By J.R. Miller
One day James and John asked Jesus that they might be given exalted positions in the Master's Kingdom. Mark 10:37. They knew not what they asked. It was only a few years later, that Herod killed James with the sword. So James got, sooner than he expected and in a way far different from his thought--to his place at the right hand of Jesus. Truly we do not know what we are asking for, when we pray for nearness to Christ, or for high places in His Kingdom. Yet James has never regretted the path by which he ascended. His work was soon done--but death was no calamity to him--as it only exalted him to his home in glory.
There were two doors to that prison. One opened out into the city--the way Peter was delivered; the other opened upward into heaven--the way James was taken. We pray for our friends in sickness, that God would restore them to health. Again, there are two ways in which the prayer may be answered. God may heal our friends with bodily healing, and restore them to us in this world; or He may take them up into heaven, into eternal health and blessedness. A man who had been an invalid all his years was near death. A friend asked him how he was, and his answer was, "I am almost well."
When Herod saw that his action in taking the life of James pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. He was one of those rulers who was swayed by public feeling. Nor have we to go among the rulers to find the same spirit. There are plenty of people everywhere who have no settled principles of their own, who do not stop to ask what is right--but who do wait to know what their neighbors will say or think. Even young children very soon begin to be governed by the fashion of the day. We had better get the lesson here, that the true thing is always, not what will please the world and win the approval of our fellow men--but what God would have us do. Men who follow public opinion are like ships, which are propelled by sails--going whichever way the wind blows. Those who are governed by principle are like the vessels which are propelled by and engine, which do not depend on the winds.
Peter, therefore, was kept very securely in prison. Herod treated him as a dangerous prisoner. He not only had him in prison, with doors and bolts and bars--but he had sixteen soldiers to guard him, four at a time. To two of these he was always fastened by chains on his wrists, one chain binding him to each soldier, so that he could not move without disturbing the soldier. Why were such extra precautions necessary to guard such a poor, defenseless man as Peter? Had Herod heard the story of a former imprisonment of this same man, when the doors were miraculously opened and the prisoner released? Did he mean to defy the power of Peter's God when he put double chains on him and kept four armed soldiers on guard about him all the time? So it appears. No doubt the wicked king thought his plan perfectly successful. Tomorrow the execution would take place. Men plot against God--but He who sits in heaven laughs!
While Peter was in prison, his friends were praying earnestly for him. To Herod's power and the strength of his prison walls and chains, and the vigilance of his soldiers, they opposed only the quiet power of earnest, importunate prayer. They made no appeal to public diplomacy, nor did they think of using any force to rescue their friend from prison they stormed the prison through the gate of prayer. The sequel proves and illustrates the power of prayer.
Men talk about the invariableness and unchangeableness of the laws of nature--as if God had no control of affairs in His own universe. We need not give ourselves any trouble about how He can answer our prayers--we must leave that to Him; but we may as well settle it in our minds once for all--that the God to whom we talk in prayer can do whatever pleases Him. He can always find some way to help us or bring deliverance when we are in trouble.
We must not conclude, however, that He will always save us from danger, as He saved Peter. No doubt the disciples prayed for James, too, when Herod seized him--and yet he was beheaded. The prayers were answered in a different way; he was supported in the trial of martyrdom, and his release was not through the iron gate into the streets of Jerusalem--but through the gate of pearl into the streets of heaven! If Peter had been executed, who could have said that the prayers of his friends were not answered? God knows how best to answer our requests, and all true prayer submits even its most earnest petitions to the divine will.
The Bible story tells us most realistically, "the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains." There is something very beautiful in this picture. The time is just at hand for Peter's execution. Tomorrow he is to be brought out to die before the people. How is he spending his last night? We are permitted to look in upon him in his prison. There he lies on his cell floor. Two chains bind him, wrist to wrist, to two guards. But there is no evidence of distress in his cell. Peter is sleeping in quiet confidence and peace. If we could look into Herod's palace, it is not likely that he, on his soft bed, with his luxury and liberty, slept that night half so sweetly as did Peter in his prison. This peace is possible to all who love the Lord Jesus Christ. "You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you."
In a great flood on the Ohio River, some men in a skiff saw in the center of the broad river, amid the wreckage of houses and fences and forests and fields--a baby's cradle floating. Rowing to it, they found the baby sleeping there as sweetly as if it had been lying in its mother's bosom. So in the wildest storms the believer may rest in the love and power of Christ.
As Peter prayed, "an angel of the Lord stood by him." Tarry a moment to think of the ministry of the angels. It is a wonderful thought that these good spirits from heaven are continually bringing help to God's people on the earth; that they serve the saints in countless ways. They can go anywhere, through closed doors and prison walls. They move noiseless and unseen. They can fill even a cell with light. They can knock off fetters and open doors and lead us out of the worst perils. They are our friends, if we are Christ's friends. No doubt they help us continually, although we are not always aware of it. The most real things in this world are the unseen things. I believe in the actual presence and help of angels. They wait on us, and guard our home and guide our steps.
"Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. 'Quick, get up!' he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists." Wherever Christ's messengers go there is light. They carry the light in their faces. They are God's shining ones. Keble fancies that the apostle was dreaming in his last sleep, as he supposed, of the release coming to him on the morrow, and thought the angel's arousing that of the executioner come to call him out to die.
Notice here by way of illustration, that many people are bound with chains--bound to other man, too, ofttimes, and led by them wherever they will. But to such Christ's messenger comes, as the angel came to Peter, bidding them arise. And if they obey, the chains will fall off.
In eight words we are told the sequel. The angel said to Peter, "Follow me. And he went out, and followed." That is all we have to do in this world--simply to follow Christ, or the guide He may send to lead us. We have nothing to do with opening the way; our part is only to follow implicitly and unquestioningly, and He will always open the door for us. This lesson is worth heeding.
Here is a Christian man in sore perplexity. He cannot free himself. He can see no way out of the entangling circumstances. He is just like Peter that night in his prison, doors bolted, chains on his hands, stern guards encircling him. Is there any way out of such environment? Yes, Christ can lead him out. All that is needed is complete surrender to Him, and simple, unquestioning, absolute obedience and childlike following where He leads. Chains fall off when He bids us rise and obey. Prison doors open when we follow Him. Our only duty is obedient following; He does all the rest.
Peter did not understand at first who the friend was that was taking him out. They he said, "Now I know of a truth, that the Lord has sent forth his angel and delivered me." It is not until they are gone, that we recognize the angels. While they are with us we do not know them. This is true of many of the blessings God sends us. We do not prize the worth of our best human friends, until they have left us. Our very familiarity with them, hides from our eyes the excellencies of their character and the value of their helpfulness. They grow up alongside of us and grow into our lives so gradually and unconsciously that we do not know how much they are to us, how we lean upon them, how many doors they open for us, how their love brightens our paths. Suddenly they vanish, and then we see that they are God's angels. Their plain garb at once appears radiant with glory as they withdraw. A vacant chair is ofttimes the first true revealer of the worth of one whose presence and love have blessed us for years!
Peter came to the house of Mary the mother of Mark. In answer to his knock, "a maid came to answer, named Rhoda." We ought to get a lesson or two for our young girls from this little maidservant. Her work was lowly--only attending the door--but she had her reward that night. She was the first to know of Peter's release. She seems to be the only one who had faith enough to recognize that it was Peter. Her great gladness shows us that she loved Peter, and no doubt had been praying for his deliverance. There is one thing that every girl should learn of Rhoda--not to let her joy run away with her wits. A sensible girl would have opened the door as soon as she recognized Peter's voice; but she was so happy that she ran off to tell the good news, and left the apostle standing outside shivering in the cold. We should never in our happiness forget the practical duties of the moment.
This maid, Rhoda, waited not to greet Peter--but ran in and told that Peter stood before the gate. And they said unto her, "You are out of your mind." They had been praying for Peter's release or deliverance from the power of Herod. Now the answer to their prayer stood before the gate, knocking for admission, and they could not be convinced that it was their friend. That is often the way it is with all of us. When the answer comes to our prayers--the very things for which we have been praying--we are surprised, and cannot believe that they have really come. No doubt we ofttimes keep the answers to our prayers standing outside our doors and knocking.