Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved.
Even though the apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:12, "Not that I have already obtained, nor am already perfect," nevertheless he said in Philippians 4:9, "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you."
In other words, even though he was not sinlessly perfect, yet he pointed people to his heart and life as a guide for obedience. When he sets his attitudes and behaviors before us in his teachings, the point is that we should copy them. They are the word of God to us just as much as his doctrinal sentences.
Therefore, when he says in Romans 10:1, "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved," he means, "Be like this. Have a heart like mine."
So last week we focused on the first half of the verse, "My heart's desire is that they might be saved." And this week we will focus on the second half, "My prayer to God for them is that they might be saved."
What Do We Learn from Paul Praying for Israel?
"They" refers to Israel, his kinsmen, the chosen people of God. Now what do we learn from the fact that Paul is praying for Israel? I'll just mention three things. We learn that his prayer is
- a global prayer,
- an individual prayer, and
- a prayer for God's effectual saving work.
1. A Global Prayer
To see this we need to look at the role of Israel in redemptive history described in chapter 11. First, look at 11:25–26, "Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved."
God's Plan for Israel and the Gentiles
What we see here is this: when God looked down on the disobedient nations in Genesis 11, his choice was to call out for himself one man, Abraham, and build a people for himself through that one man. He gave them promises and covenants and revelations of his glory and revelations of his will and a way of forgiveness in the sacrifices; and eventually gave them the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
But by and large the people were rebellious, and only a remnant trusted the promises of God and lived the obedience of faith. And so when the Messiah was rejected, the gospel spilled over the banks of Israel to bless the world of the Gentiles. Now, Paul says, a hardening has come upon the greater part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles come in. That is, God has abandoned Israel in her sin for a season. And his purpose is to gather his people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation until the full number of the elect are saved.
But then, when the Great Commission reaches its fulfillment, the Spirit of God will remove the hardness from Israel and a great awakening will occur in Israel and the nation as a whole will turn to Christ and be saved.
You can see this plan of God in verses 30–31, "Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [Israel's] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy."
This is the same strange pattern of salvation we saw in 11:25–26. First, the Gentiles are disobedient. Then, through the disobedience of Israel, the Gentiles receive mercy. That is, a hardening has come upon Israel until the Gentiles are mercifully gathered in. That is verse 30. But now verse 31 completes the plan of God. The ultimate reason Israel was disobedient was that mercy might reach beyond them to the Gentiles and in this way Israel also might receive mercy and be saved.
How Paul's Prayer Is Global
You can see this pattern of redemption again in 11:11–12, 15. But let this suffice for us now to make the point that Paul's prayer was a global prayer. In what sense was it a global prayer?
It was global in the sense that it must have included the full number of the Gentiles which would come in through the fulfillment of the Great Commission. How could he pray for the salvation of Israel when he teaches that a hardening has come upon most of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles come in? The answer must be that his prayer included the ingathering of the full number of the Gentiles.
When my wife is away from town and I pray that she enjoy with us a special supper in the evening, I am also praying that she have a safe trip home. It is necessarily included in my prayer that she be with us for supper. So when Paul prays for the conversion of Israel, he is also praying for the ingathering of the full number of the Gentiles. He is praying for the completion of the Great Commission. It is a global prayer.
2. An Individual Prayer
Paul's prayer was not only for the corporate conversion of all Israel in the future, it was also a prayer for individual Jews through his own ministry. Look at Romans 11:13–14, "Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them."
Paul not only banked on the conversion of "all Israel" after the full number of the Gentiles comes in (11:26); he also strove for the salvation of "some" Israelites through his own ministry. The way he did it was to lavish Jewish privileges on the Gentiles. That is, he told them that they could become heirs of Abraham (Galatians 3:14, 29) and "true Jews" (Romans 2:29) just by believing in Jesus who was the seed of Abraham.
His aim in this was to make Israelites jealous. He wanted them to see Gentiles enjoying hope and forgiveness and a life changing relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he hoped that this would help them see that faith and not works really was the way to fulfill the law. Which would then lead them to repent and believe and be saved.
And my inference from this strategic effort to win some Israelites is that Paul surely prayed for the conversion of these Jews. He no doubt said as he entered a synagogue to preach, "Sovereign Lord, be pleased to overcome the hardness of heart for some of these Israelites in this synagogue. Open their hearts that they might give heed to the gospel and be saved." Which leads to the third lesson from Paul's praying for Israel.
3. A Prayer for God's Effectual Saving Work
Paul prays for God to actually save Israel. That is, Paul does not pray for God just to make them able to save themselves. He prays for their salvation not for their saveability.
Here's what I mean. If you believe that God has the right and power to raise the spiritually dead and to grant repentance to the disobedient and have mercy on whom he will have mercy, then you pray that God will do that. You ask God to actually save them—pull them up from the bottom of the lake, slide their limp bodies over the edge of the boat, and to do whatever he has to do to make them alive spiritually.
Being Unable to Ask God to Actually Save Anybody
But if you believe that God does not have this right but that man has the right of final self-determination—that man is deciding who and how many will inhabit God's final kingdom—then you will not be able to ask God to actually save anybody.
- You cannot pray, "God, take out their heart of stone and give them a new heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 11:19).
- You can't pray, "Lord, circumcise their heart so that they love you" (Deuteronomy 30:6).
- You can't pray, "Father, put your Spirit within them and cause them to walk in your statutes" (Ezekiel 36:27).
- You can't pray, "Lord, grant them repentance and a knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 2:25–26).
- You can't pray, "Open their eyes so that they believe the gospel" (Acts 16:14).
The reason you can't is that all these prayers give God a right that you have reserved for man—namely, the ultimate, decisive determination of his destiny. If you ask God to do any of these things, he would be the one who actually saves.
Praying to a God Who Doesn't Decisively Save Anybody
How then do you pray if you really believe that man and not God must make the ultimate decisions about salvation in the universe? A good example is Dick Eastman's book, The Hour That Changes the World. He believes that the ultimate self-determining power of man must be preserved when we pray to God. How? At the end of his book in a section called "How to Pray for the Lost" (pp. 157–161), he says that what we should do is ask God to cause people to ask six crucial questions. (Whom can I trust? What is my purpose? When will I really be free? Why do people hate religion? How can I cope? Where will I go when I die?)
For example, he says, "Ask God to cause a specific person . . . to begin questioning whom they can really trust in life." But my question then is: Why is right for God to cause a person to think a question and wrong for God to cause that person to think an answer? Why is it legitimate for God to take control of a man to the degree that he cause the man to ask a question he would not have otherwise asked, but it is not legitimate for God to exert that same influence to cause the man to give an answer that he would not otherwise have given—namely, that Jesus should be trusted?
Even more telling is this suggestion Eastman suggests: "Pray that God will plant in the hearts of these people . . . an inner unrest, together with a longing to know the 'Truth.'" My question is: If it is legitimate for God to "plant a longing" in a person's heart, how strong can the longing be that God chooses to plant?
There are two kinds of longings God could plant in an unbeliever's heart. One is so strong that it leads the person to pursue and embrace Christ. The other is not strong enough to lead a person to embrace Christ. Which do you pray for? If you pray for the strong longing, then you are praying that the Lord work effectually and get that person saved. If you pray for the weak longing, then you are praying for an ineffectual longing that leaves the person in sin (but preserves his self-determination).
Do you see where this leads? People who really believe that man must have the ultimate power of self-determination can't consistently pray that God would convert sinners. Why? Because if they pray for divine influence in a sinner's life, they are either praying for a successful influence (which takes away the sinner's ultimate self-determination), or they are praying for an unsuccessful influence (which is not praying for conversion). So either you give up praying for conversion, or you give up ultimate human self-determination.
Paul's Stand and Our Prayers
Paul leaves no doubt where he stands on that issue in Romans 9:16, "It depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy." So he prays that God would convert Israel! He prays for her salvation! He does not pray for ineffectual influences, but for effectual influences. And that is how we should pray too.
We should take the new covenant promises of God and plead with God to bring them to pass in Israel and in the full number of the Gentiles and especially in the individuals in our own circle of acquaintance.
- "God, take out of their flesh the heart of stone and give them a new heart flesh" (Ezekiel 11:19).
- "Lord, circumcise their heart so that they love you" (Deuteronomy 30:6).
- "Father, put your Spirit within them and cause them to walk in your statutes" (Ezekiel 36:27).
- "Lord, grant them repentance and a knowledge of the truth that they may escape from the snare of the devil" (2 Timothy 2:25–26).
- "Father, open their eyes so that they believe the gospel" (Acts 16:14).
- "God, crucify the mind of the flesh that is unwilling to submit to your law that the mind of the Spirit might rule unto life" (Romans 8:7–8).
In other words, we should say, "Father, my heart's desire and prayer to you is that you would SAVE them."
Ten Tremors Pointing to a Spiritual Awakening
Let me draw these points together and to a close by issuing a challenge to you with the encouragement of what God is doing today in the Christian movement worldwide and at Bethlehem.
It seems to me that the Spirit of God is moving in our generation in an unusual way. David Bryant calls those who study awakenings and revivals spiritual seismologists. They try to read the spiritual tremors of Christianity to detect if an earthquake of awakening and missions is on the way.
And there are undeniable tremors that should encourage all of us that God is on the move. Let me mention a few.
- At Urbana 1984, 83% of the students made some kind of commitment to missions. That was twice the response of three years earlier. Why?
- In 1960 there were 16,000 protestant career missionaries from North America. Today (25 years later) the figure is over 30,000. The four largest evangelical mission agencies have grown from 2,800 to 14,000 in the same period. Why?
- Many of the non-western receiving nations have now become sending countries. By the year 2000 half the missionary force will be from these countries. Why?
- Some brand new mission agencies are growing at phenomenal rates. Two years ago Frontiers sent out its first 20 people. Today there are 103 on the field and 600 wait in line to be appointed or accepted. Why.
- Enrollment at evangelical missions institutions has jumped dramatically in the last ten years. In five well-known schools the enrollment jumped from less than 400 in 1975 to over 1,200 today. Why?
- In 1963 only 600 people participated in a short-term missions project. For the past two years the average has been about 30,000 a year in short-term missions work. Why?
- In South Korea almost a third of the population is evangelical. Seoul is the home of over 6,000 churches, and the biggest Methodist, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal churches in the world are there. Why?
- Under the oppression of Communism, the Christian community in China grew from one million in 1949 to over 30 million today. Why?
- The insight that there are 17,000 unreached people groups has gripped most mission agencies in the past ten years and fired the imagination of the new generation with the slogan, "A church for every people by the year 2000" (not the old SVM slogan: "The evangelization of the world in our generation"). Why?
- The movement has received continual impulses by the establishment of the U.S. Center for World Mission with its satellites and clones. Why?
The global list could go on and on. I think the evidence suffices to show that there are tremors of something wonderful in the wings. In any case, the Spirit is moving in remarkable ways around the world. Why?
Ten Tremors at Bethlehem Baptist Church
Before I suggest an answer, let's look at Bethlehem's little tremors too. We have not had an earthquake of awakening or any remarkable harvest. But steadily the tremors increase. Just to mention a few from 1985:
- The ministry of prayer has persevered and grown. There is an ongoing team, a prayer room, prayer during services, prayer every day at 7AM; and last Friday we were up another 50% over last year's all night prayer meeting (150–175). Prayer pervades the ministries of the church. And it seems to be increasing steadily from year to year.
- The International Students ministry flourished with outstanding retreats and the renting of the International House.
- Instead of sending out the 15 we anticipated under the auspices of 90 by '90 we sent out 21.
- The monthly Frontier Fellowship was established on the last Wednesday of each month.
- Noël and I were given the privilege to leave the church for six weeks to minister in Liberia and Cameroon.
- Steve and Susan felt the call to take a leave of absence and teach for a year in Cameroon beginning this August.
- The Perspectives class was offered again on Monday evenings with over 80 enrolled from around the Cities.
- I was elected to the Foreign Mission Board of the Baptist General Conference, which I mention because of the impact it will have on our church and because it is a sign that our church is viewed as a hopeful sign in missions.
- Our worship attendance last fall was about 20% greater than the preceding fall.
- God put it in your hearts to meet the 1985 budget even though it was a 35% increase over the previous year.
Prayer and Awakening
And this list could go on and on too. But what's the point of all this. The point is that God is magnifying himself in answering the prayers of his people. A. T. Pierson said, "There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer." And J. Edwin Orr said, "History is full of exciting results as God has worked through concerted, united, sustained prayer."
We could show this from the early church in Acts. We could show it in the Protestant Reformation, and the Moravian missions advance, the great evangelical awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries.
A Closing Challenge
And so my challenge to you today is to be a part of something very great that God is doing by prayer. Pray globally for the ingathering of the full number of the Gentiles and for the conversion of all Israel, and the consummation of the age. Your prayers will not be wasted. They will be stored up in the bottles of heaven and poured out in due time upon the church and the nations and Israel.
And pray for Bethlehem, that the tremors might become a full-scale earthquake of revival with an unprecedented impact for Christ on this city as the harvest comes.
And pray for the salvation of individuals without ceasing and without growing weary. Make a list and be faithful for years. I close with a testimony from George Mueller of Bristol:
I am now, in 1864, waiting upon God for certain blessings, for which I have daily besought Him for 19 years and 6 months, without one day's intermission. Still the full answer is not yet given concerning the conversion of certain individuals. In the meantime, I have received many thousands of answers to prayer. I have also prayed daily, without intermission, for the conversion of other individuals about ten years, for others six or seven years, for others four, three, and two years, for others about eighteen months; and still the answer is not yet granted, concerning these persons [for whom I have prayed for nineteen years and six months] . . . Yet I am daily continuing in prayer and expecting the answer . . . Be encouraged, dear Christian reader, with fresh earnestness to give yourself to prayer, if you can only be sure that you ask for things which are for the glory of God. (Autobiography, p. 296)