Prayer and the Living Lord (Acts 12:1-19) | Jared Betts

Surveying the Text

We will begin today by taking a brief survey of the text as a whole and then attempt to answer a couple of questions, for I truly believe there are a couple of very important things we must ask ourselves in order to appreciate the beautiful truth being displayed before us in this text. First, what does God want us to understand about Himself? Second, what does God beckon us to in light of this understanding?

Our portion of Scripture opens with the church being thrust into chaos by the hands of a king intent on mistreating them. Meaning he was seeking to oppress them and inflict harm upon them. Luke informs us that this was Herod the king, which is referring to Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great who was responsible for the slaughter of all the male children in Bethlehem around the birth of Jesus in an attempt to kill Christ, the newborn King.

As we can see the apple does not fall far from the tree. In Herod’s oppression and affliction of the people belonging to the Christ his grandfather failed to kill, we read that he succeeded in putting the first Apostle to death, which was James the brother of John. Not only is James Zebedee the first apostle to be martyred for the faith, but he is also the only Apostle whose death finds its place in the record of Scripture.

It is interesting to note that the fact James was put to death with the sword implies his being tried and executed for attempting to lead people astray after a false god. Moses commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 13:12-15 to do this very thing with any person who sought to seduce the people to go after anything other then the living God.

We understand that the message of Christianity, which James undoubtedly was espousing, is that the One, true and living God condescended and took on flesh and dwelt among man, and He did so in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is to Him alone that we look to see the image of the invisible God. It is in Him alone that all the fulness of the Godhead dwells in bodily form. He alone is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature. He and the Father are one. Such truth is regarded as blasphemy to the Jewish mind.

Being as sadistic as his grandfather was, Luke states in verse 3 in relation to Herod’s killing James that:

When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”

Herod Agrippa I was apparently on weak terms with the Roman authorities, and needed to do everything in his power to gain the approval of the Jewish authorities. What better way then to attempt to seize and crush those belonging to The Way, especially the one who operated as the first among equals, Simon Peter.

Our text points out that he did this during the days of Unleavened Bread, which is referring to the weekly feast that followed the Passover celebration. There would have been multitudes of people gathered during this time, which would have provided Herod with the perfect opportunity to seize Peter who always took every occasion to preach to the crowds the truth that the Passover pointed to Christ; that the Passover Lamb was merely a shadow with Jesus of Nazareth being its substance; that He is the true Passover Lamb who shed His precious blood for His people in order to save them from His wrath and to freely redeem them to Himself.

Again, Herod seized Peter and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people because he was hoping to please them. It is worth noting that the only entertainment the early church provided for the world was involuntary, and it always involved their suffering in some way. Herod was hoping to make a spectacle of Peter and garner favor with the Jews, so he made sure that Peter was placed under maximum security. Four squads of soldiers amounted to sixteen soldiers that would guard him via rotation, which serves to show the impossibility of Peter’s escape. Herod could not afford to let that happen.

As verse 5 says:

So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.

Now, we are going to come back to this verse, but let us continue the rest of the narrative. Acts 12:6-10 reads:

On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me (He is telling Peter to prepare to run).” And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.”

This is now the second time Peter has been miraculously saved from chains by angelic intervention. The other time is found in Acts 5:19.

Now, we understand from verses 18-19 that there was no small stir among the soldiers when Peter was found to be missing. When Herod discovered this truth, he did everything in his power to find Peter. When Peter could not be found, Herod examined all the guards and then led them off to be executed. His opportunity to please the people was ruined.

            Verse 11-17, however, tells us what occurred when Peter finally came to the discovery that he had been set free:

“11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting (They were obviously expecting his execution since the only reason Herod seized his was because he saw that they were pleased by the death of James). 12 And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark (This is the author of the gospel of Mark), where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 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. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, “It is his angel.” 16 But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, “Report these things to James and the brethren (This is not James the brother of John, but James the just, the brother of Jesus).” Then he left and went to another place.

The Beautiful Privilege of Prayer

Remember what I said in the beginning, there are a couple of very important things we must ask ourselves in order to appreciate the beautiful truth being displayed before us in this text. First, what does God want us to understand about Himself? Second, what does God beckon us to in light of this understanding? What we have before us is a beautiful account of the living Lord engaging with His people who have humbled themselves in prayer.

Now, we must understand that this is not a testament to the power of prayer, for prayer possesses no power whatsoever. Rather it is a testament to the One who not only lives and has the capacity to hear, but both the desire to answer and the power to act and alter the circumstances of His people in accordance with His will. It would be foolish for us to conclude that James was killed because the church failed to pray. There should be no doubt in our minds that just as the church fervently went before the Lord in prayer for Peter, so they did for James, yet God answered differently because His will for Peter was different then His will for James. Peter was going to die in his old age, James was not.

Do our prayers change the mind of God? No, they do not. God has already preordained everything that is going to occur. He will bring to pass what He has purposed to do according to His perfect and infinite wisdom and knowledge. He is not going to change that flawlessly, good, and righteous plan and substitute it for a request that comes from our imperfect and finite understanding. No, our prayers do not change the mind of God.

Do our prayers, however, change circumstances around us? The biblical answer to this is a resounding, yes! James 5:16-18 says this:

“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.”

God has ordained not only the end, but the means to achieve that end. The prayer of His people is a means through which God accomplishes His will, which is wonderfully seen with this account of Peter.

            Many people ask, “If God is sovereign, and works all things after the council of His own will, why do we need to pray?” The simple answer is because God has modeled for us what a life of prayer is to look like in Christ, and He has commands us to commune with Him through prayer, so that He might prove Himself strong in our lives and bring glory to Himself.

The Priority of Corporate Prayer

The priority of corporate prayer to the living God is magnified here. When one of their own was thrust into prison, Luke tells us that prayer for him was being made fervently by the church of God. One commentator points out that the Greek root word for fervently here literally means to stretch out. The word is ektenēs, and it is generally used as medical term to describe the stretching out of musculature. One source I found says that ektenēs:

“is literally the picture of one who is stretched out. It pictures “an intense strain” and unceasing activity which normally involving a degree of intensity and/or perseverance. Ektenes was used to describe a horse whose legs are fully extended while galloping. Ektenes, was used as a medical term describing the stretching of a muscle to its limits and in Grecian athletics described a runner with the taut muscles moving at maximum output, straining and stretching to the limit in order to win the race.”

The picture Luke paints for us here is of a body of believers expending themselves together in prayer to God for their brother.

We should all take them time to consider and acknowledge that when Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing”, or in Ephesians 6:18 to “pray at all times in the Spirit”, or in Romans 12:12 to be “devoted to prayer”, he is not speaking to an individual but a corporate body of believers; and he is not merely calling them to be active in their own individual prayer lives, but calling them as a body to be devoted to such a thing together.

The church, as a whole, is to be characterized by a life of corporate prayer. Jesus said of the Temple, “My house will be called a house of prayer.”[1] What are we but the household of God that is growing into a Holy temple of the Lord, having become a dwelling of the Spirit.[2] As living stones, we are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.[3]

He beckons us as His body to tap into that means of grace He uses to conform us to His holy image by drawing near with confidence to His throne of grace “That we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.”[4] We can go confidently to His throne because:

“We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”[5]

As Peter says to the church:

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.”

As has been said in the past, corporate prayer is the pulse of the body. Just as the opening and closing of the aortic valve generates a pulse in our physical bodies declaring there to be life within us, corporate prayer is the pulse of the body of Christ signifying that there is life in its members.

The Reason we Pray

Let us remember that every time we genuinely pray we are ascribing sovereignty to God. True prayer, not flippant words, or mere mantras, but true theologically driven and heartfelt prayer is an act of worship whereby the one communing with God recognizes their complete insufficiency and cries out in dependence upon God’s all-sufficiency. Genuine prayer recognizes that creation has a King, and He is controlling all things from His throne.

If God does not possess complete control of all things. If He is not endowed with the totality of power, He is not worthy to be prayed to. If God cannot even control all evil, then some evil can control Him, and He is therefore not God because omnipotence and sovereignty belong to another. Understand this, if God cannot control evil, then evil can control God. If this were true, it would be quite a problem for us who live in a fallen world where evil flourishes. Fortunately for us, however, God is sovereign. It is His unchangeable quality of being.

The reason we pray is because we understand that no purpose of His can be thwarted.[6] We know that He is in the heavens doing what He pleases.[7] We cry out to God because we know His plan stands forever, “the plans of His heart from generation to generation.”[8] We know that none can frustrate what He is doing.[9] We are intimately aware of what He says of Himself through the prophet Isaiah:

“I am the Lord, and there is no one else, The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating disaster; I am the Lord who does all these things.”[10]

We know that His purpose will be established, and that He will accomplish all His good pleasure.[11] As King Nebuchadnezzar did, we ought to humbly and joyfully relinquish ourselves to the fact that:

“He does according to His will among the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can fend off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’”[12]

We humble ourselves in prayer knowing that He is willing and working in us for His good pleasure.[13] We know that He is causing all things to work together for our good.[14] We know that His eyes move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support our hearts which are completely His. Again, prayer assumes God’s sovereignty.[15] As Packer said:

“This is the fundamental philosophy of Christian prayer. The prayer of a Christian is not an attempt to force God’s hand, but a humble acknowledgment of helplessness and dependence. When we are on our knees, we know that it is not we who control the world; it is not in our power, therefore, to supply our needs by our own independent efforts; every good thing that we desire for ourselves and for others must be sought from God, and will come, if it comes at all, as a gift from His hands…In effect, therefore, what we do every time we pray is to confess our own impotence and God’s sovereignty. The very fact that a Christian prays is thus proof positive that he believes in the lordship of God.”[16]

May we come to Him regularly and corporately as a body, hallowing His name, and seeking that His kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

May we regularly come to corporately gather in prayer, not only on the Lord’s Day, but throughout the week, knowing that to Him belongs the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen!

[1] Matthew 21:14

[2] Ephesians 2:19-22

[3] 1 Peter 2:5

[4] Hebrews 4:16

[5] Hebrews 4:15

[6] Job 42:2

[7] Psalm 115:3

[8] Psalm 33:11

[9] Isaiah 14:27

[10] Isaiah 45:6-7

[11] Isaiah 46:10

[12] Daniel 4:35

[13] Philippians 2:13

[14] Romans 8:28

[15] 2 Chronicles 16:9

[16] Evangelism and The Sovereignty of God, J.I. Packer; Page 15-16

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