Acts 12

Read Acts 12 today.

Persecution by the religious leadership in Jerusalem started back in Acts 7 with the stoning of Stephen. It continued in Acts 8 through Saul, but God saved him in Acts 9.

Here in Acts 12 we were told that Herod, a Jewish political leader, joined in the persecution of the church. Herod began this persecution in a brutal way with the execution of James (vv. 1-2). There are a few guys in the New Testament named James; another one of them is actually mentioned in verse 17. The James that Herod killed in verse 2 was “the brother of John,” which identifies him as one of the Twelve apostles and the son of Zebedee (see Matt 4:21 & 10:2).

The religious leaders of Israel were happy that Herod had joined them in persecuting the church (v. 3a), so he arrested Simon Peter and intended to try him publicly (v. 4). Because it was Passover season, Herod waited for Peter’s trial and execution and that time of waiting bought the church some time to pray for him.

Verse 5 told us, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” And God answered their prayers in a miraculous way by sending an angel to rescue Simon Peter (vv. 7-11).

Yet, when Peter showed up to the prayer meeting, people had a hard time believing that he had really been freed (vv. 12-17). When I was taught this passage as a child in Sunday school, the teacher suggested that the church didn’t really believe that God would answer their prayers, that why they were so startled to see Peter.

I’m not sure that’s right; in fact, I’m pretty sure it is wrong.

The fact that the church was “earnestly praying for Peter” (v. 5) suggests that God’s people were doing the right thing–prayer–from sincere hearts. They wanted God to free Peter and believed that God would, if it was his will.

That last part, “…if it was his will…” is important. Verse 2 didn’t tell us that anyone was praying for James to be freed but it is hard to believe that they weren’t praying for that. Yet God did not will to rescue James from death as he did for Peter.

I think the church was startled when Peter was released because of how God rescued him, not that God rescued him. I think the church was expecting a more providential release, meaning that God would change Herod’s heart and Peter would be acquitted at his trial (v. 4d) or just outright released.

Instead of that, though, God performed a miracle to release Peter. It was so startling–and unexpected–that even Peter himself was unprepared for it (vv. 6-11).

The lesson here, then, is not that we should have more faith when we pray. That’s always true; as fallen people, our faith could always be stronger and purer.

The lesson instead is that we shouldn’t set our hopes on the method by which God answers prayer. Part of praying in faith is submitting our prayers to God’s will–both for the outcome and for the way in which God makes that outcome happen.

Have you ever been surprised by how God answered your prayers? Maybe he made your faith stronger through a trial in your life. Maybe he helped you get rid of a sin in your life by causing that sin to be exposed instead of making your desire for it go away suddenly.

What have you been praying for? Is it possible that God is answering–but you just don’t see it yet because you’re looking for a different answer?

Hebrews 5

Read Hebrews 5.

One of the struggles I’ve had as a Christian is the feeling that God hasn’t listened to my prayers.

I know that God hears and knows everything, so the problem isn’t that my prayer wasn’t heard. The problem is that, although God hears our prayers, he often seems not to answer.

When you speak to someone and they ignore you, it hurts. It feels like you don’t matter to that person. It feels like he or she can’t be bothered with your issues and problems. It feels like that person doesn’t care.

It feels about the same way to me when God doesn’t answer my prayers. Does he not care? Did I offend him somehow with my request? Is there something in my life that he wants me to address first?

Who knows….?

Jesus can relate.

Verses 7-9 describe Jesus’s prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. It says that he prayed “with fervent cries and tears” (v. 7). His goal in these prayers was to be saved from death (v. 7b).

Yet he did die. He was betrayed by Judas, arrested by his enemies, denied by Peter and forsaken by the other apostles, tried and crucified. God was able to save him from death but he did not. It seems like an unanswered prayer.

Yet verse 8 says, “…he was heard.”

He was?

How? In what way was Jesus “heard”?

The answer is given in verse 8, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” In other words, Jesus learned what it meant to be told, “No.” He prayed fervently and emotionally but his request was not in God’s will. He knew that, already, which is why he also prayed, “not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

Jesus prayed fervently and emotionally but he also prayed submissively. Jesus asked God for what he–Jesus–wanted but he learned what it meant to submit to what God wanted instead.

Have you prayed about something and felt like it was a waste of time and breath? God’s answer may still be yes but not now or it may be a hard “No.” Understand, though, that it is not because God does not care for you. It is because his will is better than your will.

Trust in that. Keep praying, but remember to pray submissively.

1 Samuel 1, Ezekiel 14, Psalms 96-98

Read 1 Samuel 1, Ezekiel 14, and Psalms 96-98 today. This devotional is about 1 Samuel 1.

Hannah found herself in an unhappy situation here in the opening chapter of 1 Samuel. Her society greatly valued children, especially boys, yet she was unable to get pregnant.

If that weren’t bad enough, her husband had a “rival” (v. 6) wife named Peninnah. Elkanah may have married Peninnah specifically because of Hannah’s infertility (similar to Abraham and Hagar). Regardless of his motives, Peninnah delivered (pun intended) where Hannah could not; verse 2 tells us “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.” So Hannah felt judged by her society, may have felt like she let her husband down, and felt inferior to his second wife.

Even worse, Peninnah mocked Hannah for her infertility (v. 6). Although Hannah was loved by her husband who did his best (verse 8 notwithstanding) to demonstrate his love and make her feel secure (vv. 4-5), she suffered emotionally due to all of these things.

Whatever faults he may have had, Elkanah was devoted to the Lord. We see this in his consistency to worship at the tabernacle “year after year” (v. 3). We also see it in how urged Hannah to keep her vow to the Lord (v. 23). When the sorrow of her situation became too much to bear, Hannah did what a believer should do; she poured out her heart to God in prayer (vv. 10-11).

Yet even her heartfelt prayer was became a source of pain because it was misinterpreted. As if she didn’t feel low enough, the High Priest of Israel rebuked her for being a drunk when he saw her praying (vv. 12-14). Fortunately, when she explained the situation, Eli gave her the reassurance she needed (v. 17). Note that Eli did not promise her an answer to her prayer; rather, he acknowledged the sincerity of her prayers and added his own prayer wish that the Lord would answer her favorably (v. 17). But Hannah took this blessing from the priest by faith and received the peace of God for her situation (v. 18).

And, God did answer her prayer, giving her the son she so deeply desired.

If only deep sorrow and total sincerity were enough to get answers to any prayer! Yet God does not always give us the answer we seek. This is why Jesus encouraged us to pray according to God’s will. God’s will is frequently different than our will is; therefore, God sometimes answers our prayers with “no.”

What made Hannah’s prayer effective was not her deep emotions and sincerity. It was, instead, her faith in God and her willingness to align her request with God’s will.

What made Hannah’s prayer effective was not her deep emotions and sincerity. It was, instead, her faith in God and her willingness to align her request with God’s will.

By promising to give her son to the Lord and to raise him under a Nazirite vow for life (v. 11), she was asking God to answer her prayer in a way that would bring glory to him.

Samuel would grow up to serve the Lord in a unique way, both as priest and as the last of the judges of Israel. In contrast to the spiritual scoundrels who served as Israel’s judges in the book of Judges, Samuel would be a man who led Israel spiritually as well as politically. Hannah’s prayer was answered in a way that was more profound than she probably could have imagined. Though she did not have the joy of raising her son throughout his childhood, she did have the joy of knowing that he was serving the Lord.

James 4:3 tells us that God is not in the habit of answering prayers that come from self-centered motives. When Hannah connected her desire for a son with God’s desire for a godly leader for Israel, her prayer aligned with God’s will and he answered her. When we ask God for things in our lives, are our requests selfish or are they connected to the things that God cares about? This is the kind of praying that is pleasing to God and, therefore, the kind of praying that God is most likely to answer with “yes.”

Numbers 24, Isaiah 47, 1 Thessalonians 2

Read Numbers 24, Isaiah 47, and 1 Thessalonians 2. This devotional is about Numbers 24.

Balak had a strange idea of what prophets do. He believed that any word a prophet spoke would become reality. His idea was that paying Balaam to curse Israel meant that Israel would be cursed automatically. Balaam told him repeatedly that he could only do what God empowered him to do (for example, verse 12), but Balak couldn’t understand. In verse 10 we read, “Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times.”

The theology behind Balak’s plan to curse Israel was that God exists to serve us like a cosmic vending machine. Put in the right coins, make your request, and out comes exactly what you want. Balak assumed that God would do whatever a “holy man” like Balaam asked.

It is comical to read this section and see Balak’s reaction to Balaam’s prophetic blessings.

But we act this way ourselves sometimes, too. We believe that God must answer our prayers the way that we want. We may say, “if it is your will” in our prayers but if it isn’t God’s will, that bothers us. One thing these chapters about Balak and Balaam teach us is that God Almighty is not under our control; he’s not there for us to control. He controls us and we submit to him and what he wills to do.

I think it is also important to point out that Balak wanted God to do something that was outside of his moral will. God had expressed his intention to bless Israel for generations. Asking God to do the opposite of what he said he would do in his word is a way of praying that God is never going to bless with yes. People do that today, too, ignoring God’s written word and asking him to do something that is contrary to it.

Do you have any of this kind of “Balak theology” in you? Balak was an unbeliever but we believers can slip into this kind of thinking, too. Ask God to give you a submissive heart to his will and learn how to pray in ways that are in concert with what he has already revealed about his will in his word.

2 Kings 6, Daniel 10

This devotional is about Daniel 10.

The section of Daniel’s book dealing with direct revelations continued in this chapter and Daniel saw a vision “concerning a great war” (v. 1). This vision shook him emotionally (vv. 2-3). Daniel was always a man of prayer as we read back in chapter 6. The fact that he “ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all” (v. 3) suggests that he fasted and devoted himself to extra prayer because of this revelation.

The “man” that he saw in verse 5 told Daniel that he “was highly esteemed” (v. 11) and that he was sent in response to Daniel’s prayers. In fact, this messenger said that he was heard from “the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God” (v. 12). The context suggests that Daniel was heard AND that God responded immediately by sending this messenger. Then why did Daniel have to wait three weeks for this answer? Because, according to verse 13, “the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.”

The messenger, “princes” and “king” in this passage have usually been interpreted as other angels–demons, really–who opposed this angel who was sent with revelation for Daniel. Although God immediately sent an answer to Daniel’s prayer, that answer was delayed by demonic power.

We don’t get very much insight in scripture about the angelic world and how it works. This is the only passage that I can think of where an answer to prayer was delayed because of demonic resistance. Some believers have taken this passage much further than the Bible ever does; nevertheless, it is scripture and shouldn’t be dismissed.

Based on this chapter, then, maybe one reason that the Bible urges us to pray continually, patiently, without giving up, is that God’s answers to our prayers are sometimes delayed spiritually by forces we can’t see and rarely think about. This is not the only reason that answers to prayers are delayed but it maybe one reason why. So the lesson is to persevere in our praying even when God doesn’t answer. There may be more going on with God’s answer than you realize.

Have you given up praying about something–or nearly given up–because the answer hasn’t come yet? Take courage from this passage and keep on praying. No matter what, God is not ignoring your prayers.