March, 2017

Prayer – The Progress of the New Testament

Prayers from Genesis to Malachi were offered up to God and answered by God. God’s will was sought through prayer and God implemented his will through the prayers of his people. But the prayers of the Old Testament show that the Bible reveals God through the Scriptures in a progressive manner. God does not change, but the manner in which he has revealed himself has deepened through the progression of the Scriptures. For example, Abraham was saved by faith in Christ, even though he didn’t know the name Jesus.

As Christ was revealed through the prophets and then the apostles, some of the aspects of how God’s people prayed changed. Since Abraham never knew the name of Christ, he could not have prayed in Jesus’ name. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1, 2). No prophet or Old Testament saint was able to ask for anything in Jesus’ name (Jn 16:23), but now, those who knew the Christ could pray in Jesus’ name. This changes the intimacy and the immediacy of prayer.

The work of Jesus as the Christ also progresses the assurance believers of the New Testament and beyond can have in their prayers. Jesus acts as a Mediator (1 Tim 2:5) on our behalf. He is the Advocate for us before the Father (1 John 2:1). So we know that our prayers are heard by the Father. This is not a fundamental change in prayer from the Old Testament time, for the Psalms repeatedly assure us that God hears our prayers (Pss 5:3, 17:6, 34:17, 66:19, et al.). God’s hearing our prayers has not changed, but as the person and work of Jesus Christ has been revealed we are able to understand and appreciate more clearly how God hears our prayers. The mechanism by which the Father hears our prayers has been revealed to be none other than the Son. And the Son assures us that, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:13, 14).

A final advancement we see in the progression of prayer relates to the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer. The Old Testament Scriptures are largely silent on the role of the Spirit in prayer. As God does not change, it is not the case that the Spirit was inactive in prayer in the Old Testament, rather it is that the Spirit’s role was unsaid in the Old Testament. There was, however, an advancement in the Spirit’s role in believers’ lives. After the earthly ministry of Jesus was completed, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit into the lives of all those in Christ.

The 17th century Dutch Reformer Wilhemus À Brakel noted, “A true prayer proceeds from the Holy Spirit…. In order for anyone to pray aright, the Holy Spirit must grant the disposition, the desires, and the expressions.”[1] We are too weak to pray as we ought to pray. God, therefore, gives us the Spirit to empower us to prayer properly (Rom 8:26). The Spirit does not, however, make us slothful in our prayers, as if we were simply to blank our minds and allow the Spirit to take over. This is the way of Eastern meditation (as advocated and embodied in Eastern practices like yoga). This is neither faithful nor helpful. Instead, as John Calvin instructs, “the Spirit empowers us so to compose prayers as by no means to hinder or hold back our own effort, since in this matter God’s will is to test how effectually faith moves our hearts.”[2] The Holy Spirit empowers and moves those in Christ to pray as they ought. This is a blessing that those who are in Christ on this side of the cross enjoy.

Prayer is distinctively Trinitarian. While the Trinity is certainly seen in the Old Testament, it is somewhat veiled. BB Warfield describes the Trinity in the Old Testament as “a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted.” It is the Spirit who brings us to prayer, through Jesus Christ, to the Father. This is revealed in much greater detail through the progressive revelation of the New Testament. It hasn’t changed from the Old Testament, but has come into sharper and clearer focus in the New.

 

[1] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.452.

[2] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), III.xx.5.

Quarterly Missions Prayer March 19, 2017

Quarterly Prayer 3 19 2017

Prayer – The Prophets

The Prophets are full of examples of prayer. Isaiah’s prophecy is a hybrid of poetry and prose that uses exalted language to call the people back to God. His prophecy is littered with prayer. Jeremiah is full of the prayers of a man who weeps for the Lord. His prayers are seasoned with tears. These prayers are followed by the book of Lamentations. This book is five movements of lament in prayer. The Minor Prophets, too, have expressions of prayer that fit with every mood and situation. Jonah shows the answered prayers of heathens and the rejected prayer of the runaway prophet, the prayers of a repentant city and the prayer of an angry prophet. Habakkuk raises a prayer of complaint that is familiar to all believers, “Oh LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” (Hab 1:1). But Habakkuk’s raw honesty is followed up with unrelenting faith, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the…, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:17, 18). The Prophets convey this emotion in a variety of circumstances and in a variety of forms prayer for the believer.

Perhaps the method of prayer among the Prophets is most clearly seen in the prayer life of Daniel. Few people show the determination to pray like Daniel. Often our prayer lives are stunted by the concerns of our day. Prayer takes a backseat to other priorities. Prayer is ignored because we don’t really see the value. Prayer is postponed because circumstances might make it awkward. Daniel would have none of this attitude.

Daniel was a prophet living in exile. The Babylonians had conquered Israel and taken all the best men back to Babylon. Daniel was one of these men. But he had resolved to not defile himself in exile. He committed to living a holy life and to continue worshiping the LORD. Three times a day, Daniel got down on his knees and gave thanks before his God (Dan 6:10). There was nothing in Daniel’s life that his enemies could point to as a pretext for his dismissal, except that Daniel was wholly devoted to the LORD. So the King’s satraps contrived to outlaw prayer. They knew this was the only way to get rid of Daniel. Would that the worst thing that could be said about our lives was that we were completely faithful in prayer. I fear that the faithfulness of the modern Christian’s prayer life would not often be cause for persecution.

Daniel’s life was preserved by the LORD. And Daniel continued to serve the King by answering the visions and riddles that befuddled all others. His visions foretold of God’s ultimate redemptive plan culminating in the Kingdom of God being inaugurated by his Messiah. As Daniel began to grasp the magnitude of this vision, it created in him a deep awareness of his sin before a holy God. Chapter 9 is Daniel’s prayer of personal and national confession. The people had rejected the LORD and been sent into exile. But God was not done with his covenant people.

Daniel’s prayer of confession is a great model for us today. It shows us that repentance requires honest confession, earnest contrition, and real change. Daniel’s confession is clear. He does not equivocate or make excuses. He owns up to the sin of the people. “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land” (Dan 9:5, 6). There is no blame-shifting or finger pointing in Daniel’s prayer. He confesses his sin. Our repentance should be marked by prayer that honestly confesses our sin.

Daniel’s heart is broken over his sin. When we truly understand the gravity of our sin, it should break us. “To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame” (Dan 9:7). “To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you” (Dan 9:8). The knowledge of God’s holiness and Daniel’s sinfulness was a source of shame. He shows an emotional understanding of his sin. Our repentance should be marked by prayer demonstrating earnest contrition.

Finally, Daniel’s life was changed. Repentance is not complete until there is a change. Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11 that she should, “Go…and sin no more.” The practical demonstration that repentance was genuine is a changed life. The rest of the book of Daniel confirms Daniel’s faithfulness. And Daniel is assured by a messenger for the Lord that he, “shall rest and stand in [his] allotted place at the end of the days” (Dan 12:12). Daniel shows a life fully committed to the Lord. Our repentance should be marked by prayer that really changes us.

The Prophets declared God’s Word to the people, calling them to repentance and faith. Their prayers were prayers that glorified God, expressed the cries of the heart, and pointed the people to God’s redemptive hope in the Messiah. Our love of God, heart for the lost, and vision of God’s love for us would only grow if we sought to pray like Daniel prayed.

Prayer – Psalms

A good athlete conditions and trains his body so that he doesn’t have to “think” in the moment. Instead, his body is so accustomed to the situation that it simply reacts. Every scenario has been drilled into him by repetition that muscles and reflexes simply do. But this doesn’t just happen. The athlete must spend hour after hour in the gym, taking jump shot after jump shot, or swing after swing, or repetition after repetition. Every possible scenario is practiced so that there are no surprises on the court or field or mat. Prayer often operates in the same way.

There are times where the circumstances of life strike us unprepared, and prayer in those moments is visceral and unrehearsed. God hears those prayers. But prayer is better and more effective in expressing our heart, changing our situation, and communicating our needs to a generous God when we are well prepared in the full range of emotions. It is for this reason that the Psalter is the greatest training tool on prayer in the Scriptures. While the Lord’s Prayer is the perfect instruction on the form of prayer. The Psalms are the perfect instruction on the content of prayer. In order to prayer effectively, we need to be conditioned, trained, and practiced in the scope of emotional life that is expressed through the Psalms. The 8th century English scholar, Alcuin, wrote:

As angels live in heaven, so men live on earth who rejoice in the praises of God, in the pure heart of psalmody. No mortal man can fully declare the virtue of the psalms. In them are the confession of sins, the tears of the penitent, sorrow of heart. Here is foretold all the dispensations of our redemption, the wondrous delights of heaven’s mirth. Here shall you find the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Word of God.[1]

The Psalms are the prayerbook of God which trains us in how to express our whole lives, dreams, hopes, fears, and pains to God.

The great prayers of the New Testament and the prayers of the saints throughout Church History are littered with references to the Psalms. A life of great prayer is nurtured on the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word. Eugene Peterson explains that God’s Word, specifically the Psalms, ought to be a tool for our prayers.

The Psalms are the best tools available for working the faith – one hundred and fifty carefully crafted prayers that deal with the great variety of operations that God carries on in us and attend to all the parts of our lives that are, at various times and in different ways, rebelling and trusting, hurting and praising. People of faith take possession of the Psalms with the same attitude and for the same reason that gardeners gather up rake and hoe on their way to the vegetable patch, and students carry paper and pencil as they enter a lecture hall. It is a simple matter of practicality – acquiring the tools for carrying out the human work at hand.[2]

It isn’t that we cannot pray without the Psalms. But an ignorance of their content or a rejection of their use in prayer will result in our attempting to grunt our way through the task with inferior tools.

Our weekly Lord’s Day worship seeks to make use of the Psalms for prayer. The reason we pray through the entire Psalter is because we believe the entire Psalter is instructive for our prayer life. Pastorally, I want the praying of the Psalms modeled for the congregation. The Christian needs to see the use of the Psalms as a normal and regular tool of her prayer life. Personally, we need to be regularly reading and meditating on the Psalms so that their language easily flows from our lips in our prayers. T.M. Moore’s little book God’s Prayer Program includes a topical index of the Psalms.[3] I recommend this full resource and share a sample of his index to help spur your use of the Psalms in your prayer.

For Confession of Sin – 6, 7, 32, 38, 39, 41, 51, 77, 78, 86, 130

For Pleading for Help – 3, 4, 30, 31, 42, 43, 64, 91, 120, 121, 123, 134

For Praise and Thanksgiving – 8, 18, 19, 22, 34, 92, 93, 95-100, 111-118, 144-150

For Pursuing Righteousness – 1, 5, 15, 23-28, 36, 50, 119, 139

[1] Quoted in, Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship: An Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2010), 37.

[2] Eugene H Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 2–3.

[3] T. M Moore, God’s Prayer Program: Passionately Using the Psalms in Prayer (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005), 181.