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XII: 1, 2. The historian does not follow Barnabas and Saul in their tour through the districts in Judea, but, leaving them for awhile, introduces a very interesting episode concerning events that were then transpiring in Jerusalem. (1) “Now, about that time, Herod the king stretched forth his hand to afflict certain persons of the Church, (2) and killed James the brother of John with the sword.” The persecutions which we have hitherto noticed were conducted by religious partisans in Jerusalem, without any active assistance on the part of the civil authorities. We are now introduced to one in which the reigning prince is the leader, while the old enemies of the truth are working behind the curtain, if at all.
This Herod was a grandson of that Herod by whom the infants of Bethlehem were slaughtered, and a nephew of “Herod the Tetrarch,” by whom John the Immerser was beheaded. He grew up in Rome, where he wasted what fortune he had inherited in princely extravagance; but while doing so he acquired an intimacy with Caius Cæsar, afterward the famous Caligula of history. When the latter ascended the throne, at the death of Tiberius, he elevated his friend Agrippa, 152as this Herod was most usually called, to a kingdom, which was subsequently enlarged by Claudius until it embraced all the territory ruled by his grandfather Herod the Great. He was now in the zenith of his power, and living in the utmost magnificence.253253For a detailed and very interesting history of this prince, see Josephus's Ant., Books 18 and 19. Why he undertook this persecution it is difficult to tell, unless he was instigated to it by the old enemies of the Church. This appears most probable from Luke's statement below, that he seized Peter because he saw that the death of James pleased the Jews.254254Acts xii. 3.
A number of brethren suffered in this persecution, though James the brother of John is the only one who is said to have suffered death. He is designated as the “brother of John” to distinguish him from the other James, who is the author of the epistle bearing this name. He was the first of the apostles to suffer death, and his brother John was the last. In the death of both were fulfilled the words of Jesus, uttered on a memorable occasion, when they asked him for a seat, one at his right hand, and the other at his left. He asked them if they were able to undergo the immersion which he would undergo. They said, “We are able.” He replied, “You shall, indeed, drink of my cup, and be immersed in the immersion in which I am immersed; but to sit on my right hand and on my left is not mine to give, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father.” As the sword of the executioner was made bare, and the neck of James laid upon the block, he could but remember these words. He understood, too, far better than when he first made the request, what it is to sit at the right hand of Jesus.
Why James was selected for this murderous example, in preference to any other of the apostles, we are not informed; but we have already seen that the brunt of persecution uniformly fell upon those most prominent in the scenes which were the immediate occasion of it. This consideration gives some ground for the conclusion that, though Peter and John had hitherto acted the most prominent part in Jerusalem, at this time James stood in the foreground in the conflict with the unbelieving Jews.
3, 4. When a man engages in a wicked enterprise, his conscience makes him timid while left to himself; but the applause of the multitude enables him to drown the voice of conscience, and rush on madly to the end. Agrippa may have hesitated when he found his hands stained with the blood of an apostle; but when the people applauded, he hesitated no longer. (3) “And seeing that it was pleasing to the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. But it was in the days of unleavened bread. (4) And having apprehended him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four quaternions of soldiers to guard him, intending, after the Passover, to bring him out to the people.” A public execution during the feast of unleavened bread would have been exceedingly incongruous with the religious solemnities of the occasion: hence this delay.
The four quaternions of soldiers who guarded Peter consisted of sixteen men, each quaternion consisting of four. It was enough to keep four men on guard during each of the four watches of the 153night. They, together with the strength of the prison doors, were deemed sufficient for the utmost security.
5. We have noticed that when Peter and John were dismissed from the Sanhedrim, with a threat of violence if they dared any more to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they came to their own company, and all united in prayer to God for courage.255255Acts iv. 24. Now that James has been murdered, and Peter is in prison awaiting the same fate, we find the brethren once more unitedly appealing to God. (5) “Peter, therefore, was kept in prison, but fervent prayer was made by the Church to God for him.” When we reflect that the circumstances affecting the disciples were calculated in the highest degree to exasperate them against the murderers of their brethren, and stimulate them to active measures for the defense of their own lives, it is exceedingly to their credit that they were engaged in fervent prayer. If they had been taught the modern doctrine that Christians may rightly resist, with violence, the assaults of tyrannical rulers, and, whatever the weakness on their own part, may confidently appeal to the God of battles in vindication of their rights, their feelings, and their conduct, under these circumstances, must have been far different from what they were. If ever there was an occasion on which the boasted first law of nature, the right of self-defense, would justify resistance to oppression, it existed here. But, instead of the passion and turmoil of armed preparation, we hear from the midnight assemblies of the disciples the voice of fervent prayer. Where prayer is, acceptable prayer, there is no passion, no thirst for revenge, or purpose of violence. These men were disciples of the Prince of Peace.
6. Time wore away in painful suspense until the Passover was gone by. (6) “And when Herod was about to bring him forth, in that night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and the guards before the door were guarding the prison.” He was securely kept, according to the most ingenious method of the Roman army. Besides the prison-doors, and the guards without, his arms were pinioned by two chains, each to the arm of a soldier on the right and left, so that he could not move without disturbing one or both. If Herod was actuated, in adopting these precautions, by a desire to prevent a rescue, he ought to have known that Peter's brethren never fought with carnal weapons, even to save the life of a brother. Or if he feared a miraculous escape of his prisoner, and intended that the guards should kill him upon the first movement of that kind, he ought to have remembered that all the twelve had once walked out of a prison in that city without hindrance either from the iron doors or the armed soldiers. But wicked men are prone to forget the warnings of the past, and continue to repeat, in endless succession, the blunders of their predecessors.
7–11. Though Peter undoubtedly expected to die the next day, he seems to have slept as soundly as the soldiers to whom he was chained. All was dark and still within the prison until a late hour of the night, when the scene suddenly changed. (7) “And behold, an angel of the Lord, stood by, and a light shone in the prison; and striking Peter on the side, he raised him up, saying, Rise up quickly. His chains fell from 154his hands. (8) And the angel said to him, Gird yourself, and bind on your sandals. He did so. And he said to him, Cast your mantle about you and follow me. (9) And he followed him, going out, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. (10) But having passed through the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate which leads into the city, which opened to them of its own accord; and going out, they went forward one street, and immediately the angel departed from him. (11) Then Peter, coming to himself, said, Now I know in reality that the Lord has sent his angel, and delivered me from the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.” It is not at all strange that Peter thought, at first, that he was dreaming; for the deliverance was entirely unexpected, and was effected in the most wonderful manner, and amid the bewilderment usual upon being suddenly aroused from deep sleep. When he found himself alone in the street, and had collected his senses, he knew that it was a reality, and felt like one waking from a singular dream.
12. When the angel departed, he stood in the street for awhile, reflecting upon the incident, and considering what he should do. In the house of Mary the sister of Barnabas,256256Compare verse 12 with Col. iv. 10. a number of disciples were at that very hour engaged in prayer in his behalf. He knew nothing of this, but, guided either by the proximity of the house, or the well-known character of its inmates, he turned in that direction. (12) “When he understood the matter, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.“
13–16. Although the condition of Peter was the burden of the prayers of these disciples, they were by no means expecting his deliverance, and were most likely praying that he might be enabled to endure with fortitude a death which they regarded as inevitable. (13) “And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant girl named Rhoda came to hear who it was. (14) And recognizing the voice of Peter, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in and told that Peter was standing before the gate. (15) But they said to her, You are mad. But she positively affirmed that it was really so. Then they said, It is his angel. (16) But Peter continued knocking, and when they had opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.”
When we remember that these disciples were so familiar with miracles, it is rather surprising that the deliverance of Peter should have caused so much astonishment. It shows that they were still disposed, like ourselves, to estimate the probabilities of even what God may do, by the difficulties of the execution. This is really judging of God by the standard of human ability. While we are compelled to approach the unknown through the known, we will, perhaps, never rise above this weakness. Still, it should not, even in the most difficult cases, check the fervency of our prayers. They undervalued the power or the willingness of God to grant their desires, in the day of miracles, as we undervalue his power to work without miracles; yet their prayers were none the less fervent or persistent.
When Rhoda insisted that it was Peter at the gate, and the disciples said, It is his angel, they undoubtedly had allusion to the popular 155superstition of their day, that a man's guardian angel sometimes assumed his form. Before this, the twelve had twice imagined that they saw a disembodied spirit; once when they saw Jesus walking on the water, and once when he miraculously entered a closed room where they were sitting.257257Matt. xiv. 26; Luke xxiv. 37. These facts show how strong a hold the popular superstitions had upon their minds. But while the conception that angels sometimes assumed the forms of those whom they guarded, and that disembodied spirits were sometimes visible, was superstitious, we must not forget that beneath this superstition there was a solemn reality. Jesus says, “Take heed that you despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.”258258Matt. xviii. 10. Paul asks, “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those who shall inherit salvation?”259259Heb. i. 14. And David, under the old economy, says, in his own poetic style, “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them who fear him.”260260Ps. xxxiv. 7. In view of these statements, we can not doubt that the ministration of angels in behalf of the saints is still a reality.
17. Apprehensive of a pursuit, Peter did not remain long with the brethren in the house of Mary. (17) “But, beckoning to them with his hand to be silent, he related to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison, and said, Tell these things to James and the brethren. And going out, he went to another place.” Whether this other place was a place of concealment in the city, or an entirely new field of labor, is not known.
The prominence given to the name of the surviving James, in this speech of Peter, shows that he already occupied a prominent position among the brethren. We will, hereafter, see that he continued to occupy this position.
18, 19. The escape of Peter had been altogether unobserved by the soldiers who guarded him. The two who were chained to him in the prison slept on till day, and those guarding the outside changed their watches at the regular hours without suspecting any thing wrong within. (18) “Now when it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter. (19) And when Herod had sought for him and found him not, he examined the guards and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judea to Cæsarea, and abode there.” The military law of the Romans required that guards who allowed the escape of a prisoner, and rendered no satisfactory account of it, should be put to death. But it is impossible to believe that on this occasion Herod was governed by an honest sense of military duty. He must have known that the escape of Peter was miraculous, and the execution of the guards was an act of insane fury. A conscience stained by the blood of an apostle and of sixteen faithful soldiers could not find rest in the place where the deeds were done; and doubtless this had much to do with the removal of his residence to Cæsarea.
20–23. The historian pursues the history of this murderous prince a little further. (20) “Now Herod was enraged against the Tyrians and Sidonians. But they came to him with one accord, and having made Blastus the king's chamberlain their friend, desired peace, because their 156country was nourished by that of the king. (21) And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration to them. (22) And the people cried out, The voice of a God, and not of a man. (23) And immediately an angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory, and being eaten by worms, he expired.” Josephus says of the “royal apparel” in which he was arrayed, that it was woven wholly of silver threads, the glittering of which, in the morning sun, suggested the idolatrous exclamation of the multitude. He also relates that Herod was seized with pains in the bowels, so violent that he had to be carried into the palace, and lingered five days in excruciating torments from the worms also mentioned by Luke. This historian mentions some circumstances of a superstitious character in connection with this terrible event, but his account agrees substantially with that of Luke. Thus was the righteous judgment of God, which is chiefly reserved for the future state, displayed even in the world, for the terror of wicked men and the encouragement of the righteous.
24. It was impossible that this providential and sudden death of Herod, occurring so soon after the murders which he had committed in Jerusalem, should not seriously affect the public mind. We are not surprised, therefore, that Luke adds: (24) “But the word of the Lord grew and multiplied.” Once more the efforts of men to crush the cause of Christ resulted in the extension of its triumphs.
25. This narrative concerning the death of James, the imprisonment of Peter, and the miserable death of Herod, is thrown in between the arrival of Paul and Barnabas on their mission to the poor saints, and their return to Antioch. It is most probable that they were in Jerusalem at the feast during which Peter lay in prison. (25) “Now Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John who was surnamed Mark.” This is the first appearance in public life of the evangelist Mark, whose education in the house of Mary his mother, and whose subsequent familiarity, first with Barnabas and Saul, and afterward with Peter, very happily fitted him for the gospel narrative which we have from his pen. We will have more to say of him hereafter.261261See Acts xiii. 13; and xv. 37–39.
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