When I was a third year theological student, I was anxious to know that, upon graduation, I would find myself in God’s work and service and that I would enjoy, in the biblical sense of the word, the highest measure of success. I noted that a certain pastor in our country was exercising a ministry which was being owned of God so I wrote to him and asked pointed questions about his success and his ministry. His reply consisted of two-and-a-half pages of sound pastoral advice. His answer to my question about prayer was modest and humble, but it did indicate one thing, that prayer was a major factor in his life.
My years of training were invaluable, but I have often wondered why there was never as much as a mention of the theology of prayer. In the history of Presbyterianism, the whole matter of the pastor and his commitment to intercessory prayer has been an integral part of the ordination service, particularly when it came to addressing the man regarding his duties and responsibilities to his congregation.
Tragically, the work of intercessory prayer has become an under-emphasized part of the pastor’s calling today. It is seldom, if ever, the subject for consideration at conferences. For 25 years, an Evangelical and Reformed Conference has been held in South Africa. Through all those years I can recall only one conference where a slot was given to this subject. It is not overstating the case to say that pastoral intercessory prayer has been largely neglected in our day.
Recently Maurice Roberts wrote an arresting article in a Banner of Truth magazine. He described the scene in England, but what he observed is equally true of the USA and South Africa. He pointed out that although the land was covered with teaching points where the Word of God is being soundly taught and expounded, and although good, sound evangelical literature is circulating in the British Isles, there seems to be few inroads into the kingdom of darkness.
Though we believe that spiritual conditions are all determined by the sovereignty of God, we also believe that God’s people are meant to be responsible bearers of light and truth. Maurice Roberts then poses the question, “Have we forgotten to pray?”
Cast your minds across the stretches of biblical history. There is one continuous account of men inspired by God the Holy Spirit, calling upon the living God and imploring His mercy in times of need. With Abraham, God’s covenant child, the Biblical record is clear. He understood the part prayer played in his powerful pilgrimage. God disclosed to him the secret of his purposes, and when He did that, Abraham rushed to the throne of Grace to implore the mercy of God upon the righteous in Sodom. Would God, for the sake of 50, 40, 30 and even fewer righteous, spare those who were worthy? God heard his cry and remembering Abraham, delivered Lot.
The life of Jacob teaches us that when the covenant is in force, where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. Can you find a more moving prayer than Jacob’s cry, “I will not let you go except you bless me?” Here is a man who at least understood one thing-that in the providence of God, it is impossible to consider a pilgrimage of faith if intercessory prayer does not feature prominently?
What shall we say of Moses? God once declared that the people were worthy of immediate judgment. Moses then came forward and made his plea. In his intercession there is holy argument: “God, what about Your reputation, what will the heathen say, how can this be?” What holy respect, what an anxious plea, what concern for the honor of the Living God!
Time and again Moses stood between a judgment deserving people and a sin-avenging God. Here was a man of God, interceding for his people, arguing the case on the grounds of God’s holy and gracious Name. And God heard, and the nation was spared.
Every chapter in redemptive history features men at prayer. Consider Nehemiah and the broken-down walls of Jerusalem. He appears as a man given to intercessory supplication. Ezra was exactly the same. David stressed the necessity of prayer. All the prophets were characterized as intercessors of the first rank.
Consider the example of the Lord Jesus. We excuse ourselves from prayer because of our busy schedules. Was there ever a man as busy as Jesus? Have you ever noticed the setting in which Mark 1:35 is put? It reads: “Now in the morning, having risen a long while before day-light, He went out and departed to a solitary place and there He prayed.” The Holy Son of God was spending the early hours of the morning, before the rising of the sun, approaching His Heavenly Father, renewing His spiritual strength and vigor as He prepared Himself for the coming day.
However, look at the setting! “At evening when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon possessed and the whole city was gathered together at the door, and then He healed many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons and He did not allow the demons to speak because they knew Him” (verse 32). What unbelievable pressure! The verses following read: “Simon and his companions went and searched for Him and when they found Him they said, ‘Everyone is looking for you!'” Whereas the stress and strain of ministry tempt us toward “burn-out,” they moved our Savior to intercession! See Him crouched before the Father on High in the early hours of the morning.
His whole life is interspersed with prayer. As He approaches the cross, He takes His disciples with Him and again teaches the necessity of praying. It was an inseparable baptism of suffering. Have you ever read anything more soul moving than His High Priestly prayer? In Gethsemane and in the agony of the cross, the Son of God was preoccupied with communion with the Father even as His Holy wrath was being poured upon His darling Son in order to pay for the sins of His people. Even then, He had the mind to pray! It would be absurd not to see the importance of walking in His steps.
Acts 6 is a fascinating passage. It begins with these words: “Now in those days when the number of Grecian Jews among them complained against those of the Aramaic speaking community because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve gathered together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.'”
We notice, first of all, unprecedented church growth which brings with it the unusual demands for pastoral attention. The church was multiplying because of the sovereign grace of God. With growth came an unexpected pastoral problem which threatened to get out of hand. There was tension between two potentially explosive groups. It arose over the issue of food distribution. When a matter touches the stomach it becomes dangerous. Some of us would have panicked. However, with them there was a refusal to deal with the issue by the leadership. They delegated the responsibility.
Can you imagine a leadership today with a hands-off attitude to a matter as serious as that? Starvation was the issue? One of the leading Evangelical and Reformed pastors in my home country some time ago grudgingly afforded some of my friends thirty minutes of his time when they had flown over a thousand miles to see him. His reason–the same that influenced these apostles in Acts 6: We must give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word.”
The first ministerial function, as far as these men were concerned, was prayer. They had learned well. The two functions of the ministry-prayer and preaching-cannot be separated. Ministers must of necessity pray as all people do. They must do what all Christians do: pre-empt the day with prayer, end the day with prayer, point the day with prayer. But they must go beyond that.
The people of the early church, according to Acts 2:42, gave themselves to prayer. But the pastors went beyond that. They refused to undertake a noble responsibility in the local at the expense of the essential ministry of prayer.
While prayerlessness abounds, unbelief and secularism are making inroads into the Evangelical Church. Our only hope today is a return to prayer. Prayer is our common duty, but it is particularly the duty of those of us who are called into the gospel ministry. In the Old Testament, people expected prayer of their leaders. Samuel considered it a sin not to pray for the people. David prayed and the plague was stopped. Hezekiah prayed in a national crisis, and God heard.
For all of their diligence and faithfulness, these Old Testament saints could not pray as we may with our faith in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. They could not pray as we do in the full consciousness of the glorious privileges set out for us in Hebrews 10:19-22, “Therefore brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the Blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is His Body, and since we have a great Priest over the House of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
Study Paul’s prayers. Study the details. Study the passion, the precision, the emphasis, the pastoral heart. As he carries upon his heart the burdens of the churches, he knows that by God’s divine appointment, his highest calling, as an under-shepherd of the flock, is to invoke the Great Shepherd on behalf of the flock.
There is no special efficacy in ministers’ prayers. Only Christ has the efficacy. Since ministers are called to a special priesthood, the basis of our praying is always the mediatorial work of Christ. Our work as pastors is not to present a sacrifice for men, but to persuade them to believe a Sacrifice already offered. However, it is precisely on that basis that we plead with God on behalf of men.
In that sense, prayer is our highest work. It is hard work. It is a fight against the adversary. It is a battle against the flesh.
It is essential work. The minister who does not pray for his flock, is no minister at all. He is proud because he does his word as if he can succeed without God’s power. He shows no pity because he does not realize that his people’s greatest need is the Lord’s favors upon them. Be assured of this, if the minister does not pray, he will pay a high price.
Consider the sobering remarks of John Smith:
Prayer is the life and soul of the sacred function; without it, we can expect no success in our ministry; without it our best instructions are barren and our most painful labors idle. Before we can strike terror into those who break the law, we must first, like Moses, spend much time with God in retirement; prayer often gains a success to little talents, while the greatest without it are useless or pernicious. A minister who is not a man of piety and prayer, whatever his other talents may be, cannot be called a servant of God, but rather a servant of Satan, chosen by him for the same reason that he chose the serpent of old because he was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. What a monster, oh God, must that minister of religion be, that dispenser of the ordinances of the gospel, that intercessor between God and His people, that reconciler of man to his Maker, if he sees himself not as a man of prayer.
God often gives those blessings meant for the people in answer to the pastor’s prayer. We are to bring their needs before Him, we are to lament their sin, we are to pray for the sinner’s conversion and for the saint’s edification, and woe to us if we do not! While ministers need to be in the forefront of the ministry of prayer, all who believe need to have the same concern. If ever the Church is, by God’s design, to blossom, Christians must learn to pray.
I thank God for six women who two years ago pledged to pray for me daily-and none of them is in my church!
Ministers do not follow a career. A minister is captive to divine service and he cannot serve God without prayer. When Paul writes to the Romans, he wants them to know this (Romans 1:8). Following his introduction, and before he moves into the rest of his letter to the church in Rome, he employs the oath saying, “God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the Gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9). He employs the oath to assure believers of his work in this regard. It is the first duty he mentions.
There are far too many things that are expected of the pastor. If we did all that was expected of us, we would never pray. If you go back to Acts 6, you will notice that when that priority was established, the results were phenomenal. Our ministry is not results- oriented, but when by God’s design, these men did what it was their duty to do, “the Word of God spread and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” It may not always be the same with us, but our work will never be unblessed. There will never be evangelistic potency without intercessory prayer.
These are ten important features of biblical praying which should be remembered:
First, it is a necessity. God has no dumb children, much less dumb servants. When that Pharisee of Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus, was converted he immediately commenced praying. When the angel announced this conversion to Ananias, the chief description which was given of Saul was, “Behold, he is praying.” It was as if the angel were saying, “He’s never done it before.” Previously he went through the motions. Now that he’s experienced the Spirit of adoption, and is an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ, he is praying and his voice is heard. It has now become a necessity for him. Without prayer a man cannot be a Christian.
The second mark of true prayer is urgency. It follows that the moment a new born soul begins to appreciate the glories of his translation from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light, he also begins to see the world as a place in which God’s Name has been dishonored. He then urgently implores in terms of, “Will You not revive us again that Your people may rejoice in You?” (Ps. 85:6) and, “It is time for You to act, O Lord; for Your law is being broken” (Psalm 119:126). The denial of God’s authority and sovereignty is a call for divine action. Do you know something of that urgency?
The third essential of prayer is to value its critical importance. We are helpless without it. We get nowhere without it. Our Lord came back from the Mount of Transfiguration to a sad scene: a group of helpless disciples in the face of incredible human need. They say to Him, “What is wrong?” He tells them that, in essence, they have yet to learn to pray. How are we going to break through gates of brass? We, too, sometimes seem to stand so helpless before human need. Have we forsaken the secret place of the Most High to our own sad loss and the powerlessness of the pulpit? May God awaken us!
Helplessness is the fourth factor. In Psalm 50:7-12, God declares His self-sufficiency. In that context He teaches us our dispensability and helplessness. God does not need our prayers. We need Him. He does not need us! Prayerfulness is Calvinism at its best. It is a simple, open, honest declaration, in the presence of God, of total helplessness. If salvation is of the Lord, and if people are to be converted, it shall be by God’s grace, and by God’s power and through the Gospel. It is never because of who I am, but in spite of it all.
The propensity to pride is there, and it will destroy us if we are not on our guard. If we do not pray, God is not at a loss as to what to do about a situation.
When Mordecai tried to impress upon Esther the importance of her intervention in the national crisis that was threatening the future existence of the Jews, and when she was more concerned about her own self-protection than anything else, his message amounted to this: “Have you ever considered, Esther, that you are not indispensable? If you do nothing about it, deliverance will arise from another quarter. God is not dependent on you. But, who knows? Perhaps you have come to the Kingdom for such a time as this? Why not rise to the occasion rather than lose out?”
If I cease to pray, God’s plans will continue. He will still build His Church, the gates of Hell will not prevail against her, and every man, woman and child destined to be brought into the Kingdom of God, will be brought. But I will suffer for my prayerlessness.
Fifthly, constancy. David prayed seven times a day. Daniel prayed three times a day. Luther, meeting a friend in the street, would say, “Brother, do I find you praying?”
Sixthly, contentment. Why were prayers ever recorded in Scripture? Why did the Holy Spirit deem it important that we should have columns and columns of Holy Writ given to the prayers that were offered by Daniel, Nehemiah, Paul, and Jesus Christ? He did it so that you could be taught how to pray. Oh, that prayers would assume a more Biblical character! Oh, that prayers would be an expression of the will of God as it is set down in Scripture!
Seventhly, importunity. That is, understanding God’s will and bringing it all back to Him for His attention. It is giving God no rest until He gives peace to Jerusalem. After all, it is the will of God that His Jerusalem, the Body of Christ, should be resplendent with His Glory, and a praise to God in the earth. If the Church is not what it was called to be, should we not implore the mercy of God to make His Body an honor to His name in this poor miserable world? Did Jesus not give us the parable of the importunate widow in the words of Luke 18:1, “That men ought always to pray and not lose heart?” How serious are you about your concern for the Church of God?
Eighthly, certainty. This means faith. That has nothing to do with God giving us a type of blank check for us to fill in the details. Faith is founded in God’s will. Faith discovers the heart of God in the pages of Scripture. Faith acquaints itself with the vision of God. Faith reads moving prayers, such as John 17. “Father,” prays Jesus, “I desire that they also, whom You gave me, may be with me where I am, that they may see the glory which You have given me, for You loved me before the foundation of the world, and I want them with me, all of them.” Faith takes cognizance of this expression of the Savior’s will, and carries it to God all over again. It lays it at His feet. Faith pleads: “Father, Your people, for whom Christ prayed, need to be carried on eagles’ wings. Take them safely through the passage of this wicked and hostile world. Take them through the gates of death into their eternal home in Glory.” Martin Luther might have sounded impudent in the manner in which he prayed when he was overheard to say, “Father, I will have my will because I know that my will is Your will.” However, he had understood the Father’s will and had given expression to it in prayer.
Ninthly, extent. When the believer has a mind that reaches far beyond the limits of men’s little minds, and looks beyond the horizons to see and understand the glorious purposes of God in redemption, he prays in keeping with God’s goal in redemption. “Ask of Me, and I will give You the heathen for an inheritance,” says the Father to the Son. The believer takes it up in prayer. His highest joy and his greatest delight is to know that rebels bend the knee to the Son of God, that they touch the scepter stretched out to them, and that they are then saved by grace. The believer, on bended knee, covets one thing more than anything, and that is that Christ should have a following, a following which adores Him. He longs for a following which admires Him. Every intercessor can identify with Spurgeon, of whom Archibald Brown once said, “He loved Him, he adored Him, he was our Lord’s delighted captive.” When Paul prayed, he thought big. See his prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21. Think big when you pray!
Finally, the goal. The goal is the glory of God. “Hallowed be Your name.” “Let the name of George Whitefield perish,” said that man, “But let the name of Christ live on and on forever!” When Jesus Himself lifted up His eyes to Heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come, glorify Your Son that your Son also may glorify You. And now, O Father, glorify me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” The believer responds immediately with a hearty, “So be it.”
We were once visited by a man who told us the story of their anxiety at the fact that at the age of twelve, their daughter had not yet been converted. They prayed and they fasted. Nothing seemed to happen, until one day he suggested to his wife that they should perhaps engage in a period of heart-searching. It then became clear to them that their motives were twisted. They were thinking of an unbroken family circle in Heaven. They were thinking of their daughter being spared the pains of Hell. They had never considered the glory of God. They then began to pray, “Father forgive us. Whatever you do to our daughter, whether you save her or not, do it, not for our sakes, but for yours, yet, be merciful and save.” By God’s tender mercy she was converted not many days after that. That is no guarantee that it will happen to you or anybody else. It is, however, a lesson for us all. James says, “You ask and receive not, because you ask amiss that you may consume it in your own lusts.” If you have been praying for the wrong reasons, begin to pray for the right ones. Things will then look a lot better in your praying.
One practical piece of advice has served me well in the work of intercessory prayer. I was converted under the ministry of Victor Thomas, the most godly man I have ever known. One day when he and I were alone, he said, “Martin, whenever you can, pray aloud.” This practical advice has helped me over the years. I soon overcame my fear of eavesdroppers.
The Psalmist himself said, “With my voice I cry aloud to the Lord.” Hannah is said to have mumbled a heart-felt prayer which was inaudible. However, when John Welsh prayed, he did so audibly. That great intercessor and son-in-law to John Knox was undoubtedly more prayerful than even his godly father-in-law. One night his concerned wife went into the room where he was praying, fearing that he was getting cold, and all that she could hear was this great man pleading in broken sentences, “Lord will you not give me Scotland?” God did just that!
In Zechariah 8:20, we read, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I am going.’ Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the Lord.” Here you have a sudden awareness of the incredible importance of intercessory prayer. With a fresh sense of urgency, the people began to invoke the mercy of God. Then Zechariah continues: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from every language of the nation shall grasp the sleeve of the Jewish man saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'”
Oh, that God would repeat those mercies again! Can you imagine ten of your neighbors begging you to take them with you to church? Oh, that God would awaken us! He has given us His truth. But if the Word of God is ever to make a powerful inroad into the strongholds of evil and sin, all of us shall have to take seriously this matter of intercessory prayer.
I close with a quotation from a great American preacher, Gardiner Spring: “The time was when the pastors of the American churches valued the privilege of prayer; they were not only men of prayer, but they prayed often for and with one another. Their reciprocal and fraternal visits were consecrated and sweetened by prayer, nor was it any unusual thing for them to employ days of fasting and prayer together for the effusions of God’s Spirit upon themselves and their churches, and they were days of power, days when God’s arm was made bare and His right hand plucked out of His bosom, nor was it difficult to see then wherein the great strength of the pulpit lies. He that is feeble among them shall be as David, and the House of David shall be as God.”
God be with us and God awaken us, and God make us intercessors for His glory, for His honor, for the well-being of His Church and for the rescuing of the nations. Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.