We will devote ourselves to Prayer
How much is prayer a priority in the life of those who are called to the ministry? It is a probing question, because it relates largely to the hidden life of ministers. In that sense, if we who are ministers are honest, it is also an embarrassing question; because the answer may well be that it comes further down our list of priorities than it ought.
Nevertheless the question will not go away because it confronts us at a formative moment in the development of the early church. As the apostles steered the embryonic New Testament church through its earliest phases in Jerusalem, adjusting to the new epoch of redemptive history in which they found themselves, they faced new challenges that were to shape how the church would be governed and cared for.
So, when they were confronted by a dispute between the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews over the care of their widows, the apostles had to respond quickly to a fresh challenge (Ac 6.1-7). It is a familiar section in the Acts record of how the New Testament church grew. And, when we read it, we instinctively think of the formation of a new office in the church of the new epoch: the diaconate. (It is a moot point as to whether or not this was in fact the moment the actual office was formed; but it certainly marked a deliberate focus on diaconal function.) Nevertheless, we cannot fully appreciate the apostles’ response to this crisis without considering the rationale that lay behind it. Namely, it was so that they might be able to devote themselves ‘ to prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Ac 6.4).
That little caveat is packed with far more significance than we immediately imagine. It was no mere footnote; but, rather, a way of highlighting where priorities needed to lie in God’s grand scheme of building his church among the nations through the preaching of the gospel.
It might be tempting to subconsciously dismiss its wider relevance by thinking, ‘Well, that was important for the apostles as a matter of historical interest, but of little relevance for the church through the ages’. But this would be to miss a vital issue that underpins the growth and vitality of the church through the ages.
Several things stand out that ought to make every pastor, elder and the churches they serve think again about this little statement as they reflect on their own priorities and expectations.
The first is the fact that it was indeed the apostles who were deeply conscious of their need to pray. Their position and role in the early church was privileged and carried a unique authority; but they never allowed that to make them presumptuous. The weight of responsibility that went hand in hand with their privilege drove them to their knees with the question the apostle Paul would later ask, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ The apostles prayed because they knew they needed to. The words of Jesus from the Upper Room were burned into their consciousness, ‘Without me, you can do nothing’ (Jn 15.5).
The second noteworthy detail is the order in which they articulate their apostolic duties: prayer first and preaching second. Even by this early stage of their work, they were discovering how the Holy Spirit, as Christ had promised, would enable them to speak and proclaim God’s word effectively – even under the most unlikely circumstances. But, they were also discovering that just as the Spirit’s work is never divorced from the Word, so too it can never be separated from prayer. Prayer is the conscious expression of our dependence on the divine enabling. The Holy Spirit is not the biblical alternative to Krypton; he is the Spirit of Prayer who teaches us to live out the words of Annie S. Hawk’s hymn, ‘I need thee every hour. As they observed Jesus, the master preacher, during their time with him on earth, they noted that he consistently prioritised prayer throughout his life and ministry. And if that was vital for him; how much more for them.
The third observation was that, although they were apostles and were fulfilling a foundational role in the establishment and formation of the church, their office included aspects that were paradigmatic for the office of pastor-teacher as God’s means of growing the church numerically and towards spiritual maturity. It is clear from comments from both Paul and Peter in their letters, that their apostolic office did not prevent them from identifying with elders as their fellow-elders (see, e.g., 1Pe 5.1). In that sense there is no wriggle room for those who are the ministerial successors of the apostolic band to think we can settle for a lesser standard in our approach to service.
The final thought arising from the apostles’ comment in Acts is that there was actually nothing revolutionary or new about this. It was not merely, as we have already pointed out, that it was the very visible hallmark of Christ’s approach to ministry, but that the same was true to the spiritual leaders of the Old Testament. Daniel stands out – well described by the words of the children’s hymn, ‘Daniel was a man of prayer’ – but we see it in others as well. David was clearly also a man of prayer: the psalms that bear his name are not merely an expression of praise, but also an outpouring of his heart in prayer. We could go on and think of the patriarchs, Moses, many of the Judges, the prophets and the post-exilic historians and prophets too. Effective preaching is inseparable from effective praying.
Before we all instinctively want to dive into our ‘I’m a failure’ bunker out of shame over our neglect of prayer, let us remember Paul’s words: ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’ (Ro 8.26). The very One who was given to help Jesus in the weakness of his flesh has been freely given to us, his servants, in the weakness of our sinful flesh in order that we may find God’s promised help – not just in prayer, but also in our ministry.