Peter was in prison, and Herod had probably ordered his execution for the next day.
Sounds like an impossible situation, doesn't it? Imagine being a brand-new, multiplying church with the entire Roman army against you, and 16 soldiers surrounding your leader-who happens also to be in chains.
How did this church in Acts 12 respond? They didn't have any armies or weapons. They said, “We have an impossible situation. Our beloved leader, mightily used by God, is in prison. We will pray earnestly unto God specifically for His deliverance.”
There are several principles of prayer in this passage. First and foremost, the church prayed “to God.” They knew the One to whom they were praying-His power, His authority, His great compassion and love. But there's also another principle they practiced that we can learn from: They prayed “earnestly” (Acts 12:5).
The word “earnestly” here is a compound word in Greek. It has two parts, the first part meaning “out” and the second part meaning “stretched.” It's the idea behind our English word for tension. It's translated in 1 Peter 1:22 as deeply or fervently, and it's used in Luke 22:44 where Jesus prays “in anguish” and “more earnestly” in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The image given is of focused and passionate prayer-coming to God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and saying, “God, I mean business! I want what I'm asking of You; I'm not just going through the motions.”
Those of us who have children may remember a time when a little one's temperature rose to 102, then to 103, and then to 104. You may remember how our prayers changed as the temperature went up. Have you ever sat there with a little baby who's burning up? We don't pray, “O Lord, we would really like, if it's in Your will, according to Your sovereign plan, to bless this child according to Your purposes,” do we? We pray, “O God, save my child!”
That's what this word “earnestly” is saying: We need to come to God like we mean it. We need to know Who we're really talking to, and then earnestly-with our soul stretched out before God-to say, “God, hear our cry.”
A crucial aspect of the church's earnest prayer was its corporate nature. They were united in their earnestness. The early church believed that it was the most powerful force on this earth, so when the body of Christ gathered and approached Jesus and the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, they asked in unity.
Do a quick review of Acts and you'll be amazed at the consistency of the theme. The early church was born where? Out of a prayer meeting. In chapter 1, Jesus told His disciples to wait and to pray. In chapter 2, Pentecost came while they were praying. In chapter 3, the first miracle happened when Peter and John were on their way to a prayer meeting. In chapter 4, they were beaten up, thrown into prison, and then let out. When they came back to the church, they prayed for more effectiveness, and the ground shook. By chapter 6, the whole structure of the church changed. They had elders and deacons. Why? Because the leadership said they must give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. When God revealed Himself to Cornelius, he was praying. When God revealed Himself to Peter in chapter 10, he was praying. When God called Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries, they were praying.
Historically, you'll find that every great movement of God is tied with people who began to earnestly lay hold of what's true about prayer. You can look at the Wesley brothers, Jonathan Edwards, back to the Reformation, or you can go over to Korea today, where God is moving marvelously, and you'll find hundreds of thousands of people in churches at four or five in the morning, praying earnestly, daily, and corporately.
Imagine being a parent whose children always said, “Mother and Father, whatever you want for dinner is fine with me. Whatever you want to give me for my birthday is fine. Your will be done.” That might make life less complicated, but it would get tiring after a while. Why? Because as a parent, what do you want to know? “Son, Daughter, what do you want? What would bring specific joy to your heart?” Parents who care about their child's heart will want to fulfill their child's desires.
God is the same way. You'll never see God's power until you start praying specifically the earnest desires of your heart. Write specific things down and put them before the throne of God. You will find that the eternal God of the universe wants to bring His power into your impossible situation. If you will bring your specific, earnest pleas into the fellowship, you will discover a God Who truly cares about each and every desire of your heart. He has an awesome track record answering people who ask Him for His help.
Do you know the evidence of when you really mean business? The level of your perseverance. Jesus often told His disciples to persevere in their praying. He told them not to give up. Real earnestness always shows up in persistence. A person who does not keep praying is a person who may not have been serious to begin with.
My daughter was very persevering when she was young. “Dad, can we go get an ice cream?”
“Um, Annie, wait just a second.”
“Dad, can we go get ice cream?” She would ask me 50 times. Do you know what I didn't have to wonder about? Whether she wanted ice cream.
Think of how many times we ask God to do something, and then the next day we don't ask! And a week later we don't ask. The test of whether you really want something is whether it means enough to you to come back to God over and over again, stretch your soul out, and honestly pray: “O God, will You save my dad?” “Will You heal my marriage?” “Will You bring my child back to You?” “Will You restore so-and-so's body?” “Will You put this company back on its feet?” “Will You use me here?”
When you pray passionately, corporately, and specifically, knowing Who God really is, you'll see results. The early church did, and so will we.