Jesus, Paul and Prayer

In John 14, 15 and 16, Jesus makes very large promises concerning prayer:

John 14:12 – 14 Most certainly I tell you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and he will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father. Whatever you will ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.

John 15:7 – 8; 16 If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you. In this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples.

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you.

John 16:23 – 24 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

Ever since Jesus uttered these amazing promises, his followers have wondered at and grappled with them. I say “grappled” because these sayings of Jesus are not as simply or easily fulfilled as they may seem to suggest. They defy superficial interpretation and response. Go ahead and ask the Father for $10 million by next week in the name of Jesus. You will not receive it. Or ask for some less self-centered “anything,” such as the miraculous cure of every diseased person in the world. You will not see it happen. Ask, even, for something much more modest—the miraculous cure of one diseased person. Countless Christians are praying for exactly this even now. But as we all have seen and know, such healing may be granted, it may not.

In many cases of praying in the name of Jesus, we must be honest and concede, the miracle we seek does not come. In many cases, the “anything” and the “whatever” that we ask the Father to give us, in the name of Jesus, on the basis of the Lord’s own promises, is not given—at least, not in this present life.

Although the Lord does graciously answer all sorts of prayers—for healing, provision and so on—there is often a disconnect between the promises of Jesus to answer believers’ prayers and our real-life experiences. This dissonance can be a serious problem, because it tends discourage believers and to bring the truth of Scripture—indeed, the very words of Christ himself—into doubt.

We cannot doubt Scripture, however. We must reject totally any notion that God’s word is not true or not always true. If we are to doubt anything, we must doubt any handling of the Word which could lead us to such a conclusion. God’s word is Truth. Of that we can and must be confident.

So the superficial interpretation which simply says we can ask for whatever we want in the name of Jesus and receive it is simply not correct. It is a flawed understanding of these promises and, sadly, the lives of many Christians bear its disappointing fruit.

What, then? If these verses do not simply mean “Name it and claim it,” what do they mean? This is a vital question, and in seeking the true answer, we will both please the Lord and have our eyes opened to blessings far greater than the gratification of any merely human wish could ever be.

To be understood correctly, these promises must be considered both in the context of the Bible’s full teaching on prayer, including asking according to God’s will (1 John 5:14), and with careful regard to the clear conditions Jesus attaches to them. These conditions include: our asking in the name of Jesus, our remaining or abiding in Christ, and his words abiding in us.

These four qualifications—seeking that God’s will be done, asking in the name of Jesus (which entails more than just “saying the words”), abiding in Christ, and his words abiding in us—may seem upon cursory reading to be either a form of  “weasel words,” giving God an “out” for not answering prayer, or to be burdensome and heavily restrictive, granting petitions only to those willing to be tied in a religious knot.

In fact, however, aligning ourselves and thus our prayers with this teaching of Scripture is gloriously liberating and brings blessing and fruitfulness. The Lord does indeed answer prayer and fill us with joy when we pray according to his will, which is praying according to his Word.

These good things are all the work of God’s word and Spirit within us, so let’s pause here to commit ourselves to him. We are all in a process of growth, and God is committed to work in us to “will and to do of his good pleasure.” It is his good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. He desires to pour out the riches of his glory much, much more than we want to receive them, so let’s say “Yes” to the Lord right here, and ask that his glorious will be done in us. (If you aren’t actually willing, ask him to make you willing. He will faithfully work willingness in you!)

Now, about those conditions and qualifications: In their totality, they restrict the promised unrestricted answers to prayer to those who are living in Christ and allowing Christ to live in them. They call for purity of life and motive, also known as holiness. They lovingly insist on our receiving the word of God as our daily bread and our attention to that word as the light of life. They require our desiring, above all things, that the will of God be done and that his Kingdom come. When our lives and prayers fulfill these conditions, God is both delighted and committed to answer.

The Prayer of Jesus

Only the Word can reveal to us the will of God, and that is why the Word must abide in us so that we can pray according to that will. That will is nowhere in Scripture declared more passionately and clearly than in John 17, where Jesus allows us to overhear his own petitions to the Father. (He does this so that our joy may be complete. He wants us to know the deepest desires of his heart, knowing that this knowledge will fill us with his joy.) It is to secure these very petitions, which reveal the eternal will of God, that Jesus is going to the cross. He wants these things—that is, us his people in glorious communion with him and with each other—so passionately that he is willing to give his life to obtain them. We, his Bride, are the pearl of great price, and he is “going all in,” giving all he has to purchase us.

When we seek to know, so that we can pray aright, what is the will of God, John 17 tells us. Those prayers which seek from the Father what Jesus sought from the Father are prayers that the Father is most delighted to hear and answer. Such prayers enter into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, and touch the heart of God. Furthermore, such prayers, as we learn to pray them with ever-greater understanding and faith, help fulfill Jesus’ command that we love one another. As we make John 17 a guide to our praying, we will perceive great needs, seek help for God’s people at the throne of grace, and be filled with joy at the resulting outpouring of help and blessing from Heaven.

The Prayers of Paul

Paul is the “pattern man” of the Bible. He demonstrates the fullness of life and ministry that is possible in a person fully committed to Christ. Although he considered himself  the least of all the saints, he also exhorted us to follow him as he followed Christ. “What you have learned or received or  heard in me, do,” he said, “and the peace of Christ will be with you” (Phil 4:9). This instruction applies to his prayers as much as to any other aspect of his life and ministry.

There can be no doubt that Paul learned of prayer from Jesus Christ. He would have been intimately familiar with Jesus’ gracious prayer promises as we now find them in John 14 and 15, and also with Jesus’ high-priestly prayer of John 17. Paul was mightily inspired in his praying, as in his epistle-writing, by the Holy Spirit. Apart from Christ, there is no better teacher and exemplar of prayer than the apostle Paul. Paul prayed much, and wrote much about prayer in his letters. We, in seeking to pray according to the will and word of God, must allow Paul’s words and example to inform and inspire us. To remain ignorant of Paul’s prayer example is to handicap ourselves and to miss out on tremendous blessing and fruitfulness.

How, then, does Paul take up Jesus’ great prayer promises? Does he capitalize on an apparent carte-blanche and seek the best of everything for himself, and ease, and temporal blessing? According to Acts and his epistles, no, he doesn’t. According to the testimony of Paul’s epistles, which are Holy Writ, his prayers are essentially lifelong, continued pleading for that which Jesus desired of the Father, as recorded in John 17: the protection, edification, sanctification, unification and glorification of the people of God.

Read Paul’s prayers  and you will see that every one of them is somehow directed toward fulfilling the desires of Jesus Christ for his people. Paul was completely devoted to calling people to faith in Christ, and then teaching them and building them up spiritually in order to present them blameless to the Lord, to be with him forever, beholding his glory.

Much of the growth and blessing of the early church were the fruit of Paul’s ministry, undergirded by his praying according to the will of God. Paul knew effectual prayer was absolutely essential to the great task of edifying the Body of Christ. He frequently asked for prayer for himself, and heartily commended such men as Epaphras, who wrestled in prayer that the believers would “stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Col. 4:12).

We know that Paul prayed for people to be healed, and the Lord performed numerous mighty healings through him. Yet healings and miracles evidently were, so to speak, but “byproducts” (as Jesus taught they would be, Matt. 6:33) of Paul’s seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. In his epistles, Paul says much about prayer, but hardly mentions praying for healing. Then, as now, all the things that could be seen, including the physical bodies of the saints, were temporary. The focus of Paul’s vision was not upon these temporary things, but upon the things which are eternal, and he devoted himself above all to helping God’s people to inherit everlasting blessings.

We tend to assume that the first thing on God’s mind when someone is sick or afflicted is their deliverance from the situation. That’s because it’s naturally the first thing on our minds: Lord, please fix this, now! But, sometimes, at least, the Lord allows temporary affliction in order to bring forth eternal good: Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16 – 18).

Think about this: All of the people for whom Paul prayed for healing have died. Their bodies have returned to dust. But the spirits of very many, whom Paul laboured and prayed mightily to present pure and blameless before Christ, now rejoice in eternal union with the Lord. Paul placed the emphasis of his efforts where it truly belonged, and he, too, now rejoices greatly in the everlasting fruit of his ministry: For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy (I Thess 2:19).

Our Prayers

Jesus prayed (John 17) according to the will of the Father. Paul prayed in the same spirit as Jesus according to the will of God. We also, whoever we may be (for God is no respecter of persons), have the privilege of praying in the very same way, confident that God delights to hear such prayers. As we grow in understanding God’s glorious will for his people, and as we grow in the faith that the Lord hears our loving prayers for them, we will also see our delight and joy in God increase. Jesus told us these things so that his joy may be in us. As we take up his yoke, we will find fuller and fuller blessing and fruitfulness in praying for the blessing of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

And, I believe, as in our praying we seek, above all, the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and as we love one another through edifying prayer, we will find “the other things” we need, the temporal things, including healings, being granted more and more as well.

The Lord has glorious things planned for his people, and he is bringing them to pass. But he has so ordered his Kingdom that he will not do it without us. He has given even the lowliest saints the privilege, power and grace—and responsibility—to help our brothers and sisters to possess their inheritance in Christ. As Eph 4:16 says, From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Note that God has set his heart on the whole body, that his body builds itself up (God expects us to work with him), that this is a work of love, and that growth comes as every member does its part.

Be encouraged, dear ones. Let us rise up, believing God, asking him to build his church, lifting her up before him in prayer, following the examples of Jesus and Paul. Let us persist in biblical prayer, taking God at his word. As we persist in all circumstances, we will surely see the glory of the Lord arise upon his people!

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