Formations 01.05.2020: Dangerous Prayers

Jacek Andrzej Rossakiewicz, The Prayer of Jesus (St John Passion – 3), 1990

Acts 4:23-31

I’ve led a fair number of prayer meetings in my time. We all know the drill: you remind those present of matters of concern to the fellowship. Maybe you ask for updates from folks who have more up-to-date information. If you really want to get radical, you can ask if anyone has something they would like to celebrate. Then you bring these concerns to God in prayer. It’s one of the most basic, foundational things we do as a church. And it’s usually one of the safest.

What do I mean when I say that a prayer meeting is safe? I mean that it isn’t likely to get us in trouble—not with our neighbors and certainly not with the government!

Most of the time, we offer most of our prayers in safe mode. We’ll talk to God about health complaints: Aunt Martha’s heart condition or Uncle Bob’s cancer. Then we might go on to other concerns that are on our minds: job interviews or new babies or the car that needs fixing or whatever trouble our kids have gotten themselves into. And there’s not a single thing wrong with any of that. After all, Jesus himself tells us we should ask God for daily bread.

But let’s face it: these are the prayers of people who don’t fear the police will be rounding them up any time soon. And yet, that is exactly where we find Jesus’ followers in today’s passage. How do you pray when your church’s leaders have just been released from prison?

After the Sanhedrin arrests Peter and John for healing and preaching in Jesus’ name, the church gathers to pray. Their prayer is anything but safe. They search the Scripture for words that will help them make sense of their situation. Then they seek God’s intervention. But note, though, that they don’t pray to be spared from persecution. Rather, they ask God to grant them boldness as they continue to bear witness to Christ.

That is a dangerous prayer! It doesn’t assume that God’s job is to make our lives more comfortable. On the contrary, it accepts that discipleship comes at a cost. Yes, it is a bold prayer for God to intervene to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. It’s just that those purposes may or may not involve our personal comfort, healing, or prosperity.

Yet in all of this, God’s power is displayed. The Holy Spirit comes. The church’s meeting house is shaken…and those that prayed are shaken loose.

What might happen if the church learned how to pray like that again?


• How might this passionate prayer speak to relatively comfortable Christians today?
• What do we pray for in church?
• How might our church experience be different if we prayed as these first Christians did?
• What role does prayer play in the apostles’ relationship to their communities? What role does it play in ours?

Reference Shelf

A Church Born of Oppression and Persecution

Political and religious persecution was a reality in the ancient world. The history of the Jewish nation is characterized by persecution in various forms. By the first century C.E. Palestine was occupied by the Romans whose presence had alleviated some forms of oppression but added others. Christianity was born into an atmosphere of oppression and persecution.

Traditionally, those who have addressed the subject of persecution during the NT era have paid careful attention to the official persecutions of Christians under Paul, Herod, Nero, Domitian, and Trajan. More recent evaluations of the religious and political atmosphere within the Greco-Roman world have questioned the severity (and sometimes the reality) of such persecutions, especially those of Nero and Domitian. Much of the evidence of oppression during NT times comes from Christian writings; very little corroborating evidence can be found in non-Christian sources. Religious persecution of Christians was a reality, however, and took both official and unofficial forms.

The narratives of the NT portray early conflict between Christians and the Jewish authorities. Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities led to his crucifixion. The Gospels certainly place the blame for that crucifixion at the feet of the Jews, even though they are also quite clear that the Roman government actually executed Jesus. In Acts, the Jewish persecution of Christianity intensified. Paul is introduced during Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:58). Stephen’s death inaugurated a systemic oppression of Palestinian Christians, and Paul led the fight to stamp out “the Way” (Acts 8:1).

Steven Sheeley, “Persecution in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 668.

A Model Prayer

The prayer offered up by the community of Jerusalem saints in Acts 4:24-31 offers a helpful model for prayer of the Christian community of any generation. First, we observe that the com- munity prays the psalms. Literally, it offers its prayer to God in the words of David. Second, as the community prays, it remembers the gospel story (vv. 27-28). Prayer is possible because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Whenever we pray communally or privately, remembrance of the gospel story should be explicitly in our hearts and on our lips. Third, as our ancestors offered up their petitions, it was not so much for deliverance as for the grace to speak God’s word with boldness. The request for boldness is a request for empowerment so that we can get on with the work we have been called to do. And that work is to testify that, in Christ, God is doing what God had always promised to do: offer salvation of liberation to all flesh.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 41.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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