As we have worked our way through the story of the first church in Acts, we have seen them overcome challenges again and again and again. How did they do it? What was their secret weapon? We find out what it is and how we can put it into practice ourselves in this message. Keep reading to learn about it in this gripping story.
The Secret Weapon
For the last several months, I have been reading through the Harry Potter series with Noah and Josiah. At the end of last week, we finally started on the seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’m speaking a little carefully right now because they’re going to listen to this sermon (well…they’ll be in the room for this sermon) and I don’t want to spoil the story for them. But, I don’t think I’m saying anything that’ll give away significant plot points when I tell you that the major quest for the seventh book is that Harry and his friends are going looking for horcruxes.
In the context of the series, horcruxes are items created by evil witches or wizards through the use of dark magic. They are essentially a way to attempt to achieve immortality. The dark witch or wizard murders someone and by that act, splits their soul into more than one piece. By imbuing the object with a portion of their soul, should anything happen to the subject’s body (like, say, being killed), a part of his essence will endure, allowing his existence to continue indefinitely. Have I lost you already? Not if you’re a Harry Potter fan, I know, but otherwise, stay with me. In the book, Harry goes looking for the horcruxes created by Lord Voldemort, the major villain, in order to destroy them in order that he can be destroyed himself. In other words, these horcruxes represent the secret weapon the heroes need in order to destroy the villain.
Most fantasy and adventure stories have an element like this to them. There is almost always some kind of a special or secret item that will enable the heroes to defeat the villains. Whether it is a wand or a ring or a talisman or even a person. There’s always something they are seeking to aid them in their quest. And the thing about this weapon is not that it is somehow merely convenient to the heroes’ success. It is essential to it. They cannot hope to win if they don’t have it.
As we continue in our series, Telling Our Story, this morning, we are going to discover that the church then had just such a secret weapon in its battle against the various enemies who tried to thwart its advance. This week finds us in the 11th part of our journey and I am officially out of fingers to hold up to illustrate how far along we are. I could take my shoes off and hold up a toe, but that would be kind off-putting so you can just take my word for it. The whole point of this journey has been that as a modern church, we need to understand where we’ve come from so that we can see more clearly where we are going. We are living in turbulent, transitional times. Even though the church is thriving in other parts of the world, we have lost the culture here and that means the kinds of challenges we have ahead of us are entirely different and more challenging than those which lie in our recent past. Our situation is growing to more and more resemble that of the first church. This means that the story of their success will be the key to ours.
And while I’m not going to give a full recap of the past 10 weeks to you—you can find most of them on my blog which is linked on our website—I will say this: Our story is one of incredible and consistent triumph in the face of what looked like insurmountable odds. Sometimes the challenges have seemed to come from primarily external sources, sometimes they have come from internal ones, but they have always come. And time and time again, we have risen up to overcome them. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing by any means. And, like you talked about with Nate last week, sometimes the stiffest challenges came from our own internal wrestling with accepting what God was clearly doing. But no matter what stood in our way, our story is one of success. The real question is: How did we manage it?
We find the answer to that in the next part of our story. When you left things with Nate last week, the church was growing. Fast. Like Nate said, the unexpected win of the church embracing the news of Gentile conversions led to incredible growth. And, with the growth beginning to emerge in the Gentile communities, the Roman world was beginning to take notice. The new movement now had a title. It was originally intended to be a pejorative one—they’re just “little Christs”—but eventually it became something the church claimed as a badge of honor because what their critics didn’t understand is that becoming “little Christs” was exactly their goal. So, we became Christians.
The thing about something being named, though, is that forces arrayed against it have a known enemy. Either you were a Christian or you were not. And if you were, they were coming after you. Well, at some point, the grandson of Herod the Great, who was now ruling in Jerusalem, made a move on the church. This was a scary thing. Battling the Jewish leaders was one thing. Their power was limited by the Roman government. If Rome itself turned against the church, though, things were going to get a whole lot more serious.
Luke tells us this story starting in Acts 13: “About that time [that is, about the same time Barnabas and Saul were ramping things up in Antioch] King Herod violently attacked some who belonged to the church, and he executed James, John’s brother, with the sword.” It’s hard to overstate how serious a loss this would have been for the church. The apostles had thus far been seen as untouchable. The people were afraid of them and the powers they demonstrated. When Saul’s persecution ramped up in Jerusalem and everyone fled, the apostles remained. Now James was dead. This wasn’t Jesus’ brother James who wrote the New Testament letter, it was the apostle John’s brother James, one of the big three from Jesus’ innermost circle. And with one down, it began to look like the dominos of major leaders were going to fall. Verse 3: “When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too, during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After the arrest, he put him in prison and assigned four squads of four soldiers each to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.”
Does sound like a familiar storyline at all? You have to believe that for the apostles and other disciples who had been there since the beginning it felt like history was repeating itself. Here they were one year later, and it was looking like their leader was going to be crucified once again. James was dead and Peter was in prison guarded by 16 guards. For one prisoner. It’s almost like Herod thought something might happen. How right he was. I’ve got to tell you: This is another one of those stories you just have to go home and read for yourself. This is perhaps the most exciting story we’ve yet encountered in our journey through Acts. Let’s hit the highlights this morning.
The scene shifts to Peter in prison the night before Herod meant to put him on trial at v. 6. This is a trial he would have almost certainly lost. It was not going to be a fair fight. What Herod and the religious leaders of the Jews didn’t understand, though, is that while the fight wasn’t going to be fair, the unfairness wasn’t going to be in their favor.
Verse 6: “When Herod was about to bring him out for trial, that very night Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while the sentries in front of the door guarded the prison.” Do you have the scene in your mind? Peter, in chains, with multiple guards all stationed around him. Herod wanted to be absolutely sure that his star prisoner didn’t manage to escape. Kind of like Pilate wanted to make sure Jesus stayed in His tomb by stationing a guard unit out in front of that. Oh wait…that didn’t go quite like he planned. Neither did this.
Verse 7: “Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, ‘Quick, get up!’” So, this angel appears, shining with the glory of the Lord, wakes Peter up…and none of the guards, including the two between whom he was formerly sleeping, notice a thing. Really? I mean, really??? When God can do something like that, why the other side even bothers to try is beyond me. Then it gets better. Look at the rest of v. 7: “And the chains fell off his wrists.” The angel tells him to get dressed and follow after him. Peter is in such shock at what is going on that he just does what he’s told. He figures he’s having a vision and that none of this is real. The angel leads Peter past multiple sets of guards, out into the street, a safe ways beyond the complex, and disappears. Suddenly, Peter finds himself standing alone—and free—on a deserted Jerusalem street.
He makes for the home of John Mark’s mother, the same John Mark who wrote the Gospel from Peter’s perspective, where he knew the believers would be gathered. When he knocks on the door, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer, got so excited at seeing him standing there that she left him standing there while she ran back to tell everyone the good news. And, as you can probably imagine, they didn’t believe her. “‘You’re out of your mind!’ they told her. But she kept insisting that it was true [while he continues to stand anxiously on the street], and they said, ‘It’s his angel.’” Peter finally just pounds on the door a little louder—loud enough they could hear the knocking—and they finally come let him inside. He tells his story and then went to hide somewhere else.
The next morning there was an understandably large amount of commotion with fingers flying everywhere as to whose fault it was that Peter was gone. Herod finally has all of the guards tasked with making sure Peter didn’t escape executed, and heads out of town to save face. The embarrassment of losing Peter, of having Rome exposed to be just as impotent before the church as the Jewish leaders had been thus far would have been enormous. It would have been a major threat to Herod’s own position and legacy if word got back to Rome. Instead, Herod headed for the Mediterranean coast to Caesarea—ironically, the place where the Gospel explosion into the Gentile world got its start—and set up shop there. God’s justice wasn’t quite done, though. Some time later, Herod managed to solve a political crisis and went out to give a speech to the people gathered there. They began to shout praises to him, ascribing to him divine attributes. And in that moment, Luke tells us, “an angel of the Lord stuck him because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died.” And what did the church do? It continued to flourish. It continued to grow. It continued to advance God’s kingdom in powerful ways.
Yet another challenge came to the church, and this one was the biggest by far. Now they weren’t just being threatened by the Jewish authorities, but by the Roman ones as well. Nations trembled before the might and power of Rome. What could this tiny breakaway Jewish movement do when Rome turned their attention on them? The answer: Face it down just like all the rest. Okay, but how? How could the church continue to advance in the face of so many enemies? What was their secret weapon? We can see it right in this story, but I’ve got to tell you: It’s really not much of a secret. Well, it’s not a secret, but we don’t often put it to the full use and potential that it has.
Come back with me to v. 5. Let’s see how the church responded when Peter was arrested: “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was praying fervently to God for him.” Now jump down to v. 12: “As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had assembled and were praying.” So what’s the secret weapon? I suspect it will come as a surprise to exactly no one that the secret weapon was prayer. The secret weapon is prayer. When it comes to the kind of spiritual warfare we can and should expect to face as a church, prayer is the most powerful weapon we have. There is no challenge we will face that cannot be overcome by prayer.
Just look again at what God did in response to the prayers of His people here. Peter walked out of the equivalent of a maximum-security prison, right past all the guards, and out into the street, and no one saw him. I’d say this was Mission Impossible-level stuff except it was beyond that. God literally made Peter invisible to the guards. Maybe He turned the cloak the angel specifically told him to wrap up in into an invisibility cloak for a time. Who knows how this happened because it was a miracle. Now, that doesn’t mean God is going to do something so overtly miraculous every time we pray, but He doesn’t have to. He’s God. He’s not limited at all in terms of how He can help His people overcome the challenges they are facing. His power is not the thing in question at all. Our willingness to use it is. No matter how great is the challenge we are facing, prayer is the most powerful weapon we have.
Let me ask you something, and I don’t want you to answer out loud. I also don’t want you to answer quickly. I want you to think about this for just a minute and then answer honestly. Do you believe this? Do you believe that prayer is the most powerful weapon we have? Do you really believe it? Does your behavior reveal that you believe it? Does the rhythm of your life suggest that you turn to prayer often regardless of the challenge you are facing, or is it more of a use-for-emergencies type of tool? Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have.
Okay, but for the small things, I don’t want to use my biggest tool. There’s no need for overkill. If a smaller weapon will work, I prefer to use that and save the big guns for the tough circumstances. Perhaps something like that is going through your mind or has gone through it before? Here’s the thing, though: We don’t have any other weapons. We don’t have any others that will work. We’re not enough on our own. Prayer taps us into the power of God. Any other approach to overcoming the challenges we face is necessarily a dependence on someone other than God. Usually it’s a dependence on ourselves. We’re not enough to get the job done. We can’t do it. We’ve never been able to do it. That’s why we have prayer. Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have.
Come on, church, there are challenges facing us that rival what Peter and the first church were facing here. Some of them are already here, some of them are coming down the pipe still. If we want to experience success in our mission to make disciples by becoming fully the people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom that our God designed us to be, prayer is how we’re going to do it. There is no challenge that persistent, fervent prayer cannot overcome. None. Not a single one. Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have.
So, here’s what we need to do: We need to pray. We’ve gotten some exposure this week. A lot more perhaps than we are used to having as a church. Exposure means attention and that’s not always something that will make our lives easier. It means that challenges are coming. The more we see God do in and through our community, the more likely we are to experience the resistance of the enemy. Prayer will be how we overcome the challenges. Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have. So we pray. And pray. And pray. We pray for the Lord to move. We pray for wisdom to see His leading hand. We pray for courage to join Him. We pray for boldness in the face of challenges. We pray for His Spirit to descend and bring revival. We pray. Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have. And when we use it, we can’t lose. Let us be, then, a church that prays; really prays, so we can experience the full wonder of God’s plans for His world, starting in this community, through us.