Peter, Rhoda, and feeble unbelief


Rhoda leaves Peter outside the door -- peter freed from prison

Rhoda leaves Peter outside the door

Peter was miraculously delivered from prison. He had more trouble getting into a prayer meeting.

The story is told in Acts 12. It has a haunting resemblance to Jesus’ first resurrection appearance. In both cases, people who should have had faith show the sin of unbelief instead.

The chapter opens with the murder of James, one of Jesus’ inner circle.

The king apparently planned to follow it by executing Peter after a public show trial. Passover interfered with his plans, so he put Peter in prison under heavy guard.

Peter had no apprehension the night before his scheduled death. He was sound asleep, handcuffed to two guards. An angel had to be rough with him to wake him up. He got dressed and followed the angel in a stupor until he was safe from pursuit. The angel vanished. Peter, fully awake by now, went where he knew he’d find friends

The prayer meeting

prayer vigil -- faith and unbelief

Prayer vigil

He went to the house of Mary, mother of John Mark. According to Colossians 4:10, Mark was Barnabas’ cousin.

So Mary must have been Barnabas’ sister. She must have been wealthy enough to have at least one servant, a girl named Rhoda.

According to legend, Jesus had his last supper with his disciples in her upper room.

In any case, Christians must have gathered there frequently. Peter went there to find some. According to Acts 12:5, the church was praying earnestly for Peter.

The Bible doesn’t say who was there, but we can make some educated guesses. The gathering probably included other apostles. Gamaliel had persuaded the Sannhedrin not to persecute them in Acts 5:34-40. Until the king decided to start persecuting them, they had no incentive to leave town.

Barnabas and Paul were probably there. The church at Antioch had sent a gift to Jerusalem by their hand (Acts 11:29-30). They returned to Antioch with John Mark (Acts 12:25). Why would they stay anywhere else besides with Barnabas’ sister?

So the church, including some of its most illustrious leaders, prayed for Peter in Mary’s house. A knock at the door interrupted them. Rhoda went to see who it was. It would have been dangerous to open the door, so she asked the visitor to identify himself.

When she heard the voice of Peter, Rhoda ran back to tell the others. In her excitement, she neglected to open the door for him. Everyone told her she was crazy.

Where have we seen this doubt and unbelief before?

Mary Magdalene announcing resurrection -- doubt and unbelief

Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles / Produced in England, St. Albans Abbey, ca. 1119–23. Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, MS St. Godehard 1

Early on that first Easter morning, a Mary Magdalene ran to a gathering of Jesus’ disciples with exciting news. Jesus was alive! They told her she was crazy.

Jesus was not pleased with their behavior. In Mark 16:14, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their hardness of heart.

They had not believed Mary’s testimony. They had already not believed Jesus’ testimony that he would die and rise again. So he scolded them. He upbraided them.

And now perhaps some of those same people were praying for Peter. With the same hardness of heart, they didn’t believe Rhoda. Peter kept knocking, and eventually she went back and let him in.

Had the church prayed for James?

Maybe not. King Herod may have killed him before word of his plan reached the church. If they had, in fact, had opportunity to pray for James’ safe release, he suffered martyrdom anyway. Such a blow would make it difficult to pray for Peter’s safe release with robust faith.

It would not excuse their unbelief or rudeness to Rhoda.

Doubt and unbelief in the modern church

group prayer -- doubt and unbelief

Prayer group

We don’t see many miracles these days. At least not in the “developed” countries. It’s easy enough to find reports of miracles in the “mission field.”

Jesus didn’t do many miracles in Nazareth “because of their unbelief.” That’s a compelling explanation of why we don’t see many here and now. We need to start thinking of our own home towns as the mission field. For that matter, we need to start thinking of our own churches as the mission field. And what about our own hearts?

What do you do when you hear news reports that someone frying a tortilla turned it over and saw an image of the Virgin Mary? Or dug up a potato that looks like Jesus in the manger?

Blank unbelief is the wrong answer. It’s not necessary to believe every reported miracle, but think about it first before you dismiss it. If something like that brings someone closer to God, rejoice. The angels in heaven do.

A Greek Orthodox friend of mine told me about an icon at his church that started bleeding. As he explained how they collected the liquid and sent it to a lab, I’m afraid my eyes started to glaze over. Bleeding icons don’t fit my theology.

But then he mentioned that when people visited it and saw it, some were healed.  Some married couples on the brink of divorce rekindled their love for each other. From then on, he had my full attention. I have to believe that God can and does work through whatever he chooses. Whether if fits my theology or not.

Also, those people at Mary’s house were praying in earnest for Peter. What does it say about their faith that they didn’t believe the testimony that he had been freed from prison in answer to their prayers? Faith and unbelief don’t mix.

Jesus promised we can receive whatever we ask in his name—provided we believe it when we pray. He also said we’d have whatever we say. Not whatever we say in prayer. When we pray and then speak doubt and unbelief about the matter, we curse our own prayer.

I’ve cursed my prayers with unbelief for too long. I am making a diligent effort to notice and purge the negativity in my speech. What about you?

Photo credits:
Rhoda and Peter. Free Bible Images
Prayer vigil. Some rights reserved by Brett Weinstein
Mary Magdalene and disciples. Public domain.
Group prayer. Some rights reserved by The Sharpteam.

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