The faithless prayer meeting—Acts 12:5-16

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you didn’t have enough faith to pray? Or where something turned out differently than you’d hoped, and you assumed that it was because you lacked faith? Or where God answered your prayers, but you weren’t sure it was God or you initially couldn’t believe that it really happened?

In Acts 12, James, brother of John, is arrested and executed by King Herod Agrippa I. Jesus explained that the twelve apostles would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes (Luke 22:30); he did not say that it would happen before their death and resurrection (Mark 10:38-39). For those who expected the kingdom immediately, however, the death of one of the apostles was a faith-testing event. James was not only one of the twelve, but one of the three closest to Jesus (Luke 8:51; 9:28).

Now Peter, leader of the twelve, is arrested and scheduled to face the same fate. The church prays fervently for his release (12:5). While believers pray, an angel of the Lord comes and leads Peter out of the prison, and he heads for a Christian household where, it turns out, believers are praying (12:12). Yet when he first arrives, the believers initially do not believe that their prayer is answered.

The narrative bristles with irony:

  • Israelites at the first Passover were girded and sandaled, ready to escape captivity (Exod 12:11)—in contrast to Peter, at a later Passover season (Acts 12:4, 8)
  • Whereas the church is praying fervently for his deliverance (12:5, 12), Peter is sound asleep (12:6-7; cf. Luke 22:45)
  • Neither the people praying (Acts 12:12, 15) nor Peter himself (12:9) initially believe his release
  • Peter thought the angel he was seeing was a “vision” (12:7) just as Jesus’s male followers once had supposed that his female followers saw only a “vision” of angels (Luke 24:23)
  • An angel frees Peter (Acts 12:7-11) but his supporters suppose him an angel (or ghost; 12:15)—as some supposed when they saw the risen Lord (Luke 24:37)
  • When a woman joyfully proclaims his survival (Acts 12:14), others faithlessly dismiss her testimony like that of the women at the tomb (Luke 24:11)
  • Whereas Peter’s guards in 12:6, 10 fail to keep him in, in 12:13-15 his own supporters keep Peter out
  • Whereas the iron gate in 12:10 opens of its own accord, in 12:14 the gate of the house where fellow-Christians pray for his safety remains barred to him
  • Whereas Peter comes to his senses only when he recognizes that the “vision” (12:9) is real (12:11), believers accuse Rhoda of madness (12:15) for declaring Peter’s presence

To borrow an analogy from Luke’s Gospel, Those inside have been “knocking” in prayer that a figurative door may be “opened” for them (Luke 11:5-10), for Peter’s release (Acts 12:5, 12)—yet fail to believe that the answer to their prayers is knocking on their door!

We can be happy that God is not limited to acting on our faith. That was certainly the case when Gabriel was sent to Zechariah to let him know that his wife Elisabeth was going to have a son (Luke 1:18-20). (Moses certainly didn’t have faith to make the burning bush burn.) To a lesser extent, it was also true when believers were praying for Peter’s release from Herod Agrippa’s plans to kill him in Acts 12:5-16.

But while their faith wasn’t perfect, they had enough faith to pray. They came to the right place with their needs. Although I called this a “faithless prayer meeting,” they weren’t really faithless; they just had limited faith that didn’t match God’s much greater power. It takes just a mustard seed, because the real issue is not how big is our faith, but how big is the God in whom we trust. That is, we don’t need to put faith in our faith, as if faith itself is a force of imagination that makes things happen. We can trust a God who is bigger than us being perfect or having everything figured out. Yes, God invites us to have faith. Yes, confidence in him matters. But we can thank God that he is not controlled by or limited to our faith. He is bigger than we can ask or imagine, and we grow deeper in faith as we witness and consider his gracious acts.


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