The deliverance of Peter from prison in Acts 12:1-19a is a very exciting piece of scripture. Herod is on the march persecuting the church. He has the apostle James killed. The Jews are happy with that. He wants to be a popular ruler with the locals, who are the Jews and so Peter is next in line for the gallows. So Peter is in prison expecting trial (see 12:14).
What happens next is big. So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him (Acts 12:5). Now most of what you read or hear will tell you that they were praying for Peter’s release and that was it. But look again: it does not say that they were praying for Peter’s release. They were praying for Peter. So what were they praying? Well, the last time we see the church in Jerusalem praying is when it is in Acts 4. Look at their prayer there.
On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. ‘Sovereign Lord,’ they said, ‘you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
‘“Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his anointed one.”
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ (Acts 4:23-29)
On the basis of that evidence do we think that the prayer for Peter would concentrate on his release? I suggest not. Look in particular at Acts 4:28-30 – their prayer was for boldness and happenings which would glorify Jesus. Surely they would be praying similarly for Peter. Immediately, I suggest, we see in Acts 12:6 the Lord answering their prayers. Peter is fast asleep. Manacled to two guards facing execution the following day, it is surely a miracle that he was asleep. But the Lord hears prayer.
Peter is then brought out of prison by the miraculous intervention of the Lord through an angel. He then goes to the place of prayer; Mary’s house. The normal take on the response of the church is that they did not really believe that God would answer their prayers. And the teaching is about how similar we are. However, I suggest that the focus of their prayers had not been on his release at all. Their focus was on the sustaining of Peter and the glorifying of Jesus.
So how does this strike us? Our approach to prayer and God’s dealings is to undergirded by the perception that only nice things should happen to Christians. So we think they must pray for Peter’s release because that would be a nice thing to happen. The early church did not seem to be polluted by such thinking. Their longing was for the glory of Jesus and the best for the Lord’s people. We need to ponder upon this.
Upon being in a prayer meeting with a Western Christian, a non-western Christian was riled. The western Christian had prayed that the church in persecuted areas would be delivered from their difficulties. The non Western Christian took exception to this. He stated that they were not looking for deliverance because a removal of their difficulties might lead them to being like the indifferent flabby church in the West. And they did not want that!
So let us be thoughtful about how we pray. And let us not filter our understanding of scripture through our twenty-first century Western predilections.