In Acts 12, we read that King Herod arrested some of the apostles. He took James, the brother of John (one of the "sons of thunder" as Jesus nicknamed them), and had him killed with the sword, making him the first of the apostles to be martyred.
Then he put Peter in prison and planned to have him tried and executed after Passover. And we read in verse 5 this wonderful sentence: "So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him."
We should hold that last phrase in our hearts.
"But the church was earnestly praying to God..."
Everything about that phrases indicates that something's getting ready to change because of the prayers.
As we read on, an angel shows up in Peter's cell and walks him out of the prison miraculously! It's so miraculous, in fact, that Peter thinks he's just seeing a vision. Because things like this just don't happen. It's not until the angel leaves him standing in the street outside the prison that Peter realizes it really happened!
I wonder if he was "earnestly praying to God." I imagine so. But I wonder what he was praying for. Because apparently it wasn't for an angel to show up and miraculously walk him out. Either that, or he prayed for it without believing it could really happen.
But once reality set it that he was freed, he went to where all the believers were gathered for prayer. He knocked on the door and tried to get them to let him in. They even recognized his voice. But they concluded -- get this -- they concluded that it wasn't really him.
They concluded that it must be his angel or something because, apparently, things like this don't really happen. But then he convinced them it was really him and they praised God.
Back to the phrase: "But the church was earnestly praying to God..."
I wonder what they were praying for?
I mean, the implication is that Peter was released in answer to their prayers. But then when he was released their response shows that they didn't really expect him to be released! It's odd!
Jesus said in Mark 11:24 that whatever we ask for in prayer, "believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." And yet, they didn't believe what they received. Perhaps they were "believing for" something else?
We're not told specifically what they were praying for, just that they prayed earnestly. But again, the implication is that Peter's deliverance was in direct response to their prayers. I wonder if they prayed for something less, and that God fulfilled it by doing even more than they asked for?
Perhaps they prayed, "Lord, strengthen Peter." And God did -- by freeing him.
Perhaps they prayed, "Lord, save Peter's life." And God did -- by freeing him.
Perhaps they prayed (as they did earlier in Acts 4), "Lord, stretch out your hand to perform signs and wonders in the name of your holy servant Jesus!" And God did -- by freeing him.
It may have even been, "Lord, break Peter free!" And maybe they even prayed specifically that "Peter's angel" would go and break him free. And perhaps they were just so caught off guard that it took awhile for them to make sense of it. Perhaps God was two steps ahead of them. Perhaps they were still thinking "Peter's angel" and God had already given them just "Peter."
I suspect it was one of those. The part that matters most is that "the church was earnestly praying to God..."
What are we praying earnestly to God for, and what do we expect to be changed because of it?
If the story was written about these times, and it said in the middle of the story, with anticipation, "But the church was praying earnestly to God!" what might we expect to read next?
A little over a month ago I called the church to prayer and explained why we are praying. I know some of us have been fasting -- a true expression of praying earnestly. Thank you for taking it seriously.
The first two Mondays I asked us to pray through four questions as part of discerning how to pray:
Tonight, on this third of six Mondays of prayer, don't lose sight of the discernment questions, but start praying earnestly by finishing the following prayers. They'll be on the screen for you as we gather.
See you at 7p in the auditorium, or online at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
With faith, hope, and love,
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.