The Church is gasping for air. She is losing her power as her life slowly ebbs away. The ICU unit is filled to overflowing with scores of churches whose glory days were a generation ago, but who today are surviving only on a ventilator of determination to see another Sunday. Because of her lack of oxygen she has become single-minded in getting her next breath, in merely staying alive.
All over this country there are congregations who are dying a slow death. They have no vision because they are solely focused on paying their next bill and trying to maintain their membership. They have no passion for those who do not know of God’s goodness and grace, they simply want to make sure they are happy and secure. They have no mission other than to keep their doors open. They have no God-sized plans because their plans are only as large as what they can handle and manage. They have no power because they have convinced themselves that if it is going to get done — they must do it. They have forgotten that God is their Strength and their Redeemer! As a result, they are dying, dwindling, and declining in purpose, passion, and power.
Along with these dying churches are another group of churches who are dying a slow death and do not even know it. Like a cancer patient who does not know that his body is eaten up with cancer cells are these churches that carry on unaware that their very souls are being eaten by something far more deadly than cancer. These churches are in the most deadly of all situations because there are no outward signs that anything is wrong. New people are joining most every Sunday. There is more money than they can seem to spend. New programs are popping up like flowers in the Spring. When you look at what is happening you would be a fool to draw any other conclusion than “all is well,” and yet, Jesus said of such a church,
14 To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. (Revelation 3:14-18 NIV)
While my family lived in Plano, Texas we saw congregation after congregation that flourished and grew by the thousands and are today a shell of their glory days. They drew large crowds and boasted of bulging budgets, but they neglected to lay a firm foundation that would sustain their mission and ministry for generations to come. They had preachers who were full of charisma and charm, who could hold a crowd in the palm of their hand, but they forgot to lay hold of the Master’s hand. They had entire committees who gave themselves to “marketing” their church, making sure they had a TV presence, and were media savvy, but they neglected the one thing that could insure their power for the years to come.
What is lacking in both instances? What is it that causes a long established congregation who has lost its way to close its doors and see its ministry come to an end? What is it that eats away at a seemingly thriving congregation growing in membership and money, popularity and power in the public affairs of life, and prevents it from seeing God’s power manifest over the long run? Quite simply put, it is the neglect of prayer. Prayerlessness is powerlessness. You can build a church on other things than fervent, ardent, impassioned prayer meetings, but you cannot sustain a church on any other food than the food of prayer.
If you look around today and take stock of Christianity in America what do you see? I see people seeking charismatic leaders, while God is looking for people who will seek Him on their knees. I see TV audiences made up of celluloid saints who prefer to be entertained, while God is seeking men and women who will labor in prayer. I see a Body of Christ that has grown fat and lazy while continuously crying out, “Bless me Lord, Bless me Lord,” while God is seeking men and women who cry out, “Father, make me a blessing to some suffering soul.”
Just as our society has become enthralled and enraptured by personalities, so has the Church, while God is waiting for us to be enthralled with Him and enraptured with the thought of being alone, with Him, in prayer.
Jim Cymbala, pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City, tells the story of a pastor from New Zealand who happened to be present in his church one Sunday. Pastor Cymbala asked him to say a few words and he got up and said,
You can tell how popular a church is by who comes on Sunday morning. You can tell how popular a pastor or evangelist is by who comes on Sunday night. But you can tell how popular Jesus is by who comes to the prayer meeting. (Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, page 28.)
Prayer is the oxygen that invigorates the Body of Christ. Prayer is the giving of the thoughts of God to the minds of men, women, boys, and girls. Prayer is the plans of God that move a congregation. Prayer is the vision of God that enables people to see in the midst of the thick, dark clouds of life. Prayer is the passion of God that animates tired and listless churches. Prayer overrides “good” ideas offered by people. Prayer cancels Satan’s plans to kill, steal, and destroy the purposes of God for churches. Samuel Chadwick once said,
The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless works, and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at wisdom, but trembles when we pray.
I guess it would be redundant to point out to you that we are continuing our study of prayer this morning. I have been studying the beginning of the Church this past week and there is something that I have noticed that has escaped me in the past – prayer was the seedbed in which the Gospel took root and began to flourish. There is no other conclusion that a person can draw from the study of the birth of the Church. You cannot say that the conditions were right, paganism and Judaism were the religions of the day. You cannot say that the Church had organized the right leadership qualities, Jesus had just been crucified and had been resurrected to the right hand of the Father, He was no longer with them in bodily form. You cannot say that the disciples skill in planning brought about the birth of the Church, they had no plan other than to seek God with all of their hearts. Prayer was the seedbed of the birth of the Church. Prayer provided the power in perilous times. Prayer enflamed their hearts and impassioned their souls with the mission of their Lord.
Before we take a look at our Scripture found in Acts 4, let me catch you up on what has happened in the Book of Acts so far. In Acts 1, the followers of Jesus witnessed His glorious ascension to the Father. As Jesus left them, He promised them the coming of the Holy Spirit who would empower them. They were told to return to Jerusalem to wait for the promise of God. Then we read, in Acts 1:12-14,
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:12-14 NIV)
Also, in Acts 1, we find them selecting someone to take Judas’ place with them since Judas had committed suicide. As they began their selection process we read,
23So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” (Acts 1:23-25 NIV)
In Acts 2, the birth of the Church took place on the day of Pentecost. After Peter gave his great sermon and three thousand people accepted Jesus as Lord and were baptized, we read,
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts… (Acts 2:42-46 NIV)
The disciples devoted themselves to the things of God. They prayed. They studied God’s Word, they listened to the apostles speak God’s Word, they had communion, and they enjoyed fellowship with the brothers and sisters. They were staying close to the Lord.
In Acts 3, Peter and John were going to the Temple at the time of prayer when they encountered a man who had been born crippled. Let’s read the story.
1One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer-at three in the afternoon. 2Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” 5So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. 6Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. (Acts 3:1-8 NIV)
It is easy to see, the disciples were driven to their knees in prayer at every turn. When we see great things come from their ministry they are in prayer or walking to a prayer meeting. The fact of the matter is that they were lost without Jesus present to make all of the decisions, to lead them and guide them, to counsel them, encourage them – they were driven to their knees in prayer. They had no confidence in themselves to continue the work of God. They were fully aware of how they scattered like a covey of quail while Jesus hung dying on the cross. They were defenseless, powerless, visionless, and hopeless – apart from prayer. And so are we. Robert Shannon once said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” (Robert C. Shannon, 1000 Windows, Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1997).
When they began to seek God in prayer they found that God answered. When they began to pour their hearts out before God they found that He was there, abiding with them, directing them, comforting them, and empowering them with His power and presence – and it changed them. This leads us to our Scripture for today found in Acts 4.
Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today found in Acts 4. In this chapter Peter and John are met with resistance because of the healing of the man born crippled, they are threatened with punishment if they do not stop talking about Jesus. Let’s read our story.
1The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. 4 But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
Can you imagine what would have been going through our minds if we had found ourselves in that situation? The authorities come and take us to jail because we are having church, listening to the preacher speak the Word of God, and seeing people healed. While in jail we begin to worry about what they are going to do to us. How long will we be held in prison? Who is the best attorney we can find to get us out of this mess? I knew we should have left that old guy alone and not gotten involved. If we can just enter a plea and get out then God will surely understand. I mean I’ve got a family to take care of, a business to run, and besides, what good am I to God in here?
There is no word mentioned of what was running through the minds of Peter and John. We are just told they were held in prison overnight. We don’t know what they were talking about during the night, but, if you will keep reading, you can be assured that their night wasn’t filled with worry. Take a look at the next section of Scripture.
5 The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 He is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’ 12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
If the authorities thought that gathering all of the powerful men of society would sway Peter and John then they thought wrong. When they asked, “By what power or what name did you do this?” Peter, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit said, “Our power is Jesus!”
Peter and John weren’t the only ones who knew that it was the power of Jesus that had accomplished such great things through Peter and John’s lives, the leaders knew it as well. Look at verse 13,
13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
The great prayer warrior, E.M. Bounds once wrote,
Paul, Luther, Wesley — what would these chosen ones of God be without the distinguishing and controlling element of prayer? They were leaders for God because they were mighty in prayer. They were not leaders because of brilliancy in thought, nor because of their exhaustless resources, their magnificent culture, or their natural endowment; but they were leaders because, by the power of prayer, they could command the power of God. Praying men means much more than ‘men who pray by habit.’ It means ‘men with whom prayer is a mighty force,’ an energy that moves heaven and pours untold treasures of good on earth. (E.M. Bounds, Purpose in Prayer, page 96-97)
Peter and John were mighty instruments in God’s hands because they were men of prayer. They were men whom the Holy Spirit could use because they were yielded to the work of God before all else.
The leaders who questioned and warned Peter and John, though not believers in Jesus, were astonished by them. They could clearly see that they unschooled, unlearned, ordinary men, but they could also see by the power and courage demonstrated by them that they had been with Jesus. They were not just with Jesus while He was ministering on the earth, they were with Him, or rather He was with them, in prayer, even now!
In verses 14-20, we see that Peter and John were ordered to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, they were told to stop what they were doing. Peter and John didn’t cower down and bend beneath the pressure of civil and religious authority. Take a look at what happened.
14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. 15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. 16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it. 17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name.” 18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. 20 For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
“We just can’t help it!” There was a force much greater than Peter and John’s whimsical desires that were driving them. They had seen Jesus in all of His glory, He had changed their lives, and they weren’t about to shut up no matter what the penalty might be. They had to tell somebody of their wondrous Savior!
You must realize that Peter and John’s lives were being threatened. They weren’t simply slapped on the wrist and released; they were threatened by people who had the power to do them in if they wanted.
When Peter and John were released they went back to their brothers and sisters who were awaiting word of what had happened. Let’s take a look at the events that unfolded when they arrived back at the house.
23 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. 24 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. 25 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? 26 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ 27 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. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
They didn’t sit around and strategize how to avoid getting into trouble. They didn’t sit around and say, “We’ve got to rethink this thing if we want to stay alive.” They prayed. They prayed. They prayed! They asked God to do exactly what had gotten them into trouble in the first place. They prayed, “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.” They were empowered by prayer to be the Church. To do what God is still calling the Church to do today!
The followers of Jesus had been given a mission that only God could accomplish. They had been given a message that was unpopular with the authorities. They had been given a plan that would unfold one step at a time. Without prayer they would most assuredly fall flat on their faces…so they prayed.
Many people have discovered that life is out of balance, they suffer from colorless dreams and blurred visions, the problems of life overwhelm, and they feel powerless. Oh my friend, if this describes your condition this morning, then lift up your head and praise God for you are in a perfect posture to witness God’s mighty power in your life. You were not created to flounder, fumbling through life, floating along wherever life takes you. You were created to be empowered by prayer in the midst of your circumstances.
Whenever we try to handle life on our own we will end up drained and lifeless, but if we will seek God in prayer then we will find resources we never knew were available. I’m not just talking about your personal life. I am also talking about our lives together as the Body of Christ. So many churches are limping along, lifeless, listless, and languid because of a lack of prayer. The Body of Christ needs to be stretched, not pampered! The Body of Christ needs to be challenged, not coddled. When we seek God He will empower us, stretch us, and use us to bring glory to His Holy name.
It is interesting to notice what happened when the followers of Jesus prayed. God answered their prayers with power and the place where they were praying was shaken. Look at verse 31.
31 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 Church needs to be shaken with the power of God today. Our lives need to be shaken by the power of God today. Our world needs to be shaken by the power of God today. I can assure you that the world will never be shaken with the power of God until the power of God shakes you and me! The Church will never be shaken with the power of God until the power of God shakes you and me!
I really can’t understand why we are so prone to give ourselves to things that matter so little while we neglect something of such great value in life. If you knew that your life depended upon a pill that your doctor gave to you then I can assure you that you would lay everything else aside that might hinder your being diligent and disciplined in taking the pill – on time. My friend, prayer is more important, more life-giving, more necessary than any pill ever prescribed by any doctor.
Prayer is essential for good times as well as bad. Prayer can lead you through the dark nights of your soul. Prayer can bring about change in your life, your home, your neighborhood, your church, your city, your state, and your world. Prayer can help you to discern God’s will for your life. Prayer can turn your problems into possibilities. Prayer can turn gray skies into glorious skies. Pray. Pray. Pray.
How much prayer meant to Jesus! It was not only his regular habit, but his resort in every emergency, however slight or serious. When perplexed he prayed. When hard pressed by work he prayed. When hungry for fellowship he found it in prayer. He chose his associates and received his messages upon his knees. If tempted, he prayed. If criticized, he prayed. If fatigued in body or wearied in spirit, he had recourse to his one unfailing habit of prayer. Prayer brought him unmeasured power at the beginning, and kept the flow unbroken and undiminished. There was no emergency, no difficulty, no necessity, no temptation that would not yield to prayer. (S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Prayer. Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 5.)
For Jesus, prayer was like breathing, it was a part of His life. Not an interruption, but a vital aspect of His life that couldn’t be separated from any part of His life. For far too many of us prayer is an oddity that we participate in when we are at church or going through a treacherous time that seems hopeless to us. God’s desire is to empower you and me through daily, regular times of prayer. Not so much planned as impassioned. Not so much thought out or thought through as listening and learning at the feet of Jesus in prayer.
I want to invite you this morning to cry out to God. No matter where you are coming from in life at this moment, know that God can reach you where you are, that He longs to take you in His arms and empower you to see His glory. Won’t you invite Jesus to come into your heart as Lord and Savior today?