The Fellowship of Suffering (review)
A first grader stood up in front of his class to give his speech, "What I Want To Be When I Grow Up." He said, "I'm going to be a lion tamer and have lots of fierce lions. I'll walk into the cage and they will roar." He paused for a moment, thinking through what he just said, then added, "But I'll have my Mommy with me." We don't always have mommy with us, and mommy is not always adequate for the fears that we face. What is it that can give us boldness?
Last week we began to look at three factors that kept the early church from succumbing to fears and from privatizing their faith and ending up in a holy huddle; three things that prevented them from becoming a ghetto that would not impact their culture. And we saw that this is a constant temptation for Christians who live in a pagan culture. And it must be resisted.
There was the fellowship of suffering (verse 23), the fellowship of prayer (verses 24-30) and the fellowship of the Spirit (verse 31). Last week I looked at the fellowship of suffering. And because it is such an important concept for understanding the book of Acts and for growing in our own Christian walk, we looked at many Scriptures to systematically develop a theology of suffering. If you were not here, I strongly encourage you to get that tape or CD. In fact, a lot of what I will say today assumes a knowledge of what we talked about last week.
The Puritan, John Flavel, said that our mystical union with Christ is so real that when we are naked, or hungry, or in prison, Jesus is some sense naked, hungry and in prison (Matthew 25). When Paul was persecuting the church in Acts 9, Jesus said that Paul was persecuting Him. We looked at many Scriptures that indicate that He shares in our sufferings just as we share in His sufferings. Now this is a concept that is a little more difficult to wrap our heads around, and that is why I'm not even going to try to summarize what we said last week. But Flavel said that this union with Christ is supernatural, immediate, fundamental and it is efficacious. It enables Christ to enter into our whole life, and it enables us to enter into His whole life – His glory, joy, victory – everything, including His sufferings. This is why it is not just a legal concept in Ephesians when it says that we are seated together with Christ in the heavenlies. We can presently have an authority based upon our union with Christ that very many Christians do not take advantage of. So last week we saw that there is a fellowship. What is the nature of that? Secondly, we saw that there is a fellowship of His sufferings. Today I want to examine the fellowship of prayer
The Fellowship of Prayer
What it means (v. 24a)
Verse 24: So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: The Greek word for "one accord" is really hard to translate into English. The Greek is homothumadon. It's a compound word that comes from two Greek words: homos (which means the same, or united) and thumos (which dictionaries say can mean heart, soul, passions or inner spirit. On occasion it can even mean anger). But it is a clear reference to more than an outward unity. The implication is that they are not just united in prayer (the first part of the word shows that), but that they were also united in spirit as they prayed – and all that is involved in the human spirit - the passions, the mind, etc). There is something that knits their hearts together in prayer. And so I have just summarized that first clause with the phrase, "the fellowship of prayer." I think that is an accurate summary of what it means to raise their voice to God with one accord.
And I think it is significant that the fellowship of prayer (verses 24 and following) flows out of the fellowship of sufferings (verse 23). Those who have tasted of the supernatural fellowship of sufferings that we talked about last week have testified that they cannot but pray for the souls of others. That fellowship of sufferings drives them to prayer. We saw last week that Romans 9:1-3 is just one aspect of the fellowship of sufferings, but it is one of many illustrations that showed how it drove Paul to prayer. In Romans 9:1-3 he says this: I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart [there is one kind of suffering]. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh. He had so entered into this mystical union with Christ that the Spirit had given Paul the same self-sacrificing love for others that Christ had when He was willing to be accursed by the Father for our salvation. And Paul said that though other aspects of our union with Christ are so glorious and joyful, that words cannot adequately convey what he had experienced, this aspect of his union with Christ was painful. It was suffering. And in Romans 10:1 this fellowship that He had in Christ's sufferings drove him to prayer. Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. And so my first point is that we can't pick and choose which aspects of our union with Christ that we will experience. They come as a package deal. If you avoid Paul's life verse that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, - if you avoid that, then you're never going to be a prayer warrior. Vincent says, "Being in Christ involves fellowship with Christ at all points—His life, His spirit, His suffering, His death and His glory." And I would add, His burden of interecession. Those who have entered into the fellowship of the saints have had Jesus pour upon them the Spirit of prayer and supplications. This is what it means in Jude when we are called to pray in the spirit. This is what Ephesians 6:18 is talking about when it speaks of prayer and supplication in the Spirit.
So the fellowship of prayer is involved in our union with Christ, it grows in proportion to our experience of the fellowship of His sufferings, it is an inward passion which many people have described as a burden. It feels like a weight that only prayer can relieve. And that might be one way to translate that word homothumadon: united in one burden, or with one heart, or with one spirit or with one passion. And I know some people get nervous about too much passion, but if you look up the word thumos in the book of Revelation, you will see a lot of passion – most of it anger that is connected with this word. I'm not saying anger is of the essence of this word – it is not. But you cannot extract burden or passion from it. It is something inward that the Spirit produces.
Let me make one more note on the nature of this fellowship of prayer before we dive into the rest of the passage . It does not mean people going crazy. I've been in meetings where everyone is praying at the same time, everyone is falling on the ground, and I'm leaving. I'm out of there. No! This was done decently and in order. And some charismatics might object and say, "But wait a minute. It says that they all raised their voice with one accord which means that they were all praying at the same time. But that is absolutely not the case. They were all in agreement, but there was only one voice praying. Everything here was done decently and in order.
Let me read it again showing where the plural and the singulars are found in the Greek. So when they heard that, they [plural] raised [that's a plural verb. And then the Greek literally says "they raised"] a voice to God with one accord and said [and that too is a plural verb – they said]. The Greek is quite clear that only one voice was speaking, but all were involved in raising what he said up to God. An apostle is leading in prayer and the others are agreeing. Though every person there was praying, yet, it wasn't many different prayers that were offered. This prayer was offered – word for word. Probably the way verbal agreement was given was that one person led in prayer with the others lifting their voices in an Amen. Over and over in Scripture it records all the people saying "Amen" during and after a prayer. That is giving our agreement to the prayer that is offered and expressing our faith verbally. There is no way that you can say "Amen" if you don't know what other people are praying. Just as one example, 1Cor. 14:16 says that unless tongues are translated they should not be prayed publicly because there needs to be a unity of mind. It says, Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say "Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? Fellowship of prayer implies a unity of mind in its definition. And so there is one voice who leads in the prayer – and that really is a leadership function, and the rest of the congregation lifted that prayer to heaven with their agreement. It became their prayer. Their mind was in agreement; their passions were engaged; their spirits were united in one accord. So if you put all those words together, you've got a good idea of the definition of the fellowship of prayer: a spirit-given way to pray that unites believers with a common burden, with agreement in mind and faith, and a shared passion for the cause of Christ. Now with that in mind, I want to go through the prayer and show how it implies many other aspects of our fellowship with Christ and with each other.
Let me read it again showing where the plural and the singulars are found in the Greek. So when they heard that, they [plural] raised [that's a plural verb. And then the Greek literally says "they raised"] a voice to God with one accord and said [and that too is a plural verb – they said]. The Greek is quite clear that only one voice was speaking, but all were involved in raising what he said up to God. An apostle is leading in prayer and the others are agreeing. Though every person there was praying, yet, it wasn't many different prayers that were offered. This prayer was offered – word for word. Probably the way verbal agreement was given was that one person led in prayer with the others lifting their voices in an Amen. Over and over in Scripture it records all the people saying "Amen" during and after a prayer. That is giving our agreement to the prayer that is offered and expressing our faith verbally. There is no way that you can say "Amen"
Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say "Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? Fellowship of prayer implies a unity of mind in its definition. And so there is one voice who leads in the prayer – and that really is a leadership function, and the rest of the congregation lifted that prayer to heaven with their agreement. It became their prayer. Their mind was in agreement; their passions were engaged; their spirits were united in one accord. So if you put all those words together, you've got a good idea of the definition of the fellowship of prayer. Now with that in mind, I want to go through the prayer and show how it implies many other aspects of our fellowship with Christ and with each other.
Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say "Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? Fellowship of prayer implies a unity of mind in its definition. And so there is one voice who leads in the prayer – and that really is a leadership function, and the rest of the congregation lifted that prayer to heaven with their agreement. It became their prayer. Their mind was in agreement; their passions were engaged; their spirits were united in one accord. So if you put all those words together, you've got a good idea of the definition of the fellowship of prayer: a spirit-given way to pray that unites believers with a common burden, with agreement in mind and faith, and a shared passion for the cause of Christ. Now with that in mind, I want to go through the prayer and show how it implies many other aspects of our fellowship with Christ and with each other.
Other things implied in the fellowship of prayer
A Fellowship of submission and loyalty to God ("Lord" = *despotes – v. 24b)
The first word in this prayer is a word that shows a fellowship of submission and loyalty to the Father. We share a common master and it gives to us a common sense of submission when we are in prayer. That first word is not the usual word for Lord. The Greek is despotes. It is the strongest word for Lord in the Greek language. One dictionary says, "despotes expresses the arbitrary, unlimited exercise of power without any real conditions" (NIDNTT). Another dictionary says, "one who holds complete power or authority over another… one who owns and/or controls the activities of slaves, servants, or subjects, with the implication of absolute, and in some instances, arbitrary jurisdiction" (Louw & Nida). And it's not by accident that they use this word. In effect it is a declaration that they are willing to receive anything that the Lord wants to throw at them. They are not complaining. They are not bitter. They are devoted to the Lord as His bondslaves no matter what He does. And so the purpose of this prayer is not to get out of discomfort. It's a God-centered motive; it's a Spirit-given motive. It is a prayer for His honor, His glory and with a concern to His reputation and His cause. And when the Spirit moves our hearts in prayer, our prayers show submission and loyalty.
A Fellowship of faith (v. 24b)
Secondly, this prayer shows a fellowship of faith. Lord, You are God. I am afraid that the church of today is not always entirely convinced of that fact. At least our actions, attitudes and emotions often seem to demonstrate otherwise. We act as if it is all up to us,
and if we are not up to it, we grow fainthearted and discouraged. And that's not the only way we can deny this fellowship of faith. Our prayerlessness shows that we many times are trusting in ourselves more than we are trusting in God. Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them. It might look like Herod, Pontius Pilate and the Jewish leaders are running the show. It might look like things are out of God's control. But they have faith that there was nothing that God had not made, and since He was the ultimate despot, there was nothing that could question His power and authority and get away with it. Of course, since the Jews were trying to get away with it, the church as God's ambassador was apprising God of the situation and asking Him to take action. Two weeks ago we looked at two principles of prayer – one is that we should pray from a stance of victory rather than praying for victory. Praying from a stance of victory is a prayer of faith. And we have every reason to do that since God has already decreed the victory in eternity past, Jesus has already purchased it. His resurrection has guaranteed it. And the Holy Spirit is applying that victory through the church. The whole prayer shows a fellowship of faith. And of course, it is the Spirit who gives us faith, right? Which is one more reason why we need to pray in the Spirit.
A Fellowship of battle (vv. 25-27)
Third, this prayer shows a fellowship of battle. We have a common general and a common enemy, and attacks of the enemy should drive us to the common action of spiritual warfare. Look at verses 25-27. …who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: "Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ." For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together… There is a huge war going on between Satan and Christ. So why not just leave it to Christ to battle Satan? After all, Christ is quite capable of doing it by Himself. It would be easier for the church to relax a little bit and trust God's sovereignty. "Let go and let God." But the Spirit does not allow that. He not only pushes us closer into the sufferings of Christ, but makes us participants in the warfare of Christ. Those who pray in the Spirit cannot leave the battle alone. They have a fellowship with Christ in battle, and a fellowship with other saints in battle. And that is why the language of warfare is so frequently connected to prayer. Romans 15:30 says, Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me [one version has, "that you unite with me in earnest wrestling"; another has, "to be my allies in the fight"] in prayers to God for me. Paul saw prayer not only warfare, but as a fellowship with believers and a fellowship with Jesus in warfare. And the critical phrase in Romans 15:30 is that this fellowship of warfare was "through the Lord Jesus Christ and through the love of the Spirit." It is something that God draws us into supernaturally.
A Fellowship of cause (v. 27)
But that battling in prayer implies that there is a cause that we are battling for, and that cause is bigger and greater than our own personal agendas, even though it includes our own personal needs. The cause is Christ, right? Even though the church is being persecuted, in verse 27 they say that this is ultimately about Jesus and His cause. For truly against Your holy Servant, Jesus, whom You anointed… Now that doesn't exclude the issues that they were facing. We can make all of our requests known to God, but our needs need to be interpreted as bearing on the cause of Christ. Do you need a car, don't just pray for a car. Pray for a stewardship trust: "Lord, I want to use this car for your kingdom, and I believe having it would rightly glorify Christ in His kingdom. Here are the reasons why having a car would serve Christ's cause well and would glorify You." Notice that even the cause of Christ is interpreted as serving the ultimate cause of the Father.
Jesus is described as the Father's Servant. And Jesus has been anointed by the Father for a calling. And because Christ served the Father's interests in all that He did, and since His prayers were always centered on the Father's cause, the Scripture says His prayers were always answered.
Why? Because He was praying according to the will of the Father. We can take our cue from this and make sure that we are God-centered in our petitions. Even though God loves to minister to our needs, let's not present our needs in a selfish way, but in a way that unites our needs to a cause that is bigger than us and greater than us.
A Fellowship of Scripture (vv. 25-26)
How do we do that? Well, obviously the Spirit needs to quicken that to our hearts. But the Spirit works through means, and one of the means is Scripture. It is as we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures that our prayers begin to be more and more focused on God's cause. This guy obviously had Psalm 2 memorized. And we too need to saturate our prayers with Scripture. I speak of this aspect of prayer as the fellowship of Scripture. It is one of the most fundamental things that we share in common as Christians, and of course sharing is another translation for fellowship. It is the Scripture alone that can make the church united in any of the other things we have spoken of. Always be suspicious of any movement for unity in the church that neglects the Scripture, or wants its members to ignore doctrine, or that says, "let's just love one another," but doesn't allow the Scripture to define the love. Scripture must define our prayers if they are to be heard by God. This is what it means to pray according to the will of God. It's the Bible that tells us what His will is. Anything else is man-centered and will not get past the ceiling. Listen to this: if we are praying in the Spirit, He will never move us to ignore the Scripture. The Spirit gave the Scriptures. He loves the Scriptures. And when He moves us into the fellowship of prayer, it will always be manifested as a fellowship of Scripture; an agreement together in the one thing in life that is never mistaken: the bible. I've had great fellowship in prayer with saints who are doctrinally different than me because their prayers were grounded in the Scriptures. That's what enabled me to agree.
A Fellowship of purpose (v. 28)
Verse 28 speaks of a fellowship of purpose. …to do whatever your hand and your purpose determined to be done. Certainly our prayers can at times be confused. Certainly we at times don't know what we should pray for as we ought. Romans 8 says that this is why the Holy Spirit intercedes within us. He helps us in our weakness. And so I am not saying that we will know all God's purposes. But anytime the Holy Spirit is ushering us into the fellowship of prayer; anytime we are praying in the Spirit, we will be certain of one thing: that God is in control and that God has a purpose. This is why J.I. Packer says that all Arminians are Calvinists when they are on their knees. I would correct that slightly and say, many Arminians are Calvinists when they are on their knees. But I have met some Arminians who pray blasphemous prayers. I remember one time involuntarily moving sideways when I heard one of my classmates in Bible School telling God that we were the only arms and legs that God had, and that he would try harder to do some of the things that God was not able to do. I moved sideways because I was almost expecting God to fry this guy. I was an Arminian myself at the time, and I had never heard of such a thing. The Openness of God theology that is rampant in some Arminian circles is heresy. It is not even Christianity. It says that God doesn't know the future, makes mistakes, has to change His plans, He is blindsided on occasion, He is growing as He interacts with this world, and all that in the name of trying to maintain a personal God. But that is a different God than the God of the Bible and I will not have fellowship with such a person. I will not pray with such a person because there is no fellowship of purpose. You cannot be in fellowship with God's sovereign purposes and enter into fellowship in prayer with those who deny God's sovereign purposes. That's to pray against God. God knows the future, plans the future, is not mistaken, is not blindsided. Christian prayers must be confident in that. And when we are praying without at least some fellowship in God's purpose for this universe, it is an indication that we are not praying in the Spirit, or at least it is not the Holy Spirit. The fellowship of prayers is something that only the Holy Spirit can produce.
A Fellowship of calling (v. 29)
Verse 29 speaks of a fellowship of calling: Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word. These people who were praying this prayer saw themselves as servants of God rather than God being a Servant to them. That sense of calling will change the way you pray. And in asking for boldness to speak God's word, they saw themselves as ambassadors of God to the world who must speak. Now sometimes it is a tough thing to be an ambassador. David sent some ambassadors to the kingdom of Ammon when King Nahosh died, because Nahosh had been very good to David. David sent ambassadors to comfort Nahosh's son, who was now the king, and the son took the ambassadors, humiliated them, shaved off half their beards, cut their clothes so that their buttocks were exposed. These ambassadors were greatly humiliated. But here is the encouraging thing about being an ambassador. He represents the king, so anything done to the ambassador is an act against king David who sent them. And David went to war over this humiliation. He stood up for His ambassadors. And when we realize that God stands up for His ambassadors, and that what is done to us is actually done to God, it gives us a greater sense of confidence when we ask God to act against our persecutors. It's the same prayer, but it makes it God-centered. It's a fellowship of calling.
A Fellowship of the Spirit (vv. 30-31)
And then finally, there is the fellowship of the Spirit (verses 30-31). By stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
The Fellowship of the Spirit (v. 30-31) and what flows from it (vv.
The fellowship of the Spirit is not a static thing that stays the same, or something that happens once in your life and then that's it. No. It grows or wanes. Just as our fellowship with other humans can wane or even be choked off sometimes, Paul warns us that the same can be true of our fellowship with the Spirit – we can quench the Spirit and grieve the Spirit. So we always need to go back to the source for renewed fillings. In other words, it is a dynamic relationship. Just as our human relationships grow, so too the fellowship with the Spirit can grow. It was the Spirit who ushered them into the fellowship of suffering, the fellowship of prayer, but now as a result of prayer, there is a further entering into the things of the Spirit. It is a dynamic relationship that can grow or recede.
Involves multiple fillings (2:4; 4:8; 4:31; etc)
Second, we see that we can be filled multiple times. Take Peter for example. Acts 2:4 is the first time Peter is said to be filled with the Holy Spirit. But in Acts 4:8 Peter is again filled with the Holy Spirit: then Peter filled with the Spirit said to them… Then in Acts 4:31, since Peter is part of the group, and since all were filled with the Spirit, logic tells us that this is the third time that Peter is said to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It is an oft repeated entering into the fellowship of the Spirit. There are some groups who speak of a one time experience, but Acts indicates that there are many such fillings.
The Spirit is sovereign (vv. 30ff)
The third thing that we see is that the Spirit is sovereign in this relationship. I have talked to a number of people who have insisted that every time there is a filling of the Spirit that the person who is so-filled speaks in tongues or prophesies, and that is simply not true. In verse 31 we see two tangible effects of this filling: the place was shaken and they had boldness. But verses 32-37 show several other ways in which this filling was manifested. And it should be pointed out that this is the only time shaking is mentioned. Certainly, Acts 2:41 shows tongues as a result, but there isn't tongues every time. Acts 9:17 shows healing, but there isn't healing every time. In fact, in Acts 13:52 the only evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit is that those disciples had joy in the midst of persecution. In Ephesians 5:18, the evidences of being filled with the Holy Spirit is that we delight to sing from our hearts to the Lord – psalms hymns and spiritual songs, that we give thanks always for all things, (and thirdly) that we submit to one another. Now does it take some supernatural power to make people want to joyfully submit to one another and to be thankful in all circumstances. Of course it does. And the point is that the Holy Spirit fills us in order to give us what we need at that moment. If the situation does not call for a miracle to God's glory, then He won't give one, and to expect a miracle every time there is a filling of the Holy Spirit is only to set ourselves up for disappointment. So keep in mind that in Acts 4, the healing, signs and wonders that are prayed for in verse 30 are one possible evidence of filling when those things are needed. But the simple gift of boldness in verse 31 is an equally valid manifestation of this filling. The Spirit can do whatever He wants, miraculous or non-miraculous. But we can glory in the fact that the fellowship of the Spirit unites us to all that Christ has purchased for us and unites us with the brethren to whom we are ministering. And the word fellowship means sharing. Christ shares with us His whole life, and we share with each other the life of Christ. And as we come to know Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings, the fellowship of prayer and the fellowship of the Spirit, we have everything that we need to be bold for the cause of Christ.
Brothers and sisters – your need of the hour (and of each hour) is given in Paul's command in Ephesians 5:18 to be filled with the Spirit, and by that Spirit to enter into the fellowship of Christ and of the saints. Amen.