Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Today is the beginning of prayer week. Why do we have a week of concerted prayer at the turn of each year? We do it to make a statement as a church—a statement to God, to the world, and to our own consciences—that we exist as a church to do things that we cannot do without the special, supernatural grace of God. Prayer week proclaims: Bethlehem exists mainly to do the humanly impossible.
Most of what you see happening at Bethlehem can happen without that special, supernatural grace. Common grace—the general providence of God—that sustains our bodies, and minds, and wills, and the whole of nature itself, is enough to account for preaching and teaching and singing and evangelism and missions. But that is not why we exist.
We Exist to Do Things That Can't Be Done without God's Special, Supernatural Grace
- We don't exist to preach, but to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit so that people are supernaturally awakened from unbelief and changed beyond what any human could cause.
- We don't exist to teach Sunday school, but to teach in the power of the Holy Spirit so that children and young people and adults are supernaturally converted and built up in faith and love beyond what any human could cause.
- We don't exist to sing, but to sing in the power of the Holy Spirit because the affections of our hearts are supernaturally illumined, and the glory of Christ is seen and savored beyond what any human or any music could cause.
- We don't exist to do evangelism and missions, but to do evangelism and missions in the power of the Holy Spirit so that hard, unbelieving hearts would be supernaturally changed into soft, believing hearts.
And the list could go on and on. Do you see this? Are we in agreement on this, Bethlehem ? We are not a club. We are not a mere social organization. We are not a weekly pep rally. We are a covenant band of saved sinners who have been supernaturally converted from unbelief to belief in Jesus as our God and our Savior and our Treasure. We are a people in whom the Spirit of the living Christ mercifully dwells. Romans 8:9, “ Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
Therefore, everything we aim to accomplish as a church is impossible without God's special, supernatural action. From the making of a meal on Wednesday night, to the changing of a diaper in the nursery, to the preaching of a sermon—our aim in all of it do it by the grace that God supplies so that in everything he gets the glory. And that is impossible without God's special, supernatural grace.
We make this clear—we declare this and show this—by having a week of concerted prayer at the turn of each year. I hope we demonstrate it all year long by the way we pray. But once a year, at least, we lift the banner high and say, we exist to do things that we cannot do without the special, supernatural grace of God.
And the reason a prayer week shows this is that God has designed and ordained and planned and promised that he will act for us when we pray. God has promised to do for us things we cannot do our ourselves when we pray—that is, when we get on our faces before God and confess our sins, and give thanks for his grace, and lift up the cup of salvation, and plead for him to fill it with supernatural blessings for the needs in our lives and families and church and business and city and nation and world.
Is it not breathtaking to hear Jesus say, “ Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Isn't it breathtaking to hear his brother James say, “ You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2)! Or to put it positively, “If you had asked, God would have acted to meet your need.” This is astonishing: God acts in response to prayer. The all-knowing, all-foreseeing, all-planning, all-governing God wills for your Christ-exalting prayers to be the occasion of his action.
This is why prayer week makes the statement that we exist to do things that we cannot do without the special, supernatural grace of God—because God planned and promised that he would do these things in answer to prayer . So when we plan to pray in a concerted way, we are saying: the special, supernatural action of God is essential in the life of this church and the life of our mission.
Think about this in relation to our mission as a church. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ . If that's why we exist, then our success in this is utterly dependent on the special, supernatural work of God. Nobody has a passion for God's supremacy in all things for Christ's sake without a supernatural conversion. Try and see what you can do to make a person with no spiritual interest have a joyful, Christ-exalting passion for God's supremacy in all things. Only God can do this. That is why we pray without ceasing. That is why we declare this loudly with a week of concerted prayer.
God Will Complete His Saving Purposes By Prayer!
God does not intend to complete his saving purposes in the world without prayer. He will complete these purposes! That is crystal clear in the Bible. And he will do it by prayer . That is also crystal clear.
Listen to Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:1, “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” In other words, the word of God came to you, and by God's sovereign grace you heard it for what it really is, the word of God, and you believed, and you forsook your idols, and you are eagerly waiting for the coming of Jesus to deliver you from the wrath to come, and you are living lives of love. That's what happens when the word of God “speeds ahead and is honored”. And Paul says, Pray, that it may happen!
Why would he say that? Because the advance of God's saving power in the world happens in response to prayer. God will see to it that there are praying churches, because he means to get the job done. If prayer is a means to an absolutely certain end, then God will see to it, with absolute certainty, that the means come to pass. He will see to it that there are praying churches, that the word might “speed on and be honored.”
My desire and my prayer is that we will be one of them—that we would not be passed over and left with our fatal human successes.
Philippians 4:6-7: By Prayer and Supplication with Gratitude
If there were time, I would love to do an extended exposition of Philippians 4:6-7. But I simply want to read it, make a brief comment, then stand on it, and trust the Lord to apply it to your life as I unfold the vision that I have for Bethlehem as a praying church. So let's read it.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The effect of faithful prayer here is stated first negatively, then positively. Negatively: “Don't be anxious about anything.” Positively: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul promises that a life of faithful, Christ-dependent, Christ-exalting prayer will be a life protected from anxiety (and its many sinful fruits) by God's peace.
If you want victory over worry and you want to have the steady enjoyment of God's peace, then here is Paul's prescription: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Don't miss the words “in everything.”In everything . . . let your requests be made known to God.” Pray about everything. Stay in a mindset of prayer all day. Don't just pray in crises. Pray about everything—that whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do you would glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31 ). The most crucial prayer for every situation and action is: “Hallowed by Thy name (Matthew 6:9).
How shall we do this? Paul uses three words. In everything “ by prayer ”—that's the broad word of spiritual devotion, including different kinds of prayer. And “ supplication ”—that's the narrow word that focuses on the kind of prayer, namely, asking for help. “ With thanksgiving ”—that's the humble, non-demanding mindset that flavors all of prayer. Making requests thankfully means that we will be content and thankful with whatever God wisely and lovingly gives us. And we know that he will hear our prayer and wisely and lovingly give us what's best for us.
When we let our requests be made known to God like this—in the devotion of prayer, in many specific requests for help, with a heart that is thankful for everything God designs for us, the pleasures and the pain—then his peace will guard our minds and free us from anxiety in a way that defies mere rational explanation; it surpasses all understanding.
Oh, that the Lord might make you feel the joy and the wonder and the power and privilege and the peace of a life of prayer!
My Dream for the Prayer Life of Bethlehem
I close with a sketch of a dream or a vision of what prayer might look like at Bethlehem if we were increasingly gripped by this great privilege.
1. Jesus said in Matthew 6:6, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” So I dream of Bethlehem with thousands of people daily finding a secluded place and time for personal communion with God, confessing sins, thanking God for blessings, praising him for his perfections, asking for help in your life, and interceding earnestly for others. Every day in your solitary place and time.
2. The apostle Peter said 1 Peter 3:7, “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” So I dream of a Bethlehem with hundreds of married couples on their knees together, not with the children at meals or for family devotions, but just the two of you praying out loud together for each other's holiness, and for your marriage, and for your children, and your church, and your neighbors, and our missionaries, and the advance of God's saving power in the world.
3. And since the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers . . . bring . . . up [your children] in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” I dream of a Bethlehem with hundreds of families where every day not just at meal time but in the morning, or in the evening, or both, the children are gathered and the word of God is read and everyone prays so that the smallest children learn from the earliest times: prayer is an essential part of my parents' lives and our life as a family. We exist to do things that can't be done without God's special, supernatural grace. And all the while they are learning how to pray.
4. Since James, the brother of Jesus, said in James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed,” I dream of a Bethlehem with hundreds of small groups and hundreds of deep friendships where people are praying for each other—hands on prayer for healing, for reconciliation, for lost loved ones, for seemingly intractable sin, for endurance in faith, and where groups and friends are uniting to pray for a cause together, and where the mission of the church is carried in prayer.
5. And since the twelve apostles said in Acts 6:4, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” I dream of a Bethlehem where all staff meetings and all Elder Council meetings and all committee meetings and task force meetings and planning meetings do not just hurry into human discussion with an opening prayer, but linger with the Lord in a season of prayer and soak the meeting in prayer and then return to prayer during the meeting, so that the way the work of the meetings is done is by prayer.
6. And it is clear that the Bible expects us to pray out loud together as a church and not just in solitude. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:16, “If you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen' to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.” In other words, God means for us to pray sometimes so that others can hear us and say “Amen” to our prayers and can be built up in faith by hearing what we pray.
Therefore, I dream of a Bethlehem with prayer meetings each morning of the week and Wednesday nights, that many more people attend so that they can build each other up in prayer and speak to God together and not just in isolation. I dream of special nights of prayer (like this Wednesday) and mornings of prayer (like the first Sunday Sunrise prayer) and the prayer meeting we call the first Tuesday fasts ? not with dozens but hundreds praying.
7. And finally, since the essence of worship is vertical communion with God (Matthew 15:8-9), I dream of worship services in which everyone is radically, deeply, joyfully, authentically engaged with God in prayer all through the entire service—praying as you come, praying as you sing, praying as you listen, praying as you go. Worship is nothing if it is not the engagement of the heart and mind in prayer to God, confessing, thanking, praising, pleading. Oh, that thousands of people in corporate worship would not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And set you free to seek the kingdom first.