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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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Table of Contents

1. Who Was Epaphras and Why Should We Care?

2. God’s Will Distilled

3. The Prayers of a Builder (1)

4. The Prayers of a Builder (2)

5. The Prayers of a Builder (3)

6. The Prayers of a Builder (4)

7. Prayer According to Paul

8. One Thing is Needed

9. Prayer and Healing Miracles

10. Praying Psalm 119

11. Truth, Love and the Heart of a Builder

12. The Climax of All Prayer

13. Jesus, Paul and Prayer

The Climax of All Prayer

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

I recently came across a wonderful discourse on this sublime prayer of Paul, by the British preacher Alexander MacLaren (1826-1910). I would like to share part of it.

I will preface this exposition with two thoughts: First, as MacLaren correctly states, “Paul’s prayers are God’s promises,” and we do well to appropriate these prayers and implicit promises for ourselves. We do even better, though, to then plead them, as Paul did, for the benefit of our brothers and sisters. We bring great blessing to the Body in thus following Paul’s example.

Second, immediately following this mighty prayer, which seeks probably the highest blessing Paul’s sanctified, inspired heart can conceive, the apostle goes on to declare that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.” Think about that. However full Paul’s  comprehension of God and his blessings, the apostle knew that both are in actuality far greater! God’s surpassing goodness and greatness cannot be overstated.

From MacLaren’s Expositions

EPH. 3:19: The Climax of all Prayer ” . . . that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

The Apostle’s many-linked prayer, which we have been considering in successive sermons, has reached its height. It soars to the very Throne of God. There can be nothing above or beyond this wonderful petition. Rather, it might seem as if it were too much to ask, and as if, in the ecstasy of prayer, Paul had forgotten the limits that separate the creature from the Creator, as well as the experience of sinful and imperfect men, and had sought to ‘wind himself too high for mortal life beneath the sky.’ And yet Paul’s prayers are God’s promises; and we are justified in taking these rapturous petitions as being distinct declarations of God’s desire and purpose for each of us; as being the end which He had in view in the unspeakable gift of His Son; and as being the certain outcome of His gracious working on all believing hearts.

It seems at first a paradoxical impossibility; looked at more deeply and carefully it becomes a possibility for each of us, and therefore a duty; a certainty for all the redeemed in fullest measure hereafter; and, alas! a rebuke to our low lives and feeble expectations. Let us look, then, at the petition, with the desire of sounding, as we may, its depths and realising its preciousness.

I. First of all, think with me of the significance of this prayer.

‘The fulness of God’ is another expression for the whole sum and aggregate of all the energies, powers, and attributes of the divine nature, the total Godhead in its plenitude and abundance.

‘God is love,’ we say. What does that mean, but that God desires to impart His whole self to the creatures whom He loves? What is love in its lofty and purest forms, even as we see them here on earth; what is love except the infinite longing to bestow one’s self? And when we proclaim that which is the summit and climax of the revelation of our Father in the person of His Son, and say with the last utterances of Scripture that ‘God is love,’ we do in other words proclaim that the very nature and deepest desire and purpose of the divine heart is to pour itself on the emptiness and need of His lowly creatures in floods that keep back nothing. Lofty, wonderful, incomprehensible to the mere understanding as this thought may be, clearly it is the inmost meaning of all that Scripture tells us about God as being the ‘portion of His people,’ and about us, as being by Christ and in Christ ‘heirs of God,’ and possessors of Himself.

We have, then, as the promise that gleams from these great words, this wonderful prospect, that the divine love, truth, holiness, joy, in all their rich plenitude of all-sufficient abundance, may be showered upon us. The whole Godhead is our possession; for the fulness of God is no far-off remote treasure that lies beyond human grasp and outside of human experience. Do not we believe that, to use the words of this Apostle in another letter, ‘it pleased the Father that in Him should all the fulness dwell’? Do we not believe that, to use the words of the same epistle, ‘In Christ dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily’? Is not that abundance of the resources of the whole Deity insphered and incarnated in Jesus Christ our Lord, that it may be near us, and that we may put out our hand and touch it? This may be a paradox for the understanding, full of metaphysical puzzles and cobwebs, but for the heart that knows Christ, most true and precious. God is gathered into Jesus Christ, and all the fulness of God, whatever that may mean, is embodied in the Man Christ Jesus, that from Him it may be communicated to every soul that will.

For, to quote other words of another of the New Testament teachers, ‘Of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace,’ and to quote words in another part of the same epistle, we may ‘all come to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’ High above us, then, and inaccessible though that awful thought, ‘the fulness of God,’ may seem, as the zenith of the unscaleable heavens seems to us poor creatures creeping here upon the flat earth, it comes near, near, near, ever nearer, and at last tabernacles among us, when we think that in Him all the fulness dwells, and it comes nearer yet and enters into our hearts when we think that ‘of His fulness have we all received.’

Then, still further, observe another of the words in this petition: ‘That ye may be filled.’ That is to say, Paul’s prayer and God’s purpose and desire concerning us is, that our whole being may be so saturated and charged with an indwelling divinity as that there shall be no room in our present stature and capacity for more, and no sense of want or aching emptiness.

Ah, brethren! when we think of how eagerly we have drunk at the stinking puddles of earth, and how after every draught there has yet been left a thirst that was pain, it is something for us to hear Him say: ‘The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life,’and ‘he that drinketh of this water shall never thirst.’ Our empty hearts, with their experiences of the insufficiency and the vanity of all earthly satisfaction, stand there like the water-pots at the rustic marriage, and the Master says, ‘Fill them to the brim.’ And then, by His touch, the water of our poor savourless, earthly enjoyments is transmuted and elevated into the new wine of His Kingdom. We may be filled, satisfied with the fulness of God.

There is another point as to the significance of this prayer, on which I must briefly touch. As our Revised Version will tell you, the literal rendering of my text is, ‘filled unto’ {not exactly with} ‘all the fulness of God’; which suggests the idea not of a completed work but of a process, and of a growing process, as if more and more of that great fulness might pass into a man. Suppose a number of vessels, according to the old illustration about degrees of glory in heaven; they are each full, but the quantity that one contains is much less than that which the other may hold. Add to the illustration that the vessels can grow, and that filling makes them grow; as a shrunken bladder when you pass gas into it will expand and round itself out, and all the creases will be smoothed away. Such is the Apostle’s idea here, that a process of filling goes on which may satisfy the then desires, because it fills us up to the then capacities of our spirits; but in the very process of so filling and satisfying makes those spirits capable of containing larger measures of His fulness, which therefore flow into it. Such, as I take it, in rude and faint outline, is the significance of this great prayer.

II. Now turn, in the next place, to consider briefly the possibility of the accomplishments of this petition.

As I said, it sounds as if it were too much to desire. Certainly no wish can go beyond this wish. The question is, can a sane and humble wish go as far as this; and can a man pray such a prayer with any real belief that he will get it answered here and now? I say yes!

There are two difficulties that at once start up.

People will say, does such a prayer as this upon man’s lips not forget the limits that bound the creature’s capacity? Can the finite contain the Infinite?

Well, that is a verbal puzzle, and I answer, yes! The finite can contain the Infinite, if you are talking about two hearts that love, one of them God’s and one of them mine. We have got to keep very clear and distinct before our minds the broad, firm line of demarcation between the creature and the Creator, or else we get into a pantheistic region where both creature and Creator expire. As long as we retain clearly in our minds the consciousness of the personal distinction between God and His child, so as that the child can turn round and say, ‘I love Thee’ and God can look down and say, ‘I bless thee’; then all identification and mutual indwelling and impartation from Him of Himself are possible, and are held forth as the aim and end of Christian life.

Of course in a mere abstract and philosophical sense the Infinite cannot be contained by the finite; and attributes which express infinity, like omnipresence and omniscience and omnipotence and so on, indicate things in God that we can know but little about, and that cannot be communicated. But those are not the divinest things in God. ‘God is love.’ Do you believe that that saying unveils the deepest things in Him? God is light, ‘and in Him is no darkness at all.’ Do you believe that His light and His love are nearer the centre than these attributes of power and infinitude? If we believe that, then we can come back to my text and say, ‘The love, which is Thee, can come into me; the light, which is Thee, can pour itself into my darkness; the holiness, which is Thee, can enter into my impurity. The heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee. Thou dwellest in the humble and in the contrite heart.’

So, dear brethren, the old legends about mighty forms that contracted their stature and bowed their divine heads to enter into some poor man’s hut, and sit there, are simple Christian realities. And instead of puzzling ourselves with metaphysical difficulties which are mere shadows, and the work of the understanding or the spawn of words, let us listen to the Christ when He says, ‘We will come unto him and make our abode with him’ and believe that it was no impossibility which fired the Apostle’s hope when he prayed, and in praying prophesied, that we might be filled with all the fulness of God.

Then there is another difficulty that rises before our minds; and Christian men say, ‘How is it possible, in this region of imperfection, compassed with infirmity and sin as we are, that such hopes should be realised for us here?’ Well, I would rather answer that question by retorting and saying: ‘How is it possible that such a prayer should have come from inspired lips unless the thing that Paul was asking might be?’ Did he waste his breath when he thus prayed? Are we not as Christian men bound, instead of measuring our expectations by our attainments, to try to stretch our attainments to what are our legitimate expectations, and to hear in these words the answer to the faithless and unbelieving doubt whether such a thing is possible, and the assurance that it is possible.

An impossibility can never be a duty, and yet we are commanded: ‘Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ An impossibility can never be a duty, and yet we are commanded to let Christ abide in our hearts.

Oh! if we believed less in the power of our sin it would have less power upon us. If we believed more in the power of an indwelling Christ He would have more power within us. If we said to ourselves, ‘It is possible,’ we should make it possible. The impossibility arises only from our own weakness, from our own sinful weakness; and though it may be true, and is true, that none of us will live without sin as long as we abide here, it is also true that each moment of interruption of our communion with Christ and therefore each moment of interruption of that being ‘filled with the fulness of God,’ might have been avoided. We know about every such time that we could have helped it if we had liked, and it is no use bringing any general principles about sin cleaving to men in order to break the force of that conviction. But if that conviction be a real one, and if whenever a Christian man loses the consciousness of God in his heart, making him blessed, he is obliged to say: ‘It was my own fault and Thou wouldst have stayed if I had chosen,’ then there follows from this, that it is possible, notwithstanding all the imperfection and sin of earth, that we may be ‘filled with all the fulness of God.’

So, dear brethren, take you this prayer as the standard of your expectations; and oh! take it as we must all take it, as the sharpest of rebukes to our actual attainments in holiness and in likeness to our Master. Set by the side of these wondrous and solemn words ‘filled with the fulness of God,’ the facts of the lives of the average professing Christians of this generation, and of this congregation; their emptiness, their ignorance of the divine indwelling, their want of anything in their experience that corresponds in the least degree to such words as these. Judge whether a man is not more likely to be bowed down in wholesome sense of his own sinfulness and unworthiness, if he has before him such an ideal as this of my text, than if it, too, has faded out of his life. I believe, for my part, that one great cause of the worldliness and the sinfulness and mechanical formalities that are eating the life out of the Christianity of this generation is the fact of the Church having largely lost any real belief in the possibility that Christian men may possess the fulness of God as their present experience. And so, when they do not find it in themselves they say: ‘Oh! it is all right; it is the necessary result of our imperfect fleshly condition.’ No! It is all wrong; and His purpose is that we should possess Him in the fulness of His gladdening and hallowing power, at every moment in our happy lives.

 

Truth, Love and the Heart of a Builder

Paul tells us that the Lord himself gave ministries to the Church to equip the people of God for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 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 (Eph 4:11-16).

If you are a Christian, born again through faith in Jesus Christ, you are a part of the Body of Christ. As a part of  the Body, you have the marvellous capacity to help build up the Body in love. According to this passage, our growth in Christ is directly related to our reception of truth. As we speak the truth of Christ to one another, we help each other to mature spiritually and to resist error. The ministries enumerated here by Paul—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—had or have one principal thing in common: the speaking and impartation of God’s truth to the people of God. Speaking the truth in love with one another, in our assemblies, our homes, and everywhere else, is God’s “growth formula” for his Body. What it implies, and what we may find difficult to keep in view at times, is that in God’s Kingdom, truth is inseparable from love.

The truth we are to speak is God’s truth, which is his Word. As we share the truth of the Word with one another, it will cause us to grow up into Christ. The Word is the seed which, planted in good soil, produces a plentiful harvest (Luke 8:4-16). Jesus said, The words I speak to you are Spirit and they are life (John 6:63); as we plant them in one another and receive them from one another, they bring forth life and growth. Peter wrote, Like newborn babies, desire the pure spiritual milk of the word, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation (I Pet 2:2). It is in our nature that we need frequent teaching, exhortation, reminding and encouragement in order to keep receiving, believing and obeying the Word. And we need one another for these things!

The truth we are to speak is also plain “human” truth—that is, honest words. Speaking truth in this way is how we ought properly to deal with offences. It precludes hiding sin or bitterness with lies, flattering for advantage, and so on. We are to speak the truth with one another in matters great and small.

In all of our truth-speaking, however, love is essential. Words without love are but empty noise, which neither pleases God nor brings spiritual growth. As Paul says, If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1Cor 13:1).

So what we need are love and truth in balanced fullness. We see this gloriously manifested in Jesus, the Living Word, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, emphasis added). Love and truth are completely and inextricably bound together in Jesus, and are to be so in us as well. We must not divide truth and love in our dealings with one another—nor, indeed, in our efforts to win unbelievers to Christ.

There seems to be a tendency among Christians, however, to lean toward one side or the other of the scale. For many believers, the words “truth” and “love” (and love’s offspring, “unity”) can be loaded. For some, “truth” is perceived (sometimes rightly so) as a club in the hands of unloving sectarians or judgemental legalists. For others, “love” and “unity” are perceived (sometimes rightly so) as buttery goo lubricating the infiltration of sin or error into the Church.

Whatever our particular sensitivities, an imbalance of truth and love hurts and deprives the Body and dims our light. Let us acknowledge that truth and love are not dirty words but Bible words, and affirm that God desires and is working always for us to grow up into a mature balance of the two. How does he do this? By having us . . . speak the truth—in love!

Doing this is often far from easy, but we can help bring about that pleasing fullness of truth and love that God desires to see in our personal lives, in our assemblies, and in the greater Body—by asking the Lord for it. In this, as with every good thing he intends for his people, God has through his Word provided the guidance to seek it effectually, in alignment with his perfect will.

Consider this wonderful prayer passage from Paul’s epistle to the Philippians:  I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:3-11).

Let’s note several important truths within this rich and deeply challenging text. First, Paul prays for all of the Philippians. He leaves none out. Does this mean that they are all sufficiently mature as to be  somehow “worthy” of his prayer? Of course not. Paul says that God has begun a good work in them, not that he has finished it. No, Paul is praying for them because they need his prayer. Some of those Philippians may have been especially immature and “problematic,” even a complete nuisance, perhaps, but Paul prays for all of them. This is clearly part of his pattern of prayer for all the churches, a pattern which he exhorts us to emulate.

Second, Paul declares, in all seriousness—this is no empty platitude—even calling God as his witness, that he longs for all of the Philippians with the affection of Christ Jesus. Paul’s heart is filled with the tender love of Jesus Christ for the people he is writing to. How many of us can honestly profess such affection for all of the people of God, or even for all the Christians we know? I know I fall far, far short of this standard. But I have been asking the Lord to change me. Paul’s words, written in love, are provoking growth!

If Paul can be filled with such love, so can we. How did that love get into Paul’s heart? The Lord put it there, of course. How? I believe the Lord poured abundant love for God’s people into Paul as the apostle prayed for them. Effectual prayer—prayer according to God’s heart and purpose and Word, as demonstrated here in Philippians—brings forth love in both those praying and those being prayed for. This love will then shine forth in our truth-speaking!

Parents, church leaders, teachers, do you have trouble loving those under your care? Pray for them. Invest time in them at the throne of grace, seeking good for them, and love for them will spring up in your heart. Don’t leave anyone out. Believe that God is working in them and that your prayer will help them. Let your heart be drawn out, especially for any who have hurt you or caused you trouble. When the time comes to speak the truth—whether from the pulpit, or in any other setting—your words, spoken from a heart of love prepared through loving prayer, will be words of life and edification rather than empty noise.

Finally, see what Paul is praying for in particular here: And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

This is marvelous. Paul is praying that love will abound more and more among the Philippians. But he is not seeking “sloppy agape,” or indiscriminate tolerance (which is much mistaken for love in our day). No, he is praying for them to be filled with love that is knowing, discerning, wise, morally pure and truth-loving—which is precisely the character of his love for them.

The fruit of godly love is all one with the fruit of wisdom and righteousness! In such love we see the perfect balance found in Christ. The pure love of God loves truth! And God’s truth produces pure love! As Paul told Timothy, The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1Tim 1:5).

This prayer of Paul for God’s people is a wonderful prayer that we would do well to make our own. May we let it sink into our hearts and change us forever. Pastors and elders, let it challenge your attitudes toward your people (who are actually the Lord’s precious people). If you don’t really long for them with the affection of Jesus Christ, or if you exclude some of them from your love, be truthful and confess it to the Lord. Then ask him to change you, to fill your heart with love for all of them the way Paul loved the Philippians. Get this kind of love into your heart, and when you stand up to teach or preach it will be glorious. Your words—speaking the truth in love—will bring growth and change lives for the glory of God and to your eternal joy.

Denominationalists and sectarians, can you let the Word of God challenge your attitude toward those parts of the Body with whom you may recognize little connection, or whom you may relegate to an inferior spiritual rank? We are one Body; there will be no denominations or sects in Heaven. While seeking the success of your own, might you seek also the success of all of the people of God, so that we may all be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, to the glory and praise of God?

This is the will of God. Paul knew it, and that is why he prayed as he did. We are invited and exhorted to pray in the very same manner. As we do, God will be pleased and will answer in wonderful ways!

Praying Psalm 119

We know that the Word is Spirit and it is life. We know that we should let it sink down into our hearts, that we should let it abide in us, that we should meditate on it continually. We know that blessings and fruitfulness will be our portion as we do these things. Yet many of us struggle to give the Word its proper place in our lives. We may have trouble making time to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his teaching. At times, we may have small appetite for spiritual things and find other things more compelling. We are all too easily distracted and drawn away. As Paul says, What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (Rom. 7:15). Or, we may have trouble comprehending what we read. Our eyes glaze over and our thoughts wander. After our “time in the Word,” we feel nothing has penetrated and nothing has changed.

If you have trouble “getting into” the Word, and keeping your heart in it, I would like to suggest something that I believe will help you greatly: praying through Psalm 119. Doing this has changed my life.

Psalm 119 is the extended testimony and prayers of a believer who seeks to know and follow God’s word more fully. The psalmist acknowledges how true and vital the Word is but needs strength and steadfastness to follow it. His heart is prone to wander and his mind is slow to understand. Throughout the psalm, he appeals to the Lord for help to live according to the Word, as he knows he ought to. He also asks the Lord to give him the life, the blessing, that is promised in the Word.

But this psalm is more than the outpouring of a human heart. It is also the loving provision of our kind and generous Father, who inspired it and preserved it for us. God knows our frame and has compassion on our frailty. In Psalm 119, he assures us that his Word is truth and life. He also shows us that he fully understands us and is abundantly willing to help us. He says, in effect, “Here is how important my Word is. It is life to you. Here is how much you should esteem it and desire it and seek for its promises to be fulfilled in you. And here are prayers that will help you. If you ask these things, which are according to my will and please me, I will give you what you ask for. I will work in you a love for my Word. I will cause you to understand it, to delight in it and to honour it. I will speak my life into you through it, and you will be greatly blessed.”

Some time ago, I became quite distant from the Lord, and therefore spiritually weak. My mind was frequently dwelling on wrong things. I was absorbed (if not obsessed) with schemes for making more money. I had little desire to pray and study the Word. I was in a constant state of disquiet because I knew I was not walking in the Spirit. I didn’t enjoy church much, and I avoided zealous believers because their passion for God exposed my lukewarmness.

By the grace of the Good Shepherd, who seeks his sheep who go astray (v. 176), I discovered Psalm 119, which I was already familiar with, in a new way. As I read the psalm, it dawned on me that I could make it my own prayer. Where the psalmist implores, Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! (v. 5) I also prayed this. When the psalmist says, Do not utterly forsake me (v. 8) and Do not let me stray from your commands (v. 10) I prayed the same words. They expressed my need perfectly.

When I came to statements such as I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches (v. 14), I confessed, “Lord this is not true of me. I do not rejoice in your word. But I know I should. Please make this true in my life. Change me so that I do rejoice in following your Word.” And so on.

Not all at once, but over an extended period of time, with some lapses and returnings to this psalm, I found my hunger for the Word growing. I slowly began to delight in the Word again. I prayed, as the psalmist does, Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law (v. 18). I found my understanding growing. I began to see the Word in a new and wonderful way. It was “coming alive,” and I was, too. I can see now that God was graciously answering the feeble prayers I hardly had the heart or breath to whisper to him. Hallelujah! His word is Spirit, and it is life! Yes, the Lord speaks life to us through his Word!

I continue to pray and meditate in Psalm 119, for I still have great need, and I never want to backslide ever again. Verses 35-37 have become favourites:

Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight.

Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.

Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.

Our Lord delights to hear such prayers from his children, and he delights to answer them. His mighty grace is well able to direct us, to turn our hearts, to transform our affections. We simply need to ask—and keep asking—according to his Word. And, to take it one God-pleasing step further, we can pray for the same work of grace to be done in others. As Jesus told Peter, When though art converted, strengthen thy brethren  (Luke 22:32, KJV).

***

Note: Here is the way I believe we ought to read and pray Psalm 119: When we read the words statutes, laws, decrees, commands, etc., we need not think merely of the Old Testament laws, whether ceremonial, civil or moral. In the light of the now-complete Word of God, we can understand these terms, in their fullest sense, to denote something much greater, which both fulfills and surpasses those laws: the totality of what God has declared and revealed concerning himself through Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God—in short, the full truth of the whole Bible. New Testament terms for this life-giving revelation include “the gospel,” “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2). So we are not praying to become obedient to Mosaic ordinances, but rather to become motivated and empowered to live as God intends: according to his full Word, through faith in Jesus Christ, by the Spirit.

Prayer and Healing Miracles

It is easy for God to perform miracles. Out of nothing, he brought forth billions upon billions of galaxies, each filled with hundreds of millions of stars, each star blazing with inconceivable energy. God’s power clearly is infinite, and his love for us surpasses understanding. So, why don’t we see more miracles, especially healings? I don’t have an easy answer, but I trust God desires to give us understanding—as always, through his Word.

Let me begin with a brief testimony. Several years ago, my wife, Debby, began suffering abdominal cramps nearly every time she ate. Over many months, the cramping became worse and worse. Being under treatment for cancer at the time, she had plenty of medical attention, including various abdominal scans and ultrasound. She asked the specialists involved with her care to diagnose and treat the cramping. They managed the cancer very well, thank God, but could not determine what caused the cramping, or what to do about it.  They were certain there was no connection between her cancer and the pain.

Debby learned to deal with the problem by eating very little during her workdays, and having a fuller meal in the evening. It was easier for her to deal with the cramping at home than at work. One evening, about half an hour after supper, the cramping started up again, but worse than usual. Debby sat in tears on the sofa, doubled over in excruciating pain. I felt great compassion for her, along with complete helplessness. There was nothing I, or the best doctors in our community, could do to ease the torment.

Debby and I had prayed a number of times about this problem, and so had our church. It hadn’t helped. Seeing her there in tears, groaning, I decided to “press in” wholeheartedly, and immediately began three days of fasting and prayer, seeking the Lord for relief of this terrible pain. I went down to the basement and began to call upon the Lord. An hour or two later, I came upstairs to find Debby at ease, the pain relieved. The next day, I continued with the fast. Debby had supper with our daughter while I prayed in the basement, and when I came upstairs later she was fine. No pain. The next day, the same thing. No pain after eating. That was three years ago, and to this day there has been no more pain. Debby eats what she wants, when she wants, with no cramping or spasms whatsoever.

What we experienced was either a very unlikely coincidence of timing, with Debby’s pain somehow naturally resolving itself the very hour I began to pray for her; or it was a gracious healing miracle of God in response to effectual, fervent prayer. We believe the latter is what happened, and we give glory and thanks to God for it.

I do believe in miraculous healing, in the present day, in response to prayer. When we or someone we love needs healing, we should seek healing in prayer. But—to get to the thrust of this post—we should not let  our need or zeal for healing blind us to other weighty needs in the Church, and to even greater blessings than healings which prayer can obtain. Physical healings are not the main course at God’s table of blessing. And without the main course, believers will be spiritually undernourished and weak—and may well see fewer healings.

We who are eager to see miracles and the hand of God at work would do well to recognize that the inner transformation and spiritual maturing of a person through the sanctifying power of the Word and the Holy Spirit is a far greater miracle than any physical healing could ever be. It is a simple thing for God to rearrange biological matter and make it whole. He commands it and it is done. It is a much more wondrous and glorious exercise of divine grace when he quickens and transforms a human spirit. He does not simply command that it be done, forcing change or obedience, but works with great patience and infinite wisdom to bring forth the precious, eternal fruit he seeks.

While physical healing has its place in Scripture and in the plan of God, it is not the Lord’s foremost priority. Therefore, it should not be our foremost priority, either. Read through the record of the prayers of Paul here, and compare how many times he prays for physical healing for believers with how much he seeks for them the knowledge of God, spiritual growth, maturity and mutual love. As far as I’ve been able to tell, physical healing is not even mentioned in his numerous prayers, although he certainly does not exclude it. He does encourage us, in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, to present our requests to God (Phil. 4:6). “Everything” of course includes such things as physical infirmity. Indeed, Paul performed mighty healing miracles (or, rather, the Lord performed them through him). But the focus of Paul’s life and teaching, including his prayer life and prayer teaching, was to preach the gospel and to prepare for eternity those whom God called. There was a race for them to run, a lifelong process of sanctification and maturing to undergo, and the will of God to fulfill. Those things, or their fruit, will last forever.

Every physical healing, on the other hand, is temporary. Even the most dramatic, glorious healing cannot prevent the eventual day of death which we all must face. Take, for example, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised to life after several days in the grave. The raising of the decomposing Lazarus was a stupendous miracle. It must have electrified the community of Bethany, and probably Jerusalem as well. But Lazarus is no longer with us. Some time after that miracle, he died again, for keeps. Our bodies, while very important, are appointed to return to dust to await resurrection to their permanent and unspeakably  glorious state.

Keeping these things in mind, I believe our prayers for healing and for extension of life are most acceptable and powerful when offered, not only for the sake of physical wholeness, but for the glory of God—of course—and so that the afflicted person may have time and strength to fulfill God’s will and to be prepared for eternity. Underlying all the prayers I have prayed for Debby in her battles with cancer is the desire that God will not take her until she is completely ready to meet him. I pray the same way for myself. I do not fear dying as much as I fear dying and not hearing the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

That said, it is evident that some people have brought more glory to God and have had more fruitful lives, being physically afflicted, than they ever could or would have done had they been healthy and whole. It bears repeating that our physical soundness is not God’s first priority, and we must trust his wisdom.

One more thing to consider is that we may well see more healings and other wonders as we set ourselves to seek, not wonders, but God’s will for his Body. Great grace was not upon the early church because of the multitude of healings and miracles. Surely, rather, healings and miracles abounded because great grace was upon them all (Acts 4:33). They were one in heart, continuing in the apostles’ doctrine and deep mutual love, and there the Lord commanded the blessing.

Jesus, speaking of temporal or physical needs, said, Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). This is a profound imperative with great promise. May the Lord help us to obey it with our whole hearts. May our deepest longing and our most urgent prayer always be, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

If you or someone you love needs a healing, by all means ask the Lord for healing. Ask fervently and expectantly. But at the same time, do not fail to ask, and to keep asking—following the examples of Jesus himself and Paul—for God to fortify, sanctify, edify  and unify the people of God for his glory.

We have it on the authority of Jesus that as we seek first the Kingdom and his righteousness, the temporary but needful things will be granted to us as well. Lord, give us the grace, desire and strength to seek first what belongs first.

One Thing is Needed

A few years back, a worship chorus was making the rounds and became a “hit” for a time in the church I belonged to. As I recall, it went like this:

One thing is needed oh my Father

One thing is needed oh my God

To sit at your feet and pour out my love

This thing is needed oh my Lord . . .

If you’re over the age of 40, you may recall it yourself. It was a pretty song, based on the account in Luke 10:38-42 of a visit by Jesus to the home of Martha and Mary. We sang it with a lot of conviction. There was a problem with that song, however. Undoubtedly sincere and well-intended, it actually conveyed a rather serious misreading or rewriting of the passage. The reason I bring it up is that it’s easy for Christians to fall into the same type of misunderstanding when it comes to prayer. This can lead to frustration, self-condemnation, weariness and a failure to do God’s will.

Let’s review that well-known account:

Luke 10:38-42
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

***

This wonderful episode, involving only Jesus and the two sisters, presents in five verses the fundamental “key” to Christian life and service. It tells us the one thing that is absolutely needed, the one thing that we cannot truly live without.

What had Mary done which so pleased the Lord and brought him to her defence? She had simply sat at his feet, listening to what he said. This simple act of faith and love toward Jesus was exactly what Jesus wanted Mary to do, because it was what she needed to do.

Sitting, Mary placed herself in a position of stillness and rest. Sitting “at the Lord’s feet,” she displayed a heart of affection for Jesus, a holy desire to be close to him, submission to him as Lord, and eager, attentive receptivity to his words. Mary longed to be near the Saviour and to hear what he was saying, and she positioned herself so that she would not miss a thing.

In doing so, Mary risked the censure of others in the room who may have felt that a woman had no business being so close to a man to whom she was not related, or that discipleship and spiritual talk were “guy stuff.” She also risked the ire of her busy sister Martha, who indeed complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping.

Mary was not to be denied. Jesus was there, in her home, full of grace and truth, and she was determined to receive both from him, let others say what they would. She made her choice, and according to Jesus she chose correctly.

How does this apply to us? I believe it’s very simple. Quietly sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his Word is still the one absolutely necessary thing in Christian life. It’s the one thing we simply cannot do without if we are to please the Lord and bear fruit for his glory. Of course, we cannot sit at his physical feet, but we can draw near to him by faith. And most will seldom, if ever, hear the sound of his physical voice, but we can open the Bible, and let his Word sink deep into our hearts.

When we are willing—when we choose—to do this one necessary thing, this is what we will find: As we draw near to Jesus, he draws near to us. As we incline our hearts to hear his Word, it becomes Spirit and life to us. It nourishes the inner man and makes us strong. It reveals God’s thoughts and his will to us. It illuminates the depths of our hearts, and corrects those things which displease the Lord. It sanctifies us and fills us with faith. For, faith comes comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). Receiving the Word enlightens our eyes, enlarges our spiritual understanding, and produces the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

How does this relate to the song I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Well, the song says the one thing needed is to sit at the Lord’s feet and pour out our love. But that’s not actually what the Bible says, and the distinction is very, very important. Of course it is a wonderful thing to pour out our love to Jesus. Just as it is a wonderful thing—to finally connect all this to the subject of prayer—to pray. But the thing that must come first, the one needful thing, is to draw near to the Lord and . . . listen to him!

Why is this? Because if we put anything in our life of worship and service, including prayer, ahead of listening to the Lord, there is every chance we will miss his will. Our religious impulses will drive us in directions and into activities which may not be exactly what God has in mind, or are exactly what God does not want at all! We will also be “running on fumes,” trying to crank out fruit without being filled with the very source of all spiritual life and fruit, the Lord himself and his holy Word. He is the Vine, we are the branches. Without him, we can do nothing. Oh, we can appear to do much without him, but when the fire tests such works, as it surely will, they may turn out to be just hay and stubble, with no enduring substance or value.

If you abide in me, says the Lord in John 15, and my words abide in you . . . then you can ask what you will and it will be done for you. And you will bear much fruit, and you will glorify the Father.

When it comes to knowing and pleasing Jesus, how can we get it right? There’s only one way. That’s to let the Master himself tell us, teach us and fill us. And the only way to do that is to do what Mary did. We must draw near to him and listen to him, letting him speak the Words of Life into the depths of our spirit.

There is no question that Martha also loved Jesus, or that he loved her. The Bible tells us this in John 11:5. But Martha made wrong judgements about herself and her service to God, about her sister, and about Jesus. Why did she make these wrong judgements? Because although she was “serving” Jesus, she wasn’t listening to him. She was doing her own thing.

Please, let’s not misunderstand. Jesus is not saying that the only thing we should do in life is sit around, reading the Bible. He is not telling us that nothing else is important. Many things are important in the Kingdom of God. We have been born again in Christ to do  works worthy of repentance and worthy of the Lord. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10). We are to worship him, tell others about him, serve others in love, pray and many other things besides. But those things are to be the fruit of remaining or abiding in Christ, and of his word remaining or abiding in us. They are not to be a substitute for this necessary thing. We must drink at the Fountain of living water, and we must eat the Bread of Heaven, regularly, in order to be able to live in a way that is pleasing to God.

There is no way to avoid this fact of spiritual life. There is simply no substitute for drawing near to the Lord, as often and for as long as he desires of us, and receiving his Word. It’s our natural tendency, unfortunately, to avoid this one essential thing at all costs. There is no shortage of diversions and distractions which would pull us away from the secret place of the Most High. Even church-related busyness and programs can fill our minds and schedules, displacing the Lord in our affections. And, of course, the enemy of our souls seeks to disrupt, if he can, our personal fellowship with Jesus Christ.

For a life of fruitful service, a life pleasing in God’s sight, we must draw near to the Lord and let him teach us. Regardless of our calling, our gifts, our ministry, our position, our likes or dislikes, our length of time on the way, the opinions of others, the latest fad or fashion in the church, our apparent success or apparent failure as Christians, one thing is needed, and will be as long as we draw breath. It is that time of refreshing, instruction, encouragement, inspiration, preparation, knowing; that place where all truly fruitful work begins—at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching. Just you and the Creator of the universe, one on one. What a marvelous privilege!

Our tendency to launch ourselves into busyness without taking the time to draw near to the Lord and to listen to him can easily rear up in our prayer lives. We hear a sermon (or read a blog) on prayer and we think, “That’s it! I gotta pray! I gotta pray more! The church needs to pray more! Prayer, prayer, prayer!” We may set ourselves to assaulting heaven with a barrage of requests and much noise and find we still don’t pray “enough” and end up feeling burdened, exhausted and condemned.

Effectual, fervent prayer is good and avails much. That’s what this blog is all about. But like anything and everything else of value in the Kingdom of God, it has its root in the Vine. It is only through connectedness with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, by faith, and through the reception of his Word, that we receive the power to pray and the wisdom to pray aright.

Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matt 11:28-30). Here we see the “one necessary thing” repeated, in a slightly different way: Whatever your need, come to Jesus and learn from him (i.e. listen to him). As you do, you will be able to lay down any yoke of wearying religiosity and any burden of self-condemnation. Jesus will teach you to take up the yoke that he has fashioned just for you and the burden he would have you bear for his glory. He will not crush you, nor drag nor drive you, for he is gentle and humble in heart. In him, in his ways and in his Word, we find rest for our souls.

I would like to suggest that, if you feel condemned or heavily-burdened in the matter of prayer, you don’t try to force yourself to pray. Instead, draw near to Jesus, “come boldly to the throne of grace,” with your heart and your Bible open. Don’t let your prayer life be driven by anxiety, guilt or fear. Rather, let it be the fruit of your relationship with Jesus and of the insight and guidance you receive from the Word. Let the Good Shepherd lead you, gently, into fruitful prayer inspired by his love. Between the two of you, you will arrive at a life of prayer that is pleasing to him and a great blessing to many others—and to you!

I remember years ago a pastor came under a strong compulsion to “get the congregation praying.” He preached a weighty sermon on prayer, then asked everyone to stand up who was willing to vow to pray for at least one hour a day—for the rest of their lives. There was tremendous pressure that day to stand up and make the vow. The pastor meant well, but I believe he unwittingly laid a snare for all those who stood up. For those who took the vow, the sudden new obligation to pray, religiously, on schedule, without fail (but failure, I am quite sure, was 100 percent guaranteed) only added to the heaviness pervading the meeting.

This is not the way to produce spiritual fruit. Abiding in Jesus, and his word abiding in us, is the way to produce fruit. May the Lord help each of us to choose (yes, it is a choice) the good, necessary thing. And may the Lord help us to help our brothers and sisters choose this good, necessary thing. Because, according to the Word, we can help!

Consider this prayer of Paul for the Ephesians, Eph. 3:16-17: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . .

With this prayer, Paul is asking God to strengthen the believers by the Holy Spirit. To what end? That Christ would dwell in their hearts. Paul does not mean by this that they need to  receive Christ. They are already believers. He means that they need the strength of the Holy Spirit to abide in Christ and to let him abide in them. Because the flesh wars against the Spirit, it is only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that this is even possible. And Paul knows that his prayer can help. Paul sees a profound need—for the Ephesian believers to be established in a close relationship with Christ—and he appeals to the Lord for their strengthening. It is the will of God to provide this strength, and God inspires Paul to pray for it! Paul does not condemn the Ephesians or load them with burdens too heavy for them to bear. No, he prays for them, according to the will of God, and helps to lift the burden and to supply their need.

This is a great mystery, but God has ordained that our prayers can strengthen our brothers and sisters to abide in Christ, to do the one necessary thing. There can scarcely be a greater blessing that we could pray for.

 

Prayer According to Paul

This post is simply a compilation of Paul’s prayers, requests for prayer and exhortations to pray. They are listed in their order of appearance in the Bible, and all are from the NIV. Feel free to look them up in your preferred version.

May these verses bless, inspire, challenge and guide you as you seek the will of God in prayer.

Rom 1:8-12

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.

9 God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you

10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–

12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

Rom 10:1

1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.

 Rom 15:5-6

5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus,

6 so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Rom 15:13

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Rom 15:30-33

30 I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.

31 Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there,

32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed.

33 The God of peace be with you all. Amen.

2 Cor 13:7

7 Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong. Not that people will see that we have stood the test but that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed.

2 Cor 13:9

9 We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is for your perfection.

Eph 1:15-23

15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints,

16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.

18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,

19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength,

20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,

21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,

23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Eph 3:14-21

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father,

15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.

16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,

17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,

18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,

19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge– that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,

21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Eph 6:17-20

17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

19 Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel,

20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Phil 1:1-11

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:

2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 I thank my God every time I remember you.

4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy

5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,

6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.

8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,

10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ,

11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Phil 4:6-7

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Col 1:3-12

3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,

4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints–

5 the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel

6 that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.

7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf,

8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.

10 And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,

11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully

12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

Col 2:1-3

1 I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.

2 My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ,

3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Col 4:2-4

2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.

4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

Col 4:12-13

12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.

13 I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis.

1Thes 3:9-13

9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.

11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.

12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Note what appears to be the answer to this prayer recorded in II Thess 1:3-4!:

3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.

4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

 1Thes 5:16-18

16 Be joyful always;

17 pray continually;

18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1Thes 5:23-25

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

24 The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.

25 Brothers, pray for us.

II Th 1:11-12

11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.

12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

II Th 2:16-17

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope,

17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

II Th 3:1-2

1 Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.

2 And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith.

II Th 3:16

16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.

1 Tim 2:1-4

1 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–

2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior,

4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

1 Tim 2:8

8 I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.

2 Tim 1:3-4

3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.

4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.

 Philemon 1:4-6

4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers,

5 because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.

6 I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Heb 13:18-21 (Although not named in the letter, Paul is considered by many, including myself, to be the author of Hebrews. Even if he isn’t, this is a wonderful prayer!)

18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.

19 I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.

20 May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,

21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

 

The Prayers of a Builder: The Apostle Paul’s Pattern of Prayer (Part 4)

Paul’s epistles reveal him to be a man of prayer. Paul was commissioned by God to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, with mighty signs following. He was used by God to heal the sick and cast out demons. He had the courage and determination to defy and endure the violent opposition of both the unbelieving Jews and the pagans among whom he preached. He had the strength of conviction and character to stand alone for truth when the whole Church was in danger of becoming corrupted by legalism. He had the heavenly wisdom and foreknowledge to save the life of every person aboard a doomed ship. He bore the authority to correct believers who sinned, and to withstand any who disputed his gospel. He was an indomitable bulldozer of a man who, by the mighty power of God, leveled the ground and put in place a foundation that has stood the tests of 2,000 years. Since the time of Paul, there has surely been no man his equal in spiritual grace and authority.

Yet, for all his giftedness, character and authority, Paul lived in constant dependence on the Lord. Indeed, the wellspring of his spiritual might, insight and fruitfulness was his intimate connection with Jesus the Vine, without whom he could do nothing. Before Paul could be of much use to the Lord, he had first to become a man of frequent, fervent, effectual prayer.

Why God has ordained prayer as a fundamental essential of Christian life and service is a worthy subject for another discussion. Suffice it here to say that prayer is absolutely necessary for growth and fruitfulness in God’s kingdom. And furthermore that, on the subject of prayer, Paul has many wonderful things to teach us.

Here, to start with, is a powerful prayer passage from Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:

Eph. 1:15-23

15For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

***

Lest there be any confusion or doubt about these things, let us take note of some obvious but very important facts:

Paul prayed. He prayed, in this instance, for the Christians in Ephesus. As we will discover in his other epistles, it seems he prayed for every church of which he had knowledge or with which he had contact. What does this mean for us? It means that prayer is essential. Even the great apostle Paul could not dispense with it. If prayer were unnecessary and fruitless, Paul would not have prayed. God is gracious and generous beyond comprehension but, according to his excellent wisdom, he would have us in a constant state of confident dependency upon him. We must ask, and when we ask, we receive. When we ask not, we risk having not.

Paul prayed for others. Paul’s heart was filled with love and affection for the people of God, and he sought their blessing and edification in prayer. In doing so, he obeyed the command of Jesus, that we love one another.

There is no greater love, Jesus said, than to lay down one’s life for another. Our lives are measured in time. Surrendering precious time at the throne of grace so that our brothers and sisters may live more fully is to love them in a way that honours and pleases the Lord.

Paul prayed expecting answers from God. Paul prayed in faith and expectation. Let nobody try to claim that Paul was merely doing as we sometimes do, mouthing insincere happy talk and platitudes when we say “I’m praying for you” or “I’ll pray for you.” No, when Paul said he was praying, he meant he was praying. His prayer was no beating of the air in some empty display of false piety. He earnestly pressed in, pleading with the living God for real things because he knew that believers had need of these things, things only God could give them, and because he believed God answers such prayers. For Paul to do anything less and call it “prayer” would be a lie and a waste of time. Paul was guilty of neither.

It may seem too obvious for comment, but this is precisely where our “prayers” can fall down—when in “praying” we either fail to ask for what God has invited us to ask for, or we don’t have the faith or expectation that he’s really going to answer us.

Paul prayed persistently. For Paul, prayer was not a series of one-off events. “I keep asking,” he said. He knew that while the present world stands, the Church has continuing, unending need for that which only the Spirit of God can supply. He knew also that, whatever believers may have received already, God had much more to bestow on them out of his vast store of riches in glory. Paul, in his prayers for the people of God, as in his personal walk, never tapered off, never considered the race to have ended until he knew it was fully run, but pressed onward toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul prayed for great and wonderful spiritual blessings. In many places in the epistles, Paul tells us what he is asking for. These requests, summed up, are a plea for the people of God to be so strengthened and transformed, so filled with the knowledge of God, that they would bring glory to him by doing his will, and in the end be able to stand before him ready, sanctified, glorious, unashamed, unafraid. Paul was a builder. His life was consumed with building up the people of God and preparing them for their eternal destiny.

So he asks, in this passage, for the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. Paul is asking God to give the Holy Spirit to his people so that we can know God more fully, and understand things that we need to understand but don’t yet understand. Glorious things, things that can be understood only by revelation.

Read the passage again. Meditate on it. Believe that Paul was praying according to God’s will. Follow Paul’s example of prayer and ask for the same things that he asked for. Believe that God wills the same things for the Church of today that he willed for the early Church. Yes, believe that these wonderful things are still God’s will, and that the Lord is still “able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.”

Pray for the believers that you know. Pray for the members and attenders of your church. Pray for the churches in your community. Pray for Christians around the world. Ask God to give us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. We need the Holy Spirit. We can’t do without the Holy Spirit. We need to know—to have our eyes opened to see—what a glorious future God is calling us to, and the glorious things he has in store for us, and the mighty power he is willing and able to exercise in us who believe. He wants us to know that the power at work in us is the very power that raised Christ from the dead. That mighty, life-giving, resurrection power is able to bring restoration and refreshing to a fatigued believer, fruitfulness to a barren believer, hope to a despairing believer, joy to a depressed believer, and to fill us all with the fullness of God. The mighty power of God is just as able to strengthen and transform believers today as it was to raise Christ from the tomb 2,000 years ago.

God is able to change us and to make us grow. He is able to do in the Church what Jesus asked of the Father in John 17. It is his holy will to do these things. We must ask for his will to be done, and as we ask, we will help, in ways perhaps unseen but certainly significant, to bring greater health, unity and victory to the Body of Christ.

Let us arise and ask, and keep on asking as long as we have breath!

The Prayers of a Builder: The Apostle Paul’s Pattern of Prayer (Part 3)

The apostle Paul instructed Christians to follow both the doctrine he taught and the example of godly living he provided. He commanded these things by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In Paul, we find a pattern or example of faith and practice that God intends for us to learn from and emulate. In the context of “Epaphras ministry,” or the ministry of praying for the people of God, have Paul’s prayer life in mind as you read the following verses from his epistles:

 I Cor 4:15-17  Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son, whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord.  He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

I Cor 11:1-2  Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

Phil 3:17  Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.

Phil 4:9  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.  And the God of peace will be with you.

I Tim 1:16  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

II Tim 1:13  What you have heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

***

Paul’s admonitions to follow him apply just as fully and forcefully to his praying as to anything else he models or teaches. Consider these verses again, specifically in the context of prayer:

I Cor 4:15-17  Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me [in prayer]. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son, whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord.  He will remind you of my way of life [and prayer] in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

I Cor 11:1-2  Follow my example [in prayer], as I follow the example of Christ. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings [on prayer], just as I passed them on to you.

Phil 3:17  Join with others in following my example [in prayer], brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern [of prayer] we gave you.

Phil 4:9  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me [concerning prayer], or seen in me—put it into practice.  And the God of peace will be with you.

II Tim 1:13  What you have heard from me [concerning prayer], keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

***

Let it be settled in our hearts and fixed in our minds: If we wish to pray in a way that is pleasing to God, in a way that is effectual and fruitful, we simply must study and follow Paul’s teaching about prayer. We cannot ignore his “pattern of sound teaching” and example without missing God’s best or even going badly astray.

Let us hold to a sound doctrine and practice of prayer, standing securely upon the foundation of Scripture, including Paul’s plentiful teaching and example. Within these holy bounds, there is great scope for the wonderful and the miraculous, for mighty exploits, for outpourings of the Holy Spirit from on high, and for the edification and eternal blessing of the saints.

Those who come to the Word in faith and heed what it says need not fear “dead orthodoxy” nor any quenching of the Holy Spirit. The Word and the Spirit agree; they ought never to be separated from each other nor to be set against each other. The Word does not rob us or tie our hands. It enriches us, sanctifies us and sets us free indeed. It reveals God’s unspeakably great and gracious purposes for those who trust in Christ. The Word is Spirit, says Jesus, and it is life!

The Word is the one and only light to our prayer-path, so let us pray in that light and in that light alone. There is no place in God-pleasing prayer for human invention or speculation. The Bible tells us everything God would have us know about prayer, and what it tells us is not only good, it is glorious. If we will let the Bible teach us about prayer, and if we will take the Lord at his word, we will surely see the glory of God.

In the next post:  We will begin to examine that sensible, solid, sound, excellent, fruitful, wise, loving, glorious life of prayer taught and lived by Paul. We will discover a greater vision of God’s purposes and his power to accomplish them—even working through such little ones as we are—than perhaps many Christians have dreamed of.