Seven men were choisen to serve in a ministry of charitable deeds like serving food in the early church so apostles could give themselves “continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:1-6). Making prayer secondary to anything else was like making God second to the affairs of life. Prayer had emphasis, not preaching or teaching or good deeds. It allowed no one to claim, “I’m too busy to pray!” Nothing took precedence over prayer for these great men of God. It could even be said the apostles were under a law of prayer that recognized God would do nothing without prayer. Preaching was not undertaken without devotion to prayer, and the apostles were on guard against ignoring time in prayer, even for charitable deeds. Could today’s lack of “signs and wonders” confirming preaching be a result of lack of prayer? A thought for all who would preach and teach.
Prayer is sensitive to the character and conduct of the pray-er. Just as water cannot rise above its own level, righteous prayer cannot flow from unrighteous hearts in the same way a doubting heart cannot pray with faith. Such is why the psalmist tells us to have clean hands and a pure heart to stand before the throne of grace with petitions and supplications (Psalm 24:3,4). Impotence of prayer is keeping many from submitting their lives and the cares of the world into the hands of a God just waiting for prayer. Only in humility of heart through prayer do we become more Christ-like. But prayer does not find birth in carnality. Desire to be righteous is birthed by Holy Spirit, and it is also by the Spirit that the desire to pray develops if we are willing to cooperate.
The dispensation of the Spirit in which we live is one of prayer, apart from which the kingdom of God will not be manifested and maintained. The man in the pew is often without a burden to pray. Sduced by cheap grace into confessing Christ before genuine repentance and forgiveness of sins has occurred, new spiritual birth has not taken place and life has not really changed. We may hear a reference to ‘following Christ’ in the altar call, but rarely is following Christ mentioned in the way of prayer. Yet Jesus did nothing without prayer, but could do all things with prayer. And God has not changed His way of executing plans, lest we be deceived. Early Methodists like the Wesleys were not learned men, but were men of prayer greatly used by God. Today in the place of prayer, we see the emphasis on graduate degrees in theology and eloquence of speech if not theatrics. Satan has so easily deceived most of the Church!
Primary conditions for advancement of God’s kingdom continue to be faith, prayer, and obedience. All else is secondary, yet we fail to grasp the truth of this as it comes to practice. Bible studies, yes. Faith, at times, yes. Obedience, to some extent. Burden to pray through the night if required, rarely if ever! It’s not even made clear how a person learns to pray. Certainly not by studying forms of prayer. One learns to pray, guided by the Spirit, on the knees. It is in the school of prayer that one learns how to pray not only in the presence of God, but in the presence of men. But often the sacred practice of prayer is professional and mechanical. I’m all too aware of listening to phrases repeated like mantras used in Hindu worship. But such avails little, nor is such mechanical praying very often confirmed by the miraculous in my personal experience, despite being pleasing to the ears of men.
Intellectualism is a quality useful in secular public speaking. But what distinguishes prayer is its dependency on God, using words supplied by Holy Spirit to move the hand of God. He who would teach others to pray must first walk in the way of prayer. One can’t teach what he isn’t experiencing and expect teaching to be anointed, for it isn’t information that secures “power from on high.” Many pulpits depend on persuasive words instead of God’s power to bring people to consciousness of sin, need for righteousness, and awareness of peril by refusing to repent. Yet how seldom we hear Jesus’ message, “Except you repent, you will perish” (Luke 13:3,4), used like a sword in piercing the heart. Such is what Paul means in the following words:
“My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:1,4,5
A danger in the pulpit is substituting human gifts like excellency of speech for power from on high that finds its birth in earnest prayer. No qualification of human nature can replace the Spirit’s work in searching the depth of men’s hearts or a quickening of the conscience. Holy Spirit alone carries out this work and man is equipped through the God-appointed means of prayer. Prayer must also come from the pew as well as the preacher spending time in the closet of prayer. Paul’s plea is unchanged today for all those who share a pulpit: “Brothers, pray for us.”
“Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified…..for all men have not faith.” 2 Thessalonians 3:1,2
The apostle is saying spread of the gospel may not have “free course” to do its work if there is failure to pray for those appointed to preach. Those in the pew must pray that obstacles be removed so wings might be given the gospel to move freely in the hearts of those who need to hear from God. Pray-ers in the pew have been compared to poles holding up wires along which electric power flows. They are not the power or what makes the Word of God effective. But they hold up that along which divine influence runs into the hearts of men. Just as prayer may not rise above the head of a pray-er, preaching can fail to go beyond a pulpit. It takes prayer in the pulpit and in the pew to give power that is life-giving and life-saving. Preachers and teachers need to be supported by prayer and the Church body is often negligent in fulfilling its responsibility. Many attend church to fellowship with their friends or family, or to be entertained and have ears tickled by soft messages. Should we then be surprised that signs and wonders are not in evidence when there is lack of prayer for the Holy Spirit to execute His divine work?
Paul recognized there were forces which would hinder boldness in preaching the full message of Christ when he asked the Ephesians to pray “that I may open my mouth boldly….that therein I may speak as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:20,21). We read elsewhere of Peter and others also praying to have boldness (Acts 4:29), and such is certainly needed today. Those who preach are in great need of prayer support. Paul was certainly no coward, yet needed prayer to be bold. How much more this is true today when religion has become a business and those in ministry depend on funds to live comfortably. It creates a situation where those in the pulpit are inhibited by fear of man, something I have witnessed repeatedly. Yet are we not hesitant to boldly claim allegiance to Christ if challenged by the world? It has certainly taken place in my life at times!
God took pains with OT prophets to save them from fear in bringing messages to a rebellious people. In the NT Church, however, boldness in preaching depends in part on prayers of others according to Paul, lest fear of man temper messages to a point of compromise. Scripture warns, “Fear of man brings a snare” (Proverbs 29:25), and there are few in pulpits who’ve not been tempted as to boldness in preaching. We must steel ourselves against fear of man which is a snare of Satan, and here prayer is mandatory. Just as Aaron and Hur came to Moses’ aid as his arms wearied during Joshua’s battle with the Amalekites, we must lift up pastors in prayer so spiritual fatigue does not overcome. Both Moses and Jeremiah gave excuses when called to ministry because of fear. Are we now to believe that Satan has dismissed his attack on our leaders?
Martin Luther, an important reformer of the fifteenth century, said of his activities, “I have so much work to do that I cannot get along without giving three hours daily of my best time to prayer.” Yet we are so superficial in prayer. It requires a mindset implanted by the Holy Spirit to adopt a discipline consisting of daily extended prayer. Such is my desire, and I realize it will only come to pass if I cooperate with the grace of God. Without God’s divine influence on my heart, such a desire will never find an execution in spite of the very best of intentions. And a prayer closet is where this desire for intimacy with the heavenly Father is to be carried out just as it was with Jesus.
Preaching and teaching are often a performance rather than the very outflow of one’s life. Instead of being life-giving and filled with anointing, preaching and teaching can be filled with death, despite lacing with scripture and biblical illustrations. How can one claim such a thing? It is not always recognized because many in pulpit and pew alike do not really understand what Paul means by describing the New Covenant as “ministry of the Spirit.” Does not God’s Word tell us that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”? The gospel can be dry and absent of life if not under the ministration of Holy Spirit. We are bewitched by failing to understand the role of the Spirit in activating the Word of God into life. We rely on the eloquence of man in delivering a carefully prepared message with enough humor so that lukewarm sinners as well as unsaved sinncers find themselves entertained instead of being brought to their knees in repentance with contrite hearts.
Do silver-tongued orators in the pulpit receive praise from men? Absolutely! But not from the angels in heaven, let alone the Father. It is hardly a coincidence Jesus did not choose highly educated leaders as the first disciples. He was fully aware that having dependence on oneself was a great obstacle to advancing the gospel. What is needed is self-denying, self-crucifying men who’ll not only be called-out but sold-out willing martyrs for the faith should such become necessary. Their role model Jesus set the example for prayer, and that is how the best soldiers of the kingdom are always made. Such men learn to not take pride in knowledge, but to humbly obey the will of God learned through humility in prayer.
“Our sufficiency is of God: who also has made us able ministers of the new testament: not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Corinthians 3:5,6
Preaching that kills is never birthed in prayer. Indeed the forces giving energy to such are counterfeit and not from God. The words themselves may be scriptural in form and order, but dry and empty in effect. They may contain truth and be delivered with earnestness, but the emotion is that of the preacher, not the force of God at one’s back. For lifegiving preaching and teaching costs dearly in terms of crucifixion of self and the world. Messages can easily be orthodox, yet dead. Nothing is as dead as is dead orthodoxy. Yet it is common to consider preaching as satisfactory as long as scripture is used. It is what Satan wants us to believe because he fears the manifested power of the Spirit.
It is amazing how letter-preaching can be dressed up to attract crowds. I’ve had the experience of watching a congregation grow from a few hundred to thousands, yet the Word of God was anything but “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). More scripture was taught than in most churches and it drew crowds, yet the Word did not pierce to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. Instead of bringing conviction of sin drawing the contrite to the altar saying, “Pray for me, I’m a sinner,” people were asked to repeat a sinner’s prayer ignoring need to repent. It was preaching leading to death, deceiving sinners to think they were saved if they would agree with certain facts presented instead of experiencing godly sorrow that brings repentance leading to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). Ezekiel and Paul realized there would be blood on their hands if they failed to warn of God’s demand to repent and live in obedient faith, something many in the pulpit will be accountable for at the time of judgment.
Looking back, I recognize the greatest miracles I witnessed took place when I found myself in earnest prayer together with fasting. I grieve for those trained in ministry who learn the mechanics of sermon-making, yet are taught little of a crucified life with hearts prepared by prayer and fasting before entering a pulpit. They’re deceived that the number attending their church is a litmus test for being workmen approved by God. Surrender of the intellect to divine forces made Paul a standout among peers. It was subordination of his will to God in prayer which gave Wesley a great harvest. This is not to say men should not use intellect as a gift from God. But one using intellect profitably is a man who cultivates his heart in prayer. It’s said almost anyone of common intellect can preach the gospel, but few have the grace (divine influence on the heart) to do so in such a way that profoundly changes those who listen.
We all know the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept.” And one who goes forth weeping bearing seed is one who shall come rejoicing, bringing sheaves of harvest with him (Psalm 126:6). The closet is the place to prepare the heart and the place to learn more about how to preach and teach than in any library of commentaries. But what we so often find today instead of unction (anointing) is a great deal of emotionalism punctuated by sayings like “Praise the Lord” or “Amen” or “Hallelujah.” I do not believe such ‘hype’ honors God with all due respect to many Pentecostal preachers. To preach in such a manner is simply not found anywhere in the scriptures.
I’m touched by messages like those of Jonathan Edwards who oversaw revivals as part of the Great Awakening in 1933 and foreward. In 1941, this man of God gave a message entitled, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” based on Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” It’s said Edwards read the message in near monotone, yet it brought incredible conviction of sin because of anointing. He challenged not only those unregenerate, but those saved whose lives were not yielding godly fruit. Telling the ax was already at the tree, ready to cut down lives not bringing glory to God, did not include the theatrics so common today. It was a sober message from the heart of God, brought by a preacher known to spend much time in prayer. It was in a prayer closet where God also birthed messages delivered by OT prophets, holding no fear of man by offending those he said were at risk of divine judgment.
Prayer has always been a condition for unction. It is the prayers of those who spend considerable time in the closet that avail much, not the prayers of those who only on occasion devote themselves to prayer. As Paul writes, “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:14). Paul’s teaching of prayer stresses that all things are to be committed to the Father in prayer. Prayer without ceasing was not a suggestion by Paul. It is a mandate, a command, of God Himself. And no better place can draw lessons to conclusion than to consider what Paul says of being an instrument in the hands of God who desires to have His name glorified by all who profess Him.
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
Prayer costing nothing achieves nothing. Paul knew this and tells us that prayer without ceasing which moves the hand of God comes from one who is crucified with Christ. Paul began his career in prayer. After converion on a road leading to Damascas, the disciple Ananias was sent to where Paul waited without sight and fasting. Ananias was reluctant to go because of Paul’s reputation for trying to destroy the church. But Jesus gave assurance to Ananias, saying, “Behold he prays.” Throughout the remainder of Paul’s life, it is noted this man of God had devoted spirit of prayer no matter the situation. Never did he rely on intellect, talents, gifts, or eloquence in ministry. He called on others to lift him in prayer so he might carry out the duty given him in bringing the gospel to Gentiles. His recognition of need for grace coming through prayer was a key for his remarkable success in ministry.
Returning to Jerusalem after a missionary trip, Paul would visit saints in Ephesus. Before departing, he “kneeled down, and prayed with them” (Acts 21:36). Such was a favorite attitude of Paul for prayer, yet I must admit to only recently concluding that kneeling is a most proper attitude like that of beggar coming before his Benefactor. The apostle would always have us recognize that it is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). If we grant this to be true, how do we rejoice in trials if we can’t humble ourselves to pray on bended knee? Paul was always in prayer for others, urging believers to intercede, “continuing instant in prayer.” We’re to be constant in prayer, making it the business of life, devoted to prayer such that calling on heaven is part of everything in life.
The church in America has strayed from Pauline teaching and practice concerning prayer. The simplicity of the gospel lived by Paul, that of denying self and taking up a cross daily to be crucified with Christ, is seen as nice in theory but impractical in these times. Nowhere is this so evident as with prayer. How many in pulpit or pew can assert they pray like Paul? “God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing, I make mention of you in my prayers” (Romans 1:9). He speaks of being faithful in prayer for saints elsewhere, not to gain recognition but because Paul knew advancement of the gospel depended on prayer. Yet today such emphasis on prayer is so rare in the body of Christ.
This man of God realized he was in a life-and-death conflict with invisible forces of evil which desired to destroy everything to which he committed his life. Yet when it comes to the reality of spiritual warfare today, most slumber and are ignorant of the wiles of Satan, not even wanting to be informed at times. But Paul gives the picture of a soldier engaged in battle, stressing prayer as an essential weapon if one is to prevail and live an overcoming life. But let us not say that preachers who spend more time in a prayer closet than in their study are wise and at the same time excuse ourselves from striving with them in prayer. As shepherds of sheep, spiritual leaders they have targets on their backs when it comes to demonic attack and temptation. This very day as I write, the senior pastor of another megachurch in our state has fallen into sexual sin and is relieved of his pastorate.
In preparing these lessons, I’ve come to realize more than ever my responsibility in regard to prayer. I’ve never devoted a great deal of thought to the subject of prayer until more recent years. But I recognize that one cannot claim to be a follower of Jesus and yet neglect His commands concerning the office of prayer. To be absent from the prayer closet is to be absent from communion with the Father in heaven. One might even argue that to ignore the prayer closet on a regular basis means that one cannot legitimately claim being a redeemed of the Lord. At the very least, to ignore the prayer closet is to risk having received grace in vain. Of such persons, Jesus says the following:
“This people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me.” Matthew 15:8