Pastor Chuck DeVane
Special to The Sentinel-Record
So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
-- Acts 12:5
Acts 12 records the story of a murder and an attempted murder. Herod Agrippa I killed the Apostle James (brother of the Apostle John, member of Jesus' "Inner Circle" of himself, John, and Simon Peter). He had him executed in the same way his uncle, Herod Antipas, had murdered John the Baptist, and the same way his grandfather, Herod the Great, had murdered all the baby boys 2 years old and younger in Bethlehem.
Next on Herod's hit list was the leader of the early church, Simon Peter. Peter would have been killed at that time, too, except for Passover and prayer. Executions could not be conducted on the day of Passover, as you will remember Christ was crucified on the day after. So, Herod put Peter in prison with the aim of beheading him the next day. But, the church was praying!
Some would suggest the different fates of James and Peter are owed to the respective absence and presence of the old-fashioned prayer meeting. We do not read of one being held for James. Perhaps his arrest and execution was too swift to plan for a prayer vigil. Perhaps the church panicked instead of prayed, and the lack of intercession led to execution. Perhaps they did gather to pray for James in the same way they did for Peter, but Luke just ran out of scroll space. None of these reasons can change the fact that James was murdered, tragically.
But can prayer account for the way Peter was delivered, miraculously and triumphantly? To be sure, Peter's outcome was not tragic. However, we must admit the prayer offered on his behalf was more comedic than triumphant.
Recently Andrea and I sat down to watch a dramatic comedy. An hour in, there was no compelling drama and we had not laughed a single time. We should have picked up Acts 12, for it is full of both. The execution of James and incarceration of Peter are both high drama. But the prayer meeting at John Mark's house was akin to a classic episode of the Jewish comedy series "Seinfeld."
Fearing Peter's death, the church prays. God answers prayer, Peter is miraculously released. Peter shows up at prayer meeting, appearing first to Rhoda (another Jewish comedy). When she gives the good news, some shush her, for they are busy praying, while others mock her, believing Peter to be already dead (in spite of their prayers) and his ghost has come to the door.
By the way, the keystone Christians involved in this prayer meeting include Mark the Gospel writer, James the half brother of Jesus, Saul soon-to-be-called Paul, and Barnabas, among other notables. A free Simon Peter must have marveled at how God answered prayers offered with such a lack of faith.
The deductions here are dramatic and comedic, tragic and triumphant. Does prayer change things? Yes, and no. Peter lived, James died. Does prayer have to be sincere to be successful? Yes, and no. They prayed and realized Simon Peter's escape, but by no means did they pray with great faith. Should we pray, or not? By all means we should, it is commanded, it is an honor, it is a means of grace.
God determines, in His sovereignty, how to address our prayers, or the lack thereof. No prayer can change His providential decree, yet prayer is often a means of accomplishing that decree. Peter's life was extended because God ordained it, and because Christians prayed for it. Like the great theologian Forrest Gump said, both things were happening at the same time.
So trust in God and the gospel, and pray with all your might. Prayer matters. The prayer of repentance and faith matters. The prayer for help and healing matters. The prayer to advance the Gospel and the word of God matters, and ultimately it was answered with triumph in this tragic text. Let us pray while we are on this earth, and in trust eternity will make sense of the mystery.
Chuck DeVane is the pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church. Call him at 501-525-8339 or email [email protected]