"What the Early Church Learned about Prayer"
Jan.4/09 Acts 12:1-19 / various
The New Year is an excellent time to look at the subject of prayer, as we make plans and resolutions. But it's NOT such an ideal time in that it follows close upon Christmas. In this regard prayer may mistakenly succumb to the 'Santa syndrome'. In the malls in December, parents line up with their children so they can sit on Santa's knee and tell him what they want for Christmas. Even for us older folks - this year we did much of our Christmas shopping online, and it was very helpful that our grown kids submitted their 'wish lists'.
Many people probably approach praying to God with much the same mindset as they would Santa's knee - put in your request and wait expectantly. But that's a secular framework, not a Biblical one. The 'Santa syndrome' puts the supplicant (the person making the request) in the driver's seat, as if they're placing an order. Communication with the sovereign, almighty, all-wise Creator and Sustainer of the universe happens with a different dynamic. Whose will is most important; whose plans take priority? Look at Jesus' most earnest prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, hours before his gruesome crucifixion. Even the Son of God does not order the Father around, but along with His request, "Take this cup from Me," He adds, "Yet not what I will, but what You will."
David hints at something of the right attitude in the very short Psalm 131(1-2): "My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me."
Santa's knee is not a place children are usually expected to be quiet and content, but demanding. Yet the Bible offers the image of a tiny tot leaning contentedly and trustingly against its mother. Our grandson Isaiah is one-and-a-half, about the age the Psalmist was talking about. This week I have seen him playing quietly (at times!) with one or the other of his parents, quietly trusting they're going to provide him with everything good he needs to grow and thrive. Can we be trusting the Lord with that for us as we come in prayer?
When we unwrap our presents, we often use a sharp kitchen knife to slit open the tape so we can re-use the paper next year. Last December Isaiah was pretty stationary; but since then he's learned to walk, and is now capable of zooming all over the house. More than once we had to dissuade him from reaching for that sharp knife we were using for the unwrapping! Another time he was about to tip up a big mug that was full of Grandad's hot coffee - again we had to find alternatives. Isaiah's still learning what's OK to touch and what's not. So our divine heavenly Father knows much better than we do what is safe and good for us to get our hands on in the long run, and what's harmful. He may have to say 'no' because what's bright and shiny in our eyes could really be destructive. Science is great as far as it goes, but faith helps us accept the mystery that there are things 'too wonderful for me' that are best left to the Father's discretion.
CS Lewis wrote, "Prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them." And: "I must often be glad that certain past prayers of my own were not granted."
Our church leaders have designated this coming week as one to 'Start the Year with Prayer'. This involves special gatherings as church members in each other's homes. For this message, I did a word search through the New Testament for variants of the word 'pray' - 159 occurrences; I chose to concentrate on the early church's prayer experience, leaving the occurrences in the gospels for another time. The early church had much to pray about - direction was needed and persecution threatened, among other crises. Their experiences highlights broadly 3 things about prayer: Prayer COMMITS, prayer CONNECTS, and prayer CHANGES.
The apostles obviously picked from Jesus the importance of prayer; He was an example of prayer, He prayed so regularly that one day, Luke says (11:1), they approached Him when he finished and asked Him to teach them to pray - at which time He gave the model or template of the Lord's Prayer. So after Jesus' death and resurrection, they made prayer a PRIORITY. In the upper room, Luke records in Acts 1 "They all joined together constantly in prayer..." (Ac 1:14) Before they chose a replacement to take Judas' place, they prayed (Ac 1:24). After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Luke sums up the early disciples' experience this way: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." (Ac 2:42)
A few chapters later, when the number of believers is increasing dramatically and an administrative pinch is being felt, the apostles resist the temptation to focus their energy on ordinary management an church government. What is it the Twelve say when they appoint deacons? We "will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."" (Ac 6:4)
When important decisions are made, the church routinely sought God's direction in prayer. For example, when Paul and Barnabas are sent off on their first missionary journey, we read of the leaders of the church at Antioch, "So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off." (Ac 13:3)
Notice the mention of fasting in connection with prayer. We encourage you ths coming week to forego something as God leads in order to help focus your energy on prayer. It may be food - dessert or even a meal; or it may be something that risks becoming an idol for you, such as TV or shopping or a particular pastime the earthly side of you feels you 'can't get enough of' yet may not be of much eternal value. The New Testament isn't very detailed or demanding on the subject of fasting, but it is apparent that spiritual leaders did practise it on occasion. Another example, when the missionary journeys bore fruit and young congregations were born: "Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust." (Ac 14:23) Fasting indicates something of the importance or priority of prayer: thus we declare God's sovereignty over such basic things as our daily bread.
In several of his letters, Paul emphasizes the priority of prayer. To the Romans he says, "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." (Ro 12:12) To those at Colosse, "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful." (Col 4:2) To Timothy, "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone" and "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing." (1Tim 2:1,8) Note the integration of prayer and daily life - holy hands are seen as indispensable to effective praying. Likewise Peter warns husbands they'd better treat their wives well, with respect as the finer vessel and co-heirs of grace, "so that nothing will hinder your prayers." How we treat others isn't compartmentalized away from our audience with God in place where we pray: He sees it all! Even the lesser-known apostle Jude advises, "But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit." (Jude 1:20)
With the turn of the year, if you're like me, you took your new datebook or calendar and went through and wrote on important upcoming events and appointments - birthdays, anniversaries, visits to the doctor, EMC's National Assembly, family vacations, and so on. What's important to us we make time for. In most Christian families, one basic distinctive is setting apart time before meals to say grace. That's just a habit in our household when we sit down together for a meal. Even our non-believing relatives have come to expect and accept this, whatever their initial reactions; and so it's a not-too-blatant form of witness.
At supper one night, a 7-year-old named Brad asked why his dad thanked God before eating food that had come from the grocery store. The father picked up a roll and asked, "Where did this come from?" Brad said, "From the store." "Where did they get it?" "I dunno.From the bakery?" "Where did they get it?" "They made it." "From what?" asked the father. "From flour." "Where did that come from?" "From wheat." "Where did the wheat come from?" "The farmers." "And where did the farmer get it?" Brad said, "He grew it." "From what?" "Seed." "And who made the seed?" Brad said, "God, I guess." "And that," said the Father, "Is why we thank Him."
What's true of that roll and seed is true of our whole life: from Him and through Him and to Him are all things (Rom 11:36). So it's no surprise the New Testament writers urge us to set aside time to pray. Paul wrote, "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints." (Eph 6:18) To the church at Thessalonica he urged, "Pray continually;" (in the KJV, "Pray without ceasing" - never completely wind it down!)(1Th 5:17). Peter put time in perspective by saying, "The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray." (1Pe 4:7) There self-control isn't seen as a virtue just for its own merit, but as an aid to our basic activity of prayer; keeping in a clear-minded self-controlled state hints that all our time and actions need to be brought under Jesus' control, so we can connect with Him.
The early church did not build church buildings at first; they met in the Temple, in synagogues, and at each others' homes. Where there were no religious facilities connected to the Jewish faith, they pressed other locations into service so they could meet and pray. For example, when Paul and Luke visit the Roman colony of Philippi which has no synagogue, they hunted around for a place to meet and prayer with brothers and sisters in Christ. Luke records, "On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there." (Ac 16:13) A few verses later he tells of another occasion, "Once when we were going to the place of prayer… (Ac 16:16) Prayer takes a place. In the case of individuals, Jesus advised us to not pray out on a street corner to be seen like hypocrites, but to "go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen." (Mt 6:6) But He also recommended people get together on prayer matters, saying that "if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven." (Mt 18:19) To pray together as a group requires a place.
Prayer COMMITS, it' s a priority, requiring us to set aside time and space; prayer also CONNECTS, on the earthly level and with heaven. The early church became conscious that, although the congregations and missionaries were separated by large distances geographically, their prayer life drew them together in a special way. A sort of space-warping solidarity. Paul could say, "I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me." (Ro 15:30) He expressed confident hope to the Corinthians that God would continue to deliver Paul "as you help us by your prayers.Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many." (2Co 1:11) Get the bonding going on there? Missionary's crisis - church prays - missionary is delivered - many church folk are encouraged and give thanks as a result.
One of Paul's co-workers from Colosse had a particular burden for his home congregation and, through separated physically by distance, used prayer to fight for them spiritually. Listen to the interesting way this active solidarity is described. Paul wrote to the Colossians: "Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings.He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured." (Col 4:12) Prayer connected the early church with one another.
Prayer also made the early Christians conscious of their newfound relationship with God the Father and the Lord Jesus at His right hand, through prayer in the Spirit. Prayer is after all an approach to God's throne. The apostles witnessed Jesus turning His problems and threats over to the Father regularly, and receiving help. The author of Hebrews wrote, "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission." (Heb 5:7)
Peter reminded the church using the words of Psalm 34 that God gives His attention to those who trust in Him: "For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."" (1Pe 3:12)
But it is John who, in the last book of the Bible, describes most clearly how the churches' prayers here on earth find expression in the very throneroom of God. He describes heavenly worship in chapters 5 & 8 - listen for what the incense actually represents: "...the four living creatures and the 24 elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints." (Re 5:8) … "Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand." (Re 8:3f) Your prayer may not seem to go far - but if it's from a sincere and repentant heart, it is heard; the Lord delights to respond to those who call on Him. He hears when no one else understands. His word says, "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you." (1Pe 5:7)
Prayer commits; prayer connects; and prayer CHANGES, first of all circumstances, but also us. The early church had some exciting examples of answered prayer that involved miracles taking place.
In Acts 12, Herod arrests and kills the apostle James brother of John, then proceeds to arrest Peter with the intention of trying and executing him too. The church calls an emergency prayer meeting, "earnestly praying to God for him." (Ac 12:5) In one of God's most startling and specific interventions in Scripture, an angel wakes and delivers Peter, passing safely through two sets of guards and a locked iron gate. Where does Peter go as soon as he realizes he's free? To let the people know at the prayer vigil! "When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying." (Ac 12:12) In a humorous twist, the maid leaves him standing at the door, and the church at first doesn't believe the answer to their prayers is standing right outside.
On other occasions God answers prayer by changing circumstances dramatically. One time Paul & Silas were locked in a dungeon at Philippi. But God knew where they were and heard what they were doing. Acts 16(25) says, "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them." A violent earthquake ensues, all the prison doors fly open, and everybody's chains come loose. Nice work! However the apostles don't let the jailer kill himself and run for it; they calm him, reassure him, and tell him the good news so he and his household are saved. Other chains were coming off than just the prison fetters!
James, author of a most practical letter to the early church, told believers who were sick to call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them, "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." He then gave the example of Elijah whose prayers signalled the end of three years of drought. Prayer can change circumstances as God responds in His will, healing people, forgiving them, and delivering nations from hardship. (Jas 5:14ff)
But sometimes we don't see the outward events change in accord with what we ask for. God's purpose for us is not that we have it easy, but that we become mature in Christ; What makes us mature? James, ever the practical one, says trials and testing develop perseverance, and "Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." (Jas 1:4) So sometimes the change that needs to take place is not the outward circumstances; what prayer needs to change is US.
When the early church encountered persecution right back there in Jerusalem, they did not pray to be marvelously exempted from the slander and unjust treatment. What did they ask for? "Sovereign Lord,' they said, 'you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them... [Note how they acknowledge God is sovereign - not Santa!] Now, Lord, consider their threats [the authorities] and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (Ac 4:24,29f) Did they forget something? They didn't ask for the threats to be taken away! Did God hear them and approve? "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." (Ac 4:31) The transformation didn't happen OUT THERE, but inside, in them, strengthening them to cope with the hardship.
Another example would be Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' which he pleaded with God 3 times to take away. The Lord declined, saying instead, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." How did Paul take that? He found power to cope - saying in effect about difficulties, "Bring 'em on!" Christ's power resting on him, he says, "is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2Co 12:7ff) God didn't change the thorn: He brought Paul to the throne.
So when we are upset about things, we can choose to be obedient to Paul's counsel - "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." (Php 4:6) Whether or not the outward circumstances change, we can experience Christ's peace and power bolstering and calming us.
In closing, another quote from CS Lewis highlighting that prayer isn't about a transaction - getting something in response to a request - but about relationship, encountering God as He really is, the One we are growing into by His grace. Lewis wrote: "Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary--not necessarily the most important one--from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is." How can we hesitate or be reluctant to want that? Let's pray!