Acts 12: Pulpit Commentary

Chapter 12

Ver. 1.—Put for stretched, A. V.; afflict for vex, A. V. The phrase, About that time, as in ch. 19:23, points to what had just before been related (Meyer). The interposition of the narrative in this chapter between ch. 11:20 and 12:25 evidently implies that the bulk or rather the chief of the events narrated happened in the interval. Which of the events was the chief in the mind of the narrator with reference to his general narrative, and what are the coincidences which he wished to note, it is not easy to say with certainty. The narrative in this chapter doubtless overlaps at both ends the embassy of Paul and Barnabas, but perhaps the object was to show the harassed state of the Church from famine and persecution at the time that Paul and Barnabas were at Jerusalem. Herod the king here mentioned is Herod Agrippa I., grandson of Herod the Great, and son of Aristobulus and Bernice. During the reign of Tiberius he resided at Rome, in alternate favour and disgrace, sometimes banished, sometimes a prisoner, sometimes a guest at the imperial court. He was a great friend of Caius Cæsar Caligula, and, on his succeeding to the empire on the death of Tiberius, was promoted by him to the tetrarchy of Herod Philip, with the title of king. He was further advanced three years afterwards to the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas; and, on the accession of Claudius to the throne, Judæa and Samaria were added to his dominions, which now comprised the whole kingdom of his grandfather, Herod the Great. Agrippa, in spite of his close intimacy with Drusus, Caligula, Claudius, and other Roman magnates, was “exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country, not allowing a day to pass without its appointed sacrifice;” and he had given proof of his strong Jewish feeling by interposing his whole influence with Caligula to prevent his statue being placed in the holy of holies. This spirit accounts for his enmity against the Church. He was a man of very expensive and luxurious habits, but not without some great qualities.

Ver. 2.—James, the son of Zebedee, or James the Elder, to whom, with his brother John, our Lord gave the surname of Boanerges (which is a corruption of בְנִיִ רֶנֶשׁ), sons of thunder. Nothing is recorded of him in the Acts but his presence in the upper room at Jerusalem after the Ascension (ch. 1:13), and this his martyrdom, which was the fulfilment of our Lord’s prediction in Matt. 20:23. His being singled out by Herod for death in company with Peter is rather an indication of his zeal and activity in the Lord’s service, though we know nothing of his work. Eusebius relates an anecdote of his martyrdom, extracted from the lost work of Clement of Alexandria, called the Ὑποτυπώσεις (or in Latin Adumbrationes), which Clement professed to have received by tradition from his predecessors, to the effect that the informer who accused James was so struck with his constancy in confessing Christ before the judge, that he came forward and confessed himself a Christian too. The two were then led off to execution together; and on the way the informer asked James’s forgiveness. After a moment’s hesitation, James said to him, “Peace be unto thee,” and kissed him. They were then both beheaded (‘Eccl. Hist.,’ ii. 9). As Clement flourished about a.d. 190, the tradition need not have passed through more than three persons. It has been thought strange that Luke relates the death of a chief apostle with such brevity. But it did not bear on the main object of his work. Lightfoot (‘Works,’ vol. viii. p. 282, etc.) mentions a fanciful story related by Rabanus Maurus, that about this time the apostles composed the Apostles’ Creed, each contributing one clause, and that the clause contributed by James the brother of John was, “And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”

Ver. 3.—When for because, A. V.; that it pleased for it pleased, A. V.; proceeded for proceeded further, A. V.; seize for take, A. V.; and those for then, A. V. He proceeded to seize (προσέθετο συλλαβεῖν) is a Hebraism. This trait of his pleasing the Jews is in exact accordance with Josephus’s description of him, as τῷ βιοῦν ἐν εὐφημίᾳ χαίρων, loving popularity, and as being very kind and sympathizing with the Jewish people, and liking to live much at Jerusalem (‘Ant. Jud.,’ xix. vii. 3). The days of unleavened bread; i.e. as expressed by Luke 22:1, “The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover.” It lasted seven days (Exod. 12:15–18), from the 14th to the 21st of Nisan, or Abib (Exod. 12:18–20; Lev. 23:5, 6; Deut. 16:1–4), the Passover being eaten on the night of the 14th.

Ver. 4.—Taken for apprehended, A. V.; guard for keep, A. V.; the Passover for Easter, A.V. Four quaternions; i.e. four bands of four soldiers each, which were on guard in succession through the four watches of the night—one quaternion for each watch. The Passover. This is a decided improvement, as the use of the word “Easter” implies that the Christian feast is here meant. But perhaps “Feast of the Passover” would have been better, as showing that the whole seven days are intended. This is, perhaps, the meaning of τὸ πάσχα in John 18:28, and certainly is its meaning here. We have another characteristic trait of the religion of Agrippa, and of his sympathy with the feelings of the Jews about the Law, that he would not allow a trial on a capital charge, or an execution, to take place during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (comp. John 18:8). To bring him forth to the people. Still the same desire uppermost, to propitiate the people by gifts or shows, or by blood; ἀναγαγεῖν means exactly “to bring up” (ch. 9:39; Rom. 10:7, etc.), either on to a stage or on some high ground, where all the people could see him condemned, which would be as good to them as an auto da fè to a Spanish mob, or a gladiatorial slaughter to a Roman audience (see ver. 11).

Ver. 5.—The prison for prison, A. V.; earnestly for without ceasing, A. V. (ἐκτενὴς, or as in the R.T. ἐκτενῶς, has the sense of intensity rather than duration; see Luke 22:14, T.R.; 1 Pet. 1:22; 4:8). As the last of the days of unleavened bread approached, the prayers of the Church would be more and more intense in their earnestness. We have but to read the preceding chapters to judge how precious to the Church the life of Peter must have been.

Ver. 6.—Was about to bring for would have brought, A.V.; guards for the keepers, A.V. What a picture we have here! The dungeon; the double chain fastening the prisoner to two soldiers; the other two soldiers of the quaternion keeping watch at the first and second ward, or station; the iron gate securely fastened; the population of the great city expecting with the morning light to be gratified with the blood of the victim of their bigotry; the king having made his arrangements for the imposing spectacle which was to ingratiate him with his people and obtain the applause he so dearly loved; and then the servant of Jesus Christ sleeping calmly under the shadow of God’s wings; and, a little way off, the Church keeping her solemn watch and pouring forth her intensest prayers through the silence of the night! And the issue, the triumph of the few and the weak over all the power of the many and the strong.

Ver. 7.—An angel for the angel, A.V. (see note on ch. 5:19); stood by him for came upon him, A.V. (comp. Luke 2:9); cell for prison, A.V.; awoke him for raised him up, A.V. (ἤγειρεν αὐτὸν); rise for arise, A.V. Cell. The word οἴκημα, a dwelling, was used by the Athenians as an euphemism for a prison. It only occurs here in the New Testament, though it is a common Greek word. His chains fell off from his hands, showing that each hand had been chained to a soldier. The loosening of the chains would enable him to rise without necessarily awakening the soldiers to whom he was fastened, and who would feel no difference in the chain which was attached to them.

Ver. 8.—He did so for so he did, A.V. Thy garment (ἱμάτιον); especially the outer garment, which was worn over the χιτὼν, or tunic (see Matt. 9:20, 21; 14:36; 23:5, etc.). The girding, therefore, applied to the inner garments, and περιβαλοῦ to the cloak which went over them.

Ver. 9.—Followed for followed him, A.V. and T.R.; he wist for wist, A.V.

Ver. 10.—And when for when, A.V.; into for unto, A.V.; its for his, A.V.; straightway for forthwith, A.V. The first and the second ward. The φυλακή, here rendered “ward,” may mean either the station where the guard was posted or the guard itself. One street; ῥυμή, as in ch. 9:11, note. Departed; ἀπέστη, in contrast to ἐπέστη, rendered “stood by” in ver. 7.

Ver. 11.—Truth for surety, A.V.; sent forth for sent, A.V.; delivered for hath delivered, A.V. Peter’s recognition of the Lord’s hand in sending his angel is exactly echoed in the Collect for Michaelmas Day, “Grant that as thy holy angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth.”

Ver. 12.—And were praying for praying, A.V. When he had considered; better, with Meyer and Alford, when he perceived it, viz. the truth of his deliverance. Mary the mother of John was aunt to Barnabas (Col. 4:10). If Paul and Barnabas were not in her house at the time (which there is no evidence that they were), it is likely that all the particulars of Peter’s escape may have been communicated to Paul by John Mark, and by him repeated to Luke. That they went to the house of Mary before their return seems certain from their taking Mark with them to Antioch (ver. 25), possibly to deliver him from the danger Christians were in at Jerusalem at this time.

Ver. 13.—When he for as Peter, A.V. and T.R.; maid for damsel, A.V.; to answer for to hearken, A.V. (ὑπακοῦσαι). The door of the gate (see ch. 10:17, note). To hearken or listen seems the best rendering. It is the phrase proper to a doorkeeper, whose business it is to go to the door and listen when any one knocks, and find out what their business is before opening the door. This is the primary sense of the word; that of answering after listening is a secondary sense. At a time of such alarm to Christians a knock at the door in the dead of the night would carry terror with it, and careful listening to ascertain whether there was more than one person, and then to ask who was there and what was his business, was the natural course.

Ver. 14.—Joy for gladness, A.V.; that for how, A.V. When she knew Peter’s voice. This evidence of Peter’s intimacy with the family of Mary is in remarkable agreement with 1 Pet. 5:13, “Greet Marcus my son.”

Ver. 15.—Confidently for constantly, A.V. (for the same use of διϊσχυρίζομαι, see Luke 22:59); and they said for then said they, A.V. It is his angel; meaning probably his guardian angel (Matt. 18:10). But the expression is obscure, and we do not know exactly the nature of the belief on which it was grounded. They must have thought that perhaps Peter had been put to death in prison that very night, and that his angel, speaking with his voice, was sent to announce it to the Church. The narrative is a striking instance how “slow of heart to believe” are even the most devout. They were praying very earnestly for Peter’s life; their prayer was granted; and yet the announcement of it only draws out the answer, “Thou art mad!” and then, as an alternative, the explanation, “It is his angel!”

Ver. 16.—Opened for opened the door, A.V.; theyand for andthey, A.V.; amazed for astonished, A.V. (see ch. 8:9, note).

Ver. 17.—Brought him forth for brought him, A.V.; tell for go show, A.V.; to for into, A.V. Beckoning, etc.; κατασείσας τῆ̣ χειρὶ (see ch. 13:16; 19:33; 21:40). It is the action of one having something to say and bespeaking silence while he says it. Unto James. This, of course, is the same James as is mentioned in Gal. 1:19 as “the Lord’s brother,” and who, in Gal. 2:9, 12, and ch. 15:12 and 21:18, as well as here, appears as occupying a peculiar place in the Church at Jerusalem, viz. as all antiquity testifies, as Bishop of Jerusalem. So Hegesippus, quoted by Eusebius (‘Eccl. Hist.,’ ii. 23). “James the Lord’s brother, called by universal consent the Just, received the government of the Church together with the apostles;” and in ii. 1 he quotes Clement of Alexandria as saying that, after the Ascension, Peter, James, and John selected James the Just, the Lord’s brother, to be the first Bishop of Jerusalem. And Eusebius gives it as the general testimony of antiquity that James the Just, the Lord’s brother, was the first who sat on the episcopal throne of Jerusalem. But who he was exactly is a point much controverted. The three hypotheses are: 1. That he was the son of Alphæus or Clopas and Mary, sister to the blessed Virgin, and therefore our Lord’s cousin-german, and called his brother by a common Hebrew idiom. According to this theory he was one of the twelve (Luke 6:15), as he appears to be in Gal. 1:19, though this is not certain (see Bishop Lightfoot, in loc.). 2. That he was the son of Joseph by his first wife, and so stepbrother to the Lord, which is Eusebius’s explanation (‘Eccl. Hist.,’ ii. 1). 3. That he was in the full sense the Lord’s brother, being the son of Joseph and Mary. This is the opinion of Alford (in loc.), fully argued in the ‘Proleg. to the Epistle of James,’ and of Meyer, Credner, and many German commentators. According to these two last hypotheses, he was not one of the twelve. “The apostolic constitutions distinguish between James the son of Alphæus, the apostle, and James the brother of the Lord, ὁ ἐπίσκοπος” (Meyer). It may be added that ch. 1:14 separates the brethren of the Lord from the apostles, who are enumerated in the preceding verses. The hypothesis which identifies James the Lord’s brother with James the son of Alphæus or Clopas and Mary is well argued in Smith’s ‘Dictionary of the Bible,’ art. “James” (see also the able Introduction to the Epistle of James in the ‘Speaker’s Commentary’). It seems impossible to come to a certain conclusion. The weakest point in the hypothesis which identifies James the Lord’s brother with the son of Alphæus is that it fails to account for the distinction clearly made between the Lord’s brothers and the apostles in such passages as John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; ch. 1:13; Matt. 12:46, 49; 1 Cor. 9:5. For the effect of these passages is scarcely neutralized by Gal. 1:19. But then, on the other hand, the hypothesis that the Lord’s brethren, including James and Joses, were the children of Joseph and Mary, seems to be flatly contradicted by the mention of Mary the wife of Clopas as being “the mother of James and Joses” (Mark 15:40; John 19:25). He went to another place. Whether Luke was not informed what the place was, or whether there was some reason why he did not mention it, we cannot tell. The Venerable Bede (‘Prolog. in Expos. in Act. Apost.’), Baronius, and other authorities of the Church of Rome, say he went to Rome, and commenced his episcopate of Rome at this time. Dr. Lightfoot thinks it more probable that he went to Antioch (‘Comm. on Acts,’ in vol. viii. pp. 273, 289). Some guess Cæsarea; but there is no clue really.

Ver. 19.—Guards for keepers, A.V.; tarried there for there abode, A.V.

Ver. 20.—Now he for and Herod, A.V. and T.R.; and for but, A.V.; they asked for for desired, A.V.; fed from for nourished by, A.V. Highly displeased (θυμομαχῶν); only here in the New Testament, but used by Polybius, as well as the kindred word ψυχομαχεῖν, in the sense of having a hostile spirit against any one, maintaining a strong resentment. It describes a state of feeling which may exist before war, during war, and after war when only a hollow peace has been made. Tyre and Sidon at this time were semi-independent cities under the Roman supremacy. The occasion of Herod’s displeasure is not known. Chamberlain; literally, the officer over his bedchamber—his chief groom of the chambers—an office which would give him easy access to the king’s private ear. Was fed. This commerce, by which Palestine supplied Tyre and Sidon with wheat in return for timber, was as old as the time of Solomon at least (1 Kings 5:9, 11); see too Ezek. 27:17, and the decree of Caligula, in which he speaks of the large exportation of corn to Sidon from the Jewish harbour of Joppa (‘Ant. Jud.,’ xiv. x. 6).

Ver. 21.—Arrayed himself for arrayed, A.V.; and sat for sat, A.V. and T.R.; on the throne for upon his throne, A.V. On the throne. Βῆμα does not mean “the king’s throne,” and is nowhere so rendered in the A.V. but here. It means any raised stage or platform upon which a judge, or an orator, or any one wishing to address an assembly, stands. Here it means a high platform in the theatre at Cæsarea, from whence the king, raised above the rest of the audience, could both see the games and make his speech to the people.

Ver. 22.—Shouted for gave a shout, A.V.; the voice for it is the voice, A.V.

Ver. 23.—An angel for the angel, A.V. (ch. 5:19, note).

Ver. 24.—The word of God grew and multiplied in Jerusalem and the neighbourhood, in spite of Agrippa’s persecution. The blood of the martyr James was the seed of the Church, and the speedy vengeance taken by God upon the persecutor doubtless gave fresh courage to his people to confess the Name of Jesus Christ. As regards the preceding account of Herod Agrippa’s death, it is corroborated in the most remarkable manner by the narrative in Josephus (‘Ant. Jud.,’ xix. viii. 2). He there tells that when he had been three years King of all Judæa (see ver. 1, note) he went to Cæsarea. And that on occasion of a festival celebrated “for the safety of Cæsar” (some think to celebrate his return from Britain, while others, as Wieseler think that they were the ordinary Quinquennalia, celebrated in the provinces), he exhibited games and spectacles in honour of Claudius. On the second day of these games, when a vast number of people were assembled in the theatre, Agrippa came in, clothed in a garment wholly made of silver, which reflected the rays of the morning sun with a most dazzling and awful brilliancy. Whereupon his flatterers cried out that he was a god, and offered prayer to him. The king, he adds, did not rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery. He was presently seized with a violent pain in his bowels, which soon became so intense that he was carried out of the theatre to his palace, and expired after five days of excruciating pain. It is curious that in the above account Josephus says that Agrippa saw an owl sitting over his head, which he recognized as a messenger (ἄγγελον) of evil to him. Eusebius, quoting Josephus (‘Eccl. Hist.,’ ii. x.), leaves out the owl, and says that Agrippa saw an angel sitting over his head, whom he recognized as the cause of his sufferings. Whiston, in a note, seeks to exonerate Eusebius from unfairness in the quotation, by suggesting that the manuscript of Eusebius is in this place corrupt; but Bede quotes Josephus just as Eusebius does, unless perchance he is quoting him at second hand from Eusebius.

Ver. 25.—Ministration for ministry, A.V.; taking for and took, A.V. The fact here stated of their taking John Mark with them, is very interesting in connection with ver. 12. Whether or not Saul and Barnabas were in the house of Mary at the time of Peter’s deliverance from prison, they evidently went there shortly before or shortly after. As regards the sequence of events related in this chapter, it is by no means necessary to suppose that Barnabas and Saul did not leave Jerusalem till after the death of Agrippa. Luke, connecting the death of Agrippa with his murder of James and his intended murder of Peter, as Eusebius and Chrysostom and others rightly say, would naturally follow up the narrative of the persecution by the narrative of the persecutor’s awful death; and then go on to relate the return of the two apostles to Antioch in continuation of ch. 11:30. We have no means of deciding whether, in point of fact, they returned before or after Agrippa’s death. It seems most probable that they returned before, as, under the circumstances, they would not tarry at Jerusalem longer than was necessary for the fulfilment of their ministration.

Homiletics

Vers. 1–25.—The world and the Church. There is, perhaps, no passage in Holy Scripture which contrasts more sharply the principles of the world and of the Church respectively, and the practice flowing from those principles, than the chapter before us. The results of each stand out no less sharply defined.

I. The worldly principle and practice. Not right, or truth, or justice, but self-seeking policy; to gain some selfish end without regard to the will of God or the welfare of man; the unscrupulous use of any means by which the wished-for end can be attained; the employment of craft or violence, according to circumstances; utter contempt for the rights and feelings of others; utter disregard for the happiness of individuals or communities which stand in the way; taking everything into a man’s own hands;—in a word, self-will and self-seeking, as the beginning and ending of human action.

II. The Church, or Christian, principle. To do the will of God irrespective of self-will; to love all men, “specially those that are of the household of faith,” and consequently to work ill to no man, however great the apparent gain may be; to suffer, rather than do, wrong; to endure evil meekly and patiently; to help and comfort others in their time of need at his own cost; to leave all in the hands of God.

III. The results of each. 1. The worldly policy ends in failure. The well-laid schemes end in disappointment; momentary successes slide into defeat and discomfiture; expected glory turns into lasting shame. 2. The Christian practice, on the contrary, though its beginnings may be in clouds and darkness, ends in sunshine and in light. Right has a vital principle in it. It bursts out into success at last. Being linked to the will of God, it partakes of the power and life of God. Momentary shame turns into lasting glory. The cross becomes the crown. See all this exemplified in the history before us. Agrippa was the perfect type of a successful man of the world. The friend of emperors and kings; himself a prosperous king of fair character for the times, of pleasing manners, and considerable power of kingcraft, he stood high among his equals and contemporaries. His liberality and magnificence secured him a fair share of admiration and popularity among his subjects. His zeal for religious observances, his scrupulous performance of the rites and ceremonies of the Jewish Law, brought him a fair amount of respect from the priests and Pharisees of his day. And this popularity was as the breath of his nostrils. To be applauded; to be well spoken of; to be admired; to make a sensation wherever he appeared; to be on terms of friendship with Tiberius, with Drusus, with Caligula, with Claudius; to be a great man among the petty dependent kings of the neighbouring countries; and to be an authority with the priests and people of the Jews;—all this was his ambition, was what he lived for. As to the means of obtaining it he was not scrupulous. By flatteries, by mean compliances, by large expenditure of money, and even by shedding innocent blood, this end of self-idolatry was to be compassed. The murder of a saint like James, the imprisonment and intended execution of an apostle like Peter, were in his eyes on a par with splendid games or magnificent largesses, as means of purchasing or retaining the good pleasure of the Jews, perhaps with the further design of strengthening his influence with Claudius by showing how he could keep a turbulent province in quiet subjection to imperial Rome. And so at last he seemed to have attained the highest pinnacle of the coveted glory when, all glittering with the silver robe, which reflected the rays of the morning sun, and seated on the bema to make his oration to the people, he was greeted with acclamations which told him he was no longer a mere mortal in their eyes, and that he spoke, not with the voice of a man, but with the voice of God. Five days of agony, and he lay amidst all his splendour a lifeless corpse. Now let us turn to the Church. We have four pictures presented to us of Church life. 1. The love of the Church of Antioch for their unseen brethren of the Church of Jerusalem. They were poor themselves, it is likely; they had dangers, and difficulties, and wants, and necessities, no doubt, at home. But no sooner do they hear of the approaching famine in Judæa than they make collections, every man according to his ability, for the relief of their fellow-Christians, and send two of their most trusted members to carry the gift from Antioch to Jerusalem. Surely a beautiful sight, that loving-cup passed from Gentile to Jew, a pledge of their unity in Jesus Christ. 2. The defence of the Church of Jerusalem against the tyranny of the world. The strong hand of unscrupulous power has slain one of their most valiant leaders. Another greater still is shut up in a dungeon, expecting immediate death. The whole Church is in danger of destruction. It must defend itself against its terrible foe; it must sharpen its sword; it must put on its armour; it must prepare for the fight. And how does it do this? Our second picture shows us. It is night. The great city is hushed in sleep; its hum has ceased. The weary are at rest. The prisoner’s eyes are closed in forgetfulness, and all things are shrouded in darkness. But in one house in the city sleep has no place. Under its roof are gathered together many of the soldiers of Jesus Christ. And in that dead hour of the night they are watching unto prayer. From one and another the voice of prayer and supplication is going up to Heaven—prayer for Peter’s safety; prayer for the preservation of the Church; prayer for the mighty help of the Holy Ghost; prayer for holy patience; prayer for holy courage; prayer for wisdom how to act and for strength to act; prayer for the weak in faith; prayer for the tempted and irresolute; prayer for their enemies, persecutors, and slanderers;—in short, every variety of the cry, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!” is breaking the stillness of the night, and is the Church’s preparation for battle and for victory. 3 and 4. We have in these the portraiture of two individual members of God’s Church. The first, James, we see only in his death—the blessed death of a martyr of Jesus Christ; a death which tells of the life which went before, and also of the life that shall follow after and have no end. He was a son of thunder in his assaults upon the strongholds of Satan; a witness for Jesus Christ and his cross and his salvation, before the hard materialism of Roman power and the withered formalism of Jewish bigotry and hypocrisy. As we think of him, as of his saintly brother John, we think of the unworldly faith with which, leaving his father and all that he had in this world, he was obedient without delay to the calling of Jesus Christ; we think of the indignant zeal which flashed out when the Master whom he loved was rejected by the Samaritans; we think of him as persevering steadily, through ten years of opposition and contradiction from elders, and priests, and Pharisees, and Sadducees, in the one great purpose for which he lived, at the end of which, as he had long since been warned by the Lord, there was a cup of suffering to be drunk, and a baptism of blood to be baptized with. But he shrank not nor drew back. To him to live was Christ, and to die was gain. And so his end came—the end of his toil. But surely he is among those whom his brother John saw in vision half a century afterwards: “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the Word of God, … and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Blessed in his death and glorious in his resurrection, he will shine forth with a brighter glory in the kingdom of his Father than Agrippa his murderer did in his silver robe of marvellous texture in the theatre of Cæsarea. Our last portrait is that of Simon Peter, the Galilæan fisherman, called by Jesus Christ to be fisher of men. What a life was his!—gathering three thousand souls into his net at the very first haul; laying the foundations of that building which during eighteen centuries and a half has gone on growing towards those vast proportions which will at last fill the whole earth and mingle with the skies in its length, and breadth, and depth, and height; unlocking the gates of the kingdom of heaven with his keys of office for myriads and millions to enter in. What a life of toil and danger!—journeying, preaching, healing, teaching, like his Divine Master before him, with his life ever in his hand; now escaping, now returning to the scene of persecution, but always intent upon the work of Christ. Ah! surely he has fallen at last; the hand of the tyrant has found him out. He is fast in prison. He is fastened with two chains to his jailors. He is sleeping his last sleep on earth. To-morrow’s sun will rise upon him for the last time, and before it is noon he will have joined his brother James in the land where all things are forgotten. So thought man. So thought the Jews. So thought Agrippa. So thought Peter himself when he closed his eyes in sleep under the protection of God’s wings. So had God not ordained. The night watches had advanced. The great city lay in stillness and darkness. The sons of toil and of pleasure had all left the busy thoroughfares, and the streets were a desert. But lo! the iron gate of the prison opens noiselessly upon its hinges, and two men issue forth into the open way. They walk rapidly along, and then one vanishes and only one is left. He stops for a moment’s thought, and then goes to the house of Mary. Yet another moment, and he is in the midst of a praying Church, which he never thought to have seen again in the flesh; and the brethren are all around their great primate, whom they thought to have seen no more for ever. It was a great surprise. But how great the joy to know that it was God’s doing! Now they knew that their dangers, their sorrows, their fears, and their prayers, were all known of God. Now they knew that their lives were precious in God’s sight, and that he that was for them was stronger than he that was against them. Peter’s hour was not yet come; his work was not yet finished, and till it was, all the power of Herod and all the expectation of the people of the Jews would be baffled and disappointed, not a hair of his head should perish; and instead of the Church being wasted and destroyed, the Word of God should grow and multiply. It is growing and multiplying still. Peter’s work is not yet finished. What he began is still going on. The overseers are still feeding the flock of Christ; and they with him, when the chief Shepherd shall appear, shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.

Homilies by Various Authors

Vers. 1–19, 24.—Sin in high places. Sin has many aspects, and it is not only curious but instructive to see how it shows itself under different conditions. Here we have it manifesting its evil spirit in “high places.” Herod’s action at this juncture reminds us of—

I. Its contemptuousness. “Herod … stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the Church” (ver. 1). He did not stay to inquire whether these men were in the right or not. They had with them the most convincing credentials—strong evidence, miraculous power, a truth which met the necessities of the human heart and life; but all this went for nothing. From his place of power he looked down superciliously on this new “way,” and with a light heart he determined to vex its adherents. How often does a high place beget an unseemly, unwholesome, injurious arrogance which, smiting others, inflicts a death-blow on itself!

II. Its brutality. “And he killed James … with the sword” (ver. 2). What was the life of an enthusiast to him? “He commanded that the keepers should be put to death” (ver. 19). What signified it to him that a few soldiers were executed? It would not spoil his meal nor disturb his slumber that, at his bidding, a few of his fellow-men had their lives cut short and that their families and friends were mourning. This was the spirit of the age, an unchristian age: it was especially the spirit of human tyranny. The ruler on his throne, too often attained by violence and cunning, was indifferent to the blood he shed, to the rights he violated, to the sorrows he caused. Such has been the history of sin in high places from the beginning until now, from one end of the earth to the other.

III. Its meanness. “Because he saw it pleased the Jews,” he proceeded further (ver. 3) in the same course. What a miserable reason for imprisonment and execution of subjects! Not because any crime had been committed, or any folly wrought, or any danger incurred; but “because it pleased the Jews,” more violence was to be done, more wrong inflicted, more grief and lamentation called forth. To such shameful depth will sin in high places stoop, “justice” prostituting its high vocation (1 Pet. 2:14) to win a mean and despicable popularity at the expense of innocence and truth.

IV. Its impotence. 1. How vain are bolts and bars to shut in a man whom God intends to be his agent among men (vers. 4–10; see ch. 5:19; 16:26)! 2. How vain are swords to slay and prison doors to confine the living truth of God! A James may be killed and a Peter imprisoned, but the chapter which narrates these incidents of human tyranny does not close without recording that “the Word of God grew and multiplied.” We may learn these two lessons. (1) We may well be contented with our humbler lot. Obscurity and comparative powerlessness are far less attractive to an ordinary eye than eminence and power. But who of us can say that a “high place” might not prove to be a “slippery place,” wherein virtue and purity would fall, never to rise again; or on which some of the finer graces would be dulled and dimmed, even if some of the sadder sins were not nourished and practised? (2) We may well rejoice to be on the side of the Lord our Saviour. His cause will meet with such checks as this chapter records; there will be times when his disciples will mourn the loss of one champion and be alarmed for the safety of another; but unhoped-for deliverance will come, God will appear for us in ways we dare not expect, and the end will be the growth and multiplying of his living and life-giving Word.—C.

Vers. 1–19, 25.—The strength and weakness of Christian discipleship. These verses bring out very strikingly the fact that there is both power and weakness in us who are the followers of Christ. We see it—

I. In apostolic functions. The apostles of our Lord were invested by their Divine Master with unusual powers. The Holy Ghost descended upon them and conferred great gifts on them (see ch. 5:15, 16; 9:31–41). Peter was the chief channel through which this Divine efficacy flowed. But while he was charged to do such great things for others, he was not permitted to do anything for himself; his function of working miracles stopped when he was personally concerned; he was not at liberty to open a bolted prison door that he himself might escape. We may find a certain illustration of this strength and weakness in the case of those who have such strength to arouse the souls and stir the activities of others, but who are painfully and pitifully weak in controlling their own spirit.

II. In apostolic and ordinary Christian experience. One short verse (ver. 2) disposes of the fate of the Apostle James. We have no graphic account, as in Stephen’s case, of his martyrdom. But it is enough that we know the event. We naturally place it beside the predictive words of the Lord (Mark 10:38, 39). And we see here how weak and yet how strong Christian discipleship can be. Weak enough (1) to cherish a mistaken ambition (Mark 10:37); (2) to under-estimate altogether the sufferings of its Lord—they said, “We can;” (3) to under-estimate the severity of its own martyr-witness, for James and John had little thought at that time of the future that was in store for them. Strong enough to accept with cheerfulness the trying lot when called upon to endure it. We may take it, though we are not told it, that James drank without a moment’s hesitation the bitter cup of sudden and violent death when Herod’s sword was drawn to slay him. How frequently do we find the same thing with us now! At one hour, the weakness of serious misconception of Christian truth or of Christian life, or, it may be, serious failure to attain the spirit or illustrate the principle of Christ; at another hour, beautiful resignation to the will, or admirable exemplification of the truth, or noble devotedness to the work, of the Lord. 1. We should not judge hastily; the error or shortcoming of one period may be more than redeemed by the excellency or even heroism of another. 2. We need not be exceedingly depressed by our own failure; we should be truly penitent when really at fault, but we may hope that, further on, our Master will give us an opportunity of drinking of his cup, of having fellowship with his sufferings.

III. In the matter of devotion. “Prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for Peter” (ver. 5). It may be confidently concluded that the “many who were gathered together praying” at Mary’s house (ver. 12) were asking for his deliverance. His escape, then, should have been the very thing they were expecting. If their strength had not been exercised in weakness, they would have anticipated the knock at the door, which they refused to believe was from the hand of Peter. We know how great was their astonishment that their prayers were heard and answered (vers. 15, 16). Prayer is the strength of the Christian man, of the Christian Church; but when in the very act and exercise of this our privilege and power, how great is our weakness! for how unspiritual is, too often, our word! how languid our strain! how slight our hope! how faint and feeble our expectation!

IV. In our relations with our fellows. (Ver. 25.) Barnabas and Saul returned from their ministry in Jerusalem, carrying with them the blessings of the poor whom they had relieved. But they also carried with them one, John Mark, who was to be the occasion of a bitter quarrel and a lifelong separation. While they were rejoicing in their hearts that the ties between the brethren of Antioch and Jerusalem were so happily strengthened, there stood by their side a man whose action was to cut in twain the bond which bound them in loving and active brotherhood. As fellow-members of the Church, we feel and do many things which bring out into bold relief our most Godlike affections and aspirations; but as those who worship and work side by side, we often do things which give displeasure to our Lord and should give pain to ourselves.—C.

Vers. 20–23.—Human pride and Divine retribution. The main lesson which this incident conveys is the folly of human presumption. But there are side truths which the narrative suggests. 1. The interdependence of one nation on another: “Their country was nourished by the king’s country” (ver. 20). One land has metals in abundance; another has corn; another, cotton; another, timber, etc. It was clearly the intention of the Father of all that all peoples should live in close friendship and constant intercourse with one another. Yet the heathen idea was that the natural relation between neighbouring nations was war. The motto of Christianity is “Peace;” its spirit is that of brotherhood; its counsel and fruit are active interchange of services and resources. 2. The evil of autocracy: “Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon” (ver. 20). It may have been some slight affront he had received, and which he was determined to avenge. All responsibility rested with him, and the caprice or resentment of one single soul would have been sufficient to plunge the thousands of Tyre and Sidon—men, women, and children—into terror and distress. We may unite to thank God that the sword is being taken out of the hand of the autocrat. 3. The drawbacks to human greatness. Herod Agrippa was a man in a very fine position, and he was no doubt envied by thousands of his subjects; doubtless he often congratulated himself on the success of his subtlety. Yet he was (1) much at the mercy of venal counsellors,—probably rich presents had found their way into the treasury of Blastus before that chamberlain spoke honeyed words of peace in Herod’s ear (ver. 20); (2) the dupe of base flatterers (ver. 22),—he must either have been constantly engaged in weighing words and distinguishing the false from the sincere, or else he must have been continually deceived. But to read the lesson of the text we turn to—

I. The height to which human presumption will rise. The scene which is briefly sketched in the text (ver. 21) has been more fully described elsewhere (see Farrar’s ‘Life of St. Paul,’ ii. pp. 315–317). It may seem incredible to those who move in humble spheres that a mortal man could ever be so inflated with a sense of his own greatness as to accept Divine honours when they were offered. History, however, fully proves that arrogance may rise even as high as this. “The spirit of self-exaggeration,” “the insolent exaltation of himself,” with which Channing charges Napoleon Bonaparte, is a spirit which has been exemplified in every age and nation in greater or less degree. The acquisition of honour does not satisfy but only inflames ambition, and from height to height it rises until, leaving far behind it merely unwarrantable hope, it reaches shameful arrogance and even, as here, a horrible impiety.

II. The depth to which it must fall. It ends in shame and ruin. Sometimes, as here, in terrible torture. It is noticeable that some of the worst persecutors of their race have come to a frightful end at death: witness, Herod the Great; this man, his grandson; Antiochus Epiphanes; Philip II. of Spain, etc. But where this is not the case, the end is dishonour. God “will not give his glory to another.” Pride must perish, and great must be its fall. From its high pedestal it topples down. No angel—hand is needed to secure the overthrow; its foundations are certain to be undermined, and the god who was at the summit lies, a broken and shattered idol, at the base.

III. The significance of Herod’s death. It says to those who wonder at the delays of providence and speak of—

“Truth for ever on the scaffold,

Wrong for ever on the throne,”

Wait! God will reveal himself in righteousness. Go into the sanctuary (Ps. 73:17); look back on the page of history, and understand their end; and see what “the end of the Lord” is. Wait a while, and the enthroned king, enrobed in tissued silver, receiving the acclamations of the people, accepting their ascriptions of deity—behold! he lies writhing in awful agony; he passes away; he is dust of the ground. And that despised sect, smitten, suffering, degraded—behold! it rises to honour, to power, to influence; it will be enthroned on the intelligence and conscience of mankind. Herod Agrippa gave up the ghost, “but the Word of God grew and multiplied” (ver. 24).—C.

Vers. 1–25.—The persecution at Jerusalem. I. The putting to death of James, and the seizure of Peter. The narrative of the former event is short and dry. But, remarks a commentator, whatever the reason of this may be, it is certain that the Holy Spirit, by whose inspiration this history was given, manifested a peculiar wisdom in this very brevity. The holy silence is a sign to us that that which is highest and most pleasing to God is not precisely that of which men love to know and speak. “Our life is hid with Christ in God.” The peculiar life in life, and the holy dying in death, these are hidden with Christ in God, not merely from the world, but from the children of God; precious, nevertheless, before God, a work following the soul into eternity. The frivolous persecutor, who has been an enemy of the Jews, now, to please them, sacrifices the Christians. The cruelty and frivolity of tyrants has been permitted to work much evil and cause much bloodshed. Our only consolation in meditating on such facts is to reflect that Christianity is an ideal system, and has compensations not of this world.

II. The deliverance of Peter. 1. His imprisonment fell in the days of unleavened bread—the Passover-time; doubtless reminding him, not only of the passion and resurrection of the Saviour, but of his own frailty and denial of him. Now was the prophecy of Jesus fulfilled: “Hereafter thou shalt follow me.” All in the scene, the memories, the immediate prospects before Peter’s mind disposed him to sad and serious thought. 2. The strong guard placed over him seems to bear witness to the respect felt for his person, the fear of his influence. The parts of the prisoner and that of the tyrant are often really reversed; he is at peace, they tremble when they have him most in their power. Behind the scene a purpose was working mightier than all human force. The persecutors intended to bring him after the Passover feast; but God intends to save him. Herod plots Peter’s death, while God wills the preservation of Peter and the death of the murderer. Another view of spiritual force working to counteract physical force is given in the statement of the unceasing prayer of the Church on Peter’s behalf. “God can refuse nothing to a praying Church.” “One true prayer can strike down the whole power of hell; why not Herod with his sixteen soldiers?” “By the blood and prayers of Christians Herod’s arm was maimed, his sceptre broken, and the Roman empire brought to ruins.” Peter in the prison may remind us to pray, “That it may please thee to show pity upon all prisoners and captives!” Meanwhile Peter sleeps; as a child flung into the strong arms of a father, so in the extremity of his distress he has flung himself on God, and rests. And over him Divine love watches with all the tenderness of the parent’s eye and heart. 3. The delivering angel. The angels are ministers of God to the bodies and souls of the “heirs of salvation.” Whether we speak of angels, or of instruments, or providential means, the truth at bottom is the same. All agents and instruments may be considered Divine which are set in motion by the Divine power and love, and providentially meet the need of the hour. So too the shining effulgence which accompanies the angel’s visit. We do not expect such phenomena now; but the light in the heart, the joy which comes of having surrendered the soul to God and of being conscious of his presence, is not less real than ever. “To the upright there ariseth light in the darkness.” We may if we please allegorize what follows to our own account.” “Arise quickly!” and the chains fell from his hands. For the word of the Lord no iron is too hard, no stone nor bolt too strong. There are worse prisons than those of stone.

“Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage.”

It is our own fettered thoughts which cramp and oppress the soul. Again, with the Divine command, “Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals,” the power to obey comes. And so again when he is bidden to cast around him his garment and to follow. A reason, attentive to the smallest details, is discovered in every call to duty and freedom. And all this passes as in a dream. So often when swift help and wondrous deliverances come by the Divine hand. “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were as them that dreamed.” So doubtless in the last conflict, the escape from life and all its troubles will appear as a dream to the departing soul. So swiftly on, through the first and second guard, to the iron gate leading into the city, which opens of its own accord; the street is reached, and the angel departs. The extraordinary and the marvellous lasts no longer than it is needed. We are governed and guided by constant law, which is the expression of loving and constant will. We are taught by experience to build on the constancy of law; but lest we should adore law instead of God, he appears from time to time from behind law, as will, personality, love. The knowledge left behind on Peter’s mind is that God has interfered for his deliverance from the hands of his enemies. That is the lesson for us, whenever by a change of circumstances, not to be foreseen and not to be commanded by human forethought, God’s ways with us give rise in retrospect and reflection to thankfulness. We see not the good hand that is leading us, the wisdom that causes all things to work together for good, before we have reached the goal and end of his purpose.

III. Peter’s reunion with the disciples. 1. Notice the coincidences of events. For his refreshment, Peter is led from the cold prison and the rough society of soldiers into that of praying brethren. And they who had been in the depth of trouble because of his supposed loss, behold the beloved brother in the midst of them—for the strengthening of their faith. 2. The struggle of faith with unbelief. Here, though they had been praying, and praying doubtless for Peter’s release, when the answer comes, they find it difficult to accept and believe. How true is this to the human heart! People are not conscious that they are not quite sincere in their prayers until some event like this brings them face to face with their own thought. When Rhoda tells the simple news of joy, they reply, “Thou art mad!” Faith in the heart says, “God can work wonders if he will;” an opposite feeling says, “It is not likely that he will work them.” A man may argue, “My faith in the goodness of God is shadowy, but my faith in the constancy of his laws in nature is absolute: it is the contrast of one faith with another.” We cannot find a solution to this contradiction; but it does seem in the course of events as if it were solved for us by a higher light and leading. 3. The result. Peter continues knocking, till those within open, see him, and are astounded. After grasping their hands in friendship, he tells the story of his deliverance, bids them repeat it to James and the brethren, then departs to another place. So had the Lord commanded (Matt. 10:13). The protection of Providence does not supersede the exercise of caution and prudence; it should rather encourage us to observe these. By removing Peter, the main pillar of the community, the Church was taught that no one man was indispensable to its existence and welfare. They were to learn to stand without him. The break of day brought a great disturbance among the soldiers. “What had become of Peter?” Herod takes prompt measures for his arrest, and betakes himself to Cæsarea, So ends an episode of apostolic history. We may extract from it the following lessons:—(1) The time of trial is the time of Divine education. Faith in the trial of fire is proved more precious than the gold which perisheth. “Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.” (2) Brotherly love in affliction, in watching and waiting; power of soul in rest and endurance; Divine power in healing and saving;—these are the fruits and energies which spring up in the soil of persecution; these the “precious pearls for which men dive into sorrow’s sacred stream.” (3) The arms and defences of the Church against its foes are—unflinching courage in witness, calm patience in suffering, unwearied urgency in prayer.—J.

Vers. 20–25.—The death of Herod. I. The circumstances. In the height of his power and haughtiness he is suddenly cast down. While raising himself arrogantly against the Majesty on high, by that Majesty he is brought low and put to shame. Also it is while he is being sought by petitioners, and hailed by the flattering voice of the multitude as a god. These features have all the elements of the most solemn tragedy. The messenger of Divine judgment smites him straightway, and he perishes miserably.

II. Its moral. 1. “Because he gave not the glory to God” is the reason of the judgment To God alone belongs honour. He is the Fountain of power, the Foundation of all stability. He who forsakes God ruins himself and causes destruction to others. God “resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 2. The moral is seen also in contrast. Those who honour God, as Barnabas and Saul, receive honour from God. The persecutor is cast down, while the persecuted flourish and the work goes on. The blood of the martyr waters the field of the Church, and the tyrant fertilizes it with his bones.—J.

Vers. 1–19.—Herodian persecution of the Church. Connection of events showing the working of Divine providence. After Stephen’s murder, Caligula persecuted the Jews; hence the diversion of their enmity coincident with conversion of Saul. On the accession of Claudius, a time of comparative peace. Appointment of Herod Agrippa renewed their hopes; hence their attempt to crush the Church. The contrast between the Jews and the Christians is seen at this point. They put themselves in the hands of Agrippa, appointed successor to Herod Philip, with the whole Syrian province under him, by their persecutor Caligula, and lately under Claudius, receiving Judæa and Samaria; so that he was equal in power to his grandfather, Herod the Great. He was a shameless blasphemer, and feared neither God nor man. Yet the Jewish rulers, in their exasperation, incited him against the Christians. The simplicity of the narrative testifies to the simplicity and sincerity of the disciples. The second martyrdom has only a single line given to it. But how eloquent the silence! The position of Peter was a more prominent one. Herod’s wickedness became bolder. He aimed a blow at the very leader of the Church. Contrast the two histories of James and John—one so early cut off, the other surviving to the end of the century. The narrative illustrates—

I. The superintending care of God over his people.

II. The power of faith in sustaining courage and calmness in time of trial. Peter slept.

III. The efficacy of prayer.

IV. The contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. 1. The ease of Divine victory. 2. The peaceful brotherhood over against the cruel tyranny of Herod. 3. The manifestation of the Spirit contrasted with the vain show of power and display of authority. Withdrawment of Herod to Cæsarea a sign of defeat.—R.

Vers. 20–23.—Judgment on the royal persecutor. I. The worldly policy, and what it leads to. Idolatry. Blasphemy. The atmosphere of corruption attacks the vitals. The man lives in a moral pest-house. He himself is at last devoured by the filth of his own sins. Examples in all history. The French king in eighteenth century. Napoleon III.

II. The certainty of Divine protection. He takes away the evil man. He disperses the dark cloud. Blessed are those that wait on his will.—R.

Ver. 24.—Sanctified affliction. “But the Word of God grew and multiplied.”

I. The troubles are blessings in disguise. 1. Drawing the believers together. 2. Revealing the weakness of enemies. 3. Calling out faith and prayerfulness. 4. Occasioning new manifestations of Divine power on behalf of the Church.

II. The kingdom of God under Divine control and independent of human agency. A time of famine and persecution and mourning, but still a time of increase. The earthly rulers against the Word, but still it grows. The Church afflicted, but still speaking to the world, and its speech all the more powerful that it comes forth from the troubled depths of suffering hearts. Instances. The blood of the martyrs the seed of the Church. Madagascar. When we are weak then are we strong. “Not by might, nor by power, but by God’s Spirit.”—R.

Ver. 25–ch. 13:3.—Ordination of Barnabas and Saul to the missionary work.

I. The spirit of ministration will always find its opportunities opened to it. Antioch full of the zeal of new converts. Signs of the Spirit there. Eminent men—representing both wide sympathies and considerable culture and intellectual power, probably accompanied with some wealth.

II. The new enterprise should be undertaken in the spirit of prayerful dependence and self-consecration.

III. Ordination an act of brotherhood and recognition of spiritual gifts as essential to the ministry.

IV. Divine grace unites with human judgment and effort. Barnabas and Saul had approved themselves faithful by their visit to Jerusalem. Commendation by the brethren there; desire to enter on the larger field; apparent fitness for it. Loss as it was to Antioch, a Church which looks far afield for its blessings always receives them abundantly. “There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth.”—R.

Ver. 5.—The Church in prayer. The primitive Church is here found, amid circumstances so full of interest that they even tempt attention, in prayer for an acknowledged leader, a prized teacher and pastor and an undoubted apostle. The Church now is praying to God for one thing, in submission to his will—that Peter may be spared to it and spared to the world. The essentials of effectual prayer in the Church cannot differ intrinsically from those in the individual; but they are strikingly presented to the mind here. Under the one word “prayer,” a variety of spiritual exercise, as is well known, is continually included, viz. the outpourings of adoration of the one great Object of prayer, the according of grateful praise and thanks to him, the penitential confession of our sin, and self-humiliation on account of it. But there are very many who will join in all this, and from the heart believe in it, who yield either no assent or a heartless assent to what is after all the chief thing in prayer, its chief wonder and chief privilege, namely, petition. Without studying the theory, let us notice one striking instance of the practice of prayer. True theory is never overthrown by fact, but facts often put to rout theory falsely so called, and expose its weak points. We may observe, then—

I. The qualities that marked the prayer or petition of the Church. 1. It was most distinct in its object. The safety of Peter is the one desire of the heart of all who joined to pray. Individual prayer and private prayer are very likely to become vague, vague and multifarious, vague and indiscriminating, vague and inevitably indifferent. Perhaps the tendencies of public and united prayer are yet more exposed to this snare, for the obvious reasons (1) that the thoughts of many hearts must be considered for; and (2) that intercession, which must be the memory of many in want, will generally form a large portion of that prayer. It is well when heart and mind and devotion follow each of these with intelligent distinctness. 2. Sincerity of faith marked the Church’s prayer at this crisis. He who cometh to God in prayer must believe (1) that he is; but (2) none the less that he lends a willing, gracious ear to prayer; in order (3) that he may duly, in his own wise time and wise way, answer it, and do nothing less than answer it. Prayer with the mock humility of a timid fear that it is presumptuous to pray, never brought a blessing. The heart’s glory in prayer is, if (with George Herbert) it “gasp out,” Et vult et potest, of God as the Object and the Hearer of prayer. 3. Great earnestness in petition was displayed by the Church. The heart’s desire and prayer to God on the part of those composing it was for the saving of Peter’s life. Herod is known to be full of cruelty. He has just “killed with the sword James the brother of John.” And he is known to be goaded on by that worst sting, the sting of “desiring to please” certain fellow-creatures. There is only One with whom we are safe, and always safe, in wishing and aiming to please him. Far enough off from Herod’s eye and thought was that One. He was torn, and therefore in turn cruelly and guiltily tore others, by a vain, weak, contemptible desire for a moment to “please the Jews.” The Church did not cower but did pray accordingly, prayed with earnestness. 4. Patience marked this great instance of prayer. It was, nevertheless, not the patience of silence, but of speech; it was not the patience of sitting down with folded hands, but of kneeling down with clasped hands; it was the patience of importunity, that very characteristic to which Jesus himself in the days of his flesh gave such prominence and such conspicuous honour (Luke 18:1–8).

II. Prayer was in no sense at a discount because it was an age of miracle, and of abounding miracle. 1. However conspicuously God does the work, and the Word of Christ is strong, and the Holy Spirit’s energy is essential and must be confessed, nothing is diminished of the act of prayer (if we may for a moment so call it) in all this history. Men pray, pray constantly, pray even before miracle, and prayer is an actual deed honoured of Heaven. It has been truly said that a correct alias for the Acts of the Apostles would be “The Acts of the Holy Ghost,” and this is most true. Another not altogether inapt style of the book might be “The Acts of Prayer.” For here they abound and in the most significant situation, from those of the first chapter (1:14, 24) to that of the last (28:8). 2. The distinctness and promptness of reply to prayer, which miracles wrought made occasionally very evident, even had the tendency to increase faith in prayer. Men would not lie by and do nothing when they remembered how only yesterday God graciously and marvellously interposed undeniably for even eye of sense. Yet the lesson that the temporary dispensation of miracle should have taught the Church for evermore, when miracle of sense was gone is, alas! often lost now. Need the thing signified be lost and wastefully sacrificed because the mere outside sign is gone? It is all our own fault if we do not oftener see for ourselves the fulfilment of the word of Jesus, “Ye shall see greater things than these.” It is undeniable that one spiritual miracle, e.g., that of the conversion of Saul, counted for more, counts still for more, will ever count for more, than all the miracles wrought upon the body, that ever were. Let the Church’s prayer to-day oftener challenge some spiritual miracle, and who will doubt the issue?

III. In conclusion, two things might be well observed, as justly to be gathered from this subject. 1. That the very heart of prayer lies in petition. Petition may be considered as the crucial question which prayer involves, and the crowning privilege of it. The petition of the sinner for mercy, pardon, salvation, being ever to be ranked as the typical petition. 2. That it may be placed among the moral defences of prayer, that the qualities which make it real, which make it strong, which make it a convincing and mighty power, are just the same with those which make work real, strong, and full of fruit. Distinctness of object, sincerity of faith in your practical object, earnestness in the pursuit of it, and patient, persevering determination are the qualities that win the day. And they do so by the verdict of the world. It is an indication that prayer and work have known one another this long time, and, so far from disclaiming a family relationship, persistently assert it. They are the union of the Divine and the human.—B.

Vers. 6–17.—One instance of the manner of Divine working. When we read the “mighty works” of Jesus or of those commissioned by him, whether apostles or angels, it is an easy thing to permit our attention to be diverted from anything else contained in them, under the influence of the fascination of the power which they display. For this very thing is often done, and the moral quality, the moral beauty, and even the moral imitableness of what we call the miracle, is ignored. The loss is as gratuitous as it is wasteful, nor is it free from an element of perverseness, when it exhibits us stricken by the wonder of the power we cannot, negligent of the grace we might, learn. Meantime the various character and aspect of the miracles recorded in Scripture are neither less astonishing nor less pleasing than the various colour and hue and fragrance of the flowers of the garden. The impression may be described as a whole as the charm latent, or sometimes less latent than evident, in the Divine working. To contemplate this must ever add to our sense of Divine gracefulness, may in some degree improve our own approach to it and growth in it. Let us in this sense consider the Divine interposition here recorded. For whatever reason, it is mercifully resolved on. Prayer unceasing has brought help. The Divine wisdom has determined the trenchant and decisive character of the help. And in humbled yet grateful and joyous feeling nevertheless, we may note the contrasts suggested by the Divine work and too much of our own. Observe—

I. The actual light which is thrown round about Divine work. (ver. 7.) “Clouds and darkness are round about” God himself, his incomprehensible character, his hidden purposes, his sovereign will. This is very true. But when he comes to work distinctly for men and among them, his footsteps are not in the stealthy dark. The angel comes in light, and the prison is lighted up, whoever is awake to see and whoever has eyes to see.

II. The finished completeness of that working. The angel brings all necessary instruction; does all that could be needful, or helpful; condescends to the meanest instructions. He strikes Peter so as to awake him; he gives him a hand; he tells him to be quiet; he snaps the chains off his hands; he bids him dress and put on his shoes, and throw his garment about him, and follow whither he would lead. All the work is known and facile, and orderly and swift, without grating or a jar, and to such a degree that the very subject of it can think it is a vision and dream of an unbroken sleep.

III. The loving-kindness of Divine working. Often as we murmuringly and impatiently may chide what seems its lingering, halting step, when it comes how grateful its advent! how true to exact need and to the nick of occasion! How simple in its helpfulness and real in its usefulness! There is so little sound of profession about it, but all is deed.

IV. Its condescending willingness to form part of human working. The interposition that is most marked for its superhuman element does not hold itself in lofty and haughty isolation, but begins from some human suggestion, and leaves just as though it put the rest trustingly into man’s hand again. The angel did all that was needful to get Peter outside the prison, and passed with him safety the first ward and the second ward, and through the iron gate that knew the step of its master and opened of its own accord, and “through one street,” and then departed. And Peter sees after that for himself, and understands and carries on the work, showing himself to many praying friends (ver. 12), sending express word to “James and the brethren” (ver. 17), and putting himself beyond present danger, as one more mindful of Divine protection and goodness than rashly courting danger and notoriety.

V. The joyful surprise it will repeatedly spread. From the rescued Peter himself to the delighted damsel Rhoda, to the party of the pious praying at the house of her of the auspicious name, Mary, to the fellow-apostle James and to the brethren, the tones of gladsome surprise die down, only to wake and revive again and again. The echoes of human sorrows, sighs, wails, are not, after all, the only echoes heard in this world. These others ring through the circles of the earth’s air and the heaven’s with lighter, merrier bound, and fail not to give some forewarning of the endless echoes of “gladness and joy and singing” that shall be ere long.

VI. After all, its supreme and decisive confusion of human opposition. Many an earthly conflict, settled with all the wisdom and devotion that human mind and heart can bring to bear, seems still left an unsettled conflict. The wound is not certainly healed up; the difference is not absolutely removed; the victory is not really satisfactory. But how is it when God interposes? How is it when Jesus speaks, whether to wind and sea or to saint or sinner? How is it when the Spirit comes upon the scene into the heart? And this was well illustrated now. Where now are the prison, and the chains, and the soldiers, and the keepers? And where is the guilty temporizer himself, Herod? They none of them can bear the light of that next morning. They cannot “abide the day of his coming.” After no “small stir,” the soldiers lose rank, the keepers lose life, Herod abundantly loses dignity, and “goes down from Judæa to Cæsarea, and there abides,” probably sorry he ever went up or began to care “to please the Jews.” And past the storm, the song of the servant of Christ is heard, repeating itself and confirmed, “Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.” Who so safe, who so blessed as those “delivered” by the Lord from their foes and his, and kept thenceforth in his sure place and the secret hiding-place of his pavilion?—B.

Vers. 21–23.—Hollow grandeur exposed. There is no doubt that the time of our Saviour and the apostles was a time which witnessed some of the worst, the lowest, and the most malign forms of bodily disease. Similarly the time owned to some of the most monstrous types of moral deformity. The same chapter that tells us of the kindly, pitiful, “very present help in time of trouble” that the innocent and God fearing peter found, records, as if for telling contrast’s sake, the judgment that was divinely aimed at Herod, “suddenly and without remedy” visited on one who now had filled up the measure of his iniquities. A triple type of cruelty, vain-glory, and irreligion is here before us. It is, however, more particularly the crowning and at the same time killing point of a godless career which demands now attention. Notice—

I. A grand reception. 1. It is a reception given by Herod. He wields great power; he is conscious of it. It is no moral power. It is the result of no intellectual force; of no lofty character; of no social attractiveness; of no love to be kind, courteous, helpful in smoothing the ruggedness and softening the hardness of daily life and work. He is on no sort of level whatsoever with those whom he is pleased to allow to swell his vanity and feed the bad fires of his heart. 2. It is a reception given to a large number of those who were for the moment in the position, not of mere subjects, but of abject dependents on Herod. They had already felt his “high displeasure.” Because of it they feared for their very bread. More ignorant than he, and driven by the supreme motives of desire of livelihood and business, they have already succumbed, bribing probably Herod’s chamberlain, and crouching in their approach to make representations to himself. Yes; they were driven by motive the pinch of which he had never been likely to know. 3. It was a reception which was to be a token of reconciliation; but a reconciliation founded on the entire yielding of the one part and the undisputed victory of the other. That victory was certainly the victory of might, and with every probability the victory of might over right. There had been no genuine compromise, no giving and taking, no kindly considerateness for aggrieved feeling and “wounded spirit.” Therefore the grand reception was all to the honour and glory of one called Herod Agrippa the First.

II. A grand speech. Not one word of this speech is saved on the page of history. And that loss we may without hesitation count gain. It spares pain to others, and spares something of distinctness of outline to the shame and disgrace attaching to Herod. The circumstances, however, suit nothing else than what shall profess and purport to be a grand speech. The “day” is fixed; there is nothing of an impromptu character about the occasion. The “royal apparel” is brought into requisition; the eyes of many beholders shall flash in the reflection of gold and colour, to learn a vulgar wonder and to improve in the commonest covetousness. And the “throne” is set and mounted. None can doubt of what sort the “oration” that followed. It is magniloquence. It is condescendingness. It is self-glorification. It is (on approaching the subject which brought the embassy) sham magnanimity. And under cover of this is a manifesto of take all or the utmost possible, give nothing or the least conceivable. The grandeur of the oration was the grandeur of hollow brass. How much grand speech differs from (1) simple, truthful speech; (2) speech the unmixed object of which is usefulness; (3) kindly and sympathetic speech; (4) speech of unaffected gracefulness and beauty!

III. A grand shout. That shout entered into the ears of Herod like the very ministry of satisfaction itself—satisfaction in its most exigent degree, self-satisfaction. Supreme vanity must love a shout rather than articulate language for obvious reasons. The vague looms larger, goes further, amplifies to the gift of the excited imagination, and cannot be held bound afterwards to justify itself. But this shout found words as well, and grand words they were indeed, if true. “The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men” (ch. 14:11) was a testimony, if mistaken in its form, yet true to some extent in its spirit. And if the present testimony have any such substance of truth and of honesty in it, it shall be accepted according to that which it hath, and not condemned for that which it hath not. The words, too, of this shouting are grandly chosen; they are sententious; they are in a sense antithetic; they speak the perfection of commendation for human tongue, which the psalmist would tell us is “the glory” of man’s frame. “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” Herod had taken his seat, and “not angels’ voices” could for his ears “have yielded sweeter music” than that shout and the recitative that rose out of it. The supreme point of a delicious intoxication of the conscience’s very worst opiate had that moment arrived.

IV. A grand exposure. 1. Herod is proclaimed before men and angels and before all time, as much as though all time were there and then present, as a typical instance of the man who knows not that his “chief and is to glorify God.” Either he know, it not, or he forgets it at an awful moment, or he defies it at the turning moment of his existence. Long proving-time has been his—the decisive crucial moment has come. And this—this, alas!—is its revelation. 2. Herod’s “grand speech,” of which not one word remains to us (and possibly enough few of its words were heard intelligently by a people who were wrought up and highly excited), is proclaimed to be one that has had for its sole object to lead up to this profane glorification of self, and has been guilty of forgetfulness to glorify God or even of denying glory to God. 3. The very shout of the people and the voice that gave subsequent articulateness to the shout are proclaimed to be really less their shout and their voice than those of Herod himself. Their throats and lips made the sound, but he found the breath for it, and all else, as, e.g. the place, occasion, motive, or inducement. A finale of this kind had been premeditated, if not prearranged and actually organized and got up. (1) The people had a thousand pressing inducements or temptations to do as they did, and to lend their voices for a moment to a cry which their hearts very probably abhorred; their temptations were as numerous as all the reasons for which they loved the “nourishment.” of “their country.” And they shall be undoubtedly judged for what they did, and judged with righteous judgment, when their time too is ripe. But they had not the opportunity of knowledge and the sovereign ease and self-disposition which were at the command of Herod. (2) Herod is tenfold guilty; he is wrong himself without anything to account for it but the worst cancerous craving of a wicked heart, and he leads a number of innocent “sheep” (2 Sam. 24:17) into temptation, sin, danger. It is evident—nay, ‘tis the one revelation involved in the exposé of this memorable moment—that the all-seeing eye, the all-just judgment, the casting vote of Heaven, the verdict that puts an end to all dispute, credits the major responsibility, the overwhelmingly preponderant responsibility for what had taken place—to the account of Herod. 4. Position, power, splendour, wealth, an earthly throne, arbitrary governing, and all the rest of it, are proclaimed here at their true worth. They are shown up as the flimsy covering only of the real in a man, let that real be what it may. They don’t keep the weather out; they don’t keep disease out; they don’t keep malignant and loathsome disease out; they don’t shield conscience, heart, or body; they don’t keep God out, no, not for a moment. But they do avail to do one thing—they suffice to throw out into amazing prominence the contrast between truth and falsehood, when God enters into judgment, and casts down those whom he never uplifted, and “removes the diadem and takes off the crown” (Ezek. 21:26), and rends in twain the gorgeous royal raiment, none of which his hand had bestowed. Then even on earth is seen the manifest beginning of the “everlasting shame and contempt.” 5. Last of all, it is here emphatically proclaimed that to omit to take right action and to omit to utter right speech may sometimes justly be exposed to bear all the same blame as to do and to speak the wrong. The apostles once and again, when offered Divine honours, exerted themselves with the utmost energy to refuse it, and gave their abhorrence of the idolatrous offering to be abundantly plain. This was the least that Herod should have done, and what he surely would have done if he had not already willingly “regarded iniquity in his heart.” So, when the people gave a great shout and said, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” and Herod never protested a word, it is the same as if he had done all the preparation, pulled the wires, and spoken the impious words himself. For God searcheth and trieth and knoweth “the thoughts and intents of the heart.” And he will not be robbed of his own.—B.

Ver. 5.—The power of united prayer. This subject is not here to be treated in its more general bearings, only so far as it finds illustration in the circumstances connected with the text, and in the sentence, “Prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him;” i.e. for imprisoned St. Peter. The persecution of the early Christians arose from distinctly different causes; and the narrative associated with this text introduces a distinctly new kind of persecution. Previously the Sanhedrim, as the central authority among the Jews in all matters of religious doctrine and discipline, had endeavoured to crush the young, and to their view mischievous, sect. Now Herod, as the representative of the state, endeavoured to destroy the party by aiming directly at its leaders; and this he did for what we may call “diplomatic” reasons. It may be well to notice that the Herod introduced here was Herod Agrippa I., son of Aristobulus, and grandson of Herod the Great; and that the events occurred about a.d. 41. According to Josephus, Agrippa desired to be thought a devout Jew, and so would easily be excited to persecute the Christian party, when he found that this would ensure for him the confidence of the leading Jews. With Herod’s scheme for striking down the chief teachers, compare Diocletian’s subsequent scheme for finding and burning the Christian books. Neither scheme was allowed to succeed. Another point of importance in introducing the subject is the recognized position of leadership which St. Peter had evidently gained. St. James, as one of the three specially favoured disciples, may have been equally prominent. Of St. John we learn very little during the first period of the early Church history. St. James’s sudden removal left St. Peter the recognized head of the Christian sect. It appears that only the intervention of the feast-time (humanly speaking), preserved St. Peter from the sudden fate which overtook St. James. The delay, during which St. Peter was in prison, gave opportunity for human intercessions and Divine interventions. Some may serve God in a yielded life, others by being made the subjects of Divine rescuings and deliverances. The first thing to be noticed in the narrative is—

I. Helplessness through circumstances. The Church was thoroughly overborne by the suddenness, activity, and vigour of this new persecution. They could do nothing. St. James was gone; St. Peter was in prison. They did not know where the next blow would fall. They could not open the prison doors. They were paralyzed. And so it often is with us in life. We incline to say, “All these things are against me.” Our way seems to be blocked in all directions, as truly as was the way of the fleeing Israelites when the Red Sea rolled before them, the mountains hemmed them in, and a raging foe pressed on their rear. At times in our lives we are compelled to feel that we can do nothing; and the experience is a great testing of patience, faith, and feeling. Compare David, convinced that circumstances were hopelessly against him, and despairingly saying, “I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul.”

II. Appeal to the Lord of circumstances. This is always left to us. It is our last possibility, and it is our best. 1. It is important that we realize fully that our God can control and circumstances. Nothing is too hard for him. He may not always show his mastery by miracle, but he can always prove his mastery by his providences. It is our belief that over all laws, relations, and orderings of events our living God presides, never loosing his hands or failing to guide all so as to fit into and, either quickly or slowly, work out his gracious purposes. 2. We must realize that to know the power of our God may not suffice; we must personally inquire of him, commend our case to his care, and submit ourselves to his leadings. For all the arrangements of our circumstances, as well as for all supplies of grace, “he will be inquired of by the house of Israel to do it for them.” The Divine foreknowledge and omniscience may never be so presented as to lift off men the claim of prayer. Whatsoever may be our trouble or our need, we may pray; we must pray, God would have us “cast our care on him.” So the disciples were doing the best thing possible, altogether the most hopeful thing, when they “prayed earnestly” for the imprisoned St. Peter.

III. The force of united prayer to overcome circumstances. It has pleased God to give special assurances to those who unite in prayer. God responds to the faith and fervour of the individual seeker; but in all matters of general interest, in everything bearing upon the well-being and progress of his Church, God wants us to blend together in our supplications. “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father.” By this requirement God: 1. Checks the tendency to isolation and to distinction of interests among his people, binding them ever closer together in the expression of their common wants. 2. Assures earnestness and fervour of feeling, as one devout soul inspires another. 3. Prepares the way for his answer by ensuring a state of mind fitted to receive the answer, and make it a blessing indeed. 4. Is enabled to respond by ordering the circumstances of his providence so as to secure the general good of many rather than the particular desires of one. It may be shown, in conclusion, how a common point of interest or a common trouble may serve to bring many souls together in a blessed unity of prayer.—R. T.

Vers. 7–10.—Miraculous deliverances. The series of miracles wrought by our Lord during his ministry, and the miracles associated with the history and work of his apostles, require to be very carefully compared. Sometimes miracles were wrought by the apostles as agents, and sometimes for them as teachers whose ministry it was important to preserve. And yet, when God would secure the deliverance of his imperilled servants, he did not always employ miraculous agencies. Paul and Silas were imprisoned at Philippi, but they were rescued by natural means; an earthquake proved effective to the loosening of their bonds, and the jolting open of the prison doors. There must have been some special reasons for the miraculous from in which St. Peter’s deliverance was effected. Two things require attention, as introductory to this subject. 1. The nature of New Testament miracles, and their particular mission to the age in which they were wrought. 2. The ideas of angelic ministry which had passed over to the apostles from Judaic associations. The intervention of angels had occurred again and again in the earlier history, and such an event as St. Peter’s rescue would not start doubts in a Jewish mind. God’s revelations to men, “in sundry ways and in divers manners,” were better apprehended by Jews then than by Christians now. From this incident we may be led to consider—

I. The employment of the miraculous. Here should be given an historical review of Divine interventions, with some classification of their character and of the circumstances under which the miracles were wrought. It will be found that there are cases in which (1) natural agencies sufficed, under the ordering of Divine providence, to remove the difficulty; (2) in which miraculous intervention did not come when we might reasonably have expected; (3) and in which miraculous agencies were used when we did not expect them. These points may be illustrated to show that the employment of the miraculous is (a) a matter of Divine sovereignty, and never offered in response to any compulsion of man or of circumstances; and (b) that it is therefore still a Divine reserve, and we dare not affirm that the age of miracles is past, because the employment of them is to be regarded as entirely dependent on the Divine Judgment and will; and as that will acts upon considerations of the higher and spiritual well-being of man, it may quite conceivably be that in some of man’s moral states the miraculous may be the most efficient moral force. It is true that miracles may not be wisely employed in a characteristically scientific age such as ours may be called; but the scientific is only a passing feature, and from it there may conceivably come a rebound to a characteristically imaginative, or as some might call it superstitious, age, to which miracle might again make efficient appeal. The incident of St. Peter’s release is a peculiar case of employment of the miraculous—peculiar in that (1) it differs materially from all the other apostolic miracles; and (2) in that it carries the style of Old Testament miracles over into the New, and is to be classed with the deliverance of the three Hebrew youths from the furnace, and of Daniel from the lions.

II. The limitations of the miraculous. These are even more striking than the uses. In the case of our Lord’s miracles the general principle of the limitation is indicated. Miracles he never wrought for the supply of his own needs, only for the exertion of a gracious moral influence on others. These two limitations may be illustrated. 1. A miracle is never wrought unless it can be made the enforcement or illustration of some moral truth. 2. A miracle is never wrought unless those in whose behalf it is wrought are in a duly receptive state of mind and feeling, and so can be benefited by the miracle. It does not affect this principle of limitation that some of those who are related to a miracle may be rather hardened by it than taught and blessed. St. Peter was not miraculously delivered for his own sake, but for the sake of the confidence which the praying Church might gain from such a proof of the Divine defence and care.

III. The adaptations of the miraculous. 1. To the particular occasion. 2. To the tone and sentiment of the age. 3. To the Divine dispensation, with which it has to be in harmony. 4. To the precise underlying purpose for the sake of which it is wrought. On these principles we may even discern miraculous workings in these our times, though they take forms of adaptation to our thought and associations, and are not after the precise Old Testament or New Testament patterns. We look for direct Divine agencies in the moral and spiritual rather than in the physical and material world.

IV. The results attained by the miraculous. How far it can be used as evidence or proof needs to be carefully considered. Wiser men only use miracles as auxiliary evidence of the truth of Christianity. And for this uses the character of the miracle rather than the power in the miracles are of chief importance. In connection with our text we find one result on which it may be profitable to dwell in conclusion. The Divine rescue of St. Peter brought to the praying and persecuted Church a sense of God’s protective presence. So suddenly had persecution burst upon them, so over-whelming did it seem, that they were for the moment paralyzed with fear—just as the servant of Elisha was when the Syrian army surrounded the house—and nothing could so immediately and efficiently recall them to calmness and trust as this wonderful rescue of St. Peter, convincing them, as it did, how tenderly near to them was their living and almighty Lord. Such a moral result will in every age suffice to explain a Divine miraculous revelation or intervention.—R. T.

Ver. 15.—Testimony versus reasoning. The subject is suggested by the persistence of Rhoda and the incredulity of the disciples. Upon the evidence of her senses Rhoda constantly affirmed that it was St. Peter who stood at the gate. The disciples vigorously argued that it could not be he, and tried to reason away her testimony, St. Peter was in prison, and it was simply impossible that he could be knocking at the gate. So much is made in our time of the demand for facts and evidence and verification of all statements, and it is so often assumed that reasoning can destroy testimony, or that testimony, as we have it on the Christian theme, is insufficient to support our elaborate reasoning, that the trustworthiness of each, and the relations in which each stands to the other, may be profitably considered.

I. The importance of testimony. Our senses are the appointed media for our communication with the outer world, and they are both the first and constant sources of our knowledge. We learn to trust them. We readily receive the testimony of others as to what they have seen and heard, and, with limitations, as to what they have felt. There is, then, (1) knowledge received directly upon the testimony of our own senses; and (2) knowledge received indirectly upon the testimony of others who tell us what they know through the senses. And as the sphere directly open to each one of us is very limited, we are very largely dependent for our knowledge on the testimony of others, upon such witness of personal knowledge as Rhoda gave. In the matters of the Christian religion we are wholly dependent on this indirect witness of the senses. What the apostles themselves saw, and tasted, and handled, and felt of the Word of life, that they declare unto us. The four Gospels come to us as the testimony of the senses of men who looked on Christ, lived with him, listened to him, and knew him in the intimacy of a close and dear friendship. We cannot too constantly or too earnestly urge that Christianity rests upon a basis of sensible facts, and that of them we have the testimony directly from the very persons who witnessed them. Therefore, though all the world may please to declare that we are mad, as the disciples said that Rhoda was, we too shall constantly affirm that it is even so as we have testified. No facts of human history can be received by us save on principles which compel us also to receive the facts of our Redeemer’s life and death.

II. Human testimony must always be uncertain. This should be fully admitted. It is uncertain because (1) our senses may be untrained and so unfit to receive impressions; or (2) diseased, and so likely to receive distorted impressions; or (3) the subjects with which they are concerned may be altogether new to us, and we may thus be unprepared duly to correct impression. Still, so far as the bare facts are concerned, the uncertainty is not such as to prove a practical disability. In the range of fact men are found generally to agree.

III. Human reasoning is necessarily uncertain. As in the case of the disciples who reasoned against Rhoda. The uncertainty comes out of: 1. Prejudice and bias (see the idola of Bacon). 2. Insufficient facts; some of the worst reasoning is explained by incomplete knowledge of the facts on which the reasoning is based. 3. False methods (see the fallacies explained in books on logic).

IV. The truth may be reached by wise reasoning upon sufficient testimony. To receive testimony alone may be mere credulity. To receive upon argument alone may be to yield to mere human force, to the power of superior intellect. But with due inquiry into basis-facts, and careful reasoning upon the facts, we may arrive at satisfying apprehensions of the truth. Apply to the acceptance of Christianity, with its difficulty of the miraculous. The four Gospels are a fourfold testimony to the great Christian facts. We must build our reasoning on the facts; just as those disciples should have received Rhoda’s fact, and followed it up with their reasoning, and not made their reasoning oppose the facts.—R. T.

Vers. 22, 23.—The sin of accepting Divine honours. The explanation of this incident is given in the exegetical portion of this Commentary. Several points of interest come out upon comparison of the Scripture narrative with that given by Josephus. The Jewish historian is fuller on the adulation offered to Herod than is St. Luke. He notices the remarkable silver garment which Herod wore on the occasion, and the effect it produced on the people, adding that “presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place and another from another, though not for his good, that he was a god. And they added, ‘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.’ Upon this the king did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery.” St. Luke distinctly makes the same charge, stating that he was smitten because he gave not God the glory. He permitted himself to listen to and accept the flattery, and failed to see that in so doing he openly and publicly insulted the Divine majesty. This God never will permit. He is jealous—in the high sense of that term—of his sole and sovereign rights, and immediately punishes all who dare to claim the honour which is due alone to him. Flattery of the creature may never rise to this height. Man can commit no sin so heinous as that of assuming Divine honours and rights. The most striking illustration is that of Nebuchadnezzar, whose pride swelled to a claim of Divine power and honour, and was, immediately upon his boastful utterance, smitten of God with a most humiliating disease. It is said that Antiochus the Great, because he sinned in a similar high-handed way, was brought low by a disease like that which afflicted Herod. We may consider some of the reasons why there is such jealousy of the Divine rights, and why Jehovah’s honour he will never give to another.

I. The sole claim of God is essential to our right relations with him. We are required to love God with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. We cannot unless he be indeed the one and only God. We are to recognize our relations with him as Creator, and to admit the claims which this relationship brings. But we cannot conceive of two Creators; he hath made us, and he alone. Our life is to be under his present gracious lead; in all our ways we are to acknowledge him, and to feel that he directs our paths; but only confusion can come into our thought and life if our daily allegiance is to be in any sense divided. Sin only gains its heinousness in our sight when it is thought of as committed against the one supreme will, and redemption has no point if it be not our recovery to the harmony of that one will. Illustrations may be taken from the confusion created by dualistic and polytheistic systems. Men never could be quite sure that they had propitiated the right god, and a constant anxiety wore away the hearts of even the sincerely pious.

II. The sole claim of God is the foundation of morals. The connection between the two tables of the Law needs to be carefully considered. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” is an injunction without force save as it follows on the great command to “love God with all our heart.” The life of morality is love to the one living God. The spirit of sonship is the inspiration of brotherhood. If a man truly loves God he will love his brother also. Illustrate from the uncertainty of all moral systems associated with polytheism. Some of the gods became even the patrons of impurity and immorality. Our one God being the “ideal of goodness,” his service must be wholly pure.

III. The claim of man to Divine honours reveals his utmost degradation. The claim has been made again and again, but only by men utterly abandoned, mastered by pride and self-conceit, and only after the crushing down of all reverence. Self-will may go great lengths and keep within human limits; it becomes Satanic when it dares to rival God and claim for itself Divine rights. When such heart-baseness is declared, the man must come under the immediate and awful judgments of God, even as Herod did.—R. T.

Ver. 24.—The growings of the Word. The terms used here indicate a continuous expansion. “Grew and multiplied” is a blending of figures, and does not easily fit into the term, “Word of God.” Probably St. Luke associated the word with our Lord’s parable of the “sower;” and thought of it as seed, growing up and bringing forth its hundredfold. Two things are suggested by the sentence taken as a text. 1. St. Luke notices, as a remarkable thing, that, in spite of all the persecutions and hindrances of those evil times, the Word of God grew. 2. And that a sudden revival of zeal, earnestness, and success followed on the dreadful judgment and sudden removal of the Church’s great persecutor. It is to the first of these two points that we now direct attention.

I. The apparent hindrances of troublous times. The recent history of Madagascar Christianity provides most effective illustration; or instances may be found in the histories of Lollards, Waldenses, etc. Persecuting times seem to be ruinous; their influence is directed to (1) the removal of the Christian leaders; (2) the silencing of Christian teachers and writers; (3) the stoppage of Christian worship; (4) the destruction of Christian books, and especially of the Divine Word. But it has never been found that physical violence has been more than apparent hindrance. The nearest approach ever made to success is probably the crushing of French Protestantism by the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. We are learning well the lesson that intellectual evils must be met by intellectual resistances and corrections, and that moral evils must be removed by moral agencies. “The weapons of our Christian warfare are not carnal, but spiritual,” and it is vain work for any to oppose us with mere shield and sword and spear. Illustrate from the martyrdom of John Brown, the advocate of freedom for the slave. Persecution seemed to succeed, and

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

But his soul is marching on”—

marching on to triumph in the vast lands of America, and marching on to another glorious victory in the newly found highlands of mighty Africa. Persecution cannot stop the onward progress of man’s thought or man’s love.

II. The real helpfulness of troublous times. The marvel is that the seed actually grows and multiplies in such times. We think the rainstorms hopelessly beat down the young and tender blades. Nay, they really nourish the roots, and prepare for vigorous upspringing and richer fruitage. Moral harvests wave where martyrs’ blood was shed. We may recognize the helpfulness of troublous times if we notice: 1. How they tend to bind men together. Differences of opinion and judgment are for a time forgotten. The common ground is fully recognized. Suffering throws each one upon the loving interest and care of the others, and lessons of the Christian brotherhood are then learned as they can be under no other circumstances. Prosperity and times of peace tend to bring prominently forward men’s diversities, and in such times sects are multiplied. Troublous times make men forget their peculiarities in facing a common foe and in sharing a common woe. 2. How they increase enthusiasm and develop energy. Nothing calls forth the latent powers of men like resistance to liberty of opinion. Let a scientific truth be opposed, and the whole energy of the discoverer is called forth for its maintenance, and to him that truth grows tenfold more important and more precious. So with the Christian verities, we “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” only when that faith is being contended against. 3. How they bring men more fully to lean on the Divine power. They bring that sense of personal helplessness which makes us cling to the assurance, “Greater is he who is with us than all who can be against us.” We feel we may walk alone if it is all light about us. We must lean hard on God if it is night time and stormy all about us. 4. How they draw public attention to the Christian workers. There is no advertising agent comparable for a moment in efficiency with persecution. Age after age Christ’s enemies have done Christ’s work, and witnessed among all lands for him, as they have martyred his servants and persecuted his Church. Suffering has a sacred power on human hearts everywhere, and Christ’s suffering Church wins men for Christ.—R. T.

Ver. 25.—The character of John Mark. This man is not introduced to us for the first time in this verse, but this may be regarded as his formal introduction. For the sketch of his life, which should prepare for our study of his character, our readers are referred to our Commentary on St. Mark’s Gospel. We only recall to mind a few prominent points. 1. He was evidently at this time a comparatively young man. 2. He was directly associated with the early disciples, as they seem to have met at his mother’s house. 3. It is more than probable that he had personally known the Lord Jesus Christ. 4. He was closely related to Barnabas, being his sister’s son. 5. He was, very probably, a rich young man, and devoted his wealth to the missionary work of the Church. 6. His office, as minister or attendant on Barnabas and Paul, was one necessitated by the difficulties and perils of travelling in those times. 7. In spirit and character John Mark should be carefully compared with Timothy. We note that he always occupies a subordinate position, but that there was a precise sphere which he could occupy, and a useful work given him to do. His failure from missionary work may be regarded as an indication that he had not, at that time, found his proper sphere. The man who was to prepare a written Gospel had not the kind of boldness and energy that was necessary for dangerous travelling. As suggestive and opening the way for a full study of his character, we notice that he was sincere, studious, timid, impulsive, and patient.

I. Sincere. His failure was in no way a sign of unfaithfulness to Christ. He left Barnabas and Saul, but he did not cease to minister to Christ. Years after he is spoken of for his profitableness, and he was evidently a sincere Christian. It may be shown how sincerity is the leading Christian virtue, and how it will abide and sanctify all varieties of disposition, character, talent, and adaptations for service. We can all be sincere.

II. Studious. Of a meditative and thoughtful habit, finding his right place when collecting the records of our Lord’s words and deeds, and possibly doing so under St. Peter’s supervision. God needs studious men, but they are seldom fitted for any other than their own particular work. They are hardly ever prepared for the public conflicts of life, and they have even some characteristic moral frailties. St. Paul knew the weakness of the studious Timothy, and bids him “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

III. Timid. This was the secret of his unwillingness to venture on the perilous journey into Asia Minor. Shrinking from danger, and even from exertion and enterprise. Such men never can be leaders. They had better stay at home. They seldom can be men of great faith. Their mental history matches their material history—they are timid about the truth, seldom quite sure of their own hold of it, and ever ready to join the foolish cry, “The Church is in danger.” We get no heroic champions from the class to which John Mark belonged.

IV. Impulsive. Some have thought that the young man who was nearly arrested with Christ was John Mark, and that he had heard the noise, and impulsively rushed out of his house to see what was going on, and had forgotten his outer robe. The same impulsiveness is seen in his refusing to go on with the missionaries. But notice how it differs from the impulsiveness of St. Peter or of St. Paul. It was a kind of negative impulsiveness, not urging him to do, but keeping him from doing. A dangerous spirit to cherish into strength.

V. Patient. This we may see illustrated in his Gospel, remembering that he had not the personal experiences of St. Matthew or St. John, and had to collect and collate his materials.

From John Mark we may learn these things. 1. A man has his own particular work for which he is divinely fitted. 2. If a man makes the mistake of trying to do somebody else’s work, it is a blessed thing that God’s providence stops him, and turns him into the path where he may work efficiently and successfully.—R. T.

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 H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 378–400.


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