A Place to Pray

Acts 4:23-31

January 31, 1999 | Ray Pritchard

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“If you do not know that life is war, you will not know what prayer is for.” John Piper

The sun had almost slipped beneath the horizon in the little village of Pucuro in the Darien region of Panama, not far from the border with Colombia. As three missionary families prepared to end their day, a group of armed guerrillas entered the village. They seized control of the village square and sent teams of men to each missionary home. At gun point they captured Mark Rich, Rick Tenenoff, and Dave Mankins. The men were tied up, and their wives were instructed to prepare small packages of clothing for them. Then the guerrillas took the three missionaries with them, disappearing into the night on a trail that leads to the Colombian border.

They were kidnapped exactly six years ago today. They remain hostages, separated from their families, held by guerrillas who view them as pawns in a deadly game of political intrigue. In the years since then, New Tribes Mission has received numerous confirmations that they are indeed still alive. Their wives and children wait in hope that someday soon they will be released. It is our privilege to join with thousands of other churches in praying that God will set them free. Their only crime was bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Kuna people of Panama and Colombia. They came in peace, teaching the people to read and write, and were translating the Bible into the Kuna language. Their efforts were cut short on January 31, 1993.

Burned Alive

This kind of thing is happening with growing frequency around the globe. Earlier this week I received an e-mail message containing a letter from Sam Mall, known to many of you for his work as pastor of the International Free Church of Chicago. Several years ago he felt called to return to his native India. Here is part of what he said:

This is a needy hour for prayer in India. The atrocities against Christians who are a minority in India are nothing new. The radical Hindu wing has always persecuted them and put them down. Most Christians are poor and oppressed. The cruel attacks on the Christian community, churches, ministries and individuals have now escalated to an alarming proportion. This Christmas season was called “Black Christmas” when many Christian Schools and Churches were burned and people beaten and killed. There is a high-powered propaganda, hate and anti-conversion campaign launched by organizations inclined to purge India of non-Hindu elements. The hate propaganda against Christians has been going on now for years but now a growing call is being made for violence against them. The government is unable to protect or help the minorities. Just today a new report came from Orissa where an Australian doctor who had dedicated his life to work among the lepers was burnt alive in his station wagon.

Graham Staines (58), and his two sons, Philip (9) and Timothy (7), were burnt to death. The assailants poured gasoline on the station wagon in which Mr. Staines and his sons were sleeping and set it on fire. When people from the nearby village attempted to rescue Mr. Staines and his sons, the mob beat them off.

Mr. Staines was a secretary for the Evangelical Missionary Society of Australia and worked with World Vision in running a home for lepers.

Sam Mall goes on to list a number of prayer requests for India, including that suffering believers will be strong in their faith. He concludes with these words:

Prayer is THE most important thing you can do for India at this needy time. People have been coming to Christ in India. This is a major reason for the increased persecution. RECOGNIZE THAT AS YOU PRAY FOR GOD’S SPIRIT TO MOVE IN INDIA, THE RESULT COULD BE INCREASED ACTS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST THE BELIEVERS. As people come to Christ, there will be resistance. That is what we have seen happening. Prayer is ALWAYS a serious business. (caps are his)

I am struck by that last sentence because it could have been taken from the book of Acts. 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. That is why we are hearing of increasing anti-Christian terrorism in India, China, Indonesia, and parts of Africa and the Middle East. A Regent University study reports that worldwide more Christians were martyred in 1995 than in the entire first century – 156,000 people. According to Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute in Washington, that persecution takes the form of slavery, murder, starvation, looting, burning and torture. Listen to what Chuck Colson says:

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.

I. A Serious Crisis 23

Our text tells the story of a 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. Acts 3 tells us that he was not only 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 (Acts 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 defense before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court (Acts 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.

So 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 term paper about the most important person you know?

And 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.

II. A Fervent Prayer 24-30

Before I talk about what they did, let me point out what they might have done but didn’t do.

* They might have organized 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 did in Jerusalem what New Tribes Mission asked us to do for the three missionaries and what Sam Mall says we need to do for India. 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.

Let me point out a few features of this marvelous prayer:

a. It was united prayer. Verse 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 (verses 25-26) contains a quotation from Psalm 2:1-2, which describes the world’s hostility to God. By quoting this passage, the Christians were affirming their agreement with God that the people of the world have always hated the Lord. As Lloyd Ogilvie points out, this quotation also means that 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 (verses 27-28). Pause for a moment and consider this amazing statement. Verse 27 is history—This is what just happened to Jesus. Verse 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, i.e., “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. There is no note of imprecation in this prayer. Note also that 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 thus more notoriety) and then for boldness to preach when the persecution resumed.

As I consider this prayer two things stand out: First, 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.

Second, 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. And give us the courage to stand firm and the boldness to speak your truth.”

III. An Amazing Answer 31

Verse 31 tells us that God answered their prayer in three ways:

A. The place where they were praying was shaken—a sign of God’s presence.

B. The 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 this message by considering three 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. Donald Grey Barnhouse called it “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 Village Hall or with the White House or the media or the homosexual community? We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, and the rulers of the spirit world who fight against the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:12). 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 that crassly, 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 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 hear those stories from Panama and India and we think, “We’re safe in Oak Park.” But 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.

That and that alone explains why Mrs. Graham Staines went on Indian television this week and publicly forgave the people who burned her husband and her sons to death. And she did it in the name of Jesus. She understood the reason her husband came to India in the first place. This is part of what Jesus meant when he said that anyone who would be his disciple must “hate” his own life.

When will we learn that our own personal peace and safety isn’t the central issue? And 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 (Psalm 139:16). 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.

This afternoon over a billion people will watch the Super Bowl. May I remind you that it is just a game. And they play it again next year. But what we’re talking about is ultimate reality—investing your life in that which will outlast your short stay on planet earth. Everything else pales in comparison.

Let’s close by repeating the last few sentences from the letter Sam Mall wrote:

AS YOU PRAY FOR GOD’S SPIRIT TO MOVE IN INDIA, THE RESULT COULD BE INCREASED ACTS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST THE BELIEVERS. As people come to Christ, there will be resistance. That is what we have seen happening. 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.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?