For the remainder of this Spring and Summer, the Monday Notes on Prayer feature will focus on references to prayer in the Book of Acts and the Pauline Letters. We begin with the first reference in Acts, which immediately follows the departure (ascension) of Jesus into heaven (1:9-11). In many ways, the ascension marks the beginning of the book of Acts proper, with 1:1-11 serving as the narrative introduction.
The main narrative of Acts truly begins with the return of the disciples to Jerusalem:
“Then they turned back into Yerushalaim from the hill called (the mount) of Olives, which is near (to) Yerushalaim holding a Sabbath (day’s) journey (away).” (v. 12)
They return to the house and room in the city which the disciples had been using as a gathering place. It is presumably the same place where they were gathered after Jesus’ death and was the locale of his resurrection appearance (Lk 24:33-49; cp. John 20:19ff). It is an upper story (or rooftop) room, much like the one used to celebrate the Passover (Lk 22:12 par). It may be located in the house of Mary the mother of John Mark (12:12). The importance of the location is emphasized in the narrative summary here:
“And when they came in, they stepped up into the room over(head), in which they were remaining [i.e. dwelling]…” (v. 13)
The remainder of verse 13 is a list of the twelve men who made up Jesus’ closest circle of disciples—that is the eleven who remain out of the twelve (minus Judas Iscariot). The list corresponds with the Synoptic tradition in Mk 3:13-19 par [Lk 6:12-16]. However, this is no mere incidental detail. The symbolism of the twelve is of vital importance for the narrative of Acts, and for the author’s portrayal of the early Christian Community and its mission. The early Christian mission cannot begin until the twelve are reconstituted. This relates symbolically to the eschatological idea of the restoration of Israel—i.e., the twelve tribes (= the twelve apostles).
One way that this theme of restoration is expressed in Acts is through the ideal of unity among the earliest believers. Not only were they together in Jerusalem, but they were gathered in the same room. Here is how this is introduced in verse 14:
“These all were being strong toward (each other) with one impulse…”
ou!toi pa/nte$ h@san proskarterou=nte$ o(moqumado\n
ou!toi pa/nte$ (“these all”)—that is, all of the apostles, along with the other believers who are with them (cf. below). The key word here is the adjective pa=$ (“all”). Fundamental to the ideal of early Christian unity is the requirement that all believers are joined together as one.
proskarterou=nte$—this participle is of the verb proskartere/w, which literally means “be strong toward” (someone or something). This emphasizes the strength of the bond between the first believers. The participial form here indicates something active, and which is occurring continuously.
o(moqumado/n—this adverb literally means something like “(with) one impulse”; in English idiom, we would probably say “with one heart” or “with one mind”. It is an important term throughout the book of Acts, being used repeatedly as a characteristic of early Christian unity. It is used again at 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 8:6; 15:25; and, in a negative sense, for people being united in hostility/opposition against the believers, at 7:57; 18:12; 19:29.
The apostles in the ‘upper room’ are joined with a group of female believers, along with members of Jesus’ family (Mary his mother, and his brothers). This relates to the Synoptic episode of Mark 3:31-35 par, which, in Luke’s version (8:19-21) has a special significance. Mary and Jesus’ brothers wish to see Jesus, but are unable to come into the room where he and his followers were gathered. In the core Synoptic tradition, this reflects a pointed contrast between Jesus’ biological family and his true family (that is, his disciples). Luke gives to this episode a different meaning: Jesus’ mother and brothers are part of his true family (disciples/believers), only they are not yet able to come into the room to join with his disciples.
Now, however, the situation has changed, and we do see them in the same room with Jesus’ close disciples. Among these disciples are a number of women, which is also something that Luke particularly emphasizes (8:1-4, etc). It goes without saying, of course, that Mary (Jesus’ mother) has a special place in Luke’s Gospel as a female follower and believer in Jesus. There are a number of key references to this in the Infancy narratives (1:35-38, 45; 2:19, 34-35, 39, 51).
At the heart of the Christian unity described in verse 14 is prayer. The central wording is:
“…being strong toward (each other) with one impulse in speaking out toward (God) [th=| proseuxh/|]”
This can also be rendered in the sense that the believers were being strong together toward (pro$) their activity of prayer. In conventional English, we might say they were devoted to prayer.
I translate the noun proseuxh/ here quite literally as “speak (out) toward”; the Greek word is frequently used in the religious sense of speaking out toward God—that is, speaking to God in prayer. The unity of the early believers was expressed in prayer.
We tend to think of prayer in terms of specific requests we make to God, and of his answer to our requests. Our prayers thus tend to be goal and outcome oriented. Here in Acts, however, the focus is rather different. The emphasis is on prayer as a manifestation of our bond of unity as believers. Our prayer (together) thus reflects this bond, but it also serves to reinforce the bond. It is part of our continuing to “be strong toward (each other)” (vb proskartere/w). This bond is also directed toward our identity as believers, and our relationship to God (through Christ). It is also part of our “common impulse” (o(moqumado/n, cf. above), what drives us to act, speak, and feel as believers.
May the strength of our bond, and our driving impulse, with each other likewise be rooted in the act (and spirit) of prayer.