Notes on Prayer: Acts 4:23-31

Acts 4:23-31

The next reference to prayer in the book of Acts is the prayer-speech in 4:23-31. Though it follows the general pattern of the sermon-speeches in Acts (cf. below), it 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.

This focus on the unity of the early believers is certainly an important theme in the book of Acts, and one that is clearly emphasized in the prior references to prayer (cf. the previous studies on 1:14, 24, and 2:42ff). It is perhaps best expressed by the use of the term o(moqumado/n (“[with] one impulse”, i.e., with one heart, of one mind, in one accord, 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.

I have discussed the prayer-speech in 4:23-31 earlier in the series “The Speeches of Acts”. Here I will be focusing specifically on the aspect of prayer. In considering the context of the passage, it is worth considering the narrative structure of chapters 3 and 4, which I outline here below, 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, as I have noted above. Here is how the pattern would be applied:

    • 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.

The narrative introduction (v. 23f) establishes the setting of the prayer. It is very much the same setting as for the earlier references in chapters 1-2. The group of believers is gathered together, in a room in Jerusalem—possibly the same room mentioned in 1:13 (also 2:1). Even though many more people have come to trust in Jesus through the initial Gospel preaching (recorded in chaps. 2-4), the episode here probably assumes the same core group of apostles and disciples of Jesus. They continue to be united in thought and purpose (o(moqumado/n), and this unity is manifested (and expressed) through prayer. The new element in this passage is that the prayer is more closely tied to the early Christian mission. The Gospel preaching in chaps. 3-4 (cf. the narrative outline above) led to opposition by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, and this conflict-motif features prominently in the narratives of Acts (especially in chaps. 1-8). Here is how the unity theme is applied to the context of the mission (and the conflict episodes of chaps. 3-4):

    • 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

The prayer is introduced in verse 24 and 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)

Neither the verb proseuxe/w, nor the related noun proseuxh/, are used here (but cf. in verse 31), though they are clearly implied in the act of the believers lifting their voice “toward God” (pro\$ to\n qeo\n). When used in the religious context of prayer, proseuxe/w means “speak out toward (God)”, i.e. a prayer addressed to God. Again the keyword of unity, o(muqumado/n (homothymadón), is used— “of one impulse” (or, “of one mind, of one accord”). The bond of unity is only strengthened when the believer hear the report of what happened to the apostles:

“And the(y), (hav)ing heard (this), with one impulse [o(moqumado/n] they lifted (their) voice toward God and said…”

The singular fwnh/ (“voice”) is used, as if to reinforce the sense of unity and the common bond (koinwnia) among believers. There is a two-fold meaning to this single “voice”. On the one hand, the significance is literary: it establishes the basis for the prayer that follows, as if the people spoke it together in unison. At the historical level, of course, it would not have been spoken in unison; the deeper meaning is that the common “voice” reflects their unity in spirit and purpose. They all would have been in agreement with the prayer-speech as the author presents it.

Parallels to this prayer in Isaiah 37:16-20; 2 Kings 19:15-19 (Hezekiah’s prayer) have been noted (cf. also the prayer of Moses in Josephus’ Antiquities 4.40ff), 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.

This prayer follows the pattern of Jesus’ instruction in the famous Lord’s Prayer—that is to say, God is addressed and honored with praise and theological confession (Matt 6:9-10 par) before any requests for personal or communal needs are made (6:11-13 par). Here in the prayer-speech, the praise and honor to God occurs in vv. 24-28, corresponding to the first sections of the sermon-speech pattern:

    • Introductory Address, with kerygmatic detail (v. 24)
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 25-26)
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 27-28)

Central to this is the citation from Scripture (vv. 25-26)—taken 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. For more on the use of this Scripture here, cf. my study in the series “The Speeches of Acts”.

The exposition and application of the Scripture (vv. 27-28) echoes the kerygmatic statements in the earlier sermon-speeches (in Acts 3:13, etc). Another important theological point of emphasis, 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:

    1. The Nations [i.e. Gentiles/non-Jews] (e&qnh)—in v. 27 the e&qnh are principally the Romans (i.e. Roman government).
    2. 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).
    3. The Kings [oi( basilei=$]—here, king Herod (cf. Lk 23:6-12, otherwise Herod does not appear in the Passion accounts).
    4. The Chiefs/Rulers [oi( a&rxonte$]—i.e. the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who plays a key role in the Passion narrative and early kerygma.

This application of Psalm 2 is also fundamentally Christological, in that it affirms the identity of Jesus as the Messiah (the royal/Davidic figure-type). In this Messianic context, God promises to stand by the king and secure his rule. 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.

It is in the concluding exhortation of the prayer-speech (vv.  29-30) that the focus shifts to the needs of the Community. This need relates to the opposition and persecution that believers were beginning to experience (from the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem). 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:

    1. look upon [e)pi/de] their [i.e. the religious leaders’] threatening (words and action)s
    2. 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 (the concluding narrative summary):

“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)

Clearly, God responds to the believers’ prayer. Apart from historical considerations, this response touches upon two key Lukan themes: (1) the centrality of the Spirit to the Christian mission, and (2) the coming of the Spirit as the ultimate purpose and goal of prayer. The latter point is made quite clear in the section of Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Luke 11 (which includes the Lord’s Prayer, vv. 2-4). The climax of this instruction is the saying in v. 13, where Jesus indicates that it is the Spirit that God the Father will give as the principal response to the disciples’ prayers. In some ways v. 31 here represents a fulfillment of that promise. The Spirit comes (again) upon the believers, strengthening and inspiring them for the task of proclaiming the Gospel.

Indeed, the presence and work of the Spirit goes hand in hand with the proclamation of the Gospel—and both of these, together, are the central components of the Christian mission. Jesus declares this to his disciples, in no uncertain terms, in 1:8, forming a statement that essentially defines the nature of the Kingdom of God on earth (v. 6). That verse also can be viewed as the central thematic statement of the entire book of Acts—a theme that is developed in all of the missionary narratives that follow. Here, in the prayer-speech of 4:23-31, the prayer of believers focuses not only on their unity, but also upon their mission. Indeed, their mission—which is also our mission—of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ and living as inspired vessels of the Holy Spirit, is a fundamental expression of Christian unity.

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