The Church’s First Response to Persecution: Call for Fire

When the followers of Jesus surged in numbers after his death, alarmed religious and political officials counterattacked. Arresting key leaders of the new movement, they kept them in jail overnight and ordered them to cease speaking in the name of Jesus. The disciples of Jesus responded to the attack by calling for fire. After they heard the report of intimidating tactics against their leaders, they prayed a passionate prayer for courage and vindication. They asked God to act and so to justify their faith in Jesus. These followers of Jesus acknowledged God’s creative power. They gave him an update on the actions of the enemy. Their prayer included quotation from the second Psalm, a psalm that warns rulers to surrender to the Lord and to acknowledge the power of his Son. The quotation in the prayer mentions that the kings of the earth are attacking the Lord’s “Anointed One;” later in the prayer, the disciples identify God’s “holy servant Jesus” as the one whom he anointed.

After their arrest, Apostles Peter and John asserted two dramatic statements during their trial. They said concerning Jesus, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:13). They responded to the command to cease teaching in the name of Jesus, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19).

The council released Peter and John after additional threats; too many people who had witnessed their teaching and actions were praising God for them to punish them. Nevertheless, they had made clear that the new movement would face increasing opposition. After Peter and John reported what had happened, the church made its first response to persecution: The disciples of Jesus prayed.

Their powerful prayer praised God’s creative power; it also asserted God’s control over their situation:
“Sovereign Lord,’ they said, ‘you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what you power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:24-30).

The disciples cry out to God to remember promises made in Psalm 2. That Psalm echoes the nations’ rebellious outbursts against the Creator and his Anointed One: “Let us break their chains and throw off their fetters” (Psalm 2:3). The Psalm also records God’s response: He laughs and scoffs at their impunity. He rebukes them and terrifies them with his anger. God asserts his Son’s power over the nations: He will possess them and rule them with an iron scepter. The Psalm concludes: “Therefore, you kings, be wise: be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10-12).

The disciples clearly identify “the Anointed One” as Jesus in verses 27 and 30. Jesus, they say, is God’s Son whom the nations must obey. They call for fire, asking God to take two specific actions: Enabling his servants to speak his message with great boldness and acting to heal and demonstrate his power. Their prayer echoes Elijah’s prayer in 1 Kings 18, where the prophet prays that the Lord will turn the hearts of the people back to God and validate Elijah’s ministry. The prayer of Acts 4 falls between two calls for Israel to repent. After healing a man in Acts 3, the apostles tell the crowd that quickly forms, “”Repent then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you – even Jesus” (Acts 3:19). After a second arrest in Acts 5, “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead – whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (5:29-31). They pray not for vengeance, but for the conversion of those who oppose them. Rather than calling down punishment, they pray for healing.

God responds immediately to this prayer. “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31). Opposition drove early believers to their knees – in prayer. When they called for fire, God responded. His support revived them and gave them the ability to persevere against powerful political foes. When we pray today, God still hears, and responds.

People today seek to silence the voice of Christians through coercion by legislation and mockery in public discourse. These early Christians give us a model for response – prayer and speaking the message of Christ boldly in a way that produces healing and repentance. This prayer requires from us as it did from them knowledge of the Scriptures and confidence in God’s ability to turn the tide. Decreasing congregational time in Bible study, assimilating worship styles and our lifestyles to conform to cultural expectations, surrendering to the concept of a “post-Christian” culture will not win the hearts and minds of our peers to Christ. We can speak the Christian message boldly in language that our culture understands without compromising values. We can teach Jesus and his healing power without attacking people. Note again how these disciples responded to persecution: They assembled with other believers, they prayed, and they spoke God’s message of reconciliation boldly. May we call for fire, asking for boldness and for God to heal the hearts of those who oppose his message.

About Michael Summers

Michael Waymon Summers has preached in twenty-seven of the United States as well as seven other countries. Michael earned a Master of Theology degree. He also has done graduate work in international studies. Michael likes to run, loves to sing, and reads voraciously.
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4 Responses to The Church’s First Response to Persecution: Call for Fire

  1. Excellent! What a timely, refreshing, biblical exposition on this topic, full of the true love of God, his law.

  2. Helene says:

    I recently finished reading Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline.” In the chapter on prayer he emphasizes that we need to learn to pray. I am looking forward to reading more of these lessons-straight from the word-on how to pray.

    • I too have read “Celebration of Discipline.” It does challenge one to be more intentional in following the Lord. I hope that “Call for Fire” will help you learn how to pray to God as we learn from heroes of faith who faced many of the same challenges we do.

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