There are many good reasons why a person might get hauled away and thrown in jail.
Unfortunately, there are also many bad ones. Many people are wrongfully imprisoned — even executed — for crimes they didn’t commit. They are often too poor to be able to afford the legal help they need.
And of course, in places around the globe, people are still incarcerated for preaching the gospel.
I once taught a family retreat for a church that was still in limbo over an unresolved crisis. Their founding pastor had recently retired to return to his first love: missionary work. But he had been arrested overseas for attempting to spread the gospel in a famously corrupt and dictatorial regime.
The home congregation agonized over his fate, unable to get reliable reports of what was happening to him. They were left hanging, wondering, for months on end.
Long after I had gone home, they finally received the tragic confirmation: their beloved pastor of many years had been executed by the state. It was time to wail and grieve, pick up the pieces, and move on.
Can you imagine the situation? What would it be like, for example, to watch the authorities descend and arrest your pastor in the middle of a sermon?
As I read Acts 4, I’m trying to picture the scene: I’m part of the crowd standing in the outer court of the temple, staring at Peter and John and the man Peter healed. Something of incredible importance is happening, but I don’t yet understand just what. I’m hanging on Peter’s every word.
Then suddenly, without warning, the temple authorities show up in force and haul the apostles away. How would I react? What would I do? What would the believers in the community do? Even if they weren’t there to see the arrest, word would surely reach them through the grapevine.
And once they knew, how would they respond if and when Peter and John came back?
Luke tells us. The people responded to the apostles’ return with bold prayer.
The council ordered Peter and John to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, threatened them, and then turned them loose. The apostles returned to the gathered believers and told them what had happened. Then, together, they all prayed.
One might imagine that they would respond with a prayer of thanksgiving: “Thank you, Lord, for keeping Peter and John safe and bringing them back.” They might even add a petition for future protection: “Please don’t let this happen again.”
At least that what I would have prayed. And perhaps they did. It’s likely that there was more to what happened than what Luke reports. But what he emphasizes is their prayer for the boldness to keep preaching the gospel in the face of opposition:
Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:
Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
and the rulers have gathered together
against the Lord and against his Messiah.
For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants 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. (Acts 4:24-30, NRSV)
“Boldness.” Luke uses the word three times in chapter 4; it suggests someone who isn’t afraid to say anything. The Sanhedrin saw that boldness in Peter and John (vs. 13). The believers prayed for it when the apostles returned and told their story (vs. 29). And Luke tells us that prayer was immediately granted as there was a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit and everyone began speaking the Word of God boldly (vs. 31).
Do we ever pray that kind of prayer? Perhaps not. But there’s much to learn from the way the prayer is worded, and we’ll start unpacking that in the next post.