The Roman Empire was experiencing a famine (11:27-30), and pagans like Herod thought the gods caused famines, so he naturally blamed the God of the Jews, and took it out on them (12:1). The Jewish church seemed immune to the famine because of the relief Paul sent them (11:30), but charity like that was unheard of in Rome, so Herod thought they were immune to the famine because God was favoring them.
Of course, Satan was behind this persecution. He used to use unsaved Jews to persecute them, but he lost the leader of that persecution when God saved Saul. When religion stopped persecuting the saints, that gave the churches “rest” (9:31), so Satan sicced the government on them instead.
We know why he went after James first (12:2). He was one of the 12! But why is his death described in only one verse after Stephen’s death took 60 verses to describe, and he wasn’t even one of the 12? The answer is: when those unsaved Jews killed Stephen, that was their way of rejecting the kingdom God was offering them, so God put the kingdom program on hold. That’s when the focus of the Book of Acts began to move away from the 12 apostles and the kingdom program to the Apostle Paul and God’s new program of grace. So James’ death gets mentioned only in passing.
We see more proof God wasn’t continuing the kingdom pro-gram when the 12 didn’t replace James, as they replaced Judas. Sadly, pastors and Bible teachers today continue to focus on the 12 and their kingdom program, rather than following God’s lead and looking to Paul. And not knowing who your apostle is will make a mess of your spiritual life!
Satan wanted James dead first because he knew James was supposed to write a New Testament epistle. His name is the Greek translation of Jacob, or Israel (Gen.32:28), and God spoke through Israel when He used them to write the Old Testament (Rom.3:1,2). God was about to use James, the New Testament version of Jacob, to write some of the New Testament. The Lord named him and John “the sons of thunder” (Mark3:7-17), and thunder is associated with the voice of God (Ps.29:3-9). When James died, God used another Jew named James to express God’s voice in a Bible book.
Satan went after Peter next (Acts 12:3) because he too was about to write a New Testament epistle. But Herod wouldn’t kill him on the feast day of unleavened bread lest it cause an uproar (cf.Mt.26:5). Instead, he planned to “bring him forth” to the Jews (Acts 12:3) as Pilate brought the Lord forth (Jo. 19:1) to get them to condemn Peter, as they did Christ (Mt.27:15-22), so his blood would be on their hands, not his.
One quarternion of soldiers was four men (cf.Jo.19:23), but Peter was guarded by four quarternions (Acts 12:4) because Herod had heard of the jailbreak of Acts 5:17-19.
Christians criticize the KJV, saying “Easter” doesn’t belong in the Bible because it is a pagan celebration, so Acts 12:4 should read “passover” instead. But if they were in the days of unleavened bread, passover was past (Lev.23:4-8).
The reason Herod was eager to “please” those unsaved Jews (Acts 12:3) is that they were wealthy. They had a God-given ability to make money (Deut.8:18), and they’d had it for 1500 years. And they had gained more wealth recently when they heard that believing Jews had to sell their lands and houses to be saved (Lu.18:18,22 cf. Acts 4:34,35), and they bought their possessions on the cheap, vastly increasing their net worth. That explains why Herod and every other civic leader in Acts was so eager to please the Jews (24:27; 25:9).
Men with money can still influence civic leaders to persecute God’s people, so stay on their good side by doing what your apostle Paul says to do: obey rulers, pray for them, and pay your taxes, without railing on them, as many Christians do.