As we examine the scriptures, we discover that the churches of the first century came together for at least six different kinds of meetings. Due to the prevailing social conditions, they may not have been able to conduct services on separate days and therefore it is possible that many of these meetings followed on from each other at one session. What we do know is that those early believers met for prayer, and in Acts there are several references to the prayer life of the church at Jerusalem.
‘They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers’. That this is a reference to collective and not individual private prayer is evident. The breaking of bread is not a personal thing and, by definition, ‘fellowship’ is not a personal matter, so the prayers in this case are not personal but collective.
The word ‘steadfastly’ conveys the thought of continuing in or adhering to prayer; it is the opposite of being spasmodic or indifferent. Thus, a feature of the church at Jerusalem was their commitment to collective praying. Perhaps we should challenge ourselves as to the degree of our commitment to the prayer meeting. Sadly, in many places the prayer meeting is the most poorly attended of all the church services. We heartily sing, ‘What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer’, but may find it irksome to attend the prayer meeting. Truly it is an inestimable privilege to move boldly in God’s presence and there to present our supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks.
‘When they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost’. We must always remember that the book of Acts is a transitional book and therefore there are certain aspects of the narrative that cannot be replicated today. In addition, this degree of power and its impact on the place where they met did not happen every time they prayed. However, the passage of time over the last two millennia has not resulted in God’s power being diminished. Neither is God any less willing to respond to the prayers of His people today.
This was a prayer meeting that was focused and dynamic. I am sure we would all desire to be part of a prayer meeting that was so potent, fresh and effective, but that is only possible to the degree that the prayer life of the individual members is characterized by these qualities. If my personal prayer time is lethargic and ineffective, then it should not surprise me if the same is true of the assembly prayer meeting.
‘Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him’. Whilst this could infer that the individuals in the church were praying for Peter, it does not exclude the probability that they met together. A little later in the chapter it states, ‘he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying’, v. 12. That which happened in chapter 2 verse 42 was still happening; the church was continuing in prayer. On this occasion, they met to pray about something specific. They would not have met to pray for Peter like this every time they held a prayer meeting, but here was a particular need.
How many assemblies adopt this same principle? In addition to our scheduled prayer meetings, do we ever hold special times of prayer for something specific? It might be a facet of the Lord’s work, maybe a certain individual has a particular need and meetings are convened to pray for them. When last did we have a series of meetings just to pray about the neighbourhood around the hall where we meet? I know of an assembly that held forty-two consecutive nights of prayer for one of the elders who was seriously ill. At the end of those six weeks the brother died. Maybe a lesson that comes from this incident is that we should not think that the amount of time we spend in prayer, nor the number of people praying, brings a guarantee that we will get what we asked for.
There are those who teach that the church at Jerusalem was weak in faith. They prayed for Peter, but when he arrived at the house no one believed Rhoda when she told them that Peter was outside. In fact, they accused her of being mad. It is assumed that the church had been praying for Peter’s release from prison and when it happened they did not have the faith to believe it. This assumption may not be correct, for the passage does not indicate they had been praying for Peter’s release, it simply says, ‘prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him’. Perhaps they were not praying that he would be set free from prison but that he would not fail in his testimony in the way he had done on the night of the Lord’s betrayal.
There is a possibility that in our personal praying and in the assembly prayer meetings we can become very parochial and limit our prayers to what is immediate to us. In examining various sections of the New Testament, we learn that there should be a broad scope to the things which we pray about. In 1 Timothy chapter 2, the apostle writes, ‘I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty’. In his letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul exhorts, ‘brethren pray for us’, 1 Thess. 5. 25, and James in his Epistle writes, ‘pray one for another’, Jas. 5. 16. To summarize the verses in these various Epistles, we may say that we should pray for the sovereigns (kings), the statesmen (those in authority), sinners (all men), saints (one another) and the servants (pray for us).
This list is not exhaustive and also within each of these groupings there will be a diversity of things to pray about. For example, if there were a disaster or major incident somewhere we would pray for it and in so doing we would be praying for the unbelievers as well as the Lord’s people. Other matters we could incorporate in prayer are school governors; they help shape what goes on in schools, including school assembly and other opportunities for the gospel to be preached to children. How often do we pray for social workers? They are involved in formulating the social policies of our country. Do we pray for organizations that distribute relief to areas devastated by famine, drought or other disasters? The list is vast so we should never be at a loss as to what we can pray about in our prayer meetings.
Although we may not get involved in politics, we ought to be aware of what is happening, for separation does not mean we bury our heads in the sand. We cannot pray intelligently for those in authority unless we have some awareness as to what is going on. Equally, how can we pray for the unbelievers if we do not get to know them and the issues they have? We need to retain our separation without turning that into isolation. What a witness we can be within our locality if, as a fellowship, we are known for ‘good works’ then when we tell people we are praying for them it will mean a lot more to them.
The direct answer is everyone, brethren and sisters. Even before there was an assembly at Philippi, the women met at the riverside to pray. In Acts chapter 1, we read of the apostles that they ‘all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren’, v. 14.
However, there is a distinction to be made. In the church prayer meeting, only the brethren are to pray publicly. In 1 Timothy chapter 2, Paul refers to men in verses 1, 4 and 5. In those three instances the word ‘men’ means everyone, males and females; it equates to our word ‘mankind’. In verses 8 and 12, the word ‘man’, or the plural form ‘men’, is a different word to that in verses 1, 4 and 5; it refers to males as distinct from females. The teaching of the New Testament is unequivocal; only the males are to pray publicly.
There is much more that could be written on this subject, but, to conclude, it may be beneficial to highlight some practical matters. It should not be expected that every brother will pray for all the things listed above in one meeting, nor is it expected that one brother will pray for all these issues. When we meet for collective prayer, we will pray about a few matters, but, collectively, we will cover many matters.
It is a good practice for brethren to come to the prayer meeting prepared, knowing before they start praying publicly what they are going to pray about. This will help ensure our prayers are focused and not protracted. Long meandering prayers stifle and spoil a prayer meeting and make it burdensome for sisters. The longest prayer in the Bible was Solomon’s at the dedication of the temple; it can be read in less than six minutes. Brethren also need to remember that sisters also need time to pray inaudibly.
The assembly prayer meeting should not be utilized for dropping hints or giving exhortation. That may appear to be a bizarre statement to make, but many readers will know that there have been occasions when brethren have expressed in prayer matters they actually aim at the ears of the saints more than the ear of God.
Truly, it is a privilege to ‘carry everything to God in prayer’. He is able to do ‘exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think’ and we have ‘boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus’. The church at Jerusalem was a praying church; let us also be similarly engaged.
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