The Church on its Knees: Unleashing the Power of United Prayer
April 19, 1998
“Prayer is that slender nerve that moves the muscles of omnipotence.”
I don’t often begin a sermon with a confession, but this week it seems the appropriate thing to do. Over the years whenever I have prepared to preach on prayer, I have always approached my task with a bit of reluctance. It is not that I don’t believe in prayer, or that I don’t pray, or that I don’t like to preach on this topic. None of those things are true. My difficulty lies entirely in another area.
Even though I have been a Christian for nearly 30 years, I still find prayer to be an enormous challenge. It doesn’t come naturally to me, never has, and for all I know, it never will. Real prayer is hard work that involves the mind, the soul, the heart, and the will. It also demands a certain amount of bodily concentration. None of this is easy for me.
As I look at my own life, I find that I pray in fits and starts. There are moments when I feel I am touching the hem of his garment, then somehow I seem to lose my grip. This distresses me when I consider the apostolic injunction to “pray without ceasing” because all too often I seem to “cease without praying.” I hesitate to speak this way because I know that my experience is not universal. I truly believe that God gives some people the gift of prayer just like he gives others the gift of music. They know how to pray the way some people know how to make beautiful music on the violin. Over the years I have known Christians who pray for several hours each day. It is hard for me to know what to say about that except that I stand in amazement at such a gift and such a dedication to God.
There is another side to all this, and I take comfort in it. We know that God doesn’t gift all his children in the same way. One teaches, another sings, another cooks, another serves on a committee, another leads the children’s choir, another writes to the missionaries. And so it goes. We aren’t all alike, which is good because how boring the church would be if we all were cut from the same cloth. Even if you don’t have the gift of prayer, you can learn from those who do. Over the years I’ve grown close to many people who love to pray and do it much better than I do. They are in graduate school and I’m still playing with the blocks in kindergarten.
I say all that so that you will know that when I preach on prayer, I’m talking to myself first. When you point a finger at someone else, it always means you have three fingers pointing back at yourself. That certainly is true this morning.
The Christian’s Secret Weapon
We have come in our study of Acts 1 to the first prayer meeting of the Christian era. It happens just after Christ ascends to heaven, leaving the disciples alone in the world. As I studied the commentators this week, many of stressed that the Christian church was born not in a preaching service but in a prayer meeting.
I take from that the following truth: Whenever God wants to do something great in the world, he first stirs his people to pray. When God wants to touch a family, a church, a city or a nation, he begins by moving his people to pray. Prayer is always the first stage in God’s plan to change to the world. In the words of S. D. Gordon, we can do many things once we have prayed, we can do nothing until we have prayed. One of my mentors—Dr. Lee Roberson—put this way: “Prayer is the Christian’s secret weapon, forged in the realms of glory.”
Our subject today is not prayer in general, but united prayer. It’s about what happens when Christians come together to seek God’s face. When the church is on its knees, heaven stands at attention. This truth deserves our consideration because in a congregation as active as ours, it’s easy to forget that everything depends on God. We are what we are by the grace of God, and without him, we are nothing at all.
I. Where They Were 12-13a
“When they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying.” Acts 1:12-13a
We learn two facts of interest here.
1) They were in the region of the Mount of Olives.
2) They returned to the Upper Room in Jerusalem.
The Mount of Olives is on the east side of the old city of Jerusalem—just across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount area. The west side of the mountain is dotted with thousands of Jewish graves, buried so that in the day of resurrection they will be raised facing Jerusalem. When Luke tells us they were about “a Sabbath day’s walk away,” he refers to the Jewish tradition that restricted walking on the Sabbath to approximately 2000 paces or roughly 3/4ths of a mile.
Luke also tells us that they returned to “the Upper Room” in Jerusalem. This may be the same Upper Room where Jesus and his disciples met for the Last Supper—but no one can be certain. If you visit the Holy Land today, your guide will take you to a place called the Upper Room, but it was built by the Crusaders about 800 years ago.
More important is the fact that the disciples obeyed their Master’s orders to return to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). Luke 24:52 tells us that after the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. No doubt their hearts were full as they wondered what would happened next.
II. Who Was There 13b, 14b
“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… . along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Acts 1:13b, 14b
Luke also tells us who attended this first prayer meeting of the Christian era. We can divide the attendees into three groups—and learn something instructive from each one.
1. The eleven remaining apostles
Jesus chose 12 apostles, but Judas defected and betrayed him to the Jewish rulers. That left the eleven listed here. Peter comes first as always, followed by the two bothers John and James. John wrote five books of the New Testament and was exiled to the island of Patmos while John was put to death by Herod Agrippa 1 (Acts 12:2). The list also includes Matthew the tax collector and Simon the political zealot. Finally, there is another Judas—not Judas Iscariot—but Judas the son of James. Of these eleven apostles we might simply say that if Jesus conquered the world through such unlikely men, it was not due to anything in them but only by the power of the risen Christ who worked through them. They weren’t bad men, but they weren’t high on anyone’s list of movers and shakers.
Yet these men would indeed go on to change the world—and it has remained changed to this very day. Which reminds us that God can do incredible things through unlikely people.
2. Mary and the other women
We can’t say for sure who these other women are. We only know from the gospels that women constituted a large part of Jesus’ following from the very beginning. He proclaimed a liberating message that lifted women from despair and shame to freedom and fulfillment. In his gospel Luke comments that as Jesus traveled throughout Israel a group of women whose lives he had changed followed him from place to place. They provided support for Christ and his disciples from their own means (Luke 8:1-3). No doubt many of those same women were in the upper room praying with the men.
It may interest you to know that Acts 1:14 contains the final mention of Mary in the New Testament. She became a follower of her son—the Lord Jesus—and joined the disciples in worshipping and praying to him. I should mention that there is no evidence in the New Testament that anyone ever prayed to Mary or that anyone ever called her “the mother of God” or assigned her a special role in the Christian church. All of that came long after the ending of the New Testament and rests more on tradition than on anything in the Bible.
3. Brothers of Jesus
It may come as a surprise to know that Jesus had brothers. Some Christian groups teach a doctrine called the Perpetual Virginity of Mary—the idea that she and Joseph never had sexual relations and that she never gave birth to anyone besides Jesus. This verse (among others—see, for instance, Mark 6:3) decisively refutes that theory. For Jesus to have brothers means that after he was born, Joseph and Mary conceived children in the normal way and that Jesus had younger brothers and sisters who grew up with him. It appears that during his lifetime his family didn’t know what to make of him. Mark 3:21 tells us that at one point they thought he was mentally disturbed. In John 7:3-5 his brothers clearly are not yet believers. Evidently they came to personal faith in Christ after his resurrection from the dead. This tells us two things: 1) Proximity to Jesus does not guarantee faith—so don’t take anything for granted, 2) Those who today are unbelievers may come to Christ tomorrow—so don’t ever give up on your loved ones.
III. What They Were Doing 14a
“They all joined together constantly in prayer.” Verse 14 tells us that while they waited for the Holy Spirit to come, they spent time together praying. In his sermon on this text, James Montgomery Boice comments that they might have used the time in other ways. They could have gone back to their old occupations or they might have started doing the work of evangelism. That’s understandable because most of us are people of action. We want to get moving, to do something, anything, but for goodness sake, don’t just sit there, get up, son, and get going. Don’t let life pass you by.
That’s usually great advice. But it’s not always the will of God. Sometimes God says, “I want you to wait.” Those times are hard and discouraging, but often they bring about the greatest spiritual growth. God uses the “waiting room” experiences of life to promote our spiritual growth, to redirect our priorities, and to develop godly character.
In this case God wanted the church to learn how to pray. And not just to pray in general, but to learn how to pray together. Their praying was …
1. Unanimous—”all joined together constantly”
Acts 1:14 says they were all together. Here is an overlooked secret of the early church. Over and over again Luke stresses that what they did, they did together. All of them. United and unanimous.
I’m all for praying alone, secret prayer, quiet times, and going to a solitary place to talk to God. Jesus did that often and so should we. We need to pray—and for most of us, true prayer begins as we cry out to God from the depths of our soul.
But that’s not the only kind of prayer the Bible mentions. There is a time and place for God’s people to come together unitedly and unanimously to cry out to God. Too often it takes a calamity to bring the church to its knees. If you were here in 1977, you remember how the church gathered to pray after our buildings burned down one Saturday night and we had nowhere to meet. In those days we prayed because if the Lord didn’t help us, we were sunk. Many of us have gathered over the years in prayer meetings for loved ones facing surgery or in home meetings praying for revival.
Why is united prayer so important? The answer is, by praying together we can encourage each other to seek the Lord. When one person gets weary, another through prayer can lift him up. We can keep each other on the road of holiness by meeting regularly for prayer. Let me make this personal and practical. Do you have anyone or any group with whom you meet on a regular basis for prayer? If the answer is no, you need to do something about it. You’re missing out on a large part of what God wants to do in you and through you.
2. Harmonious—”all joined together constantly”
Luke uses a particular Greek word to stress the harmony of their prayers. The word is homothumadon, which the King James translates with the lovely phrase “in one accord.” It’s a musical term that means to strike the same notes together. We all know what it is to listen to a choir sing and the music is lovely and lilting and then without warning, someone hits a wrong note. The discordant sound sticks out like a sore thumb. When the early church prayed, there were no “wrong notes”–no ugly attitudes, no pointing fingers, no pity parties, no gossipy stories, no secrets told behind closed doors.
When people don’t like each other, they can’t pray together very long. Either you’ll stop criticizing or you’ll stop praying because you can’t do both at the same time.
3. Continuous—”all joined together constantly”
Our text says they prayed “constantly.” Darby uses the word “continual,” while Weymouth says they “continued earnest” in prayer. The word has the idea of “obstinate determination.” It means that when they prayed, they were deadly serious about it and nothing could stop them. They weren’t playing, they were praying—and there is a difference.
What is the importance of all this? Why the stress on praying unanimously, harmoniously, and continually? The answer is simple: Acts 1:12-14 gives us a pattern for how the church should operate in every age. Nothing that matters has changed across the centuries. Superficially we are much different than that tiny band in Jerusalem. We have so much compared with the little they had. There are nearly 2 billion Christians in the world instead of several hundred. We have our vast libraries filled with Christian literature and they didn’t even have the New Testament. We have millions of churches, they had one congregation in an upper room.
But there is a direct line between that upper room and every Christian church in the world—and between Jerusalem and Oak Park. When we read Acts 1, we’re to understand that this is what the church is to do. We’re to wait on God, and while we wait, we’re to gather together in worship and prayer—unanimously, harmoniously, continually.
A Bargain Price For God’s Spirit
There is a flip side to this truth. Listen to words of Lloyd Ogilvie:
I have never known a contentious group to receive the Holy Spirit. Nor have I ever seen a church in which division and disunity prevailed receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit. If we want power from the Holy Spirit as individuals, we need to do a relational inventory: Everyone forgiven? Any restitutions to be done? Any need to communicate healing to anyone? As congregations we cannot be empowered until we are of one mind and heart, until we love each other as Christ has loved us, and until we heal all broken relationships. The price seems high! But it’s a bargain price for what can happen through Pentecost power. (Drumbeat of Love, p. 20)
I love that quote because it has proved true in my own experience. In my early years as a pastor I didn’t appreciate the value of unity in the body of Christ. Looking back, I can see that I took it for granted and therefore didn’t understand what it means to have “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). But then I went through a very sad experience as a church completely lost its unity. When that was gone, it was only a matter of time until the church itself almost disappeared.
True Christian unity is one of God’s best gifts. If you have it, your church will be blessed in every way. If you lose it, how hard it is to get it back again. I want to say frankly that I have never been in a church where the spirit of unity has been greater than that which is present in our congregation right now. That is not our doing and is not to our credit, but the glory belongs entirely to the Lord. Let us be grateful and strive in the Spirit to maintain the unity he has given us. If we do, there is no limit to what God can do through us.
Where Revival Begins
That brings me to my final point, which is that in the history of the Christian church every great revival has been preceded by a season of serious, united prayer. While I believe that revival is a sovereign work of God sent by him and not created by us, I also believe that when God wants to do a great work, he usually begins by stirring his church to pray. Our prayers do not bring revival, but they do prepare us to receive all that God has for us. I hear it said that America may be ripe for a great spiritual awakening. I don’t know how true that is, but I am certain that we stand greatly in need of a national spiritual awakening. When I consider the moral decay of our land stretching from the White House to the courthouse to the schoolhouse to every house, I know that we desperately need an outpouring of God’s Spirit.
If we truly want revival, we should pray for it and prepare for it and ask God to send it. That is as much as we can do. After that, we must do what the early disciples did—wait patiently for God’s answer. But that waiting time is not wasted time if we use it to pray together unanimously, harmoniously, and continuously.
If a thirsty man wants water, he must come to the fountain with his cup right side up. Even so, if the church wants revival in a big way, we must come to God with our cups right side up.
As a matter of practical application, I want to ask this question: With whom do you pray on a regular basis? How many here have a prayer partner? How many here attend a small group where you pray together? Who prays with you and for you day by day?
I would urge upon you two practical steps: 1) That every Christian here commit to join a prayer group on a regular basis, 2) That every Christian here commit to praying on a regular basis with a prayer partner. As your pastor I am making those two commitments today.
May God help us to become a praying church. Amen.