The Prayer Of The Church
Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan on January 19, 1997
Translated by M.A.F on July 3, 2008
1. "In those days, King Herod raised a hand of persecution against those of the church, and he killed James the brother of John with the sword," (12:1).
2. The one whom the text here says is King Herod is Herod Agrippa I. Herod Antipas, who had cut off the head of John the Baptizer, corresponds to his uncle [his father's younger brother]. As you might expect, a king with the name of Herod appears on the scene in the narrative when Jesus was born. The story is written (Matthew chapter two) of [the king's] having murdered all the boys under two years of age who were in Bethlehem and in all the region nearby it. He corresponds to the grandfather of Herod Agrippa who is found in this passage here. Going by the blood line, the grandfather, King Herod the Great, is not Jewish. He is Idumean (an Edomite). On the other side, the grandmother of Herod Agrippa is a Jewish princess from the Hasmonean house. In short, he is of mixed blood, of more than one race.
3. A king with Jewish blood mixed in devising a way to curry the favor of the Jews, in order to rule over them, is, in a certain sense, a natural turn of events. It is believed that this was the cause of the Christian persecution. It goes along with what is written in today's passage of scripture as well. "And seeing that (his having killed James by the sword) had pleased the Jews, in addition, he wanted to arrest Peter as well." He did arrest Peter, then he thought he was going to bring him before the masses after Passover, give him a sentence, and then execute him in the presence of the general public. Since a lot of Jews would gather in the capital city at Passover, it was the perfect opportunity to make an appeal for his own stance with the Jews.
4. Well, up to now the agent for the persecutions has been the supreme court of the Jews, that is, the Sanhedrin, and it has mainly been the persons from the sect of the Sadducees, but here it turns out that King Herod gets involved. The target of the persecutions has so far been mainly Hellenists, that is, Greek-speaking Jews, but at this point in the text the hand of persecution is also extending out to the Hebrew-speaking Jews. A great political authority, even more than the Jewish supreme court, was starting to crush down upon the church more and more.
5. Amid this turn of events, James was killed by decapitation. The nature of the charges against him are not given in the record; in name only then, perhaps he was killed as a political criminal. Whatever the case, he became the first martyr from among the apostles. And so Peter was also arrested and his life was hanging by a thread. That the Hellenists were scattered was a great blow for the first generation of the church, and as the church faced the situation of the apostles being arrested by the hand of Herod, it would come to face more and more great crises before it.
6. Peter was arrested and put into jail by Herod. The scripture says, "Herod ... handed him over and had him guarded by four groups of four soldiers." There [we see] the figure of Peter held tightly under arrest by a powerful political authority. The church is powerless in this situation. The church cannot do a thing in resisting the power of Herod. That situation is being described in this text. But, the church did have one thing it could do. The scripture says, "In the church fervent prayers were offered up to God on his behalf." They had assembled together and prayed.
7. Herod surely thought he had Peter in his hands. He surely thought he had the fate of the church in his hands, too. It says, "He had intended to bring him before the people after Passover," (verse four). Also, in verse six, it says, "... the very night before Herod was about to bring Peter to trial." I think this was the mindset of Herod and probably the mindset of most of the Jews. But the church knew that it was under a different control. It knew that it was not under Herod's control, but rather under a greater control. It also knew that Peter was arrested, but he was not under the rule of the state authorities, but under a greater rule. Namely, he was under the rule of God, he was in the hands of the Lord. Therefore, they prayed. Trusting everything in just [God's] great hands, they prayed.
8. It looks like there was another time when Peter and John returned back after being threatened by the Sanhedrin. In chapter four and verse twenty-four, the scripture says, "Those who heard it were of one mind, turned to the Lord and spoke aloud, saying, 'Oh Lord, you are the one who created the heavens, the earth, the seas, and everything that is in them. ...'" After that, there was plenty of difficulties and there was persecution. The church received big blows against it numerous times. Many were scattered from it. In the midst of this kind of stuff, Stephen died, then James died. It was way too often that they could not help but cry out with "Why are things going like this?" Yet, they did not forget that the church was under the rule of Christ. They did not think they had arrived to that day by overcoming [each] difficulty through their own strength. They never once thought they had led the church on their own power. They knew who was governing and who was leading. They knew who the Lord was. That's why even here they prayed as well. They had prayed fervently.
9. We must take a look at the basic attitude that the church was expected to have here. We must take a look at the basic attitudes of the believers. If a church thinks that it builds and leads a church through its own hands, then prayer cannot possibly exist in it. Even if it may face difficulties head on, sincere prayer does not emerge from it. If they think its their own hands ultimately doing anything, then prayer does not emerge from it. Prayer is found where a person is personally aware of one's total powerlessness. Where ever one truly acknowledges who the Lord is, there is prayer. Our church too must become a praying church by that same definition.
10. If I had to say it, [I'd say] I'm a prayer-emphasizing pastor. I do urge you, that we are to pray fervently. I urge you, that as we gather together even in church, we are to pray. But, we must take heed because too many times fervent prayer has deteriorated [into something else]. For example, we mustn't think as if fervent prayer is "an act of righteousness" by which we can receive something from God in exchange for it. Nor must we think as if the act of fervent praying itself is the price or the sacrifice for getting God to hear us. I've heard a sermon before, from this same passage of scripture, saying that "At the time of James, since the church did not pray, he was killed. At the time of Peter, since the church did pray, he got help." I'd say that is clearly wrong. At least, those who were praying never supposed that it was so.
11. I repeat. They knew that the church was powerless. That's why they prayed fervently. They knew that it was God who was in control and not Peter. That's why they prayed fervently. We want to be a fervently praying church, just like them. It all comes down to the fact that they correctly acknowledged who they were and who God was.
12. Well then, beginning with verse six the scene shifts to being in jail, and then an account is recorded concerning Peter's jailbreak. What did he do? The scripture says, "Peter was bound by two chains and was asleep between two soldiers." He knew where his church friends were that night. He knew they had been praying through the night at the home of Mark's mother Mary. Outside the walls of the jail, the church keeps its eyes on the rule of God and prays throughout the night. Inside the walls of the jail, with his eyes kept on the rule of the same God, Peter calmly sleeps. The walls of this prison, which were symbolical of the world's authority, did not separate him [from them] at this time. Peter and the church were under the same Lord and were joined together as one. So, the rule of Herod did not have meaning at this time. And the scene that is written here in this text is one where the angel of the Lord is sent inside the walls that night.
13. Since the phrase, "the angel of the Lord," when translated literally, is "the messenger of the Lord," it does not necessarily indicate a supernatural heavenly being. In fact, it just might possibly mean that a sympathizer for Peter from among the authorities was there and had helped him. He wasn't very clear about his whereabouts or anything, but whatever the case, who this angel was was not a big issue. The message written in this text is clear. It is that God specifically intervened even inside the walls and was [busy] at work.
14. As seen from the perspective of human beings, Peter was in the hands of Herod, he was inside the walls of Herod without any doubt. But, the One who is the true ruler was at work inside them in a concrete way. Therefore, Peter had recovered his senses and said, "Now, I see the truth for the first time. The Lord sent the angel; he has delivered me from the hands of Herod and from all the schemes of the Jewish public."
15. God is at work in a world that appears as if it were being blocked. He intervenes in specific ways. No person and no thing can ever carry us away to a place where the hands of God don't reach. [No one and nothing] can drive us to any place where God's rule does not extend. And we must not feel that we can make that claim simply because Peter's life was rescued here. Ultimately, not even death, can imprison us in a place where God's hands do not reach. In that sense then, this incident must have been for both Peter and the church a symbolical event with major significance. It is commonly held that it turned out to be an event that made them re-discover [the issues of] "Where is the believer?," "Where is the church?"
16. Thus had Peter gotten out of jail and gone to the home of John [Mark's] mother Mary. It is written that "In [the house] a great many people were gathered together and praying." As I said earlier, all through the night prayers were being made there, and Peter had probably known that. But then, in a quite humorous fashion, Luke records the events of that hour. When Peter knocks on the door gate, a young lady named Rhoda came out to answer it [for the household]. And when she sees that it is Peter, she ends up running into the house without even opening the gate. Worse still, when she announces it to everybody, it is written that they said, "You're insane!" Also, it says that there were some who said, "It is probably the angel protecting Peter."
17. I think this is a passage where when you read it, you'll crack a smile automatically. They were praying, however, it seems like they were not convinced that Peter was rescued and had come back to them. Instead, the whole thing was unbelievable to them. Indeed, it was precisely because they couldn't believe it that they had done nothing but spend the entire night just looking and looking to God. I would say that's really how their fervent prayers were. Therefore, whenever we pray, we don't need to condemn our own lack of faith, when we are not confident but unconvinced. That's how they were too.
18. Furthermore, the chain of events written here is unrelated to the idea currently in vogue that so called "Confidence and faith alone can change circumstances." There was nothing at all whatsoever that had come from within them. They had only looked to God. Everything had come from God, it was God's grace, it was God's actions. It is commonly held that Luke was putting emphasis on this point.
19. And with the report of Herod's death at the end, he finishes writing this batch of stories. While the assembled people listen to the king's address, they kept crying out, "It is the voice of a god. It is not the voice of a human." Whereupon, mysteriously, it says the king drops dead. The Bible gives the explanation that "Whereupon, suddenly, the angel of the Lord struck Herod down." It was an unnatural death that could only be explained that way. As the reference to the sudden death of Herod seems to be a historical fact, the detailed depictions vary, but the historian named Josephus also recorded it. It was the year A.D. 44.
20. It is a narrative chain that begins with Herod and ends with Herod, but clearly a contrast is written in the text there between the figures of Herod and the church. Herod persecutes the church for his own preservation and self-protection. To get in good with the Jews, he decapitates James and arrests Peter. By doing that, he plots for the stability of his position as the king. He supposes that the whereabouts of his royal authority, the fate of the church, and the life and the death of Peter, are all in his hands. But he was a fool in not knowing one thing, which is, the truth of the fact that not even his own body was in his own hands. He dies while at the peak of [his] human glory. "Because he did not return the glory to God," explains the Bible.
21. Like Herod, neither does the church have any right to authority. It can do nothing, not even for self-preservation. Even though Peter was arrested, it could do nothing. But it did know one thing alone, which is, that the fate of the church, and anything to do with it, lies in the hands of just One alone. And it returned the glory to Him. That is the figure of the praying church. And this was the consistent attitude of the church as well through the historical course of the church mission afterwards.