Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.…
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 Savior, 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 scepter 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 hint 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 wore 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 marvelous 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 (Matthew 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 Caesarea. 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 in sorrow's sacred stream."
(3) The arms and defenses of the Church against its foes are - unflinching courage in witness, calm patience in suffering, unwearied urgency in prayer. - J.
Parallel VersesKJV: Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.