Acts 4:24-30 contains one of the most inspiring prayers in Scripture. The believers were living in dangerous circumstances. In this chapter, Peter and John were arrested after the healing of a crippled man.
The apostles must have known it was no idle threat that they would receive much worse treatment if they continued to preach the gospel. But, they had already experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and realized their need for divine power. They had also witnessed many other extraordinary healings and miraculous signs that were intended to authenticate their message and encourage them to go on.
When they prayed for boldness in verse 29, they knew what they were praying for. The mission the Lord had given them had not changed, and neither had the source of their power. The prayer recorded in this passage is marvelous in its simplicity and its comprehension of the Person and purposes of God.
“When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. ‘Sovereign Lord,’ they said, ‘you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them’ ” (verse 24).
This verse indicates the unity of this group of believers. Persecution tends to draw people together and relieve some of the pettiness and bickering that too often occurs in more peaceful and prosperous times. Their entreaty begins with a unanimous declaration that the Lord God is the Creator of all things.
The usual Greek word for Lord is kurios, but a less common word is used in verse 24. It is despotes, which means master or lord and often suggests “a despotic, arbitrary kind of lordship. Here, however, it is appropriately used to express the powerful control exerted by God” (I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, page 105). It is fitting that their impassioned plea opens with this statement, because faith must rest on a solid foundation if it is to withstand the rigors of persecution. The basis of their faith was their belief that God created all things and is therefore the Master over all his creation.
Conspiracy against Christ
“You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One’ ” (verses 25 and 26).
The believers quoted Psalm 2:1-2. The prayer goes on to remember David’s suffering at the hands of his enemies that took place hundreds of years earlier. The wickedness of humanity is not a recent development, nor do people perform evil deeds without some demonic encouragement. The believers knew there would be opposition to them if they obeyed the Lord and preached the gospel to an unbelieving world.
“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (verse 27).
Verse 27 contains a curious description of those who conspired against Jesus. Marshall sees parallels between the mention of nations, peoples, kings and rulers in Psalm 2:1-2 and the naming of Herod (a king), Pilate (a ruler), the Gentiles (a nation) and the people of Israel (peoples) in verse 27 (Marshall, 106).
One cannot deny that there were specific individuals involved in the death of Christ. But Carson rightly points out that “from a theological and canonical point of view they did on the immediate occasion what in principal the entire race does when confronted with God’s gracious self-disclosure” (Carson, The Gagging of God, p. 338).
The believers mention the futile attempts of both Herod and Pilate to stop Jesus. These events had occurred in their own lifetimes. The Lord had suffered and died at the hands of evil men, but he overcame death and rose again. Furthermore, they knew that the same power that had raised Jesus from the dead would also resurrect them. That’s why they had no need to fear death (Rice, Filled With the Spirit, The Book of Acts, p. 137).
“They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (verse 28).
Verse 28 is an acknowledgement that these evildoers had done only what God already determined would happen. “The unspoken thought is quite clear that it is futile for men to scheme against a God who not only created the whole universe but also foresaw their scheming” (Marshall, 105). Wicked men had never really been in control, nor were God’s kingdom and plans ever in jeopardy.
This understanding of the Sovereignty of God is crucial to faith and boldness. Even the enemies of the faith are subject to the will of God and in the end, do what he decrees.
Request for boldness
“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (verses 29-30).
Only after laying such a masterful foundation for their requests do the believers mention their current circumstances. They do not elaborate on their feelings or their fears. Neither do they rage against their foes or insult them. No imprecatory prayers are offered, but only a simple entreaty that the Lord who loves them would consider the threats of their enemies.
Verses 29-30 indicate that they do not view opposition to the gospel as something strange, new or unexpected. Based on what they had already stated in the previous verses, they knew that evil men would oppose them. Nevertheless, God is Sovereign and his purposes will surely stand.
On the basis of this understanding, they request only three things from the Lord. The first is that he would consider the threats that were made against them. Secondly, that he would enable them to speak boldly and finally, that he would continue to heal and perform signs and wonders.
“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (verse 31).
The believers were immediately rewarded for their faith with a clear answer to their petition. First, there was a shaking of the meeting place, which assured them that God had heard their prayer.
The believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. This appears similar to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in chapter 2. In both cases the believers were gathered together praying and then were given the ability to speak boldly for the purpose of spreading the gospel.
This passage serves as a strong apologetic for corporate prayer. However, it is also notable for what it does not say. There is no mention of their own anger or fear. Nor do they question God’s reasons for allowing them to suffer. Rather than praying for an end to the persecution or at least a safe place to hide, the believers instead asked only for the courage to endure it faithfully.
The early church was led by people who were like warriors willing to die for a cause greater than themselves. Living a life of faithful obedience was their full-time pursuit. Their hearts were set on a kingdom not built by human hands. These early Christians expected to die, and prayed only for the courage to do so without shrinking away from their duty.
Before drawing any conclusions as to how this passage can or should be applied to 21st century believers, we must first take into account the eschatology of the apostolic church. They believed the return of the Lord was imminent, perhaps even within their own lifetimes if not cut short by the edge of the enemy’s sword. They did not expect the world to get better through their efforts to reform society.
Nevertheless, they were not without hope for the future. Christ would return, and when he did, they must be found doing the work he had given them to do. Therefore, they chose to focus on prayer and the faithful proclamation of the gospel.
We must contrast this with the prevailing state of affairs in the church today. The Lord has tarried for nearly two millennia and many have grown restless and weary waiting for his return. The church is hungry for signs and wonders, for a fellowship that is more like the church of the first century.
However, few of us would wish for the accompanying persecution. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that in the first century church it was their passionate love for Jesus, their acceptance of his Lordship in their lives, their willingness to suffer and die for his name, that brought about the beautiful unity of their fellowship.
Christianity by nature is counter-cultural, but today’s church has been influenced by the hedonistic, self-indulgent culture surrounding it. Rather than influencing, and thereby offending the culture, we have too often chosen to coexist with the sin of the world. That strategy proved disastrous for ancient Israel, and will prove no less so for our generation.
Christians are not and never have been like delicate hot-house flowers requiring optimum conditions to survive. We are more like tempered steel that is strengthened by the unpleasant forces of extreme heat and pressure. I suspect that we too often pray for world peace and fail to remember that true peace will not be possible until after the return of Jesus.
How shall we pray?
How shall we pray about suicide bombings and other horrible events? Shall we pray that God would smite the evildoers and bring about a peaceful settlement? Or pray that the Lord would return immediately and deal the situation personally?
I would say that we should pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in that region. Pray that the Lord would consider the threat against them and give them the boldness to stand faithfully in such a dangerous environment. For if the Lord were to take them all out of Mideast, there would be no Christian witness there.
Furthermore, I would pray that the Lord would heal and perform miracles there that would lead men and women to faith. The prayer in Acts 4 is applicable today.
Just as soldiers are equipped for deployment into hostile territories, so too must Christians be prepared to move out and evangelize a dark world. Our source of power is exactly the same as that of the first-century church. Boldness to live as a Christian comes exclusively from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Now, as it was in the days of the early church, we must gather and pray not simply for protection or a safe hiding place, but for the divine boldness to accomplish the task of proclaiming the gospel.
This passage is meaningful to me as I peer into the future with some apprehension. Will the Lord require things of me that seem beyond my ability? How far will he take me out of my comfort zone? Will enemies rise to threaten me if I don’t keep silent?
Perhaps my own carnal nature will prove to be my greatest foe. I often wonder how much persecution my faith could actually endure. It has not yet been tried by fire. Hence, I take great comfort in this passage, especially its declaration of God’s Sovereignty over all his creation. The foundation of my faith must rest upon the power and promises of my God.
Sandy Blank, a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, has a master of arts degree from Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska.