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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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on thy garment. Do not be afraid. Do not be in a hurry; there is plenty
of time. Now, are you ready? Come!' It would have been quite as easy
for the angel to have whisked him out of the cell and put him down at
Mary's door; but that was not to be the way. Peter was led past all the
obstacles - 'the first ward,' and the soldiers at it; 'the second ward,'
and the soldiers at it; 'and the third gate that leads into the city,'
which was no doubt bolted and barred. There was a leisurely procession
through the prison.

Why? Because Omnipotence is never in a hurry, and God, not only in His
judgments but in His mercies, very often works slowly, as becomes His
majesty. 'Ye shall not go out with haste; nor go by flight, for the
Lord will go before you; and the God of Israel shall be your rereward.'
We are impatient, and hurry our work over; God works slowly; for He
works certainly. That is the law of the divine working in all regions;
and we have to regulate the pace of our eager expectation so as to fall
in with the slow, solemn march of the divine purposes, both in regard
to our individual salvation and the providences that affect us
individually, and in regard to the world's deliverance from the world's
evils. 'An inheritance may be gotten hastily in the beginning, but the
end thereof shall not be blessed.' 'He that believeth shall not make
haste.'

IV. We see here, too, the delivered prisoner left to act for himself as
soon as possible.

As long as the angel was with Peter, he was dazed and amazed. He did
not know - and small blame to him - whether he was sleeping or waking;
but he gets through the gates, and out into the empty street,
glimmering in the morning twilight, and the angel disappears, and the
slumbering city is lying around him. When he is _left_ to himself, he
_comes_ to himself. He could not have passed the wards without a
miracle, but he can find his way to Mary's house without one. He needed
the angel to bring him as far as the gate and down into the street, but
he did not need him any longer. So the angel vanished into the morning
light, and then he felt himself, and steadied himself, when
responsibility came to him. That is the thing to sober a man. So he
stood in the middle of the unpeopled street, and 'he considered the
thing,' and found in his own wits sufficient guidance, so that he did
not miss the angel. He said to himself, 'I will go to Mary's house.'
Probably he did not know that there were any praying there, but it was
near, and it was, no doubt, convenient in other respects that we do not
know of. The economy of miraculous power is a remarkable feature in
Scriptural miracles. God never does anything for us that we could do
for ourselves. Not but that our doing for ourselves is, in a deeper
sense, His working on us and in us, but He desires us to take the share
that belongs to us in completing the deliverance which must begin by
supernatural intervention of a Mightier than the angel, even the Lord
of angels.

And so this little picture of the angel leading Peter through the
prison, and then leaving him to his own common sense and courage as
soon as he came out into the street, is just a practical illustration
of the great text, 'Work out your own salvation with fear and
trembling, for it is God that worketh in you.'



THE ANGEL'S TOUCH

'And, behold, the angel of the Lord ... smote Peter.... 23. And
immediately the angel of the Lord smote him [Herod].' - ACTS xii. 7, 23.

The same heavenly agent performs the same action on Peter and on Herod.
To the one, his touch brings freedom and the dropping off of his
chains; to the other it brings gnawing agonies and a horrible death.
These twofold effects of one cause open out wide and solemn thoughts,
on which it is well to look.

I. The one touch has a twofold effect.

So it is always when God's angels come, or God Himself lays His hand on
men. Every manifestation of the divine power, every revelation of the
divine presence, all our lives' experiences, are charged with the
solemn possibility of bringing us one or other of two directly opposite
results. They all offer us an alternative, a solemn 'either - or.'

The Gospel too comes charged with that double possibility, and is the
intensest and most fateful example of the dual effect of all God's
messages and dealings. Just as the ark maimed Dagon and decimated the
Philistine cities and slew Uzzah, but brought blessing and prosperity
to the house of Obed-edom, just as the same pillar was light to Israel
all the night long, but cloud and darkness to the Egyptians, so is
Christ set 'for the fall of' some and 'for the rising of' others amidst
the 'many in Israel,' and His Gospel is either 'the savour of life unto
life or of death unto death,' but in both cases is in itself 'unto
God,' one and the same 'sweet savour in Christ.'

II. These twofold effects are parts of one plan and purpose.

Peter's liberation and Herod's death tended in the same direction - to
strengthen and conserve the infant Church, and thus to prepare the way
for the conquering march of the Gospel. And so it is in all God's
self-revelations and manifested energies, whatever may be their
effects. They come from one source and one motive, they are
fundamentally the operations of one changeless Agent, and, as they are
one in origin and character, so they are one in purpose. We are not to
separate them into distinct classes and ascribe them to different
elements in the divine nature, setting down this as the work of Love
and that as the outcome of Wrath, or regarding the acts of deliverance
as due to one part of that great whole and the acts of destruction as
due to another part of it. The angel was the same, and his celestial
fingers were moved by the same calm, celestial will when he smote Peter
into liberty and life, and Herod to death.

God changes His ways, but not His heart. He changes His acts, but not
His purposes. Opposite methods conduce to one end, as winter storms and
June sunshine equally tend to the yellowed harvest.

III. The character of the effects depends on the men who are touched.

As is the man, so is the effect of the angel's touch. It could only
bring blessing to the one who was the friend of the angel's Lord, and
it could bring only death to the other, who was His enemy. It could do
nothing to the Apostle but cause his chains to drop from his wrists,
nor anything to the vainglorious king but bring loathsome death.

This, too, is a universal truth. It is we ourselves who settle what
God's words and acts will be to us. The trite proverb, 'One man's meat
is another man's poison,' is true in the highest regions. It is
eminently, blessedly or tragically true in our relation to the Gospel,
wherein all God's self-revelation reaches its climax, wherein 'the arm
of the Lord' is put forth in its most blessed energy, wherein is laid
on each of us the touch, tender and more charged with blessing than
that of the angel who smote the calmly sleeping Apostle. That Gospel
may either be to us the means of freeing us from our chains, and
leading us out of our prison-house into sunshine and security, or be
the fatal occasion of condemnation and death. Which it shall be depends
on ourselves. Which shall I make it for myself?



'SOBER CERTAINTY'

'And when Peter was come to himself, he said, 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.' - ACTS xii. 11.

Where did Luke get his information of Peter's thoughts in that hour?
This verse sounds like first-hand knowledge. Not impossibly John Mark
may have been his informant, for we know that both were in Rome
together at a later period. In any case, it is clear that, through
whatever channels this piece of minute knowledge reached Luke, it must
have come originally from Peter himself. And what a touch of
naturalness and evident truth it is! No wonder that the Apostle was
half dazed as he came from his dungeon, through the prison corridors
and out into the street. To be wakened by an angel, and to have such
following experiences, would amaze most men.

I. The bewilderment of the released captive.

God's mercies often come suddenly, and with a rush and a completeness
that outrun our expectations and our power of immediate comprehension.
And sometimes He sends us sorrows in such battalions and so
overwhelming that we are dazed for the moment. A Psalmist touched a
deep experience when he sang, 'When the Lord turned again the captivity
of Zion, we were like unto them that dream.'

The angel has to be gone before we are sure that he was really here.
The tumult of emotion in an experience needs to be calmed down before
we understand the experience. Reflection discovers more of heaven and
of God in the great moments of our lives than was visible to us while
we were living through them,

There is one region in which this is especially true - that of the
religious life. There sometimes attend its beginnings in a soul a
certain excitement and perturbation which disable from calm realising
of the greatness of the change which has passed. And it is well when
that excitement is quieted down and succeeded by meditative reflection
on the treasures that have been poured into the lap, almost as in the
dark. No man understands what he has received when he first receives
Christ and Christ's gifts. It occupies a lifetime to take possession of
that which we possess from the first in Him, and the oldest saint is as
far from full possession of the unspeakable and infinite 'gift of God,'
as the babes in Christ are.

But, looking more generally at this characteristic of not rightly
understanding the great epochs of our lives till they are past, we may
note that, while in part it is inevitable and natural, there is an
element of fault in it. If we lived in closer fellowship with God, we
should live in an atmosphere of continual calm, and nothing, either
sorrowful or joyful, would be able so to sweep us off our feet that we
should be bewildered by it. Astonishment would never so fill our souls
as that we could not rightly appraise events, nor should we need any
time, even in the thick of the most wonderful experiences, to 'come to'
ourselves and discern the angel.

But if it be so that our lives disclose their meanings best, when we
look back on them, how much of the understanding of them, and the
drawing of all its sweetness out of each event in them, is entrusted to
memory! And how negligent of a great means of happiness and strength we
are, if we do not often muse on 'all the way by which God the Lord has
led us these many years in the wilderness'! It is needful for Christian
progress to 'forget the things that are behind,' and not to let them
limit our expectations nor prescribe our methods, but it is quite as
needful to remember our past, or rather God's past with us, in order to
confirm our grateful faith and enlarge our boundless hope.

II. The disappearance of the angel.

Why did he leave Peter standing there, half dazed and with his
deliverance incomplete? He 'led him through one street' only, and
'straightway departed from him.' The Apostle delivered by miracle has
now to use his brains. One distinguishing characteristic of New
Testament miracles is their economy of miraculous power. Jesus raised
Lazarus, for He alone could do that, but other hands must 'loose him
and let him go,' He gave life to Jairus's little daughter, but He bid
others 'give her something to eat' God does nothing for us that we can
do for ourselves. That economy was valuable as a preservative of the
Apostles from the possible danger of expecting or relying on miracles,
and as stirring them to use their own energies. Reliance on divine
power should not lead us to neglect ordinary means. Alike in the
natural and in the spiritual life we have to do our part, and to be
sure that God will do His.

III. The symbol here of a greater deliverance.

Fancy may legitimately employ this story as setting forth for us under
a lovely image the facts of Christian death, if only we acknowledge
that such a use is entirely the work of fancy. But, making that
acknowledgment, may we not make the use? Is not Death, too, God's
messenger to souls that love Him, 'mighty and beauteous, though his
face be hid'? Would it not be more Christian-like, and more congruous
with our eternal hope, if we pictured him thus than by the hideous
emblems of our cemeteries and tombs? He comes to Christ's servants, and
his touch is gentle though his fingers are icy-cold. He removes only
the chains that bind us, and we ourselves are emancipated by his touch.
He leads us to 'the iron gate that leadeth into the city,' and it opens
to us 'of its own accord.' But he disappears as soon as our happy feet
have touched the pavement of that street of the city which is 'pure
gold, as transparent as glass,' and in the midst of which flows the
river of the crystal-bright 'water of life proceeding out of the throne
of God and of the Lamb.' Then, when we see the Face as of the sun
shining in his strength, we shall come to ourselves, and 'know of a
surety that the Lord hath sent His angel and delivered' us from all our
foes and ills for evermore.



RHODA

'A damsel ... named Rhoda.' - ACTS xii 13.

'Rhoda' means 'a rose,' and _this_ rose has kept its bloom for eighteen
hundred years, and is still sweet and fragrant! What a lottery undying
fame is! Men will give their lives to earn it; and this servant-girl
got it by one little act, and never knew that she had it, and I suppose
she does not know to-day that, everywhere throughout the whole world
where the Gospel is preached, 'this that she hath done is spoken of as
a memorial to her.' Is the love of fame worthy of being called 'the
last infirmity of noble minds'? Or is it the delusion of ignoble ones?
Why need we care whether anybody ever hears of us after we are dead and
buried, so long as God knows about us? The 'damsel named Rhoda' was
little the better for the immortality which she had unconsciously won.

Now there is a very singular resemblance between the details of this
incident and those of another case, when Peter was recognised in dim
light by his voice, and the Evangelist Luke, who is the author of the
Acts of the Apostles, seems to have had the resemblance between the two
scenes - that in the high priest's palace and that outside Mary's
door - in his mind, because he uses in this narrative a word which
occurs, in the whole of the New Testament, only here and in his account
of what took place on that earlier occasion. In both instances a
maid-servant recognises Peter by his voice, and in both 'she constantly
affirms' that it was so. I do not think that there is anything to be
built upon the resemblance, but at all events I think that the use of
the same unusual word in the two cases, and nowhere else, seems to
suggest that Luke felt how strangely events sometimes double
themselves; and how the Apostle who is here all but a martyr is
re-enacting, with differences, something like the former scene, when he
was altogether a traitor. But, be that as it may, there are some
lessons which we may gather from this vivid picture of Rhoda and her
behaviour on the one side of the door, while Peter stood hammering, in
the morning twilight, on the other.

I. We may notice in the relations of Rhoda to the assembled believers a
striking illustration of the new bond of union supplied by the Gospel.

Rhoda was a slave. The word rendered in our version 'damsel' means a
female slave. Her name, which is a Gentile name, and her servile
condition, make it probable that she was not a Jewess. If one might
venture to indulge in a guess, it is not at all unlikely that her
mistress, Mary, John Mark's mother, Barnabas' sister, a well-to-do
woman of Jerusalem, who had a house large enough to take in the members
of the Church in great numbers, and to keep up a considerable
establishment, had brought this slave-girl from the island of Cyprus.
At all events, she was a slave. In the time of our Lord, and long
after, these relations of slavery brought an element of suspicion,
fear, and jealous espionage into almost every Roman household, because
every master knew that he passed his days and nights among men and
women who wanted nothing better than to wreak their vengeance upon him.
A man's foes were eminently those of his own household. And now here
this child-slave, a Gentile, has been touched by the same mighty love
as her mistress; and Mary and Rhoda were kneeling together in the
prayer-meeting when Peter began to hammer at the door. Neither woman
thought now of the unnatural, unwholesome relation which had formerly
bound them. In God's good time, and by the slow process of leavening
society with Christian ideas, that diabolical institution perished in
Christian lands. Violent reformation of immoralities is always a
blunder. 'Raw haste' is 'half-sister to delay.' Settlers in forest
lands have found that it is endless work to grub up the trees, or even
to fell them. 'Root and branch' reform seldom answers. The true way is
to girdle the tree by taking off a ring of bark round the trunk, and
letting nature do the rest. Dead trees are easily dealt with; living
ones blunt many axes and tire many arms, and are alive after all. Thus
the Gospel waged no direct war with slavery, but laid down principles
which, once they are wrought into Christian consciousness, made its
continuance impossible. But, pending that consummation, the immediate
action of Christianity was to ameliorate the condition of the slave.
The whole aspect of the ugly thing was changed as soon as master and
slave together became the slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel
has the same sort of work to do to-day, and there are institutions in
full flourishing existence in this and every other civilised community
as entirely antagonistic to the spirit and principles of Christianity
as Roman slavery was. I, for my part, believe that the one uniting bond
and healing medicine for society is found in Jesus Christ; and that in
Him, and that the principles deducible from His revelation by word and
work, applied to all social evils, are their cure, and their only cure.
That slight, girlish figure standing at the door of Mary, her slave and
yet her sister in Christ, may be taken as pointing symbolically the way
by which the social and civic evils of this day are to be healed, and
the war of classes to cease.

II. Note how we get here a very striking picture of the sacredness and
greatness of small common duties.

Bhoda came out from the prayer-meeting to open the gate. It was her
business, as we say, 'to answer the door,' and so she left off praying
to go and do it. So doing, she was the means of delivering the Apostle
from the danger which still dogged him. It was of little use to be
praying on one side of the shut door when on the other he was standing
in the street, and the day was beginning to dawn; Herod's men would be
after him as soon as daylight disclosed his escape. The one thing
needful for him was to be taken in and sheltered. So the praying group
and the girl who stops praying when she hears the knock, to which it
was her business to attend, were working in the same direction. It is
not necessary to insist that no heights or delights of devotion and
secret communion are sufficient excuses for neglecting or delaying the
doing of the smallest and most menial task which is our task. If your
business is to keep the door, you will not be leaving, but abiding in,
the secret place of the Most High, if you get up from your knees in the
middle of your prayer, and go down to open it. The smallest, commonest
acts of daily life are truer worship than is rapt and solitary
communion or united prayer, if the latter can only be secured by the
neglect of the former. Better to be in the lower parts of the house
attending to the humble duties of the slave than to be in the upper
chamber, uniting with the saints in supplication and leaving tasks
unperformed.

Let us remember how we may find here an illustration of another great
truth, that the smallest things, done in the course of the quiet
discharge of recognised duty, and being, therefore, truly worship of
God, have in them a certain quality of immortality, and may be
eternally commemorated. It was not only the lofty and unique expression
of devotion, which another woman gave when she broke the alabaster box
to anoint the feet of the Saviour which were to be pierced with nails
to-morrow, that has been held worthy of undying remembrance. The name
and act of a poor slave girl have been commemorated by that Spirit who
preserves nothing in vain, in order that we should learn that things
which we vulgarly call great, and those which we insolently call small,
are regarded by Him, not according to their apparent magnitude, but
according to their motive and reference to Him. He says, 'I will never
forget any of their works'; and this little deed of Rhoda's, like the
rose petals that careful housekeepers in the country keep upon the
sideboard in china bowls to diffuse a fragance through the room, is
given us to keep in memory for ever, a witness of the sanctity of
common life when filled with acts of obedience to Him.

III. The same figure of the 'damsel named Rhoda' may give us a warning
as to the possibility of forgetting very plain duties under the
pressure of very legitimate excitement.

'She opened not the door for gladness,' but ran in and told them. And
if, whilst she was running in with her message, Herod's quaternions of
soldiers had come down the street, there would have been 'no small
stir' in the church as to 'what had become of Peter.' He would have
gone back to his prison sure enough. Her _first_ duty was to open the
door; her _second_ one was to go and tell the brethren, 'we have got
him safe inside'; but in the rush of joyous emotions she naively forgot
what her first business was, 'lost her head,' as we say, and so went
off to tell that he was outside, instead of letting him in. Now joy and
sorrow are equally apt to make us forget plain and pressing duties, and
we may learn from this little incident the old-fashioned, but always
necessary advice, to keep feeling well under control, to use it as
impulse, not as guide, and never to let emotion, which should be down
in the engine-room, come on deck and take the helm. It is dangerous to
obey feeling, unless its decrees are countersigned by calm common sense
illuminated by Scripture. Sorrow is apt to obscure duty by its
darkness, and joy to do so by its dazzle. It is hard to see the road at
midnight, or at midday when the sun is in our eyes. Both need to be
controlled. Duty remains the same, whether my heart is beating like a
sledge-hammer, or whether 'my bosom's lord sits lightly on its throne.'
Whether I am sad or glad, the door that God has given me to watch has
to be opened and shut by me. And whether I am a door-keeper in the
house of the Lord, like Rhoda in Mary's, or have an office that people
think larger and more important, the imperativeness of my duties is
equally independent of my momentary emotions and circumstances.
Remember, then, that duty remains while feeling fluctuates, and that,
sorrowful or joyful, we have still the same Lord to serve and the same
crown to win.

IV. Lastly, we have here an instance of a very modest but positive and
fully-warranted trust in one's own experience in spite of opposition.

I need not speak about that extraordinary discussion which the brethren
got up in the upper room. They had been praying, as has often been
remarked, for Peter's deliverance, and now that he is delivered they
will not believe it. I am afraid that there is often a dash of unbelief
in immediate answers to our prayers mingling with the prayers. And
although the petitions in this case were intense and fervent, as the
original tells us, and had been kept up all night long, and although
their earnestness and worthiness are guaranteed by the fact that they
were answered, yet when the veritable Peter, in flesh and blood, stood
before the door, the suppliants first said to the poor girl, 'Thou art
mad,' and then, 'It is his angel! It cannot be he.' Nobody seems to
have thought of going to the door to see whether it was he or not, but
they went on arguing with Rhoda as to whether she was right or wrong.
The unbelief that alloys even golden faith is taught us in this
incident.

Rhoda 'constantly affirmed that it was so,' like the other porteress
that had picked out Peter's voice amongst the men huddled round the



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 28 of 57)