By Jerry Harris
Since May, my publisher’s letter has focused on the “foundation stones” that actually make the church . . . well, the church. We find them in Acts 2:41-47. This month we focus on the seventh one mentioned: prayer. Prayer is often considered a very personal experience, something connected to a private quiet time just between oneself and God. That’s not wrong. But in thinking about prayer that way, we can miss a very important aspect of prayer.
The answer to the popular question “What Would Jesus Do?” typically is informed by what Jesus actually did in Scripture. Likewise, our prayer examples are informed not just by how Jesus prayed, but by how his apostles prayed. Since Jesus’ followers “devoted themselves . . . to prayer” (Acts 2:42), we should look to the example they provided in the book of Acts.
In looking at the prayer experiences in that book, something immediately jumps off the page—they often prayed together! Luke’s history offers evidence that literally everything that happened in the infancy of the church was soaked in prayer. And among the prayers highlighted and written down for our benefit in Acts, almost all occurred in groups.
Christians met for prayer in designated places and at planned times. Early on, they met in the temple, and then in homes, and later in synagogues. If there was no normal place, they would designate one (see Acts 16:13, 16).
The first Christians knew the great power of prayer. Prayer is the conduit that links us to unlimited power and comes from unlimited perfection. Prayers answered in the affirmative have come directly before almighty God and he has rendered his decision.
The book of Acts includes 14 prayers that can be categorized in these four ways: intercession, discernment, requests, and commissioning. These prayer types are listed from least frequent to most frequent.
Intercessions are selfless prayers for others. Acts 4:24-30 reflected an apostolic desire for boldness in the face of persecution, whileActs 7:60is Stephen’s appeal for God to forgive his killers. These two requests had no perceived self-serving motive. These prayers remind us not only to intercede but to check our motives when we pray.
Discernment prayers are designed to seek out and understand God’s will or direction. These prayers incorporate the group to be listening or watching together for God’s answer. In Acts 1:24-25,the apostlesasked God for a wise choice to replace Judas Iscariot. Acts 10:9was the only nongroup prayer recorded in Acts; in it, Peter simply was trying to keep his heart open for whatever God would do next. Acts 16:25was a nonspecific prayer (as far as we know) of Paul and Silas, who were jailed together, but God moved in a powerful way both for those praying and those listening. We can be assured God will move in some incredible way . . . though perhaps not in the way we think or prescribe for him.
Requests might be the most commonly understood of prayers. The four prayer requests in Acts were for spiritual gifts (8:15), resurrection (9:40), deliverance (12:12), and sickness healing (28:8). These were specific requests God responded to favorably. While there is great joy in such victories, there is also truth in silence. I’m sure the same group that gathered for Peter had also prayed for James, who was martyred. Our prayers don’t discern the reasons for God’s answers, but that is no excuse not to keep the faith. It might cause us to question whether we are praying for God’s will.
Commissioning prayers share a desire to walk in the will of God, not to get God to walk in our will. The five commissioning prayers—all group prayers—in Acts are for setting aside the seven (6:6), sending out Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey (13:3), appointing elders (14:23), Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders (20:36), and Paul’s farewell to the families of Tyre (21:5).
Like the earliest followers of Jesus, we must devote ourselves to prayer in the church today, and we can learn from Acts the kinds of prayers we should be raising up to God.
When we approach God in personal or group prayer, we come with hearts that are open only for him. In our minds and hearts we affirm: He comes first, I am spoken for, my calendar is set, my time is his, my dance card is full, my heart is open, my mind is ready, my worldly passions can wait, my friends and family can either wait for me or join me, my ambitions can sit in the back seat, and my preferences are checked at the door.
When we pray, we call on God’s name, and we prepare ourselves for when God calls our name. Through prayer, God knows we’re present and accounted for. Ready, willing, and able.