Among the speeches (and sermon-speeches) in the book of Acts, that of 4:23-31 is properly not a speech, but a prayer to God. One might even make the claim that it is the earliest Christian prayer on record. Certainly, to the extent that what the author presents in these verses accurately reflects the historical situation, such a claim would be justified. The prayer-speech in 4:23-31 is, however, a literary work more than it is a stenographic record of what was said at the time. It takes the words, thoughts, and sentiments of the early Jerusalem Christians, and presents them as a single voice. This is appropriate, since the narrative in chapters 1-8 repeatedly emphasizes the unity of believers—how they were all of a single mind and purpose, best expressed by the use of the term o(moqumado/n (“[with] one impulse”, cf. 1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 8:6). This unity of thought and purpose is reflected in the prayer of believers, as indeed it should be for us today.
For the Monday following Pentecost (“Pentecost Monday”), I thought it worth providing a study, as part of the “Monday Notes on Prayer” feature on this site, of the prayer-speech in 4:23-31. In doing so, I have adapted an article from my earlier series on the “Speeches of Acts”. In considering the context of Acts 4:23-31, it is best to begin with an outline of chapters 3 and 4, dividing the overall arc into three distinct narrative sections, each of which contains a speech. 4:23-31 belongs to the third (final) section:
- Introductory/Core Narrative—the healing Miracle (3:1-10)
- First speech by Peter (3:12-26), with narrative introduction in v. 11 joining to v. 1-10
- Narrative Summary (4:1-4)
- Second Narrative (introduction)—Peter and John brought before the Sanhedrin (4:5-7)
- Second speech by Peter (4:8-12)
- Narrative Conclusion/Summary (4:13-22)
- Third Narrative (introduction)—Disciples gather together (4:23)
- Speech (Prayer) by the Disciples, addressed to God (4:24-30)
- Narrative Summary (4:31)
Even if 4:23-31 is properly a prayer to God, it very much follows the same sermon-speech pattern that governs the other speeches in the book:
- Narrative Introduction (v. 23)
- Introductory Address, with kerygmatic detail (v. 24)
- Citation from Scripture (vv. 25-26)
- Exposition and Application (vv. 27-28)
- Concluding Exhortation (vv. 29-30)
- Narrative Summary (v. 31)
This confirms the literary character of the prayer-speech, and makes it unique and distinctive among the notable examples of early Christian prayer.
Narrative Introduction (verse 23)—this introduction also joins with the narrative in vv. 13-22, emphasizing succinctly several points which are key motifs in the book of Acts:
- the disciples are loosed [i.e. set free] from (custody)—the opening participle a)poluqe/nte$
- they go (return) to “th(eir) own (people)” [tou\$ i)di/ou$]—i.e. their fellow believers, gathered together (implied)
- they give forth the message (a)ph/ggeilan) regarding what was said and done to them—part of the overall message/proclamation of the apostles
Introductory Address (verse 24)—this follows the same narrative pattern used in v. 23:
- “and being loosed from (custody), they went…and announced….” (v. 23)
- “and (the ones) hearing,… they lifted up voice…” (v. 24)
Here we also find the keyword o(muqumado/n (homothumadón), mentioned above— “of one impulse” (or, “of one mind, of one accord”), used numerous times throughout the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:46; 5:12; 8:6) to express Christian unity and solidarity.
Since vv. 23-31 represents a prayer (and not an ordinary speech), the address is not to a surrounding crowd, but to God. Parallels to this prayer in Isaiah 37:16-20; 2 Kings 19:15-19 (Hezekiah’s prayer) have been noted, and the author (or an underlying tradition) may have used the OT passage as a pattern; note also similarities of language in Psalm 146:6; Neh 9:6. The title despo/th$ (despót¢s), “master, ruler”, used in addressing God, is somewhat rare in the New Testament, though by no means uncommon (Lk 2:29; 1 Tim 6:1-2; 1 Pet 2:18, etc). For the use of this conventional, ritualistic language for God as Creator elsewhere in early Christian preaching, see esp. Acts 14:15.
Citation from Scripture (verses 25-26)—this is from Psalm 2 (vv. 1-2), one of the most popular and often-cited “messianic” Psalms in the early Church (see my earlier study on this Psalm), verse 7 being especially applied to Jesus (in Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5, and Luke 3:22b [v.l.]). But verses 1-2 also seem early on to have been related to Jesus’ suffering and death, in much the same way that they are interpreted here in Acts 4:25b-26. Cf. on the Exposition below.
The text of Psalm 2:1-2 here matches that of the Greek LXX precisely. However, nearly all scholars and textual critics are in agreement that the sentence which introduces the Scripture (in v. 25a), at least as reflected in the ‘earliest and best’ manuscripts (Ë74 a A B E 33 al), is syntactically garbled, preserving a primitive corruption. This is not so obvious in standard English translations (which attempt to smooth over the text), but is readily apparent in Greek. A literal rendering of the text as it stands (such as in the NA27 critical edition) is nearly impossible:
“the (one who) of our Father through the holy Spirit (of[?] the) mouth of David your child, said…”
The Majority text (primarily much later MSS) reads simply “the (one who) said through the mouth of David your child…” But this is generally regarded as a natural simplification and clarification; for, if it were original, how could the apparent confusion in early, otherwise reliable MSS such as B et al ever have been introduced? There are a number of suggestions to explain the older text, such as mistranslation from an Aramaic original. An interesting theory holds that Acts was left in an unfinished state, and v. 25a had different drafts of the sentence which ended up being accidentally combined; indeed, there do appear to be three distinct phrases jumbled together: (a) “through our father (David)…”, (b) “through the holy Spirit…”, (c) “through David your child/servant…”. I am somewhat inclined to think that tou= patro\$ h(mw=n was originally a reference to God as “the One (who is) of our Fathers [pl.] (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)”, as in Acts 3:13, but was subsequently misread as referring to David. The remaining confusion then has to do with the position (and place) of pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou (“[of] the holy Spirit”), either as a mistaken insertion, or as part of a complicated syntax which scribes found difficult to follow. Perhaps the original text (at least the basic sense of it) would have been something like:
“the (God) of our Fathers, (who) by the holy Spirit, through the mouth of David your child/servant, said…”
For more on detail on the text of v. 25a, see the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament (2d edition), pp. 279-281.
Exposition and Application (verse 27-28)
The key verb from Ps 2:1-2 (suna/gw, “lead/bring together”) is given in emphatic position in verse 27: “For upon truth [i.e. truly] they were brought together [sunh/xqhsan]…”, using the same form of the verb as in the Psalm (cf. also a similar use earlier in 4:5). The expression e)p’ a)lhqei/a$ (“upon truth, truly”) is common in the LXX and is used elsewhere in Luke-Acts (Lk 4:25; 20:21; 22:59; Acts 10:34); here it emphasizes the fulfillment of the Psalm (understood as prophecy). The specific application continues with the next phrase—”in this city, upon your holy child Yeshua whom you anointed…” The use of “child/servant” (pai=$) and the image of Jesus specifically as “Anointed” (xristo/$, here the verb xri/w [cf. Lk 4:18; Acts 10:38]) echo kerygmatic statements in the earlier sermon-speeches (in Acts 3:13, etc). Also expressed previously (cf. Acts 2:23), is the idea that the suffering and death of Jesus took place according to the sovereign will, foreknowledge and (predetermined) plan of God (v. 28). There seems to be a precise fulfillment for each of the four groups mentioned in Ps 2:1-2:
- The Nations [i.e. Gentiles/non-Jews] (e&qnh)—in v. 27 the e&qnh are principally the Romans (i.e. Roman government).
- The Peoples [laoi/], originally synonymous with e&qnh, but in v. 27 clarified as the “peoples [pl.] of Israel” (i.e. the Jewish people collectively, or generally).
- The Kings [oi( basilei=$]—here, king Herod (cf. Lk 23:6-12, otherwise Herod does not appear in the Passion accounts).
- The Chiefs/Rulers [oi( a&rxonte$]—i.e. the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who plays a key role in the Passion narrative and early kerygma.
Originally, Psalm 2 was a royal psalm presumably set in the context of the inauguration/coronation/enthronement of the (new) king. The accession of a new king (often a child or young man) was typically an occasion when vassals and ambitious nobles might take the opportunity to rebel and carve out power or territory for themselves. This is the situation generally described in vv. 1-3; God’s response, with a promise to stand by the king and secure his rule, follows in vv. 4ff. The king was anointed (v. 2) and, symbolically, was also God’s son (v. 7)—two titles and expressions which, of course, caused this Psalm to be applied to Jesus from the earliest time.
Concluding Exhortation (verses 29-30)
As this speech is a prayer, the exhortation primarily takes the form of a request/petition to God: “And now [kai\ ta\ nu=n], Lord, look upon [e)pi/de]…” For the expression kai\ ta\ nu=n, cf. 2 Kings 19:19 [LXX] and in Acts 5:38; 17:30; 20:32; 27:22; or a similar contextual parallel to the imperative e)pi/de, cf. Isa 37:17 [LXX]. There are two parts to the request:
- look upon [e)pi/de] their [i.e. the religious leaders’] threatening (words and action)s
- give [do/$] to believers [God’s slaves/servants] so that they are able, with all parrhsi/a… —to speak [lalei=n] God’s word (i.e. God speaking through the believers) —to stretch out [e)ktei/en] God’s hand, in order to bring about healing and for there to be “signs and wonders”
They clearly ask to be made instruments of God’s own work and power, with the emphasis that miracles come to be done “through the name” [dia\ tou= o)no/mato$] of Jesus (cf. Acts 2:21, 38; 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10, 12, 17-18). Note also the references again to Jesus as “holy” [a%gio$] and “child/servant” [pai=$], titles characteristic of early Gospel preaching in Acts.
Two other expressions are worthy of special notice:
- the term parrhsi/a, “speaking out (with) all (freedom/boldness)”, i.e. “out-spokenness”—a key word in Acts (cf. 2:29; 4:13, 31, and again in the concluding verse 28:31); it implies speaking openly, in public.
- “speak the word (of God)” [lalei=n to\n lo/gon]—a common theme and expression in the book, cf. Acts 4:29, 31; 8:25; 11:19f; 13:46; 14:1, 25; 16:6, 31; and similarly (with variation) in several dozen other verses. Lo/go$, typically translated “word” is perhaps better rendered “account”, as this emphasizes the descriptive and narrative element central to early Gospel preaching and proclamation.
Both of these details appear together again at the end of verse 31 (below).
Narrative Summary (verse 31)—
“And (on) making their need (known) [i.e. making their request], the place in which they were brought together was shaken, and they all were filled (full) of the holy Spirit and spoke the word/account [e)la/loun to\n lo/gon] of God with all (freedom/boldness) of speech [parrhsi/a$].”
This verse echoes the earlier manifestation of the Spirit in the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-4); the common elements are:
- The disciples are all together (in one place) [2:1, the expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/]
- The manifestation of the Spirit is accompanied by theophanous elements—in 2:2 there is the sound of a mighty wind and appearance of fire; in 4:31 there is shaking (saleu/w), as of an earthquake.
- The disciples are all filled with the holy Spirit (2:4)
Shaking (or an earthquake) is a common feature of God’s manifestation (theophany) to human beings—cf. Exodus 19:18; 1 Kings 19:11; Isa 6:4; also Josephus Antiquities 7.76-77. This sort of divine appearance in response to prayer may not have a precise parallel in the Old Testament, but it is certainly common enough to ancient religious thought (and experience)—for examples from the Greco-Roman world, cf. Ovid Metamorphoses 15.669-72, Virgil Aeneid 3.88-91 [for these and several other references above, I am indebted to E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Westminster Press: 1971), pp. 226-229].