1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. 6 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. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. 8 Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron-gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. 11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.” 12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.
We are living in some tough times. It is difficult to be unaffected by all of the things that are going on around us. While we may not have suffered the loss of a job, our home, or even been directly impacted by the recent downturn in the stock market, the images we see and read about are a constant reminder of how bad things are and potentially how much worse they can become. When we are surrounded by bad or unpleasant news, after awhile it begins to take a toll on even the staunchest child of God. At some point you cannot help but feel as though the forces of life are conspiring against us and we simply cannot catch a break. This is especially the case when the unpleasantness of life visits our home and touches those we care about and are close to us. When this happens you begin to feel like a group of Christians in the first century living in an increasingly hostile world felt. In a word, they felt persecuted. A couple of tax seasons ago, I received a notice of overpayment from the IRS and they informed me that I had to make restitution so that my account would be balanced with them. After I paid off that debt, I received another notice from them thanking me for clearing up my debt, but informing me that I still had an outstanding debt with the state that I needed to address as well. At that point the IRS became my Herod, an entity more powerful than I making life tough for me. I, like the first century Christians in Acts 12 began to feel persecuted. No matter what I did, I just could not catch a break.
They say, “When things get tough, the tough get going.” Tough situations require and demand a response. Tough situations test our metal and our make-up. They inquire of us what are we going to do? We have a number of different options at our disposal. We can worry, passively accept the situation for what it is, defiantly refuse to take it lying down, or we can do what a group in the early church did, they prayed. Initially, I asked myself the same question some of you are asking, prayer? What can prayer do? Prayer in any situation makes a statement. It says, we believe that things can and will change, if God steps into the situation. Prayer acknowledges that while we cannot personally bring about changes to our situation, God can and we are going to allow God in to handle what is out of our control. Prayer makes an even more profound statement when we turn others, their lives, and situations over to God. In cases like this, prayer says because you are important to God you are also important to me. Prayer makes a statement about what we believe, how we feel and how we plan to approach what we or others are dealing with and facing. A few weeks ago members of the college community received word that an entire division would be eliminated at the college due to a lack of funding. Some colleagues and I decided that we needed to make a statement, and so we began to pray. We realized that this was a situation beyond our control, but if God steps in things can change.
I believe that scripture is pretty clear, God does not ignore any prayer prayed in faith. While this is true, Acts 12 also points out that when the members of any believing community come together praying in faith things happen. Part of the reason for this is found in the old maxim that says, “There is strength in numbers.” In any community of faith you are always going to have different people at differing levels in their faith. Those who are stronger in their faith will encourage those who may not be as strong. As we all join together we will collectively P.U.S.H. or Pray Until Something Happens. The Bible says, the church prayed for Peter. We have no reason to believe they prayed once and everyone went home, no. They Prayed Until Something Happened. Faith demands that we continue to believe until God answers, and it does not matter whether God answers in the affirmative or the negative. Faith says, do not stop praying until God answers. One of the most striking things in this passage to me is not that God answered, or even the way in which God answered, but the reason I believe God answered. It would appear that God was moved by the fact that this church engaged in P.P.O. – they Persistently Prayed for Others. In this case it was Peter, but we have to believe this was their practice. Their practice of Persistently Praying for Others exemplified their love for God and their neighbor (remember Jesus’ command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves). It takes genuine love, caring and trust to place the needs of others ahead of our own. When we do this we are also communicating a message to God. We are letting God know how much we love Him and that we do in fact love and care for our neighbors as much as we love and care for ourselves. It tells God that we trust Him to take care of our own personal needs, but right now we need Him to step into the situation of others who perhaps need Him a little more right now. And so, when we couple P.U.S.H with Persistently Praying for Others we see that corporate prayer can accomplish the unthinkable, unimaginable, or even the impossible because there is strength in numbers.
Two of the more curious things in this text are God’s timing and the way God stepped into the situation and His ensuing actions. Obviously God could have simply taken Peter out of Prison, however, God did not do that. In stead, God apparently waited until Peter was in a hopeless state. Divine help usually comes when we can no longer help ourselves. Then, God allowed Peter to go through a series of steps before he was released from prison. Some times it seems as though God is dragging His feet when it comes to responding to our needs and requests. However, we need to understand that God is in the change business. Before God could change the outcome, He had to first change the person. Peter went into prison one way, but he came out a different person. Several years ago I was deep in debt and I prayed and prayed and prayed asking God to help me get out of debt. You know what God did? God sent an angel from the South Street Seaport into my life who pointed out that before I could get out of debt, I had to change my spending habits. A funny thing happened, as I began to follow the advice and guidance that God provided from this angel and change my attitude and spending habits my debt began to be reduced. On another occasion I was complaining about the fact that I was not getting very positive results in my ministry. So I prayed and prayed and prayed asking God to give me better results. You know what God did? God used the same angel to point out to me that before I could get better results in my relationships with others, I had to change the way I interacted with people. Another funny thing happened, as I began to make a genuine investment in the lives of others, people became more receptive and responsive to me. Before God could change Peter’s outcome, God had to change Peter. I, like Peter learned that God would lead the way out of any situation, but only when we are willing to follow His leading. If we desire a different outcome perhaps we need to try a different approach.
In the final analysis, the prayers of the people on Peter’s behalf moved God to intervene and bring Peter back. First, Peter was brought back to himself. This experience and encounter changed Peter. It fact, it changed him so much that he eventually woke up and realized that it was only by God’s doing that he had been delivered. Secondly, Peter was restored into fellowship. This experience and encounter impressed upon Peter the need to be connected to other believers in a real way. Peter learned that day that no matter how far away the problems of life take us, the prayers of a believing church have the power to move the hand of God and bring us back. Remember the division in the college I mentioned is being eliminated, well I heard that they are coming back. To be honest, that division is not coming back as it was constituted, but God has opened some doors for the workers to come back in different capacities. Just like Peter, God never brings us back the same because God is in the change business.