Believers’ Earnest Prayers
BY ELIJAH KASONGO
Key Verse: 12:5
“So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”
Last Sunday we heard God’s word through Timothy’s massage, in it we learnt of the Antioch church as the model church for world mission— the first Gentile Church pioneered by those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed. They went on spreading the word. We learned that men from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. Through their pioneering work God established the Antioch church as a headquarters for world mission. We also learn that it was here at this church believers were first called Christians.
And the Antioch church grew through intense Bible study under the teaching of Barnabas and Saul. They learnt many things including faith and giving spirit. They were able to send material help to the suffering church in Jerusalem. In light of their example, what can you and I learn from this? We can learn that it is good to remember the grace of Jesus, to study the Bible deeply, and to practice a giving spirit. Most importantly, each of us must grow inwardly as men and women in Christ.
Today’s passage marks the end of the second part of the book of Acts. As the Risen Christ commanded his apostles before his departure (1:8), the gospel finally took root in Jerusalem, and it had spread to Judea and Samaria. Now it was on its way to the ends of the earth just as Jesus commanded!
Chapter 12 begins with the church in a crisis due to persecution and ends with the continued spreading of the word of God. Read verse 1. “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.” What time was this? If we recall from the end of chapter 11, Agabus the prophet had predicted through the Spirit that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world, the Church in Jerusalem and Judea were severely affected by it as well. So the believers in Antioch sent material gifts to help their brothers and sisters in the Judean churches who were in need. It was during that time that these events of chapter 12 were taking place.
The church in Jerusalem was still suffering. And Herod took advantage of this time to inflict even more pain to the church. As we look at the persecution faced by the church in Jerusalem it is important for us to learn from them what they did in midst of persecution. Let us try to see their secret to overcoming their terrible persecution and hardship. So how did they overcome? It is amazing when we see that the church overcame though prayer! They simply trusted God as the ruler of all things even in midst of persecution. They trusted that God is the ruler even when it seemed as if someone else was causing them misery, while God did nothing. Yet we learn that surely the sovereign God answers the prayers of those who trust in Him. May God renew a spirit of prayer in us today.
First, the church earnestly prays for Peter (1-5).
Look at verses 1-5. We see that in a sudden move, King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church. King Herod Agrippa 1 is one of five rulers named Herod in the gospel accounts. According to historians, Herod Agrippa 1 grew up in Rome as a close friend of the imperial family. Later, he received the favor of emperors until his territory rivaled that of Herod the Great. We are familiar with Herod the Great who ordered the killing of so many innocent children two years and under in an effort to eliminate the new born Savior and king of the Jews Jesus.
Now this Herod Agrippa 1 is probably a grandson or relative to Herod the Great. His reign however was marked by violence and corruption and was short lived and ended shortly with his dramatic death here at the end of this chapter, eaten by worms. Herod began arresting Christians to persecute the church. And he did it not because Christians were outlaws, but simply in order to please the Jews so as to consolidate his power. In other words, he was politician who cared about nothing more than consolidating is his own power. He was the kind of person who would stop at nothing to boost his poll, even if it meant persecuting Christian and putting some of them to death. And so, he had James put to death. This chapter mentions two Christian leaders named James. Do you know which James this was who was martyred here by Herod? It was the James who was one of the original 12 Apostles chosen by Jesus, and one of the top leaders in the Jerusalem church. He had followed Jesus closely and has been part of Jesus’ inner circle.
This James, a son of Zebedee and his brother John (the Apostle) were really ambitious disciples. Once they used their powerful mother to ask Jesus for the best seats for them in his kingdom. Jesus could not promise the best seat to James. But we remember that Jesus did promise James that he would certainly participate in his sufferings. And now he did. He was martyred for the Lord, one of the greatest honors given to any person. James was arrested and executed for Christ, and became the first martyr among Jesus’ chosen twelve. His death must have had a profound effect on the Jerusalem church. In what way? I think it must have really shook them up to the core, since he was one of their top and most beloved leaders. His death shook them up in another way as well. It showed the early Christians just how costly it’s going to be to do God’s work and to carry out world evangelization. However, James death was met with approval among the Jews. The world was happy to get rid of him.
Look at verse 3. “When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.” Herod wanted even more! He calculated that arresting the Church’s leaders could gain him more favor with the Jewish people. So he went on to arrest Peter and put him in prison, and had him wait for public trial. There is no doubt that Herod intended to execute Peter as well. Since James’ death pleased the Jews, executing Peter would gain him more approval among them.
When we think about Herod’s position in the world, he seemed so powerful and even invincible. He applied maximum pressure on God’s people. On the other hand, the church in Jerusalem was in distress. It’s leaders were being taken and executed one by one. They seemed so helpless and weak. What can they do in their helpless situation? That’s a good question. Read verse 5. “Peter was kept in prison, but the church decided to earnestly pray to God for him.” The Church had no army or any other means to confront Herod. All they could do at this time was pray. Prayer was the only privilege they had in a helpless situation. And it was a glorious privilege, a direct communication with the Father above. When everything seemed too difficult and there were no human hope but despair, what a better weapon there is to use than coming to Father God in prayer? Like them, we must train ourselves to pray when we feel helpless. I must confess that I sometimes feel helpless when faced with hardship. But I have learned the power of prayer! You and I should learn several things about prayer from the early church.
First thing to learn is that “the church” the body of believers was praying. It was not one or two people, but the entire church was praying. That is not a trivial matter. It is a serious truth to consider. We see later on in verse 12 that the house of Mary— John Mark’s mother— was a house church. There, many people had gathered and were praying to God. Luke does not mention one or two special prayer warriors, but stresses that the entire church was involved in prayer. We also see that the church members of the time were not individualistic. They did not consider that their participation in united prayer was optional or unimportant. They knew their sacred duty to Christ as part of the church. In the same way we thank God who has enabled us to pray as a church together each Friday for many weeks; We have been praying for our missionaries some of them are here today, and for the International Bible conference, we have been praying for God’s word to take root in the hearts of every attendee. We need to also pray that each of us take responsibility to bring one person to the conference to serve them with the word of God. I believe that our united prayers are being answered! Amen.
We also learn that their prayer was earnest. What does this mean? It means that while the rest of Jerusalem was sleeping, the church members devoted their time to prayer. They were praying all night with a specific prayer to God. They prayed crying out to God. Prayer was not something they did in their spare time! No! To them prayer was a matter of life and death. They also had all kinds of prayers, fasting prayer, maybe two by two prayers, or group prayer or all together prayer. Of course, some of them maybe dozed from time to time. But they were doing their best to pray earnestly. This is the kind of prayer that Jesus hears and answers. Don’t you think we should all be praying like this? Tell me, don’t you? Let us devote next Friday prayer time to earnest prayer together.
Another thing to learn from them is that the church was praying to God. This may seem to be obvious. But it is important that they prayed to God. What does this mean? It means that to really pray to God, they had to have God’s love on their hearts. Jesus taught his disciples how to pray to God. So he gave them the Lord’s prayer to pray. The Lord’s prayer contains God’s heart and mind in it, what God really wills for us. To pray like that, is to pray with God’s love on our hearts. May our hearts and minds be fully devoted to God in prayer. May God reveal his will in us and plant a clear prayer topic into our hearts, till earnest prayer becomes a way of life for us.
On that day, the church prayed for Peter. Perhaps some prayed for Peter’s release. And others prayed for Peter to be strong in grace so that he might take his death with dignity. They all prayed for Peter. I ask that you pray for God’s blessing on our ministry, especially pray that our church will be a house of prayer for many nations.
Second, God answers to prayer (6-11).
Though the church was earnestly praying to God, nothing seemed to happen. The trial date came nearer and nearer and still Peter was in prison. Now, it was the night before Peter’s certain execution. What was Peter doing at this crucial moment? Peter was sleeping. He was between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. There was no way out for Peter. But he was not nervous or fearful. He was full of God’s peace. Peter slept soundly in the prison. What was his secret?
We know that Peter was a mortal being just like us, and was not immune to fear. He did not know if he would rot in prison, get out of prison or be executed just like James. But he must have thought that he would be the next one to be martyred after James. However he did not let the situation cloud his mind. He had absolute assurance in God’s love and grace and he trusted in God’s will for himself, that whatever God wills for him will happen. Peter was not always like that however. We remember how he used to be. Once he could not wait to save himself even if it meant denying Jesus 3 times. But now with help from the Holy Spirit we see a different Peter, full of assurance in God. Now Peter was ready to give his life for Jesus with full assurance of eternal life in heaven. This was the secret. However, it was not yet God’s time for Peter to leave this world. So what happened?
Look at verse 7. The angel who came to rescue Peter had to strike him on the side to wake him up. He was still sleepy and didn’t really believe what was happening. The angel of the Lord gave peter specific instructions, “Put on your clothes and sandals, wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” Do you think these instructions are easy to follow? As simple as these instructions may seem, they are difficult to follow without faith. Many of us, when faced with difficult situations like these, we overload our minds with worries. And believing that God will make a way out of the situation is the last thing we usually think of! Instead, we search for any human solution, and we usually try to save ourselves instead of listening to the voice of the Lord instructing us what to do in following him.
But Peter as sleepy as he was, listened to word spoken by the by the Angel and obeyed. He followed the Angel out of the prison. Still he had no idea that all this was really happening. He thought he was seeing a vision. The angel led him past the first and second guard and to the Iron Gate leading to the city. This gate opened for them by itself and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left Peter. Now Peter was free from prison. God had answered the believers’ prayers by sending his angel and rescuing Peter. Amen! Surely God answers the prayers of his people. (Matt 7-8) “for everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened”
If we review our Triton ministry history from the time of its inception, there are so many stories we can tell of God answering prayers of his people on a personal level and also on a church level. All of it when we prayed. I heard of the story about missionary Rene many years ago when he lost his job and put God first. He went to the conference and prayed. God answered the prayer. Missionary Rene got a job from unexpected source the next day. For many years we prayed for one of God’ Children in our ministry, who had uncertain future, her stay in the country was uncertain, her school also uncertain but when the ministry prayed God provided solutions to all her needs including a husband. They both graduated this year and are serving God among us. There are countless examples we can talk about all day long, but one sure thing is that God answers his people when they pray earnestly.
Look at verses 11-12. When Peter was free from prison what did he do next? He did not think about trying to escape upon rescue from prison. He went to the house where God’s people had gathered to pray for him. He testified in verse 11 “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.” Went Peter arrived at the house and knocked at the door the girl Rhoda answered his knock and recognized his voice. However, she was so overjoyed to see him that she left him outside and ran to tell everyone that Peter was at the door. She said: peter is at the door! But the others couldn’t believe that God had heard their prayers and rescued Peter, it was too good to be true, and they said to her “you’re crazy!” Yet, when finally they let him in, Peter described how the Lord brought him out of prison, and he concluded, “Tell James and the brothers about this.” This James here is the brother of Jesus. Then he left for another place.
Third, Herod dies; The church grows (19-24)
The next morning Peter’s absence was discovered. Herod was furious. He ordered a detailed search for Peter. When He did not find him he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Herod who had tried so diligently to destroy the church and who had determined to kill Peter did not live much longer. Ashamed of what had happed he went to Caesarea. He got involved in a quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon. They wanted a peaceful relationship with the country governed by Herod, because they were dependent for food on that country. They flattered Herod and deified him saying “This is the voice of a god, not of a man”. When he accepted their flattery and their exaltation God was displeased. Herod could not get away with stealing the glory from God. Exodus 20:3 says: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Herod was no god for people to be worshiping him or his words. Because of this sin of not giving due praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Look at verse 24. “But the word of God continued to increase and spread.” This chapter began with Herod issuing ominous threats against the church, and the early Christians crying out to God in prayer. It ends with the death of Herod and the word of God spreading. In this passage we learned that when the early Christians were helpless before the terrible threat of King Herod, they prayed to God. They prayed as a church. They prayed earnestly. They prayed to God. They prayed with a single prayer topic. Then God answered their prayer. May God help us to pray earnestly. We pray that God may help our Triton members to serve the conference in any capacity in which God has entrusted us to serve him. Please pray that as members of this ministry we can be a light for the Gentiles, pray to be a world mission center. Amen!