The Church at Prayer.

(A word about the assembly prayer meeting.)

W. J. Hocking.

“Peter therefore was kept in the prison; but prayer was made earnestly of the church to God for him” (Acts 12:5, R.V.). “They lifted up their voice to God with one accord” (Acts 4:24).

The habitual exercise of prayer under all circumstances and by all men is inculcated and encouraged in scripture. We find from examples there recorded that prayer was offered to God both individually and collectively.

Peter at Joppa prayed alone on the housetop. Paul and Silas united their prayers and praises at midnight in the prison at Philippi. The disciples at Tyre with their wives and children accompanied Paul and those with him to the ship, and they knelt down upon the beach and prayed together before they bade each other farewell (Acts 21:3-6).

There are, of course, many instances both in the Old and New Testaments of persons who have privately unburdened their hearts in prayer for themselves or for others, and have been both heard and answered through the abounding mercy and favour of God. But collective prayer was not a prominent feature of the Jewish economy, and examples of this form are not frequent in the Old Testament.

Two men or more might go up to the temple to pray, but they would not, though in the same building, necessarily be in agreement with one another as touching the subject of their petitions. And agreement of this nature the Lord laid down to be an essential condition of success in joint prayer (Matt. 18:19).

Now this unanimity in petition which was declared by our Lord to be necessary to success, we find from later New Testament history was characteristic of the early saints. Unity of prayer became a special feature in the church period. Such prayers appear in the history of the Acts and in the doctrine of the Epistles. From the very beginning they formed an essential part of the constitution of the assembly, which is said to have “continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).

It is not overlooked in these remarks that the so-called “Lord's prayer” was framed for collective use by the disciples of Christ in the days of His ministry “Our Father,” etc., they were to say. But this prayer was only a provisional one: it was not offered in the name of Christ, and it had in view the earthly kingdom mainly, and cannot be regarded as a type for use after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Formation of Christ's Assembly.

After the Lord's ascension we find that the disciples continued together during the subsequent ten days “with one accord in prayer,” waiting for the promised gift of the Holy Ghost. On the day of Pentecost itself they were “all with one accord in one place,” and it was upon this company assembled together in agreement of purpose that the Holy Spirit was shed forth by the exalted Christ. This unity thereby formed was thenceforth perpetuated by the abiding presence of the Paraclete. By the one Spirit they were all baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13).

By this action and presence of the Holy Spirit there was a new thing formed in the earth — a church to pray as saints had never prayed before, a church to praise as the “sweet psalmist of Israel” had never praised, a church to be the pillar and ground of the truth in a degree unknown to the prophets and holy men of old.

Moreover, as the Holy Spirit is still present, these qualifications of the church remain true today. It is, therefore, possible for a company representative of the church of the living God still to pray, to praise, to hold the truth, even as was done at the beginning, always provided that the Spirit of God is honoured and obeyed, and that the word of God is acknowledged to be the sole standard of reference for guidance in all matters.

If this be possible, and who can deny it? what showers of blessing we are missing! Take, for example, the instance of united prayer by a company meeting together in the name of the Lord Jesus. How effective this effort should be when prayer is made under these conditions! If the effectual fervent prayer of one righteous man avails much (James 5:16), how much greater a result may be expected from the effectual fervent prayers of an assembly of righteous persons, unified and energized by the Holy Spirit of God?

Prayer in the Spirit.

I ask my brethren whether it is not a factor of the utmost account in the potency of assembly prayer that the Spirit of God Himself makes intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered? Surely we have not become oblivious to the fact that when the Spirit intercedes He does so according to God (Rom. 8:26-27). Why, in this very thing lies the boldness that we have in God. For we know that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatsoever we ask, we also know that we have the petitions which we have asked of Him (1 John 5:14-15).

Now, assembly prayer is essentially prayer in the Holy Ghost; if so, it is therefore prayer which is according to God, prayer which is heard, prayer which is answered. Clearly, the church is entrusted with an enormous power which may be exercised in prayer and supplication for incalculable good and blessing for itself and for others. Have we forgotten that such a power is available? or is its very existence denied or disbelieved? We believe, and we ask our readers to believe, that if the saints were gathered together in assembly, owning as such the presence of the Lord Jesus in the midst, and were unanimous in felt dependence upon the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, there would be great and striking answers from God now as there were at the beginning.

Let us briefly consider for our encouragement two examples of this class of prayer which are recorded in the early chapters of the Acts: —
(a) Prayer by the church for boldness in the face of persecution (Acts 4:24-31);
(b) Prayer by the church in connection with the imprisonment of Peter (Acts 12:5-12).

In both these cases answers were given of God promptly, and the remarkable results which ensued showed unmistakably that He was acting on behalf of the witnesses of Christ in Jerusalem, and in response to their united appeal.

Prayer for Boldness.

(a) In the first case it was a question of testimony for Christ in Jerusalem. Peter and John were under the ban of the great Jewish council. They were commanded by the supreme authority in religious matters to desist from speaking or teaching in the name of Jesus. The apostles were thus confronted with the alternative of hearkening either to God or to the high priest and his colleagues. They had to choose between prison and death on the one hand and disobedience to the Lord on the other.

In these circumstances they did not act with the dogged determination of strong-minded men who were bent upon a certain course in spite of every obstacle, but, like men of God, they, confessing their own weakness, betook themselves to prayer. But they did not pray singly, as Elijah did, for instance. They acted as members of the body of Christ, and reported affairs to “their own company.” Then the whole assembly prayed as one company: “they lifted up their voice to God with one accord.” There was unison in their petitions. That phrase, “with one accord,” so characteristic of the church history found in the Acts, indicated that there was among them only one mind and one mouth (Rom. 15:6). It is an early sample of that co-operative prayer which should ever mark assembly action.

Amongst other features of their petitions it may be noticed that the assembly
(1) acknowledged the supreme power of God (Acts 4:24);
(2) showed from the Psalms that the same worldly powers which opposed the Lord Jesus were now opposing them, His servants (Acts 4:25-28);
(3) sought power to speak the word of God with all boldness in face of the threatenings that they were not to speak at all in that Name (Acts 4:29-30).

This concerted activity of the assembly in prayer had an immediate effect. “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). These results showed how puny and impotent was that evil company in the council chamber at Jerusalem that was flourishing the sword to terrorise and silence the servants of God. In the assembly was the Voice that could shake the earth (Heb. 12:25-27). In the assembly was the Holy Ghost as the Omnipotent Witness on the earth. No wonder the disciples spoke the word of God with boldness in consequence of their prayer.

Prayer for Deliverance.

(b) The second instance of joint prayer was one in which the civil authority threatened the church in the life of one of its members. King Herod, having put James to death, purposed the execution of Peter also. With this evil design he kept the apostle in prison during the Passover, intending to put him to death so soon as the feast was passed. What could the feeble flock of disciples do in opposition to the Idumean king with his prison and his soldiers?

They did what the church should invariably do under all circumstances. The assembly should not rely for support upon an arm of flesh, nor should it forget the Lord's assurance that the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. Its habitual attitude throughout its day of conflict is to be “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18). Hence in Jerusalem the disciples on this occasion prayed to God for Peter, and they prayed not as units but as a unity. It is written of them that “unceasing prayer was made by the assembly to God concerning him” (Acts 12:5).

Thus, in its new capacity as the church of God on earth, the assembly made supplication throughout the days of unleavened bread and into the night immediately preceding the purposed execution of the apostle. Then Peter himself, having been delivered by the angel, stepped into the prayer-circle, a living proof of how assembly prayer could set in motion here upon the earth the irresistible machinery of heaven.

What Place has Assembly Prayer Among Us?

In view of these incidents and of various exhortations in the Epistles to this kind of united prayer, we wish to challenge our readers concerning the place and importance assigned to assembly prayer in modern practice. Is collective prayer the most prized weapon in our spiritual armoury? If not, why not?

It must be understood that no reference is now being made to the prayers of an individual nor to those of a number of individuals met as such to pray for specific objects, such as, the progress of the gospel. These have their season and usefulness, but scripture shows that there is a very special place reserved at the throne of grace for the assembly. If this prayer-meeting is neglected or allowed to fall into disuse, there must be great disadvantage and loss. It will be hard to find an excuse to justify this dishonour. Those assembled may be but two or three numerically, perhaps with sisters in the majority, but they are gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus; they recognize the Lord in the midst; they own also the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct, and are full of pious fear lest they should grieve the Spirit and hinder His action.

Under such conditions, the praying assembly is swayed as a single organism by the Indwelling Spirit into an impulsive appeal upward for grace to help in time of need. Assembly prayer is not the utterance of a hundred prayers on the same theme by a hundred persons on the same occasion, but the presentation of a single prayer, intensified a hundred-fold on account of the harmony wrought by the Spirit of God among the hundred persons present.

The regular weekly prayer meeting is a church meeting equally with the breaking of bread. The throne of grace is then approached by the assembly as such, even if there are but a few in number.

Let not the assembly allow the prayer meeting to lapse, neither the individual believer absent himself habitually therefrom without adequate reason.