The situation with the coronavirus COVID-19 changes daily. Churches are discovering creative ways to shepherd one another and touch their communities through services. We can give thanks to God for technology that allows us to stream services and do home groups via videochat.
At the same time, we have the very same access to God we’ve always had. In the first article in this series, I observed that the church was birthed in prayer. Our first recourse—just like the first believers—is to turn to the Lord in prayer.
The second thing we can see from the church’s prayer in Acts speaks directly to where we are today: The church turned first to prayer in times of difficulty. In Acts 4, we read of the beginning of a problem that, though not a virus, will spread like one in the coming years: persecution.
A lame man was healed and thousands more were converted, but the religious leaders weren’t happy about any of it. Peter and John stood before the Sanhedrin and faced threats (Acts 4:18). They were basically told, "No, you can't speak about Jesus anymore." It’s only going to get worse: threats here, beatings in Acts 5, until people start dying for the faith beginning in Acts 7 with Stephen. After that, a general persecution began (Acts 8:1-4).
When they were released, Peter and John prayed with the believers. We read beginning in verse 23 the first corporate prayer recorded in Acts, and it’s in response to difficulty. They all met together. We can’t do that right now physically, and yet we can, through video technology and social media updates.
The church can still gather as one and pray.
This prayer in Acts 4 is one of the more remarkable prayers in the scriptures, as they didn't ask God to take away the threats. What did they pray? First, they acknowledged God’s ultimate control: "Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” They started with God instead of their immediate circumstances. Focusing on God’s greatness shapes our perspective.
Next, looking back to Scripture , their prayer recognized how our world is fallen and marked by sin (25-26):
Through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed…”
When sin entered the world, division, anger, sickness, disease, and death came with it. Their prayer reminds us a broken world is marked by pain and sorrow.
But their prayer does not end there. They acknowledged God’s sure remedy for our dilemma (27-28):
For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take.
In the middle of their uncertainty, they confessed God's certain plan that led to our rescue. God was not surprised by the persecution they suffered, nor is he surprised by the pandemic we see.
Their prayer turned them to mission. They did not ask God to deliver them from persecution; instead, they asked God to give them boldness to offer deliverance from sin to others through the gospel. And notice also the response (29-31):
“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
They prayed that no matter what, they would continue to proclaim the gospel boldly. When we start with prayer, focus on a sovereign God, and understand that sin cannot stop God’s plan, we turn to the mission.
Just as God answered his early church and they went forth boldly proclaiming the gospel, so too can we see the same happen.
Times of difficulty can either turn us inward (focusing on ourselves and our discomfort), or they can turn us upward then outward, renewing our devotion to the mission, led by the Spirit. There are stories across our land of churches stepping up to help with food for school children, with medical supplies, and many other ways.
And if you need another more stories of encouragement…
When Steven was being stoned to death, he prayed for those who stoned him, looking up to Jesus. When Herod arrested Peter, we read: "Prayer was being made earnestly to God for him by the Church." An angel released him to the surprise of the church. When Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi, their response to being in jail was prayer and singing hymns, and the jailer was converted as a result.
Each person looked to God and leaned into mission. Today is not the time to look to your social media feed or cable news for help. More than anything, we need the help of the Holy Spirit. Our sure source of help in times of difficulty is prayer and the Holy Spirit will work mightily in and through our prayers.
Allow me to offer a prayer as all of us face our situations today:
Sovereign Lord, Creator of heaven and earth,
You are not surprised by the pandemic we face, nor did you cause it. It reminds us of the reality of and impact of sin in our world. Look on the suffering we face today, and grant that your servants might reach out with compassion to proclaim your gospel to a broken world, giving ourselves to compassionate service to one another, protecting the vulnerable, and helping the hurting. We give you praise and thanks in the middle of our distress. You are our God, and we worship you. Amen.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.