Usually I start my sermons with a bit of humor-but this morning I felt led to get your attention in the opposite way-by asking you a serious question, namely:
“Have you ever experienced a ‘dead end’ in life?”
I mean, have you ever been faced with a problem that you just knew was impossible to solve? It made you feel overwhelmed-like this was it-there was no way out-you were going under. For example has a doctor ever shared the results of medical tests that confirmed the presence of cancer or some other grave illness-and the prognosis he gave was guarded at best? As you walked out of his office you felt a wave of despair and thought, “I’m not going to make it. This is the end.” Or, perhaps you’re like millions of people who have felt their marriage had reached a dead end. The intimacy is gone and the fights and tension are so bad you just know it will not last. In your mind the situation is impossible to resolve-you’re sure the next thing you’ll do with your spouse is see a lawyer. Maybe your “dead end experience” concerns your finances. The bills keep growing and growing and you think there’s no way out-you’re headed for the shame of bankruptcy. Or, maybe it’s child-rearing that has made you feel this way. You used to have a great relationship with your son or daughter, but when they hit adolescence things changed. Now, all you do is fight and from your perspective your relationship has gone down the tube. You feel like quitting. Perhaps you feel this way about work-your boss and/or co-workers make your days miserable. It’s so bad it even affects your life outside the office. And you just don’t see how it could ever get better. It’s a dead end that you can’t avoid.
Well if any of the above situations describe your life now or in the past-if you have faced or are even now facing a hopeless, impossible situation, then be sure to listen to what I have to say this morning. Because this next section of Acts records a time in the life of the church when Christians in Jerusalem faced a seemingly impossible situation-a state of affairs that looked hopeless. And the way they dealt with this seemingly unstoppable nightmare highlights truth we need to hear-truth that will help us face the inevitable “dead ends” of life. Take your Bibles and turn with me now to Acts 12. We’ll be reading verses 1-19.
1 – 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.
Okay-as we just read, this chapter of the history of the early church begins with King Herod initiating a persecution of the church. And if you’re thinking that HEROD is a popular name in the New Testament days you’re right! In fact, there are at least four Herods mentioned in the Bible.
- Herod #1 was known as “Herod the Great.” This was the “Herod” who slaughtered the babies of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Christ child. He also murdered many of his own family.
- Herod #2 was known as “Herod Antipas.” He was the “Herod” who commanded John the Baptist to be beheaded. He ruled when Jesus was crucified.
- Herod #3 was known as “Herod Philip the Second.” He was murdered by his own father because he feared his son was after his throne but before Herod Philip died he had a son who became…
- Herod #4, known as “Herod Agrippa” who was the King Herod that we read about here in Acts 12.
Now this “Herod #4” was a typical politician in that he worked very hard at cultivating the good graces of the Jewish people he ruled-by meticulously keeping the Mosaic Law and all Jewish observances and it worked. He became very popular with the Jewish people, especially the religious leaders. But, don’t get me wrong-he didn’t do this because he loved the Jewish people. No-he was appointed to this “kingship” by Rome and he wanted to please his Roman masters. He knew that one thing they wanted was a peaceful Palestine-I mean, Rome wanted happy, non-rebellious subjects so their “lap-dog” Herod worked to keep the Jews happy. And, as I said he did a good job at this. He was popular with the Jewish people.
Well, this text from Acts says that, in efforts to gain even greater popularity Herod Agrippa decided to take steps to attack the rivals of the Jewish rulers, the Christian Church and its leaders. So he arrested some Christians and he discovered that among them was JAMES the brother of John. Remember? Together they were called “The Sons of Thunder.” Perhaps James was leading a prayer gathering of a group of Christians when soldiers sent by Herod Agrippa broke into the room and arrested them all. Then HEROD used his seemingly endless power to order JAMES executed by the sword. And it had the effect he wanted. His approval rating with the Jews soared so he tried to raise it even higher by arresting Peter, who was well-known as the leader of the Jerusalem church-Jesus’ right-hand man-but Herod didn’t have Peter killed immediately as he did James.
And don’t misunderstand. This temporary stay of execution wasn’t due to some hidden streak of kindness in Herod’s nature. No, it was simply another example of Herod’s desire to be popular with the Jewish religious leaders. You see scripture says that Peter was arrested during the Passover, the feast of unleavened bread. And according to Jewish Law no trial or execution could be carried out during this week so Herod could not kill Peter until the week had passed-or he would risk losing the popularity he had gained by arresting him in the first place. Perhaps Herod thought that waiting to kill Peter after Passover on that Sunday the Christians claimed Jesus had risen from the dead-would especially please the Jewish religious leaders!
Now-I want you to be sure to note something else. Peter was guarded by four squads of soldiers and, a squad-or “quaternion” as the Romans called it-was made up of four soldiers. Well, there were FOUR such squads assigned to guard Peter because both the day and night were divided into four watches-each lasting three hours. If you were one of these soldiers then during the day you would have been on duty three hours and off nine and when night rolled around you were again on three and off nine more. This was to insure that the soldier’s would be awake and attentive and on their guard! Normally a prisoner was chained by his right hand to his guard’s left hand-but scripture says that Peter was chained by both hands to a guard on each side. Each of the remaining two guards in the quaternion kept watch at one of the two gates leading to his cell.
Now why would Herod go to such lengths to guard this old fisherman? Well, perhaps it was because of something that happened seven chapters earlier. Acts 5 records an incident in which the apostles, including Peter, had been preaching and healing in the temple courts. Remember? This angered the high priest and so with the help of the jealous Sadducees they arrested Peter and the other disciples and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. So perhaps the high priest heard that Herod had arrested Peter and said, “Listen Herod, it’s great that you have Peter behind bars but let me give you a little advice. An angel got this guy out of jail the last time. So you had better guard him well.” Okay look at Acts 12 verse 5 again. This verse is the climax of this entire chapter so pay attention to its words. Verse 5 says that Peter was in prison the night before his trial-at which time Peter was sure to have been sentenced to death-and then notice that next word, “BUT…”
I want you to draw a circle around that little three letter word! Highlight it in your Bible because these are three very important letters forming a powerful little conjunction! I don’t know about you but I love this word because many times it introduces something that is highly significant. I mean, time and time again, history turns on this little word: “BUT”
To help you see what I’m talking about, let’s review the situation.
On one side we have bloody, wicked, powerful Herod Agrippa on the throne backed by the seemingly limitless power of the Roman empire and he is out to persecute and destroy the young church there in Jerusalem. On the other side is the church-unarmed, meek, seemingly powerless. Plus, remember, Herod seems to be way ahead in this “battle” he was waging against the early church. He’s already killed JAMES. Imagine how those Christians must have felt when that happened! They were still reeling from that great loss. I mean, James was one of the inner three that Jesus took with Him everywhere: PETER, JAMES, & JOHN. James had seen Jesus do things that only two other people had seen. He had heard Jesus say things that only those other two had heard. And JAMES was dead. James-someone who had literally experienced an intimate walk with Jesus. The fact that this GIANT of the faith was killable must have been a severe shock to their self-confidence and stability! And now things have gotten even worse. Peter-their leader-is in prison. Plus, it’s not just ANY prison! No, Peter is being held in the ANTONIA FORTRESS-the same fortress in which Jesus was held before his crucifixion. And he’s not in just one cell-Luke is very precise. He tells us that not only was Peter being held behind the massive iron gate that served as a “front door” to this fortress-no-his cell was located deep within this impenetrable prison behind two other locked gates. And as I said there was not just one soldier guarding him. He was shackled between two soldiers-chained so that they sleep with him and eat with him. He’s not even alone in the bathroom. Plus there was a guard watching each gate. Think of it this way. Peter is on death row. In the morning Herod is sure to kill him as he did James. Peter’s about to be executed so in modern correctional parlance, he’s had his last meal and his head is shaved! The situation looks grim indeed-and then that little three letter word pops up, “BUT” – it pops up to remind us that there was something else on the other side of the ledger.
Now-fellow Christian, if you learn nothing else this morning then let this little word teach you that life is not always determined by the reality of what we see, feel, and hear. The happenings of life are not always determined by those massive physical forces of evil that move about in this fallen world. There is more to be factored into any impossible situation! In fact whenever we view a problem as being impossible, we are actually falling into a subtle trap-the trap of focusing on externals. Paul told the Corinthian believers, “You are looking at things as they are outwardly.” (2 Cor. 10:7a) and we do the same thing when we see only the impossible situation and not our God, Who is absolute Lord of EVERY situation!
Okay-let’s get back to the text. The situation is grim. It LOOKS bad for Peter-“BUT!” It looked like an impossible dead end-like there was no way out-BUT-BUT WHAT? The church was in prayer! Look at verse 5. “So Peter was kept in prison BUT the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” Prayers were being uttered by the church for PETER and this situation! Now before we go any farther let’s pause and consider another very important truth. The scripture says that THE CHURCH was UNITED in PRAYING for Peter and this is the way it should be-the members of a church should pray TOGETHER! When Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the Temple do you remember what He said? He said, “My house shall be a house of PRAYER…and you have made it a den of thieves.” In other words Jesus taught that one primary purpose for us to gather in this place-HIS HOUSE-is to pray together!
One thing I have noted in out study of the book of ACTS….is that it is impossible to imagine the members of the early church NOT gathering to pray with each other. I mean, praying was “WHAT THEY MET TO DO.” Meeting together with other Christians in the days of the early church and NOT praying was unthinkable. Well, I think congregational prayer-lessness should to be just as unthinkable for us in our own churches because when two or three or two or three hundred pray together they experience an unbelievably powerful unity through which God can and will do amazing things. Prayer gets us on the same wavelength. It unites us as one. It gets us all plugged into God’s power and God’s way of thinking. If you’ve ever attended one of our summer prayer meetings on Wednesday nights-or prayed with a group of Christians on a regular basis then you know what I mean. When Christians pray together they experience a unique bond-through which God can and will do great things. T. W. HUNT the author of PRAYER LIFE said:
“If we examine the expansion of the church in the Book of Acts and the Epistles, we see convincing proof of the power of prayer. The early church had innumerable obstacles. Christianity was unknown and it was opposed by the authorities wherever it spread, it suffered constantly from false accusations and rumors…BUT by the end of the first century, it had spread in exactly the geographic pattern commissioned by Jesus-Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria,
…and the uttermost parts of the earth. This rapid geographical and ideological shift could have been accomplished only by supernatural forces. The instrument of expansion was the church and the force the church was using was prayer.”
So, from the earliest days, the church has always been at its best when its people have knelt together to pray. And if we want to see the power in REDLAND that was in the early church then we should pray as they prayed. We should look at prayer as they did-as an indispensable source of unbelievable power. Acts 2 says the early disciples “gave themselves CONTINUALLY to prayer.” We must give ourselves to it as well-on Wednesday nights or in our SS classes or small groups or around the clock through our SHOPP ministry. The fact is, if we are to be a POWERFUL church we must be a PRAYERFUL church. So-on the one side of this situation was mighty ROME and wicked HEROD. “BUT” on the other side of the ledger was the CHURCH-the people of GOD PRAYING for Peter. Some may say, “Well, there is a lack of realism to think that a little band of people praying could change the force of the ROMAN government…and change the destiny of nations and break open prison doors….” and it IS hard to believe that prayer can be that powerful. But it can and is! Prayer is the most powerful force in this world-because as someone has wisely said, “Prayer is the force that moves the hand that moves the world.” And that leads us to the first truth-the first FACT-I want us to take from this study.
1. Prayer changes THINGS.
Write that down! In life when it looks like everything is against us-when it looks like we can’t possibly win-when it looks like it is the end and we are about to be overwhelmed; it is then that we need to remember that prayer changes things because prayer releases God’s power. That power may come in the form of wisdom-an idea you desperately need and can’t come up with yourself. It may come in the form of courage greater than you could ever muster. It may come in the form of confidence or perseverance, a changed attitude toward a spouse or a child or a parent, a changed circumstance, or maybe even outright miracles. But, however it comes, God’s prevailing power is released in the lives of people who pray. Prayer changes things.
It certainly did in Peter’s situation. God sent an angel to free him. This angel led the sleepy-eyed apostle through the vast fortress and past guards. Doors opened all by themselves. It was so amazing Peter thought it was all a dream-and didn’t wake up and come to his senses until he was a couple blocks away from the fortress. Maybe the exposure to the cool night air woke him up or maybe he stubbed his toe on a rock-but when he “woke up” and realized what had happened he hurried to John Mark’s house and what happened next is almost funny. He knocked and a servant girl named Rhoda answered. She recognized Peter’s voice but was so excited she left him standing there exposed to re-capture and ran upstairs to tell everyone. When she entered the room she said something like, “Peter’s here! He’s out of prison!” and they replied, “That’s impossible! Don’t interrupt us again! Now, let’s see where were we?” “Oh yes, ‘God, we know You are able to free our leader Peter. Do so Lord.” But Rhoda insisted, “Listen, it’s Peter. I’d know his voice anywhere.” They still refused to believe and said, “Come on Rhoda-get real. That must be his ghost!” Rhoda said, “But it is Peter-oh my goodness! I left him standing outside!” And she rushed back down to the door to let Peter in.
This shows that God answers our prayers even when we don’t fully believe He can and this is in line with the Scripture, because Jesus said that we don’t need a great deal of faith when we pray.
Remember in Matthew 17 He said that even if you only have, “faith as small as a mustard seed nothing will be impossible.” But the fact is our prayers-even if our faith is so weak all it enables us to do is ask-our prayers change things. God acts in us and through us in response to our prayers. God wants us to cooperate with Him and often He will not act through us without our asking. Why-why would our almighty God act in this way? Why would He wait on our prayers? Well, because He created us for fellowship with Him. We were made to partner with Him. This is what Jesus meant when He told Peter in Matthew 16:19, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Our prayers make a difference-God acts in response to them! Prayer changes things! One of the best biblical pictures of this amazing truth is found in the 8th chapter of the book of Revelation where John describes a scene in heaven after the seals have been broken on the scrolls-scrolls that tell the story of human sin and violence and God’s judgment. Well, at this point in the narrative a remarkable thing happens. John writes that “there was a silence in heaven for about half an hour.” During this time an angel with a golden censer comes to the altar and offers a golden pan of incense, which is a representation of prayers arising from earth. Revelation 8:4 says:
“The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.”
Next in John’s book come great acts of judgment on the earth-pictured by rumbles of thunder, flashes of lightening, and great earthquakes. But what is most striking is that these powerful actions come in RESPONSE to the prayers of the saints. Usually we think of events on earth being interrupted because of actions taken in heaven but here in Revelation it is the other way around. All of heaven comes to a standstill. The endless songs of praises of heavenly hosts are suddenly silenced. Why? Because someone is praying. All of heaven stops to hear the prayers of the saints-your prayers and mine, everyone of them rise before God. They are heard. They matter. Prayers uttered by real people, like you and me-even prayers of desperation-interrupt heaven and what happens next on earth happens because people pray because PRAYER CHANGES THINGS. As Walter Wink puts it this way. He says, “History belongs to the intercessors-those who believe and pray the future into being.”
When Thomas Merton was a young man, pursuing great success in a career in literature, he spent an extended amount of time living with a religious community of men who devoted much of their days to prayer. He wrote that when he left the community after several months, at first he was struck by the haste and anxiety of “normal” life. He says, “My heart sank within me. I thought: ‘What am I getting into? Is this the sort of thing I myself have been living in all these years?'” The thought occurred to him that in some real way these few men devoted to prayer, “are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for it the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.” Merton was correct. Prayer changes things because God acts in response to our requests.
As you know we publish a prayer list two times a week here at Redland and Wednesday nights we gather to pray for the list of concerns. We even send letters signed by all the pray-ers to the people who have asked us to pray for their situation whether it be an illness or a marital problem. I have lost count of how many times I’ve received a letter back from someone we prayed for, thanking us for our prayers-giving testimony of a healing or of renewed strength or peace or comfort…acknowledgment that our prayers made a difference in their lives. The fact is we will never know how many people have been strengthened because we asked God to encourage them or how many people have received healing or how many spiritual runaways have come home. We will never know the difference our prayers make until we get to heaven but we do know this-Wink is right. History DOES belongs to the intercessors. That’s a fact! And then the second fact I want us to take from this study is that…
2. …prayer changes PEOPLE.
This is a comforting truth because if PEOPLE don’t change what good would it do to change THINGS? Well prayer DOES change people. Look at verse 24 of chapter 12 and the following few verses and you will see a great example of this in the lives of these early believers. Remember that before this answer to prayer they were huddled in a room fearing for their lives. But after this they were so bold in their witness that the Word of God spread-they CHANGED because of the power of prayer. In fact, the answer to their prayers-the miracle of Peter’s release-became a watershed, forcing the UNBELIEVERS toward greater DESPAIR and the BELIEVERS toward greater FAITH.
Here’s some more Biblical examples of this principle. Prayer made shy Moses into a leader. It softened the cruel heart of Pharaoh. It kept discouraged Elijah from quitting. It turned the fanatical persecutor Saul into a globe-trotting apostle. And-it changed Peter. Remember? While imprisoned, Peter was so full of faith and peace that he could sleep deeply, even though he thought he would be killed the next day. Ten or fifteen years earlier, Peter had been a different man. He had lied to avoid imprisonment. He had fled because of his fear. But not anymore. In fact, after this experience he was even more fearless because he headed to Rome, the very seat of Roman power to boldly share the love of Jesus Christ. All this because prayer changes PEOPLE!
Prayer in which we open our hearts to God and listen for His response makes us more like Him. As someone has said prayer enables us to “think His thoughts after Him.” Plus, prayer opens our eyes to our sin and shows us how we need to change to be more conformed to His image. During the Great Awakening, when the Spirit of God revived much of our nation’s early faith, Jonathan Edwards was presiding over a massive prayer meeting. Eight hundred men prayed with him. Into that meeting a woman sent a message asking the men to pray for her husband. The note describe a man who had become unloving, prideful, and difficult. Edwards read the message in private and then, thinking that perhaps that men described was present, made a bold request. Edwards read the note to the 800 men. Then he asked if the man who had been described would raise his hand, so that the whole assembly could pray for him. Well when he asked this, three hundred men raised their hands. Prayer changes people! RICHARD FOSTER puts it this way:
“To pray is to change. This is a great grace. How good of God to provide a path whereby our lives can be taken over by love and joy and peace…and patience and kindness and goodness and self control.”
But you know the greatest example of this prayer truth is see in CONVERSION-becoming a Christian which only happens in response to prayer. As the great prayer warrior E. M. Bounds said, “Salvation never finds its way to a prayer less heart. The Holy Spirit never abides in a prayer-less spirit.” This morning if you are here and you are not a Christian then I urge you to let the power of prayer change you…right here…right now. The Bible says that “When any man is in Christ, he is a NEW creature. Old things have passed away. Behold all things have become new.” Will you let God make you NEW today? He will. All you have to do is PRAY! You may be worshiping with us here this morning and are facing some horrible thing in your life. Something that seems hopeless. If that is true then as we sing I encourage you to pray-to talk to God about it. I promise you that He wants nothing more than to answer your prayer-to show you that things aren’t always as they seem. And, remember you CAN pray about anyTHING….Philippians 4:6 says,
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God and the peace of God will be yours.”
Wouldn’t you like to know that peace this morning? Pray right now. Another thing-we don’t need to be timid in our praying. Heb. 4:16 says, “Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” You may want to simply use this time to join others in committing yourselves to be a church that prays so that God can do supernatural things through us here in this place. And when you think about all of this you can see that it would be foolish to say “no” to this kind of power-power that can change things-power that can change people. Remember the words of James 4:2, “You have not because you ask not.” Okay-with all this in mind let’s enter a time of prayer-I’ll close in a few minutes.
As we sing now, I invite you to come forward and share any public decisions that God has laid on your heart.