October 21, 2013

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

Topic #II: The Church in Jerusalem, Acts 2.1-8.3

Subtopic C: The Church Ministering in Jerusalem (Acts 3.1-8.3)                    

Subtopic 3: The Reaction: Persecution (4.1-37)

Lesson II.C.3.b: The Prayer for Boldness (4.23-31)

Acts 4.23-31 (KJV)

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.' 

27Indeed 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." 

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.


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. 

I can imagine the excitement that prevailed among the Christians in Jerusalem when they heard that Peter and John had been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. The news must have traveled rapidly and the devotion and fervor of these early Christians would have brought them together to pray for the two apostles, just as they had prayed for Peter when Herod imprisoned him. (In Acts 12.5 we read that “Prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for him”—and God answered their prayers by sending an angel to set Peter free. Read the account in Chapter 12, verses 1 through 19.) In all probability they had prayed for Peter and John throughout the long hours they had been imprisoned, perhaps with a great deal of fear in their hearts. To this company of believers, and in this atmosphere of spirituality, Peter and John told their story.

It was with great joy that Peter and John (and in all likelihood the lame man was with them) went to the place where “their own company” of fellow believers (the whole church) had assembled—and I am sure they were received with great joy. We can be sure they gave their Christian brethren a full report of “all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.” They knew that the hostility that was stirred-up against them was determined, confident, and daring; that it had stopped at nothing to silence the voice of the supreme Teacher, so now it would stop at nothing in order to silence the voices of those who were repeating what He had said, with the added argument and force of their declaration of His resurrection. The question is, how would the community respond to the threat of the council? The believers could have taken a defeatist attitude and knuckled under in the face of danger. Yet they did not react in this manner. They prayed to God for strength to meet the crises. On this day, and within this prayer meeting was concentrated the greatest power in Jerusalem. The prayer, which begins in the next verse is truly one of the greatest prayers recorded in the Bible, and it is a good example for us to follow. 

The “chief priests” were a small group within the Sanhedrin, composed of former high priests and members of influential priestly families.

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. 

Please make a note that there was no idle talk following the apostle’s report of their appearance before the Sanhedrin, and there were no plans or schemes worked out to deal with the situation. No committees were formed to decide what the next move should be. No vote was taken to determine whether or not they should continue to use the name of Jesus in their ministry. This little band of Christians wasted no time, but “when they heard” the report of Peter and John, they immediately “lifted up their voice to God.” They turned at once to the Christ in whose name they had been forbidden to speak.

If you will study 2 Kings, chapter 19, you will notice the interesting account of Hezekiah’s response to the very serious threat made by Rabshakeh (mouthpiece for Sennacherib, king of Assyria) against the people of Israel. When good king Hezekiah received Rabshakiah’s letter, by hand of messengers, he read it—and then “went up into the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord” (2 Kings 19.14).

The company of believers with Peter and John laid their problem before the Lord—and what better recourse could they have followed? After all, the whole matter concerned Jehovah God and His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. These people were dedicated servants, and their devotion to Him were such that they were ready and willing to glorify Him by serving, suffering, or dying if necessary. The Holy Spirit leads us to prayer, and when the believer prays fervently and sincerely, his prayer expresses his dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ.

This was a prayer that was born out of service and witness for the Lord. Peter and John had just come in “from the trenches,” and the church met to pray in order to defeat the enemy. These Christians prayed “with one accord”—not for vengeance to be poured out upon their enemies, not for fire to come down from Heaven and consume the Sanhedrin, but for God to give them boldness to speak the Word and to do whatever His hand and counsel “determined before to be done” (v. 28). And God answered their prayer, as we will see in verse 31 of this chapter. 

The fact that these believers lifted up their voices “with one accord” does not mean that each and every one prayed at the same time. If that had been the case, confusion would have been the result—and God is not the author of confusion—“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (1 Co. 14.33). Also (in verse 40 of that same chapter), we are instructed, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Therefore it would seem more likely that one person—perhaps Peter—prayed aloud, and the rest of the assembly followed in their hearts “with one accord.” The people were of one heart and mind, and God was pleased to answer their requests. Division in the church always hinders prayer and robe the church of spiritual power.

To be “instant in prayer” (Rom. 12.12), or to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5.17), means to be in an attitude of prayer; but it is not necessary to say words aloud to pray. There is a time for audible prayer, but I believe some of the most effective prayer is done in silence. 

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, 

Unuttered or expressed;

The motion of a hidden fire

That trembles in the breast.

Notice the opening words of the prayer in our present verse: These Christians addressed their petition to Despota which is translated “Sovereign Lord” (meaning master, despot; which suggests a slave relationship between God and man) and to “God, which hath made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is.”  “Sovereign Lord” was the proper designation for our Almighty God because He was able to suppress the wrath of the Jerusalem rulers and carry out His plan until final triumph was achieved. John 1.1-3 tells us that “the Word (Christ) was in the beginning with God,” and that “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” In Ephesians 3.9 Paul speaks of God as having “created all things by Jesus Christ,” and in Hebrews 1.2 we read that God “hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.”

There are men today who continually search for a discovery of how the worlds and solar systems came into being. If they would read and believe the Word of God they would find the answer, because the Bible clearly teaches that the Lord God created all things by the Word—by the Lord Jesus Christ—and for Him.

After the complete revelation of the Gospel of the Son of God was given (as the Holy Spirit spoke through holy men and they pinned down God’s Word), prayer was addressed to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the proper way for believers to address God today. In this Dispensation of Grace, prayer is to be made in Christ’s name in the power of His Spirit. There is no place in the book of Acts or in the epistles where prayer is addressed to the Holy Spirit, although the Spirit helps us in our praying.

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.' 

This is the first recorded prayer in the book of Acts, and it is founded on the Word of God—that is, verses 25 and 26 are direct quotations from Psalm 2 (a prophetic Psalm but not, as yet, completely fulfilled). The Word of God and prayer must always go together—“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15.7). In His Word God speaks to us and tells us what He wants to do. In prayer, we speak to Him and make ourselves available to accomplish His will. True prayer is not telling God what to do, but asking God to do His well in us and through us—“And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (1 John 5.14, 15). It means getting God’s will done on earth, not man’s will done in Heaven.

As the apostles prayed, the Holy Spirit brought the Word to mind, and with the Word in their hearts, they made their petitions known to God. This is the right way for believers to pray. A careful study of the prayers of Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets in the Old Testament will reveal that they prayed after this manner, and God heard and answered their prayers. And notice that they did not pray to have their circumstances changed or their enemies put out of commission. Rather they asked God to empower them to make the best use of their circumstances and to accomplish what He had already determined to do (v. 28). This was not “fatalism” but faith in the Lord of history who has a perfect plan and is always victorious. They asked for divine enablement, not escape; and God gave them the power that they needed.

The second Psalm, from which these quotations were taken, is of prophetic importance throughout the New Testament. There is a great collection of inspired prayers and songs of praise in the book of Psalms, but we must not minimize the importance of the Psalms of prophesy. This particular Psalm is not titled, nor does it tell us the person through whom it was given. In the prayer of these believers it is ascribed to David, but his name is not given in the Psalm itself. The point is these men attributed the psalm to David, to the Spirit, to the foreknowledge of God; and consequently their conviction concerning God was not that of His sovereignty only, but also that of His wisdom. They believed that when David sang that psalm, he sang better than he knew, and fuller than he thought; and behind the singer was the inspiration of God. This psalm, as well as many other passages points up the divine inspiration of Scripture through human agents.  God speaking through David’s mouth refers to his writings.

Take time to read Psalm 2; it describes the revolt of the nations against the Lord and His Christ. The psalm originally grew out of the crowning of a new king in Israel, perhaps David; but its ultimate message points to the King of kings, Jesus Christ. Whenever a new king was enthroned, the vassal rulers under his reign were required to come and submit to him; but some of them refused to do this. God only laughed at their revolt, because He knew they could never stand up against his King.

“Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things?” This great prophetic psalm begins by foretelling that the Gentiles would oppose God and His Anointed (the Lord Jesus Christ), and here in Acts we find recorded the partial fulfillment of this prophesy. It has not been fulfilled in its entirety, nor will complete fulfillment come until the Great Tribulation period.

27Indeed 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. 

The alliance between Herod and Pontius Pilate is clarified in Luke 23.1-12. If you will read those verses you will find that the common bond between them was the trial of Jesus. The Jews had brought Him before Pilate, but when Pilate learned that the prisoner was a Galilean, he sent him to Herod into whose jurisdiction the Galileans belonged. When Herod found out that Jesus would not perform a miracle in His presence—or even answer the questions the king put to Him—he and his court mocked Him, put a royal robe on Him, and sent Him back to Pilate. “And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves” (Luke 23.12).

We must pause here to recognize how these men described what happened in their city. Mark carefully the forces who were massed “against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.” “The Gentiles” here refers to the Romans to whom Jesus was delivered and crucified, and to all the nations outside the Covenant. “The people of Israel” were, of course, the Jews, those of the Covenant, who, under the pressure and influence of their leaders, had demanded the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt. 27.20). Pontius Pilate is the representative of Roman authority. These were the enemies of Christ and they were all gathered together to destroy Him. They ganged up against Him and even crucified Him, yet God raised Him up and enthroned Him in Heaven. That is quite true; but that is not what these men said in their prayer. They said: They were gathered together to do “what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” That is the last phase of their conviction concerning God. It was the conviction, not merely of His sovereignty, not merely of His wisdom, but of His actual definite government and overruling, in the affairs of men. Peter said pretty much the same thing in the Pentecostal sermon when he put two things in close connection, saying “Him”—that is, Jesus—“being delivered up by the determinate council and foreknowledge of God, ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay.” God has written all of history according to His eternal plan. The crucifixion of Jesus was no exception—“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8.29, 30). All this was part of God’s perfect plan, so there was no reason to fear. In this prayer there was only the recognition of the Divine overruling. These were the things in which they believed: the sovereignty of God; the wisdom of God; the active government of God; and those convictions concerning God inspired their prayer. 

The anti-Semitic feelings which agitators initiate today have their origin in what the Jews did to Jesus. Rather than be classified with people of this sort we become extremely cautious and gloss over Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death and seek to place all the responsibility on the Romans. Must we reject history in order to be fair in our present situation?

Paul was a Jew, but he did not hesitate at all to accuse his own people of the killing of the Lord Jesus—“For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2.14-16). Naturally he did not mean all the Jews. The religious of that time were responsible for putting pressure on the Romans to crucify Jesus. The guilt for the horrible act was not transferrable to the Jews of succeeding generations, though some Christians have attempted to do this. We might add that if we should place ourselves in the same position of the religious leaders of that day, in all probability we would have done exactly what they did.

The early church strongly believed in God’s sovereignty and his perfect plan for His people. But notice that they did not permit their faith in divine sovereignty to destroy human responsibility, for they were faithful to witness and pray. It is when God’s people get out of balance and overemphasize either sovereignty or responsibility that the church loses power. I am reminded of the wise words of Augustine, “Pray as though everything depends on God, and work as though everything depended on you.” Faith in a sovereign God is a tremendous encouragement for God’s people to keep serving the Lord when the going is difficult.

29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 

The apostles were not disheartened, they were not willing to turn their backs on the message Jesus had given them to deliver. They only drew nearer to God for help and strength, for fear that they might become in danger of growing indifferent or becoming fearful in the face of the opposition they were encountering; because they recognized in the threatenings of the Sanhedrin a declaration of war by the combined powers of the world against their infant cause.

“Enable your servants … great boldness.” Jesus promised his disciples, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist” (Luke 21.15). They were praying here that God would help them rise above self. Their request was simple: they asked only that He would grant them courage to preach his word in “great boldness,” courage to testify for Jesus. Thus they prayed for the continuance of that very activity which had produced the hostility. At the Beautiful Gate they had spoken the Word with boldness, and God had stretched out His hand and healed the man; and all the hostility had come out of those facts. Now they prayed, and in effect they said: God help us to keep on in spite of everything, to do that which has produced the threatening. They had been told not to speak the Name again, but they flung caution aside. To the Sanhedrin Peter had said: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to hearken unto you rather than unto God, judge ye.” Now, in the secret place, these courageous men came into the presence of God in Whom they believed, and they had only one thing to ask Him, that they might still speak the Word of God with “boldness,” while He stretched forth His hand to heal.

I am moved by this. This was a great prayer and praise service. They were all of one accord. Probably they did not all pray at one time, but they were certainly “amen-ing” the one who led in prayer.

30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." 

The apostles not only asked God to give them boldness to preach the word; they also asked that He continue to work miracles through them, and by those miracles give divine evidence of the truth of what they said in the name of Jesus. This was the deepest desire of their hearts—and men who have such a conviction always have such a desire. Men who know such a God and such a Jesus are always men who supremely desire—not to escape from suffering, not to be spared all the work and the struggle of proclaiming Christ—but that His name would be vindicated and glorified by perpetual victory, and therefore that they be kept bold in their preaching. “How shall we escape , if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; GOD ALSO BEARING THEM WITNESS , BOTH WITH SIGNS AND WONDERS, AND WITH DIVERS MIRACLES, AND GIFTS OF THE HOLY GHOST, ACCORDING TO HIS OWN WILL?” (Heb. 2.3, 4).

You will notice they did not pray for God to preserve their lives or keep them from suffering and danger. They were wholeheartedly committed to the work Jesus had given them to do, and they confidently committed themselves to God. The one desire of their heart was to promote the gospel, declaring the truth, and making the way of salvation known. They prayed that God would glorify Himself by continuing to give miracles, signs and wonders, and by saving those who heard the message of His saving grace. 

These praying men impress us with their consistency. “Consistency” is a great word, but we have misused it. Some people think that to be consistent means that the same thing is said yesterday, today, and forever. But a great consistency may make a man deny today what he said yesterday, because he finds out what he said yesterday is not true. To be consistent means to be possessed and mastered by one principle. Because these men were possessed and mastered by Christ, they were strong. They were cautious also.

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 answer to the prayer came immediately. The first thing that happened, was that God gave them a sign. The mighty “shaking” of the place where they were assembled assured these believers that the God of all nature to whom they had appealed in verse 24 had heard their prayers and was in their presence. The Greek word translated “was shaken” denotes violent agitation such as the raging of the sea, the tremors of a great earthquake, or trees being shaken by a mighty wind. What awesome power that our God possesses, to be able to shake the earth!

“And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken” (Acts 16.26).

“Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised , saying , Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven” (Heb. 12.26).

The Scripture does not tell us if this shaking was confined to the place where the Christians were praying, or if it was widespread. I am inclined to think it was only the place where the saints were assembled and praying, and to them it was evidence that God had heard their prayers.

To the Jews, a shaking of the earth—an earthquake—was proof of the presence of Jehovah God. In Isaiah 29.6 we read, “Thou shalt be visited of the LORD of hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire” (Isa. 29.6).

When Jesus died on the Cross, God sent an earthquake; and Matthew 27.54 tells us that “Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” In connection with this, please read the third chapter of Habakkuk.  Notice in particular verses 6 through 11, which give a depiction of the awesome power of the Almighty God: “He stood, and measured the earth: he beheld, and drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow: his ways are everlasting. I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction: and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was the LORD displeased against the rivers? was thine anger against the rivers? was thy wrath against the sea, that thou didst ride upon thine horses and thy chariots of salvation? Thy bow was made quite naked, according to the oaths of the tribes, even thy word. Selah. Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers. The mountains saw thee, and they trembled: the overflowing of the water passed by: the deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their habitation: at the light of thine arrows they went, and at the shining of thy glittering spear.” As in Old Testament times, God made His power and presence known to His people by shaking the place where they were assembled in prayer.

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” The apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This was not another baptism, but a “filling” for power to declare the Word of God. We noticed in verse 8 that Peter was filled with the Holy Ghost when he addressed the Sanhedrin. Personally, I believe the filling at this time was meant to prevent the development of emerging fear. They feared, and there was granted to them a new conscientiousness of the inrush of the Spirit. These men were filled with a new consciousness and a new actuality of the presence and the power of the Spirit; with the result that they went out and spoke the Word of God with “boldness.” There is one baptism of the Spirit, but there are many fillings. When empowered by the Spirit, “they… spoke the word of God boldly.” In proportion as we are submitted to God, and wait in prayer upon Him, there will come to us that inflow of the Spirit, which will make us bold to proclaim Christ. And great results may and must follow where the church is thus convinced and Spirit-filled.