12:1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 12:1-5 (ESV)
Agrippa I, known as Herod to the Jewish people over whom he was king. This is the Grandson of Herod the Great who built so many charming palaces and cities in Judea, but also slaughtered the innocents while trying to murder Jesus. Agrippa had been raised in the house of Caesar since he was four, and was friends with Claudius. He was a Hellenist at heart, but couldn’t be seen as one among the Jews, where like his grandfather he tried to appease the Pharisees, while carrying on his life like any gentile King. This is what the dynasty was known for. In public they portrayed piety, in private the perverse. Which is to say, they were in many ways like all the rest of us who hide our sins and try to put on a better show in public. Of course, they were on a grander scale and were often led to do things because of that that is hard to comprehend. Agrippa, though, he was raised in Caesars house, as a son of the Roman Emperor. It’s hard to imagine the licentiousness with which this man grew up. He was known to put on gladiator shows to entertain his friends. Murder for the fun of it. It’s doubtful he was a stranger to the sensual pleasures and sexual perversions of Rome. And now he is in a backwater, with these people who are intolerant of such things. Constantly having to indulge his urges, and yet putting on a show so as not to offend the piety of his people. A slave of sin pretending a servant of virtue.
Then there is James the brother of John, the disciple. Here’s a man of the church, this new sect that the Jews do not like. The church had become more open to the gentiles. They were evangelizing among them. And this made the Jews mad, and it made Agrippa upset. Christianity still does this, it offends the virtuous as much as it offends the licentious. Forgiveness offends the worshipers of the law, love offends the worshipers of vice. The message of Christ offended both sides of Agrippa. The killing of James was a no brainer. He meets martyrdom.
Nothing is really said about how he was caught or what he was imprisoned for. But that Rome was persecuting the church pleased the Jews, and so it continued all the more. Agrippa could slake his thirst for blood and make happy the people at the same time. So next Peter, but the church would pray earnestly, Luke says. It plays out differently.