Acts 12:5, 12; 13:3
The two narrative strands in chapters 9-14, focusing (in turn) on the early missionary work of Peter and Paul, respectively, share something of the common Lukan theme of prayer. We saw this in the conversion-episodes of Paul (Saul) and Cornelius (discussed in last week’s study), but it is also expressed more directly in relation to the apostles’ missionary work.
In the case of Peter, this relates to his arrest and imprisonment (12:3-5), part of a brief period of persecution instigated against the early Christians by King Herod Agrippa (12:1ff). This persecution is introduced most vividly in the narrative, setting the scene for the dramatic episode that follows:
“And, at (about) that time, Herod the king, to harm certain (one)s from the called-out (Community) [e)kklhsi/a], threw (his) hands upon (them), and he took away (the life of) Ya’acob, the brother of Yohanan, by (the) sword.” (vv. 1-2)
As in the case of Jesus, Peter’s arrest took place around the time of Passover. He was being held in prison until after the festival (cp. Mk 14:1-2 par), where he would be presented for a public ‘trial’ and execution. During this time, we read that the Jerusalem believers were praying for Peter:
“So (on the one hand) Peter was (being) kept in the (prison-)guard, but (on the other hand) a speaking out toward [i.e. prayer to] God was coming to be (made) intensely under [i.e. by] the called out (Community) [e)kklhsi/a] over him.” (v. 5)
The “one the one hand…one the other” framework reflects the me\n…de/ syntactical construction in Greek.
Here in the narrative, we see how the noun e)kklhsi/a comes to be used on a more regular basis to refer to the Community of believers—both in Jerusalem and beyond. The fundamental meaning of the term is that of an assembly or gathering which people are called out to attend; however, in the early Christian context, it must be understood in the sense of being called out—by God, through the proclamation of the Gospel—to join the Community of believers.
In earlier studies, we saw how prayer was an important way of demonstrating (and affirming) this common bond of unity among believers. And so it also is here. The Community had been harmed and disrupted by a time of periodic persecution (8:1-4ff); several of its members had been put to death, including the apostle James, and now another apostle (Peter) is suffering and in danger of being killed. This aspect of missionary work has always been the focus of prayer, and rightly so. We do not have the words of the believers’ prayers in this regard, but they likely echoed the great prayer-speech of 4:23-31, along with specific requests for the protection and deliverance of Peter.
The Jewish believers in Jerusalem would already have been making special gatherings together because of the festival time of Passover. The danger to Peter now gave these gatherings a new sense of purpose, and a focal point for prayer.
Peter’s deliverance from prison is narrated in the verses that follow (vv. 6-11), clearly indicating that his rescue (by supernatural / Angelic means) is an answer to prayer. When Peter arrives at the house of Mary, mother of John Mark, the believers there are once again engaged in prayer (v. 12). This would be an example of an early house-church in Jerusalem, in which a group of believers would regularly meet; here it is described as a place “in which an ample (number) having gathered together (were) also speaking out toward (God) [i.e. were gathered together and were praying]”.
In v. 5 the noun proseuxh/ is used, but with the full sense of the expression “speaking out toward God [pro\$ to\n qeo/n]” being specified. Here in v. 12, it is the related verb proseu/xomai, with the idea of their speech directed “toward God” being implied. Soon enough, they realize that their prayers (regarding Peter) have been answered. When our prayer is focused on God’s Kingdom and our mission on its behalf, we can rest assured that such prayer, likewise, will be heard and answered.
The purpose of the Community’s prayer in the case of Paul (and Barnabas) is rather different. The setting is a congregational (house-church) meeting in Antioch (13:1), a city far away from Jerusalem, but the second most prominent early center of Christianity, and a focal point for many Greek-speaking believers. During one such meeting, “in their doing service to the Lord and fasting”, the believers there were instructed (by the Holy Spirit) to set apart (lit. “mark off from [others]”, vb a)fori/zw) Paul and Barnabas for special work as missionaries (v. 2). On the role of the Spirit in this process (also v. 4), cf. my upcoming daily note on the subject. What is important to point out here is close connection between the Spirit and prayer, and how the prayer of early believers relates to the Spirit-theme of Luke-Acts.
In verse 3 we read:
“Then, (hav)ing fasted and (hav)ing spoken out toward (God) and (hav)ing set th(eir) hands upon them, they released (them) from (the gathering) [i.e. sent them off on their mission].”
Prayer (again the vb proseu/xomai) is the central component of a three-part ritual ministry to confirm and prepare Paul and Barnabas for their work. The prayer was preceded by a time of fasting, and then followed by the laying on of hands. From what we have seen elsewhere in the narrative regarding the ritual gesture of laying hands on a person (5:12; 6:6; 8:17-19; 9:17; 19:6, etc), this was meant to confer (or at least to confirm) the presence and power of the Spirit with Paul and Barnabas. If so, then the gesture (and the prayer) of believers seems to have been answered, for in v. 4 we see that the Spirit is directly guiding the missionaries on their journey.