When Opposition Strikes
Week of November 29, 2015
Bible Verses: Acts 4:23-31.
The Point: We can boldly face any opposition because God is in charge.
Embrace God’s Plan: Acts 4:23-31.
 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.  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,  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?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’–  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,  to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.  And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness,  while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  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. [ESV]
“The early church faced opposition from the very beginning, and Luke wants his readers to understand both how they faced it and how they overcame it. It was not via any power inherent in themselves. They brought the opposition before God and prayed for His enabling. The power for them, as it is for us, must be a divine power. Prayer was the first thing they did. For them, prayer was something more than just one characteristic of their way of life among many others; it was a top priority. For that reason, although there is a sense in which what takes place here is part of a sequence of things – the teaching and preaching of Peter and John and their imprisonment – the priority of prayer is worth considering separately. This is a fundamental lesson about the priority of prayer.
There are several things worthy of note in this section. First, there is the occasion that prompted the prayer. Second, there is the shape of the prayer itself. This is a model prayer. We need help in knowing what to say in prayer, the language of prayer, and this will help shape the content of our praying. In the third place, there is the specific request of the prayer – for boldness. This is a word that Luke employs at several locations, suggesting that it is something that we need to take note of when we think of the character of the early church. Finally, there is the result of the prayer. Something extraordinary happened as a result of their praying. It is something the church in our own time desperately needs, and something that God promises to us if we, too, trust and obey.
Peter and John spent the night in prison. The Jewish authorities were not sure how to deal with men who were preaching Jesus and His resurrection, and after one night in prison they let them go, threatening consequences if they continued to engage in this activity. Peter and John’s imprisonment was something they would bring very specifically before God in their prayer. In the morning, after their release, Peter and John went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them . After hearing what Peter and John had said, they lifted their voices together to God . Note the priority they gave to prayer. Praying was the very first thing they did. It is as though Luke, as he describes this incident, is saying to us that prayer is the chief characteristic of true Christianity. The ultimate test of our profession of faith is our prayer life.
What is perhaps most remarkable is the sense of intimacy and sincerity of their praying. The language is simple and straightforward. There is no mention of posture. There is no hint of any mystical rites or ceremonies. They simply spoke to God. The secret of their prayers was that they knew God. There must have been genuine fear in Jerusalem at this time regarding the consequences of proclaiming Jesus Christ. Barely two months previously, Jesus had been executed by crucifixion. He had warned His disciples solemnly the evening before His death that trouble would ensue for those who called themselves His disciples. The fear that they might be tried and sentenced to death as insurrectionists was very real. And if not death, there was certainly the threat of imprisonments and beatings. One might have expected, therefore, that the disciples would leave Jerusalem and head for home. The apostles, after all, lived in Galilee. But this was not what they did.
Already, they felt a bond to the church in Jerusalem. As friends, their future now seemed inextricably joined together. There was no talk, yet of fleeing Jerusalem – that would come later, at the beginning of chapter 8. But even then, although the church scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, the apostles would remain in the thick of persecution. Luke tells us something about the unity of the church at this juncture. When they prayed together, they lifted their voices together. Luke is saying that they all agreed as to the suitability and content of their praying. They were of one heart and soul . Too often, our own church today is divided over the propriety and priority of prayer. Too many Christians think that collective prayer is something optional. It is a welcome addition to the program of the church, but not something I need to engage in myself. How different the early church was, and what blessings, as we will see, came as a result.
The prayer offered in Acts 4:24-30 has an urgency about it because of the situation in which it was uttered. The prayer begins with God – His greatness, especially – and recalls His word of promise in Scripture (His covenant) and then quickly moves into petition. Calvin insisted that prayer is asking God for what He has promised. The citation of Psalm 2 in this prayer is designed to accomplish precisely that. The petition is both focused and daring. Yet as we break up the prayer into various strands, there is an ostensible emphasis upon the character of God.
The prayer begins by calling upon God as Sovereign Lord , a title that signals their belief in the sovereignty of God. The Greek word for Sovereign is the word commonly employed of a slave owner in the first century. It was the word Daniel used in the mighty prayer recorded in Daniel 9. It is interesting that the early Christians did not employ the word “Father” or even “Jesus” at this point. They were being threatened with imprisonment, and what they needed to know was: Is our God able to deal with their threats? Is He powerful enough? However important the Sanhedrin might have believed themselves to be, they were no match for the sovereign power of God.
Two further attributes of God are brought to the surface in the prayer: God as Creator and God as Revealer. The universe is the product of divine power – brought into being out of nothing by the determination of God’s will. God also discloses His mind and purpose to us by a revelatory word. He has spoken through the mouth of David in Psalm 2 which is a messianic psalm. It envisions the hostility of the rulers of this world against the Messiah, God’s anointed Savior. The prayer shows how these early Christians interpreted the psalm. Herod and Pilate are mentioned as fulfilling the prophecy of kings and rulers united together against your holy servant Jesus . Nothing that occurred in the days before and after the death and resurrection of Jesus had been outside of God’s decree. He is Creator, Revealer, and Savior.
So the events that have transpired in Jerusalem in these last few weeks had all been according to God’s predetermined plan [4:28]. As Peter had insisted on the day of Pentecost, the crucifixion of Jesus by the hands of wicked men was according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God [2:23]. The doctrine of predestination is meant to bring assurance to God’s people of the final victory God has over His enemies. Unless we can be certain of this, we cannot entertain an assurance of final salvation. If the future is contingent, ultimately, upon the fickleness of our will or ability, the possibility of assurance is impossible. This is a doctrine that is not meant to be understood so much as believed. It is designed to strengthen and embolden. The doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty is necessary if we are to understand what occurred at Calvary. For these early Christians, Calvary was not an accident. God was the Author of the cross. In the ultimate sense, it was not Pilate or Herod who put Jesus to death; it was God the Father who handed him over! It was the action of God. God handed Jesus over to be crucified because He loved us. This is fundamentally important. The gospel is that God sent His Son to die in our place and receive the punishment that our sins deserved so that we can receive forgiveness, reconciliation, and the promise of eternal life. What the church specifically prayed for takes our breath away. One might have expected them to ask that the persecution cease, at least for a season. But instead they pray that God would make them bold to endure it.
The apostolic community prayed for three things: that God would hear their cries, that they would be granted boldness, and that God’s miraculous power might be evident in signs and wonders done through them as apostles. The prayer for boldness was answered specifically and immediately . This prayer is remarkable and comes at one of the most exciting moments in the entire account of the Acts of the Apostles. Imagine, for a moment, if Peter and John had chosen to run from Jerusalem at this point, or to reason among themselves that now was not the right time for upsetting the authorities. The church, had it existed at all, would have looked very different indeed. It forces us to ask serious questions about what we might have done in this situation. The apostles could have reasoned their way out of this, and we would have understood and sympathized with them. But they did not. They were resolute and instant in their response. They decided that God’s will for them was to be faithful no matter what the cost. They recognized their weakness and prayed for the help of the Holy Spirit. Like these early Christians, we also need to pray for boldness in facing obstacles and difficulties.
We have seen the priority of the apostles’ prayer – it was the very first thing the disciples did. We have also seen the purpose of their prayer – to bring the issue of the threats they had received before the God of creation, revelation, and redemption. We have also noted the petitions of the prayer, particularly for boldness in continuing to speak the name of Jesus and for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, enabling them to preach with attendant signs and wonders. Finally, in verse 31, we see the power of prayer. Not that prayer has some inherent power in itself – it is God’s power operating through prayer, as a consequence of prayer. God answered their prayer. The entire place was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit as had been the case on the day of Pentecost.
As we have seen, believers already filled with the Spirit experienced another filling or empowering from the Spirit so that they could meet a particularly difficult situation. What is of special interest in the cases Luke describes is that the additional empowering by the Holy Spirit always enabled the disciples to witness and speak. These ordinary men and women, with no particular learning or training, without any evangelistic methods, were enabled to speak because they were filled with the Spirit. By the power of the Spirit, they were prepared to face opposition, beatings, imprisonments, and even death. They were convinced of the truth of the gospel, and they could not be kept quiet. Their hearts burned within them for the lost, as they longed for others to know the same Savior that they had come to know and love.
These men and women were speaking about Jesus Christ with boldness in the very city that had warned them of dire consequences if they continued. The Holy Spirit had come to aid God’s children. And by way of confirmation, He shook the place in which they stood. Do you pray for boldness? The situations you are facing may not be as dangerous and threatening as those faced by Peter, John, and the early church; but they are no less real to you. In your sense of weakness, pray for courage to witness boldly for Jesus Christ.” [Thomas, pp. 104-115].
Questions for Discussion:
- What do we learn from this passage about handling opposition in our Christian walk?
- What do we learn about prayer in this passage? What were the priority, purpose, petitions, and power of the believers’ prayer?
- Why is a firm belief in God’s Sovereignty essential for prayer?
- How is the prayer in 4:24-30 a model prayer for us? Note the structure of the prayer: how does it begin; what does it emphasize; what three things did they pray for?
- Calvin wrote that prayer is asking God for what He has promised. Try this out in your prayers this week. Make a list of things God has promised His children in His Word. Pray for those blessings this week. This is not an expression of doubt but, rather, of confidence and trust that God will always be faithful to fulfill what He has promised.
The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.
Acts, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.
The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.
Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.
H/T Mark Dunn, THM