Praying

I.       Introduction

Some days just start rotten.  Everything seems to go wrong.  A few months ago, I got a late start to work.  I don’t usually hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off at 4:20am, but this day I did.  I went to get a cup of coffee, but the last of the cream had leaked out onto the refrigerator shelf.  I cleaned it up, drank the coffee black, hurried out the door.  Arrived at the office late, only to realize I had left my work laptop at home. 

Go home, get the laptop, now I need gas.  Stop at the gas station, and instead of opening the gas cap, I press the button to open the trunk.  Then the button to pop the hood.  Sigh.  Close the unnecessary car parts, fill up, back on the road, now in traffic.  Get to work an hour late.  Some days are just challenging.

We all have bad days, and many days are worse than that one. I don’t want to get into how bad they can be, but we will get to those bad days after today’s lesson when we ask for prayer requests, and perhaps add a little scriptural perspective on our prayers.

In today’s scripture, we start at 2 Thessalonians 2 verse 13, and Paul is praying for them and reminding the Thessalonians how much Paul loves them.  They’re having a good day, despite their bad day. 

Do you ever wonder about the purpose of prayer?  I do.  The more I study God, two things happen.  First, I grow closer to Him, and second, I realize how little I truly know about Him.  Prayer has a purpose that seems to elude me. 

If God is all sovereign, why does God sometimes change His mind when we pray?  If He knows everything anyway, does my prayer actually matter or make things better, or was God going to do that anyway?  How do I know if and when God is answering a prayer?  If I forget or neglect to pray, does God’s goodness and sovereignty cover my forgetfulness?  If so, do I really need to pray if God answers even when I don’t?

I know God loves it when I pray; there are several verses that describe our prayers as offering of incense.  In the Old Testament, David wrote in Psalm 141:1-2,

I call to you, Lord, come quickly to me;

    hear me when I call to you.

May my prayer be set before you like incense;

    may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

And this theme carries on all the way to Revelation 5:8,

And when (the Lamb) had taken (the scroll with seven seals), the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb.  Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Here’s how little I don’t know about prayer; I went down a rabbit hole to study what it means that our prayers are incense, and that rabbit hole took me from Exodus 30 to Matthew 5.  We’re supposed to be studying 2 Thessalonians 2 about prayer, but I want to share just a small part of this journey to illustrate how profound Paul’s letter is when he prays for the Thessalonians.

You’re familiar, I think, with the tabernacle of Moses.  When one entered the Holy Place, we remember the curtain eventually torn in two that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, where God met His people at the Ark of the Covenant.  Right in front of that curtain is this Altar of Incense.  It was placed directly in front of the curtain. 

The Leviticus priest would enter twice a day and burn incense, and Exodus 30:8 says the aroma of this incense was “constant and perpetual before the Lord for the generations to come.”

The mix of the incense had to be perfect, and Exodus 30:34-35 gives us the recipe.  When the recipe wasn’t perfect or the ceremonial laws weren’t fulfilled perfectly, the Lord struck death.  Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu did it incorrectly in Leviticus 10:1-2, and scripture says the fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

In Leviticus 16, we read about the Day of Atonement where the Leviticus priest takes his burnt offering and combines the aroma or the burnt offering with the incense and brings it directly into the Most Holy Place.  Usually the aroma from the incense was filtered through the veil, but on the Day of Atonement, the incense aroma was brought directly into the presence of God.

I could go on an on about incense and rules listed in Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16 and 2 Chronicles 26, but let’s just stop following those rabbits and figure out what this has to do with prayer.  And I think the answer is in Matthew 5:17 when Jesus says He came to fulfill the law and the prophets.  He meant it, literally.  He came to fulfill Old Testament ceremonial laws Himself.

Jesus is perfect, and Jesus is our Atonement.  Jesus is the Altar of Incense.  Our prayers are combined with the atonement of Jesus so that the pleasant aroma of our prayers can be brought to the Holy presence of God. Our prayers originate from sinful people, but they combine with the sacrifice of Jesus so that our prayers are made perfect and pleasing.

We don’t burn incense anymore because Jesus fulfilled all the ceremonial laws.  We don’t burn incense so the aroma of the incense filters through the veil continuously anymore, waiting for atonement to carry that aroma to the Holy of Holies. 

1 Thessalonians 5:17,

Pray without ceasing.

Like the incense at the altar, our prayers are to be continuous, we pray without ceasing, in the name of Jesus Christ so that God’s holy presence will hear us.

John writes in Revelation that the prayers of the saints reach the very presence of God because they are accompanied by our high priest forever, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Revelation 8 tells us God responds to those prayers of the saints.

There was my rabbit hole.  I wanted to study about prayer in preparation for our lesson, I learned a lot about incense representing prayer and the atonement of Jesus brings the aroma of our prayers directly into the presence of God.  And now certain passages like 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 have an incredible amount of depth to them that I wasn’t aware of before –

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.  For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?

I bet there’s a lot more to prayer that I’m not aware of. 

Prayer is so simple, even a child can do it.  Prayer is complex; the most studied theologians cannot fully grasp this miracle.  We can know that prayer can bring us closer to God and invites God’s power to work in our lives.  And this prayer to our creator pleases Him.

So I think with that incredibly lengthy introduction, we’re ready to start our study of 2 Thessalonians.  Here is our scripture for today, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5,

But we must always thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.  He called you to this through our gospel, so that you might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, either by our message or by our letter.

May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word.

Finally, brothers, pray for us that the Lord’s message may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not all have faith.  But the Lord is faithful; He will strengthen and guard you from the evil one.  We have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do what we command.  May the Lord direct your hearts to God’s love and Christ’s endurance.

II.    Faithful Inside the Church

Paul begins with discussion with our prayers inside the church, among the body of believers.  We learn that God initiates prayer because of His love for us.

A.        God initiates Prayer

First, we have to understand that God initiates our prayers, not us.  Everything in our life begins with God.  Verse 13 says, “God chose you” phrase in verse 13.  You might think you choose God, but God first gave you the ability to choose God and then called you to choose God.  How?  “Through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” 

When, in the book of James, James says that faith without works is dead, he highlights that any relationship with God is proven by our repentance and our belief in the truth.  Who calls for us to do this?  God does.  Verse 14 says “He called you through our gospel,” the good news of our salvation.

Throughout history, God’s role in relating to mankind has always been initiating the covenant, making the covenant, keeping the covenant, saving the covenant.  Our role has always been repentance and belief.

We don’t have to be perfect.  Just responsive.   We are not called to maintain perfection.  Only repent and belief in His truth.

Therefore, if prayer is our communication with God, then we want to make sure there is no static in the line.  We don’t approach God in our perfection.  We approach Him in our humility, acknowledging Him in all His ways.

How do we know that we have been “chosen by God?”  How do we know we are “called by God?”  Well, that is our faith.  We have heard the call because we are here, listening to His word and studying His instructions.  We believe in His Word, we shed ourselves of our sin and unbelief, we become sanctified by His work in us.

So what does this mean when we pray to our Lord? Well, for one thing, I understand most religions, prayer is an obligation, a duty.  You have to be good enough for your prayers to be heard.  But not for Christ followers.  It’s not about us.  Christ is “good enough” for our prayers to be heard. 

What if we don’t know how to pray?  Well, that too is not a problem.  We just pray.  Any of our deficiencies are mixed with the atonement of Christ and the resulting aroma is incense to God.  Even if you have no words, no coherent thought, even if you’re empty inside, just pray.  The Holy Spirit is living inside you like an Alter of Incense and will intercede with groans that ascend to the throne of grace.

The purpose of prayer is not an obligation, it doesn’t provide miracles on demand.  What is the purpose of prayer then?  The purpose is the prayer itself.  God calls you to communicate with Him through prayer.  He is always close to us.  Prayer keeps us close to Him.

B.       God’s Love Motivates Prayer

God wants us to pray because He loves us, and He knows our prayers keep us focused on Him.  Look at these snippets from 3 verses –

  • 2 Thessalonians 2:13, But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord…
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:16, Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us…
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:5, May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God…

Three times, God’s love for believers is mentioned when we pray.  It is because of God’s love we are called.  It is because of God’s love we repent.  It is because of God’s love we pray.

Because we know God loves us, we can rest knowing God’s response to our prayer is always perfect.  We’re not asking somebody impersonal, distant, hard of hearing.  We are asking Abba, Father. 

  • When we know God loves us, we are not fearful to come to Him in prayer because perfect love drives out all fear (1 John 4:19).
  • When we know God loves us, we know we are understood completely and that He empathizes with us in all things (Hebrews 4:15).
  • When we know God loves us, we know that nothing in our life happens without the loving, caring permission of a sovereign God who works all things according to His purpose (Ephesians 1:11).
  • When we know God loves us, we approach the throne of grace with confidence in prayer, knowing He provides all the mercy and grace we need and the perfect time (Hebrews 4:16).

III. Faithful Outside the Church

It is God’s love within us that encourages us to pray.  But that love flows through us, and helps us understand God’s purposes.  Prayer aligns us with His purposes.  We learn to love what God loves. And one of the simplest profound things we learn about love is that God’s love is immense.  God so loved the world that He gave us His son.  But many who hear the call reject it, and only wrath and destruction lie on that path.  How does God want us to pray for the world?  2 Thessalonians 3:1-5,

Finally, brothers, pray for us that the Lord’s message may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not all have faith.  But the Lord is faithful; He will strengthen and guard you from the evil one.  We have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do what we command.  May the Lord direct your hearts to God’s love and Christ’s endurance.

We pray to spread the gospel, but we also have to recognize that not all are called.  How can we tell who is who?  Well, that’s a little above our pay grade, isn’t it?  We pray for those we love, we pray for our neighbors, we pray for our enemies.  We pray for every single solitary soul that God created.

For most people, even non-believers, deep down understand and appreciate the power of prayer.  If you’re ever approached a non-believer and said, “May I pray for you?”  it is amazing how many will accept that prayer thankfully.  They know.

In verse 1, Paul asks for prayer that God’s will may be done through him.   Paul constantly asked for prayers when he wrote his letters – Romans 15:30-31, Ephesians 6:18-19; Colossians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; Philemon 22; the list goes on and on.  It pleases God when we pray for His will to be done, and the prayers of a righteous man are powerful.  Three things I learned in these verses –

A.       We pray continuously 

In verse 1, Paul says “Pray for us.”  The tense indicates continual prayer, not just a one time event.  Paul recognized the need for constant prayer; in 1 Thessalonians 1:2, Paul says he prays for the Thessalonians constantly, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul tells them to pray without ceasing.  The world is as lost today as it was in the time of the Thessalonians and is in need of a savior they don’t even know.  Pray they hear the word; pray we tell them the word.  Pray and obey.

B.       We pray offensively

I don’t mean the prayers are offensive, I mean we go on the offense.  Continuous prayers are our victory in our earthly battle.   The words Paul chose for “spread rapidly” implies an imagery from the Old Testament where God’s Words runs swiftly, as though a runner in a race.  Psalm 147:15 says, “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.”  And “honor” – or “glory,” in some translations, indicates a winner.  The runner receives glory through winning, and God’s Word receives glory when somebody comes to Christ.  Evangelistic prayer encourages us to go on the offense and spread God’s message so He may receive glory. 

Offensive prayer has a purpose.  Our world, you may have noticed, is sick.  Our world is dying.  The Word of God is life-saving medicine.  Paul prays that the medicine is spread rapidly because lives are at stake.  Jesus had the same urgency in John 9:4: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.  Night is coming, when no one can work.”

C.        We pray defensively

Prayer is also defensive; we must never forget we are soldiers of Christ engaged in spiritual warfare.  The breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit are all parts of the armor of God to protect us.  We are at battle with spiritual darkness and the plans carried out by evil men.  Evil men that have not only corrupted themselves but intent on corrupting others.  Evangelists are on the front line on this battle, and need both offensive prayer to spread the gospel effectively, but also defensive, protective prayer against the evil that would stop them.

IV.    Conclusion

The Lord speaks to us through His Word, but we speak to Him through the awesome privilege of prayer.

Prayer is not about having the right words.  It is about understanding who God is.  God is love.  His love initiates our prayers and gives us reason to pray.  In our prayers, we learn God’s purposes for us.  And those prayers are pleasing to God.  It is the incense, a heavenly aroma, that God receives when we are obedient in our love to Him.

God gives us prayer so that we may have a relationship with Him.  Prayer gives us the opportunity and responsibility to partner with the God of creation.  Do not be afraid to pray; do not wonder if you’re praying correctly or if your prayers are acceptable.  Our prayers are incense, they are sanctified by the groans of the Holy Spirit, the are mingled with the atonement of Jesus Christ and brought to the Holy of Holies like a sweet aroma of incense. 

God does all of that for you.  So just pray.  Walk boldly to the throne of God, knowing that your prayers are acceptable, heard, and valued by the God of all creation.

Let us align our hearts to His heart, our petitions with His purposes, and our cares with His kingdom – and pray.

All glory to God through Christ alone.  Amen.

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