Read Acts 12.
Persecution by the religious leadership in Jerusalem started back in Acts 7 with the stoning of Stephen. It continued in Acts 8 through Saul, but God saved him in Acts 9.
Here in Acts 12 we were told that Herod, a Jewish political leader, joined in the persecution of the church. Herod began this persecution in a brutal way with the execution of James (vv. 1-2). There are a few guys in the New Testament named James; another one of them is actually mentioned in verse 17. The James that Herod killed in verse 2 was “the brother of John,” which identifies him as one of the Twelve apostles and the son of Zebedee (see Matt 4:21 & 10:2).
The religious leaders of Israel were happy that Herod had joined them in persecuting the church (v. 3a), so he arrested Simon Peter and intended to try him publicly (v. 4). Because it was Passover season, Herod waited for Peter’s trial and execution, and, during that time of waiting, the church came together to pray for him.
Verse 5 told us, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” And God answered their prayers in a miraculous way by sending an angel to rescue Simon Peter (vv. 7-11).
Yet, when Peter showed up to the prayer meeting, people had a hard time believing that he had really been freed (vv. 12-17). When I was taught this passage as a child in Sunday school, the teacher suggested that the church didn’t really believe that God would answer their prayers, that why they were so startled to see Peter.
I’m not sure that’s right; in fact, I’m pretty sure it is wrong.
The fact that the church was “earnestly praying for Peter” (v. 5) suggests that God’s people were doing the right thing–prayer–from sincere hearts. They wanted God to free Peter and believed that God would, if it was his will.
That last part, “…if it was his will…” is important. Verse 2 didn’t tell us that anyone was praying for James to be freed but it is hard to believe that they weren’t praying for that. Yet God did not will to rescue James from death as he did for Peter.
I think the church was startled when Peter was released because of how God rescued him, not that God rescued him. I think the church was expecting a more providential release, meaning that God would change Herod’s heart and Peter would be acquitted at his trial (v. 4d) or just outright released.
Instead of that, though, God performed a miracle to release Peter. It was so startling–and unexpected–that even Peter himself was unprepared for it (vv. 6-11).
The lesson here, then, is not that we should have more faith when we pray. That’s always true; as fallen people, our faith could always be stronger and purer.
The lesson instead is that we shouldn’t set our hopes on the method by which God answers prayer. Part of praying in faith is submitting our prayers to God’s will–both for the outcome and for the way in which God makes that outcome happen.
Have you ever been surprised by how God answered your prayers? Maybe he made your faith stronger through a trial in your life. Maybe he helped you get rid of a sin in your life by causing that sin to be exposed instead of making your desire for it go away suddenly.
What have you been praying for? Is it possible that God is answering–but you just don’t see it yet because you’re looking for a different answer?