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Observe here, 1. Satan, the grand enemy of the church of God, never wants instruments for carrying on his persecuting designs against the church; he had many Pharaohs in the Old Testament times, bitter oppressors of the Jewish church; and several Herods under the New Testament; as Herod Antipas, and Herod Agrippa, who were very warm in the worst works, namely, that of persecution. "Herod stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church;" that is, to kill some, and to imprison others.
Satan's bloodhounds have such an insatiable thirst after the blood of the saints that they can never be satiated with it, nor satisfied without it. A tyrannical persecutor is like an hydropic person, the more he drinks, the more he thirsts.
Note here, 1. The person slain by the sword of Herod, James the brother of John. We read in the gospel that he was one of the sons of Zebedee, that desired of Christ the pre-eminence to sit at his right hand in his kingdom: and now he is the first of the apostles that suffered matrydom who drank of Christ's cup, and was baptized with his baptism. He was called Boanerges, or a son of thunder, for his zealous and earnest preaching: No wonder then that Herod and the enraged Jews hated him, and were stirred up by Satan to destroy him. For such as are most useful to, and most eminent in the church, are always the objects of Satan's wrath and anger, and of the persecutor's rage and fury: "He killed James the brother of John with the sword."
Observe, 2. James being slain, Peter is to follow; "He proceeded further to take Peter also." The rage of persecutors is not easily satisfied, and the blood which they shed, is but oil to feed the flames of their revenge.
But mark the over-ruling power and goodness of God, though St. James was murdered, St. Peter shall be but imprisoned: The husbandman doth not permit all his corn to the oven, but saves some for seed.
Persecutors cannot do all the mischief they would, and they shall not do all they can.
Peter being imprisoned, observe, What an excess of care and caution Herod takes for securing his prisoner: Sixteen soldiers are set to guard him; four at a time, and to take their turns at the four watches of the night, to relieve one another.
Thence learn, That the enemies of the church make the surest work they can, when at any time God permits his servants to fall into any of their hands. Thus they dealt with the Head, when they had apprehended him; The watch-word was Hold him fast, Matthew 26:48. When they crucified him, they nailed him fast to his cross: when they buried him, they made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch: And thus they deal with some soldiers chained to him, and others always standing at the door to observe him. But all this care, concern, and caution to secure the prisoner, did illustrate the glory of the miracle in his wonderful deliverance.
That is, fervent and importunate prayer was put up to God by the church on Peter's behalf: With the united strength of their whole souls they stormed heaven, and took him by force out of Herod's hand.
Learn, 1. That when the church is plunged into deep perplexities, the only help she can hope for must come unto her in the way of prayer.
Learn, 2. That when God suffers any of the ministers of the church to fall under the rage of persecutors, it is the church's duty to wrestle with God by prayer in an extraordinary manner on their behalf; "prayer was made without ceasing of the church."
Learn 3. That when God intends to bestow any extraordinary mercy upon his church, he stirs up the hearts of his people to pray for it in a very extraordinary manner.
Observe, Peter continued in prison till the very night before Herod intended to bring him out to the people: And if they desired it, it is probable he intended to put him to death the next day.
Learn thence, That God oft-times suffers his children to come to the pit's brink, and then delivers them, that they may be the more sensible of his mercy, and have the greater cause to magnify his power. Peter was now come to his last night; the tyrant Herod probably intended his execution next morning. Now was the time for God to step in: Our extremity is his opportunity.
Observe farther, That notwithstanding Peter's imminent and impending danger, he sleeps very soundly, resigning up himself into the hands of Christ, and resolving, if he may no longer live Christ's servant, that he will die his sacrifice. I question whether Herod that imprisoned him slept half so soundly.
Lord! how soft and secure a pillow is a good conscience, even in the confines of death, and in the very jaws of danger!
Observe lastly, That God takes most care of Peter, when he was able to take least care of himself: When he was asleep, and altogether insensible of his danger, God was awake, and acting effectually in order to his deliverance.
Happy prisoners! who have God with them in prison; such are prisoners of hope indeed, and shall certainly experience divine help.
Observe here, 1. That God hath sometimes made use of the ministry of angels to effect deliverance for his people.
Observe, 2. That several food offices which the angels now did for Peter, in order to his enlargement. Peter is asleep, and angel awakes him; he is laid, the angel raises him; he is amazed, the angel directs him; he is bound, the angel unties him; he knows not where he is, the angel goes before him, and guides him; he is to pass through many difficulties, the angel conducts him.
Lord! How innumerable are the good offices which at thy command the holy angels do for us, though they are not sensibly in this manner apprehended by us! What love and service do we owe to thee! What honour and respect should we pay to them for their care over us, and attendance upon us!
Observe, 3. Peter must arise, gird himself, bind on his sandals, cast his garment about him, follow the angel, and use his own endeavours in order to his own deliverance. God will have him use the means, even then when he was about to work a miracle for him.
What a tempting of God is it then to neglect the means, when we cannot expect miracles!
As to trust to means, is to neglect God, so to neglect the means, is to tempt God. We must always subserve the providence of God in the use of such means as his wisdom has appointed and directed us unto.
Observe lastly, That this deliverance was so amazing and surprizing, that Peter thought it a dream only, Acts 12:9. "He wist not that it was true, but thought he saw a vision."
Learn hence, that sometimes the deliverance of the godly from imminent and apparent dangers, are so very wonderful, and attended with such a crowd of improbabilities, that they have much ado to believe them, though they see them with their eyes. When God turned the captivity of Peter, he was like unto them that dream, Psalms 126:1.
Observe here, 1. The wise and holy course which the church took for the apostles enlargement, and that was keeping a day of prayer. A number of Christians get together, and importune heaven; the enemies plot, the church prays; they shut the prison doors, the church opens heaven's doors, and God gives Peter in, as an answer of prayer, before they rose off from their knees.
Oh how good is it to draw nigh to God! What a prayer-hearing God is our God! How great is the power and prevalency of the conjoined prayers of good men! God's praying people ever have been, and will be, a prevailing people. Whilst these pious souls were in the very act of calling upon God for Peter's release, God gives in Peter released to them. God never wants means for his people's deliverance, when he is once set on work by the prayers of his people.
Observe 2. St. Peter being delivered, meditates whilst he was walking in the streets, and going along by himself, of the greatness of his danger, and the graciousness of his deliverance: Holy and suitable thoughts, pious meditations and ejaculations, do well become us in any place, at all times and upon all occasions, but especially after signal deliverances from signal dangers. We can never enough ruminate upon them, or be sufficiently thankful for them.
Observe, 3. The wisdom and goodness of the divine providence in directing Peter in the dead of the night, to the house where the saints were praying for him. This is the more remarkable, because the angel having done his work which God sent him upon, after he had delivered Peter from his chains and imprisonment, he left him to shift for himself, and to take care of his own safety; but though an angel left him, yet the providence of God conducted him to a place where he was both safe and welcome.
Observe, 4. What an ancient opinion it was, that every good man had a guardian angel appointed him by God, to take a special care of him to his life's end; to direct him in his way, to guard him from dangers, and to deliver him in his distresses; They say, It is his angel. For which saying there could be no reason, had there not been a current opinion among them of guardian angels.
Blessed be God, his holy angels are our keepers, our counsellors, our defenders, our loving and friendly associates: and they shall never depart from us, till they have conducted us safely to our heavenly Father's house, where we shall be "as the angels of God in heaven."
Observe, 5. How Peter gives God, and not the angel, the glory of his deliverance, Acts 12:17. "He declared how the Lord had brought him out of the prison." The angel was but the instrument, God was the principal agent, Acts 12:11. "The Lord hath sent his angel, and delivered me out of the hand of Herod." All deliverances must be ascribed to him who commands deliverance for his people.
Observe, 6. The prudential care which St. Peter takes for his future preservation. "He departed and went to another place." He could not think himself safe whilst Herod was so near, no more than a lamb could be safe near the lion's den. He knew he should be hunted for, therefore escapes for his life. And besides his own danger, he was not willing to endanger his friends, who did now entertain and harbour him: but both for his own and their preservation, he departs to another place.
Learn, That a prudential use of all lawful means for our own and others preservation, in subserviency to the divine providence, is our duty, our wisdom and interest, both as men and Christians.
Observe here, 1. How wicked persecutors are mightily enraged, when their bloody purposes are disappointed. Herod having lost his prize, is so incensed, that he caused the keepers first to be examined, (and possibly by tortures) and then to be put to death.
Observe, 2. The justice of God, and the great injustice of Herod: It was just in God to suffer the soldiers, who were Herod's instruments in persecution, to die by the bloody hand of Herod, whose tools they were. Instruments in persecution God oft-times meets with in this world, and sometimes they fall by the hands of persecutors themselves; yet was it notorious injustice in Herod to put to death those innocent soldiers, who could not help what was done, and were not ways accessary to the prisoner's escape.
Observe, Herod, upon St. Peter's escape out of his hands, leaves Jerusalem, and goes to dwell at Cesarea, where, being highly displeased with the rich citizens of Tyre and Sidon, he designs to make war upon them. But they being sensible tht their cities lying upon the sea coasts, and having little land belonging to them, they must be beholden to Judea and Galilee, which were under Herod's jurisdiction, for a great part of their provisions; therefore they prudently compound the matter with him, knowing that to fight with him who fed them, was the ready way to be famished. And opening the breast of Blastus the king's chamberlain, with a golden key, through the passage they made their access to pacify the king. Interest leads us to pay homage to them, whom our dependency is upon: Yet though men depend upon God for all, for life, and for the comforts and supports of life, which they do enjoy, (our country being nourished by the King of heaven's country) yet how few by prayer do own their dependence upon him, or by praise and thanksgiving do acknowledge the hand that supplies them?
Upon a set day, that is, as some suppose, on his own birthday, he was arrayed in royal apparel, in a cloke made of cloth of silver, but dyed with St. James's blood, Acts 12:2. which being beaten upon by the sun beams, did plainly dazzle the eyes of all spectators; he makes an eloquent oration more gaudy than his apparel, unto the people, who cried out in a approbation thereof, "The voice of a God, and not of a man!"
Herod, instead of repelling this their impious flattery, embraces and hugs their praises , as proper to himself; and thereupon an angel, and worms, the best and the basest of creatures, meet in his punishment; the angel smiting him, and the worms eating him up: And no wonder that worms quickly devour him, whom those flesh-flies had blown upon before; no wonder that he is eaten up of worms, who forgot that he was a worm!
Quest. But why were not the people punished as well as the prince, seeing they were equally guilty of robbing God of his honour. True, Herod was the receiver, but they were the thieves: why then fell not the punishment on the whole multitude?
Ans. Because more discretion is expected from a prince, than from the rabble: Besides, what in them was but a blasphemous compliment, was by his acceptance of it made a reality, and was usurped by him, and assumed to him as due to his deserts.
From the whole note, 1. That flattery, either given or taken, is a very dangerous sin, a God-provoking, and a wrath-procuring sin. If we flatter men, God will not flatter us, but deal plainly, yet severely, with us. One of the ancients said, he was afaid of praise and commendation as much as of a crack of thunder. When men give much glory to men, it is very hard for men to give that glory back again to God. Herod was so pleased and tickled with the glory which the people gave him, that he could not part with it; but by keeping that, he lost his life.
Note, 2. That though God bears long with many sorts of sinners, yet not with sinners of this sort: "Immediately the angel of the Lord smote him:" Agreeably to that of Job 32:22. "I know not how to give flattering titles, for in so doing my Maker would soon take me away." The great God will admit of no corrivals; he will not suffer his glory to be given to another; he will be a swift witness against the flatterer, as well as against the false-swearer, Malachi 3:5. He can destroy both flatterer and flattered with the twinkling of an eye, or with the turning of a hand; and those that are cried up as gods today, are as dung tomorrow.
Observe, Herod the tyrant and persecutor being dead, the gospel prospered, and was preached up and down with great success. Persecutors, by their weak endeavours to pull down the church, do build it up the stronger. The church in Egypt never grew so high as when Pharaoh laboured most to keep it low; the more he molested them, the more he multiplied them.
Thus here, after Herod's death, and Peter's deliverance, the word of God grew and multiplied: that is, the number of believers increased through the preaching of the word, as seed is multiplied by the scattering of the hand; the word preached is the seen sown in the furrows of the field; The ground was now harrowed by the hand of the persecutors, and the seed grew the better, and the fruits of faith and obedience did by every shower of persecution more and more abound.
The truth of God may for a time be oppressed, but it shall never be fully and finally suppressed: still "the word of God grew and multiplied."
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Acts 12". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28