I was asked a few days ago what I would say to people questioning a loving God in the midst of suffering, and came across this sermon transcript in the same folder of my laptop, and though I have not posted for a while thought perhaps this old message would hopefully still have fresh things to 'say'.
This is a roughly edited transcript of an audio message from Torquay Christian Fellowship.
Last week, I bravely tackled the whole issue of unanswered prayer. [see here for a link to a similar message on this blog]
A few people have asked about that message. There’s copies of that message on a CD at the back. I did mention in that, that I was talking about unanswered prayer and wondering with one of the things that we need to keep in mind when we talk about unanswered prayer, the idea that perhaps there are some things that God cannot do. I said before, you stand [inaudible 01:03]. You can listen to the message I preached after the tsunami a year or so ago, and that message is on that CD as well. There’s some of those on the back table for the people that asked about those.
Today, as I said, is Pentecost Sunday. We have a red banner on our cross to help remind us of that. Pentecost is generally thought to be the birthing of the Christian church. Jesus was leaving amongst the disciples, his followers, gathering them, teaching them, there was the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, then there was a time that he spent with them, and then Jesus went. Jesus left – an ascension - whether whatever we understand to happen when he ascended to heaven, whatever it was it means that Jesus was no longer bodily present to lead the church; and so they waited as they were told and prayed because Jesus said, “I will go, and another will come.”
That was to be the presence in a very tangible and real way of the Holy Spirit. Fifty days after Passover, the Holy Spirit became a very experiential part of the early church’s life that they were empowered and prompted to begin their mission of proclaiming good news to the world. Later on this year, a plan I have is to teach through the book of Acts, and I’ll probably talk a bit more about the day of Pentecost when we do that. This morning is part of the focus on prayer. I want to talk and see about how the church and even the very day of Pentecost was birthed and bathed in prayer.
The disciples gathered together to pray. In Acts 1:14, we read this. They all joined together constantly in prayer along with the women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. They gathered, and they prayed, and they kept on meeting together for the week, or 10 days, or so from Jesus’ ascension till the day of Pentecost. We read in Acts 2 verse 1 that they were all gathered together again. It doesn’t explicitly say that they were there to pray, but I think we can confidently assume that because we’re told before that they were gathering daily, and they were praying. They were in this room. They were praying together.
It was a doozy of a prayer meeting. All sorts of things happen, and the church quickly grew from a hundred to a few thousand. They didn’t just say, “Okay. We’ve done our prayer, we met together, and we prayed, and the Holy Spirit came, now let’s go and do something else,” or just get on with it - they continued to pray. They still met to pray. They didn’t say, “Oh, the Holy Spirit is here now. Let’s move on to the next step.” They continued to meet together. If there’s one key verse that you should know from Acts, it’s this, Acts 2 verse 42.
Really, if you want to know the essence of living as a New Testament believer, this is it. If you want to call yourself a Christian today, then these are the things that should characterize your life. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to his fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. They wanted to learn and grow. They devoted themselves to the teaching. They met with one another. They weren’t just off on their own, they gathered together for fellowship. They remembered what Jesus has done. They broke bread together, and they prayed. It goes on through the whole book of Acts that they prayed.
When we get to the letters of Paul and the others’ written to the early church, prayer begins to take perhaps an even greater focus. I want to run through quite a lot of verses today. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of content in what I’m saying today that’s coming from me. All the content today is verse after verse that I want to let wash over you.
They’re not really in order I realized as I’m scribbling them all down. I probably should have put them in order through the Bible; but anyway, we’ll go to some places. These are some overview of Paul in particular, giving us an insight in to the importance of prayer in his life.
With this in mind, we constantly pray for you that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power, he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. In Romans, he said this, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ to all of you because your faith is being reported all over the world. God whom I served with my wholehearted preaching and gospel of his son is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will, the way would be open for me to come to you.”
In Ephesians, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” Colossians, “For this reason since the day that we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you, and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Thessalonians again, “Night and day, we pray most earnestly that we may see you again, and supply what is lacking in your faith, and we also thank God continually because when you receive the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is the word of God that work in you who believe.”
Just this last one, Philemon, “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers.” I don’t know whether you noticed anything in common about all that. I do. We constantly pray for you, constantly I remember you in my prayers, remembering you in my prayers. We have not stopped praying for you. Night and day, we pray. Continually, we pray, and I always thank. I don’t know whether you noticed that, but Paul seemed pretty persistent and pretty consistent in his prayer life. What did he pray for? Did he pray for release from prison? Did he pray for provision? Did he pray for comfort?
He might have prayed for those things, but what he tells us that he prayed for again and again is for the church. He prayed for the saints, he prayed for other believers, and he prayed for their growth in God. I think that helps us because you might have an intention or even a desire to pray. You might think, “Yeah, I know. As a Christian, I should pray, and I want to pray,” but you don’t know what really to do with words. You don’t know what to say, how to say it, where to direct your thoughts and your energy, but you intend to pray. “Yeah. I’ll even set my alarm early … I’ll even get up, and I’m going to pray.”
Two minutes after you’ve got up and sat down to pray, you’ve said, “Lord, bless me. Lord, bless my family. Lord, make it a good day,” and you’re not quite sure where else to go or what else to say, and you feel a little lost. If we want to know how to pray, then I think it’s good for us to see how the first Christians spent their prayer life. The early churches we’ve seen spent a lot of time praying for one another. In Acts, they gathered together, and they prayed. That gathering together is probably the first thing that we can learn actually about our prayer life.
I’ve talked about our own personal prayers over the last few weeks whether we leave gaps in our prayers for God to speak to us and those sorts of things, but part of that prayer life should be a gathering together to pray. When we do that and when we’re even praying on our own, we should be praying for one another. The Christians spent a lot of time doing that in the early church, and I don’t know that we should be arrogant enough to say that we somehow know better, or we somehow have better ideas of what we should do. We should join with them, and pray that the church will collectively, will corporately, will communally be agents of change for the kingdom of God on earth.
As I said, you might have a desire or an intention to pray, but you want to know what can we say beyond just “God, bless them,” “God, bless Fred and Mary.” I could ask you to pray for the people around you today, and you might know their names, and be able simply to say, “God, bless Bob. God, bless Bill. God, bless Paul,” and you’re not quite sure what else to pray for, so then you might ask them what can I pray for or those sorts of things.
Sometimes, some prayer meetings I’ve been to, they’d call, “Let’s pray for so and so,” and then it almost bordered on being the gossip session of what we need to pray for, for them.
We think that that’s important because we want to pray most specifically. We don’t want to just pray, “God, bless them,” so we think we need to know all about them, so that we can pray in an informed manner.
There might be some truth in that, but if we don’t know those specific things, or someone doesn’t tell us anything more than “please pray” or whatever. Instead of having to know all sorts of details to pray longer prayers than, “God, bless Chris,” - and that’s a good prayer!, you can pray that … instead of having to know a list of requests or needs, a thing to do is to look at these New Testament prayers. Take away from their example some of the extra ways that we can pray.
Paul, that we’ve just looked at all those times where he says, “I prayed continually. Night and day, I pray. I haven’t stopped praying,” also records some of his actual prayers, or at least the reasons for them also.
He tells us what he prayed, and gives us some reasons for the prayer. Not all of them that I’m going to look at today, but some of them are on that sheet that I’ve given you. I want you take away New Testament prayers of the apostle Paul, praying like the first Christian’s pray. We’re going to look through some of those, and then a bit later on, I’m going to get Robyn up, and Robyn will pray, lead us in praying one of these prayers.
I might pray one as well, and show you how you can even use that to expand your vocabulary of prayer.
Here we go, praying the prayers of the early church, the prayers that we find in the New Testament. The great thing about these prayers is we can be confident that they’re God’s will. People some may think, “Oh, I don’t know if what I’m going to pray is what God wants.” Well, God put these prayers in the bible, so I think we can be sure that they are God’s will. Another good reason to pray these prayers especially when you’re in a group is that the other people will know that you’re praying from the bible, so they’ll be able to agree with you and pray.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever done that, but sometimes you might be in a meeting, and someone begins to pray, and you hold back because they’ve only started, and you’re not exactly sure what they’re going to ask for or what they’re going to say. It’s not really until that they finish that you know whether that’s a prayer that you would really agree with or not. When we come together, if we pray the scripture, we can probably be pretty confident that we’re going to agree with one another that these are good things to pray, and so we can affirm and agree with one another about that.
The first one I want to look at, quite a few of these are from Ephesians. It’s Ephesians chapter 1 verse 17 to 19. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious father may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation. This is what he’s praying. He prays for the other believers that God would give them the spirit of wisdom and revelation. He prays that they would be able to not just gain knowledge, but understanding of that knowledge. Understanding of how to apply that knowledge, but it would be revelation, not just information. Praying for one another in the church that they wouldn’t just come, and be given a list of facts or propositional truth, but revelation of God.
I saw something the other day on a website. Somebody was complaining about some of the new denominations that are appearing, and new churches that are talking about ways of engaging the culture. The person wanted to say that the “truth is truth, and truth is factual truth.” It doesn’t matter about anything else. He was angry because other people in this movement he was critical of had said, “Yeah, truth is factual truth, but truth is relational too.” The person was annoyed with that, and I remembered back to when I preached here about Jesus saying, “I am the truth.” I said, “Yeah, Jesus is propositionally true. It’s factually true. He was born. He lived, he died.”
The information we have about him is all factually true; but in the bible, truth means more than that. It means faithful. It means trustworthy. There’s that extra, it’s not just the information because beyond the information in to relationship and other stuff.
Paul praying for wisdom and revelation, that’s what revelation means. Revelation is when the information wakes you up inside. Your heart changes, your attitude is changed. That’s what he’s prayed, and then he says, “Why?” He prayed that, so that you might know him (God) better.
I also pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his saints, his incomparably great power for us to believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength. A little later on again talking to the Ephesians, and actually earliest copies that we have just say like a letter to blank, and there’s some that say to the Ephesians. It was probably a letter that was actually sent to many churches. Remember the seven churches that we talked about in Revelation? Ephesus was one of those churches.
The letter to the Ephesians was probably circulated amongst those churches in the same way. They wrote it, and they passed it on. He’s writing to this group of believers, these churches that he had an involvement with, and he prays for them. “I pray that out of God’s glorious riches, he would strengthen you with power through his spirit in your inner being.” Pray for one another that God will strengthen one another. So easy to get tired, so easy to get busy, so easy to get sidetracked, pray for strength. Pray for power. Pray for power that comes from the gifting and ability of the Holy Spirit.
He tells us the reason again that he prays that, “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, and I pray that you being rooted and established in love.” Pray that what they do will be done out of love. Pray for each other. Pray for all the churches. Pray that their motive will not be to grow, will not be to have extra decisions, will not be to have influence for the sake of those things. They might be the means, but pray that the end would be that they would be rooted and established in love, that the motivation for what they do would be love, and to know the love, and the power, and to grasp how wide, and long, and high, and deep is the love of Christ to know this love that surpasses knowledge.
In Philippians, he’s writing to the church there. He says, “This is my prayer for you. This is my prayer for this church that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best, and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.” Colossians, writing again, and these are basically all Paul just to simplify things a bit today.
“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you, and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the father who has qualified you to share the inheritance of the saints and the kingdom of love.”
This, a lot of words there. They’re long sentences. There’s a lot of stuff. You can pray for the people around you beyond just saying, “God, bless Glenis. God, bless Andrew. Lord, bless them.” You don’t have to delve in and know the latest medical diagnosis that they’ve got in great details, so you can pray for them. You don’t need to know the challenges that they face. You don’t need to know the temptations, the fallings, the problems, the failings that can sometimes lead us to share those things, so we can pray for one another in a more informed way, but really just whet our appetite for information that we need out of curiosity not necessity.
You can pray these for those people. You don’t need to know anything else about them to pray these. You can pray that God will fill them with the knowledge of his will. I can pray for Helen that God will fill Helen with the knowledge of his will, that she will know, and she continues to study and look for work where it is that God wants her to use that. I know that God place desires in her heart, so pray that she may be able to design low-cost housing in different places, and to use her gifts and her calling to further God’s kingdom.
I can tell you then probably that God would give her knowledge about how to do that, where to do that, where the basis it that it would be not just earthly wisdom. It wouldn’t just be, “This job is going to pay the best, and this is going to be the best place to live, or whatever,” but there will be spiritual wisdom as she approaches those things. I can pray for each one of you that God would work in your life, so that you can live a life worthy of him, and that you would please him in every way. I can pray that what you do would bear a fruit. I could pray that God would take your life, and cause it to be lived before people who have been prepared by the Holy Spirit to see Jesus in you.
I can pray for each of you, and you can pray for me that I’d be strengthened with power, that what we do isn’t just done out of human energy, but out of the Holy Spirit’s energizing power by the supernatural gifts, by the natural talents that God breathes on and takes. We can certainly pray for people that they would endure and be patient. You don’t need to know what they’re going through, you can probably be pretty safe to assume that everybody’s going through something that they would be able to look to those things for.
Romans, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity amongst yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.” You can pray for the churches in Torquay that God would give us unity. I’m going to have coffee tomorrow afternoon at the VIcarage with the Anglican Vicar. A couple of weeks ago, Robyn and I spent some time with the new minister at the Uniting Church and his wife. I preached at Bell’s Beach Christian church on Friday night. During the week, I met the Salvation Army people. I lent them something, and they lent me something, and we worked together.
The Surf Coast Community Church, we work with them. We meet with them fortnightly as ministers in this town to pray. I value the unity of the churches because I believe that we all represent one God to this community, and you can always pray for that. You’re wondering what to pray. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity amongst yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus. If praying for all the churches is too much, just pray for us here. There’s this whole gathering of people.
We’re not all going to like the same music, we’re not all going to like the same kind of coffee that we might serve afterwards, we just not. That would be crazy to think that we would. We’re not all the same. Unity doesn’t have to mean that we become exactly alike, but we can start to look at ourselves as not against one another over an issue, but with one another against an issue, against the world that needs the gospel. We can pray for unity, pray that bitterness would be dealt with, that when things happen, people would not take offense, but would think the best of the other person.
Look to their motive, and realize that deep down, they’re probably wanting to do the right thing, and do the best, and to be forgiving. God would give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth, you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another just as Christ accepted you. Another one from Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may now overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Pray for one another. Pray for each other in this church and in other churches that the God of hope would fill them. Some people need our help. We need to pray for people in our congregation that have suffered loss, not just loss in the last 12 months, but loss in the last 10 years that the Spirit might still come and overflow with hope for them about why should they get up tomorrow, and live a life where things are so different. Pray that God would come and show hope that this is only an 80-year span in eternity, and God is the God who redeems things, and takes what is bad, and can restore it to good. And that people feeling hopeless would remember that, they would be able to see that, they would be able to believe that.
Pray for one another that God would give joy and peace. Pray for us that we can trust God. Pray that we will trust that God means well for us, so that we would overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we would be a beacon of hope to the world that needs it, that we would be people that have hope, so that other would look to us and say, “that’s unusual what you have,” and that they would want to have it for themselves.
Paul even goes on and asks the churches to pray for him. He’s praying for them and saying what he’s praying for, and he says, “And pray for me. Brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored just as it was with you. Pray that we would be delivered from wicked and evil men for not every man has faith,” and he goes on. Again in Colossians, “Devote yourself to prayer. Be watchful and thankful, and pray for us too that God would open a door for our message, so that we could proclaim the mystery of Christ for which I’m in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly.”
Pray for me. Pray for the other pastors in town. Pray for one another that God would open a door for our message, that there would opportunities. Pray for each other that as people commute, as they travel, as they meet family members, as they do all the things that they do in their lives that there will be an opportunity for the message to be lived and to be spoken, so that we would proclaim the mystery of Christ.
The mystery of Christ being the fact that God became a man and lived a sinless life, yet became sin for us, and that a death 2,000 years ago can mean a life for us forever. Pray that we can proclaim those clear and key messages.
You can use those scriptures just as they are written and add people’s names. You can start by saying, “God, bless Doug,”, you can take one of these prayers and personalize it. Pray that God would fill Doug with the knowledge of his will through spiritual wisdom and understanding, that Doug would live a life worthy of God, and that he would be pleasing to his father, that Doug’s life and this ministry trip that they’re going to go on soon would be fruitful in every good work, that Doug would grow in the knowledge of God and be strengthened with power, so that Doug would endure with patience and joy, and give thanks to the father who loves Doug so much that he made Doug adjoined here with Christ, and call him his son.
You can just take a prayer like that, and personalize it by putting a name in it, or you can use the phrase for starters to get you praying. As an outline, to direct your prayers. As you practice that you can go on in more and more ways adding to prayers that we can be confident are ones God wants to answer because they’re in his will. And that we can pray confidently, corporately for each other. You might remember how I said that our prayers aren’t just mentioning requests to God. It’s not just mentioning a request.
Our prayer is joining with God in the struggle of this world, and that’s part of what I used as an explanation for unanswered prayer.
It’s not just that we make a request, and God has to answer. It’s not that if there’s an unanswered prayer, the problem is either with us or God, but that our prayers are joining with God in the struggle, in the spiritual warfare, in the battle that is, is this life. As we want to join with God, we might want to know what is God praying, what does God want to have us say. We can be confident that this … It doesn’t mean that you never pray other things, that you never find out that somebody needs their knee operated on, we can pray that God would work on those things, or they’re struggling with a particular temptation, we might want to deal with that, and pray in that sense. But in many other times when we want to know what to pray, we can be confident that we can pray these prayers that we find from the New Testament.
Robyn is going to come and pray for us now. I want us to join with her as we pray. I said depending on I think the time, I might pray as well after that, but let’s do that. We can pray these prayers for one another. They can shape and support our words and our attitudes as we pray. This mike will be on for her?
Robyn: Let’s pray. Lord, I want to pray from Philippians chapter 1.
God I pray that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and all discernment that we may approve the things that are excellent. Yes, Lord. Let our minds be filled with the things that please you.
That we may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ’s return, being filled with the fruits of righteousness, love, joy, peace, patience which come through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God. Amen.
Chris Rowney: I found that when Robyn was praying that, that I could hear the words, and as I did picture different ones of you, and join my spirit to that prayer that God would give love to those people, that God would help different ones of you to not struggle in areas of your life, that you would find purity, that you would find hope, that you would find peace. Let’s pray one more time as we close. As we do this, just think of the people that were sitting beside you, or behind or in front of you, and pray this on their behalf.
Father, God. I keep asking. I ask that you, Father God, the God that we can come to and call Father, the glorious father would let these people beside me know that you love them the way a loving parent loves a child, that they can come to you, and you won’t reject them.
You are glorious, Father. I pray, glorious Father, that you would give to these people around me today a spirit of wisdom, you would help them to know when to keep quiet and when to speak, that they would know who to spend time with and who to avoid, that they would know what things in their life they need to remove, and what things they need to increase, and put energy into.
Lord, you would cause them to remember proverbs that they have read and wisdom that they have understood to help them as they live their life. Lord, I pray that their understanding in the gospel would not just be prepositional knowledge, that they wouldn’t know the right things or worry about knowing the wronging things, but that they know the right person, that they would have a revelation that you are a God who is present with them, that they would get to know you better, that they would know you more, that they wouldn’t look back and think that they felt closer to you 10 years ago, but that they would start to know each day a closer greater understanding, greater presence of you in their life.
Lord, I pray for those people to my left and to my right that they have, their very inner selves would be enlightened, that within themselves, they would have a hope that they can explain, that when they look and they see things in the world, things in their circumstances, things in their marriage, things in their family, things in their work that are difficult, that they would still somehow have a hope that they can explain, and that hope would be placed there because you have promised them an eternity in your presence, a God who has riches of a glorious inheritance in the saints.
Lord, help us to understand that our inheritance is not something that is given just each of us, but it’s in the saints. It’s the all of us together. Lord, help us to work together to understand that we are a part of body of Christ, and that in this body of Christ, we want to see your power at work, the power to change our lives, the power to change lives around us. Lord, help us to be more like you. In Jesus name, amen.