There are many examples of prayer in the Bible. Men and women prayed to God from the earliest days recorded in Scripture. The Prophet Daniel prayed three times a day, and was unwilling to change this habit even under the threat of being thrown into the lion’s den. The Lord Jesus gave us an example of how to pray in what we call the Lord’s Prayer, and He, himself, spent many hours in prayer.
I have chosen an ambitious title by calling this blog “Prayer.” I am looking at only one incident of prayer and its results, and will by no means cover the whole subject. Prayer is simple enough that a young child can pray effectively, and at the same time, it is a broad subject with many examples and nuances worthy of much study and contemplation. Many different thoughts and ideas are published concerning prayer, some of which are entirely unbiblical and based on speculation while others are basic truths on which we must rely as Christians. Today, I wish to look at just a couple principles concerning prayer. It is my hope that in doing so we will find encouragement and be strengthened in our prayers.
To do this, we are looking at Acts 9:36-43. This passage tells the story of a woman named Tabitha. Tabitha was a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ. She was known for her good works and her acts of charity. The text says she became ill and died. The only other information about her is given in verse 39, where it says that the room in which her body lay was filled with widows who were weeping and showing the coats and clothes Tabitha had made for them. This shows us both that she was loved and that she was industrious. We do not know what her source of income was or how she had the resources to help others, but we do know that she did help others.
Having read Acts 9, we know that when Peter prayed for Tabitha, she was raised up from the dead. The first question I want to ask is if to receive an answer to prayer, does the person receiving the healing or blessing need to be particularly deserving? In the case of Tabitha, did Tabitha particularly deserve to be raised from the dead?
I do not believe so. To be sure, the fact that Tabitha was loved made those around her seek earnestly for help and to intercede for her. However, for God’s part, we know that He says in both Romans 2:11 and in Acts 10:34 that He does not show favoritism. Not one of us is deserving of the great grace that God pours out on us every day. We are all saved by grace through no merit of our own.
Jesus was speaking to the Jews of His hometown, when He said:
“Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. (Luke 4:25-26)
In another place the Apostle Paul says:
Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. (Romans 9:14-16)
This is not to say Tabitha was not important. The Lord Jesus assures us that not a sparrow falls to the ground except our Father knows about it, and we are of much greater value than many sparrows. As valuable as Tabitha was, she was not more valuable than others.
Why did God decide to raise her from the dead but not others? What is more, as far as we know, she had to go through the whole dying thing a second time later on.
There is a significant fact about Tabitha given by the text. She was a devoted follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. The text tells us she was a disciple and did good works. We know that God cares for His children. We know that He causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him. Stephen was loved just as much as Tabitha, but God chose to take Him home. In both cases, we can have the confidence that what God is doing is for the good of His children.
The principle of prayer that we can rely on is that God wants to bless His children. We can rely on the fact that He is good. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you," says the LORD. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
Prayer is not dependent on the merit of the one prayed for. Rather, it rests upon the unchanging goodness and love of our Almighty God and Father. Whether it is a case of a Stephen who dies or a Tabitha who is raised from the dead, our confidence rests in the love of a God who gave His only Son to save us.
A second question this story raises for me is, “Was it because it was Peter who asked that the Lord raised Tabitha from the dead?”
If it was not because Tabitha merited it, perhaps it was the fact that it was Peter who asked.
The text tells us that the believers heard that Peter was nearby and sent two men to beg him to come as soon as possible. (Acts 9:38) The two men walked 11 miles from Joppa to Lydda, spoke with Peter and then walked back. We can assume this trip took 4 or 5 hours each way for a total of 8 to 10 hours. As a result, Tabitha would have been dead for most of a day by the time Peter arrived.
Their plea was urgent. They asked Peter to come as soon as possible. The text does not indicate that they asked Peter to do anything besides come. They may have wanted him there for comfort and encouragement, or they may have wanted Him to perform a miracle. The text does not say. However, it is clear that the believers looked to Peter as a leader and sought his presence with them during their time of crisis.
We, as human beings, tend to look to people for help and leadership. This is natural. If we have a medical question or issue, we look to medical professionals for answers and understanding. If we have tax questions, we look to an accountant. There is specialization in many different fields. Along with this, there is the issue of giftedness. One person may have the gift of faith where another does not. Another person may have the gift of knowledge. Because of these differences in giftedness, we may seek out different people at different times. The Scriptures teach us that each believer is given a gift for the building up of the Body of Christ.
Due to specialization and giftedness, some of us may be called upon to pray more often than others, but the question is, “Are our prayers somehow more effective?”
In answer to this, the New Testament says, “Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops.” (James 5:17-18)
When Jesus prayed in the Garden, three times He asked, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine." (Matthew 26:39)
If the person asking is the determiner of the answer, then Jesus certainly trumps Peter, and here in this example Jesus’ request is dependent on the will of the Father.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10, KJV)
The principle here is that prayer is not so much about the person praying but about the One we are praying to.
The first principle we learned was, “God wants to bless His children.” The second principle we learned was, “Prayer is about the One we are praying to.
There is a third principle that arises from the events in Acts 9.
When Peter arrived they took Him immediately to the room where Tabitha was lying. The room was filled with widows who were weeping and showing him the coats and clothing that Tabitha had made. The text tells us that Peter asked them all to leave the room. When he prayed, he was alone.
Jesus told us to practice our prayers in private. In Matthew 6:6, He says, “But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”
If Peter had wanted to make a show, he could have let everyone remain in the room. The transaction or interaction was between God and Peter at that point. Peter needed to know God’s will. Peter needed to be alone with God to deal with the situation.
Pride would have wanted to make a display of the whole process.
Somewhere in the time of prayer, God must have made His will clear to Peter, because he turned to the body and said, “Get up, Tabitha.” (Acts 9:40)
The principle in all this is expressed in Philippians 4:6:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Prayer is between you and God. There is a time and place for public prayer. The Bible has examples of prayers offered in public. However, God has commanded us all to pray, and not in a public way. All our concerns, all our burdens and cares are to be brought to the Lord.
Let’s review the principles we have looked at.
First, God wants to bless His children. Do not miss a blessing because you failed to ask.
Second, prayer is about the One being asked more than the one asking. Do not let your own unworthiness stop you from asking. Remember that because of Jesus you can come boldly before God to ask anything.
Third, prayer is between you and God. You need to get alone and talk with God, daily.
There is so much more that can be said about prayer, but if you will remember these three principles, and let the Bible guide you in your prayers, I am convinced you can enjoy a very rich and rewarding prayer life. God still works miracles. Just because Peter is not here does not mean that God cannot raise the dead.
[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.