I’d like you to think of a mental chalkboard, in your mind, and I’d like you to think, for a second, What’s the most impossible situation I would like to see God change? What relationship, what finances – what is it about you that you can’t change, you’ve tried to change, it hasn’t happened, it’s impossible? What would you ask Him?
Jot that on the chalkboard of your mind, will you? You got it? Because I want you to read this passage, and hear what God’s going to say, on the basis of Him actually wanting to move in, in that impossible situation.
Now, granted, sometimes God says “no,” and I understand all that. But what I’d like to suggest is that God would like to say “yes” a lot more than any of us would ever dream.
Let’s pick up the situation in Acts chapter 12, verses 1 through 19. “It was about [that] time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the Church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. [And] when he saw that [that] pleased the Jews, he proceeded [also] to seize Peter. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. [And] after arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.” Sixteen guys to guard one guy … “Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.” That’s the situation.
Verse 5: “So Peter was kept in prison.” Sounds pretty impossible, doesn’t it? You’re a brand new, multiplying Church. You’re against the entire Roman Army, the fighting force of the land that controls the known world, and they have 16 soldiers surrounding your leader. And we’re going to find, at night they put him in a cell, and they had one man on one side, and one on the other, and they had him chained. They don’t want this fellow getting away.
“So Peter was kept in prison, but” – how did the Church respond? – “the Church was earnestly praying [unto] God for him.” They didn’t have any weapons. They didn’t have any armies. They said, “We have an impossible situation. He’s a beloved leader, greatly used by God. We will earnestly pray, specifically for Peter, unto God for his deliverance.”
Let’s find out if God hears the prayers of people when the Church gathers. “[That] night before Herod was to bring him to trial” – the night before his execution – “Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. ‘Quick, get up!’ he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists. Then the angel said to him, ‘Put on your clothes and sandals.’ And Peter did so. ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,’ the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea … what the angel was doing was really happening.” He’s a little groggy right now.
“He thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and [the] second guards … [they] came to [an] iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they … walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself –” You can almost see him rubbing his eyes. The cold air hits his face.
Now, first observation: How many of us would be asleep on the night before our execution? This guy’s resting in Christ. Secondly, how many of us, if there were a crisis in this church – how many of us, in the middle of the night, 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., would think to themselves, Oh, if I’m here, I’m sure there’s a prayer meeting going on praying for me?
You see, the early Church was built around an absolute commitment to corporate prayer. Crisis, problem, need – prayer. It’s all through the Scriptures.
And so, Peter ends up meeting where a large group is already praying. “[He knocks on] the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized [his] voice,” she gets so excited and overjoyed, she runs back, without opening the door, and exclaims, “‘Peter is at the door!’ ‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her. When she kept insisting … it was so, they said, [Well,] it must be his angel.’ But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.” God had done the impossible.
“Peter motioned with his [hands] for them to be quiet and [then he] described how the Lord had brought him out of prison.” And then, he told them, “‘Tell James and the brothers about this’ … and he left for another place.”
An impossible situation … The Church responds in prayer. God responds through sending an angel for deliverance. The faith of those people, I bet, grew a little bit that night.
Just so it could be in the annals of history, the author, Luke, writes, “In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter” – an epilogue. Back at the ranch, what happened in prison ...
“After Herod had a thorough search made for him and [didn’t] find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed [for] a while.”
It’s a pretty simple story, isn’t it? And by the way, this isn’t about signs, and wonders. This isn’t about apostolic issues. This isn’t about gifts. This isn’t about things that may have happened in the first century that don’t necessarily normally happen today. This is about an impossible situation, and a group of people who took it seriously and prayed.
Now, what I’d like to suggest is that there are four key principles we can learn from the early Church, so that we can bring God’s power into our impossible situation, and all four of those, I think, are found in verse 5. Flip back the page, or look in your Bible.
Notice, the impossible situation is Peter in prison, but, now, look at these four phrases: “But” – here’s the first phrase, number one – “the Church,” the gathering of God’s people – number two – “was earnestly praying.” It’s continuous action, and that word is a very specific word that we’ll look at. Number three, they prayed unto God, and number four, they prayed for him.
Now, I’d like to take these in order of, I think, priority – not as they are here, but in priority of learning how to pray to bring God’s power, supernatural power, into your impossible situation.
The first thing, I think, we learn is that we must learn to pray unto God. The little word to, or unto, it’s a little preposition in Greek. It means “before,” or, “before the face of God.” It means “motion towards, access to, or nearness at something.”
Now, some of you, at this point, are saying, “Chip, who do you think we’re praying to? We pray to God. What do you mean, we must learn to pray unto God?”
You know what I’d like to suggest? This has been the most profound difference that I’ve learned, in my own prayer life. I’d like to suggest that maybe 50 to 75 percent of the time, in your prayers, and mine, we don’t really pray unto God.
Now, I don’t mean you’re praying to some false god, but I’d like to suggest that, most of the time, when we’re really not conscious, that when we pray, our focus is on our words; our focus is on what we are saying. Our focus is on other people in the room, and how they might think about what we are saying, or our focus is on pure autopilot.
Have you listened to your kids, and yourselves, pray in groups, how these little phrases keep popping up? “Oh, Lord, keep us safe. Protect all those, duh-duh-duh, do-do-do-do …”
What I mean, and I think what this passage means, that the early Church did, when they prayed unto God, is, they came, and they knew, and were conscious of, they were in the very presence of God, and their focus was on to Whom they were speaking, and they were absolutely certain that they were talking to Him.
Now, think of the difference. Think of the difference, instead of bowing your head, and just letting your mouths start to go, if you stopped, and, somehow, like the picture in Revelation 5, or Isaiah 6, you realize, here’s the Throne Room of God, and there are seraphim flying – holy, holy, holy. And He’s an unapproachable light, and He’s all-powerful. And then, combined with that, the Lamb of God, and His goodness, and His tenderness, and His love, and His desire to bless and draw you near … What if, in your mind, before you said a word, you realized who God really was?
I tell you, it will transform your prayer life. When you consciously become aware of, and take time to focus on, Whom it is you’re speaking to, all of a sudden, the size of your problems begins to shrink, and your emotional struggles begin to shrink, because it’s like bringing penny, and nickel, and dime issues to a multi, multi-billionaire.
Can He change your relationship? Like that … Can He heal a body? Like that … Can He turn a situation around at work? Like that … Praying unto God is coming unto God, with an awareness of who He really is, before you say a word, and then, being certain that you’re actually talking to Him.
R. A. Torrey writes, in his book – and I wrote down a quote – “We should never utter one syllable of prayer, either in public or in private, until we are definitely conscious that we have come into the presence of God, and we are really speaking to Him.”
Can you imagine, if you will, regardless of your political persuasion, if the president of the United States, all the heads of Europe, all the heads of the entire world, the top 10 or 12 nations, came and formed a tribunal? They have the power to push buttons. They have all the control of all the resources, and they say, “We are going to give you an audience with the leaders of the top 12 countries in the world. You can ask whatever you want for. No guarantees of how long you’ll be allowed to talk, but these people have the power to do anything you want.”
How would you prepare for that meeting? Would you just flippantly walk in, say, “Well, gosh, hi, guys. I’m sure glad you let me come talk to you. I don’t know what I really need, but it’s …”
I’ll tell you what, I’d think carefully about every word that’s going to come out of my mouth before those people. And if they gave me a chance to ask for something, I would have pondered, What’s the most important thing I really want from them?
And if we would do that before humans, how much more do we need to come before God, recognizing who He really is, and really being aware that you’re speaking to Him? That will transform your prayer life.
I’ve really been trying to practice this. I try to ponder His attributes. And I remember reading about Martin Luther, and how he would read through, carefully, the Lord’s Prayer, and then recite the Ten Commandments, and a number of things, just to remember Who God was.
Do you ever get where you can’t get your heart jumpstarted? I just couldn’t get close to God. My Bible was open, and it wasn’t where I was normally reading, and Psalm 121 was open. I thought, Maybe I’ll glance at a psalm before I pray. I need to remember who God is.
I glanced down. It said, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – [from] where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He [won’t] let your foot slip – He who watches over you … [never slumbers] nor [sleeps].” And it goes on and talks about His goodness, and He’ll be “your shade at your right hand,” and how He longs for you to come in, and He’ll protect you and love you.
And all of a sudden, the lights came on, and I realized, God wants me to talk to Him. This is a safe place. This is One who’s holy, and infinite, and powerful. And yet, He desires Chip Ingram to come today and talk. And it was like the heavens opened.
Let me ask you, are you praying unto God? Are you really aware of to Whom you’re speaking, and are you certain that, as you speak, you’re really talking to Him?
That raises a couple of questions, doesn’t it? Some of you might say, “Well, gosh, maybe God just works this way for people like Chip, or for pastors, or missionaries, or whoever else. How could I know that I could come into God’s presence, and then how could I know, for sure, that God is really going to hear me?”
Let me give you the assurance. It has nothing to do with your status. It has nothing to do with your merit. The basis of our assurance before God’s throne is the work of Christ on the cross.
The way that you can know, and I can know, and every single person on this earth who knows Jesus in a personal, saving way, that when you come before God, you have access before the very Throne Room of God ... Look at the verse I’ve put down – Hebrews 10:19. It says, “Therefore, brothers, we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place,” or “the Holy of Holies,” where God’s power is, where the most intimate expression of His Person is. And how do you get there? “… By the blood of Jesus.”
Your merit, your absolute guarantee that you can come into the presence of the Almighty Creator of the universe isn’t because you’ve been a good boy or a good girl today. It’s by the blood of Christ.
The problem that keeps me from God, and you from God, is our sin. And when He died on the cross, He paid for your sin. When He rose from the dead, and was seated at the right hand of God, He pioneered a trail so that you and I have absolute confidence, right before the throne of God, not on the basis of our spirituality, but on the basis of His finished work on the cross. That’s powerful, people. You can know, for sure.
Well, the second question that may come up is, “What if there are some issues in my life that need to be taken care of?” Great – 1 John 1:9 ... First John teaches that not only did He do that once and for all, but the blood of Christ keeps on cleansing. If there’s an issue between you and another person, or God, confess your sin, and he says He’ll cleanse you, and forgive you. And then, He’ll draw you near.
The second issue is, well, that’s how we have basis, but how does it actually work? You know, and I know, at least in our experience, some of you that have walked with the Lord for a while, there are times where you pray … And I can’t explain it, but I’ve had times of such intimacy with God, with my eyes shut, I’ve felt like I could almost reach out and touch Him.
And there are other times when I pray that I’m trying as hard as I can try – have you been there? – and it’s like – Bing! I’m not sure my prayers make it to the ceiling! You know what I’m talking about? I don’t have any desire to pray, and I feel dry. And I know I ought to, and I know I should, but I don’t want to. And I don’t feel close to God, and I have these vague, dry feelings, and …
What do you do then? How can we know, and how can we break through – What is the means of access?
The Scripture is very clear here. The means of access into God’s presence, 24 hours a day, is by His Spirit. You see, the Scripture teaches we pray to the Father, we pray on the basis, or through the Son, and we pray in the Spirit. It’s the Spirit’s ministry.
You know what His ministry is? His ministry in prayer is to take you by the hand, and me by the hand, and personally escort us to the very Throne Room of God, to make God’s presence real in our hearts, and in our experiences. It’s true in reality. There are no barriers between us and God because of the work of the cross. But in our experience, often that doesn’t jive out. And so, it’s the work of the Spirit to do that.
Notice the verse here, from Ephesians 2:18. It says, “For through Him” – Christ – “we have access” – and that word means “introduction into God’s presence” – “to the Father” – how? – “by one Spirit.”
One day I was praying – and I’m trying to apply this to my life – and I had one of those bounce-off-the-ceiling times. So, what do you do?
Do you know what I’ve often done? Can I be candid with you? I’ve prayed a few generic prayers and said, “Well, I guess I’m just not into it too much today. I’ll pray more, later today” – which I usually don’t do – or, “I’ll pray tomorrow, harder” – which I usually don’t do. That’s when you need to pray the most.
And do you know what the promise is? The promise is that you can sit quietly and say, “Lord, I know that I can’t pray, apart from the Holy Spirit’s ministry. And You promised that He will lead me by the hand, and take me to the very Throne Room of God, and make God real in my experience.” And so, you can sit quietly and say, “God the Holy Spirit, will You please, right now, take me to the Throne Room of God, and make the experience and the reality of God real in my heart?”
And then, sit quietly, believe, and expect that God will do that. And you know what? He will.
It took me about 10 or 12, maybe 15, minutes, and I struggled and I struggled. And then, I finally prayed that, and I sat quietly.
And you know, in all the old books, the old books about people who really prayed, they have a little phrase you don’t hear much. It’s called “breaking through,” or “praying through.” There is many a time it may take 10, 15 minutes, maybe even a little bit more, to break through – and most of us quit before we break through – until heaven opens up, and the Spirit of God ushers you in.
And God wants to do that, and He wants us to pray unto God. And the majority of this message is on this – because if we don’t do this, the rest of these things don’t matter much, do they? – believing, first, who it is that we’re talking to, and being assured that we’re actually talking to Him. The basis is the blood of Christ. The means of access is the Holy Spirit.
And I would encourage you, before you utter a syllable in prayer, either publicly, or privately, to stop and say, “God, I want to remember who You are. And I want to make sure that I’m speaking to You, not to the people I’m praying with, or not just to get my prayers done.” You will experience a radical transformation in your life.
The second thing He says that we need to do is that we need to pray earnestly. The word earnestly, here, is a compound word. It has two parts. The first part, ek, means “out,” and the second half of this word means “stretch.” We get our word tension from this. It’s translated in 1 Peter 1:22 as “deeply,” or “fervently.”
It’s a word used in Luke 22:44, where Jesus is praying. And then, He sees the disciples, and He goes back to pray. And it says, “[Therefore] in agony He prayed more earnestly as He was doing battle.”
The idea, here, is “focused intent, and passion.” It’s coming to God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, saying, “God, I mean business! I want what I’m asking of You. I’m not going through the motions.”
Those of you that have had children, do you remember a time when one of your little children had a temperature, and the temperature went to 102, and then the temperature went to about 103, and then it went to 104, and how your prayers changed? Have you ever sat there with a tiny baby that’s burning up, or one of your little kids?
I’ll tell you what, you don’t pray any of those, “Well, Lord, we would really like, if it’s in Your will, according to Your sovereign plan, to bless this child, according to Your divine purposes.” Baloney. You hear a mom or a dad next to that baby, “Oh, God, God, save my child!”
That’s what he’s saying! He’s saying that we need to come to God like we mean it, and we need to come to Who we’re really talking to, and then earnestly – the word means “to be stretched out.” Your soul needs to be stretched out before God, saying, “God, hear our cry!” And you know the evidence of when you really mean business? The level of your perseverance.
The third thing we need to learn to do is, we need to pray corporately. We need to pray unto God, we need to pray earnestly, and we need to pray corporately. I get that from that little phrase: “The Church earnestly prayed unto God for him.” The meaning of the word the Church means “the assembly,” or “the gathered ones,” “the ekklesia.”
The Church was born, it grew, and it exploded, in the context of a commitment and belief that the body of Christ, gathered for intercession, was the most powerful force on the earth. I dare you to read through the Book of Acts, and prove me wrong. The early Church believed that the most powerful force on this earth was when the body of Christ gathered, and approached Jesus, and the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and they asked in unity.
And if you don’t believe me, do a quick sketch. The early Church was born – where? Out of a prayer meeting – chapter 1 of Acts. When Jesus ascended, He said, “Hey, you go wait, and go pray.” Right? Chapter 2, Pentecost came during – what? They were praying. Chapter 3, the first miracle … Where were Peter and John on their way to? Peter and John are on their way to a prayer meeting when they do the miracle.
Chapter 4, they get beat up, thrown into prison. Then, they get let out, and they come back to the Church, and what do they say? “Who are we to get to suffer like this for Christ?” And then, 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? One simple reason, because the leadership said, “We must give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.”
What was Cornelius doing when God revealed Himself to him? He was praying. What was Peter doing when God revealed Himself, in chapter 10, to go talk to Cornelius? He was praying. Where did the first missionaries come from? Acts 13. What were they doing when they called Paul and Barnabas out? They were praying.
Historically and globally, you’ll find every great movement of God is tied with people who begin to lay hold of what’s true about prayer. You can look at the Wesley brothers, Jonathan Edwards. You can go back to the Reformation, or you can go over to Korea today, where God is moving marvelously, and you’ll find the Church is 4:00 in the morning, 5:00 in the morning, 6:00 in the morning. Hundreds of thousands of people pray daily, corporately.
Application: I think we pray as a church. But you know, in terms of real, corporate, priority, coming together to pray, we’re weak. But it would seem to me, if our church believed in prayer, and we had the kind of crisis the early Church had with Peter, there’d be about 300 people there on Tuesday night for corporate prayer, instead of 30.
Now, if you’ve got a commitment, and it’s God’s will, don’t come. But if you want to see God work in a supernatural way, then I’ll check you on Tuesday, and let’s get before God, and let’s believe what the New Testament says, and let’s call out to Him, and you’ll be a part of the work of the God, and you’ll see things happen.
The final point: Not only is it unto God, and earnestly, and corporately, we must pray specifically. Did you notice? It’s “for him.”
I think that we pray a lot of vague generalities about God’s will working out all things, and “however You want to work it,” and, “I know You’re sovereign …” And that’s true. But I think we’re bailing out. “Oh, God, whatever You want to happen …” What do you want to happen?
As a father, or a parent – how about if your kids said, “Oh, Mother and Father, whatever you want for dinner is fine with me; it’s just great. Whatever you want to give me for my birthday …” As a parent, what do you want to know? “Hey, son, daughter, what do you want? What would bring specific joy to your heart?” And as a parent, you want to do it, don’t you? You’ll never see God’s power until you start praying specifically.
That envelope I told you about … I put my top 14 things, specific things, impossible in the lives of members of my family, and for my life, and for this church. And the most exciting thing, as I’ve prayed nearly every day for these, is putting check marks in areas I’ve prayed for, some for 15 years, and until this fall have not seen their answer.
Write specific things down, and put them before the throne of God, and see if the Eternal God of the universe doesn’t want to bring His power into your impossible situation.