Sunday March 10th
Often times you hear stories about the power of prayer. People want to know, “Does prayer work?”
For example, I heard a story about a golfer who was in his eighties, who had a lifelong ambition to play this one particular hole at the Pebble Beach golf course in California. He had seen the professional golfers on TV drive the ball out over this vast expanse of water onto a small green that is on a spit of land that juts out off the coast.
The problem was that teeing off over a water hazard was something he had tried hundreds of times before without any success. His ball always fell short into the water. Because of this he never used a new ball on this kind of hole. He always picked out one that had a cut or a nick, since it would end up being lost.
Finally he went to Pebble Beach to try the famous course. When he came to the famous water hole he teed up an old, nicked up ball and said a silent prayer, “God, just help me to clear the water and make it onto the green.” Before he hit his tee shot, a powerful voice from above said, “WAIT… REPLACE THAT OLD BALL WITH A BRAND NEW BALL.”
He excitedly put a new ball onto the tee, convinced that the Lord was telling him that he was finally going to achieve his lifelong ambition.
As he stepped up to the tee again, the voice came down and said, “WAIT…STEP BACK… TAKE A PRACTICE SWING.” So he stepped back and took a strong practice swing.
The voice boomed out again, “LET ME SEE ANOTHER PRACTICE SWING.” He swung again.
Then the voice spoke out again. “PUT BACK THE OLD BALL.”
In the 12th chapter of Acts we see examples of powerful answered prayer, and we see that powerful answers sometimes surprise those who are praying. Let’s start with verses 1-4
1Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them.
2And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.
3When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread.
4When he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people.
The Herod mentioned here is Herod Agrippa the first. He was the Grandson of Herod the Great, who had been the king when Jesus was born, the one who had all of the male babies in Bethlehem killed. The James that he has put to death is the Apostle James, one of the sons of Zebedee. And now Herod is planning to kill Peter as well, after Passover.
But notice how the Jerusalem believers didn’t PANIC in the face of this growing persecution, they PRAYED!
5So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.
Here’s what one author says about the impact of prayer: “The first thing that happens when the church prays is that God hears. This is the heart of Biblical faith. Prayer is not about us but about a God who hears. Prayer works because God has promised to hear. God is a willing participant in our prayer. Prayer is not overcoming the reluctance of God. It is not persuading him to do something that he is unwilling to do.
It is enforcing His will upon the earth. If there is any reluctance to prayer, it is on our part, not God’s.”
So these believers weren’t begging God to set Peter free, they were declaring that he already WAS set free by the power of Jesus’ name! (verses 6-11)
6On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison.
7And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter's side and woke him up, saying, "Get up quickly" And his chains fell off his hands.
8And the angel said to him, "Gird yourself and put on your sandals." And he did so. And he said to him, "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me."
9And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.
10When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.
11When Peter came to himself, he said, "Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."
One commentary says, “Our churches today have many advantages over the first century church. We have more money, more buildings, and a freer government. We have padded chairs, air conditioning, sound systems, guitars and drums. But that first century church knew how to pray, when to pray, and what to pray for. They believed that prayer was a power that overruled all other powers!”
The funny thing is that even though these believers knew the power of prayer, they were actually surprised by how well it worked! Even Peter, who surely knew that they were praying for him, thinks he’s having a dream or a vision when the angel comes to set him free! And then he goes directly to where the prayer meeting is being held, and THEY have a hard time believing that their prayers have been answered so quickly and so completely: (verses 12-15)
12And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.
13When he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer.
14When she recognized Peter's voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate.
15They said to her, "You are out of your mind!" But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, "It is his angel."
I heard a story about a sleazy nightclub that was set to open on Main Street in a small town. Upon hearing the news, the local church in that town organized an all-night prayer meeting. The members of the church prayed passionately and asked God to stop the nightclub from opening. Within a few minutes of their prayer, lightning struck the nightclub, and it burned to the ground.
The club owner found out about the prayer meeting, and sued the church for destroying his property, but the church members denied any responsibility for the destruction of the club.
After hearing both sides of the case, the judge said, “Let me get this straight. It seems to me that what you’re saying is that this nightclub owner believes in the power of prayer, but the church doesn’t.”
So the believers at John Mark’s house were fervently praying for Peter’s release, but when he actually shows up they say, “No way! It can’t be him! It’s probably some sort of angel letting us know that our prayers are being heard.” Meanwhile Peter is left standing out in the cold! But verses 16 and 17 tell us:
16But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed.
17But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison And he said, "Report these things to James and the brethren." Then he left and went to another place.
Sir Isaac Newton said that he could take his telescope and look millions and millions of miles into space. Then he added, "But when I lay it aside, go into my room, shut the door, and get down on my knees in earnest prayer, I see more of Heaven and feel closer to the Lord than if I were assisted by all the telescopes on earth."
It’s an amazing truth-----God listens to our prayers, and then He responds! That’s the promise of 1 John 5:14-15, "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
And if we know that he hears us--whatever we ask--we know that we have what we asked of him."
And when God answers the prayers of the faithful, the whole world stands up and takes notice.
The answer to the prayers for Peter’s release definitely turned Herod’s world upside-down.
Look at verses 18 and 19:
18Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter.
19When Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.
So Herod, who lost out on his attempts to gain popularity by killing off the leaders of the Christians, kills the guards who let Peter escape, then heads off to Caesarea, and has even bigger problems there!
20Now (Herod) was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and with one accord they came to him, and having won over Blastus the king's chamberlain, they were asking for peace, because their country was fed by the king's country.
21On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them.
22The people kept crying out, "The voice of a god and not of a man!"
23And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.
That’s another thing that happens when the church prays: Our opponents are defeated. Herod the great opponent of the church meets his fate right after the church had been praying. His nasty fate was a direct result of his arrogance. We don’t know what the church prayed. They might have prayed for Herod’s removal. They might have asked God to reveal his power to Herod. They surely would have asked God to bring an end to all of the mighty powers that were aligned against the church. Little did Herod know what he was dealing with when he took on a praying church! And because he was now gone, the church kept on growing (verses 24-25)
24But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.
25And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.
C.H. Spurgeon once said, "Prayer pulls the rope down below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly; others give only an occasional jerk at the rope. But he who communicates with heaven is the man who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might."
That’s why Paul wrote in Colossians 4:2-4:
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should”
That’s what we’re called to do as Christians; we’re supposed to devote ourselves to prayer! But sometimes, honestly, we don’t spend much time in prayer. I think that one reason why is that many of us have been disappointed by prayers from the past that didn’t seem to have been heard or answered. There’s something about that that’s significant in this crisis that the early church faced. James had been killed and Peter was arrested.
In all likelihood in their minds, Peter was about to face the same fate that James had. Now the church starts praying for Peter. No doubt they had prayed for James, too. And he had died. So they knew that not all prayers are answered in the way that we desire. But that’s God’s decision, not ours.
So they prayed for Peter anyway, despite what had happened to James. When we pray we don’t know that we are going to get what we ask for, in the exact way that we are expecting the answer to come. We pray knowing that the right answers will come from the very hand of God, even though the answers are not always what we are looking for; even though we know that it might sometimes feel like we didn’t get an answer at all.
The book of Acts is built around the power of God. And the power of God flows from the prayers of his people. Look at some of these examples of the praying church from throughout the book of Acts:
(Acts 1:24 NIV) Then they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen.”
(Acts 2:42 NIV) They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
(Acts 3:1 NIV) One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer--at three in the afternoon.
(Acts 4:24 NIV) When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.
(Acts 4:31 NIV) After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
(Acts 6:6 NIV) They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
(Acts 8:15 NIV) When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
(Acts 9:11 NIV) The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.
(Acts 9:40 NIV) Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, "Tabitha, get up" She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.
(Acts 10:2 NIV) He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
(Acts 10:4 NIV) Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked. The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.
(Acts 10:9 NIV) About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
(Acts 13:3 NIV) So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
(Acts 14:23 NIV) Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
(Acts 16:13 NIV) On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.
(Acts 16:25 NIV) About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
(Acts 20:36 NIV) When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed.
(Acts 21:5 NIV) But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.
(Acts 22:17 NIV) "When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance
(Acts 26:29 NIV) Paul replied, "Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains."
(Acts 27:29 NIV) Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight.
(Acts 28:8 NIV) His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.
Those are just a few examples of the early church in prayer! That was their regular habit. And in case you were wondering, yes it’s true, we’re supposing to be continuing what they started!
Maybe you’re not sure how to pray. Maybe you’ve been discouraged because you feel as though some of your prayers weren’t answered. But prayer is as essential to our spiritual life as breathing is to our physical life.
And if you aren’t sure what to pray, then start with the simplest of prayers, “God help me.”