Before Christ’s ascension, He commanded the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit’s promised empowerment, that they may be His witnesses all around the world. “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). For “ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In obedience to the Lord’s command, the apostles returned to Jerusalem (Acts 1:12a), and “continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1:14). That first prayer gathering after Christ’s ascension, which began with just the eleven apostles, eventually grew to a total of about 120 (Acts 1:15). From that group of praying men and women who waited for the power of the Holy Spirit, sprang up the first New Testament church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1–47)!
The Lord’s instruction to the apostles to tarry in Jerusalem led them to a season of prayer, together with other believers. They prayed with hearts submissive to the Lord’s command, and with the joyous expectation of the Spirit’s might that would empower them as witnesses to the Gospel in a hostile world. Though they hardly knew the details of what would happen, they knew for sure that life and the ministry ahead of them would be full of trials and sorrows. But their persistence in prayer would be instrumental in preparing them for all the challenges which they would face. Through constant collective prayers, the church overcame persecution, apostasy, temptation, and made significant progress in preaching the Gospel and advancing the church’s work.
The early church relied on God through prayer for all their spiritual and physical needs. They relentlessly pursued divine help in prayer. They prayed individually as believers (cf. Acts 9:10–12, 40; 10:9), and corporately as a church (cf. Acts 1:14, 24; 4:24–31; 12:5, 12). What a far cry from the contemporary church! Sadly, prayer is much neglected in the church at large today. In churches of our day and age, we hear of large crowds turning up for concerts, for entertainment, and even for listening to the testimonies of the rich and famous. Prayer meetings, on the other hand, attract only the faithful few. Lack of interest in prayer is the primary reason for the weakness of the contemporary church.
We must take care not to be drawn away from prayer by laziness, pleasure, business, etc. The dire consequences of neglect of prayer cannot be ignored. The present circumstances in which we live and serve are perilous to holy living that is acceptable to God. There are many powerful temptations and demonic doctrines that lurk around us. Only through much prayer can we keep ourselves holy for our Master’s use. Unless we are diligent in prayer, we will be overtaken by the adversary’s ploys to destroy us (cf. Luke 21:36). Truly, only when we are given continually to prayer will the church members’ personal life and the church ministries flourish spiritually.
That is why we read of Paul’s apostolic exhortation to the church in Colossae, “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). We too must take heed of this injunction to pray with earnest perseverance and give ourselves unto prayer as God’s Word requires. Now, the Greek word (proskarteréō) translated as “continue” has the idea of “to continue to do something with intense effort, even with the possibility of difficulties along the way, until one has brought it to the wished-for end”.
So, firstly, our prayers must be earnest before God. Prayer should never be perfunctory. A casual or superficial attitude in prayer is akin to being irreverent before God. An indifferent heart in prayer is tantamount to mocking God’s holy and solemn presence. Wandering hearts and sleepy prayers are not befitting the majestic presence of our gracious God. Then, secondly, there must be devoutness and commitment to prayer. Jesus had said that “men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1). This is not to say that we are to be always on our knees, but rather that the spirit of prayer should never be laid aside. We must have a prayerful spirit all the time. We must also delight in frequent prayers, whether they be short or protracted prayers. God must be frequently sought, for He alone is our help.
Scripture records many examples of men and women who prayed earnestly and without ceasing. We need not look too far. Even in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, the apostle mentions his co-labourer, Epaphras, as “always labouring fervently for you in prayers” (Colossians 4:12). Such constancy in prayer has been the secret of God’s servants who are God-honouring. Such is also the secret of a God-honouring, vibrant, fruitful church. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, a praying church will be empowered and guided to fulfil God’s glorious purposes concerning its work on earth. Believers will be built up in knowledge and godliness to serve the Lord in love, unity and peace, that the Gospel may spread far and near. The Spirit of God will invigorate a praying church to magnify the Lord, that more members may be added to the church as the blessings of the Gospel of Christ spread throughout the community.
In Paul’s apostolic counsel on prayer, we are also called unto watchfulness in prayer—“watch in the same” (v. 2b). The word rendered “watch” has the idea of “refrain from sleep”, “stay awake”, “be alert”, “be vigilant”. When physical tiredness and sleepiness prevented Peter, James and John from being awakened unto prayer, Jesus rebuked them: “What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40–41). Even physical fatigue is not a satisfactory excuse for failing in prayer. Christians must be awake unto the pressing matters of life and ministry, so as to bring them to God in prayer.
Besides, being watchful also entails looking out for what God has already blessed us with, which should evoke a thankful spirit in us. Whenever we pray, we must be full of thankfulness towards God. Admittedly, we are more prone to ask or complain than to give thanks. When we pray, we must be grateful for the blessings already granted, and for the promises He has given unto us. Beware: ungrateful men are not fit to pray! On the other hand, grateful men who depend upon God for spiritual wisdom and power to lead those under their care will pray without ceasing. Those who desire to be faithful in their God-given roles will be utterly dependent on God through prayer. Gratefulness and watchfulness would hasten them to the presence of God. They will be serious in their commitment to pray for their families and those under their charge, as well as to pray with them. They will also count it their special joy and duty to be with people who gather together to pray. Indeed, men of faith are not only given to prayer, but also earnest and watchful in prayer.
Most of us are not called to be preachers of the Word or to be leaders of the church. But all of us are called to be mighty in intercession. Like Epaphras, who was constantly mindful of his home church and toiled in prayer for the brethren (cf. Colossians 4:12), we too must pray. With burden, faith and thanksgiving we must pray. Let there be godly expectation of divine blessings as we pray for ourselves and our church. All of us can pray for one another—and that we must do.