November 30, 1997
One of the distinguishing marks of the early church was its dedication to prayer. The early church exercised prayer in light of who God is, what He has done, and what He has promised to do. Included in God’s ordination of all things, He has ordained the means of prayer to accomplish His purposes. It is vital that we do not grow complacent toward prayer; it is through prayer we procure strength against evil.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We come to this issue of prayer. We have a brief time to address it, but I want to do so with you. It is such an imperative aspect of the church’s life.
And we are in Acts 2:42, acknowledging the pattern of the developing church as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” And we’ve been discovering that the church was a worshiping church, and it was a learning church, and, as we see here in this phrase, it was a praying church. And what I want to do is simply look at a couple of places in the developing church in Acts so that we could see the way in which this actually unfolded for these people as they laid hold upon God.
Samuel Chadwick, from an earlier generation, in keeping with the words of our hymn, wrote this: “Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.” Spurgeon, lamenting the declining attendance at the prayer times in his church, wrote to his congregation, “Brethren, we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians.”
And Derek Thomas, in an article some time ago now, in a little magazine that I take on a monthly basis, writes these words: “Once Christians get hold of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty it can revolutionise their lives.” And I sense that that has been happening for us—for some of us—even since we conducted our studies in the life of Joseph. “All at once,” he says,
they see that in every situation God is in perfect control, working out his purposes according to his foreordained plan. Nothing can prevent God from accomplishing that which he has determined to do. The temptation is to think that God’s way of accomplishing his ends is to act irrespective of us.
One of the very real temptations of a thorough grasp of the essence of [biblical] faith is to imagine that prayer is a dispensable thing.
And you hear this from time to time in people’s comments: “Well, if God knows everything that he’s going to do, and if there is nothing that can stay his hand, what in the world is the purpose of our sitting down and taking time in prayer?” That is as a result of a misunderstanding of the way in which God works his purposes out, and it is a danger.
To succumb to this temptation is to misunderstand the doctrine of divine sovereignty in particular, and [biblical] faith in general.
Nowhere does the devil work more arduously, or successfully, in the lives of many Christians than in prayer, or, more correctly, in their lack of it. A thousand excuses can be found to ease the conscience from guilt for the lack of prayer. The day is too busy for family devotions. The midweek prayer meeting is on the wrong day, or, too far away for us to travel! Sometimes the accusation is that “the spirit of the meeting is wrong” which, more often than not is a reflection of the cold, unexpecting and unbelieving heart. “When we go to God by prayer,” Richard Sibbes tells us, “the devil knows we go to fetch strength against him, and therefore he opposes us all he can.”
“The devil knows” that when we go to prayer, “we go to fetch strength against him.” It’s a bit like in Super Mario Brothers, if you will pardon me such a simpleton’s illustration that has just come to mind. But I can remember when we first got that Mario Brothers thing, I was intrigued by the way in which our children insisted on banging the little rascal’s head on something that was above him as he was coming through. And I said, “You know, why don’t you just let him run along the wall? Don’t bang his head off the thing like that.”
“Oh, no,” they said, “he has to bang his head off the thing; that’s where he gets his power.” And there before my very eyes, after a few thumps off the ceiling, he was transformed into a far larger Mario and became, in point of fact, “super.” And without the banging of his head on the ceiling he was unable to engage the source of power.
The devil recognizes that when we go in prayer, we become supernaturally empowered, and therefore, the only thing he is afraid of is that we would ever get serious about going in prayer. He’s not too concerned about preaching that is not backed by prayer, or worship that is not prayed out, or witnessing that is not prayed out , because he recognizes that all of the little monsters and creatures that he has and the pitfalls along the journey that we make through life are more than able to swallow us up—unless, of course, we are taking seriously this matter of prayer.
Now, what we discover in Acts is that the developing church was a praying church. And I want just to illustrate this by allowing you to look in your Bible with me, and I want to make one or two comments. Some of these comments I have been enabled in making as a result of my own reading, and—particularly, when I read John Stott, he says such wonderful things—so if something comes out and you said, “That is particularly wonderful this evening,” just assume that it was John Stott, all right? And I’m sure you would do that automatically, but anyway…
Acts 1:12: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives”—this is following the ascension—“a Sabbath day’s walk from the city.” Which is a very short journey, because they weren’t able to go much more than a kilometer, I think, according to Jewish law, so they weren’t very far away. “A Sabbath day’s walk from the city. [And] when they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying.” And then we’re told who was present, and verse 14 says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”
Now, there are two features here that I just want us to notice in passing. One is their unity and the other is their perseverance—unity and perseverance. Their unity was not simply the fact that they were together in one room, but it is also that they were all of one mind—that they had a singular focus that, together, they went before God with. And it is imperative, as you see the church unfold, that these people came before God in that way. And the way in which they came in prayer was on the strength of God’s promise and in obedience to God’s command.
And even in the verses here in chapter 1, you see that. For example, in verse 4: “On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which [you’ve] heard me speak about.’” So God commanded them in that way, he promised them the baptism in the Holy Spirit in verse 5, and in verse 8 he reiterated it: “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.” And so the apostles looked at one another and they said, “Okay, we have it clear. He has given us the command: do not leave Jerusalem until he fulfills his promise. The promise is that he will clothe us with power from on high. Therefore, since he has made a promise and since he has issued a command, we will do nothing other than seek him on the strength of his promise and submit to him on the basis of his command.”
Now, this teaches us at least this: God’s promises do not render prayer superfluous. The promises of God do not make prayer, then, incidental or supplemental. The fact that God has made a promise does not mean that we do not seek him in relationship to that promise. Indeed, it is the very promise of God that provides the basis whereby we can pray in faith. And when you hear people saying, “You just ask God for it and you get it,” and they describe that as “praying in faith,” that is actually praying in presumption. And there is all the difference in the world between presumption and faith. Faith is that which takes the clear promise of God and said, “God you have promised that ‘you will keep in perfect peace the individual whose mind is stayed upon you.’ Therefore, we are coming before you in prayer in this moment, in relationship to the fears and the doubts and the difficulties that are before us, to ask you, on the strength of your promise, to answer prayer and to fulfill your Word. My mind is distracted and confused; my thoughts are many miles away. Now, according to your Word, will you please keep me in perfect peace?” Now, we may pray in faith according to what he has promised, but we may not, as it were, seek to tie the hands of God on the strength of foolish presumption . Calvin said on one occasion, we are not to ask more than God allows, and by that bridle we are kept from vanity.
Let’s go to 4:23. Peter and John have been taken before the Sanhedrin. They’ve declared “salvation … in no one else,” in verse 12. They were then warned “not to speak or teach at all”—verse 18—“in the name of Jesus.” And verse 21: “After further threats they let them go. They [couldn’t] decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God” as a result of this healing of the man who had been crippled for some long number of years.
Now 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.” Now what was their response? “When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.” And then follows a record of how they prayed.
Now, this will repay your study, but you’ll notice that they prayed in relationship to who God is. First of all, they acknowledged him to be the God of creation, there in verse 24: “You made the heaven and the earth.” In verse 25, as we saw this morning, he is the God who has made himself known, the God of revelation: “You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David.” And in verse 28, referring to those who are antagonistic to the things of Christ, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” So, the God to whom they come in prayer is the God of creation, the God of revelation, and the God of history. The God of creation: “You made.” The God of revelation: “You spoke.” The God of history: “You decided.”
Now, once they have framed an understanding of who God is, they are then in a position to come in supplication. That’s why it’s so very important. How would we know how great and wonderful God is to ask him things if we do not first understand the nature of God himself? And so their prayers begin in this way. It clarified their vision and it put them in their place, humbly.
And when they prayed, they were very specific. In verse 29 they prayed, first of all, that the Lord would “consider their threats.” It’s interesting that they didn’t pray that the Lord would stop their threats, or the Lord would make it easier for them to handle their threats. They simply said, “Lord, you know these circumstances, and we ask you to consider their threats.” That’s verse 29. And in the second half of verse 29: “We want you, Lord, also to enable us to speak your Word with great boldness.” Okay, “consider their threats,” request number one; “enable your servants to speak with … great boldness”; and thirdly, “stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” So that was their prayer time. They have this encounter, dramatic as it is; they return to the people; the people’s immediate reaction says, “Okay, let’s pray about this.” They gather together and they say, “Here you are. You are the God of creation, you are the God of revelation, you are the God of history. Consider their threats, enable your servants, and show yourself strong.”
What’s the result? Verse 31: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.” God shook the place. That has a very Old Testament picture to it, because, you remember, it was one of the evidences of a theophany, of an appearing God, that the very rafters in the room in which the people gathered would be shaken; there would be a manifestation of God’s presence. And these people would understand that. It wasn’t the people that shook—a tremendous emphasis in these days, from Pensacola and other places, about all kinds of people shaking dramatically; and we’ve lived through successions of shakers. But no, God didn’t shake the people; he shook the place. People can shake themselves, but they can’t shake the place. You can fake your own little shimmy, but you can’t shake this building. It’s going to take somebody pretty strong to shake this place. So God shook the place. And God filled them with His Spirit, and God enabled them to speak the word of God boldly.
Now, this is a description of what happened. Is it a prescription of what we can expect? No, it is a description. Is there a principle here? Without question. The developing church was a praying church. When they prayed, they prayed in unity and they prayed in consistency. When they prayed, they prayed in light of who God is, and they asked in the basis of God’s promises and in submission to God’s commands, and God came and answered their prayer by shaking their place, filling their lives, and enabling the word of God to come out with boldness. There’s every reason in the world why we should gather together and ask God to do the very same thing.
You say, “Well, they asked for miracles to be done; there doesn’t seem to be part of the answer.” Well, by the time you get to 5:12, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.” So God answered all their prayers.
Let’s go to chapter 12. I’m just picking these things out here as we follow it through. Chapter 12 you can read at home; it’s a great, wonderful, fantastic chapter. It begins with Herod arresting “some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.” So the chapter opens up with the authority of Herod—he is putting people “to death with the sword”—the security of him being able to put people in prison. And in contrast to that, what is the church able to do? Verse 5: “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” If someone had looked from the outside, they would have said, “The odds are so dreadfully stacked against the people of God, are they not? After all, Herod is a very powerful ruler. He’s able to round people up with his secret police, he can kill them at the drop of a hat. He can imprison them and never let them out. And your response is to get yourself in a huddle and to pray? What, are you people crazy or something?”
Indeed, if some of the twentieth-century political pundits had been present, they would never have settled for that kind of response. “No, no,” they would have said, “we need to invade Herod’s palace. We need to get people on his senate. We need to make sure that we’re in charge of this operation. We need to dominate this place. Otherwise we’re finished!” That’s what we hear today, is it not? Why do you think we’re in the position we’re in? ’Cause the church doesn’t really believe that prayer changes things. It believes that power changes things: “They’re powerful, we’re powerful.”
Not the developing church! “Peter was kept in prison … the church was earnestly praying.” And “the night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers.” Now, that is one of the most fantastic wee phrases in the whole of the New Testament, for me. James had already had his head chopped off; that’s there in verse 2: “He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” Whether he was run through or decapitated we don’t know, but he was schtum, kaput, no more, gone. Peter is next up in the batting order. They bring him into the jail, they fasten him in between two soldiers, they manacle him together with these two soldiers, and Luke says that on the night before his trial, “Peter was sleeping”—sleeping!—“between two soldiers.” And the two soldiers had him there, and they had two guards outside the door. Because, remember, they’d already had some shenanigans that they couldn’t explain back in the earlier chapter, when they had appeared out of the jail, and God had come and sent an angel. And so they were leaving nothing to chance this time: “We’ll chain him up to two guys, we’ll put two people in the outer court, and that’ll be the end of him.” And Peter slept.
Do you think he believed in the sovereignty of God? Do you think he believed Father knows best? Do you think he had assurance that his sins were forgiven, that heaven was his home? It’s interesting, Peter slept, and in a couple of chapters we have Paul singing. And while Peter slept, the church prayed.
And suddenly, you have this dramatic scene: the angel comes—you know the story—“Quick,” he says, “get up!” The chains fell off Peter’s wrists. Peter doesn’t know whether he’s awake or asleep, he hasn’t a clue what’s going on as the story unfolds. And as they’ve come out through the iron gates leading into the city, “they … walked the length of one street, [and] suddenly the angel left him.” And then Peter said to himself, “[Whew!] Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.” And when this had dawned on him, what did he do? Gotta get back to the folks! He didn’t go to Dunkin’ Donuts; he went to the church. He didn’t go to the mall; he went to the church. It made perfect sense. He was a member of the household. These were his family. This was his reflex action: “I gotta go back and tell the people!”
And he goes “to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.” And so he knocks on the outer entrance; you know the story, and the irony that is contained in verse 14: “When she recognized Peter’s voice”—because people would not only knock the door, but they would announce who they were: “Hi, this is Peter, let me in!”—and she turns around, she goes flying back in the room, she goes, “Hey, guys, Peter is at the front door!”
And here’s the answer of the believing church, verse 15: “‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so,” they grade it up just a little: “Well, we know it’s not Peter, but it might be his angel.” Because the notion at this time was that the angel took on the characteristics and the likeness of an individual. So they were sure that it wasn’t Peter, because they knew where Peter was, so maybe an angel had shown up in his place. “But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. [And he] motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. ‘Tell James and the brothers about this,’ he said, and … he left for another place.”
Then you have the death of Herod. And the chapter began, remember, with the authority of Herod, the power of the sword, and the security of the prison, and it ends up with the death of Herod, Peter’s out of the prison, and “the word of God [is continuing]”—verse 24—“to increase and spread.”
I say to you again, we’re buying all this stuff. “Don’t you realize how powerful CBS is?” people say. “Don’t you realize the power of NBC? Don’t you realize the power of the media? It’s not possible for us to take these folks on. These are the forces…” Oh, would we give up so soon? We’re ready to roll over and die, we’re ready to give the world of secular education up? We got Christian contemporary music; what’s next, Christian classical music? Is there no great literature written by pagans? Are there no good songs written by pagans? Do you only read Christian newspapers? See, we’ve driven ourselves into a hole, and it would be one thing if in the hole we prayed to God, but now we’re in the hole commiserating with ourselves, talking to ourselves, and feeling low.
Let’s just go to one more and we’re done. Chapter 16. Tremendous chapter, once again—the story of the conversion of Lydia, the transformation of the slave girl, and then the conversion of the Philippian jailer.
“[And] on the Sabbath”—verse 13—“we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place”—of what?—“a place of prayer.” It’s interesting: although they had not established buildings for themselves, they had established locations for themselves, and the locations became known as locations of prayer. Because whatever else happened there, they knew that the people prayed. And so Paul sits down, and he begins to speak with the women who had gathered there. And one of those listening was a woman named Lydia; she was a dealer in purple—she was in the rag trade. She was a worshipper of God. Look at what we’re told: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” The message was Paul’s; the initiative was God’s. Paul’s preaching wasn’t effective in itself, but the Lord took it up and used it. The Lord did not work directly, irrespective of means, but he chose to work through Paul’s preaching. There’s a great mystery in that.
The chapter goes on with this amazing encounter with this girl. You need to read it for yourself—our time is going—and she kept shouting out because she was pretty messed up; she had an evil spirit. And she comes shouting out in the street, “These men are [the] servants of the Most High God, [they’re] telling you the way to be saved.” And Paul would put up with this for so long, and then he finally turned around and he exorcised her. And he “said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ [And] at that moment the spirit left her.”
And there’s a wonderful play on words here in the Greek; the verb is exelthein, which means “to go out.” And it says here that at that moment the spirit went out. And then it says, “[And] when the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money [had gone out]…” You can see Luke having a little fun with the verb; he says, “Not only did Paul exorcise the demon, but he exorcised their cash flow.” And as soon as they got their cash flow exorcised, then they were indignant. And on the strength of that, they stirred up this trouble, and lo and behold, there they are, Paul and Silas, back in the jail in the middle of the night.
And after a severe flogging—verse 23—“they were thrown into prison … the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. [And] upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell … fastened their feet in the stocks.” And verse 25: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”
This whole chapter is an amazing illustration of what God does in answer to prayer. You got these three individuals. Let’s assume that this slave girl was not only exorcised but redeemed. I hope she was; the inference seems to be there, in between Lydia and the Roman jailer, who also comes to faith. So you’ve got this lady, and then you’ve got this slave girl, and then you’ve got this kind of middle management guy who’s a soldier, maybe a retired guy.
Maybe you remember the Jewish prayer. A good Jewish man would pray in the morning, “Lord, I thank you that you have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” What does God do here in the three charter members of the First Community Church in Philippi? He takes a woman, takes a slave girl, and takes a Gentile. Totally different from one another. The lady in the rag trade, today she would have driven a very nice car. The slave girl would have been in deep trouble today, as she was then. The soldier would have been what he was. And God takes this diverse little group of individuals, and as a result of a praying church and of a preaching servant, they come to faith in Jesus Christ, and they form the very nucleus out of which he builds that which is to come in the future.
Let us not miss, as we draw this to a close, the wonderful truth that is in this, as we live in a climate of social disintegration. Of all places, local churches must be seen to bring together successful businesswomen, girls from the streets, middle-class men, united by a common discovery of the amazing grace of God.
How was it that this earthquake happened and they were liberated from the jail? In answer to prayer.
Just recently, I heard of a black preacher who was explaining to his congregation what was happening in the jail in Philippi, and it made me smile; and it made me wish I could preach like that. But he did this amazing thing where he said,
And so Paul and Silas were in the jail, and it was midnight. And Paul says to Silas, “Hey brother, how you feelin’?”
And Silas says, “Okay.”
And Paul says, “You know, I feel a song comin’ on.”
And Silas says, “Go for it!”
And Paul starts singing, and Silas starts singing, and soon they got their singing going, and it’s right throughout their cell. And they sing a little louder, and it goes right throughout the jail. And as their spirit lifts within them, they sing some more, and it wafts out through the bars of the jail and into the streets of Philippi. And soon their songs can be heard throughout all of the immediate region. And they begin to ascend…
As he preaches, yeah, I wish I could do his voice!
And they ascend, and they’re moving up into the atmosphere and they go into [whatever it is,] the stratosphere. And they go into the ionosphere, and their songs are reaching up and up and up to the very heaven of God.
And God says to one of the angels, “What is that I hear?”
And the angel says, “O Lord, that’s Paul and Silas singing.”
And the Lord listens for a little, and he begins just ever so gently to tap his foot, for Earth is his footstool. And as he taps his foot, the shackles fall off, and the bars fall down, and the jail springs free, and they walk out, and they praise God.
Somewhat fanciful, but it preaches.
Concluding comment is simply this: there’s a tremendous amount of praying that goes on at Parkside Church, in all kinds of ways. And I’m not about to enumerate them, for time or for any other reason, but there is a tremendous amount of praying goes on. The one thing that we do not have are seasons of prayer when we come together in as large a group as we’re able to do and pray about kingdom business. And one of the things that we need to be exercised about as a congregation is just what that means and how that happens and how it would be a part of life here at Parkside Church. Because the greatest danger of all is that since Satan dreads nothing but prayer, then we could become effective on a superficial level at a whole ton of stuff and yet not be making a dent for the kingdom. So, would you please pray about that, and think about that, and ask God to lay a burden upon us as a church in relationship to these things, whatever that might mean, and to give wisdom and clarity to the leadership of our church? Lest we do to the notion of gathered prayer what other churches, if you’ll forgive me, have done to the notion of evening worship—namely, discover that people are not really up for it, discover that it takes a tremendous commitment to do it, discover that people would be happier without it, and simply let it go. Very possible to do that in relationship to prayer, and it would be a great mistake.
So, let us pause and ask God simply to drive these things home to our hearts:
Father, we pray now that you will teach us how to pray. Lord, as individuals, as families in our homes, as young people, singles, wherever we are and whatever we do, that you will make us a congregation that gives themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word of God in all kinds of ways and at all kinds of times.
We thank you for preserving us and keeping us and for all that is taking place, but we ask that you will safeguard us against the temptation to believe that we’re effective in our own right, can do things in our own strength, and allow the very meagerness of our approach to you to declare where we are in terms of dependence.
Let us learn from the developing church so that, as our local church continues to develop, we may emulate their example in this respect. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, Only a Prayer Meeting!, quoted in Derek Thomas, “Only a Prayer Meeting!,” The Banner of Truth, October 1989, 11.
 Thomas, “Only a Prayer Meeting!,” 13.
 Thomas, 13.
 Isaiah 26:3 (paraphrased).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.20.5.
 See Acts 3:1–10.
 Acts 4:29 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 4:31.
 Acts 12:1 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 12:2 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 12:6 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 12:10 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 12:11 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 12:12 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 12:14 (paraphrased).
 Acts 12:15 (paraphrased).
 Acts 12:16–17 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 12:24 (NIV 1984).
 See Acts 16:13–14.
 Acts 16:14 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 16:17 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 16:18 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 16:19 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.