The First Century Prayer Paradigm
These people knew how to pray! The record in the Book of Acts is impressive. Prison doors yielded to the force of the prayers of the church. Buildings shook. Lame men walked. The gospel was preached in power. The church enjoyed unity and grew as the Lord gave the increase. The centuries following the time of the Apostles saw the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers who served the Lord at the risk of their lives. Soon the Roman Empire itself fell before the prayers of the church. Jesus’ words proved true: the gates of hell could not prevail before the people of God.
Yes, they prayed and served the Lord in their generation, but how did these first century believers pray? Can we learn from them in the school of prayer? My thesis work on the Doctor of Worship Studies degree from the Institute for Worship Studies (https://iws.edu) was in the field of private prayer. I made a startling discovery. My Pentecostal tradition, while introducing me to the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Spirit and plunging me into the joy of public worship, had not served me well in the area of private prayer. The Apostles and those who followed them had methods of prayer I never learned about. Their prayer lives were richer and more varied that I ever imagined. I want to share with you what I have learned. I call it the Apostolic Prayer Paradigm. (For a more detailed presentation of this paradigm, see Fire and Form columns #104, “Prayer the Way Jesus Taught It” and #105 “Prayer the Way the Apostles Taught It.”)
Jesus and His followers were products of the Old Covenant prayer paradigm. This method featured two powerful modes of praying: (1) extemporaneous or simple prayer, conversing with God and (2) fixed prayers from Scripture. With the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, a third mode of prayer came into the devotional lives of the followers of Jesus–prayer in/by the Spirit–prayer in unknown tongues. With the addition of prayer in/by the Spirit, the Apostolic Prayer Paradigm was complete. As Pentecostals we believe that the fullness of this prayer life is available to us today. Two of these methods of prayer have been included in the teaching of twentieth century Classical Pentecostalism: extemporaneous prayer and prayer in/by the Spirit. The use of fixed prayers has not been a part of our tradition. I believe the Lord wants to add this to the practice of Pentecostals in the twenty-first century.
Prayer in/by the Holy Spirit
The benefits of this mode of prayer are well known to the Pentecostal. Among them are: (1) to speak mysteries (1 Cor 14:2-5), (2) to be built up by the process (1 Cor 14:14), (3) to pray beyond the limits of the human understanding(1 Cor 14:14), (3) to pray in the Spirit and also with the mind (1 Cor 14:14-15), (4) to offer perfect praise to the Lord (1 Cor 14:17 NKJV), (5) to bring things gained in the Secret Place to the public service (1 Cor 14:26), and (6) to intercede with specific details when those details are unknown to the intercessor (Rom 8:26-27). Pentecostal prayer in the hope of the world!
A walk with someone is characterized by a conversation with them. The old song beloved by so many English speaking worshipers says “And He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am His own.” This is an effective description of conversational prayer, a running conversation through the day and through the night, an unending awareness of the voice of God in our spirits and our ready access to the ear of God through the prayer of faith. This powerful privilege was a part of Old Covenant spirituality and has intensified for us under the New Covenant because of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Richard Foster calls this running conversation with God simple prayer.
Fixed Prayers from Scripture and Tradition
While the first two modes of ancient prayer are quite familiar to us as Classical Pentecostals and Charismatics, the third mode is not so familiar. In the seventeenth century, the radical reformers, groups like the Puritans, sought to reform the Reformation by eliminating all things that looked Roman Catholic. Twentieth Century Pentecostalism was a descendent of these revivalists. So before I ever had a chance to try fixed prayers, those who formed the ones who would discover and established my tradition, threw out recited prayers as inherently unspiritual, insincere and “Roman.” Some fixed prayers were maintained if they had been set to music and were known as hymns or gospel songs. The Lord’s Prayer was even seen, not as prayer, but as an outline to prayer.
Of course fixed prayers, especially Scripture prayers are not “Roman.” Their use goes back at least to the time of King David and was the common practice of Jesus and the disciples. It is likely these prayers including praying the Psalter. It is intriguing to think of Jesus reciting these scriptures as prayers. No wonder he was ready with the answer to the lawyer’s question about the greatest command; he prayed it, as the Shema, every morning! Before Jesus prayed the psalms from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Ps 22:1) and, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Ps 31:5), he had recited them countless times since childhood.
My discovery is this: The Apostles prayed in three modes, (1) in/by the Spirit, (2) extemporaneously and (3) with fixed prayers from Scripture and tradition. I have found the daily use of fixed Scripture prayers and the great classical prayers of the church to be an excellent structure for my daily private worship.
Dr. Steve Phifer received a Doctorate in Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. He has taught at Valley Forge University and Southeastern Assemblies of God University. For many years he was the Worship Pastor at Word of Life Church in Alexandria, VA.
More of Dr. Phifer’s materials can be found at stevephifer.com.