Recovery after Failure

"Being recommended by the brethren to the grace of God" (Acts 5:30).

"Where prayer was wont to be made" (Acts 16:13).

"As we went to prayer" (Acts 16:16).

"And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed" (Acts 16:25).

Will those who are sincerely looking for a reawakening of spiritual life and a revival of the work of the Lord, notice that there is an entire absence of any reference to prayer in Acts 15, except it be at the very end of it. In every chapter in this Book of the triumphs of the gospel, except the 5th, prayer has its place until this chapter is reached; but here, instead of prayer, there is "no small dissension and disputation" (v. 2), "much disputing" (v. 7); and most sorrowful of all, "the contention was so sharp between them" (Paul and Barnabas) that they departed asunder one from another" (v. 39). Prayer comes back into its own place in chapter 16, and there trophies are won for Christ, and the gospel proceeds on its triumphant way.

I have no doubt that in the early part of chapter 15 Paul and Barnabas were compelled to earnestly contend for the faith, though "dissension" and "much disputing" have an ugly sound, and reveal the condition of things in the church in Jerusalem. One wonders whether, if there had been more prayer there would not have been less of this fleshly strife, but why did these devoted men who had together hazarded their lives for Christ's sake, quarrel with each other when the great conflict was over? It looks as though the hour of victory was the hour of weakness. However that may be, strife and division took the place of "if two of you shall agree as touching anything that they shall ask." It is a solemn and sobering incident, recorded, surely, that we may learn the great lesson that if the servants of the Lord are to prosper in His work they must pray together. Prayer binds the soul more closely to God, it unites the saints in strong and holy bonds and gives courage and power to their testimony to the world. Dissension separates the soul from God, divides the saints in heart and labour from each other and leaves them weak in the presence of the foe.

Where there is "sharp contention" the work of the Lord must languish, and there will be sorrow and dearth; we need no argument to prove that, for many of us have learnt it in our own experience; and we can easily realize how pained and surprised those simple brethren at Antioch, young converts all of them, must have been at this breach between these very servants of the Lord who had been channels of richest blessing to them. But it was well for them that they turned to God when the conflict was over. They rose to the occasion, and were found not wanting when they commended Paul and Silas to the grace of God (v. 40). Prayer was their resource, or I ought to say, God was their resource, for prayer is merely approach in confidence to Him. Let us ponder these words, "the grace of God," for they cannot be left out of our theme. The grace of God was very real amongst those brethren at Antioch. On the first visit that Barnabas paid to that place, he saw it and was glad (chap. 11). It had wrought for them and in them at the beginning, and it had not failed them since, and now when they see failure in the servants of God they turn afresh to it. They do not speed Paul on his way as a man of inflexible fidelity, or as one whose spiritual force was enough to carry him on without failure, they commend him to the grace of God — his only hope and stay, and theirs, and ours. They were wise men and Spirit-led men, too, these brethren at Antioch; their faith did not rest in the steadfastness or the wisdom of either Barnabas or Paul, and it was not shaken by their failure, but in the grace of God. If that grace had been withdrawn, or if the failure of these men of God had been greater than the grace of God, there would have been an end of the work and no recovery, but that grace abounds over all failure and because of it the work goes on.

There are many who feel how barren of all fruit and joy "much disputing" is, and how the work of the Lord suffers when "contentions" prevail, but here is hope for them and for us all; the grace of God abides, and will abound to all who turn in their need to Him. The servants of God may fail and disappoint us, the grace of our God never will, and those who turn wholeheartedly to God will find that His grace will show itself afresh in renewed blessing. It must do so or God has ceased to be the God of all grace. What an atmosphere of freedom and expectation and confidence the grace of God creates, and what a contrast it is to the restraint and misery that must be where contentions thrive!

With the prayers of these brethren behind them and the grace of God with them, Paul and his companions start off on a new mission. But again the record is arresting and thought provoking. It seems as though Paul had not returned to complete dependence upon the Lord's guidance, for full of zeal, and impetuous in the work of the Lord, he had his own plans and intentions, which were not the Lord's. The Holy Spirit had to take definite action with him and forbid him to preach the Word in Asia, and in verse 7, when he assayed to go into Bithynia, the Spirit suffered him not; but in verse 9 there is a change, and he gets clear guidance from the Lord, though it was by a vision and not a direct word. We may conclude that that vision in the night was given to him in answer to the giving up of his own plans and his earnest supplication and prayer, that he might know the Lord's. Of such a character was it, that he and those with him had no doubt that it was from the Lord; they assuredly gathered that the Lord had called them to preach the gospel in Macedonia, and they endeavoured at once to carry out His command, Their confidence in the Lord and immediate obedience and energy in the Spirit are at this point is most delightful, and there follows an account of work unrivalled in its interest and blessedness, even in the Acts of the Apostles. But, mark it well, it began in the place where prayer was wont to be made; it continued as they went to prayer, and it reached its climax in the jail where the unfettered spirits of God's persecuted but happy servants poured out their earnest prayers and triumphant praise. What trophies the gospel, carried by these praying men, won for heaven in that heathen Philippi! A Jewess, probably famous for her piety; a devil-possessed damsel, notorious for her oracular frenzies, and a pagan jailer, brutal as were all his kind, all blest and made one in Christ, and forming the nucleus of that company of saints that Paul afterwards addressed as "My brethren, dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and my crown."

I would emphasise the place that prayer has in this blessed change from the much disputing of chapter 15 to the triumphs of the gospel in chapter 16, that we may give ourselves to prayer according to the will of God.