The Biblical Illustrator
Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the Church.
Herod the king
The previous life of this prince had been full of strange vicissitudes. The son of Aristobulus and Bernice, grandson of Herod the Great, brother of the Herodias who appears in the gospel history, named after the statesman who was the chief minister of Augustus, he had been sent, after his father had fallen a victim (B.C. 6) to his grandfather’s suspicions, to Rome, partly perhaps as a hostage, partly to be out of the way of Palestine intrigues. There he had grown up on terms of intimacy with the prince afterwards known as Caligula. On the marriage of Herod Antipas with his sister, he was made the ruler of Tiberias, but soon quarrelled with the tetrarch, and went to Rome, and, falling under the displeasure of Tiberius, as having rashly given utterance to a wish for the succession of Caligula, was imprisoned by him, and remained in confinement till the death of that emperor. When Caligula came to the throne he loaded his friend with honours, gave him the tetrarchies first of Philip, and then that of Lysanias (Luke 3:1), and conferred on him the title of king. Antipas, prompted by Herodias, came to Rome to claim a like honour for himself, but fell under the emperor’s displeasure, and was banished to Lugdunum in Gaul, whither his wife accompanied him. His tetrarchy also was conferred on Agrippa. Coins are extant, minted at Caesarea, and bearing inscriptions in which he is styled the Great King, with the epithets sometimes of Philo-Caesar, sometimes of Philo-Claudios. At the time when Caligula’s insanity took the form of a resolve to place his statue in the temple at Jerusalem, Agrippa rendered an essential service to his people, by using all his influence to deter the emperor from carrying his purpose into execution, and, backed as he was by Petronius, the Governor of Syria, was at last successful. On the death of Caligula, Claudius, whose claims to the empire he had supported, confirmed him in his kingdom. When he came to Judaea, he presented himself to the people in the character of a devout worshipper, and gained their favour by attaching himself to the companies of Nazarites (as we find St. Paul doing in Acts 21:26) when they came to the temple to offer sacrifices on the completion of their vows. It would seem that he found a strong popular excitement against the believers in Christ, caused probably by the new step which had recently been taken in the admission of the Gentiles, and fomented by the Sadducean priesthood, and it seemed to him politic to gain the favour of both priests and people, by making himself the instrument of their jealousy. (Dean Plumptre.)
James, Herod, and Peter
How strangely our prayers are sometimes answered! James and John had prayed that they might sit, the one on the right and the other on the left of the Lord when He came to His kingdom. And now the cup and the baptism came to James in the form of a terrible and disgraceful martyrdom. May I covet the best gift, not the most conspicuous position. May I keep in remembrance that they at the front fall first. But may I not shrink from the front if it be the will of the Lord to assign me that position. “Peter was kept in prison.” Kept in prison! All work suspended, and apparently all usefulness at an end. Peter, the most active of them. What does the Lord mean? This question comes up so often in Christian experience. To suffer James to be killed and Peter to be imprisoned would not be our way of propagating the Church. Now, I pray that I may never be scared for the cause of Christ. For my personal comfort let me learn from Peter’s case that the Lord may not always keep me out of the hands of the enemy, but He will keep those hands from destroying me. I may see the two soldiers to whom I am chained, blot not the ones that in secret are pouring out prayers for me. Oh, the unknown helpers! The unseen forces of the universe are stronger than the visible agencies. (C. F. Deems, LL. D.)
The martyrdom of James
One might have expected more than a clause to be spared to tell the death of a chief man, and the first martyr amongst the apostles. I think the lessons of the fact, and of the slight way in which the writer of this book refers to it, may perhaps be most pointedly brought out if we take four contrasts--James and Stephen, James and Peter, James and John, James and James. Now, if we take these four I think we shall learn something.
I. First, then, James and Stephen. Look at the different scale on which the incidents of the deaths of these two are told; the martyrdom of the one is beaten out over chapters, the martyrdom of the other is crammed into a corner of a sentence. And yet, of the two men, the one who is the less noticed filled the larger place officially, and the other was only a simple deacon and preacher of the Word. The fact that Stephen was the first Christian to follow his Lord in martyrdom is not sufficient to account for the extraordinary difference. The Bible cares so little about the people whom it names because its true theme is the works of God, and not of man; and the reason why the “Acts of the Apostles” kills off one of the first three apostles in this fashion is simply that, as the writer tells us, his theme is “all that Jesus” continued “to do and to teach” after He was taken up. Since it is Christ who is the true actor, it matters uncommonly little what becomes of James or of the other ten. What is the reason why so disproportionate a space of the gospel is concerned with the last two days of our Lord’s life on earth? What is the reason why years are leaped over in silence and moments are spread out in detail, but that the death of a man is only a death, but the death of the Christ is the life of the world? James sleeps none the less sweetly in his grave, or, rather, wakes none the less triumphantly in heaven because his life and death are both so scantily narrated. If we “self-infold the large results” of faithful service, we need not trouble ourselves about its record on earth. But another lesson which may be learned from this cursory notice of the apostle’s martyrdom is--how small a thing death really is! Looked at from beside the Lord of life and death, which is the point of view of the author of this narrative, “great death” dwindles to a very little thing. We need to revise our notions if we would understand how trivial it really is. From a mountain top the country below seems level plain, and what looked like an impassable precipice has dwindled to be indistinguishable. The triviality of death, to those who look upon it from the heights of eternity, is well represented by these brief words which tell of the first breach thereby in the circle of the apostles.
II. There is another contrast, James and Peter. Now this chapter tells of two things: one, the death of one of that pair of friends; the other, the miracle that was wrought for the deliverance of the other from death. Why should James be slain, and Peter miraculously delivered? A question easily asked; a question not to be answered by us. We may say that the one was more useful for the development of the Church than the other. But we have all seen lives that, to our poor vision, seemed to be all but indispensable, ruthlessly swept away, and lives that seemed to be, and were, perfectly profitless, prolonged to extreme old age. We may say that maturity of character, development of Christian graces, made the man ready for glory. But we have all seen men struck down when anything but ready. Only we may be sure of this, that James was as dear to Christ as Peter was, and that there was no greater love shown in sending the angel that delivered the one from the “expectation of Herod” and the people of the Jews, than was shown in sending the angel that stood behind the headsman and directed the stroke of the fatal sword on the neck of the other. James escaped from Herod when Herod slew him, and could not make him unfaithful to his Master, and his deliverance was not less complete than the deliverance of his friend. But let us remember, too, that if thus, to two equally beloved, there be dealt out these two different fates, it must be because that evil, which, as I said, is not so big as it looks, is not so bitter as it tastes either; and there is no real evil, for the loving heart, in the stroke that breaks its bands and knits it to Jesus Christ. The contrast of James and Peter may teach us the equal love that presides over the life of the living and the death of the dying.
III. Another contrast is that of James and John. The close union and subsequent separation by this martyrdom of that pair of brothers is striking and pathetic. By death they were separated so far: the one the first of all the apostles to “become a prey to Satan’s rage,” the other “lingering out his fellows all,” and “dying in bloodless age,” living to be a hundred years old and more, and looking back through all the long parting to the brother who had joined with him in the wish that even Messiah’s kingdom should not part them, and yet had been parted so soon and parted so long. Ah! may we not learn the lesson that we should recognise the mercy and wisdom of the ministry of death the separator, and should tread with patience the lonely road, do calmly the day’s work, and tarry till He comes, though those that stood beside us be gone.
IV. Lastly, James and James. In his hot youth, when he deserved the name of a son of thunder--so energetic, boisterous I suppose, destructive perhaps, he was--he and his brother, and their foolish mother, whose name is kindly not told us, go to Christ and say, “Grant that we may sit, the one on Thy right hand and the other on Thy left, in Thy kingdom.” That was what he wished and hoped for, and what he got was years of service, and a taste of persecution, and finally the swish of the headsman’s sword. Yes! And so our dreams get disappointed, and their disappointment is often the road to their fulfilment, for Jesus Christ was answering the prayer, “Grant that we may sit on Thy right hand in Thy kingdom,” when He called him to Himself, by the brief and bloody passage of martyrdom. So let us leave for ourselves, and for all dear ones, that question of living or dying to Him. Only let us be sure that whether our lives be long like John’s, or short like James’s, “living or dying we are the Lord’s.” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Herod vexes the Church
1. The scene changes. After intimating that the door was open among the Greeks, the historian shows us that it was shut among the Jews. By His apostles as well as in His own Person Christ came to His own, and His own received Him not.
2. The king who appears here was mild in his natural temper, but fond of popularity. The persecution was not of his own motion, but to please the Jews, as was the case with Pilate.
3. Keeping Judas out of view--this is the first breach in the apostolic circle. The Church had learned to walk by faith, and even the fall of an apostle will not crush them now. In the case of James, the Lord shows that He will not always interfere to protect His servants, and in the case of Peter that He will sometimes, lest the spirit should fail before Him. This first apostolic martyrdom marks a law of the kingdom, and illustrates the Master’s word, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Not an inch of territory will Christ maintain for Himself by the sword.
4. Observing that no Divine power was put forth, either to protect James or to avenge him, and finding that one murder procured him favour, Herod determined to perpetrate another. Peter was imprisoned, but the remainder of the king’s wrath it pleased God in this instance to restrain. “Peter was kept in prison, but prayer was made,” etc.
a remarkable antithesis. Man proposes, but God disposes; and the prayer of faith reaches the Disposer’s hand. James was suddenly seized and taken off, but there was time to pray for Peter. God opened the door of opportunity through Herod’s desire to keep all quiet till after the passover; the Church eagerly entered that door.
5. Peter meanwhile was sleeping, and his sleep brought as much glory to God as his wakefulness, although he had sung psalms till the rafters rang again. He slept in Gethsemane through weakness of the flesh: he sleeps here through the strength of his faith. How sweet to lie down every night ready, if the Lord will, to awake in heaven! (W. Arnot, D. D.)
Herod and Peter
I. Herod’s persecution.
1. “Now about that time”--we know that troubles never come alone. A time of famine was prophesied (Acts 11:28). Famine might kill slowly; Herod would find a quicker way! How well it would have been when Herod “stretched forth his hand” to have kept it there! Such would be our way. God’s thought has a wider compass, and He needs more time for the exemplification of His purpose.
2. “He killed James the brother of John with the sword.” This was not a Jewish method of killing people. But what is crime if it cannot be inventive? What if a king cannot take a short cut to the consummation of his purpose? Beheading is quicker than stoning! The wicked cannot wait. They need no further condemnation. Justice can wait. “Though hand join in hand the wicked cannot go unpunished.”
3. Having performed this trick of cruelty, Herod proceeded further. That is the natural history of wickedness! It gathers momentum as it goes. You cannot stop with one murder. You acquire the bad skill, and your fingers become nimble in the use of cruel weapons. Murder does not look so ghastly when you have done it once. How many people have you murdered? Murder is heartbreaking; life-blighting; hope-destroying! “He proceeded further.” The one glass needs another to keep it company. Crimes do not like solitude; and so one crime leads to another. If you calf do one sin, the whole life is lost. We are not thieves because of a thousand thefts; we are not liars because of a thousand lies; we find our criminality in the opening sin. Therefore, what I say unto one, I say unto all, “Watch”!
4. “Because he saw it pleased the Jews.” There are those who like to see you play the fool and the criminal, but what will they do for you in the critical hour? All the while Herod thought he was king; in reality he was a slave. Sometimes the judge has been the prisoner. Sometimes the conqueror has been the loser. Herod lived upon the popular pleasure. Therein he tarnished his crown, and sold his kingdom, and lost his soul!
II. Peter’s deliverance. In verse 5 there is a pitched battle. Read it: “Peter therefore was kept in prison:” there is one side of the fight; after the colon--“but prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for him.” Now for the shock of arms! Who wins? Prayer always wins. You can only be of a contrary opinion when you take in too little field. There is no action of any importance that is bounded by a single day. Such prayer as this is irrepressible. The prayers you could keep down if you liked will never be answered. This prayer was answered by a miracle, in which observe--
1. Last extremities (verse 6). Have we not been in that very same darkness, when we were to be injured, or impoverished, not seven years from date, but the next day? Have we not taken up the pieces of the one loaf and said, “This is all”? So far, then, you have no difficulty about the miracle.
2. Appearances dead against us. Thus--two soldiers, two chains, and the keepers keeping the door before the prison! These were compliments to Peter! The devil cannot avoid paying us compliments all the time he is trying to destroy us. Why all this arrangement about a man like Peter? Why all these temptations addressed to a man like one of us? It is a reluctant but significant tribute to the character whose destruction is contemplated. Have not appearances been dead against us? No letters, no friends, no answer to the last appeal, no more energy, no more hope, the last staff snapped in two. So far the miracle is true.
3. Unexpected deliverers. Have we no experience here? Is it not always the unexpected man who delivers and cheers us? “But a certain Samaritan came where he was,” that is the whole history of human deliverance in one graphic sentence. “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” “It is always darkest before the dawn.” All our life properly read is a chain of unexpectedness. Deliverance shall arise from an unthought of quarter!
4. Spiritual transport (verse 11). Have we not sometimes taken down our harp from the willows and struck it to some new tone of joy and gladness and hope? Peter did not understand this miracle at first. He thought he saw a vision. “And when Peter was come to himself he said”--that is the point we must wait for. We are not “ourselves” just now. Our eyes are dazed by cross lights, and we cannot see things in their right proportion, distance, and colour. Do not let us imagine that we are now speaking final words or giving final judgments. Innumerable visions float before my wondering eyes. The righteous are trodden down; the bad man has a plentiful table. The little child is torn from its mother’s arms. What is it? When we are come to ourselves we shall know and praise the Lord, whose angels have been our ministering servants! (J. Parker, D. D.)
Herod and Peter
I. The value of small accuracies in the expressions of the inspired history. Paley places the first verse among his evidences of Christianity, because Herod is called “the king.” For he declares that there was never a period, for more than thirty years previously, nor was there ever subsequently at Jerusalem one who wielded such authority as entitled him to the name of monarch. No one except this Herod, and he only during the last three years of his life, could have been properly called “the king.”
II. How little the New Testament makes of the martyrdom of even the best of men. Only two words in the Greek describe James’s execution: “killed--sword.” The Bible does not dwell upon the deaths of Christians so much as upon their lives. Whitefield used to remark, “You will have no dying testimony from me, you must take my living witness for my blessed Lord.”
III. That there is a limit set to the wickedness of the wickedest of opposers (verse 3). Herod was a time server and a trimmer. His political motto is found in “It pleased the Jews.” He thought he had made a hit when he slew John’s brother. But even in that crime he only helped to fulfil a prophecy of Christ (Mark 10:39). So Herod “proceeded further”; but all he was suffered to do was “to take Peter.” There he had to pause before a higher power. The all-wise God permits sin to move on for a while, but He may be trusted to interpose when the time for restraining wrath arrives (Psalms 76:10).
IV. That prayer is the welcome instrument of communication between separated friends (verse 5). A friend when I was abroad sent me a letter with a triangle in it. At the top of it he wrote “the mercy seat”; and drew for the base a rough wavy mark, which he meant for the ocean; then he wrote his initials at one angle and mine at the other. He felt that I knew that the shortest path to those we love is around via heaven, where our faithful High Priest is to receive our petitions.
V. That true religious trust is always tranquil and undismayed (verse 6). Peter must have understood that he was now in the power of a wild bad man. He could not expect to fare any better than did James. But evidently he was not in the least troubled. This old fisherman meant to have as easy a night of it as was possible with the poor accommodations. He took off his outer garments and sandals before he lay down, as was his habit anywhere. And now think of it: while Herod in the palace was uneasy, and the soldiers wide awake, and the outsiders getting ready for “no small stir” (vers18), and the disciples holding an agitated prayer meeting, and an angel on the errand of relief, so that it seems to us as if the whole exterior world was disturbed, Peter went quietly into a sweet good sleep as usual. We have no record of his experiences, but we conjecture he said over the old psalm (Psalms 34:7).
VI. An affecting illustration of the unhurried exercise of God’s patient power (verse 8). The angel had nothing to fear there in the prison, and he knew Peter could take all of time and care he needed without danger. It was not necessary that he should dress in the dark; the messenger from heaven lit up the room for him, and calmed him with tranquil words of direction; and the apostle put on his shoes and his loose garment before he started. The chains had already been removed so cautiously that they made no clanking. There was no hurry nor confusion; when God takes care of a man, He takes good care. How calm God is in the heavens where He reigns; and how little He respected the ingenuities of Herod (Psalms 2:4). We have no wonder that Peter afterwards quoted Isaiah’s words with a fresh turn of interpretation after such an experience (1 Peter 2:6). The only thing Herod could do the next morning was to kill his own soldiers; Peter was cut of his reach. Why are we so troubled? How calm is the service of such a Saviour as ours (Isaiah 40:22).
VII. If people are surprised by answers to prayer, it is because they do not “consider.” Peter’s conclusion (verse 11) is in edifying contrast with the petulant rebuke which Rhoda received from the Christians (verse 15). He had “considered the thing” (verse 12). That must be the reason why he was not “astonished” as they were (verse 16). Rhoda was not “mad,” only “glad.” A clearer mind was never known than Peter had, only he had now and then to “come to himself,” and get his bearings. The one grand conclusion is found well phrased in the remark of Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress.” After some days of useless suffering, he suddenly exclaimed, “Why, I have all along had in my bosom a key called Promise, which is able to open any door in Doubting Castle!” What is the reason anyone now is afraid of the power of Giant Despair? (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
A short-lived triumph
We have here a royal persecution in its beginning, progress, and end. We see it in its success, failure, and punishment. We have before us a whole career, in its pride and its humiliation, its triumph and its discomfiture, its short-lived arrogance and its frightful dismay. That is the aspect of the chapter towards them that are without. Its aspect towards the Church within shows what danger, anxiety, and death itself is to the Christian; enough to bring out great graces and to exercise faith and patience, but not enough to make a single true heart doubt where safety, strength, victory lie. Let us look--
I. On the dark side of this picture. There is a king stretching forth his hands to vex certain of the Church.
1. His first act of aggression was directed against an apostle. “He killed James the brother of John with the sword.” Such is the short record of the first and only apostolical martyrdom of which we have any record in Scripture. Far more was told of the martyrdom of the deacon Stephen. Such is the character of the Scriptures. One thing is dwelt upon and another briefly told. Simplicity, naturalness, undesignedness, absence of rhetorical trick and stage effect, this we notice throughout, and we think we can see it to be of God. Thus one of the chosen witnesses passed away early from his work to his reward. It was scarcely fifteen years, I suppose, since he had first heard that word which had changed him from a fisherman into a fisher of men. He had been one of the favoured few in various striking occurrences of the Saviour’s life and ministry. He had been one of two brothers, who, in days of ignorant zeal, had proposed to call fire from heaven upon a Samaritan village, and who, again, in days of a no less ignorant ambition, had asked to sit on His right hand and on His left hand in their Master’s glory. Boanerges, sons of thunder, He had named them, in days when the impetuosity of nature had not yet been checked by the influence of grace. But now this was past; past too the mighty transformation of Pentecost, and the devoted years of the ministry which that day had opened. To him, first of the brothers, is that prophecy fulfilled, “Ye shall drink indeed of My cup,” etc. And see how lightly the inspired record passes over that great transition. Not one word of the circumstances. No death bed scene, no dying testimony, save indeed that best of testimonies which the death itself afforded. He had given his life in one sense; now he gave it in another. Nothing is made of it. He did his duty; and to him, as a matter of course, belonged the recompence of the reward.
2. The fate of the next destined victim is widely different. He too seems to be marked out for martyrdom. The appetite for blood is ever whetted by its indulgence. It was a crowded time in Jerusalem: strangers from all parts of the world flocked together to the festival; and the spectacle of an apostle’s execution was to be their pastime in the intervals of religious duty. Such is religion when it is once possessed and saturated with bigotry, fanaticism, and party zeal! All seemed to promise well and surely for the persecutor and his people. Peter then was kept in the prison: by night and by day he is the one care of sixteen armed men. Surely nothing can elude such vigilance? So might man well judge. There is one, there is but one, impediment, which brings us to--
II. The bright side of the picture.
1. “But there was fervent prayer going on by the Church unto God concerning him.” Is there not great meaning in that little word “but”? The Church below was calling in a help, not of man, to counteract man’s design. Little would Herod or his friends account of that; but He who neither slumbers nor sleeps has Israel in His keeping, and let no man presume to say, apart from Him, what one day or one night may bring forth!
2. The last night is come, but not gone. Peter sleeps, while the Church prays: it is their time for action, it is his for repose. “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength”; “Cast all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.” What if his martyrdom is to follow close upon that of James, and they who were so lately partners in a fisher’s calling, and have since been associated in a noble ministry, are to be speedily reunited in a blessedness not of this world--“lovely and pleasant in their lives, and even in their deaths not divided”?
3. “And, behold an angel of the Lord stood near,” etc., etc. God does nothing in vain: He begins where man must end, and ends where man can begin. Deliverance achieved, reflection follows. “He comes to himself,” and to the right conclusion.
4. And whither shall he now betake himself? He knows the deep anxiety with which the Church of which he is a pillar must have regarded his imprisonment; so he bends his steps first to one of the homes of the Church. His knock brings to the door a maiden of the household; not at once to open--for they were hard and evil times, and peril might lurk in the admittance of a stranger--but to hearken to the voice which should tell its errand and report upon it to those within. The voice which calls to her is one well known. She had heard it often, we doubt not, leading the devotions of that pious home: she knew it at once for Peter’s, and for very joy ran in before she opened. Her tidings were incredible. “They said, It is his angel”; one of those ministering spirits who have in their charge the heirs of salvation, and who, in the character of the angels of Christ’s “little ones, do always behold the face of His Father who is in heaven.” But no; there is no mistake here, and no apparition; the angel’s office is ended, and Peter himself, in flesh and blood, is seen, when they open, to stand before the gate. Silencing with a motion of the hand their eager and wondering exclamations, he tells his own story and bids them, while he departs elsewhere for security, to carry the report of his miraculous deliverance to James, the Lord’s brother, and to the brethren at the headquarters of the Church.
III. The narrative would be incomplete without a record of the end of the persecutor and his instruments.
1. Just as when the faithful three were thrown into the furnace, “the flame of the fire slew those men” who acted as his executioners; even so the activity of Peter was fatal to the soldiers to whose charge he had been consigned. Disappointed rage must have its victim. If it cannot be an apostle, it must be an apostle’s keeper. But the retribution ends not there.
2. Herod himself goes down from Jerusalem to Caesarea. There was at this time a feud between him and the people of Tyre and Sidon. They were ill able to part with his friendship, and came to him therefore imploring reconciliation. This was the crowning point of Herod’s triumphs. With an ambition glutted with success, and a vanity inflated by flattery, he appeared gorgeously arrayed. Flattery ran on into impiety, and they all with one accord shouted, “It is the voice of a God and not of a man.” This cry was the signal of the Divine punishment. “Immediately an angel of the Lord smote him,” etc.
1. The chapter before us is an epitome of all history. In it the world and the Church are arrayed on opposite sides, the hosts of God and of Satan being marshalled for the encounter. On the one side there is kingly power, on the other poverty and insignificance; but the one calculates without the Divine arm on which the other depends. For a time the one succeeds, in the end the other wins. Herod is eaten with worms, but the Word of God grows and multiplies.
2. The practical lesson is to learn the power and practise the grace of that effectual fervent prayer which availeth much. (Dean Vaughan.)
And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.--
James’ noble end, or “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints”
I. Before man--a melancholy death.
1. Bloody and cruel: the noble head of the apostle falls under the sword of the executioner.
2. Premature and sudden: he quits this earthly scene before effecting anything important in his apostolic calling.
3. Without glory and quiet: he departs uncelebrated by the world, unpraised even by the Word of God.
II. Before God--a noble end and a beautiful death.
1. He had fulfilled his vocation here below: not how long, but how we live, is the chief matter.
2. He dies in the service of His Lord and preaches as powerfully by his death, as his fellow disciples do by their word.
3. He hastens towards his heavenly destination, whilst he as the first among, the brethren receives the martyr’s crown, and is honoured by sitting where he desired at Christ’s right hand. (K. Gerok.)
The bleeding James and the rescued Peter
or, God leads His people--
I. By many paths.
1. James’ short hour and Peter’s long day of work.
2. James’ sad end and Peter’s glorious deliverance.
II. To one end.
1. Both promote the kingdom of God--James by his death and Peter by his life.
2. Both carry off the crown of life--James after a short contest, Peter after a long service. (K. Gerok.)
The martyrdom of St. James
As the apostle was led forth to the place of execution the person who had accused him was so touched with the courage and constancy which he displayed, that he repented of what he had done, came and fell down at his feet and earnestly begged pardon of what he had said against him. St. James tenderly raised him up, kissed him and said to him, “Peace be to thee, my son, and She pardon of all thy faults.” At this, his former accuser publicly professed himself a Christian, and so both were beheaded at the same time. (Clement of Alexandria.)
1. This is one of those incidents in sacred story which had we lived in the apostolic age would have moved our wonder if it did not shake our faith. The Church is yet in its infancy, and already a chief pillar is moved, leaving the edifice deprived of what was certainly one of its best supports and fairest ornaments--one, in fact, of its twelve precious foundations. What token was there here of Divine love watching over a Divine institution? How shall such a dispensation be reconciled with what we believe of the power, and wisdom, and mercy, and justice, and love, and truth, and faithfulness of God?
2. On the Festival of St. James, we never can do amiss if we refresh our memories by recalling the events of the apostle’s life. And this is soon done. Originally a disciple of the stern Baptist, and therefore a man of no common earnestness, James was brought to Christ by the report of his brother John--and therefore was the fourth to become a member of the apostolic band. Subsequently, we are shown his former call to apostleship. On him, with his brother, our Lord bestowed the title “son of thunder”; and (no unapt illustration of the name!) the two proposed to call down fire from heaven on the inhospitable Samaritans. But subsequently there is nothing characteristic recorded of St. James, with the single exception of his ambitious desire for a chief place in the kingdom of Messiah. He was indeed highly distinguished on other occasions--as when he was made a witness of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and yet more of our Lord’s transfiguration. Again, he was with our Lord during His agony, and lastly, he was one of the four who heard His prophecy on the Mount of Olives. But of the characteristic events of his life none are recorded--save his call; the token of a fiery spirit alluded to; his ambitious aspiration; and his death.
3. When we say something similar of other members of the apostolic body and rehearse the meagre chronicle of the recorded lives of the other apostles, we all secretly feel that their unrecorded history must have made full amends, by its fulness and variety, for the scantiness of the gospel record. Thomas in India; Matthew in Ethiopia; Andrew in Scythia; Philip, Bartholomew, and the other James--the life must have been most varied, and doubtless was most eventful. But in the case of James we know that this was not the ease. His history brings home to us the familiar phenomenon of a precious life early shortened--a burning spirit suddenly quenched--a large and a brave heart, which was willing to do and to dare all in his Master’s service, early laid to rest; the goodly promise of his youth and early manhood all unfulfilled--the work which he longed to do left unaccomplished--a legacy of tears left to friends and kindred; a subject of wonder and perplexity to all.
4. I do not pretend to have anything of importance to say on this difficult problem.
The quiet disciples of the Lord, how they yet bear testimony for Him
1. Though not by shining gifts, yet by the meek and quiet spirit which is precious in the sight of God.
2. Though not by mighty deeds, yet by patient suffering and holy dying.
3. Though not in the annals of the world’s history, yet in the brotherly circles of the children of God. (K. Gerok.)
Times of trial testing times
Then is tested--
I. The sincerity of faith in suffering and death (verses 1-3).
II. Brotherly love in watching and prayer (verse 5).
III. Spiritual peace in rest and waiting (verse 6).
IV. The power of God in rescuing and helping (verses 7-11). (Florey.)
The weapons of the Church in the contest against its enemies
1. Inflexible courage in witnessing.
2. Quiet patience in suffering.
3. Unwearied perseverance in prayer. (Leonhard and Spiegel.)
Lessons for the Church
1. May expect to be attacked by its enemies so long as it has any.
2. Often has had to sustain the loss of leaders who seemed to be almost indispensable.
3. Has had to learn that God will not always interfere to save his servants from death--that one’s death may be of more service than his life.
4. Often has had to suffer from those who attacked it simply to curry favour with others.
5. Has been taught that many a seeming calamity has turned out to be a blessing signally manifesting the glory of God.
6. Has found that prayer is its best weapon in fighting with persecution.
7. Has found through prayer that God could overcome the enemies whom it was too weak to encounter. (S. S. Times.)
Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for him.
In and out of prison
1. There is more than one way of getting into prison.
2. There are several ways of getting out of prison.
3. The angel found Peter asleep. When night has come it is the proper time to go to sleep. If you have done no wrong and have finished your work you can go to sleep very well. You feel that your father is in the house, and he will take care of you. Now Peter knew that his head might soon be cut off, yet he could sleep comfortably, because he felt that his Father was in the prison with him, and that if Herod did kill him he would go to heaven. Now notice--
I. What the angel did for Peter. He came into the cell, and the soldiers could not prevent him any more than they could the angel from rolling away the stone from the Saviour’s tomb. He filled the prison with light so that Peter could see; then he had to wake Peter up. When you have gone to sleep very tired you have to be shaken before you can awake. So Peter had to be struck by the angel, and then when he was a little awake he lifted him up as though he were a little child. Then Peter’s chains fell off.
II. What Peter did for himself. He put on his clothes and shoes. When a boy is able to dress himself his father will not do it for him. Neither will. God or His angels do for us what we can do for ourselves. And when a child is old enough to walk his mother will not carry him. So the angel, who might have carried Peter and set him down among his friends, told him to walk.
III. What the iron gate did for the angel and Peter (verse 10). There are two ways to open a gate--by using a key, or by breaking it open as Samson did. But Peter did not unlock the gate, nor did the angel break it open. It opened as if it knew that God wanted to let the angel and Peter out. This is what we call a miracle. Let us see what we can learn from the story.
1. That you may pray people out of trouble. When you pray for anyone you carry him to God upon your mind. If your brother were ill you could carry him in your arms to the doctor, or you might tell the doctor about him. When Jesus was on earth many were carried to Him in the arms of others; but some, like the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, were carried upon the mind. This is what Peter’s friends did. And so we may carry anyone whom we love to God when they are far away and we want them blessed.
2. How strong a power prayer is. It was stronger in this case than Herod and his prison and his soldiers. And it is stronger now than sin and Satan. (W. Harris.)
Peter prayed cut of prison
It is not the perseverance but the fervency of this prayer which is really in the mind of the writer. The margin of the Authorised Version, and the text of the Revised, concur in substituting for “without ceasing,” earnestly; and that is the true idea of the expression.
I. Now, the first thought that suggests itself to me is based on the first word of our text, that eloquent but. It brings into prominence the all-powerful weapon of the unarmed. Peter was kept in prison, and we know all the elaborate precautions that were taken in order to secure him. But he was lying quietly asleep. There were some people awake; the Church was awake, and God was awake. Peter was kept in prison; but what vanity and folly it all was to surround him with soldiers and gates and bars when this was going on. “Prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him.” On the one side was the whole embodied power of the world, moved by the malignity of the devil; and on the other side there were a handful of people in Mary’s house, with their hearts half broken, wrestling with God in prayer; and these beat the others. So they always do, but not always in the same fashion. No doubt there were plenty of prayers offered for James, but he was killed off in a parenthesis. Let us remember, too, that this is the only weapon which it is legitimate for Christian people to use in their conflicts with an antagonistic world. To stand still unresisting, and with no weapon in my hand but prayer to God, is a strong impregnable position which, if Christ’s disciple takes up, in regard of his individual life, and of the Church’s difficulties and enemies, no power on earth or hell can really overcome him. The faith that keeps itself within the limits of its Master’s way of overcoming evil is more than conqueror in the midst of defeat, and that life is safe, though all the Herods that ever were eaten of worms should intend to slay.
II. Further, notice the temper of the prayer that prevails. I have already said that the true idea of the word of my text is earnestness, and not of perseverance or persistence. The author of the Book of the Acts, as you know, is the evangelist Luke; and he uses the same words as descriptive of another prayer: “Being in an agony He prayed the more earnestly,” he says about the Master in Gethsemane. The disciples, when they prayed for their brother, were fervent in supplication. Ah! if we take that scene beneath the olives as explaining to us the kind of prayer that finds acceptance in God’s ears, we shall not wonder that so much of what we call prayer seems to come back unanswered upon our heads. Air will only rise when it is rarefied; and it is only rarefied when it is warmed. And when our breath is icy cold as it comes out of our lips, and we can see it as a smoke as it passes from us, no wonder it never gets beyond the ceiling of the room in which it is poured out in vain. I dare say--for they were but average people after all--they prayed a deal more fervently to get Peter back amongst them because they did not know what they were to do without him than they prayed for the spiritual blessings which were waiting to be given them. But still they prayed earnestly; and if you and I did the same we should get our answers. And then, remember that, of course, this earnestness of petition is of such a kind that it keeps on till it gets what it wants. Although the word does not mean “without ceasing,” it implies “without ceasing,” because it means “earnestly.” A man that does not much care for a thing asks languidly for it and is soon tired. And this is how many people pray: they ask for the thing and then go away, and do not know whether God ever gave it them or not. But others, who really want the blessing, plead till it comes. These good people were praying the night before the execution; no doubt all day long they had been at it, and nothing came of it. The night fell, they continued, nothing came of it. But, according to the story, the answer came so late that Peter had barely time to get to the Christian home that was nearest before daybreak. And so at the very last possible moment to which it was safe to defer Peter’s deliverance, and not a tick of the clock sooner, did God send the answer. He does in like fashion with us many a time: and the great lesson is, Wait patiently on Him. Rest in the Lord, nor faint when the answer is long in coming.
III. And now the last point that I would suggest does not lie so much in my text itself, as in its relation to the whole incident. And it is this--that fervent prayer has often a strange alloy of unbelief mixed with it. You remember the end of the story, so life-like and natural; how Rhoda in her excitement leaves Peter standing at the door in peril, whilst she rushes into the house to tell everybody what had happened. Then, while they are arguing inside, as to whether it is Peter or his angel, see how Peter keeps on hammering at the door. “Peter continued knocking.” There we see the whole nature of the man in that graphic phrase. How true to nature is what was going on inside! The people that had been so fervently praying for the answer could not believe it when they got it. The answer stood, waiting outside, to be admitted, and they could do nothing but discuss whether it was Peter’s angel or his ghost. And through all our lives there will be more or less, in varying proportions, of this strange alloy of fervour with coldness, and of faith with wavering unbelief, and in our most believing prayers a dash of unpreparedness for the answer when it comes. There is another thing that may be suggested, and that is that we should, if I may so say, expect to get more than we expect, and believe that however large may be our anticipations of what God will do for us if we trust ourselves to Him, the answer when it comes will be astonishing even to our widest faith. “He is able to do for us exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think.” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Peter in prison
He was imprisoned unjustly, and therefore it was no prison to him, but a sanctuary with God’s light irradiating it. Peter saw and heard more here than others do in palaces. There are a thousand prisons in life. He is in prison who is in trouble, in fear, in conscious penitence without having received the complete assurance of pardon; he is in prison who has sold his liberty, who is lying under condemnation, who has lost his first love. But whatever our prison is God knows it, can find us, can make us forget our outward circumstances in inward content, can send His angel to deliver us. Peter had been in prison before, and had been miraculously delivered. Fools never learn wisdom; for the people who had shut him up before had seen that you cannot really imprison a good man. His influence increases by the opposition that is hurled against him; goodness turns hostility into nutrition. Who can put an apostle into such a position as Jeremiah was thought to be occupying? You can put his body there, but his soul is swinging around the horizon, and his heart is among the singing angels. You cannot imprison the soul. But a man may lose the liberty of his spirit, and when he gives up the key of his soul he is already in perdition. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Peter in prison; the weakness of Satan
Every chapter in Church history develops the old decree that enmity should exist between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. This is the underlying spring of all the commotions, anarchies, persecutions, and wars of the ages. But the “old serpent” assumes no serpentine nor supernatural form in carrying out his aims, but the form of a man--here the form of a malignant and servile king. “On thy belly shalt thou go.” Note what Satan cannot do.
I. Render unavailing the intercessions of the good (verse 5). It would have been easier for Herod to have controlled the winds of heaven than to have neutralised the prayers of these poor people. Satan was mighty in Pharaoh, but a few of the oppressed ones prayed and their deliverance came. He was mighty in Nebuchadnezzar, but God’s people prayed and were rescued from his demon grasp.
II. Destroy the peace of a good man (verse 6). Think of the place--a dark, filthy cell, Think of his position--linked to two wretches from whose nature he must have recoiled with horror. Think of those who watched--sixteen soldiers. Think of the time--the night before execution. Yet Peter sleeps; which suggests--
1. A gracious providence. “He giveth His beloved sleep.” Sleep is one of God’s choicest gifts. How it drowns our cares, restrings the harp of life, binds up our energies afresh. What more did Peter want than sleep? Had he the most comfortable chamber in Herod’s palace could he have had more than sleep?
2. An approving conscience. A condemning conscience would have kept sleep away. Peter knew that he was engaged in the right work.
3. A sense of security. He had no fear about the future. He had committed himself to the care of Heaven. “God is our refuge and strength.”
III. Hinder the visit of angels to good men (verse 8). The Bible teaches not only the existence of angels, but their ministration Note--
1. The ease with which an angel does his work. The walls, gates, etc., presented no obstruction. The chains fell off without effort, and Peter led through his guards without a struggle. God’s greatest agents work quietly.
2. The extent to which an angel does his work. Only what a good man cannot do for himself. Peter could tie on his sandals, etc., but could not snap his chains.
IV. Cannot prevent the frustration of his own purposes (verse 11). That Herod’s purpose was frustrated is seen--
1. In the deliverance of Peter. This deliverance was--
2. In the progress of truth. “Go show these things unto James,” etc. What an impulse this fact must have given to the new cause!
3. In his confusion (verses 18, 19). Satan’s plans may be very subtle in their structure, vast in their sweep, imposing in their aspect, and promising in their progress; but their failure is inevitable. They must break down, and their author and abettors must be everlastingly confounded. Take heart, ye children of the truth; as soon as God’s day comes “there will be no small stir” amongst God’s enemies (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Peter in prison, sleeping between two soldiers
A beautiful picture of--
I. Christian faith, which in prison and in the horrors of death lies sleeping like a child in the bosom of God.
II. Divine love, which stands with its eyes open over its sleeping and bound children day and night. (K. Gerok.)
Peter’s passion, and the Church’s compassion
1. When the devil draws his sword, he flings his scabbard away; and though he strike not, yet he hath it always ready. It was already dyed in the blood of James (verse 2); and now he strives to latch it in the sides of St. Peter also.
2. These words present unto us the true face of the Church militant: one member suffering, and all the members suffering with it; St. Peter in chains, and the Church on their knees. Though they cannot help him, yet they will pray for him; and they will pray for him, that they may help him.
I. Peter’s passion.
1. His imprisonment. A prison one would think were not a fit place for St. Peter. Will God suffer this great light to be confined, and this pillar to be shaken with the storms of persecution? Shall he who was to teach and govern the Church now stand in need of the prayers of the Church? It is a common sight to see Herod on his throne, and St. Peter in prison. But in this world it matters not where he is confined who is already out of the world. St. Peter lost not his peace with his liberty, nor was he a saint less glorious because he was in prison. Imprisonment and persecution are not only good, but blessed (Matthew 5:11), as our Saviour says.
2. The motives which induced Agrippa to keep him in prison. You may perhaps imagine that zeal for religion drew his sword. We read indeed that Herod was “a great lover of the Jews” and their religion, but it was not this. Religion may be the pretence, but the cause is his crown and kingdom. It was to please the people who could make his throne secure. But as Seneca says, “He that strives to please the people, is not well pleased himself with virtue: for that art which gains the people, will make him like unto them.” If Herod will please the Jews, he must vex the Christians, and be as cruel as a Jew.
II. The Church’s compassion.
1. And you may know them to be Christians by this (Matthew 5:48). And therefore Tertullian tells us that amongst the heathen, professors of Christianity were called Chrestiani, from a word signifying “sweetness and benignity of disposition.” Is St. Peter in prison? they are not free. Is he in fetters? their compassion binds them in the same chains: and though he alone be apprehended, yet the whole Church doth suffer persecution. For it is in the Church as in Pythagoras’s family, which he shaped and framed out unto his lute: there is--
2. But compassion will not rest in the heart, but will publish itself. If you see it not active in the hand, you shall hear it vocal in the tongue (Psalms 119:131). It will pour forth itself in prayer. The prayers of the Church are the best weapons. This prayer was--
Peter was in his cell, and if we could borrow the jailer’s lantern and visit that dungeon, we should find a “quaternion of soldiers” watching the manacled apostle. Two of them are in the cell and two are before the door. If the prisoner escapes, the guards must pay the forfeit with their lives. This is stern Roman law. The keepers, therefore, are wide awake. Perhaps some of the leaders in this wicked persecution are awake and busy in preparation for the auto-da-fe on the morrow. Around at the house of Mary, the mother of John surnamed Mark, are a company of God’s people who cannot close their eyes on that eventful night. They are holding a prayer meeting and entreating God to interpose and spare their brother “Great Heart” from his cruel doom. It was the right sort of prayer, for the Greek word describes them as straining in supplication; for they realise that this is their last resort. But, in the meantime, where is Peter? Lo, he is fast asleep! The children of heaven are awake to pray for him; the children of hell are awake to destroy him. But the heart for which other hearts are throbbing dismisses its own anxieties, and falls asleep as quietly as a tired child on its mother’s breast. There were many things to keep him awake during that doleful night; there was a far away wife, and perhaps a group of children up in that home on the shore of Galilee, and he might have worried his parental heart about them. John Bunyan, when in prison for Christ’s cause, tells us that this parting from my wife and children hath often been to me in this prison as the pulling of my flesh from my bones. Especially from my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides. But I must venture you all with God, though it goeth to the very quick to leave you. So did the heroic apostle venture all with God. Family, home, labours for Christ, the welfare of the Churches, and his own life, were all handed over into God’s keeping, and he, like a trustful child, sinks to rest in his Father’s arms. So God “giveth His beloved sleep.” Here is a lesson for us all. How did the apostle attain that placid serenity of spirit? As far as we can understand, he attained it by keeping his conscience void of offence, and by anchoring his soul fast to God. An uneasy conscience would never have allowed Peter to cover himself under the sweet refreshment of slumber. Troubled child of God, go look at that most suggestive scene in that Jewish gaol. Paul knew that his martyrdom was just at hand, but he had made Jesus Christ his trustee, and he felt no more uneasiness than he did about the rising of tomorrow’s sun. Both those men were just what you profess to be, no more and no less; they were Christ’s men. They had no more promise than you have, and no other arm to rely on than you have. In this world, so full of difficulties and diseases and disasters, there are a great many anxieties that make people lie awake. “Tomorrow morning I will go and draw that money out of that bank,” says the uneasy merchant, who has heard some suspicions of the bank’s solvency. Distrust of our fellow creature’s honesty, or truthfulness, or fidelity is sad enough, but a Christian’s distrust of his Saviour and his Almighty Friend is a sin that brings its own punishment. Half of the misery of life comes from this very sin. There was a world of truth in the remark of the simple-hearted nurse to the mother who was worrying over her sick child: “Ma’am, don’t worry; you just trust God; He’s tedious, but He’s sure.” (T. L. Cuyler.)
Peaceful sleep at night
Dr. Alexander was often heard to say in substance as follows: “Clergymen, authors, teachers, and other persons of reflective habits lose much health by losing sleep; and this because they carry their trains of thought to bed with them. In my earlier years I greatly injured myself by studying my sermons in bed. The best thing one can do is, to take care of the last half hour before retiring. Devotion being ended, something should be done to quiet the strings of the harp, which otherwise would go on to vibrate. Let me commend to you this maxim, which I somewhere learnt from Dr. Watts, who says he had it in his boyhood from the lips of Dr. John Owen: Break the chain of thoughts at bedtime by something at once serious and agreeable. By all means break the continuity, or sleep will be vexed, if not even driven away. If you wish to know my method of finding sleep, it is to turn over the pages of my English Bible without plan, and without allowing my mind to fasten on any, leaving any place the moment it ceases to interest me. Some tranquilising word often becomes a Divine message of peace.” (Lady Bountiful’s Legacy.)
Peril and prayer
I. Danger. Peter might say, “There is peril for me.”
1. Intimated in the sayings of our Lord (John 16:2; John 21:18-19). Has the dark day at last come?
2. In the race now on the throne. The race of Edom. In the Old Testament always hostile to the Church. Well did the Herods sustain the traditions of their race. Herod the Great sought to kill Christ; his son slew the Baptist; and his son had just put James to the sword. In this connection note a striking providence. The family was at this time numerous; in a century scarcely a descendant remained; and like many a petty Asiatic dynasty, might have passed into oblivion. But God set them on a hill, brought them into contact with the Divine kingdom and the King. So brought under this central light, all their dark deeds become illuminated for the warning of all time. They knew not the part they played. Our relation to the kingdom of God should be our chief concern. We may then leave fame and all other results to Him.
3. In the man’s motives. Everything depended on his pleasing the Jews. He had imperilled the favour of Caligula by resisting the contemplated outrage of erecting the emperor’s image in the temple. Claudius was now emperor, and to stand well with him it was necessary to secure the favour of the people. The opportunity now was to strike a fatal blow at Christianity.
4. In the deeds of Herod already done. The persecution of the Church, the murder of James, one of the inmost three. Distinguished service no exemption from suffering.
5. In the respite given. For some unknown reason it was intended to make Peter’s trial solemn and public. Strict regard, therefore, was paid to the traditional law that no feast day could be a day of judicial trial. Sentence was therefore deferred till after the Passover. In the motive and deliberateness of the respite read certain doom.
6. In the character of the imprisonment. No chance of escape. Peter had been delivered before; now extra precaution.
7. The last night had come.
1. In direst extremity the Lord’s people may be at peace. Note--
2. Man’s extremity is often God’s opportunity. For the highest illustration, see Romans 5:6.
II. Hope. Observe the “but.” The might of prayer is set against the power of Herod.
1. Time was given for prayer. Contrast with the case of James.
2. The prayer was special. They wanted one thing. No vague generalities.
3. Earnest--stretched out, strained--prayer at white heat. Same word is used of Christ’s prayer in the garden, and in James 5:16.
4. Ceaseless. One prayer would not suffice. As the imprisonment went on prayer went on. For the style of the prayer, read Acts 4:24-28.
5. Rose with the terror of the exigency. In the dead of the night, as the last hope was dying away, “many were gathered.”
6. Courageous. Nothing could have been more obnoxious to the government than this act, if discovered.
7. On a large scale. Perhaps as many were gathered as the house could hold; some in one room, some in another.
8. Grounded on the words of the Lord Jesus. One disciple would remind of one promise, another of another, e.g., “Ask, and it shall be given,” “Whatsoever ye shall ask in My name,” “If two of you shall agree.” We know some who were present. None so notable as Saul (cf. Acts 11:30, with 12:25)
. The late persecutor now praying for the persecuted! Knocking! Perhaps this emissaries of Herod! Away Rhoda! See!
III. Deliverance. Supernatural, yet how simply told.
IV. Surprise. Perhaps Peter knew of this prayer meeting, and so wended his way thither. Note here--
1. The genuineness of the history. An impostor would have made the disciples welcome the answer to their prayer. The history makes them astounded. Which is truest to the deepest things of life?
2. Truth oft mingles with superstition in the best minds. “His angel.” It is true that for everyone there is an angel guardian (Matthew 18:10). It is not true that he can assume the form and voice of the person guarded.
3. The grace of expectation does not always accompany the spirit of prayer. It does sometimes (1 Kings 18:42-44).
4. Deliverance came at the very last moment (Acts 4:18). (H. T. Robjohns, B. A.)
A prayer meeting in apostolic times
I. They confined their efforts to prayer.
II. They continued in this effort. They must have had strong faith.
III. They reaped the benefit. The answer--
1. Filled them with amazement.
2. Was superabundant.
3. Was speedy. (Stems and Twigs.)
The story of a prayer meeting and what came of it
I. The Church suffering. The name of Herod is to the Christian Church almost all that Ahab is to the Jewish, and Peter comes before us in these earlier chapters of the Acts as another Elijah--the prophet of fire. Herod stretches out his hand to vex certain of the Church, which must have been driven to its wits’ end. Stephen had already been stoned, and almost all the leading men had been scattered. And now the Apostle James is slain. The trembling Church clings about Peter. And now Peter is carried off to prison; and Herod is going to put him to death as soon as the Passover is over. How the hearts of the Christians must have sunk down within them, sick with helplessness! Oh these dreadful times, when it seems so hopeless, so useless to do anything more; the conflict is so unequal!
II. The Church praying. Then comes a blessed “but.” “But prayer was made without ceasing.” Though every other door be shut, this one is ever open. We have seen in our day what has been called an attempt to go back to primitive custom in the Church. We can do nothing better, if only we go back far enough. I find no controversy about vestments, no going to law about attitudes, no mystery of the mass, but I find prayer constant, everywhere. The primitive Church was born in a prayer meeting, and in the prayer meeting she renewed her strength. The prayer meeting is the thermometer of the Church--it tests what degree of warmth there is. The prayer meeting is the barometer of the Church, and points us to showers of blessings or to seasons of drought. The Church’s warming apparatus is in the prayer meeting room. The light that is in the Church comes in that way. A praying Church is a mighty, prosperous, resistless Church. He helps the Church most who sets himself to make the prayer meeting most largely a success. Let us turn to this company. “I don’t see any hope whatever,” says one; “if we had only somebody of influence to plead with Herod, but we all are so poor. And then there are all these rulers and Pharisees urging him on.” Then says some simple soul timidly, “I think we had better pray about it.” But nobody noticed it. Then another sighs: “Herod has declared his purpose, and the Jews will take care to keep him up to it.” “No hope,” says another bitterly; “Peter is inside that iron gate and those stone walls, chained to soldiers and watched by sentries! Poor Peter! there is not a chance for him.” “I think we had better pray,” says the simple soul again, more urgently. “Really, brother, do be practical! Whatever can prayer do in a case like this?” ask they all impatiently. “What can it not do?” says the simple soul. “Ah, but you see God works according to law,” says another very solemnly. That silences them all. The simple soul doesn’t know what law means; most likely none of them do. They only think of it as something very dreadful indeed that shut Heaven’s door and left Peter hopelessly in prison. And so Peter might have perished and the Church have died out--all because God works by laws! But now there is a familiar knock, that told of an earnest and resolute man. “Ah, here is Brother Faith,” says the simple soul, looking up brightly. “Well,” says Faith, “what are you going to do?” “Have you got anything to propose?” at last one asks doubtfully. “Yes,” Faith answers, “I happen to know One who has great influence with Herod, and could get him to change his mind about this matter. And besides that, He has the key of that iron door, and He can open it. And as for the soldiers, they are bound to do His bidding. I think we had better speak to Him.” “Who can do that but Caesar?” they ask in a tone of disappointment. “And however are we to get at Caesar? Besides, there is no time to communicate with him.” “No,” says Faith, “I mean One here in Jerusalem, our Heavenly Father.” “But God works according to law.” “True,” says Faith, “and isn’t this a mighty, deep, abiding law, that ‘like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him’? And is not this a law, that ‘if we know how to give good gifts unto our children, our Father shall much more know how to give good gifts to them that ask Him’? I believe in law,” says Faith, “but I believe at the back of all law, its source and strength, is the heart of our Father God. He can help us, and He will. Let us pray.” And without more ado Faith knelt down, and one by one all followed and they began to pray. Oh Faith! verily thou hast logic and philosophy and common sense and the promises and everything on thy side--for thou hast God. As they pray on they get to the very heart of God. Was not this poor trembling Church the very Bride of God’s dear Son, for whom He had lain down His life? What then? If God had given His Son for their sakes, could He withhold His help? Oh Herod! you cannot succeed against this. This little company has got hold of Omnipotence.
III. Leaving the company let us see how it fares with Peter. Poor Peter! the sentence has gone out that tomorrow he must die, amidst every condition that should afford his enemies a gloating triumph. Little wonder if we find him cast down, beset with grief and fear. But look, here he lies, asleep. Well, what else should he be doing? Of old he slept because the flesh was weak; now he sleeps because his faith is strong. Ah, it is the very climax of faith when it has learnt to sleep. Many a man can fight the good fight of faith, who cannot sleep the good deep of faith. Now suddenly the dungeon is illuminated as with the glory of the Lord. Then Peter saw the angel, he felt the fetters loosened, and forth he went. Then the angel was gone, and Peter stood under the starry heavens--free. At first his thoughts went up to God to thank Him for His great deliverance. Then his thoughts went away to the little company that had met in prayer for him. He found the door shut! The prison gate fell back before him; but here were they, praying that Peter might be fetched out of prison, and they had forgotten to leave their own front door on the latch for him. The only place that Peter found impassable was the house of his friends! Have we not heard of the little maiden who when the church met to pray for rain took her big umbrella with her; and when the congregation came out to find their prayers answered, they almost forgot to be thankful in their concern about their dresses and bonnets, whilst she went safely sheltered on her way? When you begin to pray, let faith set the door of expectation open. So is it that many go on praying for forgiveness, and they forget to go to the door to see if the Saviour is there. Many are praying for the peace and joy of the indwelling Christ, and lo! He Himself is standing without knocking and waiting if they would but open unto Him and let Him come in. Poor Peter! it seemed a cold reception for him, standing there and knocking thus. Eventually Rhoda, hearing someone, creeps timidly to listen. They were times of peril, and all kinds of dreadful things might happen; and fearfully she asked who it was. It was Peter. And in very joy, without staying to open the door, she ran in and carried the good tidings--“Peter is come.” “Nonsense,” said one, “you are mad.” Ah, they were a little like us of today, it seems. “But I am sure it is he: I heard his voice,” persisted the damsel. Then said one and another rather frightened--“It is his ghost.” It is wonderful what people will believe in sooner than believe in answers to prayer. Then the company crept timidly to the door. Yes, there was Peter himself, and he told them how the Lord had sent an angel and delivered him. Then they saw why this mystery of Peter’s imprisonment had been permitted--that they might prove the mighty power of prayer. And Peter went forth beyond the reach of Herod. But a little time after, Herod was smitten by the angel of the Lord. Do let us believe in God, and let there be no limit to our faith, since there is no limit to the power and goodness of our God. We have access to the same God; let us make much use of it. If Herod be dead, his successors are still very much alive. There are many rulers of public opinion who do stretch out their hands to vex the Church. Others are there whose lust hates that which condemns their indulgence. Our power to triumph over our foes is in our power to pray. What hosts are there who lie away from the reach of the gospel! How can we get at them? Amongst us there are old besetting sins, that are riveted upon wrist and ankle, binding men and women in a miserable bondage, making them useless to the Church--avarice, ill-temper, worldliness, lukewarmness, prejudice, pride. Their gold is under lock and key, and it wants a strong angel of the Lord to loosen it. They are shut up in an inner dungeon of indifference or laziness, bound by the opinion of those about them, as Peter was by the chains of the soldiers. What can we etc.? Let but prayer be made without ceasing of the Church unto God; and rulers shall be powerless for mischief, and prison doors shall be opened, and again it shall be recorded, “The word of God grew and multiplied.” (Mark Guy Pearse.)
Release from prison as an answer to prayer
An aged woman came to one of our chapels bowed down with sorrow. Her husband was constable of the village and consequently responsible for the conduct of the people. A murder had been committed in the village, and news of it had reached the ears of the magistrate. The murderer had escaped, the magistrate was very angry, and said he would punish the constable instead of the murderer, as is often done in some parts of China; but he was an old man, so the magistrate took his son instead, and everybody said that unless the murderer could be found he would lose his head. So she had come with her heart almost breaking to know if Ah-kying, the native helper, could assist her. He told her that to go and plead with the magistrate for her son would be useless; but he could pray to God for her; that God would hear and answer prayer, and help her if they prayed to Him. The mother said she would gladly pray to God if she knew how. So they knelt down together. Ah-kying told the Lord all her trouble, asked God to deliver her son, and also that both mother and son might be saved from eternal death. She returned to her home, told her husband and neighbours how this Christian had prayed to God, and how confident he was of his prayer being speedily answered. Day after day passed, and still no news of the poor prisoner; but one afternoon, just as hope was beginning to die away, she saw coming towards the house her son, alive, set free from prison. He could not understand it himself, for he had not the least expectation of being released. That morning the magistrate had sent for him, had him beaten, then set him at liberty. Great was the joy at his return. The mother told him about Ah-kying’s prayer, and for weeks they walked about eight miles to the chapel to worship the God who had answered prayer, and saved the son from death. (W. Rudland, Missionary in China.)
Continuance in prayer
During my recent visit to Italy, when in the hotel, I desired the attention of the waiter, and observing the button to be pressed, I applied my thumb as instructed, but no waiter appeared; I repeated the experiment several times, with no better success. Presently another visitor entered, and, hearing my desire, asked if I had rung the bell. I told him I had, without success. “Ah,” said he, “you do not understand; I have been here before,” and placing his thumb upon the button, he kept it there till the waiter appeared. That is how we must pray: keep up continuous application until the answer arrives, (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Prayer and protection
In the year 1793, when Ireland was in a state of rebellion against England, some discontented spirits in county Wexford thought that now was a favourable opportunity to vent their spleen upon the small settlement of Moravians dwelling in that district. They had long threatened to make an end of them, and when would they get a better chance? The Moravians expected some such attack, and resolved to trust not to their own strength or weapons, but in God. They gathered in their chapel, and with earnest prayer besought Him to be their shield in the time of danger. The attacking party drew near; they had expected to meet with opposition, and were prepared for butchery and the wildest excesses, but instead of that they beheld those whom they had come to slay on their knees before God. They heard the earnest prayers for protection, and stranger still, for forgiveness and pardon for their intending murderers. When their song of praise rang out in the still air there was not one in all that ruffianly band who would have raised a hand against these sweet singers; they felt powerless to harm them. They stayed all that day in the settlement, then with one accord departed, without having injured a single individual or having stolen a single article. So the Lord looked after His own, and did help and protect those who had put their trust in Him. (J. McGregor.)
Safety through prayer
In 1872 a missionary in the city of Cadareita, Mexico, made it a special subject of prayer that the Lord would open the way for the return of himself, his wife and child to the States for a little season, the circumstances seeming to indicate this as a duty. The needed means were provided, but the country was in a state of revolution, and his friends tried to dissuade him from going, as General Cortinas would probably cross their path, who was a murderous man and regarded as having a special hatred for Americans. He determined to go forward, however, trusting to Divine protection, and they started for Matemoras, some three hundred miles distant, two hired men and their wives accompanying them, the brethren “promising to pray daily for their safety.” “The third morning, after commending ourselves as usual into the care of our covenant keeping God,” he relates, “we started on our journey, and soon espied the troops of General Cortinas two miles distant, marching toward us. We again all looked to God for protection, and then went on until we met the advanced guard, who commanded us to halt and wait until the general came up. Riding up to our company with the salutation, he asked whence we came and whither we were going; he then asked the news from Nueva Leon. After replying to his question, the missionary inquired if the road was safe between his party and Matamoras. He replied, ‘Perfectly; you can go on without any fear, and as safely as you would in your own country’; then bidding us good morning, he rode on, not even inquiring about or examining any of our baggage.” Upon reaching Brownville, Texas, friends pronounced the conduct of General Cortinas as truly a miracle, for they “could not have believed him capable of such kindness to Americans so in his power.”
(text and Philemon 1:22):--The two passages cover the entire subject. Here are prayers of the same kind as when a mother asks God to restore her sick child, or a Church asks a beloved officer to be spared.
I. The similarity in the two cases. The circumstances are almost identical. In both cases the Church pleads for the life of an apostle from the hands of a blood-thirsty tyrant, and in both cases the prayer is answered. Learn--
1. The region into which prayer may enter. Men say this is only the personal, inward, and spiritual. To pass from ourselves to affairs of human government and laws or to nature is vain. The examples here are against these statements and show that prayer has a voice in the action of our fellows, in the arrangements of life, and in the laws of nature.
2. Prayer has direct results therein. Good-humoured sceptics say, “Pray for others as much as you like that they may be delivered from nature’s laws, and from human wrong--it may do you good in the way of deepening your sympathies, but outward results are impossible.” But we see here that through the prayers of the Church Peter and Paul are restored to liberty.
3. Prayer does not always receive the answer desired. Peter and Paul were in prison again, and without doubt the Church prayed for their release. The apostles were released indeed, but by death, not to earthly toil but to heavenly rest. It is a misrepresentation that the Church teaches that the good asked for is always given, Christians pray not with a desire to impose their will upon God and His universe. When the answer is not given according to their desire, they are content to believe that it is in respect of things they would not have desired could they have known as God knows.
4. Yet prayer is a mighty power in the affairs of men--a mighty weapon in the hands of the Church. How unequal the forces; Herod or Nero, with prisons and soldiers, and on the other side a few weak men and women bowed in prayer. Yet note which wins.
5. The Church is resistless for the purposes of her great mission when fully armed with the power of prayer. A king once led forth his steel-clad chivalry to place a despot’s yoke upon the neck of a free people. Just before the battle he saw their ranks bending to the ground. “See,” he cried, “they submit already.” “Yes,” said a wise counsellor, who knew them better; “they submit, but it is to God, not to us.” And in a few hours the king and his army were scattered. Let the Church, as she stands face to face with opposing forces, submit to God in prayer and every foe will be vanquished.
II. The distinction between the two cases. The same answer is given, but in different ways. In the first case there is direct Divine interposition, in the other nothing miraculous.
Paul pleads his case, is adjudged innocent and set free. Learn--
1. The blessedness of the man who lives and moves in an atmosphere of prayer, around whom cluster as guardian forces, the petitions of the people of God.
2. The exalted privilege of being identified with the visible Church. Men may speak lightly of it, but is it a light thing to be remembered by thousands in their prayers?
III. The relation of the one case to the other. The one explains the other. A miracle teaches us that God is everywhere working, and that the ordinary operations of nature are but the veil behind which He screens Himself, and which in the miracle is for the moment removed. Learn--
1. Not to expect supernatural operations in answer to prayer.
2. To recognise God in the natural, and to accept the answer when it comes in the ordinary course of events. It is a miserable condition of mind that sees God in the rescue of Peter but not in the rescue of Paul. (W. Perkins.)
The liberating power of prayer
Mr. Elliot, who laboured as a missionary among the American Indians, was eminent in prayer, and several instances are recorded of remarkable answers having been given to his petitions. The following is striking:--Mr. Foster, a godly gentleman of Charlestown, was, with his son, taken by the Turks; and the barbarous prince, in whose dominions he was become a slave, was resolved that, in his lifetime, no captive should be released; so that Mr. Foster’s friends, when they had heard the sad news, concluded that all hope was lost. Upon this, Mr. Elliot, in some of his next prayers before a great congregation, addressed the Throne of Grace in the following very plain language: “Heavenly Father, work for the redemption of Thy poor servant Foster. And if the prince who detains him will not, as they say, dismiss him as long as himself lives, Lord, we pray Thee, kill that cruel prince; kill him, and glorify Thyself upon him.” In answer to this singular prayer, Mr. Foster quickly returned from captivity, and brought an account that the prince who had detained him had come to an untimely death, by which means he had been set at liberty. “Thus we knew,” says Dr. Cotton Mather, “that a prophet had been among us.”
Peter prayed out of prison
Learn from the narrative--
I. The true unity of the Church. Paul tells us that when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it, and here we see how the assault made on Peter affected all the saints in Jerusalem. They felt regarding him as Luther felt regarding Melanchthon when, with amazing boldness, the reformer told the Lord that he could not do without his Philip. They had in him not an interest of benevolence alone but one of identity. Peter’s extremity was their extremity. So let one child in a home be smitten all the members are deeply affected. Let some public spirited patriot be stricken, and the whole nation feels the blow. But even more keenly the Christian feels the affliction of a brother in Christ. There is nothing which merges relationship into identity so thoroughly as the gospel. In Christ we are all one; and so each feels the other’s woe. And then Christ feels with us; “in all our affliction He is afflicted.” This is the true brotherhood. Better than all secret lodges, or mystic grasps, or talismanic passwords is this union with Christ. The Church ought to be the most helpful and loving society in the world; and if it were there would be no craving among men for some other association to meet their needs.
II. The power of earnest, believing united prayer. The answer in this case was long delayed. The last night had arrived, yet they continued, and lo! at the darkest hour the dawn broke. Here is an example for us. We are not warranted to expect such answers as this, yet God would sooner work a miracle than suffer His faithfulness to fail, or let His cause be put back. For the resources of the universe are at His command, and it is equally easy for Him to answer prayer through the ordinary operations of His providence, or through bringing new causes into operation. What we have to remember is that He is the hearer of prayer. Did we do so there would be more definiteness, directness and business-like purpose in our petitions. Is it not a fact that when we have, concluded our devotions it would often puzzle us to tell what we have been praying for? And then when we have asked for certain things, we have become discouraged because we have not had an immediate answer. Why are God’s answers delayed? It may be because we are desirous of sharing in the glory of the answer; or because God wishes to mature patience and faith; but in any case if we were more definite and continuous we should see more frequently the results. They tell us of the fixed laws of nature; but who dares maintain that He who fixed those laws cannot use them for the purpose of answering His people’s prayers? There are postal laws in this country; but are the facilities for answering letters open to all but those who made them? And yet men who are using the laws of nature every day to help their fellows--e.g., medical men--will deny to their Author the same liberty. Nay, more; if I do not post my letter may I not telegraph for a message boy and send him on with an immediate answer? And am I breaking postal laws to do that? Yet I may send my little liveried messenger, but God may not send an angel!
III. While earthly glory fades, the Word of God endures forever. Like a foam bell on the stream Herod dazzled men’s eves for a moment with the reflection of the sunlight; and then like it too, he burst and disappeared--while “the Word of God grew and multiplied.” (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
The deliverance of Peter
1. A triumph of Divine power.
2. A reward of apostolic fidelity.
3. A fruit of intercessory brotherly love.
4. An overthrow of proud tyrannical rage. (K. Gerok.)
The deliverance of Peter
From the narrative learn the following lessons--
I. If ever our enemies get hold of us, they will hold us as fast as they can. Herod was not content with ordinary means of keeping Peter in custody. He was too great a prize to be lost. Mark you, if by any fault of our own we ever fall into the hand of our enemies, we need expect no mercy from them. And if without fault we be delivered for a little season into their hands, whoever may be spared, the Christian never is. Men will forgive a thousand faults in others, but they will magnify the most trivial offence in the true follower of Jesus. Nor do I very much regret this, for it is a caution to us to walk very carefully before God in the land of the living. The Cross of Christ is in itself an offence to the world; let us take heed that we do not add any offence of our own. It is “to the Jew a stumbling block”; let us mind that we put no stumbling blocks where there are enough already. “To the Greek it is foolishness”; let us not add our folly to give point to the scorn with which the worldly-wise deride the gospel. We pilgrims travel as suspected persons through the world. Not only are we under surveillance, but there are more spies than we reck of.
II. When a case is put into God’s hands, He will manage it well, and He will interfere in sufficient time to being His servants out of their distress. Peter’s case was put into God’s hands. Well, we can leave it there. But it is the last night! Yes, but just at that last and darkest hour of the night, God’s opportunity overtook man’s extremity. A light shone in the dungeon. Peter was awakened. God never is before His time; nor is He ever too late. But see, there is Peter asleep! doing nothing! Well, and the best thing for him too, for the case was put into God’s hands. Suppose Peter had been awake, what could he do? Had he been fretting and troubling himself, what good could he have done? Sleep on, blessed slumberer! Well might Herod envy thee. Thy spirit is free; and it may be that in thy dreams thou art rejoicing “with a joy unspeakable, and full of glory.” When the case is taken into God’s hands, and you and I feel that we can do nothing for ourselves, we may take sleep, and while we sleep, His watchful eyes do keep their ceaseless guard, and at the right time deliverance comes.
III. When God comes to deliver His people, all, the circumstances which seem to go against their deliverance shall only tend to set forth the more His glory. What contempt He puts upon chains, etc. I know of nothing that seems to illustrate more God’s splendid triumph over man’s cunning than the resurrection of Christ. So, Christian, rest assured that everything that looks black to your gaze now, shall only make it the brighter when God delivers you.
IV. No difficulty can ever occur which God cannot meet when He makes bare His arm. The chains are gone, the warders are passed, but there is that iron gate. You get fretting for months about the iron gate, as those holy women did for hours, who went to the sepulchre and said, “Who shall roll us away the stone?” There was no stone to roll away! And when you go to this place, you will find that there is no iron gate there, or it will open of its own accord. Oh, how often have we had to wonder at our own folly.
V. The omnipotence of prayer. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The deliverance of Peter
We obtain here a pleasing view of--
I. The deep and tender sense of brotherhood which pervaded the early Church. This is one of the best gifts which the gospel brought to men. It is indeed the primary, unique element of the human race as a special, distinct creation. Sin struck a disastrous blow at this distinguishing principle. If reclamation should ever come for the race, this principle must be called into life again. Men must be taught not only to know God as a Father, but each other as brothers. And so we perceive that Christ made this brotherhood the basic element of His kingdom. How beautifully did the early Church display this principle! How closely were they joined together! How generously they sold their property for the common good! Out of the fruitful soil of loving brotherhood sprang up the intense concern of the whole Church for Peter. It is the true cement which binds Christians of every name and country together in an indissoluble bond. It is the only sentiment of sufficient power to arouse the Church to carry the gospel to the millions yet lying in the shadow of death.
II. The Church in the attitude of prayer for an imperiled brother.
1. It was a praying Church. When they had returned from the ascension, they all continued with one accord in prayer. When they would select one to fill the place made vacant by Judas, they prayed. When they had received three thousand souls into the Church they continued steadfastly in prayers. When Peter and John returned after their first arraignment, the whole company lifted up their voice to God. As the result of this habitual prayerfulness “they were filled with the Holy Spirit,” “they spake the Word with boldness,” the multitude of them that believed “were of one heart and of one soul,” “and great grace was upon them all.”
2. By the habit of prayer the Church was prepared for trying emergencies (verse 5). Here was a great emergency. Through this dreary week prayer was their constant occupation. They had no carnal weapons, no distinguished friends at court, no treasures to offer as a ransom; but there was a Power above the might of kings, standing ready to be invoked, and to this Power they made their appeal.
3. They prayed in concert. All hearts were touched, all minds agreed.
4. They prayed unceasingly. Through the long week, amid the distractions of the crowded city, with the danger of a bloody persecution, they prayed. There was no relaxation of energy, no manifestation of doubt, no giving over of entreaty. The vision of their father Jacob wrestling at Mahanaim may have risen before them, or the thought of the unbroken vigils of their Master may have come to strengthen them. Three potent elements met and mingled in their prayer: namely, their sense of need, a present God, and the undoubting conviction that He was able and willing to help. Could it be less than unceasing?
5. They prayed to the point. It was all for Peter. Self was forgotten. There were no diffuse and rambling petitions, no grooved sentences or high-flown expressions, or dull repetitions, certainly no prescribed form. They could not run wide of the mark: “Hear us for Peter in his lone prison.”
6. To God direct they spoke. No appeal to angels; no mention of Mary, no saint is thought of as a helper, not even Stephen, or the saintly James, fresh in heaven from his baptism of blood. No living man is called on to help; no message is sent to Herod. They cast themselves on God nakedly. The case is urgent, and the mighty Presence alone filled the scene.
III. The issue. The festival week is over. The day is fixed to bring Peter forth to his doom. It is the morrow. But the Church is still praying. One place of meeting is full. Most likely all the places of assembly were similarly attended. Peter was asleep in his cell, chained by each arm to a soldier. There is no thunderstorm, no earthquake. No jailer is bribed to release Peter. An angel is in the prison. He aroused Peter. Peter followed him and was free. (W. G. Craig, D. D.)
Peter’s deliverance from chains, an image of our gracious deliverance from the chains of sin
I. The severe imprisonment.
1. The chains.
2. The keepers.
3. The sleep.
II. The merciful deliverance.
1. The messenger from heaven with his joyful light and awakening voice.
2. The awakening with its fears and joys.
3. The first walking, with its hindrances and aids--walking as in a dream through the first and second watch, and the iron gate.
III. The glorious liberty.
1. The firm standing on one’s own feet.
2. The joyful reception by the brethren.
3. The impotent rage of the world. (K. Gerok.)
The security of God’s servants
The true servant of God--
1. Can rest in peace even when seemingly in the power of those who intend to take his life.
2. Is never fully in the power of his enemies, God never irrecoverably surrenders him.
3. Has celestial messengers sent to his comfort and deliverance.
4. Is cared for, not only in great, but also in small matters.
5. Though for the while not recognising the fact, yet soon will be sure to see that God has helped him in every deliverance from trouble. (S. S. Times.)
Aspects of sainthood
On the whole narrative we note--
1. The saint’s tribulation. Peter in prison--various sorts of prisons.
2. The saint’s treasure, Peter slept--peace of heart.
3. The saint’s power. Prayer in Mary’s house.
4. The saint’s deliverance. God interferes.
5. The saint’s duty. Peter must gird himself and bind on his sandals, and cast his garment about him and follow the angel.
This old-world story is full of encouragement and instruction for the men today. It teaches--
I. God knows all about His children. Beyond the bare fact of Peter’s arrest, the disciples were in profound ignorance. The secrets of the Roman prison house were well kept. But God kept watch over Peter, knew in what cell he was confined, the names of his guards, and just where, when, and how to send His angel. Peter had no occasion to feel solitary or forsaken. God’s children are never alone. The shipwrecked sailor adrift on a spar in mid-ocean; the traveller lost in the trackless desert; the pauper dying in the attic with no friend to speak a word of comfort--all these, if they are God’s children, are cheered by His presence. Human experience is so full of enforced solitudes that this is the most precious of all truths. Our recognised afflictions are not the hardest to bear. The tears we shed in secret, the disappointments of which we never speak, the sorrowful hearts which we hide under smiling faces--these are the things that test and strain the fibre of manhood. It greatly helps us to bear troubles like these, to remember that God knows all about them.
II. God keeps Himself informed about His children in order to help them. He kept watch of Peter in order that, when the right time came, He might deliver him from prison. He keeps watch of you and me that, when our need is too sore for our unaided strength, He may put the right hand of His omnipotence underneath the burden. Providence is pro-vid-ence--the foreseeing and arranging that precedes helpful doing. Men have too mechanical an idea of life. Our common blessings are supposed to come in what we call the “order of nature.” The farmer who rejoices in a bountiful harvest says: “It was because the seed was good, and the soil was good, and the season was propitious, and I spared no pains.” True, but back of all these recognised conditions was God, giving the seed its vitality and the soil its fertility, etc.
III. When God helps His children He expects them to help themselves. It was possible for God, in working a miracle for Peter’s deliverance, to have wrought out every item of it. But that is not the Divine method. There were some things which the apostle could do for himself, and only what he could not do for himself was done for him. In the Divine economy of the universe there is no provision for idleness. Prayer is not such a power as allows men to fold their hands, and expect results which they might secure by the proper use of means. Frederick Douglass says: “When I was a slave, I prayed earnestly for freedom and made no attempt to gain it, and I got no response; but, when I began to pray with my legs, my prayers began to be answered.” Men pray for a revival of religion, and make no attempt to secure it by more consecrated lives and more earnest effort, and the revival does not come. If anything comes, it is a temporary surge of emotion, as fatal as it is evanescent. Pilgrimages to Lourdes, and the modern “faith cure,” are only different phases of the same mischievous delusion. Prayer and effort are designed to go hand-in-hand. We are “workers together with God,” and, so long as we are idle, the heavens keep silence.
IV. When God moves in behalf of His children no obstacle is too great for Him. Humanly judging, how many and what insuperable difficulties stood in the way of Peter’s deliverance! But how easy for God to do that which was impossible for man! He had but to will it, and the keepers were helpless and asleep. He had but to command it, and chains melted like wax in the heat of His word. He had but to say it, and every door opened wide. And yet how apt men are to limit the range of their petitions to the things which it seems to them can be done, and have no heart to ask God for what seems too hard for them. Our philosophies of prayer often ignore the fact that Omnipotence is at the head of the universe. The scientist argues the futility of all prayer, because inflexible laws of nature block the way. As though God were not more than nature, and His assurance, “Ask and ye shall receive,” as much a factor in the conduct of the universe as gravitation! We have nothing to do with probabilities. The hand that holds all worlds is able to work beyond our thought. (Sermons by the Monday Club.)
What can we learn from this story which may do something more for us than even promoting the spirit of confidence towards God in time of distress or perplexity? The answer is to be found in that figure of Scripture which describes sinners as slaves and captives, tied and bound with the chain of sinful habit (2 Peter 2:22). And therefore they need that Deliverer who is sent (Isaiah 61:1). The tyrant enemy of the soul plans its destruction, and takes his measures for keeping it fast in the dungeon of sin, bound with strong fetters of passion and habit to evil associations and bad companions, that he may make it his victim when he pleases. And now see how in every particular of St. Peter’s captivity and deliverance we may find the picture of our own souls while under the dominion of sin, and of the steps by which our deliverance is accomplished. In the four quaternions, we have the same image of the incessant siege laid to the soul in its four main parts of human nature--the emotions, the understanding, the memory, and the will, as is figured in Psalms 91:5-6, where the four Hebrew divisions of daily time into evening, midnight, morning, and midday, each with its special risks and troubles, are signified. And then for the two chains: we know them but too well; the chain of aggressive overt acts, the chain of neglected duties. Any evil habits to which we have become wedded, any dangerous companions with whom we needlessly associate--these are the warders to whom we are linked by the same fetters of inveterate custom, which we are powerless to break. And so, like the apostle, we resign ourselves to laxity and inaction, typified by the loosened belt, cast-off cloak, relinquished sandals, heavy slumber, Then it is, in our worst need, that our succour comes.
1. The first token of the angelic presence was that “a light shined in the prison.” So the light of God’s Word, while lighting up the conscience, and revealing the foulness of the sins which defile the heart, shows us also Him who can save us from those sins. The bane and the antidote are both set before our eyes together, and we can choose which we will.
2. Next comes the personal call, the direct summons to the individual conscience, “Arise up quickly”--the one note of haste in the whole transaction. Quickly, for the need is urgent, the deadly peril imminent, life itself is at stake, and there is no time for dawdling. The angel “smote Peter on the side.” A blow, a shock, some sudden chastisement or calamity, is frequently needed before man, dead asleep in sloth and sin, can be roused to a sense of his condition. But that we may know that the smiting hand is friendly there follows at once, “and raised him up.” This denotes the action of Divine grace, not quitting the sinner till he is fully roused, and made capable of exertion; for we read further that “his chains fell off his hands.” That is, the first grade of conversion is the sudden breaking away from evil habits and bad companions.
3. But next we find the invariable law of Divine action for and on man observed. God does that part of the work which we cannot do; He expects us to do the part within our own powers and opportunities. To be ungirded meant idleness, relaxation, self-indulgence. And therefore our Lord counsels his disciples (Luke 12:35); and his apostles repeat the injunction (Ephesians 6:14; 1 Peter 1:13). That is, check and restrain yourselves, discipline your powers and passions, prepare yourselves for active work. And the sandals point yet further that this work must take us, so to speak, out of doors, in the service of a charity which, though it may begin at home, may not stop there; which shall go where it is needed, whether for word or work (Ephesians 6:15). The cloak denotes a further advance in effort, implying that we may have to journey some distance and encounter inclement weather, to undergo some personal inconvenience, in the discharge of our duty. And there may be this additional sense, that as the wide cloak covers the whole person, so the whole purpose and will of the now active worker should be engaged in his occupation (Isaiah 59:17). Then comes the most important precept of all, which prescribes not the act only of exertion, but the manner: “Follow me.” Only so far as the teacher through whom God’s message has reached the sinner is himself a follower of the Lord is his example to be taken for a pattern; but the path of the saints who took Him for their Guide and Model is the only road out of the prison of sin, and into the open air of life and freedom. But the obstacles in the escaping captive’s way are not even yet overcome. Two wards or stations of posted sentinels lie beyond the part of the prison from which he has thus far been rescued, and must needs be gone through. First comes the purgative way,. the process of abandoning old evil habit; the “Cease to do evil” (Isaiah 1:16), the path pointed out by the Psalmist (Psalms 119:9); the counsel of me Baptist (Luke 3:13-14). Next is the illuminative way, the way of light, in which we learn more of God’s will, and advance from mere passive blamelessness to active holiness; the “Learn to do well” (Isaiah 1:17); of which is written (Proverbs 4:18). And beyond this is the third and final stage of the unitive way (Jeremiah 50:5); the road which brings us to Christ Himself, and makes us one with Him (1 Corinthians 6:17). Through these first and second wards, then, the converted sinner must pass, and so reach the iron door, which keeps the foulness and sin of the criminal prison from overflowing into the streets of the holy city; as it is written (Revelation 22:15). What is this door, then, that is at once the bar against sin and the issue to happiness and freedom? What but He who has said (John 10:9)? for (Ephesians 2:18). No obstacle awaits us there, if only we have followed in the appointed path; for the gracious words succeed (Acts 12:10); another way of expressing what He has said to all of us (Matthew 7:7), and again, to every soul that strives, even feebly, to do His will (Revelation 3:8). This is the one and only way of access to the city, that New Jerusalem which is the bride, the Lamb’s wife, and which has the glory of God. But when that one street, that way that leadeth unto life, has been traversed, forthwith the angel departs from the pilgrims he has hitherto guided, since they have no further need of his services. Once within the holy city, they cannot go astray, for all her streets lead to the throne of God; once in sight of the beatific vision, they want no lesser help, “for in the light of the King’s countenance is life” (Proverbs 16:15). (R. F. Littledale, LL. D.)
And behold the angel of the Lord came upon him.
The tender offices of angels towards the saints of God
It enhances the moral dignity of the Christian that he should have such exalted beings in constant attendance upon him. It seems to bring God nearer to us, to bridge over the measureless void between the finite and the infinite, to feel that in sickness or in sorrow, or in mental darkness, they are present with us who have just come from God’s presence. The hand supports us which a moment before had been tuning to lofty melody the harps of God. They bring themselves to our doors, that we may have a bright and hallowing presence in our houses and among our children; they are witnesses in the place of our holy assemblies; they stand as weeping friends stand by the bedside of the departing righteous, while in the end of time they shall arrest the ministers of desolation in their worldwide havoc, saying, “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of God on their foreheads.” So near, so loving, so constant are the tender offices of angels towards the saints of God. No worship do we offer them; they will have none. They ask only to be loved by us as guardian friends, to be honoured by our consistent walk, to be thought of as humble servants of the Lord Jesus, “sent forth to minister unto them who shall be heirs of salvation.” (D. Moore, M. A.)
Angel visits in the night
1. When we climb to some mountain height, and look forth upon the broad landscape in the blaze of the bright moon, it seems as if our earth were the universe, and the sun were a single globe of fire hung in the heavens to give it light. When we stand upon the deck of the ship in mid ocean it seems impossible that there can be anything else but the sun and the sea. When we look up to the silent sky at night, it seems as if the bright array of stars were only campfires kindled on the plains of heaven to guide some wanderer through the solitudes of earth. When we go down into the depths of the cavern it seems as if we were alone in the universe, and when we mingle with the multitude it seems as if man and earth were everything. All these natural and uninstructed impressions conspire to narrow the range of our thought, and shut us up to the occupations of man alone. It is, therefore, a salutary disclosure that we are not the only actors in the busy scenes of daily life. There is no solitude where we may not have the unseen companionship of beings that think and feel and work more mightily and constantly than ourselves.
2. And these invisible partners of our toil, and sharers of our spiritual life, have sometimes stepped forth from behind the curtain to show us that we may have witnesses of our conduct when we think ourselves most alone. And these celestial visitants have shown themselves better acquainted with human history, and better able to do our work, than we ourselves. They have defeated great armies, overthrown populous cities, sent forth and arrested the pestilence. They have rested under the shadow of oaks at noon, as if weary, eaten bread, as if hungry, received hospitality, as if coming in from a journey, guided and protected travellers, rolled away the stone from the tomb, kindled the fire of the altar, clothed themselves in garments that shone like the lightning, and appeared in so common a garb as to be taken for wayfaring men needing lodgings for the night. It gives us a higher and truer estimate of our own place in the great commonwealth of intelligent beings, to find that we are objects of intense interest to the inhabitants of other worlds. It enlarges the range of our thought, and lifts our desires and aspirations above all earthly and perishable things, to know that our present habitation is only one little province of a universe of worlds; and that this mighty empire is bound together by ties of intelligence, cooperation, and sympathy, to its utmost extent.
3. The deliverance of Peter shows that these mighty visitants have little regard for the pomp and splendours of earthly state. Suppose a prophet had said the day before that on that night a mighty being from the central province in God’s great empire would visit Jerusalem, and only one man in all that city would be honoured by receiving that celestial messenger--could any have guessed that that man would be found in prison? There were many other persons besides Peter, many other places besides a prison for an angel to visit. But the angel did not show himself in the palace of the king. He did not enter the temple. He did not address himself to the pilgrims at the feast. The one man, whom that mighty servant of God had come to see, was shut up in stone walls, asleep on a stone floor, bound with iron chains, etc. If the very chain with which Peter was bound were now kept in Jerusalem, every intelligent traveller would wish to see it. And not necessarily from any superstitious regard, but from the feeling that Christian faith and suffering consecrate everything they touch. If the cell were preserved any intelligent traveller would think it something to remember and to tell of, that he had entered that cell. So much consecration do rude homes and vile dungeons derive from the faith and toil and suffering of the servants of God. Let love to Christ become the law and the life of everything we do, and then the place where we toil, and the home where we rest, will become as attractive to angels as the dungeons where the martyrs suffered.
4. Peter slept so soundly that only the sound of the angel voice, and the touch of the angel hand could awake him. A man with a good conscience can sleep on a very hard bed, and in the midst of very great danger. The anxieties and perils of life and the dread of death would not weary and wear us out so much if we went to our daily duties with such high and happy faith in God as martyrs have shown in the prison and the flames. If we fully believed that God has given his angels charge over us to keep us in all our ways, we could fulfil our day of duty without fear, and we could gratefully accept such sleep as God gives to his beloved when the night comes. I know the doctors say that sound sleep comes of a good digestion. And while I do not deny that, I know another--that a good digestion depends greatly upon a good conscience. To be in the best health of both body and mind, we must be at peace with God. And it makes very little difference how humble or exalted the chamber in which we lie down to rest, if we have done our duty well, and trust wholly in Him who giveth His beloved sleep. The sleep that renews the life, and restores the soul, and gives a foretaste of heavenly rest, is the sleep which God gives to them that love Him. The time is not far distant when the sleep of death will steal upon us all. What strange and bewildering joy it will be to be waked from that last sleep by the touch of an angel’s hand! What surprise it will be to the soul to find itself able to obey that command, “Rise up quickly,” and to follow the angel guide to the paradise of God!
5. The care with which Peter was kept was a confession that even Herod was afraid of him. And we have much reason to be obliged to the king for making the guard so strong; just as the sealing of the stone and the setting of the watch over the sepulchre of Jesus, only helped and confirmed the demonstration of His resurrection; just as we may well thank the proud and passionate Voltaire for saying he was tired of hearing that twelve men established Christianity throughout the world, and he would yet live to hear it said that one man had banished Christianity from the face of the earth. We may count ourselves debtors to the remorseless criticism which has exhausted the resources of learning and industry in the endeavour to shake our confidence in the sacred records, for all its efforts have only served to lay bare the everlasting foundations on which our faith rests. We may be thankful for the bigotry which determined to crush out the spirit of Christian liberty.
6. Peter was accustomed to see miracles; and yet I do not wonder that he was bewildered and thought he had seen a vision that night. If we try to imagine the circumstances, we shall the better understand his feelings. At last he has time to think. The bewildered man begins to come to himself. He recognises the place. And so God’s angel shall come in the appointed time to deliver the disciple of Jesus from the prison of the flesh. And oh, how much more glorious than the change which so bewildered the mind of the apostle! We try in vain to express in words the blessed bewilderment of the happy soul in the first moment of waking from the sleep of death to the life of heaven. It is here that we sleep and dream. The great reality of life is yet to come. Here the soul is bound, like Peter in the prison, with two chains--one the burden and sorrow of life, the other the fear of death. Faith in Christ alone delivers us from the double bondage. Faith in Christ alone can prepare us to be waked by the touch of the angel of death, and to see ourselves surrounded with a greater light than shone in the prison of the apostle when his angel deliverer said to him, “Arise, follow me.” (D. March, D. D.)
The ministry of angels
I. With James they were employed to convey his soul to glory.
II. With Peter they were instruments to deliver him from bonds.
III. With Herod they were agents of God’s vengeance.
The iron gate.
Difficulties giving way
This incident may be used to illustrate certain important truths.
I. That matter is the servant of spirit. Matter is found in diverse forms. But we can only win the use by conquest. Take iron as a sample. It is stored up in the earth. Its discovery an era. From that moment man rose in power. What countless uses are now made of iron! And as with iron, so with other materials: everything has its use. There have been great discoveries in the past, there may be greater in the future. But mark our responsibilities. We are the heirs of all the ages. If “much given,” “much required” (Luke 12:48). Such is the law; always, matter should be made subordinate to the good of man: the lower should serve the higher.
II. That difficulties give way before men that are moving in the path of duty. The ministry of angels still goes on. They are for us, and not against us; and often, in ways unknown to us, they may be employed for our good. Be this as it may, the release of Peter shows us how we too may obtain deliverance. First, we must put ourselves under the guidance of God, and at His call we must go forward bravely, without faltering (Psalms 37:5). Difficulties are a test. They show what spirit we are of. Difficulties are a challenge; they appeal to our manhood; courage mounteth with occasion. Difficulties are an education. It is not ease, but effort that makes men. “Our antagonist is our helper,” said Burke.
III. That, walking under the guidance of God, our path shall ever be toward what is higher. Peter and the angel. So ever--Onward; from darkness to light; from restraint to liberty; from the presence of the evil to the companionship of the saints; from fear of death to glory, honour, and immortality in the city of God. How striking the contrast in the case of Herod! His pride had a terrible fall. An angel was sent to him; but in judgment. The oppressor is dealt with differently from the oppressed. Dr. Watts says: “Death to a good man is but the passing through a dark entry, out of one little room in his Father’s house into another which is fair and large, lightsome and glorious, and divinely entertaining. Oh! may the rays and splendours of my heavenly apartment shoot far downward, and gild the dark entry with such a cheerful gloom as to banish any fear when I shall be called to pass through.” (William Forsyth, A. M.)
And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark.
1. Two names are here, one Jewish, the other Roman; the latter adopted at first as a secondary one, and gradually superseding the former, just as “Joses” grew into “Barnabas,” and “Saul” became universally known as “Paul.” Thus we have “John, whose surname was Mark”; but later always “Mark” or “Marcus,” the Jewish name being entirely gone.
2. The scenes of this man’s youth are not difficult to imagine. His father is never mentioned, but his mother is of note in the Christian community. She has a house commodious enough to receive a number of its members when they desire to meet. She has servants; the name of one of them we know, “Rhoda,” or “Rose.” There would meet, on various occasions, the choicest spirits of the early Church. Barnabas was Mary’s nephew, and would often be her guest. Peter must have been an intimate friend. We find traces of these connections in the Epistles. “Marcus, sister’s son” (or rather cousin) “to Barnabas,” is the designation given to him in Colossians, and in Peter’s first Epistle he is called “Marcus my son,” no doubt in the spiritual sense, as Timothy stood related to Paul. Mary was a devout and courageous woman, ready, even when Herod’s sword was loose, with a welcome for all who loved the Lord. It was a fine moral atmosphere for a youth to breathe: a godly mother, praying friends, missionaries and martyrs and apostles coming and going there; and a bracing one withal, with frequent winds of fierce opposition raging around something it must have been to be a son in the house to which Peter came that night, and to have been in the company when cousin Barnabas introduced Saul of Tarsus. But, so far, we have proceeded mainly on conjecture. Mark’s recorded history begins about the year A.D. 44, the era of the earliest mission to the heathen.
3. When Barnabas and Saul were set apart for this work, it was settled that Mark should accompany them as their “minister,” or servant. It was the excellent custom of the older evangelists to associate the younger with them; just as Moses chose Joshua for his assistant, and Elisha “poured water on the hands of Elijah.” The design was to inure them to the discipline of the missionary life, and to instruct them in its duties. It was the squire learning to win his spurs in the Christian chivalry by attendance on the knight who had won them already. And what could be more suitable, or full of promise, than that Mark should serve his first campaign under Barnabas.
4. But what sudden change is this, occurring when that missionary journey has been but a little while begun? “John, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem.” Short words, but how significant and disappointing! After witnessing the awful judgment on Elymas, and the glorious conversion of Sergius Paulus; after seeing how Paul could smite, and how Barnabas could heal; after feeling some thrill of holy emulation in his own bosom, does he now give up the Christian work? What motive can have turned him back? Matthew Henry says, “Either he did not like the work, or he wanted to go see his mother.” A fit of homesickness, in fact! Perhaps also Paul, himself so hardy and self-sacrificing, was a little impatient with the young man, and treated him with an outspoken severity not pleasant to endure. Mark was no traitor, for his heart was true at bottom; but he was at present a coward, too soft to suffer hardship, and he had forgotten to count the cost. A failure, it would seem; a hand taken from the plough; a ship, scarcely out of dock, and already stranded on the shore! What a sorrow to that noble mother to see her son return like this; better he had been borne home dead upon his shield than have cast it away in dishonourable flight.
5. Five years must be supposed to pass. Barnabas and Paul have accomplished their journey, and returned. The great conflict with the Pharisaic party at Jerusalem has been fought out. The two missionaries are panting to be at work again. And of all men, who should appear, applying to accompany them, but the deserter Mark? Paul has never seen him since that unhappy parting at Perga; and he does not mean to be deceived a second time. Barnabas must do as he thinks right, but Paul will rather break their own old companionship, and go by himself. Then Barnabas will break it too. Barnabas takes the more hopeful, more indulgent view; he has probably heard better things of his young cousin. The decision of the “son of consolation” is to give him another chance. “And so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus.” How often has that “other chance” been the making of a man!
6. Another blank occurs here. We lose sight for ten years of Barnabas and Mark. Barnabas may be dead; and Mark appears again, and, singularly enough, in the Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon. But can it be the same man? Another stamp is set now upon his name by the very hand that was once ready to brand “deserter.” Surely our stranded ship floats again! Our fallen brother has lifted himself up, with heaven’s help, and is on his own feet, pressing forward with as stout a heart as the bravest. Barnabas was right; there was a true heart in the man after all.
7. We turn to the first Epistle of Peter, and Mark is now at Babylon; what an indefatigable traveller he has grown, and what a heart has he for labour! And he is found with aged Peter, his father in the faith. Presently Paul is writing again; it is the last of all his letters, the second to Timothy. His friends have left him; he is cold, and he is ill, and, with all his steadfast faith in the Divine support, he craves for a little human sympathy. Therefore let Timothy, if it may be, come quickly from Ephesus, where he is, bringing cloak and parchments, and his own filial care; and let him bring also some other tried and trusty brother, as a second source of consolation. Who, then, shall the chosen one be? “Take Mark, and bring him with thee”; a “profitable man,” the very man for a minister, a servant, a friend! Mark, the runaway? Even him; for years have passed since then, and the timid stripling has become the resolute and energetic veteran.
8. One further reference remains, a large and a long one; for it is a whole book of Scripture--“the Gospel according to Mark.” All the early traditions agree in attributing this to Mark, as the scribe and interpreter of Peter. And thus the image which remains is not that of the fugitive youth, but of the missionary, the faithful companion of the chief apostles, and one among the four evangelists.
9. On the northern coast of Devon there spreads a bay, along which the sea comes tide after tide, washing a broad beach of tiny shells; but you may search the shore for hours, and find no perfect specimen: the shells are broken. I can conceive many a disheartened traveller in life’s hard journey sitting down on that beach, and saying, “Behold the image of my own experience, of my broken resolutions, unaccomplished purposes, and perpetual failures!” Even in the Christian Church there are not a few who feel that they have failed of the high aims, the noble impulses, which warmed and quickened them at first! To any such disheartened souls this story of Mark’s recovery should come like a trumpet call of hope. Never too late, while life lasts. Once more to the front! If Paul does not trust you, Barnabas will. If Paul does not care for you now, he may come to lean on you with all his strength. And One, of whom you know, clearer-sighted by far than that shrewd apostle, tenderer of heart than that “son of consolation,” marks your struggles, and prays for your success; and He, as you arise, will breathe into your ear those words of unutterable hope and encouragement, “Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more.” (W. Brock.)
And many were gathered together praying.--
The special prayer meeting
It was a great wonder that the infant Church of Christ was not destroyed. She was like a lone lamb in the midst of furious wolves. With what weapons did she protect herself? The answer is--prayer. Whatever may be the danger of the times, and each age has its own peculiar hazard, our defence is of God, and we may avail ourselves of it by prayer. But this is not all: the newborn Church not only escaped, but it multiplied. What made it grow? The answer is that on all occasions “many were gathered together praying”; and if our Churches are to live and grow they must be watered from the self-same source. We have heard a great deal of talk in certain sections of the Church about going back to primitive times; but unfortunately what they call the early Church is not early enough. If we must have the early Church let us have the earliest Church of all. Notice--
I. The importance which the early Church attributed to prayer meetings.
1. As soon as we begin to read in the Acts, and continually as we read on we note that meetings for prayer had become a standing institution in the Church. They were not met to hear a sermon, although that is proper, but praying was the business on hand. The eminent speaking brethren seem to have been all away, and perhaps the Church was too much engrossed in intercession. There is a serious flaw in the arrangements of a Church when such gatherings are omitted or placed in a secondary position. The private Christian will read, and hear, and meditate, but none of these can be a substitute for prayer: the same truth holds good upon the larger scale.
2. It appears, however, that while prayer meetings were a regular institution, the prayer was sometimes made special. It adds greatly to the interest and fervency of prayer when there is some great object to pray for. Here the special object was Peter. They prized the man, for they saw what wonders God had wrought by his ministry, and they could not let him die if prayer would save him. Why not pray for a certain missionary, or some chosen district, or class of persons, or order of agencies? We should do well to turn the grand artillery of supplication against some special point of the enemy’s walls.
3. These friends fully believed that there was power in prayer; for, Peter being in prison, they did not meet together to arrange a plan for getting him out. It looked as if they could do nothing, but they felt they could do everything by prayer. They thought little of the fact that sixteen soldiers had him in charge. If there had been sixteen thousand these believing men and women would still have prayed Peter out. Let it never be insinuated in the Christian Church that prayer is a good and useful exercise to ourselves, but that it would be superstition to suppose that it affects the mind of God. As surely as any law of nature can be proven, we know both by observation and experiment that God assuredly hears prayer.
4. This prayer was industriously continued. As soon as Herod had put Peter into prison the Church began to pray. As in times of war, when two armies lie near each other they both set their sentries, so in this case Herod had his sentries, and the church had its pickets too. As soon as one little company were compelled to separate they were relieved by another, and when some were forced to take rest in sleep, others were ready to take up the work. Some mercies are not given to us except in answer to importunate prayer. There are blessings which, like ripe fruit, drop into your hand the moment you touch the bough; but there are others which require you to shake the tree again and again, until you make it rock with the vehemence of your exercise, for then only will the fruit fall down. I would pause here, and urge my brethren to attach as much importance to prayer as the early Church did. Some prize active agencies, but prayer is the steam engine which makes the wheels revolve, and really does the work, and therefore we cannot do without it. Suppose a foreman were employed by some great builder to manage works at a distance. He has to pay the men their wages weekly, but he forgets to write for cash to go on with. Is this wise? Keep up a constant communication with heaven, or your communications with earth will be of little worth. You may go on preaching and teaching, and giving away tracts, and what you like, but nothing can possibly come of it when the power of Almighty God has ceased to be with you.
II. The number assembled.
1. This is a rebuke to some here present. The text says, “Many were gathered.” Somebody said that two or three thousand people had no more power in prayer than two or three. That is a grave mistake in many ways; but clearly so in reference to each other; for have you never noticed that when many meet together praying, warmth of desire and glow of earnestness are greatly increased. Have you not observed how one brother suggests to another to increase his petition, and so the petitions grow by the mingling of heart with heart, and the communion of spirit with spirit? Besides, faith is a cumulative force. “According to thy faith so be it done unto thee” is true to one, to two, to twenty, to twenty thousand.
2. This is not a very common occurrence, and why is it that so many prayer meetings are so very thin? Gentlemen who do not get home from the city and have their dinner till seven o’clock, cannot be expected to go out to a prayer meeting. They work all the day, so much harder than working men. Some of you who have your delightful villas are very careful of your health, and never venture out into the evening air at prayer meetings, though I rather suspect that your parties and soirees are still kept up. After all, this is a personal matter. How are we to increase the number? Not by complaining of those who stay away, but by coming yourself. The largest numbers are made up of units.
3. I am not sure that quite so many would have been gathered together that night if it had not been that Peter was in prison. Ministers laid aside by illness find their people pray better, and perhaps one reason for his being afflicted was God’s desire to stir the hearts of His people to intercede. Now, the best way to do good to your pastor is to pray to be kept in a right condition, and not need his sickness as a stimulus to prayer.
III. The place of assembly. A private house, and I want to urge my brethren to consecrate their houses by frequently using them for prayer meetings. There was a meetness in their meeting in this particular house, for the family stood in a very dear relationship to Peter. Peter in his First Epistle refers to “Marcus, my son.” Mark would be sure to pray for his spiritual father. There is sure to be prayer for the pastor in the house where the pastor has been blessed to the family. Mark was not all we should like him to have been, but he might have been a useless Christian, and never have used his graphic pen for the Lord had not the good people come to his house. The house received a blessing, and so will you, too, if your house shall be every now and then opened for special prayer. Prayer meetings at private houses are very useful, because friends who would be afraid to pray before a large assembly are able to feel free and easy in a smaller company in a private house. Sometimes, too, the social element is consecrated by God to promote a greater warmth and fervour, so that prayer will often burn in the family when perhaps it might have declined in the public assembly.
IV. The time of this prayer meeting. At dead of night. Now, if the time for prayer meetings be an inconvenient hour, and I should think the dead of night was rather inconvenient, nevertheless go. Better hold prayer meetings at twelve o’clock at night than not at all. But the dead of the night was chosen for safety. Let the time fixed for modern prayer meetings be an hour suited to the habits of the people.
V. The success of the prayer meetings as an encouragement to us. The answer came so speedily that they were themselves surprised. It has sometimes been said that their astonishment was the result of unbelief. I doubt that, for their prayer did set Peter free, and therefore it could not have been unbelieving prayer. I trace their surprise to their probable expectation that Peter would be delivered at a different time and manner. And God can send us surprises quite as great as this. We may pray for some sinner, and while we are yet praying we may hear him cry, “What must I do to be saved?” We may offer our prayers for the sleeping Church, and while we pray it may be answered. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda.
“Rhoda” means “a rose,” and this rose has kept its bloom for eighteen hundred years, and is still sweet and fragrant. What a lottery undying fame is! Men will give their lives to earn it; and this servant girl got it by one little act, and never knew that she had it. Now there is a very singular resemblance between the details of this incident and those of another case, when Peter was recognised in the dark by his voice, and the evangelist Luke, who is the author of the Acts of the Apostles, seems to have had the resemblance between the two scenes, that in the high priest’s palace and that outside Mary’s door, in his mind, because he uses in this narrative a word which occurs, in the whole of the New Testament, only here and in his account of what took place on that earlier occasion. In both instances a maid servant recognises Peter by his voice, and in both she “constantly affirms” that it was so. Luke felt how strangely events sometimes double themselves; and how the man that is here all but a martyr is re-enacting, with differences, something like the former scene, when he was altogether a traitor.
I. We may notice in the relations of Rhoda to the assembled believers a striking illustration of the new bond of union supplied by the gospel. Rhoda was a slave. The word rendered in our version “damsel” means a female slave. Her name being a Gentile name, and her servile condition, make it probable that she was not a Jewess. If one might venture to indulge in a guess, it is not at all unlikely that her mistress, Mary, John Mark’s mother, Barnabas’ sister, a well-to-do woman of Jerusalem, who had a house big enough to take in the members of the Church in great numbers, and to keep up a considerable establishment, had brought this slave girl from the island of Cyprus. At all events, she was a slave. In the time of our Lord, and long after, these relations of slavery brought an element of suspicion, fear, and jealous espionage into almost every Roman household, because every master knew that he passed his days and nights among men and women who wanted nothing better than to wreak their vengeance upon him. And now here this child slave, this Gentile, has been touched by the same mighty love as her mistress; and Mary and Rhoda were kneeling together in the prayer meeting when Peter began to hammer at the door. In God’s good time, and by the slow process of leavening society with Christian ideas, that diabolical institution perished in Christian lands. Violent reformation of immoralities is always a blunder. “Raw haste” is “half-sister to Delay.” Settlers in forest lands have found that it is endless work to grub up the trees, or even to fell them. “Root and branch” reform seldom answers. The true way is to girdle the tree by taking off a ring of bark round the trunk, and letting nature do the rest. Dead trees are easily dealt with; living ones blunt many axes and tire many arms, and are alive after all. Thus the gospel waged no direct war with slavery, but laid down principles which, once they are wrought into Christian consciousness, made its continuance impossible. But, pending that consummation, the immediate action of Christianity was to ameliorate the condition of the slave. The whole aspect of the ugly thing was changed as soon as master and slave together became the slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ. That slight, girlish figure, standing at the door of Mary, her slave, and yet her sister in Christ, may be taken as pointing symbolically the way by which the social and civic evils of this day are to be healed, and the war of classes to cease.
II. Note how we get here a very striking picture of the sacredness and greatness of small common duties. Rhoda came out from the prayer meeting to open the gate. It was her business, as we say, “to answer the door,” and so she left off praying to go and do it. So doing, she was the means of delivering the apostle from the danger which still dogged him. It was of little use to be praying on one side of the shut door, when on the other he was standing in the street, and the day was beginning to dawn; Herod’s men would be after him as soon as daylight disclosed his escape. It is not unnecessary to insist that no heights or delights of devotion and secret communion are sufficient excuses for neglecting or delaying the doing of the smallest and most menial task which is our duty. If your business is to keep the door, you will not be leaving, but abiding in the secret place of the Most High, if you get up from your knees in the middle of your prayer, and go down to open it. The smallest, commonest acts of daily life are truer worship than is rapt and solitary communion, or united prayer, if the latter can only be secured by the neglect of the former. Let us remember how we may find here an illustration of another great truth, that the smallest things, done in the course of the quiet discharge of recognised duty, and being, therefore, truly worship of God, have in them a certain quality of immortality, and may be eternally commemorated.
III. The same figure of the damsel named Rhoda may give us a warning as to the possibility of forgetting very plain duties under the pressure of very legitimate excitement. “She opened not the door for gladness,” but ran in and told them, Yes! And if, whilst she was running in with her message, Herod’s quaternions of soldiers had come down the street, there would have been “no small stir” in the Church as to “what had become of Peter.” Now joy and sorrow are equally apt to make us forget plain and pressing duties, and we may learn from this little incident the old-fashioned but always necessary advice, to keep feeling well under control, to use it as impulse, not as guide, and never to let emotion, which should be down in the engine room, come on deck and take the helm. It is dangerous to obey feeling, unless its degrees are countersigned by calm common sense illuminated by Scripture. Sorrow is apt to obscure duty by its darkness, and joy by its dazzle. It is hard to see the road at midnight, or at midday when the sun is in our eyes. Both need to be controlled. Duty remains the same, whether my heart be beating like a sledge hammer, or whether my “bosom lord sits lightly on its throne.” Whether I am sad or glad, the door that God has given me to watch has to be opened and shut by me.
IV. Lastly, we have here an instance of a very modest but positive and fully warranted trust in one’s own experience, in spite of opposition. They had been praying, as has often been remarked, for Peter’s deliverance, and now that he is delivered they will not believe it. Nobody ever seems to have thought of going to the door to see whether it was he or not, but they went arguing with Rhoda as to whether she was right or wrong. The unbelief that alloys even golden faith is taught us in this incident. Rhoda “constantly affirmed that it was so.” The lesson is--trust your own experience whatever people may have to say against it. If you have found that Jesus Christ can help you, and has loved you, and that your sins have been forgiven, because you have trusted in Him, do not let anybody laugh or talk you out of that conviction. If you cannot argue, do like Rhoda, “constantly affirm that it is so.” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
I. Her name. Miriam and Rhoda are the only two girls of the Bible whose names we know. A learned German has written a book on “the names of women taken from flowers.” He shows that these names mark the qualities which we expect to find in girls. Now Rhoda is the Greek name for a rose. It is the first part of the word “rhododendron,” which means “rose tree.” In the olden times, as nowadays, people hoped that girls would be in the home what the rose is in the garden: that they would add a charm, a beauty, and a sweet perfume to life. I have read somewhere that a rose is carved on a girl’s tombstone in France, with these words underneath, “She was just like that.” The rose, however, is as famed for its speedy decay as for its sweetness and beauty. But when the ancients gave this name to their girls, they meant that, as they would wear, so they would justify and deserve their name all their days. Some, however, grow like the rose that has shed its leaves, and kept only its bare thorns. Others resemble the autumn flower, whose leaves are highly coloured while its sweet savour is gone. Some are like the rose into whose bud the cankerworm has crept; some are like the rose planted among thorns, which shows its wounds as well as its beauty; and some are even like the rose that is soiled and trampled in the dust of the highway. But Rhoda was a girl who deserved her beautiful name, and wore it well. For she was good; and to be good is to be beautiful with the best beauty. In old languages they used to call the bad ugly, and they do so in some parts of the world at this day. The good and the beautiful are really the same, when the matter is rightly understood. The grace of God is the grand beautifier. It makes people graceful, that is both good and beautiful.
II. Her company. It is the very best in the world; she is among the Christians. Whether she was the slave or the daughter of Mary, we know not; but it is plain that she was among the Christians not by chance, but by choice, or else she would have gone to bed, or fallen asleep, like Eutychus. But Peter had hardly done knocking when she was at the keyhole, asking who was there. She knew his voice at once in the dark, and so must have been intimate with him. She was like the blind girl who, unexpectedly hearing her old minister at a meeting, shook with excitement, and said aloud, “Oh, that’s my minister!” And Rhoda’s gladness shows where her heart was. What efforts many make to get into what they call “good society”! This restlessness to be something which we are not, causes a world of misery. But Rhoda easily gained admittance to the very flower of human kind. They who come to Christ at once enter into the most splendid society in the world. Who would be foolish enough to shut herself out from that glorious band which embraces the best of every age and nation, all God’s heroes, and the noble army of the apostles and martyrs?
III. Her courage. Every Christian then was a hero for God; for he ran the risk of poverty, prison, and death. It was so in this land two hundred years ago. In Rhoda’s days it needed double courage to be a Christian in Jerusalem, for the maddest of the Jews lived there, and Herod’s sword was smoking with the blood of the saints. James, one of their leaders, had just been slain; and Peter was in prison, ready to be offered up. Rhoda, who shared the dangers, must have also shared the courage of the apostles. It was as much as her life was worth to attend that prayer meeting. One small touch in her story gives us a hint of her dangers. When Peter knocked, she did not open the door till she knew who was knocking: they were afraid of Herod’s soldiers. Persecution has passed away, but none the less on that account do you need the courage you admire in Rhoda. For mean, false shame is one of the worst of your snares. Pray that you may have the free and fearless spirit of those bold hymns which you love to sing: “Dare to be a Daniel”; “Stand up for Jesus.” Be ready with a round, rousing No, when sinners entice you.
IV. Her service. Though only a girl, we see her here doing service. It was very humble; for she was as one who keeps a door in the house o! God. But she did her part, and did it right heartily. And God asks no more of you. Angels are perfect servants of God, and this chapter gives us a specimen of their way of serving. Watch the angel delivering Peter from prison, and take him as your model in doing God’s work. How swiftly he works! Most pictures give angels wings, to denote the swiftness of a willing mind. Thus when Rhoda’s heart was full of joy, she ran on her errand. Be this your resolve, “I will run the way of Thy commandments, when Thou shalt enlarge my heart.” Gratitude makes wings grow on the feet of life. And how humbly the angel does his work! He does not even mention his name, but hastens back to God, to whom he gives all the glory. An old minister was once preaching a funeral sermon upon the death of an “elect lady,” who had been his helper in Christ. She was angel-like in humility; and he compared her to a fair taper in a room, which is bright to others, but is itself hid in the shade made by its own light. You, too, may have an angel’s spirit in doing the work God has put into your hands. (J. Wells, M. A.)
And they said unto her, Thou art mad.--
Surprised by answers to prayer
Mr. Muller, of Bristol, believes in God for the support of his benevolent institution, and God supplies him with all his needs; but whenever you speak about him you say, “What a wonderful thing!” Has it come to this, that in the Christian Church it is accounted a marvel for Christians to believe in the promises of God, and something like a miracle for God to fulfil them? Does not this wonderment indicate more clearly than anything else how fallen we are from the level of faith at which we ought constantly to live? If the Lord wants to surprise His people, He has only at once to give an answer to their prayers. No sooner had they obtained their answer, than they would say, “Who would have thought it!” Is it really surprising that God should keep His own promise? Oh, what unbelief! Oh, what wretched unbelief on our part! We ask and we receive not, because we do not believe in God. We waver; we must not expect to receive anything at His hand except what He chooses to give as a gratuity; an act of sovereign mercy, not a covenanted blessing. We do not get what we might have as the reward of faith, because we have not got the faith that He honours. I like that story of a godly old woman, who, when told of God’s answering prayer, supplemented with a reflection, “Is not that wonderful?” replied, “No, it is just like Him. Of course He answers prayer; of course He keeps His promise.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Forgetfulness through joy
On one occasion, in Limehouse chapel, a woman dressed in her working clothes appeared amongst the penitent inquirers. After being taught the way of salvation and prayed with, she found, peace in believing. She suddenly remembered that her house was locked and the key in her pocket, and told us that, in leaving home, she had no thought whatever of a religious service. Seeing the chapel lit up and hearing the singing, she entered, heard the sermon, was convinced of sin, and remained to pray, with the result already mentioned. Rhoda, seeing Peter standing at the gate, was so overjoyed that she forgot to let the liberated apostle in; so the woman at Limehouse, rejoicing that she herself was made free indeed, forgot that her house key was in her pocket, and that some of her family might be knocking at her door unable to enter. (T. McCullagh.)
The girl who was called mad
I. Had a beautiful name. Many Jewish and other parents gave to their children the names of certain plants, trees, and flowers. Hadassa, a myrtle; Susanna, a lily; Tamar, a palm tree; Rhoda, a rose. That is beautiful, because it leads us to think of the garden in summer, and one of the prettiest flowers there. Have you such a name? Be thankful. Have you not such a name? Be content. It was given to you by others. They, and not you, are responsible. Besides, to grumble about it is to do no good. The time may come when it will be your duty to give names to children. Select those only that are associated with lovely things. Let all the words which you employ in writing and speaking be of the same description.
II. Was a domestic servant. Her duty was to open the door when anyone knocked. In this respect she has advantages over those in other situations. She is more free from--
1. Care. Nothing to pay for except her clothing.
2. Danger. Has not to go out in all kinds of weather. Sheltered from rains and storms.
3. Temptations. Others may have greater liberty. This often leads to temptations which do not come to the domestic servant.
4. Risk of losing her situation. Her class not so numerous as others. Masters and mistresses value a good servant, and will keep her as long as she does her duty. Nothing degrading about such a situation. To serve in a good family is exceedingly honourable. To show this the Bible has recorded some of the names and doings of domestic servants.
III. Was a Christian.
1. She was serving in a Christian home.
2. There was a prayer meeting in that home, and she loved to be there.
3. She was quite familiar with the voice of one of the apostles. Your parents, teachers, and, above all, Jesus, wish you to be Christians.
IV. Was very cautious. It was night. All around lonely and still. Some one knocking at the door. Instead of opening it at once, she said, “Who is there?” Never open the door at night till you know who is on the outside. Be cautious in all other things--in writing to, speaking about, and acting in the presence of others.
V. Was accused of madness. When she heard Peter’s voice, she was so glad that she could not open the door. The same thing has often happened; and the praying company, instead of believing her, said she was mad. This did not make her angry, for she knew that she was right. If you know you are right, and others say you are wrong, be not angry, but calm. The truth sooner or later will appear to others as it does to you. (A. McAuslane, D. D.)
But Peter continued knocking.--
That’s right. Bang away! If Christians will not bestir themselves at your first call, hammer at them until they do. There is nothing like persistency for overcoming the sluggishness and sloth of half-hearted faith. The preacher, or the teacher, or the parent, or the Christian worker in any sphere, who turns away from the door of the heart he wants to enter, simply because it is not opened at his first call, is not really deserving of success in his mission. “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” If it is not opened the first time, knock again. If it is not opened after ten times knocking, continue knocking until it is opened. When the door is opened, you can enter in. But until it is opened, your duty is to keep up a knocking. (H. C. Trumbull.)
And … Herod … went down from Judea to Caesarea.
The death of Herod
This journey of Herod is described by Josephus. It would seem that he left Judaea in disgust and spleen because Peter had escaped from his hands. We are next informed that “Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon,” etc. Judaea being an agricultural and a pastoral country, and Tyre and Sidon being mercantile countries, the latter were dependent on the inland trade for their support, and therefore it would have been almost ruin to them if Herod had carried his thoughts into execution; for the expression “highly displeased” means that he contemplated war. They, therefore, came to him in the most submissive manner, and bribed Blastus to use his influence. Herod having acceded to their request, and being a vainglorious man, determined to receive the ambassadors of Tyre and Sidon with a display of royal splendour. He also made an eloquent oration, probably reminding them of his own great condescension in receiving their ambassadors and granting them peace; and then “the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him.” And when the tyrant was dead, it is added, in striking and beautiful contrast, “But the Word of God grew and multiplied.” Note--
I. The miserable end of Herod. Observe--
1. The extreme emptiness of earthly splendour. How wonderful it is, that with such a lesson as this continually recorded in the page of history, and in our own experience, we should still need to be reminded of it; for it seldom happens that any grand ceremonial takes place without there being some circumstance connected with it to stamp vanity upon it. But it is not merely in the dazzling circumstances of courts and kings that the worldliness of man’s heart is shown; it is ingrained in us all. We are by nature lovers of this present world; and even when they are not actually removed, God often embitters to us our idols, and although we clearly see our own folly in idolising them, yet we cannot tear the idols away. We are all hastening towards the grave; and, painful as it must be, it would be very wholesome if we could look upon each other’s countenances, and feel an abiding sense that dissolution must soon come. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, dear as they are to each other, must soon part. Oh! that we could meditate then upon this; and when we see a great king thus awfully cut down--when there seems but a step between the gorgeous apparel and the filthy worm--let us pause, learn how short our time is, and pray that we may not set our hearts upon the fleeting shadows of the world, but may seek to lay up treasure where “rust and moth doth not corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” How blessed, to think that there is a garment which shall never be exchanged for the worm, that there is a crown which shall never fall from our heads, that there is an abode where sorrow cannot come! Who would believe it, to see men frantically pursuing things that are not worth the having?
2. An awful instance of God’s wrath against the persecutors of His Church and people. This man had killed James, etc. What a change is here. A little while, and Peter is safe, and the proud and mighty Herod is the prey of worms. “So let all Thine enemies perish, O Lord”; and so must they perish, if they die in their sins. There are few sins which are followed up with more signal punishment than the persecution of God’s saints. We see this in the fate of those who persecuted Israel, and it would be easy to show, from the history of modern Europe, that there has not been a power, papal or heathen, which has persecuted the Church of God, but the Lord has rendered an awful retribution into their bosoms. “He that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of His eye.” There is no organ so delicate as the apple of the eye. The smallest puncture there will give pain over the whole body. How strikingly is this illustrated in the case of Saul. “Why persecutest thou Me?” And our Saviour says that it would be better for a man who persecutes the saints of God “that a millstone had been hung around his neck, and he had been cast into the depths of the sea.” And let us remember that it is the spirit of the persecutor which God looks at. You may say that men are not now sent to prison and to bonds for serving Christ. But ungodly men show the same disposition as ever to persecute. They point with the finger of scorn; they apply names of contempt, and endeavour to injure reputation. This is nothing else but the spirit which lifted the hand of Herod, and all that were like him, to persecute the saints of God. Happy are they who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” but woe be unto them that persecute them.
3. God’s jealousy of His own glory and condemnation of human pride. The sin for which he was eaten of worms was only a negative sin. When the people said, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man,” Herod did nothing, said nothing; but it is added, “Immediately the angel of the Lord smote him.” And why? “Because he gave not God the glory.” Oh, what a little sin does this appear! How singular that this man should have been suffered to go through a long career of cruelty, oppression, and profligacy, ending with the murder of God’s saints, and that the blow should be withheld until he had committed this apparently little sin--namely, not to reproach the people for their idolatry! Now this is well worthy of our serious consideration, because it is just by such things as these that we are led to the secret root of sin, and led to detect its hidden springs. It is of no use just to cut off the tops of the weeds in our gardens; we must pluck them up by the roots, or they will grow again. So it is with sin. The case of Herod is not a singular one. It is very remarkable, that we read of many instances in the Old Testament in which persons known to be of the most profligate and wicked character, and nations and people of the most debauched habits, have had the judgments of God poured out upon them, not for what are ordinarily considered great crimes, but for the crime of pride and exaltation against God (Isaiah 10:5, etc.; 47:10; Daniel 4:1-37.). It is perhaps said, “But this is an uncommon sin.” Certainly in its full development it is; for all are not kings, nor can they array themselves in royal apparel; but as to the sin itself, it is universal. Oh! how many are there amongst us who spend their lives “in arraying themselves in apparel!” The love of personal admiration is one of the most universal sins of our fallen nature. From the queen upon her throne down to the meanest of her subjects, the love of dress and personal display is an indigenous sin in the hearts of all of us, according to our various stations in life. But, you observe, it was not for his apparel that the people admired Herod, but for his oration. Here is the pride of oratory, the pride of intellect. There are many who utterly despise the former, who feed eagerly upon the latter; and the more intellectual our sin, the more subtle it is, and perhaps the more venomous and deadly. There is no pride more detestable in the sight of God than intellectual or spiritual pride. And here again you see the love of flattery, the love of the admiration of our fellow creatures. There is scarcely any human being insensible to this. If there be any avenue by which you can infuse folly into a wise man’s heart, it is by flattering him. Oh! how mean and little do we seem when these bosom sins of ours are stripped open! How many a splendid action, how many an apparently virtuous one, how many a seemingly self-denying one, becomes a detestable and abominable sin, when the secret self-love and self-admiration that guided it is exposed! “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God.”
II. The progress of the gospel, notwithstanding all these events (verse 24). Remarkable juxtaposition of facts! Here is the persecutor eaten of worms, and gives up the ghost. Poor, feeble, wretched man! he can do nothing against God and His truth; and while he is dying, the Word of the Lord multiplies. This is a sort of recurring chorus in the whole history of the Acts. Thus it was after the deliverance of Peter and John, after the doom of Ananias and Sapphira, after the death of Stephen, and the conversion of Saul. What an idea does this give us of the omnipotence with which the Word is clothed, and of the mighty purposes of God concerning it! He hath said, “So shall My Word be, that goeth forth out of My mouth,” etc. And so it has been throughout the whole of the history of Christ’s Church militant here upon earth. Infinitely diversified is the story; there is no history so romantic as that. The Church, founded upon a Rock, never can be shaken; the gates of hell cannot prevail against it; men and devils may unite, but they shall be “eaten of worms” and “give up the ghost”; while the “Word of God” shall “grow and multiply.” Let us repose our minds on these glorious considerations. It is the consolation of every well-regulated Christian mind that all the things which we see around us, however untoward, work together for the purpose of God. The Lord will show who is right and who is wrong; the work of every man will be submitted to the fire, and we shall then see which was the gold, and which the wood, hay, and stubble. Meanwhile His people have a confidence that they are serving a Master who cannot be defeated, and obey Him who has all things in His hands, and who said to another persecutor, “Thou couldest have no power at all against Me, except it were given thee from above.” (Dean Close.)
The death of Herod
I. He would not glorify God. To exceed a just proportion, even in that which is good, is sometimes blameful; too much justice; too much love. But to give God the glory is a duty unto which we are bound with an infinite devotion. Wherefore if God gave children by seventies, He asked but the first born. Every hour of our time is His benevolence; yet the law is only to keep the Sabbath day. The earth is the Lord’s, and yet His portion is but the tenth; but of His glory, it is His own entirely; He will not part with it. Themistocles, demanding tribute of the men of Andria, told them that he had brought two powerful advocates to plead his cause--Persuasion if they pleased, Violence if they refused. These two apparitors go before the glory of the Most High. Doth it like you to bless His name? So God is glorified by the devotion of His creature. Doth it like you to exalt yourself? Then He will be honoured in your confusion. He that swells to the greatest in this world shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. When the heathen traduced the Christians that they debased their emperor and made him less than the God of heaven, “Know you not,” says Tertullian, “that this is the eminency of your emperor to be less than God?” The heathen said that everything which grew too tall was thunder blasted, and that great fortunes, when they came to excess, did end in shameful ruin. As Virgil says of his bees, that one hive will fight cruelly against another; but cast a little dust into the air, and the fray is parted. So when the pride of man swells with vain opinion, methinks the casting of a little dust should pluck down our stomach, the base mould of which our flesh is made. Says St. Austin, “Set aside this corrupt leaven of ostentation, and all men are but men, as naked in their pomp as when they were born, or when they shall be buried.” It was pride that dethroned the bad angels, and it is that which makes man stubborn against the law and refractory against faith, blow there are four ways whereby this daring vice of pride doth diminish from that which should be given to God’s glory.
1. It is a sin no less ungrateful than presumptuous to enjoy wit, and art, and memory, and the blessings of the best portion, and to forget God. Everything that renowns us, feeds us, preserves us, is but a crumb that falls from our Master’s table.
2. Violence is done to God’s glory when conscience will acknowledge that God doth give all; but arrogancy will infer that man deserves all. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the free gift of God the Father, the unction of the Holy Spirit, are turned quite aside, like a river from his own true channel, when it falls into such a soil that thinks it deserves it. When good works sue to be called merits, they are like the ambitious men of the world, that spend their whole revenue to buy some gaudy title of honour; and when they have it, they want substance to maintain it.
3. The third transgression is a lofty stomach, that will seem to be no less than to have no equals. The proud man is deciphered by the single horn of the unicorn, who would be solitary in all God’s graces, and without a companion; whereas the congregation of the militant church is compared to a field of wheat, where all the ears of the field are of an equal growth, and if any stalk over-top the rest it is lank and without fructification. They that are not contented to be equal with the common condition of men, shall never be equal with the angels; and he that despiseth the gifts of God in his fellow servants, is not the man that gives God the glory.
4. There is one feather more in the tail of pride, and full as long as the rest: when they arrogate to themselves that which indeed they have not. Christ hath said we cannot add one cubit to our stature; no, nor make one hair of our head black or white. Why do ye practise it, then, O ye gaudy beauties! to bring that about which Christ told you was impossible? I have seen books of meditations whose subject was to let all men know that they are vain, and sinful, and ignorant, and yet they were dedicated to some great man most virtuous and most religious. Presume not to take false titles upon you, as Herod encroached upon the name of God Himself.
But as to the pride of Herod, it is a monster that riseth up into two heads--
1. A tongue full of vain and insolent speech.
2. An ear obnoxious to the flattery of the people. Of both in their order, and for your edification. It was Epaminondas’s praise that he seldom met with a man that knew more than himself or spake less; and so the least doers inch out their poor works with much talk. As the artificial prospective to the eye, so is the tongue unto the ear an hollow instrument to make everything seem bigger and fairer than it is. The beasts, the birds, the serpents may be sooner tamed, says St. James, than the tongue of man. Worse than these creatures is the tongue of man; fiercer than the beasts, more flitting than the birds, more poisonous than the serpents. It is a member of the body that can taste everything but itself, and knows how all things relish but its own pride and bitterness. And as we are taught from hence to set a watch before our lips, so let us learn from Herod’s example to circumcise our ears, to renounce the flatteries of evil men. The French proverb says that the boiling pot doth discover the little pea which is in the bottom of it, and the applause of a little vainglory doth discover the disposition of the mind of man more than any other passion. Says Seneca, “Glory is the fire that kindles virtue when it provokes virtue to good achievements; but when glory begets nothing but the desire of glory, it is but childish popularity.” All flattery is the corruption of true glory; but to flatter any man in his vices is a sacrilege against virtue. It is a note of a reprobate that he speaketh good of the covetous, whom God abhorreth. To flatter vice is to promote Satan’s kingdom; to flatter princes is to destroy their kingdoms; to flatter princes, as the Sidonians did Herod, is to pluck down God’s kingdom. The Athenians, who were but Gentiles at the wisest, could not endure such injury to be offered to the God whom they knew not, but put Timagoras, their ambassador, to death, because he adored the king of Persi like a god.
II. God was glorified in him.
1. He, the king. The obedience of the law was violated; but the castigation of the law cannot be avoided. Machiavel, among his irreligious principles, says that all the credit of great enterprises depends upon success; for if Caesar had miscarried in his civil wars, his infamy had been more odious than Cataline’s. Mighty sinners run into mighty destructions; and such conspicuous offenders as Herod was, leave themselves as a beacon. Where is his eloquence now? Where is his costly garment? Where is the outcry of the Sidonians that canonised his tongue for the voice of a god? Take heed lest you forfeit your own possession of the earth for denying God the possession of heaven. The Sidonians gave Herod so much of heaven, that they lost him all the earth but a grave. St. Chrysostom asks why the people giving the first offence, yet Herod is punished, and the principal malefactors acquitted.
2. He was smitten by an angel of the Lord. Strange wickednesses procure strange kinds of death. If the earth will not avenge them, the angel of the Lord will come down and fight. Do the trees of paradise deserve to have a cherubim set before them with a flaming sword? And shall not all the host of heaven stand about the majesty of the Most High, and see the honour of His name preserved?
3. Immediately he was smitten. In such splendour of attire, in such celebrity of attendants, before the face of strangers, among those who in their hearts were no better than his enemies; never did he come out of that chair of the scorner, from that throne wherein he was canonised, till he was stripped of all dignity. It is the most dreadful thing upon earth to be suddenly apprehended by judgment. But let the Christian pray every morning as if he should see the sun rise no more; every evening as if he should see the sun set no more; be ready to meet the bridegroom at midnight, and yet despise not that supplication, “From sudden death, good Lord deliver us.”
4. Lest he should glory that he was smitten by no less than an angel, behold the meanest of all creatures, the worms, are made his executioners! He that humbled himself to be a worm and no man, he is exalted above men to the right hand of God. He that would have been Deus non homo, a God and not a man, is dejected below a man, and made a worm. This disease is more observed in histories to be the arrow of the Lord against sinners of high presumption than any other. Thus Sylla died; thus Antiochus Epiphanes; thus Herod the Great; thus Arnulphus, that spoiled the churches of the Christians; thus Phericides, that gloried he never offered sacrifice, and yet lived as prosperously. (Bp. Hacket.)
I. Wherefore has it found a place in the Acts? Not as if it had been a punishment for the murder of James, but also because political events are not matters of indifference to Christianity.
II. What are we to learn from it? That the commonweal can prosper, not by flattery and yielding to the lusts and passions of men, but only when we are free from both, looking to the eternal and unchangeable will of God. (Schleirmacher.)
Herod smitten by the angel--an old picture of human society
Here we have--
I. National interdependence. The Phoenicians wanted what the Palestinians had, and vice versa. This is a glorious fact in God’s government of man. Throughout the earth one zone produces what other zones want, and the peculiar products of each contribute towards the consummation of man’s well-being. This interdependence serves--
1. To stimulate human activities. It presses ever on the sense of need and love of gain, and thus keeps man’s faculties ever on the stretch contriving and constructing methods to work the soil to the greatest advantage, and to increase facilities of transit. He makes seas his high road, electricity his messenger, winds and fire the carriers of his commodities.
2. To check all monopolies. There are narrow souls who would keep all their land produces to themselves. Ignorant alike of the laws of the universe, the genius of the world, and their own insignificance, they vainly talk of national independence. Nature laughs them to scorn. Creature independence is a solecism.
3. To promote international concord.
II. Class wickedness.
1. Unbounded arrogance on the part of the ruler.
III. Retributive justice. Angels have often done such work before (Exodus 12:21; 2 Kings 19:35; 2 Samuel 24:16; 2 Chronicles 32:21). The justice of this man’s fate is clear. Surely he who had killed James, imprisoned Peter, and massacred his own guards, and now accepted Divine homage, deserved the end which befell him. Such instances of retributive justice had occurred with Pharaoh, Belshazzar, etc., but they are confessedly rare as compared with the number of notorious offenders. Yet they are sufficient to show that there is a moral government in the world, and to prophesy the coming of a time when retribution shall be fairly dealt out to all.
IV. Remedial forces.
1. The Word of God. This “grew and multiplied.” The seed was growing everywhere, and the fruit was the antidote to the world’s evils, the provision for the cravings of the human soul. Herod had done his best to crush it, but it went on, and as it advanced it elevated and blessed.
2. The agency of the good. Here are Barnabas, and Saul, and Mark, all working to help on the true and the right. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
This world’s honour
Death strips us of this world’s glory as a boot jack draws off your boots. Another wears my boots when I am dead, and another wears my glory. It is of little value. (Martin Boos.)
It was a custom in Rome, that when the emperor went out upon some grand day in all his imperial pomp, there was an officer appointed to burn flax before him, crying out, “Sic transit gloria mundi”; which was done to put him in mind that all his honour and grandeur should soon vanish away like the smoke from the burning flax.
The law of reprisal
When we consider the almost invincible power which the crustaceans derive from their armour, their muscular vigour, their ferocity, and their numbers, we ask how is it that they have not depopulated the shores where they meet none but victims, no enemies capable of contending with them upon equal terms? For formidable as they are to all the tribes of molluscs and zoophytes, what have they to fear--except in a few countries certain littoral or amphibious mammals which, for the most part, only attack them as a last resort, preferring prey more easily devoured, and assisting them in their work of extermination rather than fighting them? Their tyranny then seems at first sight absolute and without counterbalance. Such, however, is not the ease. The crustaceans undergo at certain epochs a fatal crisis, which delivering them up defenceless to external shocks and the blows of their enemies, places an easy vengeance within the reach of the oppressed. These epochs are their sloughing times, when, willy nilly, with great difficulty, and at the cost of the most painful and sometimes the deadliest efforts, they are forced to shed their armour of proof, to expose their living flesh barely covered with a thin soft pellicle, and to bury themselves piteously under the sand until the calcareous secretion shall be reformed and solidified anew. This is their season of fear and fright. Their hiding places are easily discoverable, and once unearthed the disarmed brigands are lost beyond redemption. Myriads perish in this manner, devoured by other animals, crushed among the stones, or dashed in pieces against the rocks by the movement of the waves. Thus Nature enforces her law of reprisal. The power of all tyrants and oppressors has its fixed limits. The quarrelsome crustacean and the despotic king are alike subject to the hour of retaliation. (Scientific Illustrations.)
Danger of flattery
Whitefield, when flattered, said, “Take care of fire: I carry powder about me.”
When the French ambassador visited Lord Bacon in his last illness, and found him in bed, with the blinds drawn, he addressed this compliment to him: “You are like the angels, of whom we read and hear much, but have not the pleasure of seeing them.” The reply was the sentiment of a philosopher, and not unworthy of a Christian: “If the complaisance of others compares me to an angel, my infirmities tell me I am a man.”
A flattering priest told Constantine the Great that his virtues deserved the empire of the world here, and to reign with the Son of God hereafter. The emperor cried, “Fie, fie! for shame! let me hear no more such unseemly speeches; but, rather, suppliantly pray to my Almighty Maker, that, in this life and the life to come, I may be reckoned worthy to be His servant.”
One of the first acts performed by George III after his accession to the throne, was to issue an order prohibiting any of the clergy who should be called to preach before him, from paying him any compliment in their discourses. His Majesty was led to this from the fulsome adoration which Dr. Thos. Wilson, prebendary of Westminster, thought proper to deliver in the Chapel Royal, and for which, instead of thanks, he received from his royal auditor a pointed reprimand, his Majesty observing that he came to chapel to hear the praises of God and not his own. (Clerical Anecdotes.)
The certainty of retribution
As you stood some stormy day upon a sea cliff, and marked the giant billow rise from the deep to rush on with foaming crest, and throw itself thundering on the trembling shore, did you ever fancy that you could stay its course, and hurl it back to the depths of ocean? Did you ever stand beneath the leaden, lowering cloud, and mark the lightning’s leap, as it shot and flashed, dazzling athwart the gloom, and think that you could grasp the bolt and change its path? Still more foolish and vain his thought, who fancies that he can arrest or turn aside the purpose of God, saying, “What is the Almighty that we should serve Him? Let us break His bands asunder, and cast away His cords from us!” Break His bands asunder!--How He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh! (T. Guthrie, D. D.)
God’s ministers of retribution
An angel was the agent of judgment here, but worms were the ministers of vengeance. But God can dispense with superior ministers altogether. No need that He should grasp ten thousand thunders, or come riding on the wings of the wind. A grasshopper, a wire worm, a taint of air, the sporule of a microscopic mass, the bacillus of an invisible animalculae--ah! these loathly nothings are potent enough in the hand of God to abase into dust the majesty of man. Julian would fain have trampled Christianity into the dust; a devious arrow, and Julian was struck down before the face of his enemies. Napoleon insolently remarked that God he usually found on the side of the strongest battalions; softer than feathers, melting at a breath, fell on the plains of Russia the white flakes of snow, and Napoleon was a fugitive, and his grand army lay wrapped in its ghastly winding sheet. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
But the Word of God grew and multiplied.
The progress of God’s Word
This progress--growth and multiplication of God’s Word--was displayed--
I. In the men of that period.
1. The spirit of every age or movement of history is reflected in its leading characters. The Elizabethan age; the American Revolution; the age of Pericles.
2. Displayed in its leaders or exponents.
3. In its enemies. It defied Herod’s craft and power, and its success was coincident with his doom.
II. In the march of events.
1. “Happy is a land when it has no history,” is true only of the old and false conceptions of history.
2. God’s Word did not return unto Him void.
III. Is the advance of ideas.
1. Pentecost did not end, but only began, the enlargement of mind to take in God’s thoughts.
2. The minds of the disciples gained that flexibility as to method and inflexibility as to principle by which they could go “to every creature.” “All things to all men, so that I might by all means save some.” “We must obey God rather than men.”
3. The New Testament itself--especially all of it except the four Gospels--shows how the minds of men were enlarged and inspired to apply the “Word of God” to human wants; and here, in an almost literal sense, it “grew and multiplied.”
1. Thus it appears there is a sense in which the phrases, “new theology,” “advanced thought,” etc., may represent a state of things thoroughly satisfactory, upon which the Church and the world are to be congratulated.
2. It equally appears that all true progress in religious thought and action is made by men whose instrument is the Word of God, and whose power and guidance are supplied by the Holy Spirit. (J. P. Otis.)
The success of the gospel in the days of the apostles
I. The Word was opposed.
1. By the Word we may understand the gospel of God our Saviour.
2. Jewish prejudices opposed the gospel.
3. Heathenish superstitions were opposed to the Word.
4. Human learning was opposed to the Word of God. The Greeks and Romans excelled in learning; but that learning produced bad effects.
5. The devil opposed the gospel, by his influence and agency on the hearts of men.
6. In spreading the Word, the apostles had to endure many grievous afflictions, both from wicked men and evil spirits.
II. Opposition did not prevent the rapid success of the gospel; for the word grew and was multiplied.
1. The Word is fitly compared to good seed.
2. This seed was sown by the apostles in prepared hearts; and it cannot bring forth good fruit unless the heart be prepared.
3. When the Word sinks into the heart, and takes deep root, it produces holy tempers and holy actions; and when we abound in these, the Word grows in us, and our prayers go up to God with acceptance.
4. The Word is multiplied when many are converted to God by the instrumentality of converts.
III. But what were the principal causes of the extensive promulgation of the gospel in the age of the apostles?
1. The extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, conferred on the apostles, and on many in the Church, promoted the success of the gospel.
2. Another cause of the rapid spread of the gospel in those days was the burning zeal of the apostles and primitive Christians.
3. Divine power attended the Word.
4. The holy tempers, and the holy conduct of the apostles, and of the first believers, produced powerful effects on the hearts of the people.
5. The unity of the Church gave success to the Word.
6. Persecution promoted the cause of Christ, and gave success to the Word.
7. Judgments poured out on wicked men, and on persecutors, gave success to the gospel.
8. The united prayers of the Church gave success to the Word.
1. How widely different was the propagation of Christianity from that of Mohammedism! The one was by the force of truth and holy example; but the other was by the sword and acts of violence!
2. The effects of primitive times have reached us in these last days.
3. We lay no claim to apostolic gifts; but God has opened a wide door, in our day, for the spread of His gospel. (Theological Sketchbook.)
The success of the gospel
I. The Word was opposed by--
1. Jewish prejudices.
2. Heathen superstitions.
3. Human learning.
4. Kingly cruelty.
5. The devil, by his influence on the hearts of men.
II. This did not prevent its rapid success.
1. The Word is good seed.
2. This seed was sown by the apostles in prepared hearts.
3. When this seed takes root it produces holy tempers and actions.
III. The principal causes of this success.
1. The extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.
2. The burning zeal of the apostles.
3. Divine power.
4. Church unity.
6. Prayer. (Pulpit Sketches.)
The success of the gospel
I. The Word of God grew in--
5. Stimulating power.
II. The Word of God multiplied--
1. In the number of believers who embraced it.
2. In the number of preachers who proclaimed it.
3. In the extent of territory over which it spread (chap. 13:4, etc.).
III. The Word of God grew and multiplied notwithstanding--
1. The might that was arrayed against it.
2. The persecution it endured.
IV. National prosperity was imperilled, but the Word of God grew and multiplied. There is more than appears in verse 20. Tyre and Sidon as purely commercial cities were largely dependent on the purely industrial interior for the supply of merchandise, and the interior was dependent on those cities for its very sustenance. The prosperity of both was threatened by a war which would further aggravate the situation. Tyrants may frown, and people may cringe, but the Word of God is independent of both.
V. Human glory was humbled, and kingly power was destroyed, but the Word of God grew and multiplied. Read verses 23 and 24 as one, and the intended contrast is clear. “All flesh is grass … but the Word of God shall stand forever.” The Roman, German, Italian, and English potentates who oppressed the Church are in their graves, but the Word of God grows and multiplies still.
VI. The Word of God grew and multiplied by means of--
1. Prayer--the normal condition of success throughout the ages.
2. Striking interpositions. These are exceptional, but are always at hand if need be. Here we see--
3. Earnest evangelists (verses 25-13:3). (J. W. Burn.)
The invincibility of the Word
The truth of God is not only invulnerable, it is invincible. Smallest of all seeds dropped upon the gorgeous temple floor of the world’s heathendom, lo! it burst into fragments the starred mosaics, and split the monstrous idols till they fell and crushed their worshippers. The one main reason why the triumph of Christianity had from the first all the certainty of a law was this--God is in her, and therefore shall she not be moved. God shall help her, and that right early. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
The vitality of the Word
How strange, how providential has been its history! and how deep ought to be our attachment to a Book so mercifully made our inheritance! From the Churches of the primitive times it passed (as ecclesiastical tyranny grew strong, and would not brook a collateral authority) to the seclusion of the monasteries for many a long and barren century; but God was with it through the darkness, and He brought it forth in His own good time. It was like those seeds of which naturalists tell us, that lie for ages dormant and unfruitful in cells beneath the earth, but whose vitality has never been lost, and which, when brought upon the surface, shoot up with vigour into all the beauty of luxuriant vegetation. Such has been the story of the written Word. (Prof. Archer Butler.)
The enduring kingdom
We have here the kingdom of Herod and Agrippa, as a type of all earthly kingdoms, brought into contrast and collision with the enduring kingdom of Christ the Lord. In many points of view--in similarity and in opposition--the parallel is most peculiarly striking. The rise of both was unobserved. Herod’s had grown up from nothing. There had been a time when he was living as a mere hanger-on upon the court of Tiberius. He was gifted with those powers by which such men rise in such courts. As he ingratiated himself with Tiberius, the visions of greater things would begin to fill his earthly soul. He was the grandson of the great Herod; perhaps he might yet make himself a name greater than that of the prosperous founder of his house. But upon this early sunshine fell the blackness of a sudden frost, and nipped the opening bud of his greatness. He was accused of wishing the emperor dead, and so the rising Idumaean found himself in a dungeon, and not upon a throne. Then followed the tyrant’s death, and again Herod rose to favour. He was made king of Batanea and Trachonitis by Caligula; and by Claudius of Samaria and Judaea also. He was one of the few who thoroughly succeed, as it is called, in life; and he governed his kingdom with great splendour and success. He affected popularity; wished to reign in the hearts of his subjects; was a man who would stretch a point that he might do so. But all suddenly at noonday his sun sank in outer darkness. Puffed up with the applause of his subjects, he took to himself, as the great founder of his own fortunes, the honour which belonged to God only. An angel hand strikes him; and, as self-exaltation had been his master sin, so the circumstances of his death are made humiliating in their accidents as well as sudden in their issue: he was eaten by worms. His kingdom passed away; the cunning web which had been woven so successfully, the fruit of youthful enterprise, of mature experience, of long labours, of late and, as it seemed, complete success: all was torn away by the first counterblast which the Almighty sent forth to scatter it. “But the Word of God grew and multiplied.” Here is the contrast. Here is a kingdom which “fadeth not away.” With this, Herod had just come into collision; but now he himself was gone; and that despised kingdom “grew and multiplied!” The blood which he had shed to quench it, made but its flame burn brighter and spread around in wider circles. And the cause of this power of growth is suggested in its very title: it was “the Word of God.” It was not the mere creature of outside circumstance; it was not a kingdom formed by Caligula’s passing favour, augmented by the goodwill of Claudius, and built up and widened by the policy of Herod; it had a life within, which was life for all men. Now from this contrast there flow one or two necessary consequences.
I. That this kingdom of the Word of God will at last subdue all opposition. That which we have seen in this chapter of the Acts has been going on ever since the day when the angel smote Herod. It is going on round about us now.
1. It is going on in the world of nations. Thrones have been built up since, higher than King Herod’s; the nations of the earth have gone out to wonder at their greatness. Caesar and Charlemagne, Clovis and Solyman, and how many more, have heard in their day the flattering cry, “It is the voice of a god!” And they have passed away, with their dynasties and their institutions: the great world stream has flowed on, and, as its waves have swept by, they have overwhelmed what was once so great, until their very record has departed. And still the Word of God has “grown and multiplied.” The outward forms of Christ’s kingdom abide, as fresh as they were in their earliest morning. Still does baptism admit into this kingdom; still does the simple breaking of bread, and the pouring out of wine, endure amongst us. And, if possible, yet more marvellous still, its inward power over countless multitudes is just what it was of old; still they tremble under the Word spoken; still soul after soul melts in contrition, kindles in love, rejoices in exultation, waits in hope, when the words which are the words of that kingdom of the unseen Lord sound in their ears; still in their trouble men gather together, as they did in the house where Rhoda went to the door at Peter’s knocking; and still deliverances are given in answer to those supplications, and angels from heaven bear to the saints of the King the succour they need. And now what does all this foreshadow? What but that this kingdom which alone has in it this principle of life shall endure forever? that it shall break in pieces all that are against it?
2. Ah! that which is thus plain in the worldwide history of nations is just as true in the detail of all private life. There, too, are the two kingdoms: the one full of show for vain men, the other full of strength for believing men. There are great promises of success, of rising in life, of acquiring a name, of a man’s enjoying his pleasure; and there is an angel ever ready to strike at his noonday of seeming success every such worldly-minded man. There is a “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; and then whose shall this be which thou hast stored up for thyself?” And there are dungeons and chains on the other side, the following Christ in self-denial and self-sacrifice; and with these there is still, as of old, a portion in the Church’s prayers, angels’ visits, and a God and Father who sends them for our deliverance. Surely, then, it is plain which of these kingdoms will endure.
II. The blessedness of being engaged upon the side of this living power. We look into God’s Word, and we see the worthlessness of all outer things; the utter vanity of Herod’s pompous worm-eaten enthronement; the blessedness and the glory of Peter’s dungeon, of saints’ prayers, of martyrdom, of being the care of angels, and the children of the Highest; and our hearts are a little stirred, perhaps, and we have half resolved that we will seek this portion for ourselves; and then we look into the great world, and we are fooled again by the sounds of empire and greatness. Ay! and we look into our own little world; and do we not find it hard to remember and to feel how blessed it is, when God so orders it, for us to be disappointed and calumniated, and despised, and brought low, and afflicted? Do we not every one of us know how thoughts of ease and of comfort, how ambitious longings to be a little greater than we are, a little richer, a little higher in the world’s estimation--how this clings to us? Do we not every one of us know how the secret curse of the world’s measure and the world’s judgment creeps back upon us almost unawares? Do we not know how ready we are to forget in practice the blessedness of being of that little flock which shall yet possess the kingdom forever?
III. And then put these together. If there be this blessedness in being upon God’s side, and if there be this glory in bearing it truly in mind--may we not gather this further inference, that it is our wisdom to set ourselves diligently to act upon the truth that we confess? For it is only by acting upon it that we can make head against the temptation to forget it. This was the wisdom of the apostles remember how in their day, when the world threatened them, they went first unto their own, and “lifted up their voice, and said.” They made their cry to Almighty God, and then having made their prayer they went forth again into that evil world, and began directly to act for Christ; and in that union of retiring for secret prayer, to draw His strength down upon them, and then simply going forth to act in that strength, as though He was present with them, they were enabled to keep their own hearts firm and their own heads clear, amidst the dizzying and amazing circumstances of their daily life. And we must do the same, each one of us, if we would make head. There must be with us this mixture of prayer to God and of work for God. (Bp. S. Wilberforce.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 12". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25