Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Priority of Prayer

Photo courtesy of eschu1952
The leaning tower of Pisa is one of the most iconic pieces of architecture in the world. This tower that was built beginning in 1173 suffers from a very obvious tilt to one side. The reason for this is two-fold 1) the foundation is inadequate and 2) it was built on unstable soil. No matter how beautiful the columns, arches or marble are it will forever be canted to the side and in danger of toppling completely.

There is an obvious lesson to be learned from the Tower of Pisa in regards to our theology. Jesus points this out in Matthew 7:24-29 in his famous analogy of the two men and the foundations they chose upon which to built their houses. As Christians out faith, doctrine and theology (all of which go hand in hand) are founded on Jesus Christ. This is the issue that Paul addresses to Timothy in his first letter to the young pastor. False and pointless doctrines were being taught in the church in Ephesus and Timothy's charge was to correct it. In verses 12-16 Paul lays out the correct doctrine and sure foundation for everything else (all the other doctrines) that he will address in the letter. The reason being, if he does not start with the doctrine of Christ then no matter how "good" or beautiful the other doctrines are, they will ultimately crumble under the weight of reality.

After addressing the foundation of Christ in chapter 1 Paul begins to build his tower of doctrine, and a beautiful tower it will be. In chapter 2 verses 1-8 we see the construction of the first level and it is prayer.

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men...

"First of all," he says, this is the priority of prayer. The New Testament paints a bold picture of the importance of prayer throughout its books and letters. Let me give you just the slightest taste of what I mean.

And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God boldly. Acts 4:31

Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. Acts 6:3-4

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing. I Thessalonians 5:16-17

Then when they had fasted and prayed and laid hands on them, they sent them away. Acts 13:3

Notice here it doesn't say "when they had finished their fellowship meal and had a committee meeting they sent them away." The priority here is on prayer. This last one is perhaps the most convicting of them all and it comes from Jesus Himself.

Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling, saying to them, "It is written, 'And My house shall be a house of prayer,' but you have made it a robbers' den."

My question is this; if Jesus came into our churches today who would He be driving out? What kind of tables would He be overturning? Would He come into the church and say, "My house is a house of prayer."? This is the priority of prayer.

Paul not only puts prayer in its rightful place, "first of all," but he also tells us about it and give us some direction for our prayer. In this verse we see two basic kinds of prayer 1) asking, represented by "entreaties" and "petitions" and 2) worshipful prayer, represented by "prayers" and "thanksgivings." Both of these kinds of prayers are represented in our model for prayer, the Lord's Prayer. Jesus instructs us to ask God to "give us this day our daily bread." Though He already knows our needs we are told to ask anyway. Take those burdens and needs to Him and turn them over to His provision. The worship aspect of prayer can be seen in the opening line, "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed by Thy Name." This, I believe, gets at the true heart of prayer. The question that is often asked is, "If God already knows what I need then why should I pray?" If we are honest with ourselves then we will admit that this is a reasonable question. However, there is far more to prayer than just asking and receiving. It is about getting to know the God who wants to have a relationship with you and the best way to do that is through conversation, a.k.a prayer.

Paul continues his guidance on prayer by telling us that it should be done for "all men." Translation: we should be praying for other people besides ourselves. The book of Hebrews tells us that because there are brothers and sisters living under persecution we should prayer as if we are in chains with them. We should be praying that God meets, not only our needs, but the needs of others. Paul takes this one step further in the next verse by telling Timothy that he should be praying,

for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 

I must say that we who live in America don't fully appreciate the weight of what Paul is saying here. There are many good things about the Roman Empire but even on a good day it was an oppressive and abusive regime, and depending on the emperor at the time it could be downright evil and sadistic. It would not be long after Paul and Timothy that Christians became fodder for wild animals in the arena and burnt on pike in the streets. Yet, Paul tells Timothy, "You pray for them anyway." This is an expression of Christ's commandment that we love our enemies. Why? The answer is two-fold. First, it is very hard to hate someone and pray for them at the same time. In a sense we take the edge off of our own bitterness when we lift someone up to God in honest prayer. Secondly, we are lifting up our enemies and leaders to the only One who can actually help them. If they are lost without Christ then there is a sense in which we could affect their salvation by praying to the very One who is able to save them. Overwhelmingly, God uses people to save other people. However, that is not a requirement. He can enlighten someone or reveal Himself to them without using us. This is where our prayers for them come into play and I fully admit that it is something of a mystery to me. We do not dictate God's action to Him through prayer but it does play a role in activating His action, some how in some way. Otherwise we wouldn't have all the directives to pray for one another and other people as we have just seen here.

Next, in verse 5, Paul gives us a little pinch of sound doctrine for prayer, For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. I have to say I am often tempted, because of our vernacular, to simply leave off "Christ Jesus" and let Him be known as "The Man." I digress. Paul is simply telling us here, and making it very clear that we need no other middleman for prayer because we have Jesus Christ, God Himself, as our mediator. There is no need for any other person on earth or in heaven. We have a direct line. Let that sink in for a moment and allow you mind to be properly blown...we can communicate directly with the God of the universe.

Paul wraps us this exhortation to pray be telling about the state of our own hearts when we pray in verse 8; Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath or dissension. How are we to pray? With holy hands lifted up to God. Psalm 24:3-5 puts it this way;

Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully. He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

We cannot hope to have prayers that God will honor if there is bitterness, rage, deceit or falsehood in our hearts. That means that if we have something between us and another brother or sister we need to take care of that immediately. We are given the same direction for the Lord's Supper. The really beautiful part of this is that the only One who can truly clear our heart and conscious is God. That means we need to go to Him and ask for a clean heart, then go make it right (if possible) with our brother or sister, then go back to God with more prayer. You see, prayer is interwoven in the entire process. It is the priority.

The Word makes it clear that the foundation for our faith, lives and doctrine is Jesus Christ. Only upon Him can we build a true faith that honors, and is honored by, God. Then the very first level must be prayer. 1 Timothy 2 and the rest of the New Testament attest to that fact. The only question that I will conclude with is this, "In light of all of this, where is prayer on your priority list?"



Thursday, September 8, 2011

False Prophets = Captivity

Photo courtesy of shadgross
In the Bible there seem to be some books that get far more attention than others. For us Christians we lean heavily on the Gospels and books like Romans or Philippians. If we are going to focus on the Old Testament then it often means we're looking into the Psalms. I mean think about those little "Testaments" that the Gideons pass out, it is the New Testament plus the Psalms. Don't get me wrong, I am not ragging on the Gideons. They have an amazing ministry and one day we will find out just how many millions of people came to know Christ because they were given, or had access to, a Gideons Bible. My point is (and I am guilty as charged) that we often lose sight of some of the smaller books in the Bible. I'm not sure why this is. It may simply be a product of the fact that when we flip through the Bible we pass right over books like Titus or Joel.

The reason I bring this up is that while preparing for Bible study yesterday I nearly passed right over Lamentations because I was so excited about getting to Ezekiel. Shame on me, because for a moment I was disappointed that we weren't to Ezekiel yet. Thanks be to God, my disappointment was short lived!

Lamentations, as the title suggests, is one of the saddest books of the Bible. In it we have five poems that Jeremiah wrote in mourning over the desolation of Jerusalem and the captivity to Babylon. At this point in their history the Jews were made to sleep in the bed that they had made for themselves. The curses that God promised to His people in Deuteronomy 28 were coming to fruition. In the midst of this eulogy for the Holy City we find a multitude of lessons that we can apply to our lives and world today.

One of the most poignant of these lessons comes in Lamentations 2:14 which says;

Your prophets have seen for you false and foolish visions; and they have not exposed your iniquity so as to restore you from captivity, but they have seen for you false and misleading oracles. 

Apparently, the Jews at this time had fallen prey to the same thing that Paul would warn Timothy about in 2 Timothy 4:3-4;

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

It seems that at this time these false prophets were telling the people everything that they wanted to hear but not the truth of the situation. It could very well have been that they were saying to the people, "Everything is okay, God is going to send blessings and victory to us." The problem was, everything was not "okay." The spiritual train of Israel had come off the track and these false prophets were not exposing it. The result was that the people did end up in captivity and Jerusalem would end up desolate and destroyed.

The point of application for us is that true prophetic voices will not shy away from addressing the issue of sin. The question that flows from that is this, "Do people who claim to be prophetic voices today expose sin for what it is?" Sadly, the majority of those who claim to be "prophets" in our day have a message that is far removed from that of the Biblical prophets. All too often we see self-proclaimed prophets engaging in wild shows that are centered around alleged "miracles," healing or blessings. People come to the show in order to get something from God, thereby turning Him into nothing more than a "blessing bank" from which they can make a withdrawal whenever they please. Let me be very clear on this point, this is using God and nothing more.

People are encouraged to come to the prophet with the faith that they will receive a healing or a blessing without ever having to come to terms with the root problem of sin and their part in it. It is about coming to God for a free handout, and the handout is not salvation. It is a temporal, fleshly gift. The focus comes off of God and is put on a mortal human being. Either it is on the prophet himself or on the faith that a person has. If they receive no healing or blessing then it is their own fault for not having enough faith. Never is the sovereign will, and larger plan of God mentioned.

One thing is certain about the prophets of the Bible, it was never about them. Their entire mission was to point people to God, His righteous judgment and His perfect compassion. Sure, many miracles took place in the ministry of the Biblical prophets. Elijah and Elisha were famous for the amazing things that took place under their ministries. However, those miracles were never an end to themselves. They served the larger purpose of a) confirming that the prophet was from God, and because of that should be listened to; and b) to point people to the One who did the miracle. In a sense the miracles performed by the prophets were the warm-up act to get people to pay attention to meat of the message which was repentance from sin.

This lesson need not only be applied to the obvious false prophets in our culture. It can also be applied to anyone who stands in the pulpit claiming to have a message from God who glosses over, or ignores completely, the issue of sin. Seminaries across our land are filled with professors who are teaching future pastors that there is no such thing as sin, or that what we once labeled as sin is nothing more than a cultural misunderstanding. Though it is not always the case, there is no doubt that this will sometimes filter down into churches. This leads to a one dimensional concept of God as being a fluffy, teddy bear who is overflowing with compassion. It is true that God's compassion is endless but it is also true that His justice and righteousness must inform His compassion and visa versa.

Jeremiah is clear in this verse from Lamentations that if our sin is not exposed and dealt with then we will remain in captivity. The other side of that token is that if our sin is exposed and dealt with we will be freed from the captivity that sin has us in. Here is the bottom line, false prophets are serving only to keep people in captivity. Freedom does not come by explaining away, or justifying sin. It comes only from having it dealt with once and for all by Christ and the Cross.

Jesus has warned us about false prophets rising up in the end times in Matthew 24:24;

For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.

I pray that we will neither be led astray by these false prophets and that we will not find ourselves among their number. The true prophet knows that God abhors sin and that He offers compassion and freedom to those trapped in it. Will we proclaim that message?



Friday, September 2, 2011

When the House is on Fire is Not the Time to Be Silent.

This past Wednesday evening in our Bible study at church we discussed the book of Jeremiah. In this study we are trekking through the Bible one book at a time. This was a series that our former pastor began before he was called away to another church and I have picked up the teaching in his absence. The primary purpose behind the study was to see how Christ is made evident in every book of the Bible. Apart from that we also look at some background information on the book and draw out a few lessons. Unfortunately we cannot go in-depth each Wednesday evening because we only have one hour for Bible study. Some may argue that we should take as much time as necessary to cover each book completely and in a different format that would be extremely valuable and edifying. However, the overarching goal is see Christ throughout the Bible not study it exhaustively at this given time. Exhaustive study of the Bible, as I see it, is the responsibility of every believer as they trod the road of life.

At any rate, one of the things that we discussed about Jeremiah was the timing of his prophetic ministry. It came at a time immediately prior to the Babylonian captivity and as a result of that there is much condemnation of the sins of God's people along with some clear hope for the future. Perhaps the most troubling thing that I read in studying some introductory materiel on Jeremiah was the idea that at this time the Israelites were about to see the end of God's patience. The train of Israel's disobedience was charging down the hill to captivity wildly and out of control. God's judgment was on the way.

Understanding this brought fearful a fearful thought to my mind. What if we have pushed God to the limit of His patience in America? Now, let me say two things before we move on: First, I hope beyond hope that we have not. Second, I do not know that we have. I do not have inside information from the Lord that says we have tested His patience too much.

If we look at the history of Israel and consider all of the prophets that God sent there is no doubt that they had enough information and warning to make a decision to turn back to Him. Jeremiah may come near the beginning of the prophetic books in the Bible but he was, chronologically, near the end. In America we have been blessed with two, count 'em...two, Great Awakenings, countless smaller revivals and a plethora of anointed preachers in our 250 years of existence. Yet, as with Israel, we continue to try to press on with our own ideas and defiantly turn from God. When will God look upon us and "give us over" to our own devices and allow us to fall into some sort of captivity experience? I don't have an answer for that.

What I do know is a couple of important things.

1) Jeremiah never gave up on God's people. He never threw up his hands in disgust and defeat, knocked the dust off of his sandals and moved to Greece. We may look at him today and say, "Why not, Jeremiah? You were wasting your breath and people persecuted you endlessly." He didn't give up because God had given him a deep compassion for the people. Jeremiah is known as the "weeping prophet" and he wept because of Israel's sin, the impending captivity and their failure to turn back to God. This compassion that Jeremiah had was, as I said, given to him by God and it is also modeled for us by Christ. At seeing the people lost and astray Matthew 9:36 tells us;

He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.

Secondly, Jeremiah never gave up, he never became silent, because he had a divine commission and a word from the Lord for the people. Ultimately, even God never gave up on His people. Jeremiah 3:12 says;

Go and proclaim these words toward the north and say, "Return, faithless Israel," declares the Lord; "I will not look upon you in anger. For I am gracious," declares the Lord; "I will not be angry forever."

Despite the fact that He was going to allow the Babylonians to conquer them, God would still maintain His end of the covenant and would not totally abandon them. He would allow just enough suffering and captivity to serve the purpose of bringing them back to Himself, no more and no less. It is interesting to note that after this final captivity the Jews would never again fall prey to worshiping other gods besides Yaweh. 

2) If America has gone beyond God's patience with us we, as Christians, aren't done yet. If God's judgment comes we do not have the luxury of standing back and saying, "Well, we tried. Oh well." Even when the Israelites went into captivity in Babylon they were not without a prophet. Daniel is a perfect example of this. God continued to speak through His appointed messengers to give a message of repentance and hope to the people. Judgment came, abandonment did not. Therefore, even if we experience God's divine judgment we still have a mission to proclaim His message to the world. Revival and renewal are always on the table of options available to us from God. Look at what God tells us in Jeremiah 3:13, just one verse after what we just saw;

Only acknowledge you iniquity, That you have transgressed against the Lord your God and have scattered your favors to the strangers under every green tree, and you have not obeyed my voice...

If we want His anger to turn from us and for His blessings to flow once more our humble repentance must precede it. 

The point that I would like to make clear is this. It is terrifying to think that we may have strayed from God so much that His judgment is unavoidable. However, even if we have passed the point of no return in that respect our message and mission changes not on iota. We are to continue praying for a move of God in our land. We are to continue to preach repentance, God's judgment and His gracious love and forgiveness. Whether we are on the cusp of the steep hill or find ourselves sailing headlong into judgment there should be an intense urgency in our proclamation of God's truth. If I were in a building that had caught fire I would not casually stroll up and down the hall and mention that someone, if they get a chance, may want to call the fire department. I would be screaming to let people know that they were in serious danger and we must put out the fire and get people there who can.

Friends, the sad truth is that we have started a fire in our own building and everyone is still sitting in their cubicles and drinking coffee in the break room. We, as Christians, need to be warning people and if the building burns down we need to boldly and unapologetically tell people the right way to build it back again. According the Jesus the only way to build that building properly is upon Him.