How were they able to maintain such a great passion for Jesus' mission in spite of opposition, challenges, persecution, and martyrdom?
The power of the Holy Spirit certainly fueled their zeal for the Lord and stirred their desire to share Jesus with others. Their newly found joy in salvation and their fellowship with friends brought them excitement and meaningful relationships. Jesus had conquered death and brought life to each of them. Jesus' victory gave them a deep-seated hope that threat, persecution, and martyrdom couldn't extinguish.
There was, however, something else that we must not miss. When Luke summarized the heart of the early church, he chose to highlight one particular word — "devoted":
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
All four of these areas of devotion were important. However, Luke repeated one of these areas several times, once again pairing it with the word "devoted" — prayer. Luke put these two words together to emphasize the driving force they were in the spread of the good news of Jesus (Acts 1:14; 2:42, 46; 6:4). Paul also called on the churches he wrote to be "devoted" to "prayer" using the same words as Luke (Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2).
When we read the New Testament, prayer surfaces repeatedly. Devotion to prayer is one of the cords that bound early believers to their Lord, to the power of the Holy Spirit, and to each other. Every social level of believers prayed. Talking about prayer and participating in prayer were not enough. These early believers knew that they must be DEVOTED to prayer.
But why was devotion to prayer so important to them? Where did this conviction, this passion, this devotion to prayer, actually originate?
Ah, that's an easy question to answer, isn't it? The early church leaders had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). He had changed them. His example had rubbed off on them. They knew what had been important to him in his ministry and his walk with his Father. They knew that Jesus' personal prayers and his teaching on prayer framed his life's story. At almost every turning point in his life, the Lord prayed.
I took a few minutes and quickly came up with a list of some of those prayer points in the Lord's life. See if you can think of others that I don't list:
- Jesus was praying after his baptism when the Spirit descended.
- Jesus emphasized the importance of the Temple as a place of prayer for the nations.
- Jesus awakened early, before dawn, and withdrew to pray, regularly.
- Jesus blessed the loaves and fishes with prayer before feeding 5,000.
- Jesus prayed for his disciples several times and at key junctures in his ministry, both interceding for them and rejoicing over them.
- Jesus prayed all night before choosing his twelve apostles.
- Jesus was praying before he stilled the storm and walked on the water.
- Jesus frequently taught about prayer.
- Jesus blessed the loaves and fishes before feeding 4,000.
- Jesus emphasized the importance of prayer for defeating demonic power.
- Jesus prayed, giving thanks for the power demonstrated by his apostles and rejoicing that the Father had given them understanding.
- Jesus taught about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain.
- Jesus emphasized the importance of praying and never giving up.
- Jesus taught that the Father would give good gifts, including the Holy Spirit, to those who asked for them.
- Jesus prayed over Jerusalem before his last visit and his crucifixion.
- Jesus prayed that Peter's faith wouldn't fail even though he knew Peter was going to deny knowing him.
- Jesus blessed the Last Supper meal praying with his disciples.
- Jesus prayed earnestly to God as Abba Father in the Garden before his arrest, asking for his deliverance, but emphasizing that he wanted God's will, not his, to be done.
- Jesus prayed for his disciples' unity and the unity of his followers who believed after the first disciples.
- Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of the mocking mob and those who put him to death.
Why make a long list showing that prayer was important to Jesus?
Because most of us know that we are not devoted to prayer. We want to be devoted. Many of us have read all sorts of books about prayer. We even pray quite a bit in our daily lives. Most of us, however, wish we were more devoted to prayer — that it was our consuming passion. Unfortunately, the challenges of life distract us. We so quickly turn prayer into little more than a heavenly Amazon order form. We forget all that prayer is intended to be for us, so end up asking God to send us what we want. We fall short of connecting with the transcendent God who longs to share his gracious presence with us and shape us so that we can make a difference in the world.
Why emphasize Jesus' devotion to prayer?
Because the early leaders of Jesus' church learned to be devoted to prayer from their Lord! Watching Jesus pray, seeing how Christ dedicated himself to prayer, led them to ask their Lord to teach them to pray:
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples" (Luke 11:1).
Each week for the next couple of months, we will be asking the Lord to teach us to pray. Then, we are going to focus on his answer to that question in his example prayer from the Sermon on the Mount, what we call The Lord's Prayer. We will ask the Holy Spirit to help us focus on one crucial piece of that simple prayer each week. We will invite the Spirit to draw us more deeply into the heart of the Savior as we seek to be devoted to prayer like he was. Then, after we have examined that prayer, we will look at a practical way to take that principle and make it our own in our daily lives. The goal is to make prayer a holy passion as we seek our Father's will to reign in our lives, conform us to the Christ, and use us to make a difference in our broken world.
Prayer was the spiritual air that Jesus breathed. The early disciples sought to find that same air to inspire and empower them. God promised that the Breath of Heaven, the Holy Spirit, will also help us in our quest to pray with devotion. So let's follow the Lord's example and invite the presence and power of God into our lives as we devote ourselves to prayer!
Praying the Scriptures — This Week's Spiritual Exercise
When believers talk honestly about prayer, a common theme is that many of us feel stuck in our prayer lives. We know we ought to pray more, but when it comes down to it, we just don’t want to. Although it feels sacrilegious to put this word to it, we somehow get bored praying to the God Who Created Everything Interesting! We find ourselves praying the same things in the same ways over and over.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. Let’s do that again. Let’s ask God to teach us to pray using his words, or rather, his Word. At several points over the upcoming weeks, we will together learn the practice of taking a section of scripture and letting its words guide and shape our prayers as a response to what the Lord is already saying to us. The things that God cared enough about to put into the Bible will be the things we talk to him about. We’ll likely get around to talking to him about the things we usually do; we’ll just let him do the prompting and, hopefully, discover new life breathed into stale prayers.
Let’s start with a story about a man in need, four friends who never stopped trying to bring their friend to Jesus, and the Christ who gave the man what he really needed. The text below of Luke 5:17-26 is in italicized type; woven throughout in plain type and indented are the words I was moved to pray in response to this text about what happens when small groups of believers devote themselves to seeking Jesus. Let my prayers either prompt you to continue in the same vein of thought or inspire you to follow the text in a completely different direction.
Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man
One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick.
Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”
[NOTE] Andy Johnson has been a church planter in Burkina Faso and now works with Missions Resource Network blessing churches, international church leaders, and missionaries with a special focus on prayer. Andy is also a dear friend and someone whose prayer life I admire and try to emulate. Andy and his wife have three children. His language skills, his passion for authentic prayer, and his ministry to international church leaders through the men's Come Before Winter renewals have blessed many who love Jesus.