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Occasional Letters: Looking for Lessons

D Newell, Glasgow

When you were a child, did you ever play with insects? I vividly remember constructing inside my father’s wheelbarrow a modest sanctuary for captured ants and other creepy-crawlies, complete with soil, stones, grass and water. This, alas, was not the dawning of an eminent naturalist’s career; it was simply an excuse to escape from the obligations of gardening. But the other day I was dipping into the writings of J Henri Fabre, the French entomologist whose indefatigable researches into insect life opened up a new and exciting world to his readers. According to the preface to The Insect World of J Henri Fabre, “to scrutinize … the mysterious habits of the insects it does not suffice to be an ingenious experimenter; there must be a keen observation, a patience that cannot be discouraged.” For hours on end this remarkable investigator would watch and record his painstaking observations of what he called his “laboratory in the open fields”.

Just as the scientist observes nature, so the Christian reads the Word – with diligence, with care, with patience, with wonder. Every chapter is full of riches placed there for our spiritual education. What follows is the abridged record of two evenings spent looking at Acts 12 in the company of a young friend; the discoveries listed below are therefore the fruits of a joint effort.

We chose Acts 12 for two reasons. It is comparatively brief and, although forming part of Luke’s history of the early believers, can be studied on its own. If you have ever read several books by the same author you will know that all writers have their stylistic trademarks. Luke, for example, rather enjoys understatement. There are at least seven in Acts, the first appearing in our chapter: “as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter” (12.18). With an important prisoner snatched from under their very noses, the guards were understandably shaken up. But Luke doesn’t put it like that; he says there was “no small stir”. In an age where the media (and sometimes even believers) resort regularly to crass hyperbole, the subtle irony of this soft-pedalling comes as a breath of fresh air. Again, any reader of Luke’s Gospel will have noticed his love of juxtaposition. Several are visible in Acts 12. One of the more amusing examples is the contrast between the ease with which Peter escaped from prison, and the difficulty he faced in gaining access to the saints (vv 13-16). More seriously, take the important “but” in verse 5: “Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made …”. The believers’ response to Peter’s peril was not political action or protest marches, but prayer (the saints’ secret weapon). Completely bypassing Herod and the Romans, upon whose support he relied, they went straight to the highest authority of all. The point is obvious.

But what doctrinal lessons did we glean? Well, one of the first things we noticed was the different destinies of James and Peter. God’s sovereignty permitted James’s execution but arranged for Peter’s deliverance (vv 2, 7). He who so easily released the one could have saved the other, but it was not His purpose. Our God “doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand …” (Dan 4.35). Every believer is “predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph 1.11). And we are all spiritually equipped for service, because the “gifts of the Holy Ghost” are given “according to his own will” (Heb 2.4). Our salvation, our circumstances (be they good or ill), and our spiritual enablements, are all of God. Then, by contrast, we noted how candidly Luke exposes human vulnerability. The big men of this world can be remarkably fragile and petty-minded. Herod felt compelled to pander to Jewish prejudices by victimising Christians (v 3), and his dependants in Tyre and Sidon succumbed to the political expediency of shamelessly flattering their benefactor (v 22). Yet, in the light of God’s unstoppable power to free Peter and kill Herod, how frail is man at best!

Though mentioned but twice, prayer is crucial. Look again at verse 5: “prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.” In that crisp statement we learned who prayed (the church), to whom (God), for whom (Peter), and how (without ceasing). But it can be equally important sometimes to observe what isn’t there – for we could discover no record of exactly what those believers prayed. Keeping that omission in mind preserves us from cheap jesting at their expense when we get to verses 15 and 16. We were particularly struck by the different ministry of angels in relation to the saved and the unsaved. Peter was miraculously delivered, but Herod was ignominiously and painfully dispatched. The same verb (“smote”) is used in startlingly diverse ways (vv 7, 23). Just as the one English word ‘stroke’ may describe a gentle caress or a heavy blow, so God’s angel dealt sweetly with His servant but severely with His enemy. Even as we marvelled at the miracle which liberated Peter, we couldn’t help but note that miracles can have limitations. They are used only sparingly in Scripture. The angel did the impossible (illuminated the darkened cell, severed the chains, opened the bolted doors), but left Peter to dress himself and decide what to do once he found himself alone in the street (vv 7-11). The same principle, we recalled, was illustrated in the raising of Lazarus. The Lord Jesus only did what men couldn’t do – raise the dead – but He instructed others to roll away the stone and unwrap the tightly-wound grave clothes (Jn 11.39-44). In our service, it is our duty to do what we can and leave the impossible to God.

Another feature which caught our attention was the evident peace of mind enjoyed by the captive Peter (v 6). Most of us know how hard it can be to get a decent night’s rest when we face some ordeal the next day, yet Peter slept so deeply that it required an angelic nudge to rouse him. Our minds went to supporting passages: “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety” (Ps 4.8); “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee” (Isa 26.3); “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4.6-7). It was, we noted, the night just before his expected execution that Peter slept so serenely. This drew our thoughts to the perfection of divine timing. The almost incidental Passover allusion in verse 4 reminded us of the finished work of Calvary (1 Cor 5.7), the basis of all our blessings, while Peter’s last minute rescue emphasised the need to wait on the Lord. Not until the eleventh hour will Christ intervene in power to deliver Israel from its bloodthirsty enemies (Zech 14.2-3). We also found it cheering to observe that, even with an apostle, understanding dawned gradually. Peter only grasped the significance of what had happened in retrospect (v 11). Similarly, in the upper room, the Lord Jesus taught him “what I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter” (Jn 13.7). Sometimes that “hereafter” takes a lifetime.

Finally, a few words in verse 23 underlined for us the true purpose of living. Herod’s sin was that “he gave not God the glory”. In Ephesians 1, Paul insists that the reason God saves folk like us is “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (v 6) and “to the praise of his glory” (vv 12, 14). If an unbeliever was condemned for failing to honour God, how much more should those who have benefited from Calvary “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10.31)?

What, then, did we learn from our observation of a chapter? We discovered – if nothing else – that time spent with God’s Word is never wasted. To focus on His truth cultivates a Biblical mindset which will equip us to run the race with greater diligence and steadiness. When you read, always look out for the lessons.

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