ELDER NEIL PHELAN JR.
CONTINUING IN PRAYERS
"And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" -Acts 2:42
As we have studied this verse of scripture, we have noticed some notable birthmarks of the infant church. We have noticed that they were a people who believed a particular doctrine and adhered to it stedfastly. They enjoyed the mutual fellowship of their brethren. And they were earnest in their observance of the Lord's supper. As we continue to observe these birthmarks of the infant church, we find a fourth attribute of their worshipful activity: they recognized the necessity of a constant and fervent prayer life; they continued stedfastly in prayers.
As Luke penned the book of Acts, the Holy Ghost stirred his heart to record a portion of both the public and private prayers of the New Testament saints. This book is saturated with the prayers of the infant church, a people who lived on their knees. Luke's record is like a movie camera, allowing us a glimpse into some of their most intimate worship scenes. These scenes remain a constant witness to us today, as they remind us of both the necessity, and power, of prayer. As we consider the prayer life of the infant church, we should ask ourselves this question: Have we continued stedfastly in prayer?
After the ascension of our Lord, the first activity of the infant church was a prayer meeting. They may not used those particular words to describe their meeting, but they did meet for worship in the mode of prayer. In the first chapter of Acts, after Jesus was taken up into the clouds, we read that the disciples returned to Jerusalem. It was there that they met in an upper room and "continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren" -Acts 1:14. Therefore, we can safely say that the first meeting of the New Testament Church, after the ascension of our Lord, was for prayer.
Some might say, "We have so much to preach about, so many things to teach and learn, why meet for the sole purpose of prayer. We can pray before and after we preach, or, we can pray at home." Apparently, the infant church did not feel this way. They could have prayed at home; they could have prayed before and after their services. But according to Acts, they felt the necessity for prayer and they met together for the sole purpose of prayer. They continued in prayer.
Indeed, nothing can take the place of preaching. Preaching should occupy the greater portion of our worship activity. But we should never forget to call upon God, the source of our power, and ask for Him to bless our efforts to worship and serve Him.
Without a doubt, there was a lot to preach about when the infant church met together in the upper room to pray. God's purpose in sending His Son into the world to die for our sins had been manifest. Old Testament prophecies were unfolding before their eyes. There was a lot to preach about in that day as there is today. But what did they do? They met to pray.
This was not the only occasion that the infant church met for the purpose of prayer. In the fourth chapter of Acts, Peter and John had been imprisoned and threatened for preaching the word. This was the first organized attempt to silence the testimony of the apostles that we read about in scripture. There was a great need for divine assistance and power. After they were released, "they went to their own company, and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said unto them. And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord...."-Acts 4:24. They prayed.
In the twelfth chapter of Acts, we read of another occasion when the brethren met together for prayer. When Peter was apprehended by Herod and placed in prison, "prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him"-Acts 12:5. Herod had killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. Peter's life was in imminent danger, and they, again, were in need of divine assistance: "prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him" -Acts 12:5. They met and prayed.
Meeting together for prayer was a common activity of the infant church. Today, it is not uncommon to hear of churches meeting for other modes of worship: for preaching, singing, or even for fellowship. These are all profitable exercises on the part of the church. But how often do we hear of a prayer meeting? Where is that special time when the church meets to acknowledge their dependence upon the God of our fathers; to ask for divine assistance in preaching the word; to praise our creator and thank Him for our blessings; that time when the church comes together to ask for the blessings which can only come from the fount of every blessing? In the Christian worship service, there is a place for all of these. Throughout the age of the New Testament church, Christians have met together to participate in one, or all of these activities. There is a place for teaching the Apostles' doctrine; a place for fellowship; a place for worshiping our Lord in songs and hymns and spiritual songs; and place for breaking the bread. But let us never forget: there is a special place for prayer.
These are, indeed, the old paths, practiced not only by the infant church, but also by the churches of this country. In the year 1794, the Kehukee Association adopted the following resolution: "Resolved, That the Saturday before the fourth Sunday in every month (emphasis mine) should be appointed a day for prayer-meetings throughout the churches; whereon all the members of the respective churches are requested to meet at their meeting-houses, or places of worship, and there for each of them, as far as time will admit, to make earnest prayer to God for a revival of religion amongst us" (Church History, C.B. and H. Hassell, Chap. 20, p.713). At this time, there were 49 churches in this Association and approximately 3,440 members. This Association, even with its large membership, recognized their need of God's continued blessings; they continued stedfastly in prayer.
In the year 1799, the same Association "appointed Thursday, 21st day of November, as a day of general thanksgiving to Almighty God, throughout the churches, for His temporal blessings on their fields and farms, and that their country seemed happily delivered from the fearful apprehension of want and scarcity" (ibid., p.715). Here we find a special time when the churches of this area met for prayer. But rather than petitions, we find thanks. They met to thank God for His blessings and watch care over them. They continued in prayer.
As Luke records the prayers of the infant church, he is also faithful to record God's answer to their prayers as an encouragement for the New Testament Church, in all ages, to pray as they did.
God heard the church's petition on behalf of Peter and a notable miracle occurred. "Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly,. And his chains fell off from his hands" -Acts 12:7. When Peter arrived at the place of prayer, "they were astonished". God had granted their petition, and when He did, they couldn't believe it.
Luke recorded their response for this reason: too many times, we are of the same mind. We are praying for something but not really expecting God to hear us and grant our petition. Many times, in our hearts, there is that same sin of unbelief that lurked in the hearts of Israel when they stood on Jordan's banks. Oh, how difficult it is to pray, believing that God has heard our prayer. How hard it is to turn it over to God and anticipate a blessing. How hard it is to continue stedfastly "in prayer".
In another prayer, Luke again records God's answer to prayer. In fourth chapter of Acts, verses 24-30, the apostles and disciples prayed and asked for three things: 1) For boldness to speak the word; 2) For God to stretch forth His hand and heal; 3) And for signs and wonders to be done by the name of Jesus.
The first thing we notice, after their prayer, is that God acknowledged He heard their prayers by shaking the place where they were assembled together. Then we read in verse 31 that God grants their first request: "and they spake the word of God with boldness". In the following chapter, verse 12, God continues to answer this prayer: "And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people". Then in Acts 5:15-16, we find their other request granted: "There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one"-Acts 5:16. God not only heard, but He also answered their prayers. Can we not anticipate the same from our Lord today? Should we not continue in prayer?
Even though the gift of apostleship and the apostolic power to heal is no longer available to the church, there are many blessings available to us today. We should continue to pray for boldness to speak the word. We can pray for lives to be touched and changed by the gospel. We can pray for others, who have not know the power of Christ, to be led to Him and our churches. We can pray for our churches and pastors; our membership; our family; our government. We can pray for the president. We can pray for God to bless us with light upon the written word. We can pray that we are not led into temptation. We can pray for grace to face the problems before us or for others to receive grace to face their struggles in life. As we pray, we can praise our Lord and His mighty wonders and we can thank Him for past blessings and prayers answered. There is a lot to pray about, both privately, and, as a body of believers. When they met to pray, we find prayers answered. They continued stedfastly in prayer.
Some might say, "That was in the days of the apostles. We can no longer expect the outpouring of God's Spirit upon us today as in those days." But even in our time, we read of prayers answered. As we have noticed, in the year 1794 and 1799, the churches of the Kehukee Association met together for the express purpose of prayer. In 1801, their prayers were answered: "According to expectation, there had been a wonderful outpouring of God's Spirit among the churches during the previous year, and a large ingathering was the result; 872 were added to the churches by baptism in one year. The interest then felt in religion-the activity of ministers and members generally, the large numbers added to the churches by baptism, upon a profession of their faith in Christ-seemed to say that the day of prosperity had indeed dawned upon the churches of the Kehukee Association, after a long night of coldness and seeming indifference. From 1789 to 1802, reports of additions by baptism had been about as follows, viz.: In 1789, 15 reported; in 1790, 446; in 1791, 99; in 1792, 192; in 1794, 57; in 1795, 19; in 1796, 33; in 1797, 13; in 1798, 43; in 1799, 72; in 1800, 129; in 1801, 138; in 1802, 872. The Lord impressed the minds of His people to crave and earnestly beseech Him to revive His work of grace in the hearts of His children, to pour fourth His Spirit abundantly on the people, and cause the ransomed of the Lord to return and come with singing unto Zion; and as a consequence those prayers were answered. The prayer indited by the Holy Spirit will assuredly be heard and answered by a covenant-keeping God, who regardeth the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer. It will be heard and answered, though apparently long delayed. For many years such petitions had gone forth from the hearts of God's people in the bounds of the Kehukee Association, and the set time to favor Zion at length appeared, when the Lord seemed to break forth on the right hand and on the left in her behalf, and draw many sons and daughters home to the great Shepherd and Bishop of their souls"(ibid.,p.716,717).
Many times, the prayers if God's people have been the sparks that revived God's work among them. We have observed this very truth in the churches comprising the Kehukee Association. We notice the effect that prayer had in relation to the infant church as we read the book of Acts. But we also read of this truth in the days of Israel of old. In the book of Judges, on five different occasions, we read these words: "Israel cried unto the Lord". Each time they recognized their need, they called upon the Lord and He heard from heaven and healed their land. These accounts are found in Judges 3:9, 3:15, 4:3, 6:6-7, and 10:10. It was after they turned to other gods and forgot the source of their blessings that God withdrew His blessings. But our point is this: when God's people continue in prayer, their prayers are answered.
OTHER BLESSINGS OF PRAYER
Our Lord is gracious and able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. As the infant church met on the many occasions to pray, they received far more than they requested. Not only were their specific petitions granted, but other blessings unfolded in their lives as they continued in prayer. One blessing they received was the special blessing of unity.
When they had prayed, "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul"-Acts 4:32. This is a common virtue of prayer. When God's people pray together, when they pray in the right spirit, hearts and minds are bonded with unity of purpose. When husbands and wives pray together, when they seek the Lord for divine guidance as partners in their home, special blessings ensue. Their desires and decisions become one, obedient to the direction of the Lord. When churches pray together, they are blessed to be of one mind, one heart and one soul, seeking the Lord's will in their affairs. It is through prayer that we are blessed with unity.
Another virtue of prayer is the effect that it has upon our affections. The closer we walk with God, the more insignificant the things of this world become. As the infant church prayed together, their sight was turned away from this present world; their affections became more focused on things above. They seemed to forget the temporal, "neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common" -Acts 4:32. They recognized that all that they possessed was given to them of God and they were willing to use it all for His honor and glory. Their temporal possessions lost their attraction as they set their affection on things above. Their affections were focused through prayer.
The fervent prayers of the church seem to bring about another blessing from the Lord and that blessing is power. The testimony of the Kehukee brethren is sufficient evidence of this. But we also notice this blessing upon the infant church shortly following their prayers.
Again, in Acts chapter four, after they had prayed and God had acknowledged His hearing their prayers by shaking the place where they were assembled, we read, "And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all" -Acts 4:33. Not only were they given "boldness" to speak the word, but their speaking was blessed with results, "And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women" -Acts 5:14. There was power in their preaching because it was attended by the Holy Ghost. We can meet for worship, we can preach, but without the blessings of the Spirit, our best efforts are weak and void of power.
Those early days of prayer, in the upper room, prepared Peter, and the other apostles and disciples, for the events that were to transpire in their lives. It was only ten days after this prayer meeting that Pentecost would come. It was then that Peter preached with great power to the conversion of about three thousand souls: power (Acts 2:41). Shortly after this, Peter and John went up together into the temple and a notable miracle ensued. A lame man was healed: power (Acts 3:1-8). It was on this occasion that Peter preached again when about five thousand heard the word and believed: power (Acts 3:12-26,4:1-4). And where did this power come from. It came from God in the person of the Holy Ghost.
A final blessing of their prayerful attitude is also recorded in Acts 4:33: "and great grace was upon them all." Couched within this blessing is hidden meaning that no man can fully describe. They received many blessings; blessings that they did not deserve; blessings that they did not ask for. It was not just grace, but "GREAT GRACE!" This, in itself, would be sufficient reason to meet together and pray.
According to God's word, according to the experiences of God's people in days gone by, a lot can be anticipated when the saints of God meet together for prayer. Oh, that prayer meetings were as prevalent and powerful today as they were in the days of the infant church! Let us continue in prayer.