Dr. John Hoole – January 22, 2017
We are in a section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is speaking to His listeners about the practice of their personal piety. What Jesus spoke about first, and what we covered in our last lesson, was charitable giving or alms. Today we will examine the next act of righteousness Jesus mentioned – Prayer.
Jesus never turned a blind eye toward hypocrisy. In this series of the Sermon on the Mount, in the first 18 verses of Matthew chapter 6, Jesus talks about so-called religious people who hoodwinked the spiritually gullible. And He notes how pious frauds used spiritual disciplines of giving (vss.1-4), Prayer (vss. 5-8) and fasting (vss. 16-18), to create a positive impression of themselves in the eyes of the unsuspecting public.
Jesus does not want His people to use religiosity or spirituality as a means of impressing other people. He abhors artificiality and pretense. You might think that the disciplines of fasting, prayer and giving would be off-limits to evil. Not so! The most noble spiritual activities can be corrupted. We must always be on guard to keep our hearts pure and our motives right.
The last time we had a series on Prayer in this class was about 12 years ago. We are going to use a passage from that sermon for our text today.
In Matthew 6:5-8 (NAS), Jesus tells us the do’s and don’ts of prayer.
5 "And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
Jesus says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites.” In other words, don’t use prayer to show off. The hypocrite of Jesus’ day used prayer as a badge of spirituality.
6 "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
7 "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.
8 "Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him.
There is nothing wrong with public prayer. Jesus prayed publicly, as did the early church. The key lies with our intent and to whom we are praying.
The most common act of piety is prayer. Perhaps it can be said that prayer is the highest act of piety, for it puts one in touch with God Himself.
Jesus assumed that people who are serious about their faith will pray. Three times in the verses we just read, Jesus said, “When you pray.” And in the very next verse (vs. 9), He introduces the immortal Lord’s Prayer with the words, “Pray then, in this way.”
There are some Christians - I would call them hyper-Calvinists - you may know some who believe that it is hardly necessary to pray. These say that everything is in God’s hands and that He does what he wants to do whether or not you ask for it. For them, prayer is nothing more than a Christian tuning in to what is already God’s will. On the other side, there are those who are the ultra-Arminians, who make a great deal of man’s part in the process of salvation. These believe that almost everything is contingent upon prayer, and that God will do very little unless we ask for it. On the one hand, prayer is seen simply as a way of lining up with God regarding what He has already determined to do, and on the other prayer is beseeching God to do what He otherwise would not do.
In between are most of us – some Calvinists and some Arminians who believe that God is indeed in charge of things and is accomplishing His own purposes, but who, nevertheless, also believe that God responds to our prayers and, in fact, even urges us to pray to Him. Unfortunately, we are often uncertain about prayer. We wonder how we should pray, what we should pray for, and sometimes whether we should even pray at all.
Some time ago I heard a story that illustrates how some of these questions trouble even very mature Christians. At one point in the course of their very influential ministries George Whitefield, the Calvinistic evangelist, … and John Wesley, the Arminian evangelist, … were preaching together in the daytime and rooming together in the same boarding house each night.
One evening after a particularly strenuous day the two of them returned to the boarding house exhausted and prepared for bed. When they were ready, each knelt beside the bed to pray.
Whitefield, the Calvinist, prayed like this:
“Lord, we thank Thee for all those with whom we spoke today, and we rejoice that their lives and destinies are entirely in Thy hand. Honor our efforts according to Thy perfect will. Amen.”
He rose from His knees and got into bed.
Wesley, who hardly got past the invocation of his prayer in this length of time, looked up from his side of the bed and said, “Mr. Whitefield, is this where your Calvinism leads you?” Then he put his head down and went on praying. Whitefield stayed in bed and went to sleep. About two hours later Whitefield woke up, and there was Wesley still on his knees beside the bed. So Whitefield got up and went around the bed to where Wesley was kneeling. When he got there he found Wesley asleep. He shook him by the shoulder and said to him, “Mr. Wesley, is this where your Arminianism leads you?”
The story shows that we all have some things to learn about prayer, and it teaches that because no one understands the ways of God as perfectly as we ought to understand them, prayer is, therefore, at least partially confusing to us all.
Actually, the Bible supports both of these views and holds them, as it were, in tension. The Bible in unequivocal about God’s absolute sovereignty. But it is equally unequivocal in declaring that within His sovereignty God calls on His people to beseech Him in prayer – to implore His help in guidance, provision, protection, mercy, forgiveness, and countless other needs.
I am not sure that it is possible to fully fathom the divine working that makes prayer effective. But that is not required, for God simply commands you and me to obey the principles of prayer that His Word gives.
There are probably only a few here today that are satisfied with their prayer life. We want to please our Lord, thus we want this to be an effective part of our life.
Please turn with me to the book of Philippians.
Philippians 4:1,4-13 NKJV
1 Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
5 Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.
6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God;
7 and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things.
9 The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will Be with you.
10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity.
11 Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content:
12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
In this chapter, Paul mentions a whole series of things all of us want in our Christian life.
• We all want to stand firm in our faith, as mentioned in verse 1.
• We all want to have a joyful attitude throughout the day - like verse 4 depicts.
• We all want to have minds that dwell on wholesome and praiseworthy things
-- as mentioned in verse 8.
• We all want to apply God’s principles so completely that we are flooded with His peace.
-- as we read in verses 7 & 9.
• And for sure, we all want contentment and satisfaction - the way it is mentioned in verses 10-12.
There is probably not one here that doesn’t want all of these things in our Christian life. And even though they are presented in a way that indicates we can have them, how many of us experience them on a regular basis. (And I ask myself the same question.)
During those times when we are honest with ourselves, we struggle with thoughts like:
• “Sometimes I sure don’t act like a Christian.”
• “I’m a poor example of a child of God.”
• “Why is it that so often I don’t feel very joyful?”
• “Too often I don’t have thoughts that are wholesome and praiseworthy.”
We are troubled with how easily we can blow it. So anxiety over our less than stellar Christian walk weighs heavily upon us. Sometimes we even become confused.
The interesting thing is this: the first and only thing that will work is too often the last thing we try. We find it in verse 6: It’s PRAYER!!
Philippians 4:6-7 (NKJV)
6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Most Christians are so familiar with those words, I fear they may have lost their punch. To guard against that, let me read them from another translation.
The Amplified Bible
Do not fret or have any anxiety about anything, but in every circumstance and in everything by prayer and petition (specific, definite requests), with thanksgiving continue to make your wants known to God.
And God’s peace (that tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot of whatever sort that is, that peace) which transcends all understanding, shall garrison and mount guard over your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Now that’s a mouthful. If I understand this correctly, the anxiety that mounts up inside me, concerning my Christian walk, that growing irritation and the struggles that make me churn will be dissipated, and in fact, be replaced with inner peace. And, in addition, all those other qualities I want so much in my life will be mine, if I will simply talk to my God.
Prayer is the single most significant thing that will help turn inner turmoil into peace. Prayer is the answer. And yet, if I were to ask each of you about your prayer life, most would indicate some dissatisfaction with that part of your Christianity.
But as soon as I admit that about my prayer life, I have a dilemma. These verses in Philippians 4 promise that peace will come to the person who prays. Why then is it a struggle? What is it about prayer that makes even the great and the godly (those we admire so much) feel so guilty? So dissatisfied? So unhappy with their own prayer life?
As most of you know, I like to study Church history. In looking at the last several hundred years to see what church leaders taught about prayer, and their attitudes toward their own participation in this activity, I found that many of them admitted to little joy or peace or satisfaction in their prayer life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, once admitted that his prayer experience was something to be ashamed of. Martin Luther, that great leader of the Reformation, anguished in prayer, saving of the best hours of the day to pray,…..and yet seldom seem satisfied. Go down through church history and we will find one after another working hard on prayer. But frequently we will find them dissatisfied, some of them even woefully unhappy about their prayer life.
E. M. Bound, who wrote a whole series of books on prayer, Alexander Maclaren, Samuel Rutherford, Hudson Taylor, John Henry Jowett, G. Campbell Morgan, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, F. B. Meyer, A. W. Tozer, H. A. Ironside, and on and on. These were great men - strong Christian examples - magnificent models of Christ, and yet you can hardly find one of that group who was satisfied with his prayer life.
Oh, they labored in prayer, they believed strongly in prayer, they taught and preached prayer. Then why the great dissatisfaction? Why the guilt? Or, for some, embarrassment? If we have the promise that peace would come to those who pray, why do we find this discrepancy?
Paul’s perspective on prayer was this -- It results in peace, it doesn’t take it away. It alleviates anxiety, it isn’t designed to create it. But we have been led to believe that in order for prayer to be effective, it must be arduous, sometimes lengthy, and maybe even painful -- and we must stay at it … pleading, and longing, and waiting.
I do not seek to indicate that prayer does not at times take on these forms, But, in the Bible, except in very few and extreme cases, prayer is neither long nor hard to bear. However, there is one case where Jesus said, speaking of evil spirits, “These come out by prayer and fasting.” That indicates there are times where prayer is more intense.
I also cannot find a single biblical character who struggled with guilt because they didn’t pray long enough or because they were not in enough pain or because they failed to plead and beg sufficiently. You can check it out for yourself. I am convinced it isn’t there.
No one can read the Bible without being impressed with the large place given to prayer in its pages. The word “pray” occurs over 300 times in our Bible, and the words “prayer,” “prayers,” and “praying,” appears an additional 280 times. Beginning with the conversation between God and Adam, all through the Old testament and the New, we have examples of men who prayed.
Ezra regarded prayer as more important than a band of soldiers and horsemen (Ezra 8:21-23)
Christ regarded is as more necessary than food and sleep (Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12).
And the Apostles put it ahead of preaching (Acts 6:4).
Every writer in the New Testament extolled prayer as a vibrant part of a believer’s contact with God. In 1 Timothy 2:8 (NAS), Paul declares:
8 Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.
On another occasion, Paul says “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17)
God never commanded us to SING without ceasing.
God never commanded us to PREACH without ceasing.
God never commanded us to GIVE without ceasing.
God never commanded us to WORK without ceasing.
But he DID, however, tell us to pray without ceasing.
1 Peter 3:12(NAS) adds,
12 "For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and His ears attend to their prayer,.……
James 5:16 (KJV) says,
…… The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
One of the real clear, concise commandments written repeatedly in God’s Word is “Pray!”
Mark 13:33 commands us to “watch and pray.”
I do believe prayer is the single most significant activity a believer can do. Prayer is the answer to life’s situations and difficulties. It is the avenue for receiving wisdom and strength. And if prayer is that important, we need to know more about it.