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glad yielding of oneself to God, as wooed by His mercies, and thereby
drawn away from communion with our evil surroundings and from
submission to our evil selves, must be a part of the experience of
every true Christian. All His people are saints, not as being pure, but
as being given up to Him, in union with whom alone will the cleansing
powers flow into their lives and clothe them with 'the righteousness of
saints.' Have you thus consecrated yourself to God?

(_d_) The last name is '_brethren_,' - a name which has been much
maltreated both by the insincerity of the Church, and by the sarcasm of
the world. It has been an unreal appellation which has meant nothing
and been meant to mean nothing, so that the world has said that our
'brethren' signified a good deal less than their 'brothers.' ''Tis
true, 'tis pity; pity 'tis, 'tis true.'

But what I ask you to notice is that the main thing about that name
'brethren' is not the relation of the brethren to one another, but
their common relation to their Father.

When we call ourselves as Christian people 'brethren,' we mean first
this: that we are the possessors of a supernatural life, which has come
from one Father, and which has set us in altogether new relations to
one another, and to the world round about us. Do you believe that if
you have any of that new life which comes through faith in Jesus
Christ, then you are the brethren of all those that possess the same?

As society becomes more complicated, as Christian people grow unlike
each other in education, in social position, in occupation, in their
general outlook into the world, it is more and more difficult to feel
what is nevertheless true: that any two Christian people, however
unlike each other, are nearer each other in the very roots of their
nature, than a Christian and a non-Christian, however like each other.
It is difficult to feel that, and it is getting more and more
difficult, but for all that it is a fact.

And now I wish to ask you, Christian men and women, whether you feel
more at home with people who love Jesus Christ - as you say that you
love Him - or whether you like better to be with people who do not?

There are some of you who choose your intimate associates, whom you ask
to your homes and introduce to your children as desirable companions,
with no reference at all to their religious character. The duties of
your position, of course, oblige each of you to be much among people
who do not share your faith, and it is cowardly and wrong to shrink
from the necessity. But for Christian people to make choice of heart
friends, or close intimates, among those who have no sympathy with
their professed belief about, and love to, Jesus Christ, does not say
much for the depth and reality of their religion. A man is known by the
company he keeps, and if your friends are picked out for other reasons,
and their religion is no part of their attraction, it is not an unfair
conclusion that there are other things for which you care more than you
do for faith in Jesus Christ and love to Him. If you deeply feel the
bond that knits you to Christ, and really live near to Him, you will be
near to your brethren. You will feel that 'blood is thicker than
water,' and however like you may be to irreligious people in many
things, you will feel that the deepest bond of all knits you to the
poorest, the most ignorant, the most unlike you in social position; ay!
and the most unlike you in theological opinion, who love the Lord Jesus
Christ in sincerity.

Now that is the sum of the whole matter. And my last word to you is
this: Do not you be contented with the world's vague notions of what
makes Christ's man. I do not ask you if you are Christians; plenty of
you would say: 'Oh yes! of course! Is not this a Christian country? Was
not I christened when I was a child? Are we not all members of the
Church of England by virtue of our birth? Yes! of course I am!'

I do not ask you that; _I_ do not ask you anything; but I pray you to
ask yourselves these four questions: Am I Christ's scholar? Am I
believing on Him? Am I consecrated to Him? Am I the possessor of a new
life from Him? And never give yourselves rest until you can say humbly
and yet confidently, 'Yes! thank God, I am!'


'Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword.' - ACTS xii. 2.

One might have expected more than a clause to be spared to tell the
death of a chief man and the first martyr amongst the Apostles. James,
as we know, was one of the group of the Apostles who were in especially
close connection with Jesus Christ. He is associated in the Gospels
with Peter and his brother John, and is always named before John, as if
he were the more important of the two, by reason of age or of other
circumstances unknown to us. But yet we know next to nothing about him.
In the Acts of the Apostles he is a mere lay figure; his name is only
mentioned in the catalogue at the beginning, and here again in the
brief notice of his death. The reticent and merely incidental character
of the notice of his martyrdom is sufficiently remarkable. I think the
lessons of the fact, and of the, I was going to say, slight way in
which the writer of this book refers to it, may perhaps be most
pointedly brought out if we take four contrasts - James and Stephen,
James and Peter, James and John, James and James. Now, if we take these
four I think we shall learn something.

I. First, then, James and Stephen.

Look at the different scale on which the incidents of the deaths of
these two are told: the martyrdom of the one is beaten out over
chapters, the martyrdom of the other is crammed into a corner of a
sentence. And yet, of the two men, the one who is the less noticed
filled the larger place officially, and the other was only a simple
deacon and preacher of the Word. The fact that Stephen was the first
Christian to follow his Lord in martyrdom is not sufficient to account
for the extraordinary difference. The difference is to be sought for in
another direction altogether. The Bible cares so little about the
people whom it names because its true theme is the works of God, and
not of man; and the reason why the 'Acts of the Apostles' kills off one
of the chief Apostles in this fashion is simply that, as the writer
tells us, his theme is 'all that _Jesus_' continued 'to do and to teach
after He was taken up.' Since it is Christ who is the true actor, it
matters uncommonly little what becomes of James or of the other ten.
This book is _not_ the 'Acts of the Apostles,' but it is the Acts of
Jesus Christ.

I might suggest, too, in like manner, that there is another contrast
which I have not included in my four, between the scale on which the
death of Jesus Christ is told by Luke, and that on which this death is
narrated. What is the reason why so disproportionate a space of the
Gospel is concerned with the last two days of our Lord's life on earth?
What is the reason why years are leaped over in silence and moments are
spread out in detail, but that the death of a man is only a death, but
the death of the Christ is the life of the world? It is little needful
that we should have poetical, emotional, picturesque descriptions of
martyrdoms and the like in a book which is altogether devoted to
tracking the footsteps of Christ in history; and which regards men as
nothing more than the successive instruments of His purpose, and the
depositories of His grace.

Another lesson which we may draw from the reticence in the case of the
Apostle, and the expansiveness in the case of the protomartyr, is that
of a wise indifference to the utterly insignificant accident of
posthumous memory or oblivion of us and our deeds and sufferings. James
sleeps none the less sweetly in his grave, or, rather, wakes none the
less triumphantly in heaven, because his life and death are both so
scantily narrated. If we 'self-infold the large results' of faithful
service, we need not trouble ourselves about its record on earth.

But another lesson which may be learned from this cursory notice of the
Apostle's martyrdom is - how small a thing death really is! Looked at
from beside the Lord of life and death, which is the point of view of
the author of this narrative, 'great death' dwindles to a very little
thing. We need to revise our notions if we would understand how trivial
it really is. To us it frowns like a black cliff blocking the upper end
of our valley, but there is a path round its base, and though the
throat of the pass be narrow, it has room for us to get through and up
to the sunny uplands beyond. From a mountain top the country below
seems level plain, and what looked like an impassable precipice has
dwindled to be indistinguishable. The triviality of death, to those who
look upon it from the heights of eternity, is well represented by these
brief words which tell of the first breach thereby in the circle of the

II. There is another contrast, James and Peter.

Now this chapter tells of two things: the death of one of that pair of
friends; the miracle that was wrought for the deliverance of the other
from death. Why could not the parts have been exchanged, or why could
not the miraculous hand that was stretched out to save the one
fisherman of Bethsaida have been put forth to save the other? Why
should James be slain, and Peter miraculously delivered? A question
easily asked; a question not to be answered by us. We may say that the
one was more useful for the development of the Church than the other.
But we have all seen lives that, to our poor vision, seemed to be all
but indispensable, ruthlessly swept away, and lives that seemed to be,
and were, perfectly profitless, prolonged to extreme old age. We may
say that maturity of character, development of Christian graces, made
the man ready for glory. But we have all seen some struck down when
anything but ready; and others left for the blessing of mankind many,
many a day after they were far fitter for heaven than thousands that,
we hope, have gone there.

So all these little explanations do not go down to the bottom of the
matter, and we are obliged just to leave the whole question in the
loving Hands that hold the keys of life and death for us all. Only we
may be sure of this, that James was as dear to Christ as Peter was, and
that there was no greater love shown in sending the angel that
delivered the one out of the 'hand of Herod and from all the
expectation of the people of the Jews,' than was shown in sending the
angel that stood behind the headsman and directed the stroke of the
fatal sword on the neck of the other.

The one was as dear to the Christ as the other - ay, and the one was as
surely, and more blessedly, delivered 'from the mouth of the lion' as
the other was, though the one seemed to be dragged from his teeth, and
the other seemed to be crushed by his powerful jaws. James escaped from
Herod when Herod slew him but could not make him unfaithful to his
Master, and his deliverance was not less complete than the deliverance
of his friend.

But let us remember, also, that if thus, to two equally beloved, there
were dealt out these two different fates, it must be because that evil,
which, as I said, is not so great as it looks, is also not so bitter as
it tastes, and there is no real evil, for the loving heart, in the
stroke that breaks its bands and knits it to Jesus Christ. If we are
Christians, the deepest desire of our souls is fuller communion with
our Lord. We realise that, in some stunted and scanty measure, by life;
but oh! is it not strange that we should shrink from that change which
will enable us to realise it fully and eternally? The contrast of James
and Peter may teach us the equal love that presides over the life of
the living and the death of the dying.

III. Another contrast is that of James and John.

The close union, and subsequent separation by this martyrdom, of that
pair of brothers is striking and pathetic. They seem to have together
pursued their humble trade of fishermen in the little fishing village
of Bethsaida, apparently as working partners with their father Zebedee.
They were not divided by discipleship, as was the sad fate of many a
brother delivered by a brother to death. If we may attach any weight to
the suggestion that the expression in John's narrative, 'He first
findeth _his own_ brother, Simon,' implies that 'the other disciple'
did the same by _his_ brother, James was brought to Jesus by John, and
new tenderness and strength thereby given to their affection. They were
closely associated in their Apostleship, and were together the
companions of Jesus in the chief incidents of His life. They were
afterwards united in the leadership of the Church. By death they were
separated very far: the one the first of all the Apostles to 'become a
prey to Satan's rage,' the other 'lingering out his fellows all,' and
'dying in bloodless age,' living to be a hundred years old or more, and
looking back through all the long parting to the brother who had joined
with him in the wish that even Messiah's Kingdom should not part them,
and yet had been parted so soon and parted so long.

Ah! may we not learn the lesson that we should recognise the mercy and
wisdom of the ministry of Death the separator, and should tread with
patience the lonely road, do calmly the day's work, and tarry till He
comes, though those that stood beside us be gone? We may look forward
with the assurance that 'God keeps a niche in heaven to hide our
idols'; and 'albeit He breaks them to our face,' yet shall we find them
again, like Memnon's statue, vocal in the rising sunshine of the

The brothers, so closely knit, so soon parted, so long separated, were
at last reunited. Even to us here, with the chronology of earth still
ours, the few years between the early martyrdom of James and the death
of the centenarian John seem but a span. The lapse of the centuries
that have rolled away since then makes the difference of the dates of
the two deaths seem very small, even to us. What a mere nothing it will
have looked to them, joined together once more before God!

IV. Lastly, James and James. In his hot youth, when he deserved the
name of a son of thunder - so energetic, boisterous, I suppose,
destructive perhaps, he was - he and his brother, and their foolish
mother, whose name is kindly not told us, go to Christ and say, 'Grant
that we may sit, the one on Thy right hand and the other on Thy left,
in Thy kingdom.' That was what he wished and hoped for, and what he got
was years of service, and a taste of persecution, and finally the swish
of the headsman's sword.

And so our dreams get disappointed, and their disappointment is often
the road to their fulfilment, for Jesus Christ was answering James'
prayer, 'Grant that we may sit on Thy right hand in Thy kingdom,' when
He called him to Himself, by the brief and bloody passage of martyrdom.
James said, when he did not know what he meant, and the vow was noble
though it was ignorant, 'we can drink of the cup that Thou drinkest.'
And all honour to him! he stuck to his vow; and when the cup was
proffered to him he manfully, and like a Christian, took it and drank
it to the dregs; and, I suppose, went silently to his grave. But the
change between his ardent anticipations and his calm resignation, and
between his foolish dream and the stern reality, may well teach us
that, whether our wishes be fulfilled or disappointed, they all need to
be purified, and that the disappointment of them on earth is often
God's way of fulfilling them for us in higher fashion than we dreamed
or asked.

So, brethren, let us leave for ourselves, and for all dear ones, that
question of living or dying, to His decision. Only let us be sure that
whether our lives be long like John's, or short like James', 'living or
dying we are the Lord's.' And then, whatever be the length of life or
the manner of death, both will bring us the fulfilment of our highest
wishes, and will lead us to His side at whose right hand all those
shall sit who have loved Him here, and, though long parted, shall be
reunited in common enjoyment of the pleasures for evermore which bloom
unfading there. 'And so shall we ever be with the Lord.'


'Peter therefore was kept in the prison: but prayer was made earnestly
of the Church unto God for him.' - ACTS xii. 5 (R.V.)

The narrative of Peter's miraculous deliverance from prison is full of
little vivid touches which can only have come from himself. The whole
tone of it reminds us of the Gospel according to St. Mark, which is in
like manner stamped with peculiar minuteness and abundance of detail.
One remembers that at a late period in the life of the Apostle Paul,
Mark and Luke were together with him; and no doubt in those days in
Rome, Mark, who had been Peter's special companion and is called by one
of the old Christian writers his 'interpreter,' was busy in telling
Luke the details about Peter which appear in the first part of this
Book of the Acts.

The whole story seems to me to be full of instruction as well as of
picturesque detail; and I desire to bring out the various lessons which
appear to me to lie in it.

I. The first of them is this: the strength of the helpless.

Look at that eloquent 'but' in the verse that I have taken as a
starting-point: 'Peter therefore was kept in prison, _but_ prayer was
made earnestly of the Church unto God for him.' There is another
similarly eloquent 'but' at the end of the chapter:

'Herod ... was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost, _but_ the Word of
God grew and multiplied.' Here you get, on the one hand, all the
pompous and elaborate preparations - 'four quaternions of
soldiers' - four times four is sixteen - sixteen soldiers, two chains,
three gates with guards at each of them, Herod's grim determination,
the people's malicious expectation of having an execution as a pleasant
sensation with which to wind up the Passover Feast. And what had the
handful of Christian people? Well, they had prayer; and they had Jesus
Christ. That was all, and that is more than enough. How ridiculous all
the preparation looks when you let the light of that great 'but' in
upon it! Prayer, earnest prayer, 'was made of the Church unto God for
him.' And evidently, from the place in which that fact is stated, it is
intended that we should say to ourselves that it was _because_ prayer
was made for him that what came to pass did come to pass. It is not
jerked out as an unconnected incident; it is set in a logical sequence.
'Prayer was made earnestly of the Church unto God for him' - and so
when Herod would have brought him forth, behold, the angel of the Lord
came, and the light shined into the prison. It is the same sequence of
thought that occurs in that grand theophany in the eighteenth Psalm,
'My cry entered into His ears; then the earth shook and trembled'; and
there came all the magnificence of the thunderstorm and the earthquake
and the divine manifestation; and this was the purpose of it all - 'He
sent from above, He took me, He drew me out of many waters.' The whole
energy of the divine nature is set in motion and comes swooping down
from highest heaven to the trembling earth. And of that fact the one
end is one poor man's cry, and the other end is his deliverance. The
moving spring of the divine manifestation was an individual's prayer;
the aim of it was the individual's deliverance. A little water is put
into a hydraulic ram at the right place, and the outcome is the lifting
of tons. So the helpless men who could only pray are stronger than
Herod and his quaternions and his chains and his gates. 'Prayer was
made,' therefore all that happened was brought to pass, and Peter was

Peter's companion, James, was killed off, as we read in a verse or two
before. Did not the Church pray for him? Surely they did. Why was their
prayer not answered, then? God has not any step-children. James was as
dear to God as Peter was. One prayer was answered; was the other left
unanswered? It was the divine purpose that Peter, being prayed for,
should be delivered; and we may reverently say that, if there had not
been the many in Mary's house praying, there would have been no angel
in Peter's cell.

So here are revealed the strength of the weak, the armour of the
unarmed, the defence of the defenceless. If the Christian Church in its
times of persecution and affliction had kept itself to the one weapon
that is allowed it, it would have been more conspicuously victorious.
And if we, in our individual lives - where, indeed, we have to do
something else besides pray - would remember the lesson of that eloquent
'but,' we should be less frequently brought to perplexity and reduced
to something bordering on despair. So my first lesson is the strength
of the weak.

II. My next is the delay of deliverance.

Peter had been in prison for some time before the Passover, and the
praying had been going on all the while, and there was no answer. Day
after day 'of the unleavened bread' and of the festival was slipping
away. The last night had come; 'and the same night' the light shone,
and the angel appeared. Why did Jesus Christ not hear the cry of these
poor suppliants sooner? For their sakes; for Peter's sake; for our
sakes; for His own sake. For the eventual intervention, at the very
last moment, and yet at a sufficiently early moment, tested faith. And
look how beautifully all bore the test. The Apostle who was to be
killed to-morrow is lying quietly sleeping in his cell. Not a very
comfortable pillow he had to lay his head upon, with a chain on each
arm and a legionary on each side of him. But he slept; and whilst he
was asleep Christ was awake, and the brethren were awake. Their faith
was tested, and it stood the test, and thereby was strengthened. And
Peter's patience and faith, being tested in like manner and in like
manner standing the test, were deepened and confirmed. Depend upon it,
he was a better man all his days, because he had been brought close up
to Death and looked it in the fleshless eye-sockets, unwinking and
unterrified. And I dare say if, long after, he had been asked, 'Would
you not have liked to have escaped those two or three days of suspense,
and to have been let go at an earlier moment?' he would have said, 'Not
for worlds! For I learned in those days that my Lord's time is the
best. I learned patience' - a lesson which Peter especially needed - 'and
I learned trust.'

Do you remember another incident, singularly parallel in essence,
though entirely unlike in circumstances, to this one? The two weeping
sisters at Bethany send their messenger across the Jordan, grudging
every moment that he takes to travel to the far-off spot where Jesus
is. The message sent is only this: 'He whom Thou lovest is sick.' What
an infinite trust in Christ's heart that form of the message showed!
They would not say 'Come!'; they would not ask Him to do anything; they
did not think that to do so was needful: they were quite sure that what
He would do would be right.

And how was the message received? 'Jesus loved Martha and Mary and
Lazarus.' Well, did that not make Him hurry as fast as He could to the
bedside? No; it rooted Him to the spot. 'He abode,
_therefore_' - because He loved them - 'two days still in the same place
where He was,' to give him plenty of time to die, and the sisters
plenty of time to test their confidence in Him. Their confidence does
not seem to have altogether stood the test. 'Lord, if Thou hadst been
here my brother had not died.' 'And why wast Thou _not_ here?' is
implied. Christ's time was the best time. It was better to get a dead
brother back to their arms and to their house than that they should not
have lost him for those dreary four days. So delay tests faith, and
makes the deliverance, when it comes, not only the sweeter, but the
more conspicuously divine. So, brother, 'men ought always to pray, and
not to faint' - always to trust that 'the Lord will help them, and that
right early.'

III. The next lesson that I would suggest is the leisureliness of the

A prisoner escaping might be glad to make a bolt for it, dressed or
undressed, anyhow. But when the angel comes into the cell, and the
light shines, look how slowly and, as I say, leisurely, he goes about
it. 'Put on thy shoes.' He had taken them off, with his girdle and his
upper garment, that he might lie the less uncomfortably. 'Put on thy
shoes; lace them; make them all right. Never mind about these two
legionaries; they will not wake. Gird thyself; tighten thy girdle. Put

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 27 of 57)