Part 6: Ministry

Romans 15:14-33

Listen or read the following transcript as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of ministry in his series Praying with Paul from Romans 15:14-33.

“I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. I have written to you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Holy Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’ This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.

But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there.

For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.

So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ. I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.

Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, so that, by God’s will, I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen.”

Don Carson: Consistency, they say, is the hobgoblin of little minds. A pious thought on exam week. On the other hand, few of us are prepared to think inconsistency is a great virtue. This is true in most areas of our lives, and not least in the area of Christian thought, of theology, of how we put our Bibles together.

In the things of God, the better distinctions to be drawn perhaps are these. Because God himself is the ultimate author of his Word, the parts of this Word necessarily cohere. They are self-consistent, but that does not mean we have the parts. God could not possibly disclose his mind exhaustively to finite creatures. He is omniscient; we are not, so he has not disclosed the whole.

Moreover, it does not mean we thoroughly understand all God has revealed. All you have to do is look up a few difficult parts of Scripture, and you find out how difficult it is to understand some things God has, nevertheless, objectively disclosed. Moreover, it does not mean we always rightly apply all we do understand.

That means we must be aware of those kinds of consistency that wittingly or unwittingly make things too simple, that domesticate God, that present a picture of God as if he’s smaller or easier to understand than, in fact, he actually is. We get some insight into one corner of the truth, and then we blow it out of proportion and say, “It’s the whole truth.” Suddenly, we have a domesticated God, but it’s not the God who is there. It’s not the God who has disclosed himself. It’s not the God of the Bible. It’s a domesticated god, a god who is a little easier to handle.

This is extremely important in the matter of prayer. At one level, the prayers of Scripture are wonderfully consistent. You can show, for example, they tend to congregate around certain themes. There are certain arguments in them that recur and recur and recur. But I am very much aware that I have touched on relatively few prayers in this series; therefore, there is a danger of leaving you with the impression this business of praying is much neater than it really is.

As if all you have to do is go and memorize six or seven prayers of Paul, then regurgitate them putting in changed names now and then, and you’ve learned how to pray. Then somehow you have a domesticated prayer life, too. Whereas biblical praying is extraordinarily diverse and can be explosive.

I haven’t, for example, in this series mentioned any of the prayers in the Psalms. One of the things I observed when I was in pastoral ministry is that the older people get, the more they like the Psalms. You visit some dear, old duck who is 102, and you say, “What part of Scripture would you like me to read to you?” Inevitably, “I’d like one of the Psalms.”

But if you bring up a young peoples’ Bible study, Psalm 119 is not the first one people turn to. Even Psalm 108. Psalm 23 you’d think they’d know, but no. You turn to James. It’s practical. Ask the dear, old duck who is 102, and she thinks the Psalms are practical. Why? Because she has lived long enough to experience most of what is reflected in the Psalms. The Psalms are a great pastiche of prayers, amongst other things, that reflect the extraordinary diversity of life: when you’re up, when you’re down, when you’re defeated, when you’re in sin, when you’re triumphant, when you’re in despair.

Most of us just haven’t lived long enough to have worked our way through all of those kinds of things before God in prayer, and I barely touched on those things in this series. What does it mean to pray in the Spirit? What does it mean in Romans 8:26 and 27 that the Spirit groans with utterings that cannot be articulated?

What about those prayers that are demanded? For example, “Pray the Lord of the harvest that he would thrust forth laborers into his harvest field.” That’s a commanded prayer. It’s not a modeled prayer like the prayers we’ve been looking at. It’s a commanded prayer. What about unanswered prayer? What about Job or Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Where do quick prayers like Nehemiah’s come in and long nights of praying come in? Importunity, perseverance in prayer?

Obviously, tonight I cannot address all of those questions, although I would like to take a quick shot at two or three of them, but in this final study, for my part (Mark Ashton will be here next week with Ephesians 3), I would like to focus attention on a few themes in Paul’s prayers that so far we have almost entirely overlooked.

In this prayer before us, Romans, chapter 15, verses 30 and following, we find Paul not telling others what he prays for. We find him, rather, soliciting prayer for himself (“Pray for me,” he says) and for his ministry. Thus, this becomes a model of what we should pray for with respect to Christian leaders, what we should be praying for with respect to Christian ministry. That takes us out of anything I think we have done so far. I have four points.

1. Paul wants this prayer to be offered up with earnestness, urgency, and persistence.

He says (verse 30), “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” That’s a long way of getting at the point. He doesn’t just say, “Please pray that …” and fill in with the content. He has an extraordinarily long plea.

There are many times when, in fact, Paul does solicit prayers more briefly. Let me list several of them. You may simply jot down the references and look them up at your leisure. First Thessalonians 5:23 and following. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” Then Paul adds, “Brethren, pray for us.”

In Ephesians 6, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of the dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God.” Then he lists all the armor. Then he says, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly as I should.”

Again, 2 Corinthians 1, verses 8 and following. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.” Implication: “If God does not help us, it’s because you have failed in your praying.” “Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.”

Again, in Philemon 1:22. “And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.” Now that is an invitation! “I hope to visit you in response to your prayers.” Can you imagine anyone writing that sort of thing today? Why not? It’s biblical.

What is Paul after in these sorts of prayers? Let’s come back to this first prayer, this prayer in Romans, chapter 15, and his exhortation. To find out just how strongly Paul feels about this matter, it’s worth pausing for a moment and looking at a parallel passage in Romans 12. In Romans 12, the first couple of verses, Paul has a similar kind of urgency.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers …” Same as here. “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” What Paul means by that is, “In light of the fact that God has so displayed his mercy by giving us his Son who died on our behalf, I urge you to do the only thing possible, and that is give your whole body up, your life, your body as a living sacrifice constantly to this God. I urge you, in view of God’s mercies …”

It’s the same sort of expression here. “I urge you, brothers, in view of our Lord Jesus Christ,” if you like. “I urge you by our Lord Jesus Christ …” The same expression is at stake. “In view of who Jesus is, in view of what he has done for you, in view of the price he has paid, in view of the fact that he is our heavenly intercessor, in view of the fact that he reigns already and he is sovereign, and in view of who he is, I urge you to pray.”

Not only by our Lord Jesus Christ, in view of our Lord Jesus Christ, but he also says, “… by the love of the Spirit.” What Paul means by this is this love of the Spirit presents the Spirit as the origin of our love, by the love that the Spirit gives you. “If you love people, then pray for them. If you love me, pray for me.”

In other words, Paul’s chain of reasoning is, “All right. You’re a Christian. If you’re a Christian, you have the Spirit. If anyone does not have the Spirit of God, he is not of his. If you’re a Christian, you have the Spirit. If you have the Spirit, you will love the brothers and sisters. That is part of what it means to be a Christian. If you love the brothers and sisters, then you will pray for them, and if you love me, pray for me.”

He says, “I urge you, by the love of the Spirit, to pray for me.” It is so elementary. Yet, to say it is slightly shocking, for sometimes we think the way we will express our love for one another is by hugs or sitting up late and drinking coffee and chatting or serving on a committee meeting you don’t really want to serve on or perhaps fetching some books from the library. Those are all practical ways of showing love, I have no doubt, but for many of us, the last way we demonstrate our love is by mutual prayer.

The truth of the matter is, if I show you my love for you by going and fetching some books for you from the library, I get a kind of secret reward. You start saying, “That Don Carson is generous with his time, isn’t he? He went and got some books for me from the library when I’m pressing through these final days of revision.” I go away feeling, “Aha!” I probably wouldn’t be so crass as to say that. “I’ve been self-denying, I have, and I’m loved for it.”

But to love on your knees in the secret place with no one to tell you what a swell Christian you are, that is also the test of your love. Do you love me enough to pray for me? Do you love your Christians in your CU enough to pray for them? How about your Christian leaders? How much time have we spent praying for Tim Cole and the rest of the leaders, for the ministers at your church?

Paul says, “I urge you, if you’re a Christian at all, I urge you by Jesus Christ. I urge you by the love that the Spirit has given you.… If you’re a Christian at all and you have the Spirit and you know love for others, I urge you by that love to display that love on your knees praying for me. Pray earnestly, fervently, urgently, energetically, and persistently.”

There are many reasons why some of us find it difficult to pray, but I think in all fairness one of the reasons why some of us find it difficult to pray persistently and energetically for leaders is because we tend to remember the advice of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, chapter 6, not to pray like the heathen who think they’re heard for their much speaking.

Didn’t we see last week that God is sovereign? He knows the end from the beginning. If God knows the end from the beginning and we’ve already asked him once, how many times do we have to ask him the same thing anyway? The difficulty is, of course, that’s not the only thing Jesus says about praying.

In Luke, chapter 18, there is a complementary sort of passage. Jesus told this parable, we are told, to show his disciples they should always pray and not give up. He said, “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming.’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ ”

Do you see what Jesus is saying? If you can get something out of wicked people by persistence, don’t you think it possible, even right, that you get some things out of God by persistence? From Jesus’ perspective, the real question is not, “Is it wrong to continue to push with God?” The real question is, “Will the Son of Man find faith when he comes again on the earth?”

For sometimes our lack of persistence in prayer is not a reflection of our great maturity (“I’ve already laid this before the Lord, and I am at rest”) but, rather, a reflection of our sheer unbelief. Some of us in our praying are rather like nasty little boys who go up to the doorbell, ring it, and run. We’re not really expecting an answer, and if an answer comes too quickly, we won’t be there in any case to receive it.

The truth of the matter is Matthew 6 is written to counter those kinds of approaches to prayer that think they can wheedle things from God as if the amount of blessing is in direct proportion to the volume of prayer, so that prayer becomes a kind of meritorious work. I just crank on and on with prayer, and I get proportionate blessing. That won’t do. We should not be like the pagans who think they are heard for their much speaking.

On the other hand, Luke 18 is against that kind of approach to God that treats him diffidently, carelessly, without urgency, without passion, and without persistence. I have a little girl who is 7. From the time she was 5, she started wheedling me for flute lessons. We started her on a recorder, and every few months or so, she started asking for flute lessons. Why she wanted flute, I don’t know. Her mother doesn’t play the flute. I don’t play the flute, but she wanted flute lessons.

You’re not parents yet (most of you), but a word of anticipatory advice. When your child asks for something, ignore the request nine times out of ten. It doesn’t mean anything. The child simply looks at something and says, “I’d like to do that!” Every new thing the child looks at the child wants to do, so you ignore the request.

But after my daughter kept asking me every few months, “Please Daddy! You said when I was older, and I’m older than I was.” These kids with their logic.… “Yes. When you’re a little older we’ll think about it. Mommy and I are talking about it.” A few months later, “Please, Daddy. I’d like to have flute lessons. One of my friends at school is playing the flute.”

Finally, after 18 months of this, you finally say, “All right. I’ll rent a flute.” I’m certainly not going to buy one. You know what’s going to happen with this little tyke. She’s going to be bored stiff with it in about three weeks. “I’ll rent a flute. The rule is, if I rent it, you have to take lessons and practice faithfully for at least three months. Then we’ll reconsider. You do it every week whether you want to or not every day.”

“Yes, Daddy. Yes, Daddy.” So Daddy goes and rents the flute. After six months of faithful playing, the little tyke isn’t bad. Daddy goes and buys the flute. Partly, this is because Tiffany has kept on and on. She has shown some persistence. There is a sense in which God, the heavenly Father, treats us the same way.

If we get down on our knees and say, “Lord, I’d really like personal revival in Jesus’ name, amen,” and then not give it another thought until we hear another sermon on revival, do you know what he’ll say? “Yes. I’ve seen this one before. He doesn’t really want it.” Because he’s a wise, heavenly Father.

There is a place for importunity, for persistence, and Jesus tells this parable in Luke 18 to this end, that his disciples should learn to pray and not give up. That’s what the text says. So also here. Paul does not here simply drop a formula. “Pray for me, too. Put me on your prayer list.” He says, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ, by the love of the Spirit to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.”

The word Paul uses for join me in my struggle is a word he elsewhere uses for his own prayer life. He sees his own prayer life as a struggle against the hosts of darkness, a struggle against the darkness of people who do not know Christ, a struggle against opposition, a struggle against darkness that the kingdom is bucking up against. “You’ve joined my in my struggle. I urge you, brothers …”

2. Paul wants prayer for himself in connection with his own ministry.

There are two parts to his request. He says (verse 31), “Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea.” That’s the first part. Secondly, “Pray that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there.”

A little of the historical background will be helpful to see what Paul is after. Paul, at this juncture, is collecting money from the churches in Achaia, the southern part of Greece. He has already collected some from the northern part, Macedonia, and he is bringing this money to the poor saints in Jerusalem. They have gone through various bits of poverty, and he is going up to the high feast and presenting this as a gift from the Gentile believers to the Jewish believers.

He has said already Gentile believers owe this to the Jewish believers there. He says (verse 27), “They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way.”

That’s Paul’s plan. He’s leaving Greece heading east for Jerusalem where he’s going to present this money in Jerusalem. The trouble is, in Jerusalem Paul is not universally respected. In fact, he will be in constant danger, and he knows it. From the point of view of many orthodox Jews, understandably, Paul is a traitor to his faith. Paul has brought in all of these Gentiles into the messianic community without having them circumcised, without committing them to obey the law of Moses.

Paul has insisted, along eventually with the other apostles, that a man or a woman is justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ. You do not have to come under the law of Moses and vow to obey all the law of Moses before you can accept the Jewish Messiah. That’s what some conservative Jews wanted.

Paul says, “No. The old structures foretold the coming of the Messiah. They predicted the coming Messiah and what kind of Messiah he would be, but now that he has come, you don’t have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian; you become a Christian by placing your faith in Jesus Christ whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile.”

For this, he was written off by many of the more conservative types amongst his own people. They saw him as an apostate, as a danger to his own people and race, and committing a kind of cultural genocide, if you like. They hated him, and more than once they had tried to kill him, so Paul says, “Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea,” but he also says, “Pray that my service in Jerusalem might be acceptable to the saints there.”

After all, the genuine Christians there are likely to be influenced by the surrounding community, and part of their view of Paul will be colored by the views of those around them. Even though they may not adopt the opponent’s theological position, if they hear enough nasty things about Paul, they may be inclined to believe at least some of them.

Besides that, it is sometimes difficult for some people to accept things from others. Some of us are so confident, so strong, so noble, so Christian that we only give, but that’s not the way it is in the Christian church, is it? It’s very hard for some of us to receive, and I’m sure that was the way it was with many of the Christians in Jerusalem. They were the mother church. Paul himself confesses the Jews, after all, had received the covenant and the promises in the Scriptures. Theirs was a great heritage. What did they have to receive from the others?

Aware of these kinds of pressures, Paul says, “Pray that my service might be acceptable to the saints in Jerusalem.” Quite clearly, there is a sense in which none of us is going to be asking for prayer for precisely these two things, but there is another sense in which most Christian leaders would value prayer on precisely these two fronts more than any other. First, prayer to be spared the worst opposition from unbelievers, and secondly, prayer that your ministry is acceptable among the Christians.

There is nothing else more important to pray for with respect to Christian leaders than those two things. With respect to unbelievers and pressures from the outside, they may present opposition in the form of frontal attack, but they may be seductive. In a place like this, for example, like a great university, it is possible to be seduced by the sheer idolatry of academic probity, academic independence.

I say this having devoted my life to writing books and to scholarship, but there is something very seductive about it as well, because, you see, along that front I can earn good reviews and be respected and call the reverend professor doctor (whatever they say in Germany to get them all lined up over there) and somehow primary allegiance to Jesus Christ is dissipated. It’s weakened. I become more concerned for my reputation than for my Lord’s reputation. Pray, then, that I might be spared the unbelievers.

In many parts of the world, the attacks are far, far, far more vicious. There have been more Christian martyrs in this century than in the previous 19 combined. There are enormously important places in the world where the opposition to the gospel is very strenuous and very overt. In the Western world, it is becoming more so. Pray, then, for your Christian leaders that they will neither be seduced by the world nor simply succumb to the world.

Pray, too, that the work of your Christian leaders will be acceptable amongst Christians. Some Christians cannot receive ministry. Some churches have roast preacher every Sunday lunch. Some are excellent critics but never edify anyone. Others are nasty, judgmental sorts. “We are merely discerning as we slice people up behind their backs.” Pray, then, that the ministry of Christian leaders will be acceptable in the Christian community. Otherwise, there is no edification.

Have you noticed how often that kind of thing is urged on Christians in the New Testament? Hebrews, chapter 13, for example. “Obey your leaders. Submit to them, even, for the very simple reason that they watch over your souls and it is important that they do so with gladness and joy and not with great pain.” Paul knows what he’s talking about. If you read through all of his epistles at a stretch (all 13), you quickly discover the greatest things Paul suffered were not from outsiders but from Christians.

Those of you who are aspiring to any form of Christian leadership, let me tell you quite frankly, the hardest things you’ll ever face are the things you’ll face from other Christians. On the other hand, there’s good biblical warrant for it both in Paul and in Jesus himself. Therefore, pray that the ministry of men and women in positions of leadership will be acceptable to Christians there.

Within that framework, of course, there are a lot of detailed things one could pray for. I know a church in Canada a number of years ago that called a new minister, and this minister was the sort that was running helter-skelter about doing everything and not doing anything very well. Two or three leading men in the church eventually pulled this minister aside.

They said, “Pastor, excuse us for speaking so frankly, but we think you’re neglecting the pulpit. We want to hear the Word of God. We have not said this because we’re talking behind your back. We have not discussed this thing out of our own circle. We are not chewing you out, but we beg of you to give yourself to that ministry, and for our part, we have covenanted together, the three of us, as long as you serve in this church to pray together for you for one hour on Monday mornings from 6:00 until 7:00 so help us God.” They turned and walked out.

Do you know any church where people pray for their ministers like that? The man’s ministry was transformed, and he spent years and years and years in fruitful ministry in that place. Do not misunderstand me. There are times, according to Scripture, when the church is to discipline its minister. There are times when a minister should leave, but the first recourse as we pray for our leaders or think of Christian leaders is not assess them. “This CU president is better than that one or not quite as good as this one. On a scale of 1 to 10, he’s about 6.3.” That’s not our job.

Nor are we to do that with our ministers. That’s not our first recourse. Nor is it to strike up a committee and have an evaluation chart or see how we can bring in someone else to shore up the weak spots. We might have to do that, but it’s not the first recourse. The first recourse with respect to Christian leadership is to pray.

Many of you are leaving university this year, and you’ll go out to areas of the country where there may or may not be established sound and solid habits of prayer. For those in spiritual leadership, those who genuinely know the Lord and are trying to do the best they can with slovenly resources sometimes, if your first recourse is not to prayer, you become part of the problem instead part of the solution.

3. For Paul, prayer for his ministry inevitably envisages further ministry.

I love this passage. Listen to what he says (verse 31). “Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, so that, by God’s will, I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen.”

The earlier part that was read earlier in the service tells us part of Paul’s intentions. He’s heading for Jerusalem. Then, once he’s finished there, he intends to go on to Rome and spend a little time there ministering to them and being refreshed by them. From there, he intends to launch forward to Spain, doubtless supplied in part with material, goods, and enough money to last a bit as he begins to try planting the church of Jesus Christ in Spain.

He has preached, he says, all the way through the Greek peninsula. He has preached through Asia Minor (what we now call Turkey). The gospel has already been fleshed out in various churches around the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. “There’s no room for me here,” he says. “My aim is to preach the gospel where Christ is not known. I know Christ is known in Rome. There are Christians there. I’m going beyond that to where Christ is not known. I’m going on to Spain.”

He says, “Pray that my ministry will be acceptable in Jerusalem so that I might come to you with joy,” and he has already said, “From there launch forward.” For every prayer that Paul asks for a particular ministry, if you read the broader context, it is in light of his expectation that he’s going on to another ministry and another ministry and another ministry. He’s always thinking ahead.

In other words, he’s not simply asking for prayer for this immediate crisis and that’s all. “This Jerusalem is going to be a hot one, brothers. Please pray for me in this respect.” Rather, “Pray for me in this respect so I can come to you and from there I can go on to Spain.” He’s thinking ahead, always planning, and thinking bigger.

There’s a wonderful lesson there about how we ought to pray. So often the horizon of our prayers is simply this next meeting, and that’s appropriate. We prayed in the vestibule before we came in that God’s presence would be manifestly felt during this meeting, that God would work in our hearts by his Spirit, that he would cleanse us from our sins, and that, in consequence of these meetings, we should learn better how to pray. That’s all appropriate, but where does it lead? What’s next?

Perhaps we should also pray, as a result, the prayers of many of you will become so regular and faithful and importunate that for years to come you will be faithful prayer warriors in many parts around the world and, in consequence of your prayers, revival will break out in many parts. Why not? We serve a God for whom there is no degree of difficulty.

Our horizons are so small. We start praying for the next Sunday morning at church or for the next sermon, which is correct, which is fine, but should we not also pray, in consequence of this biblical ministry, there may be expansion and outreach and growth and maybe starting some branch works or a new phase of the ministry or putting a balcony to seat all who are coming?

Horizon’s unlimited. We serve a God who says, “I will build my church.” We serve a Christ who is risen from the dead, and he says, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth. Go and preach the gospel. I will build my church.” We pray such short-term, narrowly focused, immediately concerned, petty prayers. Paul’s praying is not only for the immediate but for where it leads, where it might lead, where it could lead. He prays with vision.

4. Some of Paul’s prayers were not answered, as he would have liked.

Those of you who know a bit of biblical history will know this one wasn’t. It wasn’t answered, as he would have liked. What happens when Paul goes up to Jerusalem? He is spotted in town with a Gentile. The next day he is spotted in the temple on his own, and the Jews assume he has brought a Gentile to contaminate the temple. A riot starts. He is incarcerated. There is a plot to kill him that almost succeeds were it not for a relative who goes and tells the Roman authorities what is going on.

He flies by night with an escort of 200 soldiers to Caesarea. There he rots in jail for two years as the various authorities play politics. Finally, when it looks after a change of governor as if he’s going to be sent back to Jerusalem where certainly he would be killed, assassinated, along the way, he does what a Roman citizen can do, and he appeals to Caesar.

As a result, he’s put on the docket for the high court and has to be shipped to Rome. He gets to Rome, all right, but on the way there’s a shipwreck (his fourth). He is bitten by a snake. Eventually, he gets to Rome and stays in jail for two more years there under house arrest before he comes up before the Roman emperor.

Do you really believe for one moment any of that was what Paul had in mind when he prayed this prayer? It’s not the only prayer in Paul’s life like that. Read 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, verses 1 to 10. There Paul says, on account of the great visions that were given to him, there was also given to him a messenger of Satan, a thorn in the flesh, to abase his pride.

Paul says, “Three times I diligently prayed that God would take it away from me.” When Paul says that, he does not mean that three times he mumbled some quickie before beating it out the back door on his way to class. What he means is he spent diligent periods of time in intercession begging God to take this thorn away, and the only answer he got from God was, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul wanted relief from the thorn by having the thorn removed. What God gave him was not relief from the thorn by removing the thorn but relief from the thorn by adding more grace. The reason God did that, in this case, was that Paul might learn the lesson he articulates at the end of that passage.

He says, “Therefore I will glory in my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power might be manifest in me.” Paul had envisaged, as God had promised him, standing before the emperor proclaiming the gospel. “You must go to Rome, Paul, and proclaim the gospel there as well.” Paul did not envisage going there as a shackled prisoner.

If we start saying before the Lord, “Lord, send me, use me, fill my life; I would like to be as useful to the kingdom of God as I could be, and I would like in my life to be as holy as a pardoned sinner can be, and I would like to invest my hours in my days for all eternity,” let me tell you frankly, this does not mean you are going to be the next Billy Graham.

It does not mean, in all likelihood, your name will be on marquees. It may mean you’ll serve in forsaken little byways, despised by friends and academic colleagues, written off perhaps by family, and you will learn suffering and tears, and in the midst of weakness find God’s strength, for very, very frequently the prayers in Scripture are not answered quite the way we would have thought.

Were Job’s answered the way he would have thought? Even Christ cried, “Take this cup from me. Yet, nevertheless, not as I will but as you will.” So Paul has these great visions of what the gospel should do, what he himself will do if God will simply bless him and keep him and preserve him until the next stage, but we do not serve a God who simply doles out answers like a computer, as if you come before God and simply press the right spiritual buttons and out comes the answer nicely packaged to reinforce our faith.

We serve a heavenly Father, an all-wise God who knows what is best, who loves us and never, ever does anything in our lives that is out of accord with his own glory and our good. Never. But we do not always see this right away, and as we learn the lessons, we can face tears as sometimes God’s answers to our prayers are not in the categories we expect. Some of Paul’s prayers were not answered, as he would have liked.

We serve the risen Christ. We serve the Lord God, and he is infinitely more interested, dare I say it, in us than in our prayers. He wants us to pray, but he does not see the prayers as merely mechanical devices that he blesses because they’re prayers; he’s interested in us, more interested in us than in our prayers, and his glory he will not give to another.

Here, then, is prayer for ministry, prayer that prays in line with the values and truths of Scripture, prays according to the God who has revealed himself in Scripture but learns also God’s way of answering our prayers is sometimes vastly different than anything we might conceive. Yet, it is the universal testimony of Christians who live for a while and look back that they raise their Ebenezer, that they say, “Hitherto the Lord has helped us.” I have asked so foolishly so many times for so many things, and what God has given has always been much, much better than I could have chosen for myself. Let us pray.

So teach us, Lord God, to pray not only for spiritual growth for one another and for ourselves but for the ministry, for Christian leaders, for the glory of Christ, for the spread of the gospel. We pray, Lord God, in this city, in this university that those who articulate the gospel will do so with increasing boldness and clarity and compassion, that they will be spared the seductions of a world that does not know you and is fortified against them, that their ministry will prove acceptable amongst Christians who are thereby nurtured and built up and edified and that many will come to know Christ by their witness.

What we pray here, we pray for the church of Jesus Christ in many parts of the world. Many of us have ties with one part or another part, and in the quietness of these moments, we raise those parts of the world before you: Japan, French Canada, or Bangladesh. Lord God, we know men and women, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are serving in these places. Bless their ministry. Strengthen them. Make their ministry fruitful, acceptable amongst the saints, powerful in the proclamation of the Word, and give them visions of the impossible. Then, we pray that you, the God of the impossible, will bring forth fruit far above all we could ask or imagine.

And from this room full of young men and women tonight, Lord God, we pray you will raise up many from this number who will desire with their whole hearts to repeat the prayer of Isaiah, “Here am I; send me.” We ask this for the praise of the Lord Jesus and for the good of the people for whom he shed his life’s blood, amen.


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The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

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Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!

The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!

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