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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Acts 12

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-3

Chapter 8

THE DEFEAT OF PRIDE.

Acts 12:1-3; Acts 12:23-24

THE chapter at which we have now arrived is very important from a chronological point of view, as it brings the sacred narrative into contact with the affairs of the external world concerning which we have independent knowledge. The history of the Christian Church and of the outside world for the first time clearly intersect, and we thus gain a fixed point of time to which we can refer. This chronological character of the twelfth chapter of the Acts arises from its introduction of Herod and the narrative of the second notable persecution which the Church at Jerusalem had to endure. The appearance of a Herod on the scene and the tragedy in which he was the actor demand a certain amount of historical explanation, for, as we have already noted in the case of St. Stephen five or six years previously, Roman procurators and Jewish priests and the Sanhedrin then possessed or at least used the power of the sword in Jerusalem, while a word had not been heard of a Herod exercising capital jurisdiction in Judaea for more than forty years. Who was this Herod? Whence came he? How does he emerge so suddenly upon the stage? As great confusion exists in the minds of many Bible students about the ramifications of the Herodian family and the various offices and governments they held, we must make a brief digression in order to show who and whence this Herod was concerning whom we are told, -"Now about that time Herod the king put forth his hands to afflict certain of the Church."

This Herod Agrippa was a grandson of Herod the Great, and displayed in the solitary notice of him which Holy Scripture has handed down many of the characteristics, cruel, bloodthirsty, and yet magnificent, which that celebrated sovereign manifested throughout his life. The story of Herod Agrippa his grandson was a real romance. He made trial of every station in life. He had been at times a captive, at times a conqueror. He had at various periods experience, of a prison house and of a throne. He had felt the depths of poverty, and had not known where to borrow money sufficient to pay his way to Rome. He had tasted of the sweetness of affluence, and had enjoyed the pleasures of magnificent living. He had been a subject and a ruler, a dependent on a tyrant, and the trusted friend and councillor of emperors. His story is worth telling. He was born about ten years before the Christian era, and was the son of Aristobulus, one of the sons of Herod the Great. After the death of Herod, his grandfather, the Herodian family were scattered all over the world. Some obtained official positions; others were obliged to shift for themselves, depending on the fragments of the fortune which the great king had left them. Agrippa lived at Rome till about the year 30 A.D., associating with Drusus, the son of the Emperor Tiberius, by whom he was led into the wildest extravagance. He was banished from Rome about that year, and was obliged to retire to Palestine, contenting himself with the small official post of Ædile of Tiberias in Galilee, given him by his uncle Herod Antipas, which he held about the time when our Lord was teaching in that neighbourhood. During the next six years the fortunes of Agrippa were of the most chequered kind. He soon quarrelled with Antipas, and is next found a fugitive at the court of Antioch with the Prefect of the East. He there borrowed from a moneylender the sum of £800 at 12.5 per cent. interest, to enable him to go to Rome and push his interests at the imperial court. He was arrested, however, for a large debt due to the Treasury just when he was embarking, and consigned to prison, whence the very next day he managed to escape, and fled to Alexandria. There he again raised another timely loan, and thus at last succeeded in getting to Rome. Agrippa attached himself to Caligula, the heir of the empire, and after various chances was appointed by him King of Trachonitis, a dominion which Caligula and subsequently Claudius enlarged by degrees, till in the year 41 he was invested with the kingdom of the whole of Palestine, including Galilee, Samaria, and Judaea, of which Agrippa proceeded to take formal possession about twelve months before the events recorded in the twelfth chapter of Acts.

Herod’s career had been marked by various changes, but in one respect he had been consistent. He was ever a thorough Jew, and a vigorous and useful friend to his fellow-countrymen. We have already noticed that his influence had been used with Caligula to induce the Emperor to forego his mad project of erecting his statue in the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem. Herod had, however, one great drawback in the eyes of the priestly faction at Jerusalem. All the descendants of Herod the Great were tainted by their Edomite blood, which they inherited through him. Their kind offices and support were accepted indeed, but only grudgingly. Herod felt this, and it was quite natural therefore for the newly appointed king to strive to gain all the popularity he could with the dominant party at Jerusalem by persecuting the new sect which was giving them so much trouble. No incident could possibly have been more natural, more consistent with the facts of history, as well as with the known dispositions and tendencies of human nature than that recorded in these words-"Now about that time Herod the king put forth his hands to afflict certain of the Church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword." Herod’s act was a very politic one from a worldly point of view. It was a hard dose enough for the Jewish people to swallow, to find a king imposed upon them by an idolatrous Gentile power; but it was some alleviation of their lot that the king was a Jew, and a Jew so devoted to the service of the ruling hierarchy that he was willing to use his secular power to crush the troublesome Nazarene sect whose doctrine threatened for ever to destroy all hopes of a temporal restoration for Israel. Such being the historical setting of the picture presented to us, let us apply ourselves to the spiritual application and lessons of this incident in apostolic history. We have here a martyrdom, a deliverance, and a Divine judgment, which will all repay careful study.

I. A martyrdom is here brought under our notice, and that the first martyrdom among the apostles. Stephen’s was the first Christian martyrdom, but that of James was the first apostolic martyrdom. When Herod, following his grandfather’s footsteps, would afflict the Church, "he killed James the brother of John with the sword." We must carefully distinguish between two martyrs of the same name who have both found a place in the commemorations of Christian hope and love. May-day is the feast devoted to the memory of St. Philip and St. James, July 25th is the anniversary consecrated to the memorial of St. James the Apostle, whose death is recorded in the passage now under consideration. The latter was the brother of John and son of Zebedee; the former was the brother or cousin, according to the flesh, of our Lord. St. James the Apostle perished early in the Church’s history. St. James the Just flourished for more than thirty years after the Resurrection. He lived indeed to a comparatively advanced period of the Church’s history, as is manifest from a study of the Epistle which he wrote to the Jewish Christians of the Dispersion. He there rebukes shortcomings and faults, respect for the rich and contempt of the poor, oppression and outrage and irreverence, which could never have found place in that first burst of love and devotion to God which the age of our Herodian martyr witnessed, but must have been the outcome of long years of worldly prosperity and ease. James the Just, the stern censor of Christian morals and customs, whose language indeed in its severity has at times caused one-sided and narrow Christians much trouble, must often have looked back with regret and longing to the purer days of charity and devotion when James the brother of John perished by the sword of Herod.

Again, we notice about this martyred apostle that, though there is very little told us concerning his life and actions, he must have been a very remarkable man. He was clearly remarkable for his Christian privileges. He was one of the apostles specially favoured by our Lord. He was admitted by Him into the closest spiritual converse. Thus we find that, with Peter and John, James the Apostle was one of the three selected by our Lord to behold the first manifestation of His power over the realms of the dead when He restored the daughter of Jairus to life; with the same two, Peter and John, he was privileged to behold our Saviour receive the first foretaste of His heavenly glory upon the Mount of Transfiguration; and with them too he was permitted to behold his great Master drink the first draught of the cup of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. James the Apostle had thus the first necessary qualification for an eminent worker in the Lord’s vineyard. He had been admitted into Christ’s most intimate friendship, he knew much of his Lord’s will and mind. And the privileges thus conferred upon St. James had not been misused or neglected. He did not hide his talent in the dust of idleness, nor wrap it round with the mantle of sloth. He utilised his advantages. He became a foremost, if not indeed the foremost worker for his loved Lord in the Church of Jerusalem, as is intimated by the opening words of this passage, which tells us that when Herod wished to harass and vex the Church he selected James the brother of John as his victim; and we may be sure that with the keen instinct of a persecutor, Herod selected not the least prominent and useful, but the most devoted and energetic champion of Christ to satisfy his cruel purpose. And yet, though James was thus privileged and thus faithful and thus honoured by God, his active career is shrouded thick round with clouds and darkness. We know nothing of the good works and brave deeds and powerful sermons he devoted to his Master’s cause. We are told simply of the death by which he glorified God. All else is hidden with God till that day when the secret thoughts and deeds of every man shall be revealed. This incident in early apostolic Church history is a very typical one, and teaches many a lesson very necessary for these times and for all times. If an apostle so privileged and so faithful was content to do work, and then to pass away without a single line of memorial, a single word to keep his name or his labours fresh among men, how much more may we, petty, faithless, trifling as we are, be contented to do our duty, and to pass away without any public recognition! And yet how we all do crave after such recognition! How intensely we long for human praise and approval! How useless we esteem our labours unless they are followed by it! How inclined we are to make the fallible judgment of man the standard by which we measure our actions, instead of having the mind’s eye ever steadily fixed, as James the brother of John had, on His approval alone who now seeing our secret trials, struggles, efforts, will one day reward His faithful followers openly!

This is one great lesson which this typical passage by its silence as well as by its speech clearly teaches the Church of every age.

Again, this martyrdom of St. James proclaims yet another lesson. God hereby warns the Church against the idolatry of human agents, against vain trust in human support. Let us consider the circumstances of the Church at that time. The Church had just passed through a season of violent persecution, and had lost one of its bravest and foremost soldiers in the person of Stephen, the martyred deacon. And now there was impending over the Church what is often more trying far than a time, short, and sharp, of violence and blood, -a period of temporal distress and suffering, trying the principles and testing the endurance of the weaker brethren in a thousand petty trifles. It was a time when the courage, the wisdom, the experience of the tried and trusted leaders would be specially required, to guide the Church amid the many new problems which day by day were cropping up. And yet it was just then, at such a crisis, that the Lord permits the bloody sword of Herod to be stretched forth and removes one of the very chiefest champions of the Christian host just when his presence seemed most necessary. It must have appeared a dark and trying dispensation to the Church of that day; but though attended doubtless with some present drawbacks and apparent disadvantages, it was well and wisely done to warn the Church of every age against mere human dependence, mere temporal refuges; teaching by a typical example that it is not by human might or earthly wisdom, not by the eloquence of man or the devices of earth that Christ’s Church and the people must be saved; that it is by His own right hand, and by His own holy arm alone our God will get Himself the victory.

Yet again we may learn from this incident another lesson rich-laden with comfort and instruction. This martyrdom of St. James throws us back upon a circumstance which occurred during our Lord’s last journey to Jerusalem before His crucifixion, and interprets it for us. Let us recall it. Our Lord was going up to Jerusalem, and His disciples were following Him with wondering awe. The shadow of the Cross, projecting itself forward, made itself unconsciously felt throughout the little company, and men were astonished, though they knew not why. They simply felt as men do on a close sultry summer’s day when a thunderstorm is overhead, that something awful was impending. They had, however, a vague feeling that the kingdom of God would shortly appear, and so the mother of Zebedee’s children, with all that boldness which affection lends to feminine minds, drew near and strove to secure a boon before all others for her own children. She prayed that to her two sons might be granted the posts of honour in the temporal kingdom she thought of as now drawing so very near. The Lord replied to her request in very deep and far-reaching language, the meaning of which she then understood not, but learned afterwards through the discipline of pain and sorrow and death: "Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" And then, when James and John had professed their ability, he predicts their future fate: "My cup indeed ye shall drink." The mother and the sons alike spoke bold words, and offered a sincere but an ignorant prayer. Little indeed did the mother dream as she presented her petition-"Command that these my two sons may sit, one on Thy right hand, and one on Thy left hand in Thy kingdom"-how that prayer would be answered, and yet answered it was. To the one son, James, was granted the one post of honour. He was made to sit on the Master’s right hand, for he was the first of the apostles called to enter into Paradise through a baptism of blood. While to the other son, St. John, was granted the other post of honour, for he was left the longest upon earth to guide, direct, and sustain the Church by his inspired wisdom, large experience, and apostolic authority. The contrast between the prayer offered up to Christ in ignorance and shortsightedness, and the manner in which the same prayer was answered in richest abundance, suggests to us the comforting reflection that no prayer offered up in sincerity and truth is ever really left unanswered. We may indeed never see how the prayer is answered. The mother of St. James may little have dreamt, as she beheld her son’s lifeless body brought home to her, that this trying dispensation was a real answer to her ambitious petition. But we can now see that it was so, and can thus learn a lesson of genuine confidence, of holy boldness, of strong faith in the power of sincere and loving communion with God. Let us only take care to cultivate the same spirit of genuine humility and profound submission which possessed the soul of those primitive Christians, enabling them to say, no matter how their petitions were answered, whether in joy or sorrow, in smiles or tears, in riches or poverty, "Not my will, but Thine, O Lord, be done."

II. We have again in this twelfth chapter the record of a Divine deliverance. Herod, seeing that the Jewish authorities were pleased because they had now a sympathetic ruler who understood their religious troubles and was resolved to help in quelling them, determined to proceed farther in the work of repression. He arrested another prominent leader, St. Peter, and cast him into prison. The details are given to us of Herod’s action and Peter’s arrest. Peter was now making his first acquaintance with Roman methods of punishment. He had been indeed previously arrested and imprisoned, but his arrest had been carried out by the Jewish authorities, and he had been consigned to the care of the Temple police, and had occupied the Temple prison. But Herod, though a strict Jew in religion, had been thoroughly Romanised in matters of rule and government, and therefore he treated St. Peter after the Roman fashion: "When he had taken him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quarternions of soldiers to guard him; intending after the Passover to bring him forth to the people." He was delivered to sixteen men, who divided the night into four watches, four men watching at a time, after the Roman method of discipline. And then, in contrast to all this preparation, we are told how the Church betook herself to her sure refuge and strong tower of defence: "Peter therefore was kept in prison; but prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him." These early Christians had not had their faith limited or weakened by discussions whether petitions for temporal blessings were a proper subject of prayer, or whether spiritual blessings did not alone supply true matter for supplication before the Divine throne. They were in the first fervour of Christian love, and they did not theorise, define, or debate about prayer and its efficacy. They only knew that their Master had told them to pray, and had promised to answer sincere prayer, as He alone knew how; and so they gathered themselves in instant, ceaseless prayer at the foot of the throne of grace. I say "ceaseless" prayer because it seems that the Jerusalem Church, feeling its danger, organised a continuous service of prayer. "Prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him" is the statement of the fifth verse, and then when St. Peter was released "he came to the house of Mary, where many were gathered together and were praying," though the night must have been far advanced. The crisis was a terrible one; the foremost champion, St. James, had been taken, and now another great leader was threatened, and therefore the Church flung herself at the feet of the Master seeking deliverance, and was not disappointed, as the Church has never since been disappointed when she has cast herself in lowliness and profound submission before the same holy sanctuary. The narrative then proceeds to give us the particulars of St. Peter’s deliverance, as St. Peter himself seems to have told it to St. Luke, for we have details given us which could only have come either directly or indirectly from the person most immediately concerned. But of these we shall treat in a little. The story now introduces the supernatural, and for the believer this is quite in keeping with the facts of the case. A great crisis in the history of the Jerusalem Church has arrived. The mother Church of all Christendom, the fountain and source of original Christianity, is threatened with extinction. The life of the greatest existing leader of that Church is at stake, and that before his work is done. The very existence of the Christian revelation seems imperilled, and God sends forth an angel, a heavenly messenger, to rescue His endangered servant, and to prove to unbelieving Jew, to the haughty Herod, and to the frightened but praying disciples alike the care which He ever exercises over His Church and people. Here, however, a question may be raised. How was it that an angel, a supernatural messenger, was despatched to the special rescue of St. Peter? Why was not the same assistance vouchsafed to St. James, who had just been put to death? Why was not the same assistance vouchsafed to St. Peter himself when he was martyred at Rome, or to St. Paul when he lay in the dungeon in the same city of Rome or at Caesarea? Simply, we reply, because God’s hour was not yet come and the Apostle’s work was not yet done. St. James’s work was done, and therefore the Lord did not immediately interfere, or rather He summoned His servant to His assigned post of honour by the ministry of Herod. The wrath of man became the instrument whereby the praises of God were chanted and the soul of the righteous conveyed to its appointed place. The Lord did not interfere when St. Paul was cast into the prison house at Caesarea, or St. Peter incarcerated in the Roman dungeon, because they had then a great work to do in showing how His servants can suffer as well as work. But now St. Peter had many a long year of active labour before him and much work to do as the Apostle of the Circumcision in preventing that schism with which the diverse parties and opposing ideas of Jew and Gentile threatened the infant Church, in smoothing over and reconciling the manifold oppositions, jealousies, difficulties, misunderstandings, which ever attend such a season of transition and transformation as now was fast dawning upon the Divine society. The arrest of St. Peter and his threatened death was a great crisis in the history of the primitive Church. St. Peter’s life was very precious to the existence of that Church, it was very precious for the welfare of mankind at large, and so it was a fitting time for God to raise up a banner against triumphant pride and worldly force by the hand of a supernatural messenger.

The steps by which St. Peter was delivered are all of them full of edification and comfort. Let us mark them. "When Herod was about to bring him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and guards before the door kept the prison." It was on that fateful night the same as when the angels descended on the Resurrection morning; the guards were in their rightful place and discharging their accustomed duties, but when God intervenes then human precautions are all useless. The words of the narrative are striking in their quiet dignity. There is no working up of details. There is no pandering to mere human curiosity. Everything is in keeping with the sustained force, sublimity, elevation which we ever behold in the Divine action. Peter was. sleeping between two soldiers; one chained to each arm, so that he could not move without awaking them. He was sleeping profoundly and calmly, because he felt himself in the hands of an Almighty Father who will order everything for the best. The interior rest amid the greatest trials which an assured confidence like that enjoyed by St. Peter can confer is something marvellous, and has not been confined to apostolic times. Our Lord’s servants have in every age proved the same wondrous power. I know of course that criminals are often said to enjoy a. profound sleep the night before their execution. But then habitual criminals and hardened murderers have their spiritual natures so completely overmastered and dominated by their lower material powers that they realise nothing beyond. the present. They are little better than the beasts which perish, and think as little of the future as they do. But persons with highly strung nervous powers, who realise the awful change impending over them, cannot be as they, specially if they have no such sure hope as that which sustained St. Peter. He slept calmly here as Paul and Silas rejoiced in the Philippian prison house, as the Master Himself slept calmly in the stern of the wave-rocked boat on the Galilean lake, because he knew himself to be reposing in the arms of Everlasting Love, and this knowledge bestowed upon him a sweet and calm repose at the moment of supreme danger of which the fevered children of time know nothing.

And now all the circumstances of the celestial visit are found to be most suitable and becoming. The angel stood by Peter. A light shined in the cell, because light is the very element in which these heavenly beings spend their existence. The chains which bind St. Peter fell off without any effort human or angelic, just as in a few moments the great gate of the prison opened of its own accord, because all these things, bonds and bolts and bars, derive all their coercive power from the will of God, and when that will changes or is withdrawn they cease to be operative, or become the instruments of the very opposite purpose, assisting and not hindering His servants. Then the angel’s actions and directions are characteristic in their dignified vigour. He told the awakened sleeper to act promptly: "He smote him on the side, and awoke him, saying, Rise up quickly." But there is no undue haste. As on the Resurrection morning the napkin that was upon Christ’s head was found not lying with the rest of the grave-cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself, so too on this occasion the angel shows minute care for Peter’s personal appearance. There must be nothing undignified, careless, untidy even, about the dress of the rescued apostle: "Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals." St. Peter had naturally laid aside his external garments, had unloosed his inner robes, and taken off his sandals when preparing for sleep. Nothing, however, escapes the heavenly messenger, and so he says, "Cast thy garment about thee, and follow Me," referring to the loose upper robe or overcoat which the Jews wore over their underclothes; and then the angel led him forth, teaching the Church the perpetual lesson that external dignity of appearance is evermore becoming to God’s people, when not even an angel considered these things beneath his notice amid all the excitement of a midnight rescue, nor did the inspired writer omit to record such apparently petty details. Nothing about St. Peter was too trivial for the angel’s notice and direction, as again nothing in life is too trivial for the sanctifying and elevating care of our holy religion. Dress, food, education, marriage, amusements, all of life’s work and of life’s interests, are the subject matter whereon the principles inculcated by Jesus Christ and taught by the ministry of His Church are to find their due scope and exercise.

Peter’s deliverance was now complete. The angel conducted him through one street to assure him that he was really free and secure him from bewilderment, and then departed. The Apostle thereupon sought out the well-known centre of Christian worship, "the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark," where stood the upper chamber, honoured as no other chamber had ever been. There he made known his escape, and then retired to some secret place where Herod could not find him, remaining there concealed till Herod was dead and direct Roman law and authority were once more in operation at Jerusalem. There are two or three details in this narrative that are deserving of special notice, as showing that St. Luke received the story most probably from St. Peter himself. These touches are expressions of St. Peter’s inner thoughts, which could have been known only to St. Peter, and must have been derived from him. Thus we are told about his state of mind when the angel appeared: "He wist not that it was true which was done by the angel, but thought he saw a vision." Again, after his deliverance, we are told of the thoughts which passed through his mind, the words which rose to his lips when he found himself once again a free man: "When Peter was come to himself he said, Now I know of a truth that the Lord hath sent forth His angel, and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews." While, again, how true to life and to the female nature is the incident of the damsel Rhoda! She came across the courtyard to hearken and see who was knocking at the outer gate at that late hour: "When. she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for joy, but ran in and told that Peter stood before the gate." We behold the impulsiveness of the maid. She quite forgot the Apostle’s knocking at the gate in her eager desire to convey the news to his friends. And, again, how true to nature their scepticism! They were gathered praying for Peter’s release, but so little did they expect an answer to their prayers that, when the answer does come, and in the precise way that they were asking for it, and longing for it, they are astonished, and tell the maid-servant who bore the tidings, "Thou art mad." We pray as the primitive Church did, and that constantly; but is it not with us as with them? We pray indeed, but we do not expect our prayers to be answered, and therefore we do not profit by them as we might.

Such were the circumstances of St. Peter’s deliverance, which was a critical one for the Church. It struck a blow at Herod’s new policy of persecution unto death; it may have induced him to depart from Jerusalem and descend to Caesarea, where he met his end, leaving the Church at Jerusalem in peace; and the deliverance must have thrown a certain marvellous halo round St. Peter when he appeared again at Jerusalem, enabling him to occupy a more prominent position without any fear for his life.

III. We have also recorded in this chapter a notable defeat of pride, ostentation, and earthly power. The circumstances are well known. Herod, vexed perhaps by his disappointment in the matter of Peter, went down to Caesarea, which his grandfather had magnificently adorned. But he had other reasons too. He had a quarrel with the men of Tyre and Sidon, and he would take effective measures against them. Tyre and Sidon were great seaports and commercial towns, but their country did not produce food sufficient for the maintenance of its inhabitants, just as England, the emporium of the world’s commerce, is obliged to depend for its food supplies upon other and distant lands. The men of Tyre and Sidon were not, however, unacquainted with the ways of Eastern courts. They bribed the king’s chamberlain, and Herod was appeased. There was another motive which led Herod to Caesarea. It was connected with his Roman experience and with his courtier-life. The Emperor Claudius Caesar was his friend and patron. To him Herod owed his restoration to the rich dominions of his grandfather. That emperor had gone in the previous year, A.D. 43, to conquer Britain. He spent six months in our northern regions in Gaul and Britain, and. then, when smitten by the cold blasts of midwinter, he fled to the south again, as so many of our own people do now. He arrived in Rome in the January of the year 44, and immediately ordered public games to be celebrated in honour of his safe return, assuming as a special name the title Britannicus. These public shows were imitated everywhere throughout the empire as soon as the news of the Roman celebrations arrived. The tidings would take two or three months to arrive at Palestine, and the Passover may have passed before Herod heard of his patron’s doings. Jewish scruples would not allow him to celebrate games after the Roman fashion at Jerusalem, and for this purpose therefore he descended to the Romanised city of Caesarea, where all the appliances necessary for that purpose were kept in readiness. There is thus a link which binds together the history of our own nation and this interesting incident in early Christian history. The games were duly celebrated, but they were destined to be Herod’s last act. On an appointed day he sat in the theatre of Caesarea to receive the ambassadors from Tyre and Sidon. He presented himself early in the morning to the sight of the multitude, clad in a robe of silver which flashed in the light, reflecting back the rays of the early sun and dazzling the mixed multitude-supple, crafty Syrians, paganised Samaritans, self-seeking and worldly-wise Phoenicians. He made a speech in response to the address of the envoys, and then the flattering shout arose, "The voice of a god, and not of a man." Whereupon the messenger of God smote Herod with that terrible form of disease which accompanies unbounded self-indulgence and luxury, and the proud tyrant learned what a plaything of time, what a mere creature of a day is a king as much as a beggar, as shown by the narrative preserved by Josephus of this event. He tells us that, when seized by the mortal disease, Herod looked upon his friends, and said, "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 by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death." What a striking picture of life’s changes and chances, and of the poetic retributions we at times behold in the course of God’s Providence! One short chapter of the Acts shows us Herod triumphant side by side with Herod laid low, Herod smiting apostles with the sword side by side with Herod himself smitten to death by the Divine sword. A month’s time may have covered all the incidents narrated in this chapter. But short as the period was, it must have been rich in support and consolation to the apostles Saul and Barnabas, who were doubtless deeply interested spectators of the rapidly shifting scene, telling them clearly of the heavenly watch exercised over the Church. They had come up from Antioch, bringing alms to render aid to their afflicted brethren in Christ. The famine, as we have just now seen from the anxiety of the men of Tyre and Sidon to be on friendly terms with Herod, was rapidly making itself felt throughout Palestine and the adjacent lands, and So the deputies of the Antiochene Church hurried up to Jerusalem with the much-needed gifts. It may indeed be said, how could St. Paul hope to escape at such a time? Would it not have been madness for him to risk his safety in a city where he had once been so well known? But, then, we must remember that it was at the Passover season Saul and Barnabas went from Antioch to Jerusalem. Vast crowds then entered the Holy City, and a solitary Jew or two from Antioch might easily escape notice among the myriads which then assembled from all quarters. St. Paul enjoyed too a wonderful measure of the Spirit’s guidance, and that Spirit told him that he had yet much work to do for God. The Apostle had wondrous prudence joined with wondrous courage, and we may be sure that he took wisest precautions to escape the sword of Herod which would have so eagerly drunk his blood. He remained in Jerusalem all the time of the Passover. His clear vision of the spiritual world must then have been most precious and most sustaining. All the apostles were doubtless scattered; James was dead, and Peter doomed to death. The temporal troubles, famine and poverty, which called Saul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, brought with them corresponding spiritual blessings, as we still so often find, and the brave words of the chosen vessel, the Vas Electionis, aided by the sweet gifts of the Son of Consolation, may have been very precious and very helpful to those devout souls in the Jerusalem Church who gathered themselves for continuous prayer in the house of Mary the mother of John, teaching them the true character, the profound views, the genuine religion of one whose earlier life had been so very different and whose later views may have been somewhat suspected. Saul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem at a terrible crisis, they saw the crisis safely passed, and then they returned to an atmosphere freer and broader than that of Jerusalem, and there in the exercise of a devoted ministry awaited the further manifestation of the Divine purposes.


Verse 23-24

elete_me Acts 12:23-24

Chapter 8

THE DEFEAT OF PRIDE.

Acts 12:1-3; Acts 12:23-24

THE chapter at which we have now arrived is very important from a chronological point of view, as it brings the sacred narrative into contact with the affairs of the external world concerning which we have independent knowledge. The history of the Christian Church and of the outside world for the first time clearly intersect, and we thus gain a fixed point of time to which we can refer. This chronological character of the twelfth chapter of the Acts arises from its introduction of Herod and the narrative of the second notable persecution which the Church at Jerusalem had to endure. The appearance of a Herod on the scene and the tragedy in which he was the actor demand a certain amount of historical explanation, for, as we have already noted in the case of St. Stephen five or six years previously, Roman procurators and Jewish priests and the Sanhedrin then possessed or at least used the power of the sword in Jerusalem, while a word had not been heard of a Herod exercising capital jurisdiction in Judaea for more than forty years. Who was this Herod? Whence came he? How does he emerge so suddenly upon the stage? As great confusion exists in the minds of many Bible students about the ramifications of the Herodian family and the various offices and governments they held, we must make a brief digression in order to show who and whence this Herod was concerning whom we are told, -"Now about that time Herod the king put forth his hands to afflict certain of the Church."

This Herod Agrippa was a grandson of Herod the Great, and displayed in the solitary notice of him which Holy Scripture has handed down many of the characteristics, cruel, bloodthirsty, and yet magnificent, which that celebrated sovereign manifested throughout his life. The story of Herod Agrippa his grandson was a real romance. He made trial of every station in life. He had been at times a captive, at times a conqueror. He had at various periods experience, of a prison house and of a throne. He had felt the depths of poverty, and had not known where to borrow money sufficient to pay his way to Rome. He had tasted of the sweetness of affluence, and had enjoyed the pleasures of magnificent living. He had been a subject and a ruler, a dependent on a tyrant, and the trusted friend and councillor of emperors. His story is worth telling. He was born about ten years before the Christian era, and was the son of Aristobulus, one of the sons of Herod the Great. After the death of Herod, his grandfather, the Herodian family were scattered all over the world. Some obtained official positions; others were obliged to shift for themselves, depending on the fragments of the fortune which the great king had left them. Agrippa lived at Rome till about the year 30 A.D., associating with Drusus, the son of the Emperor Tiberius, by whom he was led into the wildest extravagance. He was banished from Rome about that year, and was obliged to retire to Palestine, contenting himself with the small official post of Ædile of Tiberias in Galilee, given him by his uncle Herod Antipas, which he held about the time when our Lord was teaching in that neighbourhood. During the next six years the fortunes of Agrippa were of the most chequered kind. He soon quarrelled with Antipas, and is next found a fugitive at the court of Antioch with the Prefect of the East. He there borrowed from a moneylender the sum of £800 at 12.5 per cent. interest, to enable him to go to Rome and push his interests at the imperial court. He was arrested, however, for a large debt due to the Treasury just when he was embarking, and consigned to prison, whence the very next day he managed to escape, and fled to Alexandria. There he again raised another timely loan, and thus at last succeeded in getting to Rome. Agrippa attached himself to Caligula, the heir of the empire, and after various chances was appointed by him King of Trachonitis, a dominion which Caligula and subsequently Claudius enlarged by degrees, till in the year 41 he was invested with the kingdom of the whole of Palestine, including Galilee, Samaria, and Judaea, of which Agrippa proceeded to take formal possession about twelve months before the events recorded in the twelfth chapter of Acts.

Herod’s career had been marked by various changes, but in one respect he had been consistent. He was ever a thorough Jew, and a vigorous and useful friend to his fellow-countrymen. We have already noticed that his influence had been used with Caligula to induce the Emperor to forego his mad project of erecting his statue in the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem. Herod had, however, one great drawback in the eyes of the priestly faction at Jerusalem. All the descendants of Herod the Great were tainted by their Edomite blood, which they inherited through him. Their kind offices and support were accepted indeed, but only grudgingly. Herod felt this, and it was quite natural therefore for the newly appointed king to strive to gain all the popularity he could with the dominant party at Jerusalem by persecuting the new sect which was giving them so much trouble. No incident could possibly have been more natural, more consistent with the facts of history, as well as with the known dispositions and tendencies of human nature than that recorded in these words-"Now about that time Herod the king put forth his hands to afflict certain of the Church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword." Herod’s act was a very politic one from a worldly point of view. It was a hard dose enough for the Jewish people to swallow, to find a king imposed upon them by an idolatrous Gentile power; but it was some alleviation of their lot that the king was a Jew, and a Jew so devoted to the service of the ruling hierarchy that he was willing to use his secular power to crush the troublesome Nazarene sect whose doctrine threatened for ever to destroy all hopes of a temporal restoration for Israel. Such being the historical setting of the picture presented to us, let us apply ourselves to the spiritual application and lessons of this incident in apostolic history. We have here a martyrdom, a deliverance, and a Divine judgment, which will all repay careful study.

I. A martyrdom is here brought under our notice, and that the first martyrdom among the apostles. Stephen’s was the first Christian martyrdom, but that of James was the first apostolic martyrdom. When Herod, following his grandfather’s footsteps, would afflict the Church, "he killed James the brother of John with the sword." We must carefully distinguish between two martyrs of the same name who have both found a place in the commemorations of Christian hope and love. May-day is the feast devoted to the memory of St. Philip and St. James, July 25th is the anniversary consecrated to the memorial of St. James the Apostle, whose death is recorded in the passage now under consideration. The latter was the brother of John and son of Zebedee; the former was the brother or cousin, according to the flesh, of our Lord. St. James the Apostle perished early in the Church’s history. St. James the Just flourished for more than thirty years after the Resurrection. He lived indeed to a comparatively advanced period of the Church’s history, as is manifest from a study of the Epistle which he wrote to the Jewish Christians of the Dispersion. He there rebukes shortcomings and faults, respect for the rich and contempt of the poor, oppression and outrage and irreverence, which could never have found place in that first burst of love and devotion to God which the age of our Herodian martyr witnessed, but must have been the outcome of long years of worldly prosperity and ease. James the Just, the stern censor of Christian morals and customs, whose language indeed in its severity has at times caused one-sided and narrow Christians much trouble, must often have looked back with regret and longing to the purer days of charity and devotion when James the brother of John perished by the sword of Herod.

Again, we notice about this martyred apostle that, though there is very little told us concerning his life and actions, he must have been a very remarkable man. He was clearly remarkable for his Christian privileges. He was one of the apostles specially favoured by our Lord. He was admitted by Him into the closest spiritual converse. Thus we find that, with Peter and John, James the Apostle was one of the three selected by our Lord to behold the first manifestation of His power over the realms of the dead when He restored the daughter of Jairus to life; with the same two, Peter and John, he was privileged to behold our Saviour receive the first foretaste of His heavenly glory upon the Mount of Transfiguration; and with them too he was permitted to behold his great Master drink the first draught of the cup of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. James the Apostle had thus the first necessary qualification for an eminent worker in the Lord’s vineyard. He had been admitted into Christ’s most intimate friendship, he knew much of his Lord’s will and mind. And the privileges thus conferred upon St. James had not been misused or neglected. He did not hide his talent in the dust of idleness, nor wrap it round with the mantle of sloth. He utilised his advantages. He became a foremost, if not indeed the foremost worker for his loved Lord in the Church of Jerusalem, as is intimated by the opening words of this passage, which tells us that when Herod wished to harass and vex the Church he selected James the brother of John as his victim; and we may be sure that with the keen instinct of a persecutor, Herod selected not the least prominent and useful, but the most devoted and energetic champion of Christ to satisfy his cruel purpose. And yet, though James was thus privileged and thus faithful and thus honoured by God, his active career is shrouded thick round with clouds and darkness. We know nothing of the good works and brave deeds and powerful sermons he devoted to his Master’s cause. We are told simply of the death by which he glorified God. All else is hidden with God till that day when the secret thoughts and deeds of every man shall be revealed. This incident in early apostolic Church history is a very typical one, and teaches many a lesson very necessary for these times and for all times. If an apostle so privileged and so faithful was content to do work, and then to pass away without a single line of memorial, a single word to keep his name or his labours fresh among men, how much more may we, petty, faithless, trifling as we are, be contented to do our duty, and to pass away without any public recognition! And yet how we all do crave after such recognition! How intensely we long for human praise and approval! How useless we esteem our labours unless they are followed by it! How inclined we are to make the fallible judgment of man the standard by which we measure our actions, instead of having the mind’s eye ever steadily fixed, as James the brother of John had, on His approval alone who now seeing our secret trials, struggles, efforts, will one day reward His faithful followers openly!

This is one great lesson which this typical passage by its silence as well as by its speech clearly teaches the Church of every age.

Again, this martyrdom of St. James proclaims yet another lesson. God hereby warns the Church against the idolatry of human agents, against vain trust in human support. Let us consider the circumstances of the Church at that time. The Church had just passed through a season of violent persecution, and had lost one of its bravest and foremost soldiers in the person of Stephen, the martyred deacon. And now there was impending over the Church what is often more trying far than a time, short, and sharp, of violence and blood, -a period of temporal distress and suffering, trying the principles and testing the endurance of the weaker brethren in a thousand petty trifles. It was a time when the courage, the wisdom, the experience of the tried and trusted leaders would be specially required, to guide the Church amid the many new problems which day by day were cropping up. And yet it was just then, at such a crisis, that the Lord permits the bloody sword of Herod to be stretched forth and removes one of the very chiefest champions of the Christian host just when his presence seemed most necessary. It must have appeared a dark and trying dispensation to the Church of that day; but though attended doubtless with some present drawbacks and apparent disadvantages, it was well and wisely done to warn the Church of every age against mere human dependence, mere temporal refuges; teaching by a typical example that it is not by human might or earthly wisdom, not by the eloquence of man or the devices of earth that Christ’s Church and the people must be saved; that it is by His own right hand, and by His own holy arm alone our God will get Himself the victory.

Yet again we may learn from this incident another lesson rich-laden with comfort and instruction. This martyrdom of St. James throws us back upon a circumstance which occurred during our Lord’s last journey to Jerusalem before His crucifixion, and interprets it for us. Let us recall it. Our Lord was going up to Jerusalem, and His disciples were following Him with wondering awe. The shadow of the Cross, projecting itself forward, made itself unconsciously felt throughout the little company, and men were astonished, though they knew not why. They simply felt as men do on a close sultry summer’s day when a thunderstorm is overhead, that something awful was impending. They had, however, a vague feeling that the kingdom of God would shortly appear, and so the mother of Zebedee’s children, with all that boldness which affection lends to feminine minds, drew near and strove to secure a boon before all others for her own children. She prayed that to her two sons might be granted the posts of honour in the temporal kingdom she thought of as now drawing so very near. The Lord replied to her request in very deep and far-reaching language, the meaning of which she then understood not, but learned afterwards through the discipline of pain and sorrow and death: "Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" And then, when James and John had professed their ability, he predicts their future fate: "My cup indeed ye shall drink." The mother and the sons alike spoke bold words, and offered a sincere but an ignorant prayer. Little indeed did the mother dream as she presented her petition-"Command that these my two sons may sit, one on Thy right hand, and one on Thy left hand in Thy kingdom"-how that prayer would be answered, and yet answered it was. To the one son, James, was granted the one post of honour. He was made to sit on the Master’s right hand, for he was the first of the apostles called to enter into Paradise through a baptism of blood. While to the other son, St. John, was granted the other post of honour, for he was left the longest upon earth to guide, direct, and sustain the Church by his inspired wisdom, large experience, and apostolic authority. The contrast between the prayer offered up to Christ in ignorance and shortsightedness, and the manner in which the same prayer was answered in richest abundance, suggests to us the comforting reflection that no prayer offered up in sincerity and truth is ever really left unanswered. We may indeed never see how the prayer is answered. The mother of St. James may little have dreamt, as she beheld her son’s lifeless body brought home to her, that this trying dispensation was a real answer to her ambitious petition. But we can now see that it was so, and can thus learn a lesson of genuine confidence, of holy boldness, of strong faith in the power of sincere and loving communion with God. Let us only take care to cultivate the same spirit of genuine humility and profound submission which possessed the soul of those primitive Christians, enabling them to say, no matter how their petitions were answered, whether in joy or sorrow, in smiles or tears, in riches or poverty, "Not my will, but Thine, O Lord, be done."

II. We have again in this twelfth chapter the record of a Divine deliverance. Herod, seeing that the Jewish authorities were pleased because they had now a sympathetic ruler who understood their religious troubles and was resolved to help in quelling them, determined to proceed farther in the work of repression. He arrested another prominent leader, St. Peter, and cast him into prison. The details are given to us of Herod’s action and Peter’s arrest. Peter was now making his first acquaintance with Roman methods of punishment. He had been indeed previously arrested and imprisoned, but his arrest had been carried out by the Jewish authorities, and he had been consigned to the care of the Temple police, and had occupied the Temple prison. But Herod, though a strict Jew in religion, had been thoroughly Romanised in matters of rule and government, and therefore he treated St. Peter after the Roman fashion: "When he had taken him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quarternions of soldiers to guard him; intending after the Passover to bring him forth to the people." He was delivered to sixteen men, who divided the night into four watches, four men watching at a time, after the Roman method of discipline. And then, in contrast to all this preparation, we are told how the Church betook herself to her sure refuge and strong tower of defence: "Peter therefore was kept in prison; but prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him." These early Christians had not had their faith limited or weakened by discussions whether petitions for temporal blessings were a proper subject of prayer, or whether spiritual blessings did not alone supply true matter for supplication before the Divine throne. They were in the first fervour of Christian love, and they did not theorise, define, or debate about prayer and its efficacy. They only knew that their Master had told them to pray, and had promised to answer sincere prayer, as He alone knew how; and so they gathered themselves in instant, ceaseless prayer at the foot of the throne of grace. I say "ceaseless" prayer because it seems that the Jerusalem Church, feeling its danger, organised a continuous service of prayer. "Prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him" is the statement of the fifth verse, and then when St. Peter was released "he came to the house of Mary, where many were gathered together and were praying," though the night must have been far advanced. The crisis was a terrible one; the foremost champion, St. James, had been taken, and now another great leader was threatened, and therefore the Church flung herself at the feet of the Master seeking deliverance, and was not disappointed, as the Church has never since been disappointed when she has cast herself in lowliness and profound submission before the same holy sanctuary. The narrative then proceeds to give us the particulars of St. Peter’s deliverance, as St. Peter himself seems to have told it to St. Luke, for we have details given us which could only have come either directly or indirectly from the person most immediately concerned. But of these we shall treat in a little. The story now introduces the supernatural, and for the believer this is quite in keeping with the facts of the case. A great crisis in the history of the Jerusalem Church has arrived. The mother Church of all Christendom, the fountain and source of original Christianity, is threatened with extinction. The life of the greatest existing leader of that Church is at stake, and that before his work is done. The very existence of the Christian revelation seems imperilled, and God sends forth an angel, a heavenly messenger, to rescue His endangered servant, and to prove to unbelieving Jew, to the haughty Herod, and to the frightened but praying disciples alike the care which He ever exercises over His Church and people. Here, however, a question may be raised. How was it that an angel, a supernatural messenger, was despatched to the special rescue of St. Peter? Why was not the same assistance vouchsafed to St. James, who had just been put to death? Why was not the same assistance vouchsafed to St. Peter himself when he was martyred at Rome, or to St. Paul when he lay in the dungeon in the same city of Rome or at Caesarea? Simply, we reply, because God’s hour was not yet come and the Apostle’s work was not yet done. St. James’s work was done, and therefore the Lord did not immediately interfere, or rather He summoned His servant to His assigned post of honour by the ministry of Herod. The wrath of man became the instrument whereby the praises of God were chanted and the soul of the righteous conveyed to its appointed place. The Lord did not interfere when St. Paul was cast into the prison house at Caesarea, or St. Peter incarcerated in the Roman dungeon, because they had then a great work to do in showing how His servants can suffer as well as work. But now St. Peter had many a long year of active labour before him and much work to do as the Apostle of the Circumcision in preventing that schism with which the diverse parties and opposing ideas of Jew and Gentile threatened the infant Church, in smoothing over and reconciling the manifold oppositions, jealousies, difficulties, misunderstandings, which ever attend such a season of transition and transformation as now was fast dawning upon the Divine society. The arrest of St. Peter and his threatened death was a great crisis in the history of the primitive Church. St. Peter’s life was very precious to the existence of that Church, it was very precious for the welfare of mankind at large, and so it was a fitting time for God to raise up a banner against triumphant pride and worldly force by the hand of a supernatural messenger.

The steps by which St. Peter was delivered are all of them full of edification and comfort. Let us mark them. "When Herod was about to bring him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and guards before the door kept the prison." It was on that fateful night the same as when the angels descended on the Resurrection morning; the guards were in their rightful place and discharging their accustomed duties, but when God intervenes then human precautions are all useless. The words of the narrative are striking in their quiet dignity. There is no working up of details. There is no pandering to mere human curiosity. Everything is in keeping with the sustained force, sublimity, elevation which we ever behold in the Divine action. Peter was. sleeping between two soldiers; one chained to each arm, so that he could not move without awaking them. He was sleeping profoundly and calmly, because he felt himself in the hands of an Almighty Father who will order everything for the best. The interior rest amid the greatest trials which an assured confidence like that enjoyed by St. Peter can confer is something marvellous, and has not been confined to apostolic times. Our Lord’s servants have in every age proved the same wondrous power. I know of course that criminals are often said to enjoy a. profound sleep the night before their execution. But then habitual criminals and hardened murderers have their spiritual natures so completely overmastered and dominated by their lower material powers that they realise nothing beyond. the present. They are little better than the beasts which perish, and think as little of the future as they do. But persons with highly strung nervous powers, who realise the awful change impending over them, cannot be as they, specially if they have no such sure hope as that which sustained St. Peter. He slept calmly here as Paul and Silas rejoiced in the Philippian prison house, as the Master Himself slept calmly in the stern of the wave-rocked boat on the Galilean lake, because he knew himself to be reposing in the arms of Everlasting Love, and this knowledge bestowed upon him a sweet and calm repose at the moment of supreme danger of which the fevered children of time know nothing.

And now all the circumstances of the celestial visit are found to be most suitable and becoming. The angel stood by Peter. A light shined in the cell, because light is the very element in which these heavenly beings spend their existence. The chains which bind St. Peter fell off without any effort human or angelic, just as in a few moments the great gate of the prison opened of its own accord, because all these things, bonds and bolts and bars, derive all their coercive power from the will of God, and when that will changes or is withdrawn they cease to be operative, or become the instruments of the very opposite purpose, assisting and not hindering His servants. Then the angel’s actions and directions are characteristic in their dignified vigour. He told the awakened sleeper to act promptly: "He smote him on the side, and awoke him, saying, Rise up quickly." But there is no undue haste. As on the Resurrection morning the napkin that was upon Christ’s head was found not lying with the rest of the grave-cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself, so too on this occasion the angel shows minute care for Peter’s personal appearance. There must be nothing undignified, careless, untidy even, about the dress of the rescued apostle: "Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals." St. Peter had naturally laid aside his external garments, had unloosed his inner robes, and taken off his sandals when preparing for sleep. Nothing, however, escapes the heavenly messenger, and so he says, "Cast thy garment about thee, and follow Me," referring to the loose upper robe or overcoat which the Jews wore over their underclothes; and then the angel led him forth, teaching the Church the perpetual lesson that external dignity of appearance is evermore becoming to God’s people, when not even an angel considered these things beneath his notice amid all the excitement of a midnight rescue, nor did the inspired writer omit to record such apparently petty details. Nothing about St. Peter was too trivial for the angel’s notice and direction, as again nothing in life is too trivial for the sanctifying and elevating care of our holy religion. Dress, food, education, marriage, amusements, all of life’s work and of life’s interests, are the subject matter whereon the principles inculcated by Jesus Christ and taught by the ministry of His Church are to find their due scope and exercise.

Peter’s deliverance was now complete. The angel conducted him through one street to assure him that he was really free and secure him from bewilderment, and then departed. The Apostle thereupon sought out the well-known centre of Christian worship, "the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark," where stood the upper chamber, honoured as no other chamber had ever been. There he made known his escape, and then retired to some secret place where Herod could not find him, remaining there concealed till Herod was dead and direct Roman law and authority were once more in operation at Jerusalem. There are two or three details in this narrative that are deserving of special notice, as showing that St. Luke received the story most probably from St. Peter himself. These touches are expressions of St. Peter’s inner thoughts, which could have been known only to St. Peter, and must have been derived from him. Thus we are told about his state of mind when the angel appeared: "He wist not that it was true which was done by the angel, but thought he saw a vision." Again, after his deliverance, we are told of the thoughts which passed through his mind, the words which rose to his lips when he found himself once again a free man: "When Peter was come to himself he said, Now I know of a truth that the Lord hath sent forth His angel, and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews." While, again, how true to life and to the female nature is the incident of the damsel Rhoda! She came across the courtyard to hearken and see who was knocking at the outer gate at that late hour: "When. she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for joy, but ran in and told that Peter stood before the gate." We behold the impulsiveness of the maid. She quite forgot the Apostle’s knocking at the gate in her eager desire to convey the news to his friends. And, again, how true to nature their scepticism! They were gathered praying for Peter’s release, but so little did they expect an answer to their prayers that, when the answer does come, and in the precise way that they were asking for it, and longing for it, they are astonished, and tell the maid-servant who bore the tidings, "Thou art mad." We pray as the primitive Church did, and that constantly; but is it not with us as with them? We pray indeed, but we do not expect our prayers to be answered, and therefore we do not profit by them as we might.

Such were the circumstances of St. Peter’s deliverance, which was a critical one for the Church. It struck a blow at Herod’s new policy of persecution unto death; it may have induced him to depart from Jerusalem and descend to Caesarea, where he met his end, leaving the Church at Jerusalem in peace; and the deliverance must have thrown a certain marvellous halo round St. Peter when he appeared again at Jerusalem, enabling him to occupy a more prominent position without any fear for his life.

III. We have also recorded in this chapter a notable defeat of pride, ostentation, and earthly power. The circumstances are well known. Herod, vexed perhaps by his disappointment in the matter of Peter, went down to Caesarea, which his grandfather had magnificently adorned. But he had other reasons too. He had a quarrel with the men of Tyre and Sidon, and he would take effective measures against them. Tyre and Sidon were great seaports and commercial towns, but their country did not produce food sufficient for the maintenance of its inhabitants, just as England, the emporium of the world’s commerce, is obliged to depend for its food supplies upon other and distant lands. The men of Tyre and Sidon were not, however, unacquainted with the ways of Eastern courts. They bribed the king’s chamberlain, and Herod was appeased. There was another motive which led Herod to Caesarea. It was connected with his Roman experience and with his courtier-life. The Emperor Claudius Caesar was his friend and patron. To him Herod owed his restoration to the rich dominions of his grandfather. That emperor had gone in the previous year, A.D. 43, to conquer Britain. He spent six months in our northern regions in Gaul and Britain, and. then, when smitten by the cold blasts of midwinter, he fled to the south again, as so many of our own people do now. He arrived in Rome in the January of the year 44, and immediately ordered public games to be celebrated in honour of his safe return, assuming as a special name the title Britannicus. These public shows were imitated everywhere throughout the empire as soon as the news of the Roman celebrations arrived. The tidings would take two or three months to arrive at Palestine, and the Passover may have passed before Herod heard of his patron’s doings. Jewish scruples would not allow him to celebrate games after the Roman fashion at Jerusalem, and for this purpose therefore he descended to the Romanised city of Caesarea, where all the appliances necessary for that purpose were kept in readiness. There is thus a link which binds together the history of our own nation and this interesting incident in early Christian history. The games were duly celebrated, but they were destined to be Herod’s last act. On an appointed day he sat in the theatre of Caesarea to receive the ambassadors from Tyre and Sidon. He presented himself early in the morning to the sight of the multitude, clad in a robe of silver which flashed in the light, reflecting back the rays of the early sun and dazzling the mixed multitude-supple, crafty Syrians, paganised Samaritans, self-seeking and worldly-wise Phoenicians. He made a speech in response to the address of the envoys, and then the flattering shout arose, "The voice of a god, and not of a man." Whereupon the messenger of God smote Herod with that terrible form of disease which accompanies unbounded self-indulgence and luxury, and the proud tyrant learned what a plaything of time, what a mere creature of a day is a king as much as a beggar, as shown by the narrative preserved by Josephus of this event. He tells us that, when seized by the mortal disease, Herod looked upon his friends, and said, "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 by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death." What a striking picture of life’s changes and chances, and of the poetic retributions we at times behold in the course of God’s Providence! One short chapter of the Acts shows us Herod triumphant side by side with Herod laid low, Herod smiting apostles with the sword side by side with Herod himself smitten to death by the Divine sword. A month’s time may have covered all the incidents narrated in this chapter. But short as the period was, it must have been rich in support and consolation to the apostles Saul and Barnabas, who were doubtless deeply interested spectators of the rapidly shifting scene, telling them clearly of the heavenly watch exercised over the Church. They had come up from Antioch, bringing alms to render aid to their afflicted brethren in Christ. The famine, as we have just now seen from the anxiety of the men of Tyre and Sidon to be on friendly terms with Herod, was rapidly making itself felt throughout Palestine and the adjacent lands, and So the deputies of the Antiochene Church hurried up to Jerusalem with the much-needed gifts. It may indeed be said, how could St. Paul hope to escape at such a time? Would it not have been madness for him to risk his safety in a city where he had once been so well known? But, then, we must remember that it was at the Passover season Saul and Barnabas went from Antioch to Jerusalem. Vast crowds then entered the Holy City, and a solitary Jew or two from Antioch might easily escape notice among the myriads which then assembled from all quarters. St. Paul enjoyed too a wonderful measure of the Spirit’s guidance, and that Spirit told him that he had yet much work to do for God. The Apostle had wondrous prudence joined with wondrous courage, and we may be sure that he took wisest precautions to escape the sword of Herod which would have so eagerly drunk his blood. He remained in Jerusalem all the time of the Passover. His clear vision of the spiritual world must then have been most precious and most sustaining. All the apostles were doubtless scattered; James was dead, and Peter doomed to death. The temporal troubles, famine and poverty, which called Saul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, brought with them corresponding spiritual blessings, as we still so often find, and the brave words of the chosen vessel, the Vas Electionis, aided by the sweet gifts of the Son of Consolation, may have been very precious and very helpful to those devout souls in the Jerusalem Church who gathered themselves for continuous prayer in the house of Mary the mother of John, teaching them the true character, the profound views, the genuine religion of one whose earlier life had been so very different and whose later views may have been somewhat suspected. Saul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem at a terrible crisis, they saw the crisis safely passed, and then they returned to an atmosphere freer and broader than that of Jerusalem, and there in the exercise of a devoted ministry awaited the further manifestation of the Divine purposes.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Acts 12:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/acts-12.html.

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Monday, December 16th, 2019
the Third Week of Advent
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