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By now we have become accustomed to the pattern in Acts—trials follow blessings and blessings follow trials. In the last half of chapter 11 we noted the tremendous blessings God was pouring out on his very vital Church. Now chapter 12 records another season of severe trial. However, far from holding any potential of destroying the Church, these trials come in order to reveal through her the omnipotent power of her Lord. Paul said that the Church’s weapons are divinely powerful and here Luke reminds us that we possess a weapon for advancing Christ’s cause in this world which is more powerful than any concentration of human strength. Do you need that kind of weapon? As you look at the world and the forces drawn up against your health, or your faith, or your family, or the Gospel do you wish for some political hero or miracle cure or militant movement? You already possess a weapon infinitely more powerful – prayer. In this passage, the early church prayed earnestly and expectantly because they believed God could and would answer.

I. Earnestly (1-7)

This passage captures the earnestness with which the early church prayed for Peter when he was imprisoned. It seems that often when we pray we do not ask for too much from God but too little.

A. God creates needs

Earnest prayers are borne out of recognized need. They come when we recognize we are vulnerable to spiritual enemies, on the brink of destruction by sin, or perishing in our grief. In reality, we are always subject to those dangers, but occasionally we realize it most acutely. 

 

The Bible indicates that God actually creates needs in our lives in order to move us to earnest prayer so that our hearts might be drawn to him and we might recognize he is the Father upon whom we must completely depend. Think for a moment about how often the Bible promises that God will only answer earnest pleas. Isaiah, for instance, told the people of Jerusalem, “You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Is. 62:6,7). To make the same point, Jesus told a parable about a friend who came in the middle of the night begging three loaves because he had unexpected visitors (Lk. 11:5-8). The man inside told him to go away, but the friend would not retire. He could not go home without those loaves. His wife would kill him! So he kept on knocking.  Alexander Whyte imagines that he kept on knocking until the dogs started barking and threatened to wake up the whole neighborhood. He knocked and knocked until he got that bread.

 

Jesus even went so far as to imply that God at times locks the door against us for a time—even risking that we would doubt his kindness—until he can test our earnestness.  He did it on one occasion personally. A Canaanite woman tried to get his attention so that he might heal her demon-possessed daughter, but Jesus ignored her (Mt. 15:21-28).  She cried and cried but he paid no attention. However, she would not give up.  She started pestering his disciples who in turn beg the Lord.  But Jesus makes the situation even worse by apparently insulting her saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to dogs [meaning the Gentiles].” Not even that repels her and Jesus not only grants her request but commends her faith. 

On another occasion, Jesus told a parable about an unjust judge who bolted his door against an importunate widow who cried out for justice (Lk. 18:1-8). She eventually overcame him and he granted her request.  Luke explains that Jesus taught this parable not to impart that the Father is mean-spirited but rather to increase their faith, to turn them more earnestly and perseveringly toward him in prayer. Samuel Rutherford said of these kinds of texts, “Pray on, go on, and cry; for the Lord holdeth his door fast bolted, not to keep out, but that you may knock and knock.”  

B. God moves us to earnestness

Christ has brought his Church to this point in chapter 12. Remember the atmosphere they have been enjoying since 9:31, “They enjoyed a time of peace.” The Church is growing, there is no persecution, the disciples move about freely, Gentiles and Jews are living in harmony, and the famine is yet a few years away. While we have read that Peter and Cornelius were praying, we have not heard the Church praying. I’m sure they were but it is admittedly more difficult to pray earnestly in times of ease. Now the Lord removes the protective borders and allows his Church to be tested severely. Notice what has occurred in the church in the first four verses.  Herod has arrested some Christians intending to persecute them. He has killed James, the brother of John. And when Herod saw how popular that was, he put Peter in prison as well. Once again Luke states Herod’s intention to try Peter publicly. Things are dark for the Church. It appears her back is against the wall.  Once again she teeters on the edge of extinction.

 

Luke’s next words are dramatic (5), “But the church was earnestly praying to God for [Peter].” Those few words explain the events that unfold in the rest of the chapter. Notice Luke does not tell us how they prayed for Peter. They did not pray for his release or the protection of his life. They just prayed for him. He was in need and they were in desperate need without him as a leader. If he were struck down, they surely feared they would be scattered. They probably did not pray for anything specifically. Perhaps they only cried out saying, “Oh God, Peter!” Earnest prayers, like the desperate pleas of a child, do not have to be intelligent. The child doesn’t know specifically what he needs; all he knows is who he needs. As Amy Carmichael said, “Tears conquer God.”

C. God answers with Himself

Every church and every individual should be earnest in prayer at all times, but we are not, so our kind Father knowing our true needs causes us at times to feel our great need that we might flee to him. Do you see how such a perspective could change the way you look at suffering or disappointment or challenges? You will no longer say, “O God, how could you forsake me like this? How unfair can you be! Why are you singling me out for torture?” Instead you will say, “O God, I have forgotten you and in your severe mercy you have given me this trial to turn my heart back to you. If you come to me, all will be well.” 

 

But remember our motivation to earnest prayer must never be the thought that we have to unionize against God. Our Father is eager to bless us—we know that from the gift of his Son. But he blesses us primarily with more of himself and that blessing only comes by turning with intent toward him. Richard Sibbes explained the phenomenon this way, “God’s manner is to keep many blessings from his children until they have begged them, as delighting to hear his children speak.”