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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Acts 12

Verses 1-25

The Martyrdom of St. James (For St. James the Apostle's Day)

Acts 12:2

I. The close of St. James' career reminds us that the Bible, as a rule, does not dwell so much upon the persons of those who worked with the Lord as upon the work which they were instrumental in bringing out. The author of the Acts of the Apostles reminds us that, in the former treatise which he wrote, he set forth all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day He was taken up; and surely this second book might be described as having for its theme all that Jesus intended to do and to teach after He was taken up. The theme of the remainder of the books of the New Testament is the life, and the work, and the personality of the eternal, the Incarnate Son of God, and so it matters not very much by whom or through whose instrumentality the work was carried on. James and the other ten Apostles appear, perhaps, every now and then, as elements and factors in that work they are not really the persons by whom that work was accomplished.

II. And then we are reminded, too, of what is really and truly the littleness of posthumous fame. What does it matter, as regards ourselves, whether in future ages our deeds or our own sufferings are known and thought of? What does it matter to any apostle today? James and John are household words, they are names which are familiar to us all, and yet, beyond just a few circumstances here and there in the books of the New Testament, we know very little whatever about them.

III. Again, the martyrdom of St. James speaks to us forcibly of the littleness of that which we call death. He passed out of this world, 'Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword'. To all outward appearances his work is done. Is that really so? His activities certainly in this life have come to an end, but his work is not over. The Apostles are the foundations of the Church of God, Jesus Christ Himself being the head corner-stone. The work which they accomplished during the years of their mortal life, being done in His name, and by His power and influence, is a work which survives those who were instrumental in its fulfilment. The work of St. Peter, and St. James, and St. John, is day by day reaping its fruit; day by day producing some active and living effect in the Church of God. Their mortal life may be over, but that which they effected during its continuance in the name and by the might of their Divine Master goes on and on.

References. XII. 2. A. Maclaren, The Wearied Christ, p. 51. XII. 3. J. M. Neale, Sermons for Some Feast Days in the Christian Year, p. 144. XII. 4. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 381; ibid. (7th Series), vol. v. p. 263. XII. 5. J. G. Rogers, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 52. Bishop Bickersteth, Sermons, p. 124. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 130. W. H. Hutchings, Sermon Sketches (2nd Series), p. 51. C. Brown, God and Man, p. 223.

St. Peter Asleep

Acts 12:6

J. M. Neale takes this text along with St. Matthew xvi. 17, 19, 'I will give unto thee the keys,' etc. He says that St. Peter 'was not spending the night in complaining that the promise made to him had not been fulfilled; no, nor yet in reminding our Lord of it, and therefore praying to be delivered. He was asleep; and very likely the only Christian in Jerusalem that was asleep that night. Peter, having committed himself to his Master's hands, knew that he had work to do for Him on the morrow which would require all his strength. Therefore he used the means which God has appointed for the refreshment of our bodies; he lay down and slept.

I read of Peter's sleeping three times; once when our Lord was in His greatest earthly glory, namely, at His transfiguration; once in His deepest humiliation, namely, at His agony; and once in his own great need. Those two first times were not sleeps which did him honour; the spirit might be willing but the flesh was weak. But the last showed Peter's faith and love. He knew that he was to die on the morrow, as James had died before him; he knew that he was shut out from all earthly hope; he knew that the little church of Jerusalem needed him; but he left everything in Christ's hands, knowing that He would keep that which was committed unto Him. He had seen His Master asleep in the midst of great fear and danger, and now He followed His example. If our Lord had said, "Simon, sleepest thou?" there would have been no upbraiding in His words now. So you see, we may sometimes do good service to God, and be working out our own salvation, even while we sleep.'

Sermons in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iv. p. 78.

Acts 12:6

Compare Macaulay's description of the Marquis of Argyle ( History of England, chap. v.): 'So effectively had religious faith and hope, co-operating with natural courage and equanimity, composed his spirits, that, on the very day on which he was to die... he lay down, to take a short slumber, in order that his body and mind might be in full vigour when he should mount the scaffold. At this time, one of the Lords of Council came to the Castle with a message from his brethren, and demanded admittance to the Earl. It was answered that the Earl was asleep. The Privy Councillor thought that this was a subterfuge, and insisted on entering. The door of the cell was softly opened; and there lay Argyle on the bed, sleeping, in his irons, the placid sleep of infancy.'

Reference. XII. 6. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iv. p. 79.

St. Peter's Deliverance (For St. Peter's Day)

Acts 12:7

The early Church at this time seemed to be in a very bad way. Herod, son of the Herod who slew the Innocents, vexed the Church, and it might have been wellnigh blotted out if it had not been Divine. Just as the old Herod, slaying the Innocents, would have slain the Saviour, so this Herod would have blotted put the early Church. He took James, the brother of John, and slew him with the sword. He had got Peter in the darkest, deepest dungeon, and he was quite determined that he should not escape. The Apostle was chained between two soldiers; four quaternions, i.e. sixteen more soldiers, kept the prison, besides the keepers at the gate. All was made safe and sure, as sure as man could make it. The time had nearly come when Peter was to be brought out and slain. Nothing seemed more certain than that Peter was to be murdered in the morning. But 'man proposes and God disposes'.

I. Ready to Die. What was Peter doing? Reposing in the arms of God. He was fast asleep between the two soldiers. Was not his mind disturbed? No, not in the least. It is one of those beautiful pictures that the Scriptures give us. He was loved of God, and 'so He giveth His beloved sleep'. We cannot help remembering what happened on the lake the day when Christ was asleep. Peter woke Him up and said, 'Master, carest Thou not that we perish?' What a change! He was afraid of death then; here his death was imminent but all fear had gone. Peter was asleep. It is well for us just to pause and wonder whether our religion will stand us as well as that when our time comes. Once Peter was afraid of death and called it 'perishing,' now he cares not in the least. He has learned to know and trust the Saviour. That is it. Peter or the prison is a different man from Peter in the boat. It is a man whose manhood has come to the 'stature of the fulness of Christ'. He knows in whom he has believed, and he is quite persuaded that it is all well. And so he sleeps.

II. Praying Friends. Well now, we have seen what Peter was doing. What were Peter's friends doing? Their very best. They were praying. They had met together, as the beautiful little bit of Scripture tells us, in a house to pray earnestly for Peter. If you look in the margin you see how instantly, how earnestly they were pouring out prayer to God to save Peter. He was so much to them then. James was just slain, and Herod was going to slay Peter. What would become of the early Church? Was it a wise thing, do you think, to stay at home and pray? Could not they have done something better than pray? What could they do? Could they not have made a collection and sent a bribe to the guards? No; no bribe that they could offer would be accepted by the guards, for if the guards let him out their lives would be demanded. What was the law? If a prisoner escaped they must suffer for it. You cannot bribe men with money against their lives. What could they do? They could pray. And they did. There are some circumstances that we cannot help. There are certain difficulties that we cannot forestall. There are certain people that we cannot save. What are we to do? If they prayed Peter's chains off, you can pray like them. See the forces. Herod, the soldiers, the prison, the chains, the locks, the warders that is the force on the one side. And the force on the other? The poor little Church kneeling down in a room to pray, 'Lord, deliver him! Lord, deliver him! have mercy upon us and help us!' See the two forces, earth's force on the one side, and heaven's on the other.

III. Peter's Deliverance. Weil then, of course you know the story well, the chains fell off and Peter was delivered. The angel of the Lord came just as the angel went into the lions' den and shut the mouths of the lions and awoke Peter at midnight, and as he got up the chains fell off his hands. Peter himself was amazed. He thought he saw a vision and was walking in his sleep. But the first ward was passed, and then the second ward was passed, and then the great gate of the prison opened with a clang of its own accord, and they passed out into the open air. Then Peter knew that it was not a dream. With the fresh air about him the fancies had gone, the free air of God had blown away the dream, and Peter knew of a surety that the Lord had sent His angel and delivered him out of the expectation of the Jews. Peter then went to the prayer meeting. I do not think they were astonished at his deliverance, for I am sure they prayed in faith, and they knew prayer could overcome all things. But what did astonish them was the way his deliverance was accomplished. They did not expect him to appear while they were praying. But the triumph was complete. Bolts, bars, wards, chains, soldiers, keepers, dungeons, were overcome; Peter was free.

The Angel and the Sandals

Acts 12:8

There is a vividness of detail about this story which assures us that facts are being recorded. No imagination, however lively, could have conceived the scene that is presented here. These words are rich in spiritual suggestion.

I. In the first place, they are the angel's argument that what had happened was actually true. Not by remarkable and striking proofs, nor by the doing of anything uncommon; not in such ways was Peter made to feel that all that had happened to him was reality. It was by doing an ordinary deed girding his cloak and putting on his shoes but doing it now in the light the angel brought, a light that 'never was on land or sea'. That angel-argument with Peter is one that ought to be powerful with us all. There is no such proof that the new light is real as just the use of it for common deeds.

II. Then once our text suggests what I might call the Divine economy of power. 'Gird thyself, do not expect me to do it; what thou canst do for thyself, that thou must do.' We see this same economy of power when we study the miracles of Jesus Christ. It is an added evidence for Jesus' miracles that the miraculous is kept down to the lowest point. He makes the wine, but will not fetch the water; it is in the power of the servants to do that. Do you see the meaning of that Divine procedure? It makes us fellow-workers with the Highest. Peter needed the angel for his rescue, but for the rescue the angel needed Peter.

III. Lastly, the text suggests to me a certain leisureliness in God's procedure. We know the kind of man that Peter was, and how ardent and impulsive was his nature. Alive to his danger and to his opportunity, can you wonder if Peter clean forgot his sandals? And then the angel, calm amid that tumult, with a calmness born of fellowship with God, said: 'Gird thyself and put thy sandals on'. When Peter came to look back upon it all, he would see the meaning of the angel's conduct, and learn the lesson (which is so hard to learn) that there is no hurry in the plans of God.

G. H. Morrison, The Wings of the Morning, p. 228.

Reference. XII. 9. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. ix. No. 526.

The Departing of the Angel

Acts 12:10

Behold the angel of the Lord came upon Peter, and a light shined in the prison. And the angel touched Peter, and the chains fell off him. And the angel led him out from ward to ward. And the iron gate swung back upon its hinges, and Peter was out under the stare again. And the angel and Peter passed on through one street, and forthwith the angel departed from him. Now, do you see why the angel left the disciple then? I think it is not difficult to see why. The angel's work was done; that is the point There was the presence of Christ for Simon Peter now; there was God in His eternal law and love; but there was no need for the angel any more.

I. I wonder if you grasp, then, what I should venture to call the helpful doctrine of the departing angel? It means that in extraordinary difficulties we may reasonably look for extraordinary help. But when the clamant need goes, so does the angel. The angel departs, but the love of Christ remains.

II. I want then to take that suggestion and bring it to bear on various phases of life. (1) And first we shall think of Israel in the wilderness. Out of the dungeon and prison-house of Egypt they were carried by the constraint of irresistible power. But then, when they reached Canaan, and had, as it were, passed through one street of it, forthwith the angel departed from them. Jehovah was with them still in love and law; the mystical presence of Jesus was their shield. (2) Or we might think of the history of the Christian Church in this light. We might compare Pentecost with after centuries. There was a radiance and a spiritual glory about Pentecost that remind us at once of Peter and the angel. And then the Church passed on through one street mystical, and forthwith the angel departed from them. We are out in the streets now, under the stars of heaven; miraculous ministries would simply ruin our manhood. Now the Lord is our Shepherd and our stay: the grace of an abiding Christ suffices. (3) I think, too, that we become conscious of this truth in the unfolding of our individual life. If at every turn the angel met us, and the vision of a dream enchanted us, we should lose heart and nerve and power for the struggle and be like the lotus-eaters in ignoble quietude. The angel may go, but duty still remains. (4) I think we may swing this thought like a lamp over the dark chamber of the grave. It may be there is some one here who, looking backward, remembers an angel presence. You thought it was going to be a lifelong comradeship; you would travel on through all life's streets together. But you only passed on through one street, and forthwith the angel departed from you. Remember the doctrine of the departing angel, when the heart is empty and the grave is full.

G. H. Morrison, Sun-Rise: Addresses from a City Pulpit, p. 74.

References. XII. 10. J. M. Neale, Sermons for Some Feast Days in the Christian Year, p. 153. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 121. XII. 11. W. G. Rutherford, The Key of Knowledge, p. 126.

Honour Retrieved

Acts 12:12

Not the least interesting way of studying the Bible, as you may have found, is to fix upon one of its many minor characters, and trace out, in ordered detail, all that can be known about him. Often it is surprising that so much should be ascertainable, and that so adequate a picture can be drawn of his life and personality. Let us try to write the life, in outline at all events, of John whose surname was Mark; and we shall discover, I think, that there are facts in this life which are also side-lights on our own.

Our information about Mark, limited as it is, falls into four distinct parts, each covering years, and each contributing a suggestion. If we simply follow the narrative, in the chronological order of its divisions, we get a full impression of what the man was in himself, and what his career means for us. Look then at the chapters of the story.

I. First, Mark's home. This is chapter one in every biography; and about Mark's birthplace and early years also we have intelligence enough to make it the first section of our study. The passage where our text occurs tells us all we know. He was the son of a Christian woman in Jerusalem, whose name was Mary. By the time we are dealing with she may have been a widow, since we hear not a word about the father; and it is possible she was a person of substance, for her house in the city was large enough to contain quite an assemblage of believers. Indeed, she appears to have occupied rather an outstanding position in the little Christian society. The atmosphere of her house, too, must have been charged with warm and attractive Christian faith, for we find the disciples gathered there for prayer always a good sign while after his escape from prison St. Peter went straight to her door as a matter of course, and was received familiarly, as an old friend. In short, we have presented to us, in one of those natural vignettes of which the Bible is full, the picture of a Christian family of the best type.

Well, no one starts in life with so immense an advantage as the man who had been bred in a Christian home. Nothing else that could be named or thought of would have given him a send-off like that. For one thing, all the chances are in favour of his becoming a Christian himself, as Mark did. I do not say that redeeming grace is hereditary, or that religion can be handed down like family jewels from father to son; but I do say that on this subject there are wonderful promises in the Gospel, and that parents whose dedication of their children to God in baptism is a reality, and who trustfully fulfil their vows of religious nurture, are justified in expecting their sons and daughters to grow up in Christ.

II. Mark's hour of desertion. Here then you have an instance of what happens now and then the sudden breakdown of a Christian man, with all its bitter disappointment for his friends and its grief for his Divine Master. I am not going to dwell on its shame or guilt; let me rather point out one or two of its consequences. (a) For example, it brings an interruption of usefulness. Do you see how instantly Mark drop out of the story of Acts? Not a syllable about him for years after; the main stream of events pushes him aside. That one surrender to weakness robbed him of promotion, in soldier's phrase, and reduced him to the ranks. So the lesson meets us squarely that success in God's work is endangered terribly, and may be lost outright, by some conscious indulgence of our lower nature. The sin may cripple us for life. The memory of failure may haunt us to the end, with stains so deep upon the soul that years' repentance cannot wash it out. Think of that when the voice of the tempter sounds pleasantly. Think of the power for God and for righteousness you will lose if you consent. 'Ah! me,' says one of the best of men, 'ah! me, for the saints of God that are pinioned and powerless, because of some secret compact with the enemy.' Such things we do in the stupor or frenzy of passion, and wake to find they have robbed us of our strength.

(b) Then, over and beyond that, Mark's weakness caused a quarrel between two good men. On the one side was Barnabas, eager that his nephew should have a second chance, on the other Paul maintaining as firmly that the runaway was untrustworthy. So the two friends parted in anger all because of Mark's cowardice or slackness or both.

(c) Moreover, for the time being at least, Mark lost the regard of his fellow-Christians. The feeling of distrust, to which St. Paul gave expression, seems to have spread further. From a passage in an Epistle written twelve years later we learn that in the Church at Colosse, for example, there was still some reluctance to give Mark a cordial welcome. Apparently they too had heard of that old fault, ana the evil odour of it still hung about him.

III. Thirdly, note Mark victorious and restored. Our information for this chapter in the story comes from one of the last letters ascribed to St Paul, the second Epistle to Timothy. There, not far from the end, we read: 'Only Luke is with me: take Mark, and bring him with thee, for he is profitable to me for the ministry'. Well, there are few pleasanter things in the New Testament than this elevation of Mark right to a place in what you may call the personal body-guard of St. Paul. It is delightful, as well as touching, to see the lonely old man, with death not far off, full once more of desire for Mark's affectionate care. We like the story to end so; nothing else would have been worthy of them both. For a time they had 'stood apart, like cliffs that had been rent asunder'; but now all that was cast behind them and forgotten, and the bonds of friendship knit and sealed afresh.

So that it is possible to efface a blemished past. It is possible to expiate early faults, and regain what has been lost. Let no man think that old days and old sins must hang a dead-weight on his neck and cripple him hopelessly for ever. The burden can be flung off in God's name, by faith and penitence, and a new start taken. There is forgiveness with God. There is power with Him to turn the shadow of death into the morning; to restore the soul; to cast our failures and our trespass into the depths of the sea. Christ, the crucified, comes to us with the message that grace can undo the past, and lift off the old load, and bring back the fruitless years. The old sin can be blotted out of sight; and more, the weakness that led to the sin can be overcome.

H. R. Mackintosh, Life on God's Plan, p. 59.

References. XII. 12. J. Keble, Sermons for the Saints' Days, p. 214. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxi. No. 1247. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 223; ibid. (5th Series), vol. vii. p. 3. XII. 12-25. Ibid. vol. vi. p. 81. XII. 13. J. W. Burgon, Servants of Scripture, p. 88.

Acts 12:17 ; Acts 28:30-31

Both Peter and Paul drop out of Acts suddenly. The reader would have liked to know what became of them, but Luke apparently has no interest in recording the close of their career. Peter departed and went into another place. Paul taught for two years in Rome, no man forbidding him. And that is all. Evidently Luke's concern with both Apostles was not biographical. His aim was to depict the expansion of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, and with the record of that his work is done. Hence, while we learn incidentally of the death of Herod the persecutor, there is not a syllable about the death of Peter or of Paul within his pages. As Harnack observes, in a recent essay on Die Zeitangaben in der Apostelgeschichte des Lukas (p. 23), 'Soli deo gloria! What Luke is occupied with is not Peter or Paul, but the Divine process of impenitence on the part of the Jews and of Gospel-preaching to the Gentiles throughout Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, and then Rome, as well as the receptivity wrought by God among the Gentiles for this message. Αὐτοὶ καὶ ἀκούσονται .'When Luke wrote, they were hearing in still greater numbers throughout the empire. The earlier workmen had been buried, but God's work was going on.

The glad cadence of the last four words of Acts ( μετὰ πὰσης παῤῥησίας ἀκωλύτως ) and the dramatic position of the closing adverb justify Harnack's remarks, in another essay ( Lukas der Arzt, p. 116, Eng. trans, pp. 163 f.), upon the undaunted optimism of the book. 'What a trumpet-note of joy and courage and victory resounds from the first page to the last of the Lucan history! Vexilla regis prodeunt! We listen in vain for this note in the other Evangelists. They are all burdened with a far more heavy load of cares, ideas, and doctrines than this Greek enthusiast of Christ, who strides forward bravely surmounting every difficulty.' The full significance of ἀκωλύτως ; is seen in the light of a passage like Luke 11:52 , where the writer has substituted ἐκωλύσατε for Matthew's οὐκ ἀφίετε in Christ's word upon the scribes, or υομίκοι , who prevented other people from entering the kingdom.

James Moffatt.

References. XII. 17. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 277. XII. 21. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. viii. p. 301.

Acts 12:22

What illuminations and conflagrations here kindled themselves, as if new heavenly suns had risen, which proved only to be tar-barrels, and terrestrial locks of straw! Profane princesses cried out, 'One God, one Farinelli!' and whither now have they and Farinelli danced?

Carlyle, Essay on Sir Walter Scott.

References. XII. 24. J. B. Meharry, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 329. XII. 25. F. D. Maurice, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 185. XIII. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 33; ibid. vol. v. p. 30; ibid. vol. vi. pp. 163, 373.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Acts 12". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/acts-12.html. 1910.