Is the first prayer meeting recorded after the descent of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 4: 23–31) a pattern for prayer meetings today?
To anyone familiar with the prayers recorded in the Epistles, both the language used and the expressions employed in this prayer appear unusual. Nonetheless those praying “lifted up [their] voice with one accord” (Acts 4: 24) and such unanimity should always mark collective prayer, irrespective of the day in which it is offered. Again, what was offered certainly obtained heaven’s approval for subsequently “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (v31). However, to answer the question and understand the prayer, we must first consider the circumstances that occasioned it.
The Kingdom on earth had been offered to Israel but Israel’s answer was the crucifixion of the King. Nonetheless, God in grace gave the Holy Spirit to the believing remnant of Israel in line with Joel 2: 28. This was evidenced by the exercise of the gift of tongues by those who testified on the day of Pentecost (tongues being a sign of coming judgment if there was no national repentance). Peter’s message in Acts 2 echoed that of John the Baptist, the first preacher to proclaim the Kingdom, and who had demanded repentance and baptism from his hearers (see Matt. 3: 1–6). A large number, all of them Jews, accepted Peter’s word and were added to the Assembly. The next sign was the healing of the lame man by Peter and John at the gate of the temple. This allowed Peter to address the Jewish crowd as “Men of Israel” (Acts 3: 12) and, on condition of national repentance, to promise the return of the crucified Messiah thus bringing in national healing (see vs. 19–21). Though Peter and John were subsequently arrested, the nation’s religious rulers were unable to deny the sign that had been performed, and allowed them to return to their own company (see Acts 4: 13–23)—thus occasioning the prayer before us. These background circumstances show that the dominant theme in the testimony at that time was not the Assembly, nor the Gospel, but the Kingdom.
Those who prayed were Christians, but they were also Jews. As far as the record of Scripture goes, there was not a Gentile among them, even though they formed the Assembly at that time. However, in the light of the full revelation that we now have, the Scriptures being complete, the details given about this prayer meeting sound strange to our ears. We would address God in prayer as Father and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (see John 16: 23–26). Pointedly, these saints do not. Later Jewish Christians would certainly pray in this way for Peter acknowledges that such invoke God “as Father” (1 Pet. 1: 17). The Jews here, however, address God as Master (for the word Lord in Acts 4: 24 is not the usual one and means Master)—the Creator God, the One who exercises absolute authority and unlimited power. Nor is there any plea in the prayer for the souls of men, or mention of the Gospel. It is simply “thy word” (v29).
Christ, as ever, is the key to the Scriptures. How is He referred to in this passage? Twice they speak of “thy holy servant Jesus” (vs 27, 30) viewing the Lord in the same way as Peter did in Acts 3: 13, 26. Others in the Bible are also called servants using the Greek word pais, such as David in Acts 4: 25, but only the Lord is called God’s holy servant, an expression that refers to His unique service in His earthly pathway—a service that was overwhelmingly limited to Israel in connection with the Kingdom. In the Epistles, none of which had been written at that time, pais is never used of the Lord. Of the five times the Lord is referred to as servant using pais in the NT, the first is in Matthew’s kingdom–focused Gospel. There the Evangelist quotes Is. 42: 1–4 in connection with the Kingdom: “Behold my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, in whom my soul has found its delight. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall shew forth judgment to the nations … until he bring forth judgment unto victory; and on his name shall [the] nations hope” (Matt. 12: 18–21). This is in keeping with the prayer of Acts 4, where the subject is service in connection with the Kingdom.
Again, those praying apply Psalm 2 to their situation (see Acts 4: 25, 26), the subject of which is the Kingdom. They ask that the Master may take account of the threatenings of men and give His bondmen boldness to continue the testimony accompanied by signs and wonders (see vs 29, 30). However, Israel did not heed the message, and in AD70 suffered the prophesied national judgment. The Kingdom has been in abeyance ever since. Thus while this prayer was right for the time it was offered, it does not set a pattern for prayer today. Prayer now is to God as Father and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.