Showdown on Carmel (Part Three)

1 Kings 18:25-40

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be knowntoday that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:36-37 NIV).

Next we read Elijah’s prayer for fire from heaven. Too often we assume that prayer for “big things” must be spectacular. And we suppose that if we can add a lot of religious or spiritual stuff to our prayer, we have a better chance of getting what we want from God. Any pastor can tell you that people come to him asking for him to prayer, because they presume that the prayers of a “holy man” are more powerful than those of average Christians. Elijah’s short prayer ought to end those wrong ideas. We should also learn that superstition overflows with ceremonies; faith uses the means of prayer.

First, think about the way Elijah addressed God. He spoke to God as the covenant Lord of his people, Israel.  He was saying, “Lord, you are faithful to your covenant. Remind these people of your faithfulness.” We are able to plead a better and eternal covenant in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:20). He prayed plainly, directly and reverently, yet with emotion. There is nothing wrong with emotion, provided it is in response to the truth. The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth—because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever… (2 John 1:1-2 NIV). It was only a short prayer, especially as compared to the prayers of Baal’s prophets. Their ritual was six hours long; Elijah’s prayer was less than a minute. The length of a prayer is unimportant, provided that its duration is not done to be seen of people. God is most concerned about the content, your attitude, and your faith. The length of a prayer is a secondary matter.

Second, listen to his requests. Elijah asked for the glory of God, that the Lord would clearly demonstrate that he is God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6 NIV, my emphasis). He prayed for the vindication of the word. He wanted the Lord to testify that Elijah was his prophet and that his actions were in conformity with God’s word to him. This was not self-centered, but a matter of the truth of God’s word. He asked for a work of grace. He cared about his people. He longed that the Lord would turn the hearts of the people back to God. Conversion (repentance and faith) begins with God’s supernatural act of the new birth from above. This was a God-centered prayer. This is the crucial concept. Are we seeking first the honor of God? Our foremost concern should not be for the prosperity of our church or our lives, but for the honor of the Lord (John 8:50; 12:28; 14:13;15:8; 17:4).

Third, we see God’s answer (18:38-40). The fire had a supernatural character. An ordinary fire simply doesn’t produce such an effect. I had many fires in my fireplace, and the bricks easily outlasted every fire! It was also a controlled fire, because it did not harm any of the people, even Ahab and his pagan prophets.

The people outwardly acknowledged the supremacy of the living God. The indisputable happening constrained the people to worship the Lord. How many of them were truly converted is not stated in this passage. An outward confession is no proof of grace; they could have just been overwhelmed by what occurred (cf. Mark 5:16-17; John 6). A miracle alone cannot change a heart. Ahab saw the fire fall, yet he did not repent. Consider the unbelief at the raising of Lazarus (John 11:47-48). We need to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who alone produces regenerate hearts, instead of praying for  miracles or judgments.

The end was the execution of the false prophets. Elijah had a firm Biblical warrant for this action (Deuteronomy 13). The law or old covenant was a ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3).

What are some lessons we should learn?

  • Let every Christian be encouraged to put their trust in God and to go forth in his strength to live for him in this ungodly age.
  • Let us not underestimate the power of faith in the Sovereign Lord. Nothing is too hard for him! Therefore, we ought to believe and pray.
  • Let everyone fear the living God who has such power. Hear the words of Jesus. I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Luke 12:4-5 NIV).
  • Let everyone find acceptance with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7 NIV).

Grace and peace, David

Elijah’s Greatest Challenge (Part Three)

1 Kings 17:17-24

Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth” (17:24 NIV).

Elijah found himself in a situation that no one had previously confronted. God had promised to provide for him through a widow and her flour and oil. But the widow’s son died unexpectedly. She blamed him for her son’s death, and it appeared that God’s promise had miscarried. Did the true God only give the Gentile woman an illusion of hope? How could he demonstrate that God was worthy of her trust? What could Elijah do or even say? Could the dead be raised? His response provides a helpful pattern for us. Elijah prayed effectively.

  • It was a fervent prayer, for “he cried out to the Lord”. The typical “church prayers” (Sunday service or small group) very rarely are spoken passionately. They are lukewarm, boring, and impersonal. People get more excited about junk mail or telemarketer calls than praying to the true and living God!
  • It was a personal prayer. He addressed his God—“O Lord my God”. He knew God, for he had waited on the Lord for daily provision. He knew that God understood his condition and believed that God cared about the widow and him. In contrast, “church prayers” seem like a phone call to some unknown person at a utility company. “With whom am I speaking?”
  • It was a bold prayer—“have you brought tragedy…?” Elijah didn’t whitewash the tragedy to appear reverent. He talked with the Lord in the hideous pain of the loss of the widow’s son. Why pray this way? Because God wants us to be real with him.
  • It was importunate prayer: “three times”. Some mistakenly suppose that prayer is a once spoken request, like the less they pray the more faith they’re supposed to have. Such wrong ideas come from a misunderstanding of Matthew 6:7, which they suppose “excuses” them from wrestling with God in prayer (cf. Colossians 4:12). Yet Jesus himself prayed repeatedly!
  • It was a specific prayer: “let this boy’s life return to him!” He didn’t pray glib, trite, vague requests. He asked for something precise. God wants us to pray this way.

Elijah received a miraculous answer. The means was the prayer of faith. By faith… Women received their dead, raised to life again (Hebrews 11:33-35). Elijah had the same faith Abraham did—that God could raise the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:17-19). This is the same faith that every believer has—faith that God can and will raise the dead. He had the great faith to trust God for what had never happened before. Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know (Jeremiah 33:3 NASB). Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV).

The cause was solely the power of God. Elijah’s faith by itself did nothing, but he had faith in the One who was, is and always will be All-powerful (cf. Acts 26:6-8). This exercise of faith showed the truth of God’s word (17:24). It showed he was really God’s prophet. It led the widow to a greater faith in the Lord.

With an ending like the one in this passage, it is easy to see the truth of Romans 8:28. But we must remember what the all things are which Paul includes in that reference. Read Romans 8:31-39 very carefully. Is your confidence in the living God who has all things under his control?

Are you worshipping the Sovereign God? Are you giving glory to him? “The whole life of a Christian should be nothing but praises and thanks to God; we should neither eat nor drink nor sleep, but eat to God and sleep to God and work to God and talk to God, do all to his glory and praise” (Sibbes).

Grace and peace, David

Elijah’s Greatest Challenge (Part Three)

1 Kings 17:17-24

Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth” (17:24 NIV).

Elijah found himself in a situation that no one had previously confronted. God had promised to provide for him through a widow and her flour and oil. But the widow’s son died unexpectedly. She blamed him for her son’s death, and it appeared that God’s promise had miscarried. Did the true God only give the Gentile woman an illusion of hope? How could he demonstrate that God was worthy of her trust? What could Elijah do or even say? Could the dead be raised? His response provides a helpful pattern for us. Elijah prayed effectively.

  • It was a fervent prayer, for “he cried out to the Lord”. The typical “church prayers” (Sunday service or small group) very rarely are spoken passionately. They are lukewarm, boring, and impersonal. People get more excited about junk mail or telemarketer calls than praying to the true and living God!
  • It was a personal prayer. He addressed his God—“O Lord my God”. He knew God, for he had waited on the Lord for daily provision. He knew that God understood his condition and believed that God cared about the widow and him. In contrast, “church prayers” seem like a phone call to some unknown person at a utility company. “With whom am I speaking?”
  • It was a bold prayer—“have you brought tragedy…?” Elijah didn’t whitewash the tragedy to appear reverent. He talked with the Lord in the hideous pain of the loss of the widow’s son. Why pray this way? Because God wants us to be real with him.
  • It was importunate prayer: “three times”. Some mistakenly suppose that prayer is a once spoken request, like the less they pray the more faith they’re supposed to have. Such wrong ideas come from a misunderstanding of Matthew 6:7, which they suppose “excuses” them from wrestling with God in prayer (cf. Colossians 4:12). Yet Jesus himself prayed repeatedly!
  • It was a specific prayer: “let this boy’s life return to him!” He didn’t pray glib, trite, vague requests. He asked for something precise. God wants us to pray this way.

Elijah received a miraculous answer. The means was the prayer of faith. By faith… Women received their dead, raised to life again (Hebrews 11:33-35). Elijah had the same faith Abraham did—that God could raise the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:17-19). This is the same faith that every believer has—faith that God can and will raise the dead. He had the great faith to trust God for what had never happened before. Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know (Jeremiah 33:3 NASB). Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV).

The cause was solely the power of God. Elijah’s faith by itself did nothing, but he had faith in the One who was, is and always will be All-powerful (cf. Acts 26:6-8). This exercise of faith showed the truth of God’s word (17:24). It showed he was really God’s prophet. It led the widow to a greater faith in the Lord.

With an ending like the one in this passage, it is easy to see the truth of Romans 8:28. But we must remember what the all things are which Paul includes in that reference. Read Romans 8:31-39 very carefully. Is your confidence in the living God who has all things under his control?

Are you worshipping the Sovereign God? Are you giving glory to him? “The whole life of a Christian should be nothing but praises and thanks to God; we should neither eat nor drink nor sleep, but eat to God and sleep to God and work to God and talk to God, do all to his glory and praise” (Sibbes).

Grace and peace, David

Elijah’s Greatest Challenge (Part Two)

1 Kings 17:17-24

We can know God, trust God fervently, and yet come into situations where our faith in God is incredibly tested. We may even know that God has done miracles in response to our faith in him, but we wonder, “Can God provide the help I need now?” Faced with the death of the widow’s son, Elijah knew that  he must trust the living God for a greater miracle. So, Elijah said a powerful prayer. He believed that prayer was more worthwhile than the other actions he could have engaged in. We need to rid ourselves of the saying, “All we can do now is pray.” Stop it. Ideas like that corrupt our minds. Prayer is the best thing we can do.

  • Elijah prayed instead of argued. We need to follow Christ when we cannot understand the ways of God. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23 ESV). It’s a good rule not to take offense at the words of a grieving person. Not every saint is able to bow before the Lord as meekly as Job was able to (cf. Job 1:21; 2:10). Love should cover sorrowful, bitter words that occur at a time of grief.
  • He prayed instead of debated. Some are under the totally misguided notion that all times are opportunities for theological debate. As he was passing by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2 CSB) Sadly, I have observed this attitude. Don’t dispute in the face of suffering. Show mercy! Humbly, let us remember people need compassion rather than our knowledge. Some think they are being “bold for the Lord” when they are merely being brash for themselves. Christ was compassionate; imitate him.
  • He prayed instead of complained. Some would complain, “Now I’m in such a mess! She’s blaming all this on me, and I didn’t do anything. Poor me!” Does it really matter what someone thinks about you, when they need your help?
  • He prayed instead of questioned. “Why did this happen Lord?” It’s very natural to ask, “Why?” But it may be better to invest the greater part of our energies in asking, “What do you want me to do now, Lord?” Or better, “What will You do now, Lord?”

Elijah refused to look at second causes. Then Elijah cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, why have you brought tragedy to this widow who has opened her home to me, causing her son to die?” (17:20 NLT) Elijah believed that God is in control, even including the hard events of life. We need to have a larger view of the sovereign God in our thoughts and viewpoints. Think on what the Spirit has written in the Word.

  • [Job] said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing (Job 1:21-22 NIV).
  • I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things (Isaiah 45:7 NIV).
  • When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? (Amos 3:6 NIV).

The time of trouble and trials is the time to worship the Lord as God over all, and to call upon him as the Ruler of all.

“Whatsoever is good for God’s children they shall have it, for all is theirs to further them to heaven; therefore, if poverty be good, they shall have it; if disgrace be good, they shall have it; if crosses be good, they shall have them; if misery be good, they shall have it; for all is ours, to serve for our greatest good” (Sibbes).

Grace and peace, David

Elijah: A Man of Courage (Part Two)

1 Kings 17:1

Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (NIV).

We have looked at Israel’s horrible spiritual condition, and the way the Lord responded to it by sending a prophet, Elijah, who would point the people back to God. We have seen that Elijah was fully convinced of the Lord’s existence and power to bring about change. That was a crucial starting point. Two other qualities were necessary for an effective ministry in a very troubled time.

Elijah was conscious of being God’s messenger. He knew his position in God’s work. This helped in two ways:

  • It kept him focused on the work at hand. He did not have to bother with building his own little kingdom, but the kingdom of God. The apostle is another example of this kingdom focus. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:15-16 ESV).
  • It directed him to live for the one who would judge his work, and not to be concerned with what people thought. We must see ourselves as God’s servants. To use a common illustration, we serve for “an audience of one.” This must be kept within the boundaries that Scripture sets for our actions. No one has the right to pretend, “I am God’s servant and can do whatever I desire.” Such an attitude reveals a heart in which one’s own desires and God’s written will are in conflict. We speak of boldness to do exactly what God desires.

Elijah knew his authority. He spoke and acted for God, as God’s prophet. He had a mission that the Lord wanted him to do. He was compelled to do it, like Jeremiah was. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (Jeremiah 20:8-9 ESV). This sense of authority encouraged him to act boldly. He had the courage to personally confront Ahab with his message. He had the courage to announce a great judgment.  Consider how unpopular the doctrine of hell is today, even in supposedly evangelical churches. And not only is the Biblical teaching about hell despised, but also the reality of sin. If you attend a so-called church where sin, condemnation, and God’s wrath are not preached and believed, you are not in a church but a religious social club. Leave it.

Elijah was confident of God’s faithfulness. His confidence was Bible-based. Be careful that you are not enticed to turn aside, serve, and bow in worship to other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you. He will shut the sky, and there will be no rain; the land will not yield its produce, and you will perish quickly from the good land the Lord is giving you (Deuteronomy (11:16-17 CSB). The world cannot understand the godly man or woman because it does not share its view of God’s word as truth. Elijah did, he took God’s word seriously. He knew that God meant what he said. He also was confident that God would judge sin. Elijah’s prayer to withhold rain and dew from the land must be seen in this light. It had its foundation in the “curses of the law covenant” (cf. Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

For this reason, Elijah prayed in conformity with God’s revealed word. Making requests in true prayer involves having faith to claim the promises in the word of God, and then asking him to do as he has said. This was the motivation behind his fervent prayer (James 5:17.)

Pink in his writings about Elijah made the following three points:

  • “He prayed because he was assured that the Lord God lived and ruled over all.”
  • “He prayed because he realized that God is almighty and that with Him all things are possible.”
  • “He prayed because he felt his own weakness and insufficiency and therefore turned to One who is clothed with might and is infinitely self-sufficient.”

Do we have the same world view that Elijah had? Do we pray like Elijah did? Say what you want, but Christians no longer gather to pray because God is not in control in their world and life view. May we pray together as the early church and the church in times of revival prayed!

Grace and peace, David

God, Jonah, and the City (Part Four)

Jonah 1:5-10

And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV).

Our Sovereign Lord wants his people to reach out to the lost with the good news of salvation in Jesus the Messiah. He wants us to do this in love, compassion, and kindness. It is his way of bringing glory to his name and sharing his overflowing glory with his creatures. It is his mission, and it is the mission of us his people, regardless of our being engaged in it or not. The Lord Jesus tells us to make learners of him, to baptize (immerse) learners of him, and to teach learners of him to obey everything that he has commanded. He will always be with us in this mission (Matthew 28:19-20).

The difficult problem is that most professed learners of Jesus are not involved in the mission. Though we sincerely appreciate everything that people do in local gatherings of learners (a.k.a. local “churches”), doing tasks during a morning gathering is not making disciples and it is not a substitute for that. Certainly, in small groups we can work together in the mission, but too many substitute physical chores for involvement with people that need to know the Lord. As we read this section of Jonah, there is a miserable contrast between Jonah and his shipmates.

Jonah fell asleep during the storm; the others were filled with fear (1:5). I can understand their fear out on the sea, though I haven’t experienced it. I’m the first to put on a life vest, whether it’s a ride in a motorboat on a lake or a paddle boat on a shallow pond! I can’t relate to how Jonah could stay asleep in a violent storm. (Please don’t tell me he wanted to die. Chapter four disproves that thesis, even if he used the words.) Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. Got it. But where was his love for his shipmates? He was unconcerned about them.

Jonah’s shipmates prayed, and he did not (1:5-6). Most people pray and/or seek someone to pray for them when they or their loved ones are in danger. During years as a pastor, people constantly asked me to pray for them. (I think some thought that I had a special line open to heaven that they lacked.) They cried out to false gods; Jonah failed to pray to the true and living God. The prayerlessness of professing learners of Jesus Christ is appalling. It out to make us sick and angry. Plan a church dinner and you will probably fill the room; plan a church prayer meeting, and you can probably count those who show up on your fingers. Lack of interest in prayer and praying together is a sign of spiritual coldness.

Jonah knew who he was, and they searched for answers (1:7-10). His shipmates felt the utter terror of a great storm at sea, but they didn’t know why it had come. People like to know reasons for their problems, for we suppose that knowledge will give us the key to fix them. People also like to blame someone for the problem they are in. That usually doesn’t fix anything, but it lets us vent our anger at someone. Those men chose to cast lots to discover the culprit. God’s hand controlled the outcome of the lots. So then, there was nothing Jonah could do but own up to his blameworthiness. But how he did that leaves you shaking your head. He answered them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 CSB). How could he say this with a straight face? He had told them that he was running away from the Lord, and then he claimed to worship the Lord. This was a strange worshiper! He dared to take to the sea, which was always a risky endeavor in ancient times, when he was running away from the Maker of the sea? His shipmates would have thought this incredible, if they had not been in mortal danger. Jonah knew who he was and the power of the Lord, but it didn’t do him enough good to lead him to obey the Lord of all.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord has commanded us to make learners of Christ. Yet are we trying to run away from our responsibility? Let’s lose all the supposed reasons and outright excuses for failing to fish for people (Mark 1:17). Let’s humble ourselves before the Lord, ask for forgiveness, and then head in the direction of fulfilling the commission that Jesus has given us.

Grace and peace, David

Psalm Eighteen (Part Three)

Psalm 18:4-6

The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears (NIV).

Next, David sang about the desperate situation from which the Lord had rescued him. We don’t know the tune to which these words were sung, but a minor key would have been a good choice. In this broken world there are many times that we will be melancholy and downcast. This is unpleasant. David was not ashamed to write about the dark times of his experience. He wanted his people to face cold, gloomy reality.

This is very unlike some of the songs I learned in Sunday School in my childhood. Here is a one: “I’m in right, out right, up right, down right, happy all the time. I’m in right, out right, up right, down right, happy all the time. Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m in right, out right, up right, down right, happy all the time.” I assume that the teachers wanted Sunday School to be a warm, welcoming place. And after World War II, the Korean War, and during the Cold War, they themselves probably wanted to escape from the horrors of life. However, the song did not present an accurate view of life or what the Lord promised his people in their walk with him. The point is not to fill the hearts of children with terror, but it is to say what is accurate.

Accuracy about life and God’s ability to deliver fill this psalm. David started the song on a positive note. Then, in the verses quoted above, he described the reason God’s might was needed to rescue. In the English of the NIV, depressing “D” words pile up to make his point: death… destruction… distress. The word translated grave is the Hebrew Sheol, the invisible realm of the dead, from which only the Lord can deliver. David piled up words to announce that he was totally dependent on God, apart from his mighty power, he was certain to die. Until we understand our desperate need, we will not cry out to the Lord to save. David wanted people to feel how bad his case was. Unless the living God had intervened, he was dead.

In this apparently hopeless situation, David did what people who believe in God do. He prayed. Notice again the personal relationship he claimed with God: I cried to my God for help. Because he knew God, he brought his requests to God. He knew that God heard him. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. God has compassion on us in our trials. He may not answer the way we want or expect, but he does act as we pray. David wrote to give God’s people words and ideas for us when we cry out to the Lord. He wanted them to know that in the bleakest times, God hears and cares and helps his people. Don’t give way to despair. God might well have closed one way for you. But he who will not lead you one way will lead you another, as you trust in him. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways know him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6 CSB).

Grace and peace, David

Consistency

Colossians 1:29

To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me (NIV).

My wife and I each have a car, which we need to get to the places God has called us to go. This is hardly an amazing fact, but the cars have different keys. My key will not start hers and vice versa. I carry both sets of keys on one ring, and this provides a time for contemplation, since when I’m in my car, I have a push button start. Her car requires the insertion of the key into the ignition switch. Since I drive my car more often, it is easy to reach for the button rather than inserting the key when I’m in her car. Habit is a good gift from God, but it doesn’t replace thinking.

We live in a world in which we are taught from infancy to do things for ourselves and to be self-reliant. This also is good, because Sharon and I expected our children to tie their own shoes, as soon as possible. But self-reliance can easily become twisted by sin to become reliance on ourselves, instead of trust in God. There is a “fine line” where this happens. You cannot draw it on a map or describe it in a book. We might talk about this a long time in a small group and not reach a definite conclusion. Life is not lived by acting in conformity with manuals for behavior. But that is not the topic of this post. Instead, it concerns more simply serving the Lord consistent with his glorious person.

It is far too easy to carry the “keys” of worldly self-reliance into service for the Lord. Programs, the performance of “worship teams”, form of “church government”, rituals, buildings, training for ministry leaders, and so on occupy center stage in the conversations and planning meetings of local churches. “If we would do what that successful church does, then we would enjoy the same success” is a widespread attitude, regardless of how it is nuanced. I am not arguing for untrained leaders, dirty and uncomfortable buildings, and woeful music. However, I am addressing an attitude that is far too pervasive and dominant.

Our Lord invested time in training the apostles for the work he called them to do. He gave instructions on how to do it. But part of his instruction concerned the need to rely on him for spiritual power. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5 NIV). We all need to return to “Christ-reliance”. We all need to… excuse me while I use a ‘four-letter-word’… We need to pray.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul provides examples of prayer to that church. He began that short letter with along section on thanksgiving and prayer (1:3-14). He asked for prayer (4:2-4). He pointed out how the founder of their church wrestled in prayer for them (4:12). What does prayer have to do with all this?

Prayer is a believer’s conversation with his or her God. We come as his adult children, friends, and coworkers. We acknowledge to accomplish spiritual good that we require his almighty power. We want to serve the Lord with all the energy Christ so powerfully works. There is simply no other way that we can accomplish anything of spiritual and eternal value. It brings great joy to see the Lord at work in the lives of many people. When a person begins to live according to Christ (cf. Col 2:8 ESV), it is an artwork of spiritual beauty. Godly ideas, attitudes, words, and actions flow out from him or her, as the Spirit forms Christ in them. This is what we long for, but it is beyond our ability. Only the power of God can produce godliness.

We must pray.

Grace and peace, David

The Church at Prayer (Part Two)

Acts 4:29-31

And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God boldly (CSB).

Our subject is the church at prayer, specifically during a time of crisis. The church is in a crisis time now across the world. Western churches are just beginning to wake up to the attacks from the spiritual forces of evil and evil people. The Lord Jesus taught his followers to be ready for such times. In the report of Peter and John to their church about the threats made against them, we see the first response that Christ’s church ought to give.

After humbling themselves before God and praising him for his sovereignty, they made specific requests (4:29-30). They prayed for the spiritual strengthening of the church. Notice that they did not ask for God to act against their enemies. Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:17-21), and we ought to leave God’s acts to his sovereign will. In a time of crisis, we need to make sure that our hearts are in tune with God’s interests and ready to serve him and others.

Their primary concern, as expressed in this prayer, was the kingdom of God. We need to focus on the cause of God rather than our own ease. This is difficult for a people who live in a culture that constantly lusts for personal pleasure. They knew that their mission was to spread the good news of Jesus the Messiah. So, they asked accordingly. We do well when we stop to consider what God wants us to do in situations, before we get revved up in our own desires. To put it this way, they kept focused on the vision for a great witness. Prayer for God’s help is an essential part of effective witness. We cannot be bold apart from his almighty power.

They prayed for a continued work of God’s power. What? One miracle provoked such antagonism (Acts 3:6-11; 4:7) and they ask for another? But they were interested first of all in God’s honor. The contemporary church wants to make it easier for people to believe, and in its wimpy ways it has abandoned the honor of God as God. Not so the early church. We should seek more of what the Lord is able to do. Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know (Jeremiah 33:3 NIV; cf. Ephesians 3:20).

What was the result of their prayer (4:31)? God manifested his power by a physical phenomenon. He shook the room in which they met. This cannot be explained psychologically. This was a miracle, a direct act of Almighty God to assure the early church of his power. Those who want to rid the Bible of the supernatural often misread the text or deliberately change it. The God who made the world and who controls history can easily shake a building. “It is nothing else than a token of the presence of God” (Calvin).

God gave spiritual benefits. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Let’s think through what is meant by the filling of the Spirit?

  • What is the primary new covenant ministry of the Holy Spirit? The exaltation of Jesus Christ (John 16:14).
  • What is a Christian? He or she is a person who has experienced the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Peter 1:8).
  • So then, what is it to be filled with the Holy Spirit? It is to have the glory of God in Christ as the greatest reality in the world! Acts 7:55-56.

The filling of the Spirit produced boldness in witness. This is one of the great needs of the church in our time. As the world presses against us with mockery, threats, and persecution, we need to press back with bold witness. Let’s focus on the glory of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit boldly tell all people of salvation and acceptance with God in him.

Grace and peace, David

The Church at Prayer (Part One)

Acts 4:23-31

The setting of our text is the arrest of Peter and John. The religious leadership of Jerusalem made threats against them. The apostles reported this to the church. Notice that they shared their problems with other believers. “This is essential for the children of God—to encourage one another, and to join in godly fellowship so that under the banner of Christ they may vanquish the common enemy” (Calvin).

But experience tells us to add a caution. Some personal problems are not for public knowledge. The Bible does not encourage busybodies. Do not polarize between an excess zeal for sharing in your local church or small group and the violation of an individual’s right to privacy.

The church responded to the problem with corporate prayer. Individual prayer is surely important, and so is family prayer. But corporate prayer is an indispensable part of a gospel church. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42 CSB).

What did the church do when they met to pray? They responded with meaningful worship (4:24-28). Again, we must be careful at this point. Their example is not a formula for how to pray. We pray in the Spirit as our hearts respond to his wonderfulness. Having said that, we ought to learn from their example, though we must not turn examples into forms or steps.  They were thinking of how the character of God related to their problem. Knowing the greatness of the Father in heaven, as little children they cried out in their distress.

  • The worshiped God as Creator (4:24) Consideration of God’s creative work involves meditation on his power (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:20). The One who can create is able to meet our most crucial needs.
  • The worshiped God as Revealer (4:25) The Old Testament speaks about Christ (Psalm 2:1-12). They listened to the word as God spoke regarding their problem. Since they were followers of Christ, opposition to them was opposition to Christ as well. (cf. 4:7, 17-18). The Scriptures are applicable to our needs. As we grow to understand our union with Christ, we come to realize what it means to approach God in Christ’s name.
  • The worshiped God as Controller (4:26-28). They recognized that a spiritual battle was being fought; that is, the then present situation of threats against the apostles was really opposition to Christ. We must not live as though there was no supernatural dimension to life. If we do so, we are living as natural men, rather than spiritual men. The disciples needed to learn in this area’ as in the feeding of the 5,000 (cf. John 6:5-6).

The church’s confidence is in God’s sovereignty. The Lord of all nations has set limits to what sinful people are allowed to do. We have recently experienced several tragic events in the mass murders of many people. It has looked like prayer is useless and that his people are left helpless. But God’s plan for his glory in Jesus Christ will be successfully accomplished. Atheists may mock on their Twitter accounts. Their callous lack of compassion is another matter, and their heartlessness toward grieving and suffering people has been exposed and will be dreadfully judged on the last day. But God’s will is the determinate factor, and his power always achieves what his will designs. Like the suffering early church, we also may confidently pray. Grieve over the fallen. Weep with those who weep. But it is time for the church to pray!

Grace and peace, David