Robert Jeffress - Persecution, Prison, and Prayer
Hi, I'm Robert Jeffress, and welcome again to "Pathway to Victory". Can you imagine being locked up in prison for telling others about Jesus? Today, we're going to learn about a 1st century Christian who found himself behind bars for sharing the good news of Christ. His shocking story takes a dramatic turn, and his release is proof that God is faithful when we pray. My message is titled "Persecution, Prison, and Prayer" on today's edition of "Pathway to Victory".
Heinrich Himmler and Reinhardt Heydrich were two of Adolf Hitler's top lieutenants. They were also rabid anti-Christians, and they had as a goal to start a new religion in Germany, one that would be a mixture of the worship of pagan Germanic gods mixed in with the third Reich philosophy. And they thought that if they could create this new religion, that they could replace Jesus Christ with Adolf Hitler in the hearts of Germans. Even Hitler himself thought that was ludicrous, but then he began to see the value of using the church's power to advance his cause. He thought to himself, "Why should I go to the trouble of creating a brand new religion? Why not just corrupt the church that is already present"?
And so he had another lieutenant, Alfred Rosenberg, who created a 30-point plan for corrupting the German church. That plan included replacing every Bible in every church in Germany with copies of Hitler's book, "Mein Kampf". It included taking down all of the crosses in churches and replacing them with swastikas. A few churches resisted, but amazingly few resisted. You say, "Well, that's an interesting story, pastor, but thank God that could never happen in our country". Don't be so sure. Many Germans thought it could never happen in their country either. Persecution has always been a part of church history. It's inevitable. We've seen persecution from the earliest days of the church in the book of Acts. But today when we come to Acts 12, we're going to look at the first instance of state government-sponsored persecution.
Up to this point in time all of the persecution was instigated by the Jewish religious leaders, but today we're going to look at what happens when the Roman government gets involved, and yet today's story is not so much about the inevitability of persecution as it is about the tremendous power of prayer. If you have your Bibles, turn to Acts chapter 12 as we look at a story about persecution, prison, and prayer. Acts chapter 12. Luke begins in verse 1 with these words. "Now about that time". About what time? Well, he's saying about the same time as the event I just told you about in chapters 10 and 11, the conversion of the first Gentile Cornelius, the reaction of the Jerusalem church, the founding of the first Gentile church at Antioch. We're at about 44 AD. We're about 10 years now after the day of Pentecost, the birth of the church. "It was about that time that Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword".
Now when we read Herod, we have to ask ourselves which Herod. There are a lot of Herods running around in the Bible. The original Herod was Herod the Great. He was in power at the time of the birth of Jesus. Remember, he's the one who ordered the killing of all of the Hebrew males two years of age and under when he heard the news that the King of the Jews had been born. He wanted to exterminate any rivals to his power. That was Herod the Great. All the other Herods in the Bible were descendants of Herod the Great, and the Herod we're reading about here in AD 44 is his grandson Herod Agrippa I. He said, "How can I ingratiate myself to these Jewish leaders? What is it they're concerned about"?
Well, their concern was about the spread of this heresy called Christianity, and they wanted it stamped out. Herod himself didn't care, but he said, "In order to earn their approval, what if I take one of the leaders of that new church and put him to death"? This was going to be a test case to see if it got his poll numbers up. He would try out persecution against Christians and see how that fared for him. They were testing the limits. "Let's put James to death and see what happens". Well, verse 3 tells us what the reaction was. "And when Herod saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also". If one dead apostle is good, two dead apostles are even better.
So he decided to go after the big fish, so to speak, Peter, the leader of the church. He arrested him with the intention of putting him to death, but there was just one problem. Verse 3 says, "It was during the days of Unleavened Bread". That was the seven-day feast of the Jews that began on Passover. It was a holy time, so Herod said, "I can't have a public execution right now. It would show disrespect to the Jews. So we'll put him in prison and hold him until the feast is over". He was probably held in Antonio's Fortress where Barabbas was, where Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate.
Look at verse 5. "So Peter was kept in the prison, but the prayer for him was being made fervently by the church". While Peter was in prison ready to be executed, the church prayed fervently. You know, in James 5:16 James writes, "The effective prayers of a righteous person accomplishes much". The James who wrote that wasn't the James who had been martyred. It was James the half-brother of Jesus who became a Christian and a leader in the church at Jerusalem. As we'll see in a moment, he's one who was almost an eyewitness to the miraculous answer to prayer we're about to see. So when James says the effective prayer of a righteous person accomplishes much, I think he has in mind what he saw firsthand with this church in Jerusalem that prayed fervently. What is it that made their prayer so powerful?
The late James Montgomery Boice notes three characteristics of the church's prayer that caused God to answer in such a powerful way. First of all, the church prayed to God. That's what verse 5 says. They prayed fervently to God. Then you say, "Well, that's kind of a no-brainer. Who else would they pray to, Satan"? Well, there are other people you can pray to besides God. Next week we're going to look at a story Jesus told about a man who prayed a very eloquent prayer, but Jesus said he was praying to himself. Sometimes people are praying to themselves. Sometimes people pray for the benefit of other people to try to impress them with their piety, with their spirituality.
R.A. Torrey in his book "The Power of Prayer" describes a moment of realization that absolutely transformed his prayer life. He said, "The day came when I realized what real prayer meant. I realized that prayer was having an audience with God, actually coming into the presence of God and asking and getting things from him. The realization of that fact transformed my prayer life. Before that prayer had been nothing more than a mere duty and sometimes an irksome duty, but from that time on prayer has not merely been a duty but a privilege, one of the highest privileges of life. Before that realization, my thought had been, 'How much time must I spend in prayer?' The thought that now possesses me is, 'How much time may I spend in prayer without neglecting my other responsibilities?'"
Don't forget when you pray, you're praying to God. The early church understood that. Secondly, they understood the importance of earnestness in praying. They prayed earnestly. The New American Standard says they prayed fervently. That Greek word means a muscle that is stretched to the very limit. This was no little prayer with folded hands, "Now I lay me down to sleep" kind of prayer. This church was praying earnestly, fervently. What do we mean by that? In the discourse that we're going to look at in a couple of weeks, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave his greatest teaching on prayer, and remember in Matthew 6 he said God isn't impressed by the number of words we use in our prayer. He's not impressed by the repetition of our prayer, but he is impressed, he takes notice, of the earnestness, the seriousness with which we pray.
By the way, what concern do you have in your life right now that you are so concerned you're willing to spend more than five minutes praying about? God takes notice of prayers that are earnest. And how did God react to their prayer? Look at verse 6. Peter is freed. I love this. "On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward," this was the night before his execution, "Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison". Verse 4 told us that Herod had ordered four squads of soldiers to watch over Peter. A squad was four soldiers. They would be on duty for 6 hours each. And in this group of four two would stand at the cell door, the other two would watch over the prisoner.
By the way, why did it take so many soldiers to take care of Peter and keep him in prison? Well, remember from chapter 5 Peter had this irksome habit of escaping from prison and Herod wanted to make sure this didn't happen again. So they guarded him. And all of that time while the guards were watching, what was Peter doing? Don't you find that amazing? The night before his execution, he is sound asleep. We'll see how soundly in just a moment. How could he do that? How could he sleep? Remember the promise of Isaiah 26, verse 3? "Thou will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee because he trusts in thee". That was the secret to Peter's peace.
Look at verse 7. Here he is sleeping away. "Behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter's side and woke him up, saying, 'Get up quickly.' And his chains fell off of his hands". The angel had to shake Peter, had to poke him in the side, had to strike him, he was sleeping so soundly. Verse 8, "And the angel said to him, 'Gird yourself and put on your sandals.'" In the original Greek, "Let's scram. Let's get out of here". "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me". And so he went out and continued to follow the angel. And Peter did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but he thought he was seeing a vision. And suddenly verse 11 says Peter found himself in the streets of Jerusalem in the middle of the night and he was all alone and he realized it was all real.
So what does he do? Well, he knows the Romans are going to be after him, so he does the logical thing. He goes to where his friends are, the Christians are. Many of them are gathered in the house of Mary for a prayer meeting, and that leads to verse 13. And this is probably to me the funniest passage in all of the Bible is the church's reaction to what happens to Peter. Verse 13, "And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. And when she recognized Peter's voice..." "Let me in, let me in". "When she recognized the voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate".
This little girl, Rhoda, was so excited when she heard Peter's voice, she forgot to open the door, and she goes back into the prayer meeting all excited and, you know, there they are with closed eyes, you know, having their prayer time right there and she starts saying, "You won't believe it". Verse 15. "It's Peter. God has answered our prayer. He's at the door knocking right now". They couldn't believe it. Verse 15 says, "They said to her, 'You are out of your mind.' But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, 'It must be Peter's angel.'"
Now, we don't know exactly what they meant by Peter's angel. It may have been a reference to the guardian angel. It may be a reference to a Jewish superstition that when you die, your spirit hovers around for a few days afterwards. But whatever they were meaning, they knew it couldn't be Peter because, after all, he was in prison, right? Verse 16, again a funny verse, the Bible says while the church kept arguing, people... Peter kept knocking at the door trying to break in to his own prayer meeting. You know, it's interesting that this church, even though they had the faith to ask God, they didn't fully believe that God could answer their prayer.
Before we're too hard on them, isn't that true for us sometimes? We pray and we pray and we pray, and if the answer comes, we're shocked. We can't believe it, that God has actually answered our prayer. I don't know how much those early Christians were fully convinced of the power of prayer, but they were convinced enough to pray, and here's the good news. It doesn't take a whole lot of faith to move the hand of God. Did you know that? It's not the quantity of our faith, it's the object of our faith that matters, what is our faith in. Jesus said you can have a itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny amount of faith the size of a mustard seed, but if it's faith in God, it can move mountains. And that's how this church prayed. They prayed, and God answered their prayer.
Finally, verse 17, Peter was allowed into his prayer meeting, and he explained what had happened, and then verse 17 closes by saying Peter left and went to another place. We don't know where he went. This chapter marks the end of the focus on the apostle Peter, but now the focus is on the apostle Paul. There's an interesting postscript to this entire story that's worth noting. It begins in verse 18, Herod's reaction to the freeing of Peter. "Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers," what an understatement, "as to what could have become of Peter. And when Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea," that's Caesarea by the sea, "and was spending some time there".
Herod was enraged because this diminished his authority in the sight of the people. He couldn't even hold one measly disciple hostage. He was inflamed. And not only that, he was having trade problems, Luke says, with Tyre and Sidon and so he decided to go down to Caesarea and relax a little bit. And then he thought to himself like so many politicians, "The way out of this mess, the way to rescue myself from sinking poll numbers is to give a big speech. I'm going to give a big speech, and that will regain my position with the people". So verse 21 says, "On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to the people".
This is in the theater at Caesarea by the sea. Many of us have been there many, many times. It's an amazing amphitheater. The acoustics are unbelievable there, and that's where Herod was when he addressed the people. And as he spoke, the people kept crying out saying, "The voice of a god and not a man". And how did Herod respond to this claim he was a god? Did he respond like Peter did? Remember when Cornelius bowed in front of Cornelius and Peter said, "Get up. I'm not a god. I'm just a man like you". No, that wasn't Herod Agrippa. He stood there in the sun and he soaked in the praise. He let the people continue saying he was a god. And verse 23 says at that moment, "Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him," meaning he had become the object of divine wrath. And then Joseph adds this detail, "And a severe pain arose in Herod's belly and began in a most violent manner".
Herod Agrippa didn't die immediately. He lingered on for five long days, dying in AD 44 at the age of 54. Luke explains what happened. When he did not give God the glory, he was eaten by worms, and he died. Let me mention two timeless truths from this passage that apply to each one of us, and I hope you'll never forget these. Truth number one, no person can prevail against the purpose of God. No person can prevail against the purpose of God. Luke begins this chapter, chapter 12, with Herod killing Christian leaders and threatening to destroy the church. The chapter ends with Herod becoming nothing but worm food. He was completely destroyed. And yet in verse 24 after noting how Herod died Luke says, "But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied".
The most foolish decision a person can ever make is to go to war with God. You will never, never win. And by the way, that doesn't apply just to non-Christians. No Christian can prevail against the power of God and the purpose of God. Any Christian who continually disobeys God, rebels against God, continues to make himself or herself the god of their own life, you're not going to win that battle. Isaiah 45, verse 9 says, "Woe to him who quarrels," who makes war against his maker. No person can prevail against the power of God. Secondly, no circumstance can prevail against the power of prayer. These prison bars were no match for the prayers of God's people.
Now, let's be clear. There's nowhere in scripture that says God will answer every prayer. There's a boundary around our request. It's found in 1 John 5:14, and this is the confidence we have in him. If we ask anything what? According to his will, he hears us. Now listen to me. That's not a cop-out. The will of God is a boundary around our request not to keep good things from coming into our life but to keep bad things from coming into our life. It's our protection, and sometimes God says no because he knows what's best. But hear me. Just because God sometimes says no to our request doesn't mean he always says no, and that's why real faith in prayer means boldly asking for what is in our heart and quietly trusting in God's wisdom in answering that request.
But the fact that God sometimes says no should not keep us from asking, asking big things. In fact, the prerequisite for experiencing big answers is to engage in big asks. James said it in James 4:2. You have not because you ask not. Ladies and gentlemen, Satan cannot keep God from answering your prayers, but he can keep you from offering those prayers. You have not because you ask not. I think if there are going to be any regrets in heaven, it's going to be this, when we see all of the blessings God had planned for us. He had our name on those blessings. They were ours for the asking if only we had had enough faith to ask.