By Mark Scott
Lots of things qualify as “acts” in the Book of Acts —miracles, speeches, encounters, persecutions, and even prayers. Prayer is an act. Persecution against the earliest church made prayer a red-hot act.
This is the second prayer in Acts in which we are told the actual content of the prayer. In Acts 1:24 the early believers prayed for God to identify an apostle to replace Judas. In today’s text, the content of the prayer was for boldness.
Acts 3–5 is a literary unit. It expands the summary of Acts 2:42-47. This unit emphasizes the name of Jesus (name appears fourteen times in these three chapters). Healing comes through the name of Jesus (3:6). Salvation comes through the name of Jesus (4:12). Finally, persecution comes through the name of Jesus (5:40, 41). It is this persecution for the name of Jesus that drives the church to its knees.
The Burden of Prayer
Acts 4:23, 24a
I have heard my father say, “At the heart of a meaningful prayer life is a burden.” Prayer is puny when there is nothing of substance about which to pray. Peter and John had been imprisoned for an act of kindness to a lame man (Acts 3:1–4:4). Peter did not mince any words about Jesus’ power to heal the lame man, about Jesus’ exclusive ability to save people, and about the apostles’ commitment to spreading the gospel (Acts 4:5-22).
Peter and John were bold in public (Acts 4:13), but in private they went to their own people (the church) and raised their voices to God (cried out to the Lord—the first language of prayer [Genesis 4:26]).
Someone has well said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Prayers of substance are born from burdens.
The Size of Prayer
David Butts, the president of Harvest Prayer Ministries, has challenged the church to pray big, kingdom prayers in contrast to anemic, puny prayers. The prayer of the earliest church was certainly not a recital of Aunt Ethel’s ailing organs list.
How should we approach prayer? An acknowledgement of the greatness of God is a good place for prayers to begin. Remembering who God is creates an environment of reverence and enlarges the vocabulary of prayer. The direct address of the prayer is to God as Sovereign Lord, “Despot.” God is acknowledged in terms of creator (v. 24). God is acknowledged in terms of revealer (v. 25a). God is acknowledged in terms of ruler (vv. 25b, 26).
The early church quoted Scripture in their prayer. Scripture always enlarges prayer. They quoted Psalm 2 and attributed it to King David. This psalm is a royal psalm—not necessarily a messianic psalm—and evidently was sung whenever the king’s authority was questioned. The earliest church found themselves in a similar context—their King’s authority was being questioned.
About what should we pray? One thing we can pray about is current events. Luke described the political machinery of his day: The earliest church emotionally owned the murder of Jesus for themselves; and Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate were former enemies, but Jesus brought them together in a twisted sort of way (Luke 23:12). People are not just pawns on God’s chessboard. They do cast a vote on how things progress in life. But God is still working providentially through people to accomplish his will (v. 28).
The church prayed for essentially one thing: boldness (freedom to speak and act). They did not pray for an easier way but for more courage in the way (v. 29). The New International Version makes it sound like their prayer was two-fold (boldness and miracles). Actually their request is singular—boldness. The assumed agenda behind the prayer is that God would continue to work miracles (v. 30). Miracles, after all, are a sign of the messianic age (Acts 2:22; Isaiah 35:5, 6).
The Answer to Prayer
God always answers prayers. Sometimes he answers with an audible voice (John 12:28) and sometimes with no voice at all. In v. 31 the answer was dramatic. The building shook, and there is no good reason to think that the “shaking” (normal word for earthquake) was not physical. The church was filled with the Holy Spirit (speaking by direct inspiration), and they spoke the word of God boldly. The word of God (the gospel) would continue to advance. They prayed for boldness, and that day they got what they requested.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.