The Importance of Prayer
I wish to begin my address to you with a text of Scripture. I wish this text to be a root from which may grow all I want to say. The text is found in Acts 6:4: “We will give our attention to prayer....” You may indeed find that this develops into more of a sermon than an address and I have to say that I’m not inclined to apologise for that! That’s the ministry to which I have been called and if I’m to serve the church in any useful way, it’s most likely to be as a preacher.
Like most worthwhile sermons it must move fairly quickly to exegesis. And so we must note from the words in their context at least three things for our purposes today.
First, the words are a call to attention to prayer in conjunction with an accompanying attention to the ministry of the Word. The apostles are making a commitment to both the ministry of the Word and to prayer.
Second, the words have direct and particular reference to one group within the church. The apostles are making this commitment just when deacons are being appointed in order to share the work load.
Third, the words appear at a significant point in the Scriptures where God’s strategy for the New Testament Church is being revealed — a major theme of the early chapters of Acts
Let me now comment on these three points of exegesis, working backwards, in a way that hopefully will be relevant to our situation today.
Prayer is placed by the Lord at the heart of his strategy for church growth and development. Just a few proof texts of evidence will suffice here:
the pre-Pentecost church was “constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14) as they waited for the outpouring of the Spirit;
the post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem from the outset “devoted themselves to … prayer” (Acts 2:42);
when Peter and John reported the first serious opposition to the church from the Sanhedrin, the church “raised their voices together in prayer to God” (Acts 4:24);
when the first signs of internal strife in the church appeared, the leaders ensured that they would “give our attention to prayer…” (Acts 6:4 — already quoted);
Peter received his historic vision preparing him to do the unthinkable and move out to the Gentiles, when he “went up on the roof to pray” (Acts 10:9);
Paul and Barnabas were sent off on the first missionary journey only after the church leaders at Antioch “had fasted and prayed” (Acts 13:3).
The first application from this point must be that where there is a declining commitment to prayer, any strategy of church growth is fatally flawed. Stated positively rather than negatively, if our commitment is to seeing the Church of Christ planted, built up and strengthened in the communities of our land, then a major concern must be to ensure that there is an underpinning commitment to prayer. My observations suggest that there is a declining commitment to meet for prayer within our church and so it is all the more important that we listen to God’s Word on the place of prayer and then act on it.
The second point of exegesis to be applied is to do with the fact that the strategy of Acts 6 relieved the apostles in Jerusalem to give attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. It is the Twelve who are speaking in Acts 6:4 and say “we will give our attention to…” The question for us, is to decide who are the successors in today’s context of the apostles in the context of the text? Well, it must be those involved in the ministry of the word — in our situation that would most obviously be the teaching elders. Whoever is set aside for the ministry of the Word is also set aside to give attention to prayer. So this investigation has an immediate challenge to us pastor/teachers to examine ourselves to see what place prayer has in our life of ministry.
But we are not finished with our investigation of the constituency to whom this text primarily refers today. The Twelve are committed to prayer and the ministry of the word, as distinct from the deacons who are being appointed. In later lists of qualifications for elders and deacons, although most of the qualifications are similar for both, there is an emphasis on the ability to teach that is exclusive to the elders (1 Timothy 3:2 & Titus 1:9) We would all agree that it is to the eldership of the church that is given the responsibility of protecting and advancing the ministry of the word in the congregation and so we all, Fathers and Brethren, are among those to whom this exhortation is particularly directed that “we will give our attention to prayer”.
The immediate point of application here must issue the challenge to all of us elders to consider whether we have understood that our appointment to eldership has committed us to a unique ministry of prayer for the growth of Christ’s Church. Does the present pattern of our prayer life bear evidence that we are continuing faithfully in this ministry? For instance, do we feel it appropriate to meet together as elders regularly for prayer? Do we elders, in our private prayers, include a special emphasis on our responsibility in prayer for the ministry of the Word in the congregations which we serve?
The third point of exegesis is to do with the connection of the ministry of the word with prayer. The Scriptures at this point are revealing that central to God’s strategy for the development of his church in NT times is the ministry of the word, and particularly the proclaiming of the word to all who may hear. In Acts 2, the text of the story of the Day of Pentecost is largely taken up with the content of the preached word, which is given a place of vital significance both by the preparatory spiritual gift of languages so that all the hearers may understand the word, and also by the resulting spiritual reaction, the faith and repentance, caused directly by the proclaimed word. It is the proclamation of the word that the Evil One is intent on smothering in Acts 3 & 4 and it is the proclamation of the word that the church is intent on maintaining when it prays for boldness in the face of the opposition at the end of Acts 4. And now at Acts 6 it is the vanguard emphasis on the proclamation of the word that is being protected by the strategy of delegation and the arrangements for appointing deacons.
But at this critical point, where church organisation is being developed to fit in with God’s preaching-led strategy for church growth, it is made clear that prayer is an absolutely essential accompaniment to this vital ministry of the Word. It is so essential that those ministers of the Word who are being relieved of other important church responsibilities have the responsibility to pray re-emphasised.
A couple of applications here. Prayer is so important to God’s strategy for building up his church that no one can be relieved of the responsibility. The ministers of the Word, the eldership, are to see their responsibility for prayer as a calling on a par with their calling to advance the ministry of the Word. By this they will be leading the whole church in building all its work on a foundation of prayer. This text from Acts 6 is an early formalising of the pattern that had been there from the beginning. The church leaders led the way, pre-Pentecost, by being “constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14) and, post-Pentecost, the whole church followed suit as they “devoted themselves to … prayer” (Acts 2:42). It is when fervent believing prayer pervades the whole congregation that God often does his greatest works.
In the wider church in the land today there is a growing lack of confidence in the proclamation of the Word as the cornerstone to any strategy of church growth. In our own church there may be a professed belief in the primacy of preaching but also a diminishing confidence in the power of the proclaimed Word, when the evidences of church growth seem so meagre. My thesis is that this problem may have arisen because of a neglect of the importance of prayer in accompanying the ministry of the Word as was the emphasis of the early church. I wonder if our problem is the same as that which James addressed when he said,“You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives…” James 4:2, 3
Fathers and Brethren, I hope you will agree with me that it is bound to be helpful for our church to engage in these days in a serious self-examination with regard to her prayer-life and that such an examination must start with the eldership who are set apart “to prayer and the ministry of the Word” before we can exhort the whole church to such an exercise.
There are now one or two matters I would like us to consider to encourage a new prayerfulness among us.
Why is Prayer so Important?
There are no doubt many answers to that question and I just want to highlight three of them.
First, God himself is committed to prayer for the blessing of his church.
When we struggle in prayer there is no better means of strengthening than meditating on the character of the God to whom we pray. The God of the Bible is ready to hear those who call on him in prayer. We sing in Psalm 145:
The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.Psalm 145:17-19
The NT gives a lovely illustration of God’s desire to hear the needy who come to him in faith in the story of the healing of the leper. “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” (Mark 1:40, 41)
The desire of God to receive his people in prayer is further emphasised in Scripture by the way that the Trinity is involved in the ministry of prayer. The Triune God has gone to infinite lengths to create the family environment of Christian prayer.
God the Father, so that he might be our Father, committed his only Son from all eternity to the horrors of the cross of Calvary. Only at that infinite expense can we come to the throne of God and say “Our Father in heaven” and in these few words know that He receives us and hears us and in his eternal fatherly love answers us “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.”
And then we cannot imagine confidence before our Father in prayer without Jesus being there. It is only as he remains the Way, our mediator, priest and advocate that we remain sure of our access to our Holy Father. And we are further assured as we kneel before God to make our requests, when we see that same Jesus at the Father’s side pleading our cause “because he always lives to intercede for us.”
Then we find that the Holy Spirit also is committed to the interests of believing prayer. He is the one who indwells us as the Spirit of Adoption so that we cry believingly “Abba, Father” and he is the one who helps us in our struggles in prayer because of our fleshly weakness, so that just as we have an intercessor in heaven who gives us access to the Father, so also we have an intercessor within, guiding and empowering our prayers.
What all this teaches us is, that if God Himself has invested so much in the work of prayer, then its importance to the work of the church is undeniable and we in turn need to invest spiritual energy in applying this vital resource of prayer to the growth of Christ’s Church and to the glory of his name.
Now the mention of the glory of God brings us on to a second answer to the question of why prayer is so important: the work of church building is the Lord’s and he will not give his glory to another.
Fathers and Brethren, we need to remind ourselves here that we are emphasising the work of prayer today because we have seen it in the Scriptures as a vital accompaniment to the ministry of the Word, which is central to God’s strategy for the building of his church.
Now this work of church building by word-ministry is the Lord’s work; those of us involved in the ministry of the Word (the eldership, by our earlier definition) are merely instruments, and it is prayer that keeps that working relationship right.
Let me elaborate a little. The Lord Jesus clearly claims for himself the honour of being the builder of the church. Whatever foundation for that church we think he is referring to in Matthew 16, he unambiguously announces to Peter and the disciples at Caesarea Philippi that “I will build my church” and surely that is why he can confidently add “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Then when Paul explains the vital place of conversion by proclamation-ministry in the growth of the church, it is God who is causing his church to grow and the preacher and the message are but the instrument.
God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe … we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.1 Corinthians 1:23, 24
The Bible is not slow to give a place of honour to the minister of the Word. Isaiah says “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news”, quoted in Romans 10. When Paul argues in 2 Corinthians 9 for proper financial support for gospel preachers it is on the basis of the worth of the ministry they exercise (1 Corinthians 9:12). The honour of the preacher is also in view when he is entitled ambassador in 2 Corinthians 5:20. Philip Hughes says: “There is a real sense in which the voice of the ambassador may be said to be the voice of the sovereign he represents … When Christ’s ambassador entreats it is equivalent to the voice of God entreating through him. His message, his authority, his power are all imparted to him by his Lord.” What carefulness of word and conduct that idea should engender in the Gospel preacher.
But the root of pride from the Garden of Eden is in all of us, preacher and hearer. We still need to exhort ourselves in praise to God “Trust not in princes, nor man’s sons in whom there is no stay: His breath departs to earth he turns; that day his thoughts decay.” (Psalm 146:3, 4) Paul needed to warn the Corinthians “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:5, 6) Constant prayer accompanying the ministry of the Word is of vital importance to resist “trust in man” that has spoiled and even ruined gospel ministries before now. The work is the Lord’s, the seed is the Lord’s, the watering is the Lord’s the harvest is the Lord’s who says “I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8) Prayer is the ministry of the humble. By prayer we are reminded of our utter dependence on God alone for any blessing. Robert Haldane said: “To pray without labouring is to mock God; to labour without prayer is to rob God of his glory.” He who will give himself to the ministry of the Word without giving himself equally to the ministry of prayer is courting disaster. A church who will give herself to the ministry of the Word to be the heart of her strategy for church growth and will not give herself equally to the ministry of prayer may begin to “trust in man’s son” and lose out on the blessedness of the next verse of Psalm 146. “O happy is that man and blest, whom Jacob’s God doth aid; whose hope upon the Lord doth rest, and on his God is stayed.” (Psalm 146:5)
The third answer to why prayer is important that I should like to cite is just this: prayer is the means by which God gives power to his people.
There is no better place than the early chapters of Acts to confirm this point. When the Holy Spirit descended on the church in the fulness of his power at Pentecost, we are told that “they were all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1) And we expect that they were praying because in the earlier description of the post Ascension days we read at Acts 1:14 that “they all joined together constantly in prayer.” When new opposition challenges arose with the threatening of Peter and John by the Sanhedrin the reaction of the church was to pray for further grace and we read that “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.” (Acts 4:31)
A quote from Calvin helps to further confirm this truth. He says;
To know God as the master and bestower of all good things, who invites us to request them from him, and still not go to him and not ask of him — this would be of as little profit as for a man to neglect a treasure, buried and hidden in the earth, after it had been pointed out to him … It is therefore by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the heavenly Father … We dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s Gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon.
We are a church who in our own history have rejoiced in the history of revival and you will hardly read a history of revival but it will emphasise the high priority of prayer among God’s people both before and during revival blessing. People believed that prayer moved God to act in power and he did. They believed the Scriptures in James, not only when he said negatively “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2) but also when he said positively
Is any of you in trouble? He should pray … The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.James 4:13-18
So devastatingly simple is the logic of faith. Yet as we observe the Free Church of our day and see relatively little evidence of Gospel power changing lives and as we see our society so bereft of the practice of righteousness that exalts a nation, are we seeing a growth in the attendances at our prayer meetings or a growth in the number of prayer meetings held? Now I cannot give an accurate answer to that question but each of us must consider our own area of pastoral responsibility, and if we are concerned about a lack of the power of God, the power that brings spiritual growth to a church and thereby Gospel light to its sphere of influence, then our foremost concern must be to stimulate the prayer life of the people. We need prayer to unite us in purpose with the God who himself is committed to prayer, Father Son and Holy Spirit. We need prayer to protect the glory of God among us and to protect us from the pride of man. And we need prayer to call down the power of God by its God ordained means.
Hopefully these three answers to why prayer is so important will enthuse us towards a new prayerfulness; but then there is a different sort of question that needs to be asked.
For a New Prayerfulness to Develop, are there Practical Issues to Address?
The answer to this question must surely be “yes” and there will undoubtedly be more issues to address than I may mention. The issues that do come to my mind I can only mention briefly without really developing the consequences. What I would love to happen — but can’t imagine really will happen! — is that Kirk Sessions and or Presbyteries might respond to this address by taking a serious look at the prayer life under their pastoral care and so further investigate some of the practical issues involved.
But let’s have a brief look at some of them now.
Teaching on Prayer
If we have any concerns about the prayer life of our congregations our reaction should be the same as the scriptural reaction with which we started this address. “We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” The one supports the other. Has there been, within the recent preaching programme, a lack of emphasis on the place of prayer in the life of the individual Christian and of the congregation, that needs to be corrected? If so, there must be the further decision on how to get a balance of encouragement and commandment in any teaching to follow. I would like to think that the topics we covered earlier under the importance of prayer might be an appropriate starting point. I think there is nothing more encouraging to prayer than knowing how the Trinity is involved in prayer and, along with that, how our God encourages his people to approach him in prayer as their Heavenly Father. Then there are all the promises of the Word to assure us that God will answer us far above all that we ask or think when we come seeking his will. Let’s get our people meditating on biblical truths like these and the Spirit will make the Word powerful to move us to persevering believing prayer.
A sense of responsibility for prayer among ourselves and our people may be engendered by the challenge of the many examples in the Bible of prayer bringing results — ones we haven’t already mentioned include Abraham’s prayer for Lot, Moses prayers, Hannah’s prayer, Hezekiah’s prayer, the prayers to Jesus that brought the response of many of the miracles, the prayers of Paul and Silas in the jail in Philippi. If we are not seeing the evidence of God’s power, although prayer may not move God to immediate action for his sovereign mercy must await his sovereign timing — without prayer we will certainly move further away from the blessing of God’s grace.
Two further practical points here.
First, our vacant congregations need teaching on prayer as they especially may feel the need of spiritual power. Interim moderators and the visiting preachers, to whom the church is so indebted in these days, need to remember to include sermons on prayer in their programme.
Second, preaching is not the only form of teaching. Where group Bible studies are a possibility, the Good Book Company, formerly St. Matthaias Press has an excellent study guide on prayer for 6 group Bible studies, entitled Bold I Approach, which I’m sure can be ordered through the Free Church Bookshop. This booklet can just as easily be used by an individual keen to learn about prayer.
Our traditional patterns of prayer-meetings have centred around a midweek evening meeting and these have remained the practice as society has changed in all sorts of ways not least in its work patterns. If a congregation is experiencing a fall off in attendances at prayer-meetings, a session has a clear responsibility to investigate the matter and may find (I’m only saying may) and may find that it is not a weakening commitment to prayer among the believers that is the problem, but an impossible time for meeting. It would do no harm and might do good if every kirk session placed on its agenda the times of congregational prayer-meetings.
It is surely desirable that there is one main prayer-meeting to which all praying people in a congregation are encouraged to come. This would be in line with New Testament practice where in the beginning “they all joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14) But it is unlikely that the one meeting will suit everybody. Will working people have enough time between work and prayer-meeting? Will older people feel safe to come out if it is an evening meeting? What about people with family responsibilities? There is surely opportunity in most congregations to encourage extra meetings for prayer and circumstances will vary from one area to another that it is impossible to say what may be best. Some are finding that it is good for some groups, e.g. office-bearers, to meet in the morning before the working day begins; some congregations are developing a network of prayer triplets where three people (and sometimes one or two more) are brought together to meet regularly in their own time for prayer — prayer for the congregation and often particularly prayer for unconverted contacts of the triplet members; recently I was interested to hear someone float the idea of a prayer-breakfast perhaps on a Saturday and not too early so that elderly members would benefit from the sustenance as well as from the prayer! It seems to me that Scripture doesn’t say all that much on the time or form or length of prayer-meetings and we perhaps need to organise with a bit more imagination to include as many as possible in this vital ministry.
Women and Prayer
It must be significant to note the place of women in the meetings for prayer in the New Testament. Mary, the mother of John Mark was the hostess for the prayer-meeting when Peter was released from prison; it was women who were gathered for prayer by the riverside when Paul first moved into Europe in response to the Macedonian call; and in that tricky passage in 1 Corinthians 11 there is an emphasis on the participation of women in prayer, a participation that demands a recognition of the complementary relationships of men and women under God. Whether or not we interpret the passage to say that the specific sign of head-covering is as binding on all cultures as is the principle of the creation order for male and female, it still holds that the emphasis is on men and women both participating in certain aspects of the worship including prayer. The only application I want to make at this stage is that kirk sessions don’t forget their responsibility to support and develop the vital ministry of our women in prayer. What practical form this takes will depend on our interpretation of a difficult passage of Scripture and on the traditions of our particular congregation. It will not be helpful for sessions to ignore the contribution of our women to the prayer life of our congregations and leave them to get on with it themselves.
Training in Prayer
There has always been a reluctance within our church to become involved in public prayer and this has often been the reason why some men in our congregations have delayed making public profession of their faith and so their usefulness in the church has been limited. When Jesus taught the Lord’s prayer, it was in response to a request “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1) and not just “Teach us about prayer”. And then Jesus response began with “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:2) which suggests to me that the disciples were encouraged in the first place to use the very words Jesus gave them, although no doubt there was an ultimate intention of laying down a pattern for prayer in every age. The asking for help in prayer is an evidence of how the disciples, no doubt through Jesus’ own example, had grasped that prayer was a priority in Christian ministry. The response of Jesus is to give training in prayer. I doubt if this happens very much in our congregations, and yet if we believe in the priority of prayer we must surely deal with every hindrance that may prevent folk joining in corporate prayer. Family prayer is the obvious starting point for nurturing the practice of public prayer but the development of a system of prayer triplets within a congregation could provide a second stage in training. Meeting to pray regularly with just a couple of other people for specific needs is an excellent training ground in prayer for both men and women.
And then, would it be wrong to use read prayers or to refer to notes in prayer? After all the fear among many is of their minds going blank. Does true prayer need to be extempore? Well, if we truly enter into the spirit of the psalms when we use them in worship we are in prayer.
In preaching we trust in the Spirit to fill out and graciously use what we have previously prepared and it seems to me that such is possible in prayer also. Indeed, maybe there are some ministers who, as well as spending time in preparation for preaching, could do with spending a bit more time in preparation for public prayer. I have failed to find Scripture that would support the belief that all true prayer must be extempore. I heard a lovely story from a senior evangelical minister in the Church of Scotland who recently became an ordinary member of a congregation and had his first elder’s visit from a very new young elder. Towards the end of the visit the elder asked if he might pray and proceeded to take a piece of paper from his pocket with the prayer he had specially written for that home. The minister in question was most moved and blessed. The point I am trying to make is that, if we need to respond seriously to the exhortation in Acts to “give attention to prayer”, then it may be that we have to reassess some of our traditional attitudes to the ministry of prayer, in order to stir up all the people in joining together in prayer.
Communication of Needs
In the fellowship of the church we are instructed to “carry each others burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” It is stating the obvious to say that we are unlikely to carry the burdens of another in Christian fellowship without praying for that person, and we need to know what his burdens are. The International Missions Board, has led the way in recent years in communicating needs to the church for the fellowship of prayer. We are indebted to those who serve us in this way; we are confident that specific prayer in this way has brought specific answers from God that has strengthened faith; and all who use the missionary prayer notes have been greatly encouraged by being fellow-workers in missionary endeavour in so many parts of the world. Others of us need to learn by this example. To the text “You have not because you ask not” might be added “you ask not because you know not.” When kirk sessions meet to work out strategies for advancing the Lord’s work in our congregations do they inform the people with a view to the work being rooted and grounded in prevailing prayer?
I was recently challenged by a woman in my own congregation suggesting that we might not be eventually losing so many of our Sunday School children if we had a regular prayer support for them during these early years. Could we encourage people in our congregations to take on the responsibility of praying for one child and their parents within the congregation?
And given the financial deficits that some of us get so uptight about year after year, is this problem being communicated in such a way that it really stimulates prayer? And if not, is this the responsibility of the FLA Committee, or of the presbyteries or of the Deacons’ Courts or of whom? When in our presbytery meetings we are burdened, for instance, with fragile congregations and are unsure about their future, do we communicate these needs to our praying people that we may find God’s wisdom? There is no doubt that we may overwhelm our people with prayer topics but on the other hand our needs are many and God promises that “the prayer of a righteous man — or woman — is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)
Now, Fathers and Brethren, having dealt with some of the practical issues, there is one further question that I believe it is good for us to ponder in order to be stimulated to a new prayerfulness.
What Should we Pray for?
Here I am thinking about a framework to guide the main focus of the church’s prayers with a view to the building up of the Church of Christ. I think there is no better source for answering this question than Christ’s high-priestly prayer in John 17, and attenders at the Free North on Sunday evenings will find this final part of the address strangely familiar. We could of course turn to the Lord’s Prayer where we would find similar answers but in John 17 there is a fuller development of the petitions that must be at the heart of the church’s desire before God the Father in every age. In the prayer Christ spans the Gospel age in his prayers for himself, his disciples and those who will believe through their message. It is a prayer for the fulfilling of every good purpose of God for his church that has necessitated the delivering up of his eternally beloved Son to the cross. It is the realising of these good purposes that must be the driving force of any valid strategy of church growth and it is therefore the desire for these good purposes that must drive all true prayer in the church.
It is an exercise in itself to decide how many petitions there are in the prayer but I think there are 5 plus 1!
“Glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you.” (v.1)
Our overruling focus must be the glory of God. For this to be realised in our prayers and in our wider ministry, we will have a real battle on our hands. Seeking glory for man is at the heart of our sinfulness since our first parents fell to the temptation “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5) God’s response is unambiguous, “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8) Now, in the Free Church we have a history of putting men, particularly ministers, on a pedestal. In the past it was preacher/teachers; today it may be evangelist/church planters or particular congregations or church initiatives. Eugene Peterson perceptively comments that “Scripture is sparing in the information that it gives on people while it is lavish in what it tells us about God. It refuses to feed our lust for hero worship.” We must not, of course, deny that God distributes his gifts variously and honour must be given where it is due. In humility we must recognise those who are better preachers or better evangelists, and in humility we must be willing to learn from the strategies of others. But we must be careful to guard that glory and honour that is exclusively the Lord’s or we too may end up with that fearful epitaph, “Ichabod, the glory is departed” (1 Samuel 4:21).
In John 17, even the incarnate Son of God seeks first the glory of God. He sets the context for all his prayers for the church in every age as he begins with a petition that requests that his being glorified will serve the glory of God the Father. What he is praying is that he will be sustained in “the hour”, the hour of awful agony that is now upon him, so that the glory of his saving character may shine forth in all its beauty. In turn, the glory of God the Father will be revealed by the fulfilling of his eternal purpose to be just and the justifier and so the giver of eternal life to all his elect people. God will be glorified if Jesus is sustained in his consecration to servanthood. And in this he is praying as the representative of his church. As it was for Christ so it is for his people; blessing is rooted in the consecration of servanthood. Blessing is guaranteed by the Christ who took up the cross, and blessing is inherited and bequeathed to others by a church of disciples “who deny themselves and take up the cross and follow him.”
The lesson to be learned here is that when we are called to ministry of whatever sort within the church of Christ, we are first and foremost called to be servants in the interests of the glory of God in Christ. So one of our first petitions every time we pray should be for the spirit of John the Baptist who said “He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) Sincere prayer for the glory of God marks out a man’s motives which are so important to God. It is man who “looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) Is this emphasis evident in our private and congregational prayers? It could be having far-reaching consequences.
“Protect them by your name” (v.11)
We must also pray for protection and Jesus makes clear that the reason for this is that we are in this world. We must pray about the evil of the world, and the danger it poses for the church. Now I think you will have worked out by now that as I make a plea about the emphases of our prayers, I am inevitably making a plea about the emphases of our preaching. When the disciples said to Jesus “Teach us to pray” they were accepting it is right teaching that produces right prayers. This is a further example of the close relationship between Word ministry and prayer. It is therefore not coincidental that this prayer of Jesus follows his teaching in the previous chapters where, among other things, he says “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” Our prayers need to reflect a clear understanding of the antagonism of the Spirit of the world against the Spirit of Christ. The understanding of this antagonism will be enlightened through teaching on such doctrines as the law of God, the death of Christ and Heaven and Hell. These are some of the doctrines calculated to convince us of the malignity of sin and of the impossibility of victory over the forces of evil except by the saving power of God. We are only safe when the power of Jesus has stamped his name, his character, on our lives.
I think the point here is that we should be able to discern in the prayers of our people evidence of the spiritual condition of our church. As we pray in the world of our present society with its developing unbiblical legislation, its growing crime rates, its growing divorce rates, its racial conflicts, do we detect a real fear of evil in the prayers of the people and a spirit of urgency in praying for protection for the church to be the salt and the light that God has promised to use to deliver his blessings?
“Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (v.17)
This petition is really the positive emphasis to counterbalance the previous negative. The great reason that the church needs to be protected from the world is so that she will be set apart for God. Here Christ is praying for, and we are being taught to pray for, what has been the purpose of God the Father for his church from all eternity. Ephesians 1:3, 4 says “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” This really must be a central petition of the church’s prayers and an underlying concern in all our prayers.
Jesus, in John 17, makes two vital connections with this petition. Firstly, the primary means that God will use for our sanctification is the Bible, as the depository of the truth of God. At this point we need to note that this critical role of the Truth in God’s ultimate purpose for the church must prompt the Evil One’s persistent use of the temptation to false doctrine, so that the background to almost every inspired work of the apostles is the need to equip the church to resist false teaching. This follows on logically from Christ’s promise that one of the foremost blessings of his death would be the coming of the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth (to) guide you into all truth” (John 16:13) So for the church to be strong and to be protected and to be reaching out towards God’s ultimate purpose for the church we must be constantly in prayer to be kept in the truth. Now, is this a major prayer of our pulpits and prayer meetings? And is our teaching ministry effectively producing believers who can articulate the truth and defend the truth from the popular heresies of the day? I would suggest that these questions would do well to appear on the agendas of our Kirk Sessions, Presbyteries and/or congregational fellowships in the next few months.
The second connection that Jesus makes with this petition for sanctification is with our mission to the world. Immediately following the petition, he mentions that he has sent his disciples into the world just as He was sent. Christ is making clear that it is difference to the world (because we are controlled by a different Spirit) and not likeness to the world that makes effective witnesses. He is not saying however that we need to be physically separated from the world in order to be sanctified but rather that we need to be sanctified in order to be safely thrust out into the world. If our prayers are focussed on following Christ more closely, knowing him better, learning and doing his will more fully and so becoming more like him then we are bound to know more of the power of his love thrusting us out into the world in genuine compassion for the lost.
“I pray … that all of them may be one” (v.21)
A petition for unity now follows the petition for purity. Both are closely connected by the emphasis on God’s Word as the agency to produce both purity and unity. Just as sanctification is by the truth (17) so unity is for those who believe through the message (20). Jesus makes clear in this prayer that unity is a vital issue; it is a forefront evidence of the Gospel working in the power of the Spirit. Praying for people to be converted and praying for converts to be united go hand in hand. Then unity is vital for ongoing Gospel witness, “to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them as you loved me.” (23) And further, this unity is to be patterned on nothing less than the unity within the Godhead, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (21) The point that must be made here is surely this — that if the witness of the Gospel to a needy world is veiled by lack of unity and if the blessing of the indwelling Spirit, representing a united Godhead is compromised by a lack of unity, then any lack of unity with fellow-believers must be taken seriously and must be at the heart of our prayers for the church. Again I appeal for an examination of our private and public prayers to see if our prayers are in fellowship with our interceding Christ and so include large petitions for unity among the brethren.
“I want those you have given me to be with me where I am” (v.24)
This final petition that marks the climax of the prayer has a clear and important message for us. It is that the true goal of Christ’s prayer and therefore of the church’s prayers is not in this world but in the next world. This petition also flows naturally from the teaching of Christ who came to preach that the kingdom of God, also called the kingdom of heaven, was at hand. Indeed when he taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, about prayer and other devotional exercises it followed on to instruction about laying up treasure in heaven rather than on the earth, and not to worry about the immediate bodily needs but to seek first the kingdom, and these things would be added as well. This is yet another challenge to the pattern of both our preaching and our praying. Are these great spiritual means of grace lifting the vision of ourselves and our people to eternity or are we still giving in to the spirit of the world that would restrict our vision to the here and now?
The pattern of our praying during times of recent war should be a good test for us. No doubt we have all found difficulty in knowing what to pray for. We will have prayed for the protection of our troops, for the minimising of suffering, for an outcome that will advance peace and righteousness (as God has used wars in the past in his mercy). But how much has the war prompted prayer for a preparedness among ourselves and the nations for the second coming of Christ and the great Day of Judgment? After all when Christ speaks of wars and rumours of wars (Matthew 24 & Mark 13) it is in the context of living in the end time so that we need to watch and pray because we do not know when the time will come.
I can only find these 5 specific petitions in the prayer of John 17, but there is surely another petition implicit in the prayer. It is that the mission of the church, to make disciples of all nations, will continue apace. It comes to the surface at verse 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” This in turn fits in to the clear structure of the prayer, praying first for himself in his atoning and saving responsibility, then for his disciples to whom he has committed the message of atoning salvation and then for all who will believe through that message. The immediate environment of every petition of the prayer is the environment of Christ’s missionary zeal. He prays for his own glorification without which there will be no mission. He prays for the protection of the church, the sanctification of the church and the unity of the church because it is a church with a mission to the world, to convince the world of sin and righteousness and judgment. He prays for the final glorification of the church because it is the goal of the mission of the church in proclaiming a gospel of deliverance from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of heaven. This in turn makes the point that the call to give attention to pray is never a call to substitute prayer for other Christian work but rather it is a call to prayer to equip us to be God’s workers in the establishing his kingdom on earth and ultimately in heaven.
This is where our study began. The call to give attention to prayer accompanied a call to proclaim the message in the context of furthering the mission that was very much at the heart of God’s strategy for his New Testament Church.
Fathers and Brethren, in the interests of the church pressing forward with its mission in these uncertain times that remind us of the Second Coming of Christ, I call you as I must call myself to give attention to prayer, to examine how to encourage all our people to pray and to learn from Christ himself what to pray for.