MESSAGE FOR FEBRUARY 4, 2007
Last week, as we looked at the glorious—God-saturated prayer in Daniel chapter nine, we noted four marks of grace evident in Daniel that were manifest in that prayer. We saw that the prayer was rooted and grew out of the promises of God. It was characterized by a radical honesty about sin. It reeked of a God-produced fervency and it was based in God’s character and motivated by a passion for his glory. For a number of reasons I was strongly compelled on Friday (after the bulletin was printed) to linger a week longer on this topic of prayer. I felt this especially in light of yesterday’s women’s prayer day but also for another reason. That is, the church leadership has requested that in a few weeks I begin a series messages on a vision for our church’s future. Before we even approach this multi-facetted topic so crucial for the future health and faithfulness of our church, we must go into that process with the deeply rooted, shared conviction that nothing good and God honoring will come from that without a powerful move of God. And the Bible and 4000 years of redemptive history teaches us that when his people pray, God moves.
As a church and individuals, we must give prayer its place of priority in our lives and ministries There are doubtless several texts that could be marshaled that point to the priority of prayer, but prayer is like many elements of the Christian life, it is sometimes better caught than taught. In other words, your heart’s fire for praying may be more powerfully stoked by reading a biography of a man or woman who God used to change the world through prayer, than by reading a topical book teaching on prayer. The example of a person who had learned the radical priority of prayer and whom God used powerfully can quicken us to put off our laziness and indifference to this topic and put on this garment of prayer. With that in mind, this morning I want to spend some time from the Scripture dwelling on the greatest man of prayer in the Bible, Jesus. Let’s look at some texts illustrating how utterly central prayer was to Jesus’ life and ministry in the hope that his example will awaken us in this area.
First, it’s important to note that prayer frames Jesus’ entire earthly ministry. We know his public ministry began at his baptism when the Holy Spirit came upon him. Luke 3:21-22 records that event and says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. As he was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Have you ever noticed that Luke says the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus in response to prayer? Jesus’ ministry begins with prayer. At the other end of his redemptive ministry three years later, Jesus concludes his ministry and his life with prayer. Luke records this for us in 23:46, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into you hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.” Jesus began and ended his ministry with prayer. Prayer literally envelopes the whole of Jesus’ public ministry. Do you think the Holy Spirit is saying something to us through that? More importantly is that in between these two “prayer bookends” of Christ’s ministry is three years of life and ministry drenched with prayer.
Let’s take a brief tour of Christ’s life of prayer as we look
at some representative Scriptures.
As we read, keep in mind this group of texts is not an exhaustive
treatment of Jesus’ prayer life recorded in the gospels.
First, we look at Mark chapter one verses 35-39 near the outset
of his ministry in
Peter says in effect, “What
are you doing here praying when you’re such a hit—we’ve got some momentum here—let’s seize the moment?! The
people are waiting—you need to respond to these people--come on, what are you doing here praying?” Notice
Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re
right, what I am doing here praying when these people need my ministry?”
He says, “Let’s
go somewhere else—to
the nearby villages—so I can preach there also.
That is why I have come.” So,
he leaves all these people who want to see him and he moves on.
The reason for this seemingly woeful lack of marketing savvy is
because he wasn’t ministering fundamentally to please the people, but to
please God and it’s not unfair to assume that Jesus was, in
his early morning prayer time getting his marching orders for the day from His Father.
Peter was concerned about the people.
Jesus was concerned about the Father.
He was always concerned about the Father.
He says in John 4:34, "My food is to do the will
of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Later in John
6:38 he says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” How do you know the Father’s will?
Through the ministry of the word and prayer. And
in Jesus’ prayer time, the Father evidently told Him his will was to, “Leave
In Luke 5:15-16 we see a similar scene. In spite of Jesus’ repeated requests that people not tell anyone about their healings verse 15 says, “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Again, we see the priority of prayer in Jesus’ ministry. Picture this heart-wrenching scene that was repeated over and over again in Jesus’ ministry. There are people who have come to him with every human need imaginable. People who are eaten up with malignancy with only weeks to live--people who have been horribly disfigured in accidents, the blind, the lame, the deaf, women, children, mamas with deathly sick babies--those who were in the suffocating grip of demonic oppression—all those kinds of people came to the only source of hope they had, this “healer” from Galilee. And yet the gospels tell us that Jesus with some regularity looks out on those kinds of people and turns his back on them because he needed to pray! And the reason for this is because Jesus’ fundamental, rock bottom mission was NOT to heal the sick, but to do the will of the Father.
We see this in John 5:19, “Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:30 Jesus says, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” Where does Jesus go to see what the Father is doing and hear his judgments? He went to prayer to see and hear what the Father wanted to do through Him. In Luke 6:12-13, we meet Jesus on the night before he chose the 12 men who from among his many followers would be his 12 disciples. Before he chose those men we read in Luke 6:12-13 what he did. “On one of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When the morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles” Jesus spent the whole night praying before he chose those men because He wanted the Father’s men. Do we hear that because Jesus’ mission was to do nothing on his own--nothing apart from His father, that prayer was his umbilical cord to his Father? Did you hear that? The omnipotent King of the universe when He became a man—his ministry was absolutely dependent upon prayer! What does that say to us about our life and ministry?
We read in Matthew 14:23 after a long day of ministry that “he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” In Luke 5:16 the evangelist records, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” That word “lonely” is also translated “desolate.” It means “remote, out of the way.” Whether Jesus had to hike up a mountain or out to some forsaken, desolate place, He was willing to leave a gathering or walk a distance to find a place to be alone to pray. Prayer was more important to Jesus than his convenience or comfort. In Mark 1:35 he says, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place where he prayed.” In Luke 6:12 we saw Jesus prayed “all night.” Prayer was more important to Jesus than sleep. He got up before the sun came up and he prayed all night. Jesus prayed alone. He doubtless prayed with the disciples as well, but the gospels note that it was very important to Jesus to be alone with His Father. These were times of intimacy with God—you don’t want anyone bursting in on you when you are pouring out your heart to God—so you remove yourself from people and activity. Do you see why there is simply no need to make these kinds of sacrifices if prayer for you is simply bringing your grocery list to God—if it’s like placing a fast food order at a drive-through window. For Jesus, prayer meant intense intimacy with God and he, worked to prevent those moments from being violated.
Even though the apostles aren’t recorded anywhere in the gospels having a so-called prayer meeting with Jesus, it is clear from the book of Acts they learned very well the priority of prayer from the example of their Master. Let’s look at some texts indicating that His disciples picked up where Jesus left off in this ministry of prayer. In Acts 1:14 before Pentecost we see what characterized that time of waiting for the Holy Spirit. Luke writes, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with all the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Just as the Holy Spirit initially came upon Christ in response to prayer to empower Him to minister, so too did the Holy Spirit initially come upon the church at Pentecost in response to the constant prayers of Christ’s followers. In Acts 1:24-25 when the apostles made their first major decision about a replacement for Judas Iscariot, it says, “Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Like Jesus, they wanted to know the Father’s will.
In Acts 4:29-31 we see their response to the first threat to the new church--the Sanhedrin had warned and threatened the apostles not to preach in Jesus’ name. In response to that threat they prayed, “Now, Lord, consider the threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness…31 “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” Later when the growth of the church threatened to cause the apostles to leave their primary ministry to wait on tables, they say in Acts 6:3, “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” When the growth of the church threatened their prayer and word ministry, they refused to allow that. Like their Master, they didn’t want anything to keep them from prayer because the apostles knew that without much prayer their ministry was doomed.
In verse six of the same chapter when these seven men were chosen and initiated into ministry it says, “They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed, and laid their hands on them.” Are you getting the idea here that nothing significant happened in this church without people praying about it? When God chose the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit he selected Cornelius of whom it says in 10:2, “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” And when God through an angel told Cornelius to send for Peter to come to his house he said, 10:4, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” The Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and upon the Gentiles in response to Gentile prayer. Later, when Peter got the vision telling him there were no longer any unclean foods, what had he been doing? He had been praying. In Acts 12 Peter is thrown into jail and it looked very much as if he would be the second apostle after James to be martyred. However, in Peter’s case God busted him out of jail and the reason is implied in Acts 12:5 which says, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” Do we see the continuity between the place and priority of prayer for Jesus, and the place and priority of prayer for the apostles?
One reason I have labored with text after text on the priority and place of prayer in the ministry of Christ and the apostles is because as we see this over and over again it illustrates a crucial, life changing principle about prayer in the life of the believer that many just don’t get. What I mean by that is this. Most believers see prayer as one element or aspect of their Christian life—an important element to be sure, but one element of their spiritual life. It’s as if our Christian life is divided up into a pie graph and prayer is one piece of the graph. That attitude comes out every time we hear, “Praying a lot is just not my thing,” or “My prayer life is not very strong,” or “My prayer life needs work.” Do you hear how in each of those statements prayer is seen as being one distinct part of their Christian life? That attitude betrays a wrong understanding of prayer. Jesus didn’t see prayer that way. The apostles didn’t see prayer that way. Prayer wasn’t just near the top of their list of spiritual duties--it was at the very heart of their relationship with God. Their prayer life was a thermometer of their spiritual heart. The principle we must all know and practice about prayer is this: Prayer is not simply a ministry or spiritual activity; it is an external expression of the condition of our heart. To put it another way, prayer is an external expression of an internal conviction. If our prayer life is weak, it doesn’t simply mean that we need to try harder in prayer. A weak prayer life is a sign that the whole of our spiritual life is sick because our prayer life irrevocably says two things about us. First, how dependent upon God we are and second how much we have God’s heart. You show me someone who is very dependent upon God in their life and ministry and someone who has God’s heart as it relates to what is happening in their world and I will show you someone who has made prayer a priority worth sacrificing for. Conversely, you show me someone who is NOT very God-dependent and someone who does not have the heart of God and that person will have at best a so-so prayer life. At the end of the day, they simply have no felt need for it.
Think about it—if we are convinced we can do nothing for the
Do you see what this means? If prayer is not a dynamic part of your life, it’s not fundamentally because we need to focus on prayer. It’s because we don’t feel much of a need for God. If we don’t spend much time in prayer it’s because we don’t have God’s heart and don’t cry out to Him with what He is grieved or impassioned about. A weak prayer life is not fundamentally about prayer; it’s about our hearts! Jesus feasted on God in prayer and the apostles and the early church was so God dependent they would hardly turn around without crying out to God. That’s why they prayed. It wasn’t fundamentally because they were good “pray-ers” (Muslims are great “pray-ers.” Five times a day, they drop everything to pray). It’s because they were so dependent upon God and they had God’s heart.
Now, if I stopped there, I would be unbalanced in the Biblical teaching on prayer because prayer is not only a cry of the heart, it is also a discipline—something we need to train ourselves to do. This is why Paul commands the Thessalonians “Pray without ceasing.” In Luke 18 Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow and verse one says, “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Jesus knows that we can over time become discouraged and lose heart even about things we care very deeply about. That means we must cultivate the discipline of prayer that will pull us through the valleys and he tells this parable to help us do that. The discipline of prayer however will be steadfast and energized in our life because we are God dependent and increasingly have God’s heart. That heart causes us to say, “This is so important, I must carve out premium time every day so that I can cry out to God where his touch is needed and pour out my heart to Him those things that He has laid on my heart.” The discipline of prayer grows out of your conviction that, like Jesus and the apostles, nothing good happens apart from prayer—to you, your marriage, family, church or this world.
My goal is that you will allow Jesus’ and the apostles’ ministry of prayer to throw gasoline on your fire in this area of prayer. I do want to close with one thing we can all DO that by God’s grace can greatly increase our individual and corporate prayer ministry. That is—begin taking risks for God that will absolutely require his miraculous intervention for you to succeed. Jesus and the apostles prayed in part because they needed miraculous intervention to do what they were called to do. They prayed because no one but God could enable them to do what he had commissioned them to do. If we pray for what we really need God for—then a lack of prayer indicates there is little in our life for which we honestly believe we absolutely need God. What ministries and responsibilities are in your life that you, on a day to day basis, are absolutely convinced requires miraculous intervention? Are there ministries or responsibilities in your life where you are so far out on a limb for God that if he were to take his hand off of it, you would quickly fall on your face in costly failure? If you have many of those things, you scarcely need me to encourage you to pray
Most American believers have very little in their lives beyond raising their kids that in their mind requires the miraculous intervention of God. So, we pray fervently for our kids and for God to get us out of the holes we have dug for ourselves and not much else. I fear the reason many of us who read Christian biographies do so, not so much to stoke our faith, but instead to vicariously live off the faith of others rather than allow their example of faith to compel us to take risks for God. Perhaps we vicariously satisfy our spiritual thirst for the reality of a faith-soaked, risk-taking life through the stories of others who have risked.
I can tell you with utter certainty that if the vision that we will be laying out for us as a church is to succeed—that is, bring honor to God, God’s gonna’ need to show up. May God use the prayers of Christ and the apostles and Spirit-led risk taking to move us individually and as a church to new heights in prayer for his glory and our joy.
Page last modified on 2/11/2007
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