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DIVINE INTERPOSITIONS ON THE CHURCH’S BEHALF—EXPERIENCES OF MERCY AND JUDGMENT
1. The Days of Unleavened Bread; or, the Persecution of the Church (Acts 12:1-19).
2. The Death of Herod; or, the Church’s Persecutor Punished (Acts 12:20-25).
Acts 12:1. About that time (compare Acts 19:23).—I.e., before, or about the time of, the arrival of Barnabas and Saul at Jerusalem (Acts 11:30). The incidents recorded in this chapter seem to have occurred during the stay of these brethren in Jerusalem (Acts 12:25). As the predicted famine broke out under Cuspius Fadus, who was sent to Judæa after the death of Agrippa—i.e., after August 6th, A.D. 44—the visit of Barnabas and Saul most likely took place before Agrippa’s death. Herod the king.—Herod Agrippa I. was the son of Aristobulus and Bernice (Jos., Ant., XVII. i. 2; Wars, I. xxviii. 1), a nephew of Herod Antipas and grandson of Herod the Great (see further in “Homiletical Analysis”). To vex certain of the Church.—Better, “to maltreat certain of (lit., from) the Church,” ἀπὸ conveying the idea of proceeding from, and hence belonging to. James the brother of John.—The elder of the two sons of Zebedee (Matthew 4:21; Matthew 10:2), and to be distinguished from James the Less (Acts 1:13), as also from James the brother of our Lord (Acts 12:17; Acts 15:13; Acts 21:18; Galatians 1:19). James’s martyrdom fulfilled our Lord’s words in Matthew 20:23. “It was wonder Herod killed no more, seeing this took so well with the people” (Trapp). That so little is said about this apostle’s martyrdom has been explained (Weizsäcker), though wrongly, on the grounds partly of Luke’s want of knowledge concerning the incident (which is hardly likely, since he knew both John and Paul), and partly of the unhistorical character of the narrative which, it is said, was composed mainly for the glorification of Peter.
Acts 12:3. It pleased the Jews.—This remark is assigned, though without cause, to Luke’s pragmatism, and pronounced inaccurate (Hausrath, Holtzmann), on the ground that somewhat later the Pharisees in a particular instance sided with the Jewish Christians against the Sadducees (Jos., Ant., XX. ix. 1), as if popular bodies were not proverbially variable in their judgments and actions! The opinion is as likely to be correct (Zeller) that Herod found the murder of James to be not so popular as he at first imagined, and accordingly winked at Peter’s liberation from prison!! The days of unleavened bread.—The festival of the Passover, so named because of the injunction to remove leaven from the house during its continuance (Exodus 12:15; Exodus 8:7).
Acts 12:4. For Easter read the Passover, meaning not the paschal supper (Wieseler), but the whole period of the festival. To the people.—To gratify them by the spectacle of his execution.
Acts 12:5 The Church.—(See on Acts 2:47; Acts 5:11; Acts 8:1; Acts 11:26.) Now a large community which must have assembled in different buildings throughout the city. Without ceasing.—Rather, earnestly, ἐκτενής, a word of later Greek, signifying “that which is stretched,” hence “intent” or “fervent.”
Acts 12:6. The same night.—Emphatic, the night before the day on which Herod contemplated making his exhibition of the Apostle. Sleeping between two soldiers.—Two of the quaternion entrusted with his keeping (Acts 12:4). Bound with two chains.—I.e., by one to each soldier. The keepers or guards before the door were the other two soldiers of the company of four. This, the Roman method of imprisonment, custodia militaris (which, however, usually fastened the prisoner to only one soldier), as indeed imprisonment of any kind, was unknown to the Mosaic law. The kings were the first to introduce this form of punishment, especially for the chastisement of free-speaking prophets (2 Chronicles 16:10; Jeremiah 20:2; Jeremiah 32:2).
Acts 12:7. The or an angel of the Lord.—The various attempts to explain Peter’s deliverance on natural grounds are all unsatisfactory (see “Homiletical Analysis). The light which shined in the prison, lit., house (a euphemism), was the usual supernatural radiance or “glory of the Lord” that encompassed angelic visitors to earth (Luke 2:9; Luke 24:4; Matthew 28:3).
Acts 12:8. Gird thyself, etc.—Shows Peter had divested himself of his outer coat or tunic and shoes before lying down to sleep.
Acts 12:10. The first and the second ward, or watch.—I.e., the two soldiers stationed at the door of Peter’s cell, and two others posted near the iron gate which led out to the city. The situation of the prison is unknown.
Acts 12:11.—Suggests that until the angel had left him Peter had not come to himself, or recovered his ordinary consciousness, lit., become in himself. The expectation of the people of the Jews reveals that the populace were now against the apostles, and eagerly looking forward to Peter’s execution; changed times since Acts 4:21.
Acts 12:12. Considered the thing.—Better, having become aware of τὰ γενόμενα, what had happened. Whether John whose surname was Mark was the second evangelist is uncertain, though he is commonly supposed to have been the Mark whom Peter terms his son (1 Peter 5:13), i.e., spiritually, as having been converted through his instrumentality. He was sister’s son (rather, cousin) to Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), whom he accompanied on an evangelising tour, after Barnabas had separated from Paul on his account (Acts 15:37; Acts 15:39). He had formerly attended these two missionaries as far as Perga, and there deserted them (Acts 13:13).
Acts 12:13. The Greek name, Rhoda, Rose, does not prove that the maid who acted as portress was not a Jewess (see on Acts 1:23). The office of doorkeeper among the Jews was commonly assigned to a female (John 18:16).
Acts 12:14.—Peter must have spoken, perhaps told his name, to cause his voice to be recognised.
Acts 12:15.—The doctrine of tutelary angels (see “Homiletical Analysis”) is neither affirmed nor denied, but simply cited as a popular opinion (compare Matthew 18:10).
Acts 12:17. Went to another place.—Hardly in the city (Meyer), but outside of it, though not to Rome (Catholic expositors), or Antioch (Kuinoel)—perhaps to Babylonia (Nösgen), or some one of the cities of the Diaspora named in his first epistle (Acts 1:1) (Zöckler). The place of Peter’s concealment would no doubt, for prudential reasons, at first be kept secret, and might easily have been unknown to Luke’s informant.
Acts 12:19. Put to death.—Should be led away—i.e., to execution.
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 12:1-19
The Days of Unleavened Bread; or, the Persecution of the Church
I. The imprisonment of Peter.—
1. When it happened.
(1) “About that time”—i.e., about the time when Barnabas and Saul went up to Jerusalem.
(2) In “the days of unleavened bread”—i.e., during the Passover festival, which continued seven days, and was so named because during its currency no leaven was allowed in Jewish houses.
(3) Shortly before or after the death of Herod.
(4) Hence about the spring, end of March, or beginning of April, A.D. 44.
2. To whom it was due. Herod Agrippa the First, that “vile Oriental,” as Renan styles him (The Apostles, p. 199), Aristobulus’s son, and Herod the Great’s grandson, who on the accession of Caligula, A.D. 37, received the title of king with the former possessions of Philip and Lysanias (Luke 3:1), at a later period the tetrarchy of Antipas, and later still, in A.D. 41, from Claudius, Samaria, and Judæa; so that, like his grandfather, he swayed the sceptre of kingly authority all over Palestine, besides possessing a royal residence in Jerusalem with an income of twelve million drachmæ (see “Hints” on Acts 12:1).
3. By what motive inspired. A desire to please the Jews. Anxiety to win the favour of his Jewish subjects had already caused Agrippa I. to unsheath the sword against the Christians, and even to behead the son of Zebedee, James the Just, whose execution tradition (Jerome) places on the 15th Nisan, or the anniversary of the Crucifixion. Combined with this was more than likely a fanatical zeal for the Jewish religion which he personally affected, and which, it has been well said (Renan), inevitably led a weak prince like him to become a persecutor.
4. In what manner carried out. Having been arrested, the apostle was securely lodged in the Tower of Antonia on the north-west corner of the Temple—a fortress originally built by John Hyrcanus for a residence, and subsequently enlarged by Herod the Great “in a magnificent manner.” Four quaternions of soldiers—i.e., sixteen warriors were told off to guard the apostle lest an escape or a rescue should be attempted and perhaps effected. Clearly Herod was afraid of the Christians or of the Christians’ God, or of both. “Had Peter’s captors regarded him as a common every-day criminal, they would have deemed it preposterous that sixteen soldiers or even four at a time should be required to keep him safe. That such unusual precautions were judged necessary is one of those indirect and latent marks of historic truth with which this narrative abounds, and which are even more valuable than direct proofs, because of being undesigned” (Whitelaw, The Theological Monthly, No. 24, p. 406).
5. For what purpose intended. To keep him securely till the feast was passed, when he should be brought forth before the people and despatched into the other world after James. Agrippa, being a “pious” sovereign who had begun to “attend to his devotions” (Renan, The Apostles, p. 200), suffering not a day to pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice (Josephus, Ant., XIX. vii. 3), would not profane the sanctity of the season by an act of bloodshed. Beautiful piety! Besides, the spectacle could be performed with as much effect when the festival had closed and before the congregated crowds dispersed to their homes. Behold, another Solomon arisen in the land!
6. To what action it led. It set the Christian community a-praying for their incarcerated leader. Had Agrippa known, that calling in of Heaven’s aid on behalf of Peter and against him was ominous. Where is the creature that can stand when God Almighty takes the field against him? “Judged by ordinary standards, the fate of Peter was sealed. The probability of his escaping the headsman’s axe was small, if not absolutely nil. Nevertheless, as people who had not been initiated into ‘modern science,’ and in their lack of nineteenth century culture saw no irreconcilable contradiction between the reign of law and answers to prayer, but believed that ‘all things were possible with God,’ the Jerusalem disciples betook themselves to besieging Heaven with their outcries and their supplications, appealing with exquisite naïveté to Him in whose hands were all men’s lives, those of kings as well as common men” (The Theological Monthly, No. 24, p. 407).
7. How it affected the prisoner. “Incarceration was for Peter unfortunately no new experience (Acts 4:3; Acts 5:18); and although in the present instance grounds existed for apprehending that he would never leave his cell till he was marched forth to die, it does not appear that the prospect filled him with dismay or even disturbed his nocturnal slumbers.” “That Peter exhibited such quietness of spirit when on the verge of martyrdom was a proof that he was then a better man than he had been when, after having boastfully exclaimed, ‘Lord, I will lay down my life for Thy sake,’ to save his skin he first ran away and then denied his Master with oaths and curses” (Ibid., p. 406, 407). See “Hints” on Acts 12:6.
II. The deliverance of Peter (Acts 12:7).—
1. Brought about in answer to prayer. Renan, who has scruples about “the angel,” and is silent concerning the Church’s prayers, for reasons not specified, nevertheless entertains no doubt that Peter was lodged in the Tower of Antonia by command of Agrippa I., and that on the night before the morning fixed for his execution he escaped—in this agreeing with such critics as Zeller, Weizsäcker, and others, who, while rejecting what they style the mythical embellishments of the story, do not question that Peter was both imprisoned and made his escape; but if between these two occurrences, the imprisonment and the escape, it really happened that the Church prayed as above described, it will be hard to convince an ingenuous mind that Peter’s deliverance was not something more than a happy coincidence, was not a conspicuous fulfilment of that Scripture which says, “Before they call I will answer, and while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Ibid., pp. 407, 408).
2. Effected by miraculous intervention. Exactly this was Peter’s own account of the matter to his friends assembled in the house of John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:17). Luke’s report—of the descent of the angel into Peter’s cell, of the falling off from Peter’s hands of the chains with which he was bound, etc., etc. (Acts 12:7-11), was probably derived from Peter himself or from John Mark, whom he subsequently met in Rome (2 Timothy 4:10-11); and unless his report is to be set aside as utterly unhistorical—and Renan admits “it is so lively and just that it is difficult to find in it any place for prolonged elaboration”—it will need to be conceded that Peter’s rescue was brought about by miracle. Other explanations of a naturalistic sort—such as the bursting open of the prison by a flash of lightning or an earthquake (Hegel), as at Philippi (Acts 16:26), the bribing of the apostle’s guardians by the apostle’s friends, or the conniving of the former at Peter’s escape through sympathy for him or hatred of his persecutor (Eichhorn, Ewald), or finally some unknown but still natural cause (Renan, Zeller, Weizsäcker, Beyschlag), are insufficient to account for the incident, unless first the credibility of the record be broken down. To challenge the authenticity of this portion of the Acts on the ground that it relates what is supernatural is to beg the question at issue.
3. Confirmed by the trustworthy character of the narrative. In addition to those already indicated, the following signs of verisimilitude in the story may be pointed out.
(1) The return of Peter to the house of John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12), a statement which receives explanation from the circumstance that John Mark was one of Peter’s spiritual children (1 Peter 5:13).
(2) The behaviour of Rhoda (Acts 12:13), which points to the equal footing upon which bond and free had by this time begun to stand in the early Christian Church (Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32; compare Lechler, Apostolische Zeitalter, p. 323).
(3) The exclamation concerning Peter’s angel (Acts 12:15), which harmonises with the well-known belief, then current among the Jews, that “every true Israelite had specially assigned to him a guardian angel, who, when he appeared in human form, assumed the likeness of the man whom he protected” (Plumptre).
(4) Peter’s instruction to report what had happened, unto James and the brethren (Acts 12:17), which is exactly what one would have expected from the prominent position in the Church at that time held, according to both Luke (Luke 15:13) and Paul (Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9), by the brother of our Lord.
(5) The excitement among the soldiers when it was discovered that Peter had escaped (Acts 12:18), which could hardly have arisen had an earthquake happened or had they themselves been privy to his flight. The idea of their pretending an excitement they did not feel is out of the question.
(6) The fruitless search of Herod for his prisoner (Acts 12:19), which shows at least that Peter had been delivered.
(7) The execution of the guards for allowing him to escape (Acts 12:19), which abundantly attests that they had not been able to prevent Peter’s release.
Learn.—That Christ’s Church and people will certainly suffer persecution.
2. That both have strong encouragement to pray.
3. That it is better to have angels on one’s side than soldiers.
4. That Christ is as able as ever to watch over and defend His Church and people.
5. That whatever deliverances are enjoyed by either should be thankfully acknowledged by both.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 12:1. The Persecution of the Church by Agrippa.
I. The persecutor.—Herod Agrippa I.—His character.
1. A heathen. Addicted to public games, musical festivities, and gladiatorial combats.
2. A hypocrite. If he practised the outward forms of piety it was not because he loved them. Jost (Geschichte Judenthums, i. 420) relates that once when reading in a public service, “One from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not set a stranger over thee which is not thy brother” (Deuteronomy 17:15), Agrippa burst into tears, and that the people cried out, “Be not distressed, Agrippa, thou art our brother.” This incident Plumptre cites as an illustration of Herod’s “sensitiveness to praise or blame”; if authentic, it may, with as much reason, be interpreted as showing that this “pious sovereign,” like other potentates that have lived since, was a skilful actor and knew how to play a part.
3. A hater of Jesus. He had inherited the passion of hostility against Jesus from his fathers, one of whom, Herod the Great, had persecuted the child Jesus, and another, Herod Antipas, had beheaded John the Baptist (Besser: Bibel Stunden, III. i. 588).
II. The persecuted.—The Church in Jerusalem—i.e., the Church—
1. At its headquarters. Paralysed at the centre, Herod doubtless thought it would become inactive at its extremities.
2. In its leaders. These cut off, the king may have reasoned, the followers would be dispersed.
III. The persecution.—
1. Its motive.
(1) To gratify his own hatred of the new faith.
(2) To ingratiate himself with his Jewish subjects.
2. Its time.
(1) When the Church was forming for itself a new centre of operations at Antioch—which showed how greatly Herod had miscalculated.
(2) When the Church at Jerusalem was becoming distressed on account of the impending famine—which shows how God sometimes allows the trials of His people to multiply when these are least able to bear them.
3. Its form.
(1) Violent death for James.
(2) Unjust imprisonment for Peter.
(3) Cruel harassment for the disciples.
Acts 12:2. The Death of James.
I. Early.—About ten years after the Ascension; a testimony to his ripeness in grace (Matthew 20:23). James died first, John last, of the Twelve.
II. Violent.—Probably by decapitation; a fulfilment of the Saviour’s promise.
III. Sudden.—No reason to believe he either languished long in prison or was put to the trouble of a trial, though Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius of Cæsarea say there were both an accusation and a defence.
IV. Lonely.—Hardly likely he had the presence of any friends except God and Jesus Christ to comfort or cheer him at the fatal moment. Yet these, one need not question, would not be absent.
V. Submissive.—Not to be doubted that James met his doom without a murmur. Tradition speaks of the fortitude exhibited by him on the way to excution as having led to the conversion of the officer who guarded him (see below).
VI. Triumphant.—If the Saviour manifested not His glory to His dying servant as He did to Stephen, He assuredly left not that servant to meet the headsman’s axe without the inward supports of His grace; and if the heavens opened not to James’s mortal vision in the death hour, unquestionably they would roll back their pearly gates to receive his departing spirit.
VII. Lamented.—If uncertain whether he had a burial at the hands of devout men as Stephen had, little question may be entertained that “devout men made great lamentation over him.”
VIII. Remembered.—Where the precious dust of the slaughtered disciple found a resting-place has not been told. No reason to suppose the Armenian convent within the walls of Jerusalem covers the spot. Yet the existence of such a shrine witnesses to the affectionate regard with which the Christian Church has preserved the recollection of her apostolic martyr.
Note.—Clement and Eusebius report an incident connected with the martyrdom of James, which, if true, lends a pathetic interest to the tale. Struck by the calm fortitude of his prisoner, the officer who guarded the apostle, or, according to another version, the false witness who had testified against him, was moved to repentance, confessed Christ, and was led forth along with the apostle to be put to death. On the way to the scene of judgment, having asked the apostle to forgive him, he was at once pardoned; the apostle, having paused, looked upon him with a glance of love, embraced him and kissed him, with the words, “Peace be to you!”
James the Brother of John.
I. Honoured in the family to which he belonged.—
1. His father, Zebedee, a well-to-do fisherman on the sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:21).
2. His mother, Salome, one of the pious women who had cast in their lot with Christ (Matthew 20:20).
3. His brother, John, the beloved disciple who leaned on Jesus’s bosom (John 13:23).
II. More honoured in the office which he bore.—The apostleship. An office which—
1. Admitted him to closest personal intimacy with Christ (John 15:15).
2. Opened up before him a wide sphere of service for Christ (John 15:16).
3. Conferred on him high privileges from Christ (Luke 5:10; Mark 1:29; Mark 5:37; Matthew 17:1; Matthew 26:37).
III. Most honoured in the crown of martyrdom he received.—
1. After a short period of service. He was called to his reward, not so soon as Stephen, but much earlier than Peter or John
2. Probably without much pain. Not like Stephen stoned to death, but most likely beheaded with a swift and sudden stroke.
3. Certainly with great glory. The crown of martyrdom was for him a crown of life (Revelation 2:10), a crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8), a crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4).
Acts 12:5; Acts 12:12. The Prayers of the Church should be—
1. Addressed to God. A not unnecessary reminder.
2. By a united congregation. United, if not in place, in purpose and heart.
3. In an earnest spirit. Not formally, but sincerely, as if the suppliants meant them, which they do not always.
4. For ministers of the Gospel. Not excluding all sorts and conditions of men (1 Timothy 2:1), but specially for ambassadors of the Church’s King and Head (Ephesians 6:19).
5. That they may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men (2 Thessalonians 3:2). If in any measure faithful to their calling, ministers will be exposed to trouble from such. 6. That their lives may be prolonged. If not for their sakes, for their Master’s and for the sake of their work. If any lives are valuable to a community, those of good ministers of Christ are. And
7. That their usefulness may be increased. A true minister desires not personal advantage, fame, or wealth, but growing ability to serve in the Gospel (2 Corinthians 12:14).
Acts 12:6. Sleeping on the Eve of Martyrdom.—Illustrations:
1. In the beginning of the Marian persecution, writes Froude (History of England, v. 488), “Rogers was ‘to break the ice,’ as Bradford described it. On the morning of the 4th of February (A.D. 1555), the wife of the keeper of Newgate came to his bedside. He was sleeping soundly, and she woke him with difficulty to let him know that he was wanted.
2. Those acquainted with Scottish history will recall the last sleep of the great and good Argyll in Edinburgh prison before he stooped his honoured head to the loaded axe of the maiden.
3. A tradesman of Lyons, of the name of Grivet, was, during the reign of terror in France, sentenced to death, and brought into the cave of the condemned, where were several others who with him were to suffer next morning, and who, on his arrival, pressed round him to sympathise in his fate and fortify him for the stroke he was about to encounter. ‘Come and sup with us,’ said they, ‘this is the last inn in the journey of life; to-morrow we shall arrive at our long home.’ Grivet, who was calm and composed, accepted the invitation, supped heartily, and then, retiring to the remotest corner of the cave, buried himself in the straw and went to sleep. The morning dawned, the other prisoners, tied together, were led away to execution, without Grivet, who was fast asleep, not perceiving anything or being perceived. The door of the cave was locked. On awakening he felt astonished to find himself in perfect solitude. Four days passed without any new prisoners being brought in. During these days he subsisted on provisions which he found scattered about the cave. On the evening of the fourth day he was discovered by the turnkey, who reported his omission to the judges. In a moment of leniency these set the prisoner at liberty” (Percy Anecdotes).
Acts 12:12. The Church in Mary’s house.—A study for present-day congregations.
I. Numerously attended.—“Many were gathered together.” A healthful sign of piety when Christ’s disciples forsake not the assembling of themselves together (Hebrews 10:25)—a practice greatly declining at the present day. The advantages of social worship are too obvious to require detailed rehearsal. The worshipper frequently forgets that even though he may not himself derive benefit from the services of the Christian sanctuary, he may by his presence impart benefit to his fellow-worshippers. Besides, apart from benefit either given or received, it is the duty of Christ’s people in this way to honour their exalted Lord.
II. Seriously occupied.—The assembled disciples were “praying.” Prayer, though not the sole, yet an important, part of public worship, and should be conducted with intelligence, solemnity, and earnestness. Amongst the objects of a Church’s supplications place should be found for all that concerns the welfare of the Church itself, its pastors and teachers, its members and adherents, the progress of the spiritual life among believers, the extension of the gospel in the world.
III. Delightfully surprised.—By Peter’s appearance in their midst—no doubt an answer to their prayers. So will praying congregations and praying individuals experience similar surprises, if only their prayers be united, believing, and in earnest (Matthew 18:19; John 14:13; James 1:5).
IV. Wonderfully instructed.—By Peter’s story of the Lord’s dealings with him in prison. So should Christian pastors edify their congregations by occasionally relating their own experiences and always giving their hearers the benefit of those higher views of truth and duty into which they themselves have been led (1 Peter 4:11).
V. Suddenly let.—Peter departed and went into another place. It would certainly be wrong to derive from this an argument against a stationary and in favour of a circulating ministry; but the incident may be used to recall the thought that here the Church’s ministers, like the Hebrew priests, are not suffered to continue by reason of death (Hebrews 7:23).
Acts 12:13. A Maid named Rhoda.
I. A slave girl and yet a Christian.—Christianity adapted to the deepest wants of all sorts and conditions of men. Believers of all ranks and degrees may be found within the Church of Jesus Christ.
II. A servant and yet attending a prayer meeting.—Many regard the Church’s services as only designed for the leisured classes. But Christian devotion oils the wheels of all forms of industry.
III. A humble individual and yet the bearer of a joyful message.—It is not the medium through which a communication comes, but the character of the communication itself that imparts to it its chief value. It is not the preacher that saves, but the gospel he preaches. Nor is great talent required for telling the glad tidings of the gospel. A very unimportant person may blow the trump of Jubilee.
IV. A weak woman, and yet able to do important service in the Church.—Compare the service rendered to Naaman the Syrian by the captive maid (2 Kings 5:2-3). No one too insignificant to work in the Christian vineyard. Many of the noblest deeds are done by feeble folk. Women and children can do acts of high renown when inspired by love for Jesus Christ (John 12:3; 1 Corinthians 16:15).
Acts 12:17. The Three Jameses of Scripture; or, Three differing Types of Christian Service.
I. James the brother of John, the first apostolic martyr.—A representative of the Church’s confessors. A type of those who serve Christ by suffering—an honour reserved for the few.
II. James the son of Alphens, or James the Little; also one of the Twelve, concerning whose life and labours nothing is known. A representative of those who fill humble and obscure stations in the Church. A type of those who serve Christ without attracting, or perhaps even seeking, the notice and applause of men—an honour bestowed on the many.
III. James the brother of our Lord, the president of the Jerusalem Church.—A representative of those who are called to fill public positions in the Church. A type of those who serve Christ by acting as the guides and leaders of their fellows—an honour mostly conferred on persons of special gifts. All sorts of servants are required by Christ to do His work in the Church and in the world.
Acts 12:1-17. Peter’s Deliverance.
I. We obtain a pleasing view of the deep and tender sense of brotherhood which pervaded the early Christian Church.—This sense of brotherhood 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. As a variety of intelligent creature, intended to carry still higher the proof of God’s creative wealth, the fact of its interlaced brotherhood, instinct with a common life, mutual love, and fully-shared joys, was its distinguishing feature. We know what a disastrous blow sin struck this distinguishing principle of human nature—how the members of the one family fell apart; how dissociation came into play, with all its destructive consequences. If reclamation should ever come for the race, if it should ever be started afresh upon a career of honour and blessedness, this principle must be called into life again. It must become the regulative power of human action. Men must be taught not only to know God as a Father, but each other as brothers, if they would attain to their true destiny. How beautifully did the early Church display this elevated, this transforming principle! How closely were they joined together! How constantly they assembled for mutual instruction! How tenderly they loved one another! Out of the fruitful soil of loving brotherhood sprang up the intense concern of the whole Church of Jerusalem for Peter, now in the hands of a relentless enemy. It is the true cement which binds Christians of every name and country together in an indissoluble bond.
II. We see the Church of Jerusalem in the attitude of prayer for an imperilled brother.—The Christians of Jerusalem are described as constituting one Church. 1. It was a praying Church. When they had returned to the city from the Mount of Olives after witnessing the ascension of the Lord into heaven, they entered into an upper room, and all continued with one accord in prayer.
2. By the habit of prayer the Church was prepared for trying emergencies. “While therefore Peter was being kept in prison, prayer was being made of the Church unto God for him.” Here was a great emergency. It was a fair, full test of their faith. They had no carnal weapons with which to fight. They had no distinguished friends at court to whom they might appeal. They had no treasures to offer as a ransom for the valuable life.
3. They prayed in concert. All hearts were touched, all minds agreed; not two or three, but the entire Church of Jerusalem.
4. They prayed unceasingly. There was no relaxation of energy, no manifestation of doubt, no giving over of entreaty.
5. The prayer was not only unceasing; it was instant, earnest—intense perhaps better expresses the meaning of the word. They prayed not coldly, nor over the fields, says John Calvin, but so long as Peter was in the conflict the faithful did what they could to help him, and that without wearisomeness. What a power is this intensity in the field of prayer!
6. They prayed to the point. It was all for Peter. Self was forgotten.
7. And to God direct they spoke. No living man is called on to help; no message is sent to Herod. They cast themselves on God nakedly; they invoke the Divine Power only. The case is urgent, and the mighty Presence alone filled the scene.
III. The appeal has been made, the Divine Power invoked; let us see the issue.—W. C. Craig, D.D.
Herod and Peter.
I. God knows all about His children.—Beyond the bare fact of Peter’s arrest, the disciples were in profound ignorance concerning him. The secrets of the Roman prison-house were well kept. But there was One whose seeing and knowing could not be hindered. God kept watch over Peter, knew in what corridor and cell he was confined, knew the names of the guards to whom he was chained, knew just where and when and how to send His angel to visit him. Peter had no occasion to feel solitary or forsaken. His best friend never let him for one moment out of His sight. 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.—His knowledge is not accidental, nor the result of mere curiosity. He has it, and uses it to succour us in our times of extremity. He kept watch over Peter, in order that; when the right time came, He might deliver him from prison. We lose a part—and the best part—of the great truth of Providence by our false accentuation. Providence is Providence—the foreseeing and arranging that precedes helpful doing. No small part of the anxiety that disquiets us arises from our failure to apprehend this gracious method of the Divine working. Men have too mechanical an idea of life. They have a great deal to say about “cause and effect.” Our common blessings are supposed to come in what we call the “order of nature.” What we call “nature” is only the material form in which God embodies His will and power. The results of physical processes are only the Divine Word “made flesh and dwelling amongst us.” What we call “law” is only God’s method of working. In proportion as men realise that truth they get towards the heart of things. “The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
III. When God helps His children He expects them to help themselves.—It was easily 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. He could obey the command to “rise up quickly”; he could gird himself and bind on his sandals; he could cast his garment about him, and follow the angel; he could find his own way, when the angel left him, through the well-remembered streets to the house of his friends. What he could not do for himself was done for him; what he could do he must do, or it would not be done. It is an old proverb, but a weighty one, that “God helps those who help themselves.” Men have a certain range of natural abilities, inside of which God does not step to interfere. We come into life equipped for its duties and responsibilities, and are not expected to let our furnishings rust from disuse. In the Divine economy of the universe, there is no provision for idle blood. Prayer is a power, but not such a power as allows men to fold their hands, and expect results which they might secure by the proper use of means within their grasp. We are “workers together with God,” and, so long as we are idle, the heavens keep silence. God will never do anything for man that man can do for himself.
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! The prison was secure against assault; no mob could force its massive gates. The guards were deaf to either bribes or threats. Each one must answer with his life for the safe-keeping of the prisoner. The shrewdest strategist could contrive no plan of escape or rescue that held out the least promise of success. 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. And yet how apt men always are to magnify what they call the impossibilities in the way of answers to prayer! They 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. We try with the measuring line of human probabilities to determine the sweep of Almightiness. We have nothing to do with probabilities. The hand that holds all worlds is able to work beyond our thought. We must trust God fully. Herod and Peter stand as representatives of two distinct types of humanity. The one, in the world’s estimate, was rich, strong, and sovereign; the other was poor, weak, and a prisoner. The contest between them seemed most unequal. But God was on what men called the losing side, and that determined the issue. It is a truth to be remembered. In our schemes of life we give overweight to merely human advantages. Social position, wealth, natural capacity—if we have these, we think that we are equipped for success. We are too hasty in our conclusion. The real question is Is God for us or against us? In Him are all the treasures of wisdom and righteousness. With Him nothing is too hard for us to compass or attain. Apart from Him, our brightest prospects are only dreams, without substance or warrant.—Monday Club Sermons.
Acts 12:1-19. The Great Struggle; or, the powers of light and darkness in conflict.
I. The contending forces.—
1. The powers of darkness. Represented by
(1) Herod the King.
(2) The Jewish people.
(3) The quaternions of soldiers.
2. The armies of light; represented by
(1) The angel of the Lord.
(2) The praying Church.
(3) The servant Rhoda.
II. The invisible commanders.—
1. Of the powers of darkness, Satan, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2).
2. Of the armies of light, the Lord, the exalted Christ, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks (Revelation 2:1), and who is a constant presence with His people (Matthew 23:20).
III. The important prize.—The life of Peter.—
1. That of his body, which was now imprisoned, which the arch enemy desired to cut off, but which the Lord of Glory determined to preserve.
2. That of his soul, which, on the one hand, was seriously threatened by the persecutions so thickly directed against him, but on the other hand was efficiently supported by the grace so richly manifested toward him.
IV. The ultimate victory.—This lay completely on the side of Christ and His heavenly army.
1. Peter’s body was delivered from the prison. The purpose of Herod, the expectation of the Jews, the vigilance of the soldiers, were all outwitted.
2. Peter’s soul was also rescued from peril. Peter, it is known, continued faithful to the end, and eventually obtained the crown of life.
Acts 12:20. For And Herod read And, or but, he—i.e., Herod. Highly displeased.—θυμομαχῶν, in a hostile state of mind, in modern phrase, “contemplating hostilities” (Plumptre), though it is doubtful whether open war against Phœnicia would have been permitted by Rome. Perhaps prohibitory tariffs with shutting of ports and markets were what Agrippa had in view. Tyre and Sidon.—The first mention of these Phœnician cities in the Acts. For their antiquity and splendour see Isaiah 23:7-8; Ezekiel 27:28. Blastus.—Judging from his name may have been a Roman, and from the epithet, ὁ ἐπὶ τοῦ κοιτῶνος, præfectus cubiculi, cubicularis, was a chamberlain like Candace’s minister (Acts 8:27), though not like him a eunuch.
Acts 12:21. The set day.—According to Josephus was August 1st, and the second day of the public games celebrated by Agrippa in honour of Claudius (Jos., Ant., XIX. viii. 2). The royal apparel.—Was wholly of silver and of a contexture truly wonderful. The throne, or judgment seat, had been prepared for him in the theatre.
Acts 12:23. For the read an angel of the Lord. Smote him … eaten of worms … gave up the ghost.—According to Josephus (Ant., XIX. viii. 2), the disease, which was acute disorder of the bowels, smote the king with sudden and violent pain. Forthwith he was carried out of the theatre a dying man; and in five days—i.e., on August 6th, he was dead. Compare the deaths of Joram (2 Chronicles 21:19), Antiochus Epiphanes (2Ma. 9:5-10), and of Herod the Great (Jos., Ant., XVII. vi. 5). As to the nature of this disease by which Agrippa was cut off see “Homiletical Analysis.” The suggestion that Herod was poisoned by Blastus, the king’s valet, whom the Phœnicians had gained over for this purpose (Renan), is scarcely worthy of consideration, having no plausible support either from Josephus or Luke.
Acts 12:24. But the word of God grew and multiplied.—An antithesis to the horrible end of the persecuting king. (Compare Acts 5:12 ff., Acts 6:7; Acts 9:31.)
Acts 12:25. And Barnabas and Saul returned.—Not to, as some authorities read, but from Jerusalem.—Shortly after Herod’s death. How long they remained in the metropolis is not stated, but it is not likely to have been long. Alford thinks their arrival should be placed after Herod’s death, as “of all the persons whose execution would be pleasing to the Jews Saul would hold the foremost place.” Took with them John, whose surname was Mark.—See Acts 12:12, whence the inference has been drawn that Barnabas and Saul, while in the city, belonged to the congregation that assembled in John’s mother’s house.
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 12:20-25
The Death of Herod; or, the Church’s Persecutor punished
I. The occasion of, and circumstances connected with, Herod’s death (Acts 12:20-22).—
1. The place where it occurred—Cœsarea (see on Acts 8:40). If Luke suggests that Herod’s motive for leaving Jerusalem and taking up his quarters in that “city of sumptuous palaces” (Conybeare and Howson, The Life and Epistles of Paul, 2:306) was the disgust felt in consequence of failing in his project to remove Peter, Josephus (Ant., XIX. vii. 3, viii. 2) so far confirms this as to state that while Agrippa “loved to live at Jerusalem,” he suddenly, after reigning three years over all Judæa, “came to the city of Cæsarea” with the obvious intention of residing there for a season.
2. The time when it happened. Manifestly within a month or two after Peter’s deliverance, though the precise date is not specified. The interval between Herod’s murder of James, shortly before the Passover of A.D. 44, and God’s judgment on Herod, in August A.D. 44, was sufficiently short to show that in the monarch’s overthrow the martyr’s death was divinely avenged.
3. The occasion on which it took place. According to Luke that was the reception of an embassy from the cities of Tyre and Sidon, with which at the time Herod was displeased. The ground of this displeasure, though not stated, may be assumed to have been the commercial rivalry existing between those ancient ports and the newly founded harbour of Cæsarea. In consequence of this the Phœnicians, it may be supposed, had been subjected to prohibitory measures which prevented them from obtaining supplies of corn out of Palestine, and accordingly were aroused to embrace the opportunity afforded them by Agrippa’s presence in Cæsarea to approach him with overtures for peace, which were laid before him by a friend of theirs at court—viz., Blastus, the king’s chamberlain. According to the story in the Acts Herod died, or at least received his death stroke, on the day when the Phœnician ambassadors were admitted to his presence, and while he himself, arrayed in royal apparel and seated upon his throne, was making to them a bombastical harangue. Josephus agrees with Luke in mentioning that Herod’s mortal malady seized him in a crowded assembly; and though the Jewish historian does not mention Herod’s quarrel with the Phœnicians or the presence of their ambassadors in the meeting, but ascribes the vast gatherings to a festival which at the time was being held in the city “to make vows for his safety,” possibly in honour of his return from Britain which took place that year, A.D. 44, nevertheless he (Josephus) says nothing to contradict Luke’s account, while he concurs with the sacred writer in affirming that the special flattery offered to Agrippa was that of calling him a god. According to Luke the people shouted—“The voice of a god and not of a man!” According to Josephus, “his flatterers cried out, one from one place and another from another, though not for his good, that he was a god,” adding, “Be thou merciful to us, for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Both forms of utterance may have been used, though Josephus’s appears like a paraphrase of Luke’s. The result, however, will remain unaffected, even if Luke should be held as having abbreviated the exclamations of the people.
II. The cause and the reason of Herod’s death (Acts 12:23).
1. The cause was twofold.
(1) The natural, material, instrumental, and visible cause was a violent distemper of the bowels, which the sacred writer describes more particularly by saying “He was eaten of worms.” According to Josephus “a severe pain arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner.” “The two accounts considered together,” writes Sir Risdon Bennett (The Diseases of the Bible, p. 101), “leave scarcely any room for doubt that the cause of death was perforation of the bowels by intestinal worms, inducing ulceration and acute peritonitis,” instances of which, he adds, are well known to medical science. “Without doubt,” says Leyrer, “one must think of abscesses and worm ulcers (ulcera verminosa), out of which, when they break up, maggots creep forth” (quoted by Keil, Biblische Archœologie, p. 564). To the same effect speaks Kamphausen in Riehm’s Handwörterbuch, art. Krankheiten):—“It is well known that masses of round worms can break through a place in the bowels which has been rendered thin by suppuration, or even through stoppage of the bowels lead to a horrible death; nor is it less certain that through ulcer holes worms can empty themselves out.”
(2) The supernatural, immaterial, direct, and invisible cause was the hand of God to which Luke points by writing, “An angel of the Lord smote him.” If Josephus does not introduce an angel into his report, it would almost seem as if by his story of the ill-omened bird, the owl, which Herod saw in the theatre (see Ant., XIX. viii. 2), he intended to suggest the direct interposition of Heaven in bringing about Agrippa’s death; and, indeed, according to Josephus, Agrippa himself regarded it in this light, and exclaimed when he saw the bird, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was called immortal, am immediately to be carried, away by death.”
2. The reason. “Because he gave not God the glory,” writes Luke; which Josephus confirms by saying, “Upon this the king did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery.” He, a Jew, to whom it was a foremost article in religion that Jehovah alone was God, and that to set up a creature alongside of Him was blasphemy and worthy of death (Matthew 26:66), had allowed himself to suck in and drink down the adulation of puny mortals, and had actually began to consider himself a superior being, if not a veritable God; and so Jehovah, who is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5), smote him till he died.
III. The effect and consequence of Herod’s death.—
1. The people rejoiced. “When it was known that Agrippa was departed this life, the inhabitants of Cæsarea and Sebaste forgot the kindnesses he had bestowed upon them, and acted the part of his bitterest enemies.… They also laid themselves down in public places and celebrated general feastings, with garlands on their heads, and with ointments and libations to Charon, and drinking to one another for joy that the king was dead” (Jos., Ant., XIX. ix. 1). What a commentary—and not selected from the Bible—on the vanity of popular applause, and the insincerity of popular adulation!
2. The word of God grew and multiplied. Grew in weight and influence upon the hearts of those who listened to it; grew in the extent and circumference over which it travelled; grew in its power of overcoming difficulties and in making friends. Multiplied itself by multiplying the number of believers, by drawing towards the young Church crowds of men and women who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and cast in their lot with His cause.
1. The certainty that God will avenge the blood of His martyrs (Deuteronomy 32:43; Luke 18:7).
2. The vanity of attempting to war with God (Isaiah 27:4; compare Iliad, v. 407, “By no means is he long lived who fights with the immortals”).
3. The wickedness of doing anything to rob God of His glory (Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 48:11).
4. The ultimate triumph of the gospel over all obstacles (Isaiah 11:9; Mark 13:10).
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 12:20-23. The Sin and Punishment of Herod.
I. How the measure of his iniquity was filled up.—It was pride that did it.
1. He picked a quarrel with his neighbours, the men of Tyre and Sidon.
2. He displayed before them his royal grandeur.
3. He accepted from them their senseless flattery.
4. He glorified himself above them as a god.
II. How the wickedness of his conduct was punished.—He who had killed James and would have slain Peter was himself destroyed.
1. The agent in his destruction was no less than an angel. The angel of the Lord who smote Peter on the side for life now smote the guilty Herod in the heart for death.
2. The instrument of Herod’s destruction was no more than a worm. The body in the grave is destroyed by worms, but Herod’s body putrefied while he was yet alive, and bred the worms which began to feed on it betimes. See
(1) what weak and contemptible creatures God can make the instruments of His justice when He pleases; and
(2) how God delights to bring down proud men in such a way as is most mortifying, and pours most contempt upon them.—After M. Henry.
I. A proud man humbled.
II. A wicked man punished.
III. A powerful man weakened.
Acts 12:1-23. God alone King. Proved:—
I. In the early death of James.
II. In the miraculous deliverance of Peter.
III. In the horrible end of Herod.—Gerok.
Acts 12:2-23. The Deaths of James and of Herod.
I. (The apostle died) by the violence of man, (the king) by the visitation of God.
II. (The apostle), mature in grace; (the king), ripe in sin.
III. (The apostle,) lamented by his brethren; (the king) execrated by his subjects.
IV. (The apostle,) to ascend to glory; (the king) to go to his own place.
Acts 12:24. The Progress of the Gospel in Apostolic Times.
I. The opposition it encountered.—From—
1. Jewish prejudices.
2. Heathen superstitions.
3. Human learning.
4. Satanic influence.
II. The success it achieved.—
1. It was widely published.
2. Its influence was extensive.
3. Its converts were multiplied.
III. The causes which enabled it to overcome opposition and attain success.—
1. The power of the Spirit.
2. The zeal of its preachers.
3. The holy lives of its disciples.
4. The unity of the Church. 5. The persecutions it suffered.
Acts 12:24. The Progress of the Kingdom of God.
I. It has its origin in a seed.—“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed” (Matthew 13:31-32). That seed is the truth of the gospel, which is:
1. Divine. Being the word of God (Luke 8:11; 1 Peter 1:23; 1 John 3:9).
2. Vital. Otherwise it would not spring up (Mark 4:27) and operate (Hebrews 4:12).
3. Small. Only a word, a gospel, a message of glad tidings, not a philosophy or a science, or elaborated system of truth.
II. It advances by growth.—Like the seed which extracts nutriment from the soil, the kingdom of God absorbs into itself that which makes it expand by attracting through the power of the gospel souls from the outside world.
III. It lives by reproduction.—As the seed multiplies according to its kind, so do believers who constitute the Church, as it were, reproduce themselves in other believers who are added to the congregation of the faithful.
Acts 12:25. The Home Coming of the Messengers.
I. After a mission well executed.
II. With a fresh recruit to their ranks.
III. In readiness for further service.
The History of John Mark.
I. His family connections.—
1. The son of a pious mother. Mary was a disciple. In this respect Mark resembled Timothy (Acts 16:1.). While grace does not run in the blood, there is an antecedent presumption that the piety of parents will reappear in their offspring. Mothers especially have an innate tendency to transmit their characters to their sons. How much pious mothers have in this way benefited both the Church and the world may be inferred from the annals of both, but will never be known till the day reveals.
2. The cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). Not sister’s son, in which case his father may have been the father of Barnabas; but cousin, so that his father and Barnabas’s may have been brothers, if the cousinship did not come through his mother. In any case, it was to Mark’s advantage that he stood so closely related to the Son of Consolation.
II. His excellent character.—
1. Fundamentally good. Like his mother he was a Christian disciple, having probably been converted by Peter, who afterwards affectionately regarded him as his son (1 Peter 5:13), though of course the term “son,” as applied by Peter to Mark, may have referred to the service rendered by Mark to Peter. and this Mark may not have been John Mark, but either an actual son of the apostle’s (Bengel), or Mark the evangelist (Eusebius).
2. Constitutionally timid. As much as this may be feasibly inferred from his desertion of Paul and Barnabas at Perga (Acts 13:13), on account probably of the hardships and dangers of the way. Grace does not all at once revolutionise a man’s natural temperament. Indeed, many good Christians have to struggle against constitutional infirmities all their lives.
3. Ultimately steadfast. This shines out conspicuously in his subsequent career. None reading of his after labours can doubt that Mark overcame his youthful indecision and became a splendid soldier of the cross. Youthful faults and indiscretions should not be allowed to hinder future usefulness or progress. Neither should they be used by others to disparage later merit.
III. His honourable career.—
1. An attendant of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5). Decidedly a good beginning, though it speedily came to a termination, for which he should not now be too severely judged. A colleague of Barnabas, after he and Paul had parted (Acts 15:37; Acts 15:39). Barnabas must have discerned in him elements of good notwithstanding his former lack of fortitude.
3. A companion of Paul in his imprisonment at Rome (Colossians 4:10-11; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24); so that even Paul had come to recognise his true nobility of soul and to set a high value on his ministerial and friendly assistance. A lesson that old saints should not be too severe in judging the faults of young Christians.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Acts 12". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28