The story is told about a tavern being built in a town that until recently had been dry. A group of Christians in a certain church opposed this and began an all-night prayer meeting, asking God to intervene. Lightning struck the tavern building, and it burned to the ground. The owner brought a lawsuit against the church, claiming they were responsible. The Christians hired a lawyer, claiming they were not responsible. The judge said, “No matter how this case comes out, one thing is clear. The tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not.”
They say that you’d better be careful what you pray for. You just might get it. I say that if you do get it, you might also consider how much you believe when you do pray.
Belief is the part that makes prayer what it is. So when God answers our prayers we should not be too surprised. Amazed? Yes. Surprised? Not really.
There is a scene in the Bible, however, that was so amazing that there was much surprise even though one church spent a whole night in prayer. It’s kind of funny, in a way. Perhaps we could humorously identify with the reaction that one person had at the time.
The incident goes like this:
The Apostle Peter was seized and put into a Roman prison for being one of the top church leaders promoting the Good News of Jesus. He was guarded by four quaternions or squads of soldiers. Each quaternion of four soldiers were on duty for a three-hour watch that night and the next day. This assigned guard of sixteen soldiers were in charge of holding him with chains until his execution would take place right after the Passover was over. (Carter & Earle, The Acts of the Apostles).
The king, Herod Agrippa I, believed that if he turned Peter over to the Jewish officials he could curry favor with them as he did when he put the Apostle James, the brother of John, to death with a sword. This ruler was known to do all he could to elicit support of the Jews. He observed their strict regulations and was careful to be on good terms with them. He knew how much the Jewish leaders hated the Christians so he saw an opportunity to get them closer to his side.
We don’t know what manner the king had in mind for having Peter killed. It is reported that there were four methods of persecution that could have been chosen, including stoning, burning, beheading with the sword, and strangling. It is pointed out that the Talmud (primary source of Jewish law), which required beheading with a sword, was the standard punishment for those who drew the people away to a strange worship. To the Jewish leadership, following Christ would have been strange to them. So, this could explain why James was killed by being beheaded with a sword. (ibid.) Perhaps this was the same form of death Herod had in mind for Peter. Of course, Herod’s dastardly plan was a political ploy. But God had another plan that would foil Herod’s diabolical scheme.
While Peter was tightly kept under guard in prison, the church assembled in prayer. Perhaps many felt that if the church had prayed harder, maybe James would have been spared his unfortunate plight. This time, the church was not only praying, they were calling on the Lord “fervently.”
The Greek word for “fervent” is ekteino and literally means, “to stretch out.” The church was stretching out to God in unceasing prayer with intensity and full extension without any slack until its necessary outcome was revealed. This description reminds me of passages in the Bible that describe how we should pray (New King James Version, NKJV):
- Romans 12:12, “…rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer….”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
- James 5:16, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”
When God sees that we fervently pray what we mean and fervently mean what we pray, watch out! You just might get it! But be prepared! It might not exactly happen the way you’d expect.
While the church was in fervent prayer for Peter, that same night just before he was about to be executed the next day, the Lord miraculously intervened. As Peter was sleeping between two soldiers and the other two were guarding the prison door, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared. And a bright light shined in the place he was kept. In spite of what awaited him, Peter must have been sleeping rather soundly. The angel had to jab Peter’s side to awaken him. Without disturbing the soldiers, the angel helped Peter to his feet, and suddenly the chains that bound him to the soldiers fell from his hands.
The whole procedure seemed like an illusion or dream to Peter. “Could really be happening or I am just seeing things?” he probably thought. But Peter quickly woke up to the fact that it was all real as the angels secretly and quietly led him past the first two unsuspecting guards, then the other two. They didn’t even knew that a jailbreak had taken place right under their noses! Making their escape, the iron gate leading into Jerusalem opened by itself like the automated doors we have in stores today. In fact, the phrase stating that the gate opened “of its own accord” is written as one word in the Greek, automate, which means “automatically,” (also, Mark 4:28). (ibid.) The angel that escorted him out of prison disappeared and, the next thing Peter knew, he was out on the street. He wasn’t dreaming after all!
Having put the whole incident into perspective, he decided at once to go to the house of Mary who was the mother of John Mark who was a “cousin” or, more likely, nephew of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). To show how much of a connection the family had with the church, Barnabas would eventually play a future role in the missionary work of the Apostle Paul. This Christian woman is said to have been a wealthy widow of prominence. Her home was sizable enough to be a meeting place for the church.
When Peter knocked on the door of Mary’s gate, Rhoda the maidservant, came to answer. Peter asked her to let him in. She could distinctively tell it was the voice of Peter. Now, you would think she would immediately fling the door wide open. This is the comical part: Instead, she left the poor guy standing alone outside while she ran back inside. In her excitement, Rhoda announced to the people that Peter was at the gate.
Keep in mind, these Christians were still up all night having their prayer vigil and likely a little weary from lack of sleep. They just couldn’t believe it. They reacted, “You’re crazy!” She insisted, “No, I’m NOT crazy! It IS his voice! It MUST be him!”
The people said, “Then it must be his angel!” There was a Jewish belief in those days that each one had a guardian angel who had a physical appearance and the voice of someone the angel protected (Psalm 34:7; Daniel 6:20-23). But their denial, that it could really be Peter standing at the gate, shows the human side of their response and how God could answer prayer in such a miraculous way.
Meanwhile, here’s Peter knocking away at the door. I can hear him yelling, “Hey, you people! It’s me, Peter! Let me in!” Finally, they opened the gate, and stared in awe. Can’t you just see them rubbing their eyes, looking at him with their mouths wide opened in sheer shock and amazement? Voices were crying out: “Is it you, really YOU, Peter?” They could hardly contain themselves.
Then, Peter raised his hand to calm them down. You could hear a pin drop. Each one listened in silence as he told them the entire story of the miraculous way God delivered him out of prison that night and told him to share his testimony with the others. (Read the entire account: Acts 12:1-17). We can conclude that from this time on, the church would never forget what happened and the way God can answer prayer.
Believing is everything when we make our requests known to God, even when God does the things that we don’t think about. When we pray for God to do something, be ready to believe it when he does. For we can be at peace knowing that if we keep on believing, God will answer prayer as his will is done (Philippians 4:6-7).
Here is an old hymn with a message that always stays new in our hearts, “Keep on Believing” by the King’s Heralds Quartet: http://youtu.be/vwQVpX0tNhQ
Good News to YOU!