This passage that we read is one of several that makes people long for a New Testament Christianity. And you can see why. There was power and boldness that is lacking in many of our churches. There were signs and wonders. There was the filling of the Spirit. There were incredible results to their witness. We wish that the world of our day could be shaken like it was shaken back then. But I think it is important to see what was at the root of this vibrant missions activity in the early church. It was prayer. The book of Acts indicates that prayer is the first job of missions; the first job of the family; the first job of leadership. This whole passage describes a church prayer meeting and verse 31 says, And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness. When they had prayed.
Evangelism is a critical task of the church, and we must engage in it. But effective evangelism flows out of prayer. When they had prayed. The filling of the Holy Spirit is essential to success in anything. But the filling of the Holy Spirit came upon all of them, when all of them were in prayer. Many have said that if we are to shake the world as the early church did, then we must be shaken ourselves. But this powerful moving of God came upon the church when they had prayed.
Acts is an incredible book on missions. It is a practical handbook on missions. It is an exciting history of missions. It models missions to us. But pervading this book is a spirit of prayer. It seems that every time the church gathered, there was prayer going on. And what I want to do this morning is to give a quick survey of this book and show the relationship of prayer not just to missions, but to every aspect of our Christian life. And I won't cover all the passages, but we will cover enough so that you can get a good taste.
The book is divided into six sections, each section ending with a statement of the incredible success of the Gospel in that new region. But sandwiched in between those statements are great lessons on prayer. Turn first to Acts 1:4. This passage says, And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,' He said, ‘you have heard from me.' Their first duty was not to go. The Great Commission is a mandate to go. Right? But before they could go they needed power from the Holy Spirit, and before they could receive the Spirit's enabling they had to wait; they had to wait upon the Lord. If you are not waiting on the Lord in prayer, you have no reason to be involved in any ministry. Much of our zealous work is produced by the efforts of our own arm of strength and does not shake this world. All it does is it shakes and wears us out. Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Is. 40:31). We must wait if we are to have the power to run. Those who wait upon the Lord avoid a harried ministry filled with burnout and anxiety. But those who can't waste time waiting on the Lord (they've got to get going! They've got too much to do) find that they waste time running fast on a treadmill going nowhere.
J. Sidlow Baxter, in his commentary on Nehemiah said,
"Again and again, as we watch Nehemiah, we are reminded of Cromwell's famous words, ‘Trust in God, and keep your powder dry.' Speaking generally of today, there is a brilliant but frustrating over-emphasis on the human, the energetic, in religious service. More than ever before we wrestle with social problems in committees and conferences, but less than ever do we wrestle on our knees against evil spirit-powers which lie behind the social evils of our day. Nearly everybody in committee has a fine programme, but few indeed seem to have a real spiritual burden. The practical has overridden the spiritual; and when that happens, the practical becomes utterly unpractical.' (p. 238)
The church in the 20th century is busy. There is no question about that. It is busy. But the proof that our emphasis on the practical has become utterly unpractical is in the results. We do not see our world shaken. Waiting has got to be the hardest thing for prideful, self-sufficient people to do. We want to get on with it. But Christ told them to wait. And I think that is the first lesson that we need to learn. There are all kinds of people asking us to be involved in various activities. But we need to find out if this ministry is the one God wants us to do, and to find that out we need to wait upon Him in prayer. And once we know that God wants us to do that ministry, we need to wait upon God for the wisdom, the strength and the godly attitudes to do it in a way that will bear fruit. Now there does need to be a balance. We need to trust God and keep our powder dry (as Cromwell once said). And sometimes the prayer and the action are at the same time. Scripture does not say that those who wait upon the Lord shall roost like chickens. No, they mount up with wings like eagles. So there is a balance. But we need to keep in mind that the greatest missionary movement in history, began with waiting on the Lord. If you are distracted from prayer with all of the things that need to get done, then check your spirit with that word, "Wait." "Wait." "Wait upon the Lord." Have you begun your day with prayer?
A second lesson in this book revolves around how they waited on the Lord. Turn to 1:14: These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.....
It wasn't just the apostles that waited. The leaders were there, but so were the women and the brethren. The body as a whole waited. While I believe that personal prayer in the closet is the foundation for dynamic corporate prayer, corporate prayer is the foundation of missions. Over and over in this book we find the church all together with one accord when things begin to bust open. It was corporate prayer that led to Pentecost and the salvation of 3000. It was corporate prayer that led to further manifestations of God's Spirit in this book such as the passage we read earlier. Corporate prayer played a role in daily work, in the ordination of deacons in the freeing of Peter from prison, in the sending out of missionaries (14), and in so many other issues. Corporate prayer is a foundation for all church ministry.
But a third principle that we see here is that it was a continual prayer and persevering prayer. Verse 14 says These all continued... The Greek is very strong word. It is translated in 2:42 as they continued steadfastly... Let me quote the dictionary. It says this word means, "to adhere to, persist in... to be faithful to... to busy oneself in... to persevere in something... to spend much time in something." And it is not by accident that this strong word is used with prayer here. Six times in the first half of the book the church is described with this word as continuing steadfastly in prayer. The word indicates that prayer was a way of life. Their lives were bathed in prayer and they did not give up on praying until what God had promised in chapter 1 came in chapter 2. Life is a harvest, and too frequently we are tempted to give up before harvest time. Paul says, And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. It was continual persevering prayer.
The fourth lesson from this book is also seen in that verse, which describes the prayer as purposeful prayer. This word occurs 11 times in Acts and it describes the united purpose or mind that the church had. Prayer takes on a new energy and dynamic when all who are involved are gripped with purpose and vision. I believe that our church needs to grow in the area of having a common passion and purpose. If the only reason you come to prayer is guilt, or to please someone in the church, or because you know that you should, you will not have what it takes to persevere. Purpose gives burden, and prayer burden produces fervant prayer, and fervant prayer is effectual. Purpose in prayer is the foundation of fervent effectual prayer. And purpose flows from a heart that is gripped by vision. And Mike Elliott has been putting together some training materials for prayer, and a booklet on prayer and many additional sheets for the three ring binder on prayer. And those hopefully can help to flesh out our purpose and vision in prayer.
A fifth lesson I have learned from this book is that prayer must be a top priority. Chapter 2:42 shows the four top priorities of this congregation: And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer. Does prayer have the fourth place priority in your life.
So we have seen five lessons from Acts so far. We have seen that waiting on the Lord precedes the ability to mount up with wings like eagles and to run and not grow weary. The second lesson was the whole church is called to wait upon the Lord in prayer, not just a select few leaders. The third lesson was that we must persevere in prayer; to stick to it. The fourth lesson was that a church must be gripped by a united purpose and vision. The fifth lesson was that prayer must be one of the churches top priorities: right up there with doctrine, fellowship and communion.
A sixth lesson is seen in 3:1 where it speaks of the hour of prayer in the temple. Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. God had given set times of prayer. And during the day there were three times that Israelites gathered for prayer: 9 am, 3 pm and sunset. But the lesson I learned from this passage is that there must be a balance between that which is spontaneous and that which is set. Both are needed. God delights in schedules. Some people think that schedules are legalistic and that it doesn't show much love if we have to pray at the same time every day. It needs to be spontaneous. But think of it this way: if your wife cooked your food only when she felt like it, it wouldn't be very much fun would it? One day you get breakfast at 4 am before you want to get up because that's when she felt like it, and another day she cooked breakfast at 10 am three hours after you left for work, and you didn't get any. I don't think any of us would think that our wives and mothers are legalistic by having a schedule. And in the same way, God finds delight in scheduled prayer. He scheduled prayer for His people. We are creatures of habit and it is important that prayer become a habit for us. Prayer as soon as you get up, and prayer before you go to bed. And perhaps a brief prayer mid-day. Later on the book it mentions them praying at these set hours even when they weren't at the temple. Scheduling it for the same time every day will ensure that it becomes a habit for you to pray. Don't fight against the fact that you have been designed by God to be a creature of habit. Habits are good.
Look next at 4:23-31. Next week I want to look at this passage in more depth. But as we do our survey of prayer in the book of Acts today, I want to focus on just two lessons. Lesson seven is that we should pray the Scriptures. The leader of this prayer was praying Genesis 1 and then laying claim to God's attributes. He then prayed a portion of Psalm 2 and laid claim to God's promises. This is what it means to pray according to the will of God. He isn't expecting us to second guess what His providence will be. He is asking us to claim God's revealed will – the Bible. This is how we increase our faith. And by the way, notice that they didn't pray long texts of Scripture. They quoted the appropriate section and then applied it to themselves. Powerful prayer is Scripture filled prayer.
The eighth lesson we can learn can be seen not only in this section, but throughout the prayers of this book. It is this: We should pray with the confidence that the victory has already been won. That may seem strange since we still have battles ahead of us. But in the prayers on the New Testament, we don't find people hoping that Christ will one day get the victory. We pray with the confidence that God's victory has already been predestined in eternity past, purchased by Jesus on the cross, it has been guaranteed by His resurrection, and is being applied by His Spirit through His church. But what is being applied has already been won. There is a big difference between praying for victory and praying from a stance of victory already accomplished. On the cross Jesus said, "It is finished." And we might object, "Now wait a minute! Isn't there a ton of work that still needs to be done?" And the Bible would say that we are simply working out the implications of Christ's finished work. There is nothing that needs to be added to Christ's work to win this world. He said, And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself" (John 12:32). Everything needed to draw the world to Christ was already accomplished. Satan's doom was sealed in those words, "It is finished." In John 16:33 Jesus said, "In the world you will have tribulation [that's future tense. In other words, there will still be battles and skirmishes to be fought. "In the word you will have tribulation]; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
Not, "I will overcome the world," but "I have overcome the world." His victory is already guaranteed. Jesus said, Now is the judgment of this world, now the prince of this world will be cast out (John 12:31). If you are convinced that the victory is sealed and accomplished, and that we are simply praying it into history, it will help our faith.
Look at this prayer in Acts 4. This prayer is based in the victory of God's Godhood (v. 24). Lord, You are God. We are not in doubt about the fact that You are in charge. "You are God." It goes on to affirm with confidence God's control of creation. Verse 24 says, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them. This is not a finite God who is subject to creation. This is not a God who is wringing His hands and frustrated over what people are doing. He is not hoping people will stop messing things up. They are confident that it is creation that is subject to God. In verses 25-26 they go on to quote the Bible's promise that King Jesus has been guaranteed the victory, and all opposition to Him is in vain. Why do the nations rage, and the people's plot vain things.? All the opposition that China and India and other countries may bring, is a vain opposition. Why? Because Jesus has been seated on His throne and has been promised the nations. Though this prayer complains that Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Jews were plotting against them in verse 27, they hurry to affirm that God has ordained this in verse 28. They are convinced of His predestination and providence: to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. And this leads them to ask that God would use these very threats as an occasion to show forth His victory and power through Jesus. That's verses 29-30. They pray for a boldness that is consistent with this victory. From beginning to end it is a prayer of faith in God's victory. And it's no wonder that God answers with power. Too many times we are like the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness under Moses. We pray without faith that God would help us, and as soon as we are finished praying, we doubt that God will. Joshua and Caleb on the other hand, believed that if God promised it, it was as good as done. They knew that there were plenty of battles ahead of them, but they also knew that they were supposed to go forth in the confidence that God had already granted them the victory in Canaan. The victory was already their gift; their possession. In the same way, this prayer is praying from a stance of victory rather than hoping for victory. It makes all the difference in the world in whether you pray in faith or with lack of faith.
Look at Acts 6:3-4. This is the ninth lesson. Acts 6:3-4. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business, but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word. The ninth lesson is that prayer is the first priority of the elders. It was the fourth priority of the church as a whole, but it is listed as the first priority of the apostles. We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word. I think if pastors and elders laid hold of this ministry mandate, our preaching of the Word and every other aspect of our ministry would be transformed. In China, prayer is a first priority. You cannot minister in China without being immersed in prayer. And it is no wonder to me that the church has grown to 200 million Christians. Prayer is the first priority of the ministers in Korea. They spend hours in prayer. And it is no wonder to me that Christianity has blossomed as it has there. Churches put pressure on pastors and elders to do all kinds of things. And that can be appropriate. But if you want to put positive pressure on us as leaders, it would be to expect us to be men of prayer.
We have to skip over so many lessons on prayer, but I think an important one can be found in Acts 7:60. Stephen is described as a man of prayer in chapter 6. So he has taken the ministry mandate seriously. It wasn't just the apostles, but the deacons as well who were men of prayer. But I want you to notice here that his prayer life enabled him to bless His enemies. This is the tenth lesson: His prayer life enabled him to bless his enemies. It enabled him to be concerned for their souls even while they were stoning him. It enabled him to be rid of all bitterness. Verse 60 says, Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." And when he had said this, he fell asleep. It is hard to weep and wrestle in prayer for your foes and then to hate them. No, your prayers will instill a love and a burden for them. It is hard to weep and wrestle and plead God's blessings into your family and to be nonchalant about them, or to get bitter over them. I can say that God has not yet given to me the kind of love that God gave to Paul in Romans 9:1-3. But in that passage Paul said that he wished that he could go to hell and be cut off from Christ if it would mean the salvation of his fellow Jews who were persecuting him. To me that is remarkable. In fact, Paul knows that people will be tempted to not believe him, so in three different ways he tells his readers that he is not lying, but telling the truth. He really did wish that he could be accursed for his brethren. Our instinct for self-preservation is so strong, that only the Holy Spirit could give Paul such a deep, deep passion. But that passion flowed out of Paul weeping over them in prayer. Extended intercessory prayer gives us a totally different perspective on those that we deal with. It is remarkable to me to see the passion God has given to Chinese believers to win those who are persecuting them. But that passion flows from prayer. Prayer is a great antidote to anger, bitterness, hatred and strife. Praying over the globe gave William Carey such a burden for India that he ended up going there and laying down his life for them. The same has happened to many other missionaries. It is the depths of a prayer life that produce the kind of reaction that Stephen showed toward those who were right then pelting his body with rocks – stoning him to death. If you lack love, passion and burden, spend more time in prayer on your knees for those that frustrate you. Allow the Holy Spirit to make you groan and weep for them. All Him to have you pray for their blessing. It will make a remarkable change in your spirit.
Turn to Acts 9:11. God has already converted Saul, but Saul was blind and not quite knowing what to do. God sent Ananias to pray for him and heal him. Verse 11 says, So the Lord said to him, "Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. The reason Ananias is told to go is: "for behold, he is praying." Though God ordains all things, He ordains prayer as the means to things being accomplished. The reason Ananias could now go was because Paul was praying. If you want things to happen, pray. God ordains the means as well as the ends.
Look at Acts 10:4. Here's another lesson. An angel calls to Cornelius. Acts 10:4. And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, "What is it, lord?" So he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Everyone agrees that the alms and prayers are being likened to the Old Testament sacrifices burning and sending their smoke to heaven. Have you ever thought of your prayers as being a sacrifice? Well they are. Read Revelation 8 sometime. But Old Testament sacrifices whose smoke went up to heaven were not always received by heaven. Isaiah and Amos both speak of how much God detested the sacrifices that were being offered up by rebellious Jews. And He said that He would not receive them. You see, God is not like the pagan gods; a God who can be manipulated and controlled by such actions. He has no needs, and thus cannot be manipulated by such things. So what makes these prayers get past the ceiling and what makes them remembered by God? We want our prayers to be remembered, right? We want our prayers to be a memorial that stands before God. And Calvin points out that it wasn't because of who he was. He was not a Jew. He was not a great man in the church. It was simply the fact that Cornelius had faith. Without faith, our prayers do not get past the ceiling, and they are not remembered. Without faith our alms mean nothing. Hebrews 11 says, without faith it is impossible to please Him. For he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Faith. I was reading John 14 in my devotions on Saturday morning and Jesus said these words about faith. Most assuredly, I say to you. [The Greek is "Amen, Amen I say to you. It's a very strong assurance] he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it. What an incredible promise. All he requires is belief; faith. Christ has the merits. And the Father has already said that He would be glorified by answering our prayers and Jesus has given permission to ask. That gives such a boost of confidence to our to our prayer life. Faith.
Let's move to another lesson. Acts 12 describes Herod's persecution of the church and how Peter is thrown into jail. Verse 4 says that four squads of soldiers guarded Peter, Each squad had four soldiers, so there were 16 soldiers assigned to watch him. Verse 5 says, Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church. This verse shows us that when the church is praying, we need not fear Herod, his soldiers, the unbreakable jail doors, the enormous fortress from which no one could escape. We need not fear the whole kingdom being aligned against us. None of those things can stand against the power of prayer. But this is why I want to have strong prayer backing when I go to Asia. It says, constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church. You know, when I went into India on this last trip, it made all the difference in the world to know that you were praying for me and that I also had a smaller team praying whenever God prompted 24-7. It was amazing what the Lord opened up. Not even prison walls can stop the effectiveness of a church in prayer.
In Acts 13:3 we see that sometimes fasting must accompany prayer. Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away. It is fasting that sometimes enables prayers to cast out a demon according to Matthew 17:21. It is fasting that sometimes enables us to break through strongholds of our fleshly desires. It is fasting that sometimes enables a person to break their addiction to tobacco. But sometimes fasting must accompany prayer. And I don't need to say more on that, other than to encourage you to try fasting if your prayers are not being answered.
The next lesson is in Acts 16:13. This verse shows that you don't have to have the whole church meeting to gather with others to pray. Acts 16:13. And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there*.* What a great Sabbath activity – to pray. And here it was just the women who were gathered. Maybe their husbands weren't interested. We don't know. And maybe you have been discouraged that you can't find people who have the same burdens for prayer as you have, but that should not stop you. You can gather a handful and pray. And many times God has expanded the river of revival out of small prayer meetings. This prayer meeting met beside a literal river, but rivers of living waters can flow out of such informal prayer meetings.
There are some neat lessons from Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns in the jail in verses 25 and following. But let me skip over to chapter 20:36. Paul is in a large group of elders. Verse 36 says: And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. I do want to say first that there are many postures from which you can pray – and the Bible speaks of standing in prayer, sitting, lying down, looking up toward heaven and looking at the ground; bowing your head and raising your head. And so there is liberty. But I think that kneeling is such a wonderful posture for prayer. It symbolizes our humility. And many times our spirits are affected by the posture of our body. When you look to the heavens at night time and pray, it will illicit emotions and attitudes and thoughts that would perhaps not be there if you were praying while sitting at your desk. And the same is true of kneeling. Some of my most awesome times of prayer have been on my knees. My father introduced me to kneeling while I pray, and I would encourage you to teach your children to do so from early times as well. Now I pray with my children when they are lying in bed as well, but kneeling is such an awesome part of prayer in the Bible. In chapter 21:5 it says, When we had come to the end of those days, we departed and went on our way; and they all accompanied us, with wives and children, till we were out of the city. And we knelt down on the shore and prayed. When we had taken our leave of one another, we boarded the ship, and they returned home. Notice that they weren't afraid of kneeling in public. Right there on the shore they had their prayer meeting. It is a visible, tangible reminder that God is the Creator and we are the creatures. And since God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble, every facet of our being should embrace humility – our mind, emotions, body and spirit should all embrace humility. It was said that James the brother of our Lord had knees that looked like camels knees because he kneeled and prayed so much. I would urge you to try kneeling in prayer every day. Occasionally have your family kneel in prayer.
We've had to keep our survey of prayer in Acts short. But I hope it has opened up the subject of prayer a bit more fully to you. And I hope you come away from this worship service with a deeper desire to pray than when you came. 2 Chronicles 7:14 says, if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Amen. And Amen. Let's pray.