Earnest Prayer and the Unstoppable Word (Acts 12)
Rev. Erik Veerman
Earnest Prayer and the Unstoppable Word
We live in what has been called a post-Christian culture. Christianity’s moral impact on our nation’s conscience has been eclipsed by many things… most recently by a new revolution which in most ways is opposed to Christianity. And even before the pandemic, church attendance had been plummeting, 7% in only 11 years according to a 2019 Pew research poll. And speaking of the pandemic, The Barna group says that 1 in 3 practicing Christians has completely stopped attending church since COVID19 – that includes online, too. They estimate that 1 in 5 churches will likely to close this year.
And that’s not to mention the growing restraints on religious freedom, here and around the world. General persecution and martyrdom of Christians are on the rise. It seems like on all fronts, Christ and the church are being attacked. Philosophically, ethically, theologically.
And we say to ourselves… what are we to do? Will hope and faith in Christ survive to the next generation?
I suspect that our burden… the fears that we have about the future… is only a fraction of the weight that the early church felt at the beginning of Acts 12.
One of their beloved friends and disciples was just martyred - the disciple James, the brother of John. They were called by the others “sons of thunder” presumably for the passion they had in their faith and actions. James was one of the three closest to Jesus. He had been with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration – when Jesus revealed his post-resurrection glory. Jesus asked him to pray at the garden of gethsemane on the night when he was betrayed.
And not only was James gone, killed. But the apostle Peter was also arrested and likely would face the same fate.
Yes, they had seen some persecution already, but that was at the hands of the Jews …the brief imprisonment of Peter and John… and then Stephen’s martyrdom. But for the most part Christianity had been expanding at an amazing rate. This, however, was different. James was imprisoned and executed by at the hands of the Romans – and Peter was next – already imprisoned and soon to also be executed, so they thought. Who would come after, John?
We enter chapter 12 with this crisis of Christianity. Will God’s Word and his people be snuffed out? That’s the drama and tension here. And do we not also feel a crisis of Christianity, today? Psalm 11 comes to mind. “If the foundations be destroyed, what will the righteous do?” That’s their question and plea… and we cry out for the same answer. And as chapter 12 unfolds – not only does God answer, he gives us hope and direction.
For the believers in Jerusalem, part of their fear was Herod. He wielded way more power and authority than the Jewish leaders. This Herod, Herod Agrippa, was a tyrant just like his uncle, Herod Antipas, who resided over Jesus trial… as well as his grandfather, Herod the Great, who ruled when Jesus was born. The very one who had the infant boys in Bethlehem killed. They were all wicked who only sought their own glory and desired to preserve their power – and whoever got in their way, they silenced.
That’s what happened with James. He wasn’t a direct threat to Herod, no, but the Christians had created instability with the Jews – and Herod wanted peace, so that his reign would continue. And to keep peace, he had to please the Jewish leaders. He didn’t care about Christianity – so killing James wasn’t about that – no, it was about control. But when he saw how his violent actions, verse 1 and 2, pleased the Jews, verse 3… why not keep going down the list of leaders. So he imprisoned Peter, verse 4.
Now, maybe Herod heard that Peter and John had escaped prison in the past. Because he put Peter under maximum security. Four squads guarded him. He was chained to 2 soldiers – usually a single soldier would have been sufficient. Besides that, two sentries guarded the prison gate – the first of multiple gates.
Peter had been in prison for multiple days. That’s because Herod had to wait until the Passover celebration was over – Jewish custom didn’t allow trials to happen during Passover and included the fest of unleavened bread, which had just ended. Peter’s time was running out – he knew it and the church knew it. And so they were fervently praying. This night was to be the last night of Peter’s life – Herod would bring Peter out the next day for a mock trial after which he would be executed.
Now, we’re not told what Peter had been doing in prison – but he was certainly praying - maybe also sharing about Jesus with the soldiers. He had captive audience. “Hey, umm, we’re kind of stuck with each other – chained together – let me tell you about who can free you from the chains of sin”
Well, whatever was doing and saying beforehand – Peter was at peace. I mean, not only was he sleeping, but when the angel came – he had to poke Peter in his side to wake him up! And even then, he wasn’t fully awake – he thought it was all a dream – a vision. If you had been in chains and were to be executed the following day, would you be sleeping? Well, Peter was. He trusted God - that everything happening served his Lord’s purpose and will.
But this day was not to be the day of his execution. No, after the angel woke him up, Peter’s chains fell off! You would think that Peter would be wide awake after that… but no, he was still so groggy that the angel had to give him step by step direction. First get dressed, then put on your sandals, then wrap your cloak around you. All the while the soldiers next to him were still sleeping. The angel then led him past the sentries and through the gates. The last one, the heavy iron gates of the city, even open by themselves. And then, when they were sufficiently away from the prison and the soldiers, the angel departed and Peter finally came to his full senses. “That was real? Praise the Lord!” Verse 11 is one of the key passages here. The first thing Peter did was to recognize the Lord’s work in all of this – “The Lord rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
And where did Peter go? Well, he went to one of the main gathering places of the believers – the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. This is the Mark, by the way, who wrote the Gospel of Mark. Mark would also accompany Paul and Barnabas for part of the first missionary journey.
So Peter made his way to Mary’s house. Now, mind you, it was still the middle of the night. And that tells us just how earnest their prayers were. When Peter got there, they were still praying!
Now, what would they have been praying for? Think about it for a moment. They had been praying for a long time, so they prayed for many things.
• Almost certainly they prayed that Peter would be released or rescued
• Very likely they prayed that Peter would be at peace… and that God would use his death, if it came to that.
• They were all very Gospel oriented, so they likely prayed that Peter would have an opportunity to share his faith in Christ with the guards and soldiers.
• Besides praying for Peter’s situation… they could also have been praying the Lord’s Prayer …maybe starting with prayers for God’s glory, confessing their sins and lack of faith. For God’s kingdom, especially with this trial… and help to believe despite that Herod was going to kill Peter.
I would say, that’s all more than mere speculation. We have examples of prayers in the books of Acts.
But the clear sense we get here is this - they struggled to believe that God would answer their prayers. They likely had prayed the same things for James. Yet James was killed.
Rap, rap, rap. “hello, hello, please let me in,” Peter spoke in hushed punctuated tones, trying not to wake the neighbors.
“Who could be interrupting our prayers! It’s the middle of the night, after all. Could it be someone coming to arrest us?”
Rap, rap, rap.
“Rhoda, sweet dear rosebud,” that’s what her name meant, “please go to the outer gate and see who it is”
“Yes, I will” and off she went – perhaps a little apprehensive at who could be there.
“Rhoda, Rhoda, it’s me. Peter. I’m here. Please let me in”
“Peter!” The joy and excitement so overwhelmed her – she went running back to the believers.
“wait, wait, don’t forget me!” Peter replied.
“Peter is here. He’s at the gate. God has rescued him”
“Dear Rhoda – that cannot be. Peter is in prison. In confinement and guarded by Roman soldiers.”
“no, no, he is here.” Rap, Rap, Rap “That’s him knocking,” she persisted.
“We know it’s late and you are tired. You’re not thinking straight.”
“But it’s him, I know his voice” Rap, Rap, Rap.
“We know it’s so sad, sweet Rhoda, if that’s his voice… Peter must have been killed already…. and his angel, his spirit is at the door.”
“Oh, please come with me… and see for yourselves!” she continued
“ok, dear Rose, for you we will” “….Peter! Peter! It really is you, you are freed”
And they broke out with rejoicing and laughing and celebration.
“Shhh, shhh… hush now. Let me share what the Lord has done. But let us be mindful of the sensitive situation.”
Can you imagine how their hearts welled up with joy when they saw him again…and as he described what God had done?
Before he left to find a place of refuge, Peter told them to share all that had happened with the other brothers in Christ – including James. This James was Jesus’ brother – really half-brother – the same one who wrote the book of James… and who was one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
And, this would be one of the many stories that the believers would share over and over. God’s mighty hand in freeing Peter.
And part of the story was their unbelief. Not believing that Peter was at the gate… not believing that God had answered their prayers. But he did!
And this is instructive for us in a few ways:
First, God answers our prayers. It may not be the answer we want – but it’s within his perfect and sovereign will. The disciples and believers prayed for James to be released and saved, but God still allowed him to be martyred. Then they prayed for Peter to be freed – and he was! I know, it’s difficult to pray and pray and pray for something and feel that your prayers are not answered. Maybe that’s praying for salvation for a friend or relative. Or praying for a better job, or praying for a loved one to be healed, or praying for a spouse. And if the Lord doesn’t answer in the way that we desire… we can get discouraged like these believers. Or like them, think that the Lord will not answer your next prayer the way you want because he didn’t before. They struggled with belief… yet they still prayed earnestly. And that’s a testimony for us.
Second, God uses our prayers. What an amazing thing to consider. Just like God uses us as instruments to be the ones to proclaim the Gospel… he also uses our prayers to affect his will. He hears us. Beloved, when you come before the Sovereign God of the universe as his child, your prayers, as it says in the book of Revelation, are a sweet aroma to him. They rise up into his very throne room in heaven. The Holy Spirit is at work through them to accomplish all of God’s holy will. He brings them to the Fathers for us. What a great confidence to have, knowing that God hears and cares – even if God’s will is not worked out in the way we desire. So we can and we should be earnest in our prayers, knowing that God will use them and answer them according to his purpose.
And that brings us to one more thing that we learn here. And this is where God’s Word intersects with the prayers of His people. God uses our prayers to accomplish the furthering of His Word. God’s Word is unstoppable – and God is greatly pleased to use our prayers to accomplish the furthering of his Word. That’s exactly what’s going on here!
Look what Luke, the author of Acts, highlights next, verses 18-23. He goes back to Herod Agrippa – and he shows us, first, just how tyrannical he was. Herod had the soldiers executed who were stationed to guard Peter. Then he tells us of Herod’s demise. By the way, Herod’s death in this way was confirmed by Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time.
Herod, no surprise, was in conflict with the various people under his authority – that included the people of Tyre and Sidon. Their cities were located on the western region of Samaria – in modern day Lebanon. Now, they didn’t like Herod, but they wanted him to like them. He controlled their food and other provisions. So on this particular day, they invited Herod to speak – and of course, they began cheering him –shouting that he was a God and not man. Josephus even describes Herod’s clothes that day - elaborate garments adorned with pure silver.
And when Herod received their cheers - his pride and arrogance only swelled up even more. That’s the moment when the one true God struck him down. Luke was a doctor, and he even gives us some graphic details. Many think that a ball of intestinal worms blocked his digestive system – possibly so severe that it ruptured. Josephus describes the excruciating pain that Herod was in for a couple days before he breathed his last.
But look at verse 24. “But the Word of God increased and multiplied”
Nothing will stop the Word of God from accomplishing all that God intended. It is going forth to the ends of the earth. As it says in Isaiah 55, “God’s word will not return void!” And the ministry of God’s Word is supported by our prayers.
Look at the irony of what has happened. At the beginning of chapter 12 – all appeared to be slipping away. Herod was exerting his power – as an instrument of the devil. It looked as though 2 of the main disciples were going to be killed – one of them already. It felt as though hope was slipping away – that the Word of God was slipping away. Yet, in an amazing turn of events – all by the hand of God. The earnest prayers of God’s people were answered. Peter was freed, and Herod received what was coming to him. Not only did God’s Word prevail but the Word of God continued to increase!
It’s so easy to be discouraged about what we see and hear around us. Throughout the centuries various philosophers have declared the death of God and Christianity; tyrants have persecuted believers, martyred them and burned Bibles and they will continue; new so-called morality has sought to undercut the commands and laws of God, declaring them irrelevant and bigoted. But know that none of this has, will or will ever stop the forward progress of God Word and the Gospel.
An old friend of mine, we used to work together, and we took a couple seminary classes together. He used to get so discouraged at what was happening with all the watering down of truth and the moral direction of our country. He thought Christianity was failing …and he couldn’t see a future where Christianity would recover.
But friends, light shines in the darkness. The decline of cultural Christianity and Biblical morals and truth only makes the Gospel light of Christ shine brighter. And if you look at the statistics of the decline here in America… what you’ll find is that the decline of church attendance is happening in churches that don’t believe in the Word as the only infallible rule for faith and practice and that have lost a belief in Christ alone for salvation. And what’s happening is that faithful Word-centered Gospel-believing churches are on the rise. And even if Christianity here is stagnant, yet all around the world, God is on the move. The Word is going forth. In Africa and China and India, there’s an explosive growth of believers - missionaries are being send here to us, to the West. And we pray that one day, there would be a third great awakening here. And we pray that all the labors for Christ in all the countries around the world would bear much Gospel fruit.
And part of our responsibility is to pray that God’s Word would continue to increase and to believe that God’s Word is unstoppable – because it will be ever increasing until Christ returns in Glory.
As we close, let’s go back to what the believers were feeling and experiencing. Let me submit to you that this is not the first time that they felt the weight of persecution… when hope seemed lost… confused at what God was doing. In fact, 10 or perhaps 11 years earlier at the exact same time of the year – the time of the Passover celebrations – their Lord was also imprisoned by the Romans. He was taken into custody – I’m speaking of Jesus himself. He was beaten. He was mocked. His trial was a sham. The Roman authorities had him crucified on a cross to please the Jews. And he was buried.
And for a couple days, the believers were burdened. Just like chapter 12, they prayed and sought God but were somber and down. They didn’t expect or believe what would happen next. Yet the very Word himself, Christ, the Messiah, Jesus, the son of God…. would not be kept down. No, he overcame death and he rose. And the believers experienced such joy when they saw and embraced their Savior. Just like what they experienced in chapter 12 when Peter was rescued – God turned the tables. What man intended for evil, God used for good. Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished the greatest victory that the world has and will ever know – salvation and freedom. Not from physical chains, but from the bonds of sin, giving us a hope and promise in which we can be joyful… knowing and believing all of our days are his… now and into eternity.
May we, through this Gospel promise of Christ, pray with earnestness for God’s Word, and know by faith that nothing will stop it from reaching the ends of the earth.