Prayer

The Prayer Meeting as a Gauge of the Spiritual Life of the Church

Elder DicksonPerhaps the only thing rarer in the church these days than the Sunday evening worship service is the prayer meeting. And even when there is a regular prayer meeting, it is surely often one of the most sparsely-attended gatherings of the church.

Why is this the case? Did our Lord Jesus not say (quoting Isaiah 56:7) that “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46)? The church, then, should be characterized by (among other things) prayer.

Now, it is certainly possible that a church can be a praying church without necessarily having a weekly prayer meeting. But it sure helps, doesn’t it? If your church has a regular prayer meeting, even if  it is not well-attended, take heart. Don’t give up on it. Great things often come from small beginnings.

In his book, The Elder and His Work, David Dickson (1821-1885) makes the following observation:

“In a country village of which we know, there has been a prayer meeting conducted now for more than a hundred years. That place has been blessed three or four times with a revival of religion – shall we not say in answer to these prayers? This interesting fact was also told us: that when the tide of blessing was about to come in, the numbers began unaccountably to increase till the place was too strait for them; even outside the door there were many earnest attenders. The people knew that the tide was far out when the number fell to five or six. Then they began to pray again for a turning of the tide, and a spring tide came. Alas! in many of our congregations the tide is far out, if we are to judge by attendance at prayer meetings, which are a kind of gauge of spiritual life; yet let those who attend them continue to pray on.” (p.79)

That observation may be somewhat anecdotal, but it certainly strikes me as true. I have long been convinced that we will know that something really special is happening in the life of our church when our weekly prayer meetings start being strongly-attended.

Is the “tide” far out at your church? Maybe so. But who knows what the Lord may do (or when) if His people just continue to pray on together. If attendance at prayer meetings is a “gauge” of the spiritual life of the church, and if that gauge shows that our churches are in need of revitalization and revival, let us continue to pray together for a turning of the tide. Let us watch and pray for the spring tide to roll in.

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.

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!

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.

LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION (THE LORD’S PRAYER – PART IX)

Praying HandsIn our brief study through the Lord’s Prayer we now come to the sixth request, which is “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13) . Sometimes the first half of that verse is thought to be a separate request from the latter half, and so “deliver us from evil” would then be the seventh request. Either way you slice it, the two parts are very closely-related. Simply for the sake of space, we will consider each half separately.

I must confess that I grew up reciting and praying the Lord’s Prayer in church from as far back as I can remember in my childhood. But in all that time I don’t think that I ever gave it enough thought to ask the obvious question – why do I need to ask God not to lead me into temptation? Does God ever actually lead his people into temptation? If not, is this request in the Lord’s Prayer superfluous? If so, then in what way can it be said that God does that? And why?

First things first – this request is not redundant; it is there for a reason. So we must conclude that in some way God may at times lead us into temptation. But the Scriptures are very clear that God tempts no one. James 1:13 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (ESV). No ambiguity there – God tempts no one. Period.

The account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness may prove helpful here. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (ESV). So the Holy Spirit led Jesus to the place of temptation. But who did the tempting? The devil. To be led into temptation is to be tested. To actually tempt is to try to cause someone to commit sin. There is a big difference between those two things. God’s goal in testing is never to cause sin. Satan’s goal in temptation is always to cause sin.

The Lord Jesus Christ passed the test in the wilderness that Adam failed in the garden of Eden (Genesis chapter 3), and that we all fail on a regular basis. Jesus was tempted in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). That is why sinners can be saved by the “precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot ” (1 Peter 1:19, ESV).

If we would sincerely pray, “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12), then we must also ask the Lord to keep us from temptation so that we do not just keep on committing those very same sins. A.W. Pink writes,

” . . .past sins being pardoned, we should pray fervently for grace to prevent us from repeating them. We cannot rightly desire God to forgive us our sins unless we sincerely long for grace to abstain from the like in the future.” (The Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer, p.117)

To desire forgiveness of a sin while not also desiring to be kept from that sin is nothing short of hypocrisy. And so the Lord Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness of our debts or trespasses, and also to pray for God to keep us from the temptation to sin as well.

FORGIVING OUR DEBTORS (THE LORD’S PRAYER – PART VIII)

Praying HandsThe fifth request found in the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). It is all too easy to focus our attention on the first part of that request (i.e. “forgive us our debts”), while giving little or no thought to what follows (“as we forgive our debtors”). We looked at the first part in our previous post, and so it is the latter part of this request that we will consider together here.

The Bible repeatedly reminds us of the need to forgive one another. There must be a reason for that! And so this part of the Lord’s Prayer serves as a reminder that forgiveness will be necessary. And it will be necessary because we all still sin against each other. Sometimes we will be the one sinned against; sometimes the shoe will be on the other foot and we will be the offending party. (Frankly, each of us probably fits the latter description more often than we might care to admit.)

This holds true in marriage. One of my favorite books on marriage is titled, When Sinners Say “I Do”, by Dave Harvey. The title alone speaks volumes, and is instructive. Even the most godly marriage imaginable is still a marriage between two sinners (even if forgiven, redeemed sinners). And so forgiveness will often be necessary. Harvey repeats one statement a number of times throughout the book: “Forgiven sinners forgive sin.” In some ways that is a good summary of this part of the Lord’s Prayer.

This also holds true in churches. Do you expect to find a perfect church? A church that is without sin? Good luck with that. In fact, the church this side of heaven is made up entirely of sinners. In this life every believer in Christ is a forgiven sinner, even a sanctified sinner (!), but still a sinner nonetheless. Put enough of those sinners in close proximity for long enough, and some sparks are bound to fly! And so we pray together as the Lord Jesus taught us, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

So when (not if!) we are sinned against, we must learn to forgive. And we must forgive as Christ has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13). Likewise when we sin against someone else, we must be quick to repent, and seek out forgiveness and reconciliation with them.

If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, may the joy of being freely forgiven of all of your sins, lead you more and more to freely forgive others as well.

Forgive Us Our Debts (THE LORD’S PRAYER – PART VII)

Praying Hands 2The fifth request found in the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). There is so much packed into that one seemingly-simple request, that we will need to unpack its meaning and application over the course of more than one study. (So consider this as part one of a two-part study of this particular request in the Lord’s Prayer.)

Perhaps the first thing that we should learn from this request and its inclusion in the model prayer that the Lord Jesus taught us to pray is that we actually need forgiveness. If we need to ask for forgiveness, that necessarily means that we are sinners, doesn’t it? In fact, Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (KJV). How many have sinned? All. How many have therefore “come short of the glory of God”? All. Every last one of us.

And in this request our sins are referred to as “debts.” Sin puts us in debt to God. Being in debt to another person is bad enough, but being in debt to God should be a sobering thought for anyone! What every person owes to God as his or her Creator is obedience – perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience. But ever since the fall of mankind in Adam’s sin (Genesis chapter 3) we have all failed to obey God, and have transgressed his holy law in more ways and more often than we can even begin to comprehend. Our debt of sin is un-repayable by us. It makes our ever-mounting national debt seem like chump change in comparison. And so we desperately need forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? The word “forgive” in Matthew 6:12 has the idea of sending something away or removing it. It brings to mind the imagery of the “scapegoat” found in Leviticus 16:7-22. There we are told that two goats were to be used as a sin offering – one goat would be killed as a sacrifice to the Lord (v.15), while the other goat (the scapegoat), after having the sins of the people confessed over it, would be sent away into the wilderness (v.21), bearing the sins of the people far, far away, never to return.

Those two goats together picture for us the work of Jesus Christ on the cross in both making atonement for sin, and in carrying our sins far away from us. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (KJV). The reason that we can ask God for forgiveness of our sins is only because the debt of our sin has been paid in full by the only one capable of paying it – through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And forgiveness is not something that we just need to ask for from God at the beginning of the Christian life, but will continue to be an ongoing (even daily!) need in the lives of all believers. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that in this life we will never outgrow our need to continually ask God for forgiveness. (And so the Lord’s Prayer clearly rules out any idea of perfectionism!)

Praying for the forgiveness of our sins should also be a regular part of both private and corporate prayer (i.e. praying with other believers in groups as well as in public worship). After all, it does say, “forgive us our debts,” not just ‘forgive me my debts.’

I sincerely hope that you know the joy and peace that only come through the forgiveness of sins, and which is freely offered to you through faith in Jesus Christ. There is nothing else in this world that can relieve a troubled conscience like the knowledge that, in Christ, a holy God has freely forgiven all of your sins!