Prayer in the Early Church

“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

Prayer is one of the foundations upon which the early Church was built. It was as natural as breathing. It permeated and undergirded their actions and fellowship. “And they continued steadfastly …in prayer.” To understand the prayer life of the early Church, we must not omit the birthing process of the Church. Without this, the early Church would have been weak, beggarly, and at best, human.

The Birth of the Church

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…. you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:4-5, 8)

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples to wait. He knew that without the power from above, they would not be able to fulfill the call and their mission. They had three and half years of theological and discipleship training. They had witnessed lives changed and miracles done. They knew Jesus closely and intimately.

Yet the Master told them to wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Negation of this crucial element is the root of our ineffectiveness as a Church.

When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:13-14)

They obeyed. They didn’t rush off to save the world. They didn’t despise the words of their Master. They went to the upper room and continued together in prayer and supplication. Men and women prayed and waited for the power from above, for unction from God.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 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. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4)

Just as Jesus promised, they were baptised and filled with the Holy Spirit. Before, they had been afraid and cowardly. Now, they had a new boldness and unction that no one could fathom. The Holy Spirit was in control.

Without understanding the above event and experience, it is futile to speak of the prayer life of the early Church. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us strength to pray and to tarry in God’s presence. Without him, we don’t feel attracted to God’s presence. Without him, prayer is an unpleasant chore we want to do away with as soon as possible.

With the Holy Spirit, we enjoy sweet fellowship through prayer. We long to come back to rest and be edified in his presence. We are consumed by his love and endued with power from above. Prayer becomes a passion instead of a responsibility. It is no more a problem to wake up to spend the early hours of the day with our Master. We seek every opportunity to spend with him. This blessed experience is for every child of God.

How Did the Early Church Pray?
The early Church prayed…

  • Without ceasing. The early Church had incessancy in their prayers. They prayed at all times, in every situation. Prayer was their lifeline, their source of strength. That was why Paul admonished the Thesalonian church to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

    Praying without ceasing is living in God’s presence at all times. It is abiding in him and walking with him. It is being connected with God, our source, at all times.

  • Individually. Jesus taught his disciples to spend time alone with God:

         And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray
         standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen
         by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go
         into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the
         secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
    (Matthew 6:5-

    He not only taught them to pray individually, he also showed by example: “And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. Now when evening came, he was alone there” (Matthew 14:23). “And it happened, as he was alone praying…” (Luke 9:18).

    Prayer was a personal habit nurtured by the Lord. The secret of his success in public ministry can be attributed to his prayer in secret. Ministering in public without a life of secret prayer is like being a tree without roots. Sooner or later, that tree will come down or be washed away.

  • Corporately. In Acts 4:23-31 we see an example of the early Church praying together:

         And being let go, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief
         priests and elders had said to them. So when they heard that, they raised their voice to
         God with one accord and said: “Lord, you are God, who made heaven and earth and the
         sea, and all that is in them…”

    Peter and John had been released by the Sanhedrin, who had charged them never to preach the name of Jesus Christ. After returning to their companions, they raised their voice to God with one accord. The place was shaken, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

  • With the word of God. Praying the word of God is one of the most potent weapons we have been given.

         “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” (Luke 4:4)

         “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17)

         “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate
         of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from
         the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you
         can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and
         the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions
         with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on
         praying for all the Lord’s people.”
    (Ephesians 6:14-18)

    Every aspect of the armour mentioned is defensive. Only one is offensive: the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. God answers our prayers to the proportion his word abides in us: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7).

  • Earnestly and fervently. The early Church was always earnest and fervent in their prayers. They were gripped with the urgency of their circumstances and cried out to God in holy desperation: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:17).

    Earnestness and fervency are born out of faith and a conviction that God is willing to answer our prayers if we ask. They are born out of a feeling of urgency. It is prayer that takes hold of God and wrestles like Jacob did: “…I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (Genesis 32:26). It is prayer that causes God to say as he did to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). Jesus prayed this way: “And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly. Then his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

  • With thanksgiving. Unfortunately, we often focus on our needs and forget to thank God in all circumstances. Paul admonished the Thessalonian church: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). He also admonished the Philippian Christians,

         Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving,
         let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all
         understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
    (Philippians 4:6-7)

Where Did They Pray?
The early disciples prayed everywhere:

  • In homes
  • In the temple (Acts 3:1)
  • On the streets (Acts 3:2, Acts 7:59-60)

Jesus also had special places he retreated to for prayer. Peter prayed on the rooftop (Acts 10:9). The choice for places of prayer is not as important as our motivation:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. (Matthew 6:5)

In our daily devotions and our weekly, monthly, or annual prayer retreats, we should choose places where we can concentrate on God.

For What Did They Pray?
The early disciples prayed for everything:

  • Healing and deliverance from unclean spirits (Acts 3: 2-9, Acts 5:16)
  • Boldness to speak the word of God (Acts 4:29)
  • Healing, signs, and wonders (Acts 4: 30)
  • Forgiveness of their persecutors (Acts 7:59-60)
  • The dead to be raised (Acts 9:36-42)
  • The persecuted, for God’s guidance, for conversion

The Ministry of Prayer and the Word

In those days, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.” (Acts 6:1-3)

The early apostles were devoted to prayer and to the ministry of the word. They were not to be distracted by engagements and services, which although were needed and good, did not constitute the core of their call.

No matter what we have been called to do, our walk and work should be characterised by prayer. It is a potent weapon God has given his children to fulfill the mission he has committed into our hands. Quality time spent in prayer manifests itself in the quality of our walk with God and our work for God. The Lord is calling his Church to return to the place of prayer. We have victory through prayer.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13)

John Abraham Godson is a member of the Polish parliament. He came to Poland in 1993 as a missionary with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He served as deputy chair of the Intercession Working Group of The Lausanne Movement between 2005 and 2010. He is married with four children. They make their home in Lodz, Central Poland.