MESSAGE FOR APRIL 14, 2002 ON CHRIST’S CHURCH
(22nd in a series on Christ’s church)
This week, we continue our series of messages on Christ’s church as we examine one final New Testament designation for the church. The biblical term for God’s people we want to examine this morning is the house of prayer Jesus in the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke uses this designation as he is cleansing the temple. Matthew records it this way in 21:13 as an angry Messiah says, “My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.” Jesus is here speaking of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem as being God’s house of prayer. Although there are some obvious differences between the physical temple destroyed in 70AD and the church, the New Testament clearly refers to the church as God’s temple –God’s house. First Peter 2:5 says to the church, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” That verse is riddled with the language of the temple and so it’s clear that in many ways the church is the fulfillment of the God’s house on earth that the temple only pointed to. We in the church are God’s house in a much more precious way than the brick and stone temple ever was. That means that if the Jerusalem temple—which was the forerunner of the church as God’s house was his house of prayer, then how much more appropriate is it for the church to be called God’s house of prayer.
The truth, which under girds everything I will say this morning about prayer, is this: As God’s house, we must live and minister as if prayer is absolutely essential to church life and ministry. That means we must live and minister as if prayer were as essential as fellowship and as the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and much more essential than things like having a church building and a balanced budget. As important as those blessings can be they aren’t even in the same hemisphere in terms of their importance as prayer is to the life and ministry of the church. First, we want to support this claim about the priority of prayer from the Bible and then we want to draw an implication from Scripture that will show us just how we should view prayer. To do this we want to take as our example of prayer the One who is to be our example in all things, Jesus. Let’s spend some time looking at some texts illustrating how utterly central prayer was to Jesus’ life and ministry.
First, note that prayer frames Jesus’ entire earthly ministry. We know his 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 before 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’ earthly ministry and that is fitting because the ministry of Christ is saturated through and through 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 seen in the gospels. First, in Mark chapter one verses 35-39 at the very outset of his ministry in Capernaum in Galilee when Jesus is for the first time recorded in Mark as publicly healing people. With miracles like this, which had not been seen in centuries, we can assume he became something of an overnight sensation. Now, on the heels of this amazing inauguration of his public healing ministry Mark records this next incident, which happened the day after he called his disciples. “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. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.” Do we get this picture? Here’s Jesus beginning his ministry with this supernatural healing power and the people are looking all over for him. And what is Jesus’ response to this clamor for him? He gets up hours before them and finds a place to pray. He’s been praying for hours when Peter comes to him and Peter, who at this point knew very little about Jesus, comes to him and says, “Everyone is looking for you.”
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—come on, what are you doing here praying?” Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right people, what I am doing here when so many people need my ministry?” NO! 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 are wanting to see him and moves on. Jesus clearly hadn’t read any books on winning friends and influencing people. The reason for this woeful lack of political savvy is because he wasn’t ministering fundamentally for the people but for God and its not an unfair assumption that Jesus was, in his early morning prayer time getting his marching orders for the day from His Father. And his Father evidently told Him, “Leave Capernaum and keep moving around in Galilee.”
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.” Do you 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 days to live--people who have been horribly disfigured in accidents, the blind, the lame, the deaf, women, children, babies--those who were frothing at the mouth from demonic influence—all those kinds of people came to the only source of hope they had left, this “healer” from Galilee. And yet, regularly Jesus looks out on those kinds of people and turns his back on them because he had 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.” During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he chose to limit himself in such a way that the Father always had to tell Him what to do. Millard Erickson compares it to a safe deposit box with Jesus only having one key. Unless the Father provided the other key, his miraculous power could not be unlocked. Well, if Jesus could do only what the Father had been doing, where did Jesus discover what the Father was doing so he could do it? Where did Jesus go to find out what he should do to please the Father? Where did Jesus go to get the key to unlock his miraculous, Messianic ministry? The only place he could go and the only place WE can go for supernatural enabling. He went to prayer to find out what the Father wanted to do through Him. We see this in Luke 6:12-13 where we meet Jesus on the night before he was to choose 12 men from his many followers who would be the 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 choices. Do we hear that because Jesus’ mission was to do nothing on his own and nothing apart from His father, that his ministry lived or died with prayer?! Did you hear that? The omnipotent King of the universe when He became a man—his ministry lived or died with prayer! What does that scream to us about our life and ministry?
Another instance where we see this dependency on God through prayer is in Matthew 14:22-25. This text sits right smack in the middle of two of Jesus’ most stunning miracles. He has just fed the 5000 and later that night, Jesus walks on water out to his disciples. Matthew reveals to us what Jesus was doing in between those two miracles? Verse 22 tells us that right after the feeding of the 5000, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” Jesus had tried earlier (14:13ff) to move to a solitary place but the crowds followed him and his great compassion for them kept him there healing their sick bodies and feeding their empty stomachs. He finally dismisses the crowds and moves to where he wanted to be earlier, to prayer. He goes to get recharged from a very busy day of ministry and the Father prepares him for what’s ahead—his walk across the Sea of Galilee. It’s no accident Matthew includes this part of Jesus’ day sandwiched in between these two miracles. He is trying to show us the unbreakable connection between the supernatural quality of Christ’s ministry and his time spent in prayer.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before his greatest work on Calvary all Jesus wants to do is pray and have someone sit with him while he agonizes in prayer before the Father. The texts make it clear he repeatedly went to prayer that night. His prayer is not only for himself but as John 17 records, he prays for his disciples and for those who would come to know God through their testimony. Do we hear the priority of prayer in the life and ministry of Christ? Notice this priority is also seen in the pains Jesus took to pray. Prayer was often not at all convenient for the Lord according to gospels. We, who spend our prayer time under our covers in bed, could learn a few things from Jesus and the price he was willing to pay to pray.
We read in Matthew 14:23 after a long day of grueling 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 walk a long time to find a place to be alone to pray. Its clear prayer was more important to Jesus than 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 and he prayed all night. Prayer cost Jesus sleep. Jesus prayed alone. He doubtless prayed with the disciples as well, but it was very important to Jesus to be alone with His Father. These were times of intimacy with God—you don’t anyone bursting in on you when you are pouring out your heart to God. This wasn’t simply bringing a grocery list to God. This was intense intimacy with God and he, whenever possible would not allow the sacredness of those moments to be violated. Why was Jesus willing to pay this kind of price for prayer? Because it was WORTH IT! Prayer that moves the hand of Almighty God is worth the sacrifice. Jesus knew the preciousness of being alone with the Father and the price he had to pay and the price we have to pay is worth it. Whether it means being away from our family for a long time or getting up at a very early hour or missing meals or sleep, Jesus models for us the worth of prayer and we must follow his lead here.
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 that indicate 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 came upon Christ in response to prayer to empower Him to minister, so too did the Holy Spirit 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 what the believers did in 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.” They were afraid of the threats of the Sanhedrin so they prayed and God gave them boldness to speak. 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 let that happen. They didn’t want anything to keep them from prayer because they knew that without prayer their ministry was doomed. Their ministry, like Jesus’ lived or died with prayer.
In verse six of the same chapter when these seven men were chosen 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 happened in this church without people praying about it? When God chose the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit he chose 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, “You 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 beheaded. We know that God busted Peter out of jail and the reason is 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?
The 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 when we see this over and over again it illustrates a crucial, life changing principle about prayer in the life of the believer. Frankly, many if not most believers have an unbiblical attitude about the place of prayer in their lives. What I mean by that is this. Most believers see prayer as one element or aspect of the Christian life—an important element to be sure, but one element of our spiritual life. Its as if our Christian life were divided up into a pie graph and prayer were one piece of the graph. We hear that attitude every time someone says something like, “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 part of their Christian life? The underlying assumption is, “I need to spend some time an energy focusing on my prayer life.” That’s the way an awful lot of people and churches view prayer and it’s almost always unbiblical to think of prayer like that and people who approach their prayerlessness seldom end up praying much.
The reason is, its betrays a wrong understanding of prayer. Jesus didn’t see prayer that way. The apostles didn’t see prayer that way. We saw that in their priority of prayer. Prayer just wasn’t near the top of a spiritual list of things for them to do--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 sure sign that the whole of your spiritual life is very sick because our prayer life irrevocably says two things about us. First, how dependent upon God we are and second how much we have the heart of God. You show me someone who is very dependent upon God in their life and ministry and someone who has the heart of God as it relates to what is happening in their world and I will show you 100% of the time—no exceptions, someone who spends an awful lot of time and energy praying. 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, 100% of the time have at best a so-so prayer life.
Think about it—if we can do nothing for the kingdom of God apart from God and we WANT to be much used by God in his kingdom we will pray, period because prayer is how we express our dependency upon God. If only God can do something, you will pray because you are going to ask him to do it if you really want it done in a manner that will honor him. If your child runs out in front of traffic and is hit by a car going 30 miles an hour, your first call is not going to be to 911, its going to be fervently and passionately to God because you are going to know that this is a God-sized need—only he can help you at that moment. You are going to be very God-dependent in that situation and no one is going to have to remind you to pray.
Likewise, if we have the heart of God and feel what he feels about the war in the Middle East or our neighbor or co-worker’s lost soul or the rancid state of the North American church we will pray because we will feel his grief, his burden over those issues. And when we feel that kind of burden, we pray—we are drawn inescapably to prayer. The reason you cry out to God when your child is smashed by a car is not only because you instantly know He is the only One who can help you, its because your heart has just been ripped from your chest and you come to him with your broken heart. We pray about what grabs our heart. What doesn’t grab our heart, we don’t pray about. If your spouse or your child gets deathly sick, you’ll pray long and hard for them. But if your sister in Christ down the pew gets deathly ill and you don’t spend much time praying for her, its not because you just aren’t a good “prayer.” Its because you don’t care very much about her! If she owned a piece of your heart, you’d be on your face before God. If we have the heart of God and experience His grief and his anger and his passion, we will pray.
Do you see what this means? If prayer is not a dynamic part of your life, its not fundamentally because we need to focus on prayer. It’s because we don’t feel much of a need for God which means we are doing next to nothing for the kingdom. If we don’t spend much time in prayer its 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 wouldn’t hardly turn around without crying out to God. That’s why they prayed. It wasn’t fundamentally because they were good “pray-ers” (whatever that means). Its because they were so dependent upon God and they had God’s heart.
Prayer is also a discipline—something we need to discipline ourselves to do. But the discipline will be steadfast and energized in our life only if the reason we discipline ourselves to pray is because we are so God dependent and have God’s heart. That causes us to say “this is so important, I have to carve out premium time every day so that I can cry out to God where I need his touch and pour out my heart to Him those things that He has laid on my heart.” You don’t make a prayer list or make prayer a discipline to be a better Christian. Most of the time that’s the religion of the flesh because it is disconnected from our hearts. The discipline of prayer grows out of your conviction that, like Jesus and the apostles, your life and ministry will die on the vine without God’s direct involvement in it and the way he becomes supernaturally active and involved in our lives is in response to prayer.
What does this say to a church in North America where the poorest attended meetings in church are prayer meetings? Jim Cymbala says (and I have seen this to be true here and in virtually every other church) that church prayer meetings open to the entire church regularly draw about 5% of the church body. During this past holy week, we had a good turn out for the Passover Seder and the “Jesus” film and Maundy Thursday and the Good Friday service. But at the Tuesday night prayer meeting…dismal. Cymbala interprets that this way, When the only attraction at church is the Lord of the Universe, only 5% of God’s people turn out.” There’s a place for education about prayer, we have a small group devoted to that. Those things have their place but a lack of education on prayer is not our problem. The problem is for most of us, we don’t feel much of a need for God in our church and we don’t have his heart about our lives and the life of this church. I don’t want to make too much out of that one meeting, but it’s a powerful indicator that something is very wrong here and in North American evangelicalism.
Our hope is that God wants the life and ministry of this church and those in it to reek with his power and purity. He wants us to come to him in prayer far worse than we do. He calls us to repent of our arrogant independence from God and our cold hearts that don’t beat in unison with His. One of the fruits of repentance is to get in a small group. That’s where some real heart work can be done as we come together and learn together and love one another and sharpen one another as we confess our sins to one another. May God give us the grace to live in dependence upon him and to have HIS heart so that we may be fittingly called his house of prayer.
Page last modified on 4/16/2002
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