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Prayer in the Book of the Acts (2)

The late E W Rogers

Peter had a strange incident in his pastoral care of the young church. It had to do with Simon and his "simony". The story need not be related here save to observe that Peter said to him, "Repent…and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee" (Acts 8.22). Better advice could not have been given, but such a one as Simon could hardly have been expected to adopt it. His mind was more on money than on God. Therefore, he replied saying, "Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of the things which ye have spoken come upon me" (Acts 8.24). He did not know the Lord, and therefore he could not pray to Him direct: he asked others to do it for him. Prayer by proxy! Such prayer sprang from fear and self-interest. The silence of Scripture at this point is eloquent, for it is not to be supposed that Peter offered such a prayer.

We move on, and the next panel in Luke's picturesque record is that of Saul's conversion. Note how intimately Ananias and the Lord spoke to each other: the Lord called Him by name and Ananias addressed Him as "Lord". That early saint opened his heart to Him and disclosed his fears, for that is part of the exercise of prayer: we tell Him all, being well assured that He understands. But the Lord replied, "I know that what you say is true about the erstwhile inquisitor: but 'behold, he prayeth', and I know his heart and have caused him to see a man named Ananias, and you are that man" (see Acts 9.10-18). The conversation of Ananias with the Lord makes one desirous of knowing a like friendship: it is available to us all, provided we allow nothing to come between which would be like a cloud hiding His face.

"More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of", said Tennyson, and so it is. Watch Peter praying at the bedside of Dorcas, observe how he followed his Lord in like circumstances, and see the result - the dead came to life. Do you want to see dead souls quickened to life? Do then, as did Peter: get alone with God and put the case before Him. Kneel before Him, and by that very posture declare to God the insufficiency of all human support. Then do what appears to the natural man absurd: speak to the spiritually dead. You may expect to see a miracle wrought and life begin.

Sometimes people pray to a God whom they do not fully know. Their hearts are more intelligent than their minds. So it is with Cornelius who "prayed to God alway" (Acts 10.2). God took note of this and looked for a man who knew what it was to lay hold of God in prayer also, and who put himself at his disposal as an instrument to do His bidding. He found Peter who had gone to the housetop to pray. No wonder that both met - the one as an informant and the other as a recipient. That first Gentile gospel meeting was attended with such a success because both audience and preacher were in the right attitude. The whole circumstances had been saturated with prayer.

The book of Acts is largely centred on two persons - Peter and Paul. Peter goes off the scene in chapter 12, but how thrilling is the incident which closes this section of the doctor's book: a fellow-worker slain with the sword; malignant intent on the part of Herod to do the same to Peter; but fear of the religious Jews delaying him from carrying into effect his evil design. Peter is therefore imprisoned, but instant and earnest prayer was "made without ceasing of the church unto God for him" (Acts 12.5). Note: "without ceasing", what words; "of the church", what oneness of mind; "unto God" in all His supremacy and omnipotence; "for him" without attempting to dictate to God what should be done. We are not told if they prayed for his release, or the maintenance of his faith, or courage in martyrdom, or what. They left that with God who would do the best.

But the Lord had already told Peter the manner of his death and it could not be by the sword; so he slept soundly in simply confidence on his Lord. The story of the two soldiers, the two chains, the guards before the door, the first and second ward, the iron gate, and the shut door at Mary's house is well known to readers. It seemed that all these had to be opened one by one, and soldiers and guards be rendered powerless, and so it was. God answered prayer. He is still the same today; when God so works there are never to be forgotten days.

A new section of the book now opens (Acts 13), and Paul and Barnabas are separated by the Holy Spirit and the church at Antioch for special work. But it was not a decision taken without prayer. "When they had fasted and prayed", they let them go. There was a deep awareness that these two were about to embark on divine business of a world-wide nature, and it could succeed only as they had to do with the Lord Himself, who was thus thrusting forth labourers into His harvest.

Paul was a man of prayer, as his letters, including those that were written by him during the history covered by the Acts, show. How often does he use expressions such as "every prayer of mine" (Phil 1.4), and "I thank my God" (Rom 1.8; 1 Cor 1.4; 14.18; Phil 1.3; 2 Tim 1.3; Philem v.4) etc. There was both the outward and inward life of this great servant of God. He came behind in nothing in this matter. He knew what it was to strive with God in his prayers for the saints. Paul was a church planter and he did his work well. First he evangelized, then he allowed time for the development of Christian character, and then he appointed elders in every church. But it was not done in any form of carnal energy; both Paul and Barnabas fasted and they prayed, commending the saints to the Lord on whom they had believed. How many oversights are formed in this manner? How many heartbreaks would be saved were there more prayer and fasting?

It has all too freely been said that the apostles were at fault in neglecting prayer when they had their Council in Jerusalem, and also when Paul decided to take Silas, and Barnabas decided to take Mark, these two great men parting after their "sharp contention" (Acts 15). But it is not safe to argue from silence. We dare not discuss the pros and cons in the matter of the Barnabas/Paul dispute. Who are we to judge or to blame? Because Barnabas went off the scene it is not to be assumed that God put him on the shelf. The day of Christ will show what else this good man did which is not recorded on earth. And if any are prone to blame Paul they should observe that by this means, "the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily" (Acts 16.5, RV). Before we sit on the judgment seat let us verify that these "daily" results are our usual experience.

Philippi having been reached, on the sabbath day Paul and his associates looked out for a "place of prayer" (Acts 16.13, RV) and they resorted thither - it appears to have been their habit while in that area. But circumstances soon arose that allotted them another place in the city -"the inner prison" in which Paul and Silas were incarcerated. But lo! when things were at their blackest, at midnight, they prayed to God. No wonder it was soon supplemented with singing, with prisoners listening to this remarkable and strange affair. What can you do with men as these? Their victories were wrought behind prison doors.

It is delightful also to see Paul at prayer with others. This is never said of the Lord, for he stood infinitely above His own people. But Paul was one of them and therefore could pray with them. He did so with the Ephesian elders; he did so with the believers and their wives and children in Tyre (Acts 20,21). How much cheer comes to the heart when saints meet together around one common mercy seat!

Had Luke written his history with a view to demonstrating the prayer life of the great apostle we might have been surprised if, here and there, he had omitted to make mention of it. That would then have been significant and a warning. But he did not write with that intention, and we repeat that it is wrong to conclude that, because here and there no mention is made, Paul acted independently of God. Rather we should assume that utter dependence upon Him was his normal state and that all was done accordingly. There surely can be no doubt that Paul availed himself of the Lord's promise that there was no need to worry when brought before magistrates and others of earth's dignitaries. The Spirit would give words appropriate to the occasion, and so He did. How instructive are Paul's speeches!

It was (literally) by no means all smooth sailing for them. Luke records one notable storm (Acts 27), although it was not the only one in Paul's career. There seemed little hope of any escape with their lives, but Paul had been in touch with God and knew otherwise. He was assured that all was well. God had been speaking to him as he had been telling Him of their plight. Therefore, he urged them all to take some food, and he himself took some and before them all "gave thanks to God" (Acts 27.34-35). How like Paul! He could pray and sing in prison. He also could pray and give thanks in the storm.

Luke pulls the curtain down with a brief account of Paul on Malta and later in Rome (Acts 28). Even on the island he prayed, and the father of Publius was healed. When he was met by the brethren from Rome he turned to God with thanksgiving. His whole heart was Godward.

Why, then, are we so different? Does not this account for the absence, at least in part, of the longed for blessing?

Concluded.

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