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From Seed To Fruit: A Natural Pattern For Growth And Discipleship

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Discerning a Pattern for Discipleship

In 2005 there were more than 90 adult believers in our church who were discipling at least one other person, roughly one-fifth of the congregation. The pastors and elders at Church of the Open Door had taken their responsibility seriously to equip the saints for the work of the ministry and the saints were taking the ministry by the tail. During the process we recognized an inherent tendency: when disciplers become complacent, we begin to mechanically transmit doctrine rather than modeling abundant life.

At the end of his life Paul could say to one of his disciples (2 Timothy 3:10), “You have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith….” He not only passed along the doctrines as occurs in many churches and seminaries, but he brought Timothy in close to share his manner of life and purpose and to observe the testing of his faith.

Christian discipleship is not a science, or if it is a science it is more like the engineering of snowflakes than snowmobiles: the snow crystals all have the same composition and are formed the same way but each one is unique. Men manufacture snowmobiles; God creates snowflakes. Man’s glory is to find one method that works and then to mass-produce; God’s glory is to produce a superabundance of limitless variety from a single and simple pattern. That simple pattern as it relates to holiness is that a more mature disciple opens up his life to a less mature one, so that the life-giving infection is caught and spread. The variations upon this pattern include the Barnabas style of gentle encouragement, the Elijah/Elisha style of confrontational faith, the Pauline missionary style, the John/Demetrius/Gaius church leadership style, the Priscilla/Aquila open-home style and dozens more. Our intention with this booklet is not to capitalize on one of these styles and start a new fad. This booklet is for disciplers and coaches who want to seek out the underlying New Testament pattern for help in developing a style that is individually suited for them.

This booklet is actually the second in a series. In the first booklet I introduced an outline for living the mission of Jesus Christ, an outline called TAMDISO, a very old strategy for missionary outreach. The middle letters in TAMDISO stand for “Make Disciples” and that is the part that we will discuss in this booklet.

The Commission before the Commission: Pray

The starting point for any pattern of true discipleship must be a willingness to wait on the Lord in prayer. Before Jesus sent out the disciples in Matthew 10 He told them to pray to the Lord of the Harvest, and before He sent them out again in Acts 1 He told them to wait upon the Lord together in Jerusalem.

While He has us waiting on Him, He is able to remind us that the harvest belongs to Him and the Spirit of power belongs to Him. While we are waiting, we recognize that He is the one who sends out workers into the field, and He chooses how and when to send them. While we are waiting we realize that we are powerless to change minds or to transform lives, and we lean more fully upon Him.

Usually it is the ones who are willing to wait on the Lord who are close enough to hear His voice when the time of harvest comes, the disciples in Matthew 10 and the apostles in the upper room. Our congregation began praying four years ago that the Lord would allow us to send ten new families to the mission field by the end of 2010: ten families in ten years. We prepared for the Lord to answer this prayer by facilitating short-term missionary opportunities, by making a way for young people to attend the Urbana Convention, and by setting aside a growing proportion of our budget. All of these were sensible preparations, but God has not used any of these in the way we anticipated. Instead, the most effective preparatory activity we are involved in is prayer. Those members who sense that the Lord of the harvest is calling them into missions meet together regularly for the express purpose of praying for harvesters, asking the Lord to employ them in the Harvest. Members who stay in this prayer group for more than a year become absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Lord of the Harvest, that He answers prayer, and that prayer is the means He uses to accomplish His commission in the world.

“Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full!” (John 16:24) Jesus’ great frustration is not that we neglect His commission, but that we are so slow to ask for increase in the harvest. Sure we have wonderful ideas about how to accomplish His missionary task, but the joy of the harvest will go to others unless we are prepared to wait on the Lord in prayer.

Sowing Small Seeds: The Word of God

Just a few chapters after giving the commission to pray, Jesus gave the Parable of the Four Soils to show the results we should expect. “A sower went out to sow,” He said in Matthew 13:3. The farmer in the parable is not targeting his seeds or planting them carefully in beds, he throws out the seed into the soil realizing that some will be lost but anticipating that most will take root.

“The seed is the Word of God” (Luke 8:11). When we have entered into partnership in Jesus’ mission by prayer, we are ready to broadcast His word. We have to confess that we are not very good at predicting who will be receptive, so we try to make the most of every opportunity. And when we have the chance to plant seeds, let us be sure that we are planting the good seed, the very word of God.

“You have carefully followed my doctrine

Many say they are involved in evangelism who are not sowing the seed at all. They will talk about religion; they will invite people to come to their church; they will try to demonstrate Christian love through practical acts of kindness. But “the seed is the Word of God.” After several years in Africa, my son and I were traveling through London on our way to the US, and we entered St. Paul’s Cathedral to worship God on Sunday morning. There was half an hour of beautiful music and then the minister got up and gave us a word of exhortation from the example of Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. I suppose I learned much about Admiral Nelson, and I suppose it was an inspiring lecture, but it did not take us an inch beyond the hopes and affections of this world; only the Word of God can do that. In the greatest cathedral in London on that Lord’s Day, there was no power to save.

You and I cannot save anyone. The work of saving people and of regeneration and the new birth is done by the Holy Spirit. Do we imagine for a minute that our words will be more effective in this task than His? Do we think that our acts of kindness that we put on for a show will be more useful to the Holy Spirit than the words He inspired?

After prayer, the most important thing we can do to prepare for the harvest is to learn a few Scriptures and prepare ourselves to communicate them. This is far more valuable than memorizing a method of evangelism or a spiel that will eventually get to a point of sale. Salesmanship is man’s way; sowing the seed is the Lord’s way, and “the seed is the Word of God.”

In our culture one of the most important verses to prepare is John 14:6. The culture around us preaches that there are many ways to God, but Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” That word is a seed that the Holy Spirit will use to penetrate hard hearts. You may find considerable opposition to it, but if you are prepared you will find many opportunities to sow that seed.

Every disciple should have memorized John 3:16 and John 1:12 that emphasize believing in the Lord Jesus. The disciples that I train also memorize the Gospel from I Corinthians 15:3-8. They may not be able to recite it word for word, but they can use the word of God to tell the redeeming story: “Jesus died for our sins; He was buried and on the third day He arose, and He was seen by many witnesses.” These are the seeds that carry the promise of God, “My word shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

After Jesus’ command to pray, this is the next step in making disciples “wherever you go in all the world”: get the seed into the ground. And the seed is the Word of God.

Growing Seasons

Jesus makes the point that seeds sprout underground and their early growth is mysterious to us (Mark 4:26-28), but it is not only the early growth that is mysterious and hidden. All living things have dormant periods and periods that are fruitful and they go through seasonal cycles. I have noticed that although I can predict that all three of my children will eventually reach their adult height, they do their growing in unpredictable spurts. We don’t even notice that it is happening until suddenly their clothes seem to shrink overnight, and we need to take them shopping. Children can go several months without making any appreciable gains in stature, but then they will add six or seven inches in a year—a year when they seem to do nothing but eat and sleep and grow tall.

“You have carefully followed my manner of life”

Have you noticed with young Christians that there are periods where they are constantly hungry for the Word of God? This is a natural part of spiritual growth. Everyone who is spiritually alive is hungry for the Word and is regularly nourished by it, but Christians who are in a “growth spurt” are famished all the time and never seem to get enough. A wise steward in the harvest of Christ Jesus will be regularly supplying nourishment for the disciples in his care, but when he notices a spurt of growth and hunger, he will spend more time with the disciples who are hungry. A farmer needs to be sensitive to the growing seasons and needs to respond appropriately.

Jesus has the expectation that His disciples will not only grow but will also reproduce and be fruitful. Growth is a sign of spiritual life, but so is productiveness. He told a parable (Luke 13:6-9) to show us how fruitlessness aggravates Him. The parable has an application both to His nation during the three-year period of His ministry and also to His disciples in every generation. A farmer had a fig tree that was growing just fine and shading an expanding patch of the vineyard, but after three years he felt he had a right to expect some return on his investment; he was expecting some produce. His disappointment was great enough that he gave the order to cut down the tree, but because of the intercession of his worker he gave it one more chance to be fruitful. The worker suggested spending more concentrated effort on the tree for a brief period to see whether it could be encouraged to produce.

The whole reason a farmer plants is so that he can reap produce. Jesus emphasized this again in John 15 where He said that His Father was about the task of pruning every branch in Christ Jesus in order to produce more fruit.

If we are serious about making disciples to Christ Jesus we need to be aware of the seasonal nature of the task. We plant the seed of the Word everywhere we go, any chance we have. But when we see a believer who is responding to the Word with hunger and desire, then the Lord is calling us to spend more time with that disciple while he is hungry and growing. There will come a time when he is not as hungry as he is now, and at that time the disciple-maker should not feel that he has failed but that the seasons have changed and it is time to invest more heavily elsewhere.

Conversely, when we notice a disciple who has grown to maturity but is no longer producing fruit, we should be interceding for him with the Lord of the harvest. It may be that there is a way for us to invest more for a brief period in the fruitless disciple such that he will be encouraged to renewed productiveness.

There is no such thing as a reluctant disciple. If you find yourself persuading and pursuing, it’s time to release the disciple and ask the Father to change his heart.

Here is how I apply these principles with the disciples that the Lord Jesus has given to me. At the beginning of every year I wait on the Lord in prayer, asking Him to direct me toward disciples who are ready to grow and bear fruit. Usually He will direct me to two or three men in whom I see a hunger for the Word and a desire for a significant part in the work of Christ. I agree to meet for two hours once a week with the group for a specified period; usually we try to complete our discipleship project before summer, because summer seems to be an unproductive period for many people in this culture. Then in the fall I start again with a different group of men, attempting to complete the work of that group before Thanksgiving, because the holiday season is another fallow period. Throughout the year (but especially during unproductive periods) I contact friends and disciples who seem to be hibernating and not making progress in the walk of faith. In these contacts I am asking for prayer requests and looking for evidence that their winter season is almost over and that they may be ready to grow again. I try to intercede with the Lord of the Harvest: “Master give them another year and try another method of cultivation, perhaps their season of fruitfulness is just around the corner!”

Got a friend who is no longer interested in the Word? Keep in periodic contact, and wait for the Lord to bring a crisis. In times of crisis people turn back to seek Him.

Nevertheless, we do not tailor our ministry for the convenience of the tall shade trees. The church was bought with blood, not so that we could stand around and look cool. Rather we are a vineyard in full production, and wise workers plan their ministry around the fruitful branches that abide in the Vine, and every fallow season they pray for and fertilize the shade trees in the hope that one day they too will respond.

Do you wish we could be a bit more specific? On the following centerfold we have included a disciplers guide for women and another guide for men. These guides are a collaborative effort of our twelve discipleship coaches. They know that most of the time when you are facing a specific discipleship challenge, you don’t have time to read a book! I encourage you to return to these guides often as you develop your own discipling style.

“Let’s Get Going, Girls!”- A Guide to Discipling Women

Keep Our Goals In Mind:

1--Make sure the woman knows Christ and has assurance of salvation.

2– Help her become a better follower (disciple) of Jesus Christ.

3– Equip her to disciple someone else and think of herself as a discipler.

What’s A Good Format?

1-Begin with one or two women who are eager to learn, and who can agree to meet regularly for a set time. As much as possible, be consistent in meeting, and flexible in content, although you should use some kind of curriculum. Your first meeting could just be getting acquainted.

2-Prepare carefully for each lesson, then trust the Holy Spirit to help you see how fast or slowly you need to proceed from time to time. There is an art to keeping your momentum but going deep. Pray faithfully for the women as you prepare, and pray for yourself to be given wisdom.

3-Pray together every time you meet, and allow opportunity to see God at work through His answers. Encourage the women to bond with each other through prayer, as well as with you.

4-Talk to them early on about the women God will send them to disciple next. Remind them that when that time comes you will be around to help them with any questions they have.

How Can I Be A Good Discipler?

1-Be a real disciple. Obey Jesus fully. Spend time with Him.

2-Be humble. Don’t hesitate to say, “I don’t know—but I’ll find out.” And “I blew it; will you forgive me?” Share real prayer requests for real needs in your own life.

3-Be consistent. Don’t cancel meetings or come unprepared. If you say you will pray for something, do so.

4-Be loving. Expect that there will come some demands on you to sacrifice for your disciples. This is the way God provides for you to demonstrate your love in a way they can believe.

5-Learn from them. They will all have something to contribute to your life. Look for it! Let them know how they have taught and blessed you.

What About These Problems?

1-“My disciple keeps calling me to change our meeting times.”

2-“My disciple doesn’t do her homework.”

3-“My disciple doesn’t seem to be profiting from this nor opening up.”

Try to discern whether these problems stem from legitimate inability, or from reluctance. It may be necessary to make adjustments based on the disciple’s limitations, or, if reluctance is the cause, to stop meeting until they are more ready. If so, keep getting together periodically to see if they are being prepared by God to resume meeting.

“Now What, Guys?” - A Guide to Discipling Men

It Takes A Disciple Who Is:

  • Faithful (if he quits showing up or quits doing the homework, back off)
  • Available (if he can’t find a time to regularly meet, maybe he needs someone else to disciple him)

It Takes A Risk

  • You have to be open and vulnerable about your own struggles
  • You have to probe, the tough question may be the key to a break-through (address the issues you know he’s dealing with: sex, significance, spiritual leadership, integrity)
  • Sometimes you have to say the hard thing he doesn’t want to hear

Pray At All Times

  • Set aside a few minutes each day when you pray for your disciple.
  • Promise him that you will pray for him every day for as long as you are together in discipleship.
  • Tell him often what requests you are praying for him.
  • Set aside about one-third of your regular meeting time for prayer. Growing disciples need to hear mature Christians praying so that they can learn what to pray. Modeling this will teach them to pray expectantly in the will of God.

Begin With Clear Expectations!

  • Make sure you are both in agreement that you will meet for a consistent and specific time. (Usually 90 minutes a week for 12 weeks in our six-lesson format).
  • Be clear from the beginning that you are going to walk with him for a defined period and then you expect him to begin discipling someone else.

Give Assignments!

Disciples need to put their training to use so that they can see that they are making progress. Complacent disciples need greater challenges not less! Assignments will challenge true disciples and will identify the half-hearted and double-minded.

Give Encouragement!

Disciples sometimes lose heart because they cannot see progress. When you see them taking a courageous step forward, appreciate their growth. Even if they seem to be highly motivated, you know they are in a battle; build them up!

Harvest Times

Jesus’ harvest analogy is very helpful because it reminds us that:

  1. People, like plants, have seasons in their life when they are ready to be harvested.
  2. The Lord knows when the people are ready.
  3. The Lord tends to give the work of harvesting to disciples who are on the lookout in prayer.
  4. Often conversions come in waves of fruitfulness all ripe at once.

Even in our most fruitful years of evangelism there have been long periods where we have not heard of any conversions to faith in Christ Jesus. We become alarmed that the Lord is no longer working among us or we become discouraged that the revival fire is dying out. But if we are wise we will remember that there is a Lord of the Harvest and that we ought to be begging Him to send out workers to bring lost people in, and if we are wise we will wait upon Him so that we can move when He moves.

This year (2006) we are asking God to allow us to lead seven teachers and 70 students to faith in Christ. Far above what we asked or imagined the Lord brought to us 43 students who trusted in Jesus in a period of just nine weeks! If Jesus had used the manufacturing of snowmobiles for His analogy I suppose we would expect Him to be turning out one new Christian every 4.8 days in order to be efficient. But Jesus teaches us to expect Him to grow believers in the way He grows wheat, each new crop coming ripe together.

The growth of seedlings is mysterious and hidden in the ground, and so is the early response to the Word of God in the heart of new believers. Often we cannot say with precision, “On this day and hour my friend put her faith in Christ Jesus.” Jesus drew the analogy in Mark 4:26-29 right after He taught about the way we broadcast the Word. He explained that we sow the seed and after that we are not able to see what is happening on the inside; but whether we can see it or not, the seed is still there in the secret hiding places, sprouting and beginning to grow. Eventually we will come back to find that the seed has completed its work and is ready for harvesting without any further input from us. We don’t know how it happens and we don’t need to know, but when we see the seed sprouting and ripening we get right to the work of harvesting.

Let’s also learn from His instruction that He sends the workers who notice the work. One reason we are the ones who are leading these students to Christ this year is that we are in the field with them sowing the seed, but another reason is that we are the ones who asked for the privilege. Perhaps it is precisely because we asked that we have our eyes open to the grain as it comes ripe. How many times we have to regret missed opportunities because we weren’t looking for them when they came our way!

Defined Assignments, Short Accounts

The most difficult transition in Jesus’ commission is when a disciple (‘one who learns’) becomes an apostle (‘one who is sent out’). Jesus’ twelve disciples became the twelve apostles somewhere between Matthew 10:1 and 10:2 when He sent them out on their first assignment. In Luke’s history Jesus sent out the twelve in 9:2 and received their account in 9:10, sent out the seventy in 10:1 and received their account in 10:17. Jesus showed us an example of how to transition a disciple very early in his training from being just a learner to being a disciple-maker.

You have carefully followed my purpose”

In our experience, it seems that men especially need these assignments. Jesus gave His men clearly defined assignments and sent them out very early in their training. When they returned at the end of their assignment He took time to listen to the reports and to honor their service. Honoring the service of His men in the first case involved taking them aside for a day on the lake, and in the second case He praised them and then praised God for them in their presence. None of Jesus’ disciples could have come away wondering whether Jesus really cared about them or about the assignment He gave them. Accountability in discipleship should major on noticing spiritual progress and praising God for it.

What are some examples of assignments we give our men? Well, we rarely send them out without shoes or food and tell them to preach the kingdom of God! I always assign men in my care to clearly define and write out their goals for the year, and I give this assignment on the first day we meet. In this way carnal purposes become obvious from godly ones, and I can pray on-target for their success. Often I assign them to write a letter to someone from whom they have become estranged and we pray together for reconciliation. Fathers can be assigned to take their daughter on a date or their son on a road trip and ask them for their insight. Husbands can be assigned to pray with or for their wives. (For more ideas on assignments that we have proven to be effective see page 20). Men respond to a challenge if their discipler will partner with them. If you give a man an assignment, you need to do it too, and you need to do it seriously and well. If you found it hard to accomplish, you need to let your men know it, and you need to praise them for their successes. Whenever you give an assignment, remember to set aside time to listen to the after-action reports and to honor the effort of the disciples.

An Enemy in the Garden

Some of the problems in the harvest are not entirely our fault. Jesus went on to mention an enemy who is working against us in our desire to bring in a fruitful harvest. Jesus told the Parable of the Tares to show that He plants good disciples in His field for the purpose of bringing in good fruit, but He has an enemy who sneaks in at night and plants false disciples here and there (Matthew 13:24-43).

The point of the parable is that it is too difficult for us harvest workers to accurately discern the good from the bad during the growing season. Jesus will do the judging at the end of the age and He will discern with 100 per cent accuracy. You and I are not responsible for judging who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil; we just keep on tending the garden. As the disciples continue to grow and to develop we are liable to be surprised at the way some who seemed to have great potential were leading a double-life, and some who seemed hopeless, greatly glorify the Lord.

“You have carefully followed my faith”

Do you have troublemakers or fruitless disciples in your care today? If you are honest and if your assembly is still alive, you will recognize that there are some members who seem to be a drag on the life of the body. It is very tempting to jump to the conclusion that these folks are getting under our skin because they are not genuine disciples of the Lord Jesus. That way we can marginalize them or even suggest to them that they move on to join another church. But Jesus did not give us the responsibility for quality control in the harvest; He just gave us the field to tend. Are we responsible to confront sin? You bet. Are we responsible to judge the sinner? Not our job.

Zechariah was once given a view of heaven’s courtroom while Joshua the priest was on trial for his failures in spiritual leadership (Zech. 3:1-5). He saw Satan standing on the right side of the court, acting as the prosecuting attorney and bullying Joshua with a list of his sins. Then he saw the Lord [Jesus] standing in the position as Joshua’s Advocate, vigorously opposing Satan’s accusations on the basis of God’s choosing. Zechariah seemed to forget that he was a spectator in the vision, and he began to jump in with suggestions to promote Joshua’s defense! This is a great picture of our role. We are not the judge, and we are hopefully not on the devil’s side of the courtroom bringing accusations against our brothers. We are standing as near to Jesus as we can and urging Him to defend the saints even when they sin.

Nevertheless, there is something that we can do to reduce fruitlessness among our people. Many times my partners and I have prayed and asked the Lord to reveal and refine the heart of one of our members who is disturbing the peace of the church. Another principle we practice is that everyone who comes to us must be discipled in the basics of the gospel, no matter how experienced they may appear. True believers love the gospel and enjoy reviewing the old, old story of Jesus’ grace; they do not consider themselves to be beyond the need to refresh themselves with the doctrine of the cross. True disciples are not offended when you ask them, “Do you love Jesus?” or “Are you sure you are on your way to heaven?” These are questions that can be part of our normal discipleship of anyone and may reduce the enemy’s ability to plant false disciples among us.

Jesus knows all things, but His enemy does not. Whenever the devil plants one of his agents in a body of believers, he is taking a risk that his agent will not only be discovered but converted. I want the culture of our assembly to be so permeated with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ that the enemy will not dare to send his agents in under cover. Lord Jesus, make it so!

Many Workers, One Lord

Have you noticed that the most effective and fruitful Christians can name several disciplers who have grounded them and built them up? In the same way, an effective and fruitful Christian may be building into several other Christians, sometimes intentionally and sometimes with scarcely a thought. Healthy Christians and members of the Body of Christ edify one another— it’s their new nature!

Paul said, “I planted and Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (I Corinthians 3:6). His point is that neither he nor Apollos could take credit for the growth of Jesus’ disciples. They certainly did their part in the process; but just as God does the miraculous part of growing plants, so He does the impossible part of maturing disciples. The harvest belongs to the Lord who produced it, and we are just His workers, “servants through whom you believed.”

Well, it is pretty obvious that God alone is able to produce new life. But Paul goes on to say that “we are God’s fellow workers!” God does the hard part of growing the harvest, but He chooses that the harvest will not be brought in without us, and He lets us join with Him as His coworkers. Don’t you find that amazing?

He says a little further on (4:1) that we are the servants of Christ in His harvest and also “stewards of the mysteries of God.” The seed of the Word of God has born fruit in our lives, so now we have seed to sow in the lives of others. And in some sense, God has given us the responsibility and privilege to decide how to sow it. To be a steward means to be a manager of someone else’s business, so Paul is really describing us as managers of God’s assets, including the valuable proprietary knowledge that is in His Word.

Today in southern California there is a huge business in developing, marketing and licensing genetic information. Companies who unlock the secrets of genetic coding of fruitful plants are allowed to claim ownership of those secrets and market the seeds that they produce. If their seeds are more productive, then their business will expand.

Amazingly, God has entrusted His seeds and His proprietary secrets to us simple farm laborers and has sent us out, seemingly at random, to manage His resources and distribute His seeds. Can you think of any greater privilege or any more significant lifework? But wait—it gets better! He promises that each one of us “will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (3:8). Not only do we get to know God’s secrets, but we are given the management over them so that we can be partners with Him in His harvest. And not only are we His partners, but we will also receive a reward. We get the privileges and then get rewarded for using them! Our Master is so remarkably generous.

My prayer is that this booklet and the pattern introduced here will help you be a more effective and fruitful coworker in this harvest. For now, let’s use the last rays of daylight to bring in a bumper crop for Jesus’ sake.

A Few More Assignments to Challenge Men

  1. Ask your wife to tell you one thing you could do to make her feel more cared for. A variation on this assignment is to ask her one thing you could do to make it easier for her to submit to your leadership.
  2. Write out your prayers in journal-form every day for a month. Keep track of the way God answers.
  3. Set up a family calendar meeting before summer starts. Demonstrate leadership by carefully listening to each family member’s ideas and then guide them in putting together a basic plan for the summer.
  4. Phone the person who led you to Christ and thank him. A variation is to contact anyone who had a significant part in discipling you to Christ to thank them. This often leads to restored connections with former mentors, and it is always an encouragement to them.
  5. Is your wife stressing about finances? Work out a spending budget that you can both agree on.
  6. Unplug the television in your home for thirty days and notice how this increases your available time for discipleship to Christ. A variation is to disconnect internet access at home for a period of time.
  7. The “Blue Sky” assignment. Choose a horizon five to ten years out and write out your dream for the way you would love to be serving God in His kingdom if every obstacle were removed. The second step in this assignment is to identify the obstacles that do exist and begin to pray and plan for their removal.
  8. The “One Thing” assignment (see Psalm 27:4 for an example). If God were to give you one wish, what would you ask Him for? Solomon asked for wisdom to rule; David asked for abiding fellowship with God. The point is that the Lord gave them their “one thing.” Make your wish, craft it into a prayer that you can pray according to the will of God and recruit at least one partner to pray it with you.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Spiritual Life

Training Today For Battle Tomorrow

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The great difficulty for Christians who want to be effective in spirit warfare is that we face an enemy who is a master of the art of camouflage—in fact, he and his agents are entirely invisible. Many pastors and teachers have been neutralized by his camouflage to such an extent that they neglect training their people for spiritual battle; they have begun to doubt whether he even exists or is personally active. Others have the opposite reaction. They become preoccupied with some pretty fanciful theories about their invisible adversary. And because these ideas are not grounded in the Word of God, they distract their followers from the true dangers.

The Bible, however, recognizes that our hidden enemy is both real and personal, both powerful and crafty. Though his power is great, it is not as great as the power of Christ in us, and so therefore we can expect to overcome him. And though he is crafty, his methods are predictable and every one of his tactics can be met and defeated by the well-trained believer.

We can get a clear and realistic picture of our invisible enemy by watching our Captain Jesus in combat. In the wilderness temptations when He was being tempted to sin, we see him win conclusive victories by walking in the Spirit, by fasting, and by resisting the specific temptations with the Word of God (Matthew 4:1-11). When faced with demonized people, He had compassion on the afflicted person and won the victory by refusing to allow the demons to speak, refusing to engage them in conversation, and commanding them to come out. In this short booklet we do not have time and space to notice all of the lessons we could take from Jesus’ conflicts with the devil and his agents. But I would like us to review together the most extended account of Jesus’ combat with the forces of evil, His victory in Gethsemane on the way to the cross.

A Turning Point

It all began in the midst of Jesus’ northern campaign as He reached the villages of Caesarea Philippi. He found a teachable moment with the Twelve and asked them to commit themselves, saying, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter spoke for them all when he announced, “You are the Christ!” (Mark 8:29).

This turning point came after the first missionary sending of the Twelve (Luke 9) and before the second missionary wave of the seventy (Luke 10). It was just at this point that Jesus began to foretell his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31). It was just at this turning point that Jesus held a summit meeting with two of his faithful veterans and three of his current recruits upon the mountain. The summit meeting that the church calls the Transfiguration was not only a demonstration of Jesus’ glory for Peter’s benefit, but also an opportunity for Jesus to discuss his “departure” with proven men of faith who were able to comprehend the scope of the battle about to be fought. Jesus had attempted at other times to discuss with his band of brothers the conflict that He was about to endure, but they simply could not share his perspective. Command was lonely for Jesus, and his Father graciously gave him this one opportunity to hold counsel with Moses and Elijah, men who could understand his purpose and strategy.

In terms of that strategy Jesus was at the northernmost point of his campaign and would now begin making his way south toward the battlefield that would decide everything just outside of Jerusalem. He would repeat the prophecy of his death and resurrection as He progressed first through Galilee (Mark 9:31) and then with much greater detail when He formed up and led his column into the final ascent toward Jerusalem (Mark 10:32-34). There was fear in the ranks and more than one case of pre-combat jitters, and Jesus took this opportunity for the third time to make sure his disciples understood that He was executing a carefully prepared plan.

Secrecy And Surprise In The War Of Nerves

As He had done every Passover since 27 AD, Jesus made his way to Jerusalem ahead of the Feast. His enemies had the tactical advantage and were waiting for him, “planning together to kill him.” There was a lot of secret maneuvering ahead of the Battle of Gethsemane because of the crucial importance of timing for both sides. The chief priests sensed they needed to move quickly before Jesus gained too great a following in the capital, fearing that the Romans would use Jesus as an excuse to throw them out of power. They felt their window of opportunity to be narrow and closing, because they knew Jesus would come to the capital for the Feast (John 11:53-57) but would probably return to Galilee soon after. They gave secret orders to gather intelligence on his movements, but with just two days left before the holiday began, they still did not have his location pinned down (Mark 14:1-2). The object of their maneuvering was to seize Jesus somewhere out of the public eye before Passover week or else as soon as possible after the Passover crowds dispersed, definitely “not during the festival lest there be a riot of the people.”

Unfortunately for them, Jesus kept the initiative and the offensive throughout the week. On Palm Sunday He stole his famous surprise march on the city, winning over the entire populace so that the priests could fairly say, “You see, the world has gone out to follow him!” (John 12:19) While He had them off balance He pressed all the way into the Temple driving out the occupiers and reclaiming it for his Father’s kingdom. His ringing declaration was “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” (Mark 11:17) Each day He would produce fresh and unexpected exploits, but every evening under cover of darkness, He and his men would withdraw, staying outside the city where they could not be pinned down.

For the first five days of the feast the priests had no information on the whereabouts of his base camp and were daily being foiled and routed in their verbal skirmishes with him until finally “they did not dare to [face] him any more” (Luke 20:40). Jesus then took over the Temple as his battlefield HQ while his enemies retired from the field, and He moved his quarters from Bethany to a bivouac He had earlier established in the open air above the city’s eastern approach (Luke 21:37-38).

The move to Mt. Olive was a feint necessary to spare his civilian partisans in Bethany town, where He had been staying in the home of his friend Lazarus and (still more astutely) in the home of Simon the Leper. Simon’s was the one home his religious enemies could not search for fear of leprous infection, or at the very least, ceremonial defilement. But the priests scored an intelligence coup in that very home on D-Day minus two.

Jesus knew He had a spy in his company and had known the identity of the spy, Judas Iscariot, for at least two years (John 6:70-71). Nevertheless He allowed Judas to travel in his company and even sent him out to represent him on mission work and commissioned him as the company quartermaster. It was in his role as quartermaster that he was able to pilfer funds and material, and this corruption in him led to a fatal break in his relationship to Jesus.

At the fateful dinner in Simon’s house (Mark 14:3-9), a woman came into the house during the meal with “an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard, broke the vial and poured it over his head.” The extravagance of this woman’s gift caused quite a stir among the dinner guests who estimated the value at about a year’s wages for a laborer, perhaps $30,000 in today’s economy. Because of Jesus’ perspective on his upcoming battle, death and resurrection, He did not share the consternation of the other guests. He pointed out that there would be no opportunity for his own next of kin to anoint his body for burial and He graciously accepted this woman’s gift in place of the burial service that would normally have been performed by his mother.

Judas not only shared the general disapproval of such waste but had the additional frustration of seeing a great opportunity for personal profit evaporate literally before his eyes. He left the company in secret and opened a channel to the chief priests, negotiating with them for a cash bounty if he could give them information on Jesus’ movements that would lead to his arrest. This was exactly the kind of intelligence the chief priests had been trying to find, and they were thrilled with the opportunity, but they impressed on Judas the importance of finding the appropriate time during the 48 hours they had left before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread began.

Seizing The Initiative Of Time And Place

Jesus was quite aware that Judas had now gone over from being a passive spy to active betrayal, and He began to employ him for the final maneuvers as He chose the exact time and location for the great battle. At the very time when his enemies felt they had finally established initiative and surprise, Jesus began to bend them to his will.

In order for Jesus to win a complete victory, He not only needed to overcome the final temptations of Satan and defeat death, but He also had to completely fulfill every biblical prophecy regarding his time and manner of death. Whereas the Jews were thrilled with the prospect of killing him at any opportunity, the one time they did not want to arrest or kill him was during the Passover. For his part Jesus was determined that his crucifixion would take place exactly at the time of the Passover sacrifice. In order to accomplish this, He took advantage of the fact that there was a religious discrepancy regarding the exact date of the New Moon that year and that there were two possible dates for Passover. He determined to celebrate Passover with his friends on the first possible day, and to make his historic sacrifice on the second.

The morning of this first Passover day, Jesus stayed outside of the city for most of the day keeping Judas pinned down with him. As long as Jesus stayed out of the city Judas could not inform the priests, and if he left to inform the priests, Jesus would be able to move to a new location. Then He sent his two lieutenants, Peter and John, into the city to prepare their Passover meal (Luke 22:8). In his orders to them, He was careful not to identify the place where they were going to eat, but He used a man carrying a water pitcher as a cutout. This further insured that Judas would not be able to transmit any useful intelligence, because he did not yet know the location of the meal.

“When the hour had come” and not an hour before, Jesus entered the city with the rest of the company, went directly to the guest room where Peter and John were waiting and presided over The Last Supper. John was given the pillow just in front of Jesus, but Judas took a place very near, perhaps just behind him. Judas had spent the past 24 hours looking for an opportunity to pass his information to the priests, but John recalled that it was actually Jesus himself who gave Judas a bite of bread and told him, “What you are doing, do quickly.” Judas went out immediately into the darkness of the early spring night. Jesus had made it so easy.

But in fact, Jesus continued to press the initiative. By sending Judas away after dark, he left his enemies very few options to exploit their supposed element of surprise. They would have to move immediately in order to capture Jesus before He left the city for the night. Judas must have brought them straight to the guest room that he himself had just left a couple of hours before, but to their chagrin, the evidence of the seder celebration remained but Jesus and his company had moved to higher ground.

Jesus accomplished this maneuver by giving the order “Arise, let us go from here” (John 14:31) right in the midst of his final instructions. He gave much of what we call The Upper Room Discourse while on the move out of the eastern gate of the city, down the slope of the Kidron valley and up again climbing toward their bivouac on Mt. Olive. Matthew recalled that Jesus gave the prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial at some point during this final march (Matthew 26:35). What John recalled most vividly were the many promises of a Comforter and the promises of answered prayer (John 15-16). Luke reports that this was one time Jesus permitted his company to travel under arms, though his reason for this was not for operational security but so that Isaiah’s prophecy could be fulfilled (Luke 22:32, cf Isaiah 53:12). The prophecy was that Christ “was counted among criminals,” picturing the fact that the disciples would use these weapons to commit felony assault, the only crime they could legitimately be accused of.

Pausing at the Kidron watercourse itself, Jesus gathered his men about him and prayed for them in their hearing for the last (and probably the only) time. He had prayed for them at other times, but they had not been privileged to hear these prayers as Jesus regularly prayed in secret. He told Peter on this very night that He had prayed for him to defend him against Satan (Luke 22:32). He had prayed for them all night before issuing their call to apostleship (Luke 6:12); He had likewise prayed most of the night while they rowed over the stormy sea (Mark 6:46-48), and finally He rose from prayer and came to their rescue, walking on the water. In each of these cases, the Lord Jesus prayed for his disciples out of their hearing, but on the eve of his great battle, He wanted them to hear how He prayed.

In this High Priestly Prayer at the base of Mt. Olive, Jesus made five specific requests for his men: that the Father would protect them from death and perdition at the hand of the evil one; that they could experience fullness of joy; that they would be made holy in the truth; that they would be unified; that they would be reunited with Jesus (John 17:9-24). The timing of this prayer was crucial to Jesus, because it was a singular opportunity to pray for the whole company while excluding Judas, whom He had known as a traitor from the beginning.

Once upon the high ground that Jesus had chosen, He formed his men into an order of battle: eight men upon the approaches to the garden called Gethsemane and his three lieutenants deeper into the garden and himself about 30 meters (“a stone’s throw”) deeper still. Without reading too much into his final instructions, it seems that He intended the forward element to serve as a picket line and the rear element to actually serve alongside him in the spiritual battle. His order to this rear element was, “Remain here and keep watch with Me!” (Matthew 26:38) He also told them to “pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40-46).

Meanwhile Judas realized his time had run out. He assumed that Jesus would return to the Mt. Olive bivouac rather than jeopardize any of the partisans in Bethany. Jesus had made sure that “Judas knew the place” so that he would be able to bring his detachment of troops directly to the field of battle, but by shifting location at the last moment, He kept Judas off balance and ensured that He had time to give his final instructions to his comrades privately out of earshot of the traitor.

Three Waves Of Attack

Matthew and Mark recall that the attack seemed to come to Jesus in three waves. Their details are sketchy because they were posted further away from Jesus, and because they kept falling asleep on their watch. Their impression of three waves comes from the fact that Jesus patrolled the lines twice after He placed them in position and both times had to wake them up. What they remember of Jesus’ prayers during these waves of attack was that He asked the Father to “take this cup away from Me” (Matthew 26:39; 26:42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). They also recall that He prayed that “not what I will but what You will” should be done.

The physical arrest of Jesus followed the spiritual battle and just as He had predicted “the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34). These resulting events are carefully chronicled in the gospels, but the question remains whether and in what sense Jesus won a victory in the Battle of Gethsemane. Certainly every man present at the arrest felt at the time that Jesus had been thoroughly and finally defeated.

Let This Cup Pass

Our assessment of the spiritual battle Jesus fought must take into account that his prayer to “let this cup pass” was the last of six prayers that He made in the hearing of his disciples that night on the mountain. The first five prayers at the Kidron watercourse were all intercessory prayers on behalf of his men, but the sixth prayer was made on his own. The first five prayers were recorded by John and the last prayer was recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. This last prayer was that the Father would “take this cup away” or that “the hour might pass him by” (Mark 14:35-36).

We know much of what He meant by “the cup” because this is the same imagery He used in replying to James and John’s request just one week earlier (Mark 10:37-39). He had asked the two brothers whether they were able to drink the cup He was drinking, and when they affirmed that they were able Jesus prophesied that they would indeed drink the cup He was drinking. From this we know that during the week before his battle in Gethsemane, Jesus was already drinking “the cup” and that eventually both James and John would also drink it. The “cup” for Jesus was not crucifixion (which James would not drink) nor was it martyrdom (which John would not drink) but it was the severe test of obedience during suffering that had already begun for him and would only increase in its intensity.

Did The Father Answer “No”?

The Bible’s own interpretation of the Son’s request and the Father’s answer is found in Hebrews 4:14-5:11. In this passage we are told it was necessary that we should be able to see a time that Jesus had to obey against his will, so that we could realize that He “was tested in everything as we are, yet without sin.” It was not that Jesus was actually praying that God would let him out of the cross, since He himself had taken care to explain to his disciples exactly how He would be betrayed and suffer. It would be very strange if Jesus were looking for a way around the cross at the eleventh hour, when He had just revealed to his men at supper that He was about to die for their sins. Rather, Jesus was saying out loud in the hearing of his disciples that “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience through the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). His garden prayer is part of what qualified him as our High Priest, because it proves to us that He knows what obedience feels like. We would not be able to fully trust his priesthood if we did not know for sure that He can sympathize with this fact of our lives.

Hebrews 5:7 says that the Father did not answer “no,” to his Son. Rather, “when He had offered up prayers and supplications with vehement cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death, He was heard because of his godly fear.” The biblical view is that especially in the Battle of Gethsemane, Jesus’ prayers were heard and answered.

John reports that Jesus’ first specific prayer of this night was answered immediately (John 18:8-9) when the arrest was made. In spite of the fact that his men were armed and in spite of the fact that they resisted arrest by committing felony assault, every single one of them escaped including an inexperienced teenager who was initially caught in the dragnet (Mark 14:51-52). John says that this amazing deliverance happened as a direct fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer at the Kidron.

Jesus’ second specific prayer had been for the disciples to experience fullness of joy (John 17:13), and his third request had been that they should be made holy (17:17). During their last march Jesus had predicted that they would see him again soon and they would have joy that no one could ever take from them again. John records these prayers were answered on the evening of Christ’s resurrection day when He appeared to the disciples. The disciples received the fullness of joy that would never be taken away from them when they saw the Lord (20:20), and they received the sanctifying Spirit from the Lord Jesus at the same time (20:23). Notice that another theme of Jesus’ prayer, the fact that He would send the disciples in the same way that He had been sent, is also fulfilled at the same time. The prayers and sayings of Jesus were fulfilled in the very order in which He envisioned them when He prayed on the way to Gethsemane.

Jesus’ fourth specific request was for unity among his followers, and this began to be fulfilled even before Pentecost. Acts 1:12-14 records the names of the disciples and the fact that they and the other believers “continued with one accord in prayer” during the days leading up to Pentecost. This remarkable unity deepened and broadened as the church grew so that they not only continued in one accord in prayer but also in their material possessions (Acts 2:42-47).

The fifth request in Jesus’ prayer was that his disciples should be with him where He is [in heaven] and behold his glory. When Stephen was stoned to death he testified that he saw heaven opened and the Lord Jesus in glory with his Father, and it is the testimony of the apostles who have been given a vision of heaven that this is the daily experience of those who have “fallen asleep in Jesus,” that they are with Christ and behold his glory.

All five of the specific requests that Jesus made on the night He was betrayed were heard and granted. So what about his sixth request: “If it is possible let this cup pass from Me”? This is a singular request, because it is the only time in history when Jesus’ will was not the same as the Father’s will. Jesus here gives us an example of how to pray when we know for sure that our desire is contrary to the will of God. He knew for sure that He was going to die on the cross and that this was the Father’s will, but He prayed out his own desires anyway, subjecting them to the will of his Father. In this way his disciples were able to see and to testify that Jesus “learned obedience through the things that He suffered.” Jesus is our example for how to win prayer victories even when we know that God’s will is not something that is personally attractive to us. We are at liberty to express our desires to our Father who loves us, while at the same time submitting ourselves to what He knows is best.

An After-Action Report On The Disciples

Jesus won the victory over Satan in every temptation in Gethsemane and his prayers were heard and answered. Can we say the same about his disciples on that night? When they were tested, they did not have the spiritual training to continue in prayer for even one hour. In the moment of crisis they reacted not with mighty weapons of warfare, but with the weapons of the flesh—two puny swords with which they managed to cut off some poor guy’s ear. When the time came for putting their confident boasts into selfless deeds, it was every man for him self, running away from the battle as fast as their legs could carry them!

Could they have done better? Even though Jesus knew they were going to fail this test, He prescribed a way for them to prepare themselves. He instructed them: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.” If they had followed Jesus’ instructions and if they had followed Jesus’ example, they could have served their Captain as He intended.

I hope that as you read over the account of Jesus’ spiritual Battle of Gethsemane, you were stirred to desire to make a stand with Jesus when the time of your testing comes. The men of his original band learned from their experience of defeat and in their future assignments and tests became true heroes of faith. Simon Peter who behaved so shamefully on Passover night distilled the lessons he learned in just a couple of sentences: “Humble yourselves…be sober; be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him!”

If you desire to press through to victory in the spirit war, and if you desire to stand with Jesus in the day of testing without running away, then I would like to share with you a simple practice that God has given us to help.

Athletes spend the bulk of their time drilling the sub-skills that they use on almost every play. Soldiers constantly refresh their training by drilling the military skills that will most likely save their lives and the lives of their comrades when the crisis of battle comes, and by constant practice they are able to respond correctly to unexpected emergencies without conscious thought. The principle that they follow is to spend the most time drilling the skills that will be most often needed in time of crisis. So also, when we are training missionaries and disciplers, we concentrate on the skills that will be needful on a daily basis in spiritual combat. One of these skills is the proper wearing of the armor of God. When the Christian soldier is fully armed, he has set himself up to succeed in combat.

How To Wear The Armor Of God

When I train missionaries to wear the armor, I begin not by teaching how, but why to put it on. The first reason for putting on the armor is “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). The devil has a finite set of strategies in his arsenal, but you have no idea which of these weapons he is going to use on a given day; therefore you need to put on the whole armor of God. Realize that the devil is crafty and that if you come to battle unprepared, he will know exactly what area of your mind is unprotected and that is where he will concentrate.

But we are not in a defensive battle but an offensive one. Remember that Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Hell is on the defensive, but Jesus is breaking down the gates in order to establish his church. We are on the attack against “principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual [squadrons] of wickedness” (6:12). In what sense are we attacking? Well the whole purpose for putting on the armor is that we may pray “always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” (6:18). We do not put on the armor so that we can sit on the sidelines; we wear the armor because we fully intend to wrestle in prayer against God’s spiritual enemies. We are not praying for our own needs (it hardly requires heavy equipment to ask our Father to please meet our daily needs), rather we are committed to the spirit war of intercession. In particular we are wresting from spiritual princes and cadres the war booty they most lust after: the souls of men. First we are praying for “all the saints” (6:18) protection from the enemy of their souls and then we are praying for our comrades to open their mouths “boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel” (6:19). The enemy’s chief strategy is intimidation, but by prayer we defeat that strategy and pray even greater boldness for our comrades who are speaking the Word.

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Before we consider how to put on the pieces of the armor of God we should consider what it means to “put on the whole armor of God,” since that is what we are commanded to do. The parallel passages are Colossians 3 in which we are to put off the old man and to put on the new man (read “new Man”) and Ephesians 4:20-32. These passages can all be summed up in one verse in Romans (13:14) “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.” As you put on the armor of God you are actually putting on the new Man, that is you are putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. This is only possible as you put off the old man and stop making provision to fulfill the lusts of the flesh. It makes very little sense to take up the shield of faith after the flaming arrows are already searing your heart—first remove the arrows, then take up the shield.

Ready? Begin.

When you take up the belt of truth (6:14) first put off lies. Allow the Spirit to convict you regarding lies, hypocrisy or exaggerations; then repent these sins. At this point I mentally recite John 14:6 where Jesus says, “I am the truth”. When I put on the belt I am putting on the Lord Jesus who is the truth. Forsaking lying, I am all about the truth which is in Jesus.

When you take up the breastplate of righteousness (6:14) first confess that your own righteousness is filthy rags, not enough to stop a sunburn let alone a flaming missile. At this point I mentally confess 2 Corinthians 5:21, that Jesus became sin for me so that I could become the righteousness of God in Him. I confess the exchange that has already been made, my sin for His righteousness. That’s the breastplate I’m putting on—Jesus!

The shoes of the preparation of the gospel of peace should require careful thought. I change my attitude about my purpose in all that I am about to do today. I have no personal business; I am an ambassador of Jesus Christ with the feet of one who brings good news. “I determine not to know anything [to declare] except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). I rehearse the facts of the gospel in my mind; I remind myself that this is my only message. The message that I review is the gospel that I myself received: “that Jesus Christ died for my sins according to the Scripture, and that He was buried, and that He rose again from the dead according to the Scripture” (I Corinthians 15:3-4). I reconfirm my commitment to Jesus that I will give this message as often and whenever He gives me opportunity. Now I am armed with the preparation of the gospel of peace.

Over top of all of this other armor you must take the shield of faith. There is much to say about the way Roman soldiers used their shields and the flaming arrows that they defeated in this way, but I prefer to concentrate on the spiritual reality of the shield. You know that you have received forgiveness of sin and eternal life through faith in Jesus’ blood on the cross. Now you take the shield of faith by determining that you will live your life by faith in Him alone: you are not trusting your own common sense; you are not trusting your own financial assets; you are not trusting your self-discipline and work ethic. You live by the Spirit, so you must also determine to walk by the Spirit. Confess this: “Lord Jesus, all my faith is in you. In you I can do all things, but apart from you I can do nothing. You must stand between me and the flaming darts of my enemy; you are the shield about me.”

When you take the helmet of salvation (6:17) confess that Jesus is your head and your Captain. If you are not living under Jesus’ authority or if you are kicking against submission, then it makes no sense to pretend to put on the helmet of salvation. This salvation is not with reference to your new birth in Christ, but rather this is that ongoing work of Christ in your life by which He continues to sanctify and continues to rescue you. Don’t allow yourself to spend another day out from under His headship and authority in your life—get under the helmet. Tell him, “Jesus you are my head and my Captain and I am following you. Be also the strength of my life and my salvation.”

Finally, take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. When you take the sword of the Spirit, remember its two functions: first it is a weapon against any temptation of the devil, secondly it is a scalpel to perform surgery on hearts that need healing. Jesus is our example for using the sword as a weapon when He defeated Satan’s wilderness temptations in Matthew 4 always by quoting the Scripture. Hebrews 4:12 gives us the picture of the other function of the sword of the Spirit when it says the word of God is “living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword…a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” When we are carrying the sword of the Spirit, we don’t need to worry about techniques of persuasion, we have the right tool to reach the innermost part of the heart. But we are not the ones who wield the sword—it is not our sword. A Christian who steals the sword from the Spirit and starts swinging it around is a very dangerous soldier indeed, but not a threat to the enemy! Commit the keeping of the sword to its true owner and ask Jesus to wield it through you.

The sword of the Spirit is also a scalpel for the healing of our brothers and sisters. It can even differentiate the soul from the spirit as the great Physician makes his incision. Nothing is hidden from the eyes of the Holy Spirit as He performs surgery. But once again, He is the one who operates the scalpel. He is the only one who has been given the commission to convict every person in the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). When we try to perform surgery on another Christian’s sin, we tend to inflict a lot of unnecessary pain and usually end up with a bloody mess.

Here I have briefly sketched out a method that any serious Christian can practice. In just a few days of regular practice the Christian can increase his combat-readiness by several hundred per cent and become a much more effective soldier of Christ Jesus. But soldiers and athletes need more than just drills in order to become effective, they need these maneuvers and skills to be modeled in ways they can understand and follow. And nobody is more effective in the spirit war than our Captain Jesus.

I hope that by meditating on the example of Jesus’ warfare prayer in Gethsemane and his other famous spiritual battle in the Wilderness Temptations, you will gain a vision for what victory in the spirit war looks like and how it is to be achieved. It is also my hope that his example will motivate you and me to prepare ourselves by wearing the armor He has provided, that we may be able to withstand in the day of crisis. Let it never be said of us that we were so unprepared that we could not stand together in prayer with Jesus for even one hour.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Missions, Spiritual Life

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Overcoming The Obstacles To Persevering Prayer

Jesus’ Encouragement To Us

There is no hope for our country in the years ahead except if God will answer the prayers of His people for revival and a spiritual awakening. More than this, all of the things we most desire to accomplish for the sake of the kingdom of God in Christ are beyond our ability to bring about in our own power. Therefore, whenever I am asked to participate in leading the people of God, I remind them to pray for the repentance of their friends and family and for the repentance of our country. I have every confidence that God is already at work to respond to our smoldering coals of prayer, but I wish that persevering prayer in all the churches would blaze up into a holy fire among our people, a fire that would spread.

Wherever I go to encourage the saints and call them to prayer, I find that there are theological misunderstandings that hold them back from effectual (on-target) fervent prayer. The chief error that holds back the people of God from effective intercession is our preoccupation with rejection. When we are challenged to pray, our first impulse is to list the reasons why our prayers might not be answered. Our attitude becomes the fatalistic: “Let God’s will be done in the situation.”

If my own heart is any indication, this is usually laziness and cowardice masquerading as noble sentiment. We hide behind theological obstacles, because we are afraid to believe the promises of God and to act upon them with no other support but His. Then our human and worldly logic begins to tinker with God’s promises to build backstops, firewalls, and escape hatches so that we can have “solid theological reasons” for never entrusting ourselves to God in prayer.

God has made His will known and we must be about His business, applying His revealed will to the situations we find on earth and supplying specifics for the general prayer “Let your will be done on earth as in heaven.” When Jesus taught us to pray it was with the expectation that we would abide in Him, that we would discern His will, and that we would get what we ask for.

So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

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. 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 14:12-14)

If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. (John 15:7)

Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:24)

Jesus’ occupation is to look about Him for opportunities for the will of God and to do the works of His Father. When we share His outlook, we are praying according to the will of God and able to achieve even greater works by prayer. If instead of being occupied with these opportunities we begin to become preoccupied with the possibility that God may answer “No”, we will not be praying in the way that Jesus desired. Jesus’ every teaching on prayer leads His disciple to expect to receive what he requests for the sake of the Kingdom.

As we consider several “theological” obstacles to persevering prayer, I hope you will allow the Holy Spirit to cast down worldly logical arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God through prayer, and that you will see how to bring all of your fearful thoughts into captivity to obeying Jesus’ instruction and example in prayer. Where our fear has driven worldly logic to fabricate strongholds against trusting God, I pray that a growing faith will draw you into a deeper relationship with God as you trust Him to keep His word in the scripture.

Here are a few obstacles God has had to tear down in my mind:

Concerning Turmoil Of Heart: But Didnt God Answer No To Jesus In The Garden?

Sometimes when we are tempted to doubt whether God will answer our prayers, we try to find a way to let Him off the hook. “Well,” we might say, “God answers all my prayers, but some prayers He answers with a no.” Someone may point to Jesus’ prayer in the garden that God would “take this cup away from Me, nevertheless, not what I will but what You will (Mark 14:36).”

Let us be clear about Jesus’ prayer in the garden—He already knew what the will of God was, and He had already predicted three times (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:31; Mark 10:34) that He was going to die. This is an example of how we should pray when we know for sure that our desires are not according to the revealed will of God. Jesus expected a “No” answer to His prayer in the garden because He knew that His desire was not in the will of God—He still expressed His honest heart to the Father, but His prayer was that the will of God would prevail.

Because Jesus expressed both His honest feelings (“I don’t want to suffer this way”) and His deepest desire (“I want your will”), Hebrews 5:7-8 says this about His prayer in the garden:

in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.

The scripture teaches that Jesus’ prayer in the garden was answered, He proved His obedience by suffering an agony He would rather have avoided, and He was given victory over death through His powerful praying.

Concerning The Desires Of Our Heart: God Is Omniscient And Knows What I Want, So Why Should I Pray?

This is an entirely logical conclusion, but entirely false. It assumes the premise that the reason for prayer is so that we can inform God about our needs. Review Jesus’ instruction about prayer in Matthew:

And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. (Matthew 6:7-8)

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

Jesus makes the point that God knows what we need before we ask Him. This truth does not lead Jesus to tell us not to bother to pray—in fact He instructs us to pray regularly for our daily provision (6:11). He warns us not to substitute mechanical and rote repetition in place of pouring out our heart to Him. Our Father wants to hear our heart, and He wants to hear it often and repeatedly; but He is not waiting upon us for information.

Concerning The Lost: God Is Omniscient And Knows Whether My Neighbor Is Going To Believe And Be Saved, So Why Should I Pray?

We have all heard people speaking of prayer for the lost as though our prayers would somehow save them. We know that we cannot save anyone, nor can our prayers save anyone, but we are also instructed to intercede for unbelievers.

Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time (I Timothy 2:1-6, emphasis added).

Notice what Paul says he wants us to do for all people, what God wants to do for all people and what Jesus did for all people. Without trying to fully comprehend God’s omniscience, why is it “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” for us to intercede for the unsaved people we know? Perhaps the following quote will help you think through your answer to this question.

Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers, or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to cooperate in the execution of His will... It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind -- that is, His overall purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures. -- C. S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer”

Concerning Freewill: I Cant Ask God To Overrule Freewill And Change Their Minds.

This objection becomes less compelling when we consider that we attempt to change people’s minds every day by force of logic; why does it seem strange that where logic can never prevail we should seek to change men’s minds by prayer?

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.

And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” (John 6:44 and 6:65)

Jesus makes it clear that none of us would naturally choose Him if it were not for God’s work in our lives. We know regarding ourselves that we were “dead in trespasses and sins” before God made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-7). The only way we could have grasped the truth of the gospel is that God literally changed our minds. Before that, the things of God were foolishness to us, being spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14).

Meditate on this spiritual logic: My neighbor who is unsaved seems like a nice guy but he is incapable of grasping the gospel of Christ on his own. I am not capable in my own wisdom of convincing him of his need for a savior, but my sufficiency is in Christ who made me an able minister of the new covenant. Let me now pray Christ to enable me, and pray God to draw my neighbor, and pray the Holy Spirit to convince him of sin and of righteousness and of judgment (John 16:8).

Concerning Disappointment: I Tried Praying And It Didnt Work.

Most of us are too embarrassed to put this objection into words, but in our hearts it is a significant obstacle to us that some of the people we most desire for adoption into the family of God are still outside. We feel that it is a waste of breath to keep on praying: either they will repent and be saved or they won’t, but in our hearts we despair that continued prayer will not affect the outcome. To this the scripture replies:

Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving (Colossians 4:2).

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. (James 5:17-18)

Then Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of abundance of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; then he bowed down on the ground, and put his face between his knees, and said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” So he went up and looked, and said, “There is nothing.” And seven times he said, “Go again.” Then it came to pass the seventh time, that he said, “There is a cloud, as small as a man’s hand, rising out of the sea!” So he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, “Prepare your chariot, and go down before the rain stops you.”‘ (I Kings 18:41-44)

Elijah’s prayer for rain is held up for our example, but we often forget how hard he had to work at his praying. Notice Elijah did not say, “I tried praying six times and it didn’t work!” Notice how his attitude reflects the pleasing prayer of Colossians 4—persevering and watchful.

Concerning The Sovereignty Of God: God Does Whatever He Purposes, So Why Should I Pray?

For many years this was the single greatest stumbling block in my prayer life. God brought me under conviction through Jesus’ command to disciples in Matthew 9. It remains mysterious to me why the sovereign Lord of the harvest should ask to be petitioned to send out laborers to bring in His own harvest, but I had to humble myself and begin to pray.

Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)

When the sovereign Lord brings in the Firstborn Son and declares His decree in Psalm 2:7-8, note carefully what precondition is placed on the Son’s inheritance. Jesus had only to ask, but He did have to ask nonetheless. “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2b). Who knows what blessings we are missing simply because we do not ask?

Our family served a tribe of African nomads for many years and they always wanted to pray for rain. Whenever I had a long trip planned I would suggest that we should ask God to delay the rain so that I could have a dry road. My African brothers found this thinking disgraceful; they served the sovereign God, why shouldn’t they pray for both abundant rain and a dry road? In time I came to learn the truth that they held intuitively, that the sovereign God can be trusted to accomplish His purposes and also give us the blessings we desire. Many were the safaris that began with heavy rain and mud but cleared away to a firm roadbed half an hour down the track. Our God is of power to do abundantly more than we ask or imagine, so let’s ask!

A few days ago my youngest son helped me to replace the brake booster on my car. In order to encourage him about the value of his work I told him that we were saving $100 in labor costs on the job. He immediately replied, “That’s great Dad, let’s split it!” I told him that that was not what I had in mind, but as he good-naturedly persevered in making his request, I offered to buy him lunch at his favorite taco stand. Here is what I know: I have three kids for whom we always provide lunch, and on that day all three kids got lunch. But on that day, one child got tacos at his favorite place with his dad while the others ate peanut butter at home, simply because he was with his father and because he asked and kept on asking.

God’s sovereignty as He also personally interacts with me over my prayers is a deep mystery. On the other hand, why would I expect with my limited capacity to be able to understand everything about His way of dealing with me? I serve the God who does whatever He purposes, but who also values and responds to my prayers. This mystery is great.

Concerning Misplaced Priorities: I Am Too Busy.

Every honest Christian has found himself in the position of being too busy to pray. It comforts me a great deal to read in Luke 11:1 that Jesus prayed and then that “He ceased” praying. This helps me to realize that what the Scripture (I Thessalonians 5:17) means by “pray without ceasing” is not that I should never do anything but pray, but that I must never give up on prayer or drop it from my schedule. There is a proper time to each activity: Jesus prayed and then He ceased praying and began to teach. It seems, however, that the greater spiritual administrations are granted only to those who recognize the priority of prayer over all else. The sailors in Acts 27 were intent on doing all they could to save their ship and were so busy that they did not take time even to eat, but they were saved not by their valiant efforts but because one member of their company was actively seeking the Lord for their welfare. Paul was God’s agent to save all hands on board that ship, not because he was busy but because he was in prayer.

The business of feeding the poor was appropriate and good but it had overwhelmed the spiritual leaders of the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:3-4). They wisely asked for Spirit-filled men to take over the business so that they could be devoted to prayer. The daily distribution was a spiritual ministry requiring spiritual men, but the more necessary administration was intercession and the Word of God. The wise spiritual leader will prioritize, eliminate, and delegate and make time to intercede for those in his care.

Concerning Pride And An Independent Heart: I Dont See Why I Need Prayer Partners.

If prayer is powerful and if God hears me when I pray, how could it be more powerful to have many people praying with me? I would prefer to make my request known to God alone without involving others.

Jesus also places a high value on private prayer in His sermon on the mount (Matthew 6:6). He says that public prayer with the purpose of impressing others is completely valueless with God. But many people are reticent about sharing personal prayer requests with others simply because of pride—a lot of our desire for privacy is really reluctance to admit we have problems. The Bible answers this objection from two perspectives: ours and God’s.

From our perspective we know that God answers our prayers but He will answer the prayers of many even more powerfully than He answers the prayers of one. Hebrews 13:18-19 says in part “Pray for us…that I may be restored to you the sooner.” The apostle was in prison and had every confidence that his prayers for deliverance would be answered, but he wanted all of his partners to pray along with him so that he would be delivered even sooner.

From God’s perspective we realize that God prefers to answer the prayers of many people because it results in more thanksgiving. Second Corinthians 1:11 says that since “you also are helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many.” The Scripture confirms that prayer partners “help” in the work of prayer and also that one reason for recruiting help in praying is so that when God answers there will be joy and “help” in the thanksgiving.

Concerning Fear Of Rejection: I Might Pray For Something Good And Not Get It; That Would Embarrass Me.

This is the objection that Jesus especially wanted to answer in the parable of the friend at midnight:

And He said to them, “Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me on his journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within and say, “Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give to you’? I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs. (Luke 11:5-8)

If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12)

God may require you to ask repeatedly and for a period of time but He will not deny you something good in order to give you something less. Even pagan fathers feed their children with food they believe is wholesome; they do not always give the child the food he asks for, but they do not substitute a rock in place of good food. In the same way our heavenly Father responds to our requests, not always giving us the very things we mention, but always giving a better and more appropriate gift. It is His character to give liberally and not to reproach us when we ask for good gifts (James 1:5).

We often have to confess that we do not know what to pray for as we ought (Romans 8:26) and we often have to confess that we did not get what we thought we wanted (2 Corinthians 12:8); but this should not embarrass us, since it places us in the good company of Paul the apostle! One thing we never need to prepare for is that we will ask God for a good gift and be denied outright. He is our Father and He is good.

Concerning Responsible Leadership: I Might Pray For Something In Public And Not Get It; That Would Embarrass God.

This is the great inhibition of the spiritual leader. The spiritual leader who is enabled to overcome this inhibition will have no limit to his potential for ministry. The difficulty here is that we are called to “ask in faith without any doubting” (James 1:6).

It is certainly wrong for us to publicly call upon God for a response that we do not believe it would be possible or pleasing to Him to answer. Leaders who lead their people in praying faithless prayers or carnal prayers are destroyers rather than edifiers of the church of Jesus. But a leader who is able to take the needs of the people and bring those needs before the Lord publicly, asking for a public response that is directly in line with the revealed will and character of God—that is a pleasing shepherd. Let us simply be as sure as we can be that we are praying in accordance with God’s will and character as revealed in the Bible and then let Him take care of His reputation. We are assured that He will always act for the glory of His name.

Try this test as you formulate your prayer. Does the Scripture lead me to believe that this is the kind of prayer God would desire to answer? Does my burden for this need continue to grow so that I cannot get it off my heart? Discuss your request with a spiritually minded believer; can we agree together to seek God for this request? If I pray this prayer in public and God answers it publicly, will my faith be glorified or will God be glorified for His response? If I pray this prayer in public and God chooses to answer it other than the way I envision, will it bring reproach to Him or to me? This test prevents me from glorying in my faith when I should be praying in Jesus’ name for the benefit of His kingdom.

The command “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:16) speaks directly to public prayers of unbelief that are intended to test whether the Lord is faithful. This is the kind of prayer that embarrasses our Father, and we must be careful never to speak this way (as the Israelites did in the wilderness). But when we publicly take our stand upon the iron-clad promises of God and call upon Him to act in accordance with His word, how can He fail to be glorified among us?

Let us ask God to increase our faith so that we may ask the more!

Overcoming Confusion About Fasting

If the perceived obstacles to persevering prayer are primarily theological barriers, the objections to prayer with fasting are mostly experiential. Christians say, “I just don’t understand fasting. When I fast I don’t seem to make spiritual progress; all I get is hungry!” I think that more Christians would be willing to fast and would be more pleasing to God when they do if they could cut through the confusion about the purposes for fasting.

Let me say right from the outset that if you are a new Christian, this article is probably not going to be very helpful for you. Fasting is a spiritual tool to mature and deepen experienced Christians and is also a means that God has given to spiritual leaders to build unity in the church. If you are a young person or a young Christian you should not be surprised if fasting comes hard to you and if you sense little profit—keep on following the Lord Jesus and He will teach you the lessons of fasting at the right time.

If, however, you are a spiritual leader or have been a Christian for several years and still have not learned the power of prayer focused by fasting, you are missing an important blessing. Jesus will teach you many valuable lessons and will interact with you in deep and intimate ways as you seek Him out through prayer with fasting. Let’s begin to break through some of the barriers of confusion.

Concerning Power: I Dont Feel Any Increased Spiritual Power When I Fast.

People who are just beginning to learn the lessons of fasting sometimes “bite off more than they can chew.” Fasting just means abstaining from food and sexual relations for a period of time. Everyone fasts during the night while they sleep—that is why we call the first meal of the day “breakfast,” because it is the meal that breaks our daily fast. A good way to begin the practice of fasting is to choose a day and on that day to delay eating breakfast until after you have had a time of prayer and seeking the Lord. As you gain experience with the Lord in this, you may decide to take a whole morning for prayer and for seeking Him and go without any morning meal at all.

The spiritual power does not come from the fasting but from the time spent with the Lord. However, the quality of the time that you spend with the Lord will be enhanced as you focus your prayer with fasting.

People who are fasting in order to get some kind of spiritual power may be disappointed. The power that comes to a Christian who is regularly exercised by fasting is increased faith to trust God during trials. When Jesus was about to be tested in a one-on-one match with Satan in the wilderness, He spent forty days in prayer and fasting. His physical power was at its lowest level that could still sustain life, but His trust in the Father was unshakeable.

It is very difficult for Satan to overcome the prayer of faith that is focused by fasting. When Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a deaf and dumb spirit from a young boy, He explained to them that some demons could only be overcome “by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29, Majority Text). He did not mean that only someone who was praying with fasting could cast them out (since He Himself cast the demon out without a prayer) but that only those whose faith has been exercised by prayer with fasting would be able to persist until the evil spirit is overcome.

Concerning Unity: How Can I Join A Fast And Still Keep It Secret?

Jesus spoke very powerfully against hypocritical fasting, warning us not to fast so as to appear religious to others, “because they disfigure their faces [so] that they may appear to men to be fasting” (Matthew 6:16). Because of Jesus strong words, many Christians are afraid to join a fast in case they will be “doing it wrong.”

As with all worship, Jesus enjoys the worship of our true hearts and He hates hypocrisy. This does not mean that we should be afraid to worship Him, but rather that we should always focus our attention and praise upon Him rather than upon ourselves. Fasting pleases the Lord Jesus if it is practiced to focus attention upon Him, but it displeases Him if we are trying to get attention for ourselves.

The first time fasting is mentioned in the Bible is Judges 20:26. The people of Israel fasted together in the house of God because they wanted to inquire for guidance as a nation. When the people of God in a church or in any large group need corporate guidance from God, it is appropriate for their leaders to call them to prayer and fasting. It is not necessary to keep the fact of the fast secret—everyone will be fasting, so no one will look especially religious just because he is going without food. Fasting together promotes unity in prayer when the people of God share a common need.

In our church we call for times of fasting when we have a prayer request that concerns the whole church. All who are able will miss at least one meal on the appointed day, and we usually fast through the hour of the evening meal so that during the hour we would normally be eating, we are praying together in a public meeting. Sometimes we unite with other churches to pray for needs that are common to us all, and by fasting together the Holy Spirit is able to unite churches that are hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

Fasting can be private but in the Bible it is often public in nature, especially when it involves repentance for a period of rebellion against God. In Joel God commands the people three times to consecrate a public fast (Joel 1:14; 2:12; 2:15) in the anticipation that God would recognize their repentance and forgive their sins. In such cases it is good for the fasting to be public so that the repentance can be public, but again, the purpose in these corporate fasts is to unify the people around a common prayer request. United prayer focused by fasting is very powerful.

Concerning Urgency: I Enjoy Eating (And Sex) And Hate To Give It Up Even For A Day.

There are certainly a few illnesses (like anorexia or diabetes) that make fasting an unwise practice, but for most of us we are only limited by our own sense of urgency. We feel our physical appetites very keenly while our spiritual appetite prompts us only faintly. Fasting is good for us because we are sharpening the urgency of our spiritual hunger.

I know that I need to be more urgent about the things of the Lord, and one of the ways I do this is by deprioritizing my urgency about food. When men of God become very serious with Him about their prayer requests, it seems to come naturally to them to stop eating. You can witness this in David’s life when he prayed for the life of his newborn son (2 Samuel 12:16-23) and in Daniel’s life when he begged the Lord for the fulfillment of His promises (Daniel 9:3 and 10:3). Now and then (probably more often than I do) it is good for me to become more urgent about my deepest needs and less concerned about my physical ones. Fasting focuses my prayer on those deeper needs.

Another benefit that comes with this heightened urgency about the things of the Lord is a nearer sense of His presence. Jesus gave us some indication of this when He was asked why His disciples were not fasting (Mark 2:18ff). Jesus said that those who love Him could not fast while He was with them—they were too busy celebrating—but that when He was taken away from them, they would fast. Jesus’ friends who deeply long to see Him, fast as a natural expression of this longing.

This aspect of fasting is very personal and individual between Jesus and His intimate friends. Jesus Himself is fasting today as an expression of His longing to have us with Him in His Father’s house. He told us, “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). Fasting not only focuses our praying but it gives expression to our desire to be with Christ Jesus and in some unexplainable way draws our hearts to Him.

Concerning Consecration: I Am Busy And I Feel That My Service Honors The Lord More Than Monkish Disciplines.

It is hard for me to take seriously the objection “I am too busy to fast,” because fasting actually saves time. While I am fasting I don’t have to prepare food for myself and I don’t have to take the time to eat it. Instead of eating and fellowshipping with people, I fast and fellowship with the Lord Jesus. It saves time, and the time I save I invest in my relationship with Him.

The other objection that practical service is more valuable to the Lord than spiritual worship was the philosophy of Martha, a philosophy that Jesus directly rebuked. But the practical truth about fasts (that last more than 18 hours or so) is that physical energy stores are depleted and ability to concentrate or to work hard is diminished. Fasting is a radical choice to reduce our practical effectiveness in order to give our attention to worship—it is one of the clearest ways in which we give our bodies as living sacrifices of worship.

Besides all this, the Lord does not think of fasting as a passive spiritual exercise. Jesus fasted in order to train for spiritual battle. The Lord directed that while believers are fasting they should make decisions and take actions that will benefit others (Isaiah 58), and it is particularly pleasing to the Lord when we give the food we would have eaten to feed those who are in need (Isaiah 58:7). It is not passive Christians who need to fast, but those who are serious about doing battle against spiritual forces and taking practical action against unrighteousness. Prayer that is focused by fasting is not a passive or monkish exercise, but is a means of spiritual warfare. “We do not war according to the flesh; for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).

Purposeful fasting. Fasting is not recommended for the discipline of the body or for losing weight, and it is especially not advisable for making other Christians think you are special. But when a group of believers desire to draw together in united prayer, or when a disciple of Jesus sets apart a day to seek the Lord, fasting is the natural and commendable way to focus our attention and unite our hearts together.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Discipleship, Discipline, Fasting, Prayer, Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Life

Let No One Deceive You: Parting Words In A Time Of Storm

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When my family went back to America from a sixteen-year church planting mission in Africa, we expected to find some changes in our home country. But even though we prepared ourselves and our children for the experience, “reverse culture shock” hit us hard. Having grown accustomed to living in a tribe where people were on the edge of starvation, just walking around among very well-nourished Americans proved intimidating, like entering a land of giants. Everything about America can seem extravagant to a newcomer—the wide roads, the large homes, even walking into a Wal-Mart super-center made us physically dizzy. We had to gradually build up our resistance to the excesses of our own nation in small doses until we could return to “normal” life.

To tell you the truth, we never returned to “normal life” again. It was healthy for us to keep living a missionary lifestyle, eating simply, sharing transportation and maintaining a moderate footprint, since these were habits that seemed to lend themselves to physical and economic health. The lifestyle issues that were such a shock to us on our first arrival, however, mostly receded into distant background noise; and for the most part, our kids felt at home in the USA and we seemed to be able to fit in with our surroundings most of the time.

The one culture shock that we never recovered from, however, was the seismic shift in our country backward into paganism that took place while we were away in the 1980s and 90s. We were surprised at the extent to which human life had been cheapened, human sexuality had been perverted, and the environment had become a god to be worshiped. This regression identified itself with the label “postmodern,” because it went beyond the “modern” moral relativity of the twentieth century. The day’s opinion leaders claimed that moral standards were not just unnecessary, but that it was actually wrong for anyone to suggest universal standards existed.

What our culture called post-modern, the Greek New Testament calls “apostasy” meaning “a falling away”. Every generation of Christians in the last 2000 years has had to deal with apostasy in one form or another, but the generation that Jesus rescues at the Rapture will have to face apostasy at its most intense. If it is true (as many Bible students believe) that Christ will return in this generation, then the post-modern apostasy is the Great Apostasy that the Bible says must come first (2 Thess. 2:3; I Tim. 4:1). The Great Apostasy is that prophesied period of time when biblical teaching will begin to be generally mocked and rejected in cultures around the world and when Jesus’ identity as the Christ will be questioned even by so-called churches.

After ten years of living in America, I still didn’t get postmodernism, but at least now I understand what happened in our culture. I may not have the know-how to move our culture back toward health, but at least now I know where the cancer came from and what organs it is attacking; and I know where in the Bible to look for the right medicine.

This booklet was written as a letter to my home church in America when my wife and I returned to Africa again, to let the people dearest to me know how I prayed for their love to grow in knowledge and discernment, so that my brothers and sisters could thrive in a postmodern world, blameless until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:9-10). Like Paul’s letter to the Philippians, this is a letter to a very special missionary supporting church. My home church had to swim in the same poisonous waste-water as first century Philippi, and it too needed love based in a growing knowledge of the word of God. Just like the Philippian church, my home church needed to be able to recognize and “affirm the things that are excellent as the children of God in a crooked and perverse generation.” With a few changes, this is the bulk of that message.

It all goes back to the beginning

When I was a kid in Sunday School we had to memorize Psalm 100. I must have been about ten years old, and when I first heard it I laughed. It says we should know that it is the Lord God “who has made us and not we ourselves.” I thought, how ridiculous that anyone could imagine that we made ourselves! I immediately envisioned a tribe of people who were trying to make themselves, perhaps putting gingerbread dough in the oven and hoping people would pop out! As I grew up I realized that the Israelites in Psalm 100 did not have an irrational belief that they could make people—they fully understood that God created all people, but they needed to be reminded to give God glory for making the people into a nation. As an American I came to apply this psalm to give God credit for making our colonies into a great nation. We are not His chosen people in the way Israel is, but God formed our nation just as surely as He formed theirs, just as He has formed every nation on earth.

Today, however, many people are foggy about the basic facts, not only regarding the work of God in making nations, but even regarding God’s work of making people! Oh, they are very well-acquainted with sexual reproduction and with the biology of embryonic development, but they are unaware of the fact that God knits the embryo together in the womb or that God created the first man from the dust. Genesis 1 seems like a fairy tale to this generation; whereas to Christ, the first chapters of Genesis were an elementary history lesson: “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female,” Jesus said.

The critical moral quandaries of this generation—abortion, euthanasia, environmentalism, homosexuality, fornication (meaning sex without marriage)—can only be resolved by laying again the foundation of God’s creation. If people believe that they are just highly evolved animals in “mother nature’s laboratory,” then they have no basis beyond personal preference for discerning true morality. On the other hand, believers who know that God created them as human beings can resolve each of these moral questions on the basis of God’s stated design.

This is the fundamental test of our day. This is where we are either the light of the world or a candle under a basket. In America, the pilgrim generation was tested to see whether they would risk their lives on the open sea and in a wilderness land just for the opportunity to worship God freely. Then the Civil War generation and the Civil Rights generation were tested to see how much they would sacrifice for the truth that all races of men were created equal by God. The World War II generation in Europe was tested to see whether they would sacrifice to stand with God’s chosen people, the Jews. Our generation is being tested to see whether we will sacrifice to defend the truth that it is God who has made us and not we ourselves.

Brothers and sisters, let no one deceive you. When our generation is evaluated for better or for worse, the central issue of our day will not be our response to climate change or to economic recession. They will ask, “How did our fathers respond to postmodernism and the Falling Away?”

Let Us Make Man In Our Image

Let’s begin at the beginning. The first truth taught in the Bible is that God created the heavens and the earth. There are differences among believers regarding the time of God’s creation or the manner in which He created, but there can be no doubt that God is the one who took initiative to create everything in the universe, and that He created all of the galaxies from nothing. He not only created the heavens and the earth, but He also made every living thing on earth. This is the united testimony of Job (chapters 38-41), the Psalms (eg, Psalm 19), the prophets (eg, Isaiah 40:25- 26), and the New Testament apostles (eg, Acts 17:24 or 1 Peter 4:19). According to the Bible, the reason that God has authority to do whatever He deems best on the earth and the reason that men should obey Him is because He created everything and therefore has the right to determine the path and purpose of His creation (Isaiah 45:9-12). According to the Bible, one reason God is to be worshiped by all is that He created all things (Rev. 4:11).

On the sixth day God said: “Let Us make man in Our image,” an obviously corporate decision. In the New Testament (John 1:1-18) we discover that both the Father and the Son were intimately involved in creating, and in Genesis 1:2 we see that the Spirit also had an important role. The Bible reveals that God discussed and decided the plan of Creation—not that He was muttering to Himself under His breath, but God was resolving an important issue that required the active involvement of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The result of this interaction was that we should be made in God’s image, exercising His delegated authority over every other living thing God had made on the earth (1:27-28). Jesus was not a marginal contributor to this decision, but the Bible recognizes Him as Co-Creator with the Father (John 1:3; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16).

Any theories that deny God’s special creation of earth or of living things or of human kind strike at the heart of several of the Bible’s fundamental doctrines. For instance, when God called the tongue-tied Moses, He based His right to choose a spokesman upon the fact that He not only designed the human speech organs but also forms those organs in each individual who is born (Exodus 4:11). When God ordained the six-day work-week and set aside the seventh day for rest, He based this ordinance on the pattern He had set by creating the world in six days (Ex. 20:11).

There are some believers in Jesus today who do not accept what the Bible says about God’s creation of the world. Those most affected by post-modernism say that it doesn’t really matter anyway. They say that the first three chapters of Genesis are an allegorical description of what was in fact a process of some ten billion years that God may or may not have set in motion. But I seriously doubt that these believers have thought this all the way through. If living things came into existence through time and chance, and if humanity gradually evolved from other species, here is a partial list of the biblical doctrines that would lose their rationale:

  • Human stewardship over the environment.
  • The seven-day week and the principle of weekly rest.
  • Adam as personal head of our race and genetic ancestor of every human being.
  • Adam’s sin as imputed to the entire race.
  • Death as an enemy which entered a perfect creation as a result of sin.
  • Marriage as instituted by God rather than man.

The Scripture ties the doctrine of Creation also to the historical account of the Flood and the prophetic promise of Christ’s return. In 2 Peter 3:1-7 the apostle warned us in advance that during the Apostasy people would be “willfully ignorant of the fact” that God created the heavens and the earth with a word. He told us that the last-days generation would ignore the history lessons of Noah’s time when God destroyed the earth with floodwaters and that they would live in denial, pretending that the day of judgment would never arrive. According to Peter’s prophecy the first step of the fallacy will be to deny the accuracy of the Creation account, the next step will be to deny the historicity of the worldwide Flood, and the next step will be to deny the imminent judgment. Do you see how much of Bible doctrine hangs on that first sentence? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Since God created the heavens and the earth and Adam and Eve, the New Testament protects the freedom of every believer to choose marriage or to choose singleness (I Timothy 4:3-4 and I Corinthians 7). Post-modern thinking views sexual release as a basic human need and marriage as completely unnecessary for couples who are in love and want to live together. But the Bible views marriage as holy and something to be desired, simply because God created it. At the same time, the Bible models chaste singleness as a high calling exemplified in the lives of John the Baptist, Jeremiah, and Jesus Christ Himself.

Another important teaching that the Bible bases upon the Creation account is the masculine leadership role in the family and in the churches, a teaching that is very unpopular in our culture today. In 1 Corinthians 11 and again in 1 Timothy 2 the Bible gives specific roles for men and women in the church’s worship service, and in both passages the basis for masculine leadership is God’s decision to create man first and then to create the woman for the man’s sake. As the churches begin to deny that God created Adam from the ground in a special act of creation and then later created woman to be his ally, they will move quickly toward denying masculine headship in the family and in the house of God.

This is just a quick attempt at a partial listing of the Bible doctrines that are built upon the truth of its first sentence, but it should also be obvious that if the first sentence of the Bible is in any way inaccurate or fanciful, then the whole book is disqualified as a faithful history. Many people feel that they can affirm both Darwinism and Creation. They will say, “I believe that God can create the world however He chooses. He could make it in six days or He could create a colony of bacteria and let natural processes take over—it makes little difference to me.” But this is extremely short-sighted. Of course He could do it however He chose; but if God has decided to record something about the history of His actions, we have to presume He at least got the facts straight.

Consider this: if God created only the bacteria and then let Nature do the rest, then Adam as our literal and genetic ancestor is only a myth. Then Jesus was wrong about God having created all things, and He was wrong about God creating Adam and Eve as male and female and joining them together in marriage (Mark 10:6-9). Then Adam and Eve could not have committed the original sin, and sin could not have been imputed to the whole human race through the sin of one person. Then the Bible is wrong about the way that death entered the world, since there must have been trillions of deaths during the millennia leading up to human evolution. If death is not the result of one man’s sin, then Jesus’ death could not at one stroke pay the price for Adam’s original sin and could not turn back the clock to our original and deathless creation. Then there truly is no hope of eternal life. If the first sentence of the Bible is a lie, then none of the Bible can hold together.

Earth And The Environment As Man’s Dominion

An encouraging development in our culture over the past fifty years is that our environment is being much more carefully studied and preserved. This has been an important concern for believers from the beginning, since one of God’s stated purposes in creating mankind was to subdue or domesticate the earth and to have dominion over all the other creatures. This is a shared privilege and responsibility of all mankind, male and female equally (Genesis 1:26-29). The Scripture goes so far as to say that several vegetable species (the shrubs and plants of the field, Genesis 2:5) were created in seed form and did not actually sprout until Adam and Eve were on hand to cultivate them. The Genesis historical account explains that God created the earth and all that is in it as a habitable place for human beings, and then He created human beings to be caretakers over the planet. King David in Psalm 8 recognized this stewardship and was amazed that God would entrust the care of all His great creation into the hands of measly men.

Our concern over the destruction of species or the loss of habitat is an impulse that God planted in our hearts. We are not “tree huggers” but tree planters, and when the environment fails to thrive, we are charged with a responsibility to find out why and to change our own activities in order to promote the health of the dependent species. It pains me to hear Christians scoff at those with a legitimate desire to promote the welfare of our planet, since this is one of the few things that our culture is finally getting right.

The problem with the present approach to conservation is that it starts with a rejection of our mandate from God who owns all things. When people forget that God is the Creator and that we are simply the guardians He appointed to take care of His work of art, then they begin to create pseudo-religious myths to take God’s place. Teachers and politicians create mythic figures like Gaia or Mother Nature to whom they attribute the acts of God. Children are taught the myth that aboriginal peoples had great respect for the earth and that their pagan religions promoted ecological conservation. For instance the U.S. State Department currently prints this Mohawk prayer near the back of the U.S. Passport: “We send thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are glad they are still here and we hope it will always be so.” This is a symptom of the Apostasy that the apostles told us was going to come.

Regarding the false religion of environmentalism, the Bible says “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). In other words, human beings were designed to take care of the environment, and our desire to see the earth flourishing is natural for us. So then, when a society begins to deny God as Creator, they still have to do something with their God-given passion for environmental health. The result is that the more they deny God as their Creator, the more they will begin to worship the trees, the pelicans and the whales.

Over the past few years people have become so confused that many now feel humanity is acting as a pest and a parasite upon the ecosystem, and that something has to be done to curb the expansion of human population. This confusion too results from their denial that God created the heavens and the earth perfectly, and man in harmony with creation, until sin entered the world.

The problem with our environment is not that there are too many people—in fact, the only command of God that mankind has ever consistently obeyed is “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” This was God’s command to Adam and Eve and one He re-affirmed to Noah and his family after the Flood. Wherever human beings have taken our stewardship seriously, our habitat has been able to support surprisingly dense settlement. No, the problem is not over-population; the problem is sin. After the explosion of human sin and debauchery that led up to the Flood, God placed relational distance between us and the other animal species (Genesis 9): we were permitted to eat them for food and they were made to instinctively fear us. This tension will continue to accelerate during the generation of the Apostasy to the point that the wild beasts will begin to habitually prey upon people (Rev. 6:8), something that mankind has never experienced except in a few unusual instances.

The answer to the environmental aspect of the Falling Away is for Christians to know and to defend God’s purpose in creating mankind and to personally pursue that purpose energetically.

One of the hallmarks of the coming Kingdom of our Lord Jesus is that the creation will again flourish under our care (Romans 8:18-25). When we are revealed as the sons and daughters of God, a new era of freedom will be initiated not only for us but also for beast and bird, flora and fauna. I hope that in the future I will hear more and more that believers are not only speaking the truth about God’s creation but are also effective in causing the creation to prosper and rejoice.

Marriage

There are actually two accounts of the way God created man and woman, and these are recorded in the first two chapters of the Bible. In the Genesis 1 account, the Bible simply says that God created man both male and female in His image, that He accomplished this on the sixth day and that He gave mankind dominion over all the earth. In the Genesis 2 account, we discover that God made Adam out of the dust of the ground and then breathed life into him. We further discover that God created woman afterward by taking a rib from Adam as the raw material from which He made her.

These two accounts are in no way contradictory. The first account shows the order in which God created the earth and all that is in it, while the second account describes in more detail the steps He took to create mankind. When Jesus quoted from the Creation accounts, He believed them both to be equally true.

The Creation accounts conclude with a statement by Adam (Gen. 2:23 “she shall be called Woman!”) and a statement by Moses the history-writer (Gen. 2:25 “the man and his wife were both naked and unashamed”). But there is a sentence in between these two statements that might have been made either by Adam or by Moses. The sentence reads, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This is a mysterious sentence in the historical record because we have no indication about who was speaking. Did Adam say this as a prediction? Did Moses write this as an observation or as some kind of mythic explanation?

Surprisingly, Jesus taught that this mystery sentence should not be attributed to either Adam or Moses but to God Himself (Mark 10:7-9). It was God who as our Creator stated the principle that a man should leave his father and mother and become one with his wife. This was God’s idea from the beginning and one that He instituted on the day of Eve’s creation. Jesus taught that no human being has a right to break apart the marriage that Creator God designed and put together.

In this passage, Jesus was especially speaking to the issue of whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife, and Jesus’ conclusion was that divorce is the exact opposite of God’s original design. Jesus taught the scandalous doctrine that the person who divorces a spouse and then marries someone else is committing adultery. But His primary concern was not whether through legal sleight of hand someone might be able to justify getting a divorce; Jesus’ passionate zeal was to restore His Father’s original design. He felt we should be more concerned not to deface God’s beautiful creation than rationalizing how to satisfy the fine print of Moses’ law.

In the United States until the last fifty years, divorce was a cultural scandal, and people who did not know God would often continue in dysfunctional marriages simply because divorce was so culturally stigmatized. But after the sexual revolution of the 1960s most Americans came to feel that it was better to divorce than to live miserably together. They even came to believe that it was better for their children to live in a broken home than in a miserable home. Today’s young people have seen the pain caused by divorce in their parents’ generation and their grandparents’, and many are deciding that marriage is neither necessary nor desirable for couples in love who just want to live together. These are mere symptoms of the post-modern logic that is leading our culture toward the apostasy described in the Bible.

The answer to the marital aspect of the Falling Away is found in Ephesians 5:22-33. The Apostle Paul says that not only did God institute marriage with His mystery sentence in Genesis 2:24, but He also designed marriage to be the metaphor for the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Church. Jesus not only taught us what marriage was intended to be, He showed us in flesh and blood. He demonstrated how a husband makes loving sacrifices for his wife and how a wife responds by obeying her husband.

Jesus Christ also modeled for us how to live a chaste and single life without living alone. He showed that the greatest fulfillment in life does not come from food or from sex but from doing the will of His Father. He commended those who choose the single life for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Falling Away is refuted, resisted and answered by every married Christian who selflessly sacrifices out of love for a spouse, and it is answered by every unmarried Christian who finds true satisfaction in Christ Jesus.

Jesus’ teaching is in complete harmony with Malachi’s prophecy (2:13-16) that God “made them one” and that “He hates divorce.” The prophets recognized that one of the major reasons for alienation between God and man was that people were dealing treacherously with one another and “profaning the Lord’s holy [institution] which He loves.”

Some Christians give the impression that they have given up hope that marriage can be restored in a nation where divorce is common, as though marriage were some kind of cultural idea to start with and dependent on a healthy culture to foster and sustain it. Not so. Marriage is an institution created by God for the good of mankind and as a sample of the richness of Christ’s relationship with His church. It is a cultural universal in every human society, and it is an institution that can be recovered in any home in any culture where a man and his wife determine to submit to their Creator. I hope that among believers in Christ, there will increasingly be inspiring stories of marital restoration and reconciliation that will light a pathway for others back to the One who created mankind in His image, male and female.

Sexuality

Not only is there hope for marriage wherever Christians are living faithfully, but there is hope for improved health in our sexuality—even in communities where there is no Christian witness. This is because God’s design in the two sexes is indelible and because He created it with a failsafe provision, so that human beings could know how to behave even where His written instructions are unavailable. Even in societies that have never had the written testimony of God’s law, every culture in the world has been able to deduce God’s institution of marriage, and every culture in the world has drawn similar parameters to constitute legitimate marriage. The Apostle Paul writing in Romans 2 says that “this shows the work of God’s law written on their hearts.”

There are many species that God hardwired for monogamy, but that is not what we are talking about. Humans are different because our behavior is not merely controlled by instinct but is also filtered through a conscience. Paul goes on to say to the Romans that even the most pagan society knows instinctively what standards of behavior are appropriate, but when people fail to live up to those standards they suffer the conviction of their own guilty consciences. Whatever depths of paganism people reach, one thing we can always know is that people are hardwired from birth to seek a monogamous marriage partner, and no matter how much they praise “free love” and pretend to be “okay with a bit of promiscuity” their consciences are bothering them.

Humans grasp sexual differences and differentiate their behavior from a very early age, making it almost impossible for a society to get this part of God’s will wrong. The Bible says in Romans 1 that societies have to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” in order to legitimize sexual immorality. They also have to deny God and refuse to honor Him as the Creator. As long as they continue to suppress the truth and live in denial about God, these societies can develop an appetite for depravity that infects the entire civilization leading to societal breakdown. But this is an unnatural way to live and deeply unsatisfying for those who are so infected. The history of the Romans themselves shows us that as soon as the society decayed to the point of breakdown, the people gladly returned to accept the message of Jesus Christ. The history of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin also demonstrates how a society may destroy itself through sexual immorality almost to the point of extinction but will then naturally return to the societal norm that God hard-wired into human beings when He made them in His image, male and female.

The Bible does record instances where ethnic groups departed so far from the knowledge of God that they could not reset. God destroyed the earth with the Flood in response to human depravity so abysmal that He had no choice but to start over with one family. Again roughly twenty centuries before Christ, the city-states of Sodom and Gomorrah were utterly destroyed in response to their sexual immorality and homosexual acts. But generally speaking, God’s twin witnesses of instinct and conscience have kept pagan cultures on track even without the Bible as a guide.

Besides our instinct for monogamy and our God-given conscience, people also have the Bible, if only they will listen to it. Regarding the beauty of human sexuality the Scriptures give roughly equal parts positive affirmations for the joy of sex in marriage and warnings regarding the consequences for sin. A good summary is found in Hebrews 13:4, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed is undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

God does not treat all sins equally, but requires capital punishment for seven crimes besides murder (Leviticus 20): sacrificing your children to a pagan god, seeking out a demonic spirit-guide for yourself or someone else, cursing and abusing your own parents, committing adultery with another person’s spouse, committing incest, committing homosexual acts, or committing bestial acts. While it is true that any sin separates us from God and needs to be made right, it is not true that all sins are equally evil in God’s sight. In His list of seven sins that are an abomination to Him, four are sexual in nature, and all of these are universally recognized to be sins even in cultures where the Word of God has never been translated or distributed. We all know instinctively that we should not cheat someone else’s marriage or our own partner; we are all instinctively repulsed by the idea of sexual behavior with a close family member or an animal or a person of the same sex. But here in Leviticus 20 God tells us how strongly He abhors these behaviors.

In many nations these moral principles were also codified into law until recently. During our lifetime, many societies have changed to the point that many of the acts that are an abomination to God and were at one time punishable by law are now protected civil rights. This is what we should expect if we are approaching the time of Christ’s return and entering the generation of the Apostasy. But Christians should be able to wisely witness to the truth that God did not create us to behave in this way. We should be armed to point out that sexuality is celebrated in the Bible, is honored by all cultures, and is holy to a married husband and wife.

The answer to the sexual aspect of the Apostasy is found in I Corinthians 7:1-5. Let each man marry a woman and let each woman marry a man and let them not deprive each other of sexual attention and comfort, and let them be faithful to one another.

We say this not because it is more convenient for us or because we are conservative traditionalists; we say this because God tells us He designed us to behave this way. I am dismayed when Christians do not know how to argue for sexual morality, or when they say as the world does, “Whatever works for you...” I hope that my Christian brothers and sisters will be bold about celebrating marriage and vigorous about defending marriage in this age of darkness. I hope we will clearly point out that sex was God’s idea and marriage is His institution created for its expression, and that He is the only one who has the authority to prescribe true sexuality for mankind.

The Coming Apostasy: How to Thrive

As I conclude this letter, I sense a great urgency, and it’s not just because of how important it is that God made us and is the sole authority over His creation. I also feel urgent because Jesus is coming again. Jesus preached several parables to press home His last message from the Mount of Olives, “I am coming for you and my reward is with me. I am coming unexpectedly. Be on the alert because I could come for you at any time.” People who take Jesus’ message seriously affirm His imminent return, meaning that Jesus could come today. And when He comes we will be caught up to meet Him in the clouds. This is His glorious promise to us.

Jesus’ imminent return is only half of the story, however. There is still one prophetic event that takes place before Jesus comes to gather us to Himself, and it is called the Apostasy (or the Falling Away, you can read all about it in 2 Thessalonians 2). Elsewhere in the Bible it is called a time of peril, a time when evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse. Jesus may come today! If He does, our generation will either be famous or infamous—not because we survived the Great Recession or the Great Climate Change! We will be known for better or for worse as the generation that lived through the Great Falling Away.

The Apostasy is not the same thing as the Tribulation. The Tribulation is a time of trouble that will come upon Israel when she is betrayed by the Antichrist and persecuted. The trials of that terrible time will come upon the whole world as a punishment that is almost unimaginable, and I have good reason to believe that you and I will not experience those terrors. No, the Apostasy is not the Tribulation; the Bible says that “the Apostasy comes first” before the Day of Christ. If you and I are caught up in the Rapture when Jesus returns, it will be because we have survived the period of time called the Apostasy, the deception that will cause so many to fall away.

The first deception comes when people begin to deny the opening sentence of the Bible. When people cease to believe that God created the heavens and earth and Adam and Eve in His image, then they will begin to worship the creation rather than the Creator; they will reject God’s institution of marriage, and He will abandon them to homosexual acts. The second deception comes when our so-called churches begin to question whether Jesus is the Christ and become susceptible to those who say, “The Messiah has come and is preaching here or there.”

Brothers and sisters, it is upon just these two prophetic points that we are revealed in our time as either the light of the world or a candle under a basket. If we criticize the Nazi generation in Europe for “just following orders,” how will we respond when our culture and our governments press us to suppress the evidence for intelligent design? When all men speak evil of us and call us intolerant? When our simple affirmation of God’s design in marriage and sexuality is mocked in the media as bigotry and hate speech? Will we too “follow orders” and refrain from mentioning Jesus except “when it is allowed”?

Dear brothers and sisters, I am persuaded better things concerning you! Let us not disappoint with either violence or cowardice; let it continue to be for us simply Jesus, all day every day, to the last day.

Jesus told us the way to survive the Apostasy and also to thrive. He said, “Make disciples of all the nations, teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you. See, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” I have every hope that we will not go into hiding during the Apostasy. No, we will not be stockpiling food and arms. We will be among the faithful who make disciples to Christ Jesus right up to the day He returns. If Jesus returns next year, He will find us making disciples, and I pray He finds us faithfully teaching all that He commanded us, right to the end of the age.

Let us pray that God may open up a door for the word, and that we may speak boldly the mystery of Christ Jesus the way we ought.

Maranatha,

Colin, 2011

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), False Teachers, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Missions, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

The Praying Leader

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Leadership is the runaway hot topic for our generation. Books about how to be a great leader just keep rolling off the presses: several of those books I have read, and several are staring at me from the shelves in my office. But it is difficult to find modern advocates for the type of leadership that is described in the first six chapters of Acts. Those chapters tell the story of people who are not great leaders, but who are empowered to lead because they have “devoted themselves to prayer.”

The apostles were clueless about how to carry out Jesus’ commission, but they knew they were supposed to wait in Jerusalem. They had not proven themselves to be outstanding entrepreneurs or charismatic leaders; they did not have graduate degrees in theology, but there was one thing they had learned thoroughly from the Master— they got the waiting right. They were unified “with one mind, continually devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14).

This is more than what our generation calls spiritual formation. Each individual in the upper room was about to be radically transformed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and each of the Twelve had been through the spiritual formation boot-camp of three years with the Lord Jesus. There is no denying the formative power of their discipleship to Christ Jesus; but when we look at what they did, it was the united prayer of the apostles for direction and for spiritual breakthrough that became their leadership hallmark throughout the rest of their lives.

These men devoted themselves to prayer when they were just a handful of disciples and were still devoted to prayer when they numbered one hundred and twenty (1:15). When three thousand were added to their number in one day, the new members learned the lifestyle of the apostles “and they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (2:42). Their miracles were accomplished in passing while on their way to prayer (3:1; 16:16); their initial reaction to persecution was to pray together (4:31); in the face of overwhelming work and responsibility they re-dedicated themselves to prayer (6:4). It is not only that they were praying men, but that they prayed together and that they brought others together to pray—this was the secret of their leadership.

Identifying Our Greatest Need

In the face of great and pressing need and explosive numerical growth, they understood what we do not: more than anything else our people need from us our united prayer for them. What is the greatest need in your church and in your community? Isn’t it the need for repentance, for spiritual hunger that only Jesus can fulfill, for changed hearts that result in changed lives, for restored marriages and families, for spiritual revival? I have come to realize that all of the things my people need most, only God can provide.

This is not to say that we can do nothing to help people. Most of the affirmation I receive from people results from a word of instruction or counsel or from a plan that they can implement or a project that they have participated in. I love this affirmation and secretly covet it and I deceive myself that since this is what they say they appreciate about my ministry, then this must be what I am doing right. But the words and the plans and the projects are meaningless unless the Holy Spirit is at work to convince the world of sin and to purify for Himself a people. He provides the life and the spark. People need His Word not mine, they need not my ministry but His, and this is the truth I must keep constantly fresh in my mind. But what a great joy it is when His ministry comes to them through mine!

Actually this ministry of the Spirit is not only what my people need most, it is also what I want more than anything. My greatest desire for my own children is that they walk with Christ; my greatest desire for the people in our church is their sanctification; my greatest desire for my community and my nation is spiritual awakening and revival. These are works that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish, and I participate in His work through prayer. Christ Jesus directly discipled and equipped twelve men over a period of three years, but His ministry of intercession has spanned twenty centuries and has been effectual for hundreds of millions. What my people need most and what I want most will be accomplished by following Jesus’ model of interceding for the saints according to the will of God.

Do we have ambitions to minister to greater numbers of people? Then let us ask ourselves whether we are able to make more disciples than did our captain Jesus. Do we desire our churches to grow? Then let us ask whether we are interceding adequately for those He has already entrusted to our care. The servant is not greater than his Master, so if we are Jesus’ servants then let us imitate Him by discipling a few and praying for them much.

To invite this lesson deeper into our hearts, let’s take a brief Bible quiz. Who was the greatest preacher in the Bible in terms of conversion ratios and numbers of converts? We have almost no information on the size of Paul’s churches or numbers of conversions, but we know that the apostles had 3000 conversions from one sermon— that is a productive day by any measure. But it would be hard to beat Jonah, don’t you think? Every person he met during his ministry was converted including the sailors on the ship and the whole city of Nineveh with its population in excess of 120,000 (and by some estimates close to a million). And it wasn’t just the people who were saved but the king ordered even the livestock to fast and wear sackcloth, and the Lord counted the livestock in His deliverance (3:7, 4:11). You have to admit, that is a pretty impressive result: a one hundred per cent conversion ratio, plus all the animals!

So if Jonah is the champion, who would you say is the least successful preacher in the Bible in terms of conversion results? Almost all of the faithful men of God whose stories are told in the Scripture had pretty slim results: Jesus’ “Bread of Life” sermon took Him from a congregation of more than five thousand down to twelve men in a single day; Moses discipled Joshua and Caleb while losing an entire generation; Noah rescued three sons and their wives while losing the entire population of the world! But the all-time record probably goes to Jeremiah, because not only did he fail to convert any of the people he preached to, but even he himself was kidnapped and taken to Egypt in defiance of the word of the Lord (Jeremiah 42-43). Moses, Noah and Jeremiah could not point to spectacular numbers, but they have this witness that by faith they pleased God.

Brothers, if our primary goal and desire is large numbers of people, then we have Jonah for our model, a man with a hard heart and one miserably self-centered prayer. If our primary goal is to please the Lord Jesus, then we have the Lord Himself for our model and all the apostles and the prophets, and if He is our model, then we must become people of prayer.

A Natural Overflow Or Disciplined Work?

Jesus taught us to pray to our Father in heaven and to approach Him as a loving Father who wants to give us our desires. Some believers who have enthusiastically embraced this picture, find it difficult to understand the need for discipline in prayer or the need for investing large amounts of time. They recall childhood conversations with their own fathers that were brief, single-topic exchanges and then it was off to the next thing. Those who are new in Christ pray just this way, in snatches and exclamations that are entirely appropriate and beautiful; we love to see their childlike faith in action. Even those who are maturing in Christ should come to their Father with childlike faith, bringing to Him what is most on their hearts without feeling the need to frame a prayer as though it were an act of Congress.

But as sons mature and begin to enter the family business, they will have more intense discussions with their fathers, and many of the discussions will involve mutual interests that run much deeper than the self-centered monologues of a toddler. It is not that mature sons stop talking with their fathers about their own problems and joys, but they become capable of understanding things in their fathers’ world—they are able to “be about the Father’s business.”

Jesus modeled this on the first full day of Peter’s discipleship when He got up “a long while before daylight, and went out to a solitary place, and there He prayed” (Mark 1:35). Peter and all of the inhabitants of Capernaum had plans for Jesus to get right to work meeting the needs of hurting people, but Jesus pursued the discipline of taking time with His Father in discussions about the family business. By the time He was ready to begin the workday, He had a very clear agenda—He told Peter that instead of meeting all the needs in Capernaum, they were going to go out into the surrounding towns, because that was the plan most consistent with His mission.

Do you imagine that Jesus needed daily “staff sessions” with His Father in order to know what He was supposed to do? I don’t believe it. While He emptied Himself of the privileges of godhood, He never ceased to be God. He would always have behaved godly, and He would always have known what would please the Father in every situation. Jesus spent time alone in prayer because He loved His Father. Whereas being with the disciples and the crowds was draining, being alone with His Father was pure pleasure; it was exhilarating, refreshing fellowship. Prayer for Jesus was not a discipline like deprivation dieting and calorie-burning exercise are for us; the discipline was not a painful exercise but a regular carving out time for enjoyable fellowship.

In my present ministry, the Lord has surrounded me with partners, men that I respect and love. My senior pastor comes by to visit me, often for thirty minutes or more, every day that we are in the office together. Those visits and conversations are often the highlight of our day. We don’t spend most of our time “getting on the same page” or going over details, mostly we are just sharing our lives with one another. But it is a discipline for both of us, in that we need to take the time away from the press of daily business to carve out time for fellowship. Likewise prayer is not a sweaty exercise, but it is a discipline.

Not usually a sweaty exercise, we should say, because one night prayer was precisely that for our captain Jesus. He said to Peter, “Are you still sleeping? Couldn’t you stand watch for one hour? Stand watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation!” (Mark 14:37) On that night prayer was hard work for Jesus, work that was exhausting for Him to do alone; but when He most wanted prayer partners, they let Him down. They did not have a very mature view of prayer even after three years of training.

During those three years, Jesus had taught them not only how to come to God with childlike faith, but also how to pray adult prayers. In the Majority Text reading of Matthew 17:21 He taught them that there are demons who can only be cast out by prayer with fasting. He surely did not mean that they should have begun to pray and fast when the demonic confrontation occurred (He Himself did not model that!) but that prayer and fasting needed to become part of their discipline if they hoped to be able to do battle with such powerful demons. In Luke 11 He told them not only to pray to God as their Father but also to ask and keep on asking like a man pounding on a door at midnight who refuses to accept “no”. In Matthew 6 He told them that they should not make lengthy, drawn-out prayers since the Father already knows every need, but in Luke 18 He told the Parable of the Unjust Judge to teach them “that men ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Is prayer a natural outflow of a living relationship with the Father? You bet. But for adult children it is also a discipline.

My dad lives three time zones away in North Carolina, and we rarely get to see each other. He is also not much for computerized communication. If we are going to stay in touch, it has to be by telephone. So I block out an hour every two or three weeks to talk with my folks. It is enjoyable, the conversation is natural, it is not hard work, but the time needs to be taken or we will never talk until an emergency occurs. I want a deeper relationship with my dad than just a few sentences during crisis times. Now that I am an adult I am capable of understanding his world in a way I never could as a child or even as a teenager. Now we can talk about the stuff he is doing, and it doesn’t have to be all about me. Now there are even times when I can enter his world as a partner.

This is the absolute icing on the cake for the believer who has cultivated an adult relationship with the Father. Jesus tells us that we should keep our eyes open and when we notice that the fields are ready for harvest, we should beg the Father to send out workers into the field (Matthew 9:38). It is not that the Father doesn’t know the state of His own harvest, but He desires to include us as adult children in His great work. Imagine being so up-to-speed with the Father’s business, that we can mention to Him the signs we see of people who are ready to enter His kingdom. Has it begun to penetrate our hearts what it is to be a co-heir with Christ Jesus? In eternity we are going to share with Jesus the whole kingdom! If we, then, are heirs of the family business, do we have no part and no interest in building the business today?

There is a measure of mystery here. Since Jesus made the complete and sufficient sacrifice and did all the work of redemption, and He is doing all the work of salvation, and it is all by His grace apart from any work of ours, anything we try to do to help will in fact ruin His great work. Since it is all by His grace apart from any good we can do, where could we ever get to contribute, to play a part in the harvest? This is the point at which a properly reverent Calvinism has sometimes been taken to its illogical extreme and has become fatalism; however, Jesus taught us that we could play an important part if we would be willing to discipline ourselves to pray. His work of atonement is complete but His work of intercession goes on, and He deeply desires that we would join with Him in it.

An Audit Of My Ministry Hours.

Personally, I don’t need to be convinced that prayer is my primary means of entering into the work that God is doing in the world around me. The apostles are my example; men who shared their leadership responsibilities with others so that they could invest their days in the main thing: “we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). But am I the only minister who has wondered what this looks like when it is lived out? I know that I spend about 12 hours per week in the study of the Scripture and about five hours in discipling and teaching people to do all that Jesus has commanded. An audit of my ministry hours easily verifies that I am being faithful to this commitment. But I am reticent to make an audit of my prayer time. For one thing, I don’t like to feel that my time with the Father is work. More than that, I don’t want my praying to be quantifiable, because it seems sacrilegious to measure worship by the clock. Also, I don’t want to publish my audit in case another minister stumbles into competition with me or lest I begin to think too highly of myself. However, I am seriously deceived if I think there is much danger of that; far more likely is the embarrassment that I will feel when it becomes obvious I am a laggard compared to the truly spiritual ministries of the mighty men of God during reformation times and the Great Awakening.

E.M. Bounds is a great one for reminding us that those mighty men disciplined themselves by making audits of their hours. He tells of Charles Simeon, John Wesley, John Fletcher, Martin Luther, Ken Leighton, Adoniram Judson, Samuel Rutherford and Robert Murray McCheyne. When they audited their hours every one of these men was spending between two and four hours a day in prayer, and it is Bounds’ conclusion that two hours of prayer is a minimum daily requirement for any conscientious spiritual leader.

The missionary who most gives me pause though is David Brainerd. His praying lit the fire of the first Awakening in this country and his praying has been an inspiration to generations of spiritual leaders, but Life and Diary of David Brainerd is excruciating to read because of his melancholy labor in prayer. When I first read the Diary I determined that his was one example I would not emulate, because he was so driven, so obsessive about the discipline of praying. But it is wonderful to follow Brainerd as he begins to associate more and more closely with the Indians as his people: his prayers become more intercessory and less self-aware, and prayer becomes a joy to him. That is the kind of missionary I want to become.

Well, I am still reticent to publish my ministry audit for all the reasons already mentioned and for the further reason that we have each been called to unique ministries. My partner and senior pastor spends more time than I do in study, because his primary ministry to our congregation is to preach the word. My primary ministry is the pastoral care and discipleship of our adults and of our missionaries, so I have more people that are my prayer responsibility. When you and I give our accounts before Jesus’ bema, each of us will stand or fall based on the evaluation of our Master who gave us our individual assignments. And we will certainly stand, because God is able to make us stand.

However I have come to agree with E.M. Bounds that two hours of prayer is the minimum requirement to fulfill my responsibility to intercede for the people Jesus has already entrusted to me. I would be embarrassed to ask Him for more people and more responsibility until I am able to meet this level at least. And since my overarching prayer for the ministry He has given me is revival and awakening in America in my generation, then it is simple common sense that I should follow the example of the mighty men God raised up to lead America’s previous awakenings.

I am offering you my conviction regarding the time I need to be spending in prayer. Let me also confess my true state: I have not been meeting this level of discipline over the past three weeks or more. But I can say that I am praying with joy in the Holy Spirit, and it is not a sweaty exercise! So with integrity and candor let me share what I have learned about praying for at least an hour a day with both discipline and joy.

How To Pray For An Hour A Day Without Getting Stale.

Having already confessed that two hours are a minimum for the work God has called me to, I could wish that I were already laying hold of this minimum. Actually, I have a very effective idea in mind about how to get there, but it would not help anyone. The natural disposition of my personality is to set out a goal and to “gut it out” until the goal is achieved. What a travesty of prayer that would be! How could I imagine that my Father would be blessed because I am able to force myself to endure two hours in his presence? It is against duty-driven people like me that God said, “Couldn’t one of you just get up and shut the door to prevent this useless kindling of fire on My altar?” (Malachi 1:10 paraphrased).

Do you feel that your regular scheduled prayer time is stale and useless? Does it ever occur to you that maybe God feels the same way about listening to your stale praying? How can we balance the spiritual discipline of prayer with the vibrant give-and-take of a personal relationship?

The answer is in the tension between the Scriptural injunction, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and Luke 11:1 where Jesus prayed until “He ceased.” The principle that the apostles taught and practiced was a life oriented toward God in prayer, but Jesus by His own example showed that there is a way to pray through to a conclusion and there is no need to pray beyond that conclusion. In fact, He specifically instructed His disciples against empty repetition beyond the logical conclusion of our praying—that is what pagans do because they think that there is merit in long hours of time and large numbers of words (Matthew 6:7). This kind of praying by the clock harms our relationship with the Father, because it perverts our fellowship with Him into a human work and His gracious attention to our requests into the merest magic.

However it is quite possible to keep a regular prayer time without turning it into a work. One way is to include variety. My ministry partner hates to pray from lists, so instead he associates his daily prayer requests with his various daily activities. There are some needs he prays for in the shower, some needs he prays over at mealtimes, and some needs he prays for while he is brushing his teeth. I have never been a multi-tasker, and this method does not work for me at all; but I did learn an important lesson from a chance comment by Charles Swindoll when he said that the first thing he does when he opens his eyes in the morning is to begin thanking God. What a great idea! In the two minutes after the alarm goes off and before I get out of bed, I thank God for another day to serve Him. Without any effort at all I also thank God for the good gift He has given me in my wife who is still asleep next to me. This has become a habit of life, and one that has added grace to my days.

There are probably dozens of ways to add variety to our praying and to intersperse prayer throughout our daily lives. Each of us will discover ways that keep us sharp and interested. This year my primary praying takes place in the morning before I leave home, and during the first hour that I am in the office, and during the half- hour after lunch. In the morning I am confessing my sin and inability and begging God to help me; in the office I am interceding for the people, and after lunch I concentrate on the needs of a handful of people for whom I have long-term commitments to intercede.

While my wife is getting ready for the day and preparing our breakfast, I have about fifteen minutes of quiet in which I can’t help but review the plans for the day and the worries that are at the back of my mind crying out for attention. Jesus is teaching me that I don’t need to be anxious but that He wants me in everything by prayer and supplication to make my requests known to Him. Please don’t imagine that I am vigorously praying through a list of other people’s needs before 6am! This is much more like a pre-combat confession, where I am reviewing the specific things that are staring me in the face and am telling my Captain that I feel inadequate in myself but that I trust Him, that He has made me an able minister of the new covenant.

When breakfast is ready, I wake the boys and we do not pray over our meal. Instead we sing a song or hymn that is really a prayer set to music (eg. “O God our Help in Ages Past” or “There is a Redeemer”). We don’t have great voices at that hour of the morning but it helps our family to pray together in a meaningful way. Then after we eat, we read a chapter from the Bible and take turns interceding for others. This whole breakfast mini-worship service adds about fifteen minutes to our morning preparation time but it is probably the most significant daily leadership role that God has given me. Becoming a praying leader must begin at home.

By the time I arrive in my office, I have already been in communion with God for at least half an hour, but because the prayer styles are varied and interspersed with other activities it feels as though I have been praying without ceasing from the minute I opened my eyes. It is 7:30am and the office building will remain dead quiet for the next hour. I could get a lot done in that hour! I could study my text for the message I am preparing or I could work on the newsletter that needs to go out tomorrow or I could reply to missionary correspondence that has been piling up lately…

Brothers, this is the moment of my day when prayer becomes work, proper work. There are people in my congregation who will be interviewing for jobs today and they need their pastor praying for them. There are men and women who are being bullied and intimidated in their witness; some feel hopeless about their marriages or their adult children; some are just beginning the journey of discipleship and will certainly come under spiritual assault. Now I am armed for spiritual battle, and now I ignore the red light that tells me I have phone messages and the crowded calendar and unfinished business, and I partner with the saints to do “the work of the ministry.”

But it is just at this point when the multitude of other important tasks clamor for attention. John Donne was amazed at how easily he was distracted from his prayer ministry by a buzzing fly or a carriage passing by in the street. I am more easily distracted by the myriad of things I need to be doing as soon as I get finished with praying. O how slow of heart! As though what I think I need to get done today is in any way more important than what God intends to do—what He intends to do with me and through me. As long as I am in the body, I will probably always struggle against this liability to distraction, so I have decided that when a thought comes into my head about something that needs to be done, I will write it down on my to-do list immediately. Then I will pray about that specific task. And then I will go back to interceding for my people. Somehow I know that God will “take care of the shop” until we are done.

Forgive me, I don’t mean to leave the impression that I regularly intercede for the needs of the people for a solid hour every morning. When I get tired or run out of requests that seem urgent, I review Scripture or get a cup of coffee or even check my inbox for new prayer requests, and then return to intercession. By 8:30 I’m ready to tackle the list of today’s projects.

Another discipline that I learned from my ministry partners is that when we hear a prayer request, we pray for it immediately. This means that all morning long as we receive email, we are pausing to pray for the needs that people are mentioning to us. When a phone call comes in, whichever pastor takes the call prays with the caller. Often these prayer times over the telephone accomplish far more than the caller expected, and God (not the pastor) receives the glory.

Besides the needs of the congregation and our missionaries there are a handful of people that I make a commitment to pray for on a daily basis. Usually these are the men I am discipling or the couples I am counseling. I pray for them during the period just after lunch when I find that I have a limited capacity for creativity or imagination. I pray for them down the list of requests that I know are the biggest needs in their lives, and they know that I am praying for them every day at lunchtime. Am I getting drowsy or unable to concentrate? Then I read a chapter in a devotional book (this month it is Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer), and then return to the business of praying. Many times these disciples will call during their lunch break with fresh prayer needs, and I am pleased to be able to tell them, “I was just now praying for you!”

These times of solitary prayer lay a foundation for an even greater variety and fellowship in our prayers with others. This year the Lord has gathered a missionary prayer team that meets to pray with me every Thursday at noon for the specific needs of our members overseas. There are two very small groups of disciples that meet with me each week, and we place an emphasis on praying together for one another. We encourage our congregation to write their prayer requests and place them in the offering on Sunday, and each week when our elders or pastors meet together we take the requests and pray out the needs of our people before the Lord. I am a prayer partner for two missions that our members have launched and so I meet with those prayer teams once per month. There is also a prayer team that meets in our home every Sunday evening. Each of these prayer groups has a different focus and a unique flavor and composition. We are learning that it is possible to pray without ceasing and never to be bored or disinterested.

How To Bring Others With You

It is possible to live a life of prayer and never become bored or boring, but it is also quite possible to get into a rut. We know from painful experience that prayer meetings can be dull, and even the most fervent prayer teams can degenerate without spirit-filled leadership. How can a praying leader ensure that his group stays on track?

The most common cause of this degeneration that the leader must guard against is staleness and sin in his own life. When the leader shows by his attitude and actions that he feels capable in his own strength to carry the work forward, the urgency goes out of the prayer group and the glory departs. The leader must continue to cultivate a heart of dependence upon God and must be daily proving His sufficiency if he hopes to call others to join him in prayer. The scriptural promise of effectual prayer is to the righteous man; the carnal leader will never win great victories in the spirit nor will he be able to encourage others to rely upon spiritual means to accomplish the business of the kingdom.

Next to our personal fellowship with Christ Jesus, our first priority as praying leaders is to lay a solid and shared theological basis for praying together. Does that seem to be at odds with leading interesting and exciting prayer meetings? Well, it might be if we pursued this priority like a seminary course, but that is not the only way to build upon a theological foundation! Rather, a skillful leader can do this in just a few sentences at the beginning of a prayer meeting before any specific requests are mentioned.

Paul laid a shared theological foundation for prayer at the beginning of 2 Corinthians (1:11) when he told them that they were “helping together” by praying for his missionary team. This verse tells us that Paul believed prayer helped in his daily deliverance, that partners praying together helped even more than believers praying individually, and that one of the main reasons for praying together is so that God will receive more glory when we thank Him together for His answers.

We must always guard against turning our prayer meetings into Bible lessons, but in five minutes or less it is possible to greatly heighten the awareness of common purpose in prayer. This will encourage passion and perseverance in the group and it will cause the requests and the intercession to focus much more on the business of the kingdom of God than on the business of the group and its members. The business of the kingdom is of earth shaking significance, and prayer partners who understand their part in conducting that business will not soon lose interest.

Are we praying for the Lord to provide the right personnel for some work in His Kingdom? Jesus’ example in Luke 6:12 inspires us to pray as He did before setting apart workers. Are we waiting on the Lord for financial provision? Paul’s message to his supporters in Philippians 4 is encouraging and emboldening. Are we asking God to adopt new children into His family? Five minutes of meditation upon I Timothy 2:1-6 will add power and confidence to a unified prayer team.

When inviting people to join a prayer group it is also important to state the prayer focus or common prayer burden from the outset. One of the weekly prayer meetings that I lead focuses on praying for revival in our country beginning in our church. When we meet we want to know about specific needs in one another’s lives, but we all come with the anticipation that we will be praying together for revival and spiritual awakening. This mutual understanding of our purpose for meeting helps us to avoid the deathtrap of shallow prayers far removed from the glory of Christ in His church. Once a prayer group starts down the road of self-absorbed “sharing”, all of the energy bleeds out.

A group that meets once per month to pray for a local mission began to lose focus in just this way. The host had a family need that everyone in the group took to heart, and we spent part of our prayer time supporting him and praying for his family and I am glad we did. Over the next couple of months other members gave similar requests until finally we were spending only about ten minutes of the hour praying for the mission and its outreach. As the group lost its focus, it also lost its urgency and the members became less committed to consistently gathering together. The prayer leader regained the initiative and restored our focus by sending out a list of specific prayer targets to each member of the group on the day before the meeting.

Prayer groups die when they lose their sense of united purpose and become self-absorbed, but prayer power can also be quenched in a meeting when one or two people monopolize the time. This is just self-absorption in another suit of clothes. The members need to learn that when they are leading out they should pray to the point and then pass the baton. Generally sixty seconds are sufficient to make a request and to state the grounds for the request. When I hear a child going on and on to his parents about why he needs something, I wonder why the parents don’t make him be quiet. If the request is legitimate, it should not take a dozen paragraphs to justify it, and Jesus has already made it clear how He feels about needlessly lengthy prayers. We need to trust that if we leave out an important point, someone else in the group will press that point when it is their turn to pray, and even if they don’t, “the Father knows what you need even before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).

Prayer time is just about the most valuable resource that God has given us to steward, and the prayer leader must make a budget and stick to it. The first few minutes are needed for the group to gather and greet one another and then five minutes are needed for the leader to recall the group to its common purpose and to remind the believers of God’s encouragement and desire to hear their prayers. Then the wise leader will begin to remind the members of God’s answers to their recent praying and will give opportunity for praise and thanksgiving from the members. There also needs to be time set aside for the members to share prayer requests that relate to the group’s purpose. An hour can easily evaporate leaving only a few moments to actually do the work or praying. This is like spending millions on research and design and then having nothing in the budget to actually build the project!

To avoid the fiasco of prayerless prayer meetings, the wise leader should clearly communicate the anticipated end time. When busy Americans are in an open-ended meeting they become very nervous—it is as if someone has left the faucet open and their precious hours are being poured down the drain. Everyone rests more easily when the leader tells them the end from the beginning. The leader should also make it clear how much of the time he expects to spend in actually doing the work of praying, so no one feels devalued when he has to cut short the time of sharing requests.

The last common dissipater of prayer power that I must mention is neglecting to sharpen the point. I am not convinced that it does any good at all to pray, “Lord, bless our missionaries;” there may be some value in this for some saints, but it is not possible for me to pray this prayer and mean anything by it other than some pleasant niceness that everyone can agree on. The blur and the haze that result from such general prayers cannot abound to the glory of God, because no one can ever point to a specific answer to praise Him for. It is risky to ask God specifically to supply the $90,000 needed by March 1 for Missionary Smith to secure a church building, but when Mr. Smith reports the arrival of the funds at 10pm on February 28, there is great glory and it all goes to the Father. Remember blind Bartimaeus. His general plea “have mercy” was only a starting point, and then Jesus asked him (Mark 10:51), “What do you want Me to do for you?” I doubt he would have received his sight had he said, “O, just bless me and my family and the rest of my synagogue.” We have been granted the power of Niagara, but how often we fritter it away by refusing to bring it to bear.

Praying For Spiritual Breakthrough

One way my partners are teaching me to steward the spiritual power of praying in Jesus’ name is by identifying “breakthrough prayers.” By “breakthrough prayers” we mean requests that: 1) advance Jesus’ kingdom in measurable ways, 2) advance our mission in Jesus’ kingdom, 3) can only be accomplished by God, and that 4) we agree together to pray persistently with fasting.

An Old Testament example of breakthrough praying was Ezra’s leadership at the Ahava Canal (8:21-23). He brought all of the exiles together for a period of fasting. He established the basis of his prayer upon the reputation and kingdom of God, because he had told the king that God was able to protect them more effectively than an army could. The request was specific and measurable: if they were attacked or if they died of hunger or thirst through not finding “the right way”, it would be obvious that God had not answered their specific request. They purposely went without an escort in order that their safety could only be explained by God’s protection.

This is strategic praying in its highest form. Ezra understood from the Word of God how important their mission was in His plan and kingdom. With the vision of God’s glory clear before him, he prayed with absolute confidence and carried forward the purpose of God in his generation. Ezra’s administrative work was important and his faithful attention to detail obviously played a part in the success of his mission, but his crucial contribution was his determination to seek the Lord and to call his people to seek the Lord for His help and direction.

A New Testament example of this kind of strategic praying is the leadership team at Antioch Church (Acts 13:1-3). At a crucial point in the history of the church, as the first mission team went out specifically to carry the gospel to the gentiles, the church leaders met together for two periods of prayer focused by fasting. In answer to their first breakthrough prayer, the Holy Spirit gave them direction about whom they should send. Then they apparently prayed afresh with another period of fasting (v. 3) for the success of their missionaries, and the rest of Acts 13 and 14 details the answer to that prayer. Near the close of that period of spiritual breakthrough, the apostles again followed this pattern with each of the churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, appointing elders and praying together with fasting (14:23).

Every autumn our church leadership spends several weeks in prayer seeking to refine our breakthrough requests for the coming year. Since 2001 we have been praying every year for ten new missionary families to send to the field by the end of 2010. So far the Lord has given us three families that have gone out and the rest are still in preparation, but our whole congregation is in united prayer for those whom the Lord is identifying in answer to our prayer.

Breakthrough prayers help our faith to grow. In 2004 we prayed that we could lead fifty people to faith in Christ, and the Lord gave us 51. This was far beyond our fruitfulness in previous years, so we were emboldened in 2005 to ask for ninety people that we could baptize (we had been averaging fewer than 20 baptisms per year), and He gave us 87. We noticed that our youth were desiring a greater involvement in the prayer revival, so in 2006 we asked for seventy students and seven teachers whom we could lead to faith in Christ (notice how far our faith had grown in two years) and He gave us 164 students and two teachers! We were thrilled by the direct answer to our prayer, but we were a bit disturbed that only 32 of us were involved in the actual fruit of the evangelism, so in 2007 we are asking for fifty of us to be able to lead at least one person to faith in Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit seems to guide us into the prayers He desires to answer as we set ourselves to seek the glory of God and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

How Breakthrough Spreads

Breakthrough prayers allow us to partner with other churches. We have a special relationship with one independent church in La Pine, Oregon and another in Richardson, Texas. We can’t be in more than one place at a time, but because the leaders of these churches have identified breakthrough prayers, we are able pray accurately for them and to participate in the fruit God is producing among them. Last weekend the Lord allowed the Oregon church to baptize six of their young people many of whom were facing stiff opposition, and we had part in this victory by prayer. This week I hope to see some visiting missionaries from our partners in Texas whom I pray for every day. I began to pray for these missionaries simply because I was interceding for my Texan brothers who desire a breakthrough to Muslims in their community and around the world.

Revival and spiritual awakening is a work of God that He effects by answering prayer. As our churches notice His answers, our people grow in faith to ask for more… and the more they ask, the more they receive. A cascading effect of growing faith and increased prayer results in the spiritual momentum called “revival”. And the revival spreads when the praying leaders of one local church join with the praying leaders of another. This is true revival that begins with repentance at home.

Let me conclude with a prophetic word concerning Israel’s future, a scripture that 260 years ago became the theme of America’s Great Awakening (Zechariah 8:21):

The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying,
“ Let us continue to go and pray before the LORD,
And seek the LORD of hosts.
I myself will go also.”

Related Topics: Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors, Prayer

The Prayer Seminar

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This seminar is a teambuilding Bible study for a group that already has a long-term prayer target. One of the challenges for long-term prayer teams is to stay fresh and engaged, and this seminar was designed to sharpen and refresh the fundamental skills of individual prayer warriors while building teamwork. By the close of the seminar we anticipate that God will give us a body of answers toward our team prayer target. The individual team members will have grown in their faith, understanding and skill in intercessory prayer. The team itself will be growing deeper in unity of vision and purpose as the members pray together week by week for their shared requests.

During the seminar the team will take six months to pray toward the same target every time for an hour each week. Typically the team takes ten minutes to reconnect with one another and share recent answers to prayer, 15 minutes to learn from a biblical example or teaching on prayer and then 35 minutes to pray together toward the target using the pattern or doctrine they have just learned. We never want to spend more time talking about the requests than we spend in actual prayer, so the leader has to keep an eye on the clock or else the team needs to budget more time for the prayer meeting. The conclusion regarding the “one thing” prayer may need to be spread over two weeks and should include a time of thanksgiving and celebration for the ways God has answered us.

The seminar schedule has been thought out and tested with several groups, but it is not inflexible. Some weeks the team may be unable to meet. Sometimes it may make sense to take a particular week out of order. For instance the pattern of prayer with fasting may be moved to coincide with a public fast day for the wider fellowship. If the whole church is fasting on a particular day, and if the church leadership is willing to accept our prayer team’s target, it is spiritual wisdom to align our day of prayer and fasting with the church-wide fast.

1. Jesus: The Model Prayer (Matthew 6 Forgiveness; Luke 11 Provision)

Jesus taught us to pray as His disciples, and the model that He gave us is probably the best place to start. The Lord’s Prayer is not a formula for praying by rote but a pattern to help us, especially when we are just starting out as a prayer team. When a cook is preparing a particular meal for the first time, she will follow the recipe very closely, but as she gains confidence and experience she will feel free to make substitutions and to personalize the dish. In the same way we learn to follow Jesus’ model by praying the Lord’s Prayer. We learn to address God as our Father; we learn the areas of our greatest need where the Father is most interested in responding to us, but as we mature we will personalize the recipe and emphasize different aspects depending on our present situation.

I like to start by reading aloud the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6, pointing out the meaning of each sentence. Then if I am leading the seminar I will start with the prayer, “Father in heaven, hallowed be Your Name.” I will pray a sentence prayer reflecting that desire, for example, “Father, I worship You above all things; I pray for Your Name to be known and honored today in our church and our city today.” When each prayer team member has had an opportunity to pray the hallowing prayer, then I can move on to pray, “May Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

Often it is good to start by praying around the circle, so the leader can tell when everyone has had a chance. But sometimes there will be new members who are shy and don’t want to have to pray aloud. In those cases it is best to ask members to pray as they are moved by the Spirit being sensitive to others who also want to pray. You may want to remind the team of the ABCs of team praying: make your prayer Audible, Brief, and Clear.

When praying, “May Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we should all visualize how fully God’s will is being done at the present moment in heaven. This will aid us in developing a clear concept of what we are asking when we say, “Your will be done on earth.” One team I prayed with for several years concentrated on praying, “may Your kingdom come” in the United States where we were living at the time. This led to a study of previous revivals in America and an expectation that the Lord would bring a fresh revival in answer to our prayers.

Most teams find it easiest to pray for provision. Give people plenty of time to pray, “Give us today our daily bread,” but remind everyone that this is a prayer regarding immediate needs not wishes far into the future. Jesus Himself emphasized asking the Father for provision in Luke 11:3-8, but forgiveness when He presented the model in Matthew 6:12-15. What will we hear our prayer team emphasizing when we pray the Model Prayer? As we use this pattern in our team prayers today, let’s notice how our team prayer target corresponds to the needs Jesus points out in His prayer, and let’s take our example direct from Him. At the close of the prayer time, the leader should follow Jesus’ pattern with the benediction, “Yours is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

2. Zechariah: People’s Advocate Prayer Pattern (Zech 3:1-5; Hebrews 7:23-25)

No matter what our prayer target, God will bring about the answer through people, people whom we know and perhaps can name in our prayers. Sometimes the people involved will make disappointing decisions, and sometimes they will fail. One clear example of a disappointing leader was Joshua the High Priest during Zechariah’s prayer ministry. Joshua had been commissioned by God to return to Jerusalem and re-build the Temple that had been destroyed. He obeyed and went to Jerusalem, but because of hardships, lack of funds, and political opposition, he never really got started on the construction. He somehow managed to build his own nice house, but after fourteen years he had done nothing about the house of God!

When Zechariah is allowed to see into the heavenly courtroom, it is no surprise that we see Joshua dressed in filthy clothes and suffering interrogation and defamation from the prosecuting attorney, Satan the Accuser. But we want our prayer team to enter the heavenly courtroom on the side of the defense, where Jesus is the Angel of the Lord and the People’s Advocate. He is the One who stands up to defend Joshua and He is the One who defends us from Satan’s accusations when we fail and when we disappoint (Heb. 7:25). Today, as we pray our team request, let us be aware of the heavenly courtroom where we have taken our place, and let us stand up with Jesus on the side of His people, especially in areas where they are spiritually weak or areas where they have disappointed us.

This is the only vision in the Bible that I know of where the prophet is allowed to participate and affect the course of the vision. Notice that Zechariah pipes up from the back bench and tells the angels how to improve their cleanup operation—and they follow his directions! Pretty cool answer to prayer, isn’t it? Once when I was leading a team to pray the People’s Advocate pattern, the Lord showed me that there was one person I could not effectively advocate for. I would start out praying for his ministry to be established and two sentences later I would be criticizing him in my heart. It helped me a lot to follow Zechariah’s example and ask the Lord to “put a clean turban on his head.”

We can start following this example by praying for our leaders. Then we can pray for our family members. Then we can pray for those who have been charged with elements of the team’s prayer target. It is not necessary to mention any of the ways these brothers and sisters have failed (in the vision only Satan did that) but we can simply pray for the Lord to cleanse them, strengthen them, and establish their leadership.

Let’s decide together not to bring any accusation against any of Jesus’ people before the Lord, but to say what Jesus says, “This one is Mine, snatched out of the fire.”

3. Elijah: Watch & Pray Pattern (I Kings 18:41-45; Col 4:2)

There is a lot in this short passage, but for the purposes of our team we want to notice what it meant for Elijah to pray with “vigilance” (Col 4:2). First of all, he committed himself to the prayer request, going on record with King Ahab that rain was on its way in answer to his prayers. Secondly, he was not just sending up general prayer, but was asking for a particular blessing with definite time constraints. Thirdly, because he was so thoroughly committed to seeing the answer, he kept asking for updates until he saw the tiny beginning of God’s answer. Finally, as soon as he started to see God moving, he himself went into high gear, putting into effect his plan to get down the mountain and away from Jezebel’s counterattack.

I like to point out to veteran prayer warriors that as Elijah grew in his prayer ministry, it actually took more time for his requests to be answered. When Elijah prayed at the beginning of the drought (1 Kings 17:1), he only had to pray once. Then when he prayed for the healing of the widow’s son (1 Kings 17:21), he had to pray three times. But now at the end of the drought (1 Kings 18:44), Elijah had to pray seven times before he saw his prayer begin to be answered. We should be encouraged as we notice that our perseverance in prayer is growing; it means that the Lord trusts us to keep on praying no matter how long it takes.

The Watch & Pray pattern really resonated with one of our prayer teams in Africa, and the team began incorporating a sort of “weather lookout” during every prayer meeting. One day the team realized that we had been praying for weeks to have 20 people reading the Bible with us, but we had never gone out and bought the Bibles. If the Lord had immediately answered our prayer as He did for Elijah, we would not have had enough Bibles to go around. So part of Watch & Pray for that team was to purchase 20 Bibles and dedicate them before the Lord while continuing to ask for Him to send the readers.

Today we want to see the Holy Spirit stir this kind of expectancy in our hearts and we want to pray with vigilance. Have the team “get up and look toward the sea” by sharing some of the ways they are beginning to see progress toward the team prayer target. Ask, “What if God started to send our answer this week? Would we be ready to move into high gear? What preparations should we be making now in case we see the tiny cloud the size of a man’s hand?”

4. Praying in the Name of Jesus (John 16:23-24; James 4:2-3; Phil 4:6)

Jesus promises to give us whatever we ask in His name. This does not mean that we should use His name as part of a prayer formula as though He had given us the magic words. Instead it means that His promise relates to those requests we bring on His behalf for the sake of His people and His kingdom. The opposite of praying in Jesus’ name is to pray for our own personal benefit and ease of life. We often ask to be spared problems and to have a smooth road through life. It is not wrong to pray for safety and smooth transitions, and in fact Philippians 4 tells us that our Father in heaven wants to hear our hearts about whatever is currently making us anxious or causing us pain. Of course He does—any Father would—but these are not the prayers Jesus has in mind when He tells us to pray in His name. These prayers are purely for our own ease and our own kingdom. The Lord does want to hear us talk with Him about whatever concerns us; but the promise is not that our lives will be made easy, but that whenever we ask something for Jesus’ sake, He will do it for our sake.

We can illustrate what it means to pray in Jesus name with the picture of a company expense account. Let’s say you have been entrusted with a credit account to print advertising for your company, and you can go into the print shop at any time and get brochures and posters printed on the company credit account. You are placing requests and orders in the name of the company and for the good of the company. But if you need to print invitations to your son’s birthday party, you are expected to make those orders on your own account and not on the company account. Jesus’ promise is that you have an unlimited credit line to ask whatever you need to carry out the ministry of His kingdom. He will make sure you get it. But if what you really want is just an easy life, He never promised us easy.

As a team, let’s take a step forward into spiritual maturity, and pray our team request, not for our benefit and comfort but for the glory of Jesus and His kingdom.

PS. Praying in Jesus’ name is a good example of how to pray according to a promise made in the Scripture. But there are dozens of promises in the Scripture that can guide and confirm our prayers, and next week we will be practicing with some of them. At the close of your meeting today, tell the team that they should do some research and come prepared next week with a promise or two from the Scripture that means a lot to them.

5. Daniel: Standing on the Promises Pattern (Daniel 9; Jer 25:8-11)

Have you noticed how full of promises the Old Testament is? God gives His people a promise and then just a few pages later we can see Him deliver on it. But just like today, there were some promises in the Old Testament that God took a long time to fulfill. Jeremiah 25:11 is one of those. God had told Jeremiah that He was about to punish Israel by forcing them to leave their homes for seventy years of exile. Daniel was just a teenager when this exile occurred, but at some point (perhaps on his birthday!) when Daniel added the years up (Dan 9:2) he felt that the 70-year time period was up and the answer was due! What was happening? Was God delaying to honor His promises?

This is an important prayer pattern for us to learn and follow. Daniel did the hard work to study and determine exactly what the Lord had promised. Sometimes we are lazy Bible students and just latch on to any sentence in the Scriptures that sounds comforting to our situation. But Daniel shows us how to be diligent in discerning the Scriptural promises that apply most directly to our prayer target. Then Daniel stood firmly on the promise of God and refused to accept any further delay. His diligence in applying the Scripture by faith gave him boldness in prayer.

This is a more challenging prayer pattern than the earlier ones because it requires some independent Bible study and willingness to do our homework. Some team members may have a number of promises by memory and some may be at a loss to recall any. Invite someone to lead out in prayer and then the rest of the team can come along behind and support that prayer with the promises. Here is a list of a few Bible promises we can stand on, but also encourage the team to add to this list. Let us find the promises of God for our situation and let us pray God’s mercy and urge His action (Dan 9:19) regarding our team prayer target today.

Promises We Can Stand Upon

Psalm 23:1 “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack anything.”

Psalm 34:17-18 “They cry out, and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves those who have a contrite heart.”

John 10:28 Jesus promised, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand.”

John 14:13-14 Jesus promised, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”

Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good to those who love God, those who are called according to His purpose.”

Philippians 4:6-7 If you pray instead of worrying, “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your heart and mind through Christ Jesus.”

Mark 13:10-11 Jesus promised, “The gospel must first be preached to all nations. When they arrest you, do not worry beforehand what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak it; for it is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit.”

I Corinthians 15:58b “Your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

Matthew 28:20 Jesus promised, “I am with you always even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 11:28-29 Jesus promised, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

6. Praying According To The Will Of God (I John 5:13-15; Rom 8:26-28)

Jesus made a going-away promise and repeated it three times (John 15:7; 15:16; 16:23-24) so that we could always know for sure that whatever we pray for we will receive. The conditions are not onerous: we are to pray in Jesus’ name; we are to pray according to His will, and we are to abide in Him. But sometimes our experience of prayer does not seem to bear this out. We think we are fulfilling the conditions, so why don’t we get what we are asking for?

Paul explains in Romans 8 that when we pray, both Christ and the Holy Spirit intercede for us in perfect accord with the will of God, something we could never do for ourselves. In this way our true spiritual desires are always granted by the Father who can’t say no to His children or to His Spirit or to His Son. But this explains why sometimes our prayers are not answered according to the exact words we prayed when we asked, because in our weakness we don’t know how to pray as we ought. The words of our prayers are interpreted and translated by the Lord Jesus and by His Spirit so that our prayers always reach the Father in accordance with His will.

During the years 2003-2011 I led a church missions team that was asking God for ten families to send out by 2010. During this period the Lord tested our faith in many ways and allowed us to send many families overseas, but at the end of 2010 we had only sent out half of the families we had asked for. We had to admit that we did not get the precise answer to our literal prayer request, but we also were able to see that by the end of 2010 many more than ten families had been sent out to make disciples around the US and overseas. They went out in Jesus’ name and they went out to fulfill His commission; they just didn’t go out as financially supported overseas missionaries. Then in the four years that followed the Lord allowed us to continue sending our supported missionaries. He did not give us exactly what we asked, and He did not respond according to our timing; but He did give us over and above what we originally imagined.

When the prayer team gathers today, we want to incorporate some skills we practiced for praying in Jesus’ name and praying out the promises of God. But we also want to relax in this truth: the Spirit knows what we want and Jesus knows what we need and they are both interpreting our prayers before the throne of grace. There is no chance that our praying will fail.

You can build teamwork into your prayer time by using a drill that volleyball teams often practice. A common volleyball drill requires one team member to set (to pop the ball clear above the net) and a second team member to hit (to spike the ball powerfully on target). With your prayer team, try to have one team member pray out his request from the heart, and then other team members can follow him praying out the promises and praying the request in Jesus’ name and for His kingdom. This allows the “setter” to just think about what he is asking for, knowing that his teammates will come along behind him and hit that request will all the power of the promises of God. When several have prayed out the first prayer according to the promises and in the name of Jesus, then a second person can set for the team by mentioning another prayer.

7. Moses: Reasons And Grounds Pattern (Exodus 32:7-14)

In Moses’ intercession we see a pattern of prayer that employs logic and reasoning. I’m glad to see that prayer is not just a way to express to God our feelings, but that He also wants to hear our reasons, and He can be moved by a reasonable argument. Moses was starting from a very difficult position, because he was praying on behalf of people who had just rejected God’s provision and wanted to worship a golden calf-idol instead. God pointed out to him the judgment that should follow from the people’s rejection of Him in favor of the gold idol that they had made. God’s plan for judgment was entirely reasonable and just.

Moses answered with a logic of his own: “What will the heathen nations think about You if you destroy Your own people? Won’t all Your hard work of deliverance be lost? Won’t this rash action tarnish Your reputation and glory? Plus, You made a solemn promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and You can’t go back on that!” Do you notice how Moses’ logic includes both praying in God’s name (for the sake of His kingdom and glory) and standing on the promises of God? Can you think of examples from the parent-child relationships that you know, where children have the confidence to state not only their requests but also good reasons why their parents should respond? The Reasons and Grounds pattern seems to come to most young children quite naturally.

For several years I led a team that was asking God for ten families to send out to the mission field. Over the years we developed a series of reasons and grounds to express to God why we felt our prayer was important for His kingdom. For instance, we pointed out to Him that many of our current missionaries were approaching retirement, and we needed new reinforcements just to stay even. We reminded Him that Jesus told us to pray for more workers to go into the harvest and that Jesus Himself had recognized that the harvest was ready. We stood upon the promise of Jesus in Mark 13:10, “The gospel must first be preached to all nations.” Once we started to develop our praying toward a reasonable request, we gained a lot of confidence to pray our prayer for ten families by faith.

This is another prayer pattern that requires teamwork. Some members of your prayer team are more emotional and some are more logical. This is another good opportunity for the team members to help one another. Perhaps one person can lead out with a clear prayer toward the team’s target. Then others can come behind that prayer and mention reasons why the prayer is important for the kingdom of God and for His reputation.

Before we go to prayer today, let’s think logically about the reasons why it would be good for God to answer our central prayer requests. Let’s list those out and in our praying, let’s follow Moses’ example and show the Lord all the ways that our prayer request redounds to His glory and fulfills His revealed purposes and increases His kingdom. No one should leave the prayer meeting today with any doubt about what we are requesting and why we feel God should be pleased to grant our request.

8. Abraham: Grounding Prayer In The Character Of God (Gen 18:23-26)

There are certain similarities in the prayer pattern we learned from Moses and the pattern we will study today in the example of Abraham, but instead of relying on logic or God’s stated promises, Abraham relied on his relationship as the friend of God. This model prayer comes at the end of a big day, after Sarah and Abraham had put on a banquet for the Lord and a couple of angels, and after the Lord confirmed His promise of a son by telling the couple that the son would be born within twelve months. Then the Lord took Abraham aside, dismissed His angels and lowered His voice to let Abraham in on some confidential information: He was about to destroy Sodom and everyone living in the area.

Abraham’s beloved nephew Lot lived in Sodom with his family, and Abraham relied on his relationship with the Lord and all that they had been through to negotiate a protection clause for his nephew. As you read the account of Abraham’s prayer, notice how careful Abraham is to honor the Lord and humble himself. But even though he worships and reveres the Lord God, he is willing to boldly make his requests to Him. Today we especially want to notice Genesis 18:25 where Abraham is able to say, “It would be out of character for You not to save a righteous man.”

What do we know from personal experience about God’s character that would make Him want to answer our team prayer? Recently I was leading a team in prayer for their ministry to children. They were seeking the Lord for more volunteers to work with the children, and they were also trying to put wise policies in place to protect the safety of the kids. We recalled a number of truths about God’s character that helped us to pray for these requests: God is a Father who cares about His children; Jesus loves the children and welcomes them; the guardian angels of these children have special 24-hour access to the presence of God; God’s wrath burns against anyone who would harm a child; children are the ones who characterize and comprise God’s kingdom; the Lord Jesus grew up as a child under the protection of parents. The team prayed together for half an hour and just kept coming up with more and more truths about God that we knew would cause Him to answer our prayer for the nurture and protection of the children.

Today, we rely on our personal friendship with God and all He has shown us of His character to plead our case. We are not just mentioning the reasons why we think it would be good for Him to answer our prayer, but we are also taking the opportunity to praise Him for His righteous character. It is on the basis of His character that we will be praying. And we have every confidence that He will be faithful to answer us, because He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

9. Ezekiel: The Man In The Gap Pattern (Ezek 22:28-31; James 5:14-20)

Throughout the course of this seminar we discover something precious about the character of God—when He acts upon the earth, He loves to act in response to the prayers of His children. In the first half of the book of Ezekiel, He makes His case against the sins of the people, using visions to show Ezekiel the wickedness that His people did in secret. At many times He seems to defy Ezekiel to intercede for people who lived so wickedly. He says to Ezekiel, “Son of man, do you see the wicked things they do? Turn around and you will see even greater abominations that they do” (for example, Ezekiel 8:5-14).

The “Man in the Gap” pattern brings out a strange but important prayer principle: the men and women of faith who are called upon to intercede for sinners often have the clearest appreciation of how much those sinners deserve condemnation. The false prophets did not build up a concrete wall of intercession, they just plastered over the sin problem with mud and clay. God was looking for a Moses, a man who could see the sin and still pray for the sinner. The first half of Ezekiel might lead us to believe that God just wanted to make a legal case so that He would be justified in destroying the people; but that was not His purpose at all. He told Ezekiel that He was looking for a man to stand in the gap for His people and was disappointed not to find one. God wanted Ezekiel to realize the extent of his people’s sin, but what He really wanted was for Ezekiel to intercede for the people like Moses had done. Ezekiel 22:30 is a great verse to challenge our prayer team, but it was a hard word for Ezekiel himself to hear, because Ezekiel had not been able to continue interceding for the people after seeing all their wickedness; he could not keep standing in the gap, protecting his people from the wrath of God.

In James 5 we find out how much God wants to heal and rescue sinners, but He wants to do this in response to prayer. Apparently even today He is looking for someone to stand in the gap for His people and to intercede for them. As the prayer leader, you are responsible to protect the integrity of the team from gossip. You need to ensure that your team members understand how to intercede for individuals without betraying their confidences and how to pray for the failings of the church as a whole without creating divisions. But there are probably some sin patterns that your prayer group has noticed that you can confess together and together plead for God’s mercy and healing. For example if your church is going through a time when marriages are being tested, you can certainly confess the fractures and divorces in a general way without exposing individual sins. Recall that our purpose is to build a wall of defense, and that we might put ourselves into harm’s way to protect the sinner, cover the sin (James 5:20) and bring him home.

Could our prayer team bless the Father’s heart today by standing in the gap and interceding on behalf of His children? Let’s explore the ways in which our prayer target is really not about our selfish needs, but instead we are praying on behalf of the people of God or on behalf of the nations who deserve God’s wrath. Let’s build up a wall by prayer and stand in the gap between God and His wrath to instead beg Him for the gift of mercy. How can He refuse?

10. Jacob & Hezekiah: The Will-Not-Be-Denied Pattern (Gen 32:24-29; Isaiah 38)

At this point in the seminar our team has hopefully developed a solid foundation for expecting God’s answers to prayer, and we have begun to see some ways in which God is beginning to move. During the next month we want to encourage greater boldness in prayer on the part of all the team members, and today we will be following the pattern of Jacob and of King Hezekiah, men who refused to be denied.

At a crisis point in Jacob’s life, when he was on the brink of losing everything, the Lord met him and wrestled with him all night. The Bible account indicates that the Lord was unable to defeat Jacob, so He dislocated Jacob’s leg at the hip joint. At dawn the Lord said to him, “Let me go,” but Jacob in agony from his dislocation, refused to let go until he first received a blessing (Gen 32:26). It cost Jacob the very last ounce of strength and it cost him a permanent injury, but he got his answer to prayer. The account of Jacob’s wrestling match is surprising to me on many levels, but the profound point is that no matter how exhausted he was or how painful his injury, he simply would not be denied. Can we pray our team prayer with such boldness and such energy?

Many times Christians will say something like, “I don’t like asking God for specific gifts or results, because it seems presumptuous. I just say, ‘Thy will be done, Lord.’” This sounds pious on the surface, but it certainly doesn’t follow the pattern of any of the great prayers of the Bible. Even when Jesus prayed, “Thy will be done,” it was after He had wrestled with God for an extended period to the point of sweating blood! It is not wrong to pray, “Thy will be done,” but it is a shame for the soldiers of the cross to give up without a struggle.

King Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed against the prophetic word from the mouth of Isaiah (Isaiah 38:1-3)—now that is great boldness! Most of us who love the word of God and recognize that His word is forever sealed in heaven, would never consider praying against the revealed will of God. In fact, I do not recommend to my prayer partners that they pray against the word of God, but we can certainly follow Hezekiah’s example of refusing to be denied.

The prayers and the tears of Hezekiah who refused to take no for an answer, moved the Lord to grant his request. Have we owned our team prayer request to the point that we will not be denied? The team may want to spend some time talking this through. The team leader must not use guilt to manipulate the climate of the prayer team, but he should certainly present the pattern of Jacob and of Hezekiah as a model for the team to pursue. Spiritual leaders need to call for energetic and heartfelt prayers that lay hold of God and do not easily let go. If we cannot pray energetically for the team prayer request, perhaps we need to modify it until we have a prayer that we can absolutely commit to. Then having identified our prayer request, let’s take hold of God by faith and say, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

11. Jeremiah: The Nowhere-Else-To-Turn Pattern (Jeremiah 33:1-3)

Jeremiah was a man of prayer who faced more discouragements and setbacks than anyone on our team will face during our lifetimes, but he never gave up interceding for his people. The message God gave Jeremiah to preach was a message of judgment: the city of Jerusalem would fall to the Chaldeans, and the people would be taken captive. Jeremiah had the fewest converts of any prophet in the Bible, but he did not lose hope. He believed God’s promise that after seventy years of captivity, He would bring the people back to their land.

Jeremiah 33:3 is the well-known promise “Call to Me and I will answer you and show you great and mighty things which you do not know.” But today it is important to help our team see the context of this promise: God gave this encouragement of mighty answers to prayer when Jeremiah was hopelessly sidelined and confined in prison! Jeremiah was in a position of zero influence over the course of human events, but during the depth of his captivity, God promised him influence in the court of heaven.

Today we will be praying the “Nowhere Else to Turn” pattern that God taught Jeremiah. Once they begin to think along these lines, most of your team members will also have stories of answers to prayer when they had nowhere else to turn— this is a good opportunity for the team to share their experiences. Come prepared to mention one of your own personal experiences of being sidelined with nowhere to turn except prayer to God and your testimony of how He came through for you. You can also remind them of other Bible examples like Moses at the Red Sea or Paul’s prayers from prison.

When you feel that the group has caught the essence of “nowhere else to turn,” it is time to apply this realization to their current prayer requests and the team’s central breakthrough request. Take time to confess your team’s inability to control the outcome and your recognition that God is the only one who can rescue the situation. My pastor used to go back to Jeremiah 33:3 and ask God for a sign of encouragement, reminding God of His promise, “I will show you great and mighty things which you do not know.” Today our prayer team can stand upon this promise and ask God for a sign of encouragement, something He will show us that we could recognize as one of His great and mighty works.

At our next meeting we will be considering the importance of fasting together for our breakthrough prayer request. Let’s come hungry to our next meeting and learn from the Old Testament saints who prayed with fasting. We will also be learning how a public fast can be used to temporarily widen the network of prayer partners. During the next week we would like each member of the prayer team to invite at least two other people to fast on the appointed day and join our team in our breakthrough prayer. The team leader should decide whether to invite the wider prayer network to attend our team prayer meeting or whether we should simply invite them to fast and pray in partnership with us from wherever they happen to be.

12. Esther & Ezra: Fasting Together Pattern (Ezra 8:21-23; Esther 4:16)

Hopefully our team is able to come to the meeting fasting today so that we get the full benefit from the study and practice of this prayer pattern. Prayer and fasting was one very important way in the Old Testament for a large group of believers to unite behind a single prayer target. We see prayer with fasting again in the New Testament in Acts 13 when the leaders of the Antioch Church met together for direction from the Holy Spirit, and when those leaders sent Paul and Barnabas out as their first missionaries. (If your prayer team is missionary in nature, you may want to use Acts 13 as your pattern for today’s meeting.)

We are studying Ezra and Esther because of their choice to rely on God rather than the human interventions that were available to them. Ezra was carrying a great deal of gold, silver and other valuables through some very dangerous country full of bandits. He could have relied on the king for a military escort, but instead he wanted to clearly demonstrate that Israel depended solely upon God. His prayer in Ezra 8:21 was for direction (“the right way”) and protection on their long journey that would last several weeks. He felt that it would dishonor God if he asked for a protective escort, because he had already testified before the king that God was their Protector. He did not want to give anyone the impression that God’s protection was not sufficient. He called for prayer unified by fasting from all of those who would be traveling with him.

When Israel was threatened with genocide, Esther could have hid behind her royal status and entrusted herself to the care of her husband the king; but instead she put her life in God’s hand along with the lives of all her people. In order to demonstrate solidarity in prayer, she asked that the people fast together with her. The ones who fasted were the ones who would either live or die, entirely dependent upon God’s answer to their prayer. Esther counted herself among those under the threat of death when she said, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). You can see how the prayers of those people who shared the sentence of death were focused and unified through fasting.

In the same way that Ezra and Esther did, we can use the fasting prayer pattern to expand the base of our prayers by asking a wider network of partners to pray with us. The wider network may not be able to be present for our prayer meeting, but if they are fasting with us, we have a spiritual solidarity before the throne of grace. At various crisis points during my outreach ministry in East Africa, I have called my prayer partners to pray on a particular day with fasting, especially when our lives were threatened or when it appeared that the entire enterprise was in danger. Like Ezra and Esther, I can testify that the hand of the Lord was upon us for good, and that He answered our prayer for rescue. There is mystery here, but there are so many examples in the Bible and in our own lives, that we feel we are on solid ground when we encourage the team and the wider network to fast together with us as we pray our team prayer request.

13. The Together Pattern (Heb 13:18-19; Matthew 18:19; 2 Cor 1:11)

Many of the examples in this prayer seminar focus on the prayers of a single person, but last week we saw how a praying leader can bring a large group together behind a single request. Ezra demonstrated his total reliance upon God by calling together the people to fast and pray for safety on the road, and he is a good example of how prayer can unite the hearts of our people. On the other hand, Ezra could just as easily have prayed alone and received his requests. Some on our team may notice God’s mighty answers to individual prayer and wonder why we have to rearrange our schedules to pray together. Are our together prayers more powerful than our individual prayers? What difference does it make that we are praying as a team?

I don’t know of any one passage in the Bible that would teach us how the Together pattern increases the effectiveness of our prayers, but there are a few passages that tell us what we can expect from Together prayer. At the close of the letter to the Hebrews, the apostle requests the believers to pray together for him and his partners. He is confident that the Lord will answer his individual prayer for deliverance, but he also knows that if they pray for him together he will be delivered sooner than if he does not have their partnership (Hebrews 13:19). Paul also knew that the Lord would answer his individual prayer regarding his journey to Rome, but he still begged the Roman Christians to join him in the Together prayer (Romans 15:29-30). The answer to our prayers comes more effectively and more quickly when we agree in prayer together.

Jesus also gives a special promise regarding the Together pattern. He said, “Assuredly I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19). It pleases the Lord to see us discussing our desires together and taking time to develop the details of our prayer request, lining it up with what we know of His will. He promises to act on these prayer decisions that we make in consultation together.

The other important reason why we pray together is so that we can give thanks together for the answers, and God will receive that much more glory. In 2 Cor 1:11 Paul again mentions his belief that when we pray together we add to the effectiveness of our individual prayers; and since this is true, we can all share in both the praying and the rejoicing in God’s answer. We all have part together in the praying, so we all have part in the praising and thanksgiving. This is another reason why the Together pattern is so important, because it results in more people giving more praise to God.

By this point in the seminar our teammates will be able to share personal testimonies of how our prayer team has motivated them to stay persistent and targeted, and today we want to give opportunity for several of those testimonies. We also want to read the prayer request in Hebrews 13, where the apostle expresses his belief that the Lord will answer his individual prayer for deliverance, but that the unified prayer of his team will result in an earlier answer than individual prayer alone. Today we want to put this into effect by not only praying together toward our target, but also by thanking God together for all of the evidence He has shown us that He is moving in answer to our prayers.

14. Bartimaeus: Bold & Specific Pattern (Mark 10:46-52)

We are now well past the halfway point of our prayer seminar, and we need to guard against a common failing of prayer teams: vision drift. During the past three months there have probably been personal needs arising among the team members; and out of concern for our friends we have taken time to pray with them for those needs. Believers in Jesus are always ready to pause and pray for the urgent needs that surround us, but we also need to regularly bring back the focus. What is this prayer team about? What are we meeting together to ask God to do?

I think Jesus often has to ask us the same question He asked James and John (Mark 10:36) and Bartimaeus (10:51): “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked this question as He was climbing the long road through Jericho up to Jerusalem where He would be put to death. When blind Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was passing by he called out to Him for mercy. People tried to quiet him down, but he called out all the more loudly, begging Jesus to hear his prayer. When he came face to face with Jesus, his blindness must have been obvious, but still Jesus asked him the crucial question, “What do you want Me to do?” How will our team answer that question? Can we be as bold and as specific as the blind man was?

Blind Bartimaeus could have waffled at the crucial moment. Realizing that his blindness was incurable he could have instead asked for money or for food. He could have asked Jesus’ help in landing a job or getting some appropriate vocational training. You and I are often faced by the temptation to hold back from our boldest prayers and to ask for something a little less audacious. Bartimaeus received his sight because he was bold enough to ask the impossible, right out loud, right in public, and he trusted Jesus for the answer: “Rabbi, I want to receive my sight!”

About five years ago I was praying with a very small group that met for six months for prayer and discipleship. One project that we did together was to place before the Lord our “Blue Sky Assignment,” our dream job in the Kingdom of God; what would be our assignment from God five years from now if He would give us the desire of our heart. I wish I could say that after the period of discipleship was complete, we all continued to pray regularly for our special assignment, but the truth is I just filed mine away. Four and a half years later, to my surprise I received a phone call offering me the very assignment I had asked for and the start date was almost exactly five years from the date of our team’s “Blue Sky” prayers. I am so glad that I was completely honest with God and with my partners. Also, the fact that the assignment came in answer to bold and specific praying gives me great confidence that the Lord is going to give me everything I need in order to complete the assignment for His glory.

Today Jesus is asking our prayer team, “What do you want Me to do for you?” Let us try to be as specific about what we are asking as Bartimaeus was, and let’s pray it boldly, out loud together.

15. Be Careful What You Ask For? (Mark 10:35-45; Luke 22:28-30)

Last week we answered Jesus’ question to James, John and Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” This week we will reinforce our answer to that question from the outrageous request of James and John: “We want to sit on Your right and left in Your glory.”

Their timing was not the greatest. Jesus was going up to Jerusalem to die, and that was very much on His mind. He had just been telling His team about the agony ahead (Mark 10:33-34), and after a brief pause, James and John took Jesus aside to make their request.

We can’t judge the heart motives of these two brothers, but their closest friends thought that part of their desire was to get preferential treatment, to get promoted above the other members of the team. What James and John did not realize was that Jesus’ glory was in the cross and that the places on His right and left were already reserved for two murdering thieves! He tried to impress this on them by asking whether they were ready to drink His cup of suffering and be baptized into the terrible death that awaited Him, but they did not get it. They kept insisting that they wanted the places on Jesus’ right and left.

We might take from this a warning to be careful what you ask for. I’m sure there are many times when I make requests without fully thinking through the consequences, but that is not the point that Jesus wanted us to take away. Instead we learn that Jesus knew how to interpret even the most outrageous prayer of faith and to give His friends what they wanted, even when their exact words missed the mark. If we turn to Luke 22:28-30, we see that Jesus preserved the brothers from the places on His right and left, but granted them everything they really wanted. In Luke 22 Jesus promised them a kingdom, a throne, nearness and fellowship with Him. Don’t you think that promise fulfilled all of the holy ambitions in their audacious request? What more could they have wanted?

In Mark 10:41-45 Jesus dealt with the issue of jealousy and selfish ambition, divisive qualities that He simple will not tolerate. If in fact James and John selfishly desired promotion above the other disciples, that desire was rejected and filtered out, but everything else was fully granted. Now if Jesus will do that for the most outrageous prayer in the Bible, what will He do for us if we make our team request boldly and specifically? Give the team an opportunity to express any misgivings they have about the team prayer request. Let’s go to Jesus for assurance that He will filter out any selfish ambitions and protect us from unforeseen consequences, and then let us answer His question: “What do you want Me to do for you?”

16. The Requirements Of Faith And Forgiveness (Mark 11:22-25)

A prayer team is like a squad that is training to use high explosives: we are handling the greatest power known to man, a very dangerous grace. We sometimes worry about whether we are asking for the wrong thing, as though through our ignorance the dynamite will cause damage. Last week’s passage from Mark 10 showed us how that even a misplaced prayer like James’ and John’s request for the place on Jesus’ right and left would be translated to protect them from the cross and to give them even more than they had dared to hope for. In Mark 11 Jesus placed a charge of dynamite against the trunk of a fig tree and gave His men a visible picture of the power of prayer, and He told them that they also had been entrusted with this dangerous grace.

In Jesus’ mind the greatest danger is that we will pray and the explosive will not ignite—we will have relied fully upon God’s answer and instead we will hear a tiny pop and no explosion. Jesus tells us in Mark 11:25-26 that this often comes about because we have a spirit of unforgiveness toward another person. God has no desire to act on our behalf to forgive our sins while we are harboring bitterness and unforgiveness towards other people, and our prayers fall to the ground as duds. Today let us take some quiet time to search our hearts and ensure no team member harbors bitterness against anyone.

The other reason our prayers can fail to ignite is for lack of faith in God’s answer. Jesus says plainly in Mark 11:23-24 that God is ready to do anything we ask, and He is not held back by any inability on His part. But the key to receiving answers to our prayers is to have faith that God will do what we are asking. By this point in our seminar we should all be convinced that God wants to do what we are asking, but there needs to be freedom to discuss the specifics in case some of our teammates have doubts about the details. The team needs to be willing to adjust the prayer target if the Spirit is giving faith to ask for more or to move the target in some way.

I recall that one year our church was asking God for a breakthrough request, that He would give us 500 worshipers in our weekly service. The pastors and elders could see that there was a psychological barrier preventing our church from expanding, and we wanted God to break through that barrier. But many of our prayer partners in the congregation felt this prayer represented an unhealthy focus on numbers. We needed to discuss the prayer request together and find new ways of expressing it so that our heart desire was evident and all of us could agree with one voice.

Children of God find it very difficult and hypocritical to pray for things that they do not think God is really going to give them. For this reason all members of the team need to lay hold on the team requests by faith in order to pray them wholeheartedly. Let’s take time to hear from the team and together to focus our praying on those elements that we know by faith God wants to do. No matter how impossible those things seem, if we know that we are praying God’s desire, we can be sure that we will see His answer if we don’t give up.

17. The Importance Of Bothering God (Luke 11:1-8; 18:1-8)

After four months of praying has the Lord fully answered our prayer yet? If He has, this is a good time to decide to call for a thanksgiving service and close the seminar. Surely it is a sign that our seminar has accomplished its good work, when the Lord moves quickly to bring our answer.

If however, there are still elements of our prayer that remain unanswered, Jesus commands us to lay hold on Him and not give up too early. When the first disciples asked Jesus to teach them the prayer seminar, He gave them a model prayer and then emphasized the need for persistence. He told the parable of the Friend at Midnight to teach us that often God waits for us to see if we are willing to wait for Him. Read Luke 11:5-8 and see if you can identify each of the persons in the story. Clearly God is the One with the bread, and we are the ones who are pounding on heaven’s door. But notice that there is a third person in the story: the one who arrived hungry after a long journey. For our prayer team, who is the one who is hungry at midnight? For whom are we interceding? Let’s think clearly today about the ones who will benefit the most when the Lord answers our team prayer. Then let’s pray our hearts out on behalf of those needy ones, having every confidence that God is listening and already has the biscuits in the oven, if only we will wait a little longer, standing and pounding on the door!

The Friend at Midnight teaches us that God actually wants us to bother Him at all hours and to keep on asking in the face of initial obstacles. One of our prayer partners felt that the Holy Spirit was tying this truth back to Elijah’s Watch and Pray pattern. She felt that God was calling the team to the kind of persistence that Elijah showed when he sent his servant back seven times to check on the progress of his answer to prayer. As we meet for prayer today, let’s keep our hearts open to hear what the Holy Spirit might be saying to our team through Jesus’ words.

Again in Jesus’ Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) we learn more about persistence, and in this case He teaches us about persistence in the face of injustice. It may take some prompting for our team to be able to think of our prayer target in terms of injustice, but this is an important discussion for us to have. In what ways is our prayer target a response to sin and evil in the world? Why is it intolerable that our prayer should go unanswered and people remain in the midst of such wrong? Does our prayer target seek the deliverance of people who are being held in bondage to sin and to the devil, people for whom Christ died? Does our prayer target seek the glory of God in dark places where His name is now not praised? In what way does our prayer target seek the good of young children who are the VIPs of God’s kingdom, but who do not yet know Him? As the team discusses these issues, let’s allow a sense of indignation and wrong to burn in our hearts to the point that we are able to pour out to God the injustice of the status quo, and why we need the righteous Judge to take action. Jesus’ promise is that He will avenge His people and He won’t be slow about it!

18. Irresistible: The Prayer Of A Humble Child (Psalm 131; Luke 18:9-17)

Today we get a chance to hear ourselves praying as God hears us. In Luke 18 Jesus lets us observe two prayers from heaven’s perspective, so that we can imitate the prayer that pleases God and gets His answer and avoid the kind of prayer that gets ignored. This is a truly unique training opportunity for us. Jesus is the one who daily receives our prayers, and in this parable He invites us into heaven so that we can experience what it is like for Him to listen to us.

Jesus brings us behind the scenes to eavesdrop on two men who are praying. One man’s prayer is characterized by pride and self-appreciation and self-justification. He is so self-sufficient that he doesn’t really even ask for anything. His speech is so self-centered, that Jesus says he was really just “praying with himself,” just play-acting. He wasn’t asking for God’s involvement, and he got no more than he asked for; he was just wasting his breath.

Then Jesus directs our attention to a sinful tax collector, a societal outcast and a traitor to his own people. He was not acting a part, in fact he seemed unaware of anyone else—he was totally consumed with standing in the presence of a holy God. He was too ashamed to lift his head but was unconsciously pounding himself with his fists and he confessed his failures and sins. Jesus tells us that this man who was not a very polished speaker and did not quote a lot of Scripture but was entirely absorbed by God and humbled by his own shortcomings, he was the one God delighted to receive. He got everything he asked for and went home justified before the Lord.

Everyone on our team has an individual style: some use a wider vocabulary and spiritual words, and some speak quite conversationally—all of us use favorite phrases almost every time we pray. The object here is not to make anyone self-conscious. Instead we can all learn to pray more honestly, telling the truth about our inability and our complete reliance upon God. Right after telling the Parable of the Two Prayers, Jesus blessed the children, demonstrating their VIP status and teaching us that we all must become like children in order to enter the kingdom.

Psalm 131 is brief, just three verses that emphasize childlike faith when we come before God. In the first verse we turn away from the attitude of the self-absorbed Pharisee; we acknowledge to God that we are not able to understand all of the cosmic forces arrayed around us and our own relative importance. In the second verse we take a deep breath and calm ourselves in the presence of God our Father, like a two-year-old calms down in his mother’s arms after a stormy fit of raging when he doesn’t get his way. Okay, now that we have calmed down, we remind each other to hope in the Lord. That’s a child-like prayer Jesus loves to hear.

As we pray our team requests today, let us first consciously and openly confess to God our inability to bring about the changes we most desire to see. Use the three steps of Psalm 131 to breathe out, breathe in, and settle our hope and confidence where it belongs, entirely in the Lord Jesus. We will still bring our prayers before God, and we will still use the prayer style we have grown up with, but our attitude will be like little children. We can visualize ourselves in a puddle of tears because we can’t manage by ourselves, and then we can see ourselves carried in the Father’s arms and calming ourselves with full trust in Him.

19. What About Unanswered Prayers? (Heb 5:7-9; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Phil 1:29)

Our emphasis in this seminar is the same as Jesus’ emphasis—God will give us what we ask for on Christ’s behalf. The Father and the Son give us every encouragement to pray in faith, knowing that our requests are heard; but our teammates can’t help recalling that there was one time when Jesus prayed in the garden that the cup would pass from Him, and His Father said no. We also recall that Paul in 2 Cor 12 prayed for healing from some illness or affliction and God said no. Today we need to deal with the spiritual facts of life. In some rare cases there will be a prayer request that our Father in heaven decides to deny. Now that we have been praying together for several months, we have seen a lot of answered prayers; but there are probably a few prayers that remain unanswered as far as we can tell. Could these be requests that God has decided to deny?

The three passages in today’s reading should help us to see that even when our specific prayers are denied, the Father is giving us something better. Hebrews 5 says not that Jesus’ request was denied but that His prayer was heard and He was given grace to endure suffering and death so that He could inherit the joy set before Him. He knew and prophesied on three separate occasions that He was going to die on the cross, but He still poured out His heart to God, asking the impossible (that He could be spared the cross and we could still be saved). Instead of providing Jesus a way out, His Father provided Him a way through the suffering.

Paul certainly felt he got a better deal because of the increased grace and power that were given to help him through the suffering. Paul experienced an intimate conversation with God in which God gave him His own divine power, but it could only be given to Paul on the condition that he remain in his physical weakness and pain (2 Corinthian 12:9). Paul said that once he understood this condition, he was very glad to accept and own his personal weaknesses.

Philippians 1:29 teaches us that the things we suffer for Jesus are a great privilege. Many people believe in Jesus and receive His grace—who wouldn’t want the great blessing of forgiveness and new life? Moreover, every human being suffers hardship, illness, weakness and death. But only the privileged few are permitted to suffer in fellowship with Jesus and to suffer for His sake. Perhaps some of our prayer requests that seem to be delayed are really opportunities to be strengthened to go through suffering on the behalf of Christ. Perhaps Jesus is inviting us into a deeper fellowship with Him that is truly a tremendous privilege.

Our goal today is to allow the Holy Spirit to purify the motives in our team prayer request. If we are in any way desiring our own convenience or comfort, let us agree together that we are willing to endure suffering for Jesus’ sake, if only He will glorify Himself through us by answering our prayer. Sure, we can ask God for smooth sailing and relief from affliction if that is our desire, but as we mature in Christ we will begin to follow the example of Jesus and of Paul to submit those desires to God, begging Him to answer our prayer for His glory.

20. Spiritual Equipment For Warfare Prayer (Neh 4:10-20; Eph 6:10-20)

During the next three weeks we will be preparing for and engaging in spiritual warfare. This means that we will not only be praying for our team prayer request, but we will also be conscious that there are other spirit powers opposed to the prayers we are praying. We will not be doing anything weird, and we will certainly not be talking to the demons, but we do expect the Holy Spirit to give us an awareness of the battle we are engaged in on Christ’s behalf.

Nehemiah gives us a practical example of how spiritual men and women armed themselves for ministry. Nehemiah 4:7-9 tells us that their adversaries tried to discourage them, and failing that they were ready to make military attacks on them. In Nehemiah’s case, it was obvious that a spiritual battle was going on behind the warlike actions of the enemies on the ground. Nehemiah’s solution was to pray and to set a watch (4:9). In our situation the spiritual battle may not be so obvious, but we can see that the very fact Nehemiah’s people were aware of the schemes of their enemy and armed themselves prevented attacks and defeats. While half of them were working on the project, the other half were armed and on guard (4:16).

We need to read and apply the spiritual armor passage in Ephesians with this principle in mind. We should realize that if we are aware of our enemy’s schemes and if we have properly armed ourselves, he will usually be afraid to attack. The most important thing in spiritual warfare is that we must arm ourselves with God’s armor and stand our ground. As we put on the armor by prayer we are putting on Christ Jesus, His truth, His righteousness, His gospel. We also want to remind ourselves of Eph 6:18-19, that the reason we put on the armor is so that we can pray and proclaim the good news. Nobody puts on armor just to have a feeling of security; soldiers and policemen put on armor because they are about to perform a dangerous service.

I like to have the team visualize the suiting up process, so that they learn how to do this for themselves whenever they are about to enter upon a dangerous mission. We visualize putting on Christ Jesus as a belt of truth, because Jesus is the Truth. We picture ourselves putting on Jesus as our righteousness, because He took our sins on Himself in exchange and He put upon us His righteousness like a breastplate to protect our hearts. We put on the shoes of the gospel, reviewing the most important points we want to communicate to all, “Jesus Christ died for our sins and arose.” We picture the faith of Jesus as a shield that we raise against any shots the enemy might fire at us. The team can say this aloud, “All my trust is in Jesus alone; I reject Satan and all his schemes.” We visualize strapping on the helmet, because Jesus is saving our lives from any attack of the wicked one and Jesus is our Head. Then we pick up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. There is no need to visualize this, we can all literally pick up a Bible or Scripture portion as a physical act.

Once the team is suited up in the spiritual armor that God has provided, let’s get down to the task of praying our team request, especially the aspects that cause the gospel of peace to advance. You may also feel this is a good time to take a field trip and pray in the very areas where you are asking for the advances to be made.

21. A Peek Behind The Scenes Of Warfare Prayer (Daniel 10:10-14)

An ongoing challenge for warfare prayer is that we often miss seeing the drama involved in our prayer ministry, because much of the struggle and victory is taking place invisibly in the spirit world. Daniel faced this same challenge and was beginning to be discouraged. He had been fasting for three weeks, eating only enough food to sustain life, while he prayed for the promised deliverance of his people. To him the three weeks felt like a long time with no progress (if you have ever fasted more than 24 hours you would probably agree with him!), but when the angel came to him, Daniel found out the rest of the story.

Seeing the angel helped Daniel to realize the reality of the battle surrounding his prayer target. Even though the angel was a holy angel sent to encourage Daniel, his size and his appearance were terrifying and even the prayer team members who did not see the angel were filled with terror. We should probably be glad that the angels remain invisible to us for the most part, but it might help us to visualize our prayer room filled with mighty angels who have been sent to minister on our behalf (Hebrews 1:13-14).

Far from being abandoned, Daniel was beloved by God who began to answer his prayer immediately, sending the angel to him on the very first day of his fast. But the angel had to fight through enemy lines and even needed assistance to break through to Daniel. If we have been praying together for five or six months and still don’t see the answer to our prayer target, it is probably because “we are not wrestling against flesh and blood but against principalities and against powers” (Eph 6:12). We cannot know how crucial our prayer target is and what spiritual battles are involved in God’s answering of our prayer, but we can know that we are greatly loved like Daniel was and that the answer to our prayer is already on the way.

Daniel did not ask to see an angel, but he did ask for a sign of encouragement that God was in the process of fulfilling His promise, and he asked for strength to be able to receive God’s answer (Daniel 10:19). You can lead your team in following Daniel’s warfare prayer pattern. Call the team members to fast through a meal or longer if they are willing and able. Then when you gather for your prayer time, confess to God that you are mourning because the answer to your prayer seems to be a long time in coming. Then in a humble spirit (not in a demanding way or rude) ask the Lord for a sign of encouragement to show that He is still at work to bring the answer to your prayer. Does the act of fasting make you feel weak? Ask Him to strengthen you in the inward man to be able to receive the sign of encouragement that you are asking Him for.

22. Strategic Targets In Warfare Prayer (1 Timothy 2:1-8; 2 Corinthians 10:4-5)

When we are praying in situations of spiritual warfare, how can we know what targets we should aim at? Some people make it sound as though we humans should be engaging the various levels of supernatural powers, things we can know nothing about. One time I even heard a preacher tell people they needed to pray for a spiritual canopy to be built over the building where they were meeting so that the demon spirits would not be able to listen in on their plans. I don’t know whether there is such a thing as a spiritual soundproof canopy and neither did that preacher; he was just making stuff up.

In contrast to these Christian spiritualists who make confident assertions about things they know nothing about, Paul instructs us to pray on target for men and women who are in authority, people we can know something about. Let us apply these scriptural instructions to our team prayer request today. What human authority figures seem to be hindering us? What people in authority could help us if they wanted to? Let us pray for as many of these people as we can think of, recognizing that their authority is legitimate and that all of their power comes because God gave it to them. Let us pray that they will favor our initiatives for the glory of God. Let us pray that they themselves will be able to hear the gospel and to respond in faith. This is true spiritual warfare that does not bring destruction but brings people to faith and opens doors for the gospel.

Paul also says that he uses the mighty weapons of spiritual warfare to pull down demonic strongholds, including arguments or philosophies or high-sounding ideas that are being raised against God, and bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. You can lead your prayer team into spiritual warfare by simply identifying the cultural lies and false arguments that our own society is raising up against God and opposing them by stating the truth of Scripture. Don’t allow your prayer time to turn into a gripe session against the prevailing cultural currents, but instead pray out the word of God to Him boldly. An instance of this kind of warfare prayer in 2015 would be: “Father, our Supreme Court has made a law recognizing homosexual marriage. These leaders have been blinded by our enemy to craft this lie against your good creation. By prayer we oppose and tear down that false argument and assert the truth that You from the beginning made us to be male and female. We say along with our Lord Jesus, that what God has joined together no man can separate.” This is just an example, but I’m sure that the culture in your local area also resists the progress of the gospel.

How is the worldly culture in your local area raising up arguments against God, and how do those lies stand in the way of the team’s prayer focus? Today is a great opportunity for you to identify those false arguments and speak the truth before God in prayer. Remember also to pray for your human leaders by name and to seek the Lord for His mercy in their lives so that they can come to faith in Him. For those leaders who have a testimony of faith in Christ, it is always appropriate to pray for their spiritual protection, that they may respond to the challenges by faith and not shrink back.

23. Conclusion: Praying For Your “One Thing” (Psalm 27:4; 2 Chron 1:7-12)

Our prayer relationship with God is that of a child with the Father: we talk to Him about whatever is happening in our lives and depend on Him for daily provision. But we also see an example throughout the Bible: that the people closest to God have concentrated on asking Him for one particular thing. When God’s children have asked Him for their one thing, God has always been well pleased to give it to them. David’s one thing was to make a house of worship where he could spend time with God. Even though God told him that the house would be built not by him but by his son Solomon, David felt that he had received the deeper promise of daily, intimate conversation with Him—that confidence really comes through in his Psalm 23. Solomon’s one thing was wisdom to rule (1 Kings 3:9), and God made him wiser than all of the kings of the ancient world. Jacob was hungry for a Father’s blessing, hungry enough to wrestle all night with the Angel (Genesis 32:24-26). Hannah just wanted a baby, and so did Sarah, and so did Rebecca, and so did Rachel, and so did Elisabeth. These holy women of faith received the ability to conceive even when they had tried everything else and all human hope was gone. They prayed, “Please Lord, just one thing!”

The “one thing” prayer is so important in God’s kingdom that even His Son was told to ask for it: “Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession” (Ps 2:8). Just as God told Solomon in 1 Kings 3:5, and just as His prophets asked on His behalf (2 Kings 2:9), so God is saying to us and to our prayer teams, “Ask Me, what shall I do for you?” This is the question that sets apart the men and women of faith from the fainthearted boys. What is your one thing that you can boldly ask from God?

The heroes of the faith are those who asked for the impossible. Blind Bartimaeus boldly asked Jesus to make him see again (Mark 10:51). Hezekiah asked for the prophecy of Isaiah to be overturned and the changeless word of God to be changed (Isaiah 38:1-8). Elisha asked for twice as much spiritual power as Elijah (the greatest prophet of the OT) had demonstrated (2Kings 2:9-11). These are audacious prayers, outrageous prayers, but what we notice about those who asked God for their one thing is that they all got what they asked for, even those who asked for the impossible.

The only people whom we have studied in this seminar who asked in good faith for their one thing and were denied are the disciples James and John in Mark 10:35-40. Remember how they asked for the best seats in Jesus’ glorious kingdom, sitting on His right and left? What they did not know is that Jesus’ glory would be shown in the cross and that the places on His right and left were reserved for two criminals who would be crucified with Him. But even as Jesus gently re-directed their bold prayer, He also purposed to give them all that they asked. Just a few weeks later, Jesus answered their prayer by promising them that they would “eat and drink at My table in My kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30). We see that all who ask God for their one thing, receive their request.

As we close the prayer seminar, what will we say to Jesus’ penetrating question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Today let each person on the team ask his one thing in the sure confidence that we cannot be denied.

Related Topics: Prayer

A Passion For The Gospel: Saying Thank You With Love, A Personalized Meditation On Philippians

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Sometime early in my life I understood that the income we had as a missionary family came from the gifts of others. In fact, every month when their financial statement from the mission came in the mail, my parents sat down and wrote a personal thank you note to each supporter. When I got older, my parents would ask me to write the thank you notes from time to time. I would write one, then copy it twenty-five or thirty times, address the envelopes, put on the stamps, send them. I don’t remember what I ever said, except to express thanks warmly and sometimes longwindedly. Who knows what my ten-year-old mind thought was significant?

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When I was young I thought of Philippians as a book about joy, because the word is repeated often. But later I began to realize it’s a lengthy thank-you note to the Philippian church. It’s a thank you to the wealthy, worshipful, business-savvy, hospitable Lydia. It’s a thank you to the rough jailer who fell trembling at Paul’s feet and begged to know how to be saved. It’s an epistle of gratitude to the slave girl who was set free from her demons. And love to all the others who came after them, and through them into the family of God. Together, these compassionate believers had sent a gift with Epaphroditus to Paul, who was in prison for preaching the gospel that had set them free.

What could he give back? People in prison don’t own a lot, can’t do a lot. But his wealth was the kind that could never be taken away, and could be given in a letter. So just as they had sent material treasure to ease his physical needs, he also sent them from his treasure, to supply their spiritual needs. And I, in my need, generations later, am supplied, nourished, blessed, guided, strengthened, inspired, and challenged by that same “gift that keeps on giving.” How I thank a wise God who loved me enough to save me, and to give me the generous gift of this thank you note.

I want to soak it in now, personalize it till my very bones are filled with rich strength, rub it into the skin of my heart till it beats sweet with the fragrance of Christ.

To freely read the rest of this personalized meditation on the book of Philippians
click here to view the PDF.

Related Topics: Devotionals

Passing The Tests With Flying Colors: A Personal Application Of The Book Of James

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This book was written to Jewish believers who were persecuted for their faith and had fled Jerusalem as refugees, looking for new places to live and work; battling homesickness; experiencing poverty, rejection, sadness and difficulties of many kinds. They were figuring out how to live the Christian life in new contexts, under completely new circumstances. Their experience James identifies as being “tested.”

I want to personalize James’ message to those long-ago believers in Jesus, and make it mine. I want to get everything good I can from the book by looking at it intently, understanding it accurately and rubbing it into my soul.

To freely read the rest of this Personal Application Of The Book Of James
click here to view the PDF.

Related Topics: Devotionals

Devoted

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She Loved Me Devotedly...

Devoted gives you an intimate look into the hearts and lives of a mother and daughter called into missions on two separate continents. Raised on the mission field in Central America, Becca McDougall bravely goes to the unknown plains of Africa as a new bride. Faithfully she follows her husband and the calling of Jesus, trusting His promise that, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life." Matt 19:29. Discover selfless devotion through the letters written between a mother and daughter separated by many miles, yet held close by their steadfast faith in Christ and their love for each other.

To freely read the rest of this book Devoted
click here to view the PDF.

Related Topics: Christian Home, Christian Life, Missions, Mothers

Letters From Africa

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Our Life as Missionaries

An inside look at what it was like for the McDougall family to live in a remote tribe of Africa for fifteen years. Snapshots of drama, daily activity, distress, hilarity and victory; as well as insights into the passionate commitment and faith that drove and sustained them through it all.

To freely read the rest of this book Letters From Africa
click here to view the PDF.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Missions

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