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"A Prayer for Boldness!"

MESSAGE FOR March 7, 2010 FROM ACTS 4:23-31

CLICK HERE FOR WMA - Audio file of the sermon

          This week, we pick up where we left off last time in Acts chapter four but first we need to provide some context for today’s text.  You may recall that Jesus has used Peter and John to heal a lame beggar at the temple gate.  Peter then preached the resurrected Christ to the crowds that were drawn in by the miracle.  The Jewish religious authorities hear of his preaching and arrest Peter and John.  After spending a night in jail, the apostles are called before the Jewish high priest and the most powerful Jewish rulers of the day—the same men who had Jesus crucified only a few months earlier.  Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, takes complete control of the meeting and boldly rebukes these leaders for crucifying their Messiah.  He accuses them of rejecting the very cornerstone of God’s new people and with a final thrust of the dagger, Peter says something about Jesus that makes an absolute dead-end street of the Judaism these leaders practiced and taught.  He says, “...there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  Luke tells us in verse 13, “Now when they [the leaders] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.”   

          Because the apostles were at this point held in high regard by the Jews, all the leaders could do is to charge the apostles “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” to which Peter and John respond, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”  The meeting ends in a stalemate with the Jewish leaders forbidding the apostles to preach, and the apostles refusing to disobey their commission to preach.  That’s where we pick up the story in verse 23 of chapter four.  Luke continues the account saying of Peter and John, “23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “ ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ — 27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 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.”

          The apostles return from being threatened by the Jewish leaders and they tell their friends about it. These believers immediately go to God in prayer for their leaders because these men are clearly on a collision course with these men who orchestrated the death of Jesus.  God’s response to this prayer is about as impressive as any prayer in the Bible.  After they prayed for God to give them boldness to preach, God literally shakes up the place, fills them afresh with the Holy Spirit and most importantly, “they…continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”  God dramatically answered this prayer!  If you are like me and you are in desperate need of boldness to tell others about Jesus, certainly--to declare that he is the only way to God--if you easily shrink back when you should step up, or (more generally speaking) you are right now going through a time of great pressure and are feeling paralyzed or overwhelmed by it, then be strengthened by this prayer from which we can learn so much.

          Not that we should be looking at this prayer as if were some sort of fool-proof formula to follow.  The prayer simply reveals the hearts of these people.  Oh, that God would give us the same heart for him revealed in those who pray this prayer!  The over-riding characteristic  of these people revealed in this prayer is that they are God-centered people who pray God-centered prayers.  This prayer is thoroughly God-centered—it’s all about him.   Ultimately, it is a prayer for boldness in witnessing, but of the seven verses in this prayer, only one verse is an explicit plea for boldness—verse 29.  And now Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness…”  The other six verses of this prayer don’t ask anything from God.  The rest of the prayer consists of three sections that declare the supremacy of God in the midst of opposition—that is the heart of this prayer.  Why is that?  Well, we know that God responds to prayers that are offered in faith.  In the gospels, Jesus does his miracles in response to faith.  Jesus says in Mark 11:24.  24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” 

Now, we must take other Biblical truths into consideration when applying that promise, but it’s surely true that when you are asking God to help you obey him, as these apostles are doing and as we so often do—praying in faith is crucial.  Many of our prayers are for things that are clearly God’s will.  God, help me not to worry.”  “God, help me to put you first.” “God, help me to love that person.  God, help me not to get angry in this situation.” “God help me to be disciplined in my studies/job.”  All those prayers are God’s will, but we get scared or anxious or overwhelmed by circumstances and our faith seems to disappear.  So the question becomes, how can we increase our faith in prayer?

We meet ourselves in these apostles.  Their faith is shaken from their confrontation with these powerful religious leaders.  We know that because Luke doesn’t report that the apostles returned and reported to their friends how they utterly humiliated these leaders with their air-tight arguments—which they did.  No, they came back reporting what thechief priests and elders had said to them.”  That was the “take-away” message for them because they were not naive.  They knew this was only the beginning of the conflict because every time they preached about Jesus from this point forward, they would be in open violation of the orders of the high priest of Israel—the same high priest who planned their Master’s crucifixion.  They were also humble enough to know that the boldness they had just expressed did not come from them-- they would need a fresh supply of it every time they faced them.

          They come back sobered and a bit intimidated, even though they knew it was God’s will for them to boldly proclaim Jesus.  So, before they explicitly ask God to give them boldness, they pray in a way to bolster their faith.  They do that by affirming God’s supremacy in this situation in three different ways.  They don’t just come into the presence of God and scream out, “HELP—WE NEED MORE BOLDNESS!!”  No, they prime the pump of their faith with three reminders of God’s supremacy before they make their request.  Then, having pumped the bellows of truth over the glowing embers of their faith, they burst into flame and confidently ask for boldness to continue to preach boldly for Christ.  How many of us do that when we pray for God to help us obey him, or to help us remain faithful to him in times of trial and testing?  How often to do we stoke the fire of faith in our prayer life before we petition God?

Reminding ourselves of the truth about God before we ask for his help is a missing ingredient in many of our prayers.  This is not the only place in the Bible we see this model.  It’s also found in places like Isaiah 37.  The powerful Assyrian king Sennacherib invades Judah during the reign of King Hezekiah.  Sennacherib arrogantly taunts Hezekiah and the God of Judah, bragging about how he and his pagan gods will destroy Judah as he has destroyed all the other nations and their gods.  In response to his opposition, Hezekiah prays and listen for this same pattern.  16 O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. 17 Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. 18 Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, 19 and have cast their gods into the fire. For they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. 20 So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.” 

Notice the pattern is the same as in Acts chapter four.  The explicit request for God to rescue Judah comes only at the very end of the prayer.  Before that are reminders of the supremacy of God—he is the Lord of hosts, he is Creator—he alone is the God of all the kingdoms of the earth--he is superior to all the other gods Sennacherib has defeated. THEN he asks for God to deliver them from his hand for his glory.  God will be exalted more highly and we would find our prayers answered more powerfully if we will be more God-centered people who pray God-centered, faith building prayers.  From the text, here are three examples of these God-centered, faith-building, prayers.  First, look at verse 24.  Sovereign Lord, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” It’s surely no accident that these apostles pray to God as theSovereign Lord, who made the heavens and the earth and everything in them.  This is an unusual way to begin a prayer, but think about their context.  The apostles will be facing ongoing confrontation with the rulers and elders and Jewish leaders.  They doubtless needed to remind themselves that the One who called them to preach the resurrected Messiah is infinitely bigger than ones who were telling them to shut up.  God is sovereign, not the high priest.  Not the Sanhedrin, God is in control of this situation! 

The first expression of their God-centered prayer is –They remind themselves of who God is in comparison to those who oppose them.  They unpack God’s sovereignty by reminding themselves of his most impressive display of raw sovereign power as seen in his creation.  No one but God creates.  Certain scientists may claim to create, but they have to borrow their raw materials from God—we are only fabricators, not creators.  When you are facing opposition to what God has called you to do, or if you simply feel overwhelmed by the daily call to live faithfully to God, bolster your faith by meditating on God’s sovereign reign as seen in his creative power.  Think intentionally about how infinitely big God must be to have created the universe—certainly big enough to bring you through what you are facing.  Do you do that?  Do you stoke the fire of your faith with truth about God as Creator? 

When you think about God creating the universe, its easy to lose the wonder of it because we just can’t grasp how big the universe is.  Tim Keller helps us by putting it this way. The distance between the earth and the sun is 92 million miles.  If that distance were reduced to the thickness of a sheet of paper, then according to that scale, the distance between the earth and the next nearest star would be a stack of paper 70 feet high.  Using that same scale, the diameter of this galaxy—the Milky Way, would be a stack of paper 310 miles high—if each sheet of paper equals 92 million miles.  And there are millions of galaxies in the universe.  So many, that when you look at the entire universe, our galaxy is a mere speck of dust. [1]  That is a VERY big God and we need to regularly remind ourselves in the face of trials or opposition that God is so much bigger than whatever we are facing.  We need to remind ourselves of God’s sovereignty and when we want to contemplate his sovereignty, we can do no better than meditating on the vastness of the universe over which he is in complete control.  The Bible says that Jesus holds it all together by the word of his power.  That gives us a truth-driven perspective of God in relation to our trials or those who oppose us.  When the apostles saw God as the Sovereign Lord, Creator of the heavens and the earth and everything in them, that built their faith by helping them put these religious leaders who opposed them into perspective.

A second example of this God-centered, faith-building prayer is in verse 25 where the prayer quotes King David from Psalm two.  During David’s reign, he was at one time challenged by several vassal Gentile kings who joined together in revolt against him.  David, writes this Psalm in response to that trial and this prayer quotes verses one and two.  ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.  David asks the question, “Why would these tiny Gentiles thugs rage against God—their plots are utter vanity—doomed to fail? God is pictured at laughing in derision at these “kings.”  David knew by faith that these rulers weren’t just opposing a Hebrew king, they were fighting against God and that is the definition of futility.  Again, hear how that text builds faith in these apostles because it reminds them that those who oppose them are not fighting against a few fishermen, they are opposing the Sovereign Lord of the universe—what a laughable endeavor!  The second expression of their God-centered, faith-building prayer is: They remind themselves of what God has said in similar contexts through his word.  First, they remind themselves of who God is and next, what he has said through his Word.

They pray Scripture and they use a text that very much fits the context of their present situation.  When you meet opposition in your attempts to obey God, this text can strengthen your faith by helping you to get perspective on just how comparatively big those are who oppose you.  The Word of God stimulates our faith.  Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”  Our faith is bolstered by Scriptural truth and especially from the promises of God.  Meditating on the word of God is like adding “Miracle Grow”© to our faith.  So, if you are going through a trial and seeking to trust Christ and pray prayers filled with faith, then go to the Word—dig deep for texts that fit your situation—meditate on them—memorize them.  It may be an account from the history books where you can find God at work in a situation similar to yours.  It may be in a Psalm like this one that testifies to the supremacy of God, or it may be a particular promise that applies to your situation. 

This of course assumes that you have a working knowledge of the Word.  If you don’t, you will have to ask someone to help you and the value the Bible has in stoking your faith should be a strong motivator to strive to master this book—so that you will readily have many texts at your disposal to claim and draw faith from in any trial or situation.  This God-centered prayer builds the apostles’ faith to pray for boldness because it reminds them of what God has said through his word.  A final example of God-centered, faith-building praying is seen in verse 27 where they apply the words of Psalm two they have just quoted to a situation they all recently experienced.  After they quote the truth from the Psalm they say, “27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

The prayer ties the truth of Psalm two about the cosmic foolishness of rulers like those who opposed David, and applies it to what these apostles had just experienced with these same Jewish rulers during the passion of Jesus.  In fact, it’s clear that the prayer sees Psalm two finding its ultimate fulfillment in the passion of Christ.  The Lord’s anointed One whom the rulers—Herod, Pilate and the people of Israel foolishly opposes was Jesus—the ultimate Anointed One.  So the prayer moves from the Scriptures, to something they had just experienced that was very faith-building.  That is—the awesome display of God’s sovereignty in the passion of Christ they had recently witnessed.  The third example of a God-centered, faith-building prayer is: They remind themselves of what God has done in their own experience.  Jesus was commissioned by God to preach the truth about himself to people who were hostile to his message and there were many who opposed him.  But the utter futility of their opposition to him is seen in verse 28 where we read that what the rulers did in opposing Jesus was in fact, “…whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.”  Their opposition to Jesus was so utterly under the sovereign control of God, that these evil men were in fact—in the mystery of divine sovereignty, doing precisely what God had planned and willed.

The faith-building implication to the apostles is as simple as it is profound.  You need not fear those who oppose you as you seek to obey God because under the sovereignty of God they are ultimately accomplices with God in accomplishing his agenda.  That is—though they are outwardly opposing God—they are ultimately a tool of his just like you are a tool of his.  And he will use whatever opposition they bring against you to accomplish his will—even to further your mission. And in fact, if we read on in Acts, this is precisely what happened to the apostles and the church. When the Jewish officials unleashed their first, full scale persecution on the church with the stoning of Stephen and Saul of Tarsus going on his rampage, what was the result?  Acts 8:1 tells us, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”  Up until this point, the gospel had not penetrated outside Jerusalem, but Jesus had commanded that it be taken to “…Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and the end of the earth.”  So, God uses the persecution to bring his gospel to people who he had planned and willed to hear it.  God used the opposition to Christ to accomplish his will and plan and God used the opposition to the apostles to accomplish his will and plan and God uses the opposition or trials we face as we seek to be faithful to God—to accomplish his will and plan for our lives.  Do we believe that?

The point is simple—because God is absolutely sovereign, we are able to look upon those who oppose us or injure us or wrong us, we are able to look upon the trials that overwhelm us through a completely different lens that the rest of the world.  We can see them as under God’s sovereign control and therefore as tools that are ultimately serving God’s good purpose in our lives.  This is how Joseph saw the sin of his brothers in selling him into slavery.  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  This does not excuse their sin—the rulers who crucified Jesus will suffer uniquely in eternity.  But it does mean that God’s sovereignty allows us to see trials and affliction and opposition as part of God’s hand and good plan for our lives.  Think about that in relation to boldness.  If you look at the opposition of the Sanhedrin, not fundamentally as potentially lethal to you, but as part of God’s sovereign plan, then why on earth would you fear someone who will ultimately accomplish—even in their opposition to you “whatever God’s hand and God’s plan had predestined to take place?” 

So, the prayer reminds these apostles of who God is as the sovereign Creator of the Universe.  It reminds them of what God has said in his word about the folly of those who would dare to oppose God and his anointed ones, and it reminds them of what God has done in their own experience in showing them that in his sovereignty he is able to take the opposition against them and use it to ultimately further what they are doing for God.  Do you see how that gives these apostles a radically different perspective on these opposing rulers than simply those who are mad at them and want to kill them?  When your faith has been stoked by all that truth about the supremacy of God in creation, in the truth of his Word and of your own experience of him,  then you can pray with utter confidence, “Lord, look upon their threats—in all their folly and futility and grant to your servant to continue to speak your word with boldness.”  When God hears that kind of God-centered, faith-building prayer, he shakes the foundations, he fills with his Spirit and gives grace to speak the Word with boldness. 

As we close we must ask, how are you handling the opposition or trials or affliction in your life?  Are you seeking to build your faith by meditating on the supremacy of God as seen in his mighty acts like creation?  Our problem is—when we are confronted with a trial or opposition, those things become huge in our sight and by implication, God becomes very small.  And the way we know that this is happening to us is—if we are worrying or feeling overwhelmed.  When that happens, God has become very small in our minds in the face of problems or opposition that have become far bigger than they really are.  But if we see God as the infinite Creator and internalize even some of what that means, we can see the opposition or trials for what they are—eentsy, weentsy things.  Are you meditating on God’s Word where it speaks to situations that are similar to what you are facing?  Be diligent to look for Biblical contexts that speak into your present need.  Be zealous to search for promises you can memorize and claim when your faith is faltering.  And finally, the apostles’ faith was strengthened by reminding themselves of what a sovereign God had done in their own experience. 

Often, we forget about all the times that God has demonstrated his power to us in the past.  We act as if those experiences have no relevancy to what we are facing today—how in the past he has strengthened us, provided for us, delivered us, comforted us, healed us.  We forget that God intends those experiences to be used like those twelve stones the people of Israel set up in the middle of the Jordan—as reminder of God’s willingness and power to overcome whatever we are now facing.  Ask God to remind you of those times in your past when you were greatly afflicted or opposed or hurt.  Keep a journal and write them down.  Those past experiences of God’s faithfulness to us are deposits God has made in our faith accounts and in tough times, God expects us to draw from that account and be strengthened by them.  May God grant us the grace to be God-centered people who pray God-centered, faith-building prayers that God dramatically answers for his glory and our joy.

[1] http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/gospel-and-your-self


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