Acts 11:19-12:19a (AD 44)
Notice, first, that God – as usual – brought good out of bad. There was a persecution that forced many believers to flee. They went to Phoenicia (to the north-west of Israel), Cyprus (across the sea to the west) and Antioch (to the north of Israel). When they got there they didn’t just hunker down, but got busy spreading the gospel. Verse 21 tells us that “God’s hand was with” those persecuted people, making their evangelistic efforts very successful, with “a great number of people [who] believed and turned to the Lord”.
God’s hand of support never left them. He was with them closer than ever when they were persecuted for his sake, and it’s no surprise that those who suffered for him, were chosen to bring in a harvest of newly saved souls. What better encouragement in the work of the gospel, than to know the gospel is really working?
Barnabas, sent by the Jerusalem church to check out these great reports, affirmed the immense work of God, and joined in the much-rewarded effort. Not only that, but he saw the great need for effective discipleship for all these new believers, and brought in Paul the Apostle to help him. Paul wasn’t a pastor, but he was no mere oratorical evangelist. He taught Christians for years, and his letters were largely pastoral in nature.
King Herod the Great had Jesus put to death. His grandson, King Herod Agrippa I, executed John’s brother James and arrested Peter. He had gained his position through currying favour with the Emperor, and was hoping for a an easy life by doing whatever the influential Jews liked. And the influential Jews like persecuting Christians, so he did that. It was the same scenario that led to Jesus’ death, when Pontius Pilate was bullied by the religious leaders into executing Jesus, even though he plainly saw Jesus’ innocence.
Notice also the deliberate use of the word ‘but’ in 12:5 – “…Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying for him”. The Greek word translated ‘but’, is δέ (‘de’). It can be either adversarial or continuative, and in context can only be adversarial. That is, the praying of the church was in opposition to, not a continuation of, the fact that Peter was in prison.
I just love the implication of but they were praying earnestly.
They didn’t just hope.
They didn’t merely ask God once.
They were ‘earnest’ in their praying. They spoke to God “with sincere and intense conviction[i]” (OED).
Luke’s implication was that the strength of the prison walls and guards was subject to the power unleashed in response to the prayers of God’s people. What kept Peter in prison was powerful. What helped him escape was simply more powerful.
What should that mean for how we pray?
Can we tell God which Christian prisoners of conscience he must miraculously release? Of course not. But there are many persecuted Christians and many imprisoned Christians. Let’s be earnest in our prayers for those brothers and sisters, taking their plight to the throne of Almighty God, protector of His people. And let’s take those prayers to God in the spirit of ‘but they prayed’.
God’s enemies have their plans. But you and I will pray.
[i] Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University Press 2010, 2017, 2019, 2020 (MSDict Viewer Version 12.5.193)