Acts 12:2

ESV He killed James the brother of John with the sword,
NIV He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
NASB And he had James the brother of John executed with a sword.
CSB and he executed James, John's brother, with the sword.
NLT He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword.
KJV And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.

What does Acts 12:2 mean?

Herod Agrippa I gained rulership of Judea and Samaria in AD 41 and died in AD 44, which gives us the timeframe of the first death of an apostle. At the most, this is fourteen years after Jesus' ascension, and at the least, it's eight years after.

There are two significant New Testament characters named James. One is the half-brother of Jesus, the author of the book of James and the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Matthew 13:55; James 1:1; Galatians 2:9). The second, mentioned here, is the brother of John and son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19). He is one of Jesus' three closest disciples and, with John and Peter, witnessed more than the others (Mark 5:37; 9:2). He also joined John in asking for places of particular honor when Jesus came to His kingdom (Mark 10:35–40). Jesus responded that His kingdom would only be won through His own martyrdom and obliquely warned the disciples that they would follow Him.

To be killed "with the sword" is to be beheaded. Although it is gruesome, tradition says the other disciples suffered worse fates. Peter was crucified upside-down. John survived being boiled in a vat of oil. Bartholomew was whipped to death. Andrew was beaten and then tied to an x-shaped cross to extend his agony. Matthias was stoned.

At the end of Hebrews 11, which is known as the "Old Testament Hall of Faith," the writer explains that God-followers who came before Jesus "were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth" (Hebrews 11:37–38). The passage finishes, "And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect" (Hebrews 11:39–40). The Old Testament believers died waiting for the restoration of Israel. The New Testament believers died waiting for Jesus' worldwide kingdom. All of them were willing to sacrifice themselves for a reward that is greater than life.
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