To the eyes of people, the church in Jerusalem was not experiencing success, and it was less than fifteen years after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. It seemed that the Lord’s great plan for the spread of his message was not working, at least it wasn’t in regard to this gathering. The early years had been very promising. That first assembly of followers of Jesus grew from one twenty to over three thousand on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:15; 2:41), and soon there were over five thousand men that were counted part of that congregation (Acts 4:4). In our time we would call that a megachurch.
However, the enemy struck back and persecution came. First, the attack was on the apostles (Acts 4:5-31; 5:17-42), but in answer to prayer, the apostles were freed, and the word of God spread. The number of learners of Jesus increased rapidly (Acts 6:7). Then it seemed that a complete conversion of all Jerusalem was possible. But there was another enemy, a very religious man named Saul, who led a persecution against first Stephen, one of seven leaders of the Jerusalem assembly (Acts 6:8-8:1), and next against the entire church (Acts 8:3). The result was that the entire church was scattered, except for the apostles. That local gathering had to be rebuilt (not a building but the assembly of Christ followers). This the apostles accomplished by God’s grace, though Luke does not give us much information. We only learn that after Saul’s conversion there was again a gathering of disciples (learners) that he tried to join and that grew in numbers (Acts 9:26-31). The group had problems, especially about accepting non-Jewish people from the nations as believers, but the church in Jerusalem achieved a new measure of strength and stability.
Nevertheless, the enemy of the good news stirred up another man to oppose the church. This was King Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, who had tried to kill the infant Messiah Jesus. He arrested some that belonged to the Jerusalem assembly, including the apostle James, whom he executed. When he saw that James’ death pleased the non-Christians in Jerusalem, he decided to arrest Peter, in order to put him to death also.
How did the church in Jerusalem respond to this new wave of persecution? They did what the church had done after the first event of persecution (Acts 4:23-31). They prayed (12:5). They prayed earnestly. They prayed together (12:12). Far too many churches who dare to call themselves Christians have abandoned gatherings for prayer. They seem to think that that a few little words uttered alone in their comfortable homes is all that needs to be done. And then they mistakenly assure themselves that they are practicing historic Christianity. My friends, never be misled by those who arrogantly claim that there is nothing about meeting together to pray in the New Testament. Such boasts are very wrong. Devoting ourselves to prayer when we come together is a basic description of church practice. Consider Acts 2:42 and 1 Corinthians 1:2, as well as various places in Acts (those mentioned and Acts 20:36; 21:5). The love of ease by grievously mistaken church leaders and those that follow them lies at the root of churches without gatherings for prayer. And could it also be that old unbelief is the co-conspirator with a love of ease? What do I mean?
Look at the text (12:13-15). Even when the Jerusalem church prayed for Peter, they did not expect the Lord to release him. Instead of checking out the servant girl’s message, they insulted her. When she would not abandon her message, they became falsely theological. “It must be his angel.” No, it wasn’t his angel, but it was Peter himself knocking! Thankfully, the Lord had answered their prayers, in spite of their little faith. The church succeeds according to God when it follows him in all his ways. This includes following Christ’s example of prayer.
I think that many churches in the post-Christendom west are deeply infected with unbelief regarding prayer. They have drunk deeply at the philosophical and supposedly scientific wells of anti-supernaturalism. They do not believe that prayer is necessary or can accomplish anything. For example, once Sharon and I were at a Bible conference and were in its bookstore. Sharon was looking at a book called What Happens When Women Pray? Another pastor’s wife remarked to Sharon as she held it, “Nothing.” We were both appalled at this spirit of unbelief.
Mission FifteenFive takes its name from John 15:5. Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, we can do nothing. Relying on Christ requires prayer, and not only individual and family prayer, but prayer together as believers in the true and living God, who is able to do much more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). The church in America needs to return to prayer. Put your hope in God, and we will be able to praise him. But we need to return to earnest, fervent prayer together to the Sovereign Lord of the church.
Grace and peace, David