The church in Jerusalem had taken off like a rocket. It was even experiencing some popularity in response to the power of God (2:47). This was all real, but it was also the calm before the storm.
Chapter 4 begins a new chapter in church history: one that deals with pressures from without. Peter and John were incarcerated, interrogated and threatened as a means of intimidation. The horizon looked ominous. Clouds were gathering. The cross of Christ was only a few months behind them. The same men who crucified Jesus had now confronted and commanded these men to cease and desist from doing what Jesus had commanded them to do. The enemies of Jesus were very much visible. Jesus was not. How would they respond?
The answer is clear from our text: They responded with “applied theology.” This took the form of “kneeology.” They prayed.
Acts 4:23-31 serves as a wonderful stimulant to the church as she faces the pressures, problems and persecutions that attend the church committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When the church takes His person and work seriously then pressures from without (as from within—chapter 5) will be experienced. And when we ask, what shall we do? we should answer in the same way that this early church did: We should pray.
John Bunyan wise noted that you can do more than pray, but you can’t do more until you pray. In this study, I want to exhort you from God’s Word to learn and to practice kneeology; that is, the biblical discipline of prayer. As a fellow elder once prayed in one of our prayer meetings, the church of Jesus Christ rules on her knees.
If we take the Great Commission seriously then we will take prayer seriously. Acts 4 is Exhibit A.
Remember that Peter and John, having recently healed the paralysed man, had just been instructed by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching the gospel. With this order ringing fresh in their ears, they returned to the church and reported all that the Sanhedrin had said to them. “And being let go, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them” (v. 23).
Luke begins this section by informing us that Peter and John were “let go.” In accordance with Jewish tradition, the Sanhedrin issued the apostles their first (and only) warning before more drastic measures would be taken. This contrasted somewhat with God’s law in Deuteronomy 13:1-5, which stated that a proven false teacher was to be executed without warning, but nevertheless it remained Jewish tradition.
The Sanhedrin remained hostile, despite the boldness of the apostles (see vv. 17-21) and the undeniable evidence of fact (v. 22). They had been backed into a corner, but still they came out swinging.
Though they were “let go,” Peter and John were aware that their troubles were not necessarily behind them. And yet they remained bold in their witness. As Barclay notes, “The one thing that never even struck them was to obey the Sanhedrin’s command to speak no more. Into their minds at that moment there came certain great convictions and into their lives there came a tide of strength.”1
Their boldness did not mean that they were without concern. They felt the pressure, and this is clearly evidenced by their destination immediately upon release.
Being released by the Sanhedrin, “they went to their own.” The phrase “their own” is, in the original language, a possessive pronoun. It indicates that the church belonged to Peter and John. It is the same phrase used to describe those who belonged to Jesus—both Israel as a unique covenant nation (John 1:11) and believers as a unique, covenant people (John 13:1). Peter and John felt a similar sense of belonging with the Jerusalem church, and so they immediately returned to the church upon their release. Their first “port of call” when in trouble was the church.
Let me pause briefly to ask, to whom do you go when facing the pressures of life? Perhaps your answer depends on why you are facing such pressures. Peter and John suffered for the gospel’s sake and so they sought refuge with the “gospelled.” They suffered for Christ and so they gathered with the body of Christ.
Returning to the church, Peter and John immediately “reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.” The phrase “reported” means “to declare” or “to announce.” The “chief priests” would include the current high priest, the captain of the temple, the temple overseer and perhaps some temple treasurers.2 It was another way of describing the temple elite. The “elders,” properly speaking, described the heads of the tribes, and so it was a work used of political leadership. Peter and John had been threatened by some powerful men, and they immediately reported this to the church.
The apostles were human and no doubt they were somewhat troubled. They felt the pressure. In fact, I would agree with commentator Everett Harrison that “in spite of Peter’s courageous defiance he and John told the brotherhood all that had been said by the Sanhedrin. They had real apprehension of the outcome.”3
Note that they seemingly did not focus on how they had responded. They were not boasting. Human nature is perverse, and there is often the temptation to seek out persecution for pride’s sake. This was not the case with the apostles and ought never to be the case with us. The simple fact is, if we are faithful then we will have plenty to report by way of opposition. And the body needs to hear this; the body needs to share in this; the body needs to pray about this. As Paul said in Romans 12:15, the church must rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Oh, that we might have such a thing to report!
The response of the church to the report can be seen in vv. 24-30.
United in Prayer
Immediately upon receiving the report, the believers “raised their voice to God with one accord” (v. 24). As Peter and John turned to the church when they were under pressure, the church turned to the Lord of the church in their corporate pressure. John Stott notes, “Here is the Christian koinonia in action. . . . Having been bold in witness, they were equally bold in prayer.”4
Note that they raised their voice “to God.” They did not protest to politicians. They did not complain to one another. They corporately responded with and in faith. Let’s pause to note that a prayerful response always trumps a panicked response!
They lifted their prayer to God “with one accord.” The phrase speaks of “the same mind,” “with one passion,” “one purpose,” “unanimously.” This was neither the first (Acts 1:14; 2:1, 46) nor the last (Acts 5:12; 15:25) time that the church would be united in purpose. And it is an exhortation that the New Testament lays upon all churches (Romans 15:6).
The ESV says that “they lifted their voices.” I prefer the NKJV at this point, which tells us that they “raised their voice.” The idea is not that everyone in the congregation simultaneously and individually began to pray, but that in spirit they joined in together as the voice of prayer was lifted to God. There was corporate cohesiveness but not corporate confusion! The church was united in purpose as well as in perspective and thus in prayer.
As a point of application, let me ask, what is your default response in trouble? Do you turn first to God? Do you ask others to join you in prayer? Can you depend on others to join you in prayer? Can others depend on you to join them in prayer? It should be so in corporate body life.
United in Praise
Their prayer did not begin with complaint or even request, but with praise to God: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them” (v. 24).
Commentator Furneaux writes of this verse, “They rise above sight and seen to see the Hand which ‘shapes men’s hands.”5 And Knowling observes that these words “form the earliest known Psalm of Thanksgiving in the Christian Church.”6
The church addressed God as “Lord.” The Greek word here translated “Lord” is used only a handful of times in the New Testament. It is the word despotes, from which the English word “despot” is derived. We tend to think of a despot in a negative sense, but in truth the word simply describes an absolute master or ruler, one who has complete authority over his servants.
Paul used the term in 1 Timothy 6:1 to describe “masters” of slaves. It was the term by which Simeon called on the Lord in Luke 2:29. The martyrs who cried to God for vengeance in Revelation 6:10 addressed him using this word. The principle is simply this: There is only one way to properly pray: recognising that we are His people and He is our God; recognising His absolute sovereignty.
God is sovereign when things are going well and when we suffer. When the Roman Catholic authorities once threatened Luther, and warned him that if he persisted in his reformations he would ultimately be deserted by all his supporters, they demanded, “Where will you be then?” Luther displayed a wonderful understanding of the Lord’s absolute authority when he replied, “Then as now, in the hands of God.”7
The church cried to God with confidence because they understood who God is. You see, theology matters! Theology drives kneeology, for biblical theology drives us to our knees!
Humility is essential to kneeology! We must approach God with a servant attitude. When this church prayed, “You are God,” they implied at the same time, “and we are not.” They understood God’s authority and their subservience, and we need the same understanding in our prayer.
On a practical note, let me urge you to be careful of taking God’s name in vain when you pray. He is infinite, self-existent, self-sufficient. Don’t use God’s name flippantly in prayer. Don’t use His name as a “filler” while you are thinking of what next to pray. Using a different tone of voice when speaking God’s name may not be good either!
As you seek to build your prayer life, what are you doing to develop your knowledge of God? Are you making good use of the “market day of the soul” as a time to learn about God? Are you spending time privately in God’s Word to learn more about Him? Do you take opportunity to learn about God through fellowship with fellow saints? After all, as A. W. Tozer once noted, “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”8
This church recognised that it was God “who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them.” They recognised God as Creator and, conversely, recognised themselves as creatures. This distinction is crucial for true prayer. Aseity refers to the property by which a being exists of and from itself, and properly speaking, this property belongs to the God of the Bible alone. He—and He alone—is entirely self-existent, and we must approach Him in prayer with this understanding. We were created; He was not. He therefore is not restricted by the “laws” of creation.
These remembered that God is “provident.” That is, they understood that all things—including the pressure that they were feeling at that very moment—happened only with the providential permission of God. They understood that they depended on God. And therefore they did not carelessly laugh in time of danger, but instead were driven by that danger to crave help at the hands of God.9
In short, these prayer believers believed that God had a plan and the power to do it. “Only now, with their vision of God clarified, and themselves humbled before him, were they ready at last to pray.”10
Let me take a moment here to say that creationism matters. If God does not exist as a sovereign being above His creation, then He does not stand over the events of history. If we will have real, biblical hope in prayer—particularly in times of difficulty—we must place our faith in a God who stands apart from and therefore over the affairs of men.
Let us also learn that true prayer is always full of praise because it is God-centred. Unlike the prayer recorded here, too many of our prayers begin with complaint or petition. But the proper way to pray is to first recognise and praise the God to whom you are praying, and then—in light of His absolute sovereignty—to bring your great petitions before Him (see Matthew 6:9-10ff). The absolute rule of God over all things helps put our pressures into proper perspective.
BBC, let’s continue to grow in our theology and prove it by our practise of kneeology, resulting in heartfelt and eternal doxology.
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 39. ↩
- Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1975), 180. ↩
- Everett R. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 95. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 99. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:55. ↩
- R. J. Knowling, The Expositor’s Greek Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 2:133. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 39. ↩
- A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Carlisle: OM Press, 1961), 11. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 18:2.182. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 100. ↩