READ – Acts 13:1-3
Antioch was one of the major multi-cultural and cosmopolitan cities of the ancient world. It was here that Jesus built the first ever multi-ethnic church. This church became a large and thriving community full of people from different backgrounds. It was a church that went deep in the gospel together. Their lives were so captivated by Jesus, they earned the nickname “Christians”. It was a church that went out with the gospel and became the first church to send people out on mission. For all these reasons, the church in Antioch is a blueprint for the kind of church we are praying Jesus would build at Trinity. Acts 13:1-3 gives us a glimpse into the regular rhythms of this church and tells how it came to be that Antioch became such a thriving and outward focused church—at the heart of their life together they were deeply devoted to prayer.
From this church’s practice of prayer, we learn one of the most important lessons about prayer: A deep and meaningful prayer life will not come by guilt or by grit but only when we are convinced that prayer is a gift.
1. BREATHING – PRAYER AND WORSHIP
The rhythm at the heart of this thriving church was worship - “As they were worshipping the Lord and fasting…” (v2). This isn’t talking about just one day, ie “One day they were worshipping…” The verb form carries the sense of an ongoing, repeated activity. This was the rhythm at the heart of the church. The word used here for worshipping is rarely used in the NT. In the OT, it referred to the intercessory ministry of the priests in bringing the life of the people to God and the life of God to the people. Most scholars of Acts say “worshipping” here refers to corporate prayer.
We know that the churches of the NT did a lot more than “just pray” together. They learned, taught, ate, connected and served each other. What this description of Antioch shows us is that prayer is what turns all these things into worship. It’s prayer that animates and gives life to them. When prayer is at the heart of a church, it guards the church from doing what it does out of routine and duty. Prayer is how our horizontal actions become vertical communion with the living God. How was it that Antioch became a church so alive with the presence of God? The answer is that for this church—prayer was like breathing. Prayer was how God animated their lives and actions with his gift of his presence.
2. EATING – PRAYER AND FASTING
One of the things that stands out about this church is their practice of fasting. Fasting is only mentioned 3 times in the book of Acts. All 3 times it is in reference to this church. In the bible, fasting is always combined with prayer. Fasting creates space for prayer, sharpens its focus, and deepens its fervency. Fasting is not a directly commanded practice in Scripture - but it is an expected practice. Jesus said, “when you fast” and that his disciples “will fast”. The idea is not that followers of Jesus have to fast, it’s that they will want to fast. Why would we want to? Antioch helps us see why – Fasting teaches us prayer is like eating. What eating is for us physically; prayer is for us spiritually. Fasting reminds us how basic and necessary it is for us to pray. It reminds us that God gives us the gift of spiritual strength, nourishment and growth by connecting to Him in prayer.
Fasting also reminds us of an important principle – going deeper in prayer requires giving up something good to get something better (namely, a deeper relationship with God). Fasting of all kinds (from food and from other good things for a season) is training for saying “no” to good yet lesser gifts for the greater gift of prayer.
3. FIGHTING – PRAYER AND SENDING
The praying church in Antioch reinforces what we’ve seen throughout in Acts 1-12. It’s not so much that God answers the prayers of a church to be sent as it is that God sends a praying church. The churches in Acts didn’t want to be sent. They didn’t ask to be sent.
When Jesus said, “you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth” to his followers, what did they do? They stayed! Later, Peter refused to go to the house of a non-Jewish person. The scattered Christians who started the church in Antioch didn’t ask to be forced from their homes. Saul didn’t ask to become a missionary. The church at Antioch didn’t ask God to send their two best leaders. So how did all this happen? It happened through prayer. It was in prayer that God somehow sent the fearful, reluctant and comfortable out with boldness and power. In the early church, prayer was struggling, wrestling and fighting with God to learn that life was not about them. Prayer was where God broke them of self-centeredness so he could send them out to love and serve others.
This is why it’s been said that “Prayer does not enable us to do a greater work for God. Prayer is a greater work for God.” The greater work of God is humbling the proud and curing self-centeredness and self-reliance. The greater work of God is opening our hearts to the greatness of his glory, the immensity of our need and the sufficiency of Jesus’ redeeming work. Prayer is the greater work because it is only humbled, broken, dependent and needy people that God uses to do great works.
4. RECEIVING – OUR PRAYER AND JESUS’ PRAYERS
In studying the role of prayer in Luke and Acts together, an important and significant insight emerges. Luke shows us that the church’s prayer life mirrors and images Jesus’ own prayer life.
What’s the takeaway from all these parallels? 1) Jesus builds his own life of prayer into His church. 2) Jesus builds his life of prayer into the church when they are at their most clueless, helpless, scared and weak (see question 2 below) 3) Jesus gave his life to give us his life of prayer. The “unanswered prayer” of Jesus is how all our prayer is made possible. In prayer, Jesus faced two choices – 1) God could take the cup from him or 2) he could take the cup from us. In prayer, He chose to take the cup of curse and separation to give us the cup of blessing and connection with God in prayer. When we pray, we receive the gift Jesus thought was worth dying for to give to us.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions? What is most hard for you when it comes to prayer? What is most rewarding for you when it comes to prayer?
2. Group exercise – Take a tour through the prayers of Acts (1-13).
a. What do you observe about these prayers? Why did they pray? When did they pray? What can we learn from this?
3. Jonathan Edwards once said, “Prayer is as natural an expression of faith, as breathing is of life; and to say a man lives a life of faith, and yet lives a prayerless life, is every whit as inconsistent and incredible, as to say, that a man lives without breathing.” If this is true, why is prayer so difficult? How might this explain why we can feel dry and lifeless in Christian practices (bible reading/study, Sunday worship, serving, etc)?
4. Do you have any experience with fasting and prayer? If so, what have you learned from it? Why would a Christian want to fast? How might fasting help us see more clearly that prayer is a gift?
5. It was said in the sermon, “It’s not so much that God answers the prayers of a church to be sent as it is that God sends a praying church.” What’s the difference? Why is this so important for us to learn in our attempts to do great things for God and for others?
6. Take another look at the parallels between Jesus’ prayers and the prayers of the church in Acts. What strikes you? How is it encouraging to know Jesus is and will build his praying life into His church?
7. Why is it so important to see how our prayers can be answered because of Jesus’ “unanswered prayer”? How might your perspective on prayer change if you believed that Jesus died to give you the gift of prayer?
8. What is one thing you can do in 2019 to go deeper in prayer individually and as a group?