The Prayer Life of Jesus

Knowing ChristMark 6:45-52 is the account of one of the most well-known miracles of the Lord Jesus Christ, His walking on water. But notice that the first thing that we see in that text is Jesus praying. In v.45-46 Mark writes,

“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.”

Now, it is easy to overlook this detail of the story, especially when it is found in such close proximity to such a jaw-dropping miracle as Jesus walking on water. But if you stop to really think about, the most amazing thing (in a sense) in this passage might not be so much that Jesus walked on water, but that He spent so much time in prayer.

Why did Jesus pray? If He is God, did He really need to pray? Or was it just for show, as an example for us? These can be perplexing questions for us at times. We sometimes struggle even as as Bible-believing, evangelical Christians, with how to properly understand and articulate what it means to say that Jesus is (in the words of Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.21), “God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.” We also struggle at times to understand the implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And that certainly holds true when it comes to the prayer life of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In his book, Knowing Christ, Mark Jones helpfully addresses it this way:

“Our apparent dilemma disappears when we remember that Jesus was not only divine, but also fully human. Even as the perfect man, he no doubt still needed to pray. A robust, reverential, dependent prayer life was suitable and necessary given the various trials and distresses that he faced as the suffering servant. The Scriptures certainly give the impression that his prayer life was as indispensable for him as it is for us. His prayer life described so vividly in the New Testament leaves us in awe. What a thought: the Son of God praying to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit!” (p.93)

We must be careful to do justice, not only to the true divinity of Christ (that He is really and truly God almighty), but also to His true humanity. Theological liberals and cults very often fail to do justice to the former; we who are Bible-believing evangelicals at times fail to do justice to the latter. But we must be careful to affirm both the true divinity and true humanity of Jesus Christ. Without the truth both of those things, we would have no true Mediator between God and man. (See Westminster Larger Catechism Q.40.)

Now, as we examine our Lord praying in the above text, we also see that this was no hurried, perfunctory prayer. In fact, Mark strongly implies that this time of prayer lasted quite a while. In v.47 the next thing Mark tells us is that it was “when evening came” that Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars due to the wind. So Jesus was praying well into the night! This is a pretty consistent theme in the Gospels. Our Lord Jesus often took time away from everything else to spend time with His Father in prayer. (See also Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28.) Is it any wonder that the apostles asked the Lord Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1)?

After a long, tiring day of ministering to the crowds (after the feeding of the 5,000 – v.30-44, Jesus needed rest. So what did He do? He went away by Himself to spend time with His Father in prayer. Isn’t that often just about the last thing that we think to do when we are tired? I don’t know about you, but after a long day at work, especially work that is mentally-taxing, the last thing that comes to my mind is to stop and pray. Stop and eat? Sure. Stop and shut off my brain in front of the television? Yep. Waste time scrolling through social media sites on my “smart” phone? Guilty as charged. But what about prayer?

In his book, Expository Thoughts on Mark, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There are few things, it may be feared, in which Christians come so far short of Christ’s example, as they do in the matter of prayer. Our Master’s strong crying and tears, his continuing all night in prayer to God, his frequent withdrawal to private places to hold close communion with the Father – are things more talked of and admired than imitated. We live in an age of hurry, bustle, and so-called activity. Men are tempted continually to cut short their private devotions, and abridge their prayers. When this is the case, we need not wonder that the church of Christ does little in proportion to its machinery. The church must learn to copy its Head more closely. Its members must be more in their closets. ‘We have little,’ because little is asked (James 4:2).” (p.102, emphasis mine)

So let us look to God for help to pray. We have the intercession of both Christ Himself (Hebrews 7:25) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:27) to encourage us and to help us. Let us, with the help of the Holy Spirit, seek not just to admire, but to imitate the prayer life of our Head, so that as His church we might not ‘do so little in proportion to our machinery.’ If we want to see our Lord bless and use us as His church to reach our neighbors with the gospel, we simply must become a praying church.

John Owen on Giving Thanks

owen-communion-with-god-2Just a brief post for Thanksgiving. John Owen (1616-1683) with a helpful reminder about the best way to give thanks to God:

“Obedience is the best way of showing our gratitude to God for His grace.” (Communion with God, p.140)

So while we should certainly give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and express that thankfulness with praise (Psalm 136:1), let us remember to give Him thanks with our lives as well, not only on Thanksgiving day, but every day.

Gratitude for God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ is the primary motive for our obedience.

The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory (The Conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer)

Praying Hands

In this our last study through the Lord’s prayer, we now come to the conclusion of the prayer. The Lord’s Prayer concludes with these words:

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:13, KJV).

If you were raised in a church where the Lord’s prayer was a part of the liturgy of the worship service on Sundays (which used to be much more common than it seems to be in our day), no doubt those words are very familiar to you. If so, you may well have uttered these very words in prayer more times than you can even count.

But have you ever stopped to think about what these words mean? What exactly are we saying when we pray, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory”? And what is the Lord Jesus teaching us about prayer when he concludes this great model prayer with those words?

The very last question (Q.107) of the Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a very helpful explanation of what Jesus teaches us here in the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer. It says that these words teach us the following:

“to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise Him, ascribing kingdom, power, and glory to Him; and, in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen.

So the first thing we see there is that the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer teaches us “to take our encouragement in prayer from God only.” In other words, it is because we pray to the one true and living God, whose kingdom is over all, whose power is infinite and without limits, and whose glory outshines and outstrips all else, that can and should pray with confidence that He is both willing and able to answer all of the requests that we are taught to pray for in this great pattern prayer.

Secondly, the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer teaches us to praise God in our praying. It is far too easy to neglect to do that in our prayers, isn’t it? How often do we approach God in prayer as if we were presenting a shopping list of sorts? As Psalm 33:1 tells us, “Praise befits the upright” (ESV). We should praise God because it is fitting – it is the right thing to do. And we should remember to praise God in our prayers. In doing so, we remind ourselves of who it is that we are praying to in the first place. What an encouragement that would be to us in prayer!

Last but not least, the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer teaches us to testify to our desire and our assurance to be heard by God in our prayers by adding the simple word “Amen.” That word has the idea of saying “Let it be so.” The better we conform our praying to the Lord’s will as expressed in this model prayer, the more easily we will be able to add our “amen” to it!

I hope (and pray!) that you have found this brief series of studies through the Lord’s prayer to be helpful, and to be an encouragement to you in prayer. May the Lord Jesus teach us more and more to pray in accordance with this great pattern prayer – Amen!

John Owen on the Regulative Principle of Worship

owen-communion-with-god-2John Owen has some rather strong words to say regarding what has come to be known as the “regulative principle of worship.” In his book, Communion With God, he writes,

“God never allowed the will of the creature to decide how best to worship God. Worshipping [sic] God in ways not appointed by him is severely forbidden. God asks, ‘Who has required these things at your hand?’ And again, ‘In vain do you worship me, teaching for doctrines the traditions of men.’

“The principle that the church has the power to institute and appoint any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God other than what Christ himself has instituted is the cause of all the horrible superstitions and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution and wars that have arisen in the Christian world. The purpose of a great part of the book of Revelation is to show this truth.”

The context of this quote is nearly as instructive as the quote itself. It is significant that he writes this in a book that is about (as the title suggests) believers’ communion with God, and in a chapter of that book that deals particularly with the consequences or results of our fellowship with Christ. One of those consequences/results is that the saints (believers) will be faithful to Christ. It is in this context that Owen deals with the regulative principle of worship.

According to Owen one of the primary ways in which believers will demonstrate their faithfulness to Christ will be in how we worship. Are we being faithful (i.e. obedient) in our worship? That is a question that we often fail to even ask, isn’t it? We often seem to be much more interested in asking if what we do in worship is pleasing to us (preference?) or maybe even to outsiders (pragmatism?). But what we really should be asking, first and foremost, is whether or not it is pleasing to God.

How do we know if our worship is pleasing to God? We can only discern the answer to that question by asking what God has commanded and appointed in His Word. And that is what the “regulative principle of worship” is really all about, isn’t it. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

“. . .the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” (21.1)

This is what Owen is talking about in the above quote. This is what he means when he says, “God never allowed the will of the creature to decide how best to worship God.” And Owen is quick to point out in that same extended quote that God has not left it up to the church to decide either. The choice, when push comes to shove, is between faithfulness to Christ in our worship, and idolatry. Another way of putting that would be to say that we do not enjoy fellowship with Christ in worship on our own terms, but rather on His terms, as revealed in the Scriptures.

Do we think of worship in these terms? Do we consider worship in light of our fellowship with Christ? Do we consider it in terms of faithfulness to what the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has commanded and appointed? Perhaps if we did so, we would be far less prone to the allure of innovation & idolatry.

Deliver Us From Evil (The Lord’s Prayer – Part X)

Praying Hands 2In our study through the Lord’s Prayer we now come to the last part of the last request, which is “. . . deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). What are we being taught to pray here? What does it mean for us to ask our heavenly Father to “deliver us from evil”?

First (as always), we need to keep the context in view. This request is very closely-related to what precedes it. In the previous requests the Lord Jesus has just taught us to ask for forgiveness (v.12), and for grace to avoid temptation in the first place, so as to not keep on sinning in the same ways (v.13a); now he teaches us to ask for deliverance from evil (v.13b). There is a clear progression of thought in these verses.

Sometimes we set ourselves up by not avoiding the occasion to temptation and sin. We allow ourselves to go to places or spend time with certain people that we know full well will give us cause to stumble. And yet we often fail to avoid those things. Many times that is our first mistake, isn’t it? We’ve all been there at one time or another, no doubt. Have you ever heard the saying, “Bad company corrupts good morals”? (It is based on 1 Corinthians 15:33.) Is there a place or a person(s) that you know that you need to avoid for this reason? It is not without reason that we are taught to pray not to be led into temptation.

But sometimes there is just no getting around temptation. Have you ever been there? Have you ever found yourself staring temptation right in the face, even if through no fault of your own? What are you to do then? Here’s an idea: pray. It is right here toward the end of the Lord’s prayer. We must pray to be delivered from evil. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:

“Q.106. What do we pray for in the sixth petition? A. In the sixth petition, which is, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, we pray that God would either keep us from being tempted to sin, or support and deliver us when we are tempted.”

We need to pray for the Lord’s support and deliverance when we are tempted.  We should not just think of “evil” as consisting in things such as suffering or even Satan himself (although it certainly includes those things), but also our own propensity and inclination toward sin. We are to “watch and pray” lest we enter into temptation (Mark 14:38), but when we do enter into temptation, we need to pray for God’s help and deliverance.

And none of us are sufficient for these things on our own. Which is why this request is in the first person plural (as are the others before it in v.11-13). We must pray that the Lord would deliver “us” (not just “me”) from evil. Do you pray for your brothers and sisters in the Lord this way? May the Lord’s prayer teach us to pray not just for ourselves, but others as well, to be delivered from evil.

Book Review: Union With Christ (by Robert Letham)

union__lethamIn the opening sentences of the Introduction to his book, Robert Letham writes,

“Union with Christ is right at the center of the Christian doctrine of salvation. The whole of our relationship with God can be summed up in such terms” (p.1).

All of that is certainly true, and yet when was the last time that you recall reading a book or hearing a sermon on this core doctrine of the Christian faith? In his book, The Hole in Our Holiness (reviewed here), Kevin DeYoung goes so far as to say,

“Union with Christ may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.” (p.94)

Sadly, for far too many Christians those words ring true. But even for those who have heard of it and are at least somewhat familiar with this vitally important doctrine of the Christian faith, there are just not that many books and other resources on the subject that are both readily available and accessible to help us grow in our understanding of it.

Robert Letham’s book, Union With Christ, is a welcome exception. It is a very helpful, but not overwhelming volume (totaling a mere 141 pages!). It’s brevity adds to its helpfulness. It is a scholarly work, but not so academic as to be inaccessible to the lay person without an advanced theological degree. As the subtitle of the book makes clear, he makes his case plainly from Scripture, history (citing various ecumenical councils and controversies in the early church), and theology (citing a multitude of Reformed theologians from John Calvin to Charles Hodge).

The layout of the book is simple and easy to follow. Letham opens with a chapter showing how the basis of our union with Christ can be found in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and its account of creation. Man was created in the image of God in order to be compatible with God. He then moves on in the second chapter to show that “[T]he basis of our union with Christ is Christ’s union with us in the incarnation” (p.21). In chapter three he discusses Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s role in effecting or applying our union with Christ by grace through faith. Letham very helpfully and succinctly sums up the first three (3) chapters at the end of chapter 3 before moving on to the next section of the book.

In the final three (3) chapters of the book, Letham demonstrates the vital relationship that union with Christ has upon our standing before God with regard to our justification (representation – chapter 4), our sanctification (transformation – chapter 5), and, finally, our glorification at Christ’s return (resurrection – chapter 6).  As he states on p.137, “Union with Christ is realized in its fullness at the resurrection itself, when we will be like Christ (1 John 3:1-2).”

If there is a weakness in the book, it may be in the somewhat parenthetical section on the doctrine of “theosis” (on p.91-102). Theosis (also known as deification) is a central tenet of the Eastern church’s doctrine of salvation, but is largely unheard of in the Western church. The terminology used can sometimes sound (especially to Western ears) as if the Creator-creature distinction were being blurred. I found Letham’s treatment of this subject here to be a bit confusing, even distracting. If you are reading through this book, and find this section to be too difficult, you could (in my humble opinion) easily skip over these pages and not miss a beat. It is interesting enough, but not in any way essential to his argument.

And on the very last page of the book, he makes a wonderful evangelistic appeal to the reader, lest anyone read this book and yet still not be united to Christ by faith. As Letham states there, this wonderful doctrine is much “more than an academic question. It is greater than life and death” (p.141).

This book covers a topic that is as important as it is neglected, and (Lord willing) many in our day may find it to be a helpful remedy for that neglect.

THE SABBATH: HOLY REST AND WORSHIP (SHORTER CATECHISM Q.60)

shorter-catechism-explainedThis is part 4 of a brief series of posts going through what the Westminster Shorter Catechism (in Q.57-62) has to say about the 4th commandment. Question and answer #57 deals with the actual text of the commandment itself (which is found in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The questions that follow explain and interpret the meaning of the commandment.

Question and answer #58 deals with the question of what – the substance of what is required in the fourth commandment – keeping one day in seven holy unto God. Question and answer 59 deals with the question of when – which day of the seven is now to be sanctified.

We now come to question and answer #60, which asks the all-important question – how? What exactly does it mean to sanctify the Sabbath or keep it holy?

Q.60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

So according to the Shorter Catechism, sanctifying the Sabbath involves at least two (2) things: holy rest and worship.  In his book, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture, Puritan writer Thomas Vincent (1634-1678) puts it this way:

“We are to observe and keep the Sabbath as holy, partly by a holy resting, partly in holy exercises on that day.” (p.146)

Vincent there shows us the balance that we must keep between those two things, as well as the right relationship between them. Let us then briefly turn to look at them in order.

First the Sabbath (or Lord’s day) is to be sanctified “by a holy resting all the day.” Not just rest, but a holy rest. So it is clear right at the outset that what is in view here is not mere inactivity or sleep. So what does this holy resting entail? We are to rest “all that day” (not just for an hour or two) from two (2) things: our “worldly employments” (i.e. our work), and our “recreations” (i.e. our play).

And the point here is certainly not just that we are to refrain from sinful work and recreation, as we are always to refrain from those things no matter which day of the week it may be. No, the writers of the Catechism explicitly state that we are to rest from even those employments and recreations “as are lawful on other days.” So we are not to treat the Lord’s day like any other day, whether that be for work or for play.

Some people might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another work day, another day to labor and make money. Time (as the saying goes) is money, and so for some people, a holy resting all the day sounds costly, rather than beneficial. And so such people may need to learn to trust in God’s provision. Is that not the lesson we are to learn from God’s instructions regarding the manna in the wilderness in Exodus chapter 16? There was one day in the week when the manna would not appear – the Sabbath. Exodus 16:26 states, “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” The only day that the people of Israel were allowed to gather extra to save for the next day was on the 6th day. Why? To free them up to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. Even gathering food (manna) was not to be done on the Sabbath.

Others might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another day off, another day to play and have fun. Such people may need to learn to enjoy God more. (And who among us doesn’t need to learn that more?) To use a personal example, I like sports. I enjoy watching some sports on television and occasionally even in-person. (As a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, my sports fandom is often more an exercise in patience and long-suffering than of celebrating championship parades, but I digress.)

Nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional game. But that being said, if I enjoy watching (for example) a football game (yes, even the Super Bowl) more than I enjoy spending time with the Lord and His people in worship, then both my priorities and tastes are out of whack.  Again, nothing wrong with sports or entertainment per se (as long as there is nothing inherently sinful involved), but those things should not be in any position to compete for our ultimate affection and enjoyment. And we are to rest from those things on the Lord’s day for our own good.

And that brings us to the second thing that sanctifying the Sabbath involves – worship. The Sabbath is to be sanctified, not just by a holy resting from worldly employments and recreations, but also by “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.” The whole time. And so the former is for the purpose of the latter. In the 4th commandment we are essentially being given a break from our worldly activities in order to free us up for worship.

Now if the first part (the holy resting) seems foreign to most people (even most Christians?) in our day, almost certainly this part (spending the whole day in the worship of God) is even more so. One need only look at the rarity of the Sunday evening worship service in our day to see something of a barometer of that. Structuring the whole day around worship seems like a nearly forgotten art. Sadly, many who were not raised in the Reformed faith (myself included) have had to learn much of this the hard way, with very little in the way of an example to emulate. This was not always the case.

Notice that the worship of God that is commended to us here is both public (corporate) and private (personal and with our family). And so we should make attendance upon public worship perhaps the highest priority of the day, although that by no means excludes time spent alone or with one’s family in prayer, the study of God’s Word, and even song (!). The latter is often closely-related to the former, with time spent considering and discussing the sermon from earlier that day. (How much more might we benefit from even the simplest preaching of the Word if we were to make that our practice!)  And here we also see that private worship is no substitute for diligently attending public worship of the church on the Lord’s day. In truth it should not be an either/or proposition.

That might sound like a rather daunting task. Surely there are things that cannot be left undone, even on Sundays, right? And that is where the common-sense exceptions to the rule come into view here in Q.60. It states that the whole time is to be spent in public and private worship “except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” One’s family still needs to eat, for example. The sick or injured must still be cared for. Someone in need must still be shown mercy. (In truth, the Lord’s day may actually provide us with more time and opportunity for this than other days.) And there are occupations or lawful callings in which people cannot reasonably be expected to take the whole day off from their work, which is necessary for the life, safety, and well-being of their neighbors (such as law enforcement, military, or medical personnel, just to name a few).

There is obviously much more that could be said, but I hope that you find this thumbnail sketch from the Shorter Catechism to be a helpful starting point, and perhaps something that may spur you on to more careful study and application of what the Scriptures have to say on this important subject. May we all learn to view this holy rest and worship, not as a burden, but as a blessing.