Prayer Changes People's Wills
Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints.
I begin today by asking two questions about prayer from verse 30 before turning today to verse 31.
1. Why Incentives and Not a Command?
Why does Paul give the Roman Christians incentives to pray for him instead of just telling them to pray? Recall, there are two incentives: 1) I urge you "by our Lord Jesus Christ." 2) I urge you "by the love of the Spirit." Why does Paul use these incentives? Why not just say, "Pray for me!"?
God Generally Moves the Will Through the Mind
The reason is this: God's customary way to move your will is through your mind. That is, he typically draws the will into action by displaying truth to the mind. So in this case, through Paul, God desires that the will of the Roman Christians incline to pray—and not just incline but incline vigorously. He calls it "striving" in prayer. So to awaken their will to this kind of vigorous inclination, and pull it out into dynamic action, he puts two God-centered truths in their minds: 1) Jesus Christ is Lord ("by our Lord Jesus Christ"); 2) the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of love ("by the love of the Spirit").
I suggested last week that these two incentives correspond to the two prayer requests in verse 31. Since Jesus is Lord, you may pray with confidence that he has the right and authority and power to restrain the disobedient in Judea. And since the Spirit of God is a Spirit of love, you can pray with confidence that he will lovingly fill the saints in Jerusalem with love for Paul so that his ministry is accepted and not resented.
So what we learn here is that energetic vigorous responses of the heart in prayer (and other ways) are meant by God to be responses to great God-centered truth—in this case, Jesus is Lord of the universe; and the Spirit is full of love. Why is this? Why is it not God's usual way to just tell us to do things without giving us incentives like this to do them?
God Wants to Be Glorified by Right Views of God
The reason is plain: God would not get glory for our actions if they were not stimulated by views of God. God is in the main business in the world of magnifying the worth of his Son and the power of his Spirit and the glory of his own name. So his will is that we be aware of these things. That we know them. That we think on them, and that they become conscious incentives in the way we make choices and the way we get stirred up to pray.
If someone says, "Why are you praying?" and we say, "I don't know, I just felt this impulse," God would not get the glory he would get if you answered, "I'm praying because Jesus is Lord and has the right to overrule human plans in answer to prayer; and I'm praying because the Spirit of God is a Spirit of love, and will hear my prayer for mercy."
God wants our minds to be filled with this kind of God-exalting truth as the incentive to our praying and our living. We are not to act on mere impulse or whim. We are to act on the knowledge of God-centered incentives. This is why we read the Bible. It is why we have Sunday School and BITC. It is why I preach and write books—to stir you up with truth about God, so that when you act, God will get the glory.
2. Why Didn't Paul Just Pray on His Own?
The second question from verse 30 is this: why do the prayers of the Roman Christians promise more help than if Paul simply prayed alone for his two requests? Notice the wording: "I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me." Paul says, he is praying for the same thing. So if he is praying, why does he need more people praying?
Some of you have wondered, Why do we have prayer meetings? Why gather in St. Paul tonight in a larger group? Why have prayer chains and prayer groups? If God is God, and it is his power that makes a difference in answering prayer, why does it matter how many people ask him? If I pick up Noël from the library because our son asks me to, she is just as picked up as if four sons asked me to.
One answer is that the more people that are praying for a thing, the more thanks and honor God will get when he acts. We see this in 2 Corinthians 1:10b–11: "And [God] will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed upon us through the prayers of many."
The assumption behind the answer to both of these questions is that the divine purpose of prayer is to magnify the greatness of God. Prayer exists for the glory of God. Jesus said in John 14:13, "And whatever you ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." The aim of prayer is that the Father be glorified through Jesus.
So the more people there are praying for something, and thus depending on God for mercy and power, the more people will give him thanks and glorify him when the answer comes.
God Changes People's Wills in Answer to Prayer
Now these two questions from verse 30 set the stage for the lesson of verse 31. What we have seen in verse 30 is that biblical prayer and biblical incentives to prayer imply a radically God-centered universe, and God-centered way of looking at the universe. Prayer is for the glory of God and incentives to prayer are God-centered so that when our hearts are moved by those incentives, it will be clear that we are acting because of the way God is.
Now in verse 31 assumes this same view of the world. The point I see is very simple and far-reaching in its implications. The point is that prayer changes people's wills. Or, more accurately, God changes people's wills in answer to prayer.
Let's see this from the text. Verse 31 gives Paul's two prayer requests: "1) . . . that I may be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea, and 2) that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints." So he had two concerns: 1) that the non-Christians in Judea would kill him and end his ministry; 2) that the Christians would find fault with his ministry. So Paul urges the Roman Christians 1,300 miles from Jerusalem to ask God not to let that happen.
The implication is that the will of the unbelievers to hurt Paul and the will of the believers to disapprove Paul's ministry are both in the power of God to change. There would seem to be no point in praying for these two things if God could not do them. In both cases the wills of people are involved and the answer to the prayer is going to involve God changing those wills—in the one case so that the ill-will of unbelievers is restrained, and in the other case so that the good will of believers is assured.
Matthew Henry put it like this 300 years ago: "As God must be sought unto for the restraining of the ill will of our enemies, so also for the preserving and increasing of the good will of our friends; for God has the hearts both of the one and the other in his hands."
That's the implication of verse 31. Let's see how it works by going to the book of Acts and watching God answer this prayer.
How God Answers This Prayer in Acts
Take the first request—that Paul be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea. How did God answer that?
Deliverance from Non-Christians in Judea
Well, in Acts 21 Paul meets a very hostile city, just as he expected. Verse 30: "And all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together; and taking hold of Paul, they dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut." Mob violence is not easy to restrain. So how was Paul saved?
He was saved by the working of the will of secular authorities. Verse 31: "And while they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 And at once he took along some soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them." So here we see an answer to prayer. First, someone willed to run and tell the commander there was a riot. Second, the commander willed to take it seriously and came to see. Third, the rest of the verse says, " . . . and when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul." So their evil will was restrained and they stopped short of killing Paul and the prayers of the Roman Christians 1,300 miles away were answered. God influenced the wills of someone to inform the commander, the will of the commander, and the will of the mob. And Paul was spared.
But his danger is not over. In chapter 23 Paul is in jail and some of his enemies form a conspiracy to ambush him when he is transferred to Caesarea. They take an oath not to eat until he is dead. Now how will God answer the prayers of the Roman Christians? He influenced the will of a boy, Paul's nephew, to be in a place to overhear the conspiracy, and then influenced him to have the courage to tell Paul about it. Verse 16: "But the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush, and he came and entered the barracks and told Paul."
Then (verses 17–23):
Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, "Lead this young man to the commander, for he has something to report to him." So he took him and led him to the commander and said, "Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to lead this young man to you since he has something to tell you." And the commander took him by the hand and stepping aside, began to inquire of him privately, "What is it that you have to report to me?" And he said, "The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down tomorrow to the Council, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more thoroughly about him. So do not listen to them, for more than forty of them are lying in wait for him who have bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink until they slay him; and now they are ready and waiting for the promise from you." Therefore the commander let the young man go, instructing him, "Tell no one that you have notified me of these things." And he called to him two of the centurions, and said, "Get two hundred soldiers ready by the third hour of the night to proceed to Caesarea, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen."
So not only did God influence the will of the boy to be in the right place at the right time and to have the courage to go tell Paul, but he also influenced the will of the centurion to take the boy to the commander and influenced the will of the commander to take the boy seriously and then to make a plan for Paul's escape. And so again Paul was delivered from the unbelievers in Jerusalem just the way he asked for prayer in Romans 15:31.
An Acceptable Ministry to the Jerusalem Saints
Now what about the believers? How did they respond to Paul in answer to the other prayer in Romans 15:31, that his ministry be acceptable to the saints? Acts 21:17–20 gives the answer:
And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And now the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. And after he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it they began glorifying God."
So we don't read anything about the church rejecting Paul or his ministry. God had heard the striving of his people in Rome, and he had acted. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love and joy and that is what Paul met with in the church of Jerusalem. God heard and answered with the love of the Spirit.
I conclude, then, that Matthew Henry is exactly right: In prayer we seek God to restrain the ill will of our enemies, and we seek God to preserve and increase the good will of our friends, because "God has the hearts both of the one and the other in his hands."
Or to put it simply, In answer to prayer God changes people's wills. This brings us to the very point where we are in our study of providence in the BITC on Wednesday nights. So I will say more then about the results of the sovereignty of God and human accountability.
But in closing this morning ask yourself if you believe this simple and powerful truth about prayer. In response to prayer God changes people's wills. I pray that the Lord will influence your wills to believe it! And if you do, then consider three implications:
1. Stand in Awe of Christ's Lordship
Stand in awe of the Lordship of God and his Son Jesus. Paul had said, "I urge you to strive in prayer by the Lord Jesus Christ." Now we see even more clearly that Jesus is the Lord. He is the Lord over the wills of centurions, and commanders, and mobs, and little boys. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. So stand in awe of your Lord Jesus. Worship him. Trust him. Follow him. And count on him to help you in your longings to see people change.
2. Rejoice That the Spirit Is a Spirit of Love
Be glad and rejoice that the Spirit of God is a Spirit of love. Paul had said, "I urge you by the love of the Spirit to strive in prayer." Think what it must have meant for Paul as he came toward Jerusalem to have Christian groups "receive him gladly." "The brethren received him gladly." O how precious is the love of the Spirit when it flows to us from other believers. Be glad that God is like this. Be glad that the Lord of the universe has a Spirit of love. Be glad that that God has both a powerful Son and a loving Spirit. When these two things unite, infinite power and overflowing love, nothing can befall you but what God wills for your good.
3. Do Not Neglect Prayer
Finally, don't neglect the amazing influence you have in the world for good through prayer. By prayer God calls us to join him in shaping history. By prayer we are to influence the wills of presidents and kings and senators and governors and mayors (1 Timothy 2:1–2). By prayer we are to influence the wills of professors and writers and entertainers and editors and pastors and elders and missionaries. By prayer we are to influence the wills of our friends and our enemies. We are to influence the wills of our children by prayer, and our husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and neighbors and colleagues and fellow students.
The amount of transforming good you can do by prayer is incalculable. Don't neglect this great work God has put into your hands. This year let's use both our instruments to win people over to Christ. Let's work to change people's minds with truth and people's wills with prayer.