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O Father in heaven, indeed Your Son is worthy, worthy of all of our glory, majesty, power, praise, all of our attention, all of our obedience, all that we have to give of our gifts of our time, of our talent, our treasure, our lives, our children, our relationships. We pray, O Lord, that You would together with Your Son, the worthy One, send Your Spirit upon on that we might receive Your Word. Help us to listen well. We are, as we just have sung, prone to wander, Lord, we feel it. Prone to leave the God we love. And so give us attentive minds, soft hearts, an eager spirit. Speak clearly, lovingly, firmly. Convict us of sin, inspire us unto holiness, remind us of Your grace. Do this through Your Word by the Spirit. In Jesus we pray. Amen.
As we continue our series through various points in the book of Acts, I invite you to turn to Acts chapter 12. Acts chapter 12, be reading verses 1 through 19. There is some rhyme and reason, some method to the madness of what sections in Acts I’ve chosen for this fall semester. All of Acts is good, obviously, all high points. But in particular I wanted to try to focus on certain sections that would remind us of our mission as a church, our identity as a church, what it means to be a church of disciples making disciples. There is no better place than the book of acts to be reminded over and over again of the power of God’s Word.
And as we saw in Acts chapter 6, the apostles devoted themselves to two things – to the Word of God and to prayer. And it would be good if as a church we were chiefly known for those same two things, that people would think of Christ Covenant, hear of Christ Covenant in the community, and they would think, “Oh, that is a strong teaching church. They take the Word of God seriously. They love their Bible, they love their theology, the love the Word.”
We may perhaps have that reputation. But that this second thing would also be true – That is a church on their knees in prayer. Let us be about the work that only can be accomplished if God shows up in the Word and in prayer. Let us be doing the things, dreaming of the things, striving for the those things, that if God should not be true to His Word and if God does not answer prayer, we won’t accomplish anything. Because if we are about the work that can be accomplished by some other way, then we are not doing the work that God would have us do.
Let us be bold, let us take risks, to say, “God, we have no idea how any of this is going to work except that You work through Your Word and that You answer prayer.”
And so we come to this text and read once again of the church of earnest prayer.
“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.”
“Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
“When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place.”
“Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.”
This is a wonderful story. It is full of drama, some humor, but at first glance, as much as we like this story and love to hear this story and the miracle, it seems to be an unnecessary story.
Look at chapter 11, verse 30: “And they did so, sending to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”
Now look at the end of chapter 12, verse 25: “And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.”
It seems that you could go very easily from chapter 11 verse 30 to chapter 12 verse 25. They send off Barnabas and Saul, we pick up with Barnabas and Saul, they’ve gone to Jerusalem, they got John Mark on their way, sent off on their first missionary journey. Why do we really need chapter 12? We don’t seem to need it to keep the narrative going. We were dealing with the church at Antioch, we were dealing with Barnabas and Saul, and we pick up in chapter 13 with Antioch and Barnabas and Saul. So chapter 12 seems like, “Well, it’s a cute story, it’s an interesting story, bit of a diversion from the main plot.” Why is it here?
Well, the point of this story in chapter 12 is like the point of almost every other story in the book of Acts. It is here to demonstrate the power of God and the triumph of the Gospel. The Gospel triumphs not just over cities and peoples, but over individuals, and over guards and gates and sentries. We are meant to see the contrast between Peter’s divine rescue and Herod’s divine judgment.
Now we didn’t read it, but look at verses 20 through 24. You can see the heading there, “The Death of Herod.” Herod is angry with the people. They ask him for peace, he comes out on an appointed day, and he’s all dressed in his royal regalia and the people shout, “The voice of a god and not of a man,” and he enjoys it very much and God strikes him dead.
So here we have at the beginning of chapter 12, Herod in all his power, persecuting the Church. He’s killed James, the brother of John. He wants to kill Peter. And yet most of chapter 12 is taken up with the divine rescue of Peter and you put that in contrast with the divine judgment of Herod, and it’s meant to remind the Church and remind us, be careful whose side you wish you were on.
It certainly looked as if you would want to be on Herod’s side – he’s rich, he’s powerful, he’s impressive, the people worship him, and he is precisely the man whose side you do not want to be on.
We see once again the triumph of the Gospel. Look at verse 24: “But the Word of God increased and multiplied.” After almost every story in Acts, we hear something like that. The Word multiplied, disciples grew, the Church expanded.
Now time out here. Some of you, at this point and throughout the book of Acts, may be saying, “Well, that’s a wonderful story, but it’s not my story. I don’t see my loved ones getting healed. I don’t see miraculous deliverance for me. There is no great increase in my church or my ministry. Though it’s very nice that God did it in Acts, but He doesn’t seem to be doing it now.”
Well, keep in mind there was something unique about the blessing and the power in this apostolic age when the Church was being founded. Keep in mind, too, that God’s work is accomplished in surprising ways and what may look to be futile to you may be just the way that God means to bring glory to Himself. The cross – who would have thought that the cross would be the means by which God’s glory and His kingdom would advance? You may say, “Why do I have this diagnosis? Why don’t I have children who follow the Lord? Why am I having a cold for now a third week in a row?”
It’s a real struggle for us men. My wife showed me something on Facebook that said “new intensive care unit opens for men with colds.” [laughter] Yes, I understand. It’s maybe not the same as giving birth, but I don’t know how it could be any worse. [laughter]
Whether your present suffering seems small or seems massive, you may wonder, “Why? Why, God? I could use a few miracles.”
But keep in mind we don’t see the big picture.
What did James think, the brother of John killed with the sword? Perhaps seemed to James that God’s Word was not going forward, and yet in the scope of Acts it was just another instrument by which God would see His Word go forward and His kingdom advance. God wants us absolutely confident that no matter how different our world may seem today, or how severe our challenges, we have the same God, the same Gospel, and greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world. I hope you believe that. Not because I said it, because God’s Word said it.
Think of all that faces the Church in the book of Acts. Death, persecution, deception, threats, violence, misunderstanding, conflict, false conversion, jealousy, tyranny, an oppressive government. If you were to make a list of the same threats to the Church around the world in the 21st century, you would have the same list. It’s not changed. Persecution, deception, threats, violence, misunderstanding, conflicts, tyranny, on and on.
When you look with the eyes of the world, it does not seem to be a fair fight, does it? Think of this story here in Acts 12.
You know when the announcer in the ring introduces this boxer and this boxer, just imagine grabbing the mike and introducing, “What we have over here on the side of the world.” Look at everything arrayed against the cause of Christ. You have Herod, verse 1. This is Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, with all of his power and prestige. He’s laying violent hands on some who belong to the Church.
So they face Herod. They face his violence. They face hatred from some of the Jewish leaders. James, the brother of John, has been killed. Later when Peter says, “Go tell James,” that’s James the half-brother of Jesus, a different James. So James, one of the key leaders, he’s been killed. Peter, isn’t he the leader in the Jerusalem church, he’s in prison. Not only has he been arrested, he’s in prison, guarded by four squads of soldiers, we read in verse 4. He’s asleep between two soldiers, bound with two chains, there are sentries at the door, there is a large iron gate at the perimeter, and the plan, it seems, is that Herod is just about ready to bring out Peter to the crowds, probably present him just like they presented Jesus for mockery, for scourging, for abuse, and likely for death. This is everything arrayed against Christ and his cause.
So if the announcer said, “And standing in this corner you have Herod, you have the hatred of many of the Jews, you have violence, you have James killed, you have Peter in prison, you have squads of soldiers…” All of that.
And what do you have in the opposite corner? What does the Church have?
Look at verse 5. You perhaps remember in studying Ephesians 2 before, that great adversative that “though we were dead in our sins and trespasses, strangers and aliens,” all of that, “but God being rich in mercy…” Well, we have another one of those contrasts, b-u-t.
“So Peter was kept in prison but,” hahaha, this is what we have in the opposite corner: Prayer. “Earnest prayer for him was made to God by the Church.”
Do you think that’s a fair fight? God doesn’t think it’s a fair fight. He thinks the advantage is wholly on the side of the Church. All right, you can have the education, military, state, media, entertainment, internet, publishing, the cool factor, the it factor, the wow factor, might, riches, laws, influence, Twitter accounts, banks, parliaments, weapons, missiles, all of it. We’ll take prayer. It’s not a fair fight. Because that’s earthly power, prayer connects you to divine power.
Prayer is mighty because it connects us to God in heaven and the God who sits in heaven laughs. He laughs at the plans of men. They cannot frustrate the plan of God. He looks down and He says, “Hahaha, look at what they’re doing there.”
You remember the story of the tower of Babel. “We’re going to build a tower to heaven.” And God says, “He looked down to see what the sons of men were doing.” Not because God was hard of seeing, but there’s meant to be contrast: Men think they’re building mighty plans, mighty buildings up to God, God has to come down. “Look at that, I can hardly see the Empire State Building from here. Gabriel, Michael, did you see that? They’re trying to build it up to heaven. Good luck.”
God sits in heaven and He laughs.
So yes, all of the world’s might in this corner, but in this corner we have a Church that prays.
What happens in Acts chapter 12 is amazing. This is the original pilot episode of Touched by an Angel. Literally by an angel. This happened at the 11th hour, perhaps literally, right before Herod was to bring him out, we read in verse 6. Peter is asleep.
Now, pause right there. That’s pretty amazing in itself. I think it says something about Peter’s confidence. He’s about to be brought out, likely to his death. He’s chained between two soldiers and he’s asleep. He has other men guarding the exit, two chains, two soldiers, four squadrons… Out of nowhere, an angel appears. Brilliant light. But no one wakes up. He has to hit Peter on the side, “Wake up.” The chains fall off, he’s let out of prison. He thinks it’s another vision. Well, I hardly blame him. He was up on his roof and he had a vision with animals coming down in a blanket and he thinks this is another one. But this one’s really happening. And it’s amazing what happens.
I can’t remember which one of the Mission: Impossible movies it is that begins with that prison break out of the Russian prison and they, you know, they always hack into the system and the cameras and open all the gates and Tom Cruise is just cool as whatever and just punching people in the face and hoping they don’t realize he’s really quite short [laughter] and he’s just getting out of the prison and they’re drilling holes and it’s quite a to-do and they make it seem so simple.
This was even easier! An angel comes, bright light, everybody’s asleep, chains fell off, “follow me,” get dressed, walk out, gates open, “you’re free.”
This doesn’t happen. I mean, just the gates, just big, just like you’re walking up to Harris-Teeter and they just [sound effect] and they just “Come on into the store.” They just go, because God is in it. And then the angel disappears. Peter is left alone, and now he realizes the Lord is behind this, verse 11.
The story is miraculous at every turn. What seemed to be insurmountable circumstances in verse 5, end up being easily overcome once God gets involved. This was not hard for God. Impossible mission force, very difficult. For God, not hard. Angel, light, sleep, gates, freedom… There it is.
B. B. Warfield once described Christianity as “unembarrassed supernaturalism.”
And so it is. We believe in miracles, we believe in the supernatural, we believe in a God who intervenes in our world.
Now the Church is astounded. Verse 12, they’re meeting at Mary’s house, another Mary, the mother of John Mark. By tradition, this is Mark, the author of the Gospel, Mark who would receive Gospel stories from Peter, we are told in Church history. This must have been a very familiar place for Peter. They didn’t have any sort of rendezvous set that we know about – he just instinctively, “Okay, this is where I’m going to go.”
Perhaps this was home-base for the early Church, or maybe they gathered here regularly in the evenings for prayer. Mary must have been a person of some status, some means, to host the entire church in her home, even a small church. We know, we saw earlier, that having everything in common does not mean that people divested themselves of all personal property. Here we have Mary still having her own home. But she is generous with it, so that no one is in need.
Colossians 4:10 tells us that Barnabas is Mark’s cousin, so he’s a part of the family, and we’ve seen that Barnabas was a wealthy man, so apparently this is well-to-do family using their wealth with generosity. After all, Mary has a servant here.
This servant girl. What a sweet girl. What a sweet name, Rhoda. It means “rosebud, little rose.” I don’t know if Luke in writing this is meaning to be funny, but it’s hard not to find some comic relief here, that she recognizes the voice, “It’s Peter!” and she doesn’t think to open up. She runs back and tells them all. Meanwhile, Peter is still [sound effect] knocking. “Boy, it was easier to get out of jail than it is to get into the church here.” [laughter]
They don’t believe her. “You’re nuts.” “I’m not nuts.” “You saw Peter?” “Yeah.” “Where is he?” [sound effect] “Ohhh.” [laughter] “Go to the door, there he is. Can I get someone at the door?”
They’re amazed. He motions for them to be silent. He tells the story, talk to James the brother of Jesus, and then miraculously he disappears again.
Where did such a remarkable deliverance come from? You have this 800-pound gorilla in one corner – Herod, the hatred of the Jews, the force of the state, the threat of death and persecution, armed guards. And then in the other corner you have a, a little hamster. And yet wouldn’t you know it? The hamster gets free, and the gorilla gets killed.
Peter is free, the church is amazed, Herod is trying to figure out what happened, and he ends the chapter dead.
So what made the difference? Gorilla versus hamster. The difference is prayer, prayer, prayer, more, more prayer, earnest prayer.
If I could just continue with the hamster theme for a moment. We have a hamster. However many pets we have is the number of pets we shouldn’t have, but we have a few. We have a little hamster. It’s Marshmallow. He’s white, he’s the size of a big marshmallow. Our cat looks at him like he is a marshmallow.
It always amazes me, when the lights go out, that little hamster upstairs, he never gets tired. I don’t know what we’re going, you know the electricity went out in our house yesterday, flashed off here earlier, if you could hook up what hamsters do from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., he crushes it in his little Peloton there, his little wheel. [laughter] He does not stop. You just hear [sound effect] just all night he’s going. Nowhere. He’s going nowhere. [laughter] He’s this big and he seems to never get tired, just spinning that wheel. It makes noise throughout the whole house. My hat’s off to you, Marshmallow.
The Church here is earnest and constant and consistent in prayer. Even when it feels like you’re a little hamster against a big gorilla. Even when it feels like your prayers are just spinning around in your hamster wheel, “What does is it accomplish? What are we doing?” and you just keep praying, praying, praying, praying. This Church is earnest in prayer.
Notice a few things about their prayer. Notice first it was a corporate prayer. They’re gathered together as a church. Yes, personal devotional time is critical; we see Jesus model that for us. But you actually see more examples in the early Church of corporate prayer than you do individual, what we call “quiet time.” Think of the Lord’s Prayer; isn’t it instructive. Jesus, how should we pray? And He did not say, “When you pray, say ‘My Father,’ ‘Our Father.'” He presumes that the fundamental posture of prayer is with other people, corporately.
Are you often in prayer as a family? New believers? Men with men, women with women. Do your small groups have real prayer? Is there prayer in your communities? Would you come out for prayer in the church?
As I heard somebody quip one time, “People come to Sunday morning because they like the worship pastor, they come to Sunday evening because they like the preacher, and they come to the prayer meeting when they like Jesus.”
Are you earnest in prayer? When the church calls a special season of prayer, will you pray? Do you pray, do I pray as frequently and consistently as I check my phone?
And we read that, be constant in prayer, pray continually. We sort of think, “Well, I don’t know. Can you really pray continually?” Well, I don’t know. Can you check your phone continually? You can. Some of us do.
They were earnest in this corporate prayer.
But notice all, it’s a corporate prayer, but second it’s somewhat an imperfect prayer. By that I mean their prayers were more powerful than they thought. We have this picture of the early Church, they just got everything right here in Acts, and boy, they’re just praying around the clock and I could never be like that, but here I want you to see something of the, the honest humanity of the early church. They are praying for his release from prison. Peter, no doubt, is longing for his release from prison, and yet you get the distinct impression that nobody really was expecting Peter to be released from prison.
Peter wasn’t. He thought he was dreaming. Rhoda says that’s Peter’s voice. She comes back and tells the church; they are at that moment in prayer, no doubt praying for Peter. She says, “Peter’s here,” they say, “uh huh.” Now you would think, shouldn’t they say, “Well, of course he’s here. We’ve been praying for Peter to be released. We expect it.” They didn’t expect it. Rhoda believed, the Church did not.
So just some encouragement for us. This early Church, so great in faith, so often in prayer, they were praying for Peter’s release and when he came to tell them that he had been released, they thought it was his angel, or that Rhoda was out of her mind. Even they struggled to believe that God was actually going to do the miraculous in prayer.
In his book A Praying Life, Paul Miller says there are two basic sentiments we must always keep in mind when we pray. One, not my will by Yours be done, so that keeps us humble. And two, nothing is impossible with God, and that keeps us faithfully praying. You need both. If you just have in your mind nothing is impossible with God, then you think that it’s just some sort of divine vending machine, put in prayer, get out blessing. Not my will, Yours be done.
But if, as good Reformed people, we only focus on “not my will but Yours be done,” then we pray and honestly we don’t expect really anything to happen when we pray. So you must remember nothing is impossible with God. Even when your faith is small, you can pray big, big prayers.
So it was a corporate prayer. It was a somewhat imperfect prayer. But it was fundamentally, as we seen in verse 5, an earnest prayer, “ektenos.” Only use of that word in Acts. Related word is used in Luke 22:44, “and being in agony, he prayed more earnestly and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.” Jesus was their model in Gethsemane of earnest prayer.
Let’s be honest. Our prayer is often dull because we expect so little from it. There is little earnestness in our prayer. No sense that we’re coming together like Jacob wrestling with the angels, saying “I will not let you go until bless me.” I fear that too often we come together and we pray in our small groups, we pray in a staff meeting, we pray around the table, meager prayers, going through religious motions, not expecting much at all.
You’ve heard that phrase “dance like no one’s watching.” In my book as a Presbyterian, that’s the only way to dance is when no one is watching. Some of you can; I shouldn’t try.
I think it was C.S. Lewis one time when he said, “I can’t make an ironclad case against their being dancing in church, but I can make a very good case that British people should not attempt it.” So you just have to know yourself and your limits.
Well, you’ve heard “dance like no one’s watching.” Some of us pray like no one’s listening. We pray as if we’re just expressing a nice religious exercise, or a sort of positive self-talk, or a mantra into the universe, just reinforcing good vibes.
Do you know, do you understand, do you believe, the most powerful person in the universe, He made the universe, listens when you pray?
We so often pray without any passion, without any purpose, because we forget that God in heaven is listening. If we are not gathered together often in prayer, if when we come together as Christians we never pray, we must consider why?
Is it because there are no urgent needs in this body? Surely that’s not the case.
Is it because you feel like the country is just going in such a wonderful direction on all accounts there’s nothing to pray for?
Is it because there are no strongholds of Islam or Hinduism in the world that need a breakthrough of the Gospel?
Is it because you know no one in your life who is far from the Lord?
Is it because you do not sense that the devil prowls around like a lion to seek and to destroy?
Or is because we consider help from God to be so negligible?
Is it because we consider ourselves self-sufficient?
Do we not think God cares?
Do we not think He is able?
Do we not think He is listening?
Do we not think that He is more than able to give grace to us in our time of need?
What is the reason for such apathy in prayer?
Have we forgotten the privilege of prayer?
Have we lost our confidence in prayer?
Do we look at the Church and think them to be impractical? Well, they didn’t have the schedules we have.
Have we no sense for the blessings that await us in prayer?
Have we lost sight of the glory God receives when we pray?
Brothers and sisters, who knows what victories, what breakthroughs, what blessings God means to give us and only will give us on the other side of earnest prayer? He stands to hear us.
You know the number one thing Jesus commands of His disciples regarding prayer? Ask. Ask, seek, knock, pray.
His love never fails, His mercies are new every morning. His ways are not always our ways, that’s true. We don’t always understand His answers or what seem to be lack of answers, but He who is omniscient delights to hear our requests. He who is omnipotent acts when we call upon Him, and He who is omnipresent will never be nearer to us than when we pray.
Of all the things in the Vision document, there are 40 things, I know that’s a lot, there’s a lot of things that have big implications and buildings and Capital campaign and structures and hires and all those things matter, but none of those things will accomplish any great thing for the cause of the Gospel apart from the Word of God and prayer.
So it starts with prayer in that vision, not as a mere perfunctory ritual, “Well, of course we pray.” No, we must pray. If we did nothing else except come together more and individually and corporately do more to pray as a church, I’m convinced we would experience blessings more than we could ask or imagine. It may not be what we would think, but it would be better than we deserve. Let us be a church always and forever committed to the Word of God and a church growing now and always in earnest prayer.