Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Learning to Pray

This week our serial exposition of 1 Thessalonians has landed on 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; a text in which we learn to pray. “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples” that is what the Twelve asked Jesus in Luke 11:1. They wanted to learn how to pray. I think that was an interesting question because, as young Jewish men, they had undoubtedly heard and offered many, many prayers. Prayer was not new to them. By no means was it a new concept, but everything about Jesus was new and unique when compared to the routine religion that had dominated their culture. The disciples knew that prayer was important to Jesus. They had seen Him “in the morning, rising up a great while before day…depart[ing] into a solitary place” to pray (Mark 1:35). No doubt, His prayers were totally unlike the ones which they heard in the synagogues or from the Pharisees and rabbis. Prayer was not a new concept to them, but as young and growing Christians they wanted to learn how to pray like Jesus prayed: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

We know how the Lord answered His disciples. He said,
“When you pray say, ‘Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.”(Luke 11:1-4; cf. Matthew 6:9-13)
I do not believe that the Lord intended for His disciples, or us, to routinely recite those words. The mindless, incessant recantation of words, whether it be the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of Jabez, or anything else is not what Jesus was instructing us to do. Instead, what we have here and so many other places in the Bible, is a pattern for proper prayer, and that pattern is to pray for God to be glorified and for His will to be done; those two go together and come first; not just in order but in our desire. Then we are to pray for personal needs: food, forgiveness, deliverance.

In Matthew’s gospel he records that Jesus said, “When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6:7). Therefore, thoughtless, mechanical repetition of the same words in our prayers, whether those words come from the Bible or your own tradition, is not pleasing to God. The many prayers that are recorded in scripture are there to instruct us in how to pray. We learn to pray, first of all, by praying, but also by modeling our prayers after Godly examples. Those Godly examples are first and foremost found in the Scriptures, but also in “faithful men [and women] who are able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

Christ taught His disciples how to pray, and they in turn taught the next generation how to pray. Epaphras was discipled by Paul, and that is obvious when we compare Colossians 4:12 with 1 Thessalonians 3:10. Epaphras’ prayer for the Colossians sounds a lot like Paul’s prayers for the Thessalonians.

In our text Paul provided the Thessalonians, and is now providing us with a pattern for proper prayer. For that reason, do not look at this text as just some prayer to recite, but as a pattern to follow.

Paul’s Pattern in Prayer – 1 Thessalonians 3:11a

It is important that our prayers are directed to the right Person. That may seem as obvious as the rather prominent nose on my face (Be thankful, dear reader, that my nose is hidden to you!), but this issue has many people around the world confused. Practitioners of non-Christian religions pray often pray to their ancestors or to various spirits. Obviously, we reject that as false and even demonic. But there are many who are considered “Christian”; speaking about the Catholic Church, that pray to “saints” or to Mary the mother of Christ.

In 2006, not long after I moved to central Indiana, the "Blessed Mother" Theodore Guerin, a 19th century nun in the Terre Haute area, was canonized as a Catholic “saint”. Many Catholics now pray to St. Theodore Guerin, asking her to intercede with God on their behalf.

Please hear me, we do not pray to past loved ones or to great men or women of the faith who have gone to be with the Lord or to angels. Our prayers are to be directed to God. That is what we see from Paul’s pattern: “Now God Himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 11a).

Paul’s pattern not only teaches us that prayer to be offered to God alone, but it also affirms the deity of Jesus Christ. The close linking of the Father and the Son acknowledges the fact that Jesus Christ is God; the second Person of the Trinity. The use of the singular pronoun – “Himself” – and the singular verb – “direct” – with the plural subject – “God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ” – emphasizes the unmistakable unity of the Father and the Son in the Godhead. The Lord Jesus is here united with His Father in terms of His deity, but separated from the Father in terms of His person. Jesus Christ was God incarnate. Jesus was, is, and always will be God!

It is also worthy to note that 1 Thessalonians was one of the earliest NT letters, and it provides us with valuable evidence that the early Christians accepted and taught the deity of Jesus Christ. This directly contradicts the fallacious statements of author Dan Brown in his immensely popular book The Da Vinci Code. Two of the main characters in that book asserted that Jesus never claimed to be God and neither did His disciples or the early churches. In fact, the book says, the doctrine of Christ’s deity was a political maneuver made by 4th century Roman Emperor Constantine. One character in the book states,
“Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal”
Not so!

Jesus claimed to be God. His disciples believed Him to be God. The Bible declares that He is God, and when we pray we pray to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Biblical pattern of prayer is to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. Here are a few passages that clarify that:
  • John 16:23-24
  • Acts 7:59
  • Romans 8:26-27
Paul’s Purpose in Prayer – 1 Thessalonians 3:11b – 13

Paul’s pattern was to pray to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. His purpose for prayer, specifically in our text passage was three-fold: perfecting faith; prospering love; purifying hope.

Perfecting Faith – v. 11b

Paul prayed for God to “direct his way” because the way had been blocked. The word “direct” expresses the idea of removing obstacles in order to make a straight, smooth path. Up to this point, Satan had blocked Paul from returning. Paul knew, and we must understand, that God is greater than Satan, and the power of the Lord could overcome Satan and allow him to return. While Paul’s desire was to return; he only wanted to do so by the will of the Lord. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.” That last phrase could also read: “and he will make straight your paths.” (Psalm 37:1-5).

Paul’s ultimate concern was that the Thessalonians’ faith would grow. His prayer for the Lord to direct his steps is tied to what he said in v. 10b, “[to] perfect that which is lacking in your faith”. The word translated "perfect" means “to adjust, equip, supply”. No one’s faith ever reaches sinless perfection; there is always need for improvement and room for growth in your faith. Faith is like a muscle; it gets stronger with use.

Paul didn’t want to lead a pep rally. He didn’t want to return for their famous Thessalonian lamb chops. He wanted to feed them the Scriptures so that they could mature by it. The only way in which a person is able to know and serve Christ is through the precepts, principles, and promises of Scripture. God’s will for your life and for mine is revealed in His Word. It is not a secret. It is not lost. Instead, God will make His will clear to us by means of His word.

If your knowledge of God’s word is increasing, and you are living what you’re learning; it’s not just an academic exercise, then your confidence in God will be greater; your trust in His sovereignty will be stronger; your obedience to Him will be consistent, and you’ll be able to count it all joy when you are meet with various kinds of trials, because you’ll know that the testing of your faith produces patience/steadfastness (James 1:2-3).

Paul wasn’t able to return to Thessalonica until his third missionary journey (Acts 20:1-3). But Timothy was sent, and an inspired letter was penned and delivered, not only for the edification of the Thessalonians but for all believers!

Paul’s prayer begins with a request that God strengthen and mature their faith, providing them with the solid foundation needed for obedient and powerful Christian living.

Prospering Love – v. 12

Paul prayed that the Thessalonians’ growing faith be accompanied by a prospering love. We have already learned that this church did love: 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and 1 Thessalonians 3:6. That is good and as it should be. Paul desires that their love will continue, increase, and abound. In all three instances the love spoken of is agapē; the purest and noblest type of love; not a love dependant upon or fueled by emotions, or simply responding to kindness with kindness. This is the ultimate, sacrificial form of love.

We can never have too much of that kind of love. We can have too much love of...
  • Money
  • Power
  • Education
  • Pleasure
  • Ease
We can never have too much agapē love. This kind of love is a direct fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), and is more an action of the will than an emotion. We should note that Paul asked first that this love would “increase and abound…one toward another”; that is within the church. And second of all “toward all men”; we are to have an ever increasing and abounding love for this lost world, and even for those who would persecute us. As Christ said in Matthew 5:44, “I say unto you, Love {agapaō} your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

We know that the Thessalonians, like Paul, had endured afflictions and more were coming! Paul prayed for them to love with an increasing, super-abounding love; first for each other, but also towards their enemies. “Win them by love” was Paul’s advice, because to respond bitterly to persecution is self-defeating and destructive of character.

Of course, Paul was again their example. Never from Paul came the axiom “Do as I say. Not as I do.” The Thessalonians were to love just as Paul had loved them. He loved them enough to endure affliction so that he might share the gospel with them, and he loved them enough to endure afflictions that he might establish them in their faith. He loved the Philippian jailer enough to rescue him from suicide, and then to lead him to Christ.

Purifying Hope – v. 13

This third request for the Thessalonians, and it is true for us, is that they would lead holy lives, and the imminent return of Jesus Christ is the motivating factor for leading a holy life. If we believers are genuinely looking for Christ’s return then we will lead lives of obedience to God’s word, reflecting His glory and proclaiming His gospel.

Here is a blessed truth: Christ is coming again! But until He comes believers are to establish their hearts in His word and to lead unblameable lives in this world; knowing that we will soon be in His presence. The promise of Christ’s return to Rapture and reward believers is the essence of a believer’s purifying hope.
A pure and clean heart will not feel shame at Christ’s return, but disobedient, backslidden believers will be ashamed; like a disobedient child who does not want to be caught by his parents.

Therefore, as the apostle John says in 1 John 3:2-3, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”

Churches are called to be faithful, and to be faithful unto the end. In order to be faithful we must have…
  • A perfecting faith
  • A prospering love
  • A purifying hope

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