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Prayer in the Book of Acts

Michael Hardt

Prayer is so much more miraculous than all the various means of communication we tend to admire in our electronic age: it connects finite human beings with God, it enables tiny creatures to make their voices heard in His presence, and it allows us to enjoy communion with our Father as children, and to express dependence on our Lord as servants.

The Book of Acts gives ample testimony to the importance, prevalence and effectiveness of prayer in the early days of Christianity. Space only permits us to touch briefly on these occasions which are a real encouragement to prayer in the last days of Christianity on earth — when it is certainly no less needed than in the beginning.

Prayer with one accord

Following the Lord’s ascension, we find the disciples and a number of women in Jerusalem (1:13–14). The Lord had given them instruction to remain in Jerusalem and to wait for the ‘promise of the Father’ (v. 4), and they use their waiting time well. Mary, ‘the mother of Jesus’, takes her place among them. They not only engaged in prayer but ‘gave themselves’ to it, and this ‘continually’ and ‘with one accord’. A beautiful scene — even before the coming of the Holy Spirit!

Prayer for guidance

Shortly after this, we read that Peter explained the need to find a replacement for Judas as a witness of the Lord’s resurrection (1:16–22). There appear to have been two immediate candidates, Joseph Barsabas Justus and Matthias (1:23). What was to be done? How should they go about choosing? Resort to voting? Have a debate? The answer is simple and yet refreshing: ‘And they prayed’ (v. 24). Whilst many prayers in the New Testament are addressed to the Father, here they pray to the Lord, no doubt because it was a matter of service and testimony to Him. Moreover, they address Him as ‘knower of the hearts of all’. This was just what they needed at this time: they knew the requirements, they had two candidates, but what they lacked was knowledge of the hearts, and divine guidance for the choice. Their prayer is specific, short, and to the point: ‘shew which one of these two thou hast chosen …’. They realised the Lord had chosen already; they just needed to be made aware of the outcome. The Lord’s answer came quickly, as a matter of fact with the help of lots that were cast (a method not uncommon before the coming of the Holy Spirit).

The argument that this was the wrong choice and that they should have waited until Paul’s conversion is not supported by Scripture. Peter’s words show that they were guided by God’s word, it was done with prayer, and the outcome is later sanctioned by the Holy Spirit in referring to ‘the twelve’ (see 6:2).

Persevering prayer

The coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost by no means did away with the need or propriety of prayer as expression of communion with, and dependence on, God. The early Christians were characterised by perseverance in prayer: ‘And they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers’ (2:42). This verse is not a list of ‘assembly meetings’ (there is no mention of a meeting for edification: see 1 Cor. 14) but a set of features that were characteristic for believers at the time. We can be quite sure that prayer meetings would have been well attended (see chapter 12), but prayer also occurred outside such meetings. They had started well, and they ‘continued stedfastly’.

The hour of prayer

In Acts 3 we read that ‘Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, which is the ninth hour’. Whilst the Christian life in the early days was still interrelated with Jewish customs in a way that is no longer the case today, there is a practical point that remains applicable nevertheless: there were set times for prayer. Whilst spontaneous and situational prayer is good, this is no reason not to set aside certain times of day specifically for the purpose of prayer.

Prayer preceding ministry – or: prioritising prayer

In the early days of the church the apostles appear to have taken an active role in financial administration (4:36–37). But when the number of believers increased significantly and there was an element of discontent among the Greek-speaking Jews who felt ‘their’ widows did not receive a fair share of financial support, the apostles, very wisely, recommended that seven men with spiritual qualifications be chosen to oversee the distribution, and — in an approach of true Christian diplomacy — most if not all of the seven on whom they laid their hands appear to have been taken from among the Hellenists (6:1–6). In the circumstances, it was no doubt wise of the apostles to step back in matters of financial distribution. But they had another reason: their primary service was not administrational but spiritual. Their priority was prayer and preaching, and in that order: ‘but we will give ourselves up to prayer and the ministry of the word’ (v. 4). In personal life the word comes before prayer (Col. 3:16–17; 1 Tim. 4:5). This order gives God opportunity to speak to us first and in this way to form our minds and desires, which will result in more acceptable prayer. But when it comes to the public presentation of the word, this should be preceded by prayer to secure the Lord’s guidance and the Spirit’s power in preaching.

Prayer before laying on of hands

The seven men were identified and presented to the apostles who, in turn, ‘having prayed, … laid their hands on them’ (6:6). The laying on of hands demonstrated identification with their service, something that should not be done lightly or precipitately (1 Tim. 5:22). Even the apostles recognised the need to be guided in prayer before committing to this. Similarly, in Acts 13 they prayed and fasted before laying hands on Saul and Barnabas who had just been called to do the Lord’s work.

Prayer for perpetrators

In Acts 7 the normal word prayer or praying does not occur (it is really called upon’[1]), and yet there is prayer: ‘And they stoned Stephen, praying, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And kneeling down, he cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And having said this, he fell asleep’ (vs. 59–60). Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr, had given faithful testimony. The mention of the Son of man at the right hand of God sufficed to infuriate the crowd, who promptly resorted to stoning the messenger. Stephen puts us to shame by the way he reacts: kneeling down, he calmly addresses the Lord Jesus and asks Him to receive his spirit.[2] He then proceeds to pray for his enemies. His eyes having been fixed on his Lord, he becomes His imitator (Luke 23:34). Stephen’s prayer expresses a communion with the Lord that neither hatred nor stones nor the imminence of death can interrupt.

Prayer for the Spirit

In Acts 8 we learn that Philip the evangelist went to a city of Samaria to preach the gospel. Many heard, believed and were baptised. It is beautiful to see how the word of God made inroads further afield, exactly in line with the plan outlined in chapter 1:8: ‘ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria …’. These Samaritans had been born again, they were children of God, but they had not yet received the Spirit — they were not yet sealed (Eph. 1:13). God, in His wisdom, had withheld the Spirit until such time that Peter and John arrived from Jerusalem and ‘prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit’ (8:15). In this way it was made clear that there was no such thing as a Samaritan church and a Jewish one. Whether Jews or Samaritans (or, later, Gentiles), all formed but one church, the body of Christ.

The prayer for the Spirit also demonstrates a number of positive features: there was an expression of fellowship between Jerusalem and Samaria, there was fellowship as opposed to independence, and there was a concern and desire for the spiritual wellbeing and full blessing of those who had come to know Christ — even if they came from among the despised Samaritans.

Prayer as a sign of life

In chapter 9, we come to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the renowned persecutor of the church. After he had been converted on the Damascus road and was blind, in Damascus, and fasting, spending time in deep soul exercise, the Lord instructs Ananias — who was well aware of how dangerous a man Saul had been — to go and see him. In order to encourage Ananias to do this, the Lord adds these significant words in relation to Saul: ‘behold, he is praying’ (v. 11). This was a sure sign of life. Saul will have said many prayers before, but now he prayed.

Prayer as a sign of dependence

Later in Acts 9 we find Peter who, having healed paralysed Aeneas, receives a distress call from Joppa where a faithful and devoted sister, Dorcas, had been taken ill and died. Peter is the instrument to restore her to life. But before doing so, Peter does three significant things: he sends everyone out, he kneels down, and he prays. He sends them out because he wants no fame or publicity; he kneels down because this is the expression of subjection to, and dependence on, the Lord (a most suitable physical posture for prayer);[3] and he prays because he is about to perform a most remarkable miracle, and yet is conscious of, and happy to express, his dependence on the Lord in doing so.

Prayer and the Lord’s leading

Acts 10 describes the remarkable meeting of Peter and Cornelius, a Roman centurion, clearly born again (‘pious, and fearing God’: 10:2) but he had not yet received the Spirit. In order for this to occur Peter had to come and proclaim the ‘gospel of … salvation’ (Eph. 1:13), culminating in the statement that ‘every one that believes on him will receive through his name remission of sins’ (Acts 10:43). Peter’s visit is prepared and coordinated in a remarkable way, and so are Peter and Cornelius themselves. Prayer seems to have played a vital role in this. It is mentioned no less than five times:

  • Cornelius was a man of habitual prayer: ‘supplicating God continually’ (10:2);
  • An angel appears to Cornelius and assures him: ‘thy prayers … have gone up … before God’ (v. 4);
  • Cornelius later relates this fact to Peter and adds an additional piece of information: he was praying when the angel appeared to him (v. 30);
  • When the messengers from Cornelius were still on their way, Peter, who knew nothing about this circumstance nor the task that awaited him, ‘went up on the house to pray’ (v. 9), and was there prepared by the Lord through the vision of the cloth descending from heaven;
  • Later, when challenged by ‘they of the circumcision’ in Jerusalem, Peter gives a full account of how the Lord had led everything. He starts off by saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying’ (11:5).

These references demonstrate how central prayer was in this remarkable encounter which led to Cornelius and those with him receiving the Holy Spirit and, in this way, being introduced into full Christian blessing. Even the defenders of Judaism in Jerusalem had to acknowledge that this was God’s leading: ‘they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then indeed God has to the nations also granted repentance to life’ (11:18).

The power of assembly prayer

In Acts 12, we find Christians in crisis. Herod had taken captive a number of them, killed James, one of the leading figures, and — seeing that this policy was popular with the Jews — proceeded to imprison Peter. The church in Jerusalem responds not by petition or protest but by a far more effective method — a prayer meeting: ‘unceasing prayer was made by the assembly to God concerning him’ (v. 5). Their prayer was unceasing, fervent, earnest and specific: it was ‘for him’. Personal prayer is powerful in itself but assembly prayer comes with the Lord’s special promise (Matt. 18:19).

The effect is seen in every detail: Peter, the night before his (planned) execution enjoys a good sleep, an angel appears in the prison cell and a bright light shines, but without waking anyone — not even Peter, whom the angel has to strike on his side to wake him up. The chains fall to the ground, with significant noise no doubt, but unnoticed by the soldiers! Neither watchmen nor iron gates do their service and Peter, only half conscious, finds himself in freedom. All the prison doors had opened for him, but arrived at the house of John Mark’s mother, Peter actually finds himself behind closed doors, while poor Rhoda within is being accused by her fellow brethren of being mad — all because the power of prayer was such that its results exceeded the boldest expectations even of those uttering those very prayers!

Prayer and fasting

On several occasions the Book of Acts mentions fasting in connection with prayer. In one instance (Acts 14:23), the apostles chose elders in each assembly in this region but then, interestingly, commended the other believers to the Lord (not to the elders). Whilst oversight was useful and necessary (and its official institution possible while there were apostles on earth), each believer had and retained a direct relationship with the Lord in whom they had believed. The apostles’ prayer with fasting shows the intensity of their desire that each of these young believers should prosper spiritually, in direct communion with the Lord.

Fasting should not be undertaken with a view to obtaining merit, nor in an attempt to make God intervene in a specific manner, nor to ‘show off’ before others (Matt. 6:16), but it can help us to pray more fervently in intercession or in seeking the Lord’s mind (see Acts 13:2). Paul’s letter to the Corinthians shows that he fasted often (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27).

Further occasions of prayer

For the sake of brevity, we can only refer to the prayers mentioned in the remaining chapters.

In Acts 16, Paul and his companions arrive in Europe (Philippi). They go to a place ‘where prayer was wont to be made’, and there encounter women, some of whom were soon to form the nucleus of the Christian testimony in Europe (v. 13).

A few verses down, following Lydia’s conversion and baptism, we read that Paul and his companions were ‘going to prayer’ (v. 16).

This is followed by prayer at midnight, or prayer in predicament. Paul and Silas had been beaten with rods and received ‘many stripes’ on their backs and found themselves in the inner prison, their feet fastened in the stocks. It does not say that they prayed straightaway. Perhaps it took some time for them to come to terms with this turn of events. But at midnight they lifted up their souls to God in prayer, which could not be held back by prison walls or doors (which, for that matter, turned out to give way not only for prayers but for anyone who would have liked to escape). And the gospel made inroads into the jailor’s heart and house (vs. 19–34).

In chapter 20, following the meeting with the Ephesian elders, it was time to say farewell — a particularly painful farewell as they were not to see Paul again on this earth. But they unite in prayer: Paul ‘kneeled down, and prayed with them all’ (v. 36).

Similarly, in chapter 21, Paul and those with him came to Tyre, found disciples there and stayed with them for seven days. A touching scene ensues as they, with women and children, all kneeled down together on the sea shore and prayed (v. 5).

In chapter 22 Paul recalls an earlier occasion of prayer. At the time he was in the temple, praying, and fell into a trance, and the Lord said to him, ‘I will send thee to the nations’ (vs. 17–21).

In chapter 27 Paul finds himself on a ship, in a storm and surrounded by a disheartened, dispirited and faint crew and army (‘all hope … taken away’: v. 20). With perfect calm and confidence, he stands up and exhorts and encourages, rebukes and instructs, and then — in front of 267 people — having taken bread, he ‘gave thanks to God before all, and having broken it began to eat’ (v. 35). The prisoner turned commander and instructor — but all in dependence on his God.

In the last chapter of Acts, we find Paul, shipwrecked on Malta, being accommodated kindly by Publius, a man of some wealth and rank. This man’s father fell seriously ill and Paul went to heal him but, having entered into the house, he first prayed and then healed — beautiful testimony to and demonstration of the true source of healing power.

The final prayer recorded in this book is one of thanksgiving. The brethren from Rome had come to meet Paul ‘as far as Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae’. When Paul saw them, ‘he thanked God and took courage’ (Acts 28:15).

The Book of Acts leaves no doubt that, although difficulties started to arise early, the beginning of the history of the church was a bright one. Prayer — the sign of dependence and communion — was a central feature in this positive picture.

[1] This expression is used several times in Acts to denote prayer (see 2:21; 9:14, 21; 15:17; 22:16), often using the term ‘calling upon the name of the Lord’ as characterising Christians. It is also used six times for ‘appealing’ to Caesar (25:11; 25:12, 21, 25; 26:32; 28:19), which conveys something of the reality and urgency of it.

[2] Here is another instance demonstrating that prayer should be made to the Lord Jesus (as well as the Father) despite the misapplication by some of John 16:23. See also the comments on chapter 1:24.

[3] Whilst it is true that we may pray standing, sitting or even walking, the only physical posture for prayer mentioned in Acts is kneeling, and this no less than four times (7:60; 9:40; 20:36; 21:5).