Summary: Acts 12 has both answered and unanswered prayers within it. We tend to like it better when we get a "yes" from heaven, but God might actually be doing greater things for us when the answer is "no."
When is the last time you prayed earnestly for something? What do you expect when you pray? What do you pray for most?
I think about the family of a small child who is dying in a cancer ward. They pray night and day and are joined in prayer by hundreds of others asking God to spare the life of their son. As the days pass the cancer progresses. Then, finally, it happens. The child dies.
What do you do when your most fervent prayer seems to go unheard?
Ted Turner said that he was raised in a strict Christian home. Turner really was a deeply religious boy, despite his father's emotional abuse. He intended at one point to become a missionary. Then, when he was a teenager, his younger sister Mary Jane contracted a form of lupus, and suffered terribly before dying a relatively short while later. All his prayers for her recovery — an hour a day, he said — were for naught.
"She used to run around in pain, begging God to let her die," he recalled. "My family broke apart. I thought, 'How could God let my sister suffer so much?'"
What do you do when your most fervent prayers seem to go unheard?
Acts 12 gives us the story of two men who are arrested and sentenced to die. The first one was executed. The second was rescued. Surely both were prayed for. Surely! But only one was spared… this time. Later, Peter will also be killed in service to the Lord, but not now, not this time.
Actually, a lot of people die in this chapter, don’t they. James dies, 16 soldiers die, and Herod Agrippa dies. Of course, we see the justice in Herod’s death. But for James and the soldiers, it’s harder to understand. I just started another graduate class called Historical Theology. We are studying the history of major Christian thinkers and writers from 100 AD to 1600 AD. This week’s readings have taken me through an early period of Christian persecution and its impact on Christian thought. Interestingly enough, there was a point when Christians were actually warned not to seek martyrdom. Life as a Christian was often far from pleasant. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ of the early days honestly believed that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Many of their prayers for one another were not for rescue from death, but that they might face death with courage and strength from Christ, and that their death might bring honor to Jesus Christ and encouragement to other Christians.
Listen to a couple of scriptures about the early attitude toward dying as a Christian.
Revelation 12:10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, "Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them before our God day and night.
11 "And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even to death.
As Paul is heading into Jerusalem near the end of Acts he says this: 20:22 "And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there,
23 except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me.
24 "But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.
We treasure living, don’t we? It is easy to think if dying as the worst possible thing to happen to anyone. But listen, that’s not the case. As bad as dying is, it isn’t the worst thing that could happen. There are worse things than dying.
The worst thing that can happen to you is for you to live this life and fail to follow Jesus Christ. The most terrible thing that could happen to you is to live and not know God nor obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the ultimate failure, the supreme foolishness, the absolutely complete human tragedy. 10 our of 10 people die. Would to God that many were saved! But most are not.
Listen. I believe what happened to Peter in Acts 12 was in answer to the prayers of the saints, just like it says. God rescued Peter from certain death and foiled the plans of Herod and I’m sure bolstered the faith of that prayer group at Mary’s house. I don’t know about you, but this story encourages my faith as well. I love how this all unfolds!