When the Church Prays
We are picking back up in the book of Acts this morning, so turn over to Acts 12.
If you have been with us, you may notice that we are jumping over chapter 11. I mentioned last week that we may take a break from Acts, and we likely will after this morning’s message. Chapter 11 has some recapping of what we talked about last week and then a few short segments that set the stage for the future, so we are going to jump over them for now.
As you are turning, though, I want to ask you a question: how big are your prayers?
I am not asking how long are your prayers, because Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 6 that length doesn’t necessarily make prayer better.
I’m also not asking how fancy or how eloquent are your prayers, because again, Jesus makes it clear that we don’t impress God with big, churchy words.
How big do you pray? In other words, when you pray, do you pray for God to move in ways that seem unlikely and even impossible?
Do you ever pray that God would move in ways that would scare you?
What about us as a church? How are we praying together for what God wants to do in and through us? Are we going to be content with the status quo, or are we asking God to do even more than we could dream?
Here’s what I want to challenge you with this morning: As a church, we need to pray beyond what we believe.
Now, I know many of you are looking at me all spiritual and saying to yourself, “What is he talking about? I have been going to church my whole life. I believe all the right things, so how can I possibly pray beyond what I believe? I know God is all powerful, so he can do whatever I ask.”
You are exactly right! But let’s get brutally honest here: when it comes down to prayer, there are many times when we are too scared to ask God to do what we really want him to do.
We are like the father who brought his son to Jesus to be healed. He tipped his hand when he asked Jesus to heal him, though, because he asked Jesus to heal him if he could.
The exchange that follows is absolutely beautiful:
Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’? Everything is possible for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”
I love the dad’s honesty. Here is a man who was asking God to do something that he wasn’t completely sure Jesus could or would do, so he is praying bigger than his belief.
We are the same way.
Sure, we know in our head that God can do this or that, but what if he doesn’t?
In our fear of disappointment, we limit ourselves to vague prayers that we can spin almost any circumstance to make it seem like God answered them.
We pray, “God bless my family today.” Great! How will you know that God has answered that request?
What about the prayers you pray for our church? Are you praying boldly and specifically, or are you just throwing up a general request?
Those prayers aren’t wrong in themselves, but I am afraid we so often default to them because we are scared to pray for specific, massive things in case God doesn’t answer how we want Him to answer.
It’s like the TV psychic who always keeps her predictions so vague that they could apply to anyone. She can’t be wrong because she doesn’t say anything!
As we look at God’s Word together this morning, I want to challenge us as a church to pray in such a way that it scares us, where we are asking God to do things you wonder if he will, or maybe if he can.
Let the scope of what you are asking God to do go beyond what you could even dare to believe possible.
You see, that’s what the church did here in Acts 12, so let’s read it together.
After we read it, we are going to talk through the story and draw out some observations about what can happen if we honor God by praying prayers that are bigger than what we even believe could happen.
Pick up in verse 1-19.
If you lost track of what was going on, don’t worry about it, because we are going to walk through this story piece by piece.
As we do, though, we are going to make three observations about what God can do as we pray for him to do more than we even believe.
If you and I are going to pray bigger than we believe, then we must…
1) Pray for God to do the unlikely.
1) Pray for God to do the unlikely.
The church is praying for Peter to be delivered, but can we acknowledge that this seemed unlikely?
Go back to verses 1-2.
The church was under attack.
This Herod is the grandson of the one in Matthew who ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem to be killed.
The Romans weren’t super fond of this guy, so he always had to make sure that the Jews he was leading were happy with him.
Apparently, they were getting annoyed with this growing group of Christians in Jerusalem, so when Herod arrested and executed one of the apostles, it went over really, really well with the people.
Once Herod realized the Jews liked him killing off Christian leaders, he pulls out all the stops and arrests one of their main leaders, Peter.
He times it all around the Passover feast so as many people as possible would be able to see how great he was.
Peter is put under Roman guard, with different groups of 4 guards each rotating through. One was chained on each side of Peter and two were stationed just outside the door.
This is a terrible spot to be in. An insecure, murderous king from a long line of murderers is ready to make a public spectacle of you by having you tried and executed.
This is where it gets good…Can you feel the tension?
Do you see God setting the stage for his incredible power?
Can we be real for a minute, though? I would have had a hard time praying for Peter to be delivered.
Why? Because God didn’t deliver James.
We don’t know how long the church was aware of what was going on and could pray for James, but I am sure they prayed as hard as they could for him, and what happened?
Herod had him killed.
If I was a part of that group, then a part of me would feel like it was useless to pray for Peter.
I mean, after all, what’s the point? God didn’t deliver James, so why ask him to deliver Peter?
In the minds of some of us, it would be a waste of time to pray about it because it was so unlikely that God would answer us.
Is that how you approach God when you pray?
Maybe the reason you pray such safe prayers is because God answered your prayer differently in the past than you would have expected, so why should you bother now?
You were disappointed by God’s answer in the past, so you won’t ask him to do it again.
Can I challenge you to honor God by praying prayers you aren’t sure he will answer?
We need to pray this way in our own lives and our homes, and we desperately need to pray bigger than we believe in our churches.
The church in Jerusalem prayed for God to deliver James, and that “didn’t work”, yet they prayed fervently for God to deliver Peter.
It may seem unlikely because God hasn’t worked that way in the past, but why not pray for God to do it now?
Isn’t that what we were talking about last week? One way we pray for the unlikely is by praying for people to be saved who seem so far from God that they would never turn to him.
We did that Wednesday night during our prayer meeting, as some of our church members prayed for God to save our enemies, including folks like the Taliban who are actively persecuting Christians right now.
Did you spend any time praying for God to work in “those people” like we talked about last week?
What other prayers have you given up on? Are there God-honoring prayers for your spouse or your children or your community that you have given up on because God hasn’t answered them like you would want?
Let’s be clear here, though: this doesn’t mean we should pray for things that go against his Word.
For example, if your marriage is in a tough spot, don’t pray for God to give you a way out of it so you can be happy again. That isn’t in line with what he says about marriage, so don’t pray that way.
What I am talking about here is pleading with God to move in a way that you are confident doesn’t conflict with what he says, but is something he may not answer in the way or time that you want.
When you pray this way, you are honoring him by acknowledging that he is in charge and can do more than you could imagine.
John Piper says,
“God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” (John Piper)
When we pray together for things that seem unlikely, we are giving God the glory that He may be moving this time in a different way than He was the last time we prayed for something similar.
The church didn’t give up and stop praying. Instead, they redoubled their efforts and prayed even harder.
Read verse 5 with me again…
I love the way this version puts it. The stage is set: Peter is in prison, but the church is praying.
Okay, so maybe we should throw in something every once in a while that seems like it would be God-honoring, even if we aren’t sure he is going to do it.
Is that how they were praying? Look back at verse 5.
They aren’t just praying: they are praying fervently.
Okay, so they were praying hard. Got it.
Don’t move on so quickly.
The word here comes from a Greek medical term that was used of a muscle that was stretched to its limit.
This particular form only occurs three times in the New Testament, and it is only used one other time in reference to prayer.
Want to know when?
The night before Jesus was to be hung on the cross to die for your sins and my sins and the sins of the entire world, he pleaded with God the Father to let the cup pass from Him three different times.
Here’s how Luke described that time of prayer:
Being in anguish, he prayed more fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.
The Son of God, as he is preparing to bear the weight of the sins of the world, prayed fervently.
Back to Acts 12, the church isn’t praying half-heartedly, throwing up a half-court shot and hoping it goes in.
They are undaunted by the fact that it may have seemed unlikely that God would have delivered Peter.
They prayed bigger than they believed, knowing that God could do it.
However, as we get into their reaction a little further, we see that not only should we pray for things that seem unlikely, we should also…
2) Pray for God to do the impossible.
2) Pray for God to do the impossible.
There was absolutely no way Peter was going to get out of prison.
He was surrounded by four Roman guards who would have traded out in 3 hour shifts overnight to make sure they stayed alert.
He had already been in prison for four days, and the murderous maniac Herod was ready to make a show of it.
There was no possible way that Peter was getting out of jail.
Yet, the church prayed fervently, and God moved to do the impossible.
Picking back up in verse 7, we see an angel waking Peter up from a dead sleep, causing the chains to fall off, and leading him out past the guards.
It’s hilarious to see that the angel has to walk Peter through every step of his escape as if Peter was a groggy toddler.
Ever had to get your kids ready right after they wake up? They are falling over into things, and you are saying, “Okay honey, put on your shoes. Grab a jacket. Open your eyes and don’t bump into things.”
The great and powerful apostle Peter is getting told the same things.
Once the angel leads him a safe distance away from the prison, he leaves.
At that point, Peter finally figures out that all this was really happening and wasn’t just a dream.
I love the way one commentator put it:
“Obviously, this was not Peter’s escape. It was rather his deliverance. Peter was totally passive throughout the entire incident.” (John B. Polhill)
He runs to one of the houses where the church would have met.
Back to the text.
We are down to verse 13 now.
He gets to the house and starts knocking.
The servant girl hears Peter’s voice and recognizes it and gets so excited that she leaves him out in the street!
Can you imagine how frustrating that would have been for Peter? You are a fugitive, and she just left you exposed in the street where you have to keep knocking, which could wake up the neighbors!
Although animals make noise all night long, there wouldn’t be any traffic to cover up what was going on here.
Notice something interesting about their response when Peter shows up?
Yes, the church was praying fervently. Yes, they knew God was capable of delivering Peter.
Yet in their reaction, you clearly see that they didn’t believe that it was possible for God to do it.
Look at verse 15.
First, they think the servant is crazy. Once she finally convinces them she isn’t, they think it must be Peter’s angel.
See, these believers still had a lot to learn, and they would have held onto some of their Jewish superstition.
Jews taught that everyone had a guardian angel, and some believed that immediately after someone died, their angel could take their form and appear for a short period of time. (Polhill)
When God answered their prayer, the super-spiritual church of Jerusalem thought that either the servant girl was crazy or that Peter had been killed overnight.
Here’s what’s funny about this, though: God had already delivered the apostles from the Sanhedrin in almost the same way some time before. Acts 5:19 says that an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison overnight.
They should have known that what seemed completely impossible to them was fully within the realm of what God could and even had done!
Yet, like us, they doubted what God was going to do.
Does that surprise you, or does that feel about right?
If you have walked with Jesus for any length of time, then you know that he can do the impossible.
Why not pray for him to do it?
Go back to a verse we talked about a few weeks back:
Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us— to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
He reminded you that we are praying for God to receive the glory, but where does he get that glory?
Yes, God receives glory through our individual lives as we trust him to do the unlikely and the impossible, but even more than that, we glorify him to the fullest extent when we gather with other Christians and together agonize in prayer for God to allow us to show his love to our families, church, community, and world in specific, scary ways.
We glorify God when the church rallies around people struggling with addiction and depression when it all seems hopeless and together, we pray for God to do what we think he can’t or, deep down, wonder if he is even able to do.
We need to pray bigger than we believe: pray that he would restore that marriage, bring back that child who has walked away from the faith, heal the sick, eradicate poverty and racial injustice, and so many more things.
Maybe you are still not convinced that God can or will answer your prayer or come through in the life of this church.
May I remind you that he has already answered the greatest request you could ask of him?
God has already provided for your greatest need.
Spiritually, you were dead and separated from God and without hope.
Yet the God who delivered Peter loved you so much that he would die in your place to draw you back to himself.
He was raised from the dead as proof that he had defeated death and sin and could now offer you his life in place of your death.
You can trust that the God who could do that can also rescue you.
That’s why J.D. Greear, in his book entitled Gospel: Rediscovering the Power that Made Christianity Great, says this in prayer:
“When I pray, I will measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.” (J.D. Greear)
The cross shows us that God loves us more than we could ever imagine, and the resurrection proves that he is capable of doing anything and everything we could possibly need him to do.
God can do more than we imagine or truly believe. The depths of his compassion are clearly displayed on the cross, and his power to do the impossible is settled by the resurrection.
Let’s make one more quick observation about another way we should pray as a church:
3) Pray for God to work it all out.
3) Pray for God to work it all out.
Remember Herod, who wanted to be a big shot, so he killed James?
It seems like he got away with it, doesn’t it?
Why would God let a man like that get away with killing any believer, much less a special servant like James?
Short answer? He didn’t.
Herod did have a season of prosperity, but when he refused to acknowledge God as the one in charge, God struck him with an illness and he died.
As we pray for what seems unlikely or even impossible, never lose sight of the fact that God is the one who knows the endgame.
Remember how we said he is doing 10,000 things in your life at any time? That means he is so far ahead of you in planning that it would make your head spin.
Here’s how he said this to his people back in Isaiah’s day:
Isaiah 46:9–10 (CSB)
Remember what happened long ago, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and no one is like me.
I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: my plan will take place, and I will do all my will.
Do you pray like this? Do you pray that God will accomplish his will in his timing?
When the church starts praying for God to do things that are unlikely, even impossible, trusting him to work everything out in the end, there is no telling what God will do.
 https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/god-is-always-doing-10000-things-in-your-life. Accessed 25 March 2019.
 Polhill, John B. Acts. Vol. 26. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.
 From his book Gospel: Rediscovering the Power that Made Christianity Great.