Acts 12:1-17 contains a wonderful story because it gives us many situations of the Christian life and Church life. In this scripture we find the following situations:
1. There are those who abuse or persecute the Church and Christians.
2. Christians find themselves in seemingly hopeless conditions.
3. A Christian must keep his faith in helpless conditions.
4. God sends help in times of trouble.
5. One of the main duties of the Church is to pray for one another.
6. Sometimes we actually are surprised when our prayers are answered.
The Church and Christians today face and experience the same problems and situations today. We can look at some of the high points of this story and see how they actually relate to us today.
Let us first look at Peter's imprisonment. Peter was put into prison because King Herod was persecuting the Church, vs 1-4. King Herod was persecuting and abusing the Church because he saw how it pleased the Jews, vs 3. Herod had killed James and when he saw how it pleased the Jews he set out to kill Peter. When Peter was apprehended it was during the Jewish passover, so Herod had Peter imprisoned until the passover was finished. One great thing to note here is that seeking pleasure from others as King Herod was doing is what keeps people continuing in their sins. This is just what Jesus warned others not to do.
What does it mean to be imprisoned? It means to be confined. It means to be in a hopeless and helpless condition. Peter was in this perilous condition. He was held in prison guarded by 16 soldiers with the sentence of death hanging over him. Christians also find themselves in hopeless and helpless situations. They confine themselves to things of the world. Christians confine their time to other things. Christians give their time to things they want to do and give their left over time to service within the Church. The problem and helpless condition here is that before they realize it there is no time left for the Church. The world will always be robbing Christians of time to give the Church is they allow it to.
We also become helpless because of our apathy, our lack of feeling. One of the greatest enemies of the Church today is the "I don't care" feeling of people. Let us put this in perspective of imprisonment. Prison is to be a deterrent to crime, but it is not so for many people today. Being confined and losing one's freedom is not the worst thing for some people today, because they are already in a worse condition. They are homeless, hungry, and lonely. They are missing the basic human needs that rank for more important than being confined. In prison they find these things so they don't care if they go to prison.
Being confined should be a deterrent for Christians. When the Christian is confined by things of the world he cannot do the things he needs to be doing for the Lord. When Christians are confined they miss the joy that is found in serving the Lord. But the problem is the same as we have already mentioned. When Christians give themselves to service of the Church and to God, they give up a little of their opportunity to make a little more money, or to have a little more of the world's pleasures. Somehow Christians have gotten their ideas and priorities mixed up. They have lost the joy in serving the Lord; therefore, to find joy Christians confine themselves to seeking it from the world. As they become more and more confined to finding joy from the world the same apathetic feeling comes to them just as it does to many who are in prison, "why should I care anymore?"
God sent help to Peter when he was confined and in his hopeless situation. In Peter's case God sends an angel, vs 7. God sends help at the right time. The angel came when the guards were sleeping. The angel came just before the day Peter was to be delivered for execution. God sends the type of help that will be sufficient to overcome our confinement. The angel was sufficient to free Peter from his chains. The angel woke Peter by hitting him on his side and gave him directions to follow. Peter was told to "arise quickly". When he was obedient the chains fell from his hands. Peter was told to gird himself, to put on his clothes and his sandals and follow the messenger of God. When Peter was obedient he found himself led out into the street. There a couple of things to note here: (1) when Christians receive help from God in times of trouble they are expected to follow His leading in total and immediate obedience. (2) When God begins to lead Christians and they are obedient to follow, God makes the way easy. When the angel came to Peter, a light also shined in the prison. When Christians follow God's leading, they are led out of the darkness into the light.
God sends help because Christians ask for it. Jesus said, "Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them", Mark 11:24. Peter was surely praying for his release all the time he was in prison. It seems that Peter's faith was strong. He was able to sleep between two guards, and was able to sleep even though he knew he was facing death. How many Christians today have that kind of faith?
The Church was also praying for Peter's release. Vs 5, "Prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him". They prayed without ceasing. They prayed when they were congregated together; they prayed when they were alone; and they prayed along their way. Christians today take a short time in worship service to make their prayer requests known and to pray for these requests, but how much further do they take these requests? Do they make it a matter of continual prayer?
The reaction of Christians and the Church to God's help is not always what is expected. Peter's reaction was that he thought he as dreaming, vs 9. He had to be led all the way out into the street and be totally free before he could believe what had really happened. Sometimes it takes Christians a while to realize that the help they have received during helpless times had really come from God. The Church's reaction to God's help was one of surprise. When Peter was released he went to Mary's house where the Church was gathered together and praying. When God does something great for us, we should do the same thing. We should take it to the Church as a testimony and tell others what God has done for us, that they may be strengthened as well. When Peter knocked on Mary's door, Rhoda came to answer. She was so happy to see Peter that she did not open the door, but ran to tell the others that Peter was free and standing before the gate. When the Church people heard what Rhoda had said, they said to her, "Thou art mad". They were praying for Peter's release, yet would not believe it had happened when they were told Peter was released. How many times do Christians pray for something, and yet fail to believe it happens as a result of their prayers?
Since the beginning of the Church, the Church has always faced her problems.
Some of the problems the Church has faced include:
1. Getting the Gospel to the outsiders.
2. Securing spiritual results from the Church's ministry.
3. Finding the right leaders for various ministries.
4. Having a lack of love and unity.
5. Disciplining new converts.
These problems are serious but not the most crucial. The critical problem that leads to a fatal condition is the prayer life of the Church. The strength of any Church will be directly proportionate with it's prayer life. The greater the prayer life of it's membership, the greater the strength of the Church. Prayer will supersede all problems that the Church will encounter. It will release the Church from the bondage and confinement she finds herself. Prayer will keep the Church in a loving and united condition. But it takes continual prayer, not just spontaneous prayer. Prayer without ceasing for others in the answer to keep Christians from falling into confinement of the world, and to keep them free to serve the Lord, and to receive the joy promised.