The Prayer Meeting Acts 12:1-14


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Acts 12:1-14

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Following on Reformed Catholicism, Expository Preaching, the Family as the Incubator of faith in the rising generation, and our particular understanding of how and what the congregation should sing, we come tonight to the Prayer Meeting. Now many of you will appreciate that thirty or forty years ago it wouldn’t have occurred to one of our churches to consider the prayer meeting a “characteristic” of its life, as if having such a meeting set it apart or distinguished it from other like churches. Every church had a prayer meeting, almost universally mid-week. Only a few of you will be surprised to learn that very few churches any longer have a prayer meeting. In less than a single generation it has disappeared in many of our PCA churches and, like an evening service on the Lord’s Day, is not a feature of our new church plants. If, as is sometimes the case, there is a gathering for prayer before the morning service or one of the congregation’s small groups is a prayer meeting, it is not the prayer meeting as that meeting has been traditionally understood, certainly not regarded by most of the members as a fixture in the congregation’s weekly calendar, a meeting which it is hoped all would attend.

Why is that? What on earth would persuade Christian congregations to stop meeting for prayer after having done so for generations? It would seem to be an embarrassing development, one that pastors and churches would be averse to admitting. Certainly no one is ever going to say, “Oh, we decided not to pray as a congregation some time ago.” Certainly they continue to talk about the importance of prayer, they invite the congregation to pray for this or for that. They still pray in the Sunday service; but, like it or not, they no longer meet to pray as a congregation. Why?

Well it certainly isn’t because biblical scholarship discovered that the Bible doesn’t actually commend corporate prayer as a part of the life and work of the Christian church. We have read a passage from Acts that describes a prayer meeting. The saints were gathered we read in v. 12 and what were they doing: they were praying. They had met to pray. That this is the case is explicitly confirmed at the beginning of the paragraph where we read in v. 5 that “earnest prayer for [Peter] was made to God by the church.” That is, it wasn’t simply a case of many individual Christians praying for Peter, but the church as a body was praying for him. What is more, with now thousands of believers in Jerusalem alone, they were not all meeting in that one house. Presumably when we read that the church was praying for him, the church had gathered in many places to pray. Now several other facts make this notice more important than it might at first glance appear to be.

First, it is widely accepted in the scholarship of Acts that Luke’s second volume, like the first, was written in order to highlight representative facts. There is so much history that Luke might have recorded that he didn’t. He concentrates on the ministry of Peter and Paul and says virtually nothing about the ministries of the other apostles. He pays no attention to the spread of the gospel in other places. We hear nothing of the response of Pilate or the Roman military to the widespread reports of the Lord’s resurrection. We know that thousands of Jews became Christians but we hear little about the evangelistic activity that produced that burgeoning church in Jerusalem, how its life and worship were organized, how the converted Jewish priesthood – there were many priests among the new Christians – was brought into the church’s life and on and on. A thousand questions we’d like to have an answer to. What Luke decided to include was what he (and the Holy Spirit behind him) thought it most important for his readers to know. The material in the book, in other words, is an education in the fundamentals of Christian faith, life, and ministry. What didn’t contribute something absolutely necessary to the laying of that foundation was omitted, no matter how interesting that historical information might have been. Luke’s narrative, like all biblical narrative, was intended to teach not only the historical facts, but with those facts, the Christian faith and the Christian life – both personal and corporate – as well. And among the facts Luke thought it important to record, among those he did not pare from his account because they were not absolutely essential to his story, was the fact that the church gathered for prayer. That detail wasn’t even essential to this piece of early church history. The episode of Peter’s deliverance from prison could have been narrated without mention of what the believers had been doing. Luke wanted us to know and so twice he mentions the fact that they had gathered for prayer. It is what the Christians did; it is what the church did. And it’s important because obviously we are intended to learn that it is what Christians do and what the church does.

Second, this prayer meeting mentioned in Acts 12 is not the only indication that corporate prayer was a regular feature of the church’s life after Pentecost. Already in chapter 1 we read that after the ascension of the Lord the believers “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” men and women together. And throughout the chapters of Acts we find the believers at prayer together. We have a specimen of their prayer in Acts 4 when Peter and John were released from custody, after having been arrested for their healing of the lame beggar at the temple gate. In chapter 13 we read that the gathered church in Antioch set apart Paul and Barnabas to their missionary work with prayer. And so on. The impression of Acts, and, for that matter, of the rest of the New Testament is that the early church clearly remembered the Lord’s promise: “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” [Matt. 18:19-20] After all, even the Lord’s model prayer is a prayer for corporate use, that is, for believers to pray together. It doesn’t begin “My father, who is in heaven…” but “Our father in heaven…” As fundamental as prayer is to the life of the individual Christian, to his or her own practice of devotion, prayer is equally fundamental to the life of the church as a body.

True enough, there is prayer in the Sunday worship services, but given all that the Scripture teaches us to pray for it is hard to imagine that it was ever supposed that all the praying the church should do could be done in Lord’s Day worship. It may be admitted that there could be other ways to satisfy the requirement of corporate prayer than with a regular weekly meeting for that purpose. I’m all ears. But it is hard to imagine a better way, a simpler way, a more reliable way, a more obvious way to reproduce the corporate prayer of early Christianity than by doing what they did: to gather for the express purpose of prayer. And while we don’t read in Acts that they did so every week, who among us is going to argue that we should only do this once a month or four times a year? Surely, if corporate prayer is an important part of the lifeblood of the kingdom of God, once a week is not too often! Taking Acts and the rest of the NT together, we learn that the early church gathered to pray for guidance, for protection from her enemies, for the progress of the gospel, and for the health and welfare of other Christians. [Cf. R.P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church, 30] Which of these subjects for prayer is unnecessary in our day?

Now, it may be admitted that the Bible never commands us to have a mid-week prayer meeting. Then again it never commands us to have a sermon in the Lord’s Day services; for that matter, it never commands us to have a worship service on the Lord’s Day. But it shows us this being done. The Bible teaches us as much by example as by precept. And so it was that the believing church seemed always to understand that it was to gather for prayer. But the prayer meeting as we think of it, as a regular fixture of the church’s weekly calendar, seems to have been an inheritance of the Reformation.

In Calvin’s Geneva there was a Wednesday prayer service in the daytime though, so far as I can tell, the congregation only sang psalms and recited the Lord’s Prayer. The minister offered the petitions himself. [S. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, 290] The prayer meeting became a feature of Puritan church life, and from there became a regular feature of evangelical church life in the English speaking world. The prayer meeting gained a still more regular place in the life and schedule of Protestant churches during the evangelical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries. Prayer “societies” as they were sometimes called, while not originating in the revivals, were essential instruments of them. Jonathan Edwards had organized prayer meetings in Northampton before the revival of 1734-35 and those prayer meetings gathered strength and continued throughout the course of the revival and then long after. The awakenings in Scotland likewise were fueled and sustained by weekly prayer meetings. [Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 334] In Edwards’ case, like so many ministers after him, in more ordinary times, after the revival fires had died, he was frequently frustrated by his failure to interest more of the congregation in the prayer meeting. [335]

In a similar way, we hear of the every Tuesday evening prayer meeting in Olney during John Newton’s ministry there. It was for the meeting there that many of the great Newton and Cowper hymns were originally written and at that meeting were introduced. They could be sung at the prayer meeting while only the biblical psalms were sung in Sunday worship. Eventually the prayer meeting had to be moved to a location that permitted a larger attendance. In Olney they also had a 6:00 a.m. prayer meeting on the Lord’s Day for those willing and able to attend. [B. Edwards, Through Many Dangers, 134-135] Sad to say, in the later years of Newton’s ministry in Olney, prayer meeting attendance had declined. This was one of the reasons he thought it time to move to a parish in London.

And so it was that in many Protestant denominations the prayer meeting became a fixture of the weekly schedule. That prayer meetings were such a regular part of church life encouraged their introduction on special occasions as well. The notable revival in New York City in 1857-1858, a revival in which Presbyterians played a conspicuous part, was both provoked and sustained by ecumenical prayer meetings held across the city. Indeed that revival is known to history as “The Prayer Meeting Revival.” The first noon-time prayer meeting of businessmen and other male workers began in a downtown Presbyterian Church which soon was filled to overflowing. Later meetings were held in various churches in Manhattan. The newspaper editor Horace Greely of the New York Tribune sent a reporter with horse and buggy to ride from one prayer meeting to the next to see how many men were praying. In one hour he could only get to 12 meetings, but he counted upwards of 6,000 men. According to some eyewitnesses, within six months these noontime prayer meetings were attracting 10,000 businessmen, all of them confessing their sins and praying for revival. From New York the same pattern of prayer for revival spread to other American cities. Pittsburgh, for example, saw as many as 6,000 men gathering on weekdays for prayer. This 19th century revival is less well known than, for example, the Great Awakening during the time of Jonathan Edwards, but it is widely thought to have brought many more people to faith in Christ.

This experience of prayer leading to revival explains why during the evangelistic campaign era that followed and that has largely ended with Billy Graham, it was standard operating procedure to prepare the ground for the campaign with months of prayer meetings beforehand. More interesting to people in our day may be the influence that 19th century prayer meetings had on breaking through the barrier that had prevented women from praying except at home or in the company of other women. [J.F. White, Protestant Worship, 179] The first place the woman’s public role in Christian worship expanded was at the prayer meeting.

Many of the older saints here tonight grew up with a prayer meeting and perhaps most of us would say that they were, more often than not, not impressive meetings. In the first place, they were relatively poorly attended, only a small fraction of the adult membership of the congregation in regular attendance at the mid-week service. People visiting these services could very well struggle to believe that anything of much importance was happening.

My own recollections of the Presbyterian prayer meetings of my youth and young adulthood were like that.

  1. There was usually a Bible study of some kind first, as you might expect of hyper-didactic Presbyterians, and that took up at least as much of the time as did the praying. Even in what was called the prayer meeting, as much or more time was devoted to Bible study as was devoted to prayer.
  2. The concentration was almost always local, for the sick or otherwise afflicted people in the congregation itself. There was also prayer for missionaries the congregation supported, but the focus was more inward than outward.
  3. Prayer meetings tended to develop a distinct culture. The same people would pray in the same way for the very same things; long pauses would ensue as we waited for the next person to begin to pray, pauses that were, frankly, embarrassing and deflating. The argument was heard that we were praying in the gaps, but truth be told, we were waiting to see who would pray next and when. Nothing made the prayer meeting boring more than the considerable amount of silence.
  4. There was never a sense of definite purpose or calling for the meeting and so no sense of organization. That is, we didn’t come to prayer meeting with an agenda, a clear idea of the work we were supposed to perform or the ground we were supposed to cover. Various things would be prayed for but it was largely up to the people present to decide what they would pray for – prayer requests were usually gathered from the folk attending before the prayer began – and from meeting to meeting there was little or no sense that the prayer meeting had a definite role to play in the ministry of the congregation. I know that at least I did not sense such a well-thought-out rationale for the meeting. I can say that for sure because when I first encountered a prayer meeting that had a very well developed rationale, it struck me as wonderfully different in just that way from the prayer meetings with which I was familiar.
  5. Finally, the prayer meeting was never well attended, always only a small fraction of those who attended Sunday services. The prayer meeting folk were usually the “inner circle” of the congregation. That isn’t my terminology. I found it in an article on Protestant prayer meetings by a well-known Methodist liturgical scholar, some evidence that this was widely true of prayer meetings in all Protestant communions. (J.F. White, Protestant Worship, 162)

So even as I plead for both the apostolic origin of the prayer meeting and its important place in the Protestant tradition, I must admit that probably more often than not, at least over the past few generations, prayer meetings were held more out of duty than out of a sense of their actual importance and most of them were not terribly well done. In that sense it is no wonder that they have disappeared. You can only maintain a practice that requires some real commitment for so long if people struggle to think it of any real importance.

Some of you will remember several years ago the “concert of prayer” phenomenon. Prayer meetings were held but arranged differently. They were jazzed up. People would be organized in various sections with different sections praying about different things in different groups, moving about the room as their assignment changed from time to time, and so on. We might describe the “concert of prayer” as the last gasp of the prayer meeting, an effort to spice it up and make it more interesting. But it came to nothing, as such efforts to fix things without addressing the real problem usually do.

As I have told you before, the prayer meeting at Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen was a revelation to Florence and me. We were raised to be dutiful Christians and so, of course, we attended prayer meeting. It was Saturday night at Gilc, beginning at 7:00 p.m. We had been forewarned so we knew we were in for a long evening. It typically ran for 3 hours. It was held in the church hall, which held fifty or sixty people and it was usually full. Certainly it lasted longer than any prayer meeting I had ever been to, but it was different in other ways as well.

  1. This was a prayer meeting with a purpose. They knew what they were there for. The front of the hall was a peg board wall with the names of scores and perhaps hundreds of people many people in plastic yellow letters. On the left side many countries of the world were listed and beneath the country name the names of Christians and Christian workers who lived and worked in that country. On the right side ministries in Scotland were listed by the name of the minister placed at about where his town would be were a map of Scotland to have been drawn on that part of the wall. Scores and scores of names. Ministries known to the congregation all over their land and all over the world were in this way set before the prayer meeting.
  2. And it was for these ministries chiefly that they prayed. At several points in the meeting reports were read that had been received from this missionary or that, this ministry or that. News was coming in, prayer was going out. A very simple and a very regular procedure. They prayed knowledgeably and intelligently for gospel work all over the world every Saturday night and in three hours you can cover a lot of ground. The first few times I was there I realized these people knew so much more about what was happening in the Kingdom of God around the world than I ever had.
  3. Mr. Still who presided, sitting in a chair at the front of the room, would not tolerate wasted time. As soon as one prayer had ended, another began. And if one did not begin soon enough, he would say, “Pray on.” And somebody would obey.
  4. Of course, at the beginning we knew almost no one who was being prayed for and none of the ministries familiar to the congregation. But it surprised us how rapidly as the months and years passed, we began to know who these people weremissionaries would visit the congregation or we would hear regular reports of their work and by the end of our time in Scotland we knew or knew about most of the people and works being prayed for Saturday night by Saturday night.
  5. They prayed for big things. They prayed for the sick in the congregation, of course, but mostly they prayed for the progress of the gospel and kingdom of God. They knew what was going on in country after country; these were very well informed Christians because news was being sent to them from all over the world by people who knew that if they sent reports they would receive prayer. They prayed by name for Christians behind the Iron Curtain in prison for their faithin the churches of my upbringing we always talked about prayer for the persecuted Christians, but they actually knew who they were, where they were, in what prison they were and prayed for them by namethey prayed for the downfall of the Soviet Union. I’d never been in a prayer meeting except that one where I actually could believe that they had something to do with the end of the Soviet Empire. They prayed for years for my ministry here, and so on. It was inspiring. One felt there that something was really happening; something was being accomplished, something important was being done. For the first time in my life I realized what a prayer meeting could be and ought to be. This was a prayer meeting like that one in Acts 12!

Another thing I picked up on almost immediately. Mr. Still, the long-serving pastor of the church, spoke about the prayer meeting in a way I had never heard any of my pastors speak about it. He regularly referred to it as work. He seemed quite ready for the congregation to know that it was hard work. He referred to the coming Saturday night, to rolling up one’s sleeves to do the work of the kingdom of God. That was, I thought, refreshing honesty, since anyone who attended a three-hour prayer meeting on a Saturday night knew very well that it was work!

Mr. Still also referred to the prayer meeting as the “powerhouse of the church” and it was not difficult for anyone who attended that prayer meeting to think that that was precisely what it was. Gilcomston was one of the most, if not the most influential evangelical congregation in the Church of Scotland in those days. Its sanctuary was mostly full on Sundays which, even in those years, was a distinct rarity in the national church. People came from all over the world to visit the church in large part because of its prayer meeting. They came to thank the congregation for its prayers and to ensure that the church would continue to pray for them. Even for the members of the congregation who didn’t regularly attend the prayer meeting, it had an almost mythical place in the ethos and reputation of the church. So prayer meetings can be effective and influential.

So we return to the question with which we began: why have prayer meetings disappeared? We said it wasn’t because we discovered that meeting for prayer was not in fact a feature of apostolic Christianity because it certainly was. But if so, why has the prayer meeting died a slow death even in Bible-believing churches? I can tell you from personal experience that it is a question ministers hope no one asks, precisely because the answers likely to be given are all so lame! I think we all know why prayer meetings are no more. It is hard work to pray for an hour or more. A prayer meeting is one more thing to fit into our already busy schedules, and if that one more thing is not fun but hard work, it is much easier for us not to find the time.

And why is it hard work? Let’s be honest. Because it requires an expenditure of effort that offers comparatively little reward, at least little positive reinforcement, at least such reinforcement as comes immediately. Look, we all understand this. If the prayers we prayed Wednesday night after Wednesday night were making a dramatic and obvious difference all over the world, our prayers being answered immediately and in the terms in which we prayed them, we would have a much larger attendance. Who can doubt this? If every week we were reading emailed letters from people who said that they had asked us to pray for certain people and they had all professed faith in Christ after we prayed for them, or they had asked us to pray against opposition by the government to their gospel work and, soon after we prayed, a government office that was threatening the church with closure had made an about-face and was now friendly; or they had asked us to pray for healing and within a matter of hours of our prayer meeting’s prayer for them there had been a sudden, almost miraculous cure of the missionary or his wife; or we had prayed for the conversion of a person with whom someone in the congregation was sharing the gospel, and the next Wednesday night, as we had come to expect, we heard the story of his or her conversion; I say, were this our regular experience we would have much larger numbers at prayer every Wednesday night.

But prayer is not usually like that. It has never been usually like that. It wasn’t like that even in the life of our Lord, who was a man of persistent and concentrated prayer. Remember, as a man he prayed as we pray, not knowing the outcome of his prayers, wanting answers but having to wait for them. He prayed for his disciples and they were nearly as clueless at the end of his ministry as they had been at the beginning. He prayed for the lost and still so many of them remained hard of heart toward the gospel. The Bible has many promises designed to encourage us to pray, but from beginning to end it is perfectly candid about the difficulty and the disappointment that is the regular experience of the faithful who pray. Prayer is a work of almost pure faith, not only because you cannot see the one to whom you are speaking or hear his voice speaking in reply, but because our prayers so often do not seem to be answered, because we ask but do not receive, we knock but the door isn’t opened, we seek but we do not find. The Bible is relentlessly honest about the challenge of prayer, but that doesn’t make it any easier for us to keep praying week after week. For this reason in particular prayer is work, hard work. But it is what we are commanded to do. And it does work. If not as quickly as we might hope, if not as obviously as we wish, it is the powerhouse of the church. We know that, we all know that, because it is so clearly taught in the Word of God and we have had the evidence of it in our own experience. It may take faith to know it so, but it is so.

So, where does that leave us? My point this evening is simply that while we don’t have to have a prayer meeting – nowadays many churches don’t – if we aspire to conform to the example of the apostolic church and if we want to incorporate this feature of the finest tradition of believing Protestant Christendom, corporate prayer must be part of our life and work as a congregation. If it is not we do not fully match the profile of the Christian church provided for us in Holy Scripture.  Even if you don’t come, you should be glad that others do and that your church is an apostolic congregation in this way.

But, of course, that means that if you wish to be a Christian as Christians are described in the pages of the New Testament, corporate prayer for the kingdom of God will be a feature of your life. How do you know that you are living a true and authentic Christian life? Well you know that if you are doing what the Bible says true and authentic Christians will do. Now, we’re flexible. If some of you want to begin a prayer meeting at noon on Tuesday or Thursday and include business colleagues in some downtown venue, by all means. We’ll be happy to excuse you from Wednesday prayer! Indeed, we’ll begin to pray for you and your prayer meeting in hopes of another prayer meeting revival!

There may be other ways to fit corporate kingdom-focused prayer into your routine. But surely, for most of us, the simplest way for us to do that is to have a meeting for the purpose, which we have. So let me finish with a simple challenge. We have a wonderful prayer meeting! We hear reports from around the world by which we keep up with gospel work and the welfare of the church in many places. Those of us who are regular on Wednesday evening sense the privilege it is to be involved in the life and work of so many superb Christian people all over the world. Many people all over the world know that we are praying for them. When they visit they regularly comment on how unusual our prayer meeting is. We are informed and involved in the kingdom of God in a way we would never be without the prayer meeting. We devote upwards of an hour every Wednesday night to concentrated prayer, one prayer after another. We pray for matters close to home, but we also pray for the church of Christ to the ends of the earth. We usually have from 50 to 60 people in attendance. We ought to have more. I’d love to see 80 or 90 or more every Wednesday night.

I have long wondered how to increase Wednesday night participation, because I am absolutely certain it would increase the fruitfulness of the ministry of this congregation and would be a still greater blessing to the people in it. How about this? If you and your spouse alternated, with one staying at home with the children, so that each of you came twice a month, we would significantly increase prayer meeting attendance. If some of you would commit to attendance at least once a month – that too would raise prayer meeting participation significantly. If we were all at prayer at least occasionally, even only twelve times or twenty-four times a year, that would increase both Wednesday night attendance at prayer and a sense of the whole congregation’s participation in corporate prayer. Everyone would better understand and appreciate the prayers we offer on Sunday morning because they would be acquainted with the people, the ministry, and the background. That would be wonderful. So, let’s begin here. All of us should be at prayer at least some of the time. I hope more of us will be at prayer most of the time. But if we are all at prayer some of the time, we will strengthen our prayer meeting wonderfully.

As you pastor, let me tell you something I suspect you already know, but perhaps too often forget. When you are leaving this world for the next, as you look back over your shoulder at the life you have lived, there is one thing you are very much going to want to have been true about your life. And it is this: For all my sins and shortcomings, I was with the church at prayer!