Acts 4:23-31

This text finishes the story of the healing of the lame man and its effects on Jerusalem and the spread of the gospel.  Peter and John leave the Sanhedrin after being released and return to their fellow apostles and believers to report on all that happened.  They discuss the threats they received from the religious leaders and what it means to the group.  The new community of believers has reached a crossroads – for the first time they face persecution and must decide how to respond.

As soon as Peter and John are released from the Sanhedrin they return to their friends and fellow believers.  The text says they went to their own – probably meaning the other apostles along with perhaps select members of the new movement.  They have just had their first taste of persecution and actually stood in the same place that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.  It makes sense that they now seek out their closest companions to report on all that happened and how the Sanhedrin very specifically threatened them if they continue to preach the gospel.  This is likely a sobering conversation about what they now face but also a joyful one because of how the Spirit gave them the words to speak to the council (8).

We should never take for granted the believers God brings into our life to walk the narrow road with us.  God would not tell us to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, but encouraging one another (Heb 10:24-25) and encourage one another and build up one another (I Thes 5:11) and confess your sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16) if He did not intend for us to continually fellowship with and depend on each other.  God knows we live best when we live within a community of believers.

The apostles do two things in response to the threats of the Sanhedrin – they find other believers to share the experience with, and with those believers they pray.

After hearing Peter and John’s report the group turns to prayer.  They do what believers naturally do when faced with trials.  As a group – note that they pray corporately, not individually – they turn to the One who heard everything the Sanhedrin said and who controls the outcome of all things.  The new community of believers confronts persecution by immediately praying for help.

The very first words of the prayer establish who they appeal to and depend on.  They call out, “O Lord” (“O Master”), it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them.”  They cry to the One they obey, the One who charged them to preach and who called all things in to being.  They are faced with life and death issues so they appeal to the source of life and the Sovereign of all creation.

By stating up front that God is sovereign over all things, they not only state the premise of their belief and confidence but also set their minds on the truth that informs the rest of the prayer.  There is no use in praying to one who is not sovereign for protection from powerful men.  They know to whom they pray and that He is supreme.  Thus they state that fact up front to acknowledge it before God but also to make sure they see things as they really are.

After establishing God’s sovereignty they use a Psalm of David to form the middle part of the prayer.  God spoke this Psalm – Psalm 2 – through David to show that man would resist His Messiah.  The Psalm speaks directly to the situation they are now in.  They have confidence because God not only hears their prayer now but actually instructed David to prophecy that it would happen.

Quoting Psalm 2 shows that the apostles realize they are continuing the ministry of the Messiah – not starting a new ministry.  Those who persecute them persecute Jesus because the believers are ministering in His power according to His guidance and commands.  This goes right along with what Jesus will say to Paul on the Damascus road (9:4-6).

The other thing that the Psalm 2 reference does is to show that what they are going through is not a surprise.  God predicted it through David hundreds of years ago.  God is not only over their enemies but has known from the beginning what their enemies would do.  That they are facing resistance is completely in line with God’s knowledge and plan and they can rest in His omniscience as much as in His omnipotence.

Psalm 2 also includes a word to reassure the group.  The powerful people who rage against the Lord’s Anointed ultimately devise futile things.  They stand against the sovereign God and their stand is futile – the Sanhedrin’s threats are empty.  The danger they pose to the apostles and new converts is ultimately nothing.  Yes, they can kill God’s followers – but they cannot thwart God’s plans and they cannot stamp out God’s word.  The new believers serve the Sovereign of the world and fighting against them is ultimately an exercise in futility.

Verses 27-28 show the current persecution is a continuance of what started under Herod and Pilate and is ultimately guided by God.  The people plot against God’s holy servant Jesus but they ultimately do only what God predestines.  That means the believers currently undergoing persecution have confidence because the Sovereign God controls what they face.  The God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea also decides what His enemies do to those who follow Him.  They do not need to fear or hate the Sanhedrin.  God controls what persecution they endure.

The last section of the prayer is where the believers make their requests to God.  They pray for three things.  First they want God to note the threats they received – they want God to understand their circumstances.  They do not pray for Him to change their circumstances, just to understand them.  They pray for this so He can assist them as they face the new landscape in Jerusalem.

Second, they pray for boldness in preaching God’s word – grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence.  They acknowledge that they are God’s slaves (goes right along with their opening address to Lord/Master) and completely subject to His authority.  They then ask for strength to obey.  They know they must obey God rather than men – this is what they told the Sanhedrin (19) – so now they ask for strength to do it.  “God, we are your slaves – and no one else’s – please give us the ability to act accordingly.”

Their last request is for God to continue to perform healing and signs through the name of Jesus – just as He did with the lame man.  They likely ask for this for several reasons.  It reassures them that God goes with them as they preach.  It gives them the ability to compassionately minister to those with no hope.  And it brings people to God.  The healing they just performed showed all these things.  The man had been lame from birth, he was clearly healed by the power of Jesus, and people came in droves and heard the gospel as a result.  The gospel will ultimately spread more quickly in the midst of signs and wonders.

Notice what they do not pray for.  They do not pray for relief from suffering or for God to punish His enemies.  They pray for boldness and power but not for relief or revenge.  They know God did not spare His Holy One (Jn 15:18-20) and that Jesus specifically said they would be persecuted for following Him (Matt 10:16-23), so they do not pray for deliverance from what will be a fact of life.  They simply want strength to continue so they do not lose confidence.

Along the same lines, the miracles and signs they pray for are not to bring wrath on their persecutors but mercy to the oppressed and sick.  They pray for the power to heal and to perform signs and wonders that lend validity to the message.  Their sole concerns are for the gospel to spread and for suffering to be relieved – not for those who spread it to be safe from its enemies.

It is interesting that the men who just bluntly told the Sanhedrin that they murdered the Messiah now ask for boldness to proclaim God’s word.  They have faithfully obeyed up to this point but they know they obey only in the power of the Spirit.  So they continually throw themselves on the mercy and strength of God for the ability to endure.  Remember that Peter knows VERY well his penchant to fade in the face of adversity and we know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that this will be an ongoing battle for him (Gal 2:11-14).  Thus he and the others pray for the ability to keep running.

Two things happen as a result of their prayer.  The place where they are gathered shakes and all who are there praying are filled with the Holy Spirit.  God shows that He hears them and then answers their prayer immediately by strengthening them to proclaim His word boldly.  Any spirit of fear is driven away by the power of the Spirit that fills them – and the result is brave obedience.

God’s response is both powerful and loving.  He shakes the place where they pray to reassure His children who need confidence and boldness.  They have been threatened by those with the power to carry out the threats.  They are facing persecution for the first time.  They have asked for help and God not only gives it but shows that He hears them and that their prayers will be answered.  A good God knows what His children need and when they need it.  He understands our weaknesses and ministers to us on our level.  He created us as we are and loves us with our insecurities and fears.

Peter and John return to the fellowship of the brethren immediately after being released.  They and the brethren immediately turn to prayer after reuniting.  And their prayer is immediately answered.  The Holy Spirit comes upon them and they do what they prayed God would give them the strength to do – they speak the word of God with boldness.

We may not have to pray in the face of persecution, but the apostles’ prayer still gives us a great model to follow.  They acknowledge God’s sovereignty over their circumstances (and the fact that anyone who tries to thwart God’s plans does so in vain), they ask God to note their circumstances, they pray for the strength and courage to obey even in the midst of the circumstances, and they pray to do even more for God in those circumstances.

Their prayer is an excellent example of praying according to the will of God as John talks about in his first epistle.  The believers pray for the ability to do what Jesus commanded them to do.  They pray for the power to obey and glorify God in the midst of circumstances He controls.  Their requests are perfectly aligned with God’s will.  He gave them the mission and they pray to fulfill it.  And just like John promised, God hears and answers their prayer.  And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.  And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him (I Jn 5:14-15).

They pray for God’s glory and their obedience but not for relief.  This is not to say that it is wrong to pray for change, but in this particular case where it is obvious that persecution will not go away they do not waste time praying that it will – they simply pray for the strength to obey where God has them.  Sometimes it makes more sense to spend the majority of our prayer time not asking to be delivered from trials but to please God in the midst of them.

How often do we pray for healing without praying for the ability to obey and glorify and witness in the midst of sickness?  How often do we pray for a job without praying for God’s name to be honored in our unemployment and financial duress?  How often do we pray for relief from trials without considering James’ words about them – “…knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3-4).  If this is the result of hard times then perhaps we pray for their end to our own detriment?

A life that is God-centered instead of self-centered sees the trials it faces in a wholly different light.  The apostles may not understand that the persecution they face will ultimately enable the world to hear the good news, but they know it is part of God’s plan and so accept it.  In accepting it they make themselves valuable to the kingdom in a way they never would have if they simply focused on relief.  They pray for the ability to obey in the circumstances God has brought to them.  Their understanding of God’s sovereignty informs their perspective on the hard times they face.

And that is a hugely important fact that underlies this whole prayer.  God is sovereign and we are where we are because HE put us there (even when our sin has put us in our current state it is God who controls the ramifications).  If we truly believe that (and remember that Job never assigned his state to anyone other than God), then we no longer look at our current circumstances as wrong or unjust or extraordinary.  We instead see them as what God has sent to us for the betterment of His kingdom and our value within it.  We are part of God’s plan.

None of this is to say that praying for healing or deliverance is bad.  The apostles pray for the power to heal, so obviously they want to relieve suffering where they can.  And we know Paul prayed for God to take away his thorn in the flesh and Jesus asked that the cup in front of Him could be removed.  God does not ask us to enjoy hard times or to seek them out (and as believers we are acutely aware that this sin-cursed world is not the way it is supposed to be).  But praying for deliverance often comes from a perspective that sees difficulties as exceptional rather than expected – even though God promises that in a sinful world we will continually face hard times.  And if we think hard times are exceptional, we naturally assume that God’s will is for us to be delivered from them or that they are outside of His best for us.  If we instead see all of our circumstances – good or bad – as being under His loving control, then we perhaps will take a different tack as we go through them, and pray for the ability to thrive rather than escape.

In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).

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