Last autumn in our morning services we looked in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, or as it should really be called, the Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Because time and again we read of things the Holy Spirit did where all the apostles could do was point and say “God did this!”
There were all the miracles, signs and wonders.
Acts 2: 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. …. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 5:12 The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. …. .15 As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.
Signs and wonders, miracles of healing and deliverance. And the apostles proclaimed, “GOD DID THIS!” And people got saved and “were added to their number daily.”
And then there were all the times God spoke through His Holy Spirit especially in the spiritual gift of prophecy. In fact when Jesus spoke about the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church He didn’t talk about signs and wonders of healing and deliverance at all. It was the prophet Joel who the Apostle Peter quotes who looked ahead to the gift of the Spirit who inspires prophecy being poured out on all believers.
17 “ ‘In the last days, God says,I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
But the gift of the Spirit Jesus promised to His disciples was not just the Spirit of Signs and Wonders or just the Spirit of Prophecy. Supremely the work of the Spirit was to help the disciples be witnesses for Jesus. The Spirit who would help them preach the gospel with boldness.
Luke 24: 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 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.”
The Promise of the Father, “The power from on high” is the power to be witnesses and the power to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’s name to all nations. So it is in Acts 1.
Acts 1:4 “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.,,,,,, 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And we see that promise fulfilled time and again throughout Acts. The first Christians witness to the resurrection of Jesus. The gospel is preached. The Word of God spreads and grows. 25 times in the Book of Acts we find the word preach or preaching, as well as so many occasions where the gospel is preached but the word isn’t used. Right at the beginning in Acts 2 we read Peter preaching
16 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
And Peter went on, 38 … “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” …. 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Power to preach the gospel. Power to be witnesses for Jesus. Power for Peter and John to preach in front of the Sanhedrin explaining how the crippled man had been healed. Power for the first martyr Stephen to explain his faith and preach the gospel even as he was being stoned to death! Power for another of the first Deacons, the evangelist Philip to preach the gospel in Samaria.
Time and again we find the same power to preach later on in Acts with Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. But it was not only the famous church leaders who were witnesses for Jesus. The whole of the Early Church preached to anybody and everybody they could.
Acts 5:42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
When great persecution arose in Jerusalem following the death of Stephen and Christians took refuge around the whole Roman Empire we read,
Ac 8:4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
The Early Church grew by countless nameless ordinary men and women gossiping the gospel wherever they could, in the marketplaces as well as the synagogues. And so we read throughout Acts how the Word of God prospered through the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Ac 4:31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
Ac 6:7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Ac 12:24 But the word of God continued to increase and spread
Ac 19:20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
If we look at Acts these things leap out of the pages at us. The Holy Spirit brought signs and wonders and dreams and visions and prophecies. God did that! And the Holy Spirit gave power to be witnesses for Jesus.
But what secret did the Early Church have? How did the first Christians come to experience God so powerfully? That answer leaps out of the pages of Acts just as obviously. It is so simple and it will come as no surprise to anybody. The Early Church lived in the overwhelming people of the Holy Spirit because of PRAYER. Just that. Prayer!
In Acts 1 the disciples were all waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. Jesus had promised them “power from on high” – but none of them really knew how that promise would be fulfilled. They only knew that they would know when the power actually arrived. And it hadn’t arrived yet. So we read this about the first disciples.
Ac 1:14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
Constantly in prayer. Waiting for power from on high they “joined together constantly in prayer.” Pentecostals have called that “tarrying prayer”. Praying and praying and keeping on praying that God would send the Holy Spirit in power.
And then after the Spirit came, the disciples continued in prayer. There are 33 mentions of prayer in the book of Acts. More than one a chapter. If we add in praise and worship as well we get more than two verses a chapter. The early church prayed. They were constantly in prayer!
Ac 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
The devoted themselves to prayer. That’s why the miracles came and the conversions came. They were devoted to prayer. So when opposition came, naturally they prayed.
Acts 4:23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. ,,, 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
They prayed when they appointed the first deacons.
Ac 6:6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
They prayed that new Christians would receive the same empowering of the Holy Spirit as they had. And they prayed that God would empower his servants for service, like Barnabas and Saul as they were sent out on mission from the church at Antioch.
Ac 13:3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
They in turn prayed for others who would lead the newly planted churches.
Prayer brought miraculous escapes from prison.
Ac 12:5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
The angel led Peter out of prison and
Ac 12:12 he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.
When Paul and Silas were in jail in Philippi, what else would they be doing but praying?
Ac 16:25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
And God sent an earthquake so Paul and Silas were released and, just as important, the jailer and his family were also gloriously saved!
God answered prayers with miracles of healing and deliverance and even bringing disciples back from the dead!
Ac 9:40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning towards the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.
God did this! And God did this in answer to prayer!
Cornelius and Peter were both separately praying when they saw their visions from God which were so important in bringing Gentile Christians into the initially Jewish Church.
We read about Cornelius that
Ac 10:2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
An angel appeared to Cornelius
Ac 10:4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.
So in response to the vision Cornelius sent for the apostle Peter. At the same time Peter was also praying, and he tells his side of the story like this.
Ac 11:5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was.
Two men. Two related visions. God did this! And God did this because they were praying!
One final incident from Acts which I think has particular significance. In Acts 6 there was a dispute over the distribution of food to widows in the church. The Apostles were dragged in and settled the matter by saying this.
6:2 “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.
The Apostles’ top priority was prayer and the ministry of the word. I gain great support and encouragement from meeting with other Baptist ministers from time to time. I remember one gathering when a group of us were talking about the role of the minister and how nowadays the models of leadership in churches often come more from business practices than from the Bible. Some people expect ministers be leaders and visionaries and project managers and personnel managers more than pastors or teachers.
We were all humbled and challenged by one of our fellow ministers who said that he aims to spend two or three hours in prayer each day. He won’t answer the phone or emails or begin studying anything until he has first spent that time with God. I wish I had the courage and the faith to be like that minister. We apostles said, We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.And surely that is what every minister ought to do!
So in the Book of Acts we find the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Signs and wonders, healing and deliverance. Dreams and Visions and Prophetic Messages. So many occasions where all the Early Church had to do was simply say “God did this!”
And we see the Holy Spirit as the gift promised from the Father, the gift of Power from on High, power to be witnesses for Jesus. And to make the completely obvious point – we cannot expect to see the signs and the wonders the Holy Spirit brings if we are not being obedient to the command to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. We will not experience the dynamo and the dynamite of the Christian life if we quench the Holy Spirit in his primary role of empowering us to be witnesses for Jesus.
And equally obviously , we will not experience any of these blessings if we neglect that which was at the heart of the life of the Early Church – prayer. They joined together constantly in prayer. So should we! They devoted themselves to prayer. So should we!
Former BMS Missionary Eric Westwood said this in his address as the President of the Baptist Union:
“We must write prayer again into the lifestyle of our churches; meaningful prayer, urgent prayer, repentant prayer, constant prayer, Spirit-led prayer, even sacrificial prayer!”
When he was General Secretary of the Baptist Union, David Coffey said this,
“Many churches need to recover this lost principle. Not prayer as a token gesture, some spiritual national anthem where we profess loyalty to the King and then proceed to the real purpose of our gathering. But urgent and dynamic prayer that seeks God in such a manner that everyone becomes aware that, unless God intervenes, we are doomed!”
The first Christians were “constantly in prayer.” And we need to pray just as much!