Put in the Fire for the Sake of Prayer
My preparations for this message took a surprising turn. It is the first Sunday of prayer week. So as I have done for over 25 years, I set myself to preach about prayer. Since we are in a series on the Gospel of John, I resolved to preach on prayer from John. What I did not anticipate was the effect of reading the prophet Zechariah as I finished my read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year program. It was very powerful and very relevant.
So what you are going to hear is John’s portrait of prayer with a Zechariah twist at the end. My title for the message is “Put in the Fire for the Sake of Prayer.” I pray that the overall effect will be to make us earnest and serious and disciplined and joyful and Christ-dependent and God-glorifying in our prayer during 2009.
Prayer in John’s Gospel
So, first, let’s sketch part of the picture that John gives us about prayer. He deals with our praying mainly in three places. I’ll read them with you, and then sketch some of the picture that emerges.
“Prayer exists, like everything else, to show that God is supremely glorious.”
John 14:13–14: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
John 15:7–8, 16: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples . . . . You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
John 16:23–24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
1. That the Father May Be Glorified in the Son
In John 14:13–14, Jesus connects our praying with the glory of God, and with his own role as the Mediator between God and us. Verse 13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
In the Name and for His Glory
Notice, first, that we pray in Jesus’s name. The reason we pray in Jesus’s name (and not our own) is because we have no rights to anything good from God apart from what Jesus has done for us in taking away our sins (John 1:29) and in providing us a robe of righteousness (Revelation 7:14) that God finds acceptable. We are accepted in God’s presence only because of Christ. We can only come to God through Christ. He is the only Mediator. That is true for salvation. And it remains true for supplication.
Second, notice that God is glorified in answering our prayer. “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” When Jesus says, that the aim of all prayer is that God, the Giver, might be glorified in Jesus, the Mediator, he puts prayer in a radically God-centered context. That explains why he does not need to qualify the word whatever. The glory of God qualifies whatever.
How Extensive Is the Whatever?
“Whatever you ask . . .” God will do. We all wonder how extensive that whatever is. If we make it absolute, we deny that the glory of God is the aim of prayer. Why is that? Because we can all think of prayers that do not glorify God. If God answered them, he would not be glorified. He would be discredited and dishonored. For example: “God, please, make me more important than yourself.” “God, please wipe the Jewish people off the planet — or black people, or white people.”
Choose your hatred, and ask God to support you in it. “God, please make pornography a godly thing to look at once a week.” “God, blind the IRS to all the times I have lied on my tax returns.” “God, please put my competitor out of business.”
When Jesus says, “Whatever you ask . . .” the whatever is qualified by the end of the verse: “that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” Prayer exists, like everything else, to show that God is supremely glorious. Therefore, any prayer that does not imply “Hallowed be thy name” as the main desire has no claim on this verse.
2. That We May Bear Much Fruit
Then comes John 15:7–8: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Here the qualification is explicit: “If you abide in me and my words abide in you” — that’s the qualification. Then your prayers are heard.
And this is not an all-or-nothing statement, but a matter of varying degrees. In other words, no one is ever so completely full of Christ’s words that every request they make always accords with God’s will. But there are degrees. You are more or less saturated with the word of Christ, and more or less in tune with God’s will when you pray.
Then verse 8 links the praying of verse 7 with the glory of God through fruit-bearing: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” It seems that the answered prayers of verse 7 are prayers that mainly have to do with fruit-bearing. “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit.”
Mission: Enjoy Answered Prayers
This connection is powerfully reinforced in verse 16. You have to read it carefully and watch the connections: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” So far, he says that he chose his disciples to go and bear fruit. That’s their mission — go and change people so that they believe on Christ and become loving people, people who join you in bearing the fruit of the Spirit.
Then he adds at the end of verse 16 the reason they were given this mission: “so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” This is amazing. You are chosen for a mission of fruit-bearing . . . so that the Father would answer your prayers. Go bear fruit “so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” You have a mission so that you may enjoy having your prayers answered.
Prayer: A Wartime Walkie-Talkie
This is where I get the image that prayer is a wartime walkie-talkie, not a domestic intercom. It exists for advancing the mission, not for calling the butler to turn up the thermostat. Not that God is opposed to practical, nitty-gritty daily prayers. He simply wants all of them to relate to the mission of your life — that his name be glorified, that people live for fruitful ministry.
That’s why the first petition in the Lord’s prayer is “Hallowed be thy name,” and the second is “Bring your kingdom,” and third is “Cause your will to happen here the way the angels do it in heaven” — and only now, under this mission, comes the fourth petition “Give us this day our daily bread.”
“Prayer is a wartime walkie-talkie, not a domestic intercom.”
So Jesus says that our prayers get answered in proportion to the way the word of Christ is shaping our requests according to God’s will (see 1 John 5:14), and that prayer exists for the glory of God, and that prayer is a wartime walkie-talkie, not a domestic intercom. All requests serve the mission, or the thing malfunctions in our hand.
3. That Our Joy May Be Full
Third, John brings in another great purpose of prayer — our joy. John 16:23–24:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
Everything we have said so far applies here — only here Jesus says that God answers prayer “that your joy may be full.” How do the aim of prayer to glorify God and the aim of prayer to bring us joy fit together? They fit together because if we find our joy in seeing God’s glory and in the manifestation of that glory for others to see, then when he is glorified, we will be glad. And when we are glad in his glory, he is glorified all the more.
So in all of these three texts, Jesus is calling us to serious, joyful, Christ-dependent, God-glorifying prayer in 2009. So I am joining him in that call. Would you set your heart to pray more earnestly and more seriously and more joyfully and with greater discipline in 2009 as you put your faith in your Mediator, Jesus Christ, and seek to exalt God as glorious in your life?
I have three practical suggestions. First, set aside a set time each day, and don’t leave prayer to chance. Second, I suggest you combine it with reading the Bible and that you take what you find in the Bible and turn it into prayer. Third, I suggest that you pray in concentric circles and make the aim of each circle the glory of God. You can work from outside in, or from inside out. For example, pray for your own soul, then for your family, then for your friends and colleagues, then for your church, then for wider ministries and the global mission of Christ, and then for the political leaders of the land. And let what you ask be at least partly shaped by what you just read in the Bible.
But the hard truth is that most Christians don’t pray very much. They pray at meals — unless they’re still stuck in the adolescent stage of calling good habits legalism. They whisper prayers before tough meetings. They say something brief as they crawl into bed. But very few set aside set times to pray alone — and fewer still think it is worth it to meet with others to pray. And we wonder why our faith is weak. And our hope is feeble. And our passion for Christ is small.
The Duty of Prayer
And meanwhile the devil is whispering all over this room: “The pastor is getting legalistic now. He’s starting to use guilt now. He’s getting out the law now.” To which I say, “To hell with the devil and all of his destructive lies. Be free!” Is it true that intentional, regular, disciplined, earnest, Christ-dependent, God-glorifying, joyful prayer is a duty? Do I go to pray with many of you on Tuesday at 6:30 am, and Wednesday at 5:45 pm, and Friday at 6:30 am, and Saturday at 4:45 pm, and Sunday at 8:15 am out of duty? Is it a discipline?
You can call it that. It’s a duty the way it’s the duty of a scuba diver to put on his air tank before he goes underwater. It’s a duty the way pilots listen to air traffic controllers. It’s a duty the way soldiers in combat clean their rifles and load their guns. It’s a duty the way hungry people eat food. It’s a duty the way thirsty people drink water. It’s a duty the way a deaf man puts in his hearing aid. It’s a duty the way a diabetic takes his insulin. It’s a duty the way Pooh Bear looks for honey. It’s a duty the way pirates look for gold.
Means of Grace: Gift of God
I hate the devil, and the way he is killing some of you by persuading you it is legalistic to be as regular in your prayers as you are in your eating and sleeping and Internet use. Do you not see what a sucker he his making out of you? He is laughing up his sleeve at how easy it is to deceive Christians about the importance of prayer.
God has given us means of grace. If we do not use them to their fullest advantage, our complaints against him will not stick. If we don’t eat, we starve. If we don’t drink, we get dehydrated. If we don’t exercise a muscle, it atrophies. If we don’t breathe, we suffocate. And just as there are physical means of life, there are spiritual means of grace. Resist the lies of the devil in 2009, and get a bigger breakthrough in prayer than you’ve ever had.
What About Zechariah?
Now what about Zechariah 13:8–9? It tells us one of the main ways that God awakens earnest prayer in his children, namely, in the refining fires of suffering. Don’t worry about when this passage is talking about. Just see, for now, how God works, and use this word to prepare yourself for God’s prayer school.
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 the one third represents God’s remnant — his faithful, imperfect, weak people, who do not pray with the kind of discipline and desperation and joy, and hunger for God, that they should. So what is God’s remedy? What is 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.” Notice carefully what is happening. In his great love, God saved the one third from being cut off with the two thirds who perished (verse 8). And then as part of his love for them, he puts them in the fire to be tested and refined. That is normal Christianity. “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” (1 Peter 4:12).
Put in the Fire to Awaken Prayer
But what is it that God wants to see change in his people? Verse 9: “I will test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them.” That’s all he mentions. Nothing about their sex lives. Nothing about their money lives. Nothing about their power struggles. He just says: “When they come through the fire, they will pray to me, and I will answer.”
“God puts his people through the fire to awaken earnest prayer.”
God puts his people through the fire to awaken earnest prayer. This was the unexpected jolt from Zechariah at the end of the year. Please don’t be among the number — I am pleading with you — who take the school of suffering, designed to teach us to pray, and make it the reason you have given up on prayer. Do you see what I am saying? Some enter the fiery school of prayer and instead of learning to call on God, learn the opposite. Zechariah 13:9 is in the Bible as God’s sweet promise to help you profit from his school.
He lures us with the promise: “I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
Resisting Prosperity-Enfeebled Hearts
Almost five hundred years ago, John Calvin commented on Zechariah 13:9, and what he said then is more true today:
It is therefore necessary that we should be subject, from first to last, to the scourges of God, in order that we may from the heart call on him; for our hearts are enfeebled by prosperity, so that we cannot make the effort to pray.
Would you resolve with me that this simply will not be true of us in 2009 — “our hearts are enfeebled by prosperity, so that we cannot make the effort to pray.” May the Lord have mercy on us and treat us gently in the fires of 2009. Amen.