Some believe that theology was not important, or at least was not yet very well developed, in the early church. It's a romanticized view of the church in Acts; an attractive idea of a rugged church, unhindered by today's traditions, hangups, and pitfalls. We sometimes tend to think of these early believers as not being weighed down by doctrine, but rather being "free spirits" of sorts. Some could imagine them saying things like, "It's all about Jesus; don't get bogged down in theology!"
But Acts gives us a different picture. These believers had some deep doctrine! We see their theology all over Peter's sermons in the first few chapters of Acts. We see the new believers after Pentecost DEVOTING themselves to the Apostles' teachings (2:42). And there is one more place where we see the theology of the early church: in their prayers!
Let's be honest - prayers in today's churches are shallow. The prayer meeting is usually the least-attended meeting in any church. Our daily prayer times testify against us. When we have a need, we usually begin our prayers by getting straight to the point and asking God for help. Not much praise, Scripture or depth in our prayers. And not much room for theology. Theology is generally looked down on by many professing believers these days. The idea of praying doctrine and truth to God would never cross the mind of the average church-goer.
But this is exactly what we see the early believers praying in Acts! Their prayers are FILLED with meat. It's like listening to a sermon!
Let's look at the believer's prayer in Acts 4. Peter and John have just been released by the local authorities, after being warned not to preach anymore in the name of Jesus. Bad news, right? Instead of stiff-arming the church to opt for some personal healing time after this persecution, they head straight for the believers. They report to the church about the threats from the authorities. Now what? What would the church today do when hearing this news? Gripe? Complain? Cry? Give up? Organize a grass-roots political strategy to boot out these authorities who are taking away their religious freedom? Share a gossip-filled Facebook post about it?
No, this church PRAYED. First lesson! When we face hard times, persecutions, etc, this is usually when people drift from the church. This is when we need the church the most! In hard seasons we need to go straight to our local church and pray about it together.
Now let's look at the CONTENT of their prayer (Acts 4:24-30). You won't find any shallow praying here!
1. Sovereign God. They start by praying about WHO GOD IS. They use the Greek word "despotes," which means a slave owner, and a "ruler of unchallengable power" (Stott). Both of these are significant. Later in this prayer they will call Jesus and David servants of God, and they call themselves bondslaves. So they are beginning their prayer in humility, lowering themselves and exalting the God who is the slave owner with all power! By praying this they are reminding themselves of the Sovereign Lord who is in control; they are praying to the only One who can do something about their situation! This builds faith.
2. Creator God. After telling God who he is they next pray about WHAT GOD HAS DONE. They rehearse the works of God. He made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. Wow! After spending some time thinking about the glorious works of God, we aren't so shaken up about whatever is going on in our lives. Learn from the early church. They prayed theology!
3. Revealer God. They've told God who he is and what he has done. Now they remind God WHAT HE HAS SAID. Yeah, that's right - they quote the Bible! And here we see more of their theology; they say that God has spoken by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David in the Psalms. This early church already believed that Scripture was God-breathed! That's better than many churches today. Quote Scripture in prayer. Remind God and yourself what he has promised and revealed in Scripture.
4. Predestinating God. For real? They prayed about predestination? Yes. They actually use the word "predestined" in their prayer. And John Calvin has not even been born yet! They have told God who he is, what he has done and what he has said; now they remind him WHAT HE HAS DECIDED (John Stott). They pray about God's eternal decrees; the things he predestined to take place before the foundation of the world (remember, this prayer meeting is in response to being told they can't preach anymore). The authorities have told them one thing, but they are praying to the highest authority, who is sovereign over all things. What faith this theology must have filled these early believers with as they prayed together!
5. The Petition. Finally, after humbling themselves before God; after speaking about who God is, what God has done, what God has said, and what God has decreed and predestined - they finally get around to making their request to God. Their hearts have been prepared by truth; they have the right perspective; they are filled with faith. Now they ASK.
And what is it that they ask for? For God to destroy their enemies? Kick them out of office? No, they tell God to look on their threats ("God, we bring this situation to your attention"), and give us 2 things:
1) Boldness in the Gospel Word, and
2) Power in the Gospel Deed.
What a gospel-saturated, God-centered prayer! They want boldness to preach the gospel and God's power backing it up. Yes, they pray for miracles and healings (Wow, they are not only Calvinists, they are also Charismatics!).
What a prayer!
And God answered this prayer. He shook the place where they were meeting, filled them afresh with the Spirit, and they continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Amen!
May we repent of a disdain for theology and shallow prayers. May we learn to pray by the example of the early believers in Scripture. Let's go deep!