A Prayer That Brought the Holy Spirit Down
September 30, 2008
Text: Acts 4:23-31
When they were released they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, "Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, didst say by the Holy Spirit, 'Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth set themselves in array, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed'—for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while thou stretchest out thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of thy holy servant Jesus." 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 spoke the word of God with boldness.
Five Reasons This Prayer Is Relevant for Us
This prayer is relevant for us today in Trinidad and Tobago for five reasons.
- It is relevant because of the answer that came.
- It is relevant because of who is praying.
- It is relevant because of the occasion when it was prayed.
- It is relevant because of whom it was prayed to.
- It is relevant because of what was asked.
1. The Answer That Came
It is relevant because of the answer that came.
Verse 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 spoke the word of God with boldness."
Parallels with Pentecost
Notice the parallels here with what happened at Pentecost. Here they had just prayed. There (Acts 1:14) they had been praying. Here it says, "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit." In Acts 2:4 it says, "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit." (Exactly the same verb.) Here God shakes the building to demonstrate his power. There in Acts 2:2 a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind. Here they speak the Word of God with boldness. There they began to speak in other tongues the great things of God (Acts 2:4, 11).
In other words, Pentecost was the first great outpouring of the Spirit on the church. And here is another one. In both God gives physical demonstrations of his power. In both he gives the fullness of the Holy Spirit. In both he releases open and courageous speaking. Whatever else Pentecost is, it is not unique as an outpouring of the Spirit to empower the church for witness. The blessing of Pentecost would happen in different ways and different measures through Acts and through the rest of church history.
Exactly What We Desperately Need
This prayer is relevant today because of the answer that came. This outpouring of the Spirit is exactly what is desperately needed in the churches in the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago because of the challenges that face us. This is true even in the best of churches—notice that the people on whom this blessing came were not disobedient or faithless. Some of them—Peter and John—had just been spectacularly obedient. In fact verse 8 said that Peter had been filled with the Holy Spirit when he stood up to speak in the courtroom. Now he and the other praying saints are filled again in this extraordinary way. Even if you love many things about your church and think that God's blessing is on us—as I do—this is what we need. Not because our church is so bad but because the need and the hardness of the world is so great.
2. Who Is Praying
This prayer is relevant because of who is praying.
Verse 23: "When they [Peter and John] were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they had heard it they lifted their voices together to God and said . . . "
Luke does not say they went to "the other apostles." He says they went to "their friends," literally: "their own." The word is used like this one other time in Acts, namely, in Acts 24:23 where it says that Felix commanded that none of Paul's friends [i.e., his own] should be prevented from attending to his needs. It is the same word used in John 1:11—"Jesus came to his own and his own received him not." It simply means family, friends, close associates, neighbours, etc.
Therefore this prayer is relevant to us because it is prayed not by someone with special rights and privileges, but by Christians. It is the church gathered, not just the apostles, that pray for God to give boldness and to heal and to do signs and wonders. These were not the prerogatives of the apostles, as we have already seen when we looked at Stephen in Acts 6:8 and Philip in Acts 8:6 both of whom God used to do signs and wonders even though they were deacons and evangelists and not apostles (6:5; cf. also Galatians 3:5; 1 Corinthians 12:9–10). So the prayer is relevant because of who prayed it—people like you and me.
3. When It Was Prayed
This prayer is relevant because of the occasion when it was prayed.
Following the Threats of the Religious Leaders
Peter and John had just been released from custody. Verse 23 says they told the other believers specifically what the chief priests and elders had said. Verse 29 clues us in on what this was. The believers pray, "Now, Lord, look upon their threats." In other words, Peter and John had told them about the threats mentioned in verses 18 and 21. In verse 18 the priests and elders demanded that Peter and John "not speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus." In verse 21 they threaten them further.
So the occasion for this prayer is very dangerous threats against the preaching of God's Word in the name of Jesus. There were extraordinary obstacles in the way of the spread of Jesus' name. This is why the church is so urgent in its prayer. They do not assume that they can keep on and advance in effective ministry without a fresh baptism of the Spirit. Fear could paralyse them at any moment. One look into their children's face and they want to run away where it is comfortable and safe and not risk speaking for Christ in public anymore.
The Obstacles and Dangers We Face
So this prayer is relevant for us because of its occasion. We face tremendous obstacles too. Persecution of Christians is a way of life in many countries of the world. In the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago persecution is increasing and freedoms are narrowing, as the secular relativists feel more and more threatened by our message that there is one way to God and one set of commandments valid for all.
But even short of persecution, the obstacles we face making Christ known are great—with the anonymity of neighbourhoods created by mobility; the entertainment industry that keeps people saturated with the world and numb to spiritual things; a thoroughly God-ignoring culture; a medical technology so advanced and so available that people seldom think of resorting to God for help; and on top of all this the relative weakness of the church very enmeshed in the values of the world they are supposed to confront with a radically different Christ.
If the early Christians, with their first-hand experience of the risen Christ and their immediate access to apostles and eye-witnesses, needed to seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to carry on in their situation, how much more we.
4. To Whom It Was Prayed
This prayer is relevant because of whom it was prayed to.
Declaring Who God Is
It is remarkable that these Christians take five verses to tell God who he is, and two verses to ask what they want from him. Now God does not need to be told who he is. But Christians need to know who he is—and precisely in their prayers they need to know and confess that he is the kind of God who can and will answer their prayers. In essence what they are doing in verses 24–28 is hallowing God's name before they pray, "Thy kingdom come."
They identify God in two ways. First, they say he is the Creator of all things. Verse 24: "Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them . . . " So they appeal to him as the Creator of all. They know that if God created everything in earth, sea, and heaven, then these elders and priests are his property and he can do with them as he pleases.
Second, they say that God is the one who is ruler of all, even the deeds of evil men. He puts to naught the rage of the Gentiles and empties the plans of his adversaries. They say this by quoting Psalm 2 in verses 25–26, and then by showing that the psalm was fulfilled in the way God was in control when evil men killed Jesus. Verses 27–28: "For truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel [that's the conspiracy of the nations mentioned in Psalm 2], to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place [that's how God turned their rage into a vain thing, then accomplished his saving purpose]."
In other words, just like the psalm says, "Why do the Gentiles rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing?" (verse 25). Their rage comes to naught and their imagination is empty, because God rules even over the sinful deeds of men and causes them to backfire —Jesus is risen and the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. All their rage and all their imagination has turned back on their own head.
The Importance of Doctrine and Theology
Now remember all this is a prayer! All this is prelude to asking for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Here is what this makes this relevant for our praying today. Many would tell us that doctrine and theology are not important if you can have the power of the Holy Spirit. But these early Christians knew better. For them the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of inspired Scripture (verse 25), the doctrine of God's sovereignty even over the voluntary acts of sinful people, a knowledge of Old Testament prophecy — these things were essential. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth. He is not indifferent to bad doctrine in the mind when he comes to fill the heart. If we want his fullness, we will do well to fill our minds with the truth he has revealed about God in Scripture. Then we will pray more like the early Christians.
5. What Was Asked
This prayer is relevant because of what was asked.
Reasoning and Requesting
In verse 29 they arrive at their request: "Now, Lord, look upon their threats." That's their first request. It means: "Take note, Lord, what is at stake in their threats. They have commanded us not to speak of your Son's name any more. That is what is at stake here. So rouse yourself, because nothing is of greater interest to you than the honour of your Son. Rise up. Take note. Look on their threats."
That is a kind of argument in the court of heaven. Here is why you should help us: their threats are against your Son's reputation. Here is what we need so that we do not cave in to their threats.
Verse 29b–30: "Grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while thou stretchest out thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of thy holy servant Jesus."
They ask for three things: that God would give them boldness; that he would stretch out his hand to heal people; and that he would cause signs and wonders to happen—all this through the name of Jesus. In other words their desire is to be empowered in such a way that the name of Jesus will be vindicated.
How We Should Seek the Power of the Spirit
This is relevant for us because it shows us how we should be seeking the power of God's Spirit. We should be praying for it like they were—and remember Jesus says not to lose heart, but to keep seeking and knocking and asking the Father for the Holy Spirit (Luke 11). And that means praying not only in general ways for the outpouring of God's Spirit but in specific ways: for the gift of bold proclamation, for his hand to be stretched out to heal, and his Son's name to be honoured and vindicated through signs and wonders. Preaching is primary because the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. But signs and wonders are helpful witnesses to the Word of grace (Acts 14:3; Hebrews 2:4).
It is a very relevant prayer. Not for an introspective people who are merely interested in unusual experiences, but for a people who long for the salvation of sinners and the magnifying of God's glory and the public vindication of Jesus' name. If that is what we want, then this is the way to pray. I pray that you have been truly blessed by this teaching message. AMEN.