Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
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, 748 or should desire such a calling 749 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, 750 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, 751 yet few are pooked 752 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. 753
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 754 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. 755 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; 756 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,” (Ps 50:15.)
“Perpetuam. quietem,” perpetual rest.
“In duces et capita animadverti solet,” punishment is usually inflicted on the heads and captains.
“Insaniant,” rage against.
“Incitat,” instigated by.
“Ad diem festum,” to the feast, or festival.
“In prima acie,” in the front rank, the van.
“In ejus morte,” in his death.