The Power Of Prayer
Our text—the Acts of the Apostles, the twelfth chapter and the fifth verse: “Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.”
In this chapter there is an incident which touches right at the very heart of our experience as Christian people. I do trust that this story, which just reaches down to grass roots, may really speak to our hearts today that we may apply it, every one of us, to our own lives.
Here is an insight in this chapter into the great warfare of the Christian life, and it seems to me the key that unlocks the message of the whole thrilling story is the verse that I have chosen as a text. This was the weapon which a group of ordinary people used to turn the scale which in a most dramatic way made light of guards and prisoners, locked doors, prisons, and impossible situations to turn the tables in favor of a hopelessly weak minority. That is what prayer always does. That is what God can do when a man gets to the end of his tether.
I’m just praying as I speak that somehow you’ll find yourself in this picture as I have done as I have lived in this chapter in these past few days.
Think for a moment, in the first place of the persecution of the enemy, because that’s the theme of the first four verses of the chapter. James had been killed. Peter had been put in prison. Why did God intervene on behalf of Peter and not on behalf of James? I don’t know. But that is perfectly incidental and secondary. One of the great messages of this chapter is to teach us that when our work is done, not before, not later, the Lord will call us home. Whether He takes us home by somebody’s chopping our head off, by sickness, or simply by being translated as Enoch was, it doesn’t matter very much. That is incidental.
You may remember that James was among those, and so was Peter of course, who had sought to be the greatest of the disciples. And the Lord had just turned to him and said, “James, can you be baptized with the baptism which I am going to be baptized with?”
James looked into the face of his Master and said, “I can.”
Jesus said, “You will.” Here in the twelfth chapter he was. He went right through with it and that is the end of James in the record.
I suppose James didn’t know why the Lord didn’t intervene to save him either, but I’ll tell you something—five seconds after that flashing sword fell and cut his head off, he knew then, and that must have been glory for him.
But it’s Peter we are most interested in, and here he is. Just look at him. Herod is only waiting till Easter is past to do the same with him. Meanwhile he has been cast into the inmost prison.
You know as I read this passage, somehow with the ears of my soul I hear the echo of one iron gate after another bang behind him until he is flung into the innermost prison. “And Peter was kept in prison.” I should think he was—right inside the innermost prison they could find. Very important prisoner was this, and this one of all others must not be allowed to escape.
What a vivid picture, but friend, how true of our experience. Now don’t get me wrong. Our prison walls perhaps have not been made of granite or of stone. The gates have not been made of iron, but is it not true that prisons of every kind have just had us inside until we’ve been in such a dark dungeon spiritually that we have been completely shut in and baffled. We have not known what God has done to us and why He has done it, or what is happening, but we have been put right inside. Our souls have echoed as it were with the sound of one door after another banging behind us and shutting us right in. Do you know anything about a spiritual experience like that?
What about you, my dear listener, as you lie in that hospital bed? What about you who are sick and whose body is wracked with pain? What about some one else listening to me perhaps in the church auditorium today? God seems to have shut every door in your face and you are just shut right in to yourself and to Him. What about someone who knows something about disappointment and misunderstanding and rebuff—one thing after another. Nobody understands your need and your case, your problem and your situation. God has just bang, bang, bang, one door after another, and you’re right in the inmost prison today. Do you ever feel like that?
Ah, but it may be some are in prisons of a different kind. They are shut in because of their sinfulness and their selfishness, in captivity, just held in bondage, in chains like a vice. Is anybody listening to me a prisoner of circumstances, a prisoner of providence, a prisoner of the Lord as Paul was, a prisoner of the devil? Any prisoners around today?
Well, now what about the power of prayer? You know, it thrills me to think of this. They had closed every door they could, but there was one door they couldn’t shut, and that door led straight up to heaven. “But prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.” The way through to Peter in his prison was very satisfactorily barred—sixteen soldiers, two chains, three gates, Herod’s grim determination to have him out shortly and kill him, the Jews’ expectation of a wonderfully sordid climax to their Passover feast. Oh, yes, I tell you on the horizontal level, beloved, there was no way through to Peter that day in that prison.
Let me carry you with me. There’s no way through to where you are either on the horizontal level, no way of escape, no way out, nobody who can come to help, nobody who understands, nobody who has the answer to your need, nobody who can set you free from those chains. That’s the situation in which you find yourself as far as your future is concerned, and there is just not one way through.
Ah, but you see, there is a way to reach you. “But prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.”
I want you to see the character of the prayer that got this man out, that turned the scale. It was persistent praying. “But prayer was made without ceasing.” It was prevailing praying. It was made “of the church,” not by just one person but the whole church was involved in this. It was made “unto God” like an arrow shot from that prayer meeting up to the very throne unto God. It was personal praying “for him.” That’s the kind of praying that turns the scale.
What could a little handful of Christian people do in a situation like that? What could they do? Well, they could pass resolutions and make a petition to Herod. That would do a lot of good! Oh, they could do all sorts of things. They could raise some money to blow the prison up. But what could they do? I’ll tell you, they were absolutely helpless.
And today there rings in my own soul a consciousness of my own helplessness apart from learning to pray like this. What can we do in Chicago? Just nothing. What can a little group of Christian people do to clean up not only the face of this city but to change its heart? Nothing. What can I do to help somebody here get out of your prison? Nothing. What can I do to get out of my own? Nothing. What can we do when we are in a situation like this, when we are shut in and somehow our soul as it were echoes the sound of the closing of the doors, when something has held us in a situation from which there is no escape? What can you do when you’re the victim of satanic power? What can you do, ultimately to deliver yourself? Absolutely nothing.
But there is one way of approach, only one. It is persistent, prevailing, pointed, personal praying, and it was this which turned the whole scale.
The thing that intrigues me most about this chapter is the plan of deliverance. You see, here God answered prayer, but what thrills me is to watch Him do it. Now I trust you clearly see yourself in this picture somewhere in your prison. I trust that even in the little glimpse we’ve had into it there are some people who echo the sentiment and conviction of my heart that prisoners like this, situations like this, can only be solved by people who realize that the way through is not horizontal but vertical to the throne and then down in personal prayer for the individual need.
But then how does God answer? I want to say three things about God’s plan of deliverance to a soul like this. First of all, it was late. Now that’s using the word in a human sense. God is never late and never early, but the fact of the matter was that this man’s deliverance was delayed to the last moment. Verse six tells us that it was the same night “when Herod would have brought him forth.”
Can you picture the thrill of this in your own heart as I try to recapture it for you? Day after day had passed by and prayer apparently remained unanswered, and the last night had come. Why didn’t God step in and save Peter from that situation sooner? Well, I suggest that it was first of all to teach the disciples a few lessons about prayer. It was to teach Peter a few lessons about trust, and it was to teach you and me some principles of waiting upon God.
How wonderfully they all passed the test. The church kept on praying. They didn’t give in. They held on. I wonder how much blessing you and I miss because at the last moment we have just stopped praying. Have you prayed for many years perhaps for an unconverted friend or loved one? Don’t give up. God’s delays are never God’s denials. The church kept on praying. The thing that is going to see the tide turning in Chicago is as more and more people in this lovely fellowship really get on their knees before the Lord and keep on praying.
Yes, the church passed the test, but you know, I think Peter passed the test too, because we’re told in that same sixth verse, “Peter was…panicking?” No. “Peter was…lying awake with an awful worry about his head coming off in the morning.” No. What was he doing? “Sleeping.” I have a feeling (I shall check on this when I meet him) that he was the only Christian in Jerusalem who slept that night. The rest of them were all praying for him in a night of prayer, and here was the man who in a few hours was to be beheaded, not very comfortable, with his coat off, his shoes and girdle off, chained to soldiers on each side, but he lay down and went fast asleep.
Oh, Peter, I want to watch you asleep for a few moments before I pass on, because I confess I have a lesson to learn from you today. How on Earth did Peter manage to sleep in a situation like that? Well, I think quite simply that he was doing what the Lord Jesus wants you and me to do in our prisons today. He was resting on the promises of God. How was he doing that? Let me read to you a verse—John 21:18. When the risen Lord spoke to His beloved Simon and said to him, “Simon, when thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkest whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, then thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee.”
Do you see it? Peter hadn’t forgotten that. The Lord had only said it to him a few weeks before. In that prison that night Peter reminded himself of that interview. “When thou art old…”
“Now, Lord, you only said that to me a month or so ago. I’m not old now. Herod says he is going to chop my head off tomorrow but how can he do that because you’ve told me that one day I’m going to grow old. He just can’t do it. I don’t know what you’re doing or how You are going to deliver me, but this I know, I’m going to rest on the promises and have a good sleep.”
Oh, dear Christian friend, what a day it would be in your life if you only put the Book right down in your heart and rested on its promises. Perhaps that is why you’re in your prison. Perhaps that is why there is no escape yet, because in that prison the Lord is asking you now just to rest in the Word.
Peter wrote later on when he was old in a letter, “Now let us learn to cast all our cares upon him for he careth for you.” In that paraphrase of Phillips “Letters to Young Churches,” it is translated this way, “You can rest the weight of all your anxieties upon Him, for you are always in his care.”
Now my dear imprisoned soul, just listen to that and go out from this place with your heart light. Leave the burden right here in The Moody Church at the feet of the Lord Jesus. Hurl it at His feet. This is not being extreme or fanatical. It is taking the Word of God for what God intends it to be.
The second thing I want to say, and oh, my, this does thrill me as I look at it—God was very leisurely. Notice how majestically the angel went about delivering Peter. Look at the eighth verse of this chapter. Have you ever seen anything quite so fantastic and quite so wonderful on the human level? “The angel said unto him, Gird thyself (get dressed) and bind on thy sandals (put your shoes on and fasten them up). And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee (put your coat on), and follow me.”
And do you know, there follows the most leisurely, majestic procession out of prison that I have ever heard of in all my life. The two soldiers are still sound asleep. They go through the inner ward, then another ward. The sixteen soldiers are around somewhere, but they go past them. There’s an iron gate, and I’m sure that when Peter set off with his belt fastened and his shoes tied up he thought of that iron gate. He said, “We might get so far but never through that,” but it opened of its own accord as they came up to it, and he was out.
Oh, what the Scripture says is always true, “He that believeth shall not make haste.” And the law of God’s working, my beloved Christian friend, is “ye shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight, for the Lord will go before you.”
You and I are awfully impatient to get out of these prisons. I confess it. If you asked me who the preacher is speaking to I’d have to tell you that I’m only allowing the Spirit to talk to me, and you folks are listening in, because there’s no one in this place as impatient as I am to get a move on, to see things happen and see God work, I tell you, and other folks know I’m like that. I’ve got to learn and you have got to learn what it is to regulate our pace to the slow, steady, majestic movement of God, and God is never in a hurry.
And I want to use another word about this deliverance of Peter, all this of course in answer to prayer. Again it is a word that I must use in a human sense and then explain. It was not only late and leisurely, but it was limited, because in the tenth verse it closes by telling us that “forthwith the angel departed from him.” In other words, as soon as possible, Peter was left to act for himself.
Now, you know, poor Peter couldn’t have gotten through iron gates without a miracle, but he could certainly find his way to Mary’s house without a miracle. Christian, have you and I learned this, that God never does anything for us that we can do for ourselves? Of course, if we understand the principle of the Christian life, all our doing is His working in us, but He expects us to use our brains, our judgment, our reason and our thinking.
Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb. Only God could do a thing like that, but other people could loose him and let him go. Jesus raised up Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Only Christ could do a thing like that, but other folks could give her something to eat.
I’m always impressed in reading my Bible to observe the economy of divine power. It is never wasted. All in life that I cannot do, God will do for me. Nothing in life which I can do will God help me to do.
But, to me, even more fascinating in all this is to find Peter eventually coming to himself and arriving at Mary’s house where there is an all-night prayer meeting going on—for him, of course. You will catch, I hope, the sanctified humor of this situation. “When he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying. And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda. And when she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate. And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel. But Peter continued knocking.”
Now friends, listen to me, and get this, because it is such a lesson for life. That’s what I’m concerned about today. An iron gate had opened of its own accord but a little cottage door remained shut. How extraordinary!
You know, I think of that servant girl who had been attending the all-night prayer meeting. When she heard a knock at the door she left the prayer meeting to open it. Now that is a very good thing to do. She was doing her duty, and you should not be at prayer meeting when you should be doing your duty some place else. Rhoda left the prayer meeting to go to the door. Then she ran with such terrific excitement when she saw it was Peter to tell them that it was he, and they said, “But you’re mad.”
“And,” says the Bible with such tremendous emphasis, “she constantly affirmed that it was so.”
Now I do not know how long all that went on, but here in my mind I see poor old Simon outside that door in imminent danger of being re-arrested because it was daylight by now, any minute being hauled back into prison again, but here he was knocking at this door, while a group of people who had been praying inside excitedly talk and chatter about it. Not one of them had the sense to go to the door and look to see if it really were he. “She constantly affirmed that it was even so.”
And they said, “It can’t be, it’s his ghost, his angel,” and as that dispute went on, poor Peter just kept on knocking, “and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.”
Now don’t let’s rebuke them too harshly, because I must acknowledge that I have prayed like that too, haven’t you?
Let me just put two things to you together here—the divine and the human. How often the Lord has come knocking at the door and you and I have just kept that door shut because we have been disputing and wrangling and discussing and questioning and asking. And he’s gone away. How much of the wealth of God’s grace have we missed simply because we didn’t expect Him to answer really when we prayed. That’s the divine side of it.
But on the human side Peter continued knocking. You know, I’m so glad for this last glimpse of Peter because I think there is more of the true Peter in him right here at this moment than there has ever been in all his life. I see here in that simple little phrase the fulfillment at last of some evidences of Pentecost having really gripped him. “He continued knocking.” Do you mean to tell me that that impetuous hot-headed man would have stood outside and knocked for two minutes if they wouldn’t go to him? He would have been off. But he just stayed patiently knocking. He wasn’t angry with them. He understood perfectly well, no doubt, what they were thinking, and he just went on knocking.
Let me say this to you, dear friends. There have been doors in my heart and life, which I think I can say and I’m sure you could share this with me, that have been like great big iron doors that have swung open so wonderfully in answer to prayer, some of the great crises of life, some great outstanding milestone and experience, and we look back upon it with such full hearts. We thank God He truly intervened and answered in a wonderful way, but there are some little doors that seem to remain tight shut. Somehow you and I have stood knocking at the door of fellowship, friendship and love, and in some places it has been kept shut in our faces.
People perhaps haven’t trusted you, have suspected your motives, and they have kept the door shut. If there are such doors, friend, that are still shut in your life, may I ask you to take Peter’s example and just continue knocking.
As I close, my last word would just be this. I hope you won’t accuse me of spiritualizing this story unduly. I can’t resist it though, because to me the whole thing is such a wonderful symbol of a greater deliverance that is going to be ours one day. An angel of the Lord will knock at your door or come into your prison one morning, he will touch you and your chains will fall off, and with leisurely majestic tread he will take you through a cold iron gate that leads to a city, the streets of which are pure gold. When that angel has taken you there, he will leave you because when you get there your eyes will behold a King, the One who is as the sun shining in his strength. Then you will know that our Lord Jesus has delivered you and brought you through every door, every prison, every dark and lonely valley, and delivered you into His lovely presence forever and ever.