When it comes to the disciplines that go along with a life devoted to Jesus, the one I have the hardest time maintaining is prayer. I also struggle in the areas of service and perhaps fasting, if one considers that a necessary discipline, but the one that should be the easiest for me ends up being the hardest. I just have a hard time making myself pray. A life spent satisfying my own desires and focusing on myself has made it difficult to pray without self-inflection, and I end up going off in endless thoughts about random things instead of praying through and continuing in my conversation with God.
Today’s lesson pointed out some interesting ideas about prayer and faith in general, based off a continuance of the story we’ve been following in Acts 4. The apostles Peter and John recently, by the power of Christ, healed a crippled man in the presence of many witnesses. They then began to preach the gospel to these witnesses, but were stopped by the Sadducees and thrown into jail for the night. The next day, the two men were taken before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court made up of the most powerful men in their culture. After being told to stop preaching or teaching in the name of Jesus, Peter and John responded by saying “judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (v. 19-20). The Sanhedrin, knowing that there were many witnesses to the healing act, couldn’t decide what to do with Peter and John, and ended up letting them go (with a few more threats thrown at them before they left). We pick up here in Acts 4:23-31:
On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and 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 heaven 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.
The lesson for today pointed out that this prayer was not based on the desires or abilities of Peter and John and those with them. It was based completely on the sovereignty of God. Sovereignty is one of those odd, Biblical words which seems to lose its meaning the more it is used. Looking up its use here in Acts 4, I found that there isn’t a Greek word translated to mean sovereign in verse 24. In fact, the NIV adds the word sovereign here, but I don’t believe it is wrong to do so. The reason it is added (I believe…I’m not 100% sure on this) is because the Greek word that ends up being translated into Lord is despotēs. This word isn’t used much in the New Testament – usually when we see the word Lord in the New Testament, it is translated from the Greek word kyrios/kurios. But the use of the word despotēs implies that God is more than just the ruler or master over us (as kurios would mean), but that he is “the absolute ruler in the sense of an unlimited possibility of the exercise of power unchecked by any law,” emphasizing his power (see here). So, the addition of the word sovereign here shows that they were not just calling Him Lord, Master – they were calling Him Supreme Lord, All-Powerful Ruler, King with Authority Over Everything.
So what does this have to do with a simple prayer, prayed by a relatively small group of believers after being threatened by a large group of powerful men? It shows that they were focusing on what they knew about God, based on His faithfulness from the past, in order to ask for His action in the present and future. They displayed faith in God based on what He had already done, and placed their hope for what He would do in the future on that faith. This has some pretty interesting application for us in our prayer lives. For me, I can list many times in my past where I can clearly see God’s hand in it all – He provided me a good home to grow up in, good friends to influence me to come to know Him, an awesome wife who loves me unconditionally, a beautiful daughter (and another on the way!) who teaches me so much about life, and a good job that I begged Him to provide for several months. When I start looking to my future needs – a place to live (that we can afford) in a couple of months when our lease expires, guidance in raising 2 children and consideration of homeschooling them – I have His past faithfulness to fall back on. The faithfulness He has shown me in my own life, as well as the faithfulness He has shown countless others before me, many of which are recorded in the Bible.
As I started off saying in this post, I have had a hard time disciplining myself to pray. Because of that, I have spent some time reading books and studying the Biblical principles of prayer, and something that always confused me in these studies is how they teach to start off praying about who God is. In Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6, He tells His disciples to start off by acknowledging who God is (“Our father in heaven”) and praising Him (“hallowed be your name”). This didn’t make sense to me – why would I tell God who He is or what He’s like? He knows that better than I do!!! But after today’s lesson, perhaps I’m starting to see that starting prayer by praying about God’s person and character isn’t so much for God’s benefit as it is for mine. God knows everything, including our needs, now and in the future. We can spend hours praying to Him for things that we think we want and need, and then wonder later why He didn’t answer the way we expected. Or, we can pray by aligning what we ask for what He has already been faithful in helping us with in the past – starting off by recounting exactly what He has been faithful in doing. I bet that before long, we start seeing a lot more of our prayers answered, our faith growing stronger, and our lives changed for the better.