Prayer & the Purpose of God in Acts
Passage: Acts 1:12–14
Our focus will be verses 12-14. In particular I want to look at prayer from verse 14. What does verse 14 teach us about prayer and the purpose of God? Let’s hear the word of the Lord starting in verse 12…
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
Verses 12-14 do several things. Verse 12 first tells us that the apostles returned to Jerusalem. Verse 4 said that Jesus “ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father.” And here we see them obeying that word. They return to Jerusalem. Luke 24:53 adds that they returned with “great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God.” The obedience is glad-hearted and full of praise.
Verse 13 then introduces us to eleven apostles. These are the same apostles that Jesus chose in Luke 6:12-16. Jesus stays up all night praying. Next day comes and he chooses the Twelve. Here, though, there’s only eleven. The one missing is Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus and killed himself. That sets up the rest of chapter one where Jesus restores the Twelve with Matthias (Acts 1:15-26)—we’ll look at that next week.
Something else is that verse 14 introduces us to the women. Luke is particularly observant of how women were involved in the mission. In Luke 8:2-3 he notes “some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene…and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” Jesus and the disciples were going about their mission, and there’s this group of women providing for them.
With the other Gospels, he also notes the women who were the first to see Jesus’ resurrected body (Luke 24:1-10). In Acts 2:17-18, daughters and female servants get the Holy Spirit just as much as the sons and male servants do. In Acts 9:36, he notes that Tabitha was a woman full of good works and acts of charity. In Acts 21:5, Priscilla alongside her husband helps explain to Apollos the way of God more accurately. All along the way, we see how significant women are to the mission of Jesus.
That’s pretty huge, because in the first century “women were not even eligible to testify in a Jewish court of law. Josephus said that even the witness of multiple women was not acceptable ‘because of the levity and boldness of their sex.’” Andreas Köstenberger goes on to write, “This background matters because [it’s] a theological reminder that the kingdom of the Messiah turns the system of the world on its head. Into this culture, Jesus radically affirmed the full dignity of women and the vital value of their witness.”[i] That’s a really good point; and I also hope it serves to encourage you sisters in the faith. Your part in the mission of the risen Jesus is valuable.
Yes, men and women have complementary roles in the mission, but never should we miss the Bible’s testimony about how women served in such significant ways. In Philippians 4:2, Paul says there were two women, Euodia and Synteche, who labored side by side with him in the gospel. God has entrusted you with the gospel too, sisters; and there are some really great opportunities—right now in our society—for you to advance that gospel and picture that gospel; and brothers let’s also honor them as co-laborers in the gospel.
Prayer & the Purpose of God in Acts
But there’s one more item that stands out in verses 12-14, and I want that to be our focus for the remainder of our time. Verse 14 says that “all these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.”
Last week, we saw that the risen Jesus and the world-wide witness of the church are inseparable. He sends the Spirit; we go, we preach, we ask the world, “Do you know our King? Have you heard of his victory?” But there’s something crucial we cannot miss: the place of prayer in Jesus’ mission. Part of our going involves waiting and asking. Part of our preaching involves pleading with God.
Verse 14 leads us to a place of prayer. The prayer falls right between Jesus’ commission on the one side, and the completion of the twelve and outpouring of the Spirit on the other side. Point being, Jesus’ mission through the church and Jesus’ gift upon the church comes through the prayers of the church. Our focus will be prayer and the purpose of God in Acts.
1. Prayer is motivated by the power & promise of the risen Jesus
First thing I want us to see is that prayer is motivated by the power and promise of the risen Jesus. The disciples are praying in verse 14, because of who Jesus is. In verses 9-11 the disciples witness Jesus ascending into heaven: “he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Then 2:33 tells us where Jesus went—“he was exalted at the right hand of God” (cf. Acts 7:56). Jesus has taken the heavenly throne. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and he is powerful.
Chapter 2:34-35 says that God is right now putting Jesus’ enemies beneath his feet. In the Old Testament, the way a victorious king displayed his sovereignty was by placing his feet on the neck of his defeated enemy.[ii] Rebellious kings and nations (Rev 1:5); rebellious angels and heavenly authorities (Col 2:15)—one by one Jesus is putting them beneath his feet. Hebrews 2:14 says he destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is the devil. Paul says death is the last enemy to be put beneath Christ’s feet (1 Cor 15:26). Jesus is powerful to replace all rebel kingdoms with his own.
Jesus is also powerful to save his people from their rebellion. In Acts 26:18 we understand from Paul’s testimony that Jesus told him: “[I am sending you to the Gentiles] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God…” Risen King storming the enemy’s turf and rescuing his people. Lydia is an example of that happening in Acts 16:14, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” He turned many of you from the power of Satan to God—I hope it would be so for all of you. The risen Jesus is powerful to break the chains of your sin and transfer people from Satan’s domain into his kingdom of light.
Jesus’ power to defeat his enemies and save all his people is why we pray. We don’t have the power to change the heart. We don’t have the power to replace the world’s evil kingdoms with Jesus’ kingdom. But he does. Missions is ultimately the work of the risen Jesus. And so we ask him to do it. We can pray extraordinary prayers, because our prayers rise to an extraordinary King. We pray, “Lord, your kingdom come…” because the King has taken the throne.
Perhaps your prayer life has taken a nose dive—it needs revitalization. Perhaps you’ve grown weary in your praying. Perhaps you’re like me on occasion: I pray; it doesn’t go the way I want; it doesn’t come when I want it; so you’re tempted to just skip it and get to work; “I need to produce something now if the kingdom is going to come.” Wrong! Who are we kidding? We have no power to advance the gospel. No power to break down Satan’s strongholds. No power to say No to our own sin. No power to change hearts. But Christ does. He’ll change the world into a cosmic sanctuary of wholeness and glory one day. He has the power. That should give us great confidence to pray.
Something else we can bring together here is that prayer is also built on the promise of the risen Christ. If we go back to Luke 24:49, Jesus said, “Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” In Acts 1:4, the disciples were to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father. The promise of the Father is the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8). Jesus promises to give them the Holy Spirit after returning to glory with the Father. That promise motivates the disciples’ to pray, it seems.
I reason that way, because the Holy Spirit often comes on people as the result of prayer in Luke and Acts. In Luke 3:21-22 the Holy Spirit comes on Jesus after he prays. In Luke 11:13 Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” See, Jesus has been preparing the apostles for this moment. He dies, he rises, he makes the promise, he ascends, the disciples immediately start praying. “Hey, Father gives the Spirit to those who ask; Jesus promised to send him; we should pray he comes”—the Spirit comes in chapter 2 (cf. also Acts 8:15).
Isn’t this how David prays in 2 Samuel 7:26-27? Look at it: “Your name will be magnified forever, saying, ‘The LORD of hosts is God over Israel,’ and the house of your servant David will be established before you. For you, O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house.’ Therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you.” Courage in prayer comes from knowing the promises of God.
We should build our prayer life around the promises of the risen Christ. “I will be with you”—Lord, go with me today! I can’t bring you glory at work unless you go with me. Or, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability…”—Lord, you are faithful, and you promise to give strength to overcome this temptation. Give it to me now that I might escape. Or, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes…”—Lord, come soon. Wipe away our tears. Give us hope till you return.
Fill your mind with the Bible, open the Bible, and you’ll have plenty of blood-bought promises to pray for the omnipotent King to do in your life and in the world. Presidents can make promises all they want. Worldly rulers can make promises. And many of them do, so you’ll get all excited and elect them. But none of them have the supreme authority to make them happen. None of them have the infinite power to ensure all their promises get done. The risen Jesus does. What he promises for the world, he has the power to accomplish infallibly. And he chooses to do it through prayer.
2. Prayer is the means by which the risen Jesus achieves his purpose
Which leads me to draw out a second point here, I want us to see that in the book of Acts prayer is the means by which the risen Christ achieves his saving purpose.
One thing to notice is that the church’s prayers in Acts parallel Jesus’ prayers in Luke. Jesus prays and receives the Spirit in Luke 3:21; the apostles pray and receive the Spirit in Acts 1-2. Jesus prays to appoint his disciples in Luke 6:12; the apostles pray to appoint Matthias in Acts 1. Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 21:34); and Stephen prays before he dies, “Lord do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
The point is that the prayers of Jesus—what he valued, what he wanted, what he asked the Father to do—become the prayers of the church. We see in the church’s prayers the Spirit of Jesus behind them…which should also leave us amazed once again at how sufficient the death of Christ truly is for us. We’re coming to the Lord’s Supper again to remember God’s past deliverance in Christ. Think of this…
Jesus has unbroken access to the Father as Son. As man he has no sin separating him from the Father. His requests are always right on que because his heart is to do the Father’s will only all the time. The Father listens to him. We have no access to God in our sin. Isaiah 59:2 says that sin so separates us from God that he hides his face from us; he does not hear us. Yet the pattern in moving from Luke to Acts is that those in Christ have the same access to the Father that God’s only Son had.
How? The cross. We can relate to the Father as Jesus did, because in Christ God counts us as forgiven sons and daughters. He cried Abba; now we cry Abba. John 16:26-27? “In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” The sufficiency of Jesus’ death gives us access to God as Father.
But then notice how God uses that access, how God uses that praying, that communion, to achieve Jesus’ mission through the church. Verse 14 is the opening example in Acts; and then it just starts snowballing. Get to the end of 1:24 and they pray to restore the Twelve—God answers by appointing Matthias. The Lord adds three thousand to the church in 2:41; next thing we see is the church praying (Acts 2:42)—God adds to their number day by day. Acts 4:24-30—the church faces opposition. So they ask God to look upon their threats “and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” God answers their prayer: they continue to speak the word of God.
In Acts 6:4 the apostles have to devote themselves to prayer for the word to advance, and the church appoints seven to care for the widows also through prayer—and the word of God continues to increase. In Acts 8:15 the apostles pray for the Holy Spirit to fall on the Samaritans—God answers by filling them with the Spirit. In Acts 10 the whole deal with Peter’s vision and Cornelius’ vision—where eventually we learn that through the gospel of Christ, God’s promises are for all peoples without distinction—that whole deal comes as a direct result of prayer (Acts 10:2, 9).
In Acts 13:2—big turning point; mission to the Gentiles begins—the Holy Spirit sets apart Paul and Barnabas; and it says, “after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” Paul plants churches and it says in 14:23, “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” You get the pattern…
Luke is painting a picture of the risen Jesus advancing his kingdom on earth, and one of the primary means he uses is prayer. Yes we go out. Yes we work hard. But not without God. Prayer is the means by which the risen Christ achieves his purpose. God is sovereign. He’s not dependent on our praying. But he has chosen to inspire the prayers of his people to advance his purpose. He ordains the ends as well as the means; and one of those means includes our praying.
Everything about the mission of the early church is bathed in prayer. The Lord guides his people in prayer, gives the Holy Spirit and boldness as the result of prayer, extends the church’s reach through prayer, and establishes churches in God’s grace through prayer. Prayer isn’t a mere add-on to the Christian life; it’s essential to it. There’s no such thing as a prayer-less Christian. If the Spirit is truly in here, Abba comes out here!
Prayer is how God chooses to work out his purposes through our expressed dependence on him. We get the privilege to interact with God in his saving purposes. Don’t you want Jesus’ rule to transform the world? Don’t you long to see his glory covering the earth from sea to sea?
In Revelation 8:3-5, John has a vision of all our prayers filling heaven’s golden censor (cf. Rev 5:8). And one day God will pour out that censor on the earth. Meaning, the future state will finally come on earth through the prayers of God’s people. Let’s fill that censor! What are we waiting for? What do we really want in life? Our problem with prayer isn’t that we’re just undisciplined, but that we’re disinterested with true glory. We’re too easily pleased with the world, and have dulled our senses to the pleasures of God—pleasures we can enjoy now in part and fully in eternity.
3. Prayer comes in the context of obedience, unity, & perseverance
Third, prayer comes in the context of obedience, unity, and perseverance. The apostles obey Jesus while they’re praying. He ordered them to stay in the city and to wait. So they do. And as we saw, they do it gladly, blessing God.
The Bible makes obedience a big deal in our praying. Psalm 66:18, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” 1 John 3:22, “…whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” That’s not to say we must get ourselves into a state of perfection before God listens—No, one of the prayers Jesus taught us to pray was “Father, forgive us our sins…” But it does mean that we pray in order to align our will with Jesus’ will. If he’s the risen and exalted Lord, who are we to do things our own way?
Luke also makes note of their unity in prayer: “all these with one accord [or with one mind, one purpose] were devoting themselves to prayer” (cf. Acts 4:24).[iii] Same idea appears in Romans 15:6, but in the context of glorifying God with one voice together. It’s not so much that everybody is saying the exact same thing, but that everybody’s contribution is in harmony with Christ and his purposes and his glory.
They agree in prayer with each other. A lot of times, we say Amen at the end of prayers. Amen isn’t just a formal ending to a prayer. It means “Yes, I agree, Lord; make it so. We’re one in this request.”
How do we become a church united in our requests? We have to come together for starters. Take advantage of Sunday mornings and care groups. Wes and Stephanie host a prayer meeting the first Sunday of every month up here in the Fellowship Hall. There’s one tonight at 6:00. But there must be more than just getting together; we must actually grow to love what the risen Jesus loves and is doing in the world. Our unity in prayer will only extend so far as we’re loving and committing ourselves to the glory and the purpose of the risen Jesus. We have to really want his kingdom to come. Christianity isn’t merely doing things together, but loving One Lord together.
Finally, we see that prayer comes also in the context of perseverance: “they were [continually] devoting themselves to prayer.” Paul says in Romans 12:12 to “…be constant in prayer” (cf. also Col 4:2). The basic Christian life is one that’s continually devoted to prayer. In Acts you’ll find individual prayer and corporate prayer; you’ll find formal times of prayer and spontaneous prayers. The point is that it characterized all of life; it wasn’t relegated to a thing you do once in the morning. It was constant dependence. Jesus taught the disciples this, didn’t he? We see it in Luke 18:1-8…
1And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Faith cries to the Lord day and night—meaning, all the time. Faith knows that even unjust judges care for a widow, how much more will the just God care for his elect. We ought always to pray and not lose heart, until the Son of Man comes.
Somebody once asked Tim Keller, “Why do you think young Christian adults struggle most deeply with God as a personal reality in their lives?” He answered, “Noise and distraction. It’s easier to Tweet than to pray.”[iv] He’s right. We’re often distracted. But the distraction is a choice. We choose to distract ourselves with news feeds and Facebook and ESPN and entertainment—and that’s ultimately a heart issue.
Distraction wouldn’t be the case if we truly saw our need for prayer. If a doctor said, Give yourself this injection every night; and if you don’t, you’ll be dead by morning, you’d never miss. You wouldn’t make excuses like I was too tired, I didn’t leave enough time, I got too busy. No, your life depends on it. You make it happen at all costs because you see your need.[v] Distraction wouldn’t be the case if we truly knew our need and we truly knew our God who makes himself available in prayer.
No prayer life persists where self-confidence runs high. In his book A Praying Life, Paul Miller writes, “You don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; you just need to be poor in spirit.”[vi] How would you characterize our church? How would you characterize your own walk with Christ? Would you say that we’re a people marked by prayer, marked by devotion to prayer? I want us to be. Some of you are. Some of us are not. What is it that we really want? Is it God’s presence? Is it the kingdom? Is it for the Lord to do mighty things through you now for his sake and your joy?
We’ll take the Lord’s Supper in just a minute, but first I want us to pray together as a church. As a first step, let’s start by asking the Lord to open our eyes to the power of the risen Jesus. That we would see his glory and make his kingdom our priority. Let’s ask the Lord to help us treasure his promises deep within, and that those promises would become our daily food. Ask the Lord to make us hunger for him, that we would see prayer not as a box to tick off but as a privilege to participate in God’s purposes?
So let’s break into groups of four or five and pray for the next ten minutes or so. If you’re not a Christian, don’t feel pressure to participate. If you’re a member of Redeemer, spend this time welcoming and talking with our non-Christian friends about questions they may have, and point them to the risen Christ. Dale will then come lead us in the Lord’s Supper.
[i]Excerpts by Köstenberger taken from Justin Taylor’s blog post, “Why it matters Theologically and Historically that Women Were the First to Discover the Empty Tomb.” Accessed at https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2014/04/15/why-it-matters-theologically-and-historically-that-women-were-the-first-to-discover-the-empty-tomb/
[ii]E.g., Josh 10:24; 1 Kgs 5:3; Isa 51:23.
[iii]That could mean they were just united in the acts of praying. But a couple other places in Acts suggest it extends to their “agreement about what they were praying for” (cf. Acts 4:24; 15:25). John Stott, The Message of Acts, BST (Downers Grove: IVP, 1990), 53
[iv]Taken from an interview by Tony Reinke titled, “10 Questions on Prayer with Tim Keller.” Accessed at http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/10-questions-on-prayer-with-tim-keller
[vi]Paul Miller, A Praying Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2009), 65.
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