************ Sermon on Acts 2:42-47; 4:23-31 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on September 20, 2015
Acts 2:42-47; 4:23-31
"Devoted to Prayer"
This is now the fifth sermon on the state of the early church. Remember what we have looked at so far? We looked at how, filled with the Spirit, she devoted herself to the apostles' teaching; we looked at how she devoted herself to fellowship with God in worship; we looked at how she devoted herself to a fellowship of caring and sharing with each other; and we looked at how she devoted herself to the breaking of bread. Today we look at how, filled with the Spirit, she devoted herself to prayer.
It should be obvious that their Christian faith was a day-to-day reality, not a once-a-week routine. They met daily (Acts 2:46), won souls daily (Acts 2:47; 16:5), and searched the Scriptures daily (Acts 17:11). They were devoted Christians.
Don't forget the result of all this devotion: filled with the Spirit, the early church was unified, magnified, and multiplied. She was this way because she cooperated with the Spirit and submitted to the Spirit. She was this way because the risen Lord was a living reality to them, and His resurrection power was at work in their lives through the Spirit.
I Devoted to Prayer
A Scripture tells us that the early church members "devoted themselves ... to prayer" (Acts 2:42d). Let me remind you, again, of the meaning of the word "devoted." Devoted means to be loyal to someone or something. It means to give the highest priority to something or someone. It means to identify what is most important to you and to stick with it. It means to show what you are passionate about. In other words, those early Spirit-filled Christians spent time and effort on their prayer. It wasn't on again, off again, as our prayer so often is. The were constant and continuous in their prayer. I think of the time Peter was about to be killed by King Herod. Though it was the middle of the night, his fellow believers gathered together to pray for him (Acts 12:12).
History tells us early African converts to Christianity were earnest and regular in private devotions. Each one reportedly had a separate spot in the brush where he would pour out his heart to God. Over time the paths to these places became well worn. As a result, if one of these believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others. They would kindly remind the negligent one, "Brother, the grass grows on your path." In the early church the believers did not have grass growing on their path -- because they devoted themselves to prayer.
-- Today in the Word, Moody Bible Institute, 6-29-92
Which leaves me wondering, how do we measure up? Would grass, does grass, grow on our path? Are we faithful and regular in prayer? Are we devoted to prayer like those early Christians? How much time do we spend in prayer?
B Those early Spirit-filled Christians didn't quit, they didn't give up, they didn't stop when they did not get an answer right away. They prayed, and they kept on praying, for an answer. They were persistent in prayer like the woman of Jesus' parable was persistent in asking a judge for justice (Luke 18). This widow kept coming to a judge with the plea, "Grant me justice against my adversary." Eventually the judge heard her cry and gave her the justice she wanted. Likewise, said Jesus, God answers those who cry out to Him day and night.
We are told that Jesus said this parable to show His disciples that they should always pray and not give up. The early church learned this lesson so she was constant in prayer and did not give up. Filled with the Spirit, those early Christians devoted themselves to prayer.
II Four Kinds of Prayers
A "They devoted themselves to ... prayer" (Acts 2:42). An examination of the book of Acts and early church records tell us that the early church had four kinds of prayers. First, they offered free spontaneous prayers. I think here of what happened when Peter and John were released from prison. When the believers heard their report "they raised their voices together in prayer" (Acts 4:24). They couldn't help but respond in prayer and praise to the great and mighty acts of God.
B Second, Paul's letter to Corinth informs us that the early Christians offered what can only be called charismatic prayers. Even as some of the early believers spoke in tongues, so also they prayed in tongues. Paul doesn't condemn such prayers, but he warns -- as with tongue speaking -- that an interpreter must be present if such a prayer is done in public (1 Cor 14:13,14).
C Third, we know from Justin Martyr, one of the church fathers, that the early Christians often prayed the prayer Christ Himself taught them -- the Lord's Prayer. I hope that we continue in this tradition by also praying the Lord's Prayer.
D Fourth, in their prayer life the early Christians often took Old Testament Psalms and offered them to God as their prayer. I often do this in my office and for my congregational prayers -- I take one of the psalms and use it as the basis for my praise and thanksgiving to God in prayer. None of us can go wrong in using the majestic words and thoughts of these early servants of God. In fact, I would recommend that you follow this tradition of the early church.
The last couple of years I keep visiting a Jewish friend in the hospital. She loves the psalms so I read them and pray them with her.Similarly, the early Christians -- most of whom were Jewish -- loved to pray the psalms.
Four kinds of prayers -- used not only in public but also in private, not only in worship but also in personal devotions. Again I say, those early Spirit-filled Christians devoted themselves to prayer.
III Attributes of Prayer
A "They devoted themselves to ... prayer" (Acts 2:42). It is instructive to note the attributes or characteristics of their prayers.
To begin with, their prayers were born out of witness and service to the Lord. These were not couch-potato Christians offering prayers from the sidelines. These were Christians who were daily facing the enemy. These were Christians who fought in the trenches. These were Christians who met to pray in order to defeat the enemy. Too often today, believers have no sense of urgency and danger because most of us are too comfortable in our Christian life.
B Theirs was also united prayer. On their release from prison, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When the believers heard this, they raised their voices "together" in prayer to God (Acts 4:24). They prayed together. They prayed with one heart and mind. They prayed with one accord. Division in the church always hinders prayer and robs the church of spiritual power.
C Their prayer was based solidly on the Word of God. In this case, they prayed the words of Psalm 2. [We are looking at Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 tonight so I won't be saying anything about them this morning.] Here is a reminder that the Word of God and prayer must always go together (cf John 15:7). In His Word, God speaks to us and tells us what He wants us to do. In prayer, we speak to Him and make ourselves available to accomplish His will. True prayer is not telling God what to do, but asking God to do His will in us and through us (cf 1 Jn 5:14-15). It means getting God's will done on earth; it does not mean getting man's will done in heaven.
D Notice the request of their prayer. They were under attack. They were imprisoned. They were threatened. The civil and religious powers that ganged up against Jesus were also ganging up against them. So, did they pray for their circumstances to change? Did they pray for their enemies to be put out of office? Did they pray for rescue? Did they pray for safety? NO, NO, NO, NO! Here is what they asked: "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness" (Acts 4:29). They prayed for the power to speak the Word of God in the face of enemies and attacks and plots and threats. They did not ask for protection; they asked for power. They did not ask for fire from heaven to destroy the enemy, but for power from heaven to preach the Word and heal the sick. Their great desire was for boldness to speak the name of Jesus in the face of opposition.
Telling us what? Telling us we don't pray for easy lives. Rather, we pray to be stronger men and women. We don't pray for tasks equal to our powers. Rather, we pray for powers equal to our tasks. Believing prayer fills us with God's power to do God's work.
E I find it very instructive that they addressed God as "Sovereign Lord" (Acts 4:24). A literal translation of the Greek word that is used here is the English word "despot." In this life and on this earth a despot is an absolute ruler, a king with unlimited powers. Among men, at least, a despot usually acts like a tyrant. King Herod was a despot -- consider how he killed the baby boys of Bethlehem; or, consider how he killed his own brothers, sisters, wives, and children because he saw them as a threat to his rule. The Sanhedrin acted like despots in their dealings with Jesus and the apostles -- they dared to condemn the innocent to death and to wrongly confiscate the goods and property of Christians. At that time and place in the world of men the power of despots was absolute and beyond challenge. But the early Spirit-filled church raised her prayers to the "despot" in heaven, to the Sovereign Lord. Here was an acknowledgment that over the rulers of men stands a Higher Ruler, a Higher Power. Here was an acknowledgment that the edicts of men cannot overturn the decrees of Almighty God. Those early Spirit-filled Christians came to God in prayer, then, realizing that all depends upon Him and lays in His hands. They came to God in prayer acknowledging that He is in control of all things.
They also approached God as Creator. They talked to Him Who "made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them" (Acts 4:24). There is a reason for this. If your God is the almighty Creator of everything, then you have nothing to fear and no one to fear (cf Ps 46 & 146; Is 43:1-4).
Those Spirit-filled believers filled their minds with God as Sovereign Lord and Creator. They began their prayers by thinking of God: His being, His attributes, His ways, His blessings. It is only after they came to God with their praises and thanksgivings that they began to think of their needs. God came first, then their petitions (Acts 4:24f).
We can learn from this because all too often in our prayer life we come to God as prayer-beggars rather than as praise-givers. "Give me, Give me, Give me," is our constant refrain. Or, "Bless me, Bless me, Bless me." But those early Spirit-filled Christians began by saying,
(Acts 4:24) Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant ...
To keep your prayer life well-balanced, like that of the early Christians, all that you have to do is think of the word "ACTS" when you pray:
"A" stands for Adoration – of God
"C" stands for Confession – of your sins
"T" stands for Thanksgiving – for blessings
"S" stands for Supplication – for your needs and the needs of others
F Finally, note that they want to glorify the name of Jesus. "Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus" (Acts 4:30). It was the name of Jesus that gave those early Christians the power to preach the Word and to perform miracles and His name alone deserved the glory. The glory of the crucified and risen Lord, not the needs of men, is the highest purpose of prayer.
In devoting themselves to prayer, then, those early Spirit-filled Christians paid attention to every detail: when they prayed, what they prayed, to whom they prayed, and also how they prayed. You see, Spirit-filled people devoted to prayer leave nothing about prayer to chance.
IV Powerful Prayer
A "They devoted themselves to ... prayer" (Acts 2:42). So what happened? God heard and answered their prayer.
(Acts 4:31) 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.I always have a hard time imagining the scene. The Christians prayed and the building literally shook on its foundations. Here in California we would think earthquake. But in Jerusalem they knew better.
From the Old Testament the early believers knew that a shaking like this signified the presence and voice of God. I think of the time when the people of Israel met with God at Mt. Sinai. Scripture says,
(Ex 19:18) Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently ... (cf Is 6:3-4; 1 Ki 19:11)As in the Old Testament, the shaking in front of us signifies the presence and voice of God. It means God was there, that He both heard and answered their prayers. It means He filled them with the might of His Spirit. It means He poured His miraculous, wonder-working power into them.
B In that time and place it seems the Sanhedrin had the power. After all, they were the ones who ordered the temple guard to seize Peter and John and throw them in jail (Acts 4:1). And, they were the ones who ordered the two disciples not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18). And, they were the ones who threatened Peter and John before letting them go (Acts 4:21). Or, it may seem that Herod and Pontius Pilate were the ones in whom power was concentrated (cf Acts 4:27). But now the last verse of our Scripture reading tells us we are wrong. The greatest concentration of power in Jerusalem that day was not in the Sanhedrin. Nor was the greatest concentration of power in Jerusalem that day in Herod and Pontius Pilate. The greatest concentration of power in Jerusalem that day was in the prayer meeting of the early church. Listen to what Scripture says:
(Acts 4:31) 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.Did you hear that last phrase? They "spoke the word of God boldly." They prayed for power and they were given power to proclaim the Gospel, the Word of God.
"They devoted themselves to ... prayer" (Acts 2:42). Does this describe you and me as Spirit-filled Christians? Does this describe Trinity URC? Because, don't forget, the result is a church that is unified, magnified, and multiplied.
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