When you find yourself in a set of die circumstances and are beginning to wonder if there is anything you can do, what you need to do is pray.

In the New Testament book of Acts, we see how powerful prayer can be. Things were looking particularly bleak for the believers in the first-century church, but prayer turned the entire situation around.

As chapter 12 of the book of Acts opens, we find King Herod harassing the church and executing James, the brother of John. He was the first apostle to be put to death, and having one of their leaders suddenly executed must have been a crushing blow to the church.

Herod’s motives were hard to determine. He was your consummate politician, wanting to do what was popular. So when Herod saw that John’s execution pleased the religious leaders, he decided to have Peter arrested next.

Things were looking bleak. Overnight one of the leaders of the church was eliminated, and it looked as though another leader of the church was about to be killed, too.

So what did the church do? Did they organize a boycott of all products made in Rome? Did they arm themselves with swords and attack Herod and his soldiers? We don’t read about any of that happening. What we read instead is that the church used their secret weapon: “Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church” (Acts 12:5 NKJV).

Though all other doors were closed, one remained open: the door of prayer, the door into the presence of God. The way through to Peter was the one through God.

Often we go to prayer as a last resort. After we have exhausted every other possibility, after we have tried everything, all we can do, then, is pray. But that is what we should have done in the first place.

As the hymnist William Cowper wrote, “And Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees.” Prayer is the first thing we ought to do, not the last.

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As the church prayed, Peter was fast asleep in his prison cell. Suddenly an angel appeared, and the chains fell off his hands. What amazes me is the angel had to wake him up. Peter got up, made his way out, and the door opened automatically. He found himself standing outside the prison, and it dawned on him that he had been miraculously delivered. The believers, still in a prayer meeting for Peter, didn’t believe it when they were told that Peter was at the door. God could get Peter out of prison, but it was even harder to get him into a prayer meeting.

So what made the prayers of the early church so effective?

First, their prayers were offered to God. That might seem obvious. But not all prayer is offered to God. Prayer is becoming more popular, due in part to studies that have shown that people who pray seem to have fewer problems in life, less stress and lower blood pressure. Hospital patients being prayed for seemed to have a more rapid recovery than the patients without prayer. The question is, to whom were these people praying? Prayer is not the answer. God is the answer. Prayer is the vehicle by which we reach God. So we don’t need to be looking to prayer; we need to be looking to God through prayer.

Second, they prayed with passion and persistence. The words “constant prayer” could be translated from the original Greek as “earnest prayer” or “stretched outwardly.” Have you ever dropped your keys inside your car in that little spot between the seat and the center console? You are trying to get them … you almost have them … but they are just beyond your reach. That is how the early church prayed. They reached out to God. They put everything into it. Theirs was not a flippant, Lord-save-Peter-or-whatever prayer; it was a storm-the-throne-of-God prayer. And I’m sure it was all the more fervent because James had been killed.

Many times we don’t put any passion into our prayers. And if we put so little heart into our prayers, we cannot expect God to put too much heart into answering them. God promises that people will find him when they search for him with all their hearts (see Jeremiah 29:13). Pray like that.

Third, they prayed together. There is power in united prayer. Jesus said, “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”

Does this mean if two people agree on something that God will just give it? Let’s say that my friend and I got together and prayed for a Rolls Royce. Would we get it? Some people might say we would. But what if having that Rolls Royce is outside of the will of God for us? Then God will not give us what we are asking for.

When we pray together, it doesn’t mean that whatever we ask, we will receive. What it does mean is there is power in united prayer. There is power in the prayers of people with the same God-given burden, who are sure of his will and in agreement with the Spirit of God and each other.

Acts chapter 12 opens with James’ execution, Peter’s arrest and Herod’s triumph. But the chapter closes with Herod’s death, Peter’s freedom and the word of God triumphing.

It isn’t over till it’s over. What situation are you facing? Is it provision you need? Is it an opportunity that you want to pursue? Bring it before God, and ask him to work.

It has been said that when your knees are knocking, kneel on them. That is always a good thing to do.

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