December 31, 1995
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
Prayer Week 1996: part one
Incentives to Strive in Prayer
Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.
Our focus today will be on Romans 15:30. I am calling the message, "Incentives to Strive in Prayer." The basic point of the verse is to motivate the Roman Christians to "strive" or to "struggle" or to "fight" -- its a strong word (not just pray, but strive or struggle or fight) -- in prayer to God for Paul as he goes to Jerusalem with a contribution for the poor Christians of the city. Verse 31 tells what specifically he wants God to do in answer to their prayer. We will tackle that next week.
But in verse 30 the focus is on two incentives for them to struggle in prayer for Paul as he ministers in Jerusalem. The first is "by our Lord Jesus Christ" -- "I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ, to strive together with me in your prayers for me." The second is "by the love of the Spirit." "I urge you, brethren, . . . by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me."
So the basic outline of the verse is simple: there is Pauls plea for them to join him in prayer. It is a plea not for casual, laid back, easy-going prayer, but for striving or struggling in prayer. Then there are two incentives for them to respond to this plea. He pleads "by the Lord Jesus Christ." And he pleads "by the love of the Spirit."
Our goal then is to meditate together on these three things: 1) the plea for Christians to struggle in prayer for the sake of ministry; 2) the incentive "by the Lord Jesus Christ;" and 3) the incentive "by the love of the Spirit."
But first let me describe the setting today where this word from God hits us.
The setting for this word today is very simply that today is the beginning of prayer week, 1996, and (in a few hours) the beginning a new year of praying and a new year of ministry and I think God wants to speak this word through me to you concerning our ministry.
I urge you, Bethlehem, by the Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in prayer to God for me -- and not just for me, but for the entire mission and ministry of this church.
Fasting as Striving
One way to see prayer as a striving or a struggle is to see fasting as part of it. Fasting intensifies prayer and says with physical hunger -- this much Lord we want you to act. This much we desire your power to come. This much we hunger for the revelation of your glory in the hearts of your people. This much we thirst for the conversion of perishing friends. And I ask you to consider some significant fasting this week.
But you wont do that unless you feel how critical the things are that I want you to pray for. So let me tell you about my meditations yesterday. I asked, Lord, is there anything worth fasting for in our future? Is there a call and dream and a possibility that you may bring into being through our striving and fasting in prayer in 1996? Why should I fast this year? Why should I ask the people to strive in prayer?
Here is the answer that created a sense of critical need in me and gave me an excited sense that there is much to lay hold on God for this week and this year.
This year, Lord willing, there will emerge a new staffing structure with significant staff changes (Greg will be moving out into church planting, Joan is moving out of the Minister for Childrens Discipleship, Jim Bloom will be moving out of Toshavim and small-group leadership into the urban mission of InnerChange). How and by whom these ministries will be sustained is of tremendous importance. Those decisions will be made in the next weeks and months, and they are critical. Souls hang in the balance -- children and adult. This is worth a week of striving and prayer!
This year, Lord willing, we will call new worship leadership. We have been incredibly fortunate that Don Landin in 1994 and Greg Dirnberger in 1995 were willing to help us in interim worship leadership. But now the task force on worship and music has worked its way to the point where we are ready to begin our search for long-term leadership and my hope and expectation is that by the fall that leadership will be in place. This alone, for me personally, is enough to motivate sustained striving in prayer and earnest fasting until Gods gracious call is heard. I believe many of you feel this burden as well. I plead with you to strive together with me in prayer and fasting.
This year, Lord willing, a new vision for member care and oversight through member ministry and small groups will crystallize and shape the way the staff and elders do their work of spiritual oversight. This could have dramatic impact on staff roles, and on significance of the eldership and on the priestly function of this congregation as a whole -- a very exciting Biblical impact! One of the historic, biblical values of Baptists for the last 400 years has been the priesthood of the believer (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6; Ephesians 4:12).
This year the renewed vision of 2000 by 2000 moves a crucial year closer to the date of December 31, A. D. 2000. We believe God has called us to pray toward sending 2000 of our people by A. D. 2000 and winning to faith 2000 people by A. D. 2000. This year there are missionary families waiting to go out from us. Will they be able to go? There are neighbors and friends and colleagues and strangers that are outside Christ and perishing if they dont put their faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior. Will God give us the power to love them and witness to them as we ought? And will he open their hearts to give heed to the word? This itself is enough to fill us with an urgent longing for God to act in answer to our prayers. Many of these people who need salvation have names and faces. We know them. This is a call for striving in prayer.
This year, Lord willing, there will be a new funding plan for paying off the mortgage on this building and we will all be called on in March to join hands and ask, through our over and above giving would God enable us to cut the remaining six years on this mortgage in half and save hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest that could go to expanding missions and ministries? This possibility and the eleven weeks leading up to the Challenge Sunday are worth striving for in prayer.
This year, Lord willing, there will be fresh initiatives in the way we cultivate loving relationships here at Bethlehem, and in the way we do urban missions and touch the poor, and the way we defend the unborn, and the way we think and act about race relations. All of that will remain a dream without reality unless there is striving in prayer to God.
And in support of all this, Lord willing, this year we will see the completion of the new parking lot expansion to the west here with appropriate landscaping. God worked remarkably to give us the support of the neighborhood in this a few months ago, and the house has been removed. Will the resources be there to make it easier for visitors to come? Striving in prayer will make the difference.
And in further support of all this there could be a new sign on the east face of this building identifying the church so that people downtown who are discussing our roof banners of truth can know how to make a connection with this church. But that will cost money, and it isnt the most important thing. Will it happen? Should it happen? Prayer will make a crucial difference in answering those questions.
Perceiving Critical Need Births Striving in Prayer
That is what I meditated on yesterday as I pondered my own sense of urgency and my own call to fasting and to striving in prayer this week and through the year. I mention these things because I know a burden for prayer doesnt come out of nowhere. It comes from seeing a critical need and a great hope. If you dont feel it you wont struggle in prayer. But you will feel it to the degree that your life is intertwined with this church and you share the mission to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.
If you are a Christian you all have struggled or will struggle in prayer. Some of you carry such a burden for prayer and in prayer that you do this almost daily. Others hardly ever strive in prayer. In fact some of you are having a hard time even picturing what Paul and I are calling for when we say, "I urge you to strive together with me in your prayers to God." But there is a time when you all will strive in prayer.
On December 16 1974 the phone rang and my brother-in-law told me that my mother had just been killed I a bus accident and that my father was critically injured and might not make it. I went to my bedroom and knelt down and for about half an hour tasted what it was to strive in prayer. You know what I mean. You would do the same thing. It wasnt for my mother. It is not biblical to pray of the dead. It was for my father, that he would live. And he did. Striving in prayer can happen alone. It can happen in a group, that stir each other up to strive in prayer. I have heard our elders strive in prayer over straying or critically ill saints. Not all prayer is at the same intensity of striving. But some is very intense. The greater the burden, the more intense.
Striving in Prayer Against Our Enemies
How shall we understand this striving? In verse 30 Paul does not say what or whom we are to strive with.
Is it striving against the sin in our lives that hinders our prayers (Psalm 66:18 -- "If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear")?
Is striving against the unbelief that threatens our faith as we pray (Mark 9:24 -- "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief")?
Is it striving against the terrible distractions -- mostly innocent in themselves -- that keep us from finding time and focusing in prayer (1 Peter 4:7 -- "Be of sound judgment and sober for the purpose of prayer")?
Is it striving against Satan and his principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12 -- "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers")?
Yes, all those enemies and obstacles must be struggled against. Is it any wonder that we find prayer as hard as we do. There are so many opponents. If the enemy can cut off the power source or the supply line, the whole army languishes able to do nothing.
Striving In Prayer With God
But there is another way to think about this striving in prayer, namely, with God himself. This doesnt mean that we think of God as an enemy and we fight him and conquer him. It means we see him as our only hope and in desperation we take hold of him and refuse to let him go without a blessing. Examples of this would be:
Moses striving with the Lord on behalf of rebellious Israel (Deuteronomy 9:24-29).
Hannah striving with the Lord to give her a son (1 Samuel 1:10,12).
Jesus striving with his Father in Gethsemane, and sweating as it were drops of blood (Luke 22:44).
Paul praying with self-sacrificing passion for his Jewish kinsmen (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1).
In every case there was an intensity and urgency and earnestness and zeal and fervor that I think Paul had in mind in Romans 15:30.
Listen to just one example, if you want to know what it may sound like. This is Daniel crying out to God for the deliverance of his people from Babylonian captivity when the 70 years of exile were over. His prayer is introduced (in Daniel 9:3): "So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes." So you see the visible symbols of striving in prayer. Now hear the words, as the prayer ends (in Daniel 9:18-19):
O my God, incline Thine ear and hear! Open Thine eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Thy name; for we are not presenting our supplications before Thee on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Thy great compassion. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Thine own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name.
He entreats God with earnestness and he wrestles by making a case on the basis of Gods zeal for his glory.
So I conclude that God calls us from time to time, and some of us as a kind of vocation, to strive -- to struggle, and wrestle and persist and prevail in prayer. This is what I urge you to do this week for all the great possibilities that lie before us as a church an in your own life.
Two Incentives to Strive in Prayer from Romans 15:30
The incentives Paul gives in Romans 15:30 are two: "Now I urge you, brethren, 1) by our Lord Jesus Christ, and 2) by the love of the Spirit . . . to strive together with me in prayer."
Take these two briefly one at a time. He calls us "by our Lord Jesus Christ" to strive in prayer. What does that mean? How is this an incentive to strive in prayer? There are so many things about Jesus that induce us to pray. For example:
He commanded that we pray and not lose heart (Luke 18:1).
He made his name the basis of our prayers (John 14:13; 15:16).
He shed his blood to purchase all the benefits of salvation including answered prayer Romans 8:32).
He taught us to pray with his model prayer called the Lords prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).
He modeled prayer by spending whole nights in prayer (Luke 6:12).
Which of these does Paul have in mind? Or is there another?
And what about the second incentive? "Now I urge you, brethren, . . . by the love of the Spirit to strive together with me in your prayers." Does this mean the love that the Spirit creates in us for each other, so that we want to pray for each other (Galatians 6:22)? Or does it mean the love that the Spirit himself has for us so that we have confidence that he will help us in our praying (Romans 8:26) and act lovingly in response to our prayers (Acts 4:31; 8:15)?
Now all these possibilities are true. And all of them should stir us up to pray. But heres my answer to what I think Paul means in both of these incentives. I take my cue from the following verse. So this leads us into next weeks message. But lets do it just briefly. Verse 31 gives the aim of the prayer Paul wants. He wants them to strive in prayer, he says, "that I may be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints."
Two requests: one, that his opponents might be restrained so that they do not kill him; and two, that the Christians in Jerusalem would look kindly on his ministry and affirm it rather than criticizing it. My suggestion is that the two incentives of verse 30 correspond to the two requests in verse 31.
To overcome the enemies and keep them in check so that they do not kill Paul will require a powerful, sovereign intervention of One how has the right of "Lord" over all the secular powers. This corresponds to the incentive, "By our Lord Jesus Christ." In other words, I urge you to strive for my deliverance from the Roman and Jewish authorities in Jerusalem because Jesus Christ is Lord and has the right and the authority to make the soldiers and governors and Caesar do whatever he pleases. Pray with confidence that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him (Matthew 28:18).
Finally, the second request is that the Christians in Jerusalem will look favorably on Pauls ministry rather than being suspicious of him or criticizing him. In other words he wants them to treat him kindly and gently and lovingly. This corresponds to the second incentive, "By the love of the Spirit." Paul believes that, if the Romans ask the Father in Jesus name, the Spirit will lovingly and powerfully work in the hearts of the Christians in Jerusalem to give them large portion of his own love to receive Paul and help him in his ministry rather than resisting it.
Conclusion: A Call to Strive in Prayer for Bethlehem
So that is my plea to you on the brink of prayer week, 1996. Would you strive together with me in prayer to God not only on my behalf, but on behalf of all the vision that God is creating in these days at Bethlehem. Pray the mission and the vision and the fresh initiatives using the blue booklet and the green kids sheet that you will receive as you leave. Pray for great spiritual awakening and revival to support all these things. Pray in the mornings and be a part of the renewal prayer gathering with Steve Nicholson on Wednesday night, and pray through the night on Friday.
Whatever you do, dont be prayerless in 1996. Prayer is our hook up with the power of God for all the mission and the vision and the initiatives. Strive together with me in your prayers. I urge you by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit.
Copyright 1995 John Piper