Sunday Services: 9:00am & 10:45am

If You Can’t Take the Heart—Pray

Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek

In literature or film we call the “inciting incident” the event that puts a new story, a whole new plot in motion. The inciting incident is the spark that ignites the engine of the film or novel; it’s the thing that happens that pulls the leading character into action.  

As we preach through the book of Acts, it would be fair to say the one inciting incident for the book is the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2—that is, if we can call all that one event, the one inciting incident that puts everything else in motion.  

But it could also be said that several other, smaller inciting incidents put new, sub-stories into motion. Two weeks ago we taught Acts 3 in which Peter and John see a beggar who has been unable to walk for forty years, unable since birth. Having been with Jesus for three years, Peter and John were trained to see the plight of those around them. Having been with Jesus, Peter’s antenna picked up the signals of the broken. And this inciting incident—this seeing by Peter—led to a healing, which led to a sermon, which led to the conversion of more than 5,000 people, which led to the commotion, which lead to annoyance and jealousy of the religious leaders, which lead to an arrest and an another speech by Peter. After this, Peter and John are released, which is where we pick up the story.  

What will they do? They’ve just been tried and arrested and threatened by the same court that crucified Jesus. I remember getting my haircut once, and the women cutting my hair heard from me that I was a pastor, and as her scissors were right by my eyes, she asked why I was a Christian. I was like, “Well, once you move those, then I’ll tell you.”  

“Do not speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” Peter and John were charged by the religious leaders (4:18). These threats, they had to assume, were not empty. What will they do? What would you do? They prayed for boldness and preached anyway.  

Scripture Reading 

Follow along with me as I read Acts 4:23–31, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher and study this passage together.  

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. 

Prayer  

This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .” 

Introduction 

Before pastoring I worked for a construction company a number of years, and our office has a subscription to Sports Illustrated. I remember one issue catching our attention more than others and became a running joke around the office. You might not be aware of this, but for over a decade there was a World Sauna Championship. It took place in Finland. Men and women would sit in saunas until they could no longer take it. A sauna is a room paneled with cedar and pumped full of heat. In the World Sauna Championships you didn’t run or lift or swim or throw a ball or kick a ball. You sat in a swimsuit until you could no longer sit.  

Famed sportswriter Rick Reilly called it “the world’s dumbest sport” (here). Reilly knows. He entered the competition once, and after just over three minutes, he couldn’t take the heat, so he got out of the sauna.  

The rules of the competition, in case you’re curious, entailed statements such as, 

  • The starting temperature is 110 degrees Celsius (about 230 degrees Fahrenheit). 
  • Competitors must not disturb each other. 
  • At the request of the judges, competitors must show that they are in their senses with a thumbs up. 
  • The last person leaving the sauna unaided is the winner. (Wikipedia

If this sounds like just the sport for you, I suppose you can find a local sauna and compete informally, but the World Sauna Championship disbanded. The final elimination round in 2010 between the top two competitors became a duel to the death—both were carried out of the sauna, and one competitor died and the other barely lived but only after an extended stay in a hospital.  

That story is both silly and serious. But it surfaces the idea that we all have a temperature level, a certain heat, we cannot take. There comes a time when we say enough is enough. And it’s one thing to compete in a game where for fun and for competition you test your mettle, but it’s another thing when your life feels like one big sauna that keeps getting hotter, and the door is locked. Then what do you do? You pray.  

In our passage, Peter and John and the rest of these early Christians had the heat of persecution turned up and they did not want to wilt. They did not want to walk away from the faith and from their savior and from obedience to him. They wanted to thrive. And for that, they knew they needed God. So they prayed to him.  

Though it’s cold outside today, some of you feel like you are wilting in the heat of some trial or another. As we look closer at this passage, perhaps the truths about God that the early church held might bring refreshment you need to continue to not only survive but bear fruit.  

1. The Bigness of Our God 

Before we talk about what they asked for in their prayers, let’s begin by looking at the view of God these Christians cherished, the view of God that animated their prayers. Look at vv. 23–24 again.  

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, 

They call God sovereign. God rules and reigns. He’s a king with power and authority and dominion. No political superpower, no earthly king, no army can thwart his plan. That’s what the early church believed about their God. When Christians began to be arrested, I’m sure someone among them had some connection to someone with political power who they could petition. Maybe they did that too. But what we know they did, and what we know they did first, was go to the supreme political authority.  

And they called God the maker of “heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them.” Think about that. There are depths of the sea that no scientist has seen or may ever see—and not only has God seen the depths of the sea, but he made them. My oldest son has been building a model of the solar system. Yesterday we glued the planets into place as the solar system rested on our countertop. God didn’t just glue planets, he made them. We have telescopes that reach to distant portions of the universe, which only give us a glimpse of how big the whole universe is. But God made all of it.  

Last year we studied through the book of Job in the Old Testament. In that book, God confronts Job and us with how small we perceive God. In a series of dozens of questions, God reminds Job that he is the maker of heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them. Listen to a few of the questions God asks Job. God asks Job if he knows when the mountain goat gives birth. He askes Job if he watches the path of the wild donkey. He asks if the wild ox can be tamed to serve Job the way God has tamed and the ox and the ox serves him. He asks Job if Job gives the horse his might. He asks Job if he causes the hawk to soar or the eagle to make his nest in the tallest of mountains. And those are just a few of the questions he’s asked (all in Job 39). 

Peter and John and the early church and Christians have this view of God—the maker of and ruler over creation. Why is this encouraging to those in a trial? Why would this encourage you when you share about Jesus and people get angry? Our God is so big and so strong and so mighty, they pray, that there’s nowhere in creation where you can go that God can’t help you and comfort you.  

In the next few verses in their prayer in Acts 4, we read of these Christians calling to mind Psalm 2 in their prayer. They let the Scriptures inform their prayers, which is partly why when our elders pray in the services, we try to incorporate Scripture. The psalms in the Old Testament are like they hymnbook for the people of God. And at this moment, when the heat of persecution is turned up, these early Christians called to mind a hymn about the persecution of God’s anointed leader and God’s sovereignty over the situation.  

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. 

Psalm 2 isn’t a long hymn, but we’re not going to go back and read the whole thing. But let me give you the sense of what happens in it. God anoints a chosen king—in that case, David—and the nations and rulers and kings rebel against the anointed king, yet without success. It’s like they are punching a punching bag that keeps swinging back into place. The anointed king is attacked but unmoved. In their prayer, they only quote part of the hymn. But look at the next lines from Psalm 2 right after what they quoted.  

4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; 
    the Lord holds them in derision. 
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, 
    and terrify them in his fury, saying, 
6 “As for me, I have set my King 
    on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psalm 2:4–6) 

When the church prayed this prayer and quoted this psalm in their prayer, they were doing two things. They were saying that like David, the Lord’s anointed king in the Old Testament, was persecuted by godless rulers, so the Lord’s greater King, Jesus Christ the anointed one, the Messiah, was persecuted by godless rulers such as Herod and Pilate and the religious leaders. They see a connection between David and the greater David who is Jesus.  

I don’t believe that’s the main thing they are doing. The main connection they are making was the continuity of God. They believe the same God who saw and planned and orchestrated all that back then, is the same God who saw and planned and orchestrated all this now. Their point is not simply that God the Father knew all this would happen, but that he planned it. To anyone who thinks they are going to thwart God’s plans, he laughs. He has set his king on his holy hill, and he will not be moved—not then, not now, not ever. Their doctrine of God sustained their devotion to God in the heat of persecution. If you feel like doctrine and devotion do not go together, I’d simply ask you, when you pray, who do you pray to? It’s doctrine that specifies who you pray to and why you pray and what kinds of prayers can be prayed.  

Sometimes people talk about how sports build character. And sometimes we talk about how sports reveal character. Moments of crises are like that too, they both build and reveal. The building happens more slowly and the revealing more quickly. The heat of persecution in the early church reveals their view of a God who is unshakeable. And they weren’t wrong. Some of you need to be told to be more bold, to be less of a wobbler on the big issues in this world, and to take a stand for God. Many of us need to hear that. But if we are to take stand for God, we should know something about the God we stand for. Be encouraged, church. Whatever heat in your life tempts you to not following God, know that he is big enough and strong enough to sustain you.  

2. The Boldness of Our Prayers 

And it’s this view of a big God that leads to bold praying and preaching. After five verses of celebrating the power and majesty of our God, the church makes their two requests in two verses. Look at vv. 29–30.  

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.”  

Request 1: “look upon their threat.” “See their threats, Lord. You see the depths of the sea and the ends of the universe, so you can see and hear and know what they threaten. You know what they told us. Help us. We are not strong enough to stand on our own in the heat of persecution.” That’s their first request.  

Request 2: “grant you servants to continue to speak with boldness.” “Lord, we have such a fear of you, such reverence for you, such awe and wonder at the power of your might and forgiveness, that we do not even consider it an option to stop speaking about you. But we know we need help. We know our hearts shake under these threats. Lord, we know that apart from your sustaining grace, we are like plants without roots in the desert.” That’s their second request.  

Notice that the boldness on display in the book of Acts did not come from some pump-up speech by a leader, a half-time speech in the locker room to help them play to their potential. Boldness wasn’t about some epic montage of song and poetry designed to inspire. Their boldness came from their God, and their boldness was about God. They didn’t want boldness to speak their message. They ask for help “to speak your word.” They wanted to preach God’s words and his ways and his gospel.  

And God gave them a visible sign of his answer to their prayer by filling them with a greater manifestation of the Holy Spirit and shaking the place where they prayed. And then we read,  

. . . and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (v. 31) 

Their big view of God, led to bold prayers to God, which lead to bold preaching about God. This passage ends with preaching. If I talked about how awesome God is and how he delights to supply our needs, and I left it there, I’d be stopping short. Most of us are not preachers. There are probably only a few preachers here. But that was probably true of that gathering as well. There were only a few preachers among them, but we read that they all continued to speak the word of God with boldness, which means this passage and this preaching isn’t something merely for someone else to do. It’s for you. Who has God placed in your life that needs your bold declaration of the gospel? Are there friends or neighbors who need you to tell them about Jesus? Are their business partners or friends at your gym where you work out who need to know about the love of God?  

For some of you, your boldness might just look like saying to a friend or coworker, “You know, I’ve really benefited from church lately. My understanding of God keeps growing. I’d love for you to come with me. Would you come to church next week?” For others, you might say something far more bold. 

If this is the kind of boldness have, we’re going to need others. Did you notice what was said in the first verse of our passage? Peter and John are threatened, and what do they do?  

23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 

They went to their friends. That’s what they did. Hard things in life have a way of pulling us inward. They could have gone home and told no one. They should have wilted under the heat, but they went to their friends. These early Christians were more than simply people who had done Bible Studies togethers. This is deeper friendship, the kind of people who have weathered spiritual battles together. As the book of Acts continues, we’ll often see this need that the church be more than mere acquaintances. If you don’t have this in your life, I pray you could begin to find it here among us. The good news about Jesus—his life and death and resurrection and ascension—is that he saves us and gives us hope and life and joy. And it’s also the message that knits us together.  

Conclusion 

I want to close by reading an  few lines from the Old Testament. The come from the prophet Jeremiah, a man who knew much about the heat of persecution. In chapter 17 of the collection of his words we call the book of Jeremiah, we read a poem God inspired him to write.  

7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, 
    whose trust is the Lord. 
8 He is like a tree planted by water, 
    that sends out its roots by the stream, 
and does not fear when heat comes, 
    for its leaves remain green, 
and is not anxious in the year of drought, 
    for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7–8) 

Jeremiah knew that for a plant to bear fruit in a drought, the roots of that plant had to find water from a deep source. For Jeremiah and for Peter and John and for the early church and you for you and I, our source of water and life and joy, is God.  

And this big view of God—the view of God as the source life and joy and power and hope—is what empowered the praying and preaching of the early church. In the early church, doctrine and devotion went together. In the early church, doctrine (who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do for us in Christ: doctrine), and devotion (the sacrificial, risk-taking lives we live in response to who God is, what God has done, is doing, and will do for done for us in Christ: devotion) go together. A plant bears fruit (re: devotion) in a drought because the plant’s roots go deep into God (re: doctrine). Maybe God cause our roots to go deep into him that we might bear fruit to him. 

Prayer  

Pray with me as the music team returns to lead in our final song. Let’s pray . . . 

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