Acts 2:42 “They devoted themselves . . . to prayer.”
This is the fourth and final mark of a true church. A true church continues in the teaching of the apostles, and in vital fellowship with one another, and in the breaking of bread and lastly a true church is a praying church. And once again it does this because it is following the commands of Jesus Christ. He has said that his people should always pray and not give up, not faint.
Jesus himself prayed. That is a staggering truth, for if there was anyone who had no need of praying it was him. He was the incarnation of omnipotence. He had power of men, over devils, over creation, over disease and over death. What need did he have to pray, but we discover that often Jesus prayed aloud. There are numerous examples of this in the gospels, so many that we have come to think that invariably he prayed aloud, not only when the Greeks came to meet him, or in the Upper Room, or in the Garden, or on the Cross, but generally he prayed aloud, and that is why his prayers could be recorded in the Gospels. This is also one of the reasons he needed to get away from the apostles early in the morning that his praying did not disturb them, particularly his praying about them.
So on one occasion when he had finished praying one of the disciples who had been listening to him humbly asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” You must consider the longing in that request. He had heard Jehovah Jesus in prayer and he was deeply moved by the experience of hearing God the Son talking to God the Father. “Will I ever pray like that . . . will I ever pray at all?” He had tried to pray; they all had tried in those years before Pentecost. He asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Our Lord had taught them much, and hadn’t John the Baptist actually taught his disciples to pray? So wasn’t it time for Jesus to teach them to pray?
What we see here is that you can ask the Lord Jesus to teach you what you need to know. He has said, “Learn of me . . . learn about everything from me,” and so you can say, “Teach me about discipleship, or about your death on the cross, or about heaven, or whatever.” He will respond to you as he responded to this disciple. I’m so glad that that disciple asked that question because in teaching him to pray Jesus is teaching all of us. I was in a prayer meeting one Friday morning and a minister there said in his praying, “Oh, Lord, teach us to pray.” He said other things but he did say that andit struck a chord. When you are in our Prayer Meeting on Tuesday and you have never prayed aloud with others listening, then this is what you can say, “Lord teach me to pray.” And we will all say ‘Amen’ in our hearts. I don’t think that that minister on that Friday was conscious at all that he was quoting the words of our text. We often find ourselves making the same request, don’t we? “Oh Lord help me to pray.”
Only Christians feel how inadequate their prayers are, and they tell their Saviour their concerns, and ask that Jesus should teach them about access to God. The world doesn’t feel such helplessness does it? It thinks it knows about prayer. The world sings, “The moment I wake up, before I put on my make-up, I say a little prayer for you.” It’s a great tune with muddled words. A woman like that has no problem with praying, with knowing how to pray and what to pray for. She simply says a ‘little prayer.’ Muslims have no problem in knowing how to pray. They are firmly instructed when to pray, on five occasions in a day, what sentences to repeat, what direction to face when they pray, how to stand, when to put their hands on their knees, how to prostrate themselves on the floor, kneeling, their heads touching the ground, shoes off, and so on. They are sure that they know about praying. They don’t ask Allah to teach them. They know everything about prayers. Orthodox Jews are exactly the same; they believe that they have been given fulsome details of every aspect of prayer. They are masters of praying. Tibetan Buddhist monks are the same. The one thing that characterizes every religion in the world is that all their devotees think they know what prayer is. Roman Catholics repeat their Hail Mary’s and Pater nostas
With Christians it is totally different. We are humbled if we’re asked about our praying. We often feel that we don’t know what to pray for as we ought and we find ourselves saying to God what this old minister said in my hearing on that Friday morning, “Teach us to pray,” because for us prayer is impotence grasping at Omnipotence. It is the adoration of a Being of unsurpassable glory and greatness, and yet it is talking him who has become our heavenly Father, and it is as real as talking to our own parents or to our husbands or wives, or to our children, an act of free personal communion, but the reality is that he is the personal infinite God, so holy and great, while we are so insignificant and bad. How are we to communicate to him? It cannot be by repeating the same phrases over and over again, day by day. Imagine you talked to your wife or your parents in repetitive robotic phrases! That is precisely what Jesus warns us about in his reference to “vain repetitions.” Millions have never learned that.
You need to go to Jehovah Jesus with deep longing and say to him, “Teach me to pray.” Have you done that? Have you learned from Jesus what prayer is? I will tell you; “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” There was a man who lived until he was 73 and every night for almost 70 years he’d repeated at the close of the day a little verse about laying his head down to sleep and would God keep his soul safe. That was his only attempt to connect with God. But then God began to deal with him; the man heard the gospel and he came under conviction of his need of Christ. It was then he learned that while he’d repeated a prayer for decades he’d never prayed at all. How many of you are like that? Don’t you need to go to Jesus and say to him that you have learned that one of the marks of being a member of the true church is that that congregation and you are all people of prayer? “Lord, teach us to pray.”
We take for granted the fact that Jesus answered this anonymous disciple’s request. Do you realise that this was the greatest request this man had ever made in his life? More important than when he asked his girl-friend to marry him. He was saying, “How do I speak to the Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth so that he hears and answers my requests?” In these verses before us is the definitive answer. This is how we may speak with the Maker of the cosmos, the high and holy One who dwells in eternity whose name is Holy. When we pray to him in this way then God most certainly hears us. Think of it, that God hears us! Things change! We change! God does things in response to our praying, or maybe I can say it like this, that God uses our praying to change things – like he uses our example and our witness bearing and our preaching. This is guaranteed, and that is why Jesus said that people should always be praying and not quickly stopping because they have got tired of it. Please understand that I’m not saying that if you repeat, word by word, the exact words that Jesus gives us here, that that is real praying, and that then God will hear us. I am saying that these 3,000 new converts on the Day of Pentecost became men of prayer. If you have come to know God as your heavenly Father, and speak to him in the spirit and truth of these words of God the Son, then that is how prayer is conceived, and how prayer is continued, and how prayer is consummated. How did Jesus answer the request? How did he teach them to pray?
So this is where we must start, in being converted and becoming believers in God, believing he is and he rewards those who diligently seek him. You must become God’s children. Jesus said that the first thing is to come to know God as Father. Now Christians claim that God is Father of everything in the cosmos since he created it all. I am thinking of the words of the prophet Malachi, “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” (Mal. 2:10). Think of the countless billions of molecules that make up the moon and the planets. It was God who fathered them all into being. There was no spontaneous auto-creation. The Lord God made them all. In that same precise and limited way God is the Father of each one of you by right of creation; he is the Father of every atheist; he is Richard Dawkins’ Father! He is Father of every criminal in every prison in the United Kingdom. No matter how horrific their crimes might have been God is their Father in this sense; he caused their conception in the womb of their mothers; he caused the one fertilized cell to multiply into billions of cells so making the distinctive person that each one became. He gave that baby life and personality, and in him each child lives and moves and has its being as it is in every one of us. Not in mere determinism; not by chance; luck is not the father of anyone. God is the Creator and provider, the Giver of every good and perfect gift, the universal Father.
So while God is our Father as our Creator, the devil is also our father because of our family likeness to him. I am quoting to you the words of the same Lord Jesus when he told his disciples to address God as their Father. Within a few weeks of saying those words he said to another bunch of hostile and suspicious people, You belong to your father the devil” (John 8:44). If God were their Father then they would love Jesus their older brother, but they didn’t have any love for God. Theirs was another father, the devil. They had that family likeness; they showed his values and his behaviour; they thought and acted just like their father. He was a liar from the beginning and so are they today. The devil is also Richard Dawkins’ father. So by God’s right of creating you, you are of your Father, God. But in the way you mirror the character of the devil you are of your father the devil. Your Father is God your Creator; your father is the devil. Your Father is God your mighty Maker; your father is Satan. You come from God; you follow the devil. You are living a double life. Doesn’t that exactly fit your condition? Your conscience tells you when you do wrong. That is God’s voice. You cannot silence your Father speaking to you, even though you don’t behave like him. So the Christian gospel urges you to regularize your relationship with God your Father, ending your relationship with the devil. Come to know him; don’t live in estrangement from him; take on board the privileges and responsibilities of having him as your Father. That is how you become a Christian and begin the life of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. John puts it like this in the first chapter of his gospel: “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
There comes a favoured time in our lives when the Lord stands before us and he asks us effectually to receive him into our lives as our God. He asks us to believe upon him as our Teacher, our great High Priest, our Master and our Shepherd. That is a conscious decision we take . . . we must take it . . . please take the decision of receiving God into your life. Please do that . . . we urge you to do that. Make that commitment of receiving him as your God; of ending following the devil, of abandoning that cruel creature whom you have followed too long, so that henceforth the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is going to be your Father too. Then you will know an inner witness, the Spirit of adoption, bearing witness with your spirits that you are his children. You may cry to him, “Abba, Father!” That is our first true prayer, “Father!” That is where prayer begins. Then Jesus gives what we call the ‘Lord’s prayer” and five petitions that follow the word “Father.” What do we say to God? What do we talk about in the presence of God? The first two petitions are focused on him, “Hallowed be thy name . . . Thy kingdom come.” And the next three are focused on ourselves. That is the order.
In other words, when you know that the God of Genesis 1 has become your very own Father then first of all you are constrained to worship him before you ask for anything at all. Do you pray like that? Are your prayers God-centred? Do they focus on him and his kingdom, how he rules over all things and over your life too? You will see how brief and simple is the Lord’s prayer. It also has immense profundity. What do phrases like “Hallowed be your name” and “Your kingdom come” mean? I compare the Lord’s Prayer to clothes that parents buy for their growing children, a size too large for them, knowing that they’ll grow into them. We are always growing into these requests and petitions. The words were so familiar to us when we were young. It is how we sarted school every day of the school year. We stood by our desks and we all said the Lord’s Prayer together except for two Jewish boys in our class. We said them then with little knowledge of what we were saying. In other words, on those occasions when the congregation or the school repeated these words we didn’t feel left out, but as we’ve come to know God and have the inward witness of the Spirit of God the Spirit of adoption, then we have grown in understanding and assurance that God is our Father. Then we’ve become more and more comfy with their language, but it won’t be until heaven itself that these words will really fit us.
HALLOWED BE THY NAME.
Hallowed be your name. Imagine someone getting a brush and a tin of white paint and in the middle of the night writing in large letters on an end wall the name of your wife and saying, “So-and-so is a slut.” The CCTV cameras had a close-up of the culprit and he was arrested and it would be no defence for him to say that he had written merely words, and just her name and an epithet, that in fact he had not touched her at all? That would be scant comfort to you and her beloved family because that name is the name of someone who is loved and adored, and in despising her name the criminal was despising her and those who loved her. Our beloved God has a name; he is Jehovah, the Lord; he is I AM THAT I AM; he is Jesus. When people disdain the name, interjecting the name into other four letter words and expressing out loud in anger and mockery their contempt then it is no defence to say that it’s only a sound, a vocable, a mere word. They are abusing the name of someone very great, the God who is our Creator, Sustainer and Judge, the God who has given us his law in which he says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain.” They are showing their hatred for their God. You hate it when his name becomes a mere curse word; this is your Father; Jesus is your Saviour; he died in your place; an arrow goes into your heart when his name becomes a curse word. We want men to know and love God. We want the name of God to be hallowed, that is, to be set apart, to be made holy. Think how great and glorious he is. We have only the beginnings of seeing his glory. We are praying that we will see him as one more holy than we ever imagined him to be. We want to reverence him with deepest tenderest fears. When he appeared to Moses in the desert then Moses had to take the shoes off his feet for he was standing on holy ground. When Isaiah saw him high and lifted up in the temple the very angels themselves, though they had never sinned, could not look on his uncreated holiness. They covered their eyes. When Peter saw one of his miracles he fell before him in a boat saying, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man O Lord.” When Saul of Tarsus met him on the road to Damascus it was like a close encounter with the sun in its noonday splendour. When he came to John on the Isle of Patmos the apostle fell at his feet as one dead. That is the proper kind of response to God. That is hallowing the name of God. That is what we long for in our day, in our congregations, a reverence and godly fear coming upon us, and then our whole town affected.
The prayer that Jesus taught us to pray begins with the desire to worship and exalt God. Critics complain, “What kind of God would require worship?” Then if I could invite Moses, or Isaiah, or Peter, or Paul, or John to answer that question any one of them would say to you, “You have never experienced anything like God before you meet him.” They were holy men and yet they needed to be told by God, “Do not be afraid” because they had never been so frightened in all their lives as when the God who is light came near to them. They were covered in goose-flesh; their knees were knocking; they were overwhelmed with awe; they were fainting. They’d never seen themselves and their own dirtiness of heart and soul so clearly. Strong light makes long shadows. When Isaiah sees God he is one who is high and lifted up and his train fills the temple. Isaiah responds, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips.” What Isaiah experienced all the people who’ve had close encounters with Jehovah also share. You suddenly see how much you need to change, to be more loving, and kinder, and thoughtful about others and so on. That is hallowing the name of God. You feel so small, and he so great; you cannot but worship him.
A hundred people meet together on the Lord’s Day to celebrate the one who died for them and on this first day of the week rose from the dead. They have walked with this living one through the week, and now on a Sunday they all come together, all of them who know how great God is, but what you can experience when you meet with them is a hundred times more awareness of the perfection and power of God because you are one with 100 others who fear God. And he is there in your midst. He is also meeting with you, this same mighty and awesome God, and he may intend to knock you flat just as John fell on his face before him on Patmos. You say, “Do it Lord! May your name be hallowed.” Wherever congregations of people meet all over the world they are all crying, “Please come and be in our midst so that your name is hallowed.” When he comes in power and grace to stand amongst his worshipping people this is what happens.
YOUR KINGDOM COME.
May your kingdom come. I used to think when I was a boy that this referred to the end of the world when Christ would come again and change everything and set up his eternal kingdom, but that is the kingdom of Christ’s glory in the eternal state. Christ is reigning now. In the Bible you nowhere meet the power of King Jesus so clearly as when you read the gospels. The Lord Jesus was then in his state of humility. He is washing the feet of his disciples. He is despised and rejected of men. They arrest him, whip him and kill him, and yet during those years on earth what kingly power he shows he possesses. The winds and waves obey him. The fig tree obeys him. The waters of the sea obey him as he walks on them. Disease does what he wills. He is the conqueror of death. Devils obey him. Men obey him; a platoon of soldiers falls at his feet, and fishermen leave their profitable family businesses to become itinerant disciples of his. He shows more authority than Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, and Herod. They do whatsoever his will determined should be done. He is the King of kings.
So we are in fact praying that his reign over men will spread and spread, that fathers will be converted and so their families become increasingly Christian families; that men in management are converted so that their businesses are influenced by King Jesus. We are praying that men in government bow at the feet of our Lord so that government becomes more just and righteous and caring. We are praying that people in the media, in entertainment and publishing, and also sporting icons bow at the throne of our King so that the stars of the media are changed to honour his name. We are praying that the Royal Family are affected and become Bible Christians. We are praying that in every area and level of our own town the reign of Christ will spread as people believe upon the Lord Christ and are saved. We want children to bow before Jesus Christ. We want teenagers to own him as their Lord. We want the thousands of students at the university to be born again and so enter his kingdom. We want young married couples to say, “Jesus Christ is our King,” and raise their families to love and serve him. We want all the middle-aged and older folk to acknowledge, “Our Lord reigns! Our Lord reigns!” That is what we are praying for when we say, “May your kingdom come.” We are not praying that people will make decisions, or raise their hands, or be baptized, or have a bishop put his hands on their heads. We want King Jesus’ reign of grace over men and women to grow and increase, that his subjects live as twice-born people who are seeking first this King and his righteousness and finding that then all other things like contentment and happiness are added to them.
Christ’s kingdom comes when men and women will finish serving themselves and begin to serve him. There was one occasion when Admiral Lord Nelson and the British fleet crushingly defeated the French fleet and they surrendered, and the leading French captain was rowed across to Nelson’s ship. He climbed up the ladder and approached Nelson extending to him his hand. Nelson said, “Sir, give me your sword and then I will take your hand,” which the admiral did. Those are the terms that Christ lays down for any person who would submit to him. Lay down your weapons first, the weapons of unbelief, and indifference, and hostility to him; end your rebellion against God. Leave serving other kings and serve this great loving Lord alone. Take his yoke upon you and learn of him. That is the condition of having him as your great Protector and Shepherd for the rest of your lives.
Then we are to go on working out day by day for the rest of our lives what it is to be living in the kingdom of this world and at the same time living in Christ’s great Kingdom, and how we increasingly come under his influence and power, so that he reigns over every part of us. There is no happiness unless he is the only King in our lives.
GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD.
Give us each day our daily bread. We have seen that real prayer begins with a concern for the honour of the name of God and a desire for his reign of love and mercy to spread far and wide over men and women everywhere. God changes our hearts that were once so self-centred making them God-centred. We want his name to be glorified and his influence to spread, not our names and our influence, but then Jesus tells us to pray very practically for ourselves. There are so-called ‘holy’ people who say, ‘I never pray for myself. I simply meditate on God. I find peace of mind thinking about him.’ That is not a Christian attitude. Jesus says, “Begin with God, but don’t end there. Go on to talk about your life in this world each day, even about the bread you put on the table, about food and staying alive, about money to buy vegetables and fruit and meat. Pray about that and about health to work to earn money to buy food.” How could the Good Samaritan have had money to buy a donkey and oil and wine and also silver to give to the inn-keeper to look after the half-dead traveller unless he had health and a job? Pray about things like that, our Lord says. When the children of Israel went through the wilderness God saw to it that the soles of their shoes did not wear out. We serve a practical God who commands us, “Six days shalt thou labour.”
Jesus talks here about daily bread. Here are parents who are dissolute and irresponsible. They spend their money on drinking and fast food. Some days there is enough food on the table for the children, but at other times a few days will go by and the children starve. We need food each day. Any fool can get food a few times a week. That is no good. Your family needs food each day. That is how we are made. God didn’t design us like camels so that we might travel ten days without drinking. He made us so that each day we would need food and drink, and so, as he has made us like that, he will supply our needs each day. That is the wonderful promise built into this phrase. It is written out clearly in Philippians chapter four and verse 19: “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” The psalmist says that he was once young but now he was old and yet through his long life he has never seen believers starving or their children begging on the streets for food.
Andrew Sutherland lived in Ross-shire in the north of Scotland. One day unannounced a friend called and Andrew invited him to stay the week-end. They had little food, enough for themselves on the Lord’s Day. On the Monday morning he was going on his way. “You must stay for breakfast,” said Andrew, and then his wife whispered to him, “There is no food in the house.” He said to her, “Put the plates on the table,” and then he went to the bedroom, knelt and prayed. He said. “Lord, emptiness is our side of the covenant; fullness is thy side of it. Here is our emptiness. Where is thy fullness?” As he continued to pray there was a knock on the door at the side of the house. It was a neighbour who came with a basket of food, ready cook, ready to eat. God supplied them all with their bread for that day.
I believe that though the great famines that can strike Asia and Africa that God there and then still takes care of his own, and he will use every kind of means to feed us. That does not mean that Christians sit back and wait for the bread to fall from heaven and we just stroll outside and pick up the manna without any effort. “Pray for it!” says Jesus. Why is praying the means God has chosen to provide us with bread and water and health and strength and the basic commodities of life? Because that is the way he teaches us dependence upon him. We are not to take anything for granted.
Sometimes God uses the gifts of his people to support other needy servants. The Lord warned Joseph and the virgin Mary that they had to flee to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus. What could they do to provide for themselves on such a long journey and to look after themselves in North Africa? God had sent three magi from the east with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Mary could sell these or barter and use those three gifts to provide for the three of them when they were destitute refugees in Egypt. If God is going to give his people a kingdom when they die he won’t deny them daily bread while they live; he’ll use all kinds of means to bring the bread to our tables.
5. FORGIVE US OUR TRESSPASSES.
Forgive us our sins. I was reading the story of a Japanese navy captain during the war who had been captured by the Americans and spent four or five years in a prisoner of war camp in New Zealand. His name was Michiharu Shinya. He was converted there and later became a preacher to his own people. Always a thoughtful man, Shinya wanted to know why so few of his fellow Japanese became Christians. It was obviously nothing to do with intellectual ability, since the most unlearned person could exercise simple faith in Christ. One of the most offensive features of the biblical faith to the Japanese was the blunt assertion that all men are sinners needing redemption. Many prisoners were very indignant to learn that the Bible labelled them as sinners. Shinya wrote, “People are attached to a mistaken overconfidence in human nature, and to their own pride. When we realize how deeply-rooted and stubborn this is, we see how difficult it is for people to accept a belief based on the Bible.” In this way the prisoners were really little different in their reaction from most people in our town today who hear the gospel. In the end only a handful of people believed in Christ. The majority believed that they were not sinners in God’s sight, preferring their own way, not that of Christ and the Bible” (Don Stephens, War and Grace, Evangelical Press, 2008, p. 225).
Jesus says to every person, “When I look at you I don’t pretend I can’t see your sins and you all need to confess them to me. If you confess your sins I will be faithful and just to forgive you your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.” That is the first step to salvation, confessing our sins to a holy God, pouring them all out privately in his presence. No salvation without that: “God be merciful to me a sinner. Everyone who knows he’s a sinner has a future. If you don’t believe you are a sinner all you have is a past. Then the mark that you have truly confessed your sin and asked God for mercy is that you also become a forgiving person. No grudges, no resentment, no bitterness, no keeping a score of all the things that another has done against you. You forgive everyone who’s sinned against you. No exceptions are permitted. What are all their petty sins against you compared to how you have defied and grieved God, causing the death of his Son? Forgiveness is where we start and it’s how we go on and on in our lives.
LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION.
Lead us not into temptation. There are some trials in which we couldn’t survive. Down we’d fall! The temptation would be far too strong for us. We cry to God, “Lord you know me. Save me from any situation when I would fall into sin, sexual sin, anger, violence, retaliation, despair, abuse of others, theft, brooding self-pity. Lord, I am open to all those sins; all those seeds are in my heart and they will overcome me if I get entangled in them. Lord, you know my breaking point. Lead me not into temptation and deliver me from those evils. Help me to bear the trials of providence.” That is how we pray when we become Christians, and then on our death-beds we are praying the same prayer. This prayer taught here by our Lord is never too simple for you to pray. Pray its themes today and all your days.
17th May 2015 GEOFF THOMAS