Prevailing Prayer for the Spirit's Power
He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." And he said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation." And he said to them, "Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; and he will answer from within, 'Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything'? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Jesus Lived and Taught a Life of Prayer
Jesus was a man of prayer. He was praying when the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove (Luke 3:21). He began his ministry with a 40-day fast in the wilderness (4:1–15). Other times he withdrew into the wilderness to pray (5:16). He prayed all night before choosing the twelve (6:12). He was praying alone just before he asked Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" (9:18). Just before he was transfigured, he took Peter, James, and John up on the mountain to pray (9:28). And he was praying here at the beginning of our text in Luke 11:1. As a man Jesus sought his strength and guidance from the Father in prayer.
From this alone we should feel motivated at the beginning of a new year to make prayer more central in our lives. I want to be more like Jesus. I want to be a man of prayer more than ever.
But that's not all. Jesus also taught us to pray, and made amazing promises to us about prayer. So he lived a life of prayer and he taught a life of prayer. It is the will of the Lord Jesus that Bethlehem be a church of prayer—that our new sanctuary be a house of prayer, and that our people be given to daily, prevailing prayer for personal needs, for the power of the Spirit, for the progress of the gospel, and for the glory of God's name.
We know this beyond any doubt. So I urge you now to open yourself to what Jesus is saying to you this morning. Ask him right now to speak to you and give you a new heart for the prayer ministry he has for you this year.
I want to mention four things in this text that Jesus teaches us about praying—four directions based on four promises.
Jesus teaches us to make our praying God-centered.
When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray (11:1), he says (in v. 2), "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come." Notice that these are requests. All of the Lord's Prayer is requests, not thanks or praise. Jesus says our first desire, our first request, should be that God's name be hallowed or glorified, and that his kingdom advance and come. This is what I mean by God-centered. The glory of God's name and the advancement of God's kingdom are the primary concerns of prayer.
The Different Atmosphere of Mature Praying
We all know the difference between immature prayer and mature, God-centered prayer. We know we are in a different atmosphere—a higher one—when we hear someone pray with the priorities that Jesus teaches. It sounds something like this, taking our outline from verses 2–4:
"Father, we long to see you honored more and more in our church and our city. Cause your name to be hallowed among us. Magnify your worth and your glory in our midst. And let your kingdom come. Take up your kingly rule more and more fully over our church and our lives and our families and our city. And hasten the day of Christ's final appearing. Meet our physical needs we pray, so that we can press on with joy in the work you call us to for your name's sake. Forgive us, O Lord, where we have sinned and fallen short of your glory. And keep us from entangling temptations that will trip us up and bring reproach upon your name. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen."
There are a thousand ways to say that. My plea is not that you use my words, but that you have Jesus' priorities and that you express them in your praying, namely, that the Father's name be hallowed and that his kingdom come.
Don't Be Content with Immature Praying
If this feels foreign to you, if you never plead for the name of God to be hallowed or the kingdom of God to come, don't be content today to stay stuck at that immature level of praying. Instead say in a fresh, new way to God this week: Father, hallow your name IN MY LIFE, IN MY PRAYING this year as never before.
The promise that will encourage you in following Jesus' direction on this first point comes from Ezekiel 36:23, "I will vindicate the holiness of my great name . . . and the nations will know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes." God's name WILL be vindicated among all the nations as true and glorious. But he has decreed that we will have a hand in this triumph through prayer. So make the glory of God the center of your prayers. Pray again and again, with as many different words as you can think of, "Father, let your name be hallowed and let your kingdom come!"
2. Secure in the Father's Love
Jesus teaches us to pray with a sense of security in the Father's love.
Jesus doesn't want us to feel precarious and insecure in our prayers. He shows this mainly by teaching us to call God Father when we pray to him. The prayer in verse 2 begins, simply, "Father." And then in verses 11–13 he unpacks for us some of the security implied in this word, Father. This is the second promise to encourage us in our praying.
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
The words "how much more" mean something utterly crucial for us. They mean that God is much more inclined to hear us and help us when we pray than earthly fathers are. Why does Jesus talk this way? Surely, its because he means for us to feel secure in the Father's love when we come to him in prayer. He does not want us to feel precarious or unsure of our acceptance or fearful that we will find the Father out of sorts or unconcerned.
This sense of security is utterly crucial in the life of prayer and the life of worship. You can't sustain a life of prayer if you believe God is stonewalling you or angry with you or even neutral to you. Prayer is sustained by the confidence that God is our Father and that he is concerned and that his disposition is just what Jesus says it is: he is MORE inclined to give what we need than the best human father is. That's the promise. And the direction is: pray with a sense of security in the Father's love.
3. Prevailing Without Doubting the Father's Love
Jesus teaches us to prevail in prayer without doubting the Father's love.
By prevailing I mean hanging in there. Persevering. Persisting. Not giving up. Keeping on asking and seeking and knocking at heaven's door until the answer comes, or until God says, Stop praying.
Is This Really an Encouragement to Pray?
Now I know that the direction to prevail feels inconsistent with the direction to feel secure in the love of the Father. We are prone to ask, "If God is more caring than the best earthly father, then why would he sometimes be slow to respond to our prayer?"
But please notice: it wasn't my decision to put these two things beside each other. Jesus did it, not me. He tells the story in verses 5–8 of the man who goes to his friend's house in the middle of the night to say that a guest just arrived and there isn't enough in the house to feed him; could you please get up and lend me three loaves of bread? The man says that the door is locked, the children are asleep in his room, don't bother me now.
But his friend keeps knocking and asking until the man gets up, not because of his friendship, but because of the man's prevailing, persisting, persevering knocking. We all feel that this is a very unattractive image of the transaction of prayer.
Stressing the Importance of Prevailing Prayer
But immediately (in verse 9) Jesus says that there is a lesson to learn: "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you." Three things here stress the importance of prevailing, not giving up in, prayer. One is the tense of the verbs in Greek: present tense is continuous action; keep on asking, etc. The second is the fact that Jesus commands this continuous action three times (and repeats these three words in verse 10). The third thing that stresses prevailing is that the three words used get increasingly close to the answer and show a pressing in on God: Asking (as it were, for the house), seeking (until we find it), then knocking (until the door is open). Asking is the simplest and requires no movement. Seeking turns asking into an activity of pursuit. Knocking on and on at the door again and again signifies utter earnestness and perhaps even desperation.
So Jesus clearly wants us to be like this friend who kept knocking. He wants us to prevail in prayer. But then he makes a sudden turn in verse 11 and shifts from the image of a grumpy friend to the image of a caring Father.
What's the Point of This Section?
So what's the point of the whole section? The point is to show us that prevailing prayer—persisting, persevering prayer—is utterly important for us. And he stamps this truth on our memories with a shocking image of a friend who won't help without being bothered into helping. But then Jesus qualifies his point in verses 11–13 by saying that God is NOT like that friend. He is like the most caring Father imaginable.
So: yes, God sometimes gives us what we need only after a long season of prevailing and persisting in prayer. But, no, it is not because he is uncaring or insensitive or unable. Why then does he postpone the answer? Jesus does not tell us directly. But he does tell us indirectly.
Why Does God Sometimes Postpone Answering?
He says in verse 11 that a good father will not give his son a serpent if he asks for a fish. In other words, a good father will only give his children what is good for them. This is the only answer Jesus gives to our question in this text: when the Father in heaven gives us a slow answer—when he wills that we prevail for a season—it is because he is giving us a fish and not a serpent. He is giving us what is good for us. There is something in the prevailing—the asking and seeking and knocking—that we need, that is good for us. And he knows best.
The promise that will encourage us in prevailing prayer is simply verse 10: "Every one who goes on asking receives; and he who goes on seeking finds; and to him who goes on knocking it will be opened." God is not unresponsive to prevailing prayer.
4. A Prevailing for the Holy Spirit
The final direction that Jesus gives—the one we close this message with and the one we close the year with in this pulpit—is in a sense a circling back to the first point of God-centeredness. It has been the heartbeat of my life this year. And if I understand Jesus here, he means for it to be the prevailing heartbeat of our life as a church for the coming year.
Jesus teaches in verse 13 that our prevailing in prayer should be a prevailing for the Holy Spirit.
"If you then who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
It is no accident that Luke tells us in Luke 3:21f. that while Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. Or that the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost came as the climax of a ten-day prayer vigil. Or (in Acts 4:31) that when the church had prayed, the place where they gathered was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Prevailing prayer is the pathway to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
And lest you think God is distant from you, and inattentive to you when the Spirit tarries, listen to this encouragement. When you prevail in prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, more is happening in your life through this prevailing prayer than you would ever imagine. God waits because our prevailing is good for us. May the Lord forbid that we would lose heart and fail in the very thing needful: mighty prevailing prayer.
Let Us Prevail in Prayer
So let us enter this week of prayer and the new year of 1991 with God-centered prayer, with a sense of security in the fatherly care of God, with a new resolve to prevail and persist in prayer without doubting God's love. And let us prevail specifically in praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—his power, his gifts, his fullest blessing—all the while rejoicing that the prevailing itself is a great work of the indwelling Spirit of the living God.
We prevail with men by importunity because they are displeased with it, but with God because he is pleased with it. (Matthew Henry)
Upon your wall, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth. (Isaiah 62:6–7)
And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart . . . And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? (Luke 18:1, 7)