"And Prayer was Made"
An intense persecution had broken out in the days when Stephen was arrested and stoned to death, and had continued with great ferocity through all the subsequent weeks and months. Many members of the mother Church had fled for safety to other towns and villages, and had been the means of spreading the gospel story over a wider field (Acts. 11.19) and of winning converts to the church of Christ. Some, if not all, of the Apostles had remained resident in Jerusalem, to keep the standard of the faith flying in the city which had raised its hand against the One through whom God had spoken to them, and against the first martyr who had been privileged to follow the Master in the way of sacrifice and death.
In view of the intensity of the persecution, instituted and conducted by Saul of Tarsus, it required a rare courage to stay on, even though maintaining discreet silence in public about the great things committed to their care. When the conduct of people is actuated by blind passion rather than cool reason, it calls for heroism of the finest quality to linger on under circumstances where misdirected zeal and burning fanaticism may, at any moment, kindle the fiery furnace. In spite of the fact that the hand of the Lord Jesus had plucked the chief of the persecutors as a brand from the fire, there was no respite from the severities of the persecution. Rather, that even fed fuel to the flames of wrath which burned in the cruel hearts of priest and Pharisee alike, so that to remain in Jerusalem became increasingly dangerous for the Apostles and for those stalwart souls who chose to remain with them in the metropolis.
To curry favour with the Jews, King Herod, while on a visit to Jerusalem, caused James the brother of John to be arrested and slain with the sword. This act gave great satisfaction to the Jewish hierarchy, a satisfaction which was openly made known to the royal murderer. Desiring to give further pleasure to the flattering Jews, Herod next proceeded to arrest Peter, and threw him, under guard, into prison. But because the Jewish people were engaged in the observance of one of their great feasts, Herod postponed the act of execution for a few days. When the solemn rituals of the Passover feast-days were at an end he purposed to bring Peter forth from prison and give him to the headsman's sword, and thus deprive the followers of the Nazarene of the second member of that favoured trio which had enjoyed the closest intimacy with their Master so many times.
Herod had done all that a royal despot could do to ensure Peter's safekeeping in custody. Two soldiers were chained to his wrists, and two others mounted guard outside his prison door, in relays, day and night. Also, his cell was deep within the building—within the 'first and second wards" (v.10) and the guards were under strictest orders to keep the prisoner safe and secure, in readiness for Herod's act of appeasement when the appropriate moment should have come.
That was the royal position; what of the prisoner? Was he cowed and broken, ready to forswear his faith in the face of death? Three words only describe Peter's state of mind. "Peter was sleeping" (v.6). Not much is said, but enough to show that Peter's heart was at rest in the Lord. Without doubt, he knew of Herod's purpose on the morrow, for soldiers' tongues would talk! But Peter found a "power" in his heart, which enabled him to look death in the face without fear or dread. He had learned to live or die without regrets, submissive to his Master's will and providence.
Peter was "at rest"! What of his brethren? It could not have been wholly a happy Passover-time for them. Their fervent remembrance of the Master's death would be tempered by remembrance of Peter's plight. They would have remembrance of a long record of martyr sufferings, beginning with Stephen and ending, within recent days, in the death of James. They would be aware that God had permitted the persecutor to prevail and work his evil will upon the defenceless flock. Would He permit Peter to be slain? They did not know. The apprehensive little company had remained together in continuous session through all the days of the Feast. And now, knowing perhaps of Herod's intention to slay Peter on the coming day, with full heart they betook themselves to prayer. What else could they do? They had no one with influence at Herod's court. They could not expect a change of the Pharisaical heart. Save for God's intervention, there was no way out. Peter's deliverance was but a forlorn hope. "But prayer was made". It was the prayer of human extremity, prayer in the dark! For what did they pray? Was it for Peter's deliverance? Was it for the frustration of Herod's plans, and the return of Peter to their midst? It may have been, but it is somewhat doubtful whether that was so. Their reaction to his knocking "at the door of the gate" hardly gives that impression.. They were doubtful even after Rhoda had heard and recognized his voice, whether Peter could have been set free. Their reply to the girl's joyful words reveals only too well how little they expected Peter's release. For what then, had they prayed, if not for Peter's release? Is it not more likely that prayer was for Peter's "faith" - that he might be faithful in the hour of death, that he would not retract one word, nor flinch his eye, when face to face with the headsman's sword.
God has His own way of teaching his children to trust Him. To Peter he sent that inward peace, so that on the last night before the fateful morrow Peter could sleep. Peter would never forget — could never forget ‑ the holy calm that possessed his soul and closed his eyes in sweet repose. Then, after his restful sleep, came the unexpected release. God gave him deliverance from his foes. Can one wonder that it was Peter's hand which wrote the deeply confident words "kept by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation (1 Pet. 1.6). The mighty power of God kept Peter from His own weaknesses, and from his enemy's sword, a lesson which influenced every word and thought from that day on. Though long centuries have passed, that confidence "yet speaks".
The lesson for the little prayer-circle was that God can take man's extremity as His opportunity. In royal circles Peter's decapitation was as good as done. To the little assembly it was all but accomplished, but God decreed otherwise. The Divine caretaker allowed the peril to persist till the last night, till hope was all but dead, then, out of the "seemingly inevitable" God rescued his trusting child. Could the little band ever forget that God gave more than they had asked — "exceedingly, abundantly above all they could ask or think".
Every circumstance of life is an occasion and an opportunity for the child of God to pray. He has causes without end to voice his gratitude to God. He has need more than he knows to utter his requests, but in all the changing experiences of life it is the prayer of the "extremity" and the "forlorn hope" that best shows the moral fibre of the soul. A weak faith may say "it is too late", a doubting heart could say "What is the use of it all?" A dauntless faith will say "But prayer may still be made". Thanksgiving and request are the appropriate prayers for the ordinary occasions of life. The "but prayer" is the prayer for the extraordinary times, when we have reached the end of our tether, and we can see no way through the tangled thicket that surrounds us. Like the little company in Jerusalem, we may not always word our prayer to the right end, but the essential thing is not the mere fact of asking, but the attitude of asking. "Men ought always to pray and not to faint" said Jesus, and it is when fainting seems the next obvious human thing to do, that "but prayer" wins the Divine reward.
"When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay."
When the Herods of this world have laid their evil plans and so we seem to have no way of escape from their toils, as may yet well happen amid the strains of the present life, we must not faint or fall, but remember that prayer can be made, and out of the dark scene the angel of the Lord will lead the way to the working of the Will of God. Let us ever remember that whether we are the "prayed-for" (as Peter) or of the praying Church, it is the prayer which rises from the edge of our extremity that will bring the Divine blessing in full measure into our lives.