Acts 12:1-24 | "Power in Persevering Prayer"

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Perilous times call for persevering prayer.

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Public Reading of Scripture

Acts 12:1–5 ESV
1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

Introduction to Theme

Perilous times call for persevering prayer.
Peter is languishing in prison. By some accounts he could have been there five to six days. He is heavily guarded. His only crime is being associated with the church of Jesus Christ. There is no known way of escaping this predicament. Peter’s doom is certain if Herod has his way, for he will bring Peter out in due time after the feast, to be put on a public trial and to be executed after the Passover.
James, a son of Zebedee, the brother of John, whom Jesus called “Sons of Thunder,” a man who was appointed by Jesus as one of the twelve has already been killed by the sword (which indicates he was likely beheaded).
Peter is next in line in the sights of a man named Herod.
Notice this text begins by mentioning the actions of Herod. This is Herod Agrippa the first. He enters the book of Acts in Chapter 12, and he exits the book of Acts in Chapter 12. This is his moment to shine, and he shines as an agent of oppression and violent persecution against the church of Jesus Christ.
Herod Agrippa is the grandson of Herod the Great who was the king of the Jews at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod Agrippa’s grandfather was the one responsible for killing all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under at the news of the birth of Jesus by the wise men who had seen His star (Matthew 2:1-17).
Herod Agrippa is the nephew of Herod Antipas who was the tetrarch of Galilee during the reign of Tiberius Ceasar at the time of Jesus’ ministry (Bruce, F. F. Acts: Bible Study Commentary. Nashville, TN; Bath, England: Kingsley Books, 2017.).
It was that Herod Antipas who did many evil things, including locking up John the Baptist in prison and having him beheaded.
So here is King Herod Agrippa, joining his family in the work of persecuting those associated with Jesus, the King of the Jews. And Herod Agrippa became very powerful, with a kingdom nearly as great as his grandfather’s — so he had the power to put the apostles and disciples in much danger.
Herod Agrippa was very popular with the people. He supported the Pharisees and attended the temple often. He grew up in Rome and was friends to two men who would become emperors (Gaius / Caligula and Claudius) (Garland, David E. Acts. Edited by Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton. Teach the Text Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017.)
He was trusted by the Romans, and had his own army. Unlike times before and after him, King Herod had the ability to order capital punishment. So he has James executed.
Luke does not tell us why Herod killed James, or why he laid hands on some who belonged to the church to harm them. But verse 3 says:
Acts 12:3 ESV
3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread.
Herod was a people-pleaser. A master politician in this way.
This is a temptation for anyone who is placed in a position of leadership or authority, to make decisions to please the masses. But those who lead in this way ultimately never serve the people well.
King Herod was most concerned with one person — himself. He enters the book of Acts pleasing people, and he exits pleasing people, because God strikes him dead because he fails to give God glory.
Herod attacks the followers of Jesus thinking he is fighting against humans. What he does not realize is that he is ultimately fighting against God (Garland, David E. Acts. Edited by Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton. Teach the Text Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017.).
And so while he lays violent hands on some in the church, while Peter is locked up in prison, the church recognizes that this battle is not “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12).
The church joins the battle on the battlefield of prayer.
Acts 12:5 ESV
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
This prayer fo the church is not described as routine prayer (if prayer can be called that). This prayer by the church is described as “earnest” prayer.
Earnest prayer is persevering prayer (BDAG).
It’s the kind of prayer that doesn’t give up on praying for Peter when they might have been tempted to give up praying for him after seeing what happened to James!
Earnest prayer is praying through agony.
This is the same type of prayer that Jesus prayed when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion when Luke 22:44:
Luke 22:44 ESV
44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
I know some of you are praying through agony. Some of you know what it means to persevere in prayer for a long time in dire circumstances. Don’t stop praying!
Earnest prayer is praying with others.
Verse 5 tells us that this prayer was being made “to God by the church.”
Earnest prayer gathers others to join in carrying that burden with you.
When Jesus was praying earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane,
Luke 22:45–46 ESV
45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
It is a persevering prayer. The church, gathered together, earnestly prays for Peter in the midst of this violent oppression and attack by King Herod.
This is why when we gather together on Wednesdays as a church, or Tuesdays mornings with the men to pray, there is power in praying together for needs that especially burden us. But this prayer meeting in the Scripture was not a pre-scheduled meeting. It is a meeting to pray as a direct response to persecution against the church.
Luke tells us that Peter was in prison sleeping.
Was he sleeping for sorrow?
Or did he have a peace from God that sustained him because the church was praying?
Or did he have a peace believing God’s will will be done regardless of what happens? Because Peter already has experienced God miraculously delivering him from prison once before in Acts 5:19 when the angel of the Lord appeared during the night and opened the doors and brought them out? Been there — done that! A prison is no barrier that is of concern to the Lord!
But will God rescue him from prison again?
Acts 12:6–10 ESV
6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him.
Many of us are eager to see miracles. We want to witness the mighty works of God! We pray for God to work a miracle!
But don’t forget that miracles are graces in the midst of pain.
God miraculously rescued Peter, but he rescued him from a hopeless situation. If we want to see a miracle, are we willing to endure the pain that it requires?
To see the miracle of resurrection, means that first there is death. To see the miracle of healing means that first there is sickness. To see the miracle of deliverance means that first there is a prison.
The Gospel of Jesus reminds us that before the miracle of salvation and new life, there is first sin and death. Before the empty tomb, there was first a cross.
But God works miracles! May God give us the perspective to look at the worst situations as potential miracles.
Peter is sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains and two guards were placed before the door. The only way of translating this scene is to say humanly speaking, escape for Peter was impossible.
And at the last minute, the text says “when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night” God showed up in the form of an angel of the Lord.
Peter was not rescued the night of his arrest. He was rescued the night before he was about to be brought out and put on trial.
Some suggest Peter was in prison for 5-6 days. Yet it was the night before that he was delivered.
Praying earnestly means persevering until the last minute. Never giving up. This was not a one-night prayer session, but this prayer of the church would have lasted for several days! (Marshall, I. Howard. Acts: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 5. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.)
What things are you praying for that you’ve about given up on? Don’t give up! Miracles don’t happen early.
It may be that God forced Peter to stay in prison so that he might get some sleep! He had nowhere else to go, nothing that he could do, but rest and prepare for what was next.
The angel strikes Peter to wake him up, turns on a heavenly night light in the cell, and the chains fall off Peter’s hands. Peter gets dressed, and follows the angel out — passing the two guards by the door.
God doesn’t have to eliminate the guards to get Peter past them.
God does not have to eliminate what is keeping you in prison in order to deliver you from it! God is able to deliver in ways beyond what we can imagine! Don’t limit God! God can make iron gates open of their own accord, and the iron gate of the city did just that!
That word is “αὐτόματος” , as in “automatically.” There is no visible cause for that door opening (BDAG).
Be it chains falling off, or a large iron gate of the city opening on its own, even these inanimate objects yield up their purpose when in the presence of the Lord. Even these inanimate objects recognize that they can not stand in the way of God!
In all of this, Peter does not know what was happening is real. He thinks he is seeing a vision. But the angel departs, and verse 11:
Acts 12:11 ESV
11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
Only after Peter is delivered, does he realize that the Lord has in fact delivered him.
Think back to Luke 17 when Jesus healed 10 lepers. It was only after they were going to show themselves to the priest that they realized that they had been healed!
As we think about what it means to pray earnestly, realize that God may have answered a prayer before you realize it yourself! Maybe it is a prayer that you are not praying, but maybe God is answering a prayer others are praying for you!
Last Wednesday I shared about the life of Lottie Moon. She was resistant to the Lord. She didn’t like the Bible but she read it so that she could use it against those who believed it to put their beliefs down. Yet she came to faith in Jesus at a revival service because her friends were praying for her.
It may be that God will do something in you before you realize it, because other people are praying for you!
Likewise, it may be that you are praying for someone that is not praying for themself. Don’t stop, for God may still answer your prayer for them!
Peter is not in prison praying, Peter is in prison sleeping. But the church is praying to God for him. And God delivers Peter before Peter realizes that he has been delivered. Perhaps if Peter was praying too, he would have recognized what God was doing in the moment God was doing it! Prayer gives us eyes that can see the work of God in that way!
Acts 12:12 ESV
12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.
The church in Jerusalem was very large, so meetings were often held in homes. And here the church is gathered together, and what are they doing? Praying.
Acts 12:13–15 ESV
13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!”
The praying church thinks Rhoda is out of her mind…totally irrational. This is a strong expression (NET).
They said “It is his angel!” There was a popular Jewish tradition that said the righteous would become like angels after death (Keener, IVP Background Commentary).
It is very possible that the church praying believes Peter, like James, is dead.
But Peter doesn’t stop knocking.
Acts 12:16–17 ESV
16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place.
This James is a different James than the one that was killed. This James is mentioned now for the first time in Acts. he is a brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3), and is a leader in the Jerusalem church. Peter not only tells the church who had been praying how the Lord had brought him out of prison, but he instructs them to tell everyone else!
When the Lord answers prayer, tell people what the Lord has done!
Prayer must lead to praise!
God does not answer faithless prayers. God does not answer prayers that are offered in doubt.
But could it also be true, that God may not answer our prayers because we have no intention of praising Him when He does?
Prayers of faith are prayers that go ahead and write out the praise that will be offered publically to God when he answers! This is evident in so many of the prayers of the Psalms, which include a “vow of praise: WHEN you answer, God, this is what I will declare in the congregation about who You are and what You have done!
These miracles of God are meant to benefit others! So Peter says tells what the Lord has done, and says “tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Encourage them as Herod is persecuting us, that God is still with us!
Now there is something difficult here that we must address.
God delivers Peter. Why did God not deliver James?
Peter is a witness to a miracle of God. But what about James. James too had been in prison. At an appointed time, men approached his cell, but they were not men of light, or an angel of the Lord. They were executioners coming with a sword to end his life. James waited. Perhaps James prayed with perseverance. But the sword did its work, and God did not intervene, and James died.
Luke does not tell us why God did not spare James. But he does tell us that Peter’s fate was most certainly going to be the same as his. But God used the death of James to highlight the direness of the persecution of the church and to show how miraculous his deliverance was of Peter.
Peter would one day lay down his life for the Lord. Peter would die as James died. But not now.
Faith trusts God when it seems as if God is being unfair. Faith continues to persevere in prayer.
Should we feel bad for James? Because he didn’t escape the prison? NO! Because James did escape the prison, he just escaped in a different way! James escaped the prison as he was ushered into the presence of Jesus in glory.
Faith believes that just as the Lord was present with Peter in the jail cell on the night of his escape, that the Lord was present with James at the moment of his escape too.
Faith joins the voices of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, about to be thrown into a fiery furnace, in saying to the king Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:
Daniel 3:17–18 ESV
17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Earnest prayer pleads for the “what” but leaves the “when, where, why, and how” to God.
We may pray in confidence that God hears our prayers, and answers them! But that does not mean God has to answer them in the way we desire. ( Garland, David E. Acts. Edited by Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton. Teach the Text Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017.)


What began as Herod violently persecuting the church, killing James and arresting Peter because it pleased the Jews, ends with this same Herod being struck down by God.
Acts 12:21–23 ESV
21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.
To not give God glory is to attempt to become God yourself. And God struck him down.
Herod attacks the followers of Jesus thinking he is fighting against humans. But now he realizes that he is ultimately fighting against God.
And Herod exits Acts in the same chapter he enters it having failed to disrupt God’s mission through his church.
The summary sentence of it all is Acts 12:24:
Acts 12:24 ESV
24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
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