True prayer is top down. Rev. Joseph Wheat preaches on Acts 4:23-31 in chapel at RTS Jackson.
I remember spending a lot of time in this chapel 25 years ago being instructed by professors and being a part of chapels. I spent a lot of time in this chapel praying alone, and even in the last four years, this is just a great place to come to. I’m sure you have lots to pray about, maybe before a test the chapel is filled with petitioners here. But it’s good to be here, and I really want to thank the seminary for the invitation to come and open God’s Word this morning.
I’d like you to turn to Acts 4:23–31 (NIV):
On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priest and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 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.’ 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. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 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.” 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.
We praise you King Jesus, for in your utter humility, unfathomable condescension, you came to earth at just the right time. You lived among us; you lived on our behalf. You died on the cross and took our punishment and you ascended into heaven. We praise you that even now you reign and rule at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. Lord, would you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, open this word to us, to be able to raise our eyes to the reality of your kingship and what that means not only to us but to your ministry as you move your kingdom forward? We pray these things in Jesus’s name, Amen.
I’ve learned over the years that leadership in God’s kingdom is a great privilege, and it’s a great joy. At different times that joy and that privilege is refreshed in my heart. But I’ve also learned that it is a great challenge and very difficult. We tend to celebrate leaders of growing churches. It’s probably because we love to see the kingdom come. We love to see what God is doing. We want to see more and more folks come to know the Lord. But sometimes it kind of feels like the quality of Christian leadership is determined by statistics. This passage would tell us that it is not.
An older pastor, maybe in this chapel, I don’t remember, told a bunch of us seminary students some 20-something years ago, he said, “I’ll tell you something. There will come a time, if God put you in a place of leadership, that you will be greatly tested far beyond your ability. And it will be at that moment that we see what the man is made of.” He went on to describe how people in church history that we would want to emulate had all gone through incredible crises and great opposition and difficulty and sometimes persecution and how their trust in God and their patience and their endurance and coming through those things transformed them. They became more and more the leader that God wanted them to be. What do leaders do when there is significant opposition? And I promise you, brothers, there will be.
What do leaders do when there is even persecution? In the beginning of Acts, a growing church in Jerusalem is only a part of the story. It’s a very important part of the story as the Holy Spirit comes down on the believers there in Acts 2. The church grows immediately to 3,000 people, maybe 3,000 men plus women and children. I don’t know. Not long after that, the church grows to 5,000. But it’s not the only story going on here. And it’s not the only story of the power of the Holy Spirit going on in these early chapters of Acts. You see there is persecution to this church that is growing so rapidly.
We read Acts 2:42–47. It has become for many of us a thumbnail sketch of the beauty of what the leadership of the Holy Spirit looks like in a local church. They continued in the apostles’ doctrine, and they were filled with awe and wonder. They met in the Temple Courts to praise God. They met from house to house. They had all things in common. This is kind of the church you want to pastor one day: filled with a sense of God, filled with a sense of ministry, a love for the truth, a merciful church. They sold their possessions and goods and gave to anyone as they had need. Every day they broke bread in their homes, ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God, enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who are being saved.
It’s a beautiful thing to read about the church just growing and the power of the Spirit and the beauty of what the gospel lived out in the church looks like. But I will tell you, opposition and persecution are growing exponentially as well as the church growing exponentially. Our adversary, the devil, does not like it when leaders are consecrated to God and they hold forth the truth in the context of the grace and love of God and real community and the reality of Jesus lived out among us is happening. He does not like that. He opposes that. There is great persecution going on at this time as well.
In fact in this chapter, the apostles have been imprisoned. They’ve been hauled before the Sanhedrin. They have been released. They are told never to preach in the name of Jesus again. They courageously defy and say, “We’re going to preach in the name of Jesus,” in a wonderful text. But this is only the beginning of more persecution. In the next chapter, they’re going to be arrested again. It’s going to get violent. Then Stephen is stoned to death. There are all kinds of people running for their lives from Jerusalem to Damascus, and Saul of Tarsus, breathing murderous threats, is right after them. The mark of leadership isn’t just: is the church growing? But what do we do with the opposition as Christian leaders?
A great way to not have is to not pray and to not ask.What did they do? Well, it says here they went back to their church, their own. I love the word. The Greek word is “friends.” What a great way of thinking about your church. They went back to their friends. And what did they do? Well, I’ll tell you what they did. They had a massive strategy session, and they started whiteboarding, brainstorming, and reviewing their tactics to make sure that they were doing everything right. Is that what they did? Now, there’s nothing wrong with brainstorming sessions. That is not, however, what leaders do first when there is opposition.
No, they took it to God. It says, “Together they raised their voices in prayer.” There is this instant desire. There is this kind of community. The apostles begin to lead in prayer, and the apostles’ prayer recorded here in Acts 4 is simply one of my favorite prayers recorded in the Bible. And when we read what they prayed that day, it challenges us to be men and women of prayer. It challenges us to see God in the way he should be seen and therefore see the issues at hand in the way that God would want for us to see them. Very important, this prayer. This prayer teaches us a couple of things about prayer. It teaches us that prayer is not just to God; it’s about God.
Prayer Is Not Only to God and About Me
Let me say that this is very important. Prayer is not just something we do to God. Prayer is also about God. The first thing is that prayer is not just to God, and I think it’s the right place to start to simply say that many people don’t. Many people do not pray, including Christian leaders. We must know that there is prayerlessness among the leadership in God’s church. And the Bible says simply, “You do not have because you don’t ask” (James 4:3). Now, how sovereign God, who does all to is good pleasure, then says, “You don’t have because you don’t ask,” you can just fold that into his sovereign will. We don’t want explain that today, but a great way to not have is to not pray and to not ask. And I’m talking about the kingdom of God now.
We will never have what is needed to do God’s ministry without God. God just made it that way.It says to the Lord, “I don’t need you. Everything I need, I already have or I know the people who can get it for me, and I don’t need you.” And I would just exhort you that if you would be a Christian leader, you must be a person devoted to prayer, because we will never have what is needed to do God’s ministry without God. God just made it that way. It’s not going to happen. It’s made that way. Prayer is to God simply because we need God. I would ask you if prayer is something that is at the very heart of who you are and who you want to be in dependency upon God, and praying to God because you are convinced that you do not have what is necessary for the Christian life and the Christian ministry.
But then the other thing is how people often pray to God. This idea that people’s primary connection with God is just to try to get what they think they need. It’s a prayer to God about me. I’m not against petition, obviously, and the apostles certainly petition God in this prayer. But we treat prayer like a 1-800-LORD hotline. We realize we need something. We realize God is God. So we go to God. We say something kind of like this. We say, “Lord, I know my life better than anybody else, and I know exactly what I need. And I know exactly what other people need. And I am a quart low on ______. Would you please give me that? And I need more ______ and I could use less ______ in my life. And Lord, I’d love to not have to deal with ______ anymore. I know exactly what is needed for me to just be who I’m supposed to be and for the kingdom of God to go forth.”
I mean, obviously a little over the top. God does want us to petition, to request of him. And the apostles certainly do pray to God and they do petition God. And we’ll have to get there because it’s at the end of this prayer, which is the point that I’d like to make to you this morning. They pray differently than this because to them, prayer wasn’t just something you did to God about me. Prayer was first and foremost to God and about God.
Prayer Is About God
That’s a great way to pray: “Lord, you are sovereign overall. You are the king.”Secondly, prayer is about God. This is a thoroughly God-centered prayer, God-exalting. They begin with the words “Sovereign Lord.” Go back to our text in verse 24, “Sovereign Lord.” The word here is different from the word primarily used in the Greek New Testament, which is kurios. That’s the word that you see over and over. This is a different word. This is a word despotes. The word literally means owner, master, ruler, despot. That’s what a despot is. We have a negative feeling about despot, in fact, that word would be applied to Caesar a lot in that culture as well. It’s kind of a play on words. As they begin to pray, they say, “Ah Sovereign Despot.” What they’re saying is, “We are not going to be intimidated by these tiny despots around us. You, God, are the ultimate despot over all these tin can despot such the Jewish ruling council, Herod, and Pilate. They’re nothing compared to the real despot.” That’s a great way to pray: “Lord, you are sovereign overall. You are the king.”
Then they move into something that the early church did a lot, which we frankly don’t do a lot these days, and I believe we need to recover it in prayer. That is, they begin to pray about creation and the importance of creation. They said, verse 24, “Sovereign Despot, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.” Why would they pray about creation at this minute? It’s the practice of the early church because they know and we know if God created the earth and the sea and the heavens and everything in them, he can take care of our lives. He’s big enough if he’s done all that. It’s about the greatness of God. It’s about the power of God. And then they pray how God rules and overrules. God is king. The apostles use one of the most often quoted psalms in the New Testament. They use Psalm 2:25–26 to show that this psalm was fulfilled by the way God was totally in control in the crucifixion of Jesus and the exaltation of Jesus as king. When other despots thought they were in control, God was ruling and overruling because he is the sovereign despot who created all and is ruling overall.
If God created the earth and the sea and the heavens and everything in them, he can take care of our lives.Look at our text, Acts 4:25. “You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant David, our father: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand [the despots of the Earth take their stand] and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his anointed one.’”
As one scholar says, “This psalm is a record of human rebellion against God and God’s response to human rebellion.” If you know Psalm 2, then you know what God’s response is. You can turn to Psalm 2 if you want to see. They, the despots of the earth—kind of like the ones threatening the apostles—they’ve taken their stand; they’re against God; they’re against the anointed. And what does it say in Psalm 2:4? God just laughs. God has a belly laugh at the utter impotence of tin can despots who cannot stand up one moment to him. In fact, I love in the passage how it talks about how all this was allowed and was predestined beforehand. Only by God in his sovereign power do we believe that.
God has a belly laugh at the utter impotence of tin can despots who cannot stand up one moment to him.There’s something different between that and just going to God, “God, I need a quart of this and that and the other.” This is a very God-centered prayer. Psalm 2:4: “The One enthroned in Heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” Then the Lord in Psalm 2 points at the Lord Jesus Christ and he says this, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6). Herod and Pilate and the Jewish Council were only instruments in the hands of God himself to glorify King Jesus so that he would be installed in Zion on God’s holy hill. Just when they thought they had defeated him through crucifixion, three days later, he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and he sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, and he reigns and he rules and overrules from there.
Look at verse 27. “Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles [this is fulfilled through them] and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Here’s the question: do we pray like this? “Sovereign Despot, sovereign owner, ruler, absolute monarch overall, you created all things by your power and you rule over everything and you overrule over everything.” That’s a great way to pray. True prayer is top down. It doesn’t start with us. It starts with who God is. Because true prayer is not just to God. It’s about God.
God Changes Us and Things When Our Prayers Are About God
Thirdly, when we pray like that, God changes us and God changes things and glorifies King Jesus in answer to prayer like that. If that God is for us, who can be against us? Isn’t this the essence of it? David says in Psalm 16:8 that he “sets the Lord always before him.” Very similar to what the apostles are doing here in Acts 4. When we set the Lord always before us our challenges look different. [00:20:31]When the Lord is set before us, our problems look different. And sure enough, our prayers are different. [7.9s] Psalm 16:8, David goes on to say, I just love this. “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
True prayer is top down. It doesn’t start with us. It starts with who God is.Trust me, brothers and sisters. There’s going to be a whole lot of shaking going on in ministry. You’re going get hit so hard, you won’t know what hit you. Then you’re going to figure out what hit you and you’re going to be so disappointed that a believer hit you. And not only did they hit you, they’ve got eight people with them, and they’ve built a battering ram to hit you harder because Satan opposes and not just outside the church, because there’s bad behavior in the church, folks, and you’ve got to lead through it. The gospel has to be the theme. The glory of God has to be the theme. We are not equivocating and compromising our biblical standards and principles to appease people. We’ll love people, we’ll work with people. But at the end of the day, we’re not budging off what the Bible says. “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
Do you know the amazing thing about this prayer? Of course, it’s the way God is described in such detail, just verse after verse after verse, quoting the Old Testament. But the really amazing thing is the asking is almost, not an afterthought, but it’s way at the end. It’s almost like a sermon to God about God, who already knows all about himself, because it’s for them to appropriate and to be reconvinced and to be rooted in the glory of God and to have faith, “set the Lord before you so you won’t be shaken.” It’s amazing. It’s almost like they’re saying, after all this about God, “And by the way, Lord, we’ve got some problems here.” It feels very opposite of the way I often pray, and you probably do, too. I cut right to the chase: “Lord, you’ve got to do something with these people!”
Maybe it’s an old preacher joke. It’s a horrible joke: there’s nothing in this church that a few key deaths couldn’t fix. Well, sometimes people don’t pray for people to die, but they kind of pray like that. What’s amazing is, is their prayer about their situation is at the end. And when they pray, notice what they don’t pray. They don’t pray, “Bulldoze these people.” They pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to keep standing and ministering in the name of Christ without compromise. They pray for boldness, for God’s power to work in them through the issue, for Jesus to be exalted through their lives, through the issue, and not just the removal of stuff immediately.
Look at verse 29: “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants . . .” I would have said, “Consider their threats and destroy them!” But they say, “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.” That’s what we’re asking for: for ministry, for courage, for faith, for boldness, for the reality of the power of the Spirit working through gospel ministry.
I remember going through a two-year horrible, horrible thing as a pastor. You can’t imagine what it’s like to step up and preach when there’s lots of people—in these church problems, by the way, it’s only a small amount of people that become the Al-Qaeda cell that you and your elders are going have to deal with. Everybody else is blissfully ignorant and loving the kingdom of God. You can’t imagine what it’s like to stand up and preach and to see about 200 people doing this for two years. Two years.
Now, the prayer wasn’t “Lord, kill them all.” The prayer was “Lord, let me preach through this storm. Let me lead through this storm. Extend your kingdom through this storm.” And you know what? That’s what God did. But it was very, very painful. And there were a lot of ups and downs in that situation.
They prayed for the Lord not to take away their issues, but for them to have that courage and faith. The great Scottish preacher of the 17th century, Samuel Rutherford, wrote lots of letters to people that we still have. He was a great mind, of course, and he’s hard to read. But he wrote a lot of letters, and his letters are strikingly pastoral and loving and encouraging. In one of these letters, he wrote to a layman, a leader in the church there during this time of great persecution of Reformed Christians in Scotland. The man’s name was John Campbell.
John Campbell was the Earl of Loudoun, so John Campbell had a lot. And John Campbell was going to lose a lot because he held to the truth. So Rutherford wrote to this man who was losing everything because of his commitment to the Reformed faith. And this is what he wrote, “You are in many ways the blessed of God who has called you to come out into the streets with Christ on your forehead when so many are ashamed of him and hide him, as it were, under their cloak.”
That’s what the apostles are praying here: “God, give us the ability in front of this pressure, these threatening people, to keep coming out into the streets with Christ on our foreheads, regardless of what it costs.” That’s trusting God. That is the prayer of the apostles in Acts 4. It starts with God and it ends with an impassioned desire and petition for the power of God in the situation, for Jesus to be exalted through the difficulty.
What they got was a strong sense of the glory of God and the presence of God. I’ll tell you why we know that in a moment. What they gained was a great sense of perspective, that the ultimate despot is the ultimate despot, period. A great sense of faith, courage to move forward in the grace and truth of Jesus Christ in that situation. We know they had a great sense of the presence of God, and do you know why we know that? Because that little verse in our text: “And when they finished praying [don’t you love it?] the place was shaken.” Oh my! God, by his power, by the Spirit, shook the place in a sign of the fact that he was there and he was beautiful.
You have a very bad theology of the depravity of man if you think you can find an easy church.Now, I remember several key moments in my life where I went to God: “Dear Lord, I’m a quart low on this and I need some of that.” I wanted one thing, and I just simply got another because God didn’t want to give me what I wanted. God wanted me to go through something. God wanted me to deal with something or whatever the situation was. That can start with “I wanted this job and I got that one.” It’s OK. What the Lord wants you to be a part of is what you want to be a part of, even if you think it’s going to be difficult. If you are looking for an easy church, you’re stupid. You have a very bad theology of the depravity of man if you think you can find an easy church. You find where God wants you to be even if it’s a hard place, and you’re hearing all the rumors, “That’s a hard place.” I mean, you consider it carefully. Don’t get me wrong. You pray about it a lot. But don’t you say no just because it’s hard.
I wanted peace, and I got a fiery ordeal because God entrusted me to lead through that. I wanted people to go away; God wanted me to spend lots more time with them. And by the way, in my story, I will tell you, after two years and then another year when what was real came to light, so many people would come to the front of the church that I pastored in Colorado after the preaching and after the service ended, so many people, one by one came and said, “I’m so sorry that I believed that stuff. Would you forgive me?” That doesn’t happen all the time. But it did happen in this case. I’m glad they didn’t leave. I’m glad the Lord worked. And he worked in my life: I was more arrogant than I should have been, and I was more a lot of things than I should have been, and the Lord worked through that.
In each of these situations, when I finally got to where I wasn’t just trying to pull the levers to make it go my way, I actually really believed that God was sovereign and that God would do what he wanted to do and what God wants to do is going to be OK. There was always, once I got to that time, a kind of a latent sense of peace and an underlying sense—you ready for this?—of anticipation for what the Sovereign Despot who created all and rules and overrules wanted to do when I didn’t want to do it.
I love what Phillip Brooks, the famous American preacher of the 19th century, said. He kind of captured this. He said, “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men and women. Do not pray for tasks equal to your power, but for power equal to your tasks.” We of all people say we believe in the sovereignty of God because he is. You’ll know whether you really believe it or not simply by analyzing your own prayer life and the contents of your own prayers. Sovereign Lord, Sovereign Despot you created, you rule, you overrule. Would you give me the power to do your will today? Prayer is not just to God. It is about God. Let’s pray.