23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. - Acts 4:23-31
This is a simple passage. The believers were afraid. They prayed. God answered. That's it. And the simplicity is very helpful for us, because there's no real way we'll miss the point of this passage: prayer defeats fear. Why? Because God defeats fear. So, let's look at what I call "the prayer that defeated fear." This prayer consists of two parts:
It starts by asserting that God is in complete control.
It finishes by asking God to give what is lacking so that we may continue to serve Him.
But before we get into those two parts, let’s look at what happened first: The believers gathered together to hear Peter and John's threatening encounter with Caiaphas, Annas and the rest of the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
Being alone with fear is awful. That’s when it really digs in and starts to mess you up. Our mind starts running wild with all sorts of scenarios depending on what the threat is.
What were the Apostles and believers afraid of? They were afraid that they would be imprisoned, beaten, killed, cut off from each other, from their wives and families. They were afraid that the threats spoken by the religious authorities would be acted on. They were afraid, so they gathered together and they prayed.
Verse 24: "they lifted their voices together to God"
When you are afraid, call in the reinforcements and make it your first priority to pray.
Now, let’s look at part one: They began their prayer by asserting that God is in complete control.
Saints, begin this way. Begin by asserting and declaring that the God you are addressing is in complete control.
About two years ago I was raising funds for our church plant. One thing I was taught was that when you raise funds, you should do your best to know how much a group or person can actually give, and them ask them for that amount. So, if I was talking to someone just starting their first job, I might ask if they could help us with a one-time gift of $100, or a monthly gift of $10. When I talked to big churches I might ask if they could give $20,000. This is a good analogy to prayer. In prayer, we don’t raise funds—we raise our voices. And who do we raise them to?
We raise them to God who is in complete control over everything. Come with confidence to the throne room of heaven.
Their prayer begins by calling God: “Despotos” … The ESV translate it “Sovereign Lord.” “Despotos” was a title given to people who had legal possession over other things and over other people. If you were the owner of slaves, you could be called “Despotos”. If you were Caesar, you could be called, “Despotos.” They call God, “Despotos”—because God has possession and authority over all things, all situations and all people.
God has made everything and he has ordained everything. Start there and fear will start to recede. You are afraid because something bad may happen—or is happening—and you are powerless to stop it. Fear is that emotion which throws faith into doubt. Is God in control? Does he see my struggle? Can he help? Is he strong enough to save me? Yes! Yes! Yes!
God is powerful over all things. You have an ally in heaven who knows no fear.
So, begin your prayer by raising it on strongest foundation there is: God’s Sovereignty.
Verse 24: “Sovereign Lord,--Despotos—who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them”.
Why do you fear? All the world is His. All people are his. The birds of the sky and the fish in the sea, and the bees in the hive are his. The hills, the trees, the rivers—and all that we have built on this earth—it is all God’s. Whatever we may own or enjoy is only for a season.
Josh Ritter is a musician I’ve enjoyed for years. He’s a great songwriter, but his theology—at least in one song—is built on fear. In a beautiful song called Thin Blue Flame, written during the Iraqi war he sings these lyrics:
"If God's up there he's in a cold dark room
The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons
He bent down and made the world in seven days
And ever since he's been a'walking away"
That’s fear talking, telling you: God’s locked up in heaven. God doesn’t care. God may have made this world, but ever since he’s been walking away. Has he? Is that why there is war and famine? Is that why you suffer and are afraid?
Every page of God’s revelation to us says, “No”. Even though it feels that way some days, it’s not reality. He’s not “God Away From Us”, but “God With Us” –Emmanuel, present now in his Spirit. The believers prayed to God as Creator, and then they prayed to God as Controller—that is the one who is in complete control.
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’
Those words were written a 1,000 years ago in Psalm 2—and now God has brought them to pass in the life of Jesus Christ. That’s their prayer in verse 27.
27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
The death of Jesus and the persecution that they face, is happening because the hand of God, and the plan of God had pre-determined that it must happen this way. God had chosen to send his Son to die for our sins. God had signalled through the prophets that the Messiah he would send "must suffer." That's the phrase the apostles often quoted to their peers who were shocked that the man convicted to death by the joint-powers in Jerusalem was actually the Messiah sent to save them.
As the believers pray these truths, the Spirit bringing to their mind and their lips truths long established by God himself, the threats driving their fears are utterly defanged, because even the worst things they can imagine are under God's control. You’ve got to grab hold of this truth and speak it—pray it out loud—when you are afraid. And note this church:
But God's hand and God's plan didn't include only the death of Jesus Christ. God's hand and God's plan reach all the way through the universe.
If you're a Christian, that includes your own salvation: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29)
That includes his rule over nature: “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. He covers the heavens with clouds; he prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry.” (Psalm 147)
It also includes his rule over the nations and their leaders: “You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you.” (2 Chronicles 20:6) and “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)
Every molecule of the universe bends to the Will of God. When you are afraid, having called in the reinforcements, be it a spouse, a couple of close friends, your pastor, whomever ... begin your prayers by asserting the complete control of God over and in the situation you face, and quite often, you feel fear lessening before you've even asked God to do anything. This takes us to part two.
Part two: Ask God for what you lack so that you can keep serving him.
Verse 29-30: And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
They call themselves “servants”, but that’s a soft translation: the real word they use is “slaves”. God is the Master; we are the Slaves—our greatest joy is to do his bidding. And what do these slaves of the Lord ask for? They ask for boldness to speak God’s Words because they need it to keep witnessing: it’s getting tough out there. And they need it because they lack it.
Consider the fears that well up in your mind and heart: What do you need to God to give you to overcome them and continue to live a life in service to God?
For example, perhaps you fear for your children—you are afraid that they will be sucked into America’s hyper-violent, hyper-sexualized adolescent world: that they’ll lose their bearings, give into temptations, turn away from following Jesus and hurt themselves deeply along the way. This fear is inside you. How do you pray?
First you declare God’s complete control over the entire world, and specifically the life of your child.
Second, you may ask God to give you:
Courage over these fears
Trust in his plan to put that child in your home
Words to teach your child the gospel, not the law
Insight to see how much your fear is actually tied to you wanting a reputation as a ‘good parent’
Don't ask what you need to live the life you have planned for your self, but rather, ask the Lord to give you what you need to continue serving Him. The apostle's example is not restricted to them, but is a model for all of us. Jesus Christ has freed you from sins so that you can live for him, offering up your life as an instrument of righteousness, to do the good works which God has planned in advance for you to do.
What’s surprising is that they don’t ask for God to stop the opposition. They simply ask God to “look upon their threats”—and give them boldness to keep witnessing.
But they also ask for one more thing: they prayed for more healings, signs and wonders to be performed by them through the name of Jesus—the great holy Servant of God.
What do you think? Should we pray for this to happen, too, or is this just an Apostolic Age prayer? I don’t know about you, but I believe in pray for God to do the miraculous. I wouldn’t be comfortable praying that it would happen through me or another person—but I do pray that God would act directly and miraculously in our midst—to authenticate, once again, the truth of the gospel.
Lastly, as a final encouragement to pray, Luke shows us that God answered their prayer: the Holy Spirit filled them up again, sent them back out again, and spoke through them again, ignoring all the threats they had just heard.
31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
If you're afraid now, even as you read this, apply the lessons of this passage today: call in the reinforcements and pray together. Declare God's complete control over salvation, nature, nations, the conflict you face, and ask him to give you what you lack through his Spirit so that you can forward today without fear.