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?"




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