In Acts 12, we find a very important scene of a persecuted church and a praying church. It was the persecution that precipitated the prayer—and what happens in this record of church history is vitally important regarding the practice of prayer within our local church today.
It has been said of prayer by Charles Spurgeon, “Prayer girds human weakness with divine strength, turns human folly into heavenly wisdom, and gives to troubled mortals the peace of God. We know not what prayer can do.” Prayer is of great importance in the Christian journey! We see prayer in both the Old and New Testaments – and prayer is a privilege we enjoy not a task we must do. One of the most neglected forms of worship is the faithful practice of prayer. This is not true of just the individual believer—but also of the church as a whole. Far too often, the prayers of the gathered church are shallow, short, and more horizontal than vertical in nature. We have much to learn about prayer.
At the beginning of Acts 12, we find that Herod was persecuting Christians. He had killed John, the brother of James, with a sword. He was violently persecuting the church—and during this outburst of violence upon God’s people—Peter was arrested and imprisoned. It was likely that Herod was planning to use Peter as an example by killing him as well. However, something very interesting happened.
The Church Gathered for Prayer
We are living in days where prayer meetings are becoming a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the prayer meeting should be central to the life of the church. Apparently, as persecution was heating up against God’s people—the church gathered for prayer. They didn’t turn to social media for prayer nor did they just pray with a few random friends. They gathered as a church specifically for prayer (Acts 12:5, 12). It would do us well to notice that the church had gathered to pray late in the evening or they prayed until it was very late. We derive this from the text as Peter was already asleep between two soldiers when the angel appeared to him (Acts 12:6). This is critically important to see and a pattern to follow. How much more healthy would our churches be today if we gathered as a church for prayer?
Today, the church will gather for all sorts of reasons—many of which center on some sort of entertainment factor. Yes, even religious gatherings can be centered on entertainment. This comes in form of singing, special preachers for special services, and other special events including athletics and more. It’s a sad testimony of our day when prayer meetings are being canceled or are so poorly attended that leaders are considering canceling them altogether. The church received the Holy Spirit as they were gathered in the upper room praying. Here in Acts 12, the church was gathered together for prayer. We need to pray together and for one another. That’s the testimony of the church from the beginning. A healthy church will be a praying church.
Did the Church Refuse to Believe God Would Answer?
While we can learn much from the how the early church gathered for prayer, we can likewise learn some patterns to avoid—such as the one found in this very section. As the church gathered for the purpose of prayer and as they lifted up their voices to God for their brother Peter who was imprisoned—little did they know that God dispatched an angel to the cell of Peter who woke him up and miraculously delivered him from the heavily guarded cell. As they prayed—Peter was leaving the prison under the shadow of night and by nothing short of a miraculous intervention and deliverance.
When Peter arrived at the home of Mary—the mother of John Mark—where the church was praying, he knocked and a servant girl named Rhoda gave the report that Peter was at the gate. They didn’t believe the report. In fact, they went as far as to say, “You are out of your mind” (Acts 12:15). The insisted that if anything, it was the “angel” or “spirit” of Peter. In short, they refused to believe that God had heard their prayers and had delivered Peter out of prison safely. They chose to believe the worst—that Peter had been killed. Suddenly, they were reunited with Peter and their doubts were overcome by the reality of God’s answered prayer.
It was George Muller who said, “I have joyfully dedicated my whole life to the object of exemplifying how much may be accomplished by prayer and faith.” In commenting on this passage, Thomas Watson said, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” We can learn both how to pray and how not to pray by reading Acts 12. Be encouraged to pray and trust the Lord who not only hears the cries of his people but answers our prayers in accordance with his perfect will for his eternal glory.
Every church would do well to have one, but far too often they labor in secret and are seldom recognized, but how beneficial it is for a church to have a man who labors in prayer on behalf of the church. That was the case for the church in Colossae—and as Paul closed out his letter to them, he named Epaphras and pointed out how he was a faithful servant in prayer.
Consider the purpose of Epaphras’ prayers. He wasn’t praying superficial prayers, but rather the kind of prayers that truly need to be prayed in the life of a local church. According to Paul, Epaphras struggled in his prayers. The word he used “ἀγωνίζομαι” which we translate “struggle” can mean “to fight” or “to engage in a contest.” The idea is to engage with a passionate zeal. This is not a light and easy prayer!
Prayers for Spiritual Maturity
Far too often many churches are praying for growth, but it’s numerical rather than spiritual growth that seems to be the focus. While we should pray for numerical growth, the foundation that such growth stands upon is spiritual growth. Epaphras spent time praying for the church in Colossae to become strong and complete—fully developed in their spiritual growth.
When was the last time you could see noticeable growth in your spiritual life? Sure, we set goals for physical health and we work to maintain or to stretch ourselves to hit our mark with weight loss, muscle gain, or whatever the category may be, but when was the last time you noticed spiritual growth? Have you set goals for your own personal prayer life? What about your knowledge of God through the Bible? When was the last time you spent time memorizing verses of Scripture in your personal study of the Bible? Bible memory is not just for children—right?
We need hearts that are zealous about reaching unbelievers and seeing our church grow numerically, but we must labor to see our church grow spiritually. It’s precisely this spiritual maturity that develops love for one another and when immaturity is defeated we learn to forgive one another, serve alongside one another, and overcome hidden sins that have been hindering us for many years.
Will you pray for your church in this way? Will you labor to see your church (including yourself in that category) pursue God with such passion that it results in a great deal of spiritual maturity?
Prayers for Satisfaction in God’s Will
One of the greatest truths we can learn is that we must find our true satisfaction in God. This present evil world will fail us and will never truly satisfy us. We must find our true joy and delight in God, and not just in the knowledge of God’s perfection and holiness, but in a complete satisfaction of God’s will.
Jesus taught us to pray in the model prayer, “let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We must pray for God’s will to be done, and we must find our satisfaction in God through Jesus Christ. Epaphras struggled in prayer for the church in Colossae to be fully assured in all the will of God. This involves contentment in the secret will of God and delight in the revealed will of God. This will include a peace in the midst of storms and strength during the waves of persecution. No matter what God’s will may be—we must learn to be fully satisfied in our God.
Do you pray for your church in this way? Do you have an Epaphras in your church? Imagine how your church could benefit from a man who struggled in prayer for his church. Far too many people today spend time complaining about their church rather than praying for their church. Imagine the difference that such a struggling prayer can do in the life of a church family.
Colossians 4:12 — Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.
When I was in high school, one summer my parents paid money for me to go off to a summer camp for track and cross country runners. It was a special camp held at the University of North Carolina where we would sit under the teaching of an accomplished coach, workout, and be evaluated on form, style, diet, and other key aspects to a distance runner’s performance. The whole experience was beneficial and full of great memories. One thing I can remember is that the coach would put our video on the screen and work with us to explain how we should improve in our form and it really helped me become a better athlete.
Imagine sitting at the feet of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew 5-7. The focus of the sermon is the difference between true righteousness and the fleshly righteousness of the religious establishment of the day. In that sermon, Jesus teaches many different things, but one thing he explains is way the children of God should pray. Imagine learning to pray from Jesus himself.
Jesus prayed often during his earthly ministry. We find him praying before his betrayal (Matt. 26:36-56), in his high priestly prayer (John 17), and on the cross (Mark 15:34) as just a few examples. However, in Matthew 6:5-15, we don’t find Jesus praying to the Father himself, instead, he’s providing a model prayer for the disciples to follow. He begins with examples to avoid, and then moves to the model prayer.
Interestingly enough, in the model prayer, Jesus does something at the beginning that should help us in how we pray. He doesn’t begin by focusing on the physical needs of people around them. He doesn’t begin by pointing them to pray for those who are sick or experiencing the pain of disease. He begins by pointing them to God. In other words, he begins with a vertical approach before he moves to the horizontal aspects of people.
How often it is that we gather for prayer with our church family or small groups and focus our entire prayer time on the physical needs of people without any serious desire to make much of God’s name. Imagine picking up your church’s prayer sheet and seeing a request at the top that states, “Please make much of God’s name among the people of our church for he is worthy of all praise and adoration.” Would that be abnormal or would it be normal?
Jesus begins his model prayer with these words:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9).
Jesus says we should begin by saying, “hallowed” by your name. The word hallowed, “ἁγιασθήτω” means to “dedicate, make holy, or sanctify.” The idea is that God’s name should be reverenced and set apart from every other name in our language, speech, and this life. The idea is that God is holy and should be highly reverenced as the most important and truly worshipped by his people.
As a formula, some have suggested the prayer acronym ACTS to help in how we approach God in prayer:
Adoration: Praise God for who he is and for his divine attributes.
Confession: In a transparent manner, make confession of personal sin before God.
Thanksgiving: Take time to thank God for the many blessings, both physical and spiritual, that he’s given you in this life and that you long for in eternity.
Supplication: Pray for the needs of others and yourself.
Whether or not you use a set formula like ACTS, you and I are called to adore and praise God for his holiness, sovereignty, and grace. While we should spend time praying for the physical needs of our loved ones and church members, we should spend much time praising God for his character, his steadfast love, his faithfulness, his holiness, his power, and his saving grace.
Consider the reality that the Psalms are poetic arrangements of prayers to be sung and prayed to God. As we read those prayers and consider how often the Psalmist makes much of God as a rock and refuge and adores his holy name—we should follow in those same footsteps when we pray.
Prayer is a privilege. We have an audience with the King of the Universe. God is interested in the needs of his people, and he is worthy of the praise of his people. Prayer aligns our will with God’s will and points us to our utter dependence upon him.
Last night, we gathered for our evening service and we did something that we don’t typically do for worship or a regular prayer service. We gathered for prayer and we read through the entire letter of Philippians with specific congregational prayers at the conclusion of each chapter. Not only was it a blessing to read through the entire letter of Philippians—it was an added joy to pray together as a church in a holistic manner.
We began with the reading of Philippians 1 by David Crowe, one of our elders, who then followed up with a prayer for church unity as he prayed through the emphasis of the first chapter. As David read and prayed through Philippians 1—he emphasized the point Paul was making in Philippians 1:27–28, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”
I read through Philippians 2, and then led the church in a prayer for the elders and their families. One of the joys of my life is serving with faithful elders who love the Lord and have a passion to serve our local church. It is likewise a joy to see how each one of my fellow elders have a driving focus on personal sanctification and a desire to see their families grow in holiness. I see this in their families, their wives, and their children. As I prayed, I quoted Paul’s words to the church at Philippi as he commended Timothy to them by saying:
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also (Phil. 2:19-24).
It was my desire to commend my fellow elders to the church publicly and to remind the church that we have a group of men who love them and desire to faithfully serve them in the gospel of Christ providing them with spiritual leadership and careful oversight. This too is my desire—to care for God’s sheep rather than just being a talking head in the pulpit.
Another elder, Buck Braswell, led the church in reading through Philippians 3 and a public prayer for the deacons of our church. He began by thanking God for the faithful men who serve our church in the office of deacon and how they meet the qualifications on 1 Timothy 3. Furthermore, he emphasized the fact that they have a desire to be faithful examples within the church. Just as Paul was urging the church at Philippi to walk in a manner that honors God in Philippians 3:17-20. This is not only essential for the elders, but also for those who serve the church in the office of deacon.
Finally, as a means of conclusion, I was able to lead the church in a reading of Philippians 4 followed by a prayer for our church’s unity as we were engaging in a time of business following our time in prayer. We were going to hear from the church in an official congregational vote to affirm the recommendation of our elders regarding a new pastoral candidate who will be coming on to serve alongside us. I led the church in praying for this candidate, his family, and our church as a whole as we engaged in this important decision. We asked for God’s will to be done and for the Lord to be honored.
It was a joy to pray and to read publicly the entire letter of Philippians together as a church. As elders, we have been exploring ways to pray together more as a church family with intentionality focused on praising God, instructing children in how to pray, and to lift up petitions to God on behalf of our entire church family. Last night was a blessing, and something that I would encourage you and your church to consider as well.
Do you underestimate or undervalue a prayer meeting? We anticipate the possibilities of sermon and often a song, but we often approach a prayer meeting with low expectations. When you hear of a prayer meeting that’s scheduled in the life of your church—what is your response? Do you view it as meaningful and essential or do you approach it as merely an option—something that’s not really that essential? Consider the possibilities of a corporate prayer meeting.
Remembering God’s Mercy
Prayer is essential because worship is essential. It’s impossible to properly worship God without prayer. One of the key values for a prayer meeting is the vertical aspect of prayer whereby people recall God’s mercy. As Mary sang her prayer to God in Luke 1:46-55, she recalled God’s mercy (Luke 1:50, 54). In Titus 3:5, we are brought to remember God’s mercy in saving sinners. God has lavished his mercy upon us, and the vertical aspect of a prayer meeting calls the congregation to remember what God has done (Rom. 5:8).
All through the Old Testament, the covenants were designed with a call to remember what God had done. Throughout the days of the prophets, they pointed back to the work of God in saving Israel and pointed to the future when Christ would save His Church. As we were commanded by Jesus to eat of the bread and drink of the cup—we are to do so in remembrance of King Jesus (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:25). When praying as a church—take time to recall the great work of God in saving his people from their sins (Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24).
Prayer as a Ministry of Reconciliation
In Matthew 5:7, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Only those who demonstrate merciful attitudes toward others will receive mercy. However, it’s essential to point out that a person doesn’t earn mercy by showing mercy. It’s actually the other way around. The reason a person is merciful is based on the fact that God has been merciful to the sinner.
However, we live in a broken world of sin and the Church is not immune to this problem of division. In fact, Satan is a master at creating disunity in the church. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Satan always hates Christian fellowship; it is his policy to keep Christians apart. Anything which can divide saints from one another he delights in. He attaches far more importance to godly intercourse than we do. Since union is strength, he does his best to promote separation.” That’s why Paul labored for Christian unity in Ephesians 4:31-32.
The fruit of a corporate prayer service could be the actual unity of a local church. Imagine the sweetness of a church that enjoys true unity. Sins have been confessed, broken roads fixed, wounds healed, and the ugly effects of Satan’s divisive schemes defeated. When a church comes together to pray together, not only will they pray vertically, but they will pray horizontally—lifting up one another’s needs—physically and spiritually. When division is not avoided in prayer, unity can be achieved. Far too often people avoid the reality of division because confession can be messy and often requires transparency and vulnerability.
The next time you have an opportunity to pray together as a church—don’t skip it and don’t approach it as if it’s not profitable. It very well may be exactly what you need. God will use the corporate prayer service in a unique and profitable way in your life if you will engage and involve yourself in true prayer that seeks to honor God and pursue unity among the church. If prayer isn’t really that important, why did Jesus spend so much time praying? Why did Jesus spend time teaching the disciples how to pray and engaging in prayer alongside them?
Ephesians 4:31-32 – Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Yesterday I preached 1 John 5:13-15 in John’s epistle in our “Know” series. After looking intently at verse 13 last week, we moved on to the next two verses and examined what John said about prayer as a Christian. If John’s agenda is to bring true believers to a place of concrete assurance and faith in Christ, he demonstrated his desire for the Christian to pray with confidence as well.
John, along with the pattern of the early church, was a man of prayer. We see Peter and John going up into the temple at the very hour of prayer in Acts 3. Certainly he understood the priority and privilege of prayer, and he desired for his fellow Christians in various cities to be people of prayer as well. Knowledge that is separated from prayer and communion with God becomes nothing more than cold and lifeless doctrine.
John desired for the Christians to know that God hears the prayers of His people. John urged the Christian community to pray with confidence. The language of “toward him” in verse 14 paints a picture of a face-to-face conversation. John is picturing prayer as a face-to-face conversation with God and what a joy it is to have this privilege as a Christian. John understood the privilege and desired for others to enjoy it as well.
While God hears the prayers of all people, there is a difference between merely hearing and hearing with a desire to care for and answer the prayers of His own people. If a group of children are calling out to a man for a favor, he may hear all of them, but he will pay close attention to the voice of his own son the group of children. God cares for His own children in a unique way. As we explore the Word of God, we see a clear pattern of prayer demonstrated from Jesus to the early church.
- Jesus prayed at His baptism in Luke 3:21.
- Jesus sought to be alone in prayer, but was often interrupted.
- Jesus would rise early in the morning for prayer as we see in Mark 1:35.
- Jesus would pray all night at times as we see in Luke 6:12.
- Jesus prayed for His people – John 17.
The Apostles Prayed
- Paul prayed for the church and for the church’s witness – praising God for it in Romans 1.
- Paul urged the Christians in Rome to be faithful in prayer – Romans 12:12.
- Paul urged the church at Rome to pray for him – Romans 15.
- Apostles prayed together in the upper room as they waited on the Holy Spirit to come – Acts 2.
- Peter and John were seen going into the temple at the hour of prayer – Acts 3.
- Peter prayed on a housetop in Acts 10:9.
- Paul and Silas prayed in prison – Acts 16:25.
- The apostles gave themselves to the Word of God and prayer as the deacons took charge of the practical needs of the church in Acts 6.
The Church Prayed
The early church is pictured in Acts 2:42 as gathered for the purpose of hearing the apostles’ teaching, engaging in fellowship, and praying together.
The Bible closes with a prayer of the church:
Revelation 22:17 – The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
God not only hears the prayers of His people, but He answers them in accordance with His will. John provides us the condition of prayer followed by the limitation of prayer. First, the condition of prayer is clearly revealed at the end of verse 14 as the “will of God.” We can’t pray code word language and expect that God will be bound by our words to give us the desires of our greed-filled hearts. We must learn to bend our will into conformity to God’s will. When we pray rightly, we don’t approach prayer out of superstition. We must learn to approach God in a way that far supersedes a rabbit’s foot. Christians pray in confidence that God hears and has the power to answer the prayer so long as we pray in accordance with God’s will.
The limitation of prayer is directly connected to the limitation of God. Our God is sovereign and big. He is strong and mighty. There is nothing too big for God, and we must learn to approach God with big weighty prayers that go well beyond the superficial weak prayers that we often pray. God can heal disease. God can provide jobs for the needy. The same God who never sleeps nor slumbers and the same God who controls the wind and the waves is the God who provides for His own people. Just as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:33, we must seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of the provisions for God’s people will be met. Jerry Bridges once said:
Prayer assumes the sovereignty of God. If God is not sovereign, we have no assurance that He is able to answer our prayers. Our prayers would become nothing more than wishes. But while God’s sovereignty, along with His wisdom and love, is the foundation of our trust in Him, prayer is the expression of trust.