The Politics of Prayer

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints… Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

Revelation 5:8, 8:5

John Knox was politically incorrect in a period of history when open criticism of government could prove deadly. In opposition to the Catholic monarchs Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots, and Mary I of England, Knox penned The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Our modern sensitivities to gender discrimination may be triggered by such sentiments, but we should consider the historical context within which Knox lived and ministered.

Most of the Magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century, following the instruction of Romans 13, taught submission to government authorities and only sought reforms within the Church. However, John Knox believed the government of Scotland had corrupted the Church and reformation was impossible so long as the state ruled the Church. The long-standing tradition of European monarchies was that the religion of the monarch must also be the religion of his or her subjects. During the English Reformation, rule often shifted violently between Protestant and Catholic monarchs causing government sponsored persecution of the clergy and citizenry. In 1547, while Knox was serving as minister in St. Andrews Castle, Mary of Guise—the French Catholic Queen of Scotland—requested military force to capture the castle and all of the Protestants holed up within. French warships attacked the castle, captured Knox, enslaving and imprisoning him and many others within the ship’s galley where they spent nearly two years’ hard labor at the oars .

Although his health severely waned during those difficult years, Knox’s faith did not as evidenced by his prayers. One desperate daily prayer is often attributed to Knox’s time as a slave: “Give me Scotland, or I die!” God generously granted his request. By the time of his death in 1572, Scotland had been transformed and its parliament adopted the doctrines of the Reformation. Some of the first missionaries to America were Scottish Presbyterians and the representative democracy established by the founding fathers of the United States is attributed to the influence of presbyterians in the colonies. Mary Queen of Scots is reported to have said, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.” She was right to be afraid.

Perhaps it’s time for our politicians to fear our prayers more than they fear our votes.

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His Soul-Restoring Power

[believers] even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

Acts 5:15-16

The power had been turned off in Jerusalem for a long time. After the silent darkness of a very long night, Jesus was born bringing life and light to the languishing. Before he ascended into heaven, our Lord did not promise that power would be restored to the Temple, but rather, that it would vested in His Church (Acts 1:8).

His power has signs. Like traffic signals, the desperately sick and afflicted lined streets from Jerusalem to the towns of Judea. Such power was resident in the apostles that broken-down souls hoped Peter’s shadow might touch and cure them. We should take note that the wonder-working power of the Holy Spirit is without social discrimination. Both the wealthy on their beds and the poor on straw mats, indeed all kinds of people with a wide variety of illnesses received healing. However, the signs did not point to believers, to the Church, nor even the apostles, but to Jesus in whose name and by whose power they ministered.

His power has history. “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”, but recapitulating the history of Acts may sound more like blessing than doom. However, no matter how much we may idealize the first century, we can not—nor should we want to—return to it. Trouble usually begins when we apply the lessons of history with words like “we should” or “we ought to”. No small controversy exists in the Church today over the “ought” of Acts. Cessationism is the belief that the sign gifts of Acts ceased at the closing of the New Testament canon. By way of contrast, Continuationism holds that the charismatic gifts found in the early Church are still in operation today. Regardless of which view one may hold, there is common ground in the passage before us which must not be overlooked. Stated simply, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church, He changed everything.

His power restores. Synagogue signs in the Old Testament did not read “come as you are” or “all welcome”. Whereas the sick and afflicted in the Old Covenant were socially marginalized and even denied access to communal worship, in the New Covenant they were—and are—embraced. What happened to cause the rejected to become the restored? The work of the risen Christ was applied liberally by the Holy Spirit to broken people living under sin’s curse (John 6:38-39, 17:4, Acts 2:33). And what Law, religion, good intentions, and “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” could not put back together again, Jesus restored—namely, God’s image.

While a university student many years ago, I had a part-time job as a “man Friday”. Basically, I was the right-hand slave to an independent businessman who, many years before, had briefly served in the United States Army and, therefore, frequently commanded me to “spit-shine” his every possession. One summer, he purchased an antique, king-sized, brass bed frame which he wished to present to his daughter for her birthday. However, the tarnished brass was covered by a thick coating of lacquer which made cleaning the bed frame difficult in the extreme. Three days was allotted for me to accomplish “Operation Spit-Shine”, but it took nearly a month of blood, sweat, tears, and Brasso. After the first week, my thumb prints were worn to near oblivion, and by the end of the third week, so were my nerves. In the end, the bed was a burnished beauty and at its unveiling, the daughter covered her mouth in silent, teary-eyed wonder as her adoring dad—my seldom-satisfied boss—glowed with spit-polished pride. But until the work was completed and the gift given, I had no appreciation of the power required for restoration nor the joy of the father who ordered it.

Until His work is completed and Jesus presents the Church as a gift to God, our faith strains to appreciate the power required to restore our souls, and the joy of the Father who ordered it.

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His Power’s Reputation

Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,

Acts 5:12-14

Did you ever forget to pay your power bill? Shortly after Deborah and I were married, we led a youth mission trip to Little Haiti in Miami. Because of her work schedule, Deborah had to fly home a few days before I returned with the team. After being in the south Florida summer heat, all my exhausted wife wanted was to return to the cool comfort of our humble, yet air-conditioned abode. Arriving late in the evening, Deborah found our north Florida home pitch-black and filled with the putrid stench of rotting food in the refrigerator. I had forgotten to pay the bill before we left town and our provider had turned off the power. Mercifully, I remained in Miami for a few more days. Nevertheless, if Heaven’s Power and Light (HPL) switched off power to the Church, how long would it be before we noticed?

Power was promised. Jesus’ own words gives The Acts its theme: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The nature of that power was highlighted when Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). God’s holy power was resident in the Church because His Holy Spirit was with them. As a result, people, both inside and outside the Church, found an all new respect for God.

The reputation of His power preceded Him. Miracles and signs were performed by the apostles and the believers were meeting regularly at Solomon’s Porch in Jerusalem’s Temple. But things had changed: “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:13). People began to think about the Church in the same way they thought about God. However, the reputation enjoyed by the Church was not due to their size, buildings, good works, rockin’ worship, charismatic pastors or their relevant messages, but because of God’s continual presence and work.

God’s power is horribly beautiful. At first glance, one would think the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira had killed the Church’s growth. “None of the rest dared join them” certainly seems like sufficient evidence for such a claim. However, we are also told “more than ever believers were added to the Lord” (Acts 5:14). How do we harmonize these two seemingly contradictory statements? Thankfully, scripture itself provides a pitch-perfect harmony for those with ears to hear. “No one else dared join them” describes unbelievers who were filled with fear and because of that fear, kept their distance from the Church. The active verb “dared join” stands in contrast to the passive verb “were added”. Unbelievers were dying to keep out of the Church, but on the other hand, the Lord gave new birth to the fearful and added them to His powerfully pure Church. Just as Jesus cleansed Jerusalem’s temple at the beginning of His ministry (John 2:13-22), so also the Holy Spirit cleansed His temple at the beginning of His ministry. Both acts simultaneously horrified unbelievers and beautified the Church.

Sinners are drawn to the holy horror. “A Bugs Life” is a humorous animated film about a colony of ants oppressed into forced labor by a swarm of malevolent grasshoppers. The film works well because it provides simple, physical comedy for children, while at the same time making allegorical social commentary for adults. In one such scene, two mosquitoes hover near a bug zapper. One flying pest was drawn closer and closer as if seized by the irresistible gravity of the siren’s song, while the other kept a safe distance warning his friend, “Harry, no! Don’t look at the light!” Harry responded, “I-can’t-help-it. It’s-so-beautiful.” And with a “zzzap” Harry was touched by other-worldly power.

Jesus’ Cross is horribly beautiful. An instrument of death has become the symbol of eternal life. Christian irony grows richer as we perceive that it is the Father who draws people to Christ (John 6:44) and the Holy Spirit who regenerates them (Titus 3:5). Our God could easily use His power to crush sinners, but instead He conforms sinners like us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). This is what our God does best and that for which He desires to be most known (Exodus 34:5-7). Do our churches share His powerful reputation?

[pictured above: a powerful transformation, Butterfly Nebula, Hubble Telescope]

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