The Church at Prayer
‘Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet . . . And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter and James and John and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren’ (Acts 1:12-14).
1. THE TIME
These verses tell of the disciples at prayer after the ascension of our Lord. In the ten days which intervened before Pentecost they ‘continued steadfastly in prayer’ (R. V.). Their prayer-meetings lay in between great events. They were preceded by our Lord’s ministry and passion and resurrection and his appearances and his promise of the Spirit and his mapping out of the missionary programme ‘unto the uttermost part of the earth.’ They were followed by Pentecost and the wonderful progress in carrying out that missionary programme in ‘the Acts of the apostles.’
What an important period this was! No three-year period in all history can compare with the period of our Lord’s ministry culminating in his ascension on high, and no period in church history excels the half-century of apostolic labours which followed. And these ten days of steadfast prayer before Pentecost had an importance of their own.
2. THE PLACE
On coming from the mount of Olives the disciples went up into an upper room where they were lodging. Theodore Zahn and others take it to be the same room in which they had celebrated the Supper. It has also been suggested that it belonged to Mary, the mother of John Mark. All that is certain is that it was an upper room in Jerusalem, the city which had slain the prophets and had recently crucified the Lord.
These men and women displayed a considerable amount of courage in meeting there in those days. It reminds one of the boldness of the Huguenots in 1559. Though the king — Henry II — had set his heart on their extermination, they held a Synod in Paris under the very shadow of his throne and drew up a confession of faith and a form of church order. When Henry heard the news of their daring, he vowed that he would punish these ‘rebels’, but shortly after, he was accidentally wounded in the eye by a lance at a joust and died from his wound.
Those who gathered for prayer in Jerusalem in those ten days no doubt concluded that the Lord meant them to be so occupied when he charged them ‘not to depart’ from that city and ‘to wait for the promise of the Father’ (verse 4). In doing his will they counted upon his protection.
3. THE PEOPLE PRESENT
It was a small congregation. There were the eleven apostles. Some weeks before, all of them had forsaken their Lord and fled. Peter had denied his Lord with oaths and curses, and Thomas had shown obstinate unbelief. But the risen Lord had met with them and dealt graciously with them, pardoning and restoring them.
In the praying band there were ‘the women.’ Among them would be some, if not all, of those who followed him and ministered to him and his disciples of their substance and those who watched at the cross. In all probability Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Joanna, Salome, and Susanna would have been present.
With them also was Mary the mother of Jesus. A sword had pierced her soul but now her wound was healed and without doubt the song of the Magnificat welled up in her heart more than ever.
Roman Catholic writers have not been slow to point out that Peter’s name appears first in the lists of the apostles and they use this as proof of their view of his primacy. It may be pointed out in reply that Mary appears near the close of the list (v. 14). Indeed she and her sons are at the very end. If then we are to argue from the order of the names, there would be a strong case against the position Vatican II assigns to her as Queen of the universe and mediatrix! Mary had her glories but she laid them down at her Redeemer’s feet; she had her glories but they are not such as have often been assigned to her.
Then we find the Lord’s ‘brethren’ listed as present; they had been unbelieving but now they share the faith of the disciples in the risen Lord and keep the appointed times of prayer with them.
It had looked as if the cause was lost when the disciples forsook the Lord in Gethsemane and fled. Peter was severely sifted in Satan’s sieve and no doubt the others were sorely tried also, but now they have been delivered from the ravening mouth of the lion. Their Lord had assured them that it was the will of the Father that ‘of all given to the Son he should lose nothing.’ True, there were only eleven. Their names are listed in pairs and the last one — Judas the brother of James — has no companion. But the Lord was well aware that this would happen. He had said: ‘one of you is a devil’ (John 6:70). And in his great high-priestly prayer he said: ‘None of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled.’ Moreover, in this very chapter (Acts 1) Judas the brother of James gets a companion when the gap is filled by the appointment of Matthias.
So we see the little congregation gathered under the protecting hand of the sovereign, all-controlling God whose purposes can know no defeat. The over-ruling hand of the Almighty is evident everywhere in the Acts of the apostles. Paul and Barnabas were cast out of Antioch of Pisidia, but ‘as many as were ordained to eternal life believed’ (Acts 13:48). Paul was in some danger and possessed by certain fears when he came to the wicked city of Corinth, but the Lord said to him in a vision by night: ‘Be not afraid, but speak and hold not thy peace, for I am with thee and no man shall lay hands on thee to hurt thee; for I have much people in this city’ (Acts 18:9-10). So God assured his servants of protection and abundant fruit. And this same God is our God today.
4. THEIR OCCUPATION
In those ten days they were given to prayer and to claiming the promise of the Spirit. Only one other item occupied their attention and that only for a brief space — the election of Matthias.
Prayer had the priority in those days. It may have seemed to their enemies and to unbelievers round about them that they were doing nothing. But the eyes of the angels were upon that little band and all heaven was agog with interest.
The professing church today has often got her priorities all wrong. A church is not esteemed a live church unless it pursues a ceaseless round of activities. Much of the present-day church operates purely and solely on the horizontal plane — in the same way as a Rotary Club or a Social Service Bureau to the neglect of the vertical. But unless we look up to God in heaven, we can never work effectually on the earth below. Even evangelicals are sometimes at fault. Dr D. M. Lloyd-Jones pointed this out very strikingly when he said:
We need less travelling by jet planes from congress to congress, less marching in the streets, but more kneeling and praying and pleading to God to have mercy upon us, more crying to God to arise and scatter his enemies and make himself known.
Our Lord and his apostles laid tremendous emphasis on prayer.
Indeed the whole Bible does so. And we do not have our priorities right if prayer is ‘crowded out.’
There are two or three features of these prayer-meetings which Luke stresses. The first is the unanimity of the participants. They were of different backgrounds. Some had been fishermen, one a tax gatherer and one a Zealot — a member of a fanatical Jewish party which strove for an independent Jewish State and was prepared to use force to secure its ends. But now they were welded together so as to strive with one soul for their Lord and his cause.
The phrase ‘with one accord’ represents one Greek word — a word used eleven times by Luke in Acts and occurring only once elsewhere in the New Testament. It is used some six times of unanimity in Christian circles, but it is also used some three times of the unanimity of the forces of evil in attacks upon Stephen and upon Paul.
John Elias said: ‘Union is the strength and the glory of the church. There is union and concord in hell against us. May we withstand them by a stronger and better union — yea, union in the Lord.’ Where this precious grace of unanimity prevails among the people of God, it sheds a sweet fragrance and is refreshing as the dew of heaven (Psalm 133). O that with one accord we may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! (Rom 15:6).
There is another expression used by Luke in describing this praying band. It is the word ‘continued’ which is better rendered ‘continued steadfastly’ in prayer. It has the idea of devotion and also of perseverance; it is used some nine times by Luke and Paul, and only once elsewhere in the New Testament (in Mark 3:9). It is no strange thing if Luke and Paul should use the same form of speech — they were companions for some periods of time. Luke uses it of the apostles when they refused to be distracted to ‘the serving of tables’ and insisted on ‘giving themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ The Westminster divines in their Form of Government laid down the rule with regard to a pastor: ‘First, it belongs to his office to pray for and with his flock as the mouth of the people unto God (Acts 6:4), where preaching and prayer are joined as several parts of the same office.’
Calvin comments on Acts 6:4 as follows: ‘Pastors must not think they have so done their duty that they need to do no more when they have daily spent some time in teaching. There is another manner of study, there is another manner of zeal required . . . Therefore it shall not suffice to take great pains in teaching unless we ask the blessing at the hands of the Lord, that our labour may not be in vain and unfruitful. Hereby it appears that zeal in prayer is not in vain commended to the ministers of the word.’
Our Lord urged this zeal upon us again and again — for example, in the parable of the unjust judge. And Paul said: ‘Pray without ceasing.’ It is said of one of those present in these prayer-meetings in Acts 1 that he was so often on his knees that they became ‘hard as camels’ knees’ (Eusebius, Eccles. History).
God grant us the Spirit’s aid that we may show more devotion and perseverance in this noble art of prayer!
5. ANSWERED PRAYER
It is written of Jabez that ‘God granted him that which he requested.’ So it was with those gathered in the upper room, and so it has been times without number.
At the Kirk of Shotts on June 21, 1630, l was preaching. Dr Alex. Smellie tells us that ‘no fewer than 500 men and women, some of them ladies of high estate and others poor wastrels and beggars, traced the dawn of the undying life to the preacher’s words that day.’ Livingston left it on record that ‘he spent the night before in prayer and conference with some of God’s people.’
In Kilsyth on 23 July, 1839, W. C. Burns preached and the meeting went on from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Spirit’s power seemed to carryall before it. Burns heard later that ‘some of the people of God in Kilsyth had been longing and wrestling for a time of refreshing from the Lord’s presence and had during much of the preceding night been travailing in birth for souls . . .’
In the wide parish of Connor in Co. Antrim in 1858 there were on an average over a hundred prayer-meetings each week, and blessing followed not only in that parish but far beyond.
John Foster said: ‘If the whole or the greater number of the disciples of Christianity were to combine that heaven should not withhold one single influence which the very utmost of conspiring and persevering supplication would obtain, it would be a sign that a revolution of the world was at hand.’
O that we might be watchmen upon the walls of Zion, acting as the Lord’s remembrancers, taking no rest and giving him no rest, till he establish and till he make his cause a praise in the earth (Isaiah 62:6-7). O that by grace we might say of Zion with Timothy Dwight:
For her my tears shall fall,
For her my prayers ascend,
To her my cares and toils be given,
Till toils and cares shall end.
This article was first published in the May 1974 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.
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