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Acts

Get Out of Jail Free

Acts  12:1-19

Sometimes God acts in miraculous ways; but even in such times we can see the ways of ordinary faith.

(Acts 12:1-19 NIV) It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. {2} He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. {3} When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. {4} After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. {5} So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. {6} The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. {7} Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. "Quick, get up!" he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists. {8} Then the angel said to him, "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. {9} Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. {10} They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. {11} Then Peter came to himself and said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating." {12} When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. {13} Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. {14} When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door!" {15} "You're out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel." {16} But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. {17} Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. "Tell James and the brothers about this," he said, and then he left for another place. {18} In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. {19} After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while.

(It should first be noted that there are two "James" in the New Testament. The one executed here is the brother of the Apostle John. The one whom Peter references is called "James the Less" - probably because he was short - and is a near kinsman of Jesus.)

It is a curious fact, but true. The average Christian feels himself weak at prayer, and this feeling is most prevalent when praying to God on behalf of another. In intercession we think ourselves weak. Let us see, then, how the early church was so strong at it.

The Nature of God

Intercession is, by its nature, the act of asking God to do something for someone else. If this is to be successful, we must know something about God - as a person.

God allows affliction and persecution

It often astonishes new Christians to discover that God indeed allows his children to suffer - and not just from the diseases and woes that plague mankind in general, but also very specific persecution directed at them because they are Christians.

·         In this instance the persecution is directed at the leadership of the church, for James is the brother of John, and with Peter these three head the church in its early days.

·         The persecution is severe; for indeed James is put to death with the sword - that is, he is executed by beheading.

·         Peter is sentenced, evidently, to the same fate. (We infer this from what happened to the guards.) The wait is simply to provide a bigger crowd after the Passover feast.

This surprises some that these things can happen to God's servants. It shouldn't; it was rather a common fate for those in the Old Testament. But consider: if becoming a Christian was a ticket to ease and wealth, and no source of danger, what would be the true motivation of most Christians?

God cares for his servants in his sovereign way

It always seems a contradiction, then, to say that God cares for his servants. But we see it clearly here. Consider, for a moment, the way the angel retrieves Peter. It is almost with contempt for the efforts of man. He tells him to get his sandals and cloak. There is no sense of hurry about the angel - just that slight sense of irritation with Peter that he seems to be dazed by the whole situation (which he is). The shackles fall off, the doors open by themselves, it is almost comic - indeed, I see here the divine sense of humor. "You thought one jail, four squads of soldiers, two sets of shackles and some bricks and iron gates would hold the one I have chosen to release?" Yeah, right.

God, the unexpected

If there is one thing I am sure of about God, it is this: I can never be sure of how He will answer my prayers. He seems to take a comic delight in answering them in ways I could not possibly have imagined.

Evidently I'm not the only one. Peter thought the whole thing must be a dream or a vision. Why did God do it this way? Maybe he just wanted it to hit Peter all at once - to make an impression, if you will. Maybe he wanted Peter to believe the unbelievable once again, for with God the unexpected and unbelievable become the ordinary.

How He surprises us! He never does it "my way." But I do find this: in doing it His way, He provides us with instruction, with lessons to learn. We will examine these in the next section.

Key point: Intercession begins with acknowledging who God truly is - for all personal relationships depend upon knowing the other person well.

The Nature of the Intercessor

The Old Testament Model

Christians who complain of reading the Old Testament should realize that they are reading a blueprint. In the Old Testament we see things which are to come, and which are a model of things as they will be in the New Testament.

The model for intercession is the priestly model. In the intercession of the priests of the Old Testament we can see the things we need to intercede in the new covenant:

·         Only the priest could intercede. The ordinary man had no right to go to God in intercession. But in the new covenant, we are a kingdom of priests, and therefore each of us is privileged to intercede. Indeed, we are commanded to do so. Not just for those we love; but for all. For God causes his rain on the just and the unjust, and we are to be his imitators.

·         The priest was to be ceremonially clean. Likewise, we must go to God in intercession with clean hands and heart. We must confess our sins, and repent, before we can stand before him with our requests. Intercession is not a request for vengeance, but deliverance.

·         The priest must come with a sacrifice. Interestingly, the sacrifice the priest made was not in proportion to the sin - it was mandated irrespective of the type of sin. Our sacrifice, of course, is Jesus on the Cross. Unless we intercede on this basis, we intercede in vain. But we have our personal sacrifice to bring; the living sacrifice of our lives.

The example of the church

We see in the instance here just how the early church went into intercession.

·         They prayed as a group. Christianity is not a solo flight. They held a prayer meeting in someone's home to present their requests. And it was not a short meeting, for it went on well into the night. This is prayer that is fervent; this is prayer that is ceaseless.

·         There was "closeness of need." This fellowship of believers was praying because of their relationship with Peter; they felt his needs as they felt their own. This is the mark of believers; they pray as one because they are one. It is interesting that Rhoda does not open the gate immediately but goes back to the group with the good news. The first priority is not opening the gate for Peter's safety; the first priority is that God's people hear the good news that God has given them.

·         They did not have "great faith". What was the first reaction of the believers? An old story tells us of the black Baptist preacher who called a prayer meeting to pray for rain. As the members arrived, his first words were this: "If you is praying for rain, where is your umbrella?" The believers did not believe Rhoda. Perhaps it is not our faith - which need be no more than the mustard seed - but God's power that counts.

The effect of intercession on the church

Christians often seem to feel that the preacher is nuts when he calls for a prayer meeting. But look at the effect this prayer meeting had!

God is glorified

How do you think this looked to the people of Jerusalem? Do you suppose they were impressed? They could hardly miss the commotion. This is one reason why we should keep in our prayers the phrase, "thy will be done." God's power is for God's purposes; God's power is also for God's glory. Let the world see him as the result of our intercession, not us.

The division of good and evil is more pronounced

You might not think this a normal result of intercession, but it is. When God acts, man must decide: for Him or against Him? Herod is furious at the failure, as he sees it, of his guards. He will not give God the glory (more on that next week); he must find a scapegoat and so one evil grows out of another.

Compare that to Peter on the night before his scheduled execution. What was he doing when the angel arrived? Remember, this is a man who is chained up between two soldiers. He was sleeping. Would you be able to sleep on the night before your execution?

Fellowship grows

We have seen that Rhoda's first reaction was to tell the others. But consider what Peter's first reaction was: he went to where he knew the disciples would be (despite any danger of the place being watched). His brothers and sisters needed to hear of the goodness of God, and that was his first priority - the fellowship. (After the ruckus, I can certainly appreciate his desire to leave for another place).

Summary

·         Intercession is based upon the nature and person of God - acknowledge who He is, and seek his favor.

·         Intercession is something which all repentant believers may do - and should.

·         Intercession produces not only the results asked for, but also strengthens the church and brings glory to God.

The pattern is before us; now, will we follow?

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