Read: Galatians 1:1-24
The last of the four characteristics of healthy and vital Christian churches is apostolic prayer. Let’s look today at a wonderful example of what that means.
We come today to the fourth of our marks of the church as found in Acts 2:42, where we read that the early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, to the breaking of bread (that is, in the special, sacramental sense), and finally, to prayer. How much could be said about prayer! Certainly far more than I can talk about in one brief message.
There is a text in Luke 11:1 where the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” The great Scottish preacher, Alexander Whyte, once preached for a whole year just on that verse.
But today I’d like to focus on just one example of apostolic prayer. It’s found a couple of chapters later in the book of Acts, in Acts 4, where Peter and John, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, are taken for questioning by the authorities and then warned to stop their witnessing to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Luke tells us what happened next, in Acts 4:23ff. When the church hears Peter and John’s report of what had happened to them, we read:
they lifted their voices together to God and said: “‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of David your servant said by the Holy Spirit ‘Why do the Gentiles rage and the people plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed.’ For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your Holy Servant, Jesus.
And when they had prayed, Luke adds, “The place in which they were gathered together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the Word with all boldness.”
Prayer and Missions
It doesn’t take a very deep study of either scripture or church history to recognize the intimate connection between prayer, revival, and missions. Think, for example, of Nehemiah, an official of the Persian emperor in the 6th century B.C. One day he received the distressing news from Jerusalem that things weren’t going well there among the small community of Jews who had returned from exile. Nehemiah took the letter from those exiles and brought it before the Lord in prayer, and God used him and his fellow servant, Ezra, to bring a great revival and a renewed strength and mission to his people in those last centuries before the coming of the Messiah.
The book of Acts is full of similar examples of revival and mission outreach sparked by prayer as we’ve just read in chapter 4, and similar stories could be told from throughout the history of the church. In 1724 a minor German nobleman named Nicholas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf gathered a group of Protestant exiles. He called his little community Herrnhut (“The Lord’s Watch”). This small group of people began to pray. For three years they prayed for revival and the mission of the church. One of the people they influenced was an English clergyman named John Wesley, who together with friends and like-minded preachers like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, became leaders of the movement of God known as the Great Awakening. From that Great Awakening in both Europe and North America the modern missionary movement emerged, and the whole face of the world has been changed as a result.
So it always has been and so we see in the pages of Acts in the life of the early church. Let’s look together at this prayer from Acts 4 and consider together what kind of prayer leads to revival and mission outreach.
Lessons in Prayer
First of all, notice how these believers prayed. “When they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God.” Their prayer was corporate, not merely individual. It addressed the needs of the community, and especially of the cause of the gospel in the world, not just personal or family or private concerns.
Then, secondly, the Jerusalem Christians prayed in utter dependence and humility before God. Their invocation is interesting. They addressed God as “Sovereign Lord.” The word in Greek is literally despotes from which we get the word despot. It refers to an absolute ruler. The emphasis is on the omnipotent power and the complete control that God exercises over all things. God is not only the Creator of all things, the one “who made the heaven and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them,” as this prayer states (v. 24). He is also the one who continues to rule all things directly by his hand.
I’m sure that you’ve heard, and maybe you’ve even felt it yourself, the objection that a robust belief in the sovereignty of God over all things must negate prayer. After all, why bother to pray if everything happens according to the plan of God? God’s going to do what he’s going to do anyway, right?
But the truth is that a confidence in the God who is in control is what gives life and power to our prayers. We pray because we know he can do what we ask him to. And he can do it because he is the sovereign Lord. Someone has said that prayer is the wonderful means by which God bestows on his children the dignity of causality. Think about that?”the dignity of causality. He allows us to participate in his government of the universe through our prayers. It’s staggering to think that God delights in using our poor requests to fulfill his plan, and to advance his purpose, and to grow his kingdom throughout the world.
So apostolic prayer is corporate prayer. It is dependent prayer, acknowledging and appealing to the sovereign rule of God. And it is biblical prayer. The best prayer takes God’s own words and prays them back to him.
Notice how at the heart of this apostolic prayer that I read a few minutes ago there is a wonderful quotation from the second psalm. One way you can be sure you are praying according to God’s will is to pray the scriptures back to him, and especially those scriptures that ask the Lord to glorify himself. Then we can be certain that he will do what we pray for.
Prayer is not a gimmick for getting what we want out of a reluctant deity. It is rather a God-appointed means of allowing us to share in God’s own work of bringing in his kingdom. “Why do the heathen rage?” asks the psalmist. “Why do the nations conspire against the Lord and his Anointed One,” prays the church. Worldly powers set themselves up against the gospel and against God’s people, but the Lord holds them in derision. He laughs them to scorn. And the Lord says, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance.” This is how to pray according to the will of God. Let the nations come, Lord, and let them be the inheritance of your beloved Son, the Messiah.
A Prayer that Will Always Be Answered
Finally, look at the specific request that these believers asked of the Lord when they prayed.
And now, Lord, look upon their threats (that is, the pressure the authorities were putting on the church to stop proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ) and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant, Jesus. (vv. 29-30)
They prayed first for something for themselves, but it was really something quite unusual, “Lord, just give us boldness to continue to bear witness to Christ.” Not, “Get us out of this trouble.” Not, “deliver us from the power of our enemies,” but “give us boldness to keep witnessing.”
And what boldness they had already demonstrated! Peter stood up in front of the chief priests and rulers, the very same people who had brought about Jesus’ crucifixion, and proclaimed to them that there is no other name under heaven by which anyone can be saved, except the name of Jesus?”Jesus, the very man you rejected, but whom God has now raised. “Lord, give us boldness to bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ for the advance of his kingdom and the glory of your name.” I can guarantee you: that is a prayer that will always be answered.
In this age of political correctness it’s hard to speak the truth. It takes a kind of boldness just to speak about the Lord Jesus. And it’s even harder to speak the truth in love. To testify to the unique saving name of Jesus Christ in a winsome and convincing way takes both moral courage and great sensitivity. May the Lord give us both. Let us speak the truth, in love, but the truth, whether the world will listen or not. And as we speak, Lord, may you act, to demonstrate your great power to save. Stretch forth your hand. Let us see signs and wonders, not for our sake, but in order to add to your kingdom those whom you have called, and bring glory to your name.
“When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” I wonder: if we started to pray in the same way, do you think the same thing might happen to us?