For the past few weeks we have been exploring the details outlined in Acts 2:42-47. In this brief passage, we are given a glimpse into the life of the first century church, and in particular what “they devoted themselves to.” According to Acts 2:42, the first century church “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.” We have already explored their devotion to God’s Word (i.e. “the apostles teaching”), fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper (i.e. “breaking of bread”), so now we turn our attention to “prayers,” and this is not the only occasion that the infant church is described as being devoted to prayer. After Jesus’ ascension the Apostles were “with one accord [and] were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). Later, the Apostles appointed seven men to oversee the distribution of food to widows so that they could “devote [themselves] to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). So, what does it mean to be devoted to prayer?
Devotion to prayer means that prayer is prioritized.
The first century church frequently assembled for the purpose of praying. Journey through the book of Acts and you’ll discovered that they assembled to pray for a variety of reasons. For example, the church assembled to pray about important decisions, such as the decision to replace Judas as an Apostle (Acts 1:24). The church assembled to pray for courage, particularly after Peter and John’s interrogation by the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:29-30). The church assembled to pray over ministries, such as the widow’s food distribution program (Acts 6:6) and the evangelistic campaign of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:3). The church assembled to pray about circumstances, particularly Peter’s imprisonment (Acts 12:5) and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem (Acts 21:5-6). The church assembled to pray about their leaders. Paul and Barnabas prayed over each eldership they appointed according to Acts 14:23 and Paul specifically met withthe elders of the church in Ephesus for the purpose of encouraging, instructing, and praying with them (Acts 20:36).
What we learn from the first century church regarding prayer is that it is intended to be our first response not our last resort. All too often we consult God after we have attempted to solve things on our own or after we have exhausted all other options. But this was not the way the early church practiced prayer. When Peter pointed out the need to replace Judas as an apostle the church’s first response was not to campaign for candidates or make a pros and cons list of each individual. Instead, their first response was to gather together for prayer. When Paul and Silas were set apart for missionary work, the church’s first response was not to conduct psychological profiles to see if they were fit for the task nor was it to conduct an exploratory mission to find out which communities would be the most receptive to the Gospel. Instead, their first response was to gather together for prayer. When Peter was imprisoned, the church’s first response was not to rush to the palace of King Herod and plead for his release nor was it to petition the courts for an appeal. Instead, their first response was to gather together for prayer. The first century church possessed a “seek first” mentality. Before they worried about what they could do they turned the matter over to God to see what He could do. They sincerely applied Paul’s instructions about prayer in Philippians 4:6, which say, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Before they worried, before they tried to solve things, they prayed.
Devotion to prayer means that prayer is a disciplined mindset.
Prayer is often associated with time throughout Scripture. For example, in Acts 3:1 we learn that Peter and John went “up to the temple at the hour of prayer, [which was] the ninth hour” (i.e. 3:00 p.m.) In Acts 10:30 we find out that Cornelius received his angelic vision when he “was praying in [his] house at the ninth hour.” In Acts 10:9 we read that Peter “went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray” (i.e. 12:00 p.m.). It is also worth noting that when Jesus taught the disciples to pray he included the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). In that little statement, Jesus instructed His disciples to make prayer a daily routine without directly telling them to make prayer a daily routine. The fact that prayer is presented in Scripture as a habitual practice indicates that it should be viewed as a spiritual exercise that we intentionally incorporate into our daily schedule.
But prayer is also described in Scripture as a constant, continual, or timeless activity. For example, Cornelius is described as“a devout man who feared God” and one of the evidences for his faithfulness to God was the fact that he “prayed continually to God” (Acts 10:1, 2). Throughout Paul’s letters he instructed his readers to“pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), “[pray] at all times” (Ephesians 6:18), and “continue earnestly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2). The fact that prayer is presented in Scripture as a continual activity indicates that prayer should also be a mindset to which we instinctively turn at a moment’s notice.
Devotion to prayer means that prayer is not viewed as an inconsequential endeavor.
In other words, the first century church did not pray as though they thought their prayers didn’t matter. They prayed with the belief that God was listening to their requests. Consider the occasion in Acts 12:1-5 when Peter was imprisoned. The church gathered to pray for his safety and his release. You have to remember that they were in a heightened state of fear because James was executed not long before and the popularity of his death among the Jews had caused Herod to pursue Peter. From the church’s vantage point it was a real possibility that they would lose Peter as well so they prayed for God to intervene. They did not think the matter was too big for God to handle nor did they think the matter was too far gone for God to address.
We understand the significance of praying for God’s will to be done just like Jesus did in Luke 22:42. We recognize that God is wiser than us and therefore deserves for His prerogatives to take precedence. But just because we know that God’s will takes precedence doesn’t mean we should refrain from asking. Remember that throughout the New Testament prayer is presented as a unique privilege. For example, Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you…For everyone who asks receives” (Matthew 7:7-8). John wrote, “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:15-16). And James added, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16). The point being made in all these passages is that prayer is powerful, not inconsequential.