A verse by verse study of Acts 4:23-37, which describes the disciples’ prayer and encouragement after Peter and John’s release from custody.
The disciples’ prayer and encouragement after Peter and John’s release
¶ "After their release, they went to their own, and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them."(Acts 4:23).
Went to their own. Peter and John sought the company of other disciples (who and how many we don't know). Peter and John knew that the disciples would be anxious to know what had become of them.
¶ "Upon hearing Peter and John’s report, the people raised their voice to God with one accord. They prayed, 'O Master, you are God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. By the mouth of your servant David you said, Why do the nations rage and the people imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand and the rulers gathered against the Lord, and against his Christ.' "(Acts 4:24-26).
They prayed as one. This does not mean they all spoke at once, but that one led all in prayer; all prayed in their hearts what the one said for them all. When we pray in a body of Christians, and one leads the prayer, we have a duty, and should have a desire, to lend our own hearts to that prayer. This also means that the one praying aloud should say what is agreeable and clear to those whose hearts join in the prayer.
Prayer prefaced with praise. First God is acknowledged in a doxology (a word of praise). He is praised as the Creator of all things. The scriptures are peppered with such praises (eg Revelation 4:11,Psalms 104).
Prayer graced with God’s word. It is fitting in a prayer to return some of God’s word to him before we submit our own words. This shows a deep respect for God and says to him, We want you to hear us, but also to know that we hear you. In this prayer, the quote is from a Psalm of David (Psalm 2:1-2).
The beginning of trouble. The congregation understood that they would face persecution as Jesus did; Peter and John’s arrest was just the beginning.
¶ " 'For truly in this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the nations and the people of Israel, were gathered against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed. They did whatever your hand and your counsel predetermined should happen.' "(Acts 4:27-28).
Prayer Affirming God’s Providence. This part of the prayer looks back to acknowledge to God that his word comes true and all things are under his foresight and control.
God’s counsel and foreknowledge. God was willing that Christ should suffer, and God predetermined that Christ would die as a sacrifice for sin (Acts 2:23). However, God didn't compel anyone to take part in Christ’s crucifixion. They did so by choice. God knows what evil Satan will do, and God can plan a strategy to turn Satan’s evil against Satan. But God doesn't make Satan do the evil, nor does he make anyone help him. Nevertheless, whatever Satan and his followers will do, God knows beforehand, and God decides the outcome.
¶ " 'Now Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word very boldly. Stretch out your hand to heal; may signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.' "(Acts 4:29-30).
Prayer asking God’s help Like Hezekiah did long ago. When Sennacherib threatened him, "Hezekiah spread it before the LORD. Then Hezekiah prayed to the LORD"(2Kings 19:14-16). So these disciples of Christ now spread before the Lord the threats of the Sanhedrin and ask for help.
Three requests. There are three requests at the end of this prayer...
Firstly, that God might look at the threats. God’s people should not be quick to instruct God what to do about their troubles, rather than ask God to look at them and form his own counsel on what to do about them.
Secondly, that God might grant the opportunity and courage to speak his word in defiance of the Sanhedrin’s prohibition. In the greatest work, spreading God’s word, Satan hinders us. We need to ask God for help and courage.
Thirdly, that God might use his mighty hand for good. When people have enemies, they may ask God to do evil to those enemies. These disciples, however, sought no vengeance. Instead they asked God for something good and constructive: in this case healings and miracles to confirm the word so that people would believe it.
Holy Servant Jesus. Jesus was acknowledged as the Servant mentioned in prophecy (Isaiah 53:11-12). He is described as holy which means dedicated to God’s purpose. This dedication is described in Philippians 2:5-13.
¶ "When they had prayed, their gathering place was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit; and they boldly spoke the word of God."(Acts 4:31).
Filled with the Holy Spirit. This is the third time Luke has used this phrase to describe the manner in which the Holy Spirit was given: first of the apostles on the day of Pentecost(Acts 2:4); second of Peter before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8); and now third of the group who prayed with Peter and John. In each case being "filled with the Holy Spirit" prepared people to preach the word boldly. The Spirit gave them the words to say and the courage to say them.
Special and temporary power. The church at this time was in its infancy. The gospel it preached wasn't fully revealed in scripture, so God granted the power of his Spirit in a special way so that people could have a revelation of the word they were to speak. Later in the church’s life and progress, the gospel became fully known. Inspired teachers had committed their teaching to writing, and copies of their original letters had been sent everywhere. Thus people could speak the word using this resource, and had no need of special revelation or inspiration from the Holy Spirit. The gifts of direct inspiration passed away because a full and perfect knowledge was obtainable without them (1Corinthians 13:8-10).
Still filled. This doesn't mean that Christians are no longer filled with the Spirit, because "God does not give the Spirit by measure"(John 3:34), and from those who receive the Spirit "there shall flow rivers of living water"(John 4:14,John 7:37-39). There are, however, "varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; varieties of ministries but the same Lord; varieties of effects but... one and the same Spirit works all these things distributing to each person just as he wills.(1Corinthians 12:4-11). Some of these gifts outlived their usefulness.
¶ "The multitude of believers was of one heart and soul. None of them said of their properties, 'This is my own', rather they shared everything. With great power, the apostles testified of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all."(Acts 4:32-33).
Multitude, believing, sharing, preaching. It would be wonderful if the church of Christ was like this everywhere. However, even a few decades after this fine beginning, there were churches not holding to this standard (eg Revelation 3:1-6,Galatians 1:6,1Corinthians 1:11).
¶ "Neither did anyone among them lack, for all who owned land or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds, and laid them at the apostles’ feet. Distribution was made as anyone had need. For instance there was Joses, whom the apostles called Barnabas which means Son of Encouragement. He was a Levite, born in Cyprus. He owned a field; sold it; brought the money; and laid it at the apostles’ feet."(Acts 4:34-37).
Nature of benevolence. The fellowship of the first church of Christ included the sharing of worldly possessions. This was not communism, because on being added to the church people did not relinquish their ownership of property or control of their own money. They were encouraged, but not compelled, to sell personal property, and donate the proceeds for support of the needy. Thus the rich helped the poor to live decently, contrary to the social system in which the rich live in luxury by making other people poor. However this benevolence does not reduce everyone’s duty to work for a living where possible Ephesians 4:28,1Thessalonians 4:11-12,(2Thessalonians 3:7-13).
Barnabas. Barnabas is mentioned several times in Acts. He introduced Paul to the disciples and gained him acceptance among them (Acts 9:26-27). Barnabas is desrcribed as one who "encouraged all to remain in the Lord with resolute heart, for he was a good man, and filled with the Holy Spirit and faith"(Acts 11:22-26).