THE ANGEL AND THE IRON GATE
IT is of no use arguing against an iron gate. There it stands-chained and padlocked, barred and bolted—right across your path, and you can neither coax nor cow it into yielding. So was it with Peter on the night of his miraculous escape from prison. 'Herod,' we are told, 'killed James with the sword, and, because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to take Peter also.’ There he lay, ‘sleeping between two soldiers, bound with chains, whilst the keepers before the door kept the prison.' He expected that his next visitor would be the headsman; and whilst he waited for the executioner, there came an angel! This sort of thing happens fairly often. They are sitting round the fire, and the lady in the arm-chair is talking of her sailor-son.
`Ah!' she says, 'I haven't heard of him for over a year now, and I begin to think that I shall never hear again.'
There is a sharp ring at the bell. She starts.
`Something tells me,' she continues, ' that this is a message to say that the ship is lost, and that I shall never see my boy again.'
Even whilst she speaks the door is opened, and her last syllable is scarcely uttered before she is folded in the sailor's arms.
The principle holds true to the very end. It is a sick-room, and the pale wan face of the patient looks very weary.
`Oh, how I dread death!' she says; `I cannot bear to think that I must die.'
An hour later the door of the unseen opens to her, and there stands on the threshold, not Death, but Life Everlasting!
Peter very, very often waits for the executioner, and welcomes an angel.
During the next few moments Peter scarcely knew whether he was in the body or out of the body. Was he alive or was he dead? Was he waking or was he dreaming? `He wist not that it was true which was done by the angel, but thought he saw a vision.' He walked like a man with his head in the clouds. Doors were opening; chains were falling; he seemed to be living in a land of enchantment, a world of magic. But the iron gate put an end to all illusion. `They came to the iron gate,' and, as I said a moment ago, an iron gate is a very difficult thing to argue with. The iron gate represents the return to reality. After our most radiant spiritual experiences we come abruptly to the humdrum and the commonplace. It was Mary's Sunday evening out. Mary, you must know, is a housemaid in a big boarding establishment, and her life is by no means an easy one. But Mary is also a member of the Church. On Sunday she was in her favourite seat. Perhaps it was that she was specially hungry for some uplifting word, or perhaps it was that the message was peculiarly suitable to her condition; but, be that as it may, the service that night seemed to carry poor Mary to the very gate of heaven. The Communion Service that followed completed her ecstasy, and Mary seemed scarcely to touch the pavement with her feet as she hurried home. She fell asleep crooning to herself the hymn with which the service closed
O Love, that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
She knew nothing more until, in the chilly dark of the morning, the alarm clock screamed at her to jump up, clean the cold front steps, dust the great silent rooms, and light the copper-fire. `And she came to the iron gate.' There come points in life at which poetry merges into the severest prose; romance yields to reality; the miracle of the open prison is succeeded by the menace of the iron gate.
As long as Peter had an iron gate before him, he had an angel beside him. It was not until the iron gate had been safely negotiated that 'forthwith the angel departed from him.' Mary made a mistake when she fancied that she had left all the glory behind her. The angel is with us more often than we think. A devout Jew, in bidding you farewell, will always use a plural pronoun. And if you ask for whom, besides yourself, his blessing is intended, he will reply that it is for you and for the angel over your shoulder. We are too fond of fancying that the angel is only with us when the chains are miraculously falling from off our feet, and when the doors are miraculously opening before our faces. We are too slow to believe that the angel is still by our side when we emerge into the night and come to the iron gate. It is a very ancient heathen superstition. `There came a man of God, and spake unto the king of Israel, and said, Thus with the Lord, because the Syrians have said, "The Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys," therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand, and ye shall know that I am the Lord.' We are always assuming that He is the God of the mountaintops, and that He leaves us to thread the darksome valleys alone; and our assumption is a cruel and unjust one. As long as Peter had an iron gate before him, he had an angel beside him.
The converse, however, is equally true. As long as Peter had an angel beside him, he had an iron gate ahead of him. Angels do not walk by our sides for fun. 'Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?' If there is an angel by my side, depend upon it, there is work that only an angel can do in front of me. Mary’s radiant experience that Sunday evening was directly and intimately related with the brazen yell of the alarm clock on Monday morning. It was not intended as a mere temporary elevation of the spirit, but as an assurance of a gracious presence—a presence that should never be withdrawn as long as a need existed. It is part of the infinite pathos of life that we misinterpret our visions. Jacob beheld his staircase leading from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. And straightway, as he prepared to leave, he began to say good-bye to the angels! 'Surely,' he exclaimed, 'the Lord is in this place! How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven! And he called the name of that place Bethel!' And thus he missed the whole meaning of the beatific vision. The vision was to warn him of the perils that awaited him, and to assure him that 'behold, I am with thee in all places whither thou goest.'
`All places!' said the Vision.
"This place! this place! THIS PLACE!' said Jacob.
And so he journeyed on towards his iron gate, pitifully ignorant of the meaning of the golden dream. Life's ecstasies are warnings, premonitions, danger-signals. Even in the experience of the Holiest, the open heavens and the voice from the excellent glory immediately preceded the grim struggle with the tempter in the wilderness. Paul had his vision; he saw the Man of Macedonia; and he followed the gleam—to bonds, stripes, and imprisonment. Bunyan knew what he was doing when he placed the Palace Beautiful, with all its sweet hospitalities and delightful ministries, immediately before that dark Valley of Humiliation in which Christian struggled with Apollyon. When we hear angels' voices speaking, when we find our fetters falling, when we see our jail doors opening, be very sure that outside, outside, there is a dark night and an iron gate!
But there is always this about it. Although the radiant vision is a premonition of the coming struggle, it is also an augury concerning that struggle. Opening doors are an earnest of opening gates. It is inconceivable that I shall be miraculously delivered from my dungeon, with its guards and its chains, and then be baulked by an iron gate out there in the blackness of the night. It is inconceivable that here, at the Communion Service, God should draw so near to the spirit of this young housemaid, and then leave her to face alone the drudgery of Monday morning. If Mary is half as wise as I take her to be, she will answer the scream of the clock with a song. She went to bed singing; why not get up singing? She crooned to herself on retiring the hymn that had followed her from the Communion Table. Let her sing in the morning quite another tune:
His love, in time past, forbids me to think
He'll leave me at last in trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer I have in review
Confirms His good pleasure to help me quite through.
The voice of the angel, the falling of fetters, and the opening of doors are all designed to brace us for the dark night and the iron gate.
`The iron gate opened to them.' Of course it did. Who could suppose that the prison doors had been opened by angel's hands, only that the prisoner might be caught like a rat in a trap outside? `The iron gate opened to them of its own accord.' It did look like it. During my twelve years at Mosgiel, I often went through the great woollen factory. The machines were marvelous—simply marvellous. As you watched the needles slip in and out, or stood beside the loom and saw the pattern grow, it really looked as though the things were bewitched. They seemed to be doing it all 'of their own accord.' But one day the manager said, 'Would you care to see the power-house?' And he took me away from the busy looms to another building altogether, and there I saw the huge engines that drove everything. Neither looms nor needles really work 'of their own accord.' Nor do iron gates. A few minutes after the gates had opened, and the angel had vanished, Peter `came to the house of Mary, the mother of Mark, where many were gathered together praying.' And then Peter understood by what power the iron gates had opened, just as I understood, when I saw the engine-room, how the great looms worked.
The prayer-meeting may not be artistic. For the matter of that I saw very little in the power room of the factory that appealed to the sense of the aesthetic within me; but when angels visit prisons, and iron gates swing open of their own accord, there must be a driving-force at work somewhere. And Peter only discovered it when he suddenly broke in upon a midnight prayer-meeting.
F W Boreham, ‘The Angel and the Iron Gate’ Faces in the Fire (London: Charles H Kelly, 1916), 89-97.
Image: An Iron Gate. You will have to imagine the angel!