Monday, April 11, 2022

Acts 4:23-31

Acts 4:23–31: The Believers Pray for Boldness

In the Acts 3 Peter and John healed a man who’d been blind all his life, then in the last chapter they were questioned by the council of religious leaders, and strongly warned that they should no longer preach in Jesus’ name—which they refused to agree to, but they were let go anyway.

This passage is a prayer they utter to God, after Peter and John are released. I’ll go through it piece by piece, but won’t bother with the links back to Bible Gateway; the whole thing can be read here.

23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, …

Before we even get into the prayer itself, it’s worth noting the fact that prayer was their first response. They’ve been preaching the Gospel, and have seen a lot of converts in a very short time, but they’ve also seen a bit of persecution, so they immediately turn to God in prayer.

And it’s worth remembering that this is all new to them. We’re something like a week into the new Church, Jesus has just recently left, the “Christians” (though they’re not yet calling themselves that) have just received the Holy Spirit, so they’re probably trying to figure out how this is all going to work. Then, upon receiving the Spirit, they immediately get thousands of converts, and Peter and John have just healed a man after which they got thousands more converts. If I were one of the early members of this nascent Church, I might have been confused by this religious persecution: God has building His new Church, and He’s adding thousands upon thousands to it on a regular basis, so why is He now allowing the religious leaders any power? Why isn’t He just letting the Church grow and grow?

Which is exactly what’s going to happen, the Church is going to grow and grow—in fact, in some ways this persecution is going to help it grow—but at this particular moment in time the disciples didn’t know that.

Regardless, whether they’re as confused as I assume I would have been or whether this makes perfect sense to them, their instinctive reaction is what our instinctive reaction should always be: prayer.

… “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them,"

This is always a good way to start a prayer: reminding ourselves who God is. It would have been easy to go to Him in a panic, and utter a prayer that was more like, “God, we weren’t expecting this persecution, please make it stop!” And that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad prayer—if someone already has a healthy prayer life, full of praise to God and recognition of what He has done, a quick “please help me” prayer might not be out of line—but it shouldn’t be the norm, and starting a prayer like this, even when we’re coming to Him for help, is a good way to remind ourselves that He is in control, regardless what’s happening in our lives at the moment.

"25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers were gathered together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed’—"

This is a quote from Psalm 2, and this passage in Acts is one of the places in the New Testament that sees that Psalm as being “messianic”—that is, it’s about the Messiah, Jesus. The disciples are praying this way because they’ve taken an important lesson from that Psalm: it asks the rhetorical question as to why earthly rulers would think they can try to thwart the plans of God Almighty (soon after in that Psalm indicating that God laughs at the very idea). God is in control, and He has sent His Son Jesus Christ, the Anointed One—the Messiah. Anyone who thinks he can thwart God’s plans is fooling himself.

“… 27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, …”

Like the earthly rulers mentioned in Psalm 2, the disciples recognize that they are now facing opposition from the rulers of the day, …

“… 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”

… but they also recognize that this opposition is not a surprise to God! It’s not like God is in Heaven saying, “Oh no, my people are getting opposed, now what will I do?” This is all part of His plan, and the disciples take comfort from that.

29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

So, with all that being said, what are the disciples praying for? For God to stop the opposition? For God to take away their troubles? No, in this case they’re praying for boldness, so that they would continue to preach the Gospel despite the opposition! If it’s in God’s plan for His people to be opposed, then so be it—they’ll just need a bit more of His strength to do the work He has called them to do!

It’s not wrong to pray for God to remove obstacles from our paths, or to remove hardships from our lives. It is wrong, however, to see Him stopping the bad things as a prerequisite to doing the work He has called us to do!

I don’t want to push this next point too hard, but it’s also interesting how things get phrased between verses 29 and 30:

  • Verse 29: Please grant us boldness to speak
  • Verse 30: While you heal and perform signs and wonders

Anyone seeing the disciples in action would say that it’s the disciples who are doing both: People were amazed that Peter and John healed the blind man, while Peter and John themselves were careful to distinguish that no, they didn’t do it, God did. But then, if someone fully buys into that—that it’s God performing the healings and signs and wonders, not the disciples—then wouldn’t it follow that God would also get the credit for the preaching? And that’s not totally absurd, either; Jesus mentioned that the Holy Spirit would put words in His disciples’ mouths when the time came, so it would be fair to say that God is performing signs and wonders and God is preaching, and doing it all through His disciples.

So, as I say, I don’t want to push this point too hard because it feels like I might be getting into a grey area here, but I’m thinking that the disciples were phrasing things that way because they saw preaching the Gospel as work that God had given them to do, so they needed to ask for boldness to accomplish that work, while recognizing that there isn’t extra strength needed on their part to do the signs and wonders, so there was nothing to petition God for in that regard, they just recognized and praised His work.

But let’s continue…

31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

This almost feels like the most dangerous part of the passage, because of the immediacy with which God provides a tangible answer to the prayer. They pray for boldness, and immediately He shakes the place where they’re gathered, sends the Holy Spirit in unmistakable power, and all but literally tells them, “I have heard your prayer, and am answering it!” It’s no wonder that they go out and continue to be bold with their preaching!

The history of the Church has shown, however, that answers to prayers are rarely as obvious and tangible as this. The more usual pattern would be that God’s children pray for boldness, and keep praying for it, and keep praying for it, and years later look back on the situation and say, “Yeah, I can see how we continued to be bold, despite the opposition.”

In fact, though people like to view the Scriptures as being full of miraculous events, the truth is that there are only a few times in the history of God’s people that are full of miracles; they just happen to be the events we remember best, so we tend to think of the Bible as being end-to-end miracles. (I seem to recall once reading that miracles tend to happen when there’s a new phase of God’s plan unfolding, and the book of Acts, and the beginning of the nascent Church, definitely qualify in that regard!) But we still have events like this written down, and a model prayer we can follow, whether we feel like we’re seeing tangible results from God or not.

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