(Unfortunately, audio for this message was not recorded.)
As we continue to explore our place in the big story of the Bible, today we come to the topic of prayer. In some ways, this message is a continuation of last week, where we considered spiritual warfare from Ephesians 6. And you might remember that after describing all of the armour of God, last week’s passage ended by telling us to be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).
Prayer is a major part of spiritual warfare and thus a major way we participate in the work of God in the world today. And so today we’re going to be digging in to what prayer is and how prayer works and how the big story of the Bible impacts why and how we pray.
Before we go any further, I just want to say that I know what happens when a pastor gets up into the pulpit and says that he’s preaching about prayer. I know that feeling of guilt that may have already set in for some of you. Because you know that God tells you to pray, and you probably feel guilty for not doing it enough.
And so a message on prayer can feel like a trip to the dentist. “Yes, I know I’m supposed to floss. Yes, I know it’s important. No, I don’t want gingivitis. Yes, I’ll try to do a better job of it this year.”
And after a while, prayer guilt can do one of two things. It can cause you to just tune out anything you hear about prayer. Like when your dentist tells you to floss, you nod your head, but you’re not really listening because you’ve tried doing that and it just doesn’t work for you.
Another dynamic I’ve seen is that prayer guilt can also make you vulnerable to unbiblical teaching on prayer. I’ve been in settings where someone who obviously prays a lot is saying or teaching something about prayer which is totally unbiblical.
And nobody says anything. They just nod, taking it all in. Because if that guy prays for five hours before I even get out of bed, who am I to criticize his theology of prayer? At least, that’s the thought.
And it’s a vicious cycle. Because now you’ve picked up some bad theology of prayer on top of your prayer guilt, and now you’re going to be even less likely to pray the way that God intends.
Now maybe none of that is true for you. Maybe you’ve never been exposed to unbiblical teaching on prayer. And maybe you don’t feel tempted to tune out my sermon this morning. But I suspect it is quite likely that many of us in this room today are not fully satisfied with how and how much we pray.
And that’s why I’m so excited to dig in to the big story of the Bible once again today. Because I believe that the big story of the Bible can completely transform how we understand prayer, and more importantly, how and when and how often we pray. And so, let’s dig in together.
“The Day Prayer Began”
We’re going to begin by asking a question: where does prayer begin in the Bible? Where do we find the first example of praying? In the early chapters of Genesis, we read about Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel communicating with God. But none of that is described in the language of prayer, and none of that really fits what we see concerning prayer in the rest of the Bible.
The first place where we encounter prayer for the first time is in the first passage we read together today. “At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26).
Let’s explore the background of this passage a little bit. We know that in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve fell into sin and experienced God’s curse. And in the middle of those words of curse, God made a promise that an offspring would come from Eve who would crush the head of the serpent who had tempted and deceived them.
And if you put yourself in Adam and Eve’s shoes, it’s not hard to see that they would have been expecting one of their own children to be this serpent-crusher. They would have had little clue that this offspring was a long way off.
And so when Eve bore Cain, she said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1). She would have been hoping that he or maybe his brother was the One. But then all of their hopes are dashed. Abel is murdered by Cain, who is cursed by God and sent away into exile. And so Adam and Eve would have been asking, “where’s the offspring God promised?”
Keep that question in mind as you read Genesis 4:25. Because they have another son, and Eve says, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel.”
So maybe Seth is the promised offspring! Maybe he is serpent-crusher. But what does verse 26 tell us about Seth? Nothing really. He has a son of his own, and that’s it.
And we should recognize that if we were reading this story for the first time and were following things closely, then verse 26 would be a major letdown. Seth didn’t turn out to be the serpent-crusher after all. And neither did his son, Enosh. They were just normal people.
And so what would have been the big question on people’s hearts, as they dealt with this disappointment? “God, when are you going to send the promised offspring? When will the serpent-crusher come? God, when are you going to keep your promise?”
And so we read, “At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26). Do you get the picture? After being let down by Cain and Abel and Seth, people start to pray. They call on God, asking Him to keep His promises and do what He promised to do.
Gary Williams, in his excellent book entitled “Calling on the Name of the Lord,” describes Genesis 4:26 as “the day prayer began.”1Millar, Gary. Calling on the Name of the Lord (New Studies in Biblical Theology) (p. 19). InterVarsity Press.
And what we should recognize is that from this point forward, prayer in the Bible follows this pattern. Almost every time without exception, this is what biblical prayer is: asking God to do what He has promised. Calling on the Lord to do something He has already told us He is going to do.
Prayer in the Old Testament
Let me give you some examples. In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant has travelled to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac, which he needs if God’s promise of making Abraham a great nation are going to be fulfilled. And Genesis 24:12 shows him praying, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (Genesis 24:11–12). Isaac needing a wife, steadfast love to Abraham—these are all things God had already promised. And so the servant prays and asks God to do them.
We hear it in 1 Samuel 12, when the people are fearful of God’s judgement, and they ask Samuel to pray for them. And Samuel tells them not to be afraid, “For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you” (1 Samuel 12:22–23). God has promised not to forsake you, and so I’m going to pray.
And we see this same thing over and over in the pages of Scripture. One more example from the Old Testament: Daniel chapter 9. This chapter begins with Daniel in exile, reading the prophet Jeremiah, and discovering that God had promised to bring His people back from exile after 70 years.
And Daniel realizes that this is soon. And so what does he do? He prays, asking God to keep His promises. “Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate… O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name”” (Daniel 9:17,19).
This prayer is moving and dramatic but it’s also profoundly simple. Daniel is doing what Genesis 4:26 described. He is calling on the name of the Lord, asking Him to do what He promised.
This is just the briefest of surveys. I wish we could spend all morning looking at more and more examples. But if we did that, we’d just see more of the wonderful same. People asking God to unfold His plan of redemption and keep His covenant promises.
The Lord’s Prayer
We are going to look at one more Biblical prayer today, and this is the prayer we read together earlier (Matthew 6:9-13), what we often call the Lord’s prayer. Given to us by the Serpent-Crusher Himself, the One that people had been praying for since Genesis 4. In this passage, Jesus tells us how to pray and what to pray for. And what He tells us to pray for is that God would continue to unfold His plan of redemption and continue to keep all of His covenant promises.
And to see this more clearly, we’re going to walk through this prayer, line by line, and consider what Jesus is telling us to pray for, and how this prayer connects up to God’s promises and big plan of redemption.
“Hallowed Be Your Name”
Let’s begin by considering the first thing Jesus tells us to pray for. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
Jesus tells us to pray that God’s name would be esteemed and honoured and kept holy.
God’s name is an expression of Himself. When Genesis 4:26 speaks about “calling on the name of the Lord,” it means calling on the Lord Himself. So here, Jesus tells us to pray for God Himself to be publicly honoured and glorified.
This request is based on a promise from Ezekiel 36. Ezekiel 36 is one of the central passages where God promised the New Covenant.
In that chapter, God told His people that He was going to redeem them and forgive their sin, and He said this in verses 22-23:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (Ezekiel 36:22–23).
This is what the New Covenant is all about: God upholding the holiness of His name. God’s glory.
And God’s glory isn’t just what the New Covenant is about. It’s what everything is about. We saw this back in September: the whole plan of redemption, this biggest story ever told, is all about God bringing glory to Himself through His son Jesus (John 17:24).
And that’s the first thing Jesus tells us to pray for. For God’s name to be kept holy. For God to be glorified. For this great purpose and great promise to be fulfilled.
“Your Kingdom Come”
Next, Jesus tells us to pray for God’s kingdom to come. God’s kingdom is another idea we’ve seen a lot in this series. From Adam and Eve onwards, God’s plan has been to rule over planet earth as king. And this idea came to the forefront in God’s covenant with David, where He promised he would have a son who would reign over the world as God’s representative forever.
And that’s why when Jesus came, He said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus was the Son of David. And His kingdom didn’t come all at once, like people expected. His kingdom came wherever people believed in Him and bowed their knees to Him. If you know Jesus as your Lord, then you are a part of the kingdom. It has come to you.
So this prayer—“your kingdom come”—is a prayer for the spread of the gospel. It’s a prayer for more and more people to bend their knees to the Son of David. And yet is it not also a prayer for the fullness of the kingdom to come—when Jesus returns, and all of His enemies are put under His feet, and He reigns forever and ever with no contest?
So Jesus tells us to pray for the spread of the gospel and for His return.
“Your Will Be Done, on Earth as It Is in Heaven”
In the third request of this prayer, Jesus tells us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This is a request I misunderstood for many years. Because doesn’t Ephesians 1:11 say that God is the one “who works all things according to the counsel of his will”? Isn’t there a sense in which God’s will is always done?
Yes. God always does what He has decided to do. But the phrase “God’s will” can apply in another sense as well. It can refer to the things that God has told us He wants us to do. We sometimes call this God’s revealed will. The things He’s revealed to us that He wants us to do.
And just think about how this will of God, this revealed will of God, is done in heaven. It’s done perfectly. The angels obey God from the heart. Nobody complains or disobeys. Everyone cheerfully does exactly what God wants them to do.
And Jesus tells us to pray for this to happen here on earth. That people would obey God with the same delight that the angels in heaven do.
And once again, this was one of the great promises of the New Covenant. God promised in Ezekiel 36, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
That’s another way of saying that we will do God’s will on earth the same way it is done in heaven. From changed hearts that delight to honour Him.
And so once again, when we pray this prayer, we’re praying for God to do what He promised by spreading the gospel and causing people to be born again.
And yet this prayer also points us towards the day when Christ returns and makes all His people perfect, and there will be no difference between heaven and earth.
“Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”
Next, Jesus tells us to ask for our daily bread. And we don’t have to look far to see the promise attached to this, because just a little bit down in Matthew 6, Jesus tells us not to be anxious for what we will eat, because God knows what we need and will provide for us. And He promises, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
God has promised to provide for what we really need. So pray for it.
“Forgive Us Our Debts”
The next request is that God would “forgive us our debts.” Isn’t this one of God’s most precious promises to us—that He will forgive our sin? This is again one of the central promises of the New Covenant. In Jeremiah 31:34, God promised the New Covenant and said, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” And doesn’t this promise come to us again in 1 John 1:9? “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
And so once again, Jesus tells us to pray for God to fulfill His great big New Covenant promises.
“Lead Us Not Into Temptation”
Finally, Jesus tells us to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). And there are wonderful promises attending these requests. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3).
These are things God has promised to do for us here and now. And they are also things that He will do for us finally and perfectly when Jesus returns. We read in Revelation 21 & 22 how there will be nothing sinful or evil in the New Creation whatsoever. So we pray for God to keep His promises today and ultimately in the New Creation.
Now for the sake of time this morning, we need to stop there. There is so much more we could see. We could trace out prayer across the rest of the New Testament but we’d just see more of the same. Prayer mainly consists in asking God to fulfill His great big covenant promises. Asking God to keep unfolding the great story of redemption. Asking God to do what He’s already told us He’ll do.
Now there’s a question that’s very tempting to ask at this point as we survey all of this truth. And it’s an important question for us to deal with as we figure out how to wrap our heads and hearts around this truth.
The question is: why pray? If prayer is just about asking God to do what He’s already going to do, then what’s the point? Why ask for it if He’s already going to do it?
This question is easy to ask if you have generally assumed that prayer is about telling God what we’d like Him to do. If that’s what prayer is, then we need to pray, because how else is God going to find out what we want Him to do?
But when we discover that Biblical prayer has its centre of gravity in a totally different place—that it’s mostly about asking God for what He’s already promised—then we can be tempted to ask: “Why pray?”
I see three answers to this question. The first is that we can’t help it. The people in Genesis 4 didn’t need to be told to pray. They just knew what God had promised and they wanted to see it happen and so they called on Him to do it. It’s like when kids ask their parents about supper. They know it’s coming, and so they ask. It’s just what we do.
The second answer is this: God has decided that very often He will keep His promises when we pray for them. God does what He’s promised to do as His people pray.
Jesus taught us this in the parable of the persistent widow, a story he told about a lady who pestered a judge until he heard her case. And Jesus finished that parable up by saying, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:7–8).
Many times in Scripture God has promised to give justice to His people. And so Jesus tells us to pray for this—to cry out to Him for this justice day and night. And as Luke wrote, the point of that parable is that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
So God has decided that much of the time, He will keep His promises in response to our prayers. And that means that our prayers matter. Our praying plays a part in the biggest story ever told. We play a part in the promises being fulfilled.
There’s a third answer to the question, "why pray?" When we pray for what God has promised, it changes us. It rescues us from selfish and shallow praying. It reshapes our desires and trains us to think and to feel like God. You’ve heard the phrase “prayer changes things,” and one of the main things that prayer changes is the one praying.
Now there’s one more question I want to ask this morning: is it ever okay to ask God for things that we want? Is it ever okay to tell God what’s on our hearts and ask Him to do something about it?
The answer is “yes.” 1 Peter 5:7 tells us to cast all of our anxieties on Him, because He cares for us. So when there are things burdening you, cast them on the Lord. Tell God what’s on your heart and mind. There is a place for this kind of praying.
But we also need to acknowledge that most of the time, according to the Bible, our praying should be bigger than this. Most of the time we should be praying the way Jesus taught us to pray—for the purposes and glory and covenant promises of God.
D.A. Carson said it well: “A great deal of contemporary Christian praying is centred on individual anxieties, needs and preferences, and not on the purposes and promises of God. This is not so much wicked… as horribly imbalanced.”2Millar, Gary. Calling on the Name of the Lord (New Studies in Biblical Theology) (pp. 9-10). InterVarsity Press.
So yes, tell God what’s on your heart. But be biblically balanced. Spend more time learning from God what’s on His heart, and then asking Him for that. And I think you know how we learn what’s on God’s heart. He’s told us in the pages of His word.
And that’s one of the best ways to put this all into practice. Just do what Daniel did. Read the Bible to find out what God has promised to do, and then pray it back to him. Your Bible reading and your praying will be revolutionized when they are not separated by a thick line, but flow in and out of each other. And I’m going to post some more about this on the blog this week.
But for now, let’s end where we began. Prayer is an act of war. Prayer is a significant way that we partner with God in the work that He’s doing at our place in the story.
That means that prayer warriors are not a special class of Christian. Any time you pray like Jesus taught us to pray, you are making war.
So we’re going to end this morning by singing “O Church, Arise.” And let’s go out of here this week determined to pray big prayers, to pray for the spread of the gospel and the arrival of the kingdom and the glory of God, to pray for all of God’s promises to be fulfilled. Let’s fight the good fight through prayer.