Last Sunday I challenged you to pray about what God is calling this congregation to achieve in the coming year—in the coming years, really, but let’s begin with this year. What is He asking us to do that will glorify His Holy Name in great and mighty ways, that will shine His light into the world, that will make more of Him and less of us?
As I prayed about this during the past week, God led me to the Book of Acts. There, in the second chapter, we read that the disciples of Jesus gathered together after He ascended into heaven and“devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers”(Acts 2:42). And as they continued to do these things, we read that “many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” (Acts 2:43).
Then, as Peter and John were going up to the temple to pray, they encountered a lame beggar and they healed him, after which Peter gave a sermon. People gathered around, wanting to hear more. And then, at the beginning of chapter 4, we read that “as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:1-2). So Peter and John were arrested and thrown into jail until the next day, when they were brought before the “rulers and elders and scribes … with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high priestly family” (Acts 4:5-6).
Now Annas, you may recall, was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest who, according to John’s gospel, “had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man, [Jesus}, should die for the people” (John 18:14). These were the men who were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion! You would think that Peter and John would have been terrified. But no; Peter, showing no trace of fear whatsoever, delivered a sermon to them, advising them that salvation is achieved only through Jesus Christ.
When the council saw “the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished” (Acts 4:15). They conferred with one another and then decided to release Peter and John, telling them that they were not to talk about Jesus to anyone.
And so we come to today’s reading. Peter and John, released from custody, returned to the other disciples and told them what had happened. Did they lock the door and hide for fear that the council might have second thoughts and come back and arrest them again? Were they worried that theywould soon be hanging on a cross?
If they were, the text gives no such indication. What it does say is that they “lifted their voices together to God” and prayed. They prayed that He might “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” (Acts 4:29-30).
When they finished praying, it says that “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 of God with boldness”(Acts 4:31). It says that it was with “great power” (Acts 4:33) that the apostles were giving their testimony, and it says that “the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32).
Nowhere does it say that they were surprised by any of this—they seemed to take it in stride. They seemed to expect that when they prayed, God would show up—and things would happen that could be explained as nothing but the hand of God at work.
What had happened to this group of people in just a short time? How had they changed from the fearful men who had run for their lives when Jesus was arrested to men of “boldness” who displayed no fear even when arrested by the same group of men who arrested Jesus?
Could it be that the answer is found in the first chapter of the Book of Acts, when, after Jesus has ascended into heaven, the apostles and the rest of their group gathered in the upper room and “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14)? As we read the book of Acts, we find two things consistently: this group of people who formed the beginning of the Christian church in the world were in agreement with one another, and they were continuously in prayer. We read that they“devoted themselves to fellowship” (Acts 2:42), that they were in “one accord” (Acts 1:14), and in today’s reading that “the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32).
And could it be that the reason that they were so totally in agreement had something to do with the fact that they were bringing everything before the Lord in prayer. The first century church was alive—it was viewed as a threat by the Jewish leadership because there was clear evidence that something was at work beyond the mere words and actions of a group of common, uneducated people.
When was the last time that you heard the Christian Church in this country described as a threat to anything? It’s commonly described as intolerant, hypocritical, narrow-minded, biased, homophobic, and lots of other similar phrases—but threatening? I don’t think so. The Muslims now—many people view them as threatening. Christians are more likely to be viewed as pathetic than threatening—why is this? What did the early church have that we don’t?
The early church was devoted to prayer. “They lifted their voices together to God” (Acts 4:24). Jesus said that there’s power in public united prayer. He said “If two or three of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:19-20). The reason that Jesus told us to pray “Our Father” instead of “My Father” is because of the importance of agreeing together in prayer. Strong, growing churches are united in prayer.
Paul understood this well; this is why he wrote to the church at Corinth that “You must … help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11). He wrote similarly to the other churches. Paul knew that his success in his missionary journeys depended heavily on the prayers of people who were not with him, who would probably never go to the places that he went, and who would likely never meet the people they were praying for.
The early church understood the power of prayer. Andrew Murray wrote in his book, With Christ in the School of Prayer, “Most churches think their members are gathered into one simply to take care of and build up each other. They know not that God rules the world by the prayers of his saints; that prayer is the power by which Satan is conquered; that by prayer the church on earth has disposal of the power of the heavenly world.”
Not only did the Jerusalem church understand the importance of prayer, they knew how to pray.
- Their prayers focused on God. They understood that the answers to life’s greatest problems can be found only by placing them before the Lord.
- The early church understood the importance of God’s Word in their prayer life. The prayer that is prayed in our reading from the Book of Acts includes a quote from Psalm 2. We sometimes say that they don’t know what to pray; God has given us Scripture to provide content for our prayer lives. Not sure what or how to pray? Open the book of psalms and begin to read.
- The prayers of the early church recall both blessings and victories that they have received. They acknowledge God’s work in their midst and they praise Him for His work in their lives.
- Finally, the early church petitioned God for specific needs. They wanted boldness in their witness—so they asked God to give it to them! They asked for miracles, for signs and wonders—not to make themselves look good, but rather in the hopes of turning many to Jesus Christ.
Not only do we read how they prayed, but we discover that their prayers were answered.
- Jesus promised them—and us—to send the Holy Spirit. They prayed and they received Him on Pentecost. The early church, like our church today, needed the power of the Holy Spirit to do the work of God. Jesus Himself performed no miracles, no signs and wonders, until He was filled with the Holy Spirit when He was baptized in the River Jordan.
- The early Christians spoke the Word of God with boldness. They asked for courage and boldness—and they received it. We should expect to receive boldness when we are filled with the Spirit. God knows that we can’t do the things He calls us to do without the boldness that comes from the Holy Spirit—and so He gives it to us! He doesn’t want to watch us struggle trying to do things under our own power—He wants us to succeed! He wants us to go forth boldly to proclaim the gospel so that more people will know Him and so that His Holy Name will be glorified!
- The church in Jerusalem were “of one heart and soul” because they prayed together constantly—and the result of a praying church is a united body.
God’s desire for this congregation—for every Christian congregation everywhere—is that we call on Him: call on Him for direction, for guidance. He desires that we call on Him to perform mighty signs and wonders that will proclaim His glory to the world. But because of His great desire to be in relationship with us, He will only act when we ask Him to. The only thing standing between God’s Church on earth and the signs and wonders that He would have us perform in the name of Jesus Christ is us—we have to ask. We have to come before the throne boldly, expecting Him to answer.
We’ve talked about prayer before—lots of times—and we have a growing prayer ministry here at Bethany. But one of the things that God has been saying to me as I’ve prayed for direction is that we need more. We need more people to be involved in prayer, we need more people to spend more time praying, we need more people to be praying for the salvation of others—and we need to learn to pray audaciously. We need to learn to pray with the expectation that God will answer—and that He will respond in great and mighty ways!
Believe it or not, there are parts of the church in the world today who know how to pray audaciously. Steven Furtick, in his book, Sun Stand Still, tells the true story of a church he visited in Uganda. The pastor gave him a tour, showing him the place where they were installing new toilets—toilets that he said would not be considered especially desirable in our country. But they were building them down because so many of their children get sick because the food they eat is cooked right next to the hole in the ground that they use as a bathroom.
Furtick saw children of the congregation batting an orange peel around as they played in a garbage dump while their parents worshiped loudly in a nearby shed. As he was still trying to adjust to the horrible living conditions in this slum, the pastor told him that the garbage dump the children were playing on was a Muslim hill. He went on, “I am used to facing a lot of opposition. A lot of people do not want me here. Especially the witch doctor who tried to destroy our church by threatening our members. But when we prayed for God to make fire fall down from heaven, and his house burned down that same week, he left us alone.”
“Don’t worry,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “He was not home at the time.”
Was God answering their prayer? The people of this Ugandan church certainly thought so. They were used to praying to God and receiving answers.
How about us? Are we prepared to turn the future of His Church over to God? To prayerfully seek His guidance—and then to follow His leading, wherever it might take us? I believe that this is what He is asking us to do. And only when we have totally given control over to Him will He begin to unfold the plans that He has for us.
And as the Lord said to the prophet Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, … plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes” (Jeremiah 29:11-14).