I'm pleased to say that the Christian Fellowship has restarted with a new group of students. Tommy came a few weeks ago to talk about the ship, and the students have been kind enough to ask me to speak. Meanwhile, I'm working through Acts with the help of the NIV Application Commentary written by Ajith Fernando, who works in Sri Lanka with Youth for Christ. Have to say, I've been using this series for about a year and a half now, this is the best so far, a masterly blend of biblical scholarship and his own experience which really serves to bring the Bible to life, it's like reading a top rate sermon every morning.
In a change to my usual practice, I'm writing this before giving the talk itself which is due on Thursday, thought this would help me with my preparation. If you have any thoughts to contribute which you think would be good to incorporate, please let me know! I'll not use the Beatles reference, that will take too much explanation to make a fairly minor point, but thought I would include it here.
Acts opens after Jesus's death and resurrection, with His ascension coming in chapter 1. Then follows Pentecost as the Holy Spirit comes on all believers, with the number of believers growing rapidly, and many miraculous healings and accounts of believers.
In Chapter 4 is the first account of persecution post-Pentecost, as Peter and John are made to appear before the Sanhedrin. The attacks on the church then become a major theme in the rest of the book, in the remaining 24 chapters this is mentioned in all but 4 of them.
After Peter and John are released, the believers gathered to pray, and today we're examining that prayer as recounted in verses 23 to 31, to see what we can learn from it.
How would I have prayed?
The Holy Spirit is moving, the church is growing, miracles are happening - and now believers are starting to suffer for their faith. I think that, if I'd been there at the time, my prayer would have gone something like this:
Father, we bring before You the persecution we are facing as we look to preach in Your Name. We pray that You would convict our attackers of their wickedness and turn them from their evil ways. We pray for Your healing for the wounds that have been inflicted. We pray for Your protection on us to keep us safe, and ask that it may soon be possible to minister again for You. In Jesus' Name we pray, Amen.
I'll return to this prayer at the end, but now let's look to see how the disciples did actually pray.
Remembering God's might and power
In verse 24 we read that the prayer starts:
Sovereign Lord, You made the heavens and the earth and sea, and everything in them.
So, the prayer starts by acknowledging who God is and what He has done, praising Him. This is mirrored in the Lord's prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). In the NIV the prayer has 53 words, of which the first 22 words (42%) are giving praise to God. In Habbakuk 3:17-19 God's people continued to praise Him even as they were facing destitution and starvation, and in 1 Peter 4:13 is the exhortation to rejoice as the early Christians joined Christ in His sufferings.
A very clear message comes out here: whatever the circumstances, however bad things might be, before anything else, acknowledge who God is, His love for us and His Almighty power. Before anything else, praise His Holy Name.
A quotation from Psalm 2
The prayer continues with a quotation from the first 2 verses of Psalm 2. Now, I can't be absolutely sure I'm right here, but I think that those present knew the Bible well enough not just to recognise the quotation but to know how it continues. So, in effect, this quotation is saying 'Psalm 2 applies here'.
It is therefore instructive to go to Psalm 2 and read the whole thing. Attributed by the prayer we're looking at to David, it describes attacks against God's people by their enemies. And beyond the quotation in the prayer we read in Psalm 2:4-6:
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
The Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in His anger
and terrifies the in His wrath, saying,
"I have installed my king on Zion,
My holy mountain."
So, if I'm understanding here correctly, the disciples are continuing to acknowledge the might and power of God, and are also acknowledging the sufferings of previous godly people, and drawing strength from their solidarity with them. Whilst the sufferings are very real, God is far more powerful. Rival kings might be powerful in human terms but pale into insignificance in a heavenly, eternal context. I'm reminded of the arrogant boast of John Lennon in 1966 at the height of the Beatles' fame that they were 'more popular than Jesus'. Good as they were - and they were VERY good - I think we can agree that this does not stand up to examination 50 years on.
A number of points here. How important it is to know our Bibles well! This helps us to view situations holistically, to draw on parallels continued in the Scriptures for our instruction.
And a continued concentration on the sovereignty of God puts their current problems - which of course were very real - into perspective. And, please note, they have still not made explicit mention of these problems, and still don't after this!
Reflection on Jesus' sufferings
Still putting their current problems in perspective they reflect on those who persecuted Jesus in verses 27 and 28. There were problems for God's people in Old Testament times, Jesus Himself suffered to the point of death by crucifixion. Why, the disciples seem to be asking rhetorically, should things be anything different for us now?
Direct reference to current problems
Finally, 108 words out of 143 into the prayer (NIV) - 75% of the way through - they finally refer directly to current problems. That's three quarters of the prayer acknowledging God and previous saints who have suffered for Him! Now that they've finally got there, what are they praying for? Protection? Repentance of their attackers? God's judgement on them?
No, they pray for none of these things. This is how the last quarter of the prayer reads (verses 29 and 30):
"Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable Your servants to speak Your word with great boldness. Stretch out Your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the Name of Your holy servant Jesus.”
They pray for boldness to continue doing the things which have brought suffering on them. There is no mention of their own safety let alone comfort. It's all about Jesus, His salvation, preaching His message that people might repent and be saved.
I'm writing this feeling humbled, indeed inadequate. I can attempt to take refuge in the fact that this happened in the very early stages of the church when the Holy Spirit, newly poured out on all believers, was active in very tangible ways, as indeed we read in the very next 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.
But no, I'm not happy with the implication in this line of thought that we can legitimately work to a lower threshold of discipleship now rather than then. We are called as Christians to take up His cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). Let us come before our Lord humbly in prayer, repenting of our half-heartedness and praying for His wisdom as we look to live fully committed to Him in this early part of the 21st century.
How far adrift was my prayer?
So, having examined the disciples' prayer, let's go back to my prayer at the beginning and consider how far adrift it is. One very clear point emerges: I leapt straight into praying about the problem to hand, the disciples got to it 3/4 of the way through. Cross-referenced with the Lord's prayer and other parts of the Bible, acknowledging first God's almighty power and raising our voices to praise Him is the biblical pattern. Apart from anything else, this helps put us in the frame of mind to be asking, "What will most glorify God in this situation?" rather than, "What do I want?"
But leaving this point to one side, what about the other points in my prayer? We're told in Matthew 5:44 to pray for our enemies, and surely it's not wrong to be praying for healing for ourselves and those we love, and God's protection against those who would attack us? These would seem to me to be appropriate things to be praying for, arguing from an absence is always a dubious way to go.
And what about the implication that the disciples should have withdrawn until the outside world was safe? Would that have been an inappropriate thing to pray? Let me offer my own view on this point: there is no 'one size fits all' answer to this question. God blessed the disciples' boldness and disregard for their own safety. I do not consider that this is a template for us all necessarily to follow. We need to know God's guidance in our own lives as to how to live lives glorifying to His Name.
Two very clear points come out of this passage, I think. One is the importance of knowing our Bibles well, to be able to draw on God's word and what we can learn from it. The other is the importance of centring our prayers on our Almighty God and His Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. If we spend time in praise of Him and recognition of all that He has done, we are then ready to be offering our petitions before Him. Bwana Yesu asifiwe! - the Lord Jesus Christ be praised!
Thank you for reading, as I said at the beginning, any comments, particularly before Thursday, much appreciated. Before I go, just to say that we had Convocation (Graduation) again this last week, alas, His Highness the Aga Khan himself did not join us as he did last year (see this blog post) but still a great occasion. This startlingly good looking chap turned up:
Meanwhile, I refute any suggestion that I take the ceremony anything less than 100% seriously:
Thank you for reading, I'll be back again soon!