Surprised by Prayer: Reading Acts 12 Realistically
Try to imagine this scene from the future. Your pastor has been arrested for “hate speech” because he preached on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Under a new, strict law he faces several years in jail. On the eve of his arraignment in court, the church gathers for a special prayer meeting. The building buzzes with the hushed tones of congregants praying earnestly for their pastor.
Suddenly an usher steps in from the lobby and says in a raised voice, “Excuse me! Can I have everyone’s attention please? Pastor is here! In the lobby!”
Annoyed church members try to shush him. “Don’t you know we’re in here trying to pray for Pastor to be released? Stop interrupting us with ridiculous announcements!” But the usher persists, “I’m serious! He’s here! Come and see!” But no one even bothers to get up to go check. Finally one of the deacons kneeling in a nearby pew retorts, “Why don’t you go patrol the parking lot or something!” And amid general chuckling, they all go back to earnest prayer for their pastor.
Does that strike you as even remotely realistic? We can’t seriously imagine an entire group of earnest believers reacting with such unified unbelief, can we? Except for that good ole doofy apostolic church in Acts 12.
I’m being a little provocative to make a point. Do we actually think the Jerusalem church was praying with such focused faithlessness for Peter’s release that when Rhoda rushed in and announced that the apostle was right outside the door they refused to believe that God had actually answered their prayer (Acts 12:13-15)? Were they really that outrageously unbelieving, spiritually immature, or comically daft?
And yet . . . they did question Rhoda’s announcement–and even her sanity. So what was going on?
Before we adopt the conventional scenario, maybe we should ask if there’s a more likely explanation. I think there is.
I think we’ve completely misunderstood the situation because we’ve made some gargantuan assumptions instead of reading the text attentively, contextually, and realistically.
ASSUMPTION #1: THE EARLY CHURCH WAS RADICALLY FAITHLESS ON THIS OCCASION.
Read Luke’s narrative in Acts carefully, and you’ll find no hint that this Jerusalem church was prone to this level of unbelief on any other occasion. The popular depiction of this passage flies in the face of everything else Luke has told us about this body of believers. This was a praying church (Acts 1:14; 1:24; 2:42; 4:31; 6:4, 6). They’d seen more miracles in the last 10 years than you or I will see in our lifetime. Luke paints a picture of a sober-minded, scripturally informed, spiritually mature, suffering body of believers who took God and his words very seriously.
To reduce this church, even on this occasion, to a collection of nattering nabobs of negativity simply isn’t credible. It’s far more credible that the reason for their astonishment at Peter’s sudden appearance lay in some other explanation besides mindless intercession without the slightest inclination to believe that God might actually answer their prayer.
So what is going on in that prayer meeting in Acts 12? I don’t think they disbelieved God or were engaged in faithless prayer at all. I think they were praying in a predominantly different direction than we have always assumed. And I’m convinced the text backs that up. Which leads me to . . .
ASSUMPTION #2: THE CHURCH WAS PRAYING FOR PETER’S RELEASE FROM PRISON.
Read Acts 12:5. What exactly does the text say they were praying? It doesn’t. The text simply says that they were praying “for Peter.” And yet the assumption that they were obviously praying for Peter’s release is nearly universal.
“Well of course they were praying for him to be released from prison!” someone objects. “What else could they be praying for Pete’s sake?” That’s a great question if you pause long enough to ponder it. What else might their praying have focused on? We could surmise, of course, but we’re on firmer ground if we can find an answer anchored in Scripture.
Does Luke give us any clues as to how these believers prayed in times of severe persecution? As a matter of fact, he does. Read Acts 4:24-30. They didn’t pray that God would make the persecution
Herod had already arrested and executed James (Acts 12:1-20). It would be absurd to assume that the church failed to pray for him. Hadn’t Jesus warned that this would come (Matt 10:17-22; John 16:1-2)? Now Peter’s in jail and it looks for all the world like his time has come. Didn’t Jesus predict that his life would end in martyrdom (John 21:18-19)?
SO WHAT WAS THE CHURCH PRAYING?
We’re not told explicitly, so any conclusion rests on some degree of speculation. But the more scripturally informed and grounded that speculation is, the better.
Could it possibly be, then, that the church was astonished by Peter’s appearance that night because, in keeping with the precedent of Acts 4, they were not praying primarily for Peter’s release but for God to strengthen Peter to be faithful, to be bold, and to witness a good confession to the end?
If the notion of praying for Peter’s faithfulness seems far-fetched, remember we’re talking about the only apostle to deny Christ. Three times. After protesting loudly that he would die before he would ever deny Jesus (Mark 14:29-31). “That was a long time ago,” you say; “Surely he’s beyond the fear of man now.” This same Peter, five years after this miraculous release from prison–and in spite of express revelation from God about the Gentiles–is going to buckle under Jewish peer pressure at Antioch, to the point that Paul has to confront him publicly for a level of hypocrisy that actually compromises the gospel (Gal. 2:11-13).
I’m not suggesting the church was wringing its hands fearing that Peter would fold under pressure; but I suspect Peter knew himself well enough to be transparent about his weakness and need for grace and the prayers of God’s people.
I’m also not suggesting that no request was made that God might deliver Peter, though I find it impossible to believe that was their core request when nothing in the chapter or the book supports that assumption.
What I am suggesting is that Acts 12 illustrates not profound unbelief in prayer, but the church’s early experience of a truth later enunciated by Paul: God is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think (Eph 3:20). That’s a much more realistic and textually justifiable understanding of the passage.
WHAT ABOUT THE COMMENTATORS?
Spurgeon once quipped that most commentators are like sheep–they follow one another and they all go astray. Henry, Brown, Lenski, Polhill, Stott, and Witherington (to name a few) make the nearly universal assumption in 12:5 that the church was praying specifically for Peter’s release; so obviously the believers’ reaction in 12:15 must reflect their total faithlessness that God would answer their prayer.
Calvin argued exactly the opposite–that their surprise in 12:15 shows that they “did not hope or look for Peter’s deliverance” because they were primarily praying for Peter (12:5) that he would “be ready, whether it were by life or death, to glorify God.” Bock also hints in this direction. But Schnabel fills this out most thoughtfully; the church was more likely focused on praying for “a positive outcome of the trial,” or “a lesser punishment than execution,” or “for courage and strength to endure the interrogation and execution.”
It is the difference between (a) interpreting 12:15 purely on the basis of an assumption about 12:5, versus (b) interpreting the silence of 12:5 on the basis of the content of 12:15 (and the larger context). What I’m proposing may be the minority report, but it’s not novel, it’s more generous, it’s more contextually justifiable, and it’s just way more realistic.