by James Paterson Jnr., Scotland
PRAYER IN THE EARLY CHURCH
One of the striking features of the early believers is their attention to prayer. The first reference to prayer in Acts is in 1.14, "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren". The lives of these early saints seemed to have been motivated and governed by prayer, both collectively and individually. While the early references to prayer in Acts would correspond to the believers following the Jewish prayer times, we cannot fault their attitude in continuing in the activity so fundamentally important to Christian continuation.
Before we consider the subject of prayer in Acts, we should note a few introductory points. They "continued stedfastly [proskartereo] . . . in prayers" 2.42. This word means, ‘to be earnest towards, to attend assiduously, be instant in’. This they did! The words prayer, prayers, prayed, praying and pray are found 29 times in Acts 1.14,24; 2.42; 3.1; 4.31; 6.4,6; 8.15,22,24; 9.40; 10.2,4,9,30,31,48; 11.5; 12.5,12; 13.3; 14.23; 16.13,16,25; 20.36; 21.5; 22.17; 28.8. Among the many blessings that God has bestowed upon men, prayer is essential and unique, both in the nature of its function and more particularly in its outreach from man to God. Prayer is a gift from God to His saints, a line of direct communication between the Almighty and His children. Prayer is not a means whereby one attempts to pressurise God through persuasive speech into granting every request. Prayer is relational. Though God is the Giver, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with Whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" Jms.1.17, and man is the recipient of those blessings, unlike any other gift it requires first that man asks. Through prayerful consideration of His word the saints apprehend the will and purpose of God. For man, prayer is an ever-present access to the source of his peace and the foundation of his being. To call out to God is to get an answer from God, even though the answer may not be what we want to hear, or because of unbelief we may not hear it.God’s line of communication is ever available. Prayer is the direct petition into the heart of God. A perusal of the Acts of the Apostles will reveal that early Christians engaged in prayer. From the very beginning of his book, Luke, the author, sheds light into the activities of those New Testament Christians. Central to that early church life was the role of supplication in prayer. Prayer wasn’t just a spiritual discipline that they practised when things weren’t going well or when someone was sick. It wasn’t a matter of enjoining some formal ritual. Rather, prayer was part of them, an underpinning of their faith in expression and devotion. They prayed consistently. This sort of dedicated passion for prayer is portrayed clearly in the formative life of the Church as recorded in the book of Acts, and should be equally true for Christians in every age.
Luke, through Divine inspiration, emphatically and unequivocally relays to his readers that prayer is an essential ingredient in the Christian life. In order for the disciples to fulfil God’s Divine call, they would need guidance from God. This is a reflection of the emphasis on prayer found in Luke’s Gospel, where he seems to stress the importance of prayer in the life of the Lord Jesus. This subject is considered in detail in chapter 10 of this book. Luke’s further writing in Acts is a reflection of this prayer activity and an evidence of the instruction given by the Lord Jesus that, "men ought always to pray, and not to faint" Lk.18.1. In the Gospel, Luke writes of the Man of prayer, the Lord Jesus Christ, while in the Acts he shows how Christ’s example had an impact on the believers, for they followed Him in faithfulness and commitment, as a praying people, as men and women of prayer. The direction of the prayers of the early Church was to God: e.g. Acts 12.5 "prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him [Peter]." In our day, much so-called prayer in public seems not to be to God. There is often very little thought of God in it. We think of the audience; we think of our need, but often there is not a deep sense that we have come into the presence of the all-Holy, Almighty God, and are laying hold upon Him for His help. This is one of the most frequent causes of failure in prayer. We do not really pray to God. As we consider prayer in this book of the early history of the Church and the churches, we will see that as the believers prayed, they seemed to dismiss from their minds, as far as possible, the thoughts of their surroundings, and allowed the Holy Spirit to write upon their minds the reality of the presence of God.
In Acts, as in all Scripture, and indeed in our daily lives, the attitude of prayerfulness denotes dependence. Dependence is not merely an acknowledgement of our weakness and inability to proceed without assistance, but also a willingness to keep God’s commandments and act in obedience to His Word. Here we find one of the greatest secrets of prevailing prayer. If we listen obediently to God’s commandments, God will listen to our prayers. "Whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" 1Jn.3.22, teaches that if we do what pleases Him, He will do what pleases us, since our requests will be controlled by His word and so be in accord with His will. The person who turns his ear from God’s voice cannot pray so that God will hear. To keep His commandments means more than being obedient to them, but rather means to hold and guard them as a precious possession. (This does not negate God’s sovereignty and His gracious lovingkindness).
We learn in Acts that the early believers had vibrancy about their prayer life. It seems to be marked not only with direction, devotion and dependence, they knew of Whom they were asking: but also distinctiveness, deliberation and definition; they knew for what they were asking. They prayed rather than said prayers. We see that the early believers were God-centred in what they prayed for: praying for God’s purpose to be achieved; God’s people to be appointed and God’s power to be unleashed. As is recorded of Ambrose of Milan (339-397), "Prayer is the wing wherewith the soul flies to heaven and meditation the eye wherewith we see God".
- Prayer was appointed to convey
- The blessings God designs to give;
- Long as they live, should Christians pray,
- For only while they pray, they live.
- And wilt thou still in silence lie,
- When God stands waiting for thy prayer?
- My soul, thou hast a friend on high,
- Arise, and try thine interest there.
- Tis prayer supports the soul that’s weak,
- Though thought be broken, language lame;
- Pray, if thou canst, or canst not speak,
- And pray with faith in Jesus’ name.
- Depend on Him, thou canst not fail;
- Make all thy wants and wishes known:
- Fear not; His merits must prevail:
- Ask, but in faith, it shall be done.
- (Joseph Hart)
As the local church is a house of prayer because of the emphasis it gives to prayer, the Bible may be called God’s book of prayer for the same reason. The local church has always claimed to be a people of the Book. We plead that we do Bible things in Bible ways. We argue that each must go back to the Bible to be right and leave nothing out and add nothing in. However, if we are going to give more than lip-service to this claim, we must not only talk about prayer, we must practise it. The New Testament uses the words pray, prayed, prayers and praying one hundred and sixty three times (not counting synonyms such as ask, seek, knock and petition). By contrast it uses baptise, baptised and baptism seventy times. This does not mean that prayer is more important than baptism, but does suggest the emphasis prayer should receive in the local church. The local church in Acts prayed with persistency, intensity and unity. They prayed collectively as to their number, constantly as to their exercise, consistently as to the content, and prayed on the basis of God’s character.
Pre-Pentecost – Upper Room
Through the book there are times when the believers gathered together and engaged in the united exercise of prayer. While there are times when the subject matter of their prayer is recorded, there are other times when no subject is mentioned. In Acts 1.14, before the local church in Jerusalem was established, the group of about one hundred and twenty who gathered in the upper room display a lovely example of believers united in prayer. While the subject matter is initially unrecorded, the attitude of those who pray is clearly stated and can be taken as an example for present day exercise. In ten days time they would experience the life-changing occasion of Pentecostal blessing, but leading up to that point they continued in prayer. As no subject matter of their prayers is recorded we should not surmise the content. However, their attitude in prayer is worth noting. They persevered, "These all continued", just doing what they had been instructed to do, "wait for the promise of the Father" 1.4. They were purposeful in their persevering, "These all continued with one accord" 1.14. They were one, no dissent, no complaint, but united with harmony of purpose. "With the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus" 1.14, endorses the unity of the occasion. While there is no suggestion that the women were praying publicly, they were continuing in prayer as much as the rest who were gathered. It is critical for the furtherance of Christian life, assembly function and gospel witness that the women still gather to pray! Many assemblies and servants have been maintained and supported by praying women, so is there any need for single gender prayer meetings?
Note the position of Mary. This is the last time we read of her. She is humbly praying with the others. She takes no lead, nor do others pray to her. Roman Catholic pretensions about Mary have no basis whatsoever in Scripture.
During this period of prayer, one subject is eventually recorded; their request for guidance in appointing another to the group, "to be a witness with us of His resurrection" 1.22. That is the subject on their mind and the requirement of the moment, so that is the subject for which they prayed! They knew the men who were fitted for the position, but laid their concern before the Lord. Were they wrong to cast lots? Had they not besought the Lord to overrule the lot in the spirit of Prov.16.33, "The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD"? It is important to notice that when the answer was given, they accepted the mind of the Lord without further discussion.
- The saints in prayer, appear as one
- In word and deed and mind,
- While with the Father and the Son
- Sweet fellowship they find.
- (James Montgomery)
Persevering in Prayer
One of the activities that engaged the lives of the Spirit-filled early believers was prayer, "And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" 2.42. These new believers, guided no doubt by the ongoing activities and teaching of the apostles and others, and directed by the Holy Spirit, order their lives in such a way that they could be steadfast in their activities, including prayer. The primary reference to the prayers in which they participated is undoubtedly a reference to their own appointed times for united prayer, although we know that the apostles also attended the Jewish prayer services in the temple, "Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour" 3.1. The prayers of the early Church may well have followed Jewish models, but their content would be enriched by the spiritual experience. No doubt the name of the Lord Jesus Christ opened up prayer opportunities never before known, for now there was instant access to the throne of grace, and they could therefore, " come boldly unto the throne of grace, that [they] may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" Heb.4.16.
Every aspect of individual and corporate life could then, and can be now, related to the throne and through the Great High Priest Who is at God’s right hand.
Places of Prayer
It is interesting in Acts to see the places where the believers prayed. We have seen that their first exercise was in the upper room, but we can also see that in the context of Paul’s instruction to Timothy, "I will therefore that men pray everywhere" 1Tim.2.8, the saints prayed in a variety of locations: e.g. Saul in a house in Damascus, 9.11; the church in Mary’s house, 12.12; Peter on a housetop, 10.9; beside a river near Philippi, 16.13; Paul and Silas in prison, 16.25; on a beach near Tyre, 21.5 and in a storm tossed boat, 27.35, showing that physical location is not the important thing, but rather praying souls come unhindered into the presence of their God and Father.
Persecution brings Prayer
What a lovely expression of fellowship, that on their release from the Sanhedrin, Peter and John "went to their own company" 4.23. It is not that the company belonged to the apostles as in ownership, but that the apostles belonged to the company, as in fellowship! The news of persecution now leads the church to united prayer. First their voices are lifted up in praise. Praise for God’s omnipotence, 4.24, and for His omniscience, 4.25-28. Then they speak in prayer. What would they ask for? The threats of the Sanhedrin were real. They had been warned by the Lord Jesus, "In the world ye shall have tribulation" Jn.16.33; a world that had crucified Him was not likely to coddle them. Would they, as seems to be common today, ask the Lord to remove the threat, or remove the men who threaten, or have the Government change the laws? Why, no, they ask the Lord, "that with all boldness they may speak Thy word" 4.29. The danger did not lie with the Sanhedrin but with self. The subject of their prayer was not the force of the enemy, but the fear that the believers had to overcome. They did not expect the power or the persecution of the Jews to go away, nor did they ask for some miraculous intervention to deal with the aggression of the foe. Nor did they pray for the conversion of the blind and guilty men. They simply asked God to give them courage to continue with the task of preaching the glad tidings of the gospel.
It is important for us to learn from the example of God’s Word. These early believers acknowledged God’s sovereignty, His omnipotence and His omniscience; they knew Him, therefore they knew how and for what to request. They knew that the One Who had saved, gifted and commissioned them, would strengthen them for their service. Is it any wonder then that the answer to their prayer was instantaneous? The Holy Spirit’s power was evidenced in response to their prayer and "they spoke the Word of God with boldness" 4.31.
Prayer Prior to Service
In Acts chapter 6 there was a dispute between the Grecian Jews and the Hebraic Jews. The apostles weighed the matter and under the direction of the Holy Spirit determined to nominate seven men to handle the conflict in the church. Then the apostles remarked, "we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word" 6.4. It is remarkable to witness the focus of the apostles. In order to complete the mission of the Lord, they had to have singularity of purpose. The ministry of the Word was associated with prayer. When the chosen men had been appointed and before the apostles’ identification with them by the laying on of hands, once again they prayed, 6.6. The action of prayer therefore is closely linked to service, whether in the "ministry of the Word" 6.4, or in the daily service to the saints, 6.6, teaching that all service is important whatever its type. This is also seen in chapter 13 at the commendation of Barnabas and Saul to, "the work whereunto I have called them", 13.3. Once again, before the church identifies with the servants and releases them to the work, prayer is made. "And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away" 13.3. This is a model for all assembly activity and missionary outreach. The Holy Spirit directs a praying church that is obedient to Divine leadership, and this condition brings forth positive results in the activities of the servants commended. The activity is once again seen in chapter 14 when elders were ordained in "every church" 14.23. In these churches, prior to the elders being commended, they prayed together. These prayers were effectual since elders in the early churches were men of prayer.
When Paul called a meeting of elders at Miletus, he warned the overseers of the Ephesian church that false teachers would arise "speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" 20.30. Before parting, these men bowed to pray, 20.36. We are not told for what they prayed, but the context indicates they prayed for Paul and the trouble he faced, and for the local church and the trouble it faced. Are you an elder? If so, are you a man of prayer? Do you pray that the local church may be spared the destruction of false teaching? Do you pray for the straying sheep under your care? Elders need to say more often, "let’s have a word of prayer." So it is evident from these passages that the early believers understood the necessity of prayer before any assembly activity would be undertaken.
Prayer for the Prisoner
James had been martyred at the hand of Herod, and now the evil king had turned his attention to Peter and committed him to prison. While Peter sleeps on the dungeon floor chained on either side to a soldier, with his guard quadrupled around him, the local church prays. Luke says that prayer was made "without ceasing", 12.5. The word is ektenes meaning intense, showing not only the volume of prayer but its earnest exercise. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" Jms.5.16.
Once again there is no record of the request made by the local church. Did they pray for Peter’s release, or based on the death of James, that he might receive the grace of God to face the unknown future, and that the will of God be done in the circumstance? This is an area that has caused much consideration for the Lord’s people; asking for the right thing, and not asking for that which, while being the desire of our heart, may be in opposition to His will. It is worth noting that, "prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him" 12.5. Many times in our prayer meetings we seem to have lost the art of specific prayer and speak in broad brush strokes. We use terms like, "those preaching the gospel"; "all those who are ill"; "the folks in the village", and while it may seem that we are praying for everyone, we actually pray for no one! Scriptural prayer is specific and although Paul, for example, speaks about praying for "you all" Phil.1.4; 1Thess.1.2, the meaning of the statement is "each individual one of you". Specific prayer denotes a burdened heart.
However, the attitude and intensity of the local church in prayer through the night is the subject matter, and there is a blessing associated with their diligence. "Behold, bless ye the LORD, all ye servants of the LORD which by night stand in the house of the LORD. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the LORD. The LORD that made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion" Ps.134.1-3.
While they were continuing in prayer, Peter appears at their door, and no matter what they had been requesting, they understood the truth of the statement, "thy prayer is heard" Lk.1.13.
- From every stormy wind that blows,
- From every swelling tide of woes,
- There is a calm, a safe retreat—
- ‘Tis found beneath the mercy-seat.
- Ah! Whither could we flee for aid
- When tempted, desolate, dismayed,
- Or how the hosts of hell defeat,
- Had suffering saints no mercy-seat?
- There we on eagles’ wings would soar,
- When time and sense are all no more;
- There heavenly joys our spirits greet,
- For glory crowns the mercy-seat.
- (Hugh Stowell)
Prayer Meeting Power
In addition to the powerful results of communal prayers as mentioned above, it is interesting to see that before there was a local church in Philippi there was a prayer meeting. Paul and the group that was with him sought this out and attended on the sabbath. This was the place and time of a regular meeting to pray: "where prayer was wont [accustomed] to be made" 16.13. This prayer meeting developed into a gospel meeting and Lydia received the blessing of salvation, "whose heart the Lord opened" 16.14, was baptised and enjoyed fellowship with Paul’s group. It is remarkable that Paul’s first preaching of the gospel in Europe is at this prayer meeting.
Within a few days Paul and Silas, while once again on their way to a prayer meeting, are accosted by a demon-possessed woman, the result of which, while bringing liberation to the woman, leads to their imprisonment. It is while in prison that perhaps the smallest communal prayer meeting takes place. Paul and Silas "prayed and sang praises to God: and the prisoners heard them" 16.25. The attitude of these two servants is remarkable. They are in the inner prison; dark and deadly. They have been severely and painfully scourged, their feet fast in the stocks, but we find them under these unfavourable and suffering conditions engaged in their habitual pursuit. They prayed and sang praises unto God. Once again, no mention is made regarding the content of the prayer, but the hand of God is seen. It would seem that the praying in the prison was not subdued because of the presence of the others, but clear enough for the others to hear! So there is the witness and testimony of praying believers.
What blessing followed the simple prayer meetings in Philippi. The power of God is evidenced in the illumination of Lydia, the emancipation of the woman, and the transformation of the jailor. So the gospel activity expands through Europe and on into the then unknown parts of the world, all from the humble beginning of a prayer meeting at a riverside in Philippi. A few praying souls are enough to power a work for God.
Often we underestimate the power of prayer. It is recorded of Mary Queen of Scots who, when speaking of the great Scottish reformer, John Knox, said, "I fear his prayers more than all the assembled armies of Europe".1
- 1 Murray, David P. “Lessons from John Knox”. Reformation Scotland. Edinburgh 2006.
Is it too simple to stress again the blessing associated in meeting to pray? As we see from the above records of communal prayer, there is something precious to meet with the Lord’s people in His presence with singleness of heart and purpose, as we engage to pray. Conversely, it may be that like those of the church of the Laodiceans, and evidenced by our attitude and absence we really say, "I am rich … and have need of nothing" Rev.3.17.
- Now may we prove the power of prayer
- To strengthen faith and banish care;
- To teach our faint desires to rise,
- And bring all heaven before our eyes.
- (William Cowper)
We have seen clearly in Acts the necessity of prayer in assembly life, including the need for elders to pray. In this section we shall see the exercise of servants to pray. Just as an assembly cannot function without collective prayer, or a leader lead without prayer, so a servant should not be serving if his life is not a life of prayer. Luke records for us in Acts, the example of godly men who prayed. As we read of the prayers of these believers we understand something of the intensity of an active prayer life, not just saying prayers as those of whom it is recorded by the Lord: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly" Matt.6.6,7. As A.W. Tozer wrote, "When we become too glib in prayer we are most surely talking to ourselves. When the calm listing of requests takes the place of the burdened prayer that finds utterance difficult, we should be aware the next step, for the direction is surely down whether we know it or not."2
- 2 Tozer, A.W. “Born After Midnight”. Wing Spread Publications. Camp Hill. Pennsylvania. 2006.
While we read more of Stephen’s preaching than his prayer, what is written of his prayer at the end of his life is significant and an encouragement in many ways. The Holy Spirit’s description of Stephen is significant in Acts, and while there is not a great deal written about him, what is said is weighty. "Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost" 6.5. "Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people" 6.8. This is the character of the man who, in his prayer at the point of death, left such an impression on Saul that he would never forget, and would later say, "And when the blood of Thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him" 22.20.
Some may claim that his action in Acts 7.59,60 can hardly be classed as a prayer. However, looking at the language it would seem otherwise! Others are helpful in this respect with regard to the verb "calling upon" 7.59. Wm. Mounce3 gives the meaning as "prayer"; A. Campbell4 translates it "invocation"; J.H. Thayer5 emphasises the intensity of personal need when translating it "to call upon for one’s self".
- 3 Mounce, William. “Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words”. Zondervan. Grand Rapids. Michigan. 2006.
4 Campbell, Alexander. “Acts of the Apostles”. Firm Foundation Publishing House. Austin Texas.1858.
5 Thayer, J.H. “A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament”. T&T. Clark. Edinburgh. 1958.
It is no wonder that Saul was impressed and no doubt Stephen’s words were used by the Holy Spirit in the work of conviction. Stephen, in his last words, proclaimed the Deity of the Lord Jesus. When the Lord Jesus died He said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit" Lk.23.46, when Stephen died he said, "Lord Jesus receive my spirit" 7.59, and so confessed the fact that the Lord Jesus is co-equal with the Father. Such was the effect of listening to Stephen’s prayer, that Paul would later write that death for a believer meant "to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" 2Cor.5.8. Stephen’s prayer was not only a mark of Christian faith, and a declaration of the Deity of Christ, but also a demonstration in v.60 of his adherence to the instruction given by the Lord Jesus in the sermon on the mount, "But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" Matt.5.44.
And so a praying Stephen, on his knees, after commending himself to the Lord, falls asleep. No doubt this example has been the experience of many the Lord’s people in death. To be translated from the spiritual presence of the Lord into His actual physical presence.
- Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
- The Christian’s native air;
- His watchword at the gates of death;
- He enters heaven with prayer.
- (James Montgomery)
We have alluded to the times that Peter "went to pray" in Acts chapters 3 and 4, but will now look at further references to him engaging in prayer as recorded in Acts.
The occasion of Peter and John praying for the Holy Spirit to indwell the early believers from Samaria, is unique in the history of the church, and such an act has no further precedent to this day. It was a particular apostolic act, and the seriousness of the matter is seen in Peter’s attitude to Simon and his unrighteous, mercenary request. Interestingly, there is no record of Peter ever granting Simon’s request that they pray for him.
Peter is soon again involved in particular apostolic service when he steps into the house in Joppa where Dorcas has recently died, 9.36-41. Peter’s actions seem to be modelled on what the Lord Jesus did when He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, Mk.5.35-43, with one important difference; Peter prayed. While the Lord of Life had the absolute ability and authority to restore that which He had created, Peter had not. He acknowledges his dependency and from his knees alone in the death chamber, he prays. Once again the subject matter of the prayer is not recorded, but no doubt Peter’s attitude is an acknowledgement of his helplessness and total dependence on God. The similarity to the words of the Lord Jesus is interesting. He had said, "Talitha cumi" Mk.5.41, Peter, still on his knees it would seem, turns to the body and says, "Tabitha cumi" 9.40, and Dorcas was restored to life.
Joppa was a milestone in the life of Peter. Not only for the fact of the raising of Dorcas, but the fundamental truth that God would bless both Jew and Gentile with salvation. At the end of the events surrounding the conversion of Cornelius, Peter recounts the happenings to the church in Jerusalem and he sums up his report by saying, "What was I, that I could withstand God?" 11.17.
While we will think about Cornelius shortly, it is lovely to see that where there was a praying sinner, there was a servant being prepared through his participation in prayer. This would continue to be the pattern of God’s work in the salvation of a soul. Peter in the solitude of the housetop is engaged in prayer when the Lord speaks to him directly and dramatically. Noon was not one of the Jewish prayer times, but it is possible that pious Jews like Daniel, Dan.6.10, who prayed three times a day may have prayed at this time, as detailed by the Psalmist, " Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and He shall hear my voice" Ps.55.17. Peter will learn during this Divine communication and the subsequent conversion of Cornelius that it is impossible for the servant to use the words, "not so" and "Lord" in the same sentence, 10.14! Peter will arise and go to Cornelius after this revelation from God was further expounded by the Spirit. The pattern remains; Peter is undecided as to the meaning of the communication from God, "Now while Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean…" 10.17, but the Spirit continues the revelation and instructs the servant: "While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said unto him, Behold, three men seek thee. Arise therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them" 10.19,20. So today, as we commune in prayer and God reveals His mind for us through His Word, the Holy Spirit unfolds the mind of God to us and reveals the detail of how we should act to implement what we have been instructed.
Does God hear the prayers of the sinner? The story of this devout, God-fearing man gives the answer. We notice the four points used by the Spirit to describe Cornelius in chapter 10.2, "devout", meaning pious, godly: "feared God", indicating a fear of God’s revenge: "gave much alms", emphasising his largess: "prayed to God always", denoting constant petition, beseeching.
The three verbs; "feared", "gave" and "prayed", are present participles, showing that he was engaged in these activities continually or repeatedly, so really his manner of life is clearly expressed in the verse. This is the type of sinner whom God hears. One who has a genuine interest in Him and in His Son. Not the religious person who believes his soul is secured by the vain repetition of prayers, said by rote for the satisfaction and appeasement of conscience and not in penitent faith. It was while he was praying at the ninth hour, which was one of the Jewish prayer times, that he had his revelation about Peter. While we have no record as to the requests made by Cornelius, the answer to his prayers was the arrival of Peter, who brought before him the truth of the person of Jesus Christ. Peter’s audience was attentive and well prepared by the Holy Spirit: "Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God" 10.33. To such an audience Peter begins to preach the gospel, 10.34-43, and the resulting blessing of salvation and baptism gives evidence to the answer to the above question, when in v.3, the man in "bright clothing" says, "Cornelius, thy prayer is heard". It is the prayer made in faith from the unbeliever that God hears.
While the next chapter of this publication will develop the complete record of the prayer life of Paul, we will look briefly at his prayers in Acts. Paul’s evaluation of prayer is seen in the fact that he was a man of prayer. His prayer at conversion shows his willingness to serve when he asks the question, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" 9.6. There from the dust of the Damascus road, he begins a lifelong dialogue with heaven. It would seem that his posture before God never changed in a lifetime. From his first conversation with heaven, on his knees, he seems to remain in that attitude through the record of Acts until at Tyre, "we kneeled down on the shore and prayed" 21.5. Kneeling to pray was a position often engaged by Paul; it is the fitting posture for an earnest, humble supplicant. Humility and intensity are evidenced in such a position before Almighty God. It is the correct attitude of a man before his God, a sinner before his Saviour and of a supplicant before his Benefactor. However, while we should always pray ‘kneeling’ with regard to our attitude before God, a Christian who only prays on his knees does not pray enough! We should note however, that in Acts prayer is often carried out when the person praying is kneeling, e.g. 7.60; 9.40; 20.36; 21.5.
One thing noticeable as we read the full prayer life of Paul through the New Testament is that while Paul was in the habit of praying, he prayed not merely by force of habit! Man is such a creature of habit that there is always the danger of doing things simply in a routine, perfunctory manner. While we must guard against this, Paul’s habit was regular and from the heart.
He began his Christian life engaged in prayer: "behold he prayeth" 9.11. He had been led to Damascus, blinded by the brightness of the revelation of Jesus Christ, and although eating nothing for three days, he was engaging in prayer. This was the encouragement given to Ananias who expressed his fear of Saul: that a man who had, no doubt, spent his life saying prayers, was now praying. This is used by the Lord to Ananias as an indication of conversion and a sign of Divine life. This fact has never changed; those who know God speak with Him. Prayer is the beginning of many spiritual exercises expressed after conversion and it is expected that every true believer engages in prayer. How else can we know the will of God for our future life if we do not, or will not ask? On this point, there is much confusion today concerning God’s will for the individual believer. Rather than have a perception of what we feel God’s will for us should be, the idea of which is foreign to the Word of God, God will reveal His will for us from His Word, if we ask. "And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" Matt.21.22.
In 22.17, Paul, as he addresses the Jews in Jerusalem, reminds them of his prayer life, "while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance". It was while he was in this condition that he received his commission from the Lord which would take him far and wide with the gospel, "Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles" 22.21. He states his credentials for preaching to the Gentile nations. This was early in his Christian life although he does not mention it until near the end, but again he shows that as a new believer he had confidence in the presence of the Lord.
We have considered Paul’s activity in prayers with others, but the record of his praying continues to the end of Acts.
From Miletus he calls the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet with him for the final time. He knows that they will very soon have to face great difficulty from within the assembly which will in time result in them being censured by Christ, Who said, "thou hast left thy first love" Rev.2.4. Paul’s deep affection for this church is seen in his two prayers for them recorded in Eph.1.15-23 and 3.14-21, where he prays firstly that they may experience Divine light and in the second prayer that they may experience Divine love. Here in Acts chapter 20 as he is about to take his leave from these beloved saints, "he kneeled down, and prayed with them all" 20.36. There is no record of the content of his prayers, but in the light of his ministry to them and the warnings that he has just given, his heart must have been filled with concern for their pending difficulties, and so with weeping and affection (even after his ministry to them) the Ephesian elders accompany Paul to the ship, no doubt with his prayers on their behalf still in their minds. What a memory to have of the apostle, whom they would never see again in this life, not only his preaching, but his final prayer for them.
There is a similar situation at Tyre when the apostle spends seven days with the disciples there. It is interesting that the words "finding disciples" 21.4, gives the idea of searching them out. This is an expression of Paul’s wish to be with the Lord’s people, even when travelling. At the end of his time with the saints there is a lovely expression of fellowship when, "they all brought us on our way, with wives and children, till we were out of the city" 21.5. This is a display of the affection that the Christians felt for the apostle. It is quite possible that the believers in Tyre had never met Paul or any of his party, yet the bonds of Christian fellowship are evident. Once again, as with the Ephesian elders, there is a time of prayer with the believers on the shore, "and we kneeled down on the shore, and prayed" 21.5. What a testimony in a busy seaport to have a public prayer meeting!
The public testimony of the apostle is again evidenced on the ship en route to Italy when he took bread and, "gave thanks to God in presence of them all" 27.35. He had just assured them of their safety in the storm and shows his gratitude to God for the provision of the food. Here he sets an example of freedom from fear by his trust in God to bring them alive through the storm and subsequent shipwreck.
The final reference to the prayer life of Paul in Acts is on the island of Malta when the father of Publius, the chief man of the island, was sick. Bearing in mind that Luke was with the group on the island, it would seem that the medical problem was of a severe nature and beyond the medical cures of the day. Paul, in the presence of the sick man, prays, lays his hands on him and the cure is effected. The cure is instantaneous and complete; not by Paul’s power but by the power of God, through prayer. This is another unique example of apostolic power, which was for the occasion and has no precedent today.
While Paul would in many occasions in his life be bound and imprisoned, the enemies of the gospel could never bind his prayers, and so from the house of Judas in a street called Straight in Damascus until his last recorded words before his death, his confidence in his God is evident. First in his attitude as a new believer speaking in prayer to a God that he had, until the moment of conversion, never known, and ultimately as a faithful servant about to be slain when he could say, "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge shall give me at that day" 2Tim.4.8. His confidence in his God was born from a relationship that developed over years of Paul continually accessing God’s Holy presence and having dialogue with God.
While we consider Paul’s prayers in Acts, we note that all were answered, howbeit at times in ways that may not have been expected.
It may be argued that the word "prayer" is not used in the conversation between Ananias and the Lord with regard to Saul. However, we note that Ananias was comfortable in speaking to the Lord, which would point to the fact that this type of communication was not extraordinary for him.
God has his servants everywhere. Here at Damascus was a quiet, unsung believer of whom we would never have heard, had it not been for the fact that he was used to being in the presence of the Lord. He comes onto the page, carries out his Divine instruction, and leaves the page never to be heard of again. He is ready for service, "Behold, I am here, Lord" 9.10, albeit rather reticent when he knows to whom he must go. However, he has confidence in his Lord and moves as instructed, "And Ananias went his way" 9.17, and so the blessing starts to flow. It is interesting to see the overseeing hand of God in His work, which is evident again in this situation. As in the experience of Peter and Cornelius, God is in conversation with Ananias at the same time as Saul is praying, so both the attitude and the circumstances of both parties are such that they come together as ordered by God.
One point to take from this record is the obedience of the servant. This endorses the claim that Ananias was a man in touch with God. While somewhat fearful because of the reputation of Saul of Tarsus, and the possibility that he himself was one of the targets of Saul’s visit to Damascus, he obeys the instruction of the Lord. He goes, even though his journey would have been at the farthest, just across the city! Nothing spectacular for him; another was going to "bear My Name before the Gentiles" 9.15, but willingly he serves.
- Lord of every thought and action,
- Lord to send and Lord to stay;
- Lord in speaking, writing, giving,
- Lord in all things to obey.
- (Author unknown)
We have seen that the Church of the living God, started with prayer, and continued in this dependence on Christ throughout the period described in Acts. The only recorded prayer in Acts that was not answered was Simon the sorcerer’s request to Peter to pray for him. Therefore we learn the importance of prayer in the life of the early believers forming the local church in their particular areas. We in our day cannot belittle the need to continue to pray. The only spiritual difference we have from the early Church days is that we have the complete record of Holy Scripture, which they did not have.
This only makes us more responsible to be obedient to the Word of God. As we study the Scripture we know that God commands us to pray; we have no choice in the matter. God is our Father so shouldn’t we be in regular conversation? Prayer is miraculous. Mortal, finite men being able to speak with the Almighty God, and be heard by Him while at the same time there are thousands of praying fellow-believers making their requests known! Like those in Acts, we need to learn that praying is a way of life. While we do pray in emergency situations, and on occasions have long requests that we present, an active prayer life is more than these things. Prayer has always sustained Christians. They have always recognised prayer to be as important as the air that they breathe. Without prayer, spiritual life withers and dies and no relationship with God can be considered possible without an active regular prayer fellowship. Martin Luther wrote, "Though I am sinful and unworthy, still I have the commandment of God, telling me to pray, and His promise, that He will graciously hear me, not on account of my worthiness, but on account of the Lord Jesus Christ."
There have always been questions, difficulties and trials to challenge the saints as they try to pray. Sometimes we find the greatness of God hard to grasp, but prayer is real and marvellous as we commune with the Almighty God Who is available to hear our cries. We must never forget this and try to bring God into our own system of thought, as though He was a man.
We need the spirit of prayer today. Spiritual vitality only comes through persistent prayer, like it was in the days of Acts. Pray with confidence and assurance, making our petitions for others and ourselves, because we know of Whom we ask. Coming in faith to God through our Lord Jesus Christ we will be heard. However, in our day should we be asking, as did the disciples, "Lord, teach us to pray" Lk.11.1?
- What various hindrances we meet
- In coming to the mercy seat!
- Yet who that knows the worth of prayer,
- But wishes to be often there?
- Prayer makes the darken’d cloud withdraw,
- Prayer climbs the ladder Jacob saw,
- Gives exercise to faith and love,
- Brings every blessing from above.
- Restraining prayer, we cease to fight;
- Prayer makes the Christian’s armour bright;
- And Satan trembles when he sees
- The weakest saint upon his knees.
- While Moses stood with arms spread wide,
- Success was found on Israel’s side;
- But when through weariness they fail’d,
- That moment Amalek prevailed.
- Have you no words? Ah, think again,
- Words flow apace when you complain,
- And fill your fellow-creature’s ear
- With the sad tale of all your care.
- Were half the breath thus vainly spent
- To heaven in supplication sent,
- Your cheerful song would oftener be,
- Hear what the Lord has done for me.
- (William Cowper)