This article is about prayer meetings. The author discusses prayer meetings in the Bible, united prayer, disciplined prayer and watchfulness.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1989. 7 pages.

Only a Prayer Meeting!

Writing over a hundred years ago, in a book entitled, Only a Prayer Meeting!, Spurgeon lamented the declining attendances at church prayer meetings.

Brethren, he wrote, we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians.

There have always been those who have not taken prayer seriously. When it comes to church prayer meetings, they are noted for their absence. There must be many a minister who returns from the weekly prayer meeting dejected, wondering why it is that so few attend. Thankfully, this is not always the case, as this writer can testify.

Luke, in particular, would seem to have had prayer meetings much in mind in writing the Acts.

The New Testament Church: A Praying Church🔗

In the very first chapter we find the church at prayer (Acts 1:12-14). The church immediately following the death of Christ was small. We tend to forget that in its beginnings there was every appearance of the light being extinguished altogether. When we are disconsolate over the smallness of our numbers, it is wonderfully encouraging to be reminded that it was so under the ministry of the Shepherd himself.

Following the death of Judas, another apostle needed to be elected. It was a matter of no mean importance. Church elections are always tense occasions. Luke reminds us of the place of prayer meetings in the life of the church: '…Then they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen"' (Acts 1:24).

In the following chapter, subsequent to the epochal events of Pentecost, Luke describes the character of the New Testament church, emphasising once more its commitment to prayer: 'They devoted them­selves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer' (2:42). Following the initial wave of persecution in which the apostles Peter and John were warned by the Sanhedrin not to preach any more in the name of Jesus, the church immediately sought refuge (and renewed strength) in a prayer meeting. 'Now, Lord', they prayed, 'consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness' (Acts 4:29).

What church has not had its share of strife? The New Testament church was barely a few months old when the women began quarrelling. Luke recounts the incident graphically, at the same time making the point that the apostles were to give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Seven men were chosen to perform this diaconal work. Prayer is once more emphasised (Acts 6:1-7).

It is not overstating the case to say that Luke sees prayer as one of the distinguishing traits of the Christian. The genuineness of Paul's conversion is far less of a problem to us than it was to the church. This man who had consented to the death of their friend and godly companion, Stephen, now lay claim to being one of them. There were many who saw it as a plot. Proof was needed to demonstrate the matter to be genuine. Luke puts it so simply: 'he is praying' (Acts 9:11). B. B. Warfield recounts how, as a student, he would often be taken aback by the claim of his teacher, Dr Charles Hodge, that 'no praying soul was ever lost'! (Faith and Life, pp. 152, 153). Hodge meant genuine, sincere prayer. No less did Luke when referring to Saul of Tarsus.

Other incidents could be mentioned, as when the church embarked on its first missionary campaign to Cyprus and beyond. Luke makes it clear that the men, Paul, Barnabas and John Mark, did not leave without the church having first gathered for prayer (13:3). Then again, in Philippi, there was a prayer meeting that regularly met by the river and was attended largely by women (16:13). Then there is the prayer meeting recorded in Acts 12:1-19.

Special Prayer Meetings🔗

Following James' death by the hands of Herod Agrippa I, Peter also had been imprisoned to await the same fate once the Passover celebrations were over. Having escaped once before, Herod places sixteen soldiers to guard him. It is one of the most touching and astonishing remarks concerning the colourful life of Peter that on the eve of his execution, chained by both wrists, imprisoned and guarded, with no means of escape, Luke tells us that he was asleep! (Acts 12:6). It is, however, the activity of the church that interests us: 'But the church was earnestly praying to God for him' (Acts 12:5).

There are times when it is necessary to have special prayer meetings. Peter was in prison. It was a time of great need. In the morning, the Passover would have finished, and the authorities would be free to execute the apostle.

A crisis can concentrate the mind wonderfully. An all-night prayer meeting in John Mark's house was held for one purpose only: to pray for Peter (note the 'for him' of Acts 12:5). The early Christians were not fatalists. Belief in the sovereignty of God had not led them to say: 'If God wants Peter released he'll do it without our help'.

Once Christians get hold of the doctrine of God's sovereignty it can revolutionise their lives. All at once they see that in every situation God is in perfect control, working out his purposes according to his foreordained plan. Nothing can prevent God from accomplishing that which he has determined to do. The temptation is to think that God's way of accomplishing his ends is to act irrespective of us.

One of the very real temptations of a thorough grasp of the essence of the Reformed (biblical) faith is to imagine that prayer is a dispensable thing. To succumb to this temptation is to misunderstand the doctrine of divine sovereignty in particular, and the Reformed faith in general.

Nowhere does the devil work more arduously, or successfully, in the lives of many Christians than in prayer, or, more correctly, in their lack of it. A thousand excuses can be found to ease the conscience from guilt for the lack of prayer. The day is too busy for family devotions. The mid­week prayer meeting is on the wrong day, or, too far away for us to travel! Sometimes the accusation is that 'the spirit of the meeting is wrong' which, more often than not is a reflection of the cold, unexpecting and unbelieving heart. 'When we go to God by prayer', Richard Sibbes tells us, 'the devil knows we go to fetch strength against him, and therefore he opposes us all he can.'

The believers in Acts were gathered together because of a need. Only the godless will refuse to pray at such times. There is a notable incident recorded in Exodus 14 with respect to Moses. Moses was standing upon the shores of the Red Sea. The Israelites before him were complaining that not only could they hear Pharaoh's chariots, but they could see them. Had he brought them out of Egypt only to be buried in the desert? We read how Moses instructed them not to panic. Moses seems perfectly calm. Then we read of God's word to him: 'Why are you crying out to me?' (Exodus 14:15). All the while, inside himself Moses was pleading with God as to what he should do! There was a need, a great need and Moses prayed. He had just witnessed the sovereign acts of God in the plagues and was about to witness another in the parting of the Red Sea; this fact did not prevent him praying, but rather encouraged him to pray.

It is little wonder that the disciples had such a love for prayer. They had, after all, spent many a prayerful hour with Christ himself. Peter, James and John had spent the eve of Christ's crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane listening to the agony of his soul as he came to terms with the unfolding will of God. Even if they had been guilty of falling asleep during this prayerful vigil, they had heard enough to recollect now just how Christ met his future by prayer. They could recollect, too, that this was not the only occasion on which they had been to this garden to pray (John 18:1, 2). Gethsemane had witnessed Jesus many times in prayer, but never so abased as then. It was the crowning act of his humiliation. So utterly did he take the form of a servant and become a 'man of prayer'.

The Bible presents our Lord as a man of prayer. Early in his Galilean ministry we read of his rising early and going off to a solitary place in order to pray (cf. Mark 1:35). Following the feeding of the five thousand, he sent his disciples across the Sea of Galilee, while he went up into a mountain to pray (Matthew 14:13). Likewise, on the eve of choosing the twelve disciples, Jesus spent the night in prayer (Luke 6:12). Our Lord's incarnation involved his submission to the principle of the second psalm: 'Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance' (Psalm 2:8).

Then again, in response to the moving way in which he prayed, the disciples had asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1f). They had surely been captivated by his High Priestly Prayer in the Upper Room (John, 17). And had he not told them, over and over again, that men ought always to pray and not faint (Luke 18:1ff)?

Our Lord took it for granted that a believer would pray:

Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.Matthew 7:7

He had already, in the Sermon, taught them a model prayer in compliance with their request that he should teach them how to pray, saying, 'When you pray...' (Matthew 6:5-14). He tells his disciples on the eve of the crucifixion, 'And I will do whatever you ask in my name' (John 14:13). The matter was not open to doubt or debate. It was, and is, a matter of definition: a believer prays.

Every father will know what it is to have children pulling at his jacket, shouting 'Daddy! Daddy!' And sometimes we are busy speaking on the telephone, or at the door and cannot give them complete attention for a moment. How impatient they can be! Our Father in heaven is never too busy, of course, but it is just as natural for the believer to cry to him. Often he does delay in responding — to make us so much more dependent and so much less presumptuous. Richard Hooker remarked: 'Prayer is the first thing wherein a righteous life beginneth and the last wherein it doth end.' It is the natural response of the soul who is in communion with God. The blind man perceives the truth that 'God does not listen to sinners' (John 9:31). Even so, it is the hallmark of an unbeliever that he does not 'call on the name of the Lord' (Acts 2:21; cf. 9:14). But God expects to hear the cry of those whose trust is in the Saviour (1 Peter 1:17; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Psalm 14:4).

United Prayer🔗

Although there is an emphasis in the scriptures on private prayer, it is often necessary to point out that Christians are meant to pray together, and thereby to express the unity of the body of Christ. Our Lord gave special promises about occasions when two or more are agreed on earth (Matthew 18:19). And in Acts 12 it is the corporate prayer of the church that is in view. The implicit unanimity in Acts 12 is made explicit elsewhere. Following the events in Jerusalem which culminated in Jesus' crucifixion, the disciples, together with the women, prayed 'with one accord' (Acts 1:14 AV. The NIV loses the sense altogether with its rendering: 'They all joined together constantly in prayer'). The word Luke uses is homothumadon, which he uses no less than eleven times in the Acts. Three times it is to convey the unanimity of evil forces combined against Stephen (7:57), and Paul (9:29; 18:121). On six occasions it is used to describe the unanimity among the disciples (cf. 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 15:25).

The experience of unity in prayer is a fulfilment of Jesus' own prayer for the church (John 17:21). We are called upon to imitate the essential unity which is in God himself: 'that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you! The unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God' (Deuteronomy 6:4) is to be reflected in the life of the church. Prayer meetings could be transformed by recollecting that sharing burdens in common together at the throne of grace ('fellowship' is the New Testament word for it) is a reflection of God's image in our lives.

The power of corporate prayer was seen in the revival of 1857 in the north of Ireland. In 1855 the minister of the Presbyterian Church in Connor in County Antrim started a Bible Class for young men on Sabbath afternoons. He appealed to the young men of the class to meet afterwards for prayer. Initially there were a good number, but eventually, by October of 1857 only four remained: James McQuilken, Jeremiah Meneely, John Wallace and Robert Carlisle. They were encouraged by the support of a minister, the Rev. Wasson from Kellswater Covenanting Church. By October of 1858 there were signs of an awakening in the congregation, which eventually became a full flood.

Earnest Praying🔗

The New Testament Church had grasped that essential truth that the God who ordains the end of all things has also ordained the means of its accomplishment. They gathered together earnestly to pray. 'Prayer', Bunyan once wrote, 'is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Spirit, for such things as God has promised.' And never was there such an intensity of prayer as here in John Mark's house in Jerusalem, where 'many' were gathered together in prayer for Peter.

The word Luke chose to express the zeal with which they prayed is the word ektenés. It is the word which means 'stretched out'. The AV translation has given it the meaning of 'without ceasing'; whereas the precise idea would be better given by the word 'earnestly'. It is one of those pictorial words which conveys the idea of a runner at the beginning of a race with every muscle tensed and 'stretched out'. It is the same word that is used of our Lord's praying in the Garden of Gethsemane: 'And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground' (Luke 22:44).

There was never such prayer offered to God, wrote Hugh Martin. He was charged with the vindication of his Father's honour — with the maintenance of his Father's law — with the salvation of countless thousands through eternity. He had to discharge himself of these responsibilities in one only way, by suffering in all the powers and faculties of his created nature, in soul and body, the infliction of those stripes which should satisfy divine justice and be in the scales of equity a righteous equivalent for the second and eternal death of all for whom he gave himself. He had an amazing and appalling view of justice and terror of such a doom, and his soul became exceeding sorrowful even unto death. No wonder that meeting such a doom with a body such as ours, sensitive in every nerve to every pang of physical endurance — and a soul unutterably more sensitive, in its unspotted purity, to the agony of those spiritual pangs which the frown and displeasure of the Almighty and All-holy One caused him; he should have laboured in the anguish of his spirit to lay hold, in the prayer of faith, importunate and invincible, on the divine upholding power through which alone he could achieve the eternal wonder of an obedient endurance of the corning Cross. Loving his people also with an everlasting love, and alive to the dreadful doom from which he came to save them; understanding in the depths of his created spirit, as he had never till now understood, the bitter endless woe and shame from which he is about to rescue them; and seeing what that dreadful destiny is which must pass upon them and abide on them for ever, if he cannot obediently, willingly, wholly and successfully endure it all in their stead; with a love towards them rising in its action and intensity the more that he apprehends and appreciates all the endless terror from which it is his office and his work now to save them; and the more he apprehends and appreciates that, feeling only the more unfit for going through with the work assigned to him, yet all the more resolved to ransom and redeem his people — no wonder if trembling at the prospect of enduring that wrath of God, and trembling still more at the thought of failing, and so consigning his beloved elect to endure it, he throws himself in agony upon Jehovah as his refuge and his strength — fulfils his Father's prophecy concerning him, "He shall cry unto me, Thou art my Father, my God, and the Rock of my Salvation" — appeals with loud cries to his Father's promise, "My hand shall be established with him, mine arm shall strengthen him; my faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted" —  and in the depths of holy fear offers up supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that is able to save him from death.                                                                            The Shadow of Calvary, pp. 67, 68

Such intensity of prayer as that of Christ in the Garden is now ascribed to these Christians in Jerusalem. Their sole resort was to prayer. The weapon of all-prayer — this was their refuge.

'Some mercies', said Spurgeon, 'are not given to us except in answer to importunate prayer.' Some blessings are like ripe fruit in autumn-time which falls readily into our hands; but for some blessings you need to give the tree a good shaking.

Our Lord gave us many exhortations to be earnest in our praying, including the parables of the friend who arrived at midnight requesting food for his guests (Luke 11:5-13), and the importunate widow (Luke 18:1-8). Jesus encouraged a holy impudence in praying. Thomas Brooks says of it:

Fervent prayer is the soul's contention, the soul struggling with God; it is sweating work, it is the sweat and blood of the soul, it is a laying out to the uttermost all the strength and powers of the soul. He that would gain victory over God in private prayer, must strain every string of his heart; he must, in beseeching God, besiege him, and so get the better of him; he must be like importunate beggars, that will not be put off by frowns, or silence, or sad answers. Those that would be masters of their requests, must like the importunate widow, press God so far as to put him to an holy blush, as I may say with reverence; they must with an holy impudence, as Basil speaks, make God ashamed that he cannot look us in the face if he should deny the importunity of our souls.The Privy Key of Heaven, Works, Vol. 2, pp. 258, 259

Specific Prayer🔗

Then again, prayer should be specific. Luke tells us that this prayer meeting had been called for one reason only: the imprisonment and possible execution of Peter. They prayed 'for him' (Acts 12:5). 'You know, dear friends', Spurgeon once commented, 'there is a way of praying in which you ask for nothing, and get it.' It may be a good prayer, full of theological expressions of the highest order, reflecting both reverence and worship. But if it is not specific as to its request it is not earnest praying.

Suppose, Spurgeon went on to say, you go into a banker's office, and stand at the counter and say, "I want some money?" The clerk says, "How much do you want, sir? Please put the amount down on this cheque!" "Oh, I do not want to be specific; you can give me a few hundred pounds, I do not know to a sixpence how much I want, I am not sure that I could put it down in black and white!" You will get no money at all that way; but if you put it down in black and white exactly how much you want — spell it in letters, and put it down also in figures — the clerk will give you the money if you have so much in your account at the bank. So if you have an account with the great God ... go and ask for what you want.

Some prayer meetings should be burdened with only one thing. Perhaps it is the very sameness of our prayer meetings that causes such apathy and indifference to grow in the hearts of certain Christians. We just know, for example, that when a certain person begins to pray that nothing is going to be left out. Why do we feel that a truly mature prayer has to range from 'Dan to Beersheba'?

Spurgeon did not feel bound to give an expository address at his Monday evening prayer meetings at the Tabernacle. He would make a few casual remarks only. Noting some of the faults of prayer meetings, Spurgeon commented on one in particular: the excessive length of the prayers.

A brother, he commented, would fix himself against the table-pew, and pray for twenty minutes or half-an-hour, and then conclude by asking forgiveness for his shortcomings — a petition hardly sanctioned by those who had undergone the penance of endeavouring to join in his long-winded discourse. A good cure for this evil is for the minister judiciously to admonish the brother to study brevity; and if this avail not, to jog his elbow when the people are getting weary. This fault is the ruin of all fervency, and ought to be extirpated by all means, even at the expense of the personal feelings of the offender.

Disciplined Prayer🔗

We always have to be sure that our praying is in accordance with the mind and will of God. The promise of Matthew 7:7-12 is a broad one. We are to ask, seek and knock because 'everyone who asks, receives; he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened!' In John 14:14 the promise runs like this: 'You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!' There is, of course, a restriction: 'This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us' (1John. 5:14).

No one has seen this more clearly than Calvin, for, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion he distinguishes between disciplined and indisciplined prayer. Despite the seeming largeness of the promises of Matthew 7:7f we are, says Calvin, 'not to ask any more than God allows. For even though he bids us pour out our hearts before him (Psalm 62:8; cf. Psalm 145:19), he still does not indiscriminately slacken the reins to stupid and wicked emotions; and while he promises to act according to the will of the godly, his gentleness does not go so far as to yield to their willfulness' (Institutes III,20,v).

Our praying must always be in accordance with God's will. This, says Calvin again, is to be a 'bridle' to keep us from vanity. Clearly, then, 'to pray rightly is a rare gift'.

Prayer must always be full of worship. Though Luke does not tell us the content of their praying except that it was 'for Peter', elsewhere he makes plain what was the kind of praying that was characteristic of the early Church.

There is a more interesting example of this in Acts chapter 4. Having been on trial by the Sanhedrin for healing the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, the apostles were warned severely not to preach to the people any more in the name of Jesus. It was very probable that they might even suffer death if they continued. Returning to the others and no doubt worried, confused and perplexed by the circumstances, we read that 'when they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them...' (Acts 4:24). They were in trouble. They were perplexed. But they prayed! And the way they prayed was to worship the Lord! Real as the difficulties were, they began by meditating upon the infinite God, upon his majesty, power and glory. They praised him! Every prayer meeting should be like this, full of the aroma of worship, hearts bursting with expressions of love and praise, wonder and awe!


After prayer we are to be watchful, expecting the answers to be given to our requests. How often our unbelief has been revealed at this very point! How often when the Lord has been pleased to grant our requests, we have been quite surprised!

When Rhoda told the praying disciples that Peter was standing outside, they did not believe her! 'There is no surer mark of trifling in prayer, than when men are careless what they get by prayer', says Robert Traill. It would be a harsh judgment on these disciples to accuse them of trifling in prayer. They certainly prayed with great earnestness, yet their prayers were filled with doubts. They did not believe that God would really grant their requests and open the prison doors! And we too, have been negligent here.

Elijah was quite different. Having prayed for rain, he sent his servant up to look at the horizon and watch for clouds. Despite the sixfold, 'There is nothing', Elijah continued a seventh time to pray. Then there appeared a cloud the size of a man's hand. It speaks to us, not only of perseverance in prayer, but of watchfulness. How often the words of Anselm of Canterbury have proved true at this point: 'God does not delay to hear our prayers because he had no mind to give; but that by enlarging our desires, he may give us the more largely.'

There is a discipline in perseverance in prayer. There is also a discipline of watchfulness:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen wait for the morning. Psalm 130:5, 6

The psalmist is alluding to the watchman in his tower gazing eastward for the first signs of morning, so that he may trumpet to the temple the signal to begin the early morning sacrifices. So the apostle exhorts:

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful (be alive, awake) and thankful.Colossians 4:2

The problem is that unbelief lurks within our hearts.

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