Acts 14:23; 20:36
The importance of prayer in establishing congregations, in places where the Gospel was preached by the early Christian missionaries, can be seen in two key references from the Pauline missionary narratives of Acts. The first reference comes from the first missionary journey of Paul (and Barnabas), narrated in chapters 13-14. Toward the close of that narrative, as Paul and Barnabas travel back through the parts of Asia Minor where they had worked, their message to the groups (congregations) of new believers is presented in summary form (in indirect speech):
“…placing on firm (ground) the souls of the learners [i.e. disciples], calling (them) alongside to remain in the(ir) trust and (telling them) that ‘through many (moment)s of distress, it is necessary (for us) to come into the kingdom of God’.” (14:22)
Following this, we have this summary narration:
“And, (hav)ing raised the hand for them, according to (each) called-out (gathering), (to select) elders, (and hav)ing spoken out toward (God), with fasting, they set them alongside the Lord, into whom they had trusted.” (v. 23)
Throughout the first half of the book of Acts, Christian elders are mentioned, but always in relation to the main Community in Jerusalem (11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; cf. also 21:18). This is the first instance where we hear of elders being similarly selected/appointed for the local communities (congregations) of believers outside of Jerusalem—namely, in the cities of Asia Minor, where Paul and Barnabas had been doing their mission-work. The selection process is described by way of a distinct idiom, using the verb xeirotone/w (lit. “stretch [i.e. raise] the hand”); the background of this term indicates a vote of hands, though it may be used in a more general sense here.
This selection of elders was intended to provide leadership for the nascent communities that would remain in place after Paul and Barnabas (with their special apostolic leadership) departed. It was only part of the care shown to these groups of believers. Along with the selection/appointment of elders, there was a period of prayer and fasting—lit. “speaking out toward (God), with fasting”. Here the common verb for prayer, proseu/xomai is used. The prayer and fasting mentioned here may have been specifically related to the appointment of elders, but it seems better to understand it in the wider context of the congregation coming together with Paul and Barnabas prior to their departure. Ultimately, the purpose of their prayer relates to the final clause of the verse:
“they set them alongside the Lord, into whom they had trusted”
The verb parati/qhmi means “set/place alongside”, often in the sense of entrusting something to another person (for safe-keeping). In this case, Paul and Barnabas entrust each community/congregation of believers to the Lord. This shows again how prayer, in the book of Acts, is closely connected to the idea of the unity of believers—Christians united with each other, but also, and more importantly, united to the person of Christ. Though it is not stated here directly, this presence of Christ (the Lord), in and among believers, must be understood in terms of the Spirit. The fundamental association between prayer and the Holy Spirit has been mentioned a number of times in these studies, and it is important to keep it mind here as well.
The sense of unity is further emphasized in v. 27, when, after Paul and Barnabas have returned to Antioch, they gathered together the entire Community (i.e., all the local congregations, or house-churches, in Antioch) to tell them all the things that took place on their journeys, thus uniting, in a symbolic way, the new congregations of Asia Minor with the ‘parent’ church in Antioch.
Toward the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, again on his return trip home, we find a similar mention of the elders appointed by Paul and his co-workers. It is, in fact, the only other direct reference to Christian elders, outside of the Jerusalem Community, in the book of Acts. Thus it is proper to study it in light of the earlier reference in 14:23 (above).
When Paul had reached Miletus on his return trip, it is said that he sent a messenger to Ephesus and called the elders of the congregations in that city to come to him (20:17). This serves as the narrative introduction to Paul’s speech in vv. 28-35. I will be discussing the speech itself in detail in an upcoming study (in the series “The Speeches of Acts”), and I have already discussed it in relation to the references to the Holy Spirit in vv. 22-23). As it happens, there is a subsequent reference to the Spirit in v. 28, which is worth mentioning here:
“Hold (your mind) toward yourselves, and (toward) all the herd [i.e. flock] in which the holy Spirit set you as overseers, to herd the called-out (community) of God, which He made (to be) around (Him) through His own blood.”
[Note: the last phrase could also be read as “…through the blood of His own (Son)”]
Even though Paul and his fellow missionaries had worked to appoint these elders, it is properly the Spirit (of God and Christ) who placed them in their positions of leadership, to oversee (noun e)pi/skopo$, “looking over, [one who] looks [things] over”) a particular congregation. Thus, there is here an implicit connection, again, between the Holy Spirit and prayer.
The prayer-aspect comes into view more clearly at the conclusion of Paul’s speech. The elders realize that they will likely never see Paul again, which makes his impending departure all the more heart-felt and moving (vv. 37-38). The import of the moment is introduced and narrated with the utmost simplicity:
“And, (hav)ing said these (thing)s, (and) setting down his knees, together with them all he spoke out toward (God).” (v. 36)
The theme of unity is expressed clearly, and beautifully, by the closing phrase, “together with them all [su\n pa=sin au)toi=$] he spoke out toward (God) [proshu/cato]”.
A similar scene of farewell is recorded in 21:5-6, after Paul had spent seven days with a group of believers in Tyre. It is emphasized again how Paul was determined to continue on to Jerusalem, even though suffering and arrest awaited him there, and how the other believers were troubled by this and urged him not to complete the journey (cf. my recent note discussing v. 4). The description of the moment of farewell, though briefer, closely resembles that of 20:36:
“…and, (hav)ing set our knees (down) upon the sea-shore, (and hav)ing spoken out toward (God), we took leave of each other…” (vv. 5-6)
This is one of the very last references to prayer in the book of Acts. Only three others remain, which will be discussed briefly in our next study, with the focus being on the reference in 22:17.