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—ACTS 12:1-19.—APRIL 11.—
Golden Text:—"The angel of the Lord encampeth round about
them that fear him, and delivereth them."—Psa. 34:7 .
OUR lesson is supposed to date about twelve years after our Lord's crucifixion. A period of rest and prosperity was now followed by persecution. Herod Agrippa I. had been appointed King of Judea. He was grandson of Herod the Great, the murderer of the babes of Bethlehem. He was nephew of Herod Antipas, who beheaded John the Baptist. It was his son, Agrippa II., before whom the famous address was made by St. Paul. (Acts 26:28.) He was not a Jew, but an Edomite, a descendant of Esau. He appears to have been desirous of the good will of the people, even at the cost of principle. He took pains to observe the minutia of Jewish ceremonials. He hung up in the temple the gold chain which the Emperor Caligula had given him. It is related that at a "Feast of Tabernacles" he caused the entire Book of Deuteronomy to be read in the hearing of the people, and that he "burst into theatrical tears" when the reader came to the words, "Thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, who is not thy brother." Thereupon the populace obsequiously cried, "Don't weep, Agrippa, you are our brother."
On the lookout to curry favor with the Jews, especially the influential ones, Agrippa caused the Apostle James to be beheaded, and finding that this brought great pleasure to the Jews, he had the Apostle Peter arrested. The Greek word here rendered apprehend rather implies that his arrest was after searching. Probably all of the apostles were more or less secreted about that time, but, trusting to the sacredness of the Passover season, St. Peter ventured forth and was arrested and imprisoned, Agrippa intending his death directly at the close of the Passover week. Meantime, however, the Lord delivered him, as this lesson shows.
We can well imagine the sadness of the Church at that Passover season, which must have reminded them considerably of the time of our Lord's death and the alarm then amongst his followers. It may not be proven to the satisfaction of all, but to us for some years it has seemed as though each Passover season, each Memorial celebration, was a time of special trial and testing amongst the Lord's followers. As Judas and Peter and all of the Lord's disciples got their sifting at this particular season of the year, so, it does seem to us, the sifting and shaking, by which Satan desires to have others of the Lord's followers, are specially permitted at the Memorial season. But whether this is a true supposition or not, it will surely not injure the Lord's people to be specially on guard against the wiles of the Adversary at these times—since we are to watch and pray always, lest we fall into temptation.
The thought of special trial, special temptation from the Adversary at this season of the year, seems to have been the foundation for the so-called "Lenten Season," or period of special restraint, fasting and prayer, which has come down to us through the oldest channels of Church history. The fact that the "lenten season" is with many today a mere formality does not mean that it is so to all, nor that it was so originally. Strongly would we recommend the fasting and prayer at all times enjoined in the Scriptures, and, if possible, that alertness be specially exercised by all of the consecrated during the forty days preceding the Memorial Supper.
As we have already explained, our self-denials are not merely along the lines of food and drink, but extend to all of our appetites. Nevertheless a very simple and very limited diet in the Spring of the year would undoubtedly be beneficial for the majority of mankind, even were there no spiritual blessings and prayers connected therewith. Winter cold bringing hearty appetites, the result toward Spring is apt to be a surfeited or over-charged condition of the system, from which it needs to be relieved by a measure of abstention, which is as favorable to spirituality as surfeiting is unfavorable.
St. Peter is supposed to have been imprisoned in the famous Castle of Antonio, possibly in the very same room in which our Lord was arraigned before Pilate, and the same one to which Paul was subsequently taken [R4347 : page 73] when mobbed in Jerusalem. Peter had a guard of four quaternions (four soldiers each), who relieved each other every three hours. Two of the four were chained to Peter's arms, one to each arm, and a third was outside the door and a fourth in the passage leading to the outer iron gate. The power of Divine grace helping in every time of need and giving peace amid alarms, is well illustrated in this case by the fact that under all these circumstances St. Peter was fast asleep when the angel of the Lord came to deliver him. The proprieties of the case are also illustrated by the fact that Peter's friends, the Church, were not asleep, but praying for him. It was not for him to pray for himself deliverance from the power of Agrippa, for he had already consecrated his life unto death, and properly should feel quite ready to lay down his life at this time, if such proved to be [R4347 : page 74] the Lord's will in respect to him. For him to have asked for the prolongation of his life would have been to ask amiss, and would have manifested a wilfulness incompatible with a full consecration to the Lord's will. But with the Church it is different. They could with all propriety, while expressing to the Lord their confidence in the Divine supervision of the Church's affairs, tell him also of their love for St. Peter and of how much his sacrificing in the service of the Truth had done for them and was doing for them. They could properly enough express the hope that it might be the Lord's will that he should continue with them for their joy and comfort and upbuilding in the "most holy faith." It should not surprise us either that this prayer-meeting on St. Peter's account lasted all through the night and, for aught we know, other meetings of the same kind may have been held besides the one referred to in this lesson, which was at the home of Mary, the mother of Mark, the writer of the Book of Mark and the cousin of Barnabas, presumably the unnamed person of Mark 14:51.
It may be asked, Would it not have been appropriate for the Church to have offered prayer and then to have retired as usual, leaving the results entirely with the Lord? We reply that the examples given us in the Scriptures fully warranted the all-night prayer-meeting and even its continuance for several days. Do we not know of our Lord's remaining all night in the mountain at prayer? Do we not remember his long and repeated prayers in Gethsemane? Do we not remember the Apostle's exhortation to the Church, "Praying without ceasing, and in everything giving thanks"? Giving this a liberal construction as signifying a prayerful attitude of mind and continued looking to the Lord for his grace and guidance, nevertheless our Lord's parable of the importunate widow and her repeated comings and her reward all teach the same lesson of importunity. Besides, our Lord thus applied the parable, saying, "Shall not God avenge his very elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily."—Luke 18:7,8.
In one sense of the word the fears and sufferings of the Lord's people and their trials and difficulties ascend to the Lord in prayer and call to Divine Justice for vengeance, recompense, punishments, without any word from his people to this effect. Rather their petition should be in line with Stephen's prayer for his enemies, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Nevertheless, as Abel's blood is said to have cried to the Lord for vengeance, so the blood of his saints is said to cry unto him day and night, "How long, O Lord, dost thou not judge and avenge?"—Rev. 6:10.
The Lord certainly does not wish us to understand that he has no oversight, arrangement or plans of his own, nor that the Divine arm may be moved by our prayers in any direction at our pleasure, at any time. On the contrary, the Lord assures that all of his purposes shall be accomplished and that his Word shall not return to him void, "but shall prosper in the thing whereto it was sent." (Isa. 55:11.) Nothing can alter the definite, fixed outlines of the Divine program. But the Lord has evidently left certain of the filling in of our experiences subject to change or modification. These minor details he is ready to use for the blessing of his people, for the development of their faith. Thus in St. Peter's case the Lord was doubtless intending a deliverance in some manner, because he had a further work for him to do, but he allowed it to come about in such a manner as to indicate it as a reward of the faith of those who prayed for him. Otherwise the deliverance might have come sooner or later, and in response to faith or works along some other line.
The Lord evidently desires to cultivate in us a quality of faith, trust. Therefore he has made faith a condition for all of his blessings of the present age, and distinctly tells us that without faith it is impossible to please him, and that he desires us to "walk by faith and not by sight."—2 Cor. 5:7.
The question materially and properly arises, Why was Herod permitted to kill the Apostle James and not permitted to kill the Apostle Peter? Was St. James unworthy of any further part in the Gospel work, or less worthy than the Apostle Peter? Was there not enough work for all, or was St. James permitted to die because he was ready for death, because he had finished his course? And was St. Peter preserved alive because he had not finished his course? None of these suggestions seems to be the correct one. Rather let us surmise that both apostles were loyal and acceptable to the Lord and at the mark of perfect Love, fit for the Kingdom. Let us suppose that the Lord preserved Peter because he had a special work for him to do, and that he allowed the beheading of St. James, not because there was nothing more that he could do, but because by such a death as he experienced and at such a time he could accomplish the most that was possible—a work which could not have been so well done at another time, nor by the death of another person. St. James, apparently, was the leader amongst the apostles and his execution would be a great shock to the cause, awakening the followers of our Lord to renewed zeal and energy in the proclamation of the Truth. It doubtless served to increase the appreciation of the people for the apostles, causing them to give still more earnest heed to their teachings and to realize how greatly the cause of the Lord had been made dependent upon them, the "twelve apostles" of the Church.—Rev. 21:14.
This, then, would help to explain why the Church prayed day and night for St. Peter. The loss of St. James made St. Peter and every other Apostle doubly precious in the estimation of the "household of faith." God intended that St. Peter should live to be an old man, for this was our Lord's prophecy respecting him. But the emergency proved a blessing to the Church, by way of stirring up their pure minds to an appreciation of the Lord's cause in general and for St. Peter in particular. A similar lesson may be drawn today. As we see some ripe grains taken and other ripe grains left, it may mean that the Lord can use the death of the one the better and the life of the other the better, in his dealings with the Church.
The time in which the holy angels were permitted to materialize still continued a power possessed by them, but, we believe, is not now permitted to be exercised. It was between three and six o'clock in the last watch, for Peter was not missed until sunrise (Vat.), when the guards were changed. St. Peter, sleeping peacefully, was awakened by the angel, whose features were radiant, because this was necessary in order that the Apostle might discern that his deliverer was a holy being. The Scriptures mention numerous appearances of angels as men without radiant appearances. Peter was bidden to rise up. Quickly and simultaneously the chains which bound him to the soldier by either hand were loosed. He was instructed to put on his wooden shoes, or sandals, and to put on his outer garment, or cloak, and to follow his leader. We read that he followed, realizing the facts as those of a dream. Thus [R4347 : page 75] he was led past the first and second wards, or doors until they came to the great gate of the city, which opened of its own accord, and then the angel left him.
It is worthy of notice that the miracles performed here were only such as were beyond Peter's natural power. Whatever he could do he was required to do, namely, putting on of his sandals and his cloak, and following the angel. He could have been transported. His own sandals or other sandals could have been fastened to his feet. A new coat might have been provided. But the lesson is a more profitable one as it was given. Similarly in the Lord's dealings with us today, we should remember that it is ours to do everything within our power, and the Lord's to overrule all things for our good, and to supply our deficiencies from his abundance. Thus still he gives us day by day our daily bread, in the rain and the sunshine and the seed; but he expects us to labor for it, to plow the ground, to sow the seed, to harrow it, to thrash it, grind it and bake it.
"When Peter was come to himself," when he realized the facts in the case, that he was free, he said, "Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath sent his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod and...of the Jews." St. Peter's faith was strengthened. Willing to die, he found that the Lord was willing that he should live and labor and endure, and he was equally pleased, rejoicing, we may be sure, for the privilege of further service, even though it would mean further sacrifices and sufferings for the Lord's sake and for the sake of his people.
Doubtless the angel started Peter in the direction of Mary's home, where the prayer was being made on his behalf. The description of the house with an outer gate implies that it was one of the better class. Peter's knock was heard by little Rose, for such is the meaning of Rhoda. So overjoyed was she that, forgetful to let him in, she ran first to tell the praying household [R4348 : page 75] that Peter was at the gate. Expecting no deliverance at such an hour, some thought the maiden mistaken, and then insisted that it must be his angel—in harmony with the prevalent thought that an angel had supervision of each individual of God's people and that such might personate the one under his protection.
The brethren were surprised at the Lord's answer to their petitions, because it came so unexpectedly as respects time. There was an outburst of excitement and questions, which the Apostle was obliged to silence by the shaking of his hands. Then he narrated the wonderful story of his deliverance and bade them tell it to the other James, the brother (cousin) of Jesus, and the other disciples. Then Peter went his way, whether to another city or to another house, we do not know. In any event, he exercised wisdom in not needlessly provoking Herod. There was consternation with the coming of daylight. Later on in the same chapter we learn of another visit of the angel of the Lord—this second time to smite Herod with disease (intestinal worms), from which he subsequently died. This chapter then shows us the power of Satan, the power of God, and the power of prayer.
Of course, our Golden Text is a symbolical statement illustrative of the Divine guardianship of all those who are truly his. The thought is the continual supervision of our affairs by the Lord. Whether we think of the angel of the Lord as one of the heavenly host specially appointed on our behalf, or whether we think of him from the standpoint of the various powers of nature, the levers of which are all in the Divine care, it matters not. We have the assurance that the Father himself loves us and that all the heavenly powers are pledged to those whom he has accepted in Christ Jesus, and these unitedly guarantee blessings to all those who abide in God's love. This means to abide in faith in the Redeemer. It means to abide loyal to our consecration, to do the Father's will to the extent of our ability. That will is declared to be that we shall love the Lord supremely, our neighbor as ourselves, and all the members of the household of faith, as Christ loved us.