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THE SAME NIGHT PETER WAS SLEEPING BETWEEN TWO
SOLDIERS, BOUND WITH TWO CHAINS ; AND THE
KEEPERS BEFORE THE DOOR KEPT THE PRISON. AND BEHOLD, THE ANGEL OF THE LORD CAME UPON HIM,
AND A LIGHT SHINED IN THE PRISON; AND HE SMOTE PETER ON THE SIDE, AND RAISED HIM UP, SAYING, ARISE UP QUICKLY. AND HIS CHAINS FELL OFF FROM HIS HANDS. ACTs xii. 6, 7.
The mind of man is formed for thought and meditation; and the pleasure of the understanding, where it has proper matter to exercise and amuse it, is far preferable to the indulgence of the passions. Happy should we be, if we could always think so!
The best matter in the world for meditation is that of the holy Scripture; first, because it is selected for us by the wisdom that made the world. The thoughts which men suggest to us in their conversation or their writings, have too frequently their beginning and their ending in this world; and are either imaginary and false, or earthly and unprofitable : and the meditation arising from such matter, how finely and elegantly soever it may be, will at last be slender and useless as the web which the spider draws from its own bowels. Secondly, because the matter of the Scripture not only affords a more rational amusement to the mind in this life, but is always of service to help it forward to the enjoyment of a better. It nourishes the spirit, while it engages the imagination. The body, be it never so well supported, must sink and perish at last; but the soul that is nourished up in the words of faith, and of good doctrine, shall never die.
Among the great variety of subjects treated of in the Scripture, none are more profitable than the miracles it has recorded; which generally are capable of a two-fold application. They serve as so many evident acts of a divine power, to confirm some doctrines revealed to us from heaven: and they are likewise in themselves so many contrivances of divine wisdom, to figure out and represent to us the doctrines they are intended to establish. A miracle is a seal of some divine truth; but if the seal bears the image and superscription of the truth, it will have a double value.
This is generally true in the miracles in the Old Testament; but of those of the New in a more particular manner; which after they have confirmed the words of the gospel, preach the sense of it over again to us, as signs or figures of it. You will understand what I mean from an example or two. Our blessed Saviour, as a proof of his divine mission, cleansed a leper; not merely for the healing of the body, which was but a temporary consideration; but to shew, by the choice of the miracle, that it was he who should take away the sin of the world, and cleanse the soul from so loathsome and infectious a distemper: for sin, like the leprosy, is hereditary to man. When he opened the eyes of a blind man, he added to the miracle this interpretation, to shew the meaning of itI am the light of the world—As if he had said, I who now give sight to the eyes of the body, do this to signify, that I myself am the true light to the eyes of the understanding : as the eyes that were blind are restored to sight, so shall the mind that is dark and ignorant be made wise to salvation, and recover the use of those faculties, which sin had extinguished : he that followeth me, shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.
Thus in like manner, when he set open the doors of a prison by the ministry of an angel, which is the miracle related in the text, what did he, but shadow out to us thereby that great and glorious effect of his own incarnation upon all believers, that eternal redemption, which the prophet long ago described as an opening of the prison to them that are bound ? Isa. Ixi. 1.
But before I proceed to particulars, I must take the liberty which St. Paul took with King Agrippa: he put this question to him, “ King Agrippa, believest “ thou the prophets ?" I must put a like question to those that hear me, and say, believest thou that a state of sin is a state of imprisonment; and that the service of God, to which the gospel hath called thee, is perfect freedom? If not, all the moral reflections I can suggest to you upon this deliverance of St. Peter out of prison, will make but little impression, and be very imperfectly understood. I will therefore presume, as the Apostle did, and answer the question for myself
-" I know that thou believest :" and may God give you his grace, that what I am now going to offer upon the mystery of God manifest in the flesh to destroy the works of the Devil, may fall into the ground of an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit an hundred fold. With this desire I shall endeavour to shew, that the miraculous deliverance of St. Peter out of prison, is not a matter of private interpretation, which looks no further than to the apostle himself; but is intended for public use; holding forth to the Church, and to every individual member of it, an in
structive pattern of his own natural bondage, and his miraculous redemption out of it.
The condition of an unenlightened unconverted sinner was never painted in more lively colours, than in the first verse of the text, which describes the situation of the apostle. “ The same night Peter was “ sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, “ and the keepers before the door kept the prison." You observe, first, that all this happened in the night : secondly, that Peter was sleeping : thirdly, that he was bound, and that with two chains ; and fourthly, that there were keepers before the door who kept the prison. Every word of which is verified in that man, who is not yet brought to the gospel of the grace of God. For first, it is night with him. His mind is without the knowledge of God, and of immortality; and Nature can give him no information about either of them: so that he may be truly said to sit in darkness, even the worst of all darkness, which is that of the understanding. The apostle therefore, speaking to enlightened Christians, reminds them of that state, out of which they had been called : “ Ye brethren, says he, are not in darkness, “ that that day should overtake you as a thief (in the “ night): ye are all the children of light, and the “ children of the day: we are not of the night nor of “ darkness."
As the night is a time of darkness, it is also a time of sleep : “ Peter was sleeping.” When man is in the darkness of nature, he is like a person in a deep sleep; insensible of every thing real that is round about him, and, under the delusion of a dream, he sees nothing of his true situation, but is amused with all those shadows, which variously please and torment the short miserable lives of men. “ Let us not sleep, saith “ St. Paul, as do others.” We Christians are awake :
the world is asleep, and lies dreaming of happinesss under all the real circumstances of misery. For they are not only asleep, they are under the custody of him that hath the power of death, and cannot rise up if they would. They are under close confinement in the worst of prisons, and are bound with two chains, the one of sin, the other of death, neither of which can be broken by the strength of man; and as for any succour, it is kept at a distance, by a guard of keepers before the prison door : there sits the strong man armed, to watch his captives, and prevent their rescue or their escape. There they must remain, fast bound in misery and iron, till a stronger than he comes upon him, takes from him his armour wherein he trusteth, and sets his prisoners at liberty.
Now we have seen the misery of man, we are next to behold the wonderful work of his deliverance by the manifestation of his Redeemer : for it follows in the text-and behold the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison. The first appearance of our great Deliverer was attended with the same circumstance. When the glad tidings of his birth were revealed to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, the glory of the Lord shone round about them. At this dark season of the year, he left the throne of his glory, and for us men and for our salvation, entered into the dungeon of this sinful world, where his first act was to give light to it: from the hour of his birth, a light began to shine in this prison. A star, appearing in the East, pointed him out as the light that was to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the Glory of his people Israel. Soon after his conception of the Blessed Virgin, the tongue of Zachary was loosed, to declare, that through the tender mercy of our God, the Day spring from on high had visited us, to