Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:5 Introduction
I cannot adequately express my sheer excitement at the prospect of preaching for the next several weeks on the vital subject of prayer. I have often told you how difficult structured prayer is for me. Daily Bible reading has long been fun, but daily prayer, though ever improving, has been cumbersome, a “labor” of love.
My recent Asia trip (October 1997), however, has shaken something loose within me. Never in my life have I felt such a burden, a burning desire, yea almost an obsession, to pray, to fall down in absolute submission before God. The Asia I saw looks utterly hopeless and helpless for ever receiving the kingdom of Christ.
This past Friday a Scripture verse leaped from the pages of my Bible in my private time. Rarely have I had a passage hit me with such freshness. I trust it is a prediction of what will happen to us in these coming weeks as we focus on prayer.
Paul, after an experience similar to my own, wrote, “We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life” (2 C 1:8 NAS). I know, dear Apostle Paul, I too have now been there and sensed the despair.
Note Paul’s response to his difficult Asian trip. “We had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 C 1:9 NAS). He felt so dead, so helpless, that he felt absolutely compelled to turn from self to God for strength. This has also been my response.
After his difficulty and being driven to prayer, Paul then made yet another reaction to Asia. “He will yet deliver us, you also joining in helping us through your prayers, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed upon us through the prayers of many” (2 C 1:10c-11 NAS).
Note the progression: After Asia, Paul was utterly forced to pray, but he believed his own prayers were not enough. He implored others to join him in prayer in order that God would receive widespread glory when their prayers were (for sure) answered.
I pray we at Second see here a foreshadowing of the next leg of our own spiritual pilgrimage. Your pastor, having gone to Asia, is being driven to prayer. For the next several weeks, he will plead for you to join him in concerted prayer, and as God pours upon us victory after victory, as He surely will, we shall collectively give Him all the honor and glory. Asia was for Paul and the church at Corinth a catalyst to pray. May it be the same for John and the church at Springfield.
Matt. 6:5a “And when thou prayest,. . .”
Note the assumption. When, not if, you pray. The act of prayer is assumed. To be without prayer is to be without spiritual life. Even as all people breathe, even so all Christians pray–no breath, no person; no prayer, no Christian. Prayer is the breath of our spirit. When Saul became a Christian, Ananias refused to believe it. God answered his cynicism by saying, “Behold, he prayeth” (AC 9:11).
Prayer is so vital, so absolutely essential to our spiritual success, that Satan takes extra pains to attack it. Few things make the foul fiend happier than to come between God and a saint in prayer. Sad but true, sin can defile our very devotions.
One would think prayer is ever a safe spiritual haven to retreat into, but not so. Look at the life of Jesus. His two most intense spiritual struggles occurred when He was alone in prayer to His Father: His forty days in the wilderness, and His agony in Gethsemane Garden. In these two most intimate times of prayer, Satan presented his strongest temptation to Jesus. Nothing is too sacred for Satan to attack. In fact, the holier a thing is, the more he loves to spoil it and make it foul.
How can this be? How is it possible for Satan to hamstring us in our most sacred moments? Lloyd-Jones, extremely helpful here, advises us not to be surprised when sin follows us into the very presence of God, for sin originated there.
I remind us again of a truth so staggering that we are ever in danger of forgetting it. Sin began in heaven, in the very presence of God. One who stood as close to God as I stand to this pulpit conceived the first plot against the Holy One. Lucifer, a bright shining angel, one of the innermost circle, birthed sin in heaven.
Be not surprised sin can enter heaven again by means of our prayers. Sin travels on spiritual frequencies originating from our innermost essence. We cripple ourselves if we forget sin is a disposition inside us prior to a deed outside us.
We will continue to falter easily in our prayers as long as we think of sin solely as something outside us which comes around every now and then, only threatening us from time to time. The proper and true understanding is that sin is headquartered in us, in our old man. Sin abides, and must ever be reckoned with.
Sin is so much a part of our nature that even when engaged in the highest activity we have to do battle against it. When we kneel to pray we do not, as it were, drive sin away. We rather acknowledge its presence, and seek to overcome it by Christ’s blood. Next time we pray, we must repeat the process. Otherwise, sin insipidly overtakes even our prayers, and we find self clothed not in the armor of God, but in the filthy rags of our own strength, which is weakness indeed.
Matt. 6:5b “. . .thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are:. . .”
The ever present danger is we will do our praying as theatrical performers. Our supplications can degenerate from true praying into acting. It is possible for the words to flow from smart minds and eloquent mouths, yet not from true hearts.
Sin is insidious, making us worship others and self even when we think we are worshipping God. A hypocrite, like other idolaters, makes a god in his own image. Seeking the praise of people, he prays to them, and they become his idols.
At the same time he is making them his idol, he also wants them to make him their idol. He who should help others lift praise to God instead wants them to lift praise to him. He begins to see himself as the idol others should worship.
When praying, as with every other outward religious deed, we must choose whether to please God or people. False praying focuses on those who overhear the prayer and on the one praying. True praying focuses on the One being prayed to. Jesus assumed we would pray. For the next few weeks we will follow Him as He goes to great lengths to make sure we perform the duty in a way pleasing to Him.