This morning, I have a confession to make. I confess that there have been times when I’ve been praying with a group of people, and I’ve held myself back in what I prayed for. Have you ever had that feeling that you really should pray something BIG, but you just kept quiet? This morning, as we continue our look through the book of Acts, I believe that God wants to challenge us – challenge me and challenge you – to be bolder in our prayers. And I also believe that this morning God wants to remind us of his grace which more than makes up for any lack of boldness which we might show.
Last week, we left Peter in Caesarea, where he’d gone to take the gospel to Cornelius the Centurion. In the rest of chapter 10 and 11, we read more about how Christianity took root among non-Jewish people. But today, chapter 12, we’re back with Peter in Jerusalem. And the difference to last week is just incredible. Yes – there was exciting stuff happening in the church – it was expanding beyond Israel and Israelites. But at the same time, the church was facing incredible opposition back at home base.
The King of the day was Herod Agrippa, the nephew, if memory serves me right, of the King Herod who had sent Jesus to Pilate for trial. And this particular King Herod was in many ways a brilliant politician. He worked hard to win over the Jewish leadership. He put in a lot of effort to make sure that they would support him. Because he knew that if the Sanhedrin and teachers of the law were on his side, his job as Roman governor would be much easier.
And I suspect that King Herod knew that one sure-fire way to get in the good books of the Jewish religious leaders was to attack the Christian church. These were the men who had sent Saul out with letters authorising him to capture Christians in Damascus. God intervened there, but if King Herod would take over the extermination job, they would be in his debt.
But Herod was a good politican, and he tested the water before jumping in head-first. We’re told in verses 1 and 2 that he arrested some of those who belonged to the church to mistreat them. And one of the fish in his net was James, the brother of John. And King Herod has him executed. Chops off his head.
And then he looks around, verse 3, and sees that this was something the Jews liked. So he goes for the big prize, and arrests Peter; the spokesman of the church in Jerusalem. One of the key players – if not the key player in the church them. He arrests him and has him thrown into jail. And his timing is just so ironic. It’s Passover. The time when the Jewish people were meant to be celebrating the fact that God saves his people. But instead of accepting God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ, King Herod makes a move against one of God’s messengers. Throws Peter in jail until he could be “tried” and executed. The only reason he didn’t try Peter straight away was that Jewish custom said that no trials or executions could take place while the Festival of Unleavened Bread was happening.
So Peter sits in jail, waiting for his execution. And we’re talking serious jail here. We’re talking Maximum Security jail. King Herod wants to be absolutely sure that Peter isn’t sprung. He’s got 4 squads of 4 soldiers guarding Peter 24 hours a day. At all times, Peter was shackled to at least 2 soldiers. One on the left, one on the right. He wasn’t going anywhere, until he was tried and executed.
I wonder if you and I living in Australia in 2010 can really understand what the church back then must have been going through. James, one of the sons of thunder – a church leader – had been executed. Who-knows-how-many others Herod had arrested and tortured. And now Peter was in jail, about to executed. King Herod had put a huge guard around Peter to stop anyone breaking him out of jail. Which was really overkill. The church wasn’t up for a James Bond style rescue mission. I mean, what could they do? What could they do against the whole might of Rome? How could they challenge King Herod?
For all appearances, they were powerless. Peter was in jail, and he was going to die. There was only one thing they could do. Verse 5: they prayed. They prayed, and prayed and prayed. Earnestly. Continually. Peter would have been in jail for quite a few days before his scheduled trial, and it seems like the Christians in Jerusalem prayed for him that whole time. Way into the night. Past midnight. They prayed because that’s all they could do.
They prayed for a long time. But we’re not actually told what they were praying for. Perhaps they were praying for Peter to be at peace. And it seems to me that Peter did know the peace of God. ON the night before his so-called trial, Peter was fast asleep. Perhaps they were praying that Peter might have the right words to speak at his trial. Perhaps they were even praying that Peter might be released. Set free. I’m sure they would have prayed for that. But reading through chapter 12, it strikes me that for all their praying, they weren’t really expecting anything to happen. Even though they knew that God could set Peter free, I don’t think they really expected to see him again. Yes – they would have remembered how Peter had been in jail last time and miraculously set free. But this was a different ball-game. This was King Herod. He’d already killed James – and Peter’s head seemed as good as on the chopping block.
Verse 5 tells us that the church was earnestly praying to God for Peter. But I suspect they didn’t expect much response. Maybe they had the same sort of problem we have when it comes to praying for something or somebody important. You know, when you know you have to pray, but you’d don’t have a clue what to pray for. Have you ever been there? Or maybe we know what we want to pray for, but we don’t want to get our hopes up too high. We don’t want to sound like we’re telling God what to do. We don’t want to be devestated if God doesn’t do what we ask him to do.
Many years ago now I read a book about a mother praying for her son, I think, who was dying. She prayed and prayed and praye and convinced herself that God was going to heal her son. And he didn’t. And her faith was crushed. I sometimes wonder if you and I don’t try and cushion ourselves against that sort of thing happening to us. So we pray earnestly to God – but hold back a little bit in reserve. We don’t want to risk God saying no.
I’m sure what happened in verses 1 and 2 had an effect on the church’s praying for Peter. The church was still reeling from the loss of James. Maybe they’d prayed for Jame’s safety – and James died. I’m sure his death must have hung heavily on their minds as they prayed for Peter. They knew God can save. But James died. Peter was in maximum security jail….
But do you know what, I don’t want want to be entirely negative about this church. Because they really are an example for us. Because despite everything, they prayed. Hoping against hope, they prayed. Even though it must have seemed impossible for Peter to be saved, they prayed. Earnestly. Continually. A few months back, we gave out a document speaking about what sort of church Golden Bay Baptist wants to be. And one of the things we said in there was that we wanted to be a praying church. The three pillars of our church are discipleship and outreach and prayer. Oh – that we could follow the example of the Acts 12 church and learn how to pray earnestly and continually. For issues in our congregation. And for issues in the church around the world. For churches facing persecution. For missionaries facing execution. Sure, there might not be much that we can do for them directly. But we can pray!
Anyways, back to Peter, sleeping like a baby in jail. So soundly asleep that even the arrival of an angel doesn’t wake him up! I just love how in verse 7 the angel gives Peter a big whack on the side to wake him up. And even then Peter’s only half-awake. The angel has to tell him step by step what to do: get up, now put on your clothes. Put on your shoes. Now put on your cloak. Now follow me. Verse 9 tells us how Peter follows the angel, assuming that this must be a vision! They walk all the way out of the jail – the big iron gate opening automatically for them to go through. They walk about 1 street away, and suddenly the angel disappears, and Peter finally clicks that this is more than just a vision. I love how verse 11 puts it: Peter came to himself. He came to his senses and realised that God had actually sent an angel to rescue him from Herod and the Jews. Can you just picture Peter there in the middle of the street in the middle of the night, slowly realising that he’s just been miraculously saved!?
Verse 14, he goes to the house of Mary, Mark’s mother. He wants to tell them all about what God has done before he slips out of the city. I mean, this is an amazing thing that has happened! An answer to prayer. It’s a seriously wonderful moment. But the reaction from the church – and from Rhoda the maid – is almost old-fashioned slapstick comedy. Peter knocks at the door, Rhoda comes to answer. Peter’s knocking, probably calling out “Hello! Can I come in!” Rhoda recognises his voice, and gets so excited that she forgets to open the door, and runs back to tell all the Christians praying in the main room.
When Rhoda comes in bubbling away about Peter wanting to come in, this wonderful church – full of faith, trusting in God, praying hard for Peter’s safety and release – they listen to Rhoda’s raving – and tell her she must be nuts! If it wasn’t so ridiculously funny, their reaction would be really sad. Because they’d been praying for God to do something, but weren’t really expecting God to actually do something. They’d psyched themselves up for the worst happening – to the point that they weren’t willing to accept God’s best.
Rhoda – Good for her – keeps insisting that that voice she heard was Peters. And the rest of the church try and calm her down, suggesting that it might be a guarding angel or something. Because whatever or who-ever it was at the door, it couldn’t be Peter – he was in jail!
Remember, all this is happening during the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The time to remember God’s saving his people. But they just can’t get it that God might actually save Peter!
It’s a wonderfully funny scene. But what I love about it is how real it is. These weren’t “super Christians”. They were just ordinary people like us. Faithful enough to pray. But just as likely to fall prey to doubt as us.
Meanwhile, Peter’s still knocking at the door. It’s getting ridiculous now. Getting out of the prison was a walk in the park compared to getting into his friend’s house. They were so busy praying for Peter that they didn’t let him in. Can’t you just picture him knocking louder, and louder and louder, until eventually they come and let him in!
What does all this mean for us today? This is funny stuff. But as we share the laugh with Luke, we’re really laughing at ourselves. Can’t we be just like them. Pray, pray, pray – but heaven forbid something might actually happen. The good news is that God is gracious enough to answer our prayers even when we aren’t really expecting him to! There’s a line in a hymn which says “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees.” When we pray, we’re speaking to God. The God who created the universe. Who has a plan for this world, for his church. The God who actually does answer prayer!
But do you know what – maybe we need to be bolder in our prayers. After all, the prayer of a righteous man is a powerful thing. To actually believe that God can do… whatever. And yes – maybe God will say no. James wasn’t rescued from King Herod. But maybe God will say yes. I suspect we need to be bold in our prayers, and ready to accept whatever answer God gives us.