Preparation for Prayer
G. G. Hill, Newport, Mon.
With the loss of James and the imprisonment of Peter, the early church must have been perplexed, Acts 12. 1-5. But what was their reaction? They prayed "earnestly". The Greek word used here to describe the prayer literally means "stretched out". It is used elsewhere in the Scriptures, and looked at in other contexts will help us to clarify the meaning of the word.
In Luke 22. 44 it is translated earnestly. Our Lord, in the garden of Gethsemane, was in an agony. The knowledge of what lay ahead and the dreadfulness of Calvary caused Him to fall prostrate and pray the more "earnestly", so that "his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground". Peter uses the word in i Peter 4. 8 when he bids Christians to be fervent in their love one for another. In Jonah 3. 8 it is translated cry mightily. When the king of Nineveh heard of God's pronounced judgment on Nineveh for her wicked ways and saw how the people sought after God in repentance, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. Then he made a proclamation: "let them cry mightily unto God; yea, let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands".
In the book of Joel Israel's wickedness had drawn forth from God judgment in the form of a plague of locusts and a drought. With the crops and fruit destroyed, the meal and drink offering had to cease. The dearth brought with it the realization that they would be unable to bring "the first of the fruit of the ground", Deut. 26. 10-11, or keep the feast of weeks and tabernacles, Deut. 16. 9-15, and in anguish they tore at their garments. Do not rend "your garments" said God, "rend your heart"; "Turn ye unto me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning", Joel 2. 12-13.
While it was true that the people of Israel could not offer the meal offering or drink offering; there was one thing they could do. They could sanctify a fast; they could call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land and go to the house of the Lord their God, and there, "Cry (in prayer) unto the Lord", 1.14. Here, "cry" is the same word.
We can see from these few examples the type of prayer that the church prayed in Acts 12. 5:
1. It was earnest prayer.
2. It did not fade in effort.
3. In it they unceasingly "cried mightily" to God.
But prior to prayer, there must come preparation. In Joel, before they cried to the Lord, they set apart a fast and called a solemn assembly, 1. 14. In Jonah, "They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth", the king "sat in ashes", and the people drank no water, Jonah 3. 5-8. Then and not until then did they "cry mightily unto God", after signs of profound repentance, the genuineness of which was shown in their turning from their evil way.
We also have a preparation. It is to be "of sound mind" and "sober unto prayer", 1 Pet. 4. 7. The same word sound occurs in Mark 5. 15, "And they come to Jesus, and behold him . . . sitting, clothed and in his right mind". Such a healthy mind is a controlled mind that has purged itself of all that is unseemly and is directing its gaze towards spiritual things. It is a mind that has put away all malice, all guile, envy and conceit, 1 Pet. 2. 1, replacing them with forbearance, kindness, purity, and love. A mind that lovingly forgives, overflowing with mercy and fruit-bearing thoughts. It is not doubleminded or unstable, James 1. 8, and above all it is a yielded mind, controlled by the Holy Spirit in the bonds of tranquility. Such a healthy mind is one that has been renewed, Eph. 4. 23.
The word sober means "to be calm and collected", that is, composed, tranquil, settled, not impetuous, passionate, excitable or wayward, not fanciful or exaggerated. We can illustrate this with Ephesians 5. 18, "be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot, but be filled with the Spirit". What is riot or debauchery? It is the habit of indulgence to gratify the senses, a bad habit that distorts and perverts both vision and morals, causing a lack of self-control. To be intoxicated with worldly emotions, is, in a sense, like being drunk with wine; it inclines to pervert our spiritual lives, especially our prayer life.
"Wherefore", writes Peter in 1 Peter 1. 13, "girding up the loins of your mind, be sober". This is an Eastern or Oriental expression. Very often the long flowing robes which were worn proved to be a hindrance and impeded progress, so when performing certain functions, they would gather up their robes and tuck them in at the waist. With the encumbrance removed they were prepared for action. We have a similar expression in English when we speak of "rolling up our sleeves". Peter says, in effect, "Roll up the sleeves of your mind", remove the encumbrances, those sins which cling so closely, be alert - be sober. He also says that the Lord's eyes are upon the righteous, and his ears unto their supplications, 3.12, that is, God is near, earnestly listening to the prayers of those who are living spiritually healthy lives. He is right in the midst of them - listening intently and desiring to answer.
Paul told the Colossians to "continue steadfastly in prayer, watching therein with thanksgiving", Col. 4. 2. To "continue steadfastly" means to be unyielding and persevering, the type of unyielding perseverance that Jacob demonstrated in Genesis 32. Although exhausted through wrestling all night and with his thigh dislocated, Jacob, realising the supernatural character of his opponent, refused when bid to let go unless he was blessed. Watching in prayer is to give it our strict attention, to be awake to it, alert for it and active in it, but with a thankful heart for all that God has done.
In Asia, Paul and Timothy were weighed down by continual affliction so that they despaired even of life itself. But God, teaching them to rely on Him and not on themselves, brought them through. They wrote to the Corinthian church about those things saying that, should such events happen again, God would deliver them, for they had set their hope on Him. But they needed the Corinthians' help, "ye also helping together on our behalf by your supplication", 2 Cor. 1. n. Moreover, many would give thanks on their behalf for the blessing granted by God in answer to many prayers.
During the holiday season at a fishing village in Cornwall, a crowd had gathered to watch the turbulent waves of a rough sea pounding against the harbour wall. Suddenly there was a cry; someone had noticed a boy in the water. The waves lifted him up as though he were a cork and carried him away. Suddenly, through the crowd a man forced his way with a coil of rope. Tying one end of the rope around his waist and throwing the other end to the crowd, he shouted "Someone take hold of the rope". Then quickly diving into the sea, he battled against the waves and slowly reached the boy. Grasping him safely in his arms, he shouted back to the crowd on the harbour wall, "Pull on the rope". The people looked at one another. In the excitement, no one had bothered to take hold of the rope, and looking down they saw that it had slipped into the sea and was drifting away out of reach. Helplessly they watched those two lives go down because no one had bothered to get hold of the other end of the rope.
How sad would those who serve on the mission fields be if they thought that, back at home, there was no one on the end of the rope, pulling - in prayer. This not only applies to the mission field, but also to the many others who need someone pulling - in prayer: the aged and the infirm, those with physical and mental ailments, those who are going through times of trial and anxiety, those who sorrow and mourn, those friends and relations who, with unbelieving hearts, are heading for a Christless grave; such folk need the pull of prayer. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote,
"More things are wrought by prayer than this world
dreams of. For what are men better than sheep or
goats if, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
both for themselves and those who call them friend."
Prayer should not be a word, it should be an action. Like Elijah, we should "Pray with prayer", James 5.17 marg.; this means real prayer, not just a building up of empty phrases, but prayer that is earnest and constant. We thus follow the early church, who "continued steadfastly in ... the prayers".