The First Prayer Service
Series: Stand-Alone Sermons
Prayer should not merely be something a church gets to when it gets to it, but praying together should be something to which a church is devoted.
Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Darrell Bock
Only a Prayer Meeting, Charles Spurgeon
We’ve just finished a series of sermons through the Psalms, and for the next 3 weeks we’re going to have 3 stand-alone sermons, meaning they aren’t part of a longer series. Today I want to talk about prayer because this evening we have our first prayer service. As I mentioned earlier in the announcements, we’ll be meeting this evening at 4:30 at 1000 Wallace St for the first of our (almost) monthly prayer services that we are trying over the next 12 months. We are scheduling it, we are repeating it, and in those times, we plan to get our whole church together to pray. Why would we do such a thing? Why should you, as a member of this church, come to the prayer service? Why might you, even if you aren’t a member of this church, consider visiting the prayer service? While the specific format is a matter of prudence for the elders of any particular church to determine, I want to suggest to you today that praying together is one of the basic responsibilities and privileges of any church of Jesus Christ. From this brief passage in Acts, we learn from the example of the early church to pray, but not only to pray occasionally. We learn to devote ourselves to prayer. And we learn not only to devote ourselves to pray individually, but to devote ourselves to prayer with one accord. So, devote yourselves to prayer with one accord, and to unpack that we’ll look at each part of that statement: Devotion, prayer, and one accord.
Our text begins with a simple narration of the eleven apostles’ return to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem. On the mount called Olivet Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for him to send the Holy Spirit upon them, and he promised them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Then he ascended into heaven, and now having seen and heard all this, the eleven apostles obey Jesus and return to Jerusalem to wait for the sending of the Spirit as they anticipate beginning the work Jesus commissioned them to do: Being his witnesses from where they were to the end of the earth.
Then in verse 13 we read that when they entered Jerusalem, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, and it lists the eleven apostles who were there. There were originally twelve apostles, but one of them, Judas, betrayed Jesus and gave him over to be crucified. That story is recounted in the next passage, as is the story of his replacement being chosen. So there were these 11 at the time of our passage. But then we see in verse 14 that gathered with them were the women, Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. “The women” there refers to the group of women who had travelled with Jesus and financially supported his ministry, at least some of whom also witnessed his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. And in verse 15 we read that the total number of brothers, which is just a catch all term for all brothers and sisters in Christ at that time, was 120, and they were all gathered together on this occasion. In other words, the whole church in Jerusalem, which was the only church at that time, was gathered with its leaders.
That’s all just setting so far, but setting is important for narratives. To summarize, then, the setting of the text on which we’ll focus for the rest of our time is Jesus’ eleven appointed eyewitnesses to his resurrection obeyed his command to wait for the sending of the Spirit in Jerusalem to empower them for their mission to the world by returning to Jerusalem and gathering with the church in Jerusalem. But then our focus will be on what they did when gathered, and we find that in verse 14: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.” You probably already have a spiritual sense that Luke, the author of Acts, is presenting this as a positive example for us to follow as a church today, but we cannot always assume that. A good Bible study principle to keep in mind when you are reading a narrative like Acts is that “not everything descriptive is prescriptive”. In other words, just because the Bible tells you something happened doesn’t mean God wants you to do that same thing. To give a typical example, the Bible tells us stories of men marrying multiple wives, but it’s equally clear that marriage was designed by God to be between one man and one woman. It describes polygamy, but doesn’t prescribe it.
But here your spiritual sense that this is presented as a positive example is accurate. We learn this first because prayer is something we see the church continuing in throughout Acts as it is being faithful to Jesus. Later in chapter 1, they prayed for the Lord’s guidance as to who they should recognize to take Judas’ place among the 12 apostles (Acts 1:24). In Acts 2, after they receive the Spirit, one of the first things we read that the church does is they devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). In Acts 4, when Peter and John are told to stop proclaiming the gospel, they gather with the church again, and together they pray (Acts 4:23-31). When Peter was imprisoned, we read in Acts 12:5 that earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. When he was released, we read he went to the house of one of the Christians, and there he found many gathered together and praying (Acts 12:12). When Paul was preparing to leave the church in Tyre, they all prayed together (Acts 21:5). You get the picture. Prayer together is presented throughout Acts as one of the basic practices of a healthy church.
Not only that, but the kind of prayer we see exemplified in verse 14 of our passage is also commanded elsewhere in scripture. So in Romans 12:12, in the middle of a passage focusing on our duties as Christians to one another, which we’ll look more deeply into next week, we read “be constant in prayer,” using the same Greek word that is here translated as “devoting themselves” to prayer. Similarly, Colossians 4:2, commanding the whole church in Colossae, says, “continue steadfastly in prayer,” again using the same word here for devotion in prayer. All that to say, the church coming together and devoting themselves to prayer with one accord in verse 14 is presented to us as an example to follow. So, Citylight Church Center City, devote yourselves to prayer with one accord.
Let’s start with this word “devotion”. The other verses that use the same word in relation to prayer translate it “be constant” and “continue steadfastly”. The idea is that prayer should not merely be something a church gets to when it gets to it, something we of course do occasionally, but that we don’t think of as among the really significant work of the church. The idea is that prayer should be one of the basic activities to which a church should be devoted and in which it should be constant. I think back to my early years of pastoring, and if you’d have asked me then whether our church prays, I think I’d have probably said something like, “Well yeah, of course we pray. We’re Christians after all.” But, praying together wasn’t a priority. It’s just not as flashy as baptizing new converts or delivering free easter meals to families in need. Those things are good too of course; I’m glad we did them and still do. And in Acts chapter 2, on the day of Pentecost, we do see God doing visibly impressive things: the Holy Spirit descends in tongues of fire, the place in which they were meeting was shaken, Peter preaches the gospel, and that day 3000 people got saved. That’s about as visibly fruitful and impressive as it gets, and glory to God for it.
But notice that Acts 1 comes before Acts 2. So Charles Spurgeon, in one of the addresses he gave to his church at one of their prayer meetings, asks, “How could we look for a Pentecost if we never met with one accord, in one place, to wait upon the Lord? Brethren, we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians.” In other words, we should not expect the visible fruitfulness of Acts 2 if we are unwilling to devote ourselves to prayer with one accord as they did in Acts 1. And if we are unwilling to devote ourselves to prayer, to continue steadfastly in it, if it is more so something we get to when we get to it, it reveals either that the genuine fruitfulness of Acts 2 isn’t actually what we’re after, or that we think we have the power within ourselves, our methods, and our strategies, to attain it.
In your own life you can probably observe with relative ease that there are some things you kinda get to when you get to, but then there are other things to which you are really devoted, which you make sure happen. Some of you are devoted to exercising. It would be strange for you if a week went by where you didn’t make it to the gym, go for a run, or go for a bike ride. Other things in your life, like when you wake up in the morning, or when you eat your meals, or when you are available to hang out with friends, get moved around to accommodate your workout schedule. Even on the days you don’t feel like going, you go. Others of you are devoted to travel. You finish one trip, and you’re already brainstorming the next. You book flights and lodging well in advance. You recruit others to join you. You build your budget around it. These are just some of the ways it looks to be devoted to anything.
Church family, let’s be devoted like that to praying together. Let’s be constant in it; let’s continue steadfastly in it. Some of the ways we’re trying to do that already is by having a pre-service prayer meeting every Sunday at 9am downstairs in this building, and by praying in our service when we are all gathered together. But another step we plan to take over the next 12 months is having this additional monthly prayer service where our whole church comes together with its leaders present and devotes a significant portion of the service to prayer. It won’t be exclusively prayer; if you look at the passage after this one you see even in this meeting that someone stood up and gave an address from scripture; we’ll have that alongside some singing, but the focus will be prayer, because we want to be devoted to it. If you’re devoted to exercise, you schedule when you go the gym. If you’re devoted to travel, you schedule your next trip. And so we, to devote ourselves to prayer, are scheduling times to pray together. To come to the prayer service would mean you’d have to rearrange your schedule on those Sunday evenings. It probably means you’ll have to go home after our morning service, then leave your home again later in the day for the prayer service. For some it may mean finding parking again. For others it may mean figuring out how you’ll feed your kids or help them sit reasonably quietly during the prayer service. But these are just the kinds of things we do anytime we are devoted to anything, and we want to be devoted to prayer with one accord. Don’t just pray when you get to it. Devote yourselves to prayer with one accord. Next, then, let’s talk about prayer itself.
What is prayer? What did Luke mean in Acts 1:14 when he said they devoted themselves to prayer? To summarize the whole Bible’s answer to that question, I still don’t think I can do any better than the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In answer to the question, “what is prayer?” it says, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.” The essence of prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God. In prayer, we are asking God to do things that we desire. So Philippians 4:6 tells us by prayer to let our requests be made known to God. Jesus even assures us that “If you then, who are evil, known to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt 7:11). The promise there is that our Father who is in heaven will give good things to those who ask him. Therefore, in prayer, we should ask him for good things.
Now notice there that they are good things that he will give us, not just anything. So the catechism clarifies that prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will. 1 John 5:14 says that the confidence we have toward him is that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. That means there are certain things for which, even if you want them, you ought not to pray. To give the most obvious examples, you should not pray for God to give you another god, for God to enable you to get away with theft, or for God to give you a sexual partner to whom you are not married. These are not good things, and our heavenly Father therefore has not promised to give them. Beyond those, though, we should be cognizant of asking for things that bear no clear connection to God’s will. You may desire a bigger house, for example, and having a bigger house is certainly not inherently sinful. But before you simply start asking God for it, examine that desire a bit. If your desires were ultimately being shaped by God’s desires, would you still want it as badly as you do? Maybe you want it because you want to show increased hospitality, which is something God wants, or because you want to have more kids, which is also a desire God views positively, but if those are really the reasons, might you be open to the possibility that God would have you glorify him in other ways? If his will for you were to show how hospitality can be done by cramming a bunch of people into a small city apartment, could you be ok with that? If his will for you were to rejoice through infertility, could you be ok with that? James warns us in scripture that if we are asking God for something and not receiving it, it may be because we are asking wrongly, to spend it on our passions (James 4:3). In other words, if you are asking God for something to simply satisfy your own desires, without submitting those to and letting them be shaped by God’s desires, you shouldn’t expect to receive it, and even when you are asking him for something that you think does match his desires, you should always do so with the attitude of Jesus: Yet not as I will, but as you will (Matt 26:39).
That gets at the content of our prayers: Things we desire that are agreeable to God’s will. Those are the good things our Father who is in heaven promises to give to those who ask them. Another way to say it would be that in prayer, we ask God to do things we want him to do, insofar as our “wants” have been shaped by God’s “wants”. We can look to the church in Acts again for an example. I alluded to Acts 4 earlier: There the scene is that Peter and John, two of the eleven apostles listed here, have now received the Spirit and are proclaiming the gospel when the Jewish leadership told them they must stop doing so and threatened them with punishment if they kept doing so. So Peter and John gather with the church in Jerusalem or at least some members of it, and interestingly, they don’t pray for protection from the Jewish leadership! They don’t even pray for God to stop the opposition! They don’t pray for ongoing financial provision or safety. Those would seem like natural desires, would they not? But as their desires are being shaped by God’s desires, here’s that for which they pray: “Grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). They know God’s will for them is to speak his word with all boldness, and that part of what Jesus promised them as they do so was opposition. So they don’t pray for opposition-free lives, which would be contrary to God’s will; instead, they pray for boldness to keep speaking God’s word, which is agreeable to God’s will.
For us as a church, then, in our prayer services, we don’t plan to pray for just anything. Instead, the elders will lead the service by providing prompts for our prayers. For example, we may have someone share about a new ministry role they’re taking on, and we’ll ask a member of the church to pray for them. Or we may just ask a member to pray for boldness for the persecuted church in a particular nation as they undergo persecution. We welcome prayer requests from the members of the church, but we’d ask that you share them in advance of the service so we can first assess them with you as to whether they are agreeable to God’s will. And even during the service, if you really get a sense that the Holy Spirit is leading us to pray for something in particular, you can run that by the elder who is presiding over that prayer service.
And consider for yourself: Do you desire things agreeable to God’s will? Part of the reason we sometimes struggle to pray is because our desires are too small. We want the bigger house, the better job, the ideal kids, and we look around and see people attaining these things who have no obvious dependence on God. Instead, they work for it, and they get it. So what do we devote ourselves to? Figuring out how they did it, and then working to get it for ourselves. This is a temptation for churches as well. If the goal is simply to get bigger, you can do that without any special work of God. The concert and motivational speaking industry have proven it: Put on a good enough show, and more people will come. But that’s not a desire agreeable to God’s will. God’s will is nothing less than people who hate him and love sin being transformed into people who love him and hate sin. God’s will is nothing less than for those he’s made alive to not only be nice, but to be truly kind, to not only be tolerant, but truly loving, to not merely survive trials, but to have peace and joy through them. God’s will is that some who had a beautiful vision for their nice life on earth will lay that down and give themselves to the work of pastoring, or to moving to another part of the world and learning a new language to share the gospel with people who have never heard it. As you live in his word more and more and see what he’s up to, and as that really starts to shape your desires, it’s hard to want those things for long without feeling like you must pray, because there’s just no way our techniques can fulfill those desires, but the God who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine can.
We offer our desires to God in prayer because we desire what God desires, and we know only he is both able and willing to fulfill those desires. These early Christians devoted themselves to prayer because they believed God was a loving Father who heard them and was powerful enough to accomplish that for which they prayed. How else could you devote yourself to something? You devote yourself to exercise or travel because you believe it will actually improve your life in some way. You devote yourself to offering up your desires to God because you believe he is actually willing to grant those desires! Where do you get that kind of confidence? You might think you get it from a sense of your own goodness; as long as you’re trying to your best to do good, then you can assume God will give you what you want. But that’s not true of these 11 apostles who were leading this prayer service. Just a month or two before this, when Jesus was going to be crucified, their leader, Peter, denied him three times. The rest of them abandoned him. And our track record is no better. We were all born hating God and loving sin, and even after God saved some of us who are here today, we have all continued to fall short of loving him with the love of which he is worthy. And so we sometimes hesitate to pray because deep down, we really aren’t sure God is a loving heavenly Father toward us who delights to give good gifts to us his children. We aren’t really sure he hears our prayers and is willing to answer.
And look, if you are not today repenting of your sin and receiving and resting upon Jesus alone for salvation, you should not be sure that God will hear your prayers. You can’t simply start relating to him as your loving heavenly Father when his sentence of condemnation still rests on you as your judge. Yet somehow, these disciples got that assurance, though they were as sinful as you and me. How? They got that assurance because when Jesus went to the cross, though they’d denied and abandoned him, he prayed, even for those who were crucifying him, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) and that prayer was agreeable to God’s will, so much so that on the cross God placed all the sins of all who would ever believe in Jesus on Jesus, and counted Jesus’ death as the sufficient payment for them, so that when God raised him from the dead, Jesus returned to these eleven sinful apostles not with a word of condemnation, but saying to them, “peace to you” (Luke 24:36) and then commissioning them to preach to the people that he is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead, and everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:42-43). Believe in him, and your sins will be forgiven, and you can have the assurance in that moment that nothing now stands between you and your loving heavenly Father, who will hear your prayer and give good gifts to you his child. Brothers and sisters, this is why we can pray. The reason we are brothers and sisters at all is first because we’ve been made children of God through the death and resurrection of Christ. Today, though sin remains in us, the king of the universe hears our prayers, because he is our Father. Of all the things we could devote ourselves to, let’s devote ourselves to prayer, because we want God wants, only God can do it, and he is willing to do it in response to the prayers of his children. And let’s devote ourselves to pray with one accord.
So we see in Acts 1:14 that all these were devoting themselves to prayer with one accord. The idea of one accord there is not necessarily that they all said the same words at the same time. They may have; we do see examples of that in scripture, and sometimes we pray that way in our services, especially in our prayers of confession, which seem to have been prayed in unison at times throughout scripture. But we also see other examples in Acts of one person praying with others (Acts 20:36). The text gives us the element in this case: Praying with one accord, but doesn’t specify the form. Typically when it comes to offering up our desires especially, we have found the form that best helps us do so with one accord is one person praying on behalf of us all, while we agree silently.
What does being of one accord mean, then, if not necessarily saying the same prayer with the same words at the same time? It refers to a unity of purpose. It means they were praying in such a way that when the desires were offered up unto God, all 120 people present were able to say, “Amen. That’s something I desire as well.” That’s the positive example set for us here, and throughout scripture the unity of the church is one of the great marks of its health in God’s sight. It’s one of the main things for which Jesus prayed for his church, and we are commanded in general to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). Jesus has made us one, and that is displayed in our prayers when we pray with one accord.
How could they do that though with 120 people, each with their own individual experiences, preferences, and desires? We actually have a similar number of members at 98. How can we devote ourselves to prayer with one accord? First and perhaps most obviously, we must be together. We see here that these 120 were able to pray with one accord because these 120 came together in one place at the same time. That’s the idea of scheduling this prayer service and even cancelling Citygroups the week we do them to encourage everyone to attend and make it more feasible for them to do so. Even private prayer and prayer in Citygroups alone are not the best means to get us all praying with one accord. Private prayer is essential to your own spiritual life and the life of our church, but if all we ever do is each of us prays privately, we may be cultivating a desire for things that contradict one another. One member is praying that the church grows, while another is praying it stays small so that everyone still knows each other. One member is praying we develop more programming for kids throughout the week, while another is praying for fewer scheduled church programs so members are more freed up for evangelism and discipling relationships they initiate. The same sort of things can happen between Citygroups, where one Citygroup is praying for one thing while a different Citygroup is praying for the opposite. If we only ever pray individually or in Citygroups, we are more likely to cultivate disunity over time than unity.
Ok, but what do we do about the fact that we do sometimes have different desires? If one member wants the church to have more programs while the other wants it to have less, which do we pray for at the prayer service? This is where we can see the central role of biblical church leadership in building and preserving biblical church unity. Remember in these verses there is a group of leaders, the 11 apostles, who are specifically named. The office of apostle ceased once we got beyond the eyewitnesses to the resurrection, but the apostles appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23), and today churches are to be led by elders. So again, one of the advantages of getting the whole church together to pray rather than just leaving it to individuals or Citygroups is that the elders are then present to lead that, clarify the direction in which the church is going, and then get everyone on the same page praying for those things. The elders also, as those who are set apart to oversee the ministry of the word in the church, can ensure that the things for which we are praying are things agreeable to God’s will, such that every Christian ought to be able to desire the things for which we are praying in the prayer service.
For that kind of unity to really obtain in a prayer service, though, that kind of unity has to be cultivated day in and day out, first and foremost by each of us as individuals submitting our will to the will of God as it is revealed in scripture. If we are all meditating on the same Bible, if we are all repenting of sin and seeking to conform our lives to the same image of Christ, if we are all hearing the same sermons and seeking to be doers of them and not hearers only, then over time, our desires should converge with God’s desires, and then when it’s time to pray for those things, we are able to do it with one accord. And under our submission to Christ, we all must cultivate a submission to our elders, trusting that they are God’s appointed means to lead us in prayer. A prayer service can then express that unity and reinforce it. As we bring the whole church together to pray together, it should also help shape our desires so that we increasingly desire the same things, and those things should be things agreeable to God’s will if the elders are doing their job to ensure those are the things for which we pray in those meetings. But a prayer service alone won’t make us devoted to prayer with one accord. For that we must be made one by Jesus, we must submit our own desires to what God desires, we must have a sense of our inability to attain those things by our techniques, and we must have a sense of both God’s ability and his willingness to give it to those who ask him. Jesus has made us one by his death on the cross. His glory is the ultimate object of our desires. And because of what he has done, we now know the all-powerful God as our loving Father who gives good gifts to his children. So devote yourselves to prayer with one accord.