God's Sovereignty Inspires Prayer for Boldness
Passage: Acts 4:23–4:31, Psalm 2:1–2:12
"Now I fear no one..."
Two decades ago, a story appeared in the Baptist Press about Manuel Pumisacho. He’s from Ecuador. The Lord saved Manuel at age 24 from a life of drunkenness and spousal abuse and turned him into a bold witness for Christ. He was a janitor and a mechanic. He eventually went to the seminary in and also “earned a law degree so he could stand up for the rights of Ecuador’s indigenous evangelicals, who often experience…persecution.”[i]
“[Manuel] himself suffered persecution…The first time…was during a service at the…Church near Quito…A mob of townspeople burst into the sanctuary and began hitting the congregation with sticks. The attackers…brought with them the community band, which played during the beatings.”[ii] “Another episode occurred…while [Manuel] was leading a home Bible study. A drunken crowd stormed the house and began beating the worshipers, including [Manuel’s] pregnant wife.”[iii]
Years later, “…[Manuel taught] a weekly Bible study…in a home within view of the place where he was attacked years before. “After some suffering” [he says] “I feel real joy knowing the Lord opened this door…I thank God for the persecution…Now I fear no one. I don’t worry about anything. I have complete trust in the Lord.”[iv]
Fear as Sheep in the midst of Wolves
As Christians, our story intersects with Manuel’s story. We’ve been saved out of various patterns of evil; and the Lord has made us witnesses. He has commissioned us with the same message to the same kinds of people. But how do we hold it together like Manuel did, when the world opposes us? How do we endure losing our business when we have to reject certain healthcare provisions because of the ethical compromise? How do we endure losing our job over not signing that document requiring all employees to refrain from speaking their convictions about gender?
How do we endure the threat of persecution, the terror of torture, the fear of people as we take the gospel into a hostile world? I was talking with a nine-year old girl this week who loves Jesus and wants to be baptized. We opened to Matthew 10:16. I wanted her to see up front that becoming a Christian means you become a sheep sent out in the midst of wolves. That’s lesson one for baptism. We know what happens to sheep in the midst of wolves. How do we deal with fear as sheep in the midst of wolves?
The answer is in the God who is sovereign over all things, who rules through Christ, and who comes to the aid of his people when we pray. That’s what our passage is about. Let’s read it in verses 23-31…
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, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 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’— 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, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 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.” 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.
Peter and John have boldly (cf. Acts 4:13) proclaimed Christ. Now the Jewish authorities have ordered them not to speak in Jesus’ name (Acts 4:17-18). If they did speak in his name, they threatened punishment (Acts 4:21). We don’t have to guess what’s on their minds. We already saw what they did to Jesus—arrest, abuse, accuse, kill. “You keep preaching Jesus, this’ll happen to you too,” in other words.
How would you respond in that situation? Wouldn’t there be fear? Wouldn’t the temptation to compromise be great? This would test me: I love my wife, my kids. I treasure the times we share together. I love their giggles. You don’t hear those in prison. There’s no sunshine in prison. No kisses goodnight. How does one overcome in a situation like this? The church turns to their Sovereign Lord in prayer.
The disciples report to their people.
They first report to their people. Verse 23 says, “they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” They’re not suffering alone. “If one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor 12:26). They report to the church. God will be with us wherever we go as individuals, but he’s also given us one another. His presence and support become tangible through friends.
Luke is distinguishing these “friends” from the rest of the Jews. These are the friends who’ve come to know Christ with them. These are the friends who, down in verse 32, are said to be “of one heart and soul” with each other. Christ has created new bonds. They stand beside each other to support each other in the mission.
Redeemer, this is what you are for one another. Part of being the church is becoming friends in the gospel’s advance—the kinds of friends that run to each other in times of need; the kinds of friends that won’t let you love this world more than Jesus. You call and you come together and you share the fears you have. You report these things, so that we might then raise our voices together to the One who can truly help us.
The disciples raise their voices in prayer.
That’s where the passage moves next: the disciples raise their voices in prayer. Verse 24, “When they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God.” They pray. Notice something about this prayer: they don’t request anything until verse 29. Until then, it’s nothing but Scripture and God fulfilling it. Why is their prayer so saturated with Scripture? Because Scripture is where God reveals himself and his will.
Prayer is first and foremost about recognizing who God is, before it’s about requesting what we need. Prayer is about knowing God, and then shaping our requests around his kingship and his will and his purposes. What gets revealed about God here? What’s motivating them to pray in response to these threats by the Jewish authorities? It’s God’s sovereignty. Some people object that God’s sovereignty undermines prayer. It actually inspires the prayer here. It’s not just that they know God can act; it’s that they know he has already acted. Now it’s a matter of conforming their lives to his mission.
God is sovereign over the universe
Look at the vision of God’s sovereignty. First of all, verse 26 reveals that God is sovereign over the universe: “Sovereign Lord,” they pray, “who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” That’s almost a word-for-word quote from Psalm 146:6 (LXX 145:6). Psalm 146 is a Psalm about God delivering his oppressed people. The idea is that God is able to help his people in their suffering, because he created and controls everything in the universe.
Heaven—he made the invisible heavenly hosts and authorities and powers; he made the visible celestial bodies in space and sky. The earth—all that we see from sea to sea, mountains and valleys, beasts and bugs, and all the peoples who inhabit these lands. The sea—from the smallest phytoplankton to the greatest Leviathan. The idea is that from the highest heavenly realities to the deepest crevices, from cosmic things to microscopic things: God made it all, and therefore he sustains it all, rules it all, and controls it all.
When you believe in Christ, this sovereign God is your Father. Your enemies can’t even threaten you without your heavenly Papa giving them breath. They’re not the ones in control. They may think they’re in control. You may feel like they’re in control. But they’re not in control; your Father is. He is Creator.
God is sovereign over history
We also see here that God is sovereign over history. We see this by the way the prayer develops next with a quotation from Psalm 2 and then the fulfillment of Psalm 2 in the crucifixion of Jesus. Verse 25 says that the Lord spoke through David in Psalm 2; and then verses 27-28 show how God accomplished what he predestined to take place. God’s word creates history, determines history; God’s will completes, does history. All history unfolds just as God predestined it to, and cannot unfold in any other way—down to the schemes of a King Herod, down to the cowardice of a Pontius Pilate.
But there’s a bit more we need to sort out; and actually going to Psalm 2 will help us. So flip over to Psalm 2—that’s where the next quotation comes from. And remember what we learned from chapters 1 and 2. David’s kingship in the Old Testament anticipates Christ’s kingship in the New Testament. Psalm 2 is a Psalm of David. So what David talks about in Psalm 2, we’ll see anticipates Jesus’ kingship. Let’s read it…
1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2 is a picture of the Lord ruling the nations through his anointed king. But there’s this pattern of the nations vainly gathering against the Lord and his anointed. When it says, “Why do the nations rage…,” that’s not a genuine question. It’s a rhetorical question. David is baffled by the stupidity of the nations raging against the king. You rage against this king; you rage against God. Kids, that’s like one of your Play-Dough creations talking smack at you—“Funny but Smash!”
The nations really think they can win. Of course, they can’t. The Lord proves that by vindicating his king, and enthroning him in Zion, the place of the Lord’s authority. As a result of the vindication, the Lord is then pleased to give his son[v] the nations, the ends of the earth as his possession.
The nations can gather against him all they want, but in the end, this king will stretch his kingdom to the end of the earth and rule over all. There’s no stopping him—he will dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. If there’s no stopping him, then the response is pretty straightforward: quit rebelling against him, quit resisting his rule, and kiss his feet in worship. Take your refuge in him; and he will bless you.
The apostles identify Jesus as this ultimate king of Psalm 2. He’s the one against whom the nations gathered so vainly. He explains that in Acts 4:27—“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.” We’ve got a king and a ruler and the nations and the peoples from Psalm 2. They all gathered against the Christ, Jesus, God’s truly anointed king, to bump him off.
But their scheming to overcome him was vain. The Lord already had a plan in place, and they were part of it. Acts 4:28 says, “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” No one laid a hand on Jesus except by the sovereign will of his Father. Or to put it more positively, everyone did to Jesus exactly as God planned. The nations raged against Jesus, but God was delivering up his Son to save the world. They were doing the most tragic in the world; while God was bringing about his triumph over the world. You see how that might be relevant to their suffering?
A servant isn’t above his Master. If the nations hated Jesus, they will hate us. The world’s opposition to Christians is an extension of the world’s opposition to Christ. They will gather against us. But God has a sovereign plan in place, and in the end, it will prove how vain the nations’ efforts really were. If Jesus conquered through dying, his people conquer through dying. God is in control. Even the suffering of his people will be used to advance his kingdom. And that’s not the end of it.
God is spreading his kingdom through the risen Christ
Later on in Acts 13:33, Paul uses Psalm 2 to show how God vindicated Jesus as king through resurrection. Jesus is now that unstoppable King sitting in God’s place of authority and advancing his rule to the ends of the earth. That’s also implied in Peter’s request for God to demonstrate his power “through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Nothing happens in the name Jesus, unless Jesus is truly alive. They are praying for the kingdom of the risen King Jesus to keep advancing despite the threats, just as Psalm 2 lays out.
So they pray for boldness to keep preaching
But get this, they’re praying for that kingdom to advance through their own bold witness in the face of threats. Verse 29, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” Notice, the request is not to escape the threats of their enemies. How can they pray that way when they just reviewed from Psalm 2 that this is the pattern of Scripture: the nations hate God’s king. If we’re following God’s king, we’re going to be hated.
The request also isn’t that God would do away with their enemies. There’s plenty of material in Psalm 2 about God judging the nations. And wouldn’t we like it sometimes if God would just wipe them out. But they leave that in God’s hands. As Paul says in Romans 12, “leave room for the wrath of God.” King Jesus will rule the nations with a rod of iron one day. Yes, we can rest in that truth.
But until that day comes, this is their request: give us boldness to preach to our enemies. Not “safety from our enemies.” Not, “get rid of our enemies.” But “boldness to keep preaching before our enemies.” And that’s not all, “Heal them while you’re at it to make our testimony all the more compelling to them.”
You won’t pray like this unless you first have a vision of God’s sovereignty. Crying out for boldness to stand up as a sheep in the midst of wolves—that won’t be there unless you first capture God’s greatness and absolute rule over all things. Christians who run around scared and worried and fretful in life have not yet come to know God’s sovereignty truly. When God is small, people will be big; and you will be scared. But when your God owns the universe and orchestrates all things in history for his glory and to your advantage, then you’ll ask for boldness like this.
You also won’t pray like this unless you see yourself as a slave of Jesus Christ. That’s the better translation in verse 29: “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your slaves…” Not “slave” in the sense of demeaning someone’s personal worth, but “slave” in the sense of all rights surrendered. All rights to comfort in this life and ease of schedule and abnormal American freedoms and safety behind our locks, alarms, guns, and holy homeschool huddles, and the blessings of your little girls’ laughs—all rights surrendered to King Jesus the Sovereign to speak the gospel boldly in enemy territory. The slave says, “I’m yours, do with me as you please to make Jesus known.”
The disciples receive the Spirit’s power.
God answers their prayer in verse 31: the disciples receive the Spirit’s power. “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” (Acts 4:31). Sometimes in Scripture, places shook when God arrived. Think of Mount Sinai—“the whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exod 19:18). We’re dealing with another one of these instances when God manifests his power.
There are other times when his presence fills the church and the meeting place is not shaken. So don’t turn this into more than what it is. It’s not setting a precedent for shaking buildings. It is setting a precedent for us to want God’s power, to want God’s filling through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit empowers the church to preach Christ. God doesn’t call us to preach Christ to our enemies without going with us. His Spirit is our Helper. When the threats come, he gives us the wherewithal to push forward in love and sacrifice and witness to the truth. We can’t do it; the Spirit can.
Four Closing Exhortations
So what’s the answer to our question, “How do we hold it together when the world opposes us?” We certainly don’t do it on our own. We hold it together by trusting in the God who is sovereign over all things, who rules through Christ, and who comes to the aid of his people when we pray. So let me leave us with these closing exhortations.
1. Imitate the early church in praying the Scriptures.
Number one, imitate the early church in praying the Scriptures. As I said before, prayer is first and foremost about recognizing who God is, before it’s about requesting what we need. Prayer is about knowing God, and then shaping our requests around his kingship and his will and his purposes. The Scriptures reveal God to us; they reveal his purposes for the world. Verse 25 says that God spoke through David by the Holy Spirit. Psalm 2 was breathed out by God. It tells us exactly how history is going to be and end. The rest of your Bible is the same way (cf. 2 Tim 3:15-16). We have God’s very words to know God, to think God’s thoughts after him, to see the world as he sees it, to shape our prayers and what we desire in prayer.
How many times do you sit down to pray and you just don’t know what to pray for? How many times have difficult circumstances come into your life, and you don’t know how to pray? Open your Bible and start praying what it says, just like you see here. You can be confident that you’re praying God’s will when you’re praying Scripture. Moreover, a true vision of God from the word will change how you interpret your circumstances and respond to them.
2. Pray as slaves of Christ.
That leads us to number two, pray as a slave of Christ. It’s not enough for us to confess that God is sovereign. We must also be his slaves. How many Christians confess that God is sovereign—they can talk a big vision of God? And yet the attitude of being his slave is far away. They complain about every little thing in life. They get impatient with every little thing that doesn’t go their way. They run around scared and worried. I could go on and on, but that’s enough about myself.
Truly acknowledging God’s sovereignty necessitates humble submission to his will as slave. Did it occur to you that Jesus knew Psalm 2 was about him? Psalm 2 determined his course of life. And after 33 years of meditation, his prayer in the Garden was still this: “not my will but yours be done.” That submission became our redemption.
We can’t confess a big God and then live as if he’s smaller than us. We’re his slaves. In all circumstances, our question is “How can I serve the Master faithfully?” Whatever our Master’s predetermined plan may deal to us, we ask how to serve him in it: “I can’t change them. I can’t change these circumstances. They’re hard. I’m afraid. I’m worried. But make me faithful to you. Show me how to receive this suffering, and make me a bold witness to Christ in it.” That’s the attitude of a slave.
3. Take your fears to the Lord & pray for boldness to preach Christ.
Number three, take your fears to the Lord and pray for boldness to preach Christ. We find here a transcendent vision of God’s sovereignty. At the same time, we see God’s immanence, his nearness and concern for his people. The Lord sits in the heavens, but he’s concerned about us on earth. The passage isn’t saying that we’ll get to a place where we never experience fear, but that God is our refuge when we fear. Take your fears to him. As Psalm 56 says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”
And then pray for boldness and courage. That exhortation isn’t just for those who tend to be intimidated by evangelism. It’s also for those of us who are bolder in evangelism. Peter and John were already very bold. But that doesn’t keep them from praying that God would grant to his servants to continue to speak his word with all boldness. Every Christian needs God’s help in boldness.
Think about it: Paul is locked up in prison for the gospel. If anybody is bold, it’s Paul. But he writes a letter from prison with this request. This is Ephesians 6:19—“[Pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” Paul needs boldness to preach.
Or think about Peter later on in his ministry. He’s very bold here. But what happens in Galatians 2? He cowers before his own Jewish buddies. He was eating just fine with the Gentiles, but then his man-fear creeps in and he doesn’t walk in step with the gospel. Just because you’re bold once, doesn’t mean you’ll always be that way. Just because you’re bold in one setting, doesn’t mean you’ll be bold in another. We need constant prayer for boldness. Our flesh is weak. The devil is terrible. Death is our enemy. People are intimidating. Pray for boldness.
4. Trust God’s sovereignty in opposition.
Finally, trust God’s sovereignty in opposition. Even in the midst of the nations raging and the peoples plotting against Christ, God was fulfilling his purpose. God wasn’t reacting to the circumstances; he planned the circumstances. The cross was his design to save the world. If God has already fulfilled part of Psalm 2 by gathering the nations against Jesus and then vindicating Jesus as King, all that’s left now is to extend Jesus’ rule to the ends of the earth. Nothing can stop the sovereign King Jesus.
Even the opposition we face won’t stop the onward march of the gospel. As we see here, the attacks on the church only drive them to their knees and God gives them even more boldness to preach. Part of Luke’s point is to help his readers—readers like Theophilus—to see that this is a movement of God, not men. The same thing happens in Philippians 1:12-14, Paul is talking about his own imprisonment, and he says this:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And [on top of that] most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
One of the purposes for Paul’s suffering is to spread the gospel. The whole imperial guard has heard the gospel because of it. The Christians back in Rome are preaching more boldly because of it. Paul might be bound in chains as a criminal, but the word of God is not bound (2 Tim 2:9). God is sovereign to advance his purpose in Christ, even through the opposition we face.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 11, it asks this question: “How does the knowledge of God’s…providence help us?” Answer: “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from his love. For all creatures are so completely in God’s hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.”
[i] Mary E. Speidel, “Ecuadorian tells of release from the grips of alcohol and persecution,” in Baptist Press (January 4, 1999). Accessed on April 27, 2017 at http://www.bpnews.net/420/ecuadorian-tells-of-release-from-the-grips-of-alcohol-and-persecution.
[v] From that place of authority, the Lord relates to this king as a father relates to his son. This recalls the covenant God made with David in 2 Samuel 7—that David would never lack a king on his throne, and God would relate to that king as his son.