Bold prayer (part 2)

If you’re a Christian, at some point you’ve probably been involved in group prayer. It can happen in different ways. Some people pray silently, some aloud. In some groups, people take turns; in others, everyone prays at the same time.

What people pray about differs too. Many prayers ask God for help with life’s difficulties: relationship struggles; health concerns; worries about the job. Others celebrate triumphs and give thanks.

But in all my years of praying in group settings, I’ve never heard anyone pray for boldness to preach the gospel.

As we saw in the previous post, when Peter and John were threatened and released by the Sanhedrin, they went quickly to the budding Jerusalem church and told them what had happened. Together the group prayed. Not, “Thank God that’s over,” nor even, “Please Lord, don’t let that happen again.” Instead, they all prayed for the boldness to keep preaching the gospel despite the growing shadow of persecution.

We may never have prayed such a prayer ourselves. Nevertheless, the language of the prayer itself is instructive:

  • They begin by addressing God as “Sovereign Lord” (vs. 24, NRSV); the Greek word Luke uses (remember, the people would probably have prayed in Aramaic) is the one from which we get “despot” in English. God, in other words, is approached as the one who has the ultimate power.
  • God is also addressed as Creator, the one “who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them” (vs. 24): God has been sovereign since the beginning, and is sovereign over everything.
  • The prayer then quotes Psalm 2:1-2, a messianic psalm: “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” (vss. 25-26). In prayer, they turn to ancient scripture. Against that background, they see the prophetic fulfillment of the psalm in recent events: the Romans and the Jewish leadership had plotted together and “raged” against Jesus (vs. 27), but to no avail. 
  • Everything Jesus’ enemies had done against them is thus seen as part of God’s eternal plan (vs. 28). We don’t have to see a full doctrine of predestination here — just the confidence that God is eternally in control.
  • The threats issued against the apostles aren’t ignored: they pray, “Lord, look at their threats” (vs. 29). But unlike the psalms that then cry out for justice or retribution, this prayer asks for the continued ability to speak God’s word “with all boldness,” accompanied by more miracles of healing, more “signs and wonders … performed through the name of [God’s] holy servant Jesus” (vss. 29-30). There it is again: the emphasis on the power and authority of Jesus’ name. The prayer asks that the people would be empowered to continue the work that Jesus had begun. Peter and John had already begun carrying it forward, and the people prayed to take their place in that movement, even in the face of opposition. 

How long did it take for that prayer to be answered?

Probably about three seconds.

Luke writes: “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (vs. 31).

The parallel with the story of Pentecost is unmistakable. At Pentecost, the room where the apostles were gathered was filled with a roaring wind; the apostles were filled with the Spirit and began speaking in other languages; the commotion then spilled out into the street. Here, the meeting place is shaken as with an earthquake, and the people begin boldly speaking the word of God. And by implication, just as the filling of the Holy Spirit spreads beyond the apostles, so will the gospel spread beyond the streets of Jerusalem, as the rest of Luke’s story will bear out.

It’s a bold prayer for continued boldness. What does it mean for those of us who have never prayed such a prayer? We’ll explore the implications in the next post.