A Notable Prayer-Meeting
Prayer meetings were the arteries of the early church. Through them, life-sustaining power was derived. Luke, in particular seems to want to emphasize how important prayer-meetings were by giving us cameo portraits of the church at prayer. A particular location, a room in Jerusalem, is singled out. It is the one which belonged to Mary, John Marks mother, and an aunt of Barnabas. It is the room where they met following the ascension of Jesus, as they waited for the Day of Pentecost to come (Acts 1:13). It was probably the same room in which the Last Supper was eaten (Mark 14:13-15). As well as being a large room (it could hold at least a hundred and twenty people, Acts 1:15), it was also a Room with a View to ensuring the blessings of God upon the churchs ministry. It was a place where the church gathered together to pray on an occasion other than the Lords Day. Prayer-meetings were not considered optional in the early church; they were seen as essential. As C. H. Spurgeon noted at the century ago: "we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer-meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians."
The first thing to notice in this passage in Acts 12 is that Luke has a distinctive theology of prayer. As an careful historian (Acts 1:1; c.f. Luke 1:1-4), Luke is eager to record the history of the early church from a theological world and life view. As an historian, he does not consider it "objective" to leave out the most important factor of all in the survival and growth of the church. We have already noted how he introduces his account with a description of the church in this very same room they are in here in Acts 12 (Acts 1:12-14). In chapter 2, Luke provides us with what sounds like a contemporary "mission statement" of the early church, which includes the observation that "they devoted themselves to prayer" (Acts 2:42). In chapter 4, Luke records the first wave of persecution that the early church suffers, in which Peter and John are imprisoned and the church is warned not to preach in the name of Jesus any more. Upon their release, Peter and John return to this very room which has become a meeting place for the early church reporting all that had happened. Luke adds that subsequently, they, "raised their voices together in prayer to God" (Acts 4:23). The content of their prayer is interesting, too. In essence, far from praying for a halt to the persecution, they ask God for boldness to encounter it!
It is not the big things so much as the little things that can so often undo the best of plans. So it was with the early church. Ministering to the various widows in the church nearly brought the gospel to standstill. Amongst other things, it was taking up too much of the apostles time, hindering their essential ministry. Luke summarizes for us the calling of the apostles: prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). But, not only is prayer an essential ingredient of apostolic ministry; it is also an essential mark of the Christian life. One of the criterion by which Saul of Tarsus conversion is proved genuine is the observation that he prayed (Acts 9:11). Prayer is the vital component of New Covenant life. Later, in chapter 16, Luke reminds us of how "on the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer" (Acts 16:13).
Here in chapter 12, the occasion that has brought the church together to this upper room once again is the death of James (Acts 12:2). This is the James who is usually identified along with his brother John (the author of the Gospel of John), the sons of Zebedee (Matt. 4:21). His mother was Salome, the sister of Mary, Jesus mother. This would make James a cousin of Jesus.
The reason for James death was a persecution initiated by Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. His uncle Antipas had been the one who had tried Jesus (Luke 23:7). That James would suffer an ignominious death (beheading, Acts 12:2) was something Jesus had given warning of whenever the sons of Zebedee had asked Jesus for the best seats in the kingdom (Mark 10:38-39). It was to be a solemn reminder that for some, at least, taking up a cross and following Jesus would be a road that led to death.
Peter, too, was being held in prison, awaiting possibly the same fate once the Passover celebrations were over (Acts 12:3). Luke tells us quite explicitly: "Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him" (Acts 12:5).
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached a series of sermons on prayer in the life of the church, one from this passage in Acts 12. Comparing Herod to Hitler, Lloyd-Jones went to say that the gospel is Gods message coming in when nothing else can change the situation. Commenting on verse 7 of this passage, "Behold a light shined in the prison," he had this to say:
"The whole message of this verse is just this, that it matters not what your situation may be, however dark, however black, however tight your bonds, however imprisoned and fettered you may be, if God wills your deliverance, it can be done, it will be done Prison cells, and wards, and chains and iron gatesѕ they are nothing to the God who made the world, and sustains everything by His power."
That is precisely Likes message! He wants us to know that, ultimately, history is shaped and changed not by kings or dictators, but by a sovereign God who puts forth His hand in power. And prayer is the key that turns the lock of history. Prayer changes things.
The second thing that follows from this passage is the observation that there are times when it is necessary to have special prayer-meetings. Just as Luke has made it known from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles that prayer held a prominent part in the day-to-day, week-to-week life of the church; so also, prayer becomes vital in moments of crisis. The fact that one of the key apostles has been beheaded, and another awaits execution in a high-security prison is cause enough for the church to hold a prayer-meeting.
There is no fatalism in the churchs theology of providence. They did not reason from the impending crisis that there was nothing they could do. Their belief in sovereignty did not lead them to say: "Whatever God ordains is right. Therefore we must wait upon him and question the course of things at all!" Many a young Christian gets a hold of the doctrine of sovereignty and it has a very considerable affect upon him. God orders the end from the beginning. Sovereignty means that the decree of God covers everything; nothing falls outside of the span of his control. And this truth ѕ and truth it is ѕ can sometimes lead to inactivity and paralysis.
Peter believed in Gods sovereign predetermination of all things. He could say of the crucifixion of Jesus, that this happened in accord with "God's set purpose and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23). There is no higher view of sovereignty than that! Jesus was crucified because God determined that it should be so. One cannot imagine a higher view of the sovereignty of God more calculated to impede any activity on our part than that. But impede it, it did not. Peter can go on to say in the very same sentence that the death of Jesus was: with the help of wicked men." God did it and they did it! We cannot, of course, unravel the complexities that this involves, an more than the issues of sovereignty and responsibility can be so explained as to make logical sense to our finite minds. Paul, you will remember, gives short shrift to any who suggest that it is unfair to reckon responsibility whenever God is sovereign, by saying, "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (Rom. 9:20).
Times of crisis are times to reckon on Gods sovereignty and to call upon His intervention. Such is the theme of many of the psalms: "Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer." (Psa. 4:1). "In my distress I called to the Lord." (Psa. 18:6). "I call on the LORD in my distress, and He answers me."(Psa. 120:1). It was the insight that Bunyan gave to Christian when locked in the dungeon of Giant Despair, using this chapter in Acts: "I have a key in my bosom called Promise which can open any lock in Doubting Castle."
The third feature of this chapter has to do with the earnestness of the prayer that was offered. Just as it is sometimes said that death can concentrate the mind, so the specific need for Peters release has a way of engaging the attention of the church in this upper room. Luke tells us that "the church was earnestly praying for him" (Acts 12:5). It is the word which Peter uses in 1 Peter 1:22 where he exhorts that we love one another deeply (he uses a similar expression in 1 Peter 4:8). The adverb that is used here is made from the word "to stretch". It is one of those pictorial words that has the idea of stretching muscle and sinew in order to be prepared for action. Interestingly, it is the word which is used of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane: "And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44).
Prayer should involve the stretching out of our souls towards God. "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13). David Brainerd, a missionary to the North American Indians was described as a man of "earnest prayer." C. H. Spurgeon reminds us that "some mercies are not given except in answer to importunate prayer." Like ripe fruit in the fall, some will fall quickly to the ground while others will require the tree to be shaken. It is not possible to be certain, but probably several days elapsed between Peters arrest and deliverance (compare verses 3 and 6 of the chapter). They were days when the church was "stretched out" in prayer to Almighty God!
Prayer ought to be specific. "Make prayer definite" was a title to one of Spurgeons sermons. This is the fourth feature of this chapter. They were praying "for him (Peter)" (Acts 12:5).
There is a kind of prayer which gets nothing because it asks nothing! It has been said that there three main hindrances to prayer. One, as we have already seen, is a lack of earnestness. Another is unconfessed sin. "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Psa. 66:18). And yet another is vagueness!
But what exactly did they pray for Peter? The passage does tell us. Did they pray that he might be released? Probably! Did they pray that he might be given strength in his hour of trial? Undoubtedly! Did they pray that he might witness a good confession, that he might die a "Christian" death, if that was Gods will for him? Surely they did! They had no means of knowing what it was that God intended for Peter, and all of these prayers were admissible. What we do know is that God answered their prayers by releasing him from prison in an extraordinary way. There were three things weighing against Peter: Herod Agrippa, the unbelieving Jews and Satan. But there were three things weighing in on Peters side: a ministering angel, a sovereign God and a praying church.
What is so astonishing is that the church did not seem to be expecting his release. Whenever Peter had emerged passed the sleeping guards and into the street, making his way to where the church were meeting, whenever he knocks on the door of the upper room, a young girl named Rhoda answers the door (Acts 12:13). Luke wants us to catch the irony by repeating the fact the church was praying in this room (Acts 12:12), but cannot bring themselves to believe that Rhoda is right in saying that Peter is outside the door! She had recognized his voice and in her excitement had run to tell the others leaving him standing outside!
This homely touch on Lukes part brings a smile, but it also rebukes our unbelief. "The Lord had brought him out of prison" (Acts 12:17). And yet, the praying disciples could not believe it! Peter was not to know on the eve of his execution that the next day it would not be him, but his guards who would be executed (Acts 12:19). Peters life was about to change again. He would spend time in hiding, emerging in Antioch some two years later (cf. Acts 15:7).
The church had not been expecting it! And evidently, neither had Peter, for he was asleep! God had to wake him up! Gods answers to our prayers are sometimes powerful and dramatic, and sometimes so very unexpected, calling into question the reality of faith. It is so easy to fall into the routine of prayer and mouth words that we hardly know what we are saying. There is nothing too hard for the Lord. Nothing! Chains and bars cannot prevent God from accomplishing His purpose. If He has a mind to do something, it will be done! That is the most powerful thing in all the world.
God changed the course of history in this chapter, ensuring the survival and progress of the church through His servant Peter. The one who had denied Him is now spared for further work. And all of this in response to a praying church.
Our prayers are powerful weapons in the hands of God. It is said that Mary Queen of Scots (Bloody Mary as she was sometimes called) was more terrified of John Knoxs prayers than she was of any army that might be brought against her. Luke wants us to catch the vision of a praying church.
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