Yesterday we concluded with the idea that not all prayers are necessarily offered to God.
Some years ago I heard of a minister in Boston who was known for his eloquent prayers. In those days what went on in prominent churches on Sunday was still reported in the newspapers, and it was reported in the Boston papers the day following one of this man’s services that his was “the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience.” The paper was not trying to be humorous, though they were directly on the mark. The prayer probably was offered to the audience rather than to God, and there are probably very many other prayers like it, only perhaps not so eloquent. Ministers pray in a way they hope will please the people, and sometimes lay people do the same.
One of the best books I have ever read about prayer is The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power, by Reuben Torrey. At one point he relates how a discovery that prayer is actually meeting with God transformed prayer for him.
The day came when I realized what real prayer meant, realized that prayer was having an audience with God, actually coming into the presence of God and asking and getting things from Him….The realization of that fact transformed my prayer life. Before that prayer had been a mere duty, and sometimes a very irksome duty, but from that time on prayer has been not merely a duty but a privilege, one of the most highly esteemed privileges of life. Before that the thought that I had was, “How much time must I spend in prayer?” The thought that now possesses me is, “How much time may I spend in prayer without neglecting the other privileges and duties of life?”1
2. The Christians were praying together. What is involved in this particular example of prayer is not individual prayer, important as that may be, but what we would call “united prayer,” Christian people meeting together to pray in harmony. There is great value in that! The value is in the unity of mind and spirit that corporate prayer brings.
Most often we think of the value of united prayer in quantitative terms, probably because Americans usually think of quantity before quality. We suppose that if one prayer is good, well, two prayers must be better. If ten prayers don’t get what we want, we should get twenty people praying. If we have a big project or want something very important from God, we start a prayer chain. For us the value of an all-night prayer vigil is not in the seriousness and fervency of the prayer but in the fact that we are able to get more prayers offered in that way, and get them offered around the clock, at all hours, in case God is not paying attention in the daytime. That is not a Christian concept, of course. It is pagan. It has more in common with the worship of Baal than of Jehovah. The value of united prayer is that the minds and hearts of God’s people are being brought together on that matter.
3. The Christians were praying earnestly. We discover how true this was when we get into the story and find that although Peter was released in the middle of the night, when almost everyone in Jerusalem was sleeping, when he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, the Christians were nevertheless gathered there praying. They must have been praying all night since, in those days, it was not safe to wander around the streets in the dark. They must have collected after work when it was still light. Now it was much later and they were still praying. If Peter had not come, they would have gone on praying until morning. That is good biblical example of earnest prayer, something we know very little about today, at least in the United States.
Those who have studied revivals tell us that there has never been a great revival that has not been preceded by strong, fervent, united prayer by Christian people. Usually it starts small, with two or three getting together, saying, “Let’s pray that God will visit us and send a revival in our time.” But these groups grow until there are many whose hearts are united to pray for it. It is out of such prayer that great revivals come.
4. The Christians were praying specifically. Not only did the Christians pray to God, pray together, and pray fervently, but they also were specific since the text says they were praying to God “for him” (v. 5), that is, for Peter. It never hurts to be specific in our prayers. We know that sometimes we pray wrongly, of course. We ask amiss, as James says, especially when we pray for ourselves or something we very much want. In such cases we get our selfish desires mixed with our proper desires. We have a much better chance of praying rightly and therefore getting what we pray for when we pray for someone else or when we pray for spiritual rather than material or physical things.
1R. A. Torrey, The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1955), 77.