THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
Alistair M Brown
Luke 11: 1-4, 9-13
Romans 8: 24-28
Colossians 4: 12
Ephesians 3: 14-21
The matter of prayer has been before me since our reading on Lord's day afternoon when we read the first half of Luke 11. The disciples heard the Lord praying, and when He had finished they asked Him to teach them to pray. Taking account of that blessed One in prayer, they must have been greatly struck by what the Lord said, and the way in which He prayed, and so they asked Him to teach them to pray. The Lord was pleased by that request and says, “When ye pray, say, Father”. He immediately brings before them the name of the Father, the name of relationship. The Lord was glad to answer the request of the disciples to be taught to pray. As in everything, He is the great Pattern. It is wonderful to think of the Lord in prayer as a Man. In Luke's gospel I think the Lord is spoken of eight times as being in prayer. He sought things from His Father as a dependent, blessed and perfect Man. His perfection under pressure is borne out by what is recorded at the end of His pathway: His prayer in Gethsemane was intense. That should be in our minds as we consider the matter of prayer.
How important prayer is for every believer. Somebody who does not know about prayer could hardly describe themselves as a Christian. Every believer would pray. It is an absolutely vital part of Christian life and experience, and I would urge upon myself first of all to give more time to prayer. A brother notable amongst the saints once said that if he had his life over again, he would pray more, FER vol 12 p137. A simple exercise would be to spend more time in prayer. The Lord, speaking to His own in a parallel passage to this in Matthew 6: 5 to 14, tells His own not to pray as the Pharisees did. They stood on the street corners and said their prayers, and they liked vain repetition. In that sense, prayer is essentially a private matter. In contrast to the Pharisees, therefore, the believer was to go into his chamber, and close the door and pray in secret to his heavenly Father, and the “Father who sees in secret would render it to” him. So prayer is a personal matter and is part of the bedrock of our Christian lives. It is very, very important. We should, every one of us, begin the day with prayer and we should finish the day with prayer. I need exhortation, and I exhort myself in this matter.
Prayer is an expression of dependence. We realise that we do not have the answers, and we have needs, and worries and fears, concerns and troubles, and we cannot resolve things ourselves. But we have recourse in prayer to One who has the answer to every question. He “is able to do far exceedingly above all which we ask or think”. What a blessed matter for a Christian to get into the presence of One who has made Himself known, and to express his needs to Him. What a blessed matter to know that when we pray we have the ear – as somebody has said - of the One whose hand controls the universe. So the matter of expressing dependence is important.
Another important matter is that prayer would be in faith. We believe in the One to whom we pray, and we believe in His power and His beneficence towards us. We believe in the One who gave His Son to be our Saviour. How He loves to hear prayer directed to Him in dependence and in faith. But prayer is even more than that: it is an expression of communion. It is a matter truly of communion of the soul of a believer with God, an expression of relationship, and thus of communion. I commend to all, including myself, the matter of prayer, and of concentration and perseverance in it. The apostle Paul speaks frequently of persevering in prayer, which suggests that there may be opposition to prayer, and that we have to overcome it. There will be opposition in ourselves. We may find that we have not left enough time: that is a matter to be overcome. We have to persevere. It may be that our minds wander. I am speaking here from personal experience. The word is to persevere in prayer, to set ourselves for it, to wrestle in the matter of prayer, to be sustained in it and to be characterised by it. If anything comes along, our first reaction should be to go to God about it in prayer, even in a fleeting moment. If something comes up at work or at school, let us pray about it.
There is also the matter of to whom we pray. We pray to God, and the fact that the Lord in this passage says, “When ye pray, say, Father”, indicates that the Lord had in mind that a believer would turn to the Father in prayer. He is the One who knows all about our needs. We are also able to pray to the Lord Jesus as the One who sympathises, our great High Priest, the Saviour of the body. We might particularly turn to the Lord Jesus as to these matters, as to illness and suffering, physically and mentally too. We can also pray to the Holy Spirit, particularly to guard us and keep us from temptation. He is in us. If you are a believer who is obedient to the Spirit, the Holy Spirit is within you, and you can turn to Him and instantly receive the power to resist temptation. These things are real and I commend them to us all, particularly to myself.
Luke 11: 9 speaks about asking, seeking and knocking. The Lord said, “And I say to you. Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you”. He goes on to say, “For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it will be opened”. These are the Lord's own words and they are for us. They were said to the disciples, but they are for us, too. They are very blessed and instructive words. The matter that the Lord brings in at the end is receiving the Holy Spirit. It appears that the objective before the Lord Jesus in giving this instruction and this teaching to His own was that they should receive the Holy Spirit on the basis of their asking. The Holy Spirit was not here literally at this point. He came down, as we know, after the Lord went into the glory; but the Lord had in mind that the disciples should ask for and should receive the Holy Spirit. If there is anyone here, a believer, who is not yet sure that they have the Holy Spirit, then He is given to the believer on the basis of desire and exercise to have the power and the help of the Holy Spirit by asking, and he who asks receives. The Lord would love to hear a prayer uttered by a believer who wanted to receive the Holy Spirit. You can count on the Lord's word that “every one that asks receives”, and then the Spirit is with you forever. The Scripture says that He is with us for ever (John 14: 16); so we have that indwelling power to help us. We may grieve Him (Eph 4:30), so - having been exercised to ask for His presence and for His power - as responsible believers we must seek not to grieve the Spirit, but to make room for Him and give Him space to operate in our hearts. Asking implies what is specific, and relates to felt need. I would encourage my own heart to ask in prayer. We need to ask according to God's will. It would not be intelligent to ask for something that was not according to God's will. It would not, for example, be intelligent for a believer to ask for some special earthly blessing because now is not a time for earthly blessing. We need to ask according to God's will.
Sometimes we do not know what to ask for, as indicated in Romans 8. You are not alone if you do not know what to ask for. You may feel something has come up and you do not know what to say in prayer. If so, you are in the company of Moses, because he did not know. In a period of great trouble in the history of the children of Israel, he says in Exodus 33, “make me now to know thy way, that I may know thee”, v 13. That was Moses' prayer of dependence. He was a man of God but he did not know what he should do and he prayed to God about it, “make me now to know thy way”. He sought the sense and the blessing of God's presence. I thought the scripture in Romans 8 bore that out. Here the apostle Paul takes account of the fact that we may not know what to pray for as is fitting, and then “the Spirit joins also its help to our weakness”. Weakness is part of the human condition. As is often pointed out, it is not will. It is where we desire to do what is right but we do not know what the right thing is to do, and in that situation, as we allow the Spirit to come in to our minds and our hearts, He joins His help to our weakness. He is not weak; He is powerful: what power the Holy Spirit has, but He joins His help to our weakness, and in doing so, “the Spirit itself makes intercession with groanings which cannot be uttered”. That implies feelings. As we seek the help of the Holy Spirit to pray rightly, that is like a double expression of dependence on the part of the believer. Then the Spirit Himself makes intercession. He takes up the cause of the believer as He Himself “makes intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered”. It would convey something of the feelings of a divine Person as expressed on the lips of a believer.
Then it goes on to say that “he who searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he intercedes for saints according to God”. So that the Spirit always knows what God's mind is, and what His will is, and if we seek the Spirit, and ask in faith genuinely, then the Spirit will help us to know what God's mind is in a matter. We will be conscious of His help, and His power joining His help to our weakness, so that we might pray for what is according to God. That One in whose strength we are praying knows the mind of God Himself. So whatever we ask for, the important thing is to ask according to God's will, and if we feel that we do not know what that is, and even if we feel that we do, ask the Holy Spirit for help that we might pray rightly according to God. We have available to us the power of that One who searches all things, even the depths of God, to make things known to us.
I was encouraged, too, by what we read in Ephesians 3, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ “is able to do far exceedingly above all which we ask or think”. What a God we have to do with; what power, plenitude, and resource is towards us. That scripture suggests that God's ear is attuned to whatever His own might ask or think. Think of the Father having you in His heart, drawing you to Christ, seeing the reaction in you as a believer, in faith towards Christ! How the Father takes an interest in someone drawn to Christ, in affection for Him and faith in Him. Our faint or feeble cry reaches the ears of that blessed One. He takes account of our prayers and He loves to answer, and He does so as the One who “is able to do far exceedingly above all which we ask or think”.
In the passage that we read in Luke 11, the next thing the Lord speaks about is seeking, “seek, and ye shall find”, and then it says, “he that seeks finds”. I link that to the scripture we have read in Colossians. Seeking is not so much a matter of distinct felt need, but of seeking something outside ourselves. Epaphras might be an example of one who was seeking; he sought the blessing of his brethren. He was a brother who lived in Colosse, “one of you”. He cared about his brethren. No doubt he served them in various ways, but one way in which he served them was to seek their blessing by prayer. In prayer a believer can seek things for his or her brethren, because this is for sisters and brothers equally. I am sure Epaphras prayed at the prayer meeting for his brethren, but I think that he would pray privately too. He is described as “the bondman of Christ Jesus”; so he was a fervent and committed brother, “always combating earnestly for you in prayers”. His whole being was committed to this; he was consistent and persevering in it. It says in verse 2, “Persevere in prayer”. Epaphras persevered in prayer he did not pray a couple of times and then forget about it. It characterised him, that he always combated earnestly in prayers, “to the end that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God”. His particular burden was his local brethren in Colosse, that they might be able to occupy the ground and stand up in it as responsible persons, “perfect and complete”; - 'fully assured', footnote e says - “in all the will of God”. What a thing that is to seek after. It is a right thing to seek for your local brethren. How strengthening to be in a gathering where sisters and brothers all had that exercise - to combat earnestly in prayer that the brethren would stand “perfect and complete in all the will of God”. I think it would give moral and spiritual strength in our localities. It would be a great thing to pray like Epaphras, having the brothers and sisters that I know and love in my mind. God would love to hear an Epaphras type of prayer; He would love to hear Epaphras pray. Epaphras had God's will in mind; he was thinking for God. He did not simply think about the blessing of his brethren, but he sought the blessing of the brethren according to the will of God, and his desire was, not that they should just come to the edge of God’s will, or have some appreciation of it, but that they should “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God”. I think Epaphras himself must have had a full appreciation of what God's will was. It went beyond the individual blessing of these souls. It would include that, but it went on, I believe, to embrace God's desire that there should be what was according to Christ and faithful to Him, faithful to that high calling. He would pray that the Holy Spirit should be free in the company at Colosse, and that souls would be filled with the Spirit, and that they should be overflowing, imbued with affection for the Lord Jesus and for each other too, so that there should be something that was entirely according to God's will and pleasing to the Lord Jesus here, forming part of His assembly. That was what Epaphras sought, and the Lord says, “he that seeks finds”.So I commend to myself and everyone here a desire to seek, as Epaphras did, the blessing of saints in our localities, praying for our brethren in this way. I feel the test of that but also the necessity for it. It is good to pray for one another by name, speaking about what you know about the exercises, pressures and sorrows of the brethren, and about the work of God in them. Heaven takes account of that. It is also difficult to be out at elbows with a brother or sister that you have been praying for the day before.
The third matter that the Lord Jesus spoke to His own about in Luke 11 was knocking, “knock, and it shall be opened to you”. The passage in Ephesians 3 might relate to knocking. This seems to go beyond need and to relate to the believer's desire to open the door and enter an area opened up through communion with divine Persons. We should have a desire to find what is on the other side of that door. The Lord would love to answer the knocking of a person wanting to know more about His things. Here in Ephesians we have the prayer of the apostle Paul. “For this reason”, he says, “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. He is praying to “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and then he gives Him glory, “of whom every family in the heavens and on earth is named”. How great is the glory of the Father and His relationship with every family, and Paul prays “that he may give you according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power by his Spirit in the inner man; that the Christ may dwell, through faith, in your hearts”. What an expansion that would involve! Knocking at the door results in the door being opened to you, with a view to Christ dwelling through faith in your heart, “being rooted and founded in love”. It goes far beyond need, and into the realm of the satisfaction of the desire of a believer to be near to Christ and to have Christ dwelling in the heart. And then he adds, “in order that ye may be fully able to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height”. What a knocking! What a door! We find what is opened to us - “and to him that knocks it will be opened” - a wonderful sphere with “breadth and length and depth and height”. The Father is over it all, and Christ is the Centre of it, giving character to it, a scene where there is no question of unmet need or anything attaching to us as sinners. These things have all been dealt with, and we are in the very place where God Himself dwells, where He has made Himself known as Father and Son and Spirit, and where there is a response according to His heart and mind. Paul prayed that this might be the experience of the brethren in Ephesus, that they might enter into these wonderful matters. He prayed so that they might have the exercise themselves to knock and that it would be opened to them, and that they would have something of the experience that he, the apostle himself, had. I think Paul knew abundantly what it was to have the Christ dwelling through faith in his heart, rooted and founded in love there. He had a fuller experience than any other man, I think it would be right to say, of “the breadth and the length and the depth and the height”. His prayer was that the brethren in Ephesus should have the desire to knock so that this blessed sphere should be opened to them. They needed to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit in the inner man to get the benefit of the opening.
What divine resource is available. How wonderful is this scene; we talk about a sphere and a scene and a realm, and these are all right words. What marks it is breadth and length and depth and height. It is the all-embracing fulness of the place where God is known, and where everything is according to Him, and we are to apprehend it. Paul's prayer for these Ephesian saints was that they should be “fully able to apprehend with all the saints” the dimensions of the blessings that are in God's heart towards us, and we can include ourselves in that. The scripture makes clear that this is to be enjoyed collectively with others who are appreciating it too, and who are strengthened also by the Holy Spirit in the inner man. Paul does not say 'comprehend', but “fully able to apprehend”. If he had said ‘comprehend’, that would indicate that it was possible to get right round this sphere and understand it completely in our minds, and I do not think that is possible for creatures. But we can apprehend, taking account of the riches of the blessings that God has in mind for us by the Spirit and which are opened to us as we have the desire and the exercise. Then he adds, “and to know the love of the Christ which surpasses knowledge”. You may ask, ‘How could we know something that surpasses knowledge?’. Well, “knock, and it shall be opened to you”. If we have a desire to know and experience by the Holy Spirit's power spiritual things that pass knowledge, we can be brought further and further into them. It reminds us of that river in Ezekiel 47: our appreciation grows from ankles to our knees, then to our loins, then it is waters to swim in. We are surrounded and supported by what surrounds us as coming into a spiritual scene which has breadth and length and depth and height.
Then he adds, “that ye may be filled even to all the fulness of God”, and that leads on to Paul's doxology where, still speaking about Him who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he adds, “to him be glory in the assembly in Christ Jesus”. So the thought of being filled “even to all the fulness of God” immediately makes Paul think of the assembly in which in Christ Jesus there is to be glory to God eternally. It is God's purpose, that He should make Himself known in flesh in a blessed and perfect Man, and then that Man should have a companion for Himself, a creature vessel “having no spot, or wrinkle, or any of such things”, as the apostle says in chapter 5: 27, and that vessel should be the fulness of the blessed Lord Jesus, the One who Himself fills all in all, chap 1: 23. God has purposed to head up all things in Him, chap 1: 9-10. Christ Himself has a companion who is His fulness, that is, His counterpart, the one who is able blessedly to answer to Him. The knowledge and experience of these things is available to one who is exercised to knock, in the desire to have spiritual things opened to them.
I feel for myself the vital importance of prayer. We need to be developed in it, first in relation to our needs, conscious of the help of the Spirit being available to us all the time, but especially when we do not know what to ask or to pray for as is fitting. How important it is to have God's will in relation to what we ask, and the Spirit is the One who is able to help us. Then to seek, as Epaphras did, the things that are above, and to seek that our brethren, and ourselves among them, “may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God”. Finally to have the desire to knock, and to find opened to us this wonderful sphere with breadth and length and depth and height, the Spirit strengthening us in the inner man to go forward and to get into the swim, as it were, of what God has in mind for us, far beyond our need, and into what relates to His glory and His praise.
May we know these things for ourselves, and may they be for our encouragement, beloved! For His Name's sake.
11th October 2014