Do we want to see many people come to faith in Christ through us over the coming months and years? Then we need to learn from the window on to the early believers that this evening’s passage gives us – because this is a church that God used to turn the world upside down. It is not a perfect church – far from it. They still had much to learn. But they had learned a lot as a result of what they had seen and heard of God in action in the person of Jesus.
Would you please have that passage open in front of you. You’ll see that that section is headed ‘The Believers’ Prayer’ and ‘The Prayer’ is my title this evening. I have three headings. Heading one is simply: The Need. Heading two is: The Prayer. And heading three is: The Result. And that’s the process of believing and effective prayer in a nutshell: we see a need; we take it to God in prayer; God answers the prayer.
Of course, there’s nothing either magic or mechanical about it. Prayer is talking to God, our heavenly Father. Not all prayer is asking prayer. But let’s make no mistake about it: asking prayer is a central part of prayer. If our prayer lives don’t reflect that, then we’ve lost sight of what prayer is all about. Godly asking prayer is not self-centred – far from it. What we ask for needs to be shaped by our understanding of God and of his purpose for us, the church and the world.
Asking prayer – if it is sincere and expectant – demands faith. God would not take our prayers seriously if we asked with really no expectation that he would do anything. Prayer is not some kind of self-help therapy, making us feel better because we’ve got some of our frustrations and hopes off our chest. Asking prayer that has learned the lessons of this passage we’re looking at this evening is doing business with God and expecting results.
We don’t deserve that God listens to us. We can’t demand anything from him as if we were his boss. But we can come humbly before him, ask for the meeting of our needs according to his will as far as we can see it, and expect God to work. I very much want to learn more about how to pray more effectively like that. No doubt you do too. So let’s take a look.
Firstly, THE NEED
Here’s verse 23:
On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.
What had the chief priests and elders said to them? We need to back up to the earlier chapters to remind ourselves. Let’s not forget the commission from Jesus that is the engine for everything that is happening – Acts 1.8:
“… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The believers had received power when Jesus poured out on them his Spirit. The fledgling church had grown exponentially through the preaching of the apostles, so that is now thousands strong and still growing fast. One way that God is demonstrating his power through them is that very dramatically he totally healed a man crippled from birth and unable to walk. This healing was so clear and obvious that it was impossible to deny its reality.
On the back of that healing in the name of Jesus, Peter once more called the crowds – excited at what they had seen – to “turn from their wicked ways” as he bluntly put it, and turn to Christ for forgiveness and new life. And many did. The church leapt again in numbers from around 3000 to around 5000. And that was just the men – 4.4 says:
But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
Don’t you hunger to see something even remotely like that? I do. But I’m aware too of how easy it is to close one’s eyes to the price the apostles paid.
Because the powerful religious elite did not like any of this. They didn’t like the healing, though they had to admit that it was real, or they would have looked stupid, because everyone could see that it was. 4.2:
They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening they put them in jail until the next day.
Peter and John courageously and outspokenly continue their testimony in this new, potentially intimidating and dangerous context. 4.12:
“Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
And that’s followed by that glorious comment in v 13:
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
But that didn’t stop their bullying, because their hearts were hard. Verse 18:
They… commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
Peter and John boldly refused to comply. And (v 21):
After further threats they let them go.
Which brings us back to v 23:
On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported…
What, then, is the need they have? Their whole reason for living now – the spread of the gospel – is under threat from these, humanly speaking ,very powerful men. They could be silenced in one of two ways. They could be prevented from speaking by being detained or killed. Or they could be prevented from speaking about Jesus by being intimidated and giving in to their fear for the sake of a quiet life. It seems from their subsequent praying that they were more worried about being scared into silence then they were about being imprisoned or killed. But that was their need: their mission, given to them by Jesus directly, was under threat from persecution.
Many believers around the world today face pressure just as great. We too face persecution from the powers of evil, but the tactics they are using on us are more subtle, and therefore potentially even more dangerous. Our witness is in danger of being suffocated by apathy, ridicule and luxury. There is also the more direct kind of persecution at times. It is scandalous, for instance, in a country that remains constitutionally Christian, and when almost any thing else goes in broadcasting, that it is illegal for Christians to hold a national radio licence.
Those early Christians had a great need. Their witness was endangered. It is a familiar need in our world too. How did they respond? They prayed. That’s my next heading:
Secondly, THE PRAYER
When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.
Now there is an obvious point to make here, but it’s important for our own praying. Before they prayed, they heard about the need. Peter ‘reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them’. Before we can pray in a focused way, we need to get informed and keep informed.
So if, like Peter, we find ourselves in a situation that needs particular prayer, we have a responsibility to report to those who’ll be doing the praying. And that might require some self-discipline in getting that prayer letter written or being willing to go along to meetings to give a brief presentation of the needs.
On the other side, we need to take responsibility for keeping informed. We can’t know about everything that’s going on, and we can’t read everyone’s prayer letter or use every organisation’s prayer diary. We need, as it were, to specialise in our praying, and along with the needs of our own church, keep regularly informed about other areas of need that the Lord lays on our hearts.
Let me commend to you two organisations that can help us keep informed about the persecution of our family members so we can pray and do what we can to help. The first is the Barnabus Fund. For instance, the current headline on their website, barnabusfund.org, says:
Help Christians in Gaza. Christians are caught in the middle of the conflict. Already impoverished, they are running out of food.
The second is Christian Solidarity Worldwide – the website, if you’re into that, is simply csw.org.uk. One of their recent reports says:
At least twenty Christians were arrested by Eritrean security forces on the morning of Sunday 27 May… Among those detained were young children. The raid … is a continuation of the extensive government crackdown on Christian activity in the country since the beginning of the year.
Apparently organised prayer meetings are a particular focus of the crackdown, though these twenty were not at such a meeting. I mentioned our own Central Prayer Meeting that’s next Wednesday in the notices. If you were concentrating you might remember that. We would all prick up our ears, wouldn’t we, if the final sentence of the CPM notice was: “By the way, if you come along, you could well find that we’ll be raided and you’ll be arrested and imprisoned”?
We need to be faithful in reporting needs, and in keeping informed so we can pray in a specific and focused way. Then, like these early Christians, we also need to pray corporately. This was clearly some kind of prayer meeting – or at least spontaneously became that. And Luke says ‘they raised their voices together in prayer to God’. Exactly how they prayed together is not the point, nor is it clear. That they prayed together is instructive. Of course we can and should pray individually. But there is some indefinable power in believers praying together. God likes to hear us uniting with a common mind in prayer. Jesus said (this is Matthew 18.19-20):
“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
We have quite a range of opportunities for group prayer and do let us all make use of those consistently and faithfully. On Wednesday evening, as I mentioned earlier, is our next Central Prayer Meeting. I find those meetings especially encouraging, I think because there aren’t many occasions when we’re informed about and pray for a whole range of what’s going on at JPC and indeed nationally and internationally as well. If you haven’t yet been to a Central Prayer Meeting, why not put next Wednesday in your diary and make it a first?
Keep informed; pray with others. Then we come to the content of their praying here in Acts 4. Let me point out four things about what they pray.
First, they have a firm grasp on the fact of the complete sovereign power of God the creator of all things. Verse 24:
“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.
And they know that this sovereign control of God is not contradicted by the ‘raging’ of the nations. Verse 25:
“You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’”
I wonder if we have that same confidence that God is in control – and not just when things are going according to our plans, but when those plans apparently go awry. It’s relatively easy to believe in the sovereignty of God when we’re seeing our prayers answered and the enemies of the gospel losing out. The real test comes when the enemies of the gospel seem to be getting the upper hand – as when Peter and John are forbidden to preach with threats.
When we can’t see God’s hand, when things seem to be going badly, that’s when it becomes clear whether we, too, understand that God really is in control, however things look. And it is vital that we know that if we’re going to pray with faith. How can we ask God with confidence to change things if in our heart of hearts we doubt whether he can? If we really think that things are running away from him out of his control, we’re not going to be bold in our praying. These praying believers really do know that God is sovereign.
Secondly, they have a firm grasp on the fact that God is working out his purposes through current events – even when those events are hostile. Look at 27-28:
“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
They understand that the attack on Peter and John is really all part of the wider attack on Jesus himself. They realise that they are being hated and rejected because of their identification with Jesus – and Jesus, of course, was sent to the cross. They know that none of this hostility can prevent God from fulfilling his plan that the gospel will go out to the ends of the earth, even if they don’t quite understand where everything that’s happening to them fits. And they know that God is actively and powerfully at work through these events that they are living through.
We need that same awareness. We need to be reminding ourselves constantly as we read the papers, as we listen to the news, as we see the leaders of the EU nations gathered to decide the future of this continent, as we hear of vicious attacks on Christians in Iraq, as this church comes up against obstacles to our mission, as we face trials in our own lives, that behind it all, God is working his purpose out. He is actively engaged in the nitty-gritty of our lives and troubles, as well as in what we see as our successes. The clearer we are about that, the more quickly and readily we will turn to God in prayer when we’re in a tight spot and we’re feeling under pressure.
So they know that God is sovereign, and that God is active. Thirdly, their request is centred on the fulfilment of God’s purpose in the Great Commission. They might not have put it quite like that, but that, it seems to me, is what’s going on. Here’s verse 29:
“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.”
It’s very striking and impressive that we don’t hear them say “consider their threats and keep us safe from them”. What they’re concerned for is the continuing spread of the gospel, and what they’re worried about is the possibility that they’ll be intimidated by those threats into keeping quiet so they can have a quiet life. They know that they must continue the process of taking the testimony about Jesus to the ends of the earth, whatever the cost and whatever the circumstances. Let that be our supreme concern also. Not comfort. Not wealth. Not a quiet life. Not keeping in with the authorities. Not even protection for our families. But the growth of the kingdom of Christ and the spread of the good news about Jesus.
Fourthly, they ask for and expect God to work miraculously. This is in verse 30:
“Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
Clearly the focus of their praying for miracles here is in relation to physical healing. The context here is that God has just used the apostle Peter to heal that man crippled from birth, in such a way that the whole community was aware of it. That is what provoked this whole crisis. And they’re asking for more of the same.
To my mind, that focus on physical healing is not a model for all time and for us. As I said earlier in this series, God can heal and it’s right to pray for physical healing and God does heal in all kinds of ways. But the New Testament does not encourage us to expect this kind of instant, dramatic physical healing as the norm of the Christian life. Far from it.
Before Christ returns, physically we all face decay, disease and death. We should expect that. The resurrection of our physical bodies will happen – of that I am completely confident, because God’s word does promise us that. But that will be when Christ returns and not before.
However, the danger of interpreting these events of the apostolic era in that way is that our expectation of direct intervention by the Spirit of God to change things dramatically can fade. We must not let that happen.
One of the things that we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of is that when someone turns to Christ and is born again by the Spirit of God, that is, I would contend, a greater miracle than the dramatic healing of two crippled legs, even though the miracle is at first so much less visible. The creation of faith is a greater miracle than physical healing.
Why do I say that? Because physical healing is temporary (that crippled man healed by Peter died long ago); and physical healing is changing what is living but diseased to what is healthy. But faith is eternal and to create faith in an unbelieving heart is to bring the dead to life. Those who are dead to God are made alive in Christ. It is that kind of miracle above all that we should continually expect, and pray for, and that God has promised will happen again and again and again before Christ returns. We live between the two comings of Christ. This is the last days. This is the era of miraculous new birth all over the world. Like those early believers, we need to ask for and expect God to work miraculously.
How then, briefly, does God answer their prayers? This is my final heading:
Thirdly, THE RESULT
The result of their praying is there in verse 31:
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
Shaking is an outward sign of God’s presence with them. Exodus 18.19 says that when God’s people met with him at Mount Sinai:
the whole mountain trembled violently… Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
The filling with the Holy Spirit was no doubt invisible but the effects quickly become evident. Jesus said about the Holy Spirit (this is John 3.8):
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
And what was the effect on them? As they had asked, “they spoke the word of God boldly”. Their faithful prayer was answered.
Isn’t that what we need, perhaps above all, if God is going to do miraculous things through us, and bring thousands to Christ, and change this nation and all of our nations represented here? Let’s learn from our fellow believers 2000 years ago, and recognise our need, and pray boldly, so that whatever the opposition, we will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak boldly about Jesus.