Prayer and Revival
Three addresses at the Revival and Reformation conference at Swanwick, November 2003, given by Stephen Clerk, Minister at Free School Court Evangelical Church, Bridgend
Can you imagine the following situation, a typical British Sunday, but the shops are closed, and there is no major sporting event. Where are all these crowds going? They are on their way to church. That might seem light years from our present situation, but it was exactly that kind of thing that happened in Kidderminster under the ministry of Richard Baxter. It is for such a transformation in Britain that we are praying, communities being changed by the impact of the Word of God.
In 2 Thessalonians 3:1 the apostle Paul writes, Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you. This is one of the most important verses on revival in the New Testament. The word Revival is a convenient short-hand word that brings together strands of biblical Christianity. How do we pray for revival?
1. THE CONTEXT OF THAT PRAYING.
It occurs in the context of evangelism. Pray for us, Paul says, drawing them into the spread of the gospel. The godly farmer prays that God will give him his harvest. He knows that it is God who gives it. He does not presume on God so that the farmer does nothing. He ploughs the field and scatters the good seed on the land. So it was with Paul in Thessalonica; he reasoned on three Sabbath days. It was thoughtful evangelism. It was biblical in its foundations. It was Christ-centred, and it engaged the minds of his hearers as he explained and proved that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. So the exhortation to people to pray is found in the context of that kind of evangelism, and it must be so for us. We have been to prayer meetings for revival in which we became depressed by the praying. The cry for the spread of the truth has not been central.
2. THE CONTENT OF PRAYING FOR REVIVAL.
The word of the Lord spreading in its influence is what we are to pray for. Just as in you, Paul tells the Thessalonians. His concern was that the message would run, that is, spread rapidly. It is a desperate need for today where unnumbered souls are dying. Pray that the word of God would run. Paul also prays that it would be extensive in its scope, but that it also put down deep roots. There was a transformed life in the early church, from serving idols to servants of the living God. They became imitators of Paul and so were models to all who saw them, and all this it happened rapidly. There were clean-cut conversions; Christians believed and lived strongly. They evangelised vigorously, and the gospel became a talking point throughout the area. For example, the faith of the Roman congregation was known all over the world. So we are to pray for the spread of the gospel.
3. THE CAUSE OF REVIVAL.
It is not our praying. That was Finneys mistake. There has been earnest praying for years, but no revival has come. There are immediate causes of revival when the gospel comes not in word only but in power and the Spirit and with much assurance. This does not mean that signs and wonders have converting power: they do not. Nor does it mean that the word comes inevitably accompanied by power. Let everyone read the important section on the means of grace in Charles Hodges Systematic Theology. Hodge answers the theory of high Presbyterians that on every occasion that the gospel is preached there God will inevitably be at work. We must acknowledge that there are times when the gospel comes in greater power than on other occasions. Then many lives are changed. We live in perilous times and praying like mad is not going to guarantee to change things. But praying must always accompany revival.
When William Carey was in India he had some discouraging times. On one occasion he read a sermon and was refreshed by what he learned there – The Most High: A Prayer Hearing God Psalm 65:2 by Jonathan Edwards was the sermon.
In Luke 11 there is much emphasis on prayer as the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray. Teach us, they ask. In vv 5-13 we see a number of truths:
1. BLESSINGS ARE OBTAINED BY PRAYER.
The Bible tells us this in many ways, that Gods character is one that hears and answers prayer. Earthly fathers hear us; how much more God? There are so many examples of God answering prayer, for example, in Egypt to the suffering church, though at first things got worse there. They turned on Moses just before this great deliverance was to take place. Again, one of the lessons of the book of Judges is that God hears his people when they seek him. He hears them individually too, for example, Jacob was in prayer before the angel wrestled with him. Time would fail us to consider David and Daniel and the others. That is the message Jesus gives us here and he gives us four teaching devices
1. Jesus tells a Parable in vv. 4-8.
A man without food for a guest goes to a friend and knocks until he gets food. The man asks another to make up for his own lack. The efficacy of prayer is being underlined. There is an infinite supply, and God has it to bestow. The door to the throne of grace is always open and there must not be a day we do not pass through that door.
2. There are Promises attached to some Commandments.
Ask and it will be given to you etc. This should make us expectant
3. There is a Principle
He who asks receives etc. Men need far more often to be reminded of what they already know. We can forget the first things. A child cannot make progress because of certain basic misunderstandings.
4. There is an Illustration.
The father is so willing to give to those who ask. Blessings are obtained from our heavenly Father through prayer.
It is easier to preach than pray; easier, yes, to do 100 things rather than pray.
2. THE FOUNDATION OF PRAYER
The man was persistent – until every dog in the town was barking. That is not the main thrust of Jesus teaching. It is not through the persistence of our prayers that we get an answer. Jesus lived in a shame culture and the man who had no food to give a guest was ashamed, and his friend would be put to shame if he refused this man. Because of his shamelessness he will give to him as much as he needs. The point is not persistence, but the good name of the man answering that is the reason for the provision of the food.
I will do this for my names sake, says God. We ask in Jesus name. Prayer for revival is for the honour of Gods name. It is not praying like mad that brings the answer. The character of the Father is what guarantees the answer.
3. OUR GREAT NEED TO PRAY.
It was not for luxuries he prayed. Bread and fish were the staple diet, what was essential for very life itself. We ask for the Holy Spirit, and what does that mean? Every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Pentecost was unique and unrepeatable. The disciples were living in the twilight of the old covenant and the dawn of the new covenant. Because the Spirit is God then he is infinite, and there is always more of his influence to be known by the holiest believer. He can be quenched, grieved, vexed though he never leaves the Christian at any time. Do we ask, Lord, grant me the influence of the Spirit at this time, for this need? You must ask for the Spirit of God every day. We may experience such supplies of the Spirit that we have never known so far. The more we ask the more we receive. As we know more of the Spirits aid we will know more of divine love. Ten will lay hold of one and say, We will go with you.
THE PROBLEM OF UNANSWERED PRAYER
There have been those who have prayed long for revival and not seen a great work of the Spirit. Things in fact have got worse. There are those who prayed for revival, but their desire is being quenched by the long silence, and so they now question the importance of such praying. There are two sources for answers to our prayer for revival being No.
i] THERE ARE CAUSES IN US FOR UNANSWERED PRAYER.
There is the whole question of prayerlessness. It is easier to talk about and discuss prayer than praying itself. James tell us we can pray with wrong motives – praying the right things but for the wrong reason. There are two wrong motives for longing for revival, for our own glory, like a child who sucks out the juice from an orange and then throws the fruit aside. We can pray for revival like that, taking the glory for ourselves. You need a steady hand to hold a full cup. God can withhold blessing when he sees we will consume the answer on our pride.
There is also a sectarian spirit. We want to prescribe to God the blessings in which the channels will run. We should be strong in our convictions and generous in our sympathies.
We can put confidence in our prayers themselves. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks of those who pray, thinking they will be heard because of their many words. We are justified though our faith and not because of it. Prayer too is a means of grace through which God works. Our confidence is in the Lord not in the fact that they were praying like mad back home.
We can have an evil kind of regard for the iniquity that is in our own hearts and so the Lord doesnt hear us. In Psalm 34 we find it saying that it is to the cryings of the righteous that the Lord is attentive. Does the Holy Spirit come, ever, simply to give us lovely feelings? Does the Holy Spirit come, ever, without his holiness?
ii] CAUSES IN GOD HIMSELF WHY PRAYER IS UNANSWERED.
God is sovereign. We cant have it both ways, saying that God is sovereign and then take that attribute away from him. In Matthew 11 Jesus acknowledges that the revealing and the blinding is Gods good pleasure. In Romans 9, 10 and 11 we find the same theme. Those three chapters begin with Paul describing his burden of prayer. Then we meet God passing some by, those who are left where they are, and many were Pauls fellow countrymen. God is sovereign and we must bow to it. Paul himself had unanswered prayer.
God tests us, In Luke 18 Jesus exhorts us always to pray. It is good sometimes for a child to wait for something, to save her money etc. God can withhold his mercy for a long season in order to try us, and yet throughout the silent days he is hearing us, and he will answer us.
Gods timetable is so different from ours. We see it in the delay in sending the Old Testament Messiah to Israel. In church history we see it in the decline of Puritanism, and then the unexpected rise of the evangelical leaders of the Great Awakening within the Church of England. The sailors threw Jonah overboard and would have gone home telling their families of the death of the prophet. So died Jonah, but, unseen by their eyes, God was at work and Jonah had years more of quickening work to do. So too our labour is not in vain in the Lord.
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