The thing that I want to accomplish this morning by the Spirit and the Word of God is to stir you up to pray earnestly in the weeks ahead for me as your pastor, for Glenn Ogren as he comes, and for the whole ministry of the gospel as we all strive, with the strength of God, to enlarge and purify the body of Christ in this place. "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain" (Psalm 127:1).
We can work our heads off and have countless meetings and go through the motions of worship, but if God isn't in it, it will be hollow and merely human with no divine spiritual life or power in it. And there are few things more fearful to me than the specter of a church running on the momentum of tradition and habit when the power has been severed. Like a train full of people enjoying the scenery, but coasting to a stop in the desert because the locomotive has been disengaged and has disappeared over the horizon. Earnest, heartfelt prayer is the means by which we couple ourselves to the locomotive of God's power.
Connected to the Locomotive of God's Power
Didn't Jesus say, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5)? But, O, how easily a church can become deceived that, even though it is not praying, its activities are something, when in fact Jesus says they are nothing. O, how grateful I am that Bethlehem is not severed from her power; the locomotive is hitched, the sap is flowing. Dozens of people tell me that they are in prayer for this ministry. And so I have good reason to believe that it will not be said of Bethlehem what Paul said to a group at Colossae:
They are not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments grows with a growth that is from God. (Colossians 2:19)
I believe we will hold fast to our Head, Jesus Christ. And my message this morning is aimed to kindle that very thing: a spreading flame of prayer, and not only prayer, group prayer. O, may the Spirit of God, who teaches us how to pray, put it into your hearts this morning to crave God in prayer in 1981, and to join us this Wednesday night at 7:15 here at the church and this Thursday night at 8:00 in one of the homes designated in the bulletin. History proves beyond doubt that the way God effects revival, spiritual power, joy in worship, the healing of animosities, and zeal for outreach is by putting a burden for prayer upon a congregation and then pouring out blessing in response to their pleas. God give us such a burden!
Bringing Paul to the Point of Death
In 2 Corinthians 1:8–11 Paul tells the church at Corinth about his unbearable experience in Asia and what God's purpose was in it and what he anticipates in the future because of it.
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us in answer to many prayers.
It is clear from verses 9 and 10 that God had two purposes for bringing Paul to a point where he was unbearably crushed. First, he says in verse 9, "that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead." In other words, God brought Paul so close to death that there could be no more hope in this life but only in the resurrection. And his aim was to put an end to self-confidence in Paul—to make Paul feel that in the things that really count man is of no help; only God is. Suffering is intended by God to bring to our attention and make us feel what is true all the time, namely, that we are finite creatures absolutely dependent on God for absolutely everything. God's will is that we know it, feel it, and live like it. That is his first purpose in bringing Paul into unbearable circumstances.
His second purpose is mentioned in verse 10: "He delivered us from so deadly a peril and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again." In Paul's case God aimed to deliver him after he had purged him of self-confidence. And so Paul is moved to have hope in God not only for resurrection after death, but also to hope in him for deliverance from death. Having taught Paul that he need not be delivered from death in order to trust in God since God raises the dead, nevertheless, God does deliver Paul from death. And so Paul is encouraged that God must yet have things for him to do, and he is hopeful that God will go on preserving him for those things.
God's Aims in Adversity
There is a great lesson to be learned here that will help us so much to understand what God is doing in our daily lives and that will help us pray about our circumstances as we ought to. The lesson is this: God always aims to glorify himself in one or both of these ways in our experience of adversity. He always aims to wean us away from relying or trusting or hoping in any help but him alone. Adversity by its very nature is the removal of things on which our comfort and hope have rested and so it will either result in anger toward God or greater reliance on him alone for our peace. And his purpose for us in adversity is not that we get angry or discouraged, but that our hope shift off earthly things onto God. God's main purpose in all adversity is to make us stop trusting in ourselves or any man. The word resounds through the Old Testament:
Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes the flesh his arm, whose heart turns away from the Lord. (Jeremiah 17:5)
Put not your trust in princes, in the son of man in whom there is no hope. (Psalm 146:3)
Turn away from man in whose nostrils is breath, for what account is he? (Isaiah 2:22)
A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save. Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love. (Psalm 33:16–18)
The horse is made ready for the day of battle but the victory belongs to the Lord. (Proverbs 21:31, cf: 19:21; Psalm 60:11)
The whole Bible wants to teach us the lesson of 2 Corinthians 1:9: Don't pin your hopes on man or anything this world can offer. Look to God for your hope, your joy, your fulfillment, even in death, for he is the God who raises the dead. If we trust him like that, he will be greatly glorified, and that is his first purpose in our adversity.
But the second half of the lesson here is that God often glorifies himself by delivering from death those whom he has taught not to fear death. God receives praise when his people die in peace, trusting him. And God receives praise when he delivers his people from death. Which he shall choose lies in his secret counsels and whether he has more work for us to do. Five seconds before the VW van hit the front of the bus in which my mother was killed, my father, who was sitting beside her in the front seat, stood up from the seat beside her and turned to speak to the touring group. And when the van hit, the lumber on its roof came like rockets through the windows, killing my mother instantly, but not my father, because seconds before, he had stood up. And ten days later as I rode in the ambulance with him from Atlanta to Greenville he said, "God must have a job for me to do." That was the answer. God's purpose for my mother's ministry on this earth was finished, but my dad's wasn't. So he raised him out of that seat and delivered him from death.
And he will deliver him for his evangelistic work until his purpose is complete. I give one other example. My father was away from home in a crusade and was eating in a restaurant by himself. All of a sudden he sucked a piece of gristle into his windpipe and couldn't breathe at all. It was lodged so solid and he was so alone that he knew he was a goner. Without thinking he ran toward the restroom. And just before he got to the door a complete stranger stood up and hit him with a tremendous whack in the middle of the back, and it came out. My father lay down on the restroom floor faint, and when he recovered, the man was gone. But I praise God that he put it in that man to hit my dad and deliver him from death. So God brings us into adversity to glorify himself by making us hope more fully in him and then by delivering from that very adversity until his purpose for us here is done.
From Affliction to Praise
But now, having told the Corinthians in verses 9 and 10 what God's purposes were in his unbearable affliction, he calls on the church in verse 11 to pray for him that those purposes might in fact come about. I've come to see in this verse what I call "the line of prayer." And the more I meditate on it, the more insight it unlocks. Paul says, "You also must help us by prayer so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted to us in answer to many prayers." I read that sentence over and over again and could not get the gist of it until I drew it on paper. And this drawing of verse 11 is what you have in your worship folder (see page 1). Follow with me "the line of prayer" in this verse.
It begins in the heart of Paul. He feels a need for help in his life—to rely more on God and to be delivered from the many people who were against him in his ministry. So he sends out a line of appeal to the Corinthians: "Please help us by prayer." That is stage 1 in the line of prayer: a request by Paul to the Corinthians.
Then the line of prayer curves up through the hearts of the Corinthians as they respond to Paul's plea and send up their prayers for Paul to God. Paul asks for prayer and so the Corinthians pray. That's stage 2 in the line of prayer.
Then the line of prayer enters the heart of God, and in response to the many prayers of the Corinthians, he gives a gift or a blessing to Paul. In this case the blessing is probably deliverance from some peril or threat as well as the ability to rely fully on God through trial. This answer of God to the Corinthians' prayers is stage 3 in the line of prayer. "Please help us by prayer," stage 1. Many Corinthians pray for Paul, stage 2. God answers their prayers, stage 3.
And now, just as many heard that Paul had a need, so also many see that, in response to many prayers, God has met Paul's need. People are awake to God's working and are aware of his gifts to Paul. That is stage 4 in the line of prayer.
In response to what they have seen, these people turn their faces to God and give him thanks for blessing Paul in such a remarkable way in answer to so many prayers. And so the line of prayer curves up through their grateful hearts toward God again. So stage 5 in the line of prayer is that God is thanked on behalf of Paul for the blessing granted to him in answer to many prayers.
There the text stops—with God being thanked by his people for his gracious answer to many prayers. But I have added a 6th stage with a dotted line which I think is necessarily implied. The very fact that Paul tries to motivate the Corinthians to pray for him by showing them that this will result in God being thanked by many people indicates that Paul delights in the thought of God being thanked. This is what he lives for, that many people will glorify God through genuine gratitude. So stage 6 of the line of prayer is the joy that comes back to Paul when he sees God glorified in the praises of his people.
So that is the line of prayer that emerges in 2 Corinthians 1:11. I'll sum it up. Paul has just come through an unbearable crisis and God has delivered him and in the process taught him to rely less on self and more on God. But now Paul faces new threats. (He said in Acts 20:23, "The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.") So he sends out a plea for help to the Corinthians: "Pray for me that my faith fail not and that God deliver me." The Corinthians, in love to Paul and confidence in God, call out to God: "Lord, grant that your servant Paul be faithful to the end and save him, O God, from the violent opponents at Thessalonica and Berea and bring him to us and on to Jerusalem in safety!" And God hears their prayers and pours his Spirit into Paul to increase his faith, and he turns events again and again to save Paul until his ministry is complete. And then the Corinthians and all the others who know that prayers were being sent up on Paul's behalf see God's mercy in his life and faith, and they turn to God with a song: "Praise be to God who always leads Paul in triumph and spreads the fragrance of the gospel everywhere through him!"
Public, Corporate Prayer
There are more lessons for us in this line of prayer than I can mention this morning. But I will mention two. First, there is an answer here to the question, "Why should we pray publicly and corporately and not just privately?" Why does Paul not simply pray for himself instead of soliciting the prayers of so many others on his behalf? Why might God be more inclined to answer the prayers of many than the prayers of one? According to our text, the thing that is different when many prayers are ascending is that the stage is being set for lots and lots of thanks to God for the answer to these prayers. The more people there are earnestly praying for some blessing of God, the more thanksgiving will ascend when the blessing comes. Paul's argument is very simply, "You must help us by prayer so that many will give thanks when the prayers of many are answered."
The reason for praying is so that God will be thanked when the blessings come. And God loves to be thanked. He loves to be acknowledged and praised as the giver of all good gifts. His great goal in history from beginning to end is to be glorified as the source of all blessing. Therefore, when we urge many people to pray for something that we need, we create a situation in which the provision of that need will produce many thanksgivings to God. And in that way we tap into a tremendous incentive that God has, namely, to glorify himself by winning the gratitude of many people. God loves to be thanked by many people. Therefore, there is a power in church-wide prayer, because the more people there are praying for the spiritual life of our church, the more thanksgiving will ascend to God when he gives it.
This same line of reasoning, which is taken straight out of 2 Corinthians 1:11, should also move us to pray in groups. Picture these two possibilities. There are a dozen people each praying privately for Paul's deliverance, say, from prison in Philippi. God delivers him, and each of the twelve hears about it and gives thanks alone. That would be great, and God would be honored. But what if those dozen people had met together, like the disciples did in Acts 12:12 to pray for Peter's release from prison, and then the word came of God's answer to their prayer? Would not their togetherness heighten their joy of thanksgiving? It is human nature to feel gratitude more intensely when somebody you love is having the same experience with you. When you and I experience a blessing that we have asked for together, your thanksgiving makes mine greater. First, I see the blessing of God in answer to many prayers, and then I look around and I see it again reflected and magnified in many grateful faces, and so my own gratitude is deepened and heightened by the group which prayed together and rejoiced together. And since God loves deepened and heightened gratitude, it is sure that if we pray earnestly in groups, we are putting ourselves in a position for great spiritual blessing from the Lord.
Put Not Your Trust in Men
The second and last lesson I want to mention from the line of prayer this morning is this: Paul sought help for himself from the Corinthians and the way he sought their help was to ask for their prayer. He had learned his lesson well, hadn't he? "Put not your trust in men." What can men do? They can pray to God for whom nothing is impossible. So Paul appeals to men to do the most valuable things they could do to help him, namely, ask God to help him.
And so I begin this year with a plea to you for myself. You must help me by prayer, or I will not make it. And you should include Glenn Ogren here, too. I have just begun to feel the weight of the responsibility of the spiritual welfare of this church, and it frightens me, for it is immense. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul lists his hardships as an apostle, and then he adds with tremendous feeling this word in verse 28: "And apart from other things there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches." There was a Scottish pastor named John Welch who used to keep a blanket on his bed to wrap himself in when he rose during the night to pray. Sometimes his wife found him on the floor weeping. When she complained, he would say, "O, woman! I have the souls of three thousand to answer for, and I know not how it is with many of them!"
Would you all please resolve to help me by prayer in 1981? Pray that I might learn to rely only on God, that I might be delivered from evil, that I might hear the Word of God daily and deliver it to you with life-changing power, that I might do the work of an evangelist and see hundreds won to Christ, and that I might have vision for our future and the wisdom to equip you, the saints, for the work of the ministry. And I promise to pray for you.
Remember, as it says on your bulletin insert, it is beyond our imagination what mighty works of salvation and harmony and growth God may perform at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1981 if we gather in Jesus' name and plead for his power. Let's do it this week at one of these five homes listed here.