"Not Now God, We're Praying"

Acts 12:1-17

Rev. Bryn MacPhail

The passage before us today gives a strong rebuke to my prayer life. Even though I consider myself to be diligent with prayer, there is one aspect of prayer that I struggle with. What I struggle with is the same thing that the Christians in Acts 12 struggled with: I often lack the faith and expectation that God will answer my prayer.

I suspect that this happens to all of us. Prayer after prayer, after prayer, comes back seemingly unanswered. If you are like me, you probably shrug your shoulders and quote the verse where God says, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways "(Isa. 55:8).

I suspect that we have become so accustomed to not having our prayers answered immediately, we have become so accustomed to not having our prayers answered in the way we hoped they would, that we seldom expect God to do anything when we pray. We end up praying simply because we are told we should. We end up praying with only a faint hope that God will act on our behalf.

It's not that we are completely without faith, it is just that, despite our prayers, we have seen too many unconverted people stay unconverted. We have seen too many sick people remain sick. We know from Scripture and we've learned from experience, that in this life, we don't always get a happy ending.

We read about the tragic ending of one of the apostles when we begin chapter 12 in Acts, "Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword "(v.1, 2). The life of James, like the life of Stephen(7:60), and the life of John the Baptist(Mk. 6:28) before him, was cut terribly short. Surely John's disciples were praying for him while in prison. Surely prayers of deliverance were offered on James' behalf as well. Yet they were still executed.

Now before you become anymore discouraged about God's willingness to answer your prayers, I need to point you to the rest of Acts 12--Peter, as you know, is delivered by God out of prison. His life is miraculously spared. Luke tells us that, soon after James was executed, Herod had Peter arrested and "put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of four soldiers each to guard him, intending after Passover to bring him out before the people "(v.4). Herod's plan, of course, was to have Peter executed like James. It was Passover, however, and so Herod had to delay the trial and execution of Peter until after the festival.

Peter's situation was bleak--some would say hopeless. With four sets of four guards taking turns guarding Peter, there appeared to be no possibility of escape. It is in verse 5, however, where we come to the turning point of the passage: "So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God ". Peter's situation was indeed bleak, "but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God ".

The context of the verse forces us to infer the obvious--the church was praying for Peter's release. These were not token prayers either, Luke specifies that these prayers were "being made fervently ". The meaning of the Greek is that the people prayed with unrelenting intensity for Peter's release.

Time was running out however. It was the night before his execution and here was Peter still chained to 2 guards with 2 more guards "in front of the door "(v.6). What was Peter's reaction to all of this? You may recall what Peter wrote a little later on in his life, "cast all your anxiety on (God) because He cares for you "(1Pet. 5:7). It appears that the man who wrote those words practiced them, because on what was to be his last night on earth, we read in verse 6 that Peter was found "sleeping ". Not tossing and turning, but sleeping!

Those of us who fret about upcoming appointments, upcoming decisions, and upcoming procedures, would do well to follow Peter's example. The night before his execution , Peter had obviously cast his cares upon the Lord for he was found sleeping.

The miraculous nature of the next few verses is unmistakable, but I am thankful for the insight of James Montgomery Boice who also points out the humourous elements in this account (Boice, Acts , 207). We need to picture here, what the text is describing: "An angel of the Lord " appears in Peter's cell and shines a bright light(v.7). Enough to wake up any person, right? Not Peter. Luke describes how the angel "struck Peter's side and roused him, saying 'Get up quickly'. And his chains fell off his hands "(v.7).

The angel even had to remind a groggy Peter to get dressed and led him out of the prison past the guards and onto the street(v.8-10). Peter thought he was dreaming(v.9), but what he soon learned was that he was, in fact, a part of a miracle--a miracle precipitated by prayer.

When Peter finally realized that he was not dreaming,, Luke reports that Peter "went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying "(v.12). Do you remember what they were praying for? That's right--they were praying for Peter's release(v.5). Peter's arrival then, would surely add some excitement to this prayer meeting.

But listen to what happens: "when (Peter) knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. And when she recognized Peter's voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate. And they said to her, 'You are out of your mind!' "(v.13-15).

The irony of this response is potent. The people who were praying fervently and persistently for Peter's release regarded as mad the person who informed them that their prayers had been answered! When Rhoda insisted that Peter was indeed at the door, they began saying, "It is his angel "(v.15).

While the response of the prayer group is indeed ironic, their response should not entirely surprise us. If Peter was truly at their door, then a miracle had taken place. And contrary to what some modern scholars will tell you, people in the 1st Century were no more eager to believe in miracles than we are. Understandably then, their first response was plain disbelief, while their second response was to explain it away by citing a Jewish superstition of 'guardian angels'(Marshall, Acts , 210).

The prayer group at Mary's house provides us with a model prayer group in many respects. However, the one thing they lacked was the expectation that God may actually answer their prayers. When they finally opened the door for Peter, Luke summarizes their response: "they saw him and were amazed "(v.16). There must have been great excitement and noise when they saw Peter, for Luke tells us that Peter had to motion them to be silent so that he could explain this miraculous deliverance(v.17).

In Acts 12, we learn from this prayer group how to pray and how not to pray. How not to pray is prayer just for the sake of prayer. It is prayer that expects no answer. This prayer lacks faith in the power of God. Of course, there is a balance--James got executed(v.2) while Peter got delivered. I do not attribute the different outcomes here to the faith of those praying because it is obvious that those who prayed for Peter had very little faith!

We must approach prayer with faith, yet we must recognize that God's sovereign wisdom gets the final say. My struggle in prayer is that I often lean too much on the sovereignty of God, and I need to recognize that God has sovereignly determined to save, heal, and protect people in response to our prayers --even if they are lacking faith(like this group).

God is sovereign over all things, yet He has determined to work through the prayers of His people . If prayer is the means God uses to save people, if prayer is the means God uses to heal people, if prayer is the means God uses to grow a Christian and to grow a church, then prayer is something every Christian should be committed to.

From Acts, chapter 12, we gain 5 vital principles for prayer. To help you remember these 5 principles, I have put them in an acronym: SLEET.

S is for specifically . The people prayed specifically for Peter, we read in verse 5. They prayed specifically for Peter and for him to be released from prison.

L is for Lord . Luke is careful to point, in verse 5, that the people prayed "to God ". Who else would they pray to?, you might ask. Well, what is the number one reason people don't like to attend prayer meetings? I have heard this answer time, and time again-- 'I get nervous praying in front of other people'. The principle here is that we are not praying to be heard by those around us--we are praying to be heard by the Lord.

The first E is for earnestly . Luke says that prayer for Peter "was being made fervently "(v.5). There was a passion, there was an intensity, to the prayers of these people.

The second E is for expectantly . The people did not pray this way. They effectively said to Rhoda, 'Stop being silly. There is no way Peter could be at the door. Stop interrupting our prayer meeting'. We are reminded by the deliverance of Peter in Acts 12 that "with God all things are possible "(Mt. 19:26). Since all things are possible with God, Christians should pray expectantly.

And finally, the T is for together . The first century Christians were committed to praying together. Verse 5 states that the prayers were being made for Peter "by the church ". And just so we don't imagine a minister doing all the praying, Luke specifies in verse 12 that, "many were gathered together and were praying ". Praying alone is good and necessary, but Scripture demands that we do more--we must be committed to praying together.

Whether you attend our prayer meeting tonight or whether you attend any committee meeting of this church, remember these 5 principles when you pray: Pray specifically . Pray to the Lord . Pray earnestly . Pray expectantly . Pray together . Don't pray just for the sake of praying. Let us pray with the conviction that "with God all things are possible "(Mt. 19:26). Amen.