The Early Church at Prayer Acts 12:1-19


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Acts 12:1-19

We have now witnessed the epoch-making introduction of Gentiles into the Christian church, a development that, in the nature of the case, happened in areas where Gentiles were concentrated. The Word of God, as our Savior had said it would, was spreading outward from Jerusalem, but events there now draw Luke’s attention back to the capital and the fortunes of the mother church.

Text Comment

v.2       We have here a cryptic account of what was a great incident. Nothing here is inconsistent with what we know of Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great who was king at the time of the Lord’s birth. Luke accurately uses the title, “King,” a title that the emperor Caligula had recently bestowed on him. This Herod is the father of Agrippa II before whom Paul will make his defense in Acts 25-26. In any case, Agrippa was anxious to preserve the peace in Judea for the sake of his Roman overlords and we know from other sources he did his best to win the favor of the Jews. [Peterson, 361] No doubt the Sanhedrin was urging him to come down hard on the Christian movement as a threat to public order, the same charge they had used against Jesus himself. Others were arrested, but James was executed. The James who was killed was not James the brother of the Lord, but the James of Peter, James, and John, one of the Twelve, one of the sons of thunder, and an early disciple of Jesus, having been first a disciple of John the Baptist. You may remember that the Lord Jesus had promised James and John that they would drink from his cup and be baptized with his baptism (Mark 10:39). The Apostles would have been targets because of their high profile and their influence in the church.

To put to death with the sword means that James was beheaded which further suggests that James was accused of being a political enemy of the state. As in Jesus’ case, the charge was untrue, but neither Herod nor the religious leadership would have cared about that.

v.3       That is, during the Passover feast, or the week of festival that followed Passover, a delicate time of year for the government, when Jewish patriotic feeling was at its highest pitch.

v.4       The elaborate security measures may have been the result of the large number of Christians now in Jerusalem and the fear that an attempt might be made to free him, all the more in the fervor of Passover week. But Peter had been imprisoned twice before and in one case escaped in the dead of night, and no doubt this was also remembered by the authorities (5:18). Their intention was a show trial after Passover which would have been concluded by Peter’s execution.

v.6       The Lord had already told him he would die a martyr’s death. It would seem this was now to be his fate. The next morning was to be his trial. Almost certainly that would end in a verdict of guilty, and he would be executed. But instead of spending the night terror-struck, Peter slept the sleep of the just. He was defiant of death. [Stott, 209]

v.8       That description is an eyewitness touch, the sort of thing that an inventor would not have mentioned, but someone who was there would certainly have remembered. Only Peter would have known what the angel said to him or that he had struck him on the side to wake him up.

v.11     That final phrase places this generation of the Jewish people in general under divine condemnation. That they wanted Peter dead was the index of their spiritual blindness and hardness of heart.

v.12     This is our introduction in Luke, both in the Gospel and in the book of Acts, to someone who will be an important figure in the history of the New Testament, John Mark. He would soon thereafter accompany Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary tour. Having left for home before that tour was completed, he became the cause of a quarrel between Barnabas and Paul. According to early Christian sources he then became Peter’s assistant and secretary in Rome and reproduced Peter’s teaching in the Gospel that bears his name. He will later be found, reconciled to Paul and among his aides, even described by the apostle as “very useful” to him (2 Tim. 4:11). According to Christian tradition, Mark later went to Egypt and founded the Christian church in Alexandria. It is Mark’s importance for the subsequent narrative that accounts for the fact that Luke takes time to mention him when it is Mary’s house, not Mark’s to which Peter went.

The house was spacious, as is indicated by the fact that it had a courtyard between the gate and the house itself and had room for a group of Christians gathered to pray.  What now follows is part eye-witness history and part comedy. It reminds me of some scenes in Giancarlo Menotti’s operetta Amahl and the Night Visitors.

v.14     That the name of a servant girl, “Rose,” was remembered as it was is another evidence of eyewitness testimony behind the account. She obviously knew Peter because she recognized his voice. That she rejoiced that he was there indicates that she was a Christian as well.

v.15     At this point the reader is likely to say to himself or herself, “Either way, Peter or his angel, you would go and see!”

v.17     Another eyewitness touch, the recollection that he had silenced them with a wave of his hand.

This James is James the brother of the Lord, already a major figure and perhaps the leader of the Jerusalem church, hence Peter’s instructions to make sure he is told what had happened.

This simple statement, “Then he departed to another place,” like a few others in Acts has proved to be of significance in the forming of various theories about the writing of the Gospels. It is held by some, even some prominent evangelical biblical scholars (e.g. J. Wenham) that the other place was Rome and, since it is widely believed that the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome, it is thought by these scholars that Peter and Mark may have written their Gospel quite early, as early as the mid-40s of the first century. Roman Catholic scholars have long held that Peter went to Rome at this point and became the bishop of the church there, but there is little to commend that conclusion apart from their desire to get Peter connected with Rome as soon as possible. So far as we know, Peter continued to be in Jerusalem, at least from time to time, and was otherwise a missionary, not a settled church official. [Moo, 367]  Not our subject this morning, but it is interesting to know that a detail we would pass over without much thought has proved to be so interesting to biblical scholarship.

v.19     The death penalty was standard for soldiers who allowed prisoners to escape.

Those were remarkable days, utterly unlike anything you or I have experienced. On the other hand, they were altogether typical days, very like the days we have all experienced. And in nothing so typical as in the practice and the experience of prayer. We have already learned, in the early chapters of Acts, that the first Christians were praying people, looking to the Lord for help both to bear the trials and to exploit the opportunities they were facing day by day as the gospel advanced and as the authorities became increasingly exasperated by their inability to corral the explosive growth of the church. Luke emphasizes prayer in his account of early Christian life and ministry.

At the outset of this narrative concerning Peter’s imprisonment and deliverance we read in v. 5, “but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” And upon his release from prison it is surely no accident that he arrived at Mary’s spacious home at the very moment the brethren were gathered for prayer. Indeed, it is not too much to say that we miss the point of the narrative if we fail to connect the statement in v. 5 first with Peter’s calm spirit in prison, then with the angel’s appearance in the prison, and finally with the statement in v. 12 that Peter arrived at Mary’s home precisely when Christians were praying for him. All of this happened, it appears, in the middle of the night, which adds still further emphasis on the church’s life of prayer. Prayer was so much their only weapon that they were praying through the night for Peter’s safety and perhaps for his courage in the face of death.

A simple observation but one important to highlight is that, as before in Acts, the picture of the early church at prayer is a picture of a prayer meeting. These believers did not simply pray in their individual homes by their individual beds. They gathered to pray. We learned in the very first chapter of Acts that the earliest Christians prayed together (1:14) and several times thereafter we are given to see the saints gathered to pray. They prayed together for a replacement for Judas in the company of the Twelve, they prayed for boldness after Peter and John’s first arrest, they prayed together for the right men to fill the new office of deacon, and here they prayed for Peter and for the others who had been arrested but whose fates had not yet been determined. And as the narrative continues we will find more of the same: prayer as Paul and Barnabas are sent away for missionary work, prayer with the elders and saints of the church in Ephesus as Paul left them for Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, and so on.

How natural, even inevitable, of course that the early Christians gathered for prayer when their Master had told them that he would hear them speak to him just as he had heard them when they spoke to him in the flesh and, in particular, when he had promised that were two or three were gathered in his name and prayed, he would hear and answer their prayers. He had also promised that whatever they asked for he would grant. No wonder, then, that their prayer was earnest, as we read it was in v. 5 and that it was specific, that is, as we also read in v. 5, they prayed for him, that is for Peter, for his safety, for his courage, for his peace of heart.

Christian prayer, it needs to be remembered, is not like the prayers of the practitioners of other faiths. Christian prayer presupposes the personal nature of God, and our personal nature as created in the image of God. God is not a force or a principle, he is not nature itself. As a person he communicates and as persons we can communicate with him. This explains the highly personal ways that Christians pray: “Our father, who is in heaven…”, “Dear, heavenly father…” and so on. Moreover, Christians know that God, being omnipresent and omniscient, knows what we ask, and being omnipotent, all powerful, is able to do anything we ask. We pray to a God who both can hear and answer our prayers. But still more, we pray to a God who has himself invited us and commanded us to pray, a God who has promised to hear and answer our prayers, and to a God we know is faithful to his word and promises. Finally, we pray to a God who has proven his love for his people in giving his son for our salvation. So for Christians prayer is not first or foremost a duty it is a privilege; prayer is not a religious ritual but a personal conversation, not a performance but a way of life.

Some years have passed between Acts 1 and 2 and Acts 12 but the praying is the same. And because Christ’s promises remain “Yea and Amen,” wherever there has been a faithful Christian church there have always been Christians gathering to pray. And, of course, the answers given to the believers’ prayers only further encouraged them to gather to pray. We don’t know, of course, precisely what the Christians prayed for in this case, but we can pretty easily guess.

Peter had been released from prison twice before, once by the visitation of an angel, once by the authorities themselves. No doubt the believers knew this and were appealing for another such release. No doubt they were praying for the other believers who had been arrested. No doubt they were praying for the state of mind, for a strong faith, for the power of their witness before the guards and, if it came to that, before their judge at their trials. That is how we would pray and in the matter of prayer we are as they were and they were as we are today, as Christians have always been.

But in some other ways prayer was then as it is now, another reason why Luke included this detail in his narrative. He is teaching us about prayer as he commends the life of prayer to us.

  • For example, Luke is candid in admitting the struggles that Christians have with prayer and with praying confidently and expectantly.

We could very well imagine that when Rhoda returned to the group from the outer gate to report that Peter was standing there, everyone would have smiled and said to one another, “Of course! What else should we have expected?” But it was not so. There is this ironic but highly realistic touch to the account as Luke wrote it.

No, these Christians, no matter what God had already done among them and for them, no matter the prayers that he had answered, no matter even the miracles that had been performed in Jerusalem, these Christians struggled, as we do, to believe that God would actually hear their prayers and grant them their requests. They had been praying for Peter and suddenly he was at the gate and still they struggled to believe that it could really be so. They told Rhoda she was out of her mind. And then when they finally saw Peter himself, they were amazed.

Luke is at pains to remind us that only God could have effected Peter’s release. He tells us about the squads of soldiers, he tells us about Peter’s having been chained to guards on both sides of him, about the sentries who were guarding the door. Even that isn’t enough. We learn – all of this information obviously came from Peter himself – we learn that Peter was fast asleep in the middle of the night and had to be poked awake by the angel. The guards didn’t awaken even though a light shone in the cell and even though Peter got up and dressed in their presence. There was no need to pick the locks, they simply fell open, but that didn’t awaken the guards either. The sentries didn’t stir and the last gate simply opened before them.

Some skeptics have attempted to argue that Peter bribed the guards and escaped with their help, but their execution at the end of the day is proof enough that these men would have known very well the consequences that would befall them should they let a prisoner escape their custody. And Luke is telling us what actually happened, not making up a story, as the entire tenor of his narrative demonstrates. But such skeptics are unbelievers. They have to explain Peter’s release in some way that doesn’t include an angel of the Lord! But here we have Christians doubting that their prayers have been heard on high!

So what we have here is a perfectly realistic narrative of Christians earnestly praying for Peter’s safety and then struggling to believe that God had actually granted their request. Any praying Christian knows how painfully realistic a picture this actually is. There is nothing more difficult in the life of mankind than living by faith and that makes prayer – which is an exercise of pure faith – as difficult as anything Christians ever do. It is difficult to believe that God will answer; it is even difficult to believe that he has answered, even when the answer is knocking on your front gate! Any thoughtful Christian will tell you that he or she often struggles to pray earnestly and specifically precisely because he or she doubts it will do any good. And they will hurry on to tell you that such doubts are nonsense because if they stop to think about it, quite apart from what the Word of God tells us about prayer and God’s promise to hear and answer our prayer, they can begin to enumerate a long list of prayers they have made to God that he has answered wonderfully.

What was wrong with these believers? Precisely what is wrong with us and what was so often wrong with the Lord’s disciples, who witnessed his life and who were present when he performed miracles. Their faith was weak as ours so often is. And so, in regard to prayer almost more than in regard to anything else in the Christian life, real Christians pray and pray, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”

  • A second thing Luke here reminds us about the life of prayer is its deep and impenetrable mystery.

The Lord has made wonderful promises to us about the power of prayer. But it is made obvious, even in his own teaching, that he has not handed over to us the running of the universe by promising to hear and answer our prayers. And the fact that the Lord retains his sovereignty over human affairs means, of course, that we do not receive everything we ask for. When you think about this, it is not hard to understand why this must be so. We see so little but he sees everything. We know almost nothing about how God intends to superintend our history and the history of the world to bring his purposes to pass, but he knows how everything in human life is bent to the accomplishment of his will. Our hearts are often motivated by less than pure desires, even when making prayers for others, while he is committed to the everlasting good of all his children. Indeed, in so many cases the Lord must be hearing prayers from his children that are at cross purposes not only with his own will but with the will of others of his children. I’m sure there are Christians in America today praying that one candidate or another will prevail in the election, but obviously they cannot all get their heart’s desire!

The mystery of divine providence in its relation to prayer is highlighted in this narrative. For example, no doubt the Christians prayed for James as well when he was arrested. He would have had to undergo a trial before his execution, however much the trial might have been a sham, so there was certainly some time that passed between his arrest and his execution and no doubt a great many prayers were offered for his safety. But James was executed and Peter was not.

Indeed, it is more mysterious than even that. In Mark 10:39 the Lord Jesus had told James and John that “the cup that I drink you will drink and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” That was clearly a promise of suffering, of martyrdom, as Jesus was no doubt referring to his crucifixion, but in James’ case his martyrdom was literally death by execution, in John’s case his was exile, as we learn in Revelation chapter 1. The Lord promised them both suffering for the faith but that promise was fulfilled at different times and in different ways.

But we learn as the chapter begins that others were arrested with James who apparently were not executed. No doubt the believers were praying for them too. We know nothing of how long they may have remained in prison. But we know they weren’t released in the same dramatic way that Peter was. And then we rightly doubt that any of the believers were praying that Peter’s guards might be executed for their part in Peter’s incarceration, but because God heard their prayer for Peter’s release a number of men lost their lives. Who imagined that such would be the result of asking their heavenly father for Peter’s safety? Why is one taken and another left? Why does James die a comparatively young man and John, his brother, die at a ripe old age? No one can say. But the same prayers can have such very different results!

What is more, Peter then absented himself from Jerusalem, at least for a time. Peter obviously did not assume that because God has answered one prayer for his safety he would answer however many more prayers might be required. Prayer, even such a powerful prayer as these Christians had prayed, did not indemnify Peter against future arrest or execution, and so prudence was still required. Might we not have supposed that some would have thought it inappropriate, a failure of faith, after such a deliverance, to leave the city? Didn’t that smack of unbelief, a failure to reckon with what God had already done for Peter? But, no; throughout the Bible God’s people are commanded and are seen to take precautions, to avoid danger unnecessarily. It is an entirely Christian thing, to pray for safety as you begin your family vacation trip and, at the same time, to fasten your seatbelt!

Prayer hardly eliminates, we would think it rather deepens the mystery of God’s providential rule of the world. Why are some of our prayers answered directly and according to the terms of our prayers and others seem not to have been answered at all? Why are some prayers answered immediately and others only after long years have passed? How does God weave our prayers into the fabric of his sovereign rule and how could we ever know how he does that when his ways are so far above our ways and past finding out? God is so much greater, so far beyond our conception, no matter how high our conception of God may be. A wise Christian appreciates this when he prays. He or she knows God hears and will answer, but they do not presume to think that the High God will always act in ways that they understand.

Still, there was Peter standing at the gate with an extraordinary story to tell and Luke wants us to know that it was the prayers of the church that brought that remarkable deliverance to pass. Francis of Assisi was once described as “the man who could not get killed.” He took great risks on behalf of his Christian missionary work. He even once entered the palace of the Sultan to plead for mercy for his captives and to urge the Sultan to put his faith in Jesus Christ and left unscathed. It is an important thing for Christians to remember. We live at God’s pleasure. We are invulnerable until God sees fit to bring our lives to their end – that should strengthen us when we are faint of heart – but he expects us to pray and to be responsible with the gifts he has given us, including our own lives. That should motivate us all to care, to concern, to obedience, to action.

But, especially, he expects us to pray and to pray together, and not just in church on Sunday, but sometimes even in the middle of the night! Let me finish with Charles Spurgeon.

“Suppose you go into a banker’s office, and stand at the counter and say, ‘I want some money.’ The clerk says, ‘How much do you want, sir?’ Please put the amount down on this cheque.’ ‘Oh, I do not want to be specific; you can give me a few hundred pounds. I do not know…how much I want, I am not sure that could put it down in black and white.’ You will get no money that way; but if you put it down in black and white exactly how much you want – spell it in letters, and put it down also in figures – the clerk will give you the money if you have so much in your account at the bank. So if you have an account with the great God…go and ask for what you want.”

Well if you do that – as these Christians did when they earnestly prayed to God for Peter – you will find, more often than now you do, that the answer to your prayer is banging on your front gate! Herod seemed so powerful until the Christians prayed.