Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: June, 2019

PRAYER MEETING

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Review:

A Praying Church: The Neglected Blessing of Corporate Prayer

Dennis Gundersen

Grace & Truth Books

170 pp., pb

 

It is a sad fact of modern church life that prayer meetings are poorly attended, if they still exist at all.  Many churches no longer have them, and the ones that do typically see only a handful of people show up on a Wednesday evening.  It was to address this sad state of affairs that Dennis Gundersen wrote his book, A Praying Church: The Neglected Blessing of Corporate Prayer.

Dennis and I are past acquaintances (and subsequent Facebook friends), having both attended Trinity Baptist Church of Montville, NJ in the 1970’s, where we had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of Pastor Albert N. Martin.  Dennis has since gone on to serve as pastor of several churches in the Tulsa, OK area, and his is currently President and owner of Grace and Truth Books, which published the current volume.

Dennis, of course, is very much concerned about the demise of the midweek prayer meeting; but his take on the problem is a little unusual.  He lays most of the blame at the feet of the people leading the prayer meetings, if we can even call it “leading” at all.  Dennis notes that one of the pervasive problems with the meetings is the utter lack of direction.  The person nominally in charge simply asks if there are any prayer requests, and most of the requests forthcoming deal with personal issues, especially health needs.  It is no wonder then that many church members wonder what the point of it all is, and choose to stay home on prayer meeting night.

Much of Dennis’ book, then, is basically an instruction manual on how properly to lead a prayer meeting.  In Chapter Four he specifically goes into what to prayer for; and points out that the spread of the kingdom should have priority – we should be praying for our missionaries, the persecuted church, our lost neighbors, and other churches in the vicinity.  We should also make it a priority to pray for each other’s spiritual needs.  This then could be followed by the various personal needs of the members.  There is also a chapter by a fellow pastor, Larry Dean, on the qualifications for a prayer meeting leader.

The second half of the book consists of thirty devotionals which are ones that Dennis actually gave at the prayer meetings at his church.  They cover a variety of topics related to prayer.  One particularly interesting one is entitled “Devoting an Evening of Serious Prayer for Genuine Revival,” which apparently was intended for a special prayer meeting that lasted (apparently by design) longer than usual.  In it he gives us a good definition of “revival.”  He points out that the word “revival” literally means to “’bring back to life,’ to rekindle what was nearly extinguished; to fan the flames which have died out or become low, so that the fire rages hot again” (p. 144).  In a word, it is the revival of spiritual life within the church, along with the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit in evangelism, that constitute a revival.  We should all desire it, but are we praying for it?

On the whole the book is very helpful and worthwhile.  We would want to make a couple of observations, however.  At points Dennis seems to be reading modern church life back into the New Testament when he argues the case for the traditional mid-week prayer meeting.  The prayers mentioned in I Tim. 2:1-8, however, most likely were a part of the regular weekly gatherings of the assemblies, apparently held on Sunday evenings in private homes (cf. Acts 2:46; see Acts 20:6-12 for a brief description of such a meeting).  In many of the better modern churches something similar occurs in small group meetings.  But what the Bible does make clear, however, is the importance of corporate in some shape or form, and Dennis cites several passages from the Book of Acts to underscore the point.  We would simply add to that the promise that Jesus gave us in Matt. 18:19,20: “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (NKJV).

We also cannot help but wonder if the modern church’s spiritual problems do go beyond simple ineptitude in the way prayer meetings are led.  Too often on Sunday mornings we have seen dull, formal “worship” followed by a sermon marked by poor exegesis, a flat delivery, and little or no practical application.  Many of the men, including sometimes even the pastor, will stand with one of their hands in their pocket – can anyone even imagine Moses at the burning bush with one of his hands in his pocket?  Where is the sense of the presence of God in all of this?  Might not the underlying problem be with the spiritual life of the pastor?  Too often the pastor has received a formal, academic education at a seminary or Bible college, who then treated the ministry as a job description he was being paid to fill.  Where there is no spiritual life in the pulpit there is not likely to be found more life in the pew.  Is it possible that the reason so few people attend prayer meeting is because they do not see the need for prayer?  We leave it to each pastor to search his own heart and decide for himself.

On the whole, however, A Praying Church is a good book deserving of serious consideration.  It can be ordered online directly from the publisher at www.graceandtruthbooks.com

 

 

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THE PROMISE TO ANSWER PRAYER

 

Jesus had been seeking to reassure His disciples, deeply troubled as they were by His announcement of His immanent departure.  And to do that He encourages them to look beyond their immediate circumstances and to see the bigger picture.  He points out to them what He will accomplish for them by His departure.

Jesus makes an extraordinary promise to His disciples: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 14:12; NKJV).  The commentators have struggled to understand what exactly that means.  To whom was the promise given?  And how will they perform works that are greater than what Jesus Himself had done?  Some have thought that the promise is given to all believers, and that we could perform miracles if we simply had enough faith to do so.  Others have argued that all believers are included in the promise, but that it simply refers to the ordinary blessings of salvation and the Christian life.  Others, (including Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh) say that it refers only to the apostles themselves, although the work of converting sinners through the preaching of the gospel constitutes “greater works than these.”

What Jesus evidently had in mind was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the ministry of the apostles in its aftermath.  This would be the direct result of His ascension into heaven. Just prior to His ascension He would tell them that “you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” and “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:5,8).

But was this true of just the apostles, or does it apply to the entire church in every age?  The apostle Paul did speak of miracles as one of the charismatic gifts given to the church as a whole (I Cor. 12:8-11, 28-30; cf. Gal. 3:5), and there is no clear indication anywhere in the New Testament that any of the gifts were temporary and meant to cease.  On the other hand Paul makes it clear that not everyone would have the gift of miracles.  “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit . . . one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (I Cor. 12:4-6, 11).  It is also true that the apostles were especially endowed with the ability to perform “signs” as a testimony to the gospel they proclaimed: “Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (II Cor. 12:12).

Did miracles cease with the apostles?  The evidence suggests that the gifts of prophecy and exorcism continued into the Second Century, and that the prophecies and healings appeared sporadically thereafter.  But we do not see the more spectacular miracles that Christ and the apostles performed.  One possible explanation is that those kinds of miracles were specifically suited to a Jewish audience.  When the last of the apostles died, the more spectacular miracles ceased.

But another possible explanation is that the church went into a state of spiritual decline.  The church became more institutionalized.  The bishops assumed a more autocratic role.  Infant baptism began to be practiced and the Lord’s Table became more dramatized.  And by the end of the Second Century we begin to see bitter rivalries and divisions, which would have grieved the Holy Spirit.  The result would have been a lack of the Spirit’s presence in the church.

Jesus went on to say “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13,14).  Here we see the key to success or failure in the church’s mission – it is prayer.  “If you ask.”  Our problem is that we do not ask.  We Americans in particular are very independent minded and like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient.  We plan and we organize, prayer is an afterthought, if it happens at all.  But Jesus makes everything depend on prayer.  Why?  First of all, we are not self-sufficient.  Only the Holy Spirit can convict a sinner of his guilt, open his eyes so that he can behold the glory of Christ in the gospel, and renew the heart so that he responds in faith.

But why is prayer the means of accomplishing this?  “That the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  When something happens in response to prayer, it is evident that it was God who did it.  And by asking the Father in the name of Christ, it is evident that prayer is efficacious because of the atoning and intercessory work of Christ.  Why should God the Father answer our prayers?  Because Christ died for our sins and pleads on our behalf.  In this way the Father and the Son are glorified when we pray in the name of Christ.

The way Jesus stated all of this sounds like an unconditional promise.  But as is evident from other passages of Scripture there are limitations.  God is a wise and loving Father, and He will not give us something that is bad for us or for others.  Miracles should not be used to glorify the preacher, but Christ.  How God answers a prayer will depend on the circumstances.

But we do not want to limit God either by assuming that He cannot perform miracles today.  He is sovereign and He is omnipotent.  He can do whatever He pleases.  The great weakness of the modern church is it’s prayerlessness.  We have not because we ask not (Jas. 4:2).  True revival begins on our knees, when we come face to face with the reality of God, humble ourselves before Him, and acknowledge our dependence upon Him.  Only then can we expect to receive blessings from Him.  How much more could God accomplish through us if we prayed more!

JESUS AND THE FATHER ARE ONE

 

Thomas had asked Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5; NKJV), and Jesus responded by saying “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me” (v. 6).  But then Jesus goes on to elaborate.  Just exactly who is Jesus?  And what exactly is His relationship with the Father?  He tells Thomas, and the disciples as a group, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him” (v. 7).

Philip, however, still does not grasp what Jesus is saying, and he says, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us” (v. 8).  The disciples’ bewilderment at this point is understandable.  The relationship of Jesus to the Father is difficult to grasp.  The question takes us right into the mystery of the Trinity.

Jesus responded by mildly rebuking Philip: “Have I been with you so long, an yet you have not known Me, Philip?  He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (v. 9).  As the 19th Century Scottish preacher Charles Ross pointed out, “The expression can only be understood on the supposition that he is a partaker of the same nature and essence with the Father” (The Inner Sanctuary, p. 81).  Jesus, the Son, is a different Person from the Father; He prays to the Father as a Person different from Himself.  But as Jesus goes on to explain to Philip, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?” (v. 10a).  As the Nicene Creed puts it, Jesus Christ is “the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as he Father . . .”  The Father and the Son are two different Persons, an yet He could say that “I am in the Father, and the Father in Me.”

Jesus then goes on to cite the evidence for this.  First of all, “The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority (v. 10b – the translation has supplied the word “authority”; NASV has “initiative). The content, the manifest wisdom of Jesus’ spoken words points to a superhuman source.  Likewise Jesus points out that “the Father who dwells in Me does the works . . . believe Me for the sake of the works themselves’ (vv.  10c,11b).  His miracles demonstrated His supernatural powers, and they attested to His essential Deity.

Why is this important?  Because it establishes the basis for Jesus’ role as “the way, the truth, and the life.”  He could not be any of these things if were anything less than God Himself.  Only the divine Christ can atone for our sin; only the divine Christ can reveal truth to us.  Christ can do both of these things because He was not a mere human being, a Buddha or Mohammed; but because He was the very Son of God Himself – fully God and fully man at the same time.

As Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh pointed out, the whole system of Christian truth, and the whole fabric of human hope, rests on the deity of Christ.  And if we had a proper appreciation of it, “How much holier, how much happier, should we be, if we habitually lived under its power!” (Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, Vol. 3, p. 64).  The gospel would be a delight; the atonement would be a resting place for our conscience; authority would clothe all of Christ’s commands.  But all too often, in actual practice, we are like Philip.  “None of us know him [i.e., Christ] as we ought to do – as we might do . . . Let those who know him follow on to know him – to know him as the expiator of guilt – the great teacher – the efficacious purifier – the supreme governor – their Saviour – their Lord – their God” (Ibid.).

“Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts,

Thou Fount of life, thou Light of men,

From the best bliss that earth imparts

We turn unfilled to thee again.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE

 

When Jesus told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them He then added the comment, “And where I go you know, and the way you know” (John 14:4: NKJV).  This is another one of those thought provoking comments by Jesus that mystified His listeners – a comment which has a spiritual import but which His listeners took in a physical sense.  And so it was only natural that, on this occasion, Thomas would ask Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” (v. 5).  And Jesus responded to that question with one of the classic statements in Scripture about salvation: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me” (v. 6).  It is not matter of how one gets physically from point A to point B.  Rather, it is a matter of how one gets reconciled to God.

“I am the way.”  What separates us from God, what prevents us from getting to Him, is not a physical barrier.  It is a moral one – our sin.  And the means by which Christ will open up the way to the Father is through His atoning work on the cross.  Only then can we be reconciled to God and have a relationship with Him.

But then Jesus also says that He is “the truth.”  Post-Modern philosophers have questioned whether truth even exists.  They say that we are faced with the brute facts of human existence.  Beyond that anything that we say is pure fantasy or wishful thinking.  But we did not get here by accident; we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  And God’s creative will determines our meaning and purpose in life.  But that truth, that meaning and purpose, can only be know though divine revelation.  God Himself must tell us why He created us and what He intended for us.

The human race, however, is alienated from God.  Through our sin and rebellion we have removed ourselves from God and have rejected revelation.  That means that for fallen man truth is unknowable. Rather than acknowledge God as Creator and Lord we seek some alternative, and inherently false, explanation of reality.  And this leads us into profound intellectual darkness.  Secular philosophers cannot even be sure that external objects even exist.  They are caught in a trap between rationalism (everything conforms to natural law, even human behavior) and irrationalism (there is no natural law: we simply exist).  And what lies beyond the grace is a complete mystery.

Jesus, however, is “the truth” – the truth is embodied in Him.  Because He came directly form the Father He knows perfectly the mind and purpose of the Father, and can reveal that to us.  Furthermore, as John pointed out in the prologue to his Gospel, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3).  He was, in effect, the Creator, and that means He could state authoritatively the rationale behind creation.  His the One who reveals the truth.  As the One through Whom all things were made He is the truth, the final explanation of reality.

And then He is “the life.”  Because of human sin, the created world is subject to sickness and disease, and we must all face the inevitability of death.  Death was the curse pronounced upon us because of our sin.  But in His capacity as priest Jesus offered up the perfect sacrifice through His own death on the cross, and thereby opened a path of reconciliation with God.  That means that we can experience spiritual life now, and a physical resurrection and eternal life later.  In this way Christ can give life to those who put their trust in Him as Savior.

And so it is that Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  Mankind’s basic problem is its alienation from God.  It was to remedy that situation that God sent His only begotten Son into the world.  His death on the cross was the atonement for our sin.  This is the reason why Jesus is the only way to the Father.  There are not “many paths to heaven,” as some imagine.  What keeps us from God is our sin, and the death of Christ on the cross is the only atonement for that sin.  That is why there is no other way to God but through Christ.

Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh summed it up well when he said, “There is no true happiness but in knowing, and being loved by, and having intercourse and fellowship with, the Father; and the Father cannot be acceptably approached either on earth on in heaven, but through him who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’” (Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, Vol. 3, p. 47).

THE HEART’S CURE

4.2.7

Van Gogh: Weeping Woman

Jesus had now told the disciples that He would be betrayed, that He was going away, and that Peter would deny Him.  All of this no doubt would have deeply troubled the disciples, and Jesus was keenly aware of that; and so He turned His attention to them next.

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1; NKJV).  At first this might have seemed incongruous.  How could their hearts not be troubled?  They had developed a close bond with Him.  That bond was about to be severed.  How could they not be disturbed by this?

The answer that Jesus gave is most interesting; and it has strong implications for all of us as we face life’s difficulties.  He says, “. . . you believe in God, believe also in Me” (or “Believe in God, believe also in Me” – the commentators are not sure which is the best translation).  The specific phrase that Jesus used here (or, at least, as John has it translated into the Greek) means to “trust in” or “put your trust upon.”  What we need to do when we are faced with trials or difficulties is to put our faith in God and in Christ – we must look to them for the solution to our problems.  In a time of trial it is only natural that we would be dismayed – we would be less than human if we were not.  But we must look beyond our immediate circumstances to see the hand of God in it.

But how does that solve the problem at hand?  We are still faced with the difficulty.  In this particular case Jesus mentions the implications of His immanent departure: “In My Father’s house are many mansions [or “dwelling places,” as it might better be translated – cf. NASV]; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you” (v. 2).  In other words, it was to their advantage that He was leaving, because He was going to prepare a place for them in heaven.  What He was holding out before them was the promise of a better life in the future – a better life for all eternity.  And He said, “if it were not so, I would have told you.”  He had consistently warned them of the difficulties and hardships that being His disciples would entail.  But if there had been no promise of a better future all the toil and sacrifice would have been in vain – there would have been no point to it.   And Jesus tells them that if that had been the case He would have told them, presumable so that they could have made the choice not to follow Him.  But the toil and sacrifice are worth it: a glorious future awaits us in heaven.

And then Jesus goes on to add another consideration: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am you may be also” (v. 3).  In other words, the separation would only be temporary.  He holds out before them the prospect of His Second Coming.  And the way He phrases it speaks of the love that He had for His disciples: “ . . .and receive you unto Myself.”  The purpose of the Second Coming will not be simply to achieve some external objective; it will be to restore the personal communion and fellowship that He had with them.

What Jesus has done, in effect, is to get His disciples to look beyond their immediate circumstances and see the larger picture.  Yes, what was about to happen in the short run would be painful indeed.  But that is not the whole story.  It is all to achieve a greater good; and a brighter, more glorious future awaits them as a result.

And do we not need to remind ourselves of the same thing?  When faced with trials and difficulties it is only natural that we would become discouraged and depressed.  But in such circumstances we need to force ourselves, as it were, to look at the bigger picture – to see the purpose and plan of God in all of this – to put our trust in Him.’

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who gave up a promising career in medicine to become a great expository preacher, pointed out that we must control our feelings and not let our feeling control us.  Granted, we cannot generate our feelings and emotions at will.  They are determined partly by our circumstances and partly by our individual temperaments.  Some individuals, Dr. Lloyd-Jones pointed out are naturally given to morbid introspection and depression.  He also pointed out that feelings have a legitimate place in a Christian’s heart.   But, he says, “we have our temperament, but there is nothing that is so wrong and un-Christian as to allow our temperament to rule us” (Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures, p. 112).  “Our feelings are always seeking to control us, and unless we realize this, they will undoubtedly do so . . .The mood seems to descend upon us.  We do not want it, but there it is.  Now the danger is to allow it to control and grip us . . . Our danger is to submit ourselves to our feelings and to allow them to dictate to us, to govern and to master us and to control the whole of our lives” (Ibid.).

So, what are we to do instead?  The first thing, Dr. Lloyd-Jones said, was to make sure that there is no obvious sin in our lives that would have caused the problem or difficulty in the first place.  To disobey God is to invite trouble.  In such cases we must firs remove the obvious cause of the problem, which was our sins and disobedience.  Only then can we find peace with God and others.

Secondly, he said, “Avoid the mistake of concentrating overmuch on your feelings” (p. 114), and he quoted in this connection Psalm 34:8: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good . . .,” and commented, “you will not know it, you will not feel it until you have tried it.”  The Bible is truth, he says, and truth is addressed to the mind . . . it is as we apprehend and submit ourselves to the truth that the feelings follow” (p. 115).

And then Dr. Lloyd-Jones exhorted us to recognize the difference between rejoicing and feeling happy.  “You cannot make yourself happy, but you can make yourself rejoice, in the sense that you will always rejoice in the Lord (pp. 115-116), and he pointed to the example of the apostle Paul in II Cor. 4:8,9 (We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed . . ., etc.).  And then Dr. Lloyd-Jones concluded by saying, “You have to speak to yourself . . . Remind yourself of certain things.  Remind yourself of who you are and what you are” (p. 116).  When we are “down in the dumps” we need to take our eyes off of ourselves an fix them on Christ instead.

And so it was that Jesus exhorted His disciples to “believe also in Me,” and pointed out to them what He was about to accomplish on their behalf.  Trials and tribulations are a part of life; but a glorious future awaits us if we remain faithful to Christ.  Let us learn to rejoice in Him!