(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

This is a very exciting chapter and is much loved by Christians as it demonstrates man's inability to withstand God's power. When Peter and the angels came to the great iron gate of the prison: It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. v10. Sometimes the iron gate opens for us and sets us free. The story of Peter's release from prison is also an example of God's concern for his people. However, Peter's deliverance does pose difficult questions about miracles and prayer that I shall try to answer.

(B) Why are miracles such rare events?

Herod Agrippa 1 was the grandson of Herod the Great. He ingratiated himself into favour with both emperors Gaius and Claudius and so was given the oversight of all Palestine. He courted popularity amongst the Jews in general and the influential Pharisees in particular. An easy way to do this was to persecute Christians and the apostle James was executed as part of this policy.

James was not rescued by angels and nor are the majority of Christians imprisoned for their faith. There are three reasons for this:

    (a) Underpinning the universe is the law of cause and effect. When something happens there is a reasonable explanation for it. The happening has a cause that can be investigated. An event may be the product of a long chain of linked happenings or more than one chain of linked happenings that converge to produce the event. The actual explanation of why I am sitting typing at my computer this very moment could be very simple or very, very, complex. If miracles occurred regularly then the law of cause and effect could no longer be relied upon. It would be impossible to investigate the universe scientifically. We would not know where we were. Life would become unpredictable.

    (b) God cannot regularly undo the wrong we do without undermining human responsibility. If angels released every innocent prisoner then man would be absolved from administering justice. People could be thrown into prison on suspicion of doing wrong to await the judgement of God who would set free the not guilty. God rarely intervenes directly in the affairs of men because men must be free to do either right or wrong. So it was that the wicked regimes of Hitler and Stalin ran their course. God was not responsible for the horrific suffering caused by these two men. Hitler, Stalin, their allies and those who failed to oppose them were the ones responsible for thirty years of suffering and misery without parallel in human history.

    (c) When miracles do occur there are often unfortunate repercussions. The release of Peter was achieved at the expense of four soldiers lives. It was Herod who ordered their execution and not God but nonetheless they would not have died if Peter had not miraculously escaped. There was even an awful price to pay for the Incarnation - all those Bethlehem babes butchered.

These then are the reasons why God rarely does miracles. It is, perhaps, surprising that he does any at all.

(C) Why does God do miracles?

Miracles are often signs given by God in times of crisis. The church in Jerusalem was in crisis. It was facing an unholy alliance between Herod and the Pharisee dominated Sanhedrin. James had been beheaded and Peter was in prison awaiting trial and, in all probability, the same fate. The morale of believers in Jerusalem was at an all time low. James, the church leader, and the other apostles were in hiding. The members met for prayer at the home of John Mark's mother at night. It is likely that they would disperse as dawn broke. None of those in that prayer meeting expected Peter to be released!

God freed Peter to raise the morale of the church. It was a huge encouragement and emboldened the Jewish Christians. We read that the word of God continued to increase and spread. v24.

It is a fact that waves of fierce persecution are relatively short-lived. The church usually survives persecution. Communism did not eradicate Christianity in Russia or China. It is only in Japan that truly awful brutality annihilated Christianity in the 17th century. God almost always sets limits on the amount of suffering experienced by his people and will intervene, one way or another, to check it.

(D) Why does prayer influence God?

Luke records: So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. v5. The Christians in Jerusalem obviously thought it was vital to pray for Peter. Why did they think like that? If God was going to release Peter surely he would do so whether they prayed or not. I don't think so. Petitionary prayer is important for at least three reasons:

    (a) It shows that we are ready for God's intervention and blessing. The Israelites were in Egypt for 400 years. It was only when: The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. Ex2v24. The Israelites were just about ready for the trauma of the Exodus. It was the same for Hannah. God had a great blessing in store for her but only when she prayed in her desperation: "O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life...." 1Sam1v11.

    A church may pray in a half-hearted sort of way for God's intervention and a great blessing. God will not answer until he knows from the nature of the prayers of his people that they are ready for the great changes that attend real blessing. My own little church is approaching a crisis. Unless there is a change soon we shall close. Sadly those who attend do not have the spirit of prayer. They do not meet to plead with God on behalf of their fellowship.

    (b) It declares a dependency upon God alone. In sincere and fervent petitionary prayer we throw ourselves upon God's mercy. We appeal directly to the Father heart of love. We have no rights. We cannot pressurise God into acting on our behalf. He is under no obligation to us. We rely on his love and grace as did the returning prodigal son. He was going to say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men." .... While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. Luke15vs18to20. That is what we need to depend upon - our Father's compassion. Jesus encourages us to do this. At the end of his parable about the importunate widow he says: And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night. Luke18v7.

    (c) It provides God with a window of opportunity. When a son takes over a business from his father the father has to stand back and let his son get on with it. The son needs to make his own mistakes and learn from them. If the son goes to his father and says, "Father I'm in a muddle I need your help;" the father is free to intervene. God is like the father in my illustration - he will not help us unless we invite him to do so. If we insist on doing things our own way God stands back and leaves us to it. See my story about the little boy on the dodgems.

(E) How to pray effectively.

The story of Peter's great escape illustrates the nature of effective petitionary prayer. It is:

    (a) Particular and not general. The church was not praying for the release of all prisoners but one in particular - Peter. It is important to pray for people by name. Whenever John Bean comes to preach at our chapel he asks after my brother Peter. He remembers the time, many years ago, when my brother was rushed off to hospital with a cist on his lung. His condition was serious. The news rapidly spread to all the churches of our Association. They all prayed for Peter. That used to be the great strength of the Grace Baptist Churches of Norfolk and Suffolk - they were one large extended family. That characteristic has been less evident since the Association has become more exclusive.

    We should not pray that people be converted in our churches but that Bill, Iris and Gladys will be converted. We should not prayer for missionaries in general but actual missionaries known to us. We should not prayer for all Christians who are being persecuted but name specific brothers and sisters who are at risk.

    (b) Concerned. Peter's safety was on the heart of his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. If we are concerned for the eternal security of our family, friends and acquaintances we will pray for them. A black lady in a Cambridge book shop gave me some good advice - see my story on The Two Ladies.

    (c) Corporate. The church was praying for Peter - many people had gathered and were praying in the house of John Mark's mother. See v12. It is not enough to pray as individuals. We should pray collectively over any matter that affects the well-being of the church. When a catastrophe occurs all the emergency services are mobilised - police, ambulance men, firemen, nurses and doctors work together to cope with the situation. So Christians should meet together to confront the three great enemies of the church - the flesh, the world and the devil - that are a constant threat to its health and strength.

    (d) United. The Christians in the house of Mark's mother were all praying to the same end. Nobody had any reservations. There was no one there with his, or her, own agenda. We used to have a man attend our prayer meeting whose prayers were an attempt to convert us to his own peculiar beliefs. He wanted us to worship God on a Saturday. The church at Jerusalem was united in its desire for Peter's eventual release. The brethren knew that he was shortly coming to trial and I expect the burden of their prayers was that he would be set free - as in the past.

    (e) Earnest. Peter's friends were earnestly praying to God for him. v5. They were sincere and fervent. They didn't stop for the knocking on the front door. Rhoda went to open it but the prayer meeting went on. I suppose the last time I attended prayer meetings like the one in Mark's mother's house was at Pioneer Camp where the Christian workers prayed for the conversion of the young people in their care. It was there, too, that I saw the Spirit moving and many teenagers saved.

The Christians praying for Peter had no expectation that he would be miraculously released from prison in the middle of the night. They were in all probability asking God for Peter's acquittal at his trial. They didn't believe Rhoda when she told them that the Big Fisherman was standing at the door. They thought it must be Peter's angel!

I don't blame the Jerusalem Christians for their reaction. They had prayed for James and he had died. If James was executed in spite of their earnest prayers how could they be sure that Peter would be spared? They were not praying the so-called prayer of faith. This is supposed to be a prayer where the petitioner is certain of a positive response from God. It is the prayer the elders offer that will make the sick person well. James5v15. I am afraid that this does not work. Many Christians have prayed for a beloved fellow believer who is terminally ill with cancer and been certain that he or she would recover only to be bitterly disappointed. I can remember praying for a pastor's daughter who had brain cancer. I felt a tremendous assurance that she would recover. Now I am not prone to spiritual sensations. It is the first and last time that I have had this sort of inner certainty. The experience I had was so real to me that I phoned up the pastor concerned and told him about it. Later his daughter died.

Peter's brethren did pray in faith. They would not have prayed at all if they had no faith in God. It was all they could do. They believed that through their prayers God would help Peter. The gathered church members did not know how God would assist Peter but they were sure he could and would. Those who attended that meeting in the night reaches also knew, by faith, that they would be comforted and strengthened through prayer.

We had a healing meeting at our church once. The pastor said that no-one should attend who could not pray with the expectation that God would heal the terminally ill man. That was wrong of him. Any prayer to God about problems beyond our ability to resolve is a prayer of faith. However, it is impossible for us in time of trouble to infallibly discern the will of God and to predict the outcome. If we could do this then our prayer would not be one of faith. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Heb11v1.

(F) God has many ways of achieving his purposes.

Herod seemed invincible. He was at the height of his power when he sat on his throne in shimmering silver robes and delivered an address to the people of Tyre and Sidon. So impressive was he that his audience shouted out, "This is the voice of god, not of a man." v22. Herod took this more than fulsome praise as his just due and for his arrogance God struck him down. The mighty Herod was in all probability undone by a very humble organism - the lowly bacteria. Perhaps, one of those nasty flesh-eating bacteria went rampant and began to attack his body. Maggots invaded the rotting tissues and Herod rapidly decomposed until he died. All God needed was a single bacteria!

God is the master of circumstance. He more often uses circumstance to bring about his purposes than miracles. We only have to read the stories of Ruth and Boaz, Mordecai and Esther, Cyrus King of Persia and Nehemiah and Joseph and his brothers to be aware of this.

In my lifetime God has achieved wondrous things. He raised up Winston Churchill to counter the Nazi threat. The Iron Curtain disintegrated and Eastern Europe was set free without bloodshed. I am certain that the many prayers in the West for the suffering church in the East contributed to this amazing event. President Mao did not last forever and with his death Chinese Christians experienced greater freedom and the church emerged from hiding.

God does not do many miracles but the lesson from history is this:

God is still on the throne
And he will remember his own.