Pastor Joel Leyrer

Text: Acts 4:23-31

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Dear Friends in Christ, From ev’ry stormy wind that blows, from ev’ry swelling tide of woes, there is a calm, a sure retreat; 'tis found beneath the mercy seat. Those words written by the 20th century English clergyman Hugh Stowell rightly describe the events recorded in our text for today. 

Let’s review.  What we refer to as the New Testament church was young and emerging.  Amazing things were happening right before people's eyes.  Miracles.  Conversions.  Spirits lifted.  Souls revived.  Lives changed.  Rapid growth.  And it all revolved around a clear understanding of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, who he is and what he came to do.

But not everyone saw it for the Spirit-led movement that it was.  Some within the religious establishment of the day considered Jesus and the growing number of those who believed in him as a threat to their authority.  Spiritually, the rules they had so carefully constructed over the years were being challenged.  Personally, they were losing control.  And if they lost their authority and influence over the people, they would soon meet a fate that to them was worse than death: they would become irrelevant.    

So they struck back.  This was not unexpected.  Jesus had told his followers that if the world hated him, they would also hate those who believed in him.  But for God’s people at this early time, something else had now been added to the mix of emotions: uncertainty about the future.

When that happened, God’s people did what God’s people always do.  They took their circumstances to the Lord in prayer.  And that prayer will serve us very well today as we observe our annual Mission and Ministry Sunday, because for both the early Christians who first offered it as well as for us twenty centuries later, it is a most appropriate

MISSION AND MINISTRY PRAYER

Here’s the backstory.  On the day of Pentecost and just as promised by the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit had come upon the disciples in a newer and richer measure than ever before.  The Apostle Peter preached a gospel centered sermon and by the end of the day three thousand people came to faith in Christ as their Savior and were baptized. 

Shortly after that, the disciple Peter, accompanied by the disciple John, healed a lame man who was begging outside the temple gates in Jerusalem.  Not surprisingly, this miracle drew a crowd around Peter and John.  Peter explained to the gathering that the power to heal did not come from him, but from God.  He then called the people to repentance over their sins and pointed them to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, who proved he was the Savior by his resurrection from the dead.  Many believed, and we’re told that the church continued to grow rapidly.

None of this escaped the religious authorities, who seized Peter and John and threw them in jail for the night.  The next day they began to interrogate them. Peter fearlessly proclaimed the message of and his allegiance to Jesus Christ.  Not sure what to do, they commanded the disciples to stop talking about Jesus – to which Peter and John responded: “We cannot help but speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  After further threats, they let them go.

23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them.  But that’s not all they did.    24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.  And this is what they prayed:

“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens 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 signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

In both form and content, there are several things we can draw from this prayer for our learning and instruction, as well as application for our own personal prayer life. 

First is the address itself.  “Sovereign” is an interesting term. It’s the root for our English word “despot” (which is kind of a negative term), but which in the original Greek indicated the master of a slave, and by transference means someone who has supreme and unchallengeable power and authority.  Think of the context.  The religious leaders of the day might try to silence the Gospel, but they are subject to a far greater power.  It is the Sovereign Lord who directs the affairs of his church and his people.

That thought is reinforced when God is described as the One who “made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”  He is the God of creation.  He is the Creator-God.  Everyone and everything else – no matter how powerful or threatening people or things may look – falls under the designation of being a creature or a creation.  In other words, under God.

Not only is the God to whom his people offer their prayers sovereign and powerful, he is also the God who has spoken to his people.  That comes through in this phrase:  "You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David."  This underscores that wonderfully comforting Bible teaching we call verbal inspiration and what it means to us personally.  By definition, verbal inspiration means God the Holy Spirit so influenced the writers of the Bible (like David), that what they wrote were not their own words, but the very words of God.  This is incredible to imagine.  God speaks to us in his Word.  Literally.

Which means when he says, “I love you” and “you are mine;” he means it.  When he says though our sins against him are like scarlet and should justifiably send us to hell for all eternity, through the atoning work of Jesus Christ we are now white as snow in his sight; he means it.  When he tells us that all things – including the things we don’t understand or want or would never choose for ourselves – are nevertheless working together for our good; he means it.  You get the picture.

In prayer we have the privilege of talking to God.  And in his Word, God actually talks back to us.  Think about that.  Amazing. 

Finally, within this prayer is the understanding that our God has a wisdom that is far beyond our ability to comprehend.  That comes through in these words:  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.  

Here we are reminded that, when it comes to the ways and will of God, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, “now we see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror.”   In King Herod and Pontius Pilate we see how God can use “bad things” and “bad people” for the higher purposes of his children.   

There are two other noteworthy nuggets to mine from the content of this prayer.  First is the acknowledgment that life as followers of Jesus Christ is not always going to be easy.  That quote from the Psalms about the world taking their stand against God conveys the general understanding that the life of a Christian will be met by hostility. 

That hostility may come in various forms.  Sometimes and in some parts of the world it will be open denouncement and physical persecution of those who hold the Christian faith.  Sometimes and in other parts of the world (like ours) hostility takes more subtle forms like indifference, or ridicule, or shaming, or purposeful misrepresentation or eye-rolling dismissal of parts or all of the Christian faith.  But one way or another, hostility comes with the blessed territory of being a Christ follower.  The early Christians certainly understood that.

Which is why we must take note of what exactly it is they prayed for.  They did not pray for the destruction of all who were hostile to the Christian faith.  They did not ask God to rain down fire and brimstone upon the religious leaders of the day who were actively conspiring against them.  They did not ask God to somehow make their lives as Christians living in “enemy occupied territory” (as C.S. Lewis once described the world) just a little easier.

No. Listen again: “ 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 signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 

What they prayed for was courage.  They prayed for great boldness to not be intimidated or dissuaded or frightened.  In a time before the New Testament as we know it was written, they prayed that God would continue to use miracles to confirm and authenticate the message of Jesus Christ they proclaimed to the world.

In general, they prayed for the strength and the ability and the courage and boldness to carry out their mission and ministry well.

Our text concludes:  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.  Or as the Church Father Chrysostom commented: “’The place was shaken,’ and that made them all the more unshaken.”

As mentioned from the outset, this is a fitting mission and ministry prayer for us today.  Although we are removed almost two thousand years from the events in our text, the similarities between the church in our text and our St. John’s church are far greater than our differences. 

The early Christians lived with opposition to the message of Jesus Christ.  So do we.  The early Christians understood that holding and proclaiming Christ to a hostile society could be hard and daunting, and for that reason, the subject of much prayer.  We must do the same.

Above all, the early Christians understood the privilege of being children of a Sovereign Lord, a Creator God, a God who reveals himself and his heart to us in his Word, a God in whom we have utmost confidence, and most importantly, a God who has saved us from our sins through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ so we might live with him forever in heaven. That moved them and motivated them.

So it does for us.  Living for him, proclaiming him, honoring him – that is our mission and ministry, both as a congregation and as individual Christians.  God grant us boldness and courage and strength to always represent him well.  And God grant us the wisdom to be constant in prayer, knowing that from ev’ry stormy wind that blows, from ev’ry swelling tide of woes, there is a calm, a sure retreat; 'tis found beneath the mercy seat. Amen.