Acts 4: 23 - 31
"If you do not know that life is war, you will not know what prayer is for.” John Piper. Being a Christian has never been easy, and whenever the church has advanced into Satan’s territory, he has always been ready to fight back.
Chuck Colson: “More Christians have been martyred for their faith in this century alone than in the previous 19 centuries combined. The list of afflictions reads like an alphabet soup of cruelty: amputation, bombing, crucifixion, flogging, kidnapping, murder, prison, rape, slavery, torture. Just as in the days of Daniel, the presence of people who refuse to bow before state-sanctioned idols sends tyrants into genocidal rage.
The most important fact I can tell you is that this is nothing new. The same people who crucified Jesus attacked those who preached in Jerusalem in his name. Across the centuries the price of winning souls for Christ has always been paid in blood. The early church father, Tertullian, said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” That is still true today.
1. A Serious Crisis v. 23
Remarkable miracle wrought by the Lord at the hands of Peter and John as they went to the temple. There they saw a lame man and in the name of Jesus, Peter healed him. Not only was he healed, but he jumped up and began walking and leaping and praising God. No one could deny what had happened to this man crippled from birth. When a crowd gathered, Peter seized the moment to preach a powerful gospel sermon (3:11-26). Word spread to the Jewish leaders who had Peter and John arrested and thrown in prison. The next day, Peter made an impassioned defence before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court (4:8-12). His boldness startled them because it was so unexpected. He actually said that Jesus is the only way to heaven (v. 12).
After conferring with one another, the Jewish leaders realized that a genuine miracle had taken place. Since they couldn’t deny what the Lord had done, they ordered Peter and John to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (v. 18). “We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard,” they replied (v. 20). The authorities threatened them some more and let them go. Immediately they returned to the disciples and gave them a full report.
Let me ask you a question: What would you do if the Supreme Court ordered you not to talk about Jesus? What if you were threatened with losing your job if you shared your faith with a co-worker? What if you were told you can’t bring your Bible to work or to school? What if you were ordered not to wear a cross around your neck? What if your teacher forbade you to mention Jesus in a paper about the most important person you know?
What would you do if you lived in India or Indonesia and the word spread that any Christians visiting a certain village will be set on fire? That’s not so far-fetched, is it? The early believers faced exactly that kind of question. What do you do when a hostile world attempts to shut you up? The next few verses tell us what they did. Their response serves as a model for us today.
2. A Fervent Prayer v. 24 - 30
Before I talk about what they did, let me point out what they might have done but didn’t - * They might have organised a rally to affect public opinion. * They might have staged a march or a sit-in at the temple. * They might have written letters to the editor. * They might have taken an opinion poll to prove that 73% of the people surveyed disapproved of the Sanhedrin’s policy. * They might have tried their own campaign of intimidation or threats.
I find it fascinating and very instructive that at this crucial moment the church refuses to turn to political power. Not that political power is always wrong, but in this instance they don’t seem to have considered it. They prayed. More specifically, they got together as a church and had a prayer meeting.
The sequence of Acts 3, 4 is very important for us to grasp. Let me spell it out: God worked a miracle through Peter and John. They preached the gospel. Many people were saved. They were arrested and thrown in jail. They were threatened and ordered not to preach. They were released. They told the church what happened. The church called a prayer meeting. Or to make it simpler: Preaching … Persecution … Prayer. That’s a pattern you see throughout church history. We preach, the world persecutes, the church goes to prayer. This is always God’s plan of action. Features of this marvellous prayer:
a. It was united prayer – v. 24 says they raised their voices together in prayer.
b. It was fervent prayer. Evidently they all prayed out loud at the same time. Perhaps one person prayed the prayer recorded in our text and everyone repeated it in unison.
c. It was scriptural prayer. The central portion of this prayer (v. 25, 26) is from Psalm 2: 1, 2, which describes the world’s hostility to God. The Christians were affirming their agreement with God that the people of the world have always hated the Lord. God’s people have been in trouble from the beginning of time. What was happening in Jerusalem was nothing new in any sense.
d. It was believing prayer. Here is the application of Psalm 2 to the current crisis: Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen (v. 27, 28). Pause for a moment and consider this amazing statement. v. 27 is history—This is what just happened to Jesus. v. 28 is theology—This is why it happened. The early Christians understood that behind Herod and Pilate and the Jewish leaders stood God himself. They had done evil in crucifying Christ (that’s free will), but God had ordained the outcome (that’s divine sovereignty). If you say, “How can this be?” you are asking a question that only God himself can answer. But we cannot doubt its truth for it is clearly what the Bible teaches. This is the ground of confidence behind this powerful prayer. The early Christians believed that God’s hand was at work in their persecution—not just to stop it but to allow it in the first place.
e. It was specific prayer. They prayed for three things: 1. That God would “consider” the threats of the Jewish leaders - “Please pay attention to what they are doing to us.” 2. That God would give them boldness to preach the gospel in the face of such persecution. 3. That God would send more miracles (which is what attracted the crowds in the first place). Note that they do not pray for God to judge their persecutors. They do not pray for the persecution to be lifted (though it would not be wrong to pray that way.) They asked for more miracles and then for boldness to preach when the persecution resumed.
As I consider this prayer two things stand out: 1. Their absolute confidence in God. They quoted Psalm 2 back to the Lord because they believed that particular passage applied to their current situation. They were saying, “Lord, the bad guys are at it again.” From the day when Cain killed Abel, certain people in the world have always hated the people of God. They killed us in the beginning and they are still killing us today. Here we see the importance of knowing the Word of God—not just reading it, but letting it sink deeply into your soul. Because they knew what God had said in Psalm 2, they were able to interpret their current crisis in that light. Only those who build their lives on Scripture can do that consistently.
2. Their prayer demonstrates sanctified stubbornness. They prayed for more boldness, not less persecution. In essence, they asked God for more of what got them into trouble in the first place! They were saying, “Do it again, Lord. Pour it on. Give us the courage to stand firm and the boldness to speak your truth.”
3. An Amazing Answer v. 31
God answered their prayer in 3 ways:
A. The place where they were praying was shaken—a sign of God’s presence.
B. They were all (not just the leaders) filled with Spirit—divine enablement from God to do his will.
C. They spoke the Word of God boldly—meaning that they began to preach the gospel to anyone who would listen.
Acts 5 tells us what happened as a result: 5:12 the apostles performed many miracles. 5:14 many people were saved. 5:16 crowds gathered around the apostles. 5:18 the apostles are arrested and thrown in jail. 5:19 God sets them free that night by a miracle. 5:21 the apostles resume their public preaching. 5:27 the apostles are questioned by the high priest who reminds them of the order not to preach in the name of Jesus. 5:29 Peter replies, “We must obey God rather than men!” 5:30 Peter preaches to the Sanhedrin. 5:40 the apostles are beaten and released. 5:41 they leave the council rejoicing. 5:42 they continue preaching the gospel everywhere.
What can you say about men like that? You can’t stop them. If you arrest them, they preach in prison. If you let them go, they preach on the streets. If you beat them, they walk away rejoicing. If you kill them, their friends take up the message. No wonder the early church grew explosively. The world can’t stop Christians who refuse to be intimidated into silence.
Three Final Thoughts
Let’s wrap up with 3 important truths for today.
1. We are involved in a battle of cosmic proportions.
Sometimes I think we tend to forget this truth—that there is a battle for control of the universe that stretches from the seen to the unseen - “the invisible war” because the greatest battles take place in the realm of the spirit. The early Christians prayed because they knew they were up against forces far too strong for them. They understood that the Sanhedrin wasn’t the real enemy. Do we understand that our battle is not with the Government or with the media? We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, and the rulers of the spirit world who fight against the Lord. Human rulers are unwitting pawns in the hands of those evil spirits who hate the Lord.
2. Prayer is our chief weapon when the world turns against us.
We can do many things once we have prayed, we can do nothing until we have prayed. God has given us many weapons to use in our spiritual conflict, but the chief one is prayer—and nothing else matters until we have prayed to the Lord. It is at this point that John Piper’s words become so important: “If you do not know that life is war, you will not know what prayer is for.”
We don’t pray more because we secretly think we don’t need God. Oh, we would never say it like that, but our lack of serious prayer proves the point. We think we can handle our problems on our own. But let someone come and set our cars and houses on fire. Then we’ll fall on our faces in prayer. Let someone threaten to kill our children and we’ll be praying night and day. We’re not safe. The whole world is a spiritual battlefield, and every Christian is on the front lines every day.
3. What happens to us personally doesn’t matter as much as what happens to the Gospel.
When will we learn that our own personal peace and safety isn’t the central issue? When will we discover that life itself isn’t the highest value? What difference does it make whether we live 20 years or 40 years or 70 years or 80 years? We’re all going to die someday—some sooner, some later. Eventually we’ll all be put in a box and lowered six feet into the ground. When that happens the only thing that will matter is that we used our days for the glory of God and that in some small way our lives helped advance God’s cause in the world. The gospel matters. Whether you and I live a long time is a relatively small issue.
Don’t get me wrong. I hope and plan to live a long time. I have no desire to die from sickness or an accident or at the hand of a terrorist. Long life is a blessing from God, and no one should disdain it. But in the end, all my days are in God’s hands—they’ve all been ordained from the very beginning. Therefore, I am perfectly free to enjoy each day as a gift from God and to invest my time and talents in his kingdom—knowing that nothing can happen to me until my time is up and God calls me home. How it happens or when or where just doesn’t matter compared with the importance of advancing the gospel in the world.
Prayer is ALWAYS a serious business. We must learn to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do. We must learn to pray as if our church depended on it – because it does.
O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.