10. Prayer In The 1st And 21st Centuries
Prayer In The Last Days
The early believers " continued" in the doctrine, [example of] prayer and fellowship of the apostles (Acts 2:42,46; 8:13). The same word is used of how we must " continue" in prayer (Rom. 12:12; Col. 4:2), i.e. follow the example of the early ecclesia in prayerfulness. The disciples had " continued" in prayer after the Lord's ascension (Acts 1:14), and now their converts continued in prayer too. Note in passing that we continue in the pattern of those who convert us. Thus to start with, Simon " continued with Philip" (Acts 8:13). This means that who we are affects the spiritual quality of others. So important was prayer in the early community that the seven deacons had to make arrangements for the practical running of the ecclesia so that they could give themselves more time for prayer (Acts 6:4); prayerfulness was more important than petty administration. Husbands and wives abstained from sex for short periods so as to more powerfully pray individually (1 Cor. 7:5). Communal prayer was a source of their fellowship, their " one accord" : " They continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42 NKJV). And they were " instant in prayer" (Rom. 12:12). They got on their knees straight away. In Acts 12:5 they called a prayer meeting about Peter's imprisonment. 1 Tim. 5:5 shows that the sign of a true widow was that she continued in prayers night and day. She was supported materially so that she could keep up this work of praying for others (abused into the Catholic system of paying for prayers to be said). There was a specific group of " widows" in the early ecclesias, as in Acts 7. Their duty was to pray for others; so important was prayer seen. 1 Pet. 3:7 gives an unexpected reason for appealing for husbands and wives to get along with each other: that your prayers be not hindered. So important was prayer in the thinking of Peter. Comparing ourselves with the first century community, it seems to me that we simply don't give prayer the place of importance which they did. 1 Tim 2:1 reflects their balance: " I exhort therefore, that, first of all [the Greek implies 'most importantly' rather than just being first in a list], supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men" . The scant information which we are given about Lydia and Cornelius before their conversions includes the fact that they were given to prayer; indeed, the implication is that they came to the Gospel as a result of their prayerfulness (Acts 10:31; 16:13,16).
So important was prayer in the early church that there developed certain standard acclamations or doxologies which may reflect common phrases used in prayers throughout the early brotherhood- just as there are certain phrases used in Christian prayers throughout the world today. " Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" is an acclamation that crops in up in some form or other in 1 Cor. 15:57; Rom. 6:17; 7:25; 2 Cor. 2:14; 8:16; 9:15. Likewise " God…to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (Gal. 3:15; Rom. 11:36; 16:27; Eph. 3:21; 2 Tim. 4:18; 1 Tim. 1:17).
The prayerfulness of the first century should shock us into improvement. We can be shy to ask each other to pray, embarrassed to immediately suggest we pray as we sit there together discussing a problem or another brother's misfortune. We have much room for improvement here. But there are some good examples within our own ranks. I telephoned a sister recently. Her young daughter answered. I asked, 'Can I speak to mummy please?'. 'Well, err, could you call back?' she replied. 'Well, is mummy at home? I can hold…', I went on. 'Well, you see mummy can't come to the telephone because she's praying. She always does after lunch'. Like a picture worth ten thousand words, so was this to me, as an exhortation to regular and unashamed prayer, in the midst of life's myriad distractions.
Prayer In The Last days
Israel's deliverance from Egypt is in many ways a type of our redemption at the time of the Lord's return. The focus of the Passover feast was the lamb, and this should be the centre of our thinking in these last days. Some very intense Hebrew words are used to describe their association of themselves with it: " Draw out ('seize') and take you a lamb...strike ('lay the hand on', a word used about rape) the lintel...with the blood" (Ex. 12:21,22). And the run-up to Passover was to feature a business-like searching of the house for leaven (Ex. 12:19), reflecting the close self-examination which we should undertake individually and ecclesially (" your houses" ) in this prelude to the Passover-coming of our Lord. Not surprisingly, in the light of this, Passover night was to be " a night of watching" (Ex. 12:42 RV mg.), strongly suggesting " watching in prayer" (Eph. 6:18; 1 Pet. 4:7; 2 Cor. 11:27?). Similarly those who are found " watching" at the Lord's midnight coming (cp. that of the Passover angel) will be found acceptable (Lk. 12:37). The picture of Israel in their family units huddled together around the Lamb, desperately focusing their attention on that saving blood, watching and praying, examining themselves- this is us, right now. For there can be no serious doubt that the second coming is almost upon our generation. The run up to the final tribulation will provoke a " praying always, that ye may be accounted worthy...to stand before the Son of man" (Lk. 21:36).
In these last days the times are tough now spiritually, getting tougher. Only " for the elects sake those days shall be shortened" and we will be saved by the second coming. Thus 2 Pet. 3:12,15 reminds us that by our prayers and spiritual development, the days before the second coming will be shortened. If they were not, even the elect would lose their faith (Mt. 24:22)- showing how those of us who are alive at Christ's coming will barely survive the spiritual traumas of the last days. The virgins were sleeping when they should have been watching; and Peter says that the righteous in the last generation (see context) will scarcely be saved (1 Pet. 4:18).
" The Lord...is longsuffering to us-ward" of the last days. This longsuffering of Jesus suggests the parable of the persistent widow, whose continued requests should match our prayers for the second coming (the vengeance of our adversaries which she requested will only come then). " Though he bear long" (s.w. 'longsuffering') with us, " God shall avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him" (Lk. 18:7). The " us" whom Peter refers to as experiencing the Lord's longsuffering ('bearing long') are therefore to be equated with " the elect" in their fervent prayers for the second coming. The days being shortened- a strong idea in 2 Peter 3- for the elect's sake therefore refers to the hastening of the second coming on account of the elect's prayers (Mt. 24:22). In view of the later references to Matt. 24, it is not unreasonable to think that Peter is consciously alluding to Mt. 24:22 concerning the shortening of the days for the sake of the elect's prayers, through his allusion to the parable of the persistent widow of Lk.18:7.
Despite the power of prayer in bringing about the Lord's return in vengeance, Lk. 18:9-14 continues in this same context to warn that despite this:
- Perhaps the Lord won't find such faith in prayer when he returns
- Many will pray but be so sure of their own righteousness that their prayers are hindered
- The disciples will tend to despise the little ones in the ecclesia.
May we not give way to these latter day temptations!
There is a triple emphasis on Israel praying to God in the lead up to Christ's birth (Luke 1:10,13; 2:37). We have seen from Joel 2:17 and many other passages that the remnant will likewise devote themselves to prayer in the last days, as will spiritual Israel.
The foolish virgins realize the need for prayer all too late; they knocked on the door with great zeal, asking for it to be opened; seeking but not finding. Knocking is sometimes used as a figure for prayer (Mt. 7:7). The basis for these foolish virgins is surely in Prov. 1:28,29: " Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer...they shall not find me: for that they hated knowledge" . Having a laid back attitude to developing a real knowledge of the Lord through the oil of the word is therefore effectively hating knowledge. As we see the Lord's coming approaching, our daily reading according to the Companion ought to be a bare minimum. There must be a feeling of and for those things of which we read, and a holding of them in the heart through the course of each day.
Love In The Last days
The days of Sodom are to be read as types of our last days. It is recorded for our learning " that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in the which Lot dwelt" (Gen. 19:29). Thus in the type of the last days, the prayers and loving spiritual concern of the faithful remnant really can have an effect on the salvation of our weaker brethren. Note that Abraham's prayer that Sodom would be saved if ten righteous were found there, was not answered; but God knew the real spirit of his prayer, that Lot should be saved, and that God's justice should be upheld in not destroying the righteous with the wicked. It was this which God recognized and answered, even though Abraham had not specifically verbalized those thoughts in prayer. Our true spiritual love for our brethren, expressed in such intense prayer, will likewise be heard in these last days.