Acts 14: 19-22
We can deduce from our Bibles that the Christian life is not going to be an easy one. Jesus made this very plain. What is the figure that He used to underscore the pain and suffering of the child of God? Six times He uses the cross: pick up a cross. He wanted us to know that the cross is part of true discipleship. The apostles understood what our Lord was teaching; when they write their epistles they also pick up several graphic images to show that it isn’t going to be easy. What pictures do the apostles give us? The picture of a pilgrim, an athlete, a soldier. Paul uses at least three athlete images – the runner, the wrestler and the boxer. The dominant figure he uses is probably the soldier to describe suffering or perseverance in the Christian life.
So, Paul wants us to know that the Christian life is not going to be easy. Here in Acts 14 we see that Paul knew this on an experiential level. What I find interesting from this passage is that Paul is stoned, beaten so badly he is left for dead. What does he do the next day? Take some R&R? Go on a month’s sabbatical? No, he’s back preaching. He probably has bandages, bruises and scars but he’s preaching. In verse 20, Paul wants to encourage the disciples and strengthen them, preparing them for future persecution. He tells them, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” He has suffered, and he wants to prepare them for suffering. Remember what he says in Timothy 3:12, “The godly shall suffer persecution.”
Samuel Rutherford gives a small commentary on Acts 14:20. He says, “Christian, do not be afraid of suffering for Christ.” We need suffering; it comes hand in hand with our identification with Christ. He says, “You cannot be above your Master, who received many strokes.” He goes on to explain why we all must suffer; why it is part and parcel with Christian life and experience. “Faith grows more with the sharp winter storm in its face. Grace withers without adversity. You can’t sneak quietly into heaven without a cross. Crosses form us into His image. They cut away the pieces of our corruption.” Then he makes this his prayer, “Lord, carve, wound, cut. Do anything to perfect Your image. Do anything to fit me for glory.” This is something we should pray – that God would use our trials to fit us for heaven and bring us into greater conformity to Christ. Rutherford ends on a positive note, saying, “Be assured God will take care of you. Lay all your loads by faith on Christ. Let Him bear all. He can, He does, He will bear you. The softest pillow will be given to your head when you must place your feet on thorns.” We can always be thankful no matter what the trial, that God is using it to mold us into the image of His Son.
This passage comes after Jesus’ triumphal entry. He had left Jerusalem and was returning to the city. The imagery here is clear. Using the fig tree, Jesus is teaching us that wherever there is true life, there is fruit. And wherever there is the appearance of life, but no real fruit that is hypocrisy, which God judges. This is the moral of the real life picture Jesus gives us by His actions. Christ regularly preached against hypocrisy: the tree had leaves – appeared real, but had no fruit. Fruit is the evidence of true life.
The second part tells us that the disciples were amazed. Jesus cursed the tree and it withered immediately. Here Christ, instructing His disciples, reveals to us more about prayer in this almost afterthought to the cursing of the tree. This phrase is repeated twice, “If you have faith and do not doubt” (v21 & 22). It is the conditional requirement, the prerequisite, for our prayers to be effective. We must have faith. So, we ought to do all we can when we gather to pray to remember how important faith is and to encourage one another’s faith before we pray.
Three ways our thoughts about God can strengthen our faith: 1) Who God is, 2) what He says to us, and 3) His relationship to us and ours with Him. First, who God is referring to His character. We can look at Titus 1:2, for example. “The God who cannot lie.” Then, second, what He says. Matthew 7: 7 and 8, He commands us to pray. Third, our relationship. God describes our relationship to Him in prayer as children making a request of their parents. Luke 11:11-13. We must believe these three things, which will strengthen our faith.
This is what faith is about. Do I believe God is who He says He is (His character), do I believe His words (what He has said to us), and do I believe in the relationship of adoption (a Father toward His children)? As we meditate on the Lord, on His commandments regarding prayer and our relationship with Him these can strengthen our faith. They are the foundation upon which we pray. Faith is the rocket fuel or engine of prayer. Prayers go nowhere if faith is not energizing them. May this meditation strengthen our faith.
Romans 8: 26
If I were to ask what is the most crucial doctrine when it comes to prayer, what would you say? The doctrine of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It should shape our Christian lives more than anything else. The doctrine of the Trinity is probably the most important doctrine in the Bible.
When we think of prayer, we should think of the Triune God. Each member of the Godhead plays an active part in our prayers. How do we know this from our Bibles? Starting with God the Father, we can think back to what we heard last Sunday night: “Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” How do we know that the Father cares for us? We can go to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) where Jesus tells us, the Father knows and answers our prayer. As fathers, we know that the most heart-rending things in life have to do with our children. We have the tenderest concern for our children just as our Heavenly Father pities His children. God, our Father, cares for us perfectly.
How do we know God the Son cares? Hebrews 4:14-16 speaks of Christ as the Great High Priest. He is sympathetic. He cares. He understands our weaknesses and the temptations we face. He knows our infirmities, was tempted in all points as we are.
We can also argue that the Holy Spirit cares, using our text: Romans 8. He groans and sighs on our behalf. Doesn’t that express His care for us? There is something mysterious, what exactly happens, when we pray with the Holy Spirit engaged. Verse 26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” He groans, he sighs, he deeply cares. He comes alongside struggling saints to help us pray. He knows our weaknesses, our discouragements. He knows that sometimes we don’t know what to pray.
The greatest incentive, the greatest encouragement, when we come to pray should be God Himself. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit care for us.
Matthew 6: 9
We are returning to look at the most famous prayer in the world, which is probably uttered millions of times daily. Jesus obviously wanted us to pray this prayer frequently. He says, “Pray in this way”; at least take hold of the principles found here.
I believe this prayer is essential to our understanding in many ways. Tonight, I want us to focus on two fundamental truths, Who is God and Who are you. These truths crystallize two identity issues. This prayer shows how great God is. How could we argue for God’s greatness from this prayer? He dwells in heaven and He rules a kingdom. This points to His sovereignty and might. He’s not a little God, but a mighty God who we worship.
This prayer also gives us a healthy perspective of ourselves. Only God is self-sufficient as the Creator. We are dependent on God. There is a creature/ Creator distinction here. God does not need us; He didn’t make us because He needed us, but we do need Him. How could we argue this truth from the Lord’s Prayer? The very simple petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” In every day life, we are dependent on God. The moment we are born, we are dependent. Someone has said, We come into this life like babies and we leave like babies. Totally dependent.
Was the first man Adam dependent on God? Yes. Where do we see that in Genesis 2? Well, he needed the helper God created. He also needed food, so God put him in a garden. The first man and woman were dependent creatures, dependent on God. We are reminded every day, every time we eat how much we need God. Think about how much of our lives are centered around food. If we thoroughly grasped this one petition, it would help us live the Christian life. It would promote in us a deep sense of dependency and humility.
One of the great dangers of living in America is our affluence. How many of us get up in the morning worrying about our need for daily bread? We have our cupboards stocked. Many of us have a surplus of money; we are financially secure. It seems everything is taken care of. Because our lives appear this way, it breeds self-sufficiency. When this happens, our prayer lives shrivel. We lose our sense of dependence on God.
Remember God gave that warning to His people in Deuteronomy 8? He said, When you come out of the wilderness and enter the promised land, beware lest you forget Me. You are going to have houses, gold and silver, multiplied flocks, but don’t forget the God who brought you out of Egypt. We can easily forget God.
We are dependent on Him not just for temporal things, but spiritual as well. He calls Himself the Bread of Life. Also, the Word is called bread. Jesus said, “Man cannot live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Every time we hear a sermon or read the Bible, we are dependent on God to feed our souls. So, we can remember these two great lessons: how great God is and how dependent we are.
Humble Prayer: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
I’ve been meditating on this passage where Paul is talking about the supernatural privileges he’s had. He starts by telling how he was taking up by the Spirit and was with the Lord, a supernatural experience. In verse 7 he begins to talk about his trials and we see the relationship to what he was describing previously. (Read v 7-10)
It hit me that a certain sense of humility needs to always be consciously in our hearts and minds when we come to the Lord in prayer. This passage taught me afresh that the Lord knows better what we need than we do. The Apostle Paul thought he knew what he needed.
If Paul was at church with us and told us there was a trial in his life what would we pray? My first thought would not be that God would be glorified or that his weakness would lead to God’s power in his life. My first thought would be to pray that God will heal it, to make it go away, that the bad person would leave him alone, that he would be released out of jail, or whatever it is – that God, who has the power and resources to get rid of it would do so. That’s the way we would pray.
This is a good way to pray; it isn’t bad. But we need humility to acknowledge that the Lord knows better what we need than we do ourselves. We often think we know the best course for God to take in our lives. It struck me that Paul thought so too. Otherwise he would not have prayed three times for it to be removed.
Paul learned a lesson in this. He had the privilege that the Lord actually responded back to him. God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you” to endure this trial and, by the way, in this trial I am doing a greater good. “For My power is made perfect in weakness.” Your humility, your weakness, your trial is actually better than if I healed you, if I removed this thorn in the flesh, if I answered your prayer positively. Paul got to see his trial from God’s perspective.
We need this perspective. As we are praying, even praying that God would remove the trial, we need to approach with the perspective that the Lord knows better than we do. I realized that this is consistent with Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is also a mysterious prayer. If anyone knows the priorities of the kingdom it is the Son. Yet He prays in Luke 22:42, “Father, if You are willing remove this cup from Me.” This is a good and right prayer; it is the way we would pray.
“Nevertheless, not My will but Yours be done.” That is the humility we should all come with, when we ask for things in our life. Not only does the Lord know better what we need than we do, but He has the power and does produce eternal good both from our blessings we are given and from our trials. We often miss this when we are enduring trials: God is actually doing for us a good thing. We aren’t just going through trial because our number came up in the heavenly rotation. He’s doing eternal good which could not be done in any other way than the trial He has put in our lives.
This is what God is telling Paul. He is saying, my power is made perfect in you, in weakness. When you are in trial and weak, my power is perfected. We see in verse 10 that Paul learned the lesson. He says, I am content that the Lord is not going to take this away. Why? Because when I am weak, then I am strong. Paul is aligned with God’s priorities. If this is what is necessary for God’s glory, for His will to be done then he is content to continue in the trial. It requires great faith and God’s perspective to believe when we are suffering that God is going to choose the best path for us and be content in His will.