Thought for the Week 19 - 26th July 2020 by Rev Peter Baxandall

(19) 26th July Acts 12:1-17 The power of prayer

Today’s ‘Thought for the week’ is on the same theme as that shared with the folk who have gathered at St Benedict’s for the first service within the parish of Gunton since 15th March – and so in that way, we are united in our worship together.

Our focus passage for this week is Acts 12:1-17 which comes at a point in the story of the growing church where we see the gradual change in focus of the Acts of the Apostles from Peter at the centre of things to the Apostle Paul.

And so, having set the scene for our study, we begin with Prayer and then sing together a hymn.

Prayer

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: we lift before You our fellow church members in the parishes of Hopton, Corton and Gunton as we look together at our theme of ‘the power of prayer’ both in our ‘Thought for the

week’ and also in our service in St. Benedict’s. Graft into our hearts the love of Your ‘Name’ and help us day by day to honour the ‘Name’ of Jesus. Increase in us true faith; nourish us with all goodness, and of Your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ Your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever, Amen.

For our songs together today I have deliberately chosen two that we have learned over the weeks of ‘Thought for the week’ and while we at home can sing along to our hearts content, those meeting within St. Benedict’s can only listen to them and allow God to minister to them through listening. The first of those songs is ‘To rest in Your presence’ and it seem so appropriate as we ‘wait upon God together at the beginning of this week’s study.

To be in Your presence, to sit at Your feet,

where Your love surrounds me,

and makes me complete.

This is my desire,

O Lord, this is my desire.

This is my desire,

O Lord, this is my desire.

To rest in Your presence,

not rushing away,

to cherish each moment,

here I would stay.

Chorus

Today, we observe Peter at the centre of a very remarkable ‘answer to prayer’ as the early church held an urgent ‘Prayer meeting’.

Saul of Tarsus, the great persecutor of the early believers, may have been converted on the road to Damascus, but the persecution did not end there.

As we see from the opening verses of Acts 12:1-17, King Herod found some measure of ‘popularity’ with folk when he arrested James, the brother of John, and had him put to death.

He then proceeded to arrest Peter – and that is the part of the story we will now follow in Acts 12:1-17.

As we read in this passage, we see that the church recognised the urgency of the situation regarding Peter after what had happened to James and as a result they called an immediate prayer meeting.

I always find it strange, however, because when their prayer was answered they showed that they did not seem to expect an answer.

So, lets unpack this chapter and see some of the things that were taking place and how God clearly had His hand upon things.

Peter found himself in the inner jail and bound between sixteen soldiers.

Imagine waking up to a miracle and having an angel for your alarm clock!

That’s what happened to Peter when he was in prison for what was the third time, awaiting trial and certain death.

Years later, when he wrote his first epistle, Peter may have had

this miraculous experience in mind when he quoted Psalm 34:15–16,

“For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears

are open unto their prayers; but the face of the Lord is

against them that do evil” (1 Peter 3:12).

That quotation certainly summarizes what God did for Peter, and it reveals to us two wonderful assurances to encourage us in the difficult days of life.

(1) God Sees Our Trials (Acts 12:1–4)

“The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous” (1 Peter 3:12).

God watched and noted what Herod Agrippa was doing to His people.

This evil man was the grandson of Herod the Great, who ordered the Bethlehem children to be murdered, and the nephew of Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded.

A scheming and murderous family, the Herod’s, were despised by the Jews, who resented having Edomites ruling over them.

Of course, Herod knew this; and so he persecuted the church in an attempt to convince the Jewish people of his loyalty to the traditions of the fathers.

Now that the Gentiles were openly a part of the church, Herod’s plan was even more agreeable to the nationalistic Jews who had no place for “pagans.”

Herod had several believers arrested, among them James, the brother of John, whom he then beheaded.

Thus, James became the first of the Apostles to be martyred.

If it pleased the Jews when James was killed, just think how delighted they would be if Peter were slain!

Herod arrested Peter and put him under heavy guard in prison.

Sixteen soldiers, four for each watch, kept guard over the apostle, with two soldiers chained to the prisoner and two watching the doors.

After all, the last time Peter was arrested, he mysteriously got out of jail, and Herod was not about to let that happen again.

We can take note here that the Jerusalem church did not replace James as they had replaced Judas (Acts 1:15–26).

The stoning of Stephen signalled the end of that special witness to Israel, and so the number of official witnesses was no longer important.

By this stage the church had grown to such an extent that there were a vast number of people sharing the Gospel.

It is good to know that, no matter how difficult the trials or how disappointing the news, God is still on the throne and has everything under control.

We may not always understand His ways, but we know His sovereign will is best.

(2) God Hears Our Prayers (Acts 12:5–17)

“And His ears are open unto their prayers” (1 Peter 3:12).

In verse 5 the phrase, ‘but the church was earnestly praying to God for him’ is the turning point in the whole of this story.

Never underestimate the power of a praying church!

Perhaps we do not take it seriously enough in our church life!!

A man named Thomas Watson once said ‘It may have been the angel that brought Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that brought the angel into the situation in the first place’

Follow the scenes in this exciting drama in Acts 12.

(a) Peter sleeping (vv. 5–6).

If you were chained to two Roman soldiers and facing the possibility of being executed the next day, would you sleep very soundly?

Probably not, but Peter did.

In fact, Peter was so sound asleep that the angel had to strike him on the side to wake him up!

The fact that Peter had been a prisoner twice before is not what gave him his calm heart.

For that matter, this prison experience was different from the other two.

This time, he was alone, and the deliverance did not come right away.

The other two times, he was able to witness; but this time, no special witnessing opportunities appeared.

Peter’s previous arrests had taken place after great victories, but this one followed the death of James, his dear friend and colleague.

It was a new situation altogether.

What gave Peter such confidence and peace?

To begin with, many believers were praying for him (Acts 12:12), and kept it up day and night; and this helped to bring him peace (Phil. 4:6–7).

Prayer has a way of reminding us of the promises of God’s Word, such as, “I will lie down in peace, for you alone make me to dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8).

But the main cause of Peter’s peace was the knowledge that Herod could not kill him.

Jesus had promised Peter that he would live to be an old man and end his life crucified on a Roman cross (John 21:18–19).

Peter simply laid hold of that promise and committed the entire situation to the Lord, and God gave him peace and rest.

He did not know how or when God would deliver him, but he did know that deliverance was coming.

(b) Peter obeying (vv. 7–11) .

Once again we behold the ministry of angels (Acts 5:19; 8:26; 10:3, 7) and are reminded that the angels care for God’s children (Ps. 34:7).

The angel brought light and liberty into the prison cell, but the guards had no idea that anything was going on.

However, if Peter was going to be delivered, he had to obey what the angel commanded.

He probably thought it was a dream or a vision, but he arose and followed the angel out of the prison and into the street.

Only then did he come to himself and realize that he had been a part of another miracle.

The angel commanded Peter to put on his clothes and then to put on his sandals.

Then he was told to ‘wrap your cloak around you and follow me’

These were certainly ‘ordinary’ tasks to be doing while a miracle is taking place!

But God often joins the miraculous with the ordinary just to encourage us to keep in balance.

Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, but then commanded His disciples to gather up the leftovers.

He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, then told her parents to give her something to eat.

Even in miracles, God is always practical.

God alone can do the extraordinary, but His people must do the ordinary.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but the men had to roll the stone from the tomb.

The same angel that removed the chains from Peter’s hands could have put the shoes on Peter’s feet, but he told Peter to do it.

God never wastes miracles.

Peter had to stoop before he could walk.

It was a good lesson in humility and obedience.

In fact, from that night on, every time Peter put on his shoes, it must have reminded him of the prison miracle and encouraged him to trust the Lord.

This deliverance took place at Passover season, the time of year when the Jews celebrated their deliverance as they set off on their Exodus from Egypt.

The word “delivered” (or ‘rescued’ in the NIV) in Acts 12:11 is the same word Stephen used when he spoke about the Jewish Exodus (Acts 7:34).

Peter experienced a new kind of “exodus” in answer to the

prayers of God’s people.

(c) Peter knocking (vv. 12–16) .

As Peter followed the angel, God opened the way; and when Peter was free, the angel vanished.

His work was done and now it was up to Peter to trust the Lord and use his common sense in taking the next step.

Since it was the prayers of God’s people that had helped to set him free, Peter decided that the best place for him would be in that prayer meeting at Mary’s house.

Furthermore, he wanted to report the good news that God had answered their prayers.

So Peter headed for the house of Mary, mother of John Mark.

When you remember that

(a) many people were praying,

(b) they were praying earnestly,

(c) they prayed night and day, and

(d) their prayers were for Peter’s deliverance, then the scene that is described here is almost comical.

The answer to their prayers is standing at the door, but they don’t have faith enough to open the door and let him in!

God could get Peter out of a prison, but Peter can’t get himself into a prayer meeting!

Of course, the knock at the door might have been that of Herod’s soldiers, coming to arrest more believers.

It took courage for the maid Rhoda (“rose”) to go to the door; but imagine her surprise when she recognized Peter’s voice!

She was so overcome that she forgot to open the door!

Poor Peter had to keep knocking and calling while the “believers” in the prayer meeting decided what to do!

And the longer he stood at the gate, the more dangerous his situation became.

We must face the fact that even in the most fervent prayer meetings there is sometimes a spirit of doubt and unbelief.

We are like the father who cried to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

These Jerusalem saints believed that God could answer their prayers, so they kept at it night and day.

But, when the answer came right to their door, they found it hard to believe it.

God graciously honours even the weakest faith, but how much more He would do if only we would trust Him.

Note the plural pronouns in Acts 12:16: “They … opened the door and … they were astonished.”

It is entirely possible that, for safety’s sake, they decided to open the door together and face together whatever might be on the other side.

(d) Peter declaring (v. 17) .

Apparently everybody began to speak at once and Peter had to silence them.

He quickly gave an account of the miracle of his deliverance and no doubt thanked them for their prayerful help.

He instructed them to get the word to James, the half brother of Jesus, who was one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church (Matt. 13:55; Acts 15:13ff; Galatians 1:19).

It was this James who was also the author of the Epistle of James.

Where Peter went when he left the meeting, nobody knows to this day!

It certainly was a well-kept secret.

Except for a brief appearance in Acts 15, Peter walks off the pages of the Book of Acts to make room for Paul and the story of his ministry among the Gentiles.

1 Corinthians 9:5 tells us that Peter travelled in ministry with his wife, and 1 Corinthians 1:12 suggests that he visited Corinth.

There is no evidence in Scripture that Peter ever visited Rome.

In fact, if Peter had founded the church in Rome, it is unlikely that Paul would have gone there, for his policy was to work where other Apostles had not laboured (Romans 15:18–22).

Also, Paul certainly would have said something about Peter when he wrote his letter to the Romans.

In conclusion, then, what do we see from this passage?

The early church had no “political clout” or friends in high places to “pull strings” for them.

When they faced any difficulty or problem they did not look for ‘human’ help.

Instead, they went to the highest throne of all, the throne of grace.

They were a praying people, for they knew that God could solve their problems.

God’s glorious throne was greater than the throne of Herod, and God’s heavenly army could handle Herod’s weak soldiers any day or night!

The believers did not need to bribe anyone at court. They simply took their case to the highest court and left it with the Lord!

And what was the result?

“But the word of God grew and multiplied” (Acts 12:24).

This is another of Luke’s summaries, or “progress reports,” that started with Acts 6:7 (see also chapter 9:31; chapter 16:5; chapter 19:20 and chapter 28:31).

Luke is accomplishing the purpose of his book and showing us how the church spread throughout the Roman world from its small beginnings in Jerusalem.

What an encouragement to us today!

At the beginning of Acts 12, Herod seemed to be in control and the church was losing the battle. But at the end of the chapter, Herod is dead and the church - very much alive - is growing rapidly!

The secret? A praying church!

God works when churches pray, and Satan still trembles ‘when he sees the weakest saint engaged in trusting prayer.

Prayer

Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for the way you have blessed us through the ‘Thought for the week’ over the last few weeks during the time of ‘lockdown’.

We thank you what we have learned today about the life of the early church as it turned to you in prayer and for the way in which You answered their prayer.

May our lives be challenged as we continue to consider their life and example and pray that You will teach us as a parish what it means to bring all our concerns to You in believing

prayer.

Lord, in your mercy

Hear our prayer

Heavenly Father, help us to listen to your voice, to receive your assurances, and to allow you to touch our hearts and may we always be aware of your constant presence with us. We thank you for the opportunity to meet together here in

worship right now, and we pray for our fellow church members who are unable to join us for a variety of reasons.

Lord, in your mercy

Hear our prayer

We pray for our church and parish at this time of Interregnum with all the change that it brings. Help us to be open to seek your will and purpose for our parish

as we move forward, and we pray that our next incumbent will be someone who know you as Saviour and Lord and who looks to your word for guidance and direction. We pray for the parishes of Gunton, Hopton and Corton; give

us a desire to work together and help us as we seek to understand your will and purpose for us at this time

Lord, in your mercy

Hear our prayer

We pray for our government as it seeks to make plans to move on beyond this virus epidemic – give them wisdom and courage to make good and right decisions.

We pray for those individuals who make up our government, including Peter Aldous, our local MP, and pray that they might have a true sense of the responsibility that is theirs at this time.

Lord, in your mercy

Hear our prayer

Risen and reigning Lord, whose touch alone can heal the sick; hear our prayer for all who we know who are ill as we ask for your help and mercy to restore them to health. Thank you for the continuing work of our Health Service personnel who are risking their lives on a daily basis, coping with the pandemic.

Lord, in your mercy

Hear our prayer

We lift before you Lord those whose hearts have been saddened by the death of someone close and dear to them, especially any known to us. Help them experience the comfort of the Holy Spirit especially at this time

Lord, in your mercy

Hear our prayer

Risen and reigning Lord, we thank you for ‘Thought for the week’ and for the challenge you bring to us through it. Be with us through the coming week and help us to always be aware of your loving hand upon us.

Merciful Father:

accept these prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour,

Jesus Christ. Amen

And so to the second of two songs that we learned earlier in our ‘Thought for the week’.

Again, for those at home we can sing together, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’ as they in church listen to it and allow it to speak to them in that way.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul

Worship His holy name

Sing like never before, O my soul

I'll worship Your holy name

The sun comes up, it's a new day dawning

It’s time to sing Your song again

Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me

Let me be singing when the evening comes

Chorus

You’re rich in love and You’re slow to anger

Your name is great and Your heart is kind

For all Your goodness, I will keep on singing

Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find

Chorus

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing Your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then for evermore

Chorus (x2)


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