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Bible Commentaries

MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Acts 12

Verse 2

Acts

THE MARTYRDOM OF JAMES

Act_12:2 .

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. James, as we know, was one of the group of the Apostles who were in especially close connection with Jesus Christ. He is associated in the Gospels with Peter and his brother John, and is always named before John, as if he were the more important of the two, by reason of age or of other circumstances unknown to us. But yet we know next to nothing about him. In the Acts of the Apostles he is a mere lay figure; his name is only mentioned in the catalogue at the beginning, and here again in the brief notice of his death. The reticent and merely incidental character of the notice of his martyrdom is sufficiently remarkable. I think the lessons of the fact, and of the, I was going to say, 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 difference is to be sought for in another direction altogether. 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 chief 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. This book is not the ‘Acts of the Apostles,’ but it is the Acts of Jesus Christ.

I might suggest, too, in like manner, that there is another contrast which I have not included in my four, between the scale on which the death of Jesus Christ is told by Luke, and that on which this death is narrated. 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? It is little needful that we should have poetical, emotional, picturesque descriptions of martyrdoms and the like in a book which is altogether devoted to tracking the footsteps of Christ in history; and which regards men as nothing more than the successive instruments of His purpose, and the depositories of His grace.

Another lesson which we may draw from the reticence in the case of the Apostle, and the expansiveness in the case of the protomartyr, is that of a wise indifference to the utterly insignificant accident of posthumous memory or oblivion of us and our deeds and sufferings. 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. To us it frowns like a black cliff blocking the upper end of our valley, but there is a path round its base, and though the throat of the pass be narrow, it has room for us to get through and up to the sunny uplands beyond. 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: the death of one of that pair of friends; the miracle that was wrought for the deliverance of the other from death. Why could not the parts have been exchanged, or why could not the miraculous hand that was stretched out to save the one fisherman of Bethsaida have been put forth to save the other? 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 some struck down when anything but ready; and others left for the blessing of mankind many, many a day after they were far fitter for heaven than thousands that, we hope, have gone there.

So all these little explanations do not go down to the bottom of the matter, and we are obliged just to leave the whole question in the loving Hands that hold the keys of life and death for us all. 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 out of the ‘hand of Herod and from all the expectation of 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.

The one was as dear to the Christ as the other-ay, and the one was as surely, and more blessedly, delivered ‘from the mouth of the lion’ as the other was, though the one seemed to be dragged from his teeth, and the other seemed to be crushed by his powerful jaws. James escaped from Herod when Herod slew him but 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, also, that if thus, to two equally beloved, there were dealt out these two different fates, it must be because that evil, which, as I said, is not so great as it looks, is also not so bitter as it tastes, and there is no real evil, for the loving heart, in the stroke that breaks its bands and knits it to Jesus Christ. If we are Christians, the deepest desire of our souls is fuller communion with our Lord. We realise that, in some stunted and scanty measure, by life; but oh! is it not strange that we should shrink from that change which will enable us to realise it fully and eternally? 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. They seem to have together pursued their humble trade of fishermen in the little fishing village of Bethsaida, apparently as working partners with their father Zebedee. They were not divided by discipleship, as was the sad fate of many a brother delivered by a brother to death. If we may attach any weight to the suggestion that the expression in John’s narrative, ‘He first findeth his own brother, Simon,’ implies that ‘the other disciple’ did the same by his brother, James was brought to Jesus by John, and new tenderness and strength thereby given to their affection. They were closely associated in their Apostleship, and were together the companions of Jesus in the chief incidents of His life. They were afterwards united in the leadership of the Church. By death they were separated very 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 or 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? We may look forward with the assurance that ‘God keeps a niche in heaven to hide our idols’; and ‘albeit He breaks them to our face,’ yet shall we find them again, like Memnon’s statue, vocal in the rising sunshine of the heavens.

The brothers, so closely knit, so soon parted, so long separated, were at last reunited. Even to us here, with the chronology of earth still ours, the few years between the early martyrdom of James and the death of the centenarian John seem but a span. The lapse of the centuries that have rolled away since then makes the difference of the dates of the two deaths seem very small, even to us. What a mere nothing it will have looked to them, joined together once more before God!

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.

And so our dreams get disappointed, and their disappointment is often the road to their fulfilment, for Jesus Christ was answering James’ 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. James said, when he did not know what he meant, and the vow was noble though it was ignorant, ‘we can drink of the cup that Thou drinkest.’ And all honour to him! he stuck to his vow; and when the cup was proffered to him he manfully, and like a Christian, took it and drank it to the dregs; and, I suppose, went silently to his grave. But the change between his ardent anticipations and his calm resignation, and between his foolish dream and the stern reality, may well teach us that, whether our wishes he fulfilled or disappointed, they all need to be purified, and that the disappointment of them on earth is often God’s way of fulfilling them for us in higher fashion than we dreamed or asked.

So, brethren, let us leave for ourselves, and for all dear ones, that question of living or dying, to His decision. Only let us be sure that whether our lives be long like John’s, or short like James’, ‘living or dying we are the Lord’s.’ And then, whatever be the length of life or the manner of death, both will bring us the fulfilment of our highest wishes, and will lead us to His side at whose right hand all those shall sit who have loved Him here, and, though long parted, shall be reunited in common enjoyment of the pleasures for evermore which bloom unfading there. ‘And so shall we ever be with the Lord.’

Verse 5

Acts

PETER’S DELIVERANCE FROM PRISON

Act_12:5

The narrative of Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison is full of little vivid touches which can only have come from himself. The whole tone of it reminds us of the Gospel according to St. Mark, which is in like manner stamped with peculiar minuteness and abundance of detail. One remembers that at a late period in the life of the Apostle Paul, Mark and Luke were together with him; and no doubt in those days in Rome, Mark, who had been Peter’s special companion and is called by one of the old Christian writers his ‘interpreter,’ was busy in telling Luke the details about Peter which appear in the first part of this Book of the Acts.

The whole story seems to me to be full of instruction as well as of picturesque detail; and I desire to bring out the various lessons which appear to me to lie in it.

I. The first of them is this: the strength of the helpless.

Look at that eloquent ‘but’ in the verse that I have taken as a starting-point: ‘Peter therefore was kept in prison, but prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him.’ There is another similarly eloquent ‘but’ at the end of the chapter:

‘Herod . . . was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost, but the Word of God grew and multiplied.’ Here you get, on the one hand, all the pompous and elaborate preparations-’four quaternions of soldiers’- four times four is sixteen-sixteen soldiers, two chains, three gates with guards at each of them, Herod’s grim determination, the people’s malicious expectation of having an execution as a pleasant sensation with which to wind up the Passover Feast. And what had the handful of Christian people? Well, they had prayer; and they had Jesus Christ. That was all, and that is more than enough. How ridiculous all the preparation looks when you let the light of that great ‘but’ in upon it! Prayer, earnest prayer, ‘was made of the Church unto God for him.’ And evidently, from the place in which that fact is stated, it is intended that we should say to ourselves that it was because prayer was made for him that what came to pass did come to pass. It is not jerked out as an unconnected incident; it is set in a logical sequence. ‘Prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him’ -and so when Herod would have brought him forth, behold, the angel of the Lord came, and the light shined into the prison. It is the same sequence of thought that occurs in that grand theophany in the eighteenth Psalm, ‘My cry entered into His ears; then the earth shook and trembled’; and there came all the magnificence of the thunderstorm and the earthquake and the divine manifestation; and this was the purpose of it all-’He sent from above, He took me, He drew me out of many waters.’ The whole energy of the divine nature is set in motion and comes swooping down from highest heaven to the trembling earth. And of that fact the one end is one poor man’s cry, and the other end is his deliverance. The moving spring of the divine manifestation was an individual’s prayer; the aim of it was the individual’s deliverance. A little water is put into a hydraulic ram at the right place, and the outcome is the lifting of tons. So the helpless men who could only pray are stronger than Herod and his quaternions and his chains and his gates. ‘Prayer was made,’ therefore all that happened was brought to pass, and Peter was delivered.

Peter’s companion, James, was killed off, as we read in a verse or two before. Did not the Church pray for him? Surely they did. Why was their prayer not answered, then? God has not any step-children. James was as dear to God as Peter was. One prayer was answered; was the other left unanswered? It was the divine purpose that Peter, being prayed for, should be delivered; and we may reverently say that, if there had not been the many in Mary’s house praying, there would have been no angel in Peter’s cell.

So here are revealed the strength of the weak, the armour of the unarmed, the defence of the defenceless. If the Christian Church in its times of persecution and affliction had kept itself to the one weapon that is allowed it, it would have been more conspicuously victorious. And if we, in our individual lives-where, indeed, we have to do something else besides pray-would remember the lesson of that eloquent ‘but,’ we should be less frequently brought to perplexity and reduced to something bordering on despair. So my first lesson is the strength of the weak.

II. My next is the delay of deliverance.

Peter had been in prison for some time before the Passover, and the praying had been going on all the while, and there was no answer. Day after day ‘of the unleavened bread’ and of the festival was slipping away. The last night had come; ‘and the same night’ the light shone, and the angel appeared. Why did Jesus Christ not hear the cry of these poor suppliants sooner? For their sakes; for Peter’s sake; for our sakes; for His own sake. For the eventual intervention, at the very last moment, and yet at a sufficiently early moment, tested faith. And look how beautifully all bore the test. The Apostle who was to be killed to-morrow is lying quietly sleeping in his cell. Not a very comfortable pillow he had to lay his head upon, with a chain on each arm and a legionary on each side of him. But he slept; and whilst he was asleep Christ was awake, and the brethren were awake. Their faith was tested, and it stood the test, and thereby was strengthened. And Peter’s patience and faith, being tested in like manner and in like manner standing the test, were deepened and confirmed. Depend upon it, he was a better man all his days, because he had been brought close up to Death and looked it in the fleshless eye-sockets, unwinking and unterrified. And I dare say if, long after, he had been asked, ‘Would you not have liked to have escaped those two or three days of suspense, and to have been let go at an earlier moment?’ he would have said, ‘Not for worlds! For I learned in those days that my Lord’s time is the best. I learned patience’-a lesson which Peter especially needed-’and I learned trust.’

Do you remember another incident, singularly parallel in essence, though entirely unlike in circumstances, to this one? The two weeping sisters at Bethany send their messenger across the Jordan, grudging every moment that he takes to travel to the far-off spot where Jesus is. The message sent is only this: ‘He whom Thou lovest is sick.’ What an infinite trust in Christ’s heart that form of the message showed! They would not say ‘Come!’; they would not ask Him to do anything; they did not think that to do so was needful: they were quite sure that what He would do would be right.

And how was the message received? ‘Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus.’ Well, did that not make Him hurry as fast as He could to the bedside? No; it rooted Him to the spot. ‘He abode, therefore’- because He loved them-’two days still in the same place where He was,’ to give him plenty of time to die, and the sisters plenty of time to test their confidence in Him. Their confidence does not seem to have altogether stood the test. ‘Lord, if Thou hadst been here my brother had not died.’ ‘And why wast Thou not here?’ is implied. Christ’s time was the best time. It was better to get a dead brother back to their arms and to their house than that they should not have lost him for those dreary four days. So delay tests faith, and makes the deliverance, when it comes, not only the sweeter, but the more conspicuously divine. So, brother, ‘men ought always to pray, and not to faint’-always to trust that ‘the Lord will help them, and that right early.’

III. The next lesson that I would suggest is the leisureliness of the deliverance.

A prisoner escaping might be glad to make a bolt for it, dressed or undressed, anyhow. But when the angel comes into the cell, and the light shines, look how slowly and, as I say, leisurely, he goes about it. ‘Put on thy shoes.’ He had taken them off, with his girdle and his upper garment, that he might lie the less uncomfortably. ‘Put on thy shoes; lace them; make them all right. Never mind about these two legionaries; they will not wake. Gird thyself; tighten thy girdle. Put on thy garment. Do not be afraid. Do not be in a hurry; there is plenty of time. Now, are you ready? Come!’ It would have been quite as easy for the angel to have whisked him out of the cell and put him down at Mary’s door; but that was not to be the way. Peter was led past all the obstacles-’the first ward,’ and the soldiers at it; ‘the second ward,’ and the soldiers at it; ‘and the third gate that leads into the city,’ which was no doubt bolted and barred. There was a leisurely procession through the prison.

Why? Because Omnipotence is never in a hurry, and God, not only in His judgments but in His mercies, very often works slowly, as becomes His majesty. ‘Ye shall not go out with haste; nor go by flight, for the Lord will go before you; and the God of Israel shall be your rereward.’ We are impatient, and hurry our work over; God works slowly; for He works certainly. That is the law of the divine working in all regions; and we have to regulate the pace of our eager expectation so as to fall in with the slow, solemn march of the divine purposes, both in regard to our individual salvation and the providences that affect us individually, and in regard to the world’s deliverance from the world’s evils. ‘An inheritance may be gotten hastily in the beginning, but the end thereof shall not be blessed.’ ‘He that believeth shall not make haste.’

IV. We see here, too, the delivered prisoner left to act for himself as soon as possible.

As long as the angel was with Peter, he was dazed and amazed. He did not know-and small blame to him-whether he was sleeping or waking; but he gets through the gates, and out into the empty street, glimmering in the morning twilight, and the angel disappears, and the slumbering city is lying around him. When he is left to himself, he comes to himself. He could not have passed the wards without a miracle, but he can find his way to Mary’s house without one. He needed the angel to bring him as far as the gate and down into the street, but he did not need him any longer. So the angel vanished into the morning light, and then he felt himself, and steadied himself, when responsibility came to him. That is the thing to sober a man. So he stood in the middle of the unpeopled street, and ‘he considered the thing,’ and found in his own wits sufficient guidance, so that he did not miss the angel. He said to himself, ‘I will go to Mary’s house.’ Probably he did not know that there were any praying there, but it was near, and it was, no doubt, convenient in other respects that we do not know of. The economy of miraculous power is a remarkable feature in Scriptural miracles. God never does anything for us that we could do for ourselves. Not but that our doing for ourselves is, in a deeper sense, His working on us and in us, but He desires us to take the share that belongs to us in completing the deliverance which must begin by supernatural intervention of a Mightier than the angel, even the Lord of angels.

And so this little picture of the angel leading Peter through the prison, and then leaving him to his own common sense and courage as soon as he came out into the street, is just a practical illustration of the great text, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you.’

Verse 7

Acts

THE ANGEL’S TOUCH

Act_12:7 , Act_12:23 .

The same heavenly agent performs the same action on Peter and on Herod. To the one, his touch brings freedom and the dropping off of his chains; to the other it brings gnawing agonies and a horrible death. These twofold effects of one cause open out wide and solemn thoughts, on which it is well to look.

I. The one touch has a twofold effect.

So it is always when God’s angels come, or God Himself lays His hand on men. Every manifestation of the divine power, every revelation of the divine presence, all our lives’ experiences, are charged with the solemn possibility of bringing us one or other of two directly opposite results. They all offer us an alternative, a solemn ‘either -or.’

The Gospel too comes charged with that double possibility, and is the intensest and most fateful example of the dual effect of all God’s messages and dealings. Just as the ark maimed Dagon and decimated the Philistine cities and slew Uzzah, but brought blessing and prosperity to the house of Obed-edom, just as the same pillar was light to Israel all the night long, but cloud and darkness to the Egyptians, so is Christ set ‘for the fall of’ some and ‘for the rising of’ others amidst the ‘many in Israel,’ and His Gospel is either ‘the savour of life unto life or of death unto death,’ but in both cases is in itself ‘unto God,’ one and the same ‘sweet savour in Christ.’

II. These twofold effects are parts of one plan and purpose.

Peter’s liberation and Herod’s death tended in the same direction-to strengthen and conserve the infant Church, and thus to prepare the way for the conquering march of the Gospel. And so it is in all God’s self-revelations and manifested energies, whatever may be their effects. They come from one source and one motive, they are fundamentally the operations of one changeless Agent, and, as they are one in origin and character, so they are one in purpose. We are not to separate them into distinct classes and ascribe them to different elements in the divine nature, setting down this as the work of Love and that as the outcome of Wrath, or regarding the acts of deliverance as due to one part of that great whole and the acts of destruction as due to another part of it. The angel was the same, and his celestial fingers were moved by the same calm, celestial will when he smote Peter into liberty and life, and Herod to death.

God changes His ways, but not His heart. He changes His acts, but not His purposes. Opposite methods conduce to one end, as winter storms and June sunshine equally tend to the yellowed harvest.

III. The character of the effects depends on the men who are touched.

As is the man, so is the effect of the angel’s touch. It could only bring blessing to the one who was the friend of the angel’s Lord, and it could bring only death to the other, who was His enemy. It could do nothing to the Apostle but cause his chains to drop from his wrists, nor anything to the vainglorious king but bring loathsome death.

This, too, is a universal truth. It is we ourselves who settle what God’s words and acts will be to us. The trite proverb, ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison,’ is true in the highest regions. It is eminently, blessedly or tragically true in our relation to the Gospel, wherein all God’s self-revelation reaches its climax, wherein ‘the arm of the Lord’ is put forth in its most blessed energy, wherein is laid on each of us the touch, tender and more charged with blessing than that of the angel who smote the calmly sleeping Apostle. That Gospel may either be to us the means of freeing us from our chains, and leading us out of our prison-house into sunshine and security, or be the fatal occasion of condemnation and death. Which it shall be depends on ourselves. Which shall I make it for myself?

Verse 11

Acts

‘SOBER CERTAINTY’

Act_12:11 .

Where did Luke get his information of Peter’s thoughts in that hour? This verse sounds like first-hand knowledge. Not impossibly John Mark may have been his informant, for we know that both were in Rome together at a later period. In any case, it is clear that, through whatever channels this piece of minute knowledge reached Luke, it must have come originally from Peter himself. And what a touch of naturalness and evident truth it is! No wonder that the Apostle was half dazed as he came from his dungeon, through the prison corridors and out into the street. To be wakened by an angel, and to have such following experiences, would amaze most men.

I. The bewilderment of the released captive.

God’s mercies often come suddenly, and with a rush and a completeness that outrun our expectations and our power of immediate comprehension. And sometimes He sends us sorrows in such battalions and so overwhelming that we are dazed for the moment. A Psalmist touched a deep experience when he sang, ‘When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like unto them that dream.’

The angel has to be gone before we are sure that he was really here. The tumult of emotion in an experience needs to be calmed down before we understand the experience. Reflection discovers more of heaven and of God in the great moments of our lives than was visible to us while we were living through them,

There is one region in which this is especially true-that of the religious life. There sometimes attend its beginnings in a soul a certain excitement and perturbation which disable from calm realising of the greatness of the change which has passed. And it is well when that excitement is quieted down and succeeded by meditative reflection on the treasures that have been poured into the lap, almost as in the dark. No man understands what he has received when he first receives Christ and Christ’s gifts. It occupies a lifetime to take possession of that which we possess from the first in Him, and the oldest saint is as far from full possession of the unspeakable and infinite ‘gift of God,’ as the babes in Christ are.

But, looking more generally at this characteristic of not rightly understanding the great epochs of our lives till they are past, we may note that, while in part it is inevitable and natural, there is an element of fault in it. If we lived in closer fellowship with God, we should live in an atmosphere of continual calm, and nothing, either sorrowful or joyful, would be able so to sweep us off our feet that we should be bewildered by it. Astonishment would never so fill our souls as that we could not rightly appraise events, nor should we need any time, even in the thick of the most wonderful experiences, to ‘come to’ ourselves and discern the angel.

But if it be so that our lives disclose their meanings best, when we look back on them, how much of the understanding of them, and the drawing of all its sweetness out of each event in them, is entrusted to memory! And how negligent of a great means of happiness and strength we are, if we do not often muse on ‘all the way by which God the Lord has led us these many years in the wilderness’! It is needful for Christian progress to ‘forget the things that are behind,’ and not to let them limit our expectations nor prescribe our methods, but it is quite as needful to remember our past, or rather God’s past with us, in order to confirm our grateful faith and enlarge our boundless hope.

II. The disappearance of the angel.

Why did he leave Peter standing there, half dazed and with his deliverance incomplete? He ‘led him through one street’ only, and ‘straightway departed from him.’ The Apostle delivered by miracle has now to use his brains. One distinguishing characteristic of New Testament miracles is their economy of miraculous power. Jesus raised Lazarus, for He alone could do that, but other hands must ‘loose him and let him go,’ He gave life to Jairus’s little daughter, but He bid others ‘give her something to eat’ God does nothing for us that we can do for ourselves. That economy was valuable as a preservative of the Apostles from the possible danger of expecting or relying on miracles, and as stirring them to use their own energies. Reliance on divine power should not lead us to neglect ordinary means. Alike in the natural and in the spiritual life we have to do our part, and to be sure that God will do His.

III. The symbol here of a greater deliverance.

Fancy may legitimately employ this story as setting forth for us under a lovely image the facts of Christian death, if only we acknowledge that such a use is entirely the work of fancy. But, making that acknowledgment, may we not make the use? Is not Death, too, God’s messenger to souls that love Him, ‘mighty and beauteous, though his face be hid’? Would it not be more Christian-like, and more congruous with our eternal hope, if we pictured him thus than by the hideous emblems of our cemeteries and tombs? He comes to Christ’s servants, and his touch is gentle though his fingers are icy-cold. He removes only the chains that bind us, and we ourselves are emancipated by his touch. He leads us to ‘the iron gate that leadeth into the city,’ and it opens to us ‘of its own accord.’ But he disappears as soon as our happy feet have touched the pavement of that street of the city which is ‘pure gold, as transparent as glass,’ and in the midst of which flows the river of the crystal-bright ‘water of life proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.’ Then, when we see the Face as of the sun shining in his strength, we shall come to ourselves, and ‘know of a surety that the Lord hath sent His angel and delivered’ us from all our foes and ills for evermore.

Verse 13

Acts

RHODA

Act_12:13 .

‘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, and I suppose she does not know to-day that, everywhere throughout the whole world where the Gospel is preached, ‘this that she hath done is spoken of as a memorial to her.’ Is the love of fame worthy of being called ‘the last infirmity of noble minds’? Or is it the delusion of ignoble ones? Why need we care whether anybody ever hears of us after we are dead and buried, so long as God knows about us? The ‘damsel named Rhoda’ was little the better for the immortality which she had unconsciously won.

Now there is a very singular resemblance between the details of this incident and those of another case, when Peter was recognised in dim light 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. I do not think that there is anything to be built upon the resemblance, but at all events I think that the use of the same unusual word in the two cases, and nowhere else, seems to suggest that Luke felt how strangely events sometimes double themselves; and how the Apostle who is here all but a martyr is re-enacting, with differences, something like the former scene, when he was altogether a traitor. But, be that as it may, there are some lessons which we may gather from this vivid picture of Rhoda and her behaviour on the one side of the door, while Peter stood hammering, in the morning twilight, on the other.

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, which is 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 large 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. A man’s foes were eminently those of his own household. And now here this child-slave, a 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. Neither woman thought now of the unnatural, unwholesome relation which had formerly bound them. 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. The Gospel has the same sort of work to do to-day, and there are institutions in full flourishing existence in this and every other civilised community as entirely antagonistic to the spirit and principles of Christianity as Roman slavery was. I, for my part, believe that the one uniting bond and healing medicine for society is found in Jesus Christ; and that in Him, and that the principles deducible from His revelation by word and work, applied to all social evils, are their cure, and their only cure. 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.

Bhoda 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. The one thing needful for him was to be taken in and sheltered. So the praying group and the girl who stops praying when she hears the knock, to which it was her business to attend, were working in the same direction. It is not necessary 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 task. 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. Better to be in the lower parts of the house attending to the humble duties of the slave than to be in the upper chamber, uniting with the saints in supplication and leaving tasks unperformed.

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. It was not only the lofty and unique expression of devotion, which another woman gave when she broke the alabaster box to anoint the feet of the Saviour which were to be pierced with nails to-morrow, that has been held worthy of undying remembrance. The name and act of a poor slave girl have been commemorated by that Spirit who preserves nothing in vain, in order that we should learn that things which we vulgarly call great, and those which we insolently call small, are regarded by Him, not according to their apparent magnitude, but according to their motive and reference to Him. He says, ‘I will never forget any of their works’; and this little deed of Rhoda’s, like the rose petals that careful housekeepers in the country keep upon the sideboard in china bowls to diffuse a fragance through the room, is given us to keep in memory for ever, a witness of the sanctity of common life when filled with acts of obedience to Him.

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. 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.’ He would have gone back to his prison sure enough. Her first duty was to open the door; her second one was to go and tell the brethren, ‘we have got him safe inside’; but in the rush of joyous emotions she naively forgot what her first business was, ‘lost her head,’ as we say, and so went off to tell that he was outside, instead of letting him in. 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 decrees are countersigned by calm common sense illuminated by Scripture. Sorrow is apt to obscure duty by its darkness, and joy to do so 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 is beating like a sledge-hammer, or whether ‘my bosom’s 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. And whether I am a door-keeper in the house of the Lord, like Rhoda in Mary’s, or have an office that people think larger and more important, the imperativeness of my duties is equally independent of my momentary emotions and circumstances. Remember, then, that duty remains while feeling fluctuates, and that, sorrowful or joyful, we have still the same Lord to serve and the same crown to win.

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.

I need not speak about that extraordinary discussion which the brethren got up in the upper room. They had been praying, as has often been remarked, for Peter’s deliverance, and now that he is delivered they will not believe it. I am afraid that there is often a dash of unbelief in immediate answers to our prayers mingling with the prayers. And although the petitions in this case were intense and fervent, as the original tells us, and had been kept up all night long, and although their earnestness and worthiness are guaranteed by the fact that they were answered, yet when the veritable Peter, in flesh and blood, stood before the door, the suppliants first said to the poor girl, ‘Thou art mad,’ and then, ‘It is his angel! It cannot be he.’ Nobody seems to have thought of going to the door to see whether it was he or not, but they went on 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,’ like the other porteress that had picked out Peter’s voice amongst the men huddled round the fire in the high priest’s chamber.

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.’ That is the right answer, especially if you can say to the antagonistic party, ‘Have you been down to the door, then, to see?’ And if they have to say ‘No!’ then the right answer is, ‘You go and look as I did, and you will come back with the same belief which I have.’

So at last they open the door and there he stands. Peter’s hammer, hammer, hammer at the gate is wonderfully given in the story. It goes on as a kind of running accompaniment through the talk between Rhoda and the friends. It might have put a stop to the conversation, one would have thought. But Another stands at the door knocking, still more persistently, still more patiently. ‘Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If any man open the door I will come in.’

Verse 17

Acts

PETER AFTER HIS ESCAPE

Act_12:17 .

When the angel ‘departed from him,’ Peter had to fall back on his own wits, and they served him well. He ‘considered the thing,’ and resolved to make for the house of Mary. He does not seem to have intended to remain there, so dangerously near Herod, but merely to have told its inmates of his deliverance, and then to have hidden himself somewhere, till the heat of the hunt after him was abated. Apparently he did not go into the house at all, but talked to the brethren, when they came trooping after Rhoda to open the gate. The signs of haste in the latter part of the story, where Peter has to think and act for himself, contrast strikingly with the majestic leisureliness of the action of the angel, who gave his successive commands to him to dress completely, as if careless of the sleeping legionaries who might wake at any moment. There was need for haste, for the night was wearing thin, and the streets of Jerusalem were no safe promenade for a condemned prisoner, escaped from his guards.

We do not deal here with the scene in Mary’s house and at the gate. We only note, in a word, the touch of nature in Rhoda’s forgetting to open ‘for gladness,’ and so leaving Peter in peril, if a detachment of his guards had already been told off to chase him. Equally true to nature, alas, is the incredulity of the praying ‘many,’ when the answer to their prayers was sent to them. They had rather believe that the poor girl was ‘mad’ or that, for all their praying, Peter was dead, and this was his ‘angel,’ than that their intense prayer had been so swiftly and completely answered. Is their behaviour not a mirror in which we may see our own?

Very like Peter, as well as very intelligible in the circumstances, is it that he ‘continued knocking,’ Well he might, and evidently his energetic fusillade of blows was heard even above the clatter of eager tongues, discussing Rhoda’s astonishing assertions. Some one, at last, seems to have kept his head sufficiently to suggest that perhaps, instead of disputing whether these were true or not, it might be well to go to the door and see. So they all went in a body, Rhoda being possibly afraid to go alone, and others afraid to stay behind, and there they saw his veritable self. But we notice that there is no sign of his being taken in and refreshed or cared for. He waved an imperative hand, to quiet the buzz of talk, spoke two or three brief words, and departed.

I. Note Peter’s account of his deliverance.

We have often had occasion to remark that the very keynote of this Book of Acts is the working of Christ from heaven, which to its writer is as real and efficient as was His work on earth. Peter here traces his deliverance to ‘the Lord.’ He does not stay to mention the angel. His thoughts went beyond the instrument to the hand which wielded it. Nor does he seem to have been at all astonished at his deliverance. His moment of bewilderment, when he did not know whether he was dreaming or awake, soon passed, and as soon as ‘the sober certainty of his waking bliss’ settled on his mind, his deliverance seemed to him perfectly natural. What else was it to be expected that ‘the Lord’ would do? Was it not just like Him? There was nothing to be astonished at, there was everything to be thankful for. That is how Christian hearts should receive the deliverances which the Lord is still working for them.

II. Note Peter’s message to the brethren.

James, the Lord’s brother, was not an Apostle. That he should have been named to receive the message indicates that already he held some conspicuous position, perhaps some office, in the Church. It may also imply that there were no Apostles in Jerusalem then. We note also that the ‘many’ who were gathered in Mary’s house can have been only a small part of the whole. We here get a little glimpse into the conditions of the life of a persecuted Church, which a sympathetic imagination can dwell on till it is luminous. Such gatherings as would attract notice had to be avoided, and what meetings were held had to be in private houses and with shut doors, through which entrance was not easy. Mary’s ‘door’ had a ‘gate’ in it, and only that smaller postern, which admitted but one at a time, was opened to visitors, and that after scrutiny. But though assemblies were restricted, communications were kept up, and by underground ways information of events important to the community spread through its members. The consciousness of brotherhood was all the stronger because of the common danger, the universal peril had not made the brethren selfish, but sympathetic. We may note, too, how great a change had come since the time when the Christians were in favour with all the people, and may reflect how fickle are the world’s smiles for Christ’s servants.

III. Note Peter’s disappearance.

All that is said of it is that he ‘went into another place.’ Probably Luke did not know where he went. It would be prudent at the time to conceal it, and the habit of concealment may have survived the need for it. But two points suggest themselves in regard to the Apostle’s flight. There may be a better use for an Apostle than to kill him, and Christ’s boldest witnesses are sometimes bound to save themselves by fleeing into another city. To hide oneself ‘till the calamity be overpast’ may be rank cowardice or commendable prudence. All depends on the circumstances of each case. Prudence is an element in courage, and courage without it is fool-hardiness. There are outward dangers from which it is Christian duty to run, and there are outward dangers which it is Christian duty to face. There are inward temptations which it is best to avoid, as there are others which have to be fought to the death. Peter was as brave and braver when he went and hid himself, than when he boasted, ‘Though all should forsake Thee, yet will not I!’ A morbid eagerness for martyrdom wrought much harm in the Church at a later time. The primitive Church was free from it.

But we must not omit to note that here Peter is dropped out of the history, and is scarcely heard of any more. We have a glimpse of him in Act_15:1 - Act_15:41 , at the Council in Jerusalem, but, with that exception, this is the last mention of him in Acts. How little this Book cares for its heroes! Or rather how it has only one Hero, and one Name which it celebrates, the name of that Lord to whom Peter ascribed his deliverance, and of whom he himself declared that ‘there is none other Name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved.’

END OF VOL. I.

Verse 23

Acts

THE ANGEL’S TOUCH

Act_12:7 , Act_12:23 .

The same heavenly agent performs the same action on Peter and on Herod. To the one, his touch brings freedom and the dropping off of his chains; to the other it brings gnawing agonies and a horrible death. These twofold effects of one cause open out wide and solemn thoughts, on which it is well to look.

I. The one touch has a twofold effect.

So it is always when God’s angels come, or God Himself lays His hand on men. Every manifestation of the divine power, every revelation of the divine presence, all our lives’ experiences, are charged with the solemn possibility of bringing us one or other of two directly opposite results. They all offer us an alternative, a solemn ‘either -or.’

The Gospel too comes charged with that double possibility, and is the intensest and most fateful example of the dual effect of all God’s messages and dealings. Just as the ark maimed Dagon and decimated the Philistine cities and slew Uzzah, but brought blessing and prosperity to the house of Obed-edom, just as the same pillar was light to Israel all the night long, but cloud and darkness to the Egyptians, so is Christ set ‘for the fall of’ some and ‘for the rising of’ others amidst the ‘many in Israel,’ and His Gospel is either ‘the savour of life unto life or of death unto death,’ but in both cases is in itself ‘unto God,’ one and the same ‘sweet savour in Christ.’

II. These twofold effects are parts of one plan and purpose.

Peter’s liberation and Herod’s death tended in the same direction-to strengthen and conserve the infant Church, and thus to prepare the way for the conquering march of the Gospel. And so it is in all God’s self-revelations and manifested energies, whatever may be their effects. They come from one source and one motive, they are fundamentally the operations of one changeless Agent, and, as they are one in origin and character, so they are one in purpose. We are not to separate them into distinct classes and ascribe them to different elements in the divine nature, setting down this as the work of Love and that as the outcome of Wrath, or regarding the acts of deliverance as due to one part of that great whole and the acts of destruction as due to another part of it. The angel was the same, and his celestial fingers were moved by the same calm, celestial will when he smote Peter into liberty and life, and Herod to death.

God changes His ways, but not His heart. He changes His acts, but not His purposes. Opposite methods conduce to one end, as winter storms and June sunshine equally tend to the yellowed harvest.

III. The character of the effects depends on the men who are touched.

As is the man, so is the effect of the angel’s touch. It could only bring blessing to the one who was the friend of the angel’s Lord, and it could bring only death to the other, who was His enemy. It could do nothing to the Apostle but cause his chains to drop from his wrists, nor anything to the vainglorious king but bring loathsome death.

This, too, is a universal truth. It is we ourselves who settle what God’s words and acts will be to us. The trite proverb, ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison,’ is true in the highest regions. It is eminently, blessedly or tragically true in our relation to the Gospel, wherein all God’s self-revelation reaches its climax, wherein ‘the arm of the Lord’ is put forth in its most blessed energy, wherein is laid on each of us the touch, tender and more charged with blessing than that of the angel who smote the calmly sleeping Apostle. That Gospel may either be to us the means of freeing us from our chains, and leading us out of our prison-house into sunshine and security, or be the fatal occasion of condemnation and death. Which it shall be depends on ourselves. Which shall I make it for myself?

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Bibliographical Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Acts 12". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mac/acts-12.html.