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Principles for a Powerful Prayer Meeting (Part I)

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Acts 4:23-31

Principles for a Powerful Prayer Meeting

(Part I)

“When [Peter and John] were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.  And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

‘Why did the Gentiles rage,

and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers were gathered together,

against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

“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 plan had predestined to take place.  And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’  And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”[1]

T

he first disciples asked God for boldness in their speech.  Just as they sought divine boldness in their speech, so they were bold in their prayers.  Unfortunately, modern Christians have often confused brashness for boldness.  For, though many are brash and demanding of God, few Christians pray with boldness.

Too often we have observed some of God’s professed people who attempt to order the devil about, calling their efforts prayer.  At other times, I have listened to some among the professed people of God demand that God accede to their demands.  Such demands are infantile at best, designed primarily to impress the unthinking.  Boldness in prayer is seizing upon the promises of God and refusing to let go.

We have seen many promises concerning prayer in the previous weeks.  Among those promises is that which is recorded in John 14:13, 14.  Recall the promise of the Lord.  “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

As we unpacked that promise in an earlier message, we saw that our Lord has committed Himself to answer His children if we petition the Father in Christ’s Name, placing ourselves in the position of accepting what Christ would give, and if we seek the glory of the Father in the Son.  In other words, we are to seek God’s glory in all things.

A congregation must commit itself to united prayer if it is to witness the power of God.  However, we might well ask what is necessary to have a powerful prayer meeting.  Perhaps we have witnessed at some time gatherings that said prayers, though having scant impact on the advance of the Faith.  None of us would be willing to settle for such mediocrity.  Therefore, we must seek to be effective in our united prayers.

What conditions must be met in order to ensure a powerful prayer meeting?  No finer instruction concerning the principles underlying a powerful prayer meeting can be found than to review the events recorded in Acts 4:23-31.  Join me, then, in exploring the Word of God to discover the principles for a powerful prayer meeting.

Prayer!  The First Response — When a need is apparent, or when anticipating a need that may arise at some future point, the people of God should first look to God.  Tragically, the first response too often among the churches of our Lord is to call a meeting to discuss the need and to determine what human resources may be available.

I confess that I do not watch too much television.  However, when I do watch the tube, I find the advertisements are often more humorous than is the programming that is provided.  Perhaps producers should hire advertising agencies to write their scripts.  Among the current ads that I find somewhat humorous is one promoting a major courier company.  In the present series of ads, two individuals are trying to find a way to expedite sending a parcel from their location in Canada to Germany.  In that particular ad, the two men decide that it is impossible.  This gives the courier company opportunity with a voice over to tell how efficient they are at delivering packages internationally.  In the second ad in this series, the same two have called in a woman representing senior management.  She reviews the need and after pondering the challenge, suggests that the team break into groups.

In much the same way, whenever Christians face a need within a congregation, we seem naturally to look first to the denomination to which we are attached, hoping that some powerful individual within the denomination will supply our need.  I served as an interim pastor for one congregation that indeed had some great needs.  Throughout the entire first year, the automatic response of the deacons to every challenge we faced as we grew was to recommend that we phone denominational headquarters for help.  They had been nursed for such a long time that they were incapable of self-dependence, and they did not think of seeking the face of God.

Perhaps it will be helpful for us to review how this prayer meeting came to be.  Peter and John had gone up to the Temple to pray.  As they were entering the Temple compound through the Beautiful Gate, they encountered a man who was over forty years of age begging for alms.  This man had been crippled since birth.  Peter, in the Name of Jesus the Messiah, lifted the man to his feet and he was healed.

Dancing and shouting praises to God, the man attracted a crowd wondering what was going on.  Peter, seizing the opportunity of people seeking an explanation of what was happening, declared that the man, known to all of them, was now in perfect health, as was obvious to all that were present that day.  He continued by calling on the people to believe the message of life through faith in Jesus, the Risen Messiah [Acts 3:1-26].

Sadducees, coming upon the commotion, were “greatly annoyed” that the two men were “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” [Acts 4:2], and they therefore hailed them before the Sanhedrin.

Peter boldly declared that though the Council had crucified Jesus, God had raised Him from the dead.  “Find fault with us if you will,” Peter contended, “but how do you explain that this man now stands before you in perfect health.”  He continued by boldly declaring to these learned scholars, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other Name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12].

The Council was nonplused.  They could say nothing against the healing, and nothing against the fact that it was through the man Jesus, whom they had crucified, that the man was said to be standing before them.  Nevertheless, in an effort to stop the spread of claims that Jesus was alive, they warned them against speaking anymore in His Name.  Peter and John were united in their response, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” [Acts 4:19, 20].

The members of the Sanhedrin issued further threats, and then they released the two Apostles.

Here, the text begins.  Upon release, they went to their friends—they went to the church.  There, they reported all that the chief priests and the Council had said to them.  Upon hearing the threats and understanding the danger of obedience to God, the congregation united in prayer.

How will they pray?  Perhaps we would imagine that they will be cowed by the threats of those who had power to do them harm.  Make no mistake, the disciples faced real danger.  The threats, coming from the highest civil authority—the Council—had the force of law.  Therefore, the disciples did not attempt to laugh off the threats.  Fear of danger drove them to God for His help.

Instead of being frightened into no action at all, they sought God’s intervention.  As an aside of considerable importance, you must know that obedience to Christ in the midst of a hostile environment will be costly.  Facing threats and opposition today, many among the professed people of God retreat, growing silent and subservient to those who issue the threats.  However, if we know our God, we will continue to do right and leave the consequences to Him.

Those gathered to hear the report from the two Apostles prayed fervently, knowledgeably, submissively, in unity and powerfully.  These elements of corporate prayer move the hand of God.

Modern Christians organise too much, and agonise too little.  When did you last see the church spontaneously pray?  Tragically, contemporary churches have become positively Laodicean in the expression of our faith.  Believing ourselves sufficient for every exigency, we seldom feel ourselves compelled to seek the face of God.  We say prayers in a perfunctory manner, but prevailing prayer as a congregation is foreign to us.

Though such statements embarrass some among us, making them feel badly, the situations confronting us as a congregation demand a spiritual response which is lacking in modern church life.  Undoubtedly, some will imagine that I am speaking directly to them and take umbrage because they believe that I am addressing them.  Such people need to take immediate steps to correct the deficit of their lives.

I have nothing in view other than the certainty that the people of God are weakened and impoverished through our failure to turn to God when opposed in our service to God.  I seek only to encourage the people of God to return to the position our forefathers once adopted of acknowledging our weakness and seeking God’s strength.

Faced by the challenges arising from opposition to service before the Lord, the people of God must seek the strength of God.  Preparing for a study of the letters of the Risen Christ to the seven churches of Asia, I noted something that had escaped my attention in previous studies.  In Revelation 3:8, I noted that the Son of God said, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.  I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied My Name.”

As I studied that verse in the original language, I noted a word that the conjunction hóti, usually translated “because,” was not translated.  The language implies that the Master set an open door before the church because the church had little prestige in the community, and yet they had kept His word and had not denied His Name.  The more literal translation of the verse would read, “I have set before you an` open door, which no one is able to shut, because you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied My Name.”

The church of Philadelphia merited Christ’s commendation because they seized what He had given instead of relying upon their own strength.  The congregation stands in contrast to the Church of Laodicea which received the Lord’s condemnation because they relied on what they had instead of what Christ had given.

The Church of Philadelphia was despised in the community because they were neither influential nor prestigious; however, the name of the Philadelphian church was known in the sacred precincts of heaven.  The Laodicean Church sought respect in the community; but their name was mentioned with sorrow in heaven.  The Church of Philadelphia sought God’s face, and thus was pleasing to Him.  The Church of Laodicea walked in their own strength, and thus displeased the Master.

The God Who Hears Prayer — When Peter and John reported all that had been said in the chambers of the Council, the congregation began to pray spontaneously.  The language used leads me to conclude that though it is possible that all were praying in concert, it is more likely that one individual voiced the prayer on behalf of the congregation and the others agreed in perfect unity as they followed the words uttered.

One scholar commenting on this verse, has written, “The words … are clearly not a general and fixed form of prayer, but refer definitely to the special circumstances.  We may therefore suppose them to be uttered by some one Apostle, the rest of those present assenting to them, and possibly audibly joining in the well-known words of the Psalm.”[2]

The Greek term that is translated “together” (homothumadòn), occurs frequently in the Acts, but is used only once elsewhere in the New Testament.  This is a strong word, implying that they acted in concert, with one impulse.  All that were present were on the same page.  Perhaps we can gain the perspective of the early congregations by noting several instances where this word is used of the congregations.

In Acts 1:14, we note that the 120 disciples gathered in the Upper Room in obedience to the Master’s instruction that they were to wait in Jerusalem.  There, they were “with one accord devoting themselves to prayer.”  In Acts 2:46, those who were members of the initial congregation attended the Temple as one—together, “day by day.”  At the Jerusalem Conference, when the Apostles and elders of the Jerusalem Church declared that salvation was not to be tied to the Law, they sent a letter to the Gentile churches declaring that they had come to one mind [Acts 15:25].

The final occurrence of this word as applied to the churches is found in a prayer Paul offered up for the Christians in Rome.  In Romans 15:5, 6 the Apostle petitions God, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The will of God is that a church be marked by one heart and speak with one voice.  Unlike too many modern churches, among the apostolic churches, the people were unified, seeking harmony internally before they faced their foes.  They sought and prized unity as a congregation.

The believers address their prayer to the God who hears prayer [Psalm 65:2]; their address to Him reveals an attitude that is too often lacking as the people of God pray.  They prayed to the “Sovereign Lord,” the Greek term is Despótes.  Again, this is not a common title for God in Scripture, but the title emphasises the complete ownership God exercises over His servants.  This is the way in which Simeon addressed God after he had seen the infant Jesus brought into the Temple [Luke 2:29].  This is the address used by the Tribulation saints when they cry out to God for justice [Revelation 6:10].  In the little book that bears his name, Jude speaks of Jesus as our Despótes.  He warns against “ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master [Despótes] and Lord, Jesus Christ” [Jude 4].

The disciples understood their relationship with God to be that of a slave to his master.  They were acknowledging that God has the right of a Master over His servant.  As a Christian, you do not belong to another, but you must answer to God.  In the first Corinthian letter, Paul asserts, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” [1 Corinthians 6:19].  Whatever task the Master assigns you within the Body of Christ, He expects you to fulfil that responsibility as His servant.  He calls you to complete obedience.  He has the right over your life and your conduct because He is Creator—the One who “made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them.”

The prayer that is recorded is a model for powerful prayer.  First, the disciples gave thanks for deliverance, acknowledging that God gave His Apostles freedom.  “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,

and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers were gathered together,

against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

“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 plan had predestined to take place.”

The disciples affirmed their conviction that God is Creator.  Dr. McGee is likely correct when he says, “The church is not sure today.  The church is fumbling; it has lost its power.  The church is always talking of methods, always trying this gimmick and that gimmick to attract people.  The church in suburbia and the church in downtown are little more than religious clubs.  The church is not a powerhouse anymore.”[3]

After giving thanks for setting the Apostles free from the hand of the Council, the disciples prayed.  Their request is recorded in verses 29 and 30.  They specifically asked for boldness as they witnessed, knowing that God would continue to heal and to perform “signs and wonders.”  In short, they prayed that God would be glorified through their service in His Name.  God delights to receive such prayers.

Perhaps we would expect the disciples to ask for further deliverance.  He had delivered them from the hands of their captors, and now they faced even greater danger if they were obedient to God’s command to testify to His grace and power to save.  Instead, these godly men and women ask for more of the same.  Interestingly enough, the disciples do not ask for power over their enemies.  Instead, they ask for even more of the demonstration of God’s mercies to attest to the veracity of their witness.

The disciples’ prayer calls for the preached word to be accompanied by healing and “signs and wonders” in the Name of Jesus, though these are performed directly by God’s hand, and not through human “power or piety” [see Acts 3:12].  This explains why the Council’s injunction against such deeds is futile.  The Council tried to obstruct God’s own work.  This is also the reason why the obedient witness cannot be suppressed.

In asking God to heal, the disciples know that it will bring more opposition.  God, through Peter and John, had healed the lame man.  The result of this kindness was opposition and resistance.  The healing did not deliver them from danger; it provoked danger!  On the other hand, it was the healed man loudly proclaiming God’s mercies and goodness that provided opportunity to declare all that God was doing.  Therefore, the community prayed for more signs to attend the preached Word and more boldness to proclaim that Word.  They surely knew that the result would be more persecution.[4]

The point is sufficiently important to be stressed for your edification.  The disciples did not ask for protection; they asked for power.  They did not ask for God to destroy their enemies; they asked for power to preach the Word and to heal the sick.  They longed for boldness in the face of opposition.  The emphasis of their prayer is on the hand of God at work in the life of the church, not the hand of man at work for God.  Believing prayer releases God’s power and enables God’s hand to move for His people.

Prayer that Moves the Hand of God — Warren Wiersbe writes, “The greatest concentration of power in Jerusalem that day was in the prayer meeting that followed the trial.”[5]  I wonder if we truly believe that the church at prayer is a demonstration of power.  My reason for wondering about this is that the church spends so little time at prayer.  Whenever the call for prayer is issued, one must wonder why such a few people come.  Announce a church fight, and the house will be full.  Announce a prayer meeting, and one can have the pick of any seat in the house.

Nevertheless, there is prayer that moves the hand of God.  The elements of such prayer are witnessed in the text.  It will be particularly helpful for us to review what is written in order to crystallise the type of prayer that ensures power and that blesses all who participate.  I observe at least four elements of the prayer meeting that day after Peter and John returned to the church.

The prayer was born of witness and service for the Lord.  Had the Apostles not been doing what God commanded them to do when they healed the lame man, they never would have had a conflict with the Council.  In effect, Peter and John had just come in from the trenches where they were serving God.  The church met to pray in order to defeat the enemy.  Understand that the Council was not the enemy, but the Council was at war with God because they were under the control of the enemy.

The disciples cited the Second Psalm in agreement with the Word of the Lord that “the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Anointed.”  In quoting this Psalm, they are saying quite plainly that everyone who does not submit himself to Christ is making war against God.  Though mankind rarely thinks in these terms, it is nevertheless true.  God rules in His Son alone, and if we refuse to obey the Lord Jesus, as Christ Himself said, “Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him” [John 5:23].

The congregation was marked by a sense of urgency as they prayed.  It is a tragedy of unimaginable proportion that churches today simply fail to pray; and when they do pray, there is seldom a sense of urgency.  Perhaps this is because God’s people no longer are aware of the peril facing them.  Most of us are comfortable in our Christian walk, and hence we are unaware of any danger.  If more of God’s people were witnessing to the lost, and demonstrating the power of God through compassionate service to broken humanity, there would be more urgency, and there would be more blessing when the church did meet to pray.

The prayer meeting revealed unity among the saints.  The NET Bible translates the 24th verse, “they raised their voices to God with one mind.”[6]  The people were of one heart and of one mind, and God was pleased to answer the request from a people exhibiting such unity.  The community took seriously the requirement to seek unity in all things within the church.  Division in the church always hinders prayer and robs the church of spiritual power.

Their praying was based solidly on the Word of God.  I am struck by the manner in which this prayer is suffused with the Word of God.  As they begin praying, they refer to Exodus 20:11, where God is exalted as the One who made “heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them” in six days.  The words could as well be a reference to the sixth verse of the 146th Psalm.  They also make reference to Isaiah 61:1, where the prophet has the Messiah saying that the Lord anointed Him to bring good news to the poor.  Those praying cite precisely the opening verses of the Second Psalm from the Septuagint version of Scripture.

The Word of God and prayer always go together.  Jesus promised, “If you abide in Me, and My Word abides in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” [John 15:6].  In the Word, God speaks to us and reveals His will for us.  In prayer, we speak to Him and make ourselves available to do His will in us and through us.  This is John’s meaning when he instructs readers, “this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” [1 John 5:14, 15].  Prayer that honours God seeks to ensure that God’s will is done on earth, not man’s will in heaven.

The disciples sought what God had already promised to give.  They did not pray either to have their circumstances changed or to put their enemies out of office.  Rather, they asked God to empower them to make the best use of their circumstances and to accomplish what He had already determined [Acts 4:28].[7]

Notice that the 30th verse is actually a confident assumption of what will accompany God’s answer to their request for boldness.  Perhaps the reason we see so little of God’s power is that we seek the miracles without asking for the boldness.  There can be no doubt that God longs to work powerfully through His people, if they will first obey what He has commanded.

Some, reading these words, might be tempted to imagine that the disciples were fatalistic.  However, they were actually realistic.  They were demonstrating faith in the Lord of history who has a perfect plan and who is always victorious.  They asked for Him to make them equal to the task facing them; and God gave them the power they needed.

Phillips Brooks was right when he wrote, “Do not pray for easy lives.  Pray to be stronger men and women.  Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers.  Pray for powers equal to your tasks.”  That is the way the Christians prayed in the apostolic church; and that is the way God’s people should aspire to pray today.

The disciples asked for boldness.  God heard their request and granted what they asked.  The final verse of the text reads, “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”  It is worth noting that with the answered prayer came also greater unity than they had previously known [Acts 4:32a] and a greater desire to sacrifice and share with one another [Acts 4:32b].  They also enjoyed “great power” and “great grace” [Acts 4:33] which are unquestionably marks of a great church.  The result was a harvest of souls.

The church that prays according to the template provided in the Word of God is a church that will witness unprecedented power, and it is a church that will see many souls coming to life in the Risen Son of God.  The church that fails to pray will mark time; and though that congregation may congratulate herself that God is with her, they shall never see the glory of the Lord in their presence.

The Name of Jesus has not lost its power; but many of God’s people have lost their power because they have stopped praying to the Sovereign Lord.  The statement that once was common among the churches of our Lord is still true: “Nothing lies beyond the reach of prayer except that which lies outside the will of God.”

Bold prayer is prayer that arises from a heart that is walking with the Lord.  Bold prayer is virtually unknown in this day.  Whenever I think of bold prayer, I recall an account of prayer that comes from the life of Martin Luther.

“In 1540 Luther’s good friend, Frederick Myconius, became deathly sick.  He himself and others expected that he would die within a short time.  One night he wrote with a trembling hand a fond farewell to Luther, whom he loved very much.

“When Luther received the letter, he sent back the following reply immediately, ‘I command thee in the name of God to live because I still have need of thee in the work of reforming the church.  …  The Lord will never let me hear that thou are dead, but will permit thee to survive me.  For this I am praying, this is my will, and may my will be done, because I seek only to glorify the name of God.’

Myconius had already lost the faculty of speech when Luther’s letter came, but in a short time, he was well again.  And, true enough, survived Luther by two months.”[8]

My prayer is that God will raise up a generation of men and women who pray.  This congregation has the opportunity to accomplish some great thing for the Lord.  However, until we unite our hearts and our minds in prayer, seeking the boldness God has promised to give, little shall be accomplished.  We can either mark time, or we can commit ourselves to see the glory of the Lord in our presence.  May He unite us in a spirit of prayer, and through us accomplish His will.  Amen.


----

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Thomas Ethelbert Page, The Acts of the Apostles (Macmillan, London, 1886) 106

[3] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible, Vol. IV (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN 1983) 529

[4] See John B. Polhill, Acts: New American Commentary, Volume 26 (Broadman & Holman, Nashville, TN 2001) 148

[5] Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: Volume 1 (Victor Books, Wheaton, IL 1989) 418

[6] NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press 2006)

[7] Wiersbe, ibid.

[8] O. Hallesby, Prayer (Augsburg, Minneapolis, MN 1931) 130–1

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