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Prayer: A 1st Century Pattern For The 21st Century Church

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The book of Acts has 29 references to ‘prayer’ or ‘praying’ which roughly translates to one reference of ‘prayer’ or ‘praying’ for every chapter in the book of Acts. However, only 3 passages in the book of Acts provide the content of the prayers. It is worth observing that none of those 3 prayers is by an apostolic leader of the church. Rather, they are the prayers of the church and individual Christians.1 Therefore, to discern the pattern of the prayer of the 1st century church, we look to the three pertinent passages in the book of Acts:1:24-25, 4:24-30, and 7:59-60. While much can be said individually about each of the prayers,2 I want to draw attention to four common traits that the prayers share with each other which can inform how churches in the 21st century ought to pray.

Word-Governed Prayer
It is a given that the Old Testament Scriptures occupied a prime place in providing the content for faith and practice for the 1st century church. Therefore, it is no surprise that the prayers recorded in the book of Acts are informed and shaped by the Word. In Acts 1:24, the prayer of the church was to the specific need of choosing a leader. Echoing Old Testament passages, such as 1 Sam. 16:7; Jer. 17:10, which teaches that the Lord sees and knows the internal disposition of the heart. The church appeals to the Lord “who knows the hearts of all” to reveal to the church the one He has chosen to replace Judas. In Acts 4:24-30, in response to the arrest, threat, and release of Peter and John, the church explicitly prays Psalm 2:1-2. In light of what Scripture foretold of the threats that the church would face, they ask the Lord for boldness and courage to continue proclaiming His Word.

The prayers of the church stemmed from an unshakeable persuasion not just that God will act, but that He is the “causative factor” behind all acts.

In Acts 7, as a culmination of the hostility towards a member of the church, Stephen is stoned by an angry, Jewish mob. Stephen, in his prayer, explicitly identifies Jesus as Lord and prays that He receives Stephen’s spirit (vs. 59). Furthermore, Stephen also prays for Jesus not to hold this sin against those stoning him. It is interesting to note the uniqueness of Stephen’s prayer for it comes at a world-changing juncture of the gospel going out into the whole world. At this critical turning point of biblical history, the words of a Christian from the 1st century church echoes the dying words of Jesus himself recorded as part of the New Testament Scripture (Lk. 23:34, 46). If Stephen’s prayer is reflective of the 1st century church’s pattern as a whole (which I believe it is), we see the anticipation of the canonization of those contemporary writings as inspired Scripture in the words of the prayer of Christians.

Therefore, it can be seen that the Spirit-inspired Scripture (both the Old and New Testament) provides the content for the prayers of the 1st century church in the book of Acts. In other words, Scripture governs the prayers of the church.

God-Centred Prayer
Just as the Word governed the prayers of the church, so also the church’s prayers were centred on their faith in the Almighty God. Geir Holmås notes, “The Acts narrative is interspersed with references to devoted prayer at strategic places so as to bring out that God is the ultimate causative factor behind the processes that have shaped the messianic movement, having faithfully empowered, directed and sustained the believers in response to exemplary prayer,”3 (emphasis mine). Put simply, the church’s prayers were driven by an indubitable faith that God will act, does act, and is the cause behind all acts. This is vividly seen in the content of the church’s prayer in Acts 4:28. It is also implicit in the prayer of Acts 1:24 where the apostles concede that they are asking for revelation of who God has already chosen. The act of casting lots was driven by the conviction that the Lord is the one who is sovereign over the decision that stems from it (cf. Prov. 16:33). Likewise, it goes without saying that the sovereignly ordained death of Jesus by God is the basis on which Stephen can pray for the Lord to not charge his persecutors for their sin (Acts 7:60); since forgiveness is through the atoning work of Christ.

Thus, it is seen that the prayers of the church in Acts were not uncertain about whether God may act. Rather, the prayers of the church stemmed from an unshakeable persuasion not just that God will act, but that He is the “causative factor” behind all acts.

Our prayers must reflect our commitment to who Christ is, what He does, and what He has called His church to do.

Christ-Focused Prayer
A third trait seen in the prayers of the 1st century church is that it was focused on Christ. In Acts 1, to carry out the commission of Christ required the church to appoint a replacement for Judas among the apostles. Therefore, the focus on Christ and His commission is reflected in the prayer of the church and her desire to obey Christ. Similarly, the church believed that as she proclaims the word, God heals, and performs signs and wonders “through the name of Christ” (Acts 4:29-30). Thus, the church’s conviction of the authority of Christ, which enables them to do these things, shows the church’s focus on Christ and His power.4 Likewise, the focus of the church on the person of Christ can be seen in the prayer of Stephen in Acts 7 as he commends his spirit into the hands of Christ and prays for the forgiveness of the sins of his persecutors. So, it is evident that the 1st century church was focused on Christ highlighting various facets of His ministry – His commission, His power, His person, etc., in their prayers.

Purpose-Oriented Prayer
A final point to be noted concerning the 1st century church is that their prayers were not an end in itself. Meaning, the church did not pray for the sake of praying. Rather, they prayed knowing both that God would act and the church would benefit from the prayers. In Acts 1, the church prayed because they knew that God would reveal whom He had chosen for the benefit of the church. In Acts 4, the church “spoke the word of God with boldness” (vs. 31) because God answered their prayer in granting them boldness to speak His word. In Acts 7, Stephen prayed because he both saw “Jesus standing at the right of God” (vs. 55) and believed that the Lord would forgive the sins of his persecutors. Indeed, the Lord, in a mighty way, both saved and commissioned Paul to His ministry. Therefore, the prayers of the church can be seen as the means to a sure, God-ordained end.

Lessons For The 21st Century Church
What are some of the lessons that we, Christians in the present day, can learn from our 1st Century brothers and sisters?

  1. First, our prayers must be shaped, informed, and governed by the Spirit-inspired words of Scripture. When we do this, we indeed pray according to the will of God because God’s Word reveals God’s will for us.
  2. Secondly, our prayers must be centred on the sovereignty of God. Indeed, when we pray, we must pray in faith (cf. Heb. 11:6), and not in doubt (cf. Jam. 1:6-8), with absolute confidence in God.
  3. Thirdly, our prayers must be focused on the person and work of Christ. Our prayers must reflect our commitment to who Christ is, what He does, and what He has called His church to do.
  4. And finally, the act of praying both individually and corporately must not be an end in itself. Rather, it must be seen as the means that the Lord has appointed to bring to pass what He has ordained.

Geir Holmas wonderfully sums up the idea of prayer in the book of Acts when he writes:

Prayer is presented essentially as a hallmark activity of the story’s protagonists: only believers and distinguished would-be believers are found actually praying in Acts. Throughout the story of Acts, characters continually appear and disappear from the narrative stage, but dedicated prayer remains a distinguishing feature of the messianic community and its major representatives, i.e. those receptive to God’s salvific purpose.5

1  While we read in the gospels that Jesus taught the apostles to pray, Arthur Pink rightly notes that no prayer of the apostles is recorded in the book of Acts. Though the fact that the apostles were men of prayer can be inferred from passages such as Acts 6:4, Acts 9:40; 10:9; 20:36; 21:5; 28:8, the content of their prayers is absent. Arthur Walkington Pink, A Guide to Fervent Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 10-11.
2  Cf. Part 3 of the excellent work by Geir Otto Holmås, Prayer and Vindication in Luke-Acts, Library of New Testament Studies, 433 (New York: T & T Clark, 2011).
3  Holmås, 167.
4  Here, the “name of Christ” is metonymy for the power and authority of Christ. cf. Philippians 2:9-10.
5  Holmås, Prayer and Vindication in Luke-Acts, 161.

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