I know you just sat down but would you stand back up? You stretch really big and I'll tell you why I'm going to have you stand up. I so appreciate your exuberance in worship. I love it. I love your interaction, your exertion. In just a moment we're going to sit back down and that's your way of saying that you and I, we're all committed to being here for the remainder of the evening. It's only going to be a four-hour Bible study, it's not going to be very long. (Cheers)
Yeah right. But I'm having you stand because I'm going to read something to you and then we're going to pray together right where you're standing. It says in Psalm 135, "Praise the Lord, praise the name of the Lord. Praise oh you servants of the Lord who stand in the hosue of the lord, in the courts of the Lord our God." And then Jesus said in Mark, "And whenever you stand praying, if you anything against anyone forgive hime that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. And if you do not forgive neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses." Let's take a moment and pause silently in prayer for just a moment. If there's any issue to get right with God, if there's any person you need to forgive, you bring that person, you bring that issue before the Lord. And then I'll close us together in prayer and we'll have a seat.
Our Father in heaven, as we approach your throne this evening standing as it were in reverence for you. You are in our midst even as we would stand for any monarch who would grace our presence. Lord, we are so mindful of your mercy and your grace and thankful for your forgiveness. Freely then do we forgive those who have wronged us and pray Lord that the path would be cleared as we would initiate anything beyond this prayer. Lord, as we study your word tonight, we invite your Holy Spirit to deal with us, to speak to us, to minister to us, and then use us after this evening to minister to others. We ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now would you please have a seat. Thank you very much for that. We're in Acts chapter 2 again. And we're in chapter 2 verse 42 again tonight. We've been a month in this verse, going very slowly in Acts chapter 2 verse 42. I had a great experience yesterday, I was at a local hotel, I was there to meet Josh McDowell for yesterday's events. And before the noon event that I was at started, a man walked up to me who worked at that hotel, he was one of the managers, big smile on his face, gave me a great big hug. And he said, "Skip, I don't know if your remember this but a while back I came up to you at church, I didn't have a job, and you prayed that I would be employed. And that week I got this job and it's a great job. Now it doesn't mean that my prayers are magical or God answers my prayers more than anybody else's prayers. God will answer your prayers as quickly, as readily as he will answer mine or anybody else's. But isn't it great when you pray for something and you hear the answer to that prayer, that God is working?
As we begin this evening, I want to read to you one parent's experience of prayer. He said, "Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son had asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, "God is good. God is treat. Thank you for the food. And I would even like it more if Mom gets us ice cream for dessert. And liberty and justice for all. Amen." Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby I heard a woman remark, "That's what's wrong with this country. Kids today don't even know how to pray. Asking God for ice cream. Why I never." Hearing this, my son burst into tears. And he asked me, "Did I do wrong? Is God mad at me?" As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table. He winked at my son and he said, "I happen to know that God thought that was agreat prayer." "Really?" my son asked. "Cross my heart." And then in a theatrical whisper he added indicating the woman whose remark started the whole thing, "Too bad she never asked God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes." Naturally I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment, then he did something I will remember for the rest of my life, he picked up his sundae and without a word walked over and placed it in front of the worman. And with a big smile he told her, "Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes. And my sould is good already." (laughter) What's wrong with this country isn't that people pray for ice cream. It's that people dno't pray. That's the real tragedy.
Well, I shouldn't say that people don't pray, they are talking to God. I read this week an ABC snippet by Don Harris who said, "Sixty percent of Americans claim they pray at least once a day." Or, "Nearly sixty percent of Americans claim they pray at least once a day." According to his research, women pray more than men. Does that surprise you? The women all said, "Nope." Older people pray more than younger people. Leading the praying weekly, Jehovah Witnesses are the number one group that prays the most. Mormons the second group. Evangelicals are fourth on that list.
Now everybody knows that the Bible talks a lot about prayer. It's a huge subject. I decide to count it up, I counted up the word prayer, prayers, praying, prayed, etcetera and discovered the Bible mentions doing that three hundred and seventy times. It's a huge subject. But what is New Testament praying? What are the characteristics of good praying, if you could call it that? And what are those qualities that make it powerful? And what is effective prayer?
The early church according to verse 42 had priorities. And we've been visiting these priorities doing one every week. And in the list of prioritie4s we now come to the one that we are the most uneasy with, the one that every time we read it we just get a tinge o guilt. And, admit it, who doesn't think that they should pray more than they do? We all do. "but they gave themselves, or "they continued steadfastly in the apostle's doctrine, the breaking of bread, fellowship, (it says) prayers." Prayers was on their list. Now I heard a story that when the gospel first came to the frican continent and in certain villages in one of the nations, the converts were told to have their quiet time (their devotion, whatever you'd like to call it) every morning by leaving their village and walking out into the jungle to find their own little spot out in the jungle and meet with God regularly every day on that spot. So what would happen is that there would be pretty clear markings of a person's path where they would go because when you walk on the ground, if there's grass on it, you wear down into a little single track of dirt so you have these little markers going out into the jungle. But you could always tell if somebody if somebody was slacking off in their prayer life, because the underbrush would quickly grow back. And so when somebody was slacking off and could tell it by looking at the markings on the ground, the elder would simply come up to the believer and say, "there is grass growing your path brother." And he knew exactly what that meant. It meant, "I haven't been spending enough prayer time with the Lord." Well tonight we're going to consider this mark of the early church and we're going to move from general to specific. We're going to move from a description of prayer to a depiction of prayer. E're going to notice what the prayer of the early church was like, what their prayer life was like. And then we're going to be more specific and actually step inside of a prayer meeting in Acts chapter 4 and listen to how they did it at that time. So, from genral to specific. A description of their prayer life generally and a depiction of their prayer life specifically.
So, verse 4, let's being there. "They continued steadfastly." Or, "They devoted themselves." Or, "They made it a priority to do these things." The apostles' doctrine and the fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers. Now if I were to describe that and sort of flesh that out a little bit, there's three word that I would use to describe the prayer life of the early church and I have it in your outline. First of all, they prayed regularly. They were in the habit of doing this. It was something the practiced more than not. Go back to chapter 1, I just want to show you a few verse. Chapter 1, this is after Jesus ascends into heaven. Chapter 1, verse 12, they return to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey. And when they had entered, they went into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, Johna nd Andrew, Phillip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alpheus, Simon the zealot and Judas the son of James. These all continue with one accord in prayer and supplication with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers. Now a disciple had died (that was Judas Iscariot, they need to get another one they feel.) So down in verse 23, Peter speaking, "And they proposed two: Joseph called Barsabas who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, "You oh Lord know the heart of all, show us which of these two you have chosen."
Can you picture a hundred and twenty people crammed together in an upper room, Jesus has just left them and they're saying, "Now what? What do we do? What's the protocol? He's gone." First thing they did and they did it regularly is to pray, is to pray.
My mind goes back to when I was twenty-five going on twenty-six and we started a Bible study in a local apartment complex, that was growing in numbers. And when it reached about a hundred people, I remember several people one night came up to me after the Thursday night study and said, "Now what? What do we do now?" Id didn't know how to answer it, I'd never done this before, I didn't know what to do next. So I quickly announced, "Monday night we're having a prayer meeting. And we're just going to get together every Monday night and we're going to ask God that question: " Now what?" And we're going to see what god wants and what God says because I don't know what now. And that's the position the early church was in. Now what? Now we pray. It became a staple item in all that they would do from that point on. If you've never read R.A. Tory, read him, many great books. One thing he said stuck out. He said, "Pray for great things. Expect great things and work hard for great things. But above all, pray." Above all, pray. And the church in Jerusalem above all they expected God for great things, they prayed. They do it Acts chapter 2 at the day of Pentecost, they gather together for prayer. They do it in Acts chapter 3, in verse 1 a couple of the apostles go up to the temple for the hour of prayer. They do it in Acts chapter 4 after they're being persecuted, they gather together and they pray, we'll see that prayer meeting in a minute. And then in Acts chapter 6, verse 4, the leadership, when they were confronted with a problem, they said, "Well will give ourselves to (get this) prayer, and the ministry of the Word." They prayed regularly. It's a patten you see throughout the book of Acts. They prayed regularly.
A second thing, I think we should bring it up, for being historically accurate, is they prayed customarily. Now in verse 4 it says simply, "And in prayers." In the original Greek there is a definite article and it would read, "And in the prayers." And many commentators believe it refers to a known practiced manner of praying, or a set of prayers. A set of prayers. Theyw ere Jewish, they were used to doing things a certain way. And this is a transitional period in their history. And they were practicing what they knew in Judaism.
Look at chapter 3 verse 1, "Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour." That' s three o'clock in the afternoon. Why'd they do that ? Obviously they were still observing the Jewish times of prayer. And there were three times a day if you were in Jerusalem, that the Jews could go up to the temple and those that felt they should, did. And they felt they should. Nine o'clock in the morning, twelve o'clock noon, three o'clock in the afternoon. And so they were still practicing this. And, there were forms of prayer that no doubt as Jewish believers they were still practicing. I believe that every day these apostles were praying the shamah. The shamah, the famous Jewish prayer, "Hear O Israe3l the Lord our God, the Lord I sone." It's a composite of scriptural verses out of Deuteronomy and Numbers. Then, piouse Jews three times a day would pray the shimonestre, or the eighteen prayers. And again, if you were pious, you'd pray them three times a day. Then, there were prescribed prayers. There were certain prayers that were excepts out of the book of Psalms in the Old Testament for light, for darkness, for rain, for the nw moon. And lest you think that's just a little bit too stilted and ritualistic, the whole purpose of that was to bring every part of one's life, every part of one's life under the dependence of God through prayer. And so they woul lift out familiar prayers, praised and utterances out of the Psalms in the Old Testament to do that. In fact, the Jewish Talmud commentaries of the sages on the law said, "Three things can change the course of a person's life," and they named them. Teshuva, Sedeca, and Tefila. I'll explain. Teshuva: repentance, correcting anything you have between you and God, getting it out asking him for forgiveness or going to a person and asking for forgiveness. And then, Sedeca, acts of righteousness. And then third, Tefila, heartfelt praying. Heartfelt praying. And so they di it regualrly, they did it customarily, but they also did it instinctively. It was just the automatic response to life. I want you to go to chapter 12 with me really quick. Chapter 12, a precious passage of scripture, Acts chapter 12, "Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church." That's persecution. And killed James, the brother of Johnd with the sword j(that was illegal). Because he saw that it pleased the Jews he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was suring the days of unleavened bread. So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him intending to bring him before the people after Passover. Peter was therefore kept in prison (watch this) but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church." That was their instinct, that was their immediate reaction to trouble. "What do we do?" Pray. I want you to let that sink in. It doesn't say that Herod put him in prison and they started a campaign of letter writing against Herod or pickeint in front of Herod's house or a class action lawsuit against the Roman government in Jerusalem. That was not their instinct as believers. Their first instinct was to pray. Now that's the first thing we should always do. Why is it typically the last thing that some of us do and we only do it in extremis? After nothing else works and we're at the end of our rope. And here we are, "I've tried this and I've tried that, there's nothing left to do but pray?" there's nothing left to do but pray? Have you ever heard people say that? "There's nothing else to do, man. I guess we're just going to have to pray." Like, "Uh-oh, it's come to this, huh?" You actually have to pray. And typically, we take the big things to God. "this is really big. This is so big I've got to pray about it." What about all the little things before the become big things? Or, lest they become huge things. Oh, what peace we often forfeit all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer. I've always loved the story, classic story about G. Campbell Morgan, one of my favorite dead guys, pastors, in England. And a woman came up to him after a service and said, "Dr. Morgan, do you think God would terribly mind it if we brought the little things of our life to him?" And he smiled, in fact he laughed and he said, "Woman, can you think of anything that's big to God?" It's all little stuff to him." This is a cold, can I bring a cold before God? To God healing a cold is no more difficult than healing cancer. To u it's huge. To God it's not.
Their instinct was to pray immediately. So this was the church, this was it, nothing more, nothing less, just the apostle's doctrine, fellowship, breaking bread and prayers. If you wanted to see their mission statement, if you wanted to ask them, "Hey what are you guys into?" they would show you this stuff, this list of four things, "This sis what we're into. These things right here." They didn't have a manual. They had not manual of how to start a church in Jerusalem, how to incorporate a 501C3 non-profit corporation. They had no pastor's conferences to go to. They had no internet, they had no staff. What they had though was God and they depended on God through prayer. So that is the description of their life generally.
Now let's go from general to specific. Let's look in chapter 4 of the book of Acts and let's eavesdrop on a prayer meeting. A group of I'll call them spiritual acitivists. And they give us a beautiful pattern of prayer. I jut want to show you a couple of verses to start out. They had just come from confrontation in the temple with the leadership of the city, the Jewish leadership, who has made it illegal for them to proclaim the name of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. And they threatened them sternly. So verse 23, "And being let go they went to their own companions." This is chapter 4 verse 23. "And they reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. So when they heard that they raised their voifce to God with one accord and they said (now we're about to enter into what they said, to hear what the prayer swere like in that prayer meeting). But what I want you to notice is tha this a time of crisis. A law has been passed, it's illegal to evangelize. I wonder if that won't happen someday here and if it does find that chapter. Find that chapter. And it'll give you a hint of what we're to be about. But, it's a time of crisis and they prayed. It's a time of trouble and they prayed. And have you discovered that trials produce praying people? Have you discovered that people may not pray a whole lot normally but when life is really hard, boy do they become good prayers. And could that be an indication (I'm not saying it is, but could that be to why God allows our life to be spiced up by with just enough trials to keep us saying, "oh yeah, I really need you. I really depend upon you." I mentioned that ABC quip that I shared at the beginning by Don Harris? And he said that the rich are less likely to pray than the not-so-rich. Let me flesh that out. Forty-eight percent will pray daily, the forty-eight percent that make over $100,000 while sixty-four percent, those making under $30,000 will pray daily to God. And then he asked this question? What does that mean with this present economic downturn? Could it be that God will use this to get our nation on its knees and praying more than ever before? I heard about a sign in a principal's office, in a school, public school, where you can't pray in school. And the sign simply said, "In the event of a nuclear attack or a fire or an earhquake, the ban on prayer is temporarily lifted." You can't stop people from praying in school. You can be at a school, you can pray anytime you want. Somebody said, "As long as there are final exams to take, there will always be prayer in school."
But let's look at the pattern, let's look at the pattern of this prayer meeting. This prayer had perspective, verse 24, "You are God who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them." Now that is a confident beginning. It had perspective. Who are they talking to? Lord, you're God, you made everything. I discovered the word Lord is a very unusual word, it's not the typical word used for Lord in the New Testament. It's the Greek word despota, despota. It means despot, autocrat, single ruler, absolute ruler, dictator. And that's who they're praying to, they realize they're not talking here to Herod, they're not talking to Pilate, they're not talking to Caesar, the Lord, who made them and as the autocrat of the universe has it all in his hands. God's sovereign, and I'm reminding myself as I pray that that's the one I'm praying to, despota, you are God. That's the best way to begin your prayer, not in weakness but realize who you're praying to. Jeremiah did that, in Jeremiah 32 verse 17 he begins, "All sovereign Lord, you who have made the heavens, the earth, and by your great power and outstretched arm, nothing is too hard for you." It's best to pray that way because it's easier to have faith for what you're about to ask when you realize to whom you're praying, when you realize this is the one you're praying to. Se could use a perspective adjustment I believe. I believe that, I think too often we'll carry our limitations over onto God and we will come like, "I don't know if you can do anything about this or not." Wait a minute, "You're the Lord, you're God, you made the haven and the earth." Just understand and ralize for aminute that you are one of 6.7 billion people on the earth, you're just one of them, that's how small you are in comparison to the earth, you're one of 6.7 billion people on this earth, this dirtclod, it's 8000 miles in diameter, spinning around through space at 45,000 miles per hour as it rotates a thousand miles per hour, you're just one of 6.7 billion people on that big old dirtclod. But that big old dirtclod is really tiny in comparison to the whole universes that God made. So the earth is 93 million miles away from the sun, the sun is 860,000 miles in diameter and you can fit 1.2 million balls the size of the arth inside the sun. So you're really small compared to the earth and the sun and that's just the nearest star. That's just the nearest star and that's just the Milky Way galaxy. And that Milky Way galaxy we've told you before is ten thousand by a hundred thousand light years. So if you could travel at 186,000 miles per second for a hundred thousand years, you've just gone to the front yard of your universe because that's one of billions of galaxies. God made that. You're talking to That One. So, "I've got a problem." But That One's going to handle it. "People are attacking me." You're going to tell That One to sic 'em. That's what they did here, "You're God, you made all of that and you can hear their threats." That's the one you are praying to, it was a prayer with perspective.
Now in verse 25 through 28, they quote Psalm 2. It's interesting, they're praying, they realize who they're praying to, and they quote an Old Testament psalm in their prayer to God. I know that God already knows Psalm 2, it's not like he's going, "Oh." The reason they do that is to adjust their perspective. And here's why knowing the Bible helps you in your prayer life: The more you know the Bible the more you realize how big God is, you know the plan of God, the power of God, the might of God displayed, all of that comes into your remembrance for your perspective as you pray for whatever it is you pray for. Knowing the scripture and setting the beginning of your prayer to whom you're talking is a good way to adjust your perspective.
One of my assistant pastors has a great great plaque in his office. And it made an impact on me one day. The first time I noticed it, I walked in, I was a little bit frazzled over an issue, this was many many year ago, and I saw the plaque on this desk, it said, "God never panics." And that's what they realized here. I'm talking to the God who never panics because he's the one who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in it. It was a prayer with perspective.
The second thing that it had was balance. Now let's read this together: verse 25, "Who by the mouth of your servant David has said, 'Why did the nations rage and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ. For truly against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate with the Gentiles and the people of Israel were gathered together to do whatever your hand and your purpose determined before to be done." It wasn't just a prayer with perspective, but as they're realizing with the help of scripture the right perspective, they're basically saying, "You're awesome." It was balanced in that it was filled with the acknowledgement and the praise of God, not just a request. It wasn't a request. In fact, in this whole prayer you don't even get to the request until verse 29. The first part of the prayer is acknowledging who God is, what God has done, what the scripture says, how awesome God is. It's filled with that acknowledgement of praise and worship. There's five verses of that, it's a respectful approach. It wasn't, "God I need help, I want.., I must have or I'll die. Amen." It was, "You're God, you're the Lord, you mae this, the Psalm this and that, it's because you are this way and that way," and then they make the request. Now isn't that exactly how Jesus taught us to pray? He said, "And when you pray, say, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed (blessed, holy, to be praised) is your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done." Before you even get to the "Give us this day our daily bread" part. That came first. I love that. It was a balanced prayer. I love the little girl who went into her bedroom she announced, the pray. She didn't come out for a long time. When she came out, her parent said, "What have you been doing in there?" She said, "Oh, I've been praying. I've just been telling God how much I love him and he's been telling me how much he loves me. And we've just been loving on each other." Oh, that's beautiful. That's prayer. It's not just the request. It's loving on each other. And the early church was doing that with their Lord in this prayer meeting.
The third thing is that it had direction. It had direction. It was specific. Verse 29 they get right down to it, "Now Lord, look on their threats and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word." What? They prayed for that? This is what got them in trouble, this is what got them arrested, their boldness. Now they're asking for more of what got them in trouble in the first place. And I daresay there may come a time in our country in the not too distant future when you and I will need to pray that prayer. Give us boldness to represent Christ faithfully in a world and in a country that is not favorable toward that message. "By stretching out your hand to heal that signs and wonders may be done to the name of your holy servant Jesus." What I want you to notice here is their prayer wasn't vague, it was specific, it was very directed, very specific. It wasn't some vague wispy prayer like, "God bless every need spoken and unspoken. Just bless. Amen." That doesn't do much. Would you walk into a restaurant and announce to the maitre'd or to the waiter or waitrees, "I have a general food need. Bless me." You won't get any help until you go, "I want number 3 on the menu." And when you are specific enough to tell them what you want, then you'll get it.
Somebody once said to a group of preachers, I was there, "Never preach to be understood. But preach so it's impossible to be misunderstood." I would say, "Never pray to be understood. Pray so it's impossible to be misunderstood." Not that god needs informing. Not that God needs it, it's that you and I need it. The more specific you and I are in our prayers, when it happens, you can look back and then go, "I prayed for that specifically." And your faith is bolstered for the next go-round.
Fourth and finally, this prayer had results. Verse 31 tells us the results, "and when they had prayed the place where they were assembled together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke the word of God with boldness." So the prayer that had perspective and balance and direction was the one that worked, it was the one that was powerful.
Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscles of omnipotence. It's that slender nerve, it might be even praye din weakness but when you pray with perspective and direction and balance, it is powerful. "The fervent effective prayer of a righteous man," James said, "avails much."
So the whole idea in a nutshell is this, one word, dependence. You know when you pray you know what you're saying? You're confessing your dependence on God. And you know what you are saying when you don't pray. You're saying, "I'm independent. Don't need any help, got it covered." And isn't the root of all sin even from the beginning with Adam and Eve, they were independent of God. Prayer is saying, "God, I can't do life without you, I depend upon you. Everything I depend upon you. God created us to be dependent upon him. And to be interdependent with each other. Notice the connection between
I came across some wisdom from a father in a little book. The father, the author, was cooking breakfast one morning for his family and his little eight-year-old had a joke, "Hey Dad, how do you eat an egg without cracking the shelll?" The dad thought about it, finally conceded he didn't know the answer. And the little boy said, "By getting somebody else to crack it for you." And so he worte, "This reminded me of some church people. They want the benefits the church has to offer without sharing responsibilities. They want revival as long as someone else does the praying. They want good programs as long as somebody else does the work. But if you want to eat eggs, you're going to have break some shells." Let me tell you how to break some shells. Break this shell: find somebody to pray with. Don't just pray in your life alone. If you're a husband, learn to pray with your family, your wife, you head that up, you take the initiative, you break that shell. Pray with small groups, the church is open all during the week, you are more than welcome anytime you're in the area to stop in and pray in the prayer room or in the sanctuary. I'd love to see that happen. I remember the time when this church had an active prayer ministry around the clock. People signed up for once a month, just a four-hour shift and we had people in a prayer room 24/7, anybody could call at any time and there'd be people on the other end praying for that person. Loved to see that again, I challenge the army to be raised up to take that banner once again. That's number one.
Number two, if you lead any small group at all in this church, if you're a pastor on this staff, let me remind you that your priorities include prayer. Not strategizing, not planning, not coming up with cool graphics for whatever. But first and foremost prayer and the ministry of the word.
Number three, I want you to know after this service, we do it every service, but after this service in particular, we're going to have the leadership of the church, small group leaders, pastors, at the front of this church; we would love to bring your need, your life, your situation before the Lord and specifically ask him to do what is needed. I think he'll honor that.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the church, the one that Jesus said he would build, the one that we see develop in this historical narrative of the book of Acts and the very one that we are a part of now. We thank you for the church in general, but we thank you for our local body. And we pray Lord that your Spirit would direct our involvement in this local body of believers. Not to watch but to work. Not to peer but to practice and to pray. In Jesus' name. Amen.