I’ve been struck recently at how many parallels there are between Luke and Acts. The two books, of course, were originally one volume. Think of Luke/Acts like a hand and a glove. In Luke, we see the shape of the divine hand in the person of Jesus. Then in Acts, we see the invisible hand, the Holy Spirit, filling the church. The teaching that Jesus presents in Luke ends up being experienced and applied in Acts.
Seeing the church pray is a perfect example. What Jesus teaches about persistent prayer (in Luke) is seen in action when Peter gets imprisoned. In Acts 12, we see a snapshot of the early church in prayer. Here are three important aspects of their prayer:
1. Whatever they were afraid of, they talked about to God.
Eugene Peterson, in his book, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, points out two types of prayer in the Psalms—evening prayer and morning prayer. Evening prayer is marked by praying your worries to God. Psalm 4 is a good example: David commits to God what he is worrying about, the people that are bothering him, the things that make him angry or sad. And then he reminds himself of the promises of God. Morning prayer, as in Psalm 5, is active, petitionary prayer—where you boldly pray against things in the world that aren’t right.
What the church does when Peter is imprisoned is, in a sense, evening prayer. They are committing their worries to God. Herod had just beheaded James, the leader of the early church, and it looks like Peter is next up for execution. The situation looks grim, and Peter’s friends are understandably worried for his future and their future. So they talked to God about it.
What do we do when we are afraid, worried, upset? Look at what David says, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). Sleep! If we would develop the practice of evening prayer, it would give us such an incredible sense of peace. It would give us the capacity to rest, knowing that our prayers are heard by the one whose arm controls the universe. So pray to God, then lie down and sleep, knowing that while you sleep, he is worrying for you.
2. They used prayer like a war-time walkie-talkie, not a domestic intercom.
The early church prayer isn’t just an evening prayer asking for peace. It is also a morning prayer, an active, bold, petitionary prayer. All throughout Acts, we find the church praying about the mission. As John Piper says,
“Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief. It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den…Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for: Prayer is for the accomplishment of a wartime mission.”
This kind of prayer is bold and audacious, because it recognizes that there are things in the world that are not right. This kind of prayer is rebellion against the status quo. They knew that it was God’s will for the church to get the gospel to the ends of the earth—regardless of Herod’s plans. They didn’t know if Peter would live or die, but they knew that God wasn’t going to fail in his plans. So they got on their knees and said, “Lord, make it happen!” They realized that prayer actually changes situations, that prayer moves the arm that moves the world.
It often bothers me how we think of praying to God, when we should be praying with God. He’s already shown us his will and his promises in Scripture. We know it isn’t God’s will for the gospel to wither and die. We know it isn’t God’s will for Satan to overrun our families and steal our children. We know it isn’t God’s will for our neighborhood, our city, our world to perish. So let’s pray with God for the advance of his kingdom. Rebel against the status quo.
3. They were persistent, like the widow in Luke 18.
Remember the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18? A widow bothers and nags a judge so incessantly that he decides to hear her out—even though he doesn’t care about her, about justice, or about God. And Jesus says (incredibly), pray to God like that.
Look at Acts 12, and you’ll see that the early church got the message. They knew that it was God’s will for the church to get the gospel to the ends of the earth. And with Peter in prison, that was in jeopardy. So even though they didn’t know if Peter would make it out or not, they prayed and prayed and prayed. Verse 12 says that when God finally answered their prayer and broke Peter out of prison, Peter showed up and found them in the middle of an all-night prayer meeting. They were beating down God’s door!
I know there are times when God directs us away from specific requests, even godly ones. Paul asked for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” and God gave him a firm no three times—and then told him to stop asking (2 Cor 12:9). But in general, I think we give up way too early in our prayers. We ask once, maybe twice, and then simply stop asking. But Jesus told us to keep asking, even to harass God as if he’s asleep (Luke 11)!
Acts shows us that when the church prays like that, things explode. Prison doors come off their hinges. Thousands of people come to faith. Cities are turned upside-down. Not from technique, from skill, or from planning. From prayer.
“The one concern of the devil is to keep the saints from prayer. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray… Prayer turns ordinary mortals into men of power…It brings fire. It brings rain. It brings life. It brings God. There is no power like that of prevailing prayer.”