Acts 4: The Mission of Prayer
We are fine communicators for the most part as humans. We talk with actions, with texts, with re-tweets, with Instagram stories, with body movements, with artistic expression, with words. We love to have something to say. Even more, we love to be heard. After all, what’s the point in saying something if no one will hear it, if nothing will change, if we don’t get some kind of response from the listener – even if that response is simply another “like.”
But amidst all our various versions of veracious verbality we seem to always forgo the one option that is most valuable – prayer – talking to God. But why can prayer be such a fickle thing to us? Why do we deny ourselves such an opportunity? I believe partly we do not understand or define prayer well. We do not understand why it is important and what it accomplishes. Maybe we are too busy. Maybe we don’t believe our prayers will actually be heard and answered.
As we look at the Apostles’ prayers Acts 4:23-31, we can glean three principles that will help us understand more about prayer. Ultimately encouraging us to move to prayer sooner and with more confidence.
In verse 23 we see Peter and John just released from the Sanhedrin court after the very first instance of persecution and resistance to the early church movement. With the mounting opposition to the Gospel and the constant reminder as a Christian you are now in enemy territory, this high level of persecution is only going to increase. But the Apostles are moved to prayer and the first thing they recognize is the sovereignty of God.
When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 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 rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his [Christ].”
The Apostles draw a connection from the Old Testament (Psalms 2:1-2), recognizing that God already knew that persecution and opposition from leaders and authorities was going to happen. God has always known and is sovereign even in this. So the first thing we must remember about prayer is that it reminds us and recognizes the sovereignty of God.
It is easy to make prayer the last option. No doubt it is a human tendency to begin to pray in the midst of hardships and persecution, when our own strength and all other options have been exhausted. We look to God because he can make a way, he can renew our strength, and he is not surprised by any of our circumstances. In fact, most of the time my own prayers usually consist of me confessing that he knows better than I do – that his ways are higher than my ways – and that I need to recognize where I stand compared with my Sovereign Lord. When we pray it always realigns our hearts and minds to the right order of the world: Creator and Creation, Father and Child.
The second principle we can understand from the Apostles’ prayer is that when we pray it empowers us to do the work to which we are called. Prayer first reminds us that God is in control and cares for those he loves, then in turn we become empowered and emboldened.
Look how the Apostles’ prayer shifts in verse 29:
Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.
When we pray, we are able to give our burdens and our situation to the One who is in control and ask to be equipped in the right ways. A beautiful thing happens when we recognize our own deficiencies. There is humility gained and proper perspective again occurs. God is the one who equips us. The power we need to fulfill our callings is not found within ourselves and prayer reminds us of that and gives us a chance again to turn to God for it (rf. 2 Corinthians 9:8; Hebrews 14:20-21; Philippians 2:13). Most of the time, prayer is simply asking God for help. And when we humble ourselves to ask for help we recognize that we are missing something, that we do not have everything we need to face this situation. When we lay our burdens down and trust in the power of God, we find rest because success does not rely on our own abilities. Look what happens after the Apostles finish praying:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
The Apostles went to the one who was in control and had the power to change the situation. Prayer gives us the chance to rest in the power of God and relinquish control. In the end, we are empowered to pick up our cross again. This time though not lifting up a heavy yoke of control, a tiresome burden, but a yoke that is easy and light, freeing us from the weight of doing things in our own power. Prayer recognizes the power of God to work in and through my life. It makes us lighter. It makes bold.
The prayer of the Apostles in Acts chapter four not only reminded themselves of the sovereignty and power of God, it also enabled them to go out speaking “the word of God boldly” – the very thing they were just persecuted for. But often we forget the most significant part: God heard their prayers!
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
The people pray and as a response the room shakes representing the fact that their prayer was heard by God (rf. Isaiah 6:4; Exodus 19:18). Here in Acts 4, God is gracious to give a physical sign to show he has heard the prayers of his people and we see that the prayers are answered accordingly by the filling of the Holy Spirit and speaking the word in boldness. So thirdly, we must never forget that our prayers will be heard. We can have confidence that when we pray God will hear us and answer us.
The New Testament is especially clear that we can be assured that our prayers are not just left in some heavenly voicemail waiting to be listened to when God has the time. But rather as children of The Most High we always have the ear of our Father. Jesus beautifully confirms this truth to his disciples. After just teaching them how to pray he tells them a story of a man needing bread from his friend in the middle of the night. This friend is of course sleeping but the man is so constant in his knocking and pleading at the door that the friend rises and gives him whatever he needs (rf. Luke 11:5-10). The parable Jesus gives here is simple. He says even a man who is asleep in the middle of the night will get up and help if you are persistent enough. The unspoken counter point is how much better is your God who never sleeps or slumbers?
Now that Jesus is seated at the right-hand of God the Father as our High Priest and mediator, we can have full assurance that our prayers, no matter how greater or seemingly insignificant, will be heard. The author of Hebrews states this point the clearest when they say:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God…Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Confidence. Confidence in what? Confidence that as we come to God, as his children being unified with Christ by his blood, that our prayers will be heard and answered. God may not shake the room in response. But we can be confident that our prayers are effective (rf. 1 John 5:14-15).
Prayer is a gift and an opportunity that we uniquely have as Spirit-indwelt children of God. Prayer reminds us that God is sovereign and in control over all things – even in the midst of persecution and opposition. Prayer also empowers us and makes us bold as we go to the one who holds the power to change circumstances and hearts. Lastly, we should be encouraged to confidently go before our God in prayer because we are assured an audience. Our God is a good Father who hears the cries of his children. Always.
Our goal as the people of God is to be with the mission of God. That mission is to be making disciples and being his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But we will not be effective to the mission (except by the grace of God) if we are not first effective in our prayers. As E.M. Bounds, a prominent theologian and pastor in the late 1800s said,
“Part of the blame lies at our door. If we do our part, God will do His. Around us is a world lost in sin, above us is a God willing and able to save; it is ours to build the bridge that links heaven and earth, and prayer is the mighty instrument that does the work.”
Before we talk to people about God, we must first talk to God about people. Prayer is our first step in the mission of God. Let us not forget the power of prayer and the confidence we can have in it. Let us be a people that prays.