I. THE APOSTOLIC HISTORY OF MEETINGS FOR PRAYER.
These meetings must have been very common. They were, doubtless, everyday occurrences; but still there are a few facts connected with them which may be instructive.
1. One of the first uses of the prayer-meeting was to encourage a discouraged people.
The first meeting for prayer which we find after our Lord’s ascension into heaven is the one mentioned in the text, and we are led from it to remark that united prayer is the comfort of a sorrowful church. Can you imagine the sorrow which filled the hearts of the disciples when their Lord had departed from them? They were an army without a leader, a flock without a shepherd, a family without a head. Exposed to innumerable trials, the strong, bold wall of Jesus’ presence, which had been around about them, was now withdrawn. In the deep desolation of their spirits they resorted to prayer. They were like a flock of sheep that will huddle together in a storm, or come closer to each other when they hear the sound of the wolf. Poor defenseless creatures as they were, yet they loved to come together, and would die together if need be. They felt that nothing made them so happy, nothing so encourage them, nothing so strengthened them to bear their daily difficulties, as to draw near to God in common prayer.
Beloved, let every church learn the value of its prayer-meetings in its darkest hour. When the pastor is gone, and when it has been difficult to find a suitable successor; when, it may be, there are splits and divisions; when death falls upon honored members, when poverty comes in, when there is a spiritual famine, and when the Holy Spirit appears to have withdrawn himself — then there is but one remedy for these and a thousand other evils, and that one remedy is contained in this short sentence, “Let us pray.”
Those churches which are now writing “Ichabod” (i.e., “The glory has departed”) on their walls, and who sorrowfully confess that the congregation is slowly dwindling, might soon restore their numbers if they only knew how to pray. These Brothers and Sisters, though they are presently discouraged, would soon change defeat into success, and their spirits would be revived simply by drawing near to God.
And if any of you are personally afflicted and troubled in your lives, you will find that, after meeting God in His throne room, your own private prayer closet will be especially comforting to you, and after that, come and unite with the saints of God, who have all most likely experienced the same struggles and assaults like yours, and as you hear them pouring out their hearts and making requests such as you would make, but scarcely know how to word them, you will clearly see the footsteps of the flock, and in time you will see the Shepherd himself. One of the first uses of the prayer-meeting, then, is to encourage a discouraged people.
2. The prayer-meeting has this second use, that it is the appointed place to receive power.
Again, if you look at the second chapter of the Book of Acts, you will perceive that the prayer-meeting is the place for the reception of divine power. “They were all together in one place,” [Acts 2:1] lifting up their prayer, and, as they waited there, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them,” [Acts 2:2-4] and they were clothed with the power which Jesus had promised them.
And what a difference it made in them! Common fishermen became the extraordinary messengers of heaven. Illiterate men spoke with languages that they had never heard before. They began to reveal mysteries which had not been revealed to philosophers or kings. These men were lifted out of the level of ordinary humanity, and became God-inspired, filled with the Deity himself, who came to dwell in their hearts and minds. The result was that poor wavering Peter became bold as a lion, and the impetuous John, who would have called fire down from heaven upon the Samaritans, had another fire fall upon him; one not to destroy, but to rescue and bless.
Now, the great need of the Church at all times is the power of the Holy Spirit. “We believe in the Holy Spirit,” says the doctrines of most churches, but how many, or rather how few, are there who really do believe in him? There is a mysterious, supernatural energy which comes from the Third Person of the blessed Trinity which really in this age falls upon men and women, as truly as when Peter spoke in languages unknown to him (tongues) or performed miracles; and though the power of working miracles is not given now, yet spiritual power is given, and this spiritual power is just as evident, and just as surely with us today, if we possess the Holy Spirit, as it was with the apostles. Now, if we want to get this, the most likely place in which to find it is the prayer-meeting.
I will guarantee you that the best men who are of the right spirit, are those who will be found here tomorrow evening, at our special prayer-meeting. I will guarantee you that the best ministers are those that do not despise the gathering of the people of God, and I am sure that the cream of the Christian Church, other things being considered of course, will be found here among those who most commonly assemble for prayer. Oh! yes, this is the place to meet with the Holy Spirit, and this is the way to get his mighty power. If we would have the Holy Spirit, we must meet in greater numbers; we must pray with greater fervency, we must watch with greater earnestness, and believe with firmer determination. The prayer-meeting, then, has this second use, that it is the appointed place for the reception of power.
3. The prayer-meeting has this third use, that it is the resource of the persecuted church.
You will find this next incident, in apostolic history, in the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts, and there you will see that the prayer-meeting is the resource of a persecuted church. Turn to the thirty-first verse. Peter and John had been locked up in prison. The Scribes and Pharisees had persecuted the disciples of Christ. The disciples resorted to prayer, and we read that “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Yes, all the persecutions of each member should be lifted up in prayer before God, and if the entire Church should fall into disgrace through misrepresentation, or through the natural hostility of all men to God’s true Church, then it should resort to its Great Friend for its defense.
Often, times of persecution are very good for the Church, because they compel her to pray. When the devil, like the wild boar from the woods, should break up the vineyard, the vines seem to flourish all the more, because they are watered with the dew of heaven in answer to prayer. Let the burning stakes of the martyrs smoke, and the saints of God go up to heaven in chariots of fire, and then we will see the Word of God greatly multiplied, for the death of the martyrs brings down the blessing to the church and the nation in which they live.
Anything that would make us pray would be a blessing, and if we ever should face times of persecution again we must fly to the shadow of the Eternal, and keeping close together in simple, intense prayer, we will find a shelter from the blast.
4. The prayer-meeting has this fourth use, that it is the means of individual deliverance.
Still staying in the Book of Acts, in the twelfth chapter you find the prayer-meeting was a means of individual deliverance. You know the story well. Peter was in prison, and Herod promised himself the great pleasure of putting him to death. “The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. But the church was earnestly praying to God for him” [Acts 12:4-5]. The walls of the prison were very thick, but prayer was made without ceasing. The soldiers were very watchful; there were sixteen of them—four squads of four soldiers each—appointed to watch him in shifts — four at a time, and he was chained by both hands to two of them. Yet prayer was made without ceasing by the Church for him, and prayer laughs at stone walls, and handcuffs and iron bars, and gates of brass. And so in the middle of the night an angel struck Peter on the side waking him up, and told him to quickly get up and the chains fell off of his wrists. Then the angel said to him, "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. Every locked door opened by itself as he advanced, and Peter found himself in the street, and wondered whether he was awake, or whether he was seeing a vision. And when he got to the house where many people had gathered and were praying, they were all equally surprised, and thought it must be Peter’s spirit, and that it could never be Peter himself. Yet there he was, in his flesh and blood, released from his prison in answer to their prayers.
And so in the prayer-meeting of the Church, God’s people may plead for individuals. It may not be God’s will, there may be no necessity for it, that every one of God’s people would be brought out of prison, or raised up from sickness, or saved from their needs; but if it was the Master’s will, and is the right thing, Then God will grant it. Therefore when we come together we may unite in exacting and personal supplications. I don’t doubt that many a life has been spared in answer to united prayer, that many a soul that has been, as it were, spirit-burdened has obtained gracious liberty through the prayers of the brothers and sisters. It is good if we often raise up our prayers for one another, remembering those who are in prison for their faith in Christ, as if we are tied with them. Observe here, then, another valuable use of the Christian prayer-meeting, that it is the means of individual deliverance.
5. The prayer-meeting has this fifth use, that it is the means of suggesting missionary operations.
Further on, in the next chapter, we find a prayer-meeting suggesting missionary operations. While the servants of God were meeting together — see the second and third verses of the thirteenth chapter — fasting and in prayer, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”
We sit down, and we begin to figure the expenses of such-and-such a form of Christian service, and we think that it would be a good plan, and then another plan, and a third plan, and a fourth, and a fifth — all pieces of human wisdom. But I think if we would spend more time on our knees about God’s work, we would more often do right, and the right methods and the right men, and the right plans would come to us. Christ is the head of the Church — and who thinks so much about the Church as the head of the Church?
And while we wait upon him I believe that fresh plans and fresh methods will be marked out, and that different kinds of men will be called to the work as distinctly as if angels had touched their lips with a live coal from the burning altar, and who may be “separated” to teach the Word where, perhaps, it has never reached before. Our country needs many who will shake her and waken her out of her sleep. She needs a new race of Whitfields, men suited to its culture. She needs some “Sons of Thunder,” who will thunder out the Word, some men who will be like lightning in carrying out their holy mission. She needs men who will preach the truth, and tell it to her poor men and women, yes, and to her rich men and women too, and if she ever gets these men, it will only be in answer to prayer. Oh! that we would not only pray for such men, and, having received them, pray that God would make them full of His Spirit, for they cannot run over with blessings to others, until they are full of blessing themselves. We would truly understand what the prayer-meeting is all about, if we did this. I look forward to tomorrow for a blessing of this kind. There may be sitting here now some man to whom China and India will be forever grateful. I don’t know who it may be, but there may be one here who will yet bring up diamonds from the very depths, and who will be inspired to do so in answer to our prayers.
6. The prayer-meeting has a sixth purpose, that it is may be the first step in a new work for Christ.
Once more, I will remind you of a prayer-meeting which perhaps, you may have forgotten, but which is recorded in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. What was the first Christian service that was held in Europe? Do you know? Why, it was a prayer-meeting. The very first service was not an Episcopal ordination, nor even the preaching of a sermon, for Paul went to the place where prayer was needed to be made by the river-side, and there he met with Lydia, and preached to her, and her heart was so opened that she received the truth. So, then, a prayer-meeting became in Europe the first foothold of the gospel for Europeans, you ought never to forget, disown, or think lightly of prayer-meetings. How you ought to value them. Very often, I don’t doubt, in a Christian enterprise, the first foothold that a cause gets is the prayer-meeting. Some of you live in some of the dark parts of this city, and you would like to see a cause for Christ there. Well, begin with a prayer-meeting, just as Paul did. Or you live in a small village, perhaps, where there is no church with whom you can worship. Well then, hold a prayer-meeting. This costs you nothing; this will enrich you; this will serve for a beginning, and although you may not be content with that as the only service on Sunday, give it a little time, just begin with it. This, then, is the missionary’s lever; he begins with the prayer-meeting.
Thus I have, as briefly as I could, gone through the early history of prayer-meetings, and shown you the extreme value of such to the God’s Holy Church.