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Pray First; Pray Most
But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him.
—Acts 12:5 (nlt)
King Herod suffered from a Hitler-level obsession with popularity. He murdered the apostle James to curry favor with the populace. The execution bumped his approval rating, so he jailed Peter and resolved to behead him on the anniversary of Jesus’ death. (Would you like a little salt with that wound?)
He placed the apostle under the watchful eye of sixteen Navy Seal sorts and told them, with no tongue in cheek, “He escapes, you die.” (Quality control, Herod style.) They bound
Peter in chains and secured him three doors deep into the prison.
And what could the church do about it? The problem of an imprisoned Peter stood Goliath-tall over the humble community. They had no recourse: no clout, no political chips to cash. They had nothing but fear-drenched questions. “Who’s next? First James, then Peter. Is Herod going to purge the church leadership?”
The church still faces her Goliaths. World hunger. Clergy scandal. Stingy Christians. Corrupt officials. Pea-brained and hard-hearted dictators. Peter in prison is just the first of a long list of challenges too big for the church.
So our Jerusalem ancestors left us a strategy. When the problem is bigger than we are—we pray! “But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him” (Acts 12:5 nlt).
They didn’t picket the prison, petition the government, protest the arrest, or prepare for Peter’s funeral. They prayed. They prayed as if prayer was their only hope, for indeed it was.
They prayed “very earnestly for him.”
One of our Brazilian church leaders taught me something about earnest prayer. He met Christ during a yearlong stay in a drug-rehab center. His therapy included three one-hour sessions of prayer a day. Patients weren’t required to pray, but they were required to attend the prayer meeting. Dozens of recovering drug addicts spent sixty uninterrupted minutes on their knees.
I expressed amazement and confessed that my prayers were short and formal. He invited (dared?) me to meet him for prayer. I did the next day. We knelt on the concrete floor of our small church auditorium and began to talk to God. Change that. I talked; he cried, wailed, begged, cajoled, and pleaded. He pounded his fists on the floor, shook a fist toward heaven, confessed, and reconfessed every sin. He recited every promise in the Bible as if God needed a reminder. He prayed like Moses.
When God determined to destroy the Israelites for their golden calf stunt, “Moses begged the Lord his God and said, ‘Lord, don’t let your anger destroy your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with your great power and strength. Don’t let the people of Egypt say, “The Lord brought the Israelites out of Egypt for an evil purpose.” . . . Remember the men who served you—Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. You promised with an oath to them’” (Ex. 32:11–13 ncv).
Moses on Mount Sinai is not calm and quiet, with folded hands and a serene expression. He’s on his face one minute, in God’s the next. He’s on his knees, pointing his finger, lifting his hands. Shedding tears. Shredding his cloak. Wrestling like Jacob at Jabbok for the lives of his people.
And God heard him! “So the Lord changed his mind and did not destroy the people as he had said he might” (v.14 ncv).
Our passionate prayers move the heart of God. “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). Prayer does not change God’s nature; who he is will never be altered. Prayer does, however, impact the flow of history. God has wired his world for power, but he calls on us to flip the switch.
And the Jerusalem church did just that.
The church prayed very earnestly for him.
The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers. Others stood guard at the prison gate. Suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of the Lord stood before Peter. The angel struck him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists. Then the angel told him, “Get dressed and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Now put on your coat and follow me,” the angel ordered. (Acts 12:5–8 nlt)
The apostle, who once wondered how Christ could sleep in a storm, now snoozes through his own.
Let’s give this scene the chuckle it deserves. An angel descends from heaven onto earth. Only God knows how many demons he battled en route. He navigates the Jerusalem streets until he reaches Herod’s prison. He passes through three sets of iron doors and a squad of soldiers until he stands in front of Peter. Brightness explodes like a July sun in Death Valley. But Peter sleeps through the wake-up call. The old fisherman dreams of Galilean sea bass.
Do angels elbow or wing people? Either way, shackles clang on the floor. The angel has to remind groggy Peter how to re-robe. First your sandals. Now your robe. Doors swing open in succession. And somewhere on the avenue to Mary’s house, Peter realizes he isn’t dreaming. The angel points him in the right direction and departs, muttering something about bringing a trumpet next time.
Rightly stunned, Peter walks to Mary’s house. She, at that very hour, is hosting a prayer meeting on his behalf. His friends pack the place and fill the house with earnest intercession.
Peter surely smiles as he hears their prayers. He knocks on the door. The servant answers and, instead of opening it, races back to the prayer circle and announces:
“Peter is standing at the door!”
“You’re out of your mind!” they said. When she insisted, they decided, “It must be his angel.” (vv. 14–15 nlt)
I confess a sense of relief at that reading. Even the early followers struggled to believe God would hear them. Even when the answer knocked on the door, they hesitated.
We still do. Most of us struggle with prayer. We forget to pray, and when we remember, we hurry through prayers with hollow words. Our minds drift; our thoughts scatter like a covey of quail. Why is this? Prayer requires minimal effort. No location is prescribed. No particular clothing is required. No title or office is stipulated. Yet you’d think we were wrestling a greased pig.
Speaking of pigs, Satan seeks to interrupt our prayers. Our battle with prayer is not entirely our fault. The devil knows the stories; he witnessed the angel in Peter’s cell and the revival in Jerusalem. He knows what happens when we pray. “Our weapons have power from God that can destroy the enemy’s strong places” (2 Cor. 10:4 ncv).
Satan is not troubled when Max writes books or prepares sermons, but his knobby knees tremble when Max prays. Satan does not stutter or stumble when you walk through church doors or attend committee meetings. Demons aren’t flustered when you read this book. But the walls of hell shake when one person with an honest heart and faithful confession says, “Oh, God, how great thou art.”
Satan keeps you and me from prayer. He tries to position himself between us and God. But he scampers like a spooked dog when we move forward. So let’s do.
Humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. (James 4:7–8 nlt)
The Lord is close to everyone who prays to him, to all who truly pray to him. (Ps. 145:18 ncv)
When the children of Israel went to battle against the Amalekites, Moses selected the mountain of prayer over the valley of battle (Ex. 17:8–13). The Israelites won.
When Abraham learned about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he “remained standing before the Lord” rather than rush out to warn the cities (Gen. 18:22 niv).
Advisers informed Nehemiah that Jerusalem was in ruins. He laid a foundation of prayer before he laid a foundation of stone (Neh. 1:4).
Paul’s letters contain more requests for prayer than they do appeals for money, possessions, or comforts.
And Jesus. Our prayerful Jesus.
Awaking early to pray (Mark 1:35).
Dismissing people to pray (Matt. 14:23).
Ascending a mountain to pray (Luke 9:28).
Crafting a model prayer to teach us to pray (Matt. 6:9–13).
Cleansing the temple so others could pray (Matt. 21:12–13).
Stepping into a garden to pray (Luke 22:39–46).
Jesus immersed his words and work in prayer. Powerful things happen when we do the same.
Peggy Smith was eighty-four years old. Her sister, Christine, was eighty-two. The years had taken sight from the first and bent the body of the second. Neither could leave their house to attend church.
Yet their church needed them. They lived on the Isle of Lewis, off the coast of Scotland. A spiritual darkness had settled upon their village of Barvas. The congregation was losing people, and the youth were mocking the faith, speaking of conversion as a plague. In October 1949 the Presbytery of Free Church called upon their members to pray.
But what could two elderly, housebound sisters do? Quite a lot, they determined. They turned their cottage into an all-night house of prayer. From 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., two nights each week, they asked God to have mercy on their city. After several months Peggy told Christine that God had spoken these words to her: “I will pour water upon him who is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground.”
She was so sure of the message, she urged her pastor to conduct a revival and invite well-known evangelist Duncan Campbell to speak. The pastor did, but Campbell reluctantly declined. Peggy received the news with confidence. “God hath said he is coming, and he will be here within a fortnight.” God changed Campbell’s calendar, and within two weeks the meeting began.
For five weeks Duncan Campbell preached in Barvas parish. Large crowds gathered in four services at 7 p.m., 10 p.m., midnight, and 3 a.m. The move of God upon the people was undeniable. Hundreds of people were converted. Drinking places closed for lack of patrons. Saloons emptied, and the church grew. The Isle of Lewis tasted the presence of God. All because two women prayed.
Let’s pray, first. Traveling to help the hungry? Be sure to bathe your mission in prayer. Working to disentangle the knots of injustice? Pray. Weary with a world of racism and division? So is God. And he would love to talk to you about it.
Let’s pray, most. Did God call us to preach without ceasing? Or teach without ceasing? Or have committee meetings without ceasing? Or sing without ceasing? No, but he did call us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
Did Jesus declare: My house shall be called a house of study? Fellowship? Music? A house of exposition? A house of activities? No, but he did say, “My house will be called a house of prayer” (Mark 11:17 niv).
No other spiritual activity is guaranteed such results. “When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action” (Matt. 18:19 msg). He is moved by the humble, prayerful heart.
In late 1964 Communist Simba rebels besieged the town of Bunia in Zaire. They arrested and executed many citizens. A pastor by the name of Zebedayo Idu was one of their victims. They sentenced him to death before a firing squad and placed him in jail for the night. The next morning he and a large number of prisoners were herded onto a truck and driven to a public place for execution. With no explanation the official told the prisoners to line up and number off—“one, two, one, two, one, two.” The ones were placed in front of the firing squad. The twos were taken back to the prison. Pastor Zebedayo was among those who were spared.
Back in the jail cell, the prisoners could hear the sound of gunfire. The minister took advantage of the dramatic moment to share the story of Jesus and the hope of heaven. Eight of the prisoners gave their lives to God that day. About the time Pastor Idu finished sharing, an excited messenger came to the door with a release order. The pastor had been arrested by mistake and was free to leave.
He said good-bye to the prisoners and hurried to his home next to the chapel. There he discovered a crowd of believers urgently praying for his release. When they saw the answer to their prayers walk through the door, their prayer service became a praise service.
The same God who heard the prayers from Jerusalem heard the prayers from Zaire. He’s still listening. Are we still praying?
Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart. Pray for us, too, that God will give us many opportunities to speak about his mysterious plan concerning Christ.
(Colossians 4:2–3 nlt)
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you created all that exists, and you sustain all through your infinite wisdom and boundless power. Yet you invite me to come to you in prayer, boldly and with the expectation that you will hear and answer me. Teach me, Lord, to take full advantage of this privilege, especially in regard to reaching others with
Questions for Discussion
1. How would you describe the way Moses prayed to God in Exodus 32? In your own words, recount how Max describes the way his Brazilian church leader prayed. In what ways are your prayer times different from these descriptions? What could you do to become more fervent (passionate) in prayer?
2. What typical tactics does Satan use to keep you from prayer? How can you counter these with your own prayer strategies?
3. What is the role of prayer in the life of your church? How could you adjust your approach to prayer in your church to make it more meaningful?
4. Tell about a time when your prayer life seemed richer than it is now. What was different then?
5. What could you do to reenergize your prayer times? What postures could you take? What lists could you use? What prayer activities could you try? What scriptures could you use as prayers? Who could join you for prayer as an inspiration?
Ideas for Action
■ Do a study this week on Jesus and prayer. Use the following verses from this chapter and other examples of Jesus praying or teaching about prayer to guide you:
Matthew 5:44; 6:6–13; 14:13, 23; 19:13; 21:12–13; 21:22; 24:20
Mark 1:35; 6:46; 9:28–29
Luke 6:12–16; 9:18–20; 18:1–8; 18:9–14; 22:39–46; 23:33–34
John 11:41; 17:1, 9, 20
■ You may already pray before every meal and at the start of every day, but this week pray before you do these other things as well:
before you start your car
before you exercise
before you do the first thing you always do at work
before you turn on your computer
before you pick up the phone
before you go into a meeting
before you walk back into your home at the end of the day
before you turn on the television
before you open a book
before you go to sleep
before you __
Reprinted by permission. Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make A Difference by Max Lucado, 2010, copyright date, Thomas Nelson Inc. Nashville, Tennessee. All rights reserved