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
Mark’s 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
church’s ministry. It was a place where the church gathered together to pray on an
occasion other than the Lord’s 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 apostle’s 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”
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 God’s
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
That is precisely Like’s 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
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
There is no fatalism in the church’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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
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 Peter’s 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”
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 Peter’s 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
Spurgeon’s 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 God’s 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 Peter’s 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
This homely touch on Luke’s 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).
Peter’s 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! God’s 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 Knox’s
prayers than she was of any army that might be brought against her. Luke wants us to
catch the vision of a praying church.