- The Discipline of Prayer
This morning we come again to the garden of Gethsemane to observe, not the agony of Christ as He contemplates the hour at hand and the cup He is to drink, but the example He leads and the commission He gives to His disciples to watch and to pray. He says to them:
“’Sit here until I have prayed…My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.’ And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began to pray…”
The spiritual discipline of watching and praying is before us this morning, and it is truly a discipline. It does not come naturally to us. Prayer is something we must train and condition ourselves to do. Metaphorically speaking, we must beat ourselves into submission. As Jesus says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” It is just as Paul says in Galatians 5:17:
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another…”
It is true that we who are in Christ are new creatures with new hearts with new found affections for God; however, it is equally true that we retain our sinful natures that continually harbor inclinations that are opposed to God, and beckon us to live in our former manner of life. We can all identify with Paul in Romans 7 when he says:
“15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate… 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want…21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.”
Yes, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The willing is present, but the doing is not.
While Jesus, the Eternal Son of God clothed in flesh, was a little beyond His disciples, He prayed to His Father. He was undoubtedly faced with the greatest temptation designed to draw Him away from experiencing the cross where He would bear our shame and suffer the penalty we deserve for our sin. The author of Hebrews says:
“He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.”
In a time of temptation, Christ watched and reverentially drew near to the throne of His Father in prayer. We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with us, but One who can, “One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”
Three times He came to His disciples whom He had commissioned to keep watch and to pray, but He “found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy.” These men had every reason to keep watch and to pray. Their Shepherd was about to be struck down, they were about to be scattered like sheep, and Peter was about to be sifted like wheat by Satan and deny his Lord three times. They should have been watching and drawing near to the throne of God in prayer that they “may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.” Instead, Jesus found them asleep, and unable to keep watch in prayer for one hour, “and they did not know what to answer Him.” They neglected a necessary practice commanded by God by which one grows in respect to their salvation.
In his book The Essential Means of Grace, Paul Washer makes these observations on believers and the essential things God has given us to grow in His grace and knowledge:
“Both daily Bible reading and prayer seem to battle it out for the title of most neglected discipline in the Christian life. At the risk of sounding simplistic, this neglect is the source of nearly all spiritual maladies that afflict the individual and the church collectively. Everyone seems to be unanimous regarding the necessity of the Word and prayer, and equally unanimous in admitting personal neglect of both…In one sense, our flesh can be a guide to what is truly important in the Christian life – that which the flesh most opposes is that which is most essential. And what does our flesh oppose more than the reading of Scripture and private prayer?”
A lesson on prayer is before us. Since prayer is one of the means by which we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and our neglect of it is the source of nearly every spiritual problem, we will take the time to discuss what prayer is, why we should pray, and how we should pray so that we too might keep watching and praying that we might not enter into temptation.
- What is Prayer?
What exactly is prayer? First and foremost, we must know that prayer is an act of worship. When we start with this understanding, everything else will begin to fall into place regarding why we should pray and how we should pray.
Prayer is a privilege reserved for the believer, and it is the avenue through which we commune with the Living God. It is the action whereby Christians acknowledge their own insufficiency and depend upon His being all-sufficient. Easton’s bible dictionary defines prayer as a:
“Converse with God; the intercourse of the soul with God, not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him. Prayer may be oral or mental, occasional or constant, ejaculatory or formal. It is a “beseeching the Lord;” “pouring out the soul before the Lord;” “praying and crying to heaven;” “seeking unto God and making supplication;” “drawing near to God;” “bowing the knees.” Prayer presupposes a belief in the personality of God, his ability and willingness to hold intercourse with us, his personal control of all things and of all his creatures and all their actions.”
We should also acknowledge that the practice of prayer is not exclusively a Christian one. Every religion has some form of prayer. What distinguishes, however, the prayer of the Christian over all other belief systems is the fact that we prayer to the Living God who sees our circumstances, hears our prayers, and answers them in accordance with His will.
This is seen most clearly in the account of Elijah engaging with the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah in a contest of prayer to see who serves the one true God that lives. He said to them, “You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, He is God.” And all the people said, “That is a good idea.”
The prophets of Baal and Asherah cried out to their god from morning to evening, offering sacrifices, cutting themselves open with swords and lances until blood gushed out, and raving, “But there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention.”
Why was that? Answered prayer does not depend upon the vitality of the one making the petition, but on the one being called upon to answer. Baal was unable to perform what they were asking not merely because he did not possess the power, but because he did not possess the life to do what his worshippers wished. Prayer is not in and of itself powerful. The question is, does the one being prayed to possess the life, the ability, and the desire to answer prayer? Baal was just like every other false god that was worshipped then, and now. Since they are not alive, they have no ability or desire to assist those who worship them with their petitions.
What does Elijah do? He prepared an offering to be consumed by fire, but first rendered the possibility of it being combustible impossible by dowsing it in 12 large vessels of water so that it flowed around the alter and filled the trench that surrounded it. He then prayed to God saying:
“O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant and I have done all these things at Your word. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God, and that You have turned their heart back again.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.”
- Why Should We Pray?
This leads us to one of the greatest reasons why we should pray, because God wants to prove Himself strong in the lives of His people. 2 Chronicles 16:9 says:
“For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.”
Through our prayers, God demonstrates to us that He is intimately involved with our lives, and acutely aware of our circumstances and struggles. 1 Peter 5:6-7 says to:
“Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.”
“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar.3 You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.4 Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all.5 You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me.6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.”
He knows all of our struggles and temptations, and He is able to sympathize with us because He became a Man and was tempted just as we are, but without falling into sin. It is because of Christ’s condescension and temptation in all things as we are tempted that Hebrews 4:16 says:
“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
God want to prove Himself strong among His people, He therefore commands us to pray.
It is truly that simple. Why should we pray? God tells us to do so. Ephesians 6:18 says:
“With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.”
The Spirit tells us through Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.” This means that we are to always live in an awareness of God’s intimate involvement in every aspect of our lives, which draws us to continually lean upon His wisdom, knowledge, power, guidance, and will. He does not merely command us to live lives like this, He demonstrated such as life.
Why should we pray? Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, exemplified a life of unceasing prayer. We see it in the garden as He goes a stones throw away from the disciples, falls to His knees, and begins to pray to His Father saying:
“Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.”
He demonstrates for us pure dependence upon, and submission to the Father.
It was not just this moment in the garden that Jesus exemplified a life of prayer, but His entire ministry. In Luke 3:21 He is seen praying at His baptism:
“Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened.”
After many hours of teaching and healing multitudes of people at the beginning of His ministry, Mark 1:35 says:
“In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.”
Luke 5:15-16 says:
“But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”
Luke 6:12 records that before He chose His twelve apostles:
“He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God.”
Luke 9:18 reveals that before He disclosed to His disciples the suffering He was going to undergo at the hands of wicked men that, “He was praying alone.”
In Luke 9:28-29, before He transfirgured before the eyes of Peter, James, and John, unveiling His awesome glory says that He:
“Went up to the mountain to pray. And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming.”
Yes, Jesus, God the Son, lived a life of continual prayer. We should, therefore, follow in the footsteps of our Elder Brother and prayer to our Father without ceasing.
Do our prayers change the mind of God? No, they do not. God has already preordained everything that is going to occur. He will bring to pass what He has purposed to do according to His perfect and infinite wisdom and knowledge. He is not going to change that flawlessly, good, and righteous plan and substitute it for a request that comes from our imperfect and finite understanding. No, our prayers do not change the mind of God.
Do our prayers change circumstances around us? The biblical answer to this is a resounding, yes! James 5:16-18 says this:
“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.17 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 earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.”
God has ordained not only the end, but the means to achieve that end. The prayers of His people is a means through which God accomplishes His will.
Many people ask, “If God is sovereign, and works all things after the council of His own will, why do we need to pray?” By now we should see that the answer is quite simple. God has modeled for us what a life of prayer is to look like, and He commands us to pray, so that He may prove strong and bring glory to Himself.
- How Should We Pray?
Since our prayers are the means through which God achieves His intended end than how should we pray? Prayer is a worshipful act towards the Living God, therefore, we should not approach such a privilege carelessly.
Realize that in all of the New Testament, prayer is the only recorded thing the disciples ever asked Jesus to teach them how to do. Luke 11:1 records it:
“It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.”
He did not leave them without an answer. He provided them with what is commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer. He said to them, “Pray, then, in this way:”
“Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. 10‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread. 12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
This is not a prayer to recite, but a model to replicate. Their question was not of the effect, “What do we pray,” but “How do we pray?” Jesus does not say, “Pray this prayer,” but “Pray in this way.” We see in this framework, Jesus teaching that the overall purpose of prayer is so that God may be honored and glorified.
When we pray we should begin by acknowledge God as our heavenly Father, who has caused us to be born again into His family, and adopted as sons and daughters, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit drawing us to believe in His Son.
We should desire that His name be “hallowed,” which means that God be understood as distinct from all else. He is set apart, and He is to be treated as holy.
Our prayers are also to be consistent with His character, nature, and will, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus says in John 14:13-14:
“13 Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.”
To ask in Jesus’ name is not merely ending a prayer saying, “In Jesus name.” Asking in the name of Christ is acknowledge the Christ is the only means through which we have access to God. It is also declaring that everything we are bringing before God is in accordance with the character, nature and will of His Son. James 4:2-3 says:
“You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
The principle of Psalm 37:4 is at play here:
“Delight yourself in the Lord; And He will give you the desires of your heart.”
This verse tragically gets convoluted and distorted so that people petition God for all the fleshly and worldly desires of their hearts, and believe it is His desire to give it to them. This is false, and the math here is simple if we slow down and consider what the Psalmist is saying. If God is your delight, what is the desire of your heart? God is. If your delight is God, what is the desire of your heart He will give you? Himself! When you find satisfaction in God, He will give Himself to you. Your desires will be His desires. Your longings will be aligned with His will, and He will gladly oblige you.
We pray to the Father, through the mediation of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our prayers should consist of adoration for God as we reflect on who He is and what He has done, and what He continues to do. They should also comprise of honest and humble confession to God for the sins we commit. They should be filled with thanksgiving for everything that God has bestowed upon us, both the good and the bad, for each is used by God to accomplish His purpose in our lives. They should contain supplication, which is when we entreat God to specifically work in meeting the needs of others, and even ourselves. This is so He may display His power, and ability, and desire to care for His people; and they praise Him in return:
“11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread. 12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
In a sermon entitled Throne of Grace, Charles Spurgeon touches upon the seriousness of believers coming before the throne of God in prayer. The Scripture presents a practical principle regarding prayer in Ecclesiastes 5:2, which says:
“Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.”
Though Spurgeon does not speak of the principle laid out in Ecclesiastes, his words capture its essence. He said:
“If prayer is coming before the throne of God, it should always be conducted with the deepest sincerity and in the spirit that makes everything real. If you are disloyal enough to despise the King, for your own sake, do not mock Him to His face and when He is upon His throne. If anywhere you dare repeat holy words without heart, let it not be in Jehovah’s palace. If a person should ask for an audience with royalty and then should say, ‘I don’t know why I have come or that I have anything in particular to ask,’ would he not be guilty of folly? As for our great King, when we venture into His presence, let us have purpose there. Let us beware of playing at praying; it is insolence toward God.
If I am called upon to pray in public, I must not dare to use words that are intended to please the ears of others, but I must realize that I am speaking to God Himself and that I have business to transact with the great Lord…Do you think that the King of heaven is delighted to hear you pronounce words with a frivolous tongue and a thoughtless mind? You know Him not. ‘God is spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.’ If you have any empty forms to prate, go pour them out into the ears of fools like yourself, but not before the Lord of Hosts. The spiritual God seeks spiritual worshippers, and such He will accept, and only such.
…Prayer is an eminent and elevated act, a high and wondrous privilege…You and I, the people of God, have permission to come before the throne of heaven at any time we will, and we are encouraged to come there with great boldness. But let us never forget that it is no small thing to be a courtier in the courts of heaven and earth, to worship Him who made us and sustains us in being.”
- Watch and Pray
Jesus says, “Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” We must be a people who watches and prays. To watch is to give strict attention, to be cautious, to be active. It is to take heed lest through the ceasing of diligence or the avoidance of activity some destructive calamity suddenly overtakes a person.
Like the disciples, we have every reason to watch and to pray. A war is being waged both without us and within us. We live in a world which continually aims to conform us to its mold, and we must watch and pray, for “if anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in them.” To be friends with the world is to be hostile towards God, “therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Watch and pray that God would both will and work in you to help you to work out your salvation, and to be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you might not conform to this world that is hostile to Him.
We have every reason to watch and to pray, for we have an enemy who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Watch and pray that you be not ignorant of his devices in your life, but sober minded and alert so that you may resist him.
We have every reason to watch and to pray, for we have a flesh that sets its mind against the spirit residing in us, and seeks to entice us and carry us away after our own desires; and when we become intimate with our lust, it conceives and gives birth to sin, “and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” Watch and pray that God would give you the strength to mortify your members by considering yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ!
Again, we have every reason to watch and to pray. We are constantly in conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil,but the good news is that we have a God who wants to show Himself strong in our lives through our prayers. 1 Corinthians 16:13 says to:
“Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”
Colossians 4:2 says:
“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.”
We are willing in the spirit, but weak in the flesh at this. Thankfully, God knows our frame and says to us in Romans 8:26-27 says:
26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Even when we do not even know how to pray as we ought, God proves Himself strong and intervenes on our behalf, and prays for us.
Let us close with a statement from Ryle:
“We must pray as well as watch, and watch as well as pray. Watching without praying is self-confidence and self-conceit. Praying without watching is enthusiasm and fanaticism. The man who knows his own weakness, and knowing it both watches and prays, is the man that will be held up and not allowed to fall.”
 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ezekiel 36:25-27
 Ephesians 4:17-25; 1 Peter 1:14-16
 Romans 7:15,18-19,21-24
 Hebrews 5:7
 Hebrews 4:15
 Mark 14:27-31
 Hebrews 4:16
 The Essential Means of Grace, Paul Washer; Page 23-4
 Exodus 32:11
 1 Samuel 1:15
 2 Chronicles 32:20
 Job 8:5
 Psalm 73:28
 Ephesians 3:14
 1 Kings 18:19
 1 King 18:24
 1 Kings 18:25-29
 1 Kings 18:30-35
 1 Kings 18:36-39
 Matthew 6:8
 1 Chronicles 28:9
 Hebrews 4:13
 Matthew 6:9-13
 Titus 3:5-8; 1 Peter 1:3
 Leviticus 10:3
 John 4:24
 The Power of Prayer in a Believer’s Life, Charles Spurgeon; Page 20-1
 Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance; NT Number: G1127, Gregoreo
 1 John 2:15
 James 4:4
 Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 2:12-13
 1 Peter 5:8,9
 1 John 2:16
 Expository Thoughts on Mark, J.C. Ryle; Page 252