Topical Scripture: Acts 12:1–5
Archimedes, who died in 212 BC, 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 today how to use that lever.
Oswald Chambers noted: “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.
Billy Graham added: “In the morning, prayer is the key that opens to us the treasures of God’s mercies and blessings; in the evening, it is the key that shuts us up under His protection and safeguard.”
Prayer is the lever which can move the world. Here’s how the lever works.
Hold a prayer meeting (vv. 1–4)
As Acts 12 opens, it is the early part of AD 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 probably 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 likely 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? Have you held a prayer meeting? Will you?
Pray as they prayed (v. 5)
Suppose you call fellow believers to join you in intercession. 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.
Luke notes that “the church” was earnestly praying for Peter. By now the followers of Jesus number more than five thousand 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 five thousand 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 forty 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).
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 is 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?
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 (vv. 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 of 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 by now scouring the streets 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.
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.
Christians hold in our hearts the lever which can move the world. Will you use it this week?
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.
A few years ago, a group of missionaries were camping at night on a hillside. Bands of robbers 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 twenty-seven soldiers.” When the story got back to the church supporting these missionaries, someone remembered, “We had a prayer meeting that night, and there were twenty-seven of us present.”
How many are here today?