The Power of Prayer
Key Verse: 12:5
“So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”
In the last passage we studied, we saw how the gospel message was spreading into the Gentile world. More and more Gentiles were accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah and coming into the faith. This would seem like a good thing, but in early Christian church it was causing quite a bit of conflict. The conflict will come to a head in chapter 15, but what it concerned was the traditions and laws that the Jews had always observed and which they still clung to even if they did believe in Jesus. In the minds of many of the early church, Christianity was not a separate religion, but Jesus was just the fulfillment of the promises God made through Moses and the prophets. As such, Jesus did not abolish the Law and traditions of the Jews, He simply fulfilled them and set an example for us to follow. After Peter explained what happened to him in Joppa and Caesarea the believers in Jerusalem admitted that God had even accepted Gentiles into His family, but Peter’s explanation didn’t end this controversy by any means.
We also saw that, under the co-working of Barnabas and Paul the church in Antioch continued to grow and flourish. It grew to the point that it began to have an identity all its own. The people of Antioch began to refer to the followers of Jesus as Christians. This was quite different from the way the early church was perceived up until this time. Up to this point, the early Christians were know for the most part as just a sect of mainstream Judaism, but now the had an identity all their own. The religion was now no longer comprised only of Jewish believers, but it included many uncircumcised Gentiles as well.
In today’s passage we see that the persecution of the early church continued. Before Paul was converted this persecution was coming from the Jewish religious leaders, but in this chapter the source of the persecution comes from the secular ruler of Judea and Galilee. This shift in the source of persecution of the Christian church would continue on for many centuries, even to this day. The power of Rome was attempting to destroy the very small and weak early Christian movement. But the Christians had a powerful weapon at their disposal – they had the power of prayer. When they gathered together in earnest prayer, there was nothing that human authorities could do to stop the work of God. In this passage we learn the true power of prayer and man’s complete inability to stop the work of God. I pray that God will bless our study of this passage and convict us of the almighty power of earnest prayer.
First, the persecution of the early believers continues, but is now led by the secular government (1-4). Look at verse 1. “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.” What time was it? It was the time that Peter had returned to Jerusalem from his visiting ministry in Joppa and Caesarea and the early church was expanding into the Gentile community in Antioch. News of what was happening surely reach the religious and secular leaders in Jerusalem. The religious leaders were undoubtedly concerned about what was happening, but perhaps they were not as willing to lead the attack after their chief persecutor, Saul, was converted. Perhaps they were now ready to heed Gamaliel’s advice and just let the church fall apart on its own. But the secular King of Judea and Galilee was very ready to persecute the young church. Who was this Herod? He was not the Herod who killed all the babies of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus birth, nor was he the Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded. This was the grandson of Herod the Great – the one who killed the babies. According to the first century historian Josephus this Herod was committed to Jewish Law and traditions – apparently he was not Jewish himself, but was perhaps a proselyte. It is not clear why Herod began to persecute the church, but he did. He began by simply arresting some of the members of the church intending persecute in some other way. But by verse two, we see that the way he intended to persecute the church was quite sever. He took James, the brother of John – one of Jesus top disciples – and had him executed. When he did this, the Jewish leaders approved of it. Herod realized that persecuting the church could cement his hold on power and make ruling Judea and Galilee much easier. That region was always very difficult for the Roman rulers to govern, so if a king could get the approval of the religious leaders, their job would be made a lot easier. Therefore, Herod went for the heart of the young church and he arrested Peter as well. This must have been devastating for the young church. Think about everything they had been through in just the first couple of years of their existence. Peter and John had been jailed twice and beaten once. Stephen had been stoned to death and a severe persecution caused many of the members to flee from their homes in Jerusalem and Judea to Gentile lands. And now one of their leaders had been brutally murdered and another was thrown in jail probably about to meet the same fate. If there was any good news at all, it was that Peter had at least one week to live, because Herod didn’t want to upset the Jew’s by killing a Jewish person during their holy festival of unleavened bread. However, I’m sure Peter’s family and friends were not permitted to visit him. Herod had probably heard what had happened when the Jewish leaders had thrown Peter and John in prison earlier – somehow they had managed to escape and return to the temple courts preaching the good news of the Gospel as before. So, Herod assigned four squads of four soldiers each to watch Peter. Presumably, two would stand outside the door of the cell while two would be inside the cell chained to Peter. There was no way Peter was going to be able to escape his fate.
Second, the power of faith that overcomes the world and prayer (5-19). As I mentioned before, the young church members must have been devastated by all of this, but what did they do. Look at our key verse. “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” The situation the young church found itself in seemed absolutely hopeless – but they didn’t give up hope. They didn’t give up their faith in Jesus just because things didn’t seem to be going their way. They turned to God in prayer, believing that nothing was impossible for God.
Their example should teach us a lot. First of all, it is very clear that their faith was not at all dependent upon their situation. Many people today are looking for God so that they might get something from Him in this life whether it is health, wealth, power or honor. If they don’t get these things, they simply give up their faith. But not only did the early Christians not get any of these things, many of them lost everything they had just to follow Jesus. Second, we can learn that no situation is ever impossible from God’s point of view. Why was the church praying to God for Peter? If his situation was truly hopeless, why pray for him? Clearly they didn’t think Peter’s situation was hopeless because in God there is always hope. The early Christians knew this so despite what their situation looked like from a worldly point of view they could always turn to God in prayer. Finally, we learn that faith must overcome the world. It doesn’t matter what the world throws at us, we must remember Paul’s words – if God is for us who can be against us (Romans 8:31). The early church believed this so they turned to God in prayer when it seemed that the whole world was against them.
So what happened when the church gathered in earnest prayer for Peter? God answered! First of all let’s look at verse 6 to see what Peter was doing. “The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance.” It is important to notice that this was the night before Peter was to stand trial. If you think about what happened to Jesus in just a few hours on the day he was put to death and how quickly Stephen was tried and convicted, you must realize that Peter had to know he had less than one day to live. But what was he doing? He was sleeping peacefully between two of his guards. Peter had absolute faith in Jesus. He had nothing to fear because he knew that his life belonged completely to Jesus. Whatever was about to happen to him was entirely according to God’s will, so he was at complete peace and was able to sleep soundly. It turns out that despite what his situation looked like, God had no intention of giving Peter over to Herod. In answer the earnest prayers of the church, God sent His angel to rescue Peter from that seemingly hopeless situation.
While the angel was rescuing Peter, Peter had no idea that what was happening was really happening – he thought he was simply having a vision. We might think this was a little strange. How could Peter possible mistake what was happening for a vision? Well, I think we have to go back and consider just exactly what Peter’s situation was. He was in a Roman prison and his cell was guarded by two soldiers outside the door while two soldiers were physically chained to him in the cell. From a human standpoint there was no way he was just going to walk out of that cell. So, as they were walking right past the guards, who must have been awake because there were four sets of them, and as the fortress gate was opening all by itself, I think it would be only natural for Peter to assume he was just dreaming all of this. What was happening to him was simply impossible. However, when the angel left him, Peter suddenly realized that he was standing all by himself on one of the streets of Jerusalem and it suddenly all became real to him. Peter realized that God had sent His angel to rescue him “from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”
Now what was he to do? He decided to go to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark. This Mark was a companion of Paul and Barnabas on part of their first missionary journey and was later with Paul as he was under house arrest in Rome. This Mark was also the author of the Gospel according to Mark. Mark and his mother were probably prominent figures in the church at Jerusalem and Peter probably knew that many of the Jerusalem members would meet at this house. In this time of great persecution many of them were probably hiding together in that house and Peter would have known that. So that is where he went.
Verses13-15 give us a funny story of what happened when Peter got to the house. At first sight, it seems rather ridiculous that this servant girl would just leave Peter standing outside when she recognized his voice, but again, if you remember the situation that Peter was in, it is not all that ridiculous. From Rhoda’s point of view there was no way that Peter should be standing outside that house at that moment. It is possible that she thought that God had simply enabled her to hear that voice that she so longed to hear again. Like Peter she probably thought she was having some type of auditory (hearing) vision because what she was hearing couldn’t possibly be real. Anyway, she really wanted to share this auditory vision with her fellow believers, so without opening the door to see if Peter was really there – which he couldn’t have been of course – she simply ran back and told the others that Peter was outside the door. Of course, all the others thought she had lost her mind because of grief and they wanted to ignore her. However, she wouldn’t let them ignore her. She knew what she had heard so she kept insisting that Peter was standing outside the door. We need to learn Rhoda’s attitude when it comes to spreading the good news of the Gospel. Many people might think that we have lost our mind because of the things that we believe, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from preaching the truth about Jesus. As we will see when we get to chapter 26, Festus thought Paul had lost his mind when Paul preached the gospel to him. But it didn’t matter to Paul what Festus thought of him, he just kept preaching the Gospel to him.
Like Rhoda, Peter was also very persistent. He just kept on knowing. Finally, the group decided to open the door to find out who it was that was outside. When they opened the door, they were astonished – It was Peter! That was not possible and they all knew it. And yet, they couldn’t deny that it was Peter himself who was standing in front of them. It was a miracle and it came about because God answered their prayer.
I’m sure Peter would have liked to stay their and share joyful fellowship with this group of believers, but he knew that he could not do this. When Herod discovered that Peter was gone, surely he would order a massive search to be made for him in Jerusalem and the surround countryside. If Peter stayed with them in that house, he would be putting them in serious danger. So, thinking of them before himself, Peter simply told them his story and told them to tell James and the other brothers and then he left. Apparently, Peter didn’t even tell them where he was going because Luke makes no mention of it. Since this would be almost the last time we will hear about Peter in the book of Acts, I think Luke would have told us where Peter went if he knew where Peter went. This small detail shows us just how perilous those times were for the early church.
Many people have asked me why I believe the Gospel, when the story just doesn’t seem to make sense from a human point of view. After giving my personal testimony of how God has brought me to where I am today, I often tell them about these early Christians. They had nothing to gain by believing in Jesus. In fact they had everything to lose including their lives. Yet, no matter how bad the situation got, they never gave up their faith. In his book Loving God Chuck Colson tells the story of Watergate. There were only four people other than President Nixon who knew what really went on behind the scenes of the Watergate break-in. These four people had every thing to gain by just keeping quiet and not saying anything. If one of them talked they would all go to jail. It was simple, don’t talk and remain freemen or tell the truth and get locked up. Do you know how long it took for their conspiracy to breakdown? 2 weeks. Someone talked in just two weeks. The only pressure these men were really facing was from the press and they couldn’t maintain the lie. The early Christians were facing death if they didn’t renounce their faith, but not one of them said that the Gospel wasn’t true. Eventually some of them would be fed to lions in the Colosseum, and yet the church continued to grow. If the gospel were a lie these people would have abandoned it right away, but they held onto it for as if their life depended on it.
Of course, when Herod found out that Peter was gone he was furious. He questioned the guards and when they couldn’t give him a believable explanation for Peter’s disappearance he had them killed in Peter’s place. This shows the cruelty of the time and of Herod himself and it gives us even a clearer picture of just how dangerous it was for the early Christian church.
Third, Herod refuses to give glory to God and God puts an end to him (20-24). Herod was having some problems with some of his subjects from Tyre and Sidon and it seems that he was punishing them by withholding food from them. They wanted to make things right with Herod, so they arrange to have a meeting with him in Caesarea. On a given day Herod gave them a speech that must have been pretty impressive because the people said they were hearing the voice of a God and not a man. Herod apparently agreed with them – he thought of himself like a God. The problem was, there is only one God and He certainly didn’t think Herod was anything like Him, so when Herod refused to tell the people that there is only one God and He alone is to be worshipped, God ended Herod’s life. Too many people today suffer from what I call the Herod syndrome. They think of themselves as god. They think they can make the rules of life anyway they see fit and they don’t think there is anything wrong with this. But this story of Herod should give them warning. God is going to call all of us to account one day and we must acknowledge this.
The early Christians were suffering greatly under a tyrant, but God turned the situation around when they didn’t look at their situation, but turned to God in earnest prayer. God freed Peter from an impossible situation and put an end to their persecutor even though he was a king in royal robes. Verse 24 sums up this passage so well. “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.” God word cannot be stopped especially when there is a group of committed Christians gathered together in earnest prayer.