THE PRAYER MEETING 1
The New Testament Church ѕ birthed in prayer!
There is, of course, something deeply significant about the opening pages of the Acts of the Apostles. Would it be overstating it if we were to suggest that it is more significant than the opening pages of the Gospels? Perhaps! The Gospels begin with the birth of Jesus Christ, the promised Saviour of God s people and nothing could be more significant than that. Simeon could hold the baby Jesus in his arms and recite the Nunc Dimitis expressing that he was now ready to depart because "my eyes have seen Thy salvation" (Lk 2:30). In the birth of Jesus all the promises of a coming Messiah find their fulfillment.
Or do they? It is true that the coming of Jesus in his incarnation in flesh and blood is momentous: it inaugurates the change from bc to ad. It is Luke, interestingly enough, who again signals this change by pointing to John the Baptist, whose ministry fell largely before Jesus public ministry, and saying: "I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he" (Lk 7:28). Significant indeed! And yet, there is something about the opening chapters of Acts that surpasses it. For, in a very real sense, the work and ministry of Jesus did find its complete fulfillment until he had laid down his life at Calvary, been raised from the dead and had ascended into heaven.
Think of it this way: the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates Jesus deity, validates his teaching, and attests to the completion of the work of atonement he came to perform. It is the signal that he is King, that he rules over death and the grave. It provides for us the assurance that every word he uttered was true, that every promise he gave was certain of fulfillment. The ascension which followed some 40 days after his resurrection was Gods confirmation of his Sons status. He "went up," promoted we might say, to sit at Gods right hand (Heb. 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).
But even these events are preparatory, for the event which the opening chapters of Acts anticipate and relate is Pentecost. Following some ten days after the ascension, Pentecost is what Jesus had prepared his disciples for during that period between his resurrection and ascension. They were instructed to wait in Jerusalem, "for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about" (Acts 1:4). But what is Pentecost? And why is it so significant?
Pentecost marks the point of transition from the old to the new covenant. When Paul cites a passage of Isaiah and adds: "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2), he has in mind something that is particularly true of the age in which he (and we!) live ѕ the age between the two comings of Christ: that there is a "now" about it, whereas for Isaiah it was to some degree "not yet". At Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured forth, the "last days" began (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2). We who live post Pentecost are those "on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11).
What did those disciples do who had witnessed the ascension of Jesus into the clouds above the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:11)? Apparently, they returned to a room in the city of Jerusalem to pray (Acts 1:14). To remain in Jerusalem following the events of the past few weeks was in itself an act of courage.
1. The Church at Prayer
It is surely significant that the first cameo portrait we have of the church without the physical presence of the Saviour is one in which they at prayer. Between the two advents of Christ, the church is a supplicating church. In the next chapter, Luke gives us a summary of the distinctive marks of the church after Pentecost. He mentions the teaching they receive from the Scripture, the fellowship they enjoy with one another, as well as their participation in the Lords Supper. Additionally he mentions the priority given to prayer in the life of the church (Acts 2:42). Writing in 1960, William Still could say:
A hungry people, an anointed man, the Word of God, the Spirits breath in prayer and worship and spiritual fellowship, the water, bread and wineѕ you need nothing else to form a Church that will come alive and alight, and glow and burn and flame its way through a community and people and nation, until by spontaneously improvised strategies it makes its way to the uttermost parts of the earth.
The question we have to ask ourselves, separated as we are by a gulf of 2,000 years of history, is this: why do we not equally sense the urgent need for prayer as these early Christians did? Of the many things that mark the church in the twenty-first century, prayer is not one of them. Many churches have no weekly prayer meeting. And even among those who do, one wonders how many would attend it if it were not for the lure of the weekly church supper!
The problem we face is the rampant spirit of individualism we inherit. Our generation finds it difficult to think in corporate terms. It is shocking to many a Christian that there are some things we can only do togetherѕ as the body of Christ. We are too quick to recite the slogan:
"Me in my small corner; and youѕ in yours!"
2. Praying with one voice!
Luke adds an interesting fact about the nature of their praying. He tells us that they prayed "with one mind" (Acts 1:14). The word he uses is one which he use ten times in the course of the Acts of the Apostles and has the connotation of unanimity about it (Cf. Acts 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 7:57; 8:6; 12:20; 15:25; 18:12; 19:29). Its meaning is brought clearly in something Paul says, using the same word: "Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 15:5-6). They are to glorify God with inward unanimity and outward singularity of expression! One inward sentiment; one outward voice! It is much more than the thought that they were "together" in the same place. One can be in the same place but not at all of the same mind! As the Welsh preacher, John Elias (1774-1841) once put it: Union is the strength and the glory of the church. There is union and concord in hell against us. May we withstand them by a stronger and better unionѕ union with Christ."
The power of united prayer as it rises to the throne of God with the corporate Amen of the people of God is a powerful tool that we have been given. This is all the more startling given the nature and background of those present at this prayer meeting. Luke records the names: "Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James" (Acts 1:13). In the next verse Luke adds that present also were Jesus mother, Mary, as well as other women and "His brothers" (Acts 1:14). Men and women, relatives, fishermen, a tax-collector, and a zealot! All these had a singularity of purpose about them as they gathered together. It would be difficult to put together a more disparate group of people, and yet they have a common mind as they gather in this room: to pray for the same thing to the one Lord. Nothing displays our unity better than our praying together! Try praying immediately after a quarrelѕ it is almost impossible to do!
Luke is intent to tell us that not only were women present during this prayer meeting; they also took part in the praying: "These (the men just mentioned) all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers" (Acts 1:14). It may be argued that the passage does not necessarily imply that the women prayed publicly, but were simply there silently giving their consent. In support of this view, many have cited the prohibition of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14: "Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak" (v.34). That seems clear enough! But, as often happens with passages that appear clear, there is a context in this passage which demands that we dont see this a prohibition of all forms of vocal participation. Is Paul suggesting that it is wrong for a woman to take part in a public recitation of the Lords Prayer? Or to participate in the singing? Or even to say "Amen" at the end of a mans prayer? Three chapters earlier, Paul had already envisaged that woman took part in the prayer of the church (1 Cor. 11:5). What Paul does seem to be doing is forbidding women entering into public criticism of their husbands prophecies in the public worship of God. He is not saying that women should never speak at all, in any context whatever in the public worship of God.
The event described by Luke was not, of course, a worship service where certain principles of worship become applicable. It was a prayer meeting. The point? That everyone is encouraged to pray in the community of Gods people.
3. Praying with urgency!
Luke tells us that they were "continually devoting themselves to prayer" (Acts 1:14). Not only were they of one mind; they were also persistent. "Pray without ceasing" Paul tells us (1 Thess. 5:17). Using the same word as Luke uses in our passage, Paul can urge us to be "devoted to prayer" (Rom. 12:12). Eusebius (who was almost a contemporary) says that one of those present spent so much time on his knees that his knees became as hard as a camels!
Jesus told a story about persistent prayer in which a man hammers on the door of a friend at midnight. It is his persistence that gains him entry. The point? "And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it shall be opened" (Luke 11:9-10). It is this quality of importunity (to use the familiar King James rendering) to which Jesus signals his approval. It is as James reminds us, "You do not have because you do not ask" (James 4:2). And perhaps we can add: when we do ask, we stop asking too quickly!
The word used in the parable of the man whose friends arrive at midnight means impudence, or even shamelessness. It is like a child who looks forlornly at its parents in the face of some disappointment or other, and says: "But you promised!" It is the promise that encourages the shameless persistence. In other words, the shamelessness is but an expression of faith. It is because we trust our Fathers word that we keep coming back to him until he grants us whatever we ask. Thomas Brooks cites Basil in this way: "Let us with holy impudence make God ashamed that he cannot look us in the face if he do deny our importunity."
4. Praying with a purpose
The importunity that the Bible encourages is not an undisciplined one. We are not to think that we can ask for anything at all that may please us, and so long as we persist in it, God will grant it to us. That is a gross misinterpretation of the nature of prayer. Prayer is covenantal in nature. That is, prayer is based on the promises God has made. There is, to cite Calvin, such a thing as "illegitimate" as well as "legitimate" prayer.
The occasion that drew these folks together was specific. Firstly, an explanation was necessary as to the tragic death of one of the disciples, Judas. A suicide always needs to be carefully explained and was potentially a source of great difficulty for the disciples. Then, there was the need to choose his replacement. Luke specifically informs us that prayer was offered for this very purpose (Acts 1:24). God guided his church through prayer. True, they did use lots in the final selection process (Acts 1:26)ѕ the final occasion in the Bible in which this method is employed in the churchs infancy periodѕ but, lots without prayer is a godless method. "The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the LORD" (Pr. 16:33).
The election of officers is perhaps one of the greatest tests a church can pass through, and the fact that they chose two people, Joseph and Matthias (Acts 1:23) highlights the fact that not only was there to be a successful outcome in the eventual choice of Matthias, but also in the fact that Joseph was not chosen. Grace would be needed to ensure that the church did not fall apart at this very point.
The only way to ensure unity in the midst of difficult and trying circumstances is pray. Those who pray together stay together, as the saying goes. As E. M Bounds once wrote: "The life, power, and glory of the church is prayer Without it, the church is lifeless and powerless."
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