We go to school to learn. And when it comes to prayer, we sometimes need to be enrolled in the school of prayer — God’s school of prayer. And that school of prayer is described for us in the Old Testament, in a book we don’t go to very often: the book of Zechariah. It is there that we find a key text in John Piper’s understanding of how we learn to pray: Zechariah 13:8–9, a text never mentioned on this podcast — until today. Here he is to explain the importance of this text in a sermon he preached to his church in the final days of 2008, looking ahead to the new year of 2009. Here’s Pastor John.
Okay, Zechariah. Do you know where that book is? Second-from-the-last book of the Old Testament. If you go to the end of the Old Testament and flip back about four pages, you’ll be there. Zechariah 13:8–9, and we’ll wrap it up here with this. What did I get hit with in Zechariah that gave this message the twist it’s now getting on prayer? I don’t think I’d ever seen this before.
Refined by Fire
This is a couple of verses about God’s school of prayer. If you’re not praying the way you should, then probably he’s going to sign you up for this. Let’s start at verse 8: “In the whole land, declares the Lord, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive.” So stop there. Don’t worry about when this happens in history right now. Just leave that one aside. Just look at how God works.
He takes the whole, and two-thirds of them perish. They get wiped out. God saves a third. So you’re in that third if you’re a Christian. Symbolically, you’re in that third. God’s remnant — faithful, imperfect, weak, lousy pray-ers — he saved them.
What’s God’s remedy for their weaknesses? What’s his school of prayer? Verse 9: “And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.” Now notice carefully what’s happening, because this is surprising. In his great love, he rescues them from the whole and he includes them in his elect third (symbolically third). He’s got a third, and he loves them. He saved them. He didn’t let them perish. And then he takes his loved ones, his cherished, the apples of his eye, and he puts them in the fire.
“God rescues us from the flames of hell and puts us into refining flames.”
Why? Now, this is normal Christianity. Do you think, “Well, that’s the Old Testament; he doesn’t do that anymore”? Listen to 1 Peter 4:12: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” That’s crystal clear. This is normal, not strange, Christianity. God rescues us from hell and puts us in fire. Got that? That is normal Christianity. God rescues us from the flames of hell and puts us into refining flames. Why?
School of Earnest Prayer
Now I don’t want all the answers from all over the Bible. I just want the answer from verse 9 — and it’s crystal clear, and it’s simple, and narrow, and small, and big, and huge, and glorious. It’s about prayer. So let’s finish reading verse 9: “I will . . . test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them.” That’s all. Nothing about getting their sex lives burned clean, nothing about getting their money mismanagement burned clean, nothing about getting their power struggles and relational mess-ups fixed. Just this: “Then they’ll call on me, and I’ll answer.”
God puts us in the fire to awaken earnest prayer. This is a plea now. I’m pleading with you. This verse is in the Bible to help this plea that I’m about to make to you come true. I can’t make it come true. This verse — by God’s grace, with his power — can make this come true. I plead with you not to be among the number who gets sent to this school, which is designed to awaken prayer, and the school becomes the very reason you abandon prayer.
“God puts us in the fire to awaken earnest prayer.”
Thousands go to this school and turn on prayer. “If he treats me like this, I’m not going to ask him for anything, because I asked him to keep me out of this, and he didn’t do it.” The very school designed to produce depth, trust, and God-focused, man-diminishing, worshipful prayer is turned on its head, and the school is hated. I’m pleading with you: this verse is in the Bible to help that not happen. That’s why it’s here, so that when you look around you, and the flames are burning, and you wonder, “God, what’s up?” — this is up. This is up. Don’t teach him how to teach. Submit.
Enfeebled by Prosperity
Let me close with a quote from John Calvin. I read Calvin on this text, because next year is his five hundredth birthday, so I’m poking in Calvin a lot these days. This is what he said, and it’s more true today than it was when he wrote it: “It is therefore necessary that we should be subject from first to last to the scourges of God [the fire] in order that we may, from the heart, call on him, for our hearts are enfeebled by prosperity, so that we cannot make an effort to pray.”
If that’s not the American church, I don’t know what is. We are enfeebled by prosperity so that we can scarcely make the effort to pray, because so many other good things, prosperous things, right things, fill our powerless lives.
So would you resolve with me that this simply will not happen to you in 2009 — “this” meaning that our hearts are enfeebled by prosperity so that we cannot make the effort to pray? Would you resolve with me that that’s not going to happen? I’m not going to let that happen, whatever it takes. I’m not going to be enfeebled by my prosperity. I will put in place whatever it takes.
May the Lord be gentle with us in the fires of 2009, because they will come. I hope you don’t turn on him when they come.