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Lectures in Biblical Theology
of The New Testament
by C. D. Cole
Lecture 7 of 23
What Christ Taught on the Subject of Prayer
Luke, the evangelist who presents Jesus as the perfect man, emphasizes His teaching on prayer. The Lord Jesus began and ended His earthly life in the attitude of prayer. He was praying at the time of His baptism, and His last word from the cross was a prayer. He spent the night in prayer before appointing the twelve. After feeding the five thousand, realizing a crisis, He withdrew into a mountain to pray. He was praying when He was transfigured. In Gethsemane, anticipating the horrors of the cross, He agonized in prayer. And on the cross the Lord Jesus prayed. “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;” (Luke 18:1). In many a trial and difficulty we would soon give up if we could not resort to prayer.
I.THE NEED OF PRAYER
To say that we need to pray is another way of saying that we need God. Prayer implies two things: our own impotence and God’s omnipotence. The power of prayer is not in the one who prays, but in God to Whom prayer is made. Spurgeon once said, that if we do not pray about everything we will worry about most things. Prayer ought to be a fixed principle in our lives. “Pray without ceasing,” (1 Thess 5:17). There may be vacation from preaching but not from praying. We need to live on the knees of our soul. We are sometimes told that we should not ask God to do for us what we can do for ourselves, but there is nothing we can do for ourselves. Did not Christ say, “Without me ye can do nothing,” (John 15:5). To be a fruit bearing Christian we must abide in Christ as the branch abides in the vine; and in this matter of abiding in Christ, prayer has a vital place. There is no abiding in Christ apart from prayer. Paul gives prayer as the prescription against anxiety or distraction. “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God,” (Phil. 4:6). When a doctor has a patient who is not improving, he is apt to call in another physician to help out. And this other physician may not know anymore than he knows, and may not be of much help. But this is not the case with God. “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us,” (Eph. 3:20).
The Lord Jesus enforced His lesson on prayer by two parables: the friend at midnight, “And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth. And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” (Luke 11:59), and the unjust judge, “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:18). The purpose in these parables is to point a contrast. God is not like the neighbor who did not want to be bothered, and whose unwillingness had to be overcome by much begging. God is willing to hear us and we are not bothering Him when we pray. Our importunity is to follow from the facts that He is both willing to hear and able to bless us, so that we can keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking. We do not trouble God as the widow did the unjust judge. And so these parables point a contrast that we may be encouraged to pray and not to faint. Prayer is the only alternative to fainting.
The Syrophenician woman is an example of persistence in prayer. Jesus immortalized this woman by saying, “O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt,” (Matt. 15:28). Wherein was the greatness of this woman’s faith? It was in the fact that she had little to base faith upon. She had little encouragement to faith, and she persevered in prayer in the face of discouragement. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God,” (Rom. 10:17). Christ had not said much for her to build faith upon. However, there was a little hope held out in the words of Jesus. “But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs,” (Mark 7:27). Here was a hint that there was something for her, and she grasped at this hint. She reminded Jesus that the little dogs, household pets, get the crumbs, and so there must be something for her as a dog. “And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour,” (Matt. 15:2228).
II.THE NATURE OF PRAYER
Prayer has been defined as the sincere desire of the heart expressed or unexpressed. Hannah prayed though her lips did not move. God heard the desire of her heart and answered with blessing. Prayer must be sincere and not a hypocritical display of piety before men. Christ described the hypocrites of His day as standing in the synagogue or on street corners to advertise their piety, to be seen of men. And He says, They get their reward. They get what they want. They do not want anything from God; they want human praise and they get it. Let us consider my own definition of prayer: Prayer is coming to God as our Father, in the name of Jesus Christ His Son, with a sincere desire for some blessing, believing that He is able to bestow it but willing to be denied it if it is not His will to give it. Now let us analyze this definition. It is coming to God as our heavenly Father. The name father is so rich in meaning. It speaks of love, provision, and protection. We pray to a loving Father and not to an unjust judge. What a happy thought! And we come in the Name of His Son. What a humbling thought! It reminds us that we are sinners with no standing before God in our own name or on our own record. We plead Christ’s righteousness and not our own, for we have none. Then we come with sincere desire for some blessing. If we do not really want what we ask for, then we lie in making our petition. And if we do not believe He is able to grant what we want, we will not pray much. Moreover, if we are not willing to be denied the blessing we crave, then our prayer is not petition but dictation. In much of our praying we do not know what the will of God is in that particular thing.
I like what Dr. Conner says about reverence in prayer. Prayer is not communion between two equals. We must not talk to God as we would to other believers. We must not get chummy with God. We may come to God boldly, but we must come to Him humbly, remembering, “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him,” (Ps. 89:7).
III.PRAYER AND THE WILL OF GOD
Prayer must respect the will of God, Who is sovereign over all. We are not to try to change God’s will in prayer. When we say, “Thy will be done and not ours”, we must mean it in our heart. In much of our praying we do not know what God’s will is in the matter before us. Take the matter of service. Shall I answer this call or that call? Or will there be any call? How will I know God is in the call? I had to face this in coming to Toronto for this period of service. How could I know God’s will in the matter? One cannot always go by impressions for they are apt to fluctuate. It has long been my policy in facing decisions that must be made, to endeavor by prayer to surrender my will to the will of God, and have no choice of my own. As long as we have a will of our own, we are not subject to His will. And finally, in making decisions, I try to turn the whole thing over to God, and trust His providence in leading me to make the decision. I find myself saying to Him, “O gracious and all wise God, do not let me get out of Thy will; see to it, that I make the right decision.”
Take the matter of health. When we are ill, there is no way for us to know whether or not it is God’s will to heal us. We may believe He is able, for His word assures us there is nothing impossible to Him. But how can we know that He is willing to heal us? One cannot open His Bible and find that healing is promised in this particular case. One can only say, as did the leper. “And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean,” (Mark 1:40). May I give two illustrations of what I am trying to get over to you. David had a sick child. He prayed for God to heal it. He was so earnest in prayer that he had no appetite for food. He was so deeply distressed that he wept and lay all night upon the ground. He must have believed that God was able to heal the baby, else he would not have continued to pray. “And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick. David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead? But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead. Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat. Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread. And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me,” (2 Sam. 12:1523) As if to say, I did not know God’s will until the Lord took the child. But now I know and am submissive to His will. I cannot bring the child back, but I can go to him.
Paul had a thorn in the flesh and he prayed three times for it to be removed. He did not know God’s will, but he certainly believed God was able to take it out of his flesh. God revealed that it was not His will to remove the thorn. “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong,” (2 Cor. 12:710).
IV.PRAYER AND FAITH
There is a vital relation between prayer and faith. James says that we must ask in faith, nothing wavering. The author of our textbook discusses (but not very helpfully) one of two texts which have been of great perplexity to your teacher. One is “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive,” (Matt. 21:22), and the other is “Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them,” (Mark 11:24). Both of these texts are found in connection with the cursing of the fig tree. When the disciples marveled at what was done to the fig tree Jesus told them that if they would believe and doubt not, they would not only be able to do what was done to the fig tree, but could say to the mountain, “Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done,” (Matt. 21:21).
We must distinguish between charismatic faith and saving faith, or between miracle working faith and justifying faith. One of the gifts of the Spirit to the early church was faith. This was not faith in Christ for salvation, but faith bestowed on the saints for the working of miracles. Paul’s discussion of the gifts of the Spirit. “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to that part which lacked. That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:130). The power to work miracles was possessed by some who did not have saving faith. “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity,” (Matt. 7:22-23). “And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease. Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give,” (Matt. 10:18). And remember that Judas was one of the twelve, and yet he never had saving faith. “But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him,” (John 6:64).
Miraculous gifts were found in the church at Corinth. These gifts were sovereignly bestowed and distributed. Some had one gift and others had a different gift. “Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way,” (1 Cor. 12:3031). “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing....Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away...And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity,” (1 Cor. 13:2,8,13). The apostle compares these gifts of the Spirit with the graces of the spirit: faith, hope, and love. He says one may have faith to remove mountains, miracle working faith, but if it does not work by love, he is nothing. He says that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit will cease to be given, but that the graces of faith, hope, and love will abide. These gifts of the Spirit were to accredit Jesus as the Christ to the Jews, and when the nation rejected Him and the Gentiles were turned to with the Gospel, these gifts ceased, they were no longer given. “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive,” (Matt. 21:22). “Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them,” (Mark 11:24).
It is my conviction that much confusion and heartbreak and shock to faith have resulted from making the above scripture apply to our time. They were promises to the early church in the Pentecostal era when public miracles were the order of the day. And to plead them as promises today is to claim possession of the miraculous gifts. And those who do claim to possess miraculous gifts, never claim the power to raise the dead, and yet this power was given to the apostles, and they were commanded to raise the dead. “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give,” (Matt. 10:8). Another gift to the early church was the ability to speak in a foreign language without any study of that language, and yet those who claim that the gifts to the early church are still possessed never go to a foreign country and speak to the natives without learning their language. It is too obvious to need any argument, that we do not have public miracles in our day. Sir Robert Anderson, in his book The Silence of God, says on page 18:
“The divine history of the favored race for thousands of years teems with miracles by which God gave proof of His power with men, and yet we are confronted by the astounding fact that from the days of the apostles to the present hour the history of Christendom will be searched in vain for the record of a single public event to compel belief that there is a God at all!”
And the same writer, dealing with the claims of “faith healers” says on page 170:
“Religious miracles also claim a passing notice here. I do not allude to the tricks of priests, but to cases of extraordinary cures from serious illness; and some at least of these appear to be supported by evidence sufficient to establish their truth. The phenomena of hysteria and mimetic disease will probably account for the majority of cases of the kind. Others again may be explained as instances of the power of the mind and will over the body. The diseases which are necessarily fatal are comparatively few. But when the patient gives up hope his chances of recovery are greatly reduced. On the other hand, the progress of disease may be controlled, and even checked, by some mastering influence or emotion which turns the patient’s thoughts back to life, and makes him believe he is convalescent. But while the vast majority of seemingly miraculous cures may thus be explained on natural principles, there may perhaps be some which are genuine miracles. There are no limits to the possibilities of faith, and God may thus declare Himself at times. “There is nothing in this admission to clash with the concluding statement of my second chapter that in our dispensation, unlike those which preceded it, there are no public events to compel belief in God. I am there dealing, not with the mere fact of miracles, but with their evidential value; and if there have been miracles in Christendom, that element is wanting in them. . . . The annals of “faith healing,” as it is called, are rich in cases of mimetic or hysterical disease, but about the spiritual wreckage due to failures innumerable they are silent.”
I have personally known of several cases where faith was based upon Matthew 21:22: “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” When I was a young pastor at Mortons Gap, Kentucky, little Mary Orange, a sweet and charming child, was taken ill. There was much prayer at the church, and by individuals privately. One day, Bro. Chester O’Bryan, an uncle of Mary’s, came to me in high hopes. He said that he had the assurance in his heart that Mary would get well; that he had pleaded Matthew 21:22, and by faith had claimed the promise. But in a few days Mary was dead. Had God refused to keep His word! One can well imagine the shock to the man who had based his faith upon what Christ had promised in Matthew 21:22. Brother Boyce Taylor, long time pastor of the First Baptist Church at Murray, Kentucky, and one of the great preachers of the Southern Baptist Convention, was burdened with many afflictions. He was voted out of the pastorate of his church. He published a paper, “News and Truths”, and operated a bookstore. His bank failed and tied up his deposits. He became ill and was taken to the Baptist Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He was a great man of prayer, and pleading the promises of Matthew 21:22 and Mark 11:24, he believed he would get well and be restored to a useful ministry. But Brother Taylor died. Had God gone back on His word? No, a thousand times No! Our dear brother was basing his faith and prayer on a promise for a particular time—the day of public miracles. The closing illustration cannot be documented, but I think I received it orally from the lips of the late A. W. Pink. George Whitefield, the great open-air preacher and friend of the Wesleys, had born unto him a son. He prayed that this son might become a preacher of the gospel, basing his faith upon Matthew 21:22 and Mark 11:24, and having the assurance of answered prayer. But the child died at a very young age. One thinks of the great disappointment to this great man of God.
The kind of praying inculcated in the New Testament epistles is found in Philippians 4:6: “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.” We are to make known our requests to God and be at peace. We are to tell Him our feelings and our wishes, and then leave the matter entirely in His hands, remembering that He is wiser in giving than we are in asking.
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