As a church, we have recently spent a lot of Sunday evenings addressing the one another exhortations in the New Testament. Our Sunday morning studies in the Gospel of Mark have further highlighted this need for relational unity in the church. It is clear from these studies, and from a survey of the New Testament, that God is concerned about his people worshipping and serving him together.
One of the great blessings that God has been bestowing on his church over the past thirty years or so is a new appreciation among his people of the centrality of the local church. “Life together,” as Bonhoeffer put it, is a biblical concept which God seems to be reviving around the globe among Christians. Pastors and congregations are gaining a fresh understanding that the Christian life is to be lived out in community rather than in isolation. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. No one can face the struggles of the Christian life alone. We were never meant to.
The one another passages make clear that there are many things that we are to do together: serve together; sing together; submit together; learn together; suffer together; raise our children together; etc. We are also to pray together. The early church did so. The book of Acts records the importance of prayer in the life of the early church: when they faced persecution (4:23–31); when they selected deacons (6:6); when Peter was in prison (12:1–5); when they sent out missionaries (13:1–3); etc. In the text before us, we see the early church—the nucleus of what would become a worldwide movement—praying together.
This should indicate to us the importance of prayer in the local church. Praying together needs to be important to our churches. Let us briefly see what we can learn from this particular text about the need for the church to pray together.
When They Prayed
First, let’s observe when this church prayed together.
After Receiving Instruction
These believers gathered as the church to pray after having received instruction. Luke sets the scene by telling us that Jesus “appear[ed] to them during forty days” post-resurrection “and [spoke] about the kingdom of God” (vv. 1–3).
Right here, we see the two pillars of the Christian life at play: the word of God and prayer., We see this later, too, when the early church members in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). There was an order here: First, they received instruction, and they responded to that instruction with prayer.
Before Commencing Their Ministry
A second thing to notice about the timing of their prayer is that it happened before the commencement of their ministry. It was at the ascension that Jesus reiterated the Great Commission (see 1:4–8) but only after Pentecost that they commenced their ministry. The intervening time was spent in prayer.
Without Christ, we can do nothing. And prayer is a necessary and practical demonstration of this. Nothing displays our dependence on God like a vibrant prayer life. This is true both personally and corporately. If we will be effective ministers of the gospel, we need God’s power. The early disciples understood this.
In the “Absence” of Jesus
A third note about the timing of this prayer is that it happened in Jesus’ “absence”—that is, after his ascension, when he was no longer physically present with them (1:9–11). We know that Jesus is omnipresent, but for the disciples who had spent three years with him in the flesh, this absence must have been tangible. They were waiting for the Spirit to take his place, but in the meantime they needed to remain in contact with him through prayer.
Though our historical situation is different, two similarities remain. First, we do not see Jesus physically and, second, we sometime feel as though he is absent, even if we know better theologically. Prayer helps us to experience his presence. Prayer practically and really connects us, thus comforting and strengthening us, especially when prayer is connected to his promises, as it was here.
I would love to see increasing participation from our church in our corporate prayer meetings, not only in willingness to pray corporately, but also in willingness to submit prayer requests. How wonderful it would be for the church to join in corporate prayer for a member’s witnessing or ministry opportunities that week. We display our understanding of our dependence on God, in part, in willingness to not only pray, but to ask for prayer.
Where They Prayed
We also want to say something about where they prayed.
In a Corporate Closet
First, we observe that they prayed in what we might call a “corporate closet.” Here, I am thinking of Jesus words to his disciples to be careful of praying publicly to be seen by men, but to instead enter into their closet and pray to God who hears them in heaven (Matthew 6:5–6).
In a sense, the disciples were modelling that here. They did not make this a public prayer meeting, though I don’t doubt that they, at times, prayed together in the temple. Here, however, they gathered as a group of believers in an upper room to pray together. They did not advertise this prayer meeting on social media and call for masses of people to join them. They simply gathered as a group of believers in covenant relationship and prayed together. They prayed within the security of those they trusted. They prayed with those with whom they could be transparent. They prayed with those with whom they would share in trial. In short, they prayed where the church had gathered. And so should we.
In our day, we often see large Christian organisations calling for massive public prayer meetings. I don’t want to cast aspersion unfairly on those who do this, and there is no doubt some place for it. However, we need to beware of at least two things in this regard. First, we must beware the danger of not being of one accord when it comes to what to pray for. Doctrinal differences may well leave us with different ideas of how to pray. Second, we need to beware of making such public praying a “show of force,” as if saying to the world that it is by our numbers that we will overcome.
In a Place of Hostility
These believers prayed in a place of hostility. They had gone to Galilee at Jesus’ instruction after his resurrection. Though they had previously faced hostility in Galilee, it was nevertheless their home town, and so they surely felt some sense of ease there. But then “then they returned to Jerusalem” (v. 12), a hotbed of conflict for them. They had returned to hostile territory—no wonder they prayed!
As we realise that the place we live is no friend of biblical Christianity, we should be driven to our knees. We live in a dangerous place.
I have some friends who live in a particularly dangerous area in the Western Cape, rife with gang activity. These brothers and their families know what it is to pray. Their recognition of the hostility that exists around them drives them to their knees, as it should do for us.
You may not live in a gangster’s paradise as my friends do, but you live in a world that is hostile to the gospel. You are opposed by principalities and powers; the schemes of the evil one, the world, and the flesh. Your marriage and family is under attack, as is your faith. We are faced with nominal Christianity and apostasy. We preach the gospel to those who are dead! Yet our mandate remains the same: disciple the disciples in Jesus’ name. We need to pray!
How They Prayed
It will be helpful to say something about how they prayed.
Brothers and Sisters
First, they prayed together as brothers and sisters in Christ. The text reads,
And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
Luke specifically draws attention to the presence of women as he writes about this prayer meeting. We know that there were faithful female disciples (see Luke 8:2–3; 24:20, 22; etc.), including Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, and Susanna. And let us not forget Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Greek word translated “brothers” can refer to men and women, and so it is quite possible that Jesus’ sisters were there too. And we can assume that these women joined in prayer (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3–5).
Prayer is a family matter. When we first shifted to a more prayer-focused Sunday evening service, we almost immediately began to include women among those who prayed publicly. Because of our complementarian convictions as a church, a few questions were asked, but they were easily answered. The reality is, it is a wonderful thing when God’s family—men and women—gather to pray.
A United Family
These church members gathered “with one accord” to pray (v. 14). This is language that is frequently used of the early disciples (cf. 2:1; 4:6; 4:24; 5:12; 15:25; see Romans 15:6). The phrase can mean “with one passion.” One commentator defines the word as “aunique Greek word, used 10 of its 12 New Testament occurrences in the Book of Acts.” He notes that this unique word
helps us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. Homothumadon 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, harmonise 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.
The church that stays together prays together; and the church that prays together stays together. When church members fade from the prayer meeting, it is often an indication that they are fading in their faith. Church members who will not pray together might well stray together.
We don’t know their posture, but we are told of their perseverance, for they were “devoting themselves to prayer.” This word (“devoting”) is found again in 2:42, 46; 6:4; Romans 12:12 and Colossians 4:2, each time in the context of the church praying. It describes earnestness toward a thing, perseverance or constant diligence. It describes assiduous attendance to a matter. In other words, they devoted themselves to prayer! They kept at it.
It is not difficult to tell when someone is devoted to something or someone. A man devoted to his wife, or a woman devoted to her husband, is easily spotted. They consistently display their devotion to one another and are active in it. So it is when a disciple is devoted to prayer.
Praying together was a habitual pattern. They “prayed without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). We should do the same as we gather with others to pray, as we gather as a church to pray, as we gather in small groups to pray. We must devote ourselves to prayer.
What Happened When They Prayed
There were some tangible results of their devotion to prayer.
The Leadership was Strengthened
First, as the church devoted itself to prayer, its leadership was strengthened. Matthias rose to fill the place that Judas Iscariot had left (vv. 15–26). Eleven became twelve again.
As a church, I can certainly say that this is one of the things we need to be praying fervently for. We need more leaders to stand in the gaps. When the leadership is strengthened, usually the church is as well. We do well, then, to pray for strengthened leadership in our churches.
They Experienced the Promise of God
A second result of their devotion to prayer was the experience of divine promise. Jesus had promised that he would send the Spirit, and did so in response to his disciples’ prayers (see chapter 2). Stott comments, “There can be little doubt that the grounds of this unity and perseverance in prayer were the command and promise of Jesus. He had promised to send them the Spirit soon (1:4, 5, 8). He had commanded them to wait for him to come and then to begin their witness.” He then adds, “God’s promises do not render prayer superfluous. On the contrary, it is only his promises which give us the warrant to pray and the confidence that he will hear and answer.”
Perhaps these answers to prayer taught them how important prayer is, and so they kept at it. One of the most consistent themes in Luke’s narrative is the church’s devotion to prayer. Clearly, the early disciples understood the importance and power of prayer, and so they kept at it, even in—especially in—the fact of great opposition.
The church that prays together learns together, is prepared together, grows together, and stays together. At the end of the day, we can learn from a praying early church that prayer is a means towards keeping covenantal faithfulness, which means that prayer is a means to keeping our saltiness (see Mark 9:49–50). Let us therefore be churches that commit to praying together.