Monday, May 22, 2017

The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer

Part 8 of Talking to God

Text: Psalm 13




How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1). 


How Long Until You Hear Me?

Sometimes when I’m reading a book or watching TV, one of my children will ask me something, and I don’t even realize they’re talking to me. Finally my wife will say, “[Child’s name], he doesn’t hear a word you’re saying.”

Sometimes it seems like God is like a father who doesn’t really hear his children. We pray and pray and pray, and finally in frustration we ask, “God, how long until you’re going to do something about my prayer?”

It’s normal to be frustrated with prayer. In the Bible, you’ll find people asking God the same question: “How long until you’re going to do something about my prayer?” David asked this question in Psalm 13.


Trying to Solve the Mystery

In the Bible, we find many amazing promises about prayer. For example, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15). When we read this and other biblical promises about prayer, we can become frustrated because our experience with prayer is often very different. We ask, and we don’t receive. 

Let me be clear: I don’t have all of the answers about unanswered prayer. More often, I feel like David in Psalm 13 than the apostle John in 1 John 5:14-15. But the Bible does give us several truths about prayer that can help us when we’re struggling with unanswered prayer. We must remember these truths when we pray.

1. When we pray, we must remember that we are talking to a loving Father. 

The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing God as “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Throughout 1 John, John emphasizes that believers are God’s children. In 3:1, he writes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” God is a Father who loves his children more than we can imagine. Because we know God loves us, we can have “confidence” (1 John 5:14) when we pray. But remember, sometimes a good father has to say “no.” And God’s “no” is always a good thing.

2. When we pray, we must remember that unrepentant sin can prevent our prayers from being answered. 

Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heard, the Lord would not have listened.” This doesn’t mean that God will only listen to sinless people. God won’t listen to those who cherish (i.e., treasure) sin. The apostle Peter writes that husbands can cause their prayers to be hindered: “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).

3. When we pray, we must remember that prayer isn’t all about us. 

Prayer is about getting God’s will done, not ours (“if we ask anything according to his will,” 1 John 5:14). The first three requests of the Lord’s Prayer are requests for God’s name to be hallowed, God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done (Matt. 6:9-10). God will ignore selfish requests: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). So we can’t receive anything we ask for in prayer.

4. When we pray, we must remember that sometimes we have to wait for our prayer to be answered. 

Sometimes God says “wait.” It’s hard to wait. It could be said that when God says “wait,” he’s saying “yes” (like when a father says, “Yes, we can go to park tomorrow”) without us realizing it.

5. When we pray, we must remember that prayer really does work. 

Sometimes God says “yes.” It’s possible that when we pray we can “have the requests that we asked of [God]” (v. 15). Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can make God do things he doesn’t want to do. But it does mean that God can choose to do his will by answering “yes” to our prayers.


Knife Edge

When I was in high school, I went with my church’s youth group to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The highlight of the mountain hike was a section at the top of the mountain called Knife Edge. If you fall off either side of Knife Edge, you could die.

In his book A Praying Life, Paul Miller writes that prayer is sort of like Knife Edge. On the left is the Not Asking cliff. James 4:2 says, “You do not have because you do not ask.” On the right is the Asking Selfishly cliff. Miller says, “My experience is that most people do not put God to the test. They don’t ask him for what they want. I say this cautiously because many Christians have experienced unanswered prayers that are still unprocessed. Nevertheless, most people consistently fall off [the Not Asking cliff]. They don’t ask.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Praying for Protection

Part 7 of Talking to God

Text: Matthew 6:13




“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). 


The Need for Protection

A few years ago, I was pressure washing my deck, and I became curious about how strong the water pressure was. So I sprayed my foot—my bare foot. That was a mistake. My foot hurt so much that I was afraid to look at it, thinking there might be a hole in it. I discovered the hard way why it’s recommended that you wear protective footwear while pressure washing.

The final petition of the Lord’s Prayer is a petition for protection: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). As people often foolishly do a job without wearing the recommended protective gear, we often foolishly go through a day without praying to God for protection from sin. Why do we do that? It’s often because of overconfidence in ourselves.


Lead Us Not into Temptation?

Would God ever lead us into temptation? No, James 1:13 states that “[God] tempts no one.” So why should we pray, “Lead us not into temptation”? The Greek word translated “temptation” (peirasmos) can mean either “temptation” or “trials.” Both temptation and trials are tests. They test our faithfulness to God. [1]

God doesn’t test us by leading us into temptation, but he sometimes does test us by causing us to go through trials. [2]“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials [peirasmos] of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2; cf. v. 12). According to the ESV Study Bible, “The meaning [of Matthew 6:13] most likely carries the sense, ‘Allow us to be spared from difficult circumstances that would tempt us to sin.’” [3]

But if trials produce steadfastness, should we pray to avoid them? Jesus did. He prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). We can pray to avoid a trial, but we must allow for the possibility that it could be God’s will for us to go through the trial. If so, we must pray for protection, knowing that the temptation to sin is greater during times of trial.


The Overconfidence Effect

On the same night that Jesus prayed, “Let this cup pass from me,” Peter boasted that he would always remain faithful to Jesus, no matter the cost. Jesus said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (v. 34). But Peter replied, “Even if I must die, I will not deny you!” (v. 35). 

Later, Jesus urged Peter, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). Peter was indeed willing to be loyal to Jesus, but he didn’t realize how weak his flesh really was. Instead of praying, Peter fell asleep. After Jesus was arrested, Peter’s faithfulness to Jesus was tested. Peter was asked three times if he was a follower of Jesus. Three times he denied it. The rooster crowed, and Peter “wept bitterly” (v. 75). To avoid succumbing to temptation, we must acknowledge our spiritual weakness and pray to God for help. 


Resist the Devil

The Christian life is like a never-ending battle. “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). “[Our] adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The Greek word for “evil” (poneros) could also be translated as “the evil one” (i.e., the devil).

The devil and his temptations can be resisted: “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). “No temptation [peirasmos] has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

How do we resist the devil? Through prayer and God’s word: “Take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17-18). When Jesus was tempted by the devil, he used Scripture to resist the devil (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10).


God Cares for Us

Before Peter urges his readers to resist the devil, he tells them, “[Cast] all your anxieties on [God], because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). When trials come into our lives, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us. The cross proves that he cares about us. Don’t turn your back on the one who cares for you.

____________________

[1] “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). It was the devil who did the tempting, not God. But it is true that the Spirit led Jesus into a trial (fasting for forty days in the wilderness) that was used by the devil to tempt Jesus. (The first temptation was “Command these stones to become loaves of bread,” v. 3). The trial tested the faithfulness of Jesus to the Father.
[2] “God tested Abraham” (Gen. 22:1).
[3] ESV Study Bible, 1832.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Praying for Daily Bread

Part 5 of Talking to God

Text: Matthew 6:11




“Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). 


God-Dependent

We want our children to learn how to be self-dependent. We don’t want them phoning home when they’re 30, asking how to boil water.

Self-dependence (to a certain degree) is a good thing, but we can never become totally self-dependent. In reality, we are all God-dependent. You might think you’re being self-dependent by growing your own food, but were did the seeds come from? Who caused the sun to shine and the rain to fall?

The fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is “Give us this day our daily bread.” When we ask God to give us our daily bread, we are acknowledging our dependence on him.


Needs, Not Greeds

Our “daily bread” stands for the necessities of life (e.g., food, water, clothing, shelter). We are to pray for our needs, not our greeds. Sometimes we don’t receive because we don’t ask: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Sometimes we don’t receive because we ask for things we don’t need: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly” (James 4:2-3). When we pray for something, we should ask ourselves, “If God granted my request, how would it bring glory to him?” 

Most people wish they were rich, but being rich isn’t always a good thing. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). A large percentage of people who win the lottery end up miserable (e.g., divorce, bankruptcy, murder). “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Prov. 30:8-9). “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim. 6:8).


One Day at a Time

If we are depending on God to meet our needs, we shouldn’t be anxious. “Do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34). Instead of being anxious, we are to trust God to meet our needs one day at a time. “Give us this day our daily bread.” When God delivered the Israelites, he gave them daily bread. They were only to collect enough manna for one day. God was teaching them to depend on him. But they didn’t learn the lesson. When it was time for them to enter the Promised Land they lacked faith in God. And they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Then Satan came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3). Jesus refused. While on earth, he lived as you and I are to live: trusting the Father. Jesus said to Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). We are to value God’s word more than bread. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the things mentioned in verse 25] will be added to you” (Matt.6:33).


Our Father

We can depend on God because he’s our Father in heaven (see Matt. 7:7-11). He “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). Someone who loves us that much can be trusted.

Monday, April 24, 2017

God-Centered Prayer

Part 4 of Talking to God

Text: Matthew 6:9-10




Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, you will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9-10). 


Prayer Is Not All About Us

There are many inspirational statements about prayer. For example:

“More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (James 5:16).

“Prayer works.”

“Prayer changes things.”

These statements motivate us to take our requests to God in prayer. But prayer is more than just asking God to do things for us. The Lord’s Prayer—the model for how we should pray—begins by focusing on God. Have you ever had a conversation with someone in which the person only wanted to talk about himself or herself? Our prayers should not be self-absorbed. Prayer is not all about us.


"Your" Before "Our"

There are three different pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer: “your,” “our,” and “us.” There are six requests in the prayer, with each request containing a pronoun. The first three requests use the pronoun “your”: (1) “hallowed be your name,” (2) “Your kingdom come,” and (3) “your will be done.” The last three requests use the pronouns “our” and “us”: (1) “Give us this day our daily bread,” (2) “forgive us our debts,” and (3) “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The first three requests are about God’s glory; the last three requests are about our good.

Prayer is not about coming to God with our personal agendas; it’s seeking his agenda for our lives. God is not our errand boy!


God's Name, Kingdom, and Will

While the focus of the first three requests of the Lord’s Prayer is on God, focusing on God is actually beneficial for us.

1. May your name be hallowed. 

God’s “name” refers to who God is. To “hallow” God is to honour him as holy. God is holy in the sense that there is no one like him. He says, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me” (Isa. 46:9).

God’s word continually tells us to praise God? For example, Psalm 113:3 says, “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised!” Does God have an ego problem? No, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that the chief end of man (i.e., our number one purpose) is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” C. S. Lewis writes that “the delight is incomplete until it is expressed.” [1] God knows that we can’t fully enjoy him unless we praise him (like we don’t fully enjoy a great movie unless we praise it). Of course, we can honour God not only with our lives but also with our lives.

2. May your kingdom come. 

In one sense the kingdom of God has already come. When Jesus’ became his earthly ministry, he announced, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). Jesus reigns as King over his people (i.e., the church). When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we can pray that God’s kingdom would grow (i.e., more people would make Jesus their King).

But the kingdom in its fullest sense is still future. It will come to earth when Jesus returns. Jesus declared that the sooner all the nations hear the gospel, the sooner he would return: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). The apostle Peter writes that we can hasten the return of Jesus by how we live (“waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,” 1 Peter 3:12).

3. May your will be done. 

“Our ‘prayer doesn’t work’ often means ‘you didn’t do my will, in my way, in my time.’” [2] And remember, sometimes we need to put feet to our prayers. Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). The death of Jesus on the cross was the will of God. Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The apostle Paul describes God’s will as “good” (Rom. 12:2). Obviously, the death of Jesus on the cross was good for us. But was it good for Jesus? In the short-term, no. But in the long-term, yes. Not only did it allow Jesus to provide salvation for us, but he also was exalted as King of kings and Lord of lords. It is always best to do the will of God, though doing it might sometimes be very difficult.


Prayer Changes Me

We say, “Prayer changes things.” But if we begin our prayers by focusing on God, prayer changes us. And our prayers will also be changed. We’ll think, “How does this request bring honour to God? How will it grow God’s kingdom? How will it accomplish God’s will?”

____________________

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 95.
[2] Paul Miller, A Praying Life, Kindle location ?.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Conqueror of Death

Part 3 of Christ the Conqueror 

Text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-58




The last enemy to be destroyed is death (v. 26). 


Taunting Death

Death did all it could to keep Jesus in the tomb, but it failed. Death lost the battle. The tomb was empty. Jesus had risen. And the apostle Paul taunts death, saying, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (v. 55). Jesus is the conqueror of death.


The Destruction of Death

The consequence of humanity’s first sin was death. God had warned Adam and Eve that if they ate the forbidden fruit, they would “surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Their physical death, unless God intervened, would bring eternal separation from God.

Since that first sin, “death reigned” (Rom. 5:14, 17) over the human race. But when Jesus came into this world, he came to put death’s reign to an end. Death could not destroy Jesus. Only one person ever died and then was raised to life, never to die again. And one day he will return to destroy death forever. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (v. 26). Christ’s victory is our victory: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57).

When a believer dies, his or her spirit goes to heaven. To be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Then when Jesus returns—if we don’t live until that day—our bodies will be raised. “The dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (v. 52). Our new bodies will never die. “Death shall be no more” (Rev. 21:4).

But why do we need new bodies? Couldn’t we exist in eternity as spirits? If there is no future resurrection, then God will not have absolute victory over death. God is in the process of undoing the damage that sin has done to the world (“Behold, I am making all things new,” Rev. 21:5).

Alan Johnson, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, writes,
My wife’s first experience of meeting Christians who had this hope was as a nurse working in hospital wards where some believers and some nonbelievers were dying every day. “There was such a peace with some patients, I wanted to know why.” Her first interest in the Bible came as a result of this experience. [1]
Do you have this peace?


An Unbelievable Story

Many of us are so familiar with the story of the resurrection that we don’t appreciate how unbelievable it is. “Unbelievable” is an overused word. According to one dictionary, “unbelievable” means “difficult or impossible to believe.” For the person who hears the story of the resurrection for the first time, it really is unbelievable. We must acknowledge that the resurrection of Jesus is a story that’s hard to believe. How could a crucified man rise from the dead? If you were told that [dead celebrity] had risen from the dead, you wouldn’t believe it. Dead people stay dead. What makes the death of Jesus any different?

If you believe that the story of the resurrection is true, why do you believe it’s true? If a non-Christian friend asked you that question, what would be your answer? You could say, “My parents taught me that it’s true.” But your friend would say, “How do you know that your parents weren’t wrong?” You could say, “The Bible says it’s true.” But your friends would say, “How do you know that the Bible is right about the resurrection?” [2]

It’s reasonable to believe that the resurrection is true because it’s the best explanation of the “minimal facts”—facts that are accepted by the majority of scholars, both Christian and secular.

1. Jesus was crucified. 

The crucifixion of Jesus was a public even and is mentioned in secular history books. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty [i.e., crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” [3]

2. The tomb was empty. [4]

If the tomb of Jesus had not been empty, the story of his resurrection would have been easily disproved. The enemies didn’t dispute the fact that the tomb was empty. Instead they invented a lie to explain why the tomb was empty: “[Jesus’] disciples came by night and stole him away while [the guards] were asleep” (Matt. 28:3). [5]

3. The disciples really believed that they had seen the risen Jesus. 

The followers of Jesus didn’t act like people who had stolen his body. They were willing to endure persecution and even martyrdom to spread the story of the resurrection. Liars make poor martyrs.

4. A notorious enemy of Christianity was converted. 

The apostle Paul was once a persecutor of the church, but something changed the course of his life. Paul claimed that the risen Jesus had appeared to him (1 Cor. 15:8). Skeptics will argue that the disciples could have thought they saw the risen Jesus because they wanted to believe that he was alive. But the same can’t be said of Paul.

Yes, the story of the resurrection of a crucified man is an unbelievable story. But what about the fact that the tomb was empty? What about the fact that the disciples really believed they had seen the risen Jesus? What about the fact that a man who had been an enemy of Christianity claimed to have seen the risen Jesus? How do we explain these facts if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead?


Happily Every After

Life is short, and then death comes. “What is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:13-14, NKJV). One popular view of death is that it is simply a natural part of life that we must embrace. But no matter how we tell this to themselves, death never becomes easy for us to accept. Death is an unhappy ending to life, and we crave happy endings.

When our favourite baseball team’s season begins, we long for a happy ending to the season. When we read a novel or watch a movie, we want the story’s main characters to live “happily ever after.” Years ago, instead of “happily ever after,” stories ended with the words “happily until they died,” which does not sound quite as happy. But it’s true that every life ends in death. And death is sad. It’s not a happy ending.

Thankfully, God did not accept death but sent Jesus into the world to defeat it. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection began the countdown to when God would rid his creation of death. And if we are a part of the future resurrection, it will be said of us, “And they lived happily ever after.”

____________________

[1] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, pp. 29-290.
[2] I am not casting doubt on the truthfulness of the Bible. However, we should not be under no illusion that a non-Christian will accept what the Bible says as fact.
[3] Tacitus, Annals 15.44 (c. A.D. 115).
[4] It’s significant that the Gospels say that women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb. This detail adds to the genuineness of the account since in that culture the testimony of women wasn’t valued.
[5] In the second century, Justin Martyr wrote that this lie was still being circulated in his day (Dialogue with Trypho).

The Conqueror of Death

Part 2 of Christ the Conqueror

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25




For this word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). 


The Cross

We’ve heard about Jesus dying on a cross to save us so often that we think it sounds normal. If someone from the year A.D. 10 was transported to today, he would be shocked to see crosses on jewelry and in graveyards and people worshiping a man who had been crucified.


Folly or Power?

The apostle Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified” (v. 23a). This message wasn’t well received. It was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (v. 23b). Why was the message of the cross a “stumbling block” to Jews? “Jews demand signs” (v. 22a). The Jews believed that crucifixion of Jesus was an unmistakable sign that he was not the Christ. Why was the message of the cross “folly to Gentiles”? “Greeks seek wisdom” (v. 22b). The Gentiles thought it was madness to put one’s trust in a man who had been executed as a criminal.

In people’s minds, the death of Jesus on a cross proved that he wasn’t a Saviour. It was obvious to them that the life of Jesus had ended in defeat, not victory. Paul says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (v. 18a). It still is. “But to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (v. 18b). In God’s plan, the death of Jesus on a cross provided salvation to all who believe. 


Our Sin and God's Love

Why would God do this? It can’t be true, can it?

The message of the cross doesn’t make sense until we understand what it’s saying to us. The cross tells us something about ourselves and something about God. First, the cross tells us that we are more sinful than we want to believe. Second, the cross tells that God loves us more than we can imagine.

Sin was a great enemy. But it was no match for Jesus. He defeated sin through his death, and we can be saved from the consequences of our sin through trusting in him.

Why would God do this? Because our sin was great, but God’s love was greater.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Conqueror of Pride

Part 1 of Christ the Conqueror

Text: Matthew 20:17-28; 21:1-11





“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). 


The Greatest Conqueror

Who was history’s greatest conqueror? Napoleon Bonaparte? Genghis Khan? Julius Caesar? Alexander the Great? Alexander the Great was undefeated in battle. By the age of 30, he had created one of history’s largest empires, stretching from Greece to India.

What about Jesus? You might not think of Jesus as a conqueror, but he defeated three powerful enemies: pride, sin, and death. Jesus is history’s greatest conqueror.

One enemy we all have is pride. It was pride that led to humanity’s first sin. Adam and Eve wanted to “be like God” (Gen. 3:5). It could be argued that all sin is rooted in our pride. Having humility is extremely difficult for us. (Sometimes people think they’re humble, but in reality they’re proud of their “humility.”) How can we conquer pride?


The First Palm Sunday

Five days before his crucifixion, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. We call this day Palm Sunday. The event itself is known as the triumphal entry. [1] The people “cut branches from the trees and spread them on the ground” (v. 8). John’s Gospel tells us that the branches were “branches of palm trees” (John 12:13). About two hundred years earlier, a Jewish rebel group known as the Maccabees liberated Judea from Antiochus and the Greeks. One of their victories was celebrated with “palm-branches” (1 Macc. 13:51). In Jesus’ day, the Jews were under the power of Rome, and they were looking for the Messiah to defeat the Romans.

The excited crowd cried out, “Hosanna in the highest!” (v. 9). “Hosanna” literally means “save us.” [2]  However, by the first century it had become a cry of praise to God. [3] Regardless, it’s clear that the people had salvation on their minds. The first part of v. 5 (“Say to the daughter of Zion”) is a quote from Isaiah 62:11, which goes on to say, “Behold, your salvation comes.” The people were correct in believing that Jesus had come to bring salvation, but they were confused as to what kind of salvation Jesus would achieve.

In v. 5, Matthew quotes Zechariah 9:9, which describes the coming king as “humble[4] and mounted on a donkey.” [5] The people in Jerusalem shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (v. 9). “The Son of David” was a messianic title. John writes that the people called Jesus “the King of Israel” (John 12:13). The people were correct in believing that Jesus was their King, but they were confused as to what kind of King he was.

What kind of King was Jesus? A humble King who came to serve. What kind of salvation did Jesus come to bring? A salvation from the consequences of our sins. How would Jesus bring this salvation? Through his death on a cross.


Conquering Pride

During the previous week, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, asked (via their mother) Jesus for positions of prominence in his kingdom (Matt. 20:20-21). The other disciples were indignant at James and John (v. 24)—probably because they wanted the same thing. Jesus rebuked all twelve of his disciples, saying,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (vv. 25-28). 
If our Lord lived as a humble servant, who are we to be filled with pride? The apostle Paul used the example of Jesus’ humility when urging the Philippians to be humble. He wrote, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). He encouraged them to be humble by reminding them that Jesus, the God-man, “humbled himself” (Phil. 2:8). It’s been said that humility is “not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” That’s the attitude that Jesus had. He even washed his disciples’ dirty feet (John 13:5)—as they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest! We are quick to condemn the disciples for their pride, but don’t we often act the same? When we think about the humility of Jesus, doesn’t our pride seem so foolish, so awful, so out of place? 

Jesus could didn’t allow pride to prevent him from completing his earthly mission. He conquered pride. How can we conquer pride? We must be changed by the gospel. The gospel moves us to humbly serve others.

____________________

[1] All four Gospels give an account of the triumphal entry (Matt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19).
[2] The praise of the people was inspired by Psalm 118:25-26: “Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD.”
[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew (NAC), 313.
[4] The Greek word for “humble” (praus) is found four times in the NT, and is also translated as “meek” and “gentle.”
[5] The “donkey” of Zechariah 9:9 is contrasted with the “war horse” of Zechariah 9:10.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

An Appointment with God

Part 3 of Talking to God

Text: Matthew 6:9




“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven…’” (Matt. 6:9). 


An Appointment to Keep

I’m sure most of us had a few appointments on our calendars this past week. An appointment to see your doctor. An appointment to get your car repaired. An appointment to have coffee with a friend. We do our best not to miss our appointments.

We have an appointment to meet with God each day—to hear his voice through his word and speak to him through prayer. But many Christians miss that appointment. This is nothing new. Martin Luther—who lived 500 years ago—wrote a letter to his barber about how to pray. In the letter he said this:
It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day. [1]
If you struggle with taking time to pray, my purpose is not to make you feel guilty about your lack of prayer. My purpose is to encourage you—starting today—to make sure you keep your daily appointment with God. How am I going to do this? By emphasizing the incredible privilege it is to meet with God each day.


Our Father in Heaven 

The Lord’s Prayer begins by focusing our attention on God. “We address God intimately as Father, but we immediately recognize his infinite greatness with the addition in heaven.” [2] This is something we should do regularly. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Who is God? Who is the one to whom we pray?

God is triune. He is one God who exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Augustine, while walking along the beach one day was puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity. He saw a young boy with a bucket, running back and forth to pour water into a little hole. Augustine asked, “What are you doing?” The boy replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole.” Then Augustine realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind.

God is our Creator. He possesses infinite power and wisdom. We often talk about the vastness of the universe, but have you ever stopped to consider how vast the universe really is? In 1977, two unmanned space probes were launched, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. In 1987—after a 10-year, 4 billion-mile journey—Voyager 1 passed the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, completing its mission. The Voyager 1 is nearly the fastest vehicle ever made. It continues to travel through space at a speed of 11 miles every second. The closest star to the earth (other than the sun) is Proxima Centauri, a little over 4 light years away. At 11 miles per second, Voyager 1 wouldn’t reach Proxima Centauri until around the year 73,500. That’s amazing.

God is personal. He is our Father who is in heaven. “True prayer is not a technique nor a performance, but a relationship.” [3] Philip Yancey writes, “I have come to see prayer as a privilege, not a duty. Like all good things, prayer requires some discipline. Yet I believe that life with God should seem more like friendship than duty.” [4]

John Wesley said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, then I will show you a man who can comprehend God.” God’s greatness is incomprehensible. But so is his love!

Does this sound like someone you’d like to meet each day? This about the incredible privilege it is to meet with God each day. Probably none of us would miss an appointment with [name a celebrity]. We shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet with our Father in heaven.


Direct Access

When you call to make an appointment with your doctor, you don’t speak to your doctor. You speak to your doctor’s receptionist. And you almost never get to see your doctor immediately. You have to make an appointment to see your doctor on a future day. Then when that day finally arrives and you go to your doctor’s office, you have to sit in a waiting room and wait.

It’s very different when we want to meet with God. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry” (Ps. 34:15). We have direct access to God!

____________________

[1] Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray.
[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 144.
[3] R. T. France, “Matthew,” New Bible Commentary, 913.
[4] Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, 17.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Pray the Right Way

Part 2 of Talking to God

Text: Matthew 6:7-9a




“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven…’” (Matt. 6:9a).


Where's the Manual?

Instruction manuals are becoming obsolete.

When the disciples of Jesus asked him how to pray (“Lord, teach us to pray,” Luke 11:1), he didn’t give them a prayer manual; he gave them a prayer model. This model prayer is known as “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).


Do I Have Your Attention?

Before Jesus tells his followers how they should pray (vv. 9-13), he tells them how they should not pray (vv. 5-8). They should not pray “as the Gentiles [i.e., the pagans] do” (v. 7). [1] “They think that they will be heard for their many words” (v. 7). In other words, they think they won’t get their god’s attention unless they keep pestering him.

The pagan’s god is like a landlord. To get a landlord’s attention, you often need to keep pestering until he finally gets your leaky faucet fixed. Our God is not like a landlord; he’s our Father. [2] He won’t ignore us. We are his children, and he loves us. To pray the right way, we must pray believing that we are talking to a Father who loves us. 


Father?

What right do we have to call God our Father? We can call God our Father because he has adopted us into his family. To all who have put their faith in Jesus, “[God] gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

God didn’t simply snap his fingers and say, “You’re in my family.” He brought us into his family through the death of Jesus on the cross. The cross is the proof of God’s love for us. We know that God loves us because he “did not spare his own Son but gave him us for us all” (Rom. 8:32). “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

J. I. Packer writes, “As God’s adopted children we are loved no less than is the one whom God called his ‘beloved Son.’” [3] “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).


We Know Our Father Loves Us

Jesus introduces the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Pray then like this” (v. 9). [4] In other words, pray like you are talking to a Father who loves you. We don’t have to scream for God’s attention. He is “always more ready to hear than we [are] to pray.” [5]

When we approach God in prayer, we are approaching a Father who wants what is best for us. Jesus said, “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:9-11). Sometimes God’s children ask him for stones and serpents, and God says, “No.” Sometimes God grants his children’s requests for bread and fish, but he says, “Wait.” Sometimes God’s children ask for bread and fish, but God says, “I have something else planned for you” (e.g., Paul’s request in 2 Cor. 12:7-10).


Just Show Me!

Some people find it difficult to learn something (e.g., how to play a board game) by reading instructions. In frustration, they finally blurt out, “Just show me!”

This is what Jesus did. He showed us how to pray. And he began by showing us that we are praying to a Father who loves us.

__________________

[1] In this context, a Gentile refers to a pagan (i.e., someone who worships a false god).
[2] Many people’s fathers are/were not good, so it can be difficult to relate to God as his child. We must remember that God is a perfect Father.
[3] J. I. Packer, Praying the Lord’s Prayer, 28.
[4] R. T. France writes, “The connecting ‘then’ indicates that the following words will express the trust in a heavenly Father which has been stated in verses 7-8 to be the basis of true prayer” (The Gospel of Matthew, 244).
[5] Book of Common Prayer.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Listening Before You Speak

Part 1 of Talking to God

Topic: Bible reading and prayer




Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day (Ps. 119:97). 


A One-Sided Conversation

Have you ever been in a conversation in which the other person wouldn’t stop talking? It’s not very enjoyable. You want to speak, but you never get a chance!

Prayer is talking to God. But God doesn’t want us to do all the talking. He wants to speak to us. And how does God speak to us? Through the Bible (also know as the word of God).


Struggling to Pray 

Many Christians struggle to take the time to pray. Maybe we don’t take the time to pray because we underestimate the importance of prayer. We will usually make time for things that are important to us.
Maybe we don’t take the time to pray because we’re very busy. D. A. Carson, “If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy. Cut something out.” [1]

We believe that food is essential, and we make time for it everyday. If we believe that prayer is essential to the Christina life, we must make time for it. Maybe we have good intentions to take time to pray, but we never end up doing much praying. We are like the disciples Peter, James, and John. Jesus said to them, ““Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

It’s probably a good idea to designate a quiet time and place. Jesus often withdrew to “desolate places” to pray (Luke 5:16).


Prayer Is Not a One-Sided Conversation

Before we speak to God, God wants to speak to us. God speaks to us when we read and meditate on his word. Meditate? J. I. Packer writes, “We have some idea, perhaps, what prayer is, but what is meditation? Well may we ask, for meditation is a lost art today, and Christian people suffer grievously from their ignorance of the practice. Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.” [2] A mind meditating on God’s word is like a sponge absorbing water.

Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind. Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind. With what do we fill our minds? God’s word. Several times in Scripture we are urged to mediate upon God’s word.
  • “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night” (Josh. 1:8). 
  • “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). 
  • “O how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). 
  • “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise” (Ps. 119:148). 
  • “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands” (Ps. 143:5). 
Busyness and distractions are the enemies of meditating on God’s word. Stillness and solitude are the friends of meditating on God’s word.

The need for mediating on God’s word is illustrated in the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (v. 39), but Martha “was distracted with much serving” (v. 40). Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41-42).


Meditating and Praying

Here are a few basic steps for meditation upon God’s word and prayer. [3]
  • Think of the privilege of prayer. Realize God is present. Ask him to help you pray. 
  • Read a Scripture passage. Pick one or two truths you find in the passage. Choose the one that most impresses you and write it in a sentence. Now ask: How does this truth help me praise God? How does it show me a sin to confess? How does it show me something to ask for? 
  • Now turn the answers to the three questions into a prayer—adoration, petition, and suppli-cation. 
  • Pray about whatever needs are on your heart. Also spend time thanking God for the ways you see him working in your life and caring for you. 
  • Take a moment to thank and admire God for what he has showed you today. End with a note of praise. 
This plan only takes about 15 minutes. (Of course, that makes it sound easier than it actually is.) But taking time to meditate upon God word and pray will make a huge difference in our lives.

____________________

[1] D. A Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 114.
[2] J. I. Packer, Knowing God.
[3] This plan is taken from Tim Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (254-255).