Acts 12:1-24 – The church must be out of its mind to pray! (v5,9,15)

Context

The book of Acts is attempting to describe the spread of the good news that Jesus is Lord. The expansion of the gospel is taking place in many directions now, in Jerusalem and surrounding towns, to the north of Jerusalem as far now as Antioch, and to the south-west where Philip had baptised an Ethiopian.

The story has bounced between Peter’s experiences and Saul’s experiences. We return to Jerusalem now and to Peter and the others. There has been a great explosion of faith since Acts 2 but also scattering of believers through persecution. Jerusalem was experiencing a time of strengthening and peace and growth (Acts 9:31). But then King Herod acts. This is the Herod who had arrested and beheaded John the Baptist. In Mark 14:1-12 we learn that Herod was aware of prophets and their public influence. We also learn that he is influenced by the whims of the people and of the moment.

Observation

Structure

  • 1-5 Herod’s attack and the church’s defence
  • 6-11 Peter is rescued by God’s messenger
  • 12-17 The church is astonished
  • 18-19 Herod executes his own soldiers
  • 19-24 Herod is executed by God’s messenger

1-5 Herod’s attack and the church’s defence

“who belonged to the church…” Once the followers of Jesus were called disciples, then believers, then people of “The Way”, and then Christians. Now, they are recognised as the church. This word means “gathering” or “assembly” or “congregation”. Many will use it to describe a building used for religion but it is undeniably used here to refer to the people gathering together for a common purpose. It is used as a synonym for all the previous titles given to the followers of Christ.

“Herod” – This is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. See ‘Context’ for more.

“Persecute” – The greek says something like: to mistreat in the hands of Herod. As the mistreatment of is aimed at the church, ie, a specific people group, it is persecution.

“James, the brother of John” – these are the two sons of Zebedee, disciples of Jesus. At the end of this narrative, another James, probably the brother of Jesus, is told of Peter’s rescue. This second James is likely the writer of the epistle by the same name.

“…death with the sword…approval among the Jews.” Most of the Jews who had turned to Christ had been scattered out of the area under Saul’s persecution. While there was peace in Jerusalem post Saul’s conversion, apparently many Jews still viewed the Christian church as a nuisance and abomination. Herod’s dislike or hate for the church was embraced by the Jews. The approval encouraged Herod to arrest Peter, the leader of the church.

“Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.” The Festival of Unleavened Bread is a seven day annual event amongst the Jews in preparation for the Passover. Both festivals are memorial celebrations of the Exodus, especially the night when God passed over all the houses marked by blood. This was the same festival coinciding with Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Jesus had told Peter that he would die a similar death (John 21:18019). Perhaps Peter felt like this was the moment!

“…but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” This was the church’s line of defense – to take their concern to God and plead with Him to intervene. Against a King who has successfully executed one believer and assigned 16 soldiers to guard Peter, the church prays. Perhaps Herod conceived a remote possibility that the church would muster a rescue plan by force? But he did not expect a rescue mission from the Almighty!

It must be noted that the church prayed ‘earnestly’. I wonder if there really is a different type of prayer? Of course you can say that you’ll pray and you can throw a light-hearted suggestion to God for something (like someone to believe, healing to happen, peace to be reached). But if it’s not earnest prayer, is it actually prayer? Of course I need to answer yes. Prayer is prayer whether it is described as earnest or casual. These are just adjectives. But this verse describes the focus of their gathering – they desired for God to help Peter in some way. They prayed deliberately, decidedly, thoughtfully, intentionally. The actual word here means: eagerly, fervently, constantly. They were still together at the end of the rescue – still in prayer! (v12) And the answer to their prayers even took them by surprise! It is so good when God answers our prayers so vividly. And it is a shame that we don’t pray like this. Individually and as a body of believers, it would be good to cultivate our prayer habits.

6-11 Peter is rescued by God’s messenger

“Then Peter came to himself…” The account of Peter’s rescue is mixed with physical action and mystical illusion. On the one hand, Peter is physically struck by the angel in order to get him to wake up, he is ordered to dress himself and chains and doors are removed or opened. On the other hand, Peter doesn’t feel like it is really happening, the guards are mysteriously avoided, doors and chains are dealt with magically and the rescuer is an angel. It all happens, in Peter’s mind, as if it is a dream or a vision. But when he comes his senses, he sees that this has actually happened. God has answered the prayers of the church and intervened miraculously.

All of the intentions of the government and the religious enemy have been thwarted by God. Everything was stacked against Peter. But God was against the will of men in this instance.

12-17 The church is astonished

“John, also called Mark.” This new character becomes very significant in the early church and the work of God. He became a travelling partner with Saul and Barnabas (v25), he was a cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10), remained in service of the apostles and described as a son to Peter  (1 Peter 5:13). He is recognised as the writer of the gospel in connection with Peter.

“You’re out of your mind!” It’s amazing how Peter’s arrival was met with doubt. They had been praying for God to act but even this was beyond their expectations. The episode of the arrival of Peter is comical. But when they realised that Peter was saved, they celebrated and sent word to James to encourage and relieve him too. Our Christian growth will include a growing confidence in the ability of God to act. He will not always give us exactly what we ask, but when we pray fervently for things that God has promised to do, we must dismiss the temptation to doubt He can do it!

“It must be his angel.” This could be understood as Peter’s spirit (like Matthew 14:26) or as a guardian angel of Peter’s (see Matthew 18:10 and Hebrews 1:14).

“But Peter kept knocking” – He didn’t intend to go in and stay with the believers in Mark’s home since he immediately “left for another place” (v17). But he was intent on showing his brothers and sisters that he was alive and free and that James be told as well. Peter’s persistent knocking may remind us of the persistence needed sometimes in prayer. This is a shallow link, I know, but his unstopping approach is paralleled by the unstopping prayer of the church. It’s a small illustration of persistence when the initial prayers are not answered, don’t give up.

18-19 Herod executes his own soldiers

“no small commotion…thorough search…cross-examined…” The aftermath of the escape was extreme. With no answers found, Herod executes the guards. Perhaps his only explanation was that the guards were hiding the truth from him. How else could the escape be explained? It reminds me of when illnesses are mysteriously removed – unexpectedly – but doctors will just shrug their shoulders rather than concede that someone divine has intervened. Herod knew that the Christian church was surrounded by stories of miracles – even an empty tomb. But rather than examining the truth and conceding Jesus as Lord, he orders and execution on his own men.

19-24 Herod is executed by God’s messenger

“…because Herod did not give praise to God…” These verses describe the unique way that Herod the Tetrarch died. Although he was bringing a kind of unity in the region, according to these verses, he did not rebuke the people for praising him as a god. He had been exposed to enough of the work of God to know better and this was the final straw. A messenger of the Lord struck him down. He wasn’t instantly killed but bizarrely he was eaten by worms and died.

It’s a fitting conclusion to this section which began with Herod’s attack on the church. The church had prayed for the situation with Peter. Not only was the prayer answered by delivering Peter to freedom but it was further answered by delivering Herod over to death by worms!

Meaning

The church might appear out of their mind to pray – but we would be out of our minds not to!

Application

  1. Prayer of course! Prayer must be understood as a request or plea to the Almighty to take action. It is not a demand or a ‘name it and claim it’ practice. But neither is it a social pleasantry aimed at closing a Christian gathering or wishing someone good luck. When we pray, we enter the council of the Lord our God and we ask him to save, to restore, to renew, to protect or to reveal. Christians have turned their life to Christ and admit that God is supreme over their lives, which they are failing to live properly. Prayer is this faith speaking. The community of saints must be a community of prayers. If we are to be a “Christian community devoted to maturing in Jesus”, then let us devote ourselves to prayer!
  2. Reflect on your prayers and consider what you pray for. Do you bring to God the things that you believe he would want you to want?
  3. Pray for the persecuted church. opendoors.org.au, vom.com.au, and barnabasfund.org are three ways to be informed in your prayers – to pray specifically.