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To the Ends of the Earth (9): Praying Boldly

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Jul 9, 2006

Acts 4:23-31

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The Lord's Day Evening

July 9, 2006

Acts 4:23-31

“To the End of the Earth (9): Praying Boldly”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Last week, indeed a week before, remember we've been looking at the healing of the cripple, the man who is described as “being over forty years of age,” a cripple from birth, taken by his family — brothers, perhaps...relatives — to the temple area in order to beg. Peter and John, you remember, having been asked about giving him something — “Silver and gold have I none, but in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk.” And you remember the cripple is leaping for joy in the temple precincts.

Peter and John have come under the tyranny and opposition of the Sanhedrin, and they have spent the night in a prison cell, perhaps in some holding cell somewhere on the outer wall of the temple precinct itself. And in the morning [remember last Lord's Day evening we were considering how the Sanhedrin was meeting with Peter and John], what is it that Peter and John are doing? Explaining what it is that has brought them into disrepute with the Sanhedrin in the first place, they begin once again to preach Jesus and the resurrection. And the Sanhedrin warned them not to preach any more in the name of Jesus.

And now we are following Peter and John as they make their way from the prison cell, wherever that was, and they go to some location in Jerusalem where their friends are gathered, and we pick up the reading at verse 23. And before we read the passage together, let's ask for God's blessing in prayer.

Our God and our Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures, the holy word of God that men spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We thank You that it is profitable for doctrine and reproof and correction and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. We thank You for the Bible. We thank You that this word is different from any other word that we read. And we pray now for Your blessing as we read it, that we may be given illumination and may understand what we read, and that we might not just be hearers, but that we might also be doers. So grant Your blessing, Lord, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear now the word of God:

“When they had been released, they went to their own companions, and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, ‘O Lord, it is You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said,
‘WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS? THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE LORD, AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST.’
For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.’
And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.”

Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

A.W. Tozer — many of you remember A. W. Tozer, who would have written numerous books back in the ‘30's and ‘40's, and perhaps early ‘50's. In an extraordinary little book called Paths to Power, he writes that the early church was:

“...not an organization, merely an organization, but a walking incarnation of spiritual energy. The church began in power, moved in power, and moved just as long as the Lord gave power. When she no longer had power, she dug in for safety and sought to conserve her gains. But her blessings were like the manna. When they tried to keep it overnight, it bred worms and stank. It is the church that is willing to die to worldly standards that will know the power of Christ's resurrection.”

It's an extraordinary passage. Buz Lowry spoke about...or prayed...that the building would shake. [I'm a little apprehensive, standing underneath this thing here!] It's one of the most exciting parts of the whole book of Acts. It says something to us about a number of things, but it says something to us about the significance of prayer and the power of prayer, and what it is they prayed for in a crisis when their lives were being threatened, and their liberties were being threatened.

I'm not sure, in the 35 years that I've been a professing Christian...I'm not sure I've heard prayers like this much. I've heard many, many prayers in tight situations, in crisis, in difficulties when sickness threatens, when trouble looms. But the boldness of what these early Christians prayed for at this juncture, this point, I want us to take note of it.

I want us to look at this passage tonight along four lines of thought. I want us first of all to see the priority of prayer. I want us in the second place to look at something of the structure of prayer. In the third place, I want us to look at one specific petition in this prayer. And, lastly, I want us to see the result of this prayer.

I. I want us to begin by noting the priority these early Christians gave to prayer.

Peter and John have spent a night in prison. They have been brought before the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jerusalem, and they have been threatened. They have been threatened not to preach in the name of Jesus. They have been threatened not to continue doing what they have been doing since Pentecost. We’ll see in a minute it's precisely that that they will pray for: that God will make them bold to preach Jesus and the resurrection.

Peter and John make their way to their friends’ house, wherever that is in Jerusalem. It may be the same location as the one that we considered right at the very beginning of Acts. It may even be John Mark's home or dwelling which purportedly he had in Jerusalem. And they lifted up their voices to God. They tell their friends what's happened, and immediately — immediately! — they lift up their voices to God. Prayer was like breathing to them. They didn't have to think about it, they didn't have to debate about it, they didn't have to plan, they just did it. It was the instantaneous response to a crisis. They prayed. They lifted up their voices. They gave it priority. It's the ultimate test of our profession of faith: our prayer life. It's the ultimate test.

When Luke is telling us of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus...and of course there's doubt as to the genuineness of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. He could be a “fifth columnist”! “Behold, he prays.” Behold, he prays. That's the answer. That's the mark. And their praying is so direct, and it's so simple, and it's so sincere. And the secret, I think, is, as you read this prayer, they knew God. They knew God. They had a relationship with God. They were aware of His being, they were aware of His promises. It was instantaneous for them.

Of course there was fear in Jerusalem. It's barely two months since the crucifixion. You might think — and would you condemn them if these early Christians had reasoned that perhaps now is not the time? That perhaps it was time to go home, for some of them, to Galilee? They had wives, possibly children. Businesses were for sure in Galilee. They could have reasoned, “You know, let's allow things to calm down for a while, and two months, three months, six months from now, we’ll come back.” Would you have condemned them? (They will flee Jerusalem. We’ll see that in Acts 8.) But the apostles will remain, in the midst of an outbreak of severe persecution.

You notice how Luke says that they lifted up their voice — and in the New American Standard Version it says with one accord. If you’re reading in the ESV or the NIV, it may have something like together, which is something of a different idea. It's not that they were praying together, it's that they had the same mind. They were united as to what it was they were asking God to do. They had a unity. They had a bond. They were friends. They had a common purpose. They saw things in a common way. They were driven by the same principles and the same goals and the same aspirations. They were of one heart and one soul, Luke says in verse 32. And they went to prayer. This is the picture — this is the little cameo picture of the early church in a crisis.

“Have we trials and temptations?

Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged;

Take it to the Lord in prayer,” Scriven says.

And that's exactly what we see these early Christians do...the priority they give to prayer.

II. I want us to look at the structure of this prayer.

You know, sometimes all we have time for is an arrow prayer. You know, when Nehemiah is asked by King Artaxerxes–you remember, Nehemiah has heard from his brother, maybe his blood brother, that things are not going so well in Jerusalem. He is the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, and Artaxerxes asks him why is he looking so sad. And he explains that he's heard news that things are not going well in Jerusalem, and the king says to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And he has half a second to give an answer, and if he gives the wrong answer, it could cost him his life. And the text in Nehemiah 2 says he prayed and said (you know, it was an arrow-like prayer, shot up into the stratosphere), “Lord, give me wisdom now”–something like that. That's sometimes all we have time for.

This morning in the Lord's Supper we were reciting together The Lord's Prayer, when the disciples asked Jesus:

“‘Teach us to pray.’ He taught them, saying, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread...’”

and so on.

But there's something about this prayer. This is a prayer in a crisis. They haven't premeditated what it is that they’re going to say. These words as Luke now describes them, as perhaps oral tradition and Peter and John passed down to Luke of what it is that they said. And you notice they begin with God. They begin with God: “Oh Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them....”

This word, O Lord, is not the usual word. It's actually quite a rare word. It's the word despotes in Greek. It's the word that those in Jerusalem would have readily associated with a slave owner. They don't come before God and say, “Father.” They use a word — it's a rare word. It's a word you find occasionally in the Old Testament. You find it, for example, in that great prayer of Daniel in chapter 9. It's a word that conveyed power and sovereignty and control.

That's exactly what they needed. They didn't need therapy. What they needed to know was, is our God stronger than the Sanhedrin? Is our God stronger than the Roman Empire? And He is the Creator, the one who said “Let there be...” and there was; who brought the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that it contains into being, ex nihilo, by the word of His mouth. And He is the revealer, because what they do is quote the second Psalm.

Now for you and me it would be the 23rd Psalm, or perhaps the 100th Psalm, but for these early Christians it was the second Psalm, and it was the 110th Psalm, and it was the 45th Psalm, and it was the 69th Psalm - the great Messianic Psalms. You remember the second Psalm: “Why do the heathen rage?” It's imagining the heathen, it's imagining the world, it's imagining the enemies of God, and they’re plotting together. These enemies come from disparate locations, but they are united in their opposition to the Lord and His Anointed, to the Lord and His Messiah. And that's exactly what they've seen in Jerusalem. They talk about Herod, and they talk about Pontius Pilate; and Herod and Pilate were not good friends. You know, they weren't buddies on Messenger, but they were united in their opposition to Jesus. And what these disciples have seen is the fulfillment of prophecy. They've seen the second Psalm fulfilled in their ears and before their eyes.

And do you notice what he says in verse 28?

“...To do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”

Now, there's Calvinism again. [“You know he has to bring it in somewhere!”] But for these early Christians, this wasn't simply just a point of doctrine. It wasn't just a sword to engage in some philosophical swordplay with someone else. What did these early Christians want to know? They wanted to know, was God in control? Were the events of the last two months some whimsical, haphazard chaos over which not even God Himself was in control? And you see, for these early Christians, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, the doctrine of predestination brought them the assurance that everything, that all of history — every event, every detail, every circumstance, all the good things, all the bad things, all the evil things — are all part and parcel of a divine plan and purpose.

Now, you think about that. Now, you may resist that on a philosophical level. You may be sitting here tonight, and you say “I don't believe in predestination.” My friends, you can never make sense of the cross unless you believe in predestination. Because, ask yourself...ask yourself this simple question tonight: What was the purpose of Calvary? You know, from a human point of view? Calvary meant that everything that Jesus stood for was wrong. It all came crashing down. And to these disciples, the cross and all the ugliness of it, and all the brutality of it, and all the evil of it — that wicked men were plotting together, as the second Psalm is saying, to destroy the Anointed of God, the Messiah, Jesus — and you see what these Christians are saying? It was all by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. You know, Peter has said something almost identical on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2: that for these early Christians, predestination meant for them that the chaos of the last two months and the brutality of the Sanhedrin was all under the control of a sovereign God.

“My life is in His hands, to do with as He sees best and fit for me.”

And do I doubt in the coldness of the philosophical principle of predestination, do I doubt that He loves me? Look to the cross again, my friend. The cross wasn't simply the machinations of Herod and Pilate. It was God's doing. Yes, my friends, that's the paradox of it. The cross was God's doing; that He was put to death - Jesus was put to death, His blood was shed - was part of the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.

“O Father, You are sovereign
In all the affairs of man. [Margaret Clarkson writes...]
No powers of death or darkness
Can thwart Your perfect plan.
All chance and change transcending,
Supreme in time and space,
You hold Your trusting children
Secure in Your embrace.”

That's what the doctrine of sovereignty means: That underneath and round about are the everlasting arms. I may be falling; I may be plummeting down a tunnel; but underneath are the everlasting arms of God to catch me. Nothing happens without God willing it to happen, and without God willing it to happen in the way that it happens, and without God willing it to happen before it happens. And it brought such comfort and such assurance and such boldness to these Christians.

III. But thirdly, I want us to look at one of the petitions, because what did they pray for?

Because after introducing the prayer and speaking of God as Lord and Creator and revealer, and quoting the second Psalm, and reminding themselves of God's predestinating activity, His total control, what is it that they ask for? “Lord, bring peace to Jerusalem...Lord, help us find a way back to Galilee...Lord, take this trouble away...remove this thorn that's come into our side”?

We pray prayers like that all the time, and in their own place they are not in themselves wrong, of course. That's not my point. But what I want us to see here is the boldness and the courage of this prayer. What do they pray for, with threatenings of beatings, and threatenings of imprisonment, and threatenings of death? (In a few chapters, angelic Stephen is going to be dead on the floor.) “Lord, make us bold. Lord, make us bold.” That's what they prayed for.

This week was the anniversary of the death of Thomas Hooker, the Puritan and political strategist and theorist in New England in the seventeenth century, especially in Harvard. They used to say about Thomas Hooker's preaching, the boldness of his preaching, that he could “pick up the king and put him in his pocket.” And that's what these Christians are praying for.

They could have reasoned, you see, that the time isn't right. They could have reasoned that way...“When things are calmer...when things are better...when the sun is shining.” Instead, they prayed for boldness, for courage, and for determination.

John Wesley once wrote:

“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God. I care not whether they be clergymen or laymen; they alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

It's the spirit of Martin Luther, isn't it?

“A mighty fortress is our God...
Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also.
The body they may kill;
God's truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever.”

Well, is that you, my friend? I have to tell you that this is terribly convicting. This is terribly convicting. Is this our church? Is that the spirit of our church? Is that the separate of our denomination? Is that the spirit of our mission enterprise in the world? “Lord, give us boldness, no matter what the consequences, no matter what the persecution; no matter what I lose as a consequence, in terms of the things of this world; give me boldness, give me courage. Let me preach Jesus and the resurrection.”

And don't be misled into thinking that this is only a prayer that the apostles are praying. There's no hint here that this is only a prayer that Peter and John are praying. This is a prayer that they are all praying. They were of one accord. They all went everywhere, evangelizing - “gospelling the good news,” Luke will tell us shortly.

And what was the result? Well, the place shook. God came down.

You know, that's what prayer does. Prayer brings heaven down to earth. It brings something of the spirit of the world (to come) down to earth, the powers of the age to come are manifest in their midst. Now, to be sure, there are aspects of what happens here that are signs of the apostolic office, when they asked for healings and signs and wonders, and so on. But you notice what Luke says: that the place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit now. They have already been filled with the Holy Spirit, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. But now they’re filled again, and Luke seems to say to us in The Acts of the Apostles that sometimes in situations of crisis, facing issues that will demand of us extraordinary courage and extraordinary wisdom and resourcefulness, the Spirit comes again and fills them again, and they spoke with boldness. They spoke with boldness — the very thing they’d asked for. God answered their prayer, and He made Himself felt.

You know, in the year 400 A.D., John Chrysostom, one of the seraphic preachers of the church fathers in the great city of Constantinople, John Chrysostom began a series of 55 sermons on The Acts of the Apostles. You can still read them today. He says, “The whole place was shaken, and that left them all the more unshaken”; because the very presence of God...they felt the presence of God, and inside there was a peace, and there was a calm, because they were reassured that God was with them in this task that they had been commissioned to do.

You know, 1500 years later, in the city of Lyon in France, five young men, seminary graduates just graduated from a seminary in Switzerland...they had been traveling back from Switzerland. They had spent a few months in Geneva with John Calvin, and in April of 1552, as they went back to their native town of Lyon, they were arrested and imprisoned. And they began a series of letters by them, as the Five Prisoners in Lyon to Calvin. They were sent to Paris, spent almost a year in a dungeon in Paris, and then in March of the following year, 1553, were sent back to Lyon. And on May 16, they were told to prepare for death. And all attempts to extradite them and free them had been exhausted. This is what they wrote:

“It is true that one can have some knowledge of Scripture and talk about it and discuss it a great deal, but this is like playing charades. We therefore praise God with all our heart and give Him undying thanks that He has been pleased to give us by His grace not only the theory of His word, but also the practice of it; and that He has granted us this honor, which is no small thing for us who are vessels so poor and fragile, and mere worms creeping on the earth.” 1

And how had they been taught this? “By bringing us out to be His witnesses, and giving us constancy to confess His name and maintain His truth....” and so the letter goes on. It's an extraordinary letter, on the eve of their death. And that day of May 16, 1553, all five were taken out and they were burnt at the stake for their faith.

Now my friends, that's boldness. That's boldness. Boldness for Jesus Christ, come what may.

“Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also.
The body they may kill;
God's truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever.”

Are you willing to pray like that? If half a dozen of us prayed like that, it would change the shape of this church. If we began to pray like these early Christians did on this occasion, it would change us forever. Oh, may God give us such courage by His Spirit. Let's pray together.

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