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20190407 CCC Acts 26 Prayer & Persecution

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God works through the passionate prayers of ordinary people.

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The Church Was Persecuted

Prayer is a difficult thing to work into the fabric of the life of the ordinary Christian. But, this text teaches us that God works in and through the passionate prayers of ordinary people. One of the ways we see this is that prayer demonstrates trust.

The Church Was Persecuted

As we look at our text today, we see that King Herod is violently persecuting the people of the Church. For some additional context, this is not the same King Herod that ordered the killing of the innocent babies as we read in Matthew’s Gospel, but as his grandson, he shares some murderous tendencies. This King Herod was, according to scholars, equally at home with Romans as he was with Jews. He had a checkered past to get to the throne over Judea and Samaria. Certainly, Luke’s original audience would have known who Herod was and what he did and what happened to him. But even if this text was all you had, you would know that Herod wasn’t a kind person. Thus, when the persecution grew more intense as we read about last week, It would seem that Herod wanted in on the action as well. He killed one of the Sons of Thunder, the brother of the Apostle John. When his killing of James pleased the Jews in the land, he decided to buy more favor with the people by arresting Peter and throwing him in jail.
Roughly, it would have been in the Spring of the year because the Passover was coming soon and after the holy days, Peter’s life would be over. The situation looked bleak. Peter, the text points out, was guarded by four squads of soldiers. I can’t speak for you, but if I had just four soldiers surrounding me, I’d be in deep trouble. But he had four squads surrounding him. As we continue to read in our text, the night that Herod planned to kill Peter finds Peter asleep between two soldiers, bound with two chains and multiple sentries standing guard. Sometimes we wonder why the details are included in the Bible like this and this is why. Luke wants us to know just how incredibly impossible of a situation Peter finds himself in. He wasn’t getting out of this one on his own. There would be no human that could ride in and rescue Peter from this certain fate.
Have you ever been in a hopeless situation? This is the situation that the church found itself in. They were opposed by culture. They were opposed by government. Although we may face similar opposition today, the reality is that, at least here in the US, we don’t have people laying violent hands upon us simply because we belong to the church. While the church corporately faced this hopeless situation, the individual members still had the grind of daily life to deal with. The truth is that many times in life things look hopeless. It looks as though we may not find our way to a place where the sun shines and the grass grows. About a month ago, we all would have said that this winter was a hopeless situation and it looked like there was no end to the misery the snow and the wind would bring.
The situation looked bleak. Peter, the text points out, was guarded by four squads of soldiers. I can’t speak for you, but if I had just four soldiers surrounding me, I’d be in deep trouble. But he had four squads surrounding him. As we continue to read in our text, the night that Herod planned to kill Peter finds Peter asleep between two soldiers, bound with two chains and multiple sentries standing guard. Sometimes we wonder why the details are included in the Bible like this and this is why. Luke wants us to know just how incredibly impossible of a situation Peter finds himself in. He wasn’t getting out of this one on his own. There would be no human that could ride in and rescue Peter from this certain fate.
The question isn’t if you will face hopeless situations. You may be in one right now. That’s not the issue. The issue is how will we respond. The question isn’t if the glass is half full or half empty - the question is what will we do with the glass? Because there is nothing in the midst of these trying times, these times of persecution, these times of hopelessness that excuses the Christian from responding according to the Scriptures and Jesus’s teaching. How do I know this? Let’s look again at our text and see how the church responded to the situation they found themselves in.

The Church Prayed

Notice what the church did for Peter in verse 5. They prayed. They prayed to God for Peter. While we don’t see what the prayers were, it doesn’t take much to conclude that they prayed for his safety and release. They asked God to protect Peter from Herod and his plan to kill him. The text does tell us that “earnest prayer” was made for Peter. Other translations say that ferverent prayer was made, strenuous prayer was made, they prayed without ceasing and without stopping. This paints a picture for us that this church got on their knees and on their faces before a Holy God and begged him to make intercession for Peter. In this we see that when things are at the worst, prayer is what we do because prayer takes the issue to the only one who can actually do something about the issue. If they murmured amongst themselves, they wouldn’t have talked to the one that can actually do something about the situation that Peter was in.
In this we see that when things are at the worst, prayer is what we do because prayer takes the issue to the only one who can actually do something about the issue. If they murmured amongst themselves, they wouldn’t have talked to the one that can actually do something about the situation that Peter was in.
It’s interesting how often we like to complain and gripe to everyone but the person who can actually do something about the situation. I remember someone who was upset at a policy when I worked at the bank. The ironic part was that it was a Federal law, even the bank didn’t make the policy. So, I had someone complaining on the phone to me and I finally had to say, “You know, I didn’t make the policy, nor did the bank. If you don’t like it, you should complain to Congress.” They ignored me and kept on complaining. Another time, someone called me to help them with another issue but that wasn’t my department. I said, “I’d love to help you, but I can’t. I literally don’t have access to that. Let me transfer you to the person who can.” They refused and accused me of being unhelpful.
Now, the same thing can be said about God. There was no one else that could help Peter in this situation. The church couldn’t have busted Peter free - it would have been like if I were arrested today and you guys decided to come try and break me out of the county jail. It wouldn’t happen. And because it all came down to God’s providential working, prayer demonstrated that the early church put their trust in God. They trusted that He would act. Again, we don’t know what they said, and I’ll confess to reading a bit into the text here, but the reality is that God already knew what He would do for Peter. They didn’t pray to cajole God into doing something - we’ll come back to that thought. They prayed earnestly to remind themselves that only God can fix this situation. And as such, we must go to the one who can fix it.
Many of us are here today facing what seems like an impossible situation - health issues, wayward children, job situations, you name it. I’m slowly working my way through a great book on prayer by Pastor Tim Keller entitled, surprisingly enough, Prayer. In it, he reminds us that “To pray is to accept that we are, and always will be, wholly dependent on God for everything.” And when we find ourselves in difficult and impossible situations, we so often drive ourselves to prayer because we know that in praying, we are going to the only one we can ask to move or act is God because the reality is that we need him for everything. The more hopeless in the situation, the more likely it is that we are to pray because the more likely it is that we will find ourselves with no other alternative.

The Church was Answered

As we pick up our narrative again in verse 7, we see that suddenly an angel appeared before the sleeping Peter. He promptly tapped him, said wake up, get dressed and follow me. It was such a surreal experience, Peter believed that it was a dream or a vision rather than what was actually happening. But this wasn’t a dream. It was actually happening. God heard the prayers of the church and he moved. God answered that prayer with a big “YES!”. God sent an angel and freed Peter. Only God could fix what was broken in the situation and He did. Hallelujah!
I mean, that’s why we pray, right? We ask, we want God to work. Then, if we don’t get what we want, it must be our fault. We lack enough faith to make it happen. That’s what this line of thinking in light of passages like where Jesus reminds us that if we have just the faith of a mustard seed, we can literally move mountains. Or passages like where if we ask without faith, then we are a double-minded man, unstable in all our ways. God’s providential answer is dependent upon the strength of our faith. And that scares us because if we are honest, most days our faith is no where near strong enough to move mountains.
The problem is that we’re conditioned and taught that “an answer” to prayer is always a “yes”. Garth Brooks had a hit song many years ago with “Unanswered Prayers”. The point is that sometimes unanswered prayers are better than what we asked for. I get what he is going for, and, surprisingly Garth is in full agreement with Pastor Tim Keller who writes “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knew.” My gripe is that God answers and sometimes he says no because he has a perfect understanding and knowledge that we lack. However, if we view prayer as only a means to get what we want from God, then when He doesn’t give us what we ask for, like Garth describes in his song, we are left asking why.
Thus, if we stopped here, then the text leaves us where the takeaway is try harder. Believe more. Pray more and harder. And if you still don’t get what you ask for, keep praying, earnestly, fervently, without ceasing. Be like the Muslim who prays so hard he bangs his head on the floor and gets a bruise. Be like the Jew who wails at the Western Wall. Be like the Gentile that Jesus describes in where he says don’t pray like those who think they will be heard because of their many words and heap up empty phrases. Thankfully, out text doesn’t stop here. There is more to this narrative that makes it far more realistic and far more hopeful for ordinary Christians like you and me.
But this wasn’t a dream. It was actually happening. After the angel got Peter out of the prison, he left and Peter gave God the credit for what had happened. He then headed over where the church was meeting. There at the mother of John Mark, Mary’s house, the church was gathered and, unsurprisingly enough, they were praying. When Peter knocked on the door, something hilarious happened. The servant girl Rhoda came, heard his voice, left him outside and went back to tell the others. Now, pay attention to verse 15. This group of Christians, devoted to prayer and who had been earnestly praying for Peter’s deliverance, look at Rhoda the servant girl and say she is out of her mind if she believes that Peter is standing at the gate.
Now, I want to stop here and state what I hope is obvious. These people prayed, but even they doubted. They asked God to save Peter and when God did, having Peter literally show up on their door step, they couldn’t believe it. I almost want to say they wouldn’t believe it. And as such, I think we begin to unlock the true secret to prayer. Prayer isn’t pulling the arm of God, hoping that the slot machine will suddenly turn all cherries and we hit a jackpot. Nor is it praying in such a way that we twist the arm of God until he gives us what we want. Instead, prayer is communicating with God about our heart’s deepest desires and trusting God to fix our deepest needs. Friends, this is the heartbeat of what it means to pray in faith and trust.
Somewhere along the line, doubt has become the enemy of prayer. Doubt is the enemy of faith. Doubt is the enemy of trust and confidence. Prayer is the antidote. Prayer says that even though I don’t know how or if you will answer this request, Lord, I will still ask you. I will still ask you to work in this area, to hear my cry, to show me that you are really there and really care. Even though I doubt, Lord, I will walk in obedience and come to you in prayer. This is what these people did and even though they doubted, God heard their cries and gave them what they asked for.
Certainly, God is sovereign. He can and will do what he wants. Even Jesus didn’t get his request in the garden and had to drink the cup of the crucifixion. When we are told no by God, we assume he didn’t hear us and that it must be our fault. Nothing is farther from the truth. God is not constrained by your faith or lack there of. I know I’ve shared this before, but it’s like the ridiculous pictures on Facebook where it says, “God will heal little Mikey if we can get 1,000 likes to this post. Like it and help Mikey!” Like God is sitting in heaven, on his throne saying, “C’mon, just 24 more likes and I can do my thing!” God is not constrained or dependent upon what you or I do to accomplish what He wants to accomplish in the world. We don’t pray to get God to do something. We pray to say to God that He is the only one who can.
What are you carrying around with you that you haven’t given up to God in prayer? What have you stopped praying for because you assume that God has said no? Don’t let doubt keep you from being obedient. Pray. Pray earnestly. Pray fervently. Don’t give up praying. Because prayer isn’t about asking God to do something because he is subservient to you but instead prayer is asking God to do something that only God can do. And because of that, while we should pray anticipating an answers, the doubts that creep in as we pray should never keep us actually praying. Instead, it should drive us to pray all the more.
We
This is great news. Yes, we should ask in faith and trust. But it doesn’t have to be perfect faith and trust. If this were true, Peter would have died that day, right? They doubted that Peter would be let out. They believed that Peter was about to die - I don’t think I’m reading into things here. Their response indicates a strong lack of faith. And yet, what did God do? He freed Peter. Let’s think about it for a moment. If God’s ability to say yes to prayers was dependent upon our faith and trust, then nothing would ever be answered with a yes. God would always say no. Oh, sure, there are those stories and anecdotes about kids or old people who have faith to move mountains but let’s be honest. Those people aren’t us. The overwhelming majority of people struggle with having the sort of faith that, Jesus says, would literally move mountains.
God is not constrained by you or by me. I know I’ve shared this before, but it’s like the ridiculous pictures on Facebook where it says, “God will heal little Mikey if we can get 1,000 likes to this post. Like it and help Mikey!” Like God is sitting in heaven, on his throne saying, “C’mon, just 24 more likes and I can do my thing!” God is not constrained or dependent upon what you or I do to accomplish what He wants to accomplish in the world. This part of the text reminds us that when God wants something done, it will be done.
Now, we’ll cross the bridge to what all this means in a moment, but for now, you need to understand that you are not on the throne. You don’t get to decide what will happen. You have a mind to what

The Church Doubted

After the angel got Peter out of the prison, he left and Peter gave God the credit for what had happened. He then headed over where the church was meeting. There at the mother of John Mark, Mary’s house, the church was gathered and, unsurprisingly enough, they were praying. When Peter knocked on the door, something hilarious happened. The servant girl Rhoda came, heard his voice, left him outside and went back to tell the others. Now, pay attention to verse 15. This group of Christians, devoted to prayer and who had been earnestly praying for Peter’s deliverance, look at Rhoda the servant girl and say she is out of her mind if she believes that Peter is standing at the gate. It’s his angel - which is a whole kettle of fish I don’t have time to dive into today - or something else. But it just couldn’t be Peter.
Now, I want to stop here and state what I hope is obvious. These people prayed, but even they doubted. They asked God to save Peter and when God did, having Peter literally show up on their door step, they couldn’t believe it. I almost want to say they wouldn’t believe it. And as such, I think we begin to unlock the true secret to prayer. Prayer isn’t pulling the arm of God, hoping that the slot machine will suddenly turn all cherries and we hit a jackpot. Nor is it praying in such a way that we twist the arm of God until he gives us what we want. Instead, prayer is communicating with God about our heart’s deepest desires and trusting God to fix our deepest needs. Friends, this is the heartbeat of what it means to pray because prayer isn’t like ordering off a menu. Rather, it is humbly submitting to God in faith and trust, acknowledging that He alone is the one who can fix things.
Somewhere along the line, doubt has become the enemy of prayer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Doubt is the enemy of faith. Doubt is the enemy of trust and confidence. Prayer is the antidote. Prayer says that even though I don’t know how or if you will answer this request, Lord, I will still ask you because I realize that I can’t do it myself. I will still ask you to work in this area, to hear my cry, to show me that you are really there and really care. Even though I doubt, Lord, I will walk in obedience and come to you in prayer. This is what these people did and even though they doubted, God heard their cries and gave them what they asked for - not because they begged but because God knew that this was best.
Certainly, God is sovereign. He can and will do what he wants. Even Jesus didn’t get his request in the garden and had to drink the cup of the crucifixion. When we are told no by God, we assume he didn’t hear us and that it must be our fault. Nothing is farther from the truth. God is not constrained by your faith or lack there of. I know I’ve shared this before, but it’s like the ridiculous pictures on Facebook where it says, “God will heal little Mikey if we can get 1,000 likes to this post. Like it and help Mikey!” Like God is sitting in heaven, on his throne saying, “C’mon, just 24 more likes and I can do my thing!” God is not constrained or dependent upon what you or I do to accomplish what He wants to accomplish in the world. We don’t pray to get God to do something. We pray to say to God that He is the only one who can.
Now, it might seem odd to you and I that Peter’s disappearance is a problem for Herod that might drive him to God. What I need you to do is to, for a moment, forget that it is Peter that is missing and that his disappearance is the will of God. Herod is simply the appointed ruler and a prisoner he had arrested was missing. He looked, but couldn’t find him. Hence, there appears to be a problem that Herod couldn’t fix. How did he respond? I would contend that he responded like most of us respond - he didn’t go to his knees in prayer and attempted to come up with a solution all on his own. In how he handled the situation, we see through King Herod’s behavior his belief that he had no need for God.
What are you carrying around with you that you haven’t given up to God in prayer? What have you stopped praying for because you assume that God has said no? Don’t let doubt keep you from being obedient. Pray. Pray earnestly. Pray fervently. Don’t give up praying. Because prayer isn’t about asking God to do something because he is subservient to you but instead prayer is asking God to do something that only God can do. And because of that, while we should pray anticipating an answers, the doubts that creep in as we pray should never keep us actually praying. Instead, it should drive us to pray all the more.
Luke does an interesting thing in chapter 12. He begins by telling us that Herod is

Conclusion

Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, when we neglect prayer, we are functionally just like Herod. We are arrogant because we believe that we are the source of getting something done. We are arrogant because we believe that God won’t act. We are arrogant because we believe God has or will get it wrong for us. And so, we say

Conclusion

A handful of years ago, I was set to go to the Middle East on a short term trip. It was shortly after the Arab Spring uprisings in many countries and there was a sense of uncertainty and apprehension about the trip for many people - but I wasn’t one of them. As we got closer and closer to the trip, things looked more and more like we wouldn’t be able to go. Finally, about a week before we were supposed to leave, we couldn’t get the appropriate paperwork approved to go into the country and as such, our trip was cancelled. To this day, I have not been back to the country or seen the people - both of which I love very much.
I remember leading up to the cut off date praying, earnestly, fervently and without ceasing. And when God said no to my prayer, I became angry. Angry at the people stirring trouble in the country. Angry at governments who get in the way of taking the gospel where it needs to go. Angry at Christians who would say “this is for the best”. There are people dying there who don’t know Jesus and we need to go and share with them because they need to hear about Jesus too. It wasn’t fair, it was contrary to the gospel and I was just livid about it. I was not happy that God said “no” to our trip.
I remember, in my anger, saying, “But God! I prayed! I asked! I had faith! I did all the right things! And this isn’t like I asked you for a pony! This is a good thing! The gospel going out among the lost is a good thing!” I couldn’t fathom why God would tell me, and the rest of our team, no. It just didn’t make any sense. And this is the point in the illustration where you expect me to say “Oh, but I’ve grown and I’ve matured and now I know why God said no.” But I can’t. While I’m not angry about not going, I remain to this day very disappointed that we couldn’t go. But what I have learned is this - I didn’t pray to convince God to let us go. I needed to pray because He was the only one who could fix it. He alone is sovereign. , and really all of Acts, has a running theme of the supremacy of the sovereignty of God. I thought I knew what was best and because of that, i thought I needed to get what I wanted. But God knows more, and, I trust that one day I will say, “Wow, yeah, I would have done the very same thing that you did, Lord - now that I know what you know.”
And this is the lesson for us in our text today - God is not dependent upon us asking to accomplish his will in the world. But rather than conclude that we don’t need to pray, we should understand what the purpose and meaning of prayer really is. Prayer is a constant reminder that we are not nearly as smart, clever or powerful as we think we are and because of this, we should entrust ourselves, by faith, to the God who is far stronger and wiser than we could ever hope to be. This is the God that is described in the Bible and prayer is a consistent declaration of dependence upon Him. Will you make that declaration today?
But what I have learned is this - I didn’t pray to convince God to let us go. I needed to pray because He was the only one who could fix it. He alone is sovereign. , and really all of Acts, has a running theme of the supremacy of the sovereignty of God. I thought I knew what was best and because of that, i thought I needed to get what I wanted. But God knows more, and, I trust that one day I will say, “Wow, yeah, I would have done the very same thing that you did, Lord - now that I know what you know.”
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