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God’s power for God’s purpose: Wake up to a miracle

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 12

This is the weekend following Easter. Jesus has risen from the dead, and we have celebrated his resurrection with hymns and words of triumph. Now our culture has returned to “normal.” What difference will it make in your life this week, that we remembered Jesus’ resurrection last week? Today we’ll focus on a practical, personal, daily answer to that question.

Archimedes, who died in 212 B.C., was the first scientist to recognize the power of the lever. He once famously said, “Give me a place to stand and rest my lever, and I can move the Earth.” We will learn this week how to use that lever.

Larry Dossey, chief of staff of a Dallas hospital, published a few years ago his findings that prayer lowers blood pressure, helps heal wounds, heart ailments and headaches, and even influences the action of bacteria and medications.

Ian MacPherson tells the true story of an atheistic scientist who attempted to find the wavelength of the human brain during different experiences. A woman who was dying of a brain disease consented to his test. Wires were connected to her brain, and a meter attached. Previously, this instrument had measured the power used by a fifty kilowatt broadcasting station in sending a message around the world—the needle had registered nine points.

As the last moments of this woman’s earthly life arrived, she began to pray aloud and praise God. She told the Lord how much she loved him, and how she was looking forward to seeing him face to face. The scientist was so engrossed in her prayer that he forgot his experiment. Suddenly he heard a clicking sound, and found that the meter on his gauge was registering 500 points.

Prayer is the lever which can move the world. Here’s how the lever works.

Hold a prayer meeting (vs. 1-4)

As Acts 12 opens, it is the early part of A.D. 44 and we find the infant Christian church in yet another crisis. King Herod, grandson of the Herod of Jesus’ birth, is ruler of the Jews. And he wants to placate and please them. Thus he beheads James, one of their leaders. Then he arrests Peter, the chief of the apostles, intending to kill him as soon as the Feast of Unleavened Bread passes. Jews by the tens of thousands will be in Jerusalem. Herod won’t miss this chance to impress his subjects.

So he seizes Peter and turns him over to four squads of four guards each (v. 4). He’s heard of Peter’s earlier escape at the hands of the angel (Acts 5:18-21) and wants to avoid a repeat fiasco. The apostle was probably imprisoned in the fortress Antonia, northwest of the temple area, where Paul would later be confined as well (Acts 21:31—23:32).

Four soldiers are with him at all times—two chained to his body, and two to guard the door. Not to mention the soldiers stationed at the main door to the fortress, or others patrolling the area. This is the highest security Rome can muster.

What does the church do? Organize a mob and storm the prison? Circulate a petition to get the names of leading Christians in Jerusalem to request Peter’s release? Take a collection to bribe Herod for his freedom? They hold a prayer meeting.

Could anything be more ridiculous and fruitless? Imagine praying for a man so securely incarcerated, so near execution. Suppose a family and friends kept vigil outside Huntsville, while their loved one was being readied for execution, praying for him to escape. How would we view their prayers? Here’s a better question: how would God?

Where are you in jail this week? Where is someone you love? Have you prayed yet? Have you asked others to join you in intercession? Have you held a prayer meeting? Will you?

Pray as they prayed (v. 5)

What now? Let’s make the example of our text the model we follow: “Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (v. 5). R. A. Torrey’s classic The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power contains an investigation of this verse which we will follow in our study.

Pray together

Luke notes that “the church” was earnestly praying for Peter. By now the followers of Jesus number more than 5,000 men, not counting women and children (Acts 4:4). They were scattered across the larger area (Acts 8:1), but news of Peter’s impending execution would travel quickly across the region. Luke is careful to note that the house to which Peter would go following his release was “where many people had gathered and were praying” (v. 12). But this was not “the church” in total. All who knew Jesus were calling on him, together.

Imagine having 5,000 families praying for you. Jesus promised great power in response to such unity: “If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

Two horses working alone can do the work of two. But two horses pulling together can do the work of 40 working alone. There is more power in praying together than the world knows. With this lever we can indeed move the earth.

With whom will you pray this week?

Pray with intensity

They were “earnestly praying” for Peter, as should we. The Greek is in the continuous tense; they were still praying in the morning when Peter escaped and came to them. Thus they prayed all night. “Earnestly” pictures a runner straining for the finish line. There is work in intercessory prayer, hard labor.

Paul informed the Colossians of one who was engaged in such work on their behalf: “Epaphras . . . is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you” (Colossians 4:12-13). Jesus himself furnishes our best example: “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

Remember David Brainerd, the missionary to American Indians in colonial days. Sometimes in the winter night he would go out into the forest and kneel in the cold snow where it was a foot deep. Laboring with God in prayer, he would be wringing wet with perspiration even on the coldest nights. God heard David Brainerd, and sent such a mighty revival among the North American Indians as had never been seen before. And he transformed Brainerd’s father-in-law, Jonathan Edwards, into the great preacher of the First Great Awakening. If more prayed like Brainerd, more would preach like Edwards. And Awakening would come again.

For whom will you pray with intensity this week?

Pray to God

It seems redundant that Luke would write, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (emphasis mine). To whom else would they be praying? Actually, the options are several.

We can pray to impress each other with our eloquent words or pious faith. When you lead in public prayer, isn’t it hard not to pray to the people instead of to God?

We can pray to ourselves, in a kind of meditation or contemplation. We can allow our minds to wander and daydream so that we are not praying at all. Shakespeare makes one of his characters lament, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Or we can pray “to God.” We can enter the presence of the Lord Almighty. We can find ourselves kneeling before the throne of the God of the universe, the Creator of all that exists. We know when we are praying to God and when we are praying about him; when we are connected with him, our spirit one with his spirit. Here is true power—not in our prayer, but in the One to whom we pray.

Will you connect with God this week?

Pray specifically

Again it seems redundant for Luke to write, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (emphasis mine). For what other purpose would they be together? Again, the options are several.

We can meet to be seen meeting. We can meet to “get something out of the service.” We can meet to pray generically (“Lord, heal all the hurting and save all the lost, and forgive all our sins”). Or we can pray specifically.

We ask God to “be with us” when he already promised he would be (Matthew 28:20). We ask him to “bless us” when we wouldn’t know what that meant if he did. If we would pray specifically, telling God our actual need and asking him for particular answers, he would know how to answer us. And we would know when he did.

This is how God wants us to pray: together, with intensity, to our Father, specifically. This lever will move the world.

Expect God to answer (vs. 6-19)

The night before Peter was to be executed, he was asleep between two soldiers (v. 6), an indication of the peace of his soul. Then suddenly God’s angel came, and everything changed. He woke Peter up, removed his shackles, led him out prison past two sets of guards, and set him free.

Then Peter knew that God had indeed spared his life. He went immediately to the prayer meeting at the home of John Mark’s mother. Because the early church was so large, they had to meet in many homes. This was apparently the house church with whom Peter worshipped. He knew they had been praying for him, so he went to show them the answer to their intercession.

And then, in one of the humorous ironies of God’s word, they couldn’t believe it was really him. The servant girl was so excited at hearing his voice that she left him exposed on the street while she told the rest of the crowd. Imagine you’re standing by the locked door, with Roman guards probably scouring the streets by now in pursuit. Your faith is still being tested, this time by your friends.

Meanwhile, the church couldn’t believe the girl’s testimony (v. 15). Here is proof that fallen people can still pray in power. Their faith was less than it should have been, as ours usually is. Is your typical response to a miraculous answered prayer one of calm expectation or shocked surprise? Finally they came to the door, let Peter inside, and praised God together.

I remember reading the true story of a tavern owner who sued a local church. It seems he built his bar down the street from their sanctuary, so they began praying that God would remove the tavern. One night during their prayer meeting, lightning struck the tavern and burned it to the ground. The owner sued the church. The congregation pled “not guilty.” The judge noted that the tavern owner had more faith than the church members.

When you pray as these people prayed, expect God to move as God moved. This lever opens prison bars, sets prisoners free, and moves the world.

Give God the glory (vs. 19-25)

Acts 12 begins with Herod in charge and Peter about to die. It ends with the church in charge and Herod dead. Let’s learn why.

There are six “Herod”s of importance in the New Testament. Herod the Great (reigned 41 B.C. to 4 B.C.) was the Herod of the birth of Jesus Christ. He was married ten times; all the other Herods are his descendants.

Herod Antipas was ruler of Galilee, the second husband of Herodias and the one responsible for the death of John the Baptist. He was also the Herod to whom Pilate sent Jesus for trial.

Herod Archelaus was the evil ruler of Judea mentioned briefly in Matthew 2:22. Herod Philip the Second was the ruler for whom Caesarea Philippi was named. Herod Agrippa is the subject of our present study. And his son Agrippa the Second was the ruler before whom Paul eventually stood trial; his daughter was the wife of Felix the governor as well. The Herods played the lead in every soap opera of their time.

Herod Agrippa is now in a quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon to the north. He can stop their food shipments and trade; thus they press for good relations with him. In due course a public session is arranged with him.

Josephus, the famous Jewish historian (died A.D. 97), supplies his narrative of what happened next: “A great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him: and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god: and they added,–‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’ Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. . . .

“A severe pain . . . arose in his bell, and began in the most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said,–‘I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death.’ . . .

“When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace; and the rumour went abroad everywhere, that he would certainly die in a little time. . . . And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and the seventh year of his reign.” (Antiquities of the Jews,).

Here’s the point: if the most splendid and powerful man in all the country must give glory to God, so must we. The Lord of the universe will not share his glory. Someone has well advised, “To get along with God, stay off his throne.”

If we pray for our glory rather than the Lord’s, our prayers will have little effect. But if we pray for God to honor himself by answering us, we pray in his will. And he is pleased to give us what we ask, or even more.

Conclusion

You hold in your hearts the lever which can move the world. Will you use it this week?

Pray for others. Every believer needs to be engaged in personal intercession. Paul asked the Romans to “join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (Romans 15:30). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wanted his disciples to pray for him (Matthew 26:40). God’s word calls us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), especially for each other.

How can we do this more effectively? I am convinced that every believer needs a personal prayer ministry and notebook. Develop a list of lost and unchurched people, and pray for them by name. Make a list of other people for whom you will pray daily. List other, less urgent, needs for each day of the week. Write down your requests, and document God’s answers. When I began keeping such a notebook, my prayer life was revolutionized.

Pray personally, and collectively. When coals stay together, they stay lit. When they are separated, they grow cold. We need each other. Our staff is now praying together each morning at 9:00 A.M. in the Narthex Chapel, because we need to. Our hearts need each other.

A few years ago, a group of missionaries were camping at night on a hillside. Robber bands were common in the area. The missionaries were carrying money, and feared attack. After praying, they finally went to sleep.

Months later, the leader of one of the robber bands was brought to the mission hospital for treatment. While there, he asked the missionaries if they still had the soldiers who guarded them that night. “We intended to rob you,” he admitted, “but were afraid of the 27 soldiers.” When the story got back to the church supporting these missionaries, someone remembered, “We had a prayer meeting that night, and there were 27 of us present.”