THE EARLY CHURCH AND THEIR PRAYERS

THE CHURCH AND PRAYER

God has always been speaking to His people; He has never been silent. Even during the so-called “400 silent years” between the Old and New Testaments, God was still speaking to His people even though we have no record of any sermons, prophecies, or other divine revelations. After Malachi there is not a single recorded message from God. But that’s not to say God was silent. He never is.

When the New Testament opens, the climate is completely different. God is again speaking to His people through a prophet: John the Baptist. After 400 years of prophetic silence, when Matthew opens up, so do the floodgates of the prophetic voice!

Not only does God once again speak through John the Baptist (and other New Testament prophets), God began to speak through His Son, the Messiah. But it doesn’t stop there! God established a new group of people called “His people.” This time, though, He didn’t establish a nation, He founded a body of believers called “the Church.” Today’s Christian has no idea what a revolutionary concept “the Church” was in Biblical days. There was no “Church” in the Old Testament, and “the Church” would become God’s primary venue to speak to His creation.

So, a lot of things changed between Malachi and Matthew. Prayer is also different in the New Testament.

1. Prayer in the Upper Room

In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (John 16:23—24)

Here is the fundamental change in prayer from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Now, believers are to pray TO God the Father IN the name of Jesus BY the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is our great Intercessor, and that’s why we are to pray in His Name.

Preaching, teaching, and evangelistic endeavors are all vitally important tasks the Church is involved in, but nothing is more central to the success of the Church’s mission on earth than prayer. The truth is, the Church was born in prayer!

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. (Acts 2:1)

This is a significant verse. All these believers were gathered together in the upper room, in obedience to the wishes of Jesus. They were praying—it was a big prayer meeting—and the NIV says they were “all together.” The KJV’s “with one accord” is a more telling translation. All these people were praying together in unity. They were obeying the Lord together and they were praying and waiting in anticipation for the coming of the Holy Spirit together, in unity.

Probably not since the days of the New Testament has the Church experienced that kind of unity! When we look at how effective the prayers were in that early church, we wonder what happened between then and now. Back then, when the church prayed, things happened—walls shook and prison doors flung open! Those prayers were powerful. Sadly today, our prayers often seem anaemic and powerless by comparison. By any estimation the Church of the 21st century is pale and sickly compared to the very early Church. It was an apostolic church, today’s church is rife with apostasy. Back then, the Church was persecuted; today it’s a prosperous Church that seems to forget about the necessity of being dependent on God. Then it was united, today it’s divided. In it’s early years, the Church was welcoming and spiritual; today it’s cold and dry. The New Testament Church was young, healthy, ambitious, and committed. Today it’s old, weary, lazy, and confused.

What happened? It’s far more than just the old, “familiarity breeds contempt” notion, although that’s part of the problem. We can learn a lot from the early Church that we may apply to our day today. Naturally, we can’t BECOME the early Church; that was a point in history that can never be revisited or duplicated. However, there are some lessons we can learn.

2. Lessons from the “old days”

A sense of impending danger

The very early Church was very conscious of danger, especially when they gathered for prayer.

When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:13, 14)

These people were afraid; they huddled together in a small room upstairs. They were a hunted group and they knew the fate that Jesus suffered was likely going to be theirs if they weren’t careful. Now, you’d think that kind of danger would cause these folks to scatter and stay away from each other for a while. But the exact opposite happened! The threat drew believers together to pray.

After the Spirit fell, there was even more danger of persecution from the religious establishment of the day. Remember, Peter and John were actually arrested because they were preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were eventually released from prison, and then an interesting thing happened:

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.” (Acts 4:23, 24)

Their arrest and persecution only caused the Church to praise God even more! They praised God in prayer! Yes, they were threatened, but that didn’t stop them from coming together and being united in prayer.

A respect for the sovereignty of God

In addition to a sense of danger that unified them, the early Church had a firm conviction and respect for the sovereignty of God. When these people prayed, it wasn’t to convince God to come around to their way of thinking. No, when the early Church prayed it was to discover God’s will, no matter what it was. Notice the wording of Acts 4:24:

When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.

What did these people hear that caused them to raise their voices in prayer? It wasn’t good news, that’s for sure!

Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. (Acts 4:18)

So, upon learning that the authorities had ordered the Church to STOP preaching the Gospel, the Church praised the Lord. What they said in their prayer should give every believer pause:

Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”

The NIV has done a good job of translating a special word used for “Lord.” In the Greek, this version of the English “Lord” is despotes. We get our word “despot” from that Greek word, and normally a despot is not a good person. Yet, this is how these believers addressed God! Why did they call God a “despot?” What did they know that we don’t?

Our God is a despot: He is a benevolent dictator. There is no will but His. God delegates nothing: He is in total control of everything. This is something the early Church understood that seems lost to us. Intellectually we may agree with the doctrine of the “sovereignty of God,” but emotionally we always think we sway God by our cries and tears. We always think we can be the exception to any rule by justifying our sins.

They knew God was completely sovereign, but also that He was the originator of all things. They recognized He that created all things; that the universe is His, not ours. God consulted NO one when He created it. In God’s eyes, everything He created was “good.” God is in control of the universe, both material and spiritual, and He defers to NO one.

Another point about their awesome respect for God’s sovereignty is revealed in verse 27:

They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

Those who prayed knew the players in the game. They understood who was involved in the death of Jesus: Herod (the Romans), Pontius Pilate (Israel), and even the Gentiles, but they knew that it was GOD who was in charge and in control. Here is a wonderful example of people who knew the will of God, didn’t complain about it, but accepted it.

When we catch the vision of God as the great despot of His universe, then we will understand His sovereignty as the early Church did, and our prayers will reflect that.

A respect for the Scriptures

A little further on in their prayer, we learn something else about the attitude of the early Church. Not only were they conscious of real threats to their existence, and not only did they have a profound respect for the sovereignty of God, but they also had a healthy respect for the Word of God:

You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.” (Acts 4:25, 26)

When they prayed, they actually quoted Scripture. But, this isn’t the noteworthy thing; what is noteworthy is they believed Psalm 2 to be literal, that it was written by David, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, about Jesus Christ! The modern liberal Christian revolts at this! They question the inspiration of Scripture, and they question the reliability of the Old Testament.

Courageous consistency

Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. (Acts 4:29)

What’s remarkable about this verse is that is shows just how determined and consistent these early Church members were! Regardless of the the danger, they wanted God “enable” them to continue preaching the Gospel. They didn’t pray and ask God to change the circumstances; they didn’t ask God to take away the threat of persecution. All they focused on was their mission: to preach the Gospel. They were guided, not by their circumstances, but by their principles. Their job was to preach the Gospel and make converts and nothing was going to stop them.

3. The real early Christian

Now, there is the thought that these early Christians were different from the modern Christian; that somehow, because of their proximity to the life of Jesus or the fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they were “super saints,” instead of just regular saints like we are. In fact, Peter, James, John, even Paul were just like us.

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. (Acts 14:14, 15)

They were just regular men; there was nothing different about them. Another good example of this is an incident in Acts 12. You will recall that when Peter was tossed in prison,  the body of believers gathered together to pray that God would deliver their friend. Deliver him God did!

Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.  (Acts 12:7)

It was a miracle, no doubt about it! God answered the prayers of the believers. Eventually Peter made his way to the place where they were praying, and we read this interesting exchange:

When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”  “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” (verses 14, 15)

Why didn’t they simply believe God had delivered Peter exactly as they had been praying? Because these people were not the super saints some of us think they were. At first, they couldn’t believe Peter was at the door, even though they had been praying for this very thing to happen! We wonder if they really expected God to answer their prayer or not.

We would have to say that the early Christian had the same struggles with doubt that we have. In spite of that, God did wondrous things through the early Church as believers prayed. And He still does wondrous things through our prayers, today. The same Holy Spirit that fell at Pentecost didn’t just go away at the close of the New Testament era. He is still here, still indwelling all believers. Even though every single Christian is full of the Holy Spirit at conversion, the command stands: be filled with the Holy Spirit. When we are conscious of His presence in our lives, and when we yield ourselves to Him, the Holy Spirit will lead us to new heights and vistas of prayer; He will guide us, pray through us, and give us the strength we need to overcome any fear or doubt.

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