Praying God’s Purposes

Acts 4:23-31

September 14, 2003 | Brian Bill

A bus driver and a minister are standing in line to get into heaven.  The bus driver approaches the gate and Peter says…

[By the way, I don’t think we’ll be in a line when we get to heaven and I’m not sure if Peter will have the job of being the gatekeeper.  We’re going to address the doctrine of salvation in greater detail next Sunday when we focus on “Personalizing God’s Purposes” by answering the question posed by the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:30: “What must I do to be saved?”  If you’re wondering how to become a Christian, how you can have your sins forgiven, and how to have the certainty of going to heaven when you die, make sure you come back next week – and bring a friend with you].  

Let me try that again.  A bus driver and a minister are standing in line to get into heaven.  The bus driver approaches the gate and Peter says, “Welcome!  I understand you were a bus driver.  See that mansion over there?  It’s yours.”  The minister hears all this and begins to stand a little taller as he says to himself, “If a bus driver gets a place like that, I can’t wait to see what I’ll get.”  The minister hurries up to the gate and is welcomed by Peter, “I understand you were a minister.  See that shack in the valley.  It’s yours.” 

The minister is shocked and starts to complain, “I was a pastor.  I preached the gospel; I helped teach people about God.  Why does that bus driver get a mansion and I get a shack?”  To which Peter responds, “Well, when you preached, people slept.  When the bus driver drove, people prayed!”

I want to be more like a bus driver this morning!  My aim is not to pile on prayer “guilt” or to just preach on the principles of prayer.  Because I don’t want this sermon to be a snoozer we’re going to have 5 different people leading us in prayer at different points during the message.  Most of us don’t need more proof about prayer; we need to practice it more.  I think it’s true that nothing is discussed more and practiced less than prayer.  Even though I’m a preacher, I agree with the person who said, “Preaching moves people but prayer moves God.”

As we continue in our mini-series from the Book of Acts, one thing becomes immediately evident – the early church prayed and God moved!  In fact, prayer is paramount in 14 of the first 15 chapters.  In chapter 1, after Jesus ascended into heaven, verse 14 states, “They all joined together constantly in prayer…”  In Acts 2:42 we read that the early church was devoted to prayer.  When we come to Acts 3:1, we see that Peter and John headed to “the temple at the time of prayer…” As they made their way to pray, God brought them a guy that had been lame since birth who asked them for money.

Peter’s response was beautiful: “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”   This caused quite a stir because the man started, “walking and jumping and praising God.”  People were filled with wonder and amazement.  Verse 11 reveals that they were “astonished.”  

Peter sees this as an opportunity to preach so he calls for repentance and faith in Jesus as he points to fulfilled prophecy from their own Scriptures.  The religious leaders don’t like this at all.  Acts 4:2 says they were “greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.”  As a result, Peter and John spend a night in the slammer.  Verse 4 tells us that many who heard this message believed, “and the number of men grew to about five thousand.”

The religious leaders are now really torqued.  Peter and John are interrogated by their Supreme Court, and Peter stuns them with his response in verse 10: “…it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.”  He then drives home the essence of the gospel message in Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”  One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible comes right after this: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Are people astonished when they look at us?  Can they tell that we’ve been with Jesus?

The leaders realize that they have a revival on their hands and so they start threatening Peter and John in verse 18, commanding “them to not speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”  I love their response: “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  After threatening them further, they let them go because all the people were praising God for what had happened.

The Christians went from one crisis to another, and the only reason they persevered was because they prayed

Can you imagine what Peter and John must have been feeling at the end of that day?  They saw the Almighty do amazing things but they had also faced some enraged enemies.  That’s really the story of the Book of Acts.  The Christians went from one crisis to another, and the only reason they persevered was because they prayed.  That’s what we see next in verses 23-31.  This is the longest prayer recorded in Acts and encompasses all five of the purposes we will be studying during our “40 Days of Purpose” journey.

We’re Formed For God’s Family

They were out on the front lines and took some hits and now they needed some hugs.  Look at verse 23: “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.”  The phrase, “own people” refers to family, friends, and close Christians.  Its used one other time in Acts, in 24:23, where it says that Felix ordered Paul to be kept under guard but to allow his “friends to take care of his needs.”  It’s noteworthy that Peter and John’s first impulse was to find their faithful friends.  Do you have a similar response when you’re wiped out by the world around you?  Do you have a group of people with whom you can share answered prayers?  There’s really nothing like being part of a biblical community. 

In verse 24, we see that the group’s immediate response was to go to God.  They came together collectively in order to pray in concert with one another: “When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God…”  One commentator I read this week suggests that this was probably one person praying while the whole community gave “audible assent” to what was prayed.  This is very similar to what we discover in Deuteronomy 27 when the people responded to the Levites by saying, “Amen.”  In Nehemiah 5:13, we read that saying “Amen” was a way of declaring both praise and commitment: “At this the whole assembly said, ‘Amen,’ and praised the LORD.  And the people did as they had promised.”  The word literally means, “True and reliable” and was used to describe Jesus in Revelation 3:14.  

The early church incorporated the words of Jeremiah 28:6 as an affirmation: “Amen! May the LORD do so!”  We see this in 1 Corinthians 14:16 where Paul suggests that one must understand a prayer in order to say “Amen.”  Jerome, one of the church fathers, writes that at the conclusion of public prayer the united voice of the people sounded like the fall of water or the noise of thunder (Unger’s Bible Dictionary).  The challenge is to engage in intercession when someone is praying out loud.  This takes work and focus.  Let’s try that right now.  As we’re led in prayer, concentrate on what is being said and pray the words as if they were your own.  It might even be helpful for you to repeat the word “Amen” as a way of staying engaged during the prayer. 

We’re Planned for God’s Pleasure

After Peter and John go back to their people, they break out into praise.  They take five verses to tell God who He is, and just two verses to ask what they want from Him.  In essence, they are praying exactly how Jesus taught them to pray.  They are “hallowing” God’s name in praise before they make any petitions.  They are worshipping before they express their wants.  What a good model for us to follow!

Look at how this prayer begins: “Sovereign Lord.”  The Greek word here is the word from which we derive “despot.”  This title calls to mind God’s powerful and absolute control.  It’s good for us to be reminded that when everything around us is changing, God is in charge.  He has purposes much greater than we can know and therefore we can have confidence in His absolute control.  

After acknowledging His control, next they adore God as the Creator: “You made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”  The implication here is that since the One who created the world is in control of all things, they don’t have to worry or wonder if what has happened to them is outside of His purposes.  By affirming God’s rightful rule over His creation, they are worshiping Him for His sweet sovereignty.

Friend, worshipping God is what you and I have been designed for.  We have been planned for His pleasure.  When we go through problems and difficulties and stresses and conflict and money struggles, the most important thing we can do is to set our minds on God’s sovereignty.  Our problems become smaller only when our view of God is enlarged.  When we gather together in worship we sometimes talk about “magnifying” the Lord.  That means that we “see Him bigger” than we do right now.  Psalm 34:3: “O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together.”  Because He is in control, we can trust Him.  Are you wigging out?  If so, it’s time to worship His worthiness and acknowledge His right to rule your life.  Have you surrendered to His sovereignty?

There is no problem that you have that is bigger than God’s ability to solve it. There is also no problem that you have that is bigger than God’s ability to use it.  

We’re Created to Become Like Christ

In verses 25-28, we see that these disciples took their discipleship seriously.  As part of their prayer, they quoted directly from Psalm 2: “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.”  These saints were saturated in the Scriptures!  We could say that they were “Bible Christians” as they prayed the promises and prophesies of God right back to Him.  Have you ever done that?  The Christians in the Book of Acts knew the Bible.  Did you know there are about two hundred references to the Old Testament in just this one book?  They were simply following Jesus as He referred to the Old Testament at least ninety times in the Gospels.

This prayer reveals that they not only knew the Bible, they were also able to apply it to their lives.  They saw that their situation was similar to what David had prophesied about.  The word “rage” was used to describe the sound produced by spirited horses.  Barclay suggests that like horses, the authorities “may trample and toss their heads, but in the end they will have to accept the discipline of the reins.”  These enemies were throwing their heads around but they were doing so in “vain,” which is a word that refers to “empty things.”  Even if the whole world lined up against the “Anointed One,” which is a reference to Christ, it won’t amount to anything.  In Psalm 2:4, which is not quoted here, we read that the Lord scoffs and laughs at their plans.  

In verse 27, they recognize that even the conspiracy of Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel was all part of God’s plan: “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”  These disciples had no trouble with the doctrine of predestination because they knew that God’s power always carries out His will.  

He is the God of creation and the God of history and He is totally in control.  Earlier, in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, he affirmed God’s election in Acts 2:23: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge…”  These believers took comfort in God’s purposes and so should we, even when we don’t understand everything.  Because God is sovereign, we have nothing to fear if we are obedient.  He is the supreme historian because he wrote all history before it ever began.

We’re Shaped for Serving God

It’s amazing to me that after this protracted prayer of praise, these believers give only a passing reference to their problem in verse 29“Now Lord, consider their threats…”  As someone has said, “When we gaze at our sovereign God, we need only to glance at our problems.”  They were so caught up in God’s supremacy that they almost forgot about their situation!  I want you to notice that they don’t ask God to extinguish the authorities or to take away all their problems.  One pastor said that he might have prayed, “May their vocal cords dry up and their tongues fall out.”  Instead, they simply want God to “consider” their situation.

They then make two requests.  

  • Boldness in speaking.  They understand that they have been blessed in order to be a blessing to others: “…enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.”  They were more concerned about serving than they were about their safety.  Wiersbe writes that they wanted divine enablement, not escape.  Philip Brooks put it this way: “Do not pray for easy lives.  Pray to be stronger men and women.  Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers.  Pray for powers equal to your tasks.” 
  • Power in serving.  Peter and John had experienced the authentication of God’s power when the lame man got up and started dancing.  In verse 30, they ask for God to heal and perform the miraculous through their ministry: “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Let’s not be afraid to ask God to work His signs and wonders!  He still heals and does amazing things today. 

We’re Made for a Mission

It’s significant that the only two requests in this prayer have to do with evangelism.  Notice how quickly the answer comes in verse 31: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”  It reminds me of what God says in Isaiah 65:24: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.”

In the Old Testament, when a place was shaken, it was a sign of a theophany, or a manifestation of God in a visible form.  When God met with Moses in Exodus 19:18, we read that the “mountain trembled violently” and when Isaiah encountered God’s presence in Isaiah 6:4 the “doorposts and thresholds shook.”  These “walking Bibles” would have recognized this as a divine response to prayer.  They were then filled with the Holy Spirit, which results in courage to communicate the gospel message. This is exactly what they had asked for.  

Friends, God has given us power to proclaim His purposes!  2 Timothy 1:8: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power…”  This power is unleashed as we pray because prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance but taking hold of His willingness.

This is a time for us to be bold!  Most of us hesitate to share Christ with others not because we don’t know how, but because we’re afraid. 

I can’t think of anything more exciting than to pray that God’s purposes take root in our lives and in the lives of our friends

Charles Kingsley has noted, “we act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.”  I can’t think of anything more exciting than to pray that God’s purposes take root in our lives and in the lives of our friends.  Charles Spurgeon was right when he said, “Whenever God determines to do a great work, He first sets His people to pray.”  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?