Whenever you are learning a skill, it always helps to have a good model to follow. I’ve recently been learning a new software package by watching the tutorial videos over and over again. When the tutorials don’t work, I turn for help to my 10-year old son. He clicks a few buttons, shows me how it’s done, and I’m on my way.
When you’re learning to cook, having Emeril on the Food Network is better than figuring out the recipe book for yourself. I learned my golf swing from an 85-year old retiree at the retirement home where I worked while in seminary, and people who see me play are not surprised to learn that.
In his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, Jim Cymbala reminds us that the church in the book of Acts was born out of a prayer meeting, and there are more than 30 references to prayer in Acts.1 If we as Christians are looking for a role model for prayer, there is no better example than the early followers of Jesus in the book of Acts. In Acts, we see four key features of the early church at prayer.
The Early Church Prayed Dependently (Acts 1:12-14)
Jesus told His disciples to go from Jerusalem to the remotest parts of the world as His witnesses. If twelve apostles and a hundred or so disciples are going to reach the world, they had better get busy. But, the first thing they do when Jesus ascends back to heaven is lock themselves up in a room, shut themselves off from everything, and pray for ten days for the power of the Holy Spirit. They understood that they needed supernatural power for a superhuman work.
The most important lesson we can ever learn about prayer is that we are absolutely dependent on God. Jesus tells us in John 15, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” The tricky part is that we can do lots of things on our own, but the impact and fruit of our work is “nothing” unless Jesus empowers us. Psalms 132:2 says: “As the eyes of a slave look to the hand of their master . . . so our eyes look to the Lord our God till he shows us mercy.” A slave is completely dependent on his master, and that’s where we stand in our need for the Lord.
Thurman Thomas was the leading rusher in the AFC in 1991 and helped to lead the Buffalo Bills to the Super Bowl that year. But, on the very first play of the Super Bowl, Thomas wasn’t even on the field because he had lost his helmet in the pre-game warm-ups. A football player wouldn’t dream of going onto the field without his helmet; and we as Christians shouldn’t think of facing life or doing ministry without prayer underlying everything we do.
Jim Cymbala reminds us: “God is attracted to weakness. He can’t resist those who humbly and honestly admit how desperately they need him. Our weakness, in fact, makes room for his power.”2
The Early Church Prayed Corporately (Acts 1:12-14; Acts 2:42)
A man once told me that he didn’t believe in prayer meetings because Jesus told His disciples to pray in their closets (Matthew 6:6). That man was reading the Sermon on the Mount but was ignoring the Book of Acts. In Acts 1, the disciples didn’t go their own way and pray for the Holy Spirit to come down – “they all joined together in prayer.” Acts 2 tells us that they met daily in their homes and were devoted to prayer. They gathered at the Temple (Acts 3:1) and later in the synagogues at the regular times of prayer, not just as a testimony to their Jewish neighbors but because they needed those times together for their own survival.
We have a number of Korean students in our seminary, and I’ve learned that Korean churches place a far higher premium on corporate prayer than we do. Churches in South Korea are filled with Christians praying together on weekday mornings or all night before Sunday worship. In America, the concept of corporate prayer clashes with our independence and individualism. We’re all a little like the guy who had to dress up a mannequin with a baseball cap so that he could drive in the HOV lane during rush hour. We prefer to do things alone and by ourselves.
In his famous sermon, “When the Roll is Called Down Here,” Fred Craddock recalls doing a baptism down at the river and being reminded by one of his parishioners beside the campfire that “folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”3 We feel the same way about the people we have prayed with through the struggles of life.
In my first pastorate, a man in the church shared that he would never forget watching his father and the other men in the church going out into the wheat fields together and praying for God to bring revival to their congregation. We don’t have time for those kinds of experiences today and we’re missing something when our busyness and isolation keeps from experiencing real community and fellowship in prayer.
The Early Church Prayed Powerfully (Acts 4:23-31; Acts 16:25-26)
When the early church prayed, powerful things happened. Jesus told his disciples that their prayers could move mountains – we never see mountains moving in Acts but we do see a couple of buildings shaken on their foundations. In Acts 4, the disciples get their first real taste of persecution. When the authorities commanded them to stop preaching, the church started praying.
Acts 4:31 gives us a series of cause and effect statements about what happened when they prayed. They prayed and the building was shaken. They prayed and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were filled with the Spirit and they preached the gospel with even greater power. If we had a building move at one of our prayer meetings, we would either have a lot more or a lot less people at the next meeting. Incredibly, Acts 4 is not the only place in the book where prayer is more powerful than a building. Paul and Silas are having a midnight prayer meeting in the prison at Philippi that starts an earthquake that shook open the cell doors (Acts 16:25-26).
There are more than a dozen times in Acts where it tells us that people were amazed, in awe, or in fear of what God was doing in and through his church. Outsiders were afraid of getting too close to the followers of the Way because they didn’t know what God was going to do next. Outsiders today are more likely to yawn and stretch when they think of what goes on in the church. But, the power to leave even unbelievers amazed at what God is doing is still there – if we ask for it.
Mother Theresa was once crossing the border into Israel when a guard asked her if she was carrying any weapons. That was a pretty strange question for a nun wearing a habit, but she looked the guard in the eyes and defiantly said, “Yes, I have my prayer books.”4 We want the power of God, but sometimes we forget where the power comes from. We think it comes from the pastor’s preaching, from our strategies and purpose statements, or from our new buildings and facilities. We are deluded into thinking that we can change the culture if we elect the right people to political office. Those types of power are pretend power compared to what the followers of Jesus have in the book of Acts.
The NBC comedy Scrubs is filmed at a real hospital that closed down several years ago, but so many patients have showed up at the hospital for medical treatment when they see the actors dressed up as doctors and nurses that the network had to put a sign out front that said, “Attention: This hospital is closed to the public.”5 How would you like to have an actor set your broken arm or the key grip man (whatever he does) take out your appendix? It’s far more serious when people with broken lives and hurting hearts come to churches that have turned away from their real source of power.
The Early Church Prayed Imperfectly (Acts 12:1-17)
This final point of the message may seem anti-climatic, but it may be the most important thing we talk about today. There is a great reminder in Acts 12 that God not only answers prayer – He answers imperfect prayers.
We tend to idealize the early church in Acts, but here’s a well-kept secret: the first Christians were not perfect. They argued over whose widows got the better food service and whom to take or not take on their missions trips. They fell asleep in church windows and were distracted by the weighty issues of circumcision and kosher foods.
Their faith wasn’t perfect, either. You have to admire that the disciples were committed enough to have an all-night prayer meeting for Peter’s release from prison, but the reaction when their prayers are answered is priceless. Rhoda the slave girl reports that Peter is at the front door and their response is: “You’ve lost your mind!” They can’t compute that God might have actually done the very thing they were asking for. They were devoted enough to pray all night but doubting enough to not believe that their prayers would really make any difference.
We pray that way all the time – believing one moment and doubting the next. Let me give you a challenge – if you only have enough faith to pray and there is nothing left over to believe that God will answer, then pray anyway and see if God does something to surprise you.
We don’t need to time-travel back to the first-century to become the people that God wants us to be, but we do need to learn to pray like the early church prayed. When we follow their example in prayer, God will work powerfully – even when our prayers are less than perfect.
1. Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire: What Happens When God’s Spirit Invades the Heart of His People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 71-72.
2. Ibid., 19.
3. Fred Craddock, “When the Roll is Called Down Here,” Preaching Today, Tape 159.
4. Taken from www.benwitherington.blogspot.com; November 11, 2005.
5. John Kiesewetter, “Scrubs Set in Real Hospital,” The Cincinnati Enquirer (January 14, 2002).<ahref=”http: www.benwitherington.blogspot.com=””> </ahref=”http:>