A Healthy Church Prays Expectantly (Acts 1:12-26)
In this new series in Acts 1-8, we are asking the question, “What does a healthy church look like?” Last time, from Acts 1-11, we said that a healthy church is empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is not methods or men or machinery that moves the Gospel forward, but ultimately the Holy Spirit. And as we see the Gospel going deeper into us, it becomes a power to propel us forward to break through every barrier that hinders the Gospel. We are looking at what makes us, the local church, a visible manifestation of the universal church, a healthy, not a withering and dying old lady, but a full-blooded bride. Today I want to look at: “a healthy church is praying expectantly.”
Jesus had ascended into Heaven, leaving them with a great task and a great promise. The great task was to tell the world about Jesus. The great promise was that God was going to do it through them via the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was coming in a few days. So what were they going to do until then? We find out that they were waiting and praying. Praying is a huge theme in the book of Acts. There are about 30 references to prayer in the book of Acts, more than any other book. 20 out of 28 chapters refer to prayer in the book of Acts!
Paul Miller in A Praying Life says, “We last for about fifteen seconds, and then out of nowhere the day’s to-do list pops up and our minds are off on a tangent. We catch ourselves and, by sheer force of the will, go back to praying. Before we know it, it has happened again. Instead of praying, we are doing a confused mix of wandering and worrying. Then the guilt sets in. Something must be wrong with me. Other Christians don’t seem to have this trouble praying. After five minutes we give up, saying, ‘I am no good at this. I might as well get some work done.’ Something is wrong with us. Our natural desire to pray comes from Creation. We are made in the image of God. Our inability to pray comes from the Fall. Evil has marred the image. We want to talk to God but can’t. The friction of our desire to pray, combined with our badly damaged prayer antennae, leads to constant frustration. It’s as if we’ve had a stroke.”
Then to add to the frustration we are assaulted by what C.S. Lewis calls, “The Kingdom of Noise.” Some device always calls for our attention and brings noise and distraction. Cynicism sets in as well. Why pray if God is sovereign? Does it really change anything? All of these things make prayer very difficult.
I don’t think it is wrong to assume that many of us do not pray. I am not talking about the cry for help for an exam or during some trouble, or praying with someone at a prayer meeting, but having time set apart every day to talk to the Lord. My purpose is not to guilt trip you today, but I want us to take an honest look at this thing called prayer. We are the church and if we are healthy, we must be prayerful. I don’t know how prayer works, but I know it works. Let’s start with this:
I. We must be devoted to prayer (vv.12-14)
It is interesting that the disciples never asked Jesus how to preach, but how to pray (Luke 11:1). As D.L. Moody once said, “They’d all soon know how to preach if they only knew how to pray.” This tells us that praying has to be learned. It is hard and not natural. We are built for it, but it is not easy. A lot of us do not pray because we think being a Christian means praying should be easy. And since it is not easy for us, we think we are simply bad Christians and as a result, have stopped praying. Prayer takes learning.
Think about the first time you meet someone. After the initial “How are you?” and “What’s your name?” and “Terrible weather” and “What do you do?” etc., you realize you have to work at it to keep the conversation going. It takes time and it takes effort. Grace is not opposed to effort right? It is opposed to earning (Dallas Willard). But that person over time grows on you and now that person might be a good friend, but it took time and patience and work to have a good friendship. Prayer is the same way.
I can tell you that preaching is so much easier than praying. I have never stopped in the middle of preaching and didn’t realize I was preaching. However I have stopped millions of times in prayer and forgot I was supposed to be praying. Prayer takes learning. Here we see the early believers devoted to prayer. What does that mean?
a) Pray out of obedience
Jesus told them to go to Jerusalem and wait (Acts 1:4). Look at verse 12: “then they returned to Jerusalem.” They obeyed, walked the half-mile journey and didn’t sit around playing with their toes, or even strategizing, but they prayed. They had to wait for this one time experience to come of the coming of the Spirit, as Jesus had promised. After the Spirit came, from then on, all true believers will get the Spirit without flames of fire. So for us, the Holy Spirit already indwells us upon conversion and God calls us to let Him have control in our lives (Eph. 5:18). This is because we lean on everything before we lean on Him. We have the flesh, the desire in us to rebel against God, working against us. The apostles weren’t perfect after the Spirit came either. We see Peter didn’t get the Gentile part of the Great Commission in Acts 10. They, like us, had to learn what it meant to walk by the Spirit.
But I like the people of God submitting here to Jesus. He said to go and wait, they go and wait. And as they waited, they prayed. They trusted and obeyed. Some of us may have set aside time to pray, but when the time comes, we feel discouraged, disbelieving, empty or dry. There could be a million reasons for why we feel this way (no sleep, unrepentant sin, stress, relational problems, work problems, etc.). Then you think, “Well I should only pray when I feel like it.” D.A. Carson brings up the false gospel behind this thought. The presupposition behind this is that “the acceptability of my approach to God in prayer ought to be tied to how I feel. Is not the basis of any Christian’s approach to the heavenly Father the sufficiency of Christ’s mediating work on our behalf? Is not this a part of what we mean when we pray “in Jesus’ name”? Are we not casting a terrible slur on the cross when we act as if the usefulness or acceptability of our prayers turns on whether we feel full or dry? True, when we feel empty and dispirited we may have to remind ourselves a little more forcefully that the sole reason why God accepts us is the grace that he has bestowed upon us in the person and work of his Son. But that is surely better than giving the impression that we are somehow more fit to pray when we feel good.”
So what do you do when you don’t feel like praying? You pray yourself into prayer. Emotion will follow the motion. The only way to learn to pray is by praying. Our emotions are not in our control, but our actions are. God accepts you not because you felt like praying, but because Jesus has perfectly loved and obeyed His Father on our behalf. Who knows? God may show up just when you least expect it. The good news is that the Spirit of God helps us in our weakness and there is nothing that cries “weakness” like trying to pray. Along with this is:
b) Pray persistently
Notice they were “devoting themselves.” This means “to occupy oneself diligently with something,” or “to pay persistent attention to.” A.T. Robertson says, “They ‘stuck to’ the praying.” It is found ten times in the New Testament and six of those times in the book of Acts! It means they didn’t stop devoting themselves to prayer. What were they praying about? The text is not clear. John Macarthur says, “Contrary to the view of some, they were not praying for the baptism with the Holy Spirit. They had not been told to pray for that but to wait for it, and they knew it was coming soon. The coming of the Spirit did not require or depend on their prayers but on God’s promise…they were praying because they were physically separated from the ascended Jesus, and prayer was their only means of communicating with Him. They may have been asking Him to return soon and in the meantime to grant them all they would need to be faithful.”
Look at Col. 4:2: “Continue steadfastly in prayer.” Other translations say, “Devote yourselves.” Same word! Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find and knock and the door shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7). The tenses of those verbs mean, “keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking.” Continue!
Pastor John Piper mentions this chapter (Matt. 7) in a recent article. In that context, Jesus says, “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:9-11). Piper adds,
“It’s an argument. Even bad dads give good things to their children when they ask. God is not a bad dad. He’s the best. Therefore, much more will he give good things to his children when we ask. I love that argument. Jesus really did want us to feel hopeful when we pray. He is trying to overcome our skepticism about prayer.
There’s another reason why this is so encouraging for our prayers. He says that a good dad gives “good things” to his children when they ask for what they want. He does not say that he always gives these little children precisely what they ask for. What father ever does? Or ever would? We love our children too much for that.
So when Jesus says he will give good things, he means that. Only good things. And only he knows ultimately what is good for us. And notice, when he says dads don’t give stones when asked for bread, he does not say dads always give bread. Just no stones. And when he says, dads don’t give snakes for fish, he does not say dads always give fish. Just no snakes. The point is this: God ignores no prayers from his children. And he gives us what we ask for, or something better (not necessarily easier), if we trust him.” Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance, but laying ahold of his willingness. God is more ready to give than we are to receive! It just might not be what is easy and what we want.
Jesus told a parable about a lady who kept bugging a judge and Luke tells us that the reason he told this parable was because “we should always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8). Continue! Paul in 1 Thessalonians said, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). The idea is not that we should walking around muttering prayers under our breath all the time. It would be really weird to have a conversation with you! It is, instead to have an attitude of prayer with everything you do. It is the posture of the heart.
Have you stopped praying? Have you stopped praying for something because you are not seeing any answers? Keep at it! Pray about everything. Lot of the Psalms are laments. This means they prayed their fears instead of suppressing or venting them. Pray your anger. God is not going to b surprised. Be honest. Practice spontaneous prayer. I love the way people ask for prayer via email. I hope you are not lying when you write back and say, “I’ll pray for you.” A good way to not lie is to stop and pray immediately for that request. Sometimes with our kids when we see something like an accident on the road or if they or we are struggling with something, we pray right away on the spot. Pray persistently! Pray with your spouses. It really helps cultivate oneness.
c) Unity in prayer
Prayer should not just be alone. They prayed together. They were unified in prayer. Notice the phrase: “all these with one accord.” This phrase is found 11 times in the NT, and again 10x in Acts. This word “denotes the inner unity of a group of people engaged in an externally similar action.” They were of “one mind.” They are in an upper room that can fit about 120 people at least.
Look at the people praying. You have 11 disciples from a variety of backgrounds: fishermen, tax collector, Simon the Zealot was a political activist. By the way, Bartholomew is most likely Nathaniel from John 1 and the Judas mentioned here is not the betrayer. Pastor Kent Hughes says these people were made up of, “Eleven disciples—strong-willed men, the kind who argued over who was going to get the best seat in the kingdom and who refused to wash one another’s feet; Jesus’ brothers who had been so perverse as to reject his Messiahship, his mother and a whole houseful of women—rich, poor, chaste, unchaste.’” Even family members who rejected Jesus (including James, the author of James and Jude, the author of Jude) now believe.
They have no other reason to be together, besides the Gospel. Luke also makes mention of women, which he loves to do. Jewish men used to thank God every day that he was not a Gentile, a dog or a woman. They are praying with the disciples too. Mary and Martha are probably there, along with Mary Magdalene, a woman who had seven devils leave her. Mary the mother of Jesus is there not being prayed to, but praying with them. The Gospel brings everyone together and breaks down socio-economic walls, gender walls and soon we will see it move from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, like a tsunami, breaking down racial walls as well.
The Greek has one word for “with one accord.” It “is a compound of two words meaning to “rush along” and “in unison.” The image is almost musical; a number of notes are sounded which, while different, harmonize in pitch and tone. As the instruments of a great concert under the direction of a concert master, so the Holy Spirit blends together the lives of members of Christ’s church.” It reminded me of this quote from A.W. Tozer: “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”
What is he saying? Unity does not come from working on unity. Unity comes from looking at Jesus. It’s a gospel issue. And that is why praying together is so important. Otherwise we are so self-absorbed. Isn’t it really hard to pray for yourself when you are praying with someone? It frees you to pray for others. And in doing so, it unifies you. Simon the Zealot is praying with Matthew the tax collector. Simon is not thinking, “I don’t fit in here. I’m really different. I have strange friends too.” Or Peter is not thinking, “I don’t pray with tax collectors. They are evil.” The Gospel is the grand leveler, as Tim Keller says. The ground is level at the cross. We are all beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. All of us have been covered by the same foreign righteousness. All of us have been saved by grace alone. He has stripped us of anything we can possibly boast about. No more racial superiority, socio-economic superiority or moral superiority.
We have changed a lot here at Living Hope in the last couple of years. Like we said a few weeks ago, we cannot look at others through the lens of the world, but the lens of the Gospel. There is no reason in the world that people from our backgrounds should be together. And we have come far in figuring out what this is supposed to look like. I would like to see us continue to grow in this unity and again, it comes from deeply believing the Gospel. The Gospel says that Jesus has left his comfort zone and climbed into our world, loved us, even to the point of death. It is easy to stay in our comfort zone even in church and when it changes. I think we may not stick to the comforts our own race, but we may stick to the comforts of our own friends. The Great Commission was to go from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria to the end of the earth. Do you know what that means? It means the Gospel breaks through greater degrees of uncomfortability. It goes from hard to impossible! And if we are called to this outside of church, may it start with us inside of our church and our covenantal meal downstairs. Yes, I know 85% of us are introverted and it is difficult to go meet someone new, but the Gospel is greater than our personality limitations.
Also, it has been said, “If you want to see how popular the church is, attend Sunday morning worship…but if you want to see how popular God is, attend the prayer meeting.” I am thankful for more and more people coming out to pray. I know many of you cannot come due to work or distance, but can I challenge you to seek out people here just to pray with them? Some of you meet up for discipleship or to hang out, pray. There is nothing that unifies a church like a church that prays.
We must be devoted to prayer as a church. It is a sign of dependence and is what helps us become unified. Miller gives other suggestions, which I will amend to help us grow to be a prayerful people:
- Take baby steps. Don’t try to do something heroic. If you have never prayed by yourself before, start with five minutes. Consistency is more important than length.
- Prepare for your time with God the night before. If you are going to pray in the next morning, plan your evening tonight so you don’t stay up too late.
- Pray out loud. This helps me because praying silently easily distracts me. Pray if you have a long drive. It’s not weird anymore because people have Bluetooth. Everyone looks like they are talking to themselves! So go ahead and pray in the car loudly.
- Get up and awake. Praying in bed is too tempting. I need to get up, take a shower and be awake. If you need to take a prayer walk, do that. Pray somewhere! You will never be able to pray everywhere all the time, until you have learned to pray somewhere, some of the time.
- Pray with the Bible. Pray about a verse. Pray it back to God.
- Pray with and for people. Pray for greater Gospel depth. We do not have the resources to do life on our own. We are weak. We are sheep and nothing humbles us like prayer and nobody rushes to us like God when we humble ourselves in prayer.
- Keep going. I used to feel guilty about praying because I would fall asleep or I would easily be distracted. When I became a father, God taught me more about praying. I have never been upset when my girls are in my arms and they fall asleep or if they don’t look at me and are easily distracted. Why? I am thankful they are in my arms. So if you fall asleep for 15 minutes and pray for 1, calm down. Maybe tomorrow you can fall asleep for 10 minutes and pray for two. He’s glad you are there!
Lastly and quickly, we must be devoted to prayer, but at the same time:
II. We must lean on God’s sovereignty (vv.15-26)
It will be a total of 10 days before the Holy Spirit comes. Peter gets up one of those days. I am happy for him here. He has been forgiven and restored by the Lord Jesus after his own denial. Jesus told him to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17) and he is doing that now. As they had great joy and unity in prayer, they also reflected on the sad hypocrisy and suicide of Judas.
“How does that fit into God’s plan?” the people wondered. They also must have remembered Jesus saying that the apostles were all to sit on 12 thrones (Matt. 19:28). Judas is gone and who gets the 12th spot? Twelve apostles were needed to witness to the twelve tribes of Israel and they had eleven.
So Peter tells everyone that Judas’ death was all part of prophecy of Scripture. Why do they need to know that? So they know that God is still sovereign. His plan did not get messed up. In essence as John Macarthur says, “God didn’t make Judas betray Jesus, but God planned what Judas would do into the redemptive plan. Just like God uses Godless men throughout the Old Testament to accomplish His purpose, so He used a Godless Judas to bring about a Godly end. That’s how God works. He works through men. Whether those men are regenerate or unregenerate doesn’t really matter. He’ll use those men to accomplish His purpose either way.” So sometimes when you pray, bad things will still happen. Prayer is not a way to get God to give us what we want. It is a way for God to give us what He knows we need. God is not a vending machine, a cosmic Santa Claus or magic genie. He is our Father and allows things to happen for His greater purpose. God is still on the throne when that happens.
And Judas was an example of that. He had remorse at the end after betraying Jesus. He threw the blood money on to the temple floor (Matt. 27:3-10). The priests used the money to buy a field. Macarthur adds, “Meanwhile, Judas, overwhelmed by his accusing conscience, committed suicide. Matthew records that he hanged himself (Matt. 27:5), whereas Luke here records that falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. Luke’s account supplements Matthew’s and does not contradict it. Evidently the tree Judas chose overlooked a cliff. Either the rope or the branch broke, or his knot failed to hold under the weight of his body. He then plunged to a gruesome death on the rocks below.”Judas was a greedy man, lover of money, who intended evil, but God turned it around for ultimate good. Sound familiar? Just like Joseph’s story (Gen. 50:20).
But this also teaches us that we can play the part of disciple really well and not really be a disciple. Judas saw all the miracles and heard the teachings, but did not believe. When push came to shove, he betrayed Christ. You cannot lose your salvation because you didn’t earn your salvation. If you didn’t earn it, there is nothing you can do to unearn it. And if we could lose it, none of us would be here because we would have lost it the second minute after salvation. However, when push comes to shove, over time, if you realize you don’t believe, you never had it. You looked the part and played the part. You professed it but never possessed it. I understand this because I was like that. I played the part for a long time until I had a relationship with Jesus. Just because you go to church does not make you a Christian, any more than going to McDonalds making you a Big Mac!
So they decide they need to choose another apostle. The Apostles all started out as disciples, which meant “learners.” But now they were given the office of apostle, which means “sent out one.” There were far more disciples than there were apostles. All apostles are disciples, but not all disciples were apostles. The office of apostleship only belonged to the 12.
What are the qualifications for the office of an apostle? 1. He would have to have witnessed the Lord’s entire earthly ministry, from its inception at His baptism to its culmination at the ascension. 2. The second requirement was that the one selected be a witness with the other eleven of His resurrection. Paul was an exception, but that is beyond our scope of study. The apostles were the foundation on which the church is built, with Jesus as the Cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). They have equal authority with the OT Prophets (2 Pet. 3:2). Therefore, there are no apostles today.
Anyway, there are two candidates: Barsabbas and Matthias. They pray again and they lean on God’s sovereignty through casting lots. This was a biblical teaching (Lev. 16:8; Josh. 18:10; Prov. 16:33; 18:18). It was used to discern God’s will in the OT, when a prophet was not available. It was also used to select people for special duties (1 Chron. 24:5-7; 25:8). The typical method for casting lots involved writing the two names on stones, placing them into a jar, and shaking it until one fell out. This decision-making procedure was not unusual in a Jewish context. The book of Proverbs says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). And Matthias was the winner. Poor Barsabbas! But I am sure he was more concerned that God be served than the fact that he was the one who would serve him. This is the last occurrence in Scripture of this practice of casting lots, since the coming of the Spirit rendered it unnecessary. The Spirit of God leads us into all truth (John 16:13).
But notice that the emphasis on prayer is also coupled with an emphasis on God’s sovereignty. I am thankful that God is sovereign. There are many prayers He did not answer, for which I am thankful. He is a wise God. Miller adds, “If God is sovereign, then he is in control of all the details of my life. If he is loving, then he is going to be shaping the details of my life for good. If he is all-wise, then he’s not going to do everything I want because of I don’t know what I need. If he is patient, then he is going to take time to do all this. When we put all these things together – God’s sovereignty, love, wisdom, and patience – we have a divine story.”
So we must be devoted to prayer, but at the same time, we lean on His sovereignty, especially when we don’t understand what He’s doing.
And the Gospel helps us with both. On the one hand, God comes to me as a Father. Why? Jesus became an orphan on the cross to pay for my sin, so I can be adopted into the family and treated like Jesus. He is my Father. Jesus lost His Father’s love and His Father’s face because of our sin, so we can always know we will have our Father’s face. He never turns away from us. The Gospel tells me that God is my Father who loves me, not just a King who I have to blindly obey. The cross shows me that. This is the basis of prayer.
A lot of us struggle in prayer because we don’t know who God is and we don’t know understand the basis for which we can come. We see Him as a disappointed master, shaking in disgust because of our failure or a tyrant who ready to beat us if we fail or an employer who pays us for our good work. He is a loving Father. So when I have unanswered prayer, I can lean on His sovereignty. I don’t know why He hasn’t answered it or when He will, but the reason can’t be that He’s not good or He doesn’t care or He doesn’t love me. How do you know? The cross tells me. The Gospel tells me. He answered my biggest prayer request without me asking it: He has redeemed me from hell and promised me eternity. Because of the Gospel, I was brought to Heaven and now when I pray, I can also have Heaven brought to my soul.
But the greatest thing about prayer is that we get God. The old Indian preacher Sadhu Sundar Singh says, “For the first two or three years after my conversion, I used to ask for specific things. Now I ask for God. Supposing there is a tree full of fruits – you will have to go and buy or beg the fruits from the owner of the tree. Every day you would have to go for one or two fruits. But if you can make the tree your own property, then all the fruits will be your own. In the same way, if God is your own, then all things in Heaven and on earth will be your own, because He is your Father and is everything to you…So ask not for gifts but for the Giver of Gifts: not for life but for the Giver of Life – then life and the things needed for life will be added unto you.”
Miller, P. Ibid.
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