READ : Acts 4:23-31
The Christian church uses many means to grow. Every possible medium, including radio, is enlisted for the proclamation of the gospel. Millions of Christians work hard as pastors, teachers, evangelists, and missionaries throughout the world. But the most important means by which the gospel advances has always been prayer.
Peter and John were in trouble. As apostles, these men were the most important leaders of the infant Christian church in Jerusalem. At this point in Christian history, the entire company of Jesus’ followers consisted of just a few thousand people living in and around Jerusalem. These first Christians were Jewish believers who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ. Their belief was that the same Jesus whom the Jerusalem authorities had recently crucified as a religious trouble-maker had shortly thereafter been raised by God from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection revealed him to be both Son of God and only Savior of the world. No other person or power in heaven or earth can save us from sin and judgment. “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
Peter and John had gotten into trouble for proclaiming their belief in the courts of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. They had gone there one day to worship, for, though they were now what we would call Christians, they were also still faithful Jews. They believed that their faith in Christ was actually the fulfilment of God’s purposes for the Jewish people, since Jesus himself was the fulfilment of all the prophecies of the Hebrew (Jewish) scriptures. As they entered the temple one day, Peter and John passed by a crippled beggar, who asked them for alms. Though they had no money, the apostles offered this paraplegic something infinitely better. They spoke the name of Jesus to him, and as the crippled man put his trust in Christ (3:16), his legs were healed and he was saved. A crowd gathered, amazed at the sight of a life-long cripple now running about, leaping up and down as he shouted praises to God. Peter spoke to the crowd, repeating his customary message about Jesus. When the police got wind of what was happening, they moved in to arrest the two apostles and break up the gathering.
The next day the Jewish Council met to examine Peter and John and decide what to do about them. Because they could find no crime with which to charge these men – the only thing they were guilty of was an act of compassion – the rulers tried using intimidation to silence them. The authority of Jesus was obvious and real to all observers. The evidence of the beggar’s healing testified to that. The power of Jesus’ name could neither be denied nor discredited. So, these authorities threatened the apostles, warning them to keep silence about their belief in Jesus and his resurrection. In a scene that is still being played out in many places in our world today in similar fashion, Luke reports how the authorities tried to deal with these Christians.
“What can we do with these men?” they asked. “Everybody in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle. We can’t say it didn’t happen. We have to stop this thing. It must not spread any further among the people. We have to warn these men. They must never speak to anyone in Jesus’ name again.”
Once again the leaders called in Peter and John. They commanded them not to speak or teach at all in Jesus’ name. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves. Which is right from God’s point of view? Should we obey you? Or God? There’s nothing else we can do. We have to speak about the things we’ve seen and heard.”
The leaders warned them again. Then they let them go
Acts 4:16-21, cev
RESORTING TO PRAYER
Upon their release, Peter and John hastened to join their fellow believers. They reported everything that had happened to them. Now what would they do? What could they do? Luke says that they prayed. “Lord and King,” the Christians prayed,
“You made the heavens, the earth and the sea.
You made everything in them.
Long ago you spoke by the Holy Spirit through
the mouth of our father David, who served you.
‘Why are the nations angry?
Why do the people make useless plans?
The kings of the earth take their stand against the Lord.
The rulers of the earth gather together,
against his Anointed King.’”
Acts 4:24-26, NIrV
The opposition of the civil and religious powers came as no surprise to these first Christians because, like every other detail in Jesus’ story, this too had been foretold in the writings of the Old Testament. Psalm 2 from which they quoted in their prayer speaks of the kings and rulers who conspire together and make plans to oppose the Lord and his Christ. But to no avail. God, declared the psalmist, laughs at the arrogant pretensions of human power. “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Psalm 2:4).
When threatened by danger, these Christians first turned to God. In their prayer in Acts 4, they addressed God in an unusual way. They didn’t call him “Lord,” or “God,” or “Father.” They chose a very rare term, one meaning “Sovereign Lord” or “Lord and Master of all,” a term that emphasized the absolute authority of God over everything and everyone. In this prayer we are reminded, above all, that God is the One who is in charge. He is the Ruler of all things. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. All nations, powers, authorities, and governments are in his control. They can only do what he permits. They must serve God’s ultimate purpose. So whatever threats they make can never be executed unless the sovereign Lord decides to allow them for his own reasons. Those are the truths that the Christians emphasized in their prayer there in Jerusalem. Before they ever asked for anything, before mentioning their predicament or the danger they faced, these believers lifted their voices in praise to the God who made all things (v. 24), who ruled all rulers (v. 27), who controlled all events in accordance with his own predetermined plan (v. 28).
Only then, after this affirmation of God’s power and purpose to save, did the believers pray for themselves. Even then they didn’t ask for their enemies to be destroyed. They didn’t pray just for their own safety, or health or success. They first reminded the Lord what they were facing. “Lord, listen to their threats.” Then they made two simple requests. First, for the courage to witness even in the face of personal danger. “We are your servants. Make us brave enough to speak your message.” Second, they asked God to let his mighty power work through them in order to confirm the truth of their testimony about Jesus Christ. “Show your mighty power, as we . . . work . . . wonders in the name of your holy Servant Jesus.”
God answered this prayer of the church in Jerusalem in an obvious and thrilling way.
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. They were bold when they spoke God’s word. (v. 31)
It was almost a repetition of what happened on the day of Pentecost. And the results were similar too, as Luke records in subsequent chapters. He writes:
The apostles worked many miracles and wonders among the people. . . . Many men and women started having faith in the Lord. . . . God’s message spread, and many more people in Jerusalem became followers. Even a large number of priests put their faith in the Lord. (Acts 5:12, 14; 6:7, cev)
WHY PRAYER IS THE KEY
Prayer is what made the difference for the church in Jerusalem. Prayer was the key to the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. Prayer unleashes the power of God. Prayer can lead, when the Sovereign Lord chooses, to miraculous signs and wonders which confirm the identity of Jesus Christ and the truth of his gospel. This was so at the very beginning, in the first century. It has been true in every century since.
Why is this so? Why is prayer the most important thing? Why is prayer the primary means by which God’s kingdom grows? Let me suggest three reasons.
First, prayer is primary because it is something every believer can do. Assuming we have at least some physical and mental strength left, we are all able to pray. No one can make the excuse that they’re too poor, or too weak, or too old, or too anything! Everyone can pray. Whenever people say to me that they can’t really do anything anymore for the cause of the gospel, I want to shake them and say, “You can pray, can’t you? Why do you think you’re still here? Do you think that God allows anyone to live a moment longer than his purpose for them requires? If you’re still here, if you’re still alive, that means you still have some useful ministry left, and the chief, the most useful ministry of all is prayer.”
Why prayer? Secondly, because if you’re sincerely praying for Christ’s kingdom, then that’s not all you will be doing. Other things will follow if you once begin to pray, honestly, faithfully and fervently. You see, you just can’t say prayers and not get involved further. It’s just not possible to pray honestly for something without also offering yourself, your resources and your gifts to be part of the answer to that prayer. You simply don’t say to God, “God, I’m thinking now about all these people in the world. Please save them somehow. Send out workers into the mission field. But not me. Not my family. Don’t touch us. Don’t involve us in this.” It just doesn’t work that way. What happens when we pray is that God also puts it into our hearts to do what we can to feed the poor, to help the sick and the suffering, to bring the gospel to all peoples everywhere.
And that brings me to the last and most important reason of all. Why pray? Why is prayer primary? Not just because when we pray we’ll also do more, although that’s true but chiefly because when we pray God does more. The Lord will shake praying churches the way he shook that house in Jerusalem. He will come down with his presence and with his power. When believers pray, God acts. His power is demonstrated, sometimes in visible, physical miracles, sometimes in the dramatic growth of the church, sometimes in the salvation of a particular, prayed-for person, but always in some way.
You see, prayer reminds us that the battle really belongs to the Lord. When it comes to salvation, God does all the heavy lifting, if I can put it like that. God does all the real work. We participate. We join in it. We bear witness to Christ. But, God wants us to know, he wants it to be clear beyond any shadow of a doubt, that everything ultimately depends upon him. “Without me, you can do nothing,” Jesus said (John 15:5). So it is his role, his responsibility, to accomplish the salvation of the world for the sake of his own glory. We share in that for our blessing. Everything in the universe finally exists for the glory of God. That is true as much for the mission endeavor of the church as it is for anything else. Prayer is the chief means by which God’s kingdom advances because it humbles us and glorifies God.
So, do you believe this? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the world’s Lord and Savior? Do you believe that people everywhere must come to him, and through faith in him to God? Do you believe that God will accomplish this? And that he will use us as his instruments in order to share the blessing with others? If you do, then pray. And to God be the glory.