Pray in the Spirit

Ephesians 6:18-20

5/4/2008

Audio Version

A man took his small son with him to town one day to run some errands. When lunch time arrived, the two of them went to a familiar cafe for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, “Son, we’ll just have a silent prayer.” Dad got through praying first and waited for the boy to finish his prayer, but his son just sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When the son finally looked up, his father asked him, “What in the world were you praying about all that time?” With the innocence and honesty of a child, he replied, “How do I know? It was a silent prayer.” Certainly, this is a good example of how not to pray! Paul is going to tell us about how to pray. Prayer is one of the means of grace. And it is so important to us, that, in effect, Paul tells us that the entire armor of God has to go on with prayer. It is with prayer that we buckle that truth around our waists. It is with prayer that we receive that breastplate or righteousness to put on our chests. It is with prayer that we put on that readiness of the Gospel of peace. It is with prayer that we take up that shield of faith. It is with prayer that we fasten on that helmet of salvation. It is with prayer that we take up the sword of the Spirit. Prayer is not one of the pieces of the armor of God. Rather, it is the way in which we put on all the armor of God. This is really one of the most comprehensive statements about prayer in the entire Bible. It tells us how to pray, when to pray, what to pray, and for whom to pray. Let’s take these one at a time.

Firstly, we are to pray in the Spirit. This is how we are to pray. Just as the Sword is the Sword of the Spirit, so are we to pray in the Spirit. What does this mean? It means that we recognize that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays our prayers to God. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words. When our prayers ascend to God like the incense did in the Old Testament, it is the Holy Spirit who purifies our prayers, takes out that sin from our prayers, and presents the purified result to the Father. So it means recognizing that the Holy Spirit is our Comforter.

It also means that we pray for God’s will to be done, since it is the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the will of God. So often we pray that our will be done, instead of God’s will. We pray to God with a laundry list of things that need to be done, or things that need to be ours. Instead, we should remember the helpful acronym ACTS. A stands for adoration. We adore God in our prayers. We praise Him for who He is, and for what He has done. C stands for confession. We must confess our sins to God if we expect Him to hear us. It is better to pray for the forgiveness of sins right after you praise God for who He is, since praising God for who He is reminds us of how far short we fall. And it is good to confess sins before you ask God to give you anything. I fear that we oftentimes tack on our request for the forgiveness of sins at the very end of our prayer, as if it is an afterthought. There is a reasonable order to these things. That is not to say that you have to pray this way every time. However, we need to think about how we pray, and not rush into things. Well, after we have confessed our sins, then we thank God for His blessings. That is what the T in ACTS means. Thanksgiving is so important. We must be grateful to God for all He has done, and for all He has given us. Again, we usually give a long list of things we want from God without giving God thanks for what He has given us. Our prayers often sound a lot like Anne’s prayer in Anne of Green Gables: “Gracious Heavenly Father, I thank Thee for the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters and Bonny and the Snow Queen. I’m really extremely grateful for them. And that’s all the blessings I can think of just now to thank Thee for. As for the things I want, they’re so numerous that it would take a great deal of time to name them all, so I will only mention the two most important. Please let me stay at Green Gables; and please let me be good-looking when I grow up. I remain, Yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.” Another great example of how not to pray! And so, rather than pray selfishly, we should pray as God has taught us to pray. We should pray in the Spirit.

We should also pray with great vigilance. Paul tells us to be alert when we pray. Oftentimes, we think of prayer as a thing to do when we’re tired. And, since we usually close our eyes to pray, that’s the next thing to a nice long nap! We should rather be awake and give all due diligence to our prayers. When Martin Luther’s puppy happened to be at the table, he looked for a morsel from his master, and watched with open mouth and motionless eyes; he (Martin Luther) said, ‘Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish or hope.” I have said this before, but it bears repeating. You can pray with your eyes open. This means that you can pray when you are driving your car or tractor. What a great way to use all of that time! Yes, you do need to pay attention to what you are doing. However, most people can have a radio going on while they drive. If you can have a radio going on, then you can also pray. So, the “how” of praying has to do with praying in the Spirit, and praying with great vigilance.

The second thing we need to know is when to pray. Paul says to pray on all occasions. Then a little later he says that we are always to keep on praying. Everyone knows how to pray when they are in danger, or when the stress level is as high as it seems possible to have. Anyone can pray in that kind of situation. However, are we so quick to pray when something good happens? Are we quick to pray when things are peaceful and quiet? Are we quick to pray when small irritations come our way? The fact is that we need to be in a praying frame of mind all the time. One author put it this way: we should lift up our hearts to heaven, and keep them there so that we can always run to our Heavenly Father and pray to Him. Certainly, as John Newton said, “He who runs from God in the morning will scarcely find Him the rest of the day.” Stay close to God all the day. You will find that temptation has much less hold over you. And you will find it easier and more fulfilling to pray to God in this way. So, we are to pray in the Spirit, and we are to pray all the time. Of course, we don’t have to be in actual prayer every minute. However, we are to have that praying frame of mind.

Thirdly, we are to pray all kinds of prayers. As we have seen, we should pray praise to God, confession to God, thanks to God, and supplication to God. It is not wrong to pray for the things you want, though it is far better to pray for the things you really need. Our wants and our needs are not the same things. We want what we need, but we certainly don’t need all the things we want! What do we really need? Physically, we need food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. Spiritually, we need Jesus. Those are our needs. Everything else, and I mean everything else, is something that we want rather than need. We need to be content when God gives us everything we need, even if that doesn’t mean we have everything we want. Still, we are to pray all kinds of prayers. No kind of prayer is to be ignored.

Fourthly, we are to pray for all the saints. This is as broad as the church itself in all parts of the world. Pray for those saints you know by name. (And, by the way, the word “saints” here means Christians, not first-class citizens of the kingdom of God, as opposed to second-class citizens). Anyway, pray for those saints you know by name. Then pray for all those saints you do not know by name. Pray for saints in other countries. Pray for the persecuted church. Pray for new believers. Pray for missionaries and pastors. Notice here that Paul even requests the Ephesians to pray for him! It is most instructive to see what Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for. He doesn’t ask them to pray for an easy life, free of pain. He asks them to pray for boldness so that the Gospel will go forth. He wants the Ephesians to pray that evangelism will happen! Paul wants the Ephesians to pray that he will not fear man, but only God. Notice something very striking here. Paul calls himself an ambassador in chains. That is almost a contradiction in terms. In normal societies, ambassadors have diplomatic immunity. Countries need to be able to talk to each other, so most countries grant diplomatic immunity to ambassadors from other countries. This is very important to the right relationship of countries. However, Paul does not have diplomatic immunity! And he is an ambassador for the greatest kingdom that has ever been or ever will be! He is ambassador for the King of kings and Lord of lords. And yet, he is in chains! So also we cannot expect such diplomatic immunity. There is a price to pay for sharing the Gospel. And we are to be willing to pay that price. So, we are to pray in the Spirit and with great vigilance. We are to pray all the time. We are to pray all kinds of prayers. And we are to pray for all the saints.

I will close with this illustration of the power of prayer. Dr. Helen Roseveare, missionary to Zaire, told the following story. “A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. ‘Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won’t feel so lonely.’ That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, ‘If God sent that, I’m sure He also sent a doll!’ And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child’s sincere requests, and 5 months earlier He had led a ladies’ group to include both of those specific articles.” So pray, dear brothers and sisters!
 

Thank the Lord for Jerusalem!

Psalm 122

There are many things for which we can be thankful. For instance, I am thankful to God for my wife and our children. Many people are rightly thankful for family, work, bank accounts, and many other things. How many times, though, have you been thankful for the church? Not just that the church exists, mind you, but thankful that you can be part of it. There is this rather hideous idea out there that the church needs me, and the church needs my patronage, my money, my talents. That really is quite arrogant. It is much more true that we need the church. Of course, what we mean by that is that we need what God gives us through the church. But it is quite arrogant to think that the church is dispensable to us. Our Psalm here is a good antidote to such thinking.

The Psalm can be divided into three parts. Verses 1-2 talk about the joy of church; verses 3-5 talk about the esteem that we ought to have for the church; and verses 6-9 talk about prayer for the church.

But before we get into these three points, there is one preliminary point that we must consider. The Psalm doesn’t use the word “church.” Rather, it uses the word “Jerusalem.” Why is it legitimate to say that this speaks of the church? Well, I will point you to one passage in the NT that gives us this indication. That passage is Galatians 6:16, which reads (in my own translation): “And to as many as walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, even upon the Israel of God.” Earlier in Galatians, Paul speaks of the church as being the true heirs of Abraham. We are the children of Abraham, who believe by faith. Therefore, the church is the NT Israel belonging to God. That is because there is a new way of being Israel, namely, by faith in Christ. Christ is the true Israel. That is proved in the early chapters of Matthew, where everything Christ does reenacts the people of Israel in the wilderness, in Egypt, in the Jordan river. Christ embodies Israel in His person. Except that Christ was righteous, whereas Israel was sinful. But now, the church consists of all those who are IN Christ. That means that we are IN Christ, who, in turn, is the true Israel. Therefore, we are the true Israel. Nowadays, it is not whether you are circumcised or not, it is whether you trust in Jesus. That marks you out now as the true Israel. Just as the people gathered from all Israel to be in Jerusalem to worship, so also do we now all gather together in church to worship together. In fact, that is what verse 3 says, “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.” The church, by the way, is not a building, but rather the people who meet together. It is the city of people who are in Christ.

That being said, then, we can proceed. Everything in the chapter that talks about Jerusalem now applies to the Christian church. So, do we rejoice when someone says to us, “Let us go to church.” Do we rejoice? Or do we say, “Not again!” Children, I think, are especially susceptible to this kind of thinking. It can be difficult for children to pay attention for an hour at a time. And there are some things which perhaps the children do not understand. That is where we must train our children to understand what is going on in the worship service. Why are we called to worship? Why do we pray? Why do we listen to a preacher? Why do we give offerings? Why do we worship at all? These questions must be answered if our children are to have joy in worship. We must remember that many cannot worship, either by choice or by necessity. There are many people in this world who do not have this opportunity to do what we were made to do. Our very country was founded so that we could do what we are doing right now in worship. Do you rejoice?

Secondly, in verses 3-5, do we esteem the church? The church, as it says in verse 3, is closely compacted together. I don’t really think that this is hard for us to understand, since everyone in this church is related to everyone else. The old saying goes like this, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Have we let our familiarity with one another breed contempt? Of course, when people are living so close together in terms of family, it is very easy to have some people rub other people the wrong way. That is where we need to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the church. Pray for peace in our church. This is vitally important.

Thirdly, how do we pray for the church? Do we pray for the church? It is very easy to forget to pray for the church. Maybe we think that the church doesn’t need the prayer, really. Maybe we think that other people in the church don’t need our prayers, or don’t deserve our prayers. Scripture here plainly tells us in verse 6, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels. For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’” Notice that verse 8, “For the sake of my brothers and friends.” You see, our brothers and friends do need our prayers. And since God has called them into the church, they deserve our prayers.

Well, if we see there for whom we ought to pray, then we can also easily see for what we are to pray. Notice just how often peace is mentioned in this Psalm. We are to pray for peace. Peace comes in two forms: peace between God and man, and peace between man and man. We must have peace with God. That is to say, we must have the Prince of Peace ruling over us for there to be any hope of reconciliation with God. That peace will, in turn, result in peace with our fellow believers.

But how is peace to be achieved? It is plain that we are to seek for it, as verse 9 tells us explicitly. How are to seek for the peace of the church? Firstly, we must cultivate our peace with God. That involves confessing our sin, repenting and turning away from it. And then we must cultivate our peace with one another.

I wish to talk briefly about some obstacles that get in the way of peace with one another. The first obstacle is idolatry. We all have idols, the things we want most in the world. Ask yourself some questions, “What do I think about the most?” “If only I had ___, then I would be happy.” Fill in the blank. “Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to disappoint or hurt others in order to have it?” That is one way of finding out what your idols are. Be careful here. We are so good at masking those idols in the form of something good. We might say, “But it is my right to have this.” Or we might say, “But look at how much they hurt me.” We might say, “But all I want is for them to be godly.” All these can be used as excuses to cover over our own idolatry. But idols we still have. Idols get in the way of peace, since we will pursue our idols, and anyone who gets in the way will be crushed. Not exactly conducive to peace.

Another major obstacle that gets in the way of peace is our pride. We have two rules in our lives. 1. I am always right. 2. If I am wrong, see rule number 1. It is absolutely impossible to live at peace with people if every difference of opinion means that you are automatically right. It is the same pride that says, “I don’t need the church; the church needs me.” Jesus doesn’t need you, you desparately need Him. The same is true of the church. God will make sure that His church lives. He doesn’t need you to keep His church running. But you desperately need the church. That is why we should all seek the peace of the church.

A third major obstacle to peace between brothers and sisters in Christ is our words. We have practically a war of words going on much of the time. And we have a really hard time controlling our words. In fact, our words get the better of our brains a good deal of the time. We think that we are the fountain of all good thoughts, all righteous thoughts, all good advice. The fact is, we should be very slow to talk, and very quick to listen. And by listening, I don’t mean standing there while the other person talks, and you’re thinking, “When is this person going to shut up so that I can talk?” That is not listening. Listening means that you are always trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and you are always asking, “What does this person really mean?” It might very well be different from what you think they mean. One good way of listening is to try to repeat back to them, in a somewhat summarized form, what they said. That way, they will tell you whether you got it right or not. If someone says, “I’m just sick and tired of working. I hate the long hours, I hate the people with whom I work, and I hate the lousy pay,” you are not listening if you say, “You lazy bum.” You are listening if you say, “So you’re exhausted with life and work, and feel that the whole world is against you.” I think that we could have a great deal more peace in our churches if we were quick to listen, and slow to speak.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and rejoice in the church.

Thy Will Be Done

Matthew 6:10

How often have your children done this to you? They will hear a command that you have given them, and they will look you straight in the eye, and say, “No!” And what often happens, is that you think that they are merely trying to be funny and cute, rather than rebellious. What has just happened? Their will has been done. In fact, we all have this idea that our will is the most important thing on earth. We talk about free will, and say that our will is to choose God, and yet what we wind up doing is anything but God’s will. What does Jesus have to say to us about this?

First of all, we must see whose will it is that should be done. We are not praying that our will should be done. We are not praying that Satan’s will should be done. We are praying that God’s will should be done. Let’s unpack that a bit. As to our own will, we can make the remark that God has no prouder enemy on this side of hell than our own will. Our will is thoroughly set against God’s will. Unless God renews our will, giving us a new heart and will, our will is always set against God’s will. It is of the very essence of Christianity that we deny our own will and take God’s will for our own. This is essential. For you see, Adam and Eve sinned in this very respect: denying God’s will, they set up their own will as their god. For that, they fell into sin, and came under the penalty of death. So the reality is that praying for God’s will to be done is nothing less than praying that we might be saved from ourselves, from our own will. For it is God’s will that we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Then also, it means that we pray that Satan’s will be thwarted. Just as we pray that Satan’s kingdom might be overthrown in the very establishment of God’s kingdom, so also we pray that Satan’s will be thwarted when we pray that God’s will be done. Satan is the inveterate enemy of God. Satan’s purposes are always to thwart God, and to undermine what God does in this world. That was Satan’s thinking at the cross of Christ. He thought that he really had God in a box there. No one less than the Son of God was being crucified. It was Satan’s will that the cross of Christ be the defeat of God, and the everlasting establishment of his own kingdom. But God’s will prevailed, and the salvation of mankind came to light. The cross, instead of being the defeat of God, was the ultimate victory because of the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

Secondly, we must see that there is more than one way of referring to the will of God. There is the decretive will of God, and there is the revealed will of God. The decretive will of God is secret: no one can know about it. That will describes God’s infallible decree that whatever He ordains will in fact come to pass. This will of God cannot be broken. Whatsoever God wills in this sense will in fact come to pass. It is indeed helpful to know about this will, since it gives us assurance that God’s purposes will happen, and God will be glorified, and that will be to our advantage. However, that is not the will that Jesus is talking about here. The will about which Jesus is talking is the revealed will of God. It is the will of God as revealed in God’s Word. That will can be broken. It is quite possible, after all, to break one of God’s commandments. In fact, we do it all the time. It is about this revealed will, for instance, that Paul is referring to when he says that God wills all people to come to a saving knowledge of Him. It is not the decretal will of God that is being referred to, or else all people would in fact come to Him. Rather, it is the revealed will of God that says that all people should know God and come to Him for salvation.

It is this revealed will that Jesus is talking about when he says that we should pray that God’s will be done. We pray that all people will see God’s will as the right thing for their lives. We pray that people will be cured of their blindness. They think that they know what’s best for them, when they do not know anything of the sort. The Bible says that Satan has blinded the eyes of those who are perishing. They cannot see. Sin blinds people. In fact, sin blinds people to the very fact that they are blind. Sinners often think that they see, when in fact they see nothing truly.

What is God’s will for sinners? God’s will for sinners is that they see that they are needy sinners. That takes a lot of convincing. Lots of people think that they are pretty good people, that they don’t need God, they just need one more dollar. Lots of people think that at least they are a little bit better than their neighbor. Well, what will convince them of that? It is the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, which again is God’s will. The Holy Spirit working through the Word is the ONLY thing that will convince sinners of their need of Christ.

And then they must actually believe in Christ, trust in Him. It is quite possible to believe all the right things about Christ, but not actually be saved. The demons have quite a decent theological education, as does Satan himself. But they do not bend their wills to God’s will. They do not entrust themselves to God. Our brains, you see, might be called the eyes of the soul. However, the will is the king of our soul. The will determines in what direction we go. Unless that will be dominated by God, there can be no spiritual progress. Unless that proud king, the human will, be made subject to God’s revealed Word, there can be no salvation.

And then there is added to this that phrase that says “on earth, as it is in heaven.” I wonder, have we ever stopped to ask the question why Jesus put this phrase there? Why is it important that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? To answer that question, we must look at the prayer as a whole. We have seen the progression from one petition to the next. God’s name must be set apart and treated as holy. That is more important than anything else in the whole universe. If that happens, then God’s kingdom will come about. If God’s kingdom comes about, then God’s will is being done. We can see the logical step by step progression in the Lord’s Prayer. But we also notice that the first half of the prayer has to do with God, especially the coming of the kingdom. We pray for the coming of the kingdom in the first half of the prayer. In the second half of the prayer, we pray for what we need in the meantime, before the kingdom of God comes. So the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” connects the first half of the prayer with the second half of the prayer. Just as God must be our first priority, so also must mankind be our second priority. As heaven must be first in our hearts, so also our neighbor must be second in our hearts. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Of course, that is not all that the phrase does. The phrase is also both an encouragement to obedience, and a challenge to obedience. It is an encouragement, because there is a whole realm of being who already obey God perfectly. It might seem that we have every reason to be pessimistic in our day. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who follows God. But there are always the 7,000 who have not bowed their knee to Baal. There is also a realm where God’s will is obeyed perfectly. Therefore, we should not be discouraged in doing God’s will. We should never forget that those who obey God outnumber those who do not. There are more who are for us than those who are against. And as we know, one single angel can knock down hundreds of thousands of those who oppose the church. The church will prevail!

But knowing that God’s will is obeyed by the angels is also a challenge to us to obey God’s will more perfectly. The angels obey God perfectly. There is no shadow of disobedience, or of their own will getting in the way. They obey God perfectly. There is a standard at which we can aim. Let us not throw up as an excuse the fact that we can’t get there before we die. That is true. However, should that fact make us less eager for perfection? NO! We should be all the more eager for perfection, and we should pursue it with all our might.

To that end, we should lay aside that sin which so easily entangles us, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us. It is a lie to say that we have submitted ourselves to God’s will, but then cling so closely to that sin that we love so much. That is living a lie, a contradiction. If we say that we believe in Christ, and yet do not do what Christ commands, we are liars, and the truth is not in us. To say that Christ can have command over 99% of our lives, and yet keep 1% for ourselves is to keep Satan in the door, to keep Satan in our lives, allowing him a foothold that he should never have. Get rid of the foothold that Satan has. Tell him to get out, move out, scram! More importantly, ask God to kick him out. Surrender your life completely, 100% to God. Leave nothing behind in your surrender. It must be whole-hearted, or else it is not genuine.

Should lingering sin then make us doubt our salvation? Well, if our will seems to be enslaved to it, then yes, we should doubt our salvation. However, if we are doing it against our will, because God’s will reigns in our lives, then we should not doubt so quickly. Christians will always be both sinners yet justified in this lifetime. Every single saint the world has ever known has been like that, with sin still in their lives, and yet an unwelcome alien within the soul. So, does God reign in His will in your life? Or do you reign in your life? May God’s will be done in our lives, as well as in the world, as it is done in heaven.

How Not to Pray

Matthew 6:5-8
Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer once told a story about prayer. It seems that a certain minister was in the habit of profound prayers, oftentimes using words that the people didn’t know. This went on week after week, to the dismay and frustration of the congregation. At last, a small Scottish woman in the choir ventured to take the matter in hand. On a given Sunday, as the minister was waxing his most eloquently verbose, the little woman reached across the curtain separating the choir from the pulpit. Taking a firm grasp on the frock tail of the minister, she gave it a yank, and was heard to whisper, “Jes’ call Him Fether, and ask ‘im for somethin’.” Now, that is a story about a minister. What about us? Do we do certain things to try to make sure that our prayers are heard? I think we do. But let’s look at our passage to see what Jesus tells us. What Jesus tells us here is how not to pray.

There are two dangers in prayer about which Jesus tells us. The first danger is hypocrisy: doing prayer so that other people will notice how pious we are. This is given to us in verses 5-6. The second danger Jesus tells us to avoid is meaningless jabbering. Let us examines these one by one.

First of all, we must notice that we are now in the second of three examples. Jesus has told us in verse one of this chapter that we are not to practice our righteousness before other men in order to be seen by them. Then Jesus gives three examples of how our righteousness should be private: alms, prayer, and fasting. We are going to spend some time on prayer, at least several weeks.

Well, what is this hypocrisy about which Jesus warns us? Hypocrites love to be noticed in their piety. I just saw a picture the other day of Hilary Clinton praying in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There were all sorts of cameras there taking pictures of her. My guess is that she was doing anything but praying to the Lord God. What she was doing was sheer politics. She everyone to see that she was praying. In the first century, hypocrisy was down to a fine art, as it is today. What they would do is time their business just right, so that when the time came for the scheduled prayers of the day, they would just happen to be in a great spot to be noticed by just about as many people as possible. They were ostentatious in their display of piety. But they were not praying to God. Instead, they were praying to other people. Another story: a man went to a church in Boston, and heard a very erudite preacher pray in his congregation. It was a very long-winded prayer that did not take people up to the throne of grace, as a pastoral prayer should, but rather tried to impress the people with his knowledge. The man remarked, “That was the best prayer I ever heard offerred to a church in Boston.” Prayer needs to be directed solely to God, not to anyone else.

That is why Jesus says that they have received their reward. Again, we have that word that means “paid in full.” There is no further payment to be expected. Furthermore, what Jesus says here implies that it wasn’t really prayer at all, in fact. Prayer is by definition directed to God, not to people. That is why Jesus tells us what the remedy is for hypocritical prayer: it is to engage in prayer in a place where we cannot possibly be seen by anyone. And, of course, it does no good for us to somehow let someone know that we have to go pray now. We can sometimes say, “Last night while I was praying,” or “The Lord showed me while I was praying.” These expressions can often be used as subtle hints that we are quite holy and pious. One is reminded of the story of Pharisee and the tax-collector. The Pharisee stands upright in the middle of the Temple area, and publicly thanks God that he is not like this tax-collector. But the tax-collector was the one unable to face God. He simply beat his breast and called to God to have mercy on him. Jesus tells us that it was the tax-collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified.

Now, it is important to recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. If He was, then the early disciples surely misunderstood Him badly when they prayed together in their meetings in church. Jesus is talking about our private prayers, those prayers that should only exist between God and yourself. He is not talking about public worship, and so we cannot read His statements here as condemning public prayer.

Well, what kind of place does Jesus recommend? He recommends the most private place you can find. In those days, the only real privacy you could have among other people was in a private store-room that could be locked. That is the room Jesus is talking about here. You see, Jews of those days thought that the only acceptable place to pray was the Temple. So, in one sentence, Jesus tells us that the most Holy place in which we can pray, is the room most likely viewed as the least holy place. We might think this way today about the church. “I can only really pray in church, because it is more solemn there.” The fact is that you can pray anywhere. But if you are going to pray when other people are around, and there occasions when we must do so, then we should pray in our hearts. Now, what about prayer meetings? Is Jesus condemning those? Well, no, He is not. But He would condemn prayer meetings where people pray to other people rather than to God. If you are in a prayer meeting, or are in a place where other people are going to pray, say, family night, or Ladies’ Aid, then beware lest your prayers turn into a performance for the other people there. What you must do instead is lift the people to the very throne room of God. You are not on display for other people, but are rather to be talking with God. For that is the most basic definition of prayer: talking with God. God talks to us in Scripture. We talk to God in prayer. Both are necessary, and both complement the other.

This is a good segue into the second danger that Jesus warns us about: long-windedness. We’ve all probably experienced some time in our lives, someone praying, and we just wish that person would shut up. Probably some of you have thought that about some of the pastoral prayers that I have offered! Well, long-windedness is not very acceptable to people. What makes us think it is more acceptable to God? For it is often the case that the very same people who would object to hearing long-windedness in others will do the very same thing themselves! What does Jesus mean here?

Well, we must understand the background to Jesus’ statement. Pagans of that time were very fond of long prayers. They would call on every deity they knew (for most of them were polytheists), and after a lengthy recitation of gods’ names (along with all the various attributes they thought the gods had), then, and only then, would they start actually talking to the gods. They thought that you had to address God in a very particular way, or that god would be offended. In fact, they would often include a catch-all phrase at the end of the gods’ names, lest they had forgotten one. What they would then do is to pile up meaningless phrase after meaningless phrase, thinking that the gods would only hear you if they really thought you were sincere because of your long-windedness. This is sometimes true in the Roman Catholic tradition, where they will say the Hail Mary and the Our Father about 100 times, thinking that God will hear them only after they have said that many times.

But what about ourselves? It is easy to point to something like that and say that it doesn’t affect us. Do we use an exalted style of language to talk to God, thinking that God will only listen to us if we use King James English? I’m not saying that it is wrong to use such language. However, we must ask ourselves this question: why do we do that? Do we do it out of true reverence? Or do we do it only when other people are around, so that they will think that we are reverent and pious?

How often do we think about what we say when we pray the Lord’s Prayer? Is it just another meaningless repetition of the Lord’s Prayer? Just mouthing the words? Or do we mean it every time we say it? Do we understand it? That is one reason why we are (Lord-willing) going to go rather slowly through the Lord’s Prayer. It is so familiar, that we don’t listen to it anymore, oftentimes. We need to hear the Lord’s Prayer afresh, or we will wind up turning the Lord’s Prayer into the very thing that Jesus here condemns: meaningless words!

Now, let’s clarify what Jesus is NOT saying. He is not saying that repetition is necessarily bad. Jesus himself did it in the High Priestly Prayer in John 17, where He stresses the unity between Father, Son, and church very many times. Jesus is also not condemning length in prayers, for He Himself would often pray all night. He certainly did the night He was arrested, when He prayed in Gethsemane.

Well then, what is Jesus condemning? He condemns meaningless repetition. Repetition done so that God will hear better. Why is this? Why are we not to meaninglessly repeat things in our prayer? Jesus gives us the reason in verse 8: God already knows what we need before we even ask Him. You might remember the parable of the unjust judge. There, the woman kept on coming back and coming back to the judge, demanding justice from him, until finally the judge gave in, simply to get this old woman off his hands. Jesus is there arguing that if such persistance is required with an unjust judge, then how much more will God hear us, when He is not unjust, and hurries to fulfill His children’s requests? We should not give up, simply because God seems slow to us. God’s time runs differently from ours, much like Narnia time runs differently from England time, in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. God calls all times soon. And so we should not be impatient in our prayers, thinking that God does not hear. One is reminded of the story of the prophets of Baal versus Elijah the prophet. Those Baal prophets cried out from morning to night on the name of their god, who did not answer. The silence was deafening. Elijah makes one simple, short, direct, and fervent prayer to God, and does God ever answer him! Martin Luther said that our prayers should be “brief, frequent, and intense.” We pray when we need to pray, which is far more often than we normally pray.

This brings up another issue in regards to prayer: how often should we pray? If we are not praying morning, noon, and night, then are we inferior Christians? That is rather a difficult question. On the one hand, it is certainly true that our whole lives should be one long prayer to God. On the other hand, we often use such a thought as an excuse not really to pray at all. There should definitely be set times when we come before our Heavenly Father in prayer. Morning is probably the best time, since we are not immediately thinking about the events of the day, like we are at night. On the other hand, night-time is the best time for talking with God about the events of the day. Sometimes we also need prayer in the middle of the day, so that God would help us to accomplish the task at hand. Our lives are to be characterized by prayer. That is what Paul means when he says, “Pray without ceasing.” He does not mean that we are only to pray, and do nothing besides. But it does mean that we are to be characterized by prayer.

We should remember in all this that we cannot come to the throne of grace without a Mediator. Jesus is here telling us that we need Him as a Mediator. We don’t use the opinion of other people as a Mediator, which is what hypocrites do. Nor do we use many words as our Mediator. No, we simply have Christ as our Mediator. He is our High Priest in the heavens, listening to our prayers, and pleading for us, on our behalf, to the Father. Do you want to know if God hears your prayers? Do you have a Mediator? The answer to that question answers the other question. If you have Jesus as a Mediator, then God hears your prayers. That is an absolute promise in Scripture. If you do not have Jesus, then it doesn’t matter how many people see you pray, and it doesn’t matter how long you pray, or how many meaningless phrases you pile up, God will not hear your prayer.

A final word on the efficacy of prayer. What does it accomplish? James tells us that the prayer of a righteous man avails much. That is, it is effectual. We like to think sometimes that the only thing it changes is us. That is true. God does not change because of our prayers. However, there is a danger in thinking that way. We can start to think that because prayer doesn’t change God, that therefore God doesn’t care about our prayers, and then we are tempted to give it up altogether. What we must know is that God uses our prayers to accomplish His purposes. Yes, even our weak, unfaithful, lapsed prayers are tools God uses to accomplish His will. That is an amazing idea, isn’t it? Why should God use me, a sinner? And yet, He does. So, pray to the Father. “Call ‘im Fether, and ask ‘im for somethin’.” He is a loving Father, who desires to give all good gifts to His children.

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How Not to Pray

Matthew 6:5-8
Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer once told a story about prayer. It seems that a certain minister was in the habit of profound prayers, oftentimes using words that the people didn’t know. This went on week after week, to the dismay and frustration of the congregation. At last, a small Scottish woman in the choir ventured to take the matter in hand. On a given Sunday, as the minister was waxing his most eloquently verbose, the little woman reached across the curtain separating the choir from the pulpit. Taking a firm grasp on the frock tail of the minister, she gave it a yank, and was heard to whisper, “Jes’ call Him Fether, and ask ‘im for somethin’.” Now, that is a story about a minister. What about us? Do we do certain things to try to make sure that our prayers are heard? I think we do. But let’s look at our passage to see what Jesus tells us. What Jesus tells us here is how not to pray.

There are two dangers in prayer about which Jesus tells us. The first danger is hypocrisy: doing prayer so that other people will notice how pious we are. This is given to us in verses 5-6. The second danger Jesus tells us to avoid is meaningless jabbering. Let us examines these one by one.

First of all, we must notice that we are now in the second of three examples. Jesus has told us in verse one of this chapter that we are not to practice our righteousness before other men in order to be seen by them. Then Jesus gives three examples of how our righteousness should be private: alms, prayer, and fasting. We are going to spend some time on prayer, at least several weeks.

Well, what is this hypocrisy about which Jesus warns us? Hypocrites love to be noticed in their piety. I just saw a picture the other day of Hilary Clinton praying in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There were all sorts of cameras there taking pictures of her. My guess is that she was doing anything but praying to the Lord God. What she was doing was sheer politics. She everyone to see that she was praying. In the first century, hypocrisy was down to a fine art, as it is today. What they would do is time their business just right, so that when the time came for the scheduled prayers of the day, they would just happen to be in a great spot to be noticed by just about as many people as possible. They were ostentatious in their display of piety. But they were not praying to God. Instead, they were praying to other people. Another story: a man went to a church in Boston, and heard a very erudite preacher pray in his congregation. It was a very long-winded prayer that did not take people up to the throne of grace, as a pastoral prayer should, but rather tried to impress the people with his knowledge. The man remarked, “That was the best prayer I ever heard offerred to a church in Boston.” Prayer needs to be directed solely to God, not to anyone else.

That is why Jesus says that they have received their reward. Again, we have that word that means “paid in full.” There is no further payment to be expected. Furthermore, what Jesus says here implies that it wasn’t really prayer at all, in fact. Prayer is by definition directed to God, not to people. That is why Jesus tells us what the remedy is for hypocritical prayer: it is to engage in prayer in a place where we cannot possibly be seen by anyone. And, of course, it does no good for us to somehow let someone know that we have to go pray now. We can sometimes say, “Last night while I was praying,” or “The Lord showed me while I was praying.” These expressions can often be used as subtle hints that we are quite holy and pious. One is reminded of the story of Pharisee and the tax-collector. The Pharisee stands upright in the middle of the Temple area, and publicly thanks God that he is not like this tax-collector. But the tax-collector was the one unable to face God. He simply beat his breast and called to God to have mercy on him. Jesus tells us that it was the tax-collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified.

Now, it is important to recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. If He was, then the early disciples surely misunderstood Him badly when they prayed together in their meetings in church. Jesus is talking about our private prayers, those prayers that should only exist between God and yourself. He is not talking about public worship, and so we cannot read His statements here as condemning public prayer.

Well, what kind of place does Jesus recommend? He recommends the most private place you can find. In those days, the only real privacy you could have among other people was in a private store-room that could be locked. That is the room Jesus is talking about here. You see, Jews of those days thought that the only acceptable place to pray was the Temple. So, in one sentence, Jesus tells us that the most Holy place in which we can pray, is the room most likely viewed as the least holy place. We might think this way today about the church. “I can only really pray in church, because it is more solemn there.” The fact is that you can pray anywhere. But if you are going to pray when other people are around, and there occasions when we must do so, then we should pray in our hearts. Now, what about prayer meetings? Is Jesus condemning those? Well, no, He is not. But He would condemn prayer meetings where people pray to other people rather than to God. If you are in a prayer meeting, or are in a place where other people are going to pray, say, family night, or Ladies’ Aid, then beware lest your prayers turn into a performance for the other people there. What you must do instead is lift the people to the very throne room of God. You are not on display for other people, but are rather to be talking with God. For that is the most basic definition of prayer: talking with God. God talks to us in Scripture. We talk to God in prayer. Both are necessary, and both complement the other.

This is a good segue into the second danger that Jesus warns us about: long-windedness. We’ve all probably experienced some time in our lives, someone praying, and we just wish that person would shut up. Probably some of you have thought that about some of the pastoral prayers that I have offered! Well, long-windedness is not very acceptable to people. What makes us think it is more acceptable to God? For it is often the case that the very same people who would object to hearing long-windedness in others will do the very same thing themselves! What does Jesus mean here?

Well, we must understand the background to Jesus’ statement. Pagans of that time were very fond of long prayers. They would call on every deity they knew (for most of them were polytheists), and after a lengthy recitation of gods’ names (along with all the various attributes they thought the gods had), then, and only then, would they start actually talking to the gods. They thought that you had to address God in a very particular way, or that god would be offended. In fact, they would often include a catch-all phrase at the end of the gods’ names, lest they had forgotten one. What they would then do is to pile up meaningless phrase after meaningless phrase, thinking that the gods would only hear you if they really thought you were sincere because of your long-windedness. This is sometimes true in the Roman Catholic tradition, where they will say the Hail Mary and the Our Father about 100 times, thinking that God will hear them only after they have said that many times.

But what about ourselves? It is easy to point to something like that and say that it doesn’t affect us. Do we use an exalted style of language to talk to God, thinking that God will only listen to us if we use King James English? I’m not saying that it is wrong to use such language. However, we must ask ourselves this question: why do we do that? Do we do it out of true reverence? Or do we do it only when other people are around, so that they will think that we are reverent and pious?

How often do we think about what we say when we pray the Lord’s Prayer? Is it just another meaningless repetition of the Lord’s Prayer? Just mouthing the words? Or do we mean it every time we say it? Do we understand it? That is one reason why we are (Lord-willing) going to go rather slowly through the Lord’s Prayer. It is so familiar, that we don’t listen to it anymore, oftentimes. We need to hear the Lord’s Prayer afresh, or we will wind up turning the Lord’s Prayer into the very thing that Jesus here condemns: meaningless words!

Now, let’s clarify what Jesus is NOT saying. He is not saying that repetition is necessarily bad. Jesus himself did it in the High Priestly Prayer in John 17, where He stresses the unity between Father, Son, and church very many times. Jesus is also not condemning length in prayers, for He Himself would often pray all night. He certainly did the night He was arrested, when He prayed in Gethsemane.

Well then, what is Jesus condemning? He condemns meaningless repetition. Repetition done so that God will hear better. Why is this? Why are we not to meaninglessly repeat things in our prayer? Jesus gives us the reason in verse 8: God already knows what we need before we even ask Him. You might remember the parable of the unjust judge. There, the woman kept on coming back and coming back to the judge, demanding justice from him, until finally the judge gave in, simply to get this old woman off his hands. Jesus is there arguing that if such persistance is required with an unjust judge, then how much more will God hear us, when He is not unjust, and hurries to fulfill His children’s requests? We should not give up, simply because God seems slow to us. God’s time runs differently from ours, much like Narnia time runs differently from England time, in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. God calls all times soon. And so we should not be impatient in our prayers, thinking that God does not hear. One is reminded of the story of the prophets of Baal versus Elijah the prophet. Those Baal prophets cried out from morning to night on the name of their god, who did not answer. The silence was deafening. Elijah makes one simple, short, direct, and fervent prayer to God, and does God ever answer him! Martin Luther said that our prayers should be “brief, frequent, and intense.” We pray when we need to pray, which is far more often than we normally pray.

This brings up another issue in regards to prayer: how often should we pray? If we are not praying morning, noon, and night, then are we inferior Christians? That is rather a difficult question. On the one hand, it is certainly true that our whole lives should be one long prayer to God. On the other hand, we often use such a thought as an excuse not really to pray at all. There should definitely be set times when we come before our Heavenly Father in prayer. Morning is probably the best time, since we are not immediately thinking about the events of the day, like we are at night. On the other hand, night-time is the best time for talking with God about the events of the day. Sometimes we also need prayer in the middle of the day, so that God would help us to accomplish the task at hand. Our lives are to be characterized by prayer. That is what Paul means when he says, “Pray without ceasing.” He does not mean that we are only to pray, and do nothing besides. But it does mean that we are to be characterized by prayer.

We should remember in all this that we cannot come to the throne of grace without a Mediator. Jesus is here telling us that we need Him as a Mediator. We don’t use the opinion of other people as a Mediator, which is what hypocrites do. Nor do we use many words as our Mediator. No, we simply have Christ as our Mediator. He is our High Priest in the heavens, listening to our prayers, and pleading for us, on our behalf, to the Father. Do you want to know if God hears your prayers? Do you have a Mediator? The answer to that question answers the other question. If you have Jesus as a Mediator, then God hears your prayers. That is an absolute promise in Scripture. If you do not have Jesus, then it doesn’t matter how many people see you pray, and it doesn’t matter how long you pray, or how many meaningless phrases you pile up, God will not hear your prayer.

A final word on the efficacy of prayer. What does it accomplish? James tells us that the prayer of a righteous man avails much. That is, it is effectual. We like to think sometimes that the only thing it changes is us. That is true. God does not change because of our prayers. However, there is a danger in thinking that way. We can start to think that because prayer doesn’t change God, that therefore God doesn’t care about our prayers, and then we are tempted to give it up altogether. What we must know is that God uses our prayers to accomplish His purposes. Yes, even our weak, unfaithful, lapsed prayers are tools God uses to accomplish His will. That is an amazing idea, isn’t it? Why should God use me, a sinner? And yet, He does. So, pray to the Father. “Call ‘im Fether, and ask ‘im for somethin’.” He is a loving Father, who desires to give all good gifts to His children.

Preparation by Prayer

Genesis 32:1-21
So it’s the day before a big test. You are very nervous about this test, since most of your future rests on it. But you know that it is going to be a hard test. Even though you studied hard, you know that there are probably going to be questions on it that you cannot answer. Well then, you probably feel quite a bit like Jacob, who is about to face his biggest test of faith yet: a meeting with his brother Esau.

Now, Jacob has just left Laban. You will remember that they made a covenant of non-aggression. Both sides agreed not to transgress the marker that they had put up. There was no going back for Jacob. This is important to understand for our story here today.

First, Jacob meets with a host of God. It says that the angels of God met him. That leads Jacob to call the place “Mahanaim.” Now that word means “two camps.” Presumably, Jacob recognizes that God’s camp is right next to his camp. So, the two camps are God’s camp, and his own camp. As we will see, however, Jacob almost immediately forgets about God’s camp.

It is vitally important to make the point here that Jacob did not have to meet with Esau. It is not as if Esau’s forces lay in between Jacob and the Promised Land. Jacob could easily have skirted around Esau’s camp in order to get to the Promised land. However, there was a spiritual necessity of reconciliation. Jacob had enough livestock now that he could offer back to Esau some of what he thought he had stolen by his deceit concerning the birthright.

In verses 3-8, we have Jacob sending a message to Esau by means of some messengers, and we also have Esau’s response to it. Jacob is very clever in his message. He wants Esau to know where he’s been all this time, namely, with Laban. Furthermore, he wants Esau to know that he is willing to reconcile with Esau. He doesn’t tell Esau everything. For instance, he doesn’t tell Esau the exact number of his sheep, or cattle, or donkeys. However, he does tell Esau that he has these animals. The hint here is that Jacob is willing to placate Esau’s wrath by means of a gift from all this wealth. That is the reason why he says that he wants to find favor in the sight of Esau, right after he says that he has all these animals.

Esau’s response is ambiguous. That is, we don’t know exactly what Esau intends to do. He could be greeting Jacob in a friendly way, even with such a large number of people. After all, if he really wanted to destroy Jacob, then why didn’t he kill the messengers, so as to be able to sneak up on Jacob by surprise? However, Esau could still be intending harm to Jacob, since he could have counted on the psychological impact that the information could bring: “You think you can run away from me, but you cannot. My force is so superior to yours that I will even tell you that I’m coming.” Furthermore, 400 was a standard militia size at the time. So we don’t know whether Esau intends to harm Jacob or whether he intends to greet him in a friendly way.

However, we do know what Jacob thinks. In fact, it is rather rare to have this clear an idea of what is going on inside someone’s head. Verse 7 tells us that Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. Probably Jacob’s remembrance of guilt for past deceit makes him afraid. A guilty conscience can often do that kind of thing.

Furthermore, we remember that Jacob cannot go back. That would be a violation of his treaty with Laban. If he went back, then he would have to go back over into Laban’s territory. In any case, Jacob does not see any ambiguity in Esau’s action. He thinks that Esau is coming to annihilate him.

Jacob here does something that might seem wise. It is wise from the world’s point of view. Jacob, you see, has always counted on his wit to get him out of scrapes. So he thinks of yet another way to outwit someone. What he should have done first is to pray. He does pray, and yet it is not the first thing that he does. It is here that he forgets about the camp of God that he mentioned in the first verses. He should have remembered here that since God had promised him a seed, that God would therefore protect that seed.

At the same time, we must not be too hard on Jacob. He does in fact pray. From what we gather about that prayer and through what follows, we will find out that the prayer was more efficacious than the gifts. Though he should have prayed first, he still did it. And it is definitely a prayer of faith. This, by the way, is the only extended prayer in the entirety of the book of Genesis. Notice here what he prays. First he prays that God would remember the ways in which He had delivered Jacob’s ancestors from similarly harrowing experiences. He was indeed the God of Abraham and Isaac. Second, he prays that God would remember His promise to help Jacob in the future. Third, he mentions that he is completely unworthy of the blessings that he has received so far. Fourth, he prays for deliverance from this current predicament. He mentions that God needs to deliver him from the hand of his brother. That phrase implies that he is already under the power of his brother, and that he needs deliverance from that power that already has him in its grasp. And finally, he reminds God yet again of His promises to him. Truly, Jacob is here standing on the promises of God.

And then, Jacob does a very intelligent thing, and not necessarily out of lack of faith. He divides his magnificent gift up into five portions, with a brief space in between, so that Esau will start to be encumbered with all this livestock milling around him. Another purpose of doing it this way is that Jacob has the greatest chance this way of mollifying his brother. Esau will hardly have a chance to inspect one flock before another will be on top of him. Notice how very generous Jacob is with these gifts. Not only does he give a very substantial number of each kind of livestock, but he also gives a very generous number of males to go with the females so that there is the greatest chance of these livestock increasing at a great rate. As all of us who farm cattle know, having ten bulls to run with only forty cows probably seems like overkill. Even twenty rams for two hundred ewes might seem like overkill. Probably Jacob is thinking that Esau can add these males to the rest of his flock, so that any deficiency is Esau’s flock will be more than made up by the generosity of Jacob’s gift.

What do we learn from this passage about ourselves? Well, put yourself in Jacob’s shoes for a moment. You think that that test that you are facing is going to annihilate you. What should you do about it? Should you trust to your own resources, or should you pray?

When Jesus was facing His most painful trial in the Garden of Gethsemane, what did He do? He prayed. In fact, He prayed with such fervency that He sweated drops of blood. He knew what was coming. He had no illusions about the nature of the Satanic attack that was coming His way. He knew that Satan was coming to annihilate Him. And His resource was in talking and pleading with His Heavenly Father. So must it be with us.

F we are in a situation where reconciliation is necessary, then we must trust in God first by praying, and then we must act. How many times do we have that process reversed? We act first and then pray. What we must rather do is pray first and then act. That is the only way of dealing with situations like this. What is the way in which we should reconcile? Well, again Jesus has the answer for us. In Matthew 18, the process goes like this: we go to that person by ourselves and ask for reconciliation. If that doesn’t work, then we take a friend. If that doesn’t work, then we take it before the church. If that doesn’t work, then excommunication is necessary. That whole process must be bathed in prayer. There must be no part of it that is not steeped in prayer. Obviously, if the problem is our own fault (and nine times out of ten, it is a two-way street), then we must first confess our faults, before we ever have the right to demand the other person to confess their faults. This is a big problem in reconciliation. People are always wanting to justify themselves and say that they have no problems. The problems always lie with the other person. If we wouldn’t do that, but rather humbled ourselves, and said, “You know, I know that my own faults are part of this problem, and might even be the main part. Will you forgive me?” There is nothing Satan likes more than division within the body. If you feel always like it is the other person’s fault, then you can be sure that it is Satan telling you that. Remember that Jacob said that he was not worthy of the least of God’s mercies. He acknowledges his fault, and will do so again when he wrestles with God in the next section. So do you prepare to meet your ordeal by prayer? Do you prepare by praying? That is the lesson of this text.

Justice and Prayer

Genesis 18:16-33
Our world is wicked. In fact it is so wicked that it deserves complete annihilation, does it not? It deserves the penalty of hell forever. There is not reason why God should not come down from heaven and burn up the world right this very minute. So why doesn’t God do that? It is because God is a just God, and through Jesus Christ, there are righteous people on this world. Do you realize that if there were no Christians on this earth, God would completely destroy this world and everyone in it? The other reason that God does not immediately destroy this world is that there are people praying for the world. Jesus Himself is an intercessor for the world. He Himself is a high priest, praying to the Father that all the elect will come to salvation before the judgment happens, and that all the righteous people will escape the punishment that will come upon the unbeliever. Well, that is exactly the same situation that we have here in our text this morning.

Abraham is the friend of God. He has just finished eating with God Himself in the form of Jesus Christ before the Incarnation. That is, Christ is in a pre-incarnate form. First we see that the three men are going to go down to Sodom. This was their intention. When it says that they looked down, we can see that they were looking down from some high vantage point, from which they could easily see the lowly Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah were located on the edge of the Dead Sea, which, as we should all know, is below sea level, and is indeed the lowest point of land in the world.

Verse 17 has much to teach us. We see here that God treats Abraham like a friend. Friends don’t hide things from their friends. That is why God is not going to hide from Abraham what He is about to do. It is as if Abraham has a right to know. What condescension on God’s part! It is as if God is taking Abraham back to the Garden of Eden, in full communion with God Himself. Truly, Abraham is being highly favored here.

What does it mean to be the friend of God? Well, to be the friend of God is to stand by him against all God’s enemies, to resent with a holy indignation all insults and injuries offered to him, and to approve of His purposes of wrath as well as of his plans and promises of love. A true friend is someone whom you know so well that you know how that person will respond. God certainly knows how Abraham is going to respond to this revelation. In fact, the question that God asks here is out loud, and is for Abraham’s benefit. God wants Abraham to intercede on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why? Because God wants Abraham to know that God is completely fair and just. There will be no destruction of the innocent with the guilty. God is too good at taking care of His children to let that happen. But Abraham doesn’t necessarily know that for certain. God also wants to use Abraham’s prayer in order to accomplish His purposes. God’s purpose is to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, while rescuing Lot.

Are you the friend of God? Understand that there is no way to be the friend of God, except by trusting in Jesus. Without Jesus, you are not God’s friend, but His enemy. There is enmity between you and God. Jesus is the One, Who is the Friend of sinners. There is no one else by whose name you can be saved, in heaven or on earth.

When you become the friend of God, certain things change. God, you see, has revealed His plan to us through His Word. God tells things to His friends. And He has done that. We know what God’s plan is for the world. God will save the elect. God will destroy the world through fire in the final judgment. That judgment, in fact, will be a great deal like the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. God wants us to intercede on behalf of the world. It is a little different now. Now, we don’t say merely that the world should be saved from destruction just because there are Christians in the world. That is only a small part of what we pray for now. Now, we pray for the salvation of the people in the world. Now, there is a way of increasing the number of Christians in the world. That way is through the Gospel preached. God is just, and the justifier of sinners, as Paul says in Romans. One of the ways that God does this is to use the prayers of the saints. You see then, that God is just, and that God uses our prayers. That is what we are to see from the text.

In verse 20, we see further the justice of God. God will not allow Himself to judge anyone based what someone else says. God instead will pay very careful attention to all the circumstances. God will wait until all the facts are in. God is just.

I wonder sometimes whether we are as just as God. If you see someone doing something that you think is wrong, do you stop and wait and see if it is all true? Do you go to that person and ask them about their motives, or do you assume that what you think about that person is true? Do you listen to what someone says about someone else, or do you base your opinion of that person on direct evidence?

Notice here at the end of verse 21 that God leaves the door open for Abraham to intercede. In fact, God invites Abraham to do so, by saying, “And if not, I will know.”

What happens next is somewhat similar to what happens at Near Eastern bazaars. It is a bargaining of sorts. What is the upshot of the rest of the passage? The upshot is that God knows how to deliver the righteous ones from destruction, even while destroying the ungodly. You see, it is a loving, just God that we serve. God is not capricious or arbitrary. God does not make snap decisions. Indeed, God made all His decision in eternity before the creation of the world. Now, this passage does not say that God was ignorant of what was really going on in Sodom and Gomorrah. God knows all things. What God says here is for Abraham’s benefit. Abraham may not know that God knows all things, and is perfectly just. So, God proves to Abraham that He is just. Indeed, we could say that the issue in these verses is the very character of God Himself.

The first question that Abraham asks is the most important: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” That is the key question. The question is, “Is God just?” Surely, it is not just to punish the righteous with the wicked. As Abraham says, “Far be it from to do such a thing-to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of the all the earth do right?”
God proves that He is righteous by granting that what Abraham says is just. It was never God’s intention to destroy the righteous along with the wicked, as the next chapter makes very clear to us: God saves Lot and his two daughters from the destruction. But here, God is testing Abraham, to see if Abraham will be a good mediator. Abraham is a good mediator. Notice that Abraham is always polite. Never does he intrude into the secret counsel of God, trying to find out who is saved and who is not. That is not Abraham’s business. He knows who he is in relationship to God. He knows that he is but dust and ashes. That is why Abraham approaches with such humility. He knows that it is only by God’s grace that Abraham can even talk to God. Remember that Abraham is here talking to a person who is standing right in front of him.

So we live in front of the face of God? Do we live as if god was right there in front of us, observing everything that we do, say, and think? Do we live our lives “coram Deo?” That phrase means, “before the face of God.”
But notice that long with Abraham’s humility is also a sense of boldness. God is a just God. God has said before that he will not destroy the wicked if there are righteous people who will be destroyed along with the wicked. We saw that with the story of Noah. Indeed, the story of Noah and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah are very much alike. They both involve a complete destruction, while the righteous person is delivered. Abraham knew this story, and thus he knew that god is just. God had promised never to destroy the world in that way again. So, Abraham is not asking God to do anything that is out of accord with who God is. That is what gives Abraham this sense of boldness.

Oftentimes, we ask things that God will not give us, since it is not His character to give it to us. We ask for happiness in this life, when God means for us to be happy in the next world. We ask for things that we would make into an idol. Those things God will not give His children. We sometimes even ask God for the opportunity to sin. What? How do we do that? Well, we ask God not to judge our sin just yet, not to cleanse us of our sin just yet. Augustine said it best when he confessed that he had often told God, “Lord, make me holy, but not just yet.” That is the way to destruction, since we do not know when God will rain down fire and brimstone in His judgment of the world. It is coming, and it is impossible to avoid.

But we can have the boldness to ask God for what God has already promised to give to us. God is thoroughly reliable. After all, God promised in the OT to send a Savior. We have seen that already in Genesis, and that theme runs throughout the entire OT. And God did it. He sent His Son to bear on His own shoulders the fire and brimstone that should have been ours. Indeed, Jesus took on Himself the judgment that came on Sodom and Gomorrah. Because of that fact, we can trust that God will also give us everything else that is conducive to godliness.

There is another way that we can see Christ here. Abraham keeps on reducing the number from fifty all the way down to ten. What Abraham is asking is that God will save the remnant. God saves Lot. That means that God will always save a remnant for Himself. God will save the remnant because Jesus was the faithful remnant who kept the law perfectly, and was the very opposite of what Sodom and Gomorrah had become. And so we can see that Abraham was heard because of Jesus Christ, the faithful remnant. Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Jesus Christ. Indeed, he was talking with Jesus Christ all the way through this incident.

And so, the righteousness through which Abraham would see God is that righteousness of Jesus Christ. There is no other righteousness by which we can be saved than the righteousness of Christ. It is by grace alone that we can be saved. And on that basis, on the basis of the righteousness of Christ, we can come to the throne of grace and intercede for those around us.

Why did Abraham stop at ten? Why not go all the way down to one? Scholars have asked this question many times, and there have been many answers given to it. I believe the correct answer is that Abraham realized that God would not destroy the righteous with the guilty. Abraham, of course, was thinking primarily about Lot in this whole episode. There is Lot, Lot’s wife, Lot’s daughters, and Lot’s two sons-in-law. That makes a total of six people. Abraham figured out by now that God would save the righteous people. God would bring them out of that land of sin and death. And that is exactly what God did. In chapter 19:29, we see this written: “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.” We could almost add to that: “God remembered Abraham and Abraham’s intercession. This is answered prayer.

Do you ever think that your prayers are forgotten by God? I think that we sometimes think that we pray to God, and then, because we can’t see God, those prayers go into some kind of void. We think that they are lost forever. God may hear them once, okay, maybe we believe that. But do we believe that God treasures up those prayers? There is not one single prayer that we utter that is in accord with God’s Word, there is not one of those prayers that God will forget. God remembers our prayers, and God uses our prayers to accomplish His purposes.

So then, we can ask this question: for what do we pray? Well, as we mentioned earlier, our world is just like Sodom and Gomorrah. And from this passage we learn that had there been even ten righteous people in those cities, the two cities would have been spared. So we ask for righteous people in this world. It is right to ask that God will make people righteous on the basis of what Christ has done. It is right to ask that God should spare the world for the sake of the Gospel. We want as many people to come to Christ as possible. And we know that if Sodom and Gomorrah would have been saved, then there is hope for anyone. It does not matter what their previous sins have been. Christ’s blood is more powerful than sin. It washes away sin. It is more powerful than fire and brimstone.

So will you trust in that powerful blood? The alternative becomes clear as we look at the next passage. Fire and brimstone are the only alternatives to Christ’s blood cleansing us from sin. 2 Peter 2:4ff. Say this: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” These are the alternatives: to believe in Christ, and thus be God’s friend, and be able to talk to God in prayer, interceding for the world, and seeing Christ in the Scriptures, and seeing God’s justice poured out on unbelief, while remaining immune to the judgment itself, or, by scoffing at God, by not believing in God, by ridiculing God’s people and the day of Christ’s return, participate in the same kind of destruction that Sodom ad Gomorrah underwent. The choice is before us. Choose now, while there is yet time.

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