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Faithless Prayer

Acts 12 contains one of my favorite stories of the early church. It is a great little bit of writing—a short story in three acts. I was reflecting on that story recently and just had to tell you about it.

The chapter begins with a description of Herod’s persecution against the church. In order to please his Jewish subjects Herod has James arrested and killed. This makes his subjects so happy that he then goes after Peter, throwing him in prison as well. Knowing the popularity of these upstart Christians, Herod puts Peter under the care of four whole squads of soldiers. The first act ends with these words: “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” This earnest prayer is no incidental detail; it is a little fact, some narrative tension, that the author offers to foreshadow what will come.

The second act tells how Peter is delivered by God through one his angels. Peter, half asleep, sees his chains fall off and quickly passes all the guards before waking up and realizing what is happening. He hurries quickly to the church, to the gathering of people who just happen to be praying for him at that very moment. There is a delightful bit of comedy injected into the text when Rhoda, the servant girl, so excited to hear Peter at the door, runs to tell everyone that he has arrived. But she forgets to let him in; he is left standing on the street, pounding at the door. With the prayer meeting coming to a prompt end, the people belittle Rhoda, refusing to believe that Peter has actually arrived. And yet, because of Peter’s persistent knocking, they soon come to realize that he really has been rescued. Peter quickly tells his story and then disappears, presumably opting to lay low for a little while.

In the third act we return to Herod. Herod has ordered the execution of the soldiers who allowed Peter to escape. And then we find him accepting worship as a god. His Creator is most displeased and strikes him down so “he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” Herod bookends this story, appearing as a cruel tyrant at the beginning and as a pathetic worm-eaten corpse at the end. He has gone from holding the power of life and death in his hand to being struck down by the Lord himself. It’s a pathetic end to a pathetic ruler.

Acts 12 contains a great little story, a little vignette of life in the early church. Despite the miraculous (Peter being rescued, Herod being struck down) there is such a human element to it. We see the church in prayer, undoubtedly begging God for the life of their friend and pastor. Yet when God answers their earnest prayers, they refuse to believe it. “You are out of your mind,” they tell Rhoda when she insists that God has answered them. Two thousand years later we laugh at them, wondering why they would bother to pray if they didn’t believe that God might actually answer. And then we realize that we do little better; we realize how much effort we put into pleading for God to act and how little effort we put into seeking answers to those prayers. I trust the lesson was not lost on the early church. I trust they learned from it that God’s miraculous rescue of Peter was not in any way separate from their prayers. Those prayers, even though they were offered with little expectation of an answer, were instrumental in God rescuing Peter from his imprisonment. God answers prayer, even when we ask with little faith.

It is also worth noticing that as soon as Peter arrived he was sure to share all that God had done. Peter, the object of all those prayers, wanted to ensure that the church knew that it was God who had acted with such power and in such an unusual way. “He described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, ‘Tell these things to James and to the brothers.’” He wanted this great act of God to encourage all of the believers.

The chapter closes with these familiar words: “the word of God increased and multiplied.” Have you ever noticed how often these words, or ones just like it, appear in Acts? Just a brief overview of the first chapters shows them in chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11 and 12. In every case, Luke wants us to know that God continued to build his church. In times of joy and pain, times of peace and persecution, God built his church. All that God did was for his own glory and served his ultimate purpose of drawing a people to himself.

And this God, who acted so faithfully, so consistently, so powerfully, is the same God we serve today.