About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
The very night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison; and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, "Get up quickly." And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, "Dress yourself and put on your sandals." And he did so. And he said to him, "Wrap your mantle around you and follow me." And he went out and followed him; he did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened to them of its own accord, and they went out and passed on through one street; and immediately the angel left him. And Peter came to himself, and said, "Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."
When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and told that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, "You are mad." But she insisted that it was so. They said, "It is his angel!" But Peter continued knocking; and when they opened they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison and he said, "Tell this to James and to the brethren." Then he departed and went to another place.
I want to talk to you briefly this morning about explosive fellowship, before Tom Steller comes to present the ministry of small groups at Bethlehem. I use the word "explosive" to define the fellowship I want to talk about, because life is too short and this age is too evil and the people outside are too broken and hopeless for us to settle for a notion of fellowship as a kind of comfortable togetherness that has no transforming, empowering, explosive effect when we meet.
Zealous for Explosive Fellowship
Believe me, I love fellowship. I love to be with people of like mind and heart. I love my main support group, the pastoral staff of this church, and our hours together each week. But my life is so short, and my meeting with the Lord face to face is so imminent and so real, and my desires to make a 100% return on God's investment of grace in my life are so strong, that I am just not interested in any kind of fellowship that does not help people explode with more love, more compassion, more joy, more holiness, and more zeal for God, and more boldness in witness, more power in ministry, more vision for missions. And I do not believe that this disenchantment of mine with self-contained, unfruitful, ineffective fellowship is a personal quirk. I think it's an echo in my heart—and yours—of the explosive fellowship we hear about in the book of Acts.
O, I want us all to be in small groups! I want every person in this church to know the sweet taste of camaraderie and belonging and family at-homeness and unity of spirit and oneness of mind that is the heart in New Testament, Christian fellowship—and so precious and indispensable in my life. But I want everything we do in our groups—whether we are studying Scripture, reading a book, focusing on singles issues, marriage issues, supporting a missionary, targeting the inner-city, praying for children—whatever the focus is, I pray that everything that happens in the small groups will be explosive—will produce explosives or ignite the fuse of explosives or toss explosives. I hope that the mindset of every small group is to serve an explosion of love and compassion and truth and joy and worship and power and ministry.
And the reason I feel warranted by God this morning to express this so strongly is because I see in the book of Acts that this is the kind of fellowship that carried the Christian movement from 120 disciples on the day of Pentecost to 5,000 Christians in Jerusalem alone in a matter of months, and then planted that movement all over the known world in a few short decades.
An Overview of Explosive Fellowship in Acts
Before we focus in on Acts 12, let me give you a quick overview of the explosive fellowship I see in Acts.
In Acts 1:14–15 Luke tells us that the 11 apostles and about 109 other disciples devoted themselves to prayer together after Jesus ascended into heaven. Luke 24:52 tells us that during this time they also went together to the temple continually to bless God with great joy. And after ten days of this public worshiping together in the temple and praying together in the upper room, Acts 2:1–2 says that the Spirit of God fell on them and there was an explosion of spiritual power heard 'round the world. Three thousand people were converted in one day (2:41). That's explosive upper room fellowship!
Then notice Acts 2:46. These new Christians seem to follow a similar pattern of public worship and home fellowship.
Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And [here's the explosion] the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
There was such an explosive love and freedom and joy and power in the Spirit and in the truth that people were being saved everyday, and these small house groups were folding new people in, week in and week out.
Then look at chapter 4:31. Peter and John had been arrested for preaching and released. They went to one of the fellowship groups in the city and prayed with them for even more boldness and power. And again the fellowship of the group was explosive:
When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
That's the kind of explosive effect I believe God will give our small groups at Bethlehem if we seek it with all our heart.
Or consider a different kind of explosion in the fellowship in Acts 13:2. The prophets and teachers in Antioch met—it looks like a kind of staff meeting the way we do it on Tuesday afternoons. But notice what happens this time:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting [in their little fellowship group], the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."
And with that a mission and a missionary were unleashed that changed the flow of world history and the very shape of eternity. That is the kind of thing God will cause to explode from our small groups if we seek him with all our hearts, and avoid like the plague the business-as-usual, routine, unexpectant, unvisionary mentality that robs so much fellowship of its explosive power.
Then one more before we go back to chapter 12. It's one of my favorites—a kind of forced fellowship in the dungeon of Philippi. In Acts 16:25 Paul and Silas are in prison for preaching. This is a dirty, life-threatening situation, and they decide to turn it into a fellowship of praise, and God decides to turn it into a fellowship of explosive power.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's fetters were unfastened.
. . . a beautiful example of two men who turn a crisis into a fellowship of public praise, which God turns into an explosion of power.
The Church in Jerusalem Praying in Acts 12
Now let's go back to Acts 12 for just a moment. I want to point out one main thing. James, one of the sons of thunder, had just been beheaded and Peter is in prison waiting his turn as soon as the feast is over. That would be like Bethlehem getting the news that David Livingston has been executed at City Hall for rescuing babies at the Midwest Health Center for Women and that David Michael is in jail to be executed in a week.
The Whole Church Praying
Verse 5 says what the church is doing: "So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church." Notice: it seems to be the whole church that is praying for Peter. We know from Acts 4:4 that by this time there were well over 5,000 men (not to mention women and children) who were part of the church in Jerusalem. So how was this prayer happening?
They may have called an all-church prayer meeting in the city. We don't know. But what we know for sure is that the house-group network in Jerusalem was on fire for Peter. Verses 6–11 describe the amazing answer to prayer as Peter is saved from prison by an angel. Then look at verse 12: "When Peter realized this [that he had been delivered], he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying."
Praying in Smaller House Groups
Now, it says "many." But many is not 5,000, because they are all in one house. Maybe 40, 50, 60 according to what archeology shows us about the size of nice houses in Jerusalem in the first century. So when verse 5 told us that "the church" was praying, did that mean just these 50 or 60 people were praying? No. It meant that the church in Jerusalem was praying—all five or ten thousand of them probably; the loss of James AND Peter would have been devastating—all the church was praying, but it was praying in its house groups all over the city. And the power of those groups praying all over Jerusalem exploded the doors off the hinges of Herod's prison.
Can you feel why I read the book of Acts and become disenchanted with "fellowship-as-usual"? We are beyond all controversy here over whether signs and wonders are done only by apostles. We are talking here about ordinary Christians who meet together with such expectancy and fervency of prayer, and vision—or desperation—that the Spirit is poured out, and people are added to the church daily, and witness is bold, and missionaries are called and sent, and prison doors are opened. This is not apostolic vindication. This is just Christian fellowship—explosive Christian fellowship—the way it was happening in a context where leaders were being executed. My prayer is that we will not be so at home in the world—so content with business as usual—that God must bring persecution upon us in order to create in Bethlehem explosive fellowship.