ (Acts 12:12). It may be that the ‘upper room’ of Acts 1 was there. Evidently this house was a sort of centre and was given up to Christ’s service.

II. There was intensity. The word in the Greek, rendered ‘without ceasing,’ means literally ‘stretched out.’ Stretched out prayer was made. One great reason why our prayers do not prevail is that they are not stretched out, they are not intense. There was an agony in these people’s prayers—they could not let God alone, their whole soul was in their petition. Though the case seemed hopeless and though they could not believe the answer when it came, still the Spirit of God constrained them to urge their request.

III. There was definiteness.—‘Generalities are the death of prayer.’ There are some prayers that seem to ‘aim at nothing and hit it.’ These people had something to pray for. They knew what they wanted and they asked for it. When these three marks, unity, intensity, definiteness, are found in our prayers they will succeed as this one did.

—Rev. E. W. Moore.

Verse 7


‘And his chains fell of from his hands.’

Acts 12:7

How was prayer answered for St. Peter, and when? Not till the last moment. St. Peter was at the last extremity; a few hours more and all would have been over; he was to have been executed in the sight of all men the very next day. God’s help came late; it often does, but it never comes too late. ‘Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.’ Christ comes in the fourth watch—in the darkest hour, but it is darkest just before the dawn. So it was here, at the supreme moment Christ intervened (Psalms 146:5; 2 Peter 2:9). He has many resources. Mark the stages in His procedure here.

I. Light.—‘A light shined in the prison’ (Acts 12:7). Light ‘to make the darkness visible’; light to show the prison cell, to let you see the poor confined imprisoned life that has been yours. Light to illumine, and light to cheer! to give a hope of better things; to show you escape is possible; above all, to reveal the angel of the covenant standing at your side. A word can do it. ‘God said, Let there be light, and there was light.’

II. Leading.—With the light comes—leading. Listen: ‘Arise up quickly,’ and ‘his chains fell off from his hands’ (Acts 12:7). Yes, the fetters were gone, but he was not free yet. He must pass the foes and escape the fortress. ‘Follow ME.’ What a crisis it was! Upon obedience to that call his life, his liberty, his all depended. Half mechanically, like the man in the dream he thought he was, St. Peter responded. But you and I cannot respond mechanically. It must be an intelligent following, and it will need many a heart-searching to be obedient to the Heavenly Vision.

III. Liberty.—But it must be done, or there can be no liberty for you and me. Yet as you follow be of good cheer, liberty is nigh. Barrier after barrier yields before the angel’s noiseless touch—the iron gate most formidable of all opens of its own accord, and, saved with a wonderful salvation, the prisoner is free.

Saints in prison or saints set free, in which category are we found? Imprisoned Peters are of little use to God. Asleep, in danger, in the dark, in chains, how can He make you a blessing to the world? If not for your own sake then for the sake of others, rest not content until like St. Peter you are out of prison.

Rev. E. W. Moore.



The early Church at this time seemed to be in a very bad way. Herod, son of the Herod who slew the Innocents, vexed the Church, and it might have been well-nigh blotted out if it had not been Divine. He took St. James, the brother of John, and slew him with the sword. He had got St. Peter in the darkest, deepest dungeon, and he was quite determined that he should not escape. Nothing seemed more certain than that St. Peter was to be murdered in the morning. But ‘man proposes and God disposes.’

I. Ready to die.—What was St. Peter doing? Reposing in the arms of God. He was fast asleep between the two soldiers. Was not his mind disturbed? No, not in the least. It is one of those beautiful pictures that the Scriptures give us. He was loved of God, and ‘so He giveth His beloved sleep.’ We cannot help remembering what happened on the lake the day when Christ was asleep. St. Peter woke Him up and said, ‘Master, carest Thou not that we perish?’ What a change! He was afraid of death then; here his death was imminent—but all fear had gone. It is well for us just to pause and wonder whether our religion will stand us as well as that when our time comes.

II. Praying friends.—Well now, we have seen what St. Peter was doing. What were St. Peter’s friends doing? Their very best. They were praying. They had met together, as the beautiful little bit of Scripture tells us, in a house to pray earnestly for St. Peter. If you look in the margin you see how instantly, how earnestly, they were pouring out prayer to God to save St. Peter. He was so much to them then. There are some circumstances that we cannot help. There are certain difficulties that we cannot forestall. There are certain people that we cannot save. What are we to do? Did not St. Peter’s case seem hopeless? St. Peter was safe in prison, and the Jews were waiting outside to see him put to death in the morning. So they all met together and prayed. If a mother comes to me and says, ‘What can I do? I have no influence over my poor boy: he is going to the death.’ What should I say? ‘Never cease to pray to God for him!’ If they prayed St. Peter’s chains off, you can pray like them. See the forces. Herod, the soldiers, the prison, the chains, the locks, the warders—that is the force on the one side. And the force on the other? The poor little Church kneeling down in a room to pray! See the two forces, earth’s force on the one side, and heaven’s on the other.

III. Peter’s deliverance.—Well then, of course you know the story well, the chains fell off, and St. Peter was delivered. The Angel of the Lord came—just as the Angel went into the lions’ den and shut the mouths of the lions—and awoke St. Peter at midnight, and as he got up the chains fell off his hands. St. Peter himself was amazed. He thought he saw a vision and was walking in his sleep. But the first ward was passed, and then the second ward was passed, and then the great gate of the prison opened with a clang of it own accord, and they passed out into the open air. Then St. Peter knew that it was not a dream. With the fresh air about him the fancies had gone, the free air of God had blown away the dream, and St. Peter knew of a surety that the Lord had sent His angel and delivered him out of the expectation of the Jews.

IV. Faith in prayer.—We should all remember that though the prison doors may be shut against our hopes, the gates of heaven are always open to prayer; that when circumstances seem to bind you so that you cannot move hand or foot to help, you can pray, and by your prayers put the case into God’s hands; and if you say, ‘Thy will be done,’ your prayer must be answered, because you are quite sure that God’s will will be done. It is a beautiful example of faith in prayer, and I should like you to say to yourselves as you go away: ‘Well, when I cannot do anything for anybody else, when I find that the bolts and the bars of the prison and everything is against my helping, I can pray.’ If you believe in prayer there is no limit to it.

Rev. A. H. Stanton.


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 12:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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