Monday, May 5, 2014

Acts 12: Missional Prayer Meeting

Acts 12:1-17 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.  Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, "Get up quickly." And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, "Dress yourself and put on your sandals." And he did so. And he said to him, "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me."  And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, "Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."

When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, "You are out of your mind." But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, "It is his angel!" But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, "Tell these things to James and to the brothers." Then he departed and went to another place.

In Acts, the Holy Spirit recorded for posterity four occasions the early church gathered together for prayer in the first 12 chapters of Acts. Unlike many of our prayer meetings which are often personal and pastoral, the early church prayer meetings were missional:
  1. To elect an apostle (Acts 1:14-26): After Judas betrayed the Lord, he committed suicide. And so the Twelve became the Eleven. The church gathered to pray for God's revelation regarding who should replace him as the apostle: "All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers...And they prayed and said, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles" (Acts 1:14, 24-26). So, the prayer item was the selection of a missional leader who would be part of the apostolic team to lead the new spiritual movement.
  2. To ask for boldness to witness (Acts 4:23-31): In response to Peter and John's arrest and warning from the Sanhedrin never to preach the name of Christ, they asked God for boldness to continue to proclaim Christ. They were not cowered by the "religious harmony bill" issued by the religious-political establishment of their day and started focusing on "pastoral needs." They remain missional in their focus: "And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31). The reason they continued despite the threat of imprisonment was that they knew that Gospel was good news and a cure to personal and societal ills. Wherever the Gospel is received, people were transformed into good citizens of the the state and the Kingdom of God. 
  3. To commission deacons (Acts 6:1-6): In this case, the apostles were distracted by internal squabble regarding food distribution. They selected and commissioned seven deacons to take care of the task so that they could stay focused on the missional agenda: "These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:6). But the focus of the church prayer was setting aside the second-tier leadership to focus on internal/pastoral issues, so that the church can continue to focus its ministry on the unchurched.
  4. To save Peter's life (Acts 10:5): The wicked king Herod had the apostle James killed. When he saw that it pleased the Jewish leaders, he then proceeded to arrest Peter with the intention to have him killed too. But the church interceded for him. We read in Acts 12:5 that "earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church." In answer to the church's intercession, God sent an angel to bring lead Peter out of the prison. The point was that the church's prayer meeting was not their "regular" prayer meeting--it was ad-hoc in response to a crisis as  a result of their missional activity. Their prayer meeting was very focused and it had only one prayer item--saving Peter's life.
My point is that when a church is missional, prayer becomes spontaneous and urgent, not mundane ("my son's Maths test is coming-pray he gets an A" or "my husband going oversea--pray for safe flight, good hotel, and successful deals" etc). I'm not saying God is not interested in our "other things". In fact, Jesus said that if we keep the "main thing the main thing," God will take care of the "other things": "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Mt 6:33, NKJV). The things that many church prayer meetings focus could have been taken off the prayer item list if the church are taught to just "seek first" (not "see first") the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. These other needs (education, career, bread and butter) will be added to us without even our asking. Did not Jesus say, "your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matt 6:8). 

I've experienced on many occasions over the years God's "adding" without me "asking." I'm not saying we should not ask, but our personal needs should not be put onto the church's prayer agenda--making the prayer agenda like a long personal wish list. I've witnessed many times churches organizing intercessory meetings when they get into intense and on-going evangelism (like Alpha). It was not necessary to tell these churches that they should pray. The urgency of saving souls compelled them to spontaneously organize informal prayer meetings as part of their evangelism effort. 

When a church is missional in its priority, the leaders won't have problem getting people to come together to pray, for prayer is a matter of priority in missional-oriented ministry. If our prayer meeting is poorly attended, don't blame the congregation for not being "prayerful". Just realign the agenda of the prayer meeting with God's missional priority and I'm sure people would come. For example, if we make the salvation of unsaved loved ones the focus of the prayer meeting, I'm quite sure the attendance would go up.

Prayer is a weapon of spiritual warfare: "praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel" (Eph 6:18-19). 

Father, what a privilege prayer is, for You have given us powerful weapon of warfare to further Your kingdom Gospel. Amen.

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