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1. Putting first things first

Acts 1vs1-26. Church Growing Pains.

Too many Christians try to do something before they really know what they should be doing! Take writing this book as an example. Over a year ago I felt that I wanted to write another book. Thirteen chapters were written down, and typed out by my secretary. A rough outline and two specimen chapters were sent to the editor for his views. After a month his reply came back: "I don't think you are sure to whom you are actually writing." I was not very excited about that!

Deep down I knew he was right. I had had the general idea of a subject, but I had not taken the time or trouble to pray and carefully plan the specific goal and way of accomplishing it. Like so often in my life, I had acted before I really knew what to do. Dare I suggest that a great deal of Christian activity is carried out on the basis of 'ideas' rather than 'inspiration'? Somebody in a church draws attention to the need of teenagers in the local town. "We must do something to reach these youngsters with the gospel". One or two well-intentioned folk agree and decide to open the church hall every Friday for games such as snooker, table tennis and darts. A 'Jesus-spot' is put in for good measure.

The first Friday the six church teenagers are joined by six others who are 'fished' in off the streets by a leader who saw them drinking cans of something or other seated on a low wall in the town centre. The evening passes off well except for one incident of cigarette ash burning the green baize and a near-fight over who was playing who at table tennis. Apparently one of the new lads did not have enough patience to wait for young Martin to have a turn - although everyone in the church would have known that allowances have to be made for Martin. After all, he is Martin - a bit slower than all the others.

It must have been good, on the whole, because the following week twenty-one teenagers come. The language is bad and the leaders hope the deaconess upstairs arranging the flowers for Sunday won't be offended. Two of the church teenagers have not come, a third says it's because of the rough crowd. During the 'Jesus-spot' a sudden plague of bladder infections seems to erupt and 50 per cent have to visit the toilet. The leaders think they are encouraged, but they are not sure.

After a month they really wonder if they have done the right thing. The ladies prayer meeting is rejoicing in the 50 teenagers who come every Friday, but none of them has ever actually seen what goes on at the meeting. A dubious video was smuggled into the quiet room. It certainly kept the courting couples quiet for an hour, but it did not teach them anything about Christian courtship. Only one of the church teenagers comes now. Unfortunately he has started smoking just recently. The man coming to talk to the group did not show up for some reason. Perhaps it was just as well because the group resent the 'Jesus-spot' which they say interrupts their games anyway. The well-meaning team who have found themselves caught up in these events now begin to realise, too late, that to do something before you really know what to do is an invitation to disaster. The early Christians had a general idea as to their collective purpose. Jesus had said to them: "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." Luke 24vs46-49. They had to be witnesses for Jesus. But how? When? Where? They did not know.

We will do well to learn from what these men and women did. If we want to be used by God as a fellowship of Christians, we must follow these basic priorities:

1. Obedience to Jesus' commands. One word jumps out of Jesus' command in Luke 24vs49 "stay". What a thing to say to people about to embark on a mission which will revolutionise the world. The Greek literally means 'to sit down'. The way to begin to go into all the world and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ is to sit at the feet of Jesus. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command; "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about." Acts 1vs4. Peter, John, James, Andrew and the others were to "wait", or to await a particular event, detailed in our next chapter. Their priority now was obedience. To move ahead with other work would be wrong when the Master had said 'sit down and wait for me to move first'. We are often too activity orientated. We confuse waiting with doing nothing. Those Christians in Jerusalem obediently did what Jesus told them to.

"Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day's walk from the city." Acts 1vs12.

2. Prayer together. It appears that a group of 120 believers were present in the upstairs room in Jerusalem where the embryonic church was meeting. The eleven remaining disciples are named (Judas had committed suicide after betraying the Lord Jesus) and so is Mary, Jesus' mother. Verse 14 begins by telling us their main activity: "They all joined together constantly in prayer..."

To pray is to 'prosecute'. The original New Testament word used here for 'prayer' has the same root as the English 'to prosecute'. The latter is defined as 'to carry out some pursuit or plan'. So we have arrived at the heart of this first lesson. Pray before you begin the work. See prayer as the first stage of your work. These disciples were engaged in their commission of reaching the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as they prayed together in that room in Jerusalem. There are three very important factors in this prayer meeting. God was able to do all we read of in Acts, through these people, because these factors were evident in their prayer meeting.

(i) Involvement. Everybody who wanted to be involved in God's work was there. This included the apostles who had been called by Jesus to leave their jobs and learn his will for their lives. It included the women like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others who had been first to discover that the crucified Christ was alive. Jesus' mother and brothers were also at the prayer meeting. His family, friends and followers were all there because they wanted to be involved in whatever was going to happen next. They did not really know what that might be, but they had decided to be involved in any case. They wanted to be where God was working and so they were at the prayer meeting.

If we let our minds run back over the gospel narrative we can also remember some who were not at this meeting. There had been some early followers who had turned back from following Jesus because the cost, either financially or to their family, or even to their own ambitions, was too great. There was also a large number of religious people who had chosen not to follow Jesus at all. Neither group was involved in this prayer meeting, but the ones who were there were the ones who counted.

(ii) Unity. The recent past was over and gone. The women did not say to the apostles, "we told you Jesus is alive and you didn't believe us!" Nobody accused Peter, "it was only a few days ago and you denied you ever knew Jesus in front of a crowd of witnesses". The assembled folk knew these things were true, but they decided that it did not matter now. The past was not as important as the present and the future. The Authorised Version says, "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication ..." Acts 1vs14. The men and women were of the same mind. Several times this phrase "one accord" is used about the early church at prayer and in service. It is translated "together" or "all agreed".

"to meet together in the temple courts" Acts 2vs46

"raised their voices together in prayer to God"

Acts 4vs24

"to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade" Acts 5vs12

"so we all agreed to choose some men"Acts 15vs25

Dynamic service is primed for action when a group of Christians, who are of the same mind, pray together to know God's will and to be involved in God's work. Ephesians 4 teaches that unity is both given to the church to be protected by her members, verse 3, and the goal of the church to be pursued by her members, verse 13.

I have attended prayer meetings where the conversation afterwards has included criticism of those who have not been bothered to attend. Perhaps the prayer meeting is better off without people who do not see prayer as the priority in the Lord's work. But don't let those who do pray become guilty of breaking the given unity by becoming highly critical of those who don't.

(iii) Persistence. It appears from the phrase at the beginning of verse 15 "In those days" that this prayer meeting was no one-evening-wonder! The Christians were "constantly in prayer" 1vs14 (NIV), they "continued in prayer" (AV), they "devoted themselves to prayer" (J.B. Philips and RSV). Luke intends us to learn that the early church was strong and persevering in its commitment to prayer. He uses the same phrase three times in the first two chapters of Acts. Perhaps it expresses the three strong priorities of the church as he saw them: prayer Acts 1vs14, the apostles' teaching 2vs42 and meetings in the temple with other believers 2vs46. (We'll see the value of meetings in chapter 3).

When I was younger I remember watching Ron Clarke of Australia running lap after lap of long distance races. He was sometimes dubbed 'the machine' because of the consistent timings of each lap in a twelve or sixteen lap race. Some folk may prefer to watch a ten-second hundred metres sprint, but I admire any athlete who can persevere to achieve a long distance goal.

Many Christians are better at the short sprint prayer times that the endurance marathons. Yet God calls us to be continually strong towards Him in prayer. He is consistent in His dealings with men. Moses had years in the Midian desert as a shepherd before God allowed him to lead the Israelites. Paul had a probable three and a half years in Arabia before God used Barnabas to bring him into active service at Antioch. Our Lord Jesus spent a specific forty days in the wilderness before he began to preach around Galilee. Don't fight against a time of prayerful preparation. When you know what you should be doing, then you can do it with all your God-given might.

Discussion questions

  • What is prayer? Describe it in your own words.

  • Share ideas on making an individual's prayer time more vital.

  • What can be done to help people enjoy a prayer meeting and recommend it to others? Make practical suggestions on:






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