1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
These passages, on a first view, may not seem to belong together or have a similar thought, but I would like to present these passages as throwing light on the matter of prayer. Prayer can be seen in many ways. It is not just a prayer to do in the morning, or at night before going to sleep. Prayer is not only something to be seen from the viewpoint of man: prayer always has to be seen from the viewpoint of God. And so I would like to bring these passages before us concerning the matter of prayer.
Prayer should be a constant act in the life of a believer. I am sure – I can say it because I see my own failure – prayer is often put aside. It is a communication with our Lord and Saviour. Prayer is also a great part of worshipping, it is a great part of adoration. And so to go to Scripture, and to look what Scripture says about prayer, is a very precious thing. I was tested to bring that before you, before us all. I often say that it is important to know that what is preached and what is said is not only for those who hear, but also for the one who speaks, the one who preaches. I do not put myself outside this, or think that I fully understand this matter, or fully practise it in a right way: consideration of this is something that is helpful for us all.
I would like to begin with Luke, and there is something we must understand – always, when we try to figure out something of Scripture, when we try to get help for our personal lives, when we try to get wisdom and understanding from Scripture, we first have to look at our Lord. I chose Luke to speak about first because it tells us about our Lord, how He prayed, and even that He prayed. This is, in a way, something very interesting, that the Lord was praying. One might ask why the Lord needed to pray. He was a perfect Man; He was the Son of God. So why do we find so many passages of Scripture where the Lord was praying? This is something really precious for us. I am quite sure about that. I would like to speak about a few things that I think were reasons for the Lord to pray.
First of all, we need to see the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Lord often said that He did the will of the Father. He often said that He loves the Father and the Father loves Him. So when we think about the love the Father and the Son had for each other, it is a logical consequence that the Lord prayed, that He wanted to have contact and communication with His Father.
In relationships, we often fail to communicate. Communication, if it is done wrongly, or even if it is not being done, often causes problems in relationships. We see the Lord, even though He was the perfect Man, praying to God. I am quite sure He prayed because He wanted to be near to His Father.
We see Him, in this passage, going to the mountain. He slipped away from all that surrounded Him. He wanted to pray in surroundings marked by silence; a prayer that was marked by being alone with God. We find other passages, especially in Luke’s Gospel, where He prayed while the disciples were with Him. We may have a look at these passages later on.
So we first see the relationship between the Father and the Son. And then we have another precious thought about why the Lord prayed, and we can have a short look at Luke chapter 3, verse 21. That is the occasion when the Lord was baptised. “And it came to pass, all the people having been baptised, and Jesus having been baptised and praying, that the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily form as a dove upon Him; and a voice came out of heaven, Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I have found My delight.”
So we see that the Lord started His service on earth with prayer. It is wonderful! We see how prayer is needed. It is not just something we should do once a day or maybe once a week: prayer is something that has a constant character for the life of the believer, especially when we want to serve, especially when we want to do something for the Lord.
Believers often speak about their weaknesses, and how sad they are that they are unable to serve the Lord in a right way, because they cannot quit some things of the old man. So we often hear about weaknesses. I am sure everyone can understand this. But where there is no personal relationship with the Lord, their weaknesses cannot be put aside. We cannot be strong and overcome weaknesses and go into service, or do something good for the Lord, when we have no contact or communication with Him. It is something very precious to see the Lord starting His service on the earth, His work, His way to fulfil God’s will, by a prayer, and how God expresses His love for Him when the Spirit came upon Him. How wonderful this expression of God – I tell you, I could speak about it for the whole address – when we think about prayer and we speak about the Lord’s way! We can always speak about what God said here at this moment, “Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I have found My delight.” He speaks directly to the Lord. We have other passages where He speaks of Him, or about Him, but here He speaks directly to Him. How wonderful! A wonderful expression of communication and love between the Father and the Son!
Another interesting thing we can connect with prayer on the part of the Lord Himself, is the character of Luke’s Gospel itself. I think we find in every Gospel prayers of the Lord, or the writer speaking about the Lord praying. But Luke’s Gospel, in a way, is very special, because it is often said that Luke’s Gospel presents the Lord as the true Man. To see the Lord, as true Man, to be so often in prayer is something precious, and testing, for each one of us. We should put that into our own lives, and see the Lord in that way as the true Man.
Luke mentions it very often. For example, in chapter 5 verse 16, “And He withdrew Himself, and was about in the desert places and praying.” How precious to see the Lord withdraw! This world – and it gets even worse in our time – is so full of noise and so full of movement. We cannot stay still in this world. You are always running out of time, you are always confronted with things. It is so precious to find moments to withdraw, to slip away and be alone with God. What a precious time, to be alone with God! The Lord shows us how important it was for Him. How much more important it should be for us, dear brethren!
Just very quickly I want to show you a few more passages in Luke’s Gospel. Chapter 9, verse 18: “And it came to pass as He was praying alone, His disciples were with Him.” This is a passage where the disciples may have heard what He prayed. Also – I do not want to go deeply into these passages, just to mention how the Lord prayed, because I want us to look again at chapter 6 – verse 28: “And it came to pass after these words, about eight days, that taking Peter and John and James He went up into a mountain to pray.” And I, too, really would like to know what the Lord prayed!
Think of the disciples – think of Peter, John and James – hearing the Lord praying. What wonderful moments it must have been for them to hear the Lord praying! To hear the Lord, Who knows the Father the most, speaking with His Father. The deep relationship He had with the Father, and they could hear this communication! It is wonderful, really wonderful!
And the last verse I want to share with you is chapter 11 verse 1, “And it came to pass as He was in a certain place praying, when He ceased, one of His disciples said to Him, Lord, teach us to pray.” This is marvellous! Have you ever said to the Lord, ‘Teach me to pray’? I have a test for the young ones. When you are at home again, go through the Gospels and look for passages where the disciples asked the Lord to teach them something. See how many you find, and you will be very impressed how many there are!
Prayer is wonderful; the disciples wanted to know how to pray. You can see maybe a kind of development. The Lord prayed alone. They heard Him praying. And they wanted to know how to pray. That is the result of their relationship, a living relationship. Learn from the Lord, hear the Lord. Have Him as a Model, and then ask Him how to do it yourself. This is a wonderful development in Luke’s Gospel.
So let us return briefly to Luke chapter 6. It is wonderful to see the Lord praying, and I think we can get an impression of the matter of prayer when we see the preceding passages in chapter 6. We see the Lord on the sabbath going with His disciples through the cornfields. The disciples were plucking the ears and eating them, rubbing them in their hands. This was not allowed on the sabbath, so the Pharisees were angry about it. You see that the Lord brings grace and liberty into this place – grace and liberty into the religious world.
Also, in the following passage, where the Lord heals the hand of a person, and all these Pharisees and scribes were around Him, He healed the man’s right hand. It is interesting that the disciples were eating and were rubbing the ears in their hands – for me it is a wonderful matter of freedom and liberty – and in the next passage He healed the hand of a person. It is wonderful what the Lord wants to bring in, because the Pharisees were against Him in this wonderful bringing in of liberty and freedom into this religious world. It may have been the substance of His prayer, because afterwards He chose His disciples, “whom also He named apostles.” They should be there to help the Lord in bringing in this wonderful thing of liberty and freedom. So this might have been the subject matter of this prayer of the Lord, and it is wonderful to see how He chose His disciples and what power came out of Him, what power was to be seen in Him, after this prayer. After coming back from the mountain He was full of power, and He was willing to heal the crowd of people, doing something they had never seen done before. He dealt with their matters. Even the Pharisees did not do this before. It must have been something totally different for them to see this Person full of power, full of strength, doing the will of God and healing them and choosing some to be His disciples, His apostles. What a wonderful happening here in Luke chapter 6!
It should be a test for us that the Lord spent the whole night in prayer, “He spent the night in prayer to God.” Have you ever spent the whole night in prayer to God? The Lord did! How needful it is for us! A whole night in prayer to God – wonderful to see the Lord as an Example, as the perfect Example!
I want now to say a bit about Daniel. Daniel was a man of prayer. I think we can say that. We can see that, for example, in chapter 6, verse 10: “And when Daniel knew that the writing was signed” – that was the writing saying that no one was allowed to pray to any God or ask any man for something for thirty days – “he went into his house; and, his windows being open in his upper chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled on his knees three times a day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime.”
It is wonderful to see Daniel as an example of one who prayed. We know how wise he was. He had understanding in all visions and dreams (ch 1:17). Not only was he able to tell the king the meaning of his dreams, he was even able to tell him his dreams before the king told them to him. How wise he was! We see definitely the result of prayer, how God protected him. He had to go into the den of lions because he prayed. He was alone with hungry lions. God closed their mouths. There was not one wound found on him. How precious is the matter of prayer that we see here!
One may ask why Daniel was such a great man of prayer. He was in a foreign land. He was not in his own land. He could not worship God in the way the people of Israel did in their own land. So one might ask why he was such a wonderful man of prayer. I am sure we find the answer in the verses that we have read in chapter 1: “Daniel purposed in his heart.” The heart is the centre of man. The heart is the inner being of our mind and soul. It is presented to us in the Bible as the place where evil comes from. We can see that in Genesis chapter 6 in the times of Noah: “Jehovah saw that the wickedness of Man was great on the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually” (v5).
We see how the heart usually shows us the condition of man. And also in the New Testament, Mark writes about that, chapter 7, verse 21: “For from within, out of the heart of men, go forth evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickednesses, deceit, licentiousness, a wicked eye, injurious language, haughtiness, folly; all these wicked things go forth from within and defile the man.”
So it must have pleased God to see a man who decided in his heart not to pollute himself with the king’s delicate food or the wine that he drank. He decided in his heart to be a man of God and to seek after God’s will, even though he was in a foreign country. God even allowed the king of Babylon to win against the people of Israel. But these circumstances could not bring Daniel away from his heart-wish not to pollute himself with the king’s delicate food. It is a wonderful matter to see that.
We can think of Samuel choosing David. God said to him, when he was looking over those sons who were presented to him, “Man looketh upon the outward appearance, but Jehovah looketh upon the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). That is something to be known, to be remembered every day, that God looks upon the heart: He knows our decisions, He knows our conscience, He knows our condition. We see in the example of Daniel how wonderful it was.
Out of this decision came a relationship, came trust, came a wonderful faith!
I am not a good storyteller, and I am always careful about telling stories because I often wonder if the story is worthy to be told in an address or in a gospel preaching! But I want to share one story with you that I heard and which really impressed me. It was at the Niagara Falls, where a group of tourists meet every day to see the wonders of God’s marvellous creation. One day there was a tight-rope artist; he had a rope, and he stretched it across the water, from one side to the other. He walked along the rope and always, when he arrived on one side, he would receive great applause. The crowd was enthused. When I first heard this story, I thought, ‘If I had been there, I would have stood with my mouth open just seeing someone doing something like this!’ Sometimes he took a balancing stick and he walked with a balancing stick over the water; sometimes he went without it. But he was always successful. Sometimes he swung as if he would fall. He did that on purpose to make it more exciting, but he never fell in the water. He chose at one point to do something special next time. He took a wheelbarrow and put it on the rope. Before he went over with the wheelbarrow he turned around and asked, ‘Do you believe I can take the wheelbarrow over the rope?’ An old lady was standing there and she said, ‘Well, I am sure you can.’ He said to her, ‘Well, please, step in.’ She did not step in: she stood there. I do not know if I would have stepped in. He asked again if there was really no one who would like to step into the wheelbarrow. Suddenly a young boy, maybe ten years old, stepped forward and said, ‘I will go, I will step in.’ He stepped into the wheelbarrow, and the crowd was very frightened. The artist took him to the other side, and the crowd stood in silence. He brought him back. He brought him right back to the side without one wet foot. There was no applause; just amazement. The crowd was silent. Afterwards, when the boy was asked why he had been so careless, he answered, ‘Well, I and my father, we do that once in a while!’ This is what I would like to bring before us – what comes out of a relationship: there is trust, and you know your companion. It is wonderful to be in God’s hands, and prayer has a great part in that.
Let us go to Psalm 84. In Daniel we read of a personal relationship, of prayer in a practical way. In Psalm 84 it is a bit different: we are in God’s sphere, God’s area. “How amiable are Thy tabernacles, O Jehovah of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of Jehovah; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” God’s house must be a place of affection, a place where the soul can rest, a place where God is worshipped. It is a place for the soul, as we read here.
When we read on, we see that “the sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she layeth her young.” And then the sons of Korah, the writers of this psalm, say, “Thine altars, O Jehovah of hosts, my King and my God.” It is wonderful to be there where God is. The altars have such pleasure for God, because we see Christ everywhere. We cannot be in the house of God and be without Christ. We cannot be there and not see Christ. We cannot be there and not see God’s pleasure and delight in Christ.
When we think of the altars in the tabernacle in the wilderness, we first have the brazen altar; this is the altar where we see reconciliation in the work of Christ, how He offered Himself so that our sins may be forgiven. When we go further, into the tent, we find the golden altar of incense. This is something so precious, speaking of prayer. We see the incense in the holy place, we see the odour that is wonderful to God.
We read in Exodus how God instructed Moses how the incense should be made (ch 30:34‑36). There is an order in what the incense is. There is nothing men can decide about what is to be brought before God to please Him. It is God’s will that has to be done and is to be seen in the incense. In the incense many different ingredients are put together, and I think we can see the beauty of Christ in all these things that come together there: the character of Christ, the love of Christ, the work of Christ, everything He did; and not only what He did, but especially what He is as a Person. We should see Christ with regard to what He is. We should get to know Him in this way, and then we can bring incense; incense according to Psalm 141, verse 2, is the prayer of the believers. Also you can read it in the Revelation chapter 5, verse 6, “And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, as slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God which are sent into all the earth: and it came and took it out of the right hand of Him that sat upon the throne. And when it took the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, having each a harp and golden bowls full of incenses, which are the prayers of the saints.”
So incense can be seen in prayer – in the prayer of asking for something, but also in thanksgiving, and especially in worship and praise and adoration of God. And when we see the Lord, the Lord’s character, the Lord’s Person, and His attributes, in the incense, we realise that the altar of incense may speak of the Lord, and we see that our praises can be brought before God only through Christ. We cannot praise outside of Christ. It is not acceptable to God. Worship without Christ is not acceptable to God. “Christ is everything” (Col 3:11). So how important it is to get to know Him, to love Him, to have a constant relationship with Him, so that we can bring to God something He has delight in!
The beauty of Christ is His life – His life on earth, and His life now in heaven. He is not dead any longer, He is resurrected. He is no longer among the dead, He is risen! Sometimes I think the impression of a living Saviour, a living Lord, could heal many problems in the life of a believer. It is important to see Him at the Cross, no doubt about it, but it is also important to know Him as a living Saviour, as risen and ascended and seated at the right hand of God. This is what we can bring before God, in incense, and He has delight in this wonderful worship.
And now, the last thing I want to say about this psalm is verse 4, “Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house: they will be constantly praising Thee.” How wonderful! This house is a house of worship, a house of praise. It is marvellous that nothing else can be brought into this house. When we want to have entrance there, we have to leave everything behind except Christ – everything else! And so we get understanding why we gather the way we do. It is different from what is usual in the religious world, the music and all the things which belong to the flesh – we can enter only through Christ by the Spirit. God wants to be worshipped through Christ and through the Spirit. Wonderful thing!
It speaks there of dwelling there constantly, “constantly praising.” It is not something only for a coming day. This is to be started now. It started very early; through the ages it will go on, and will be perfect in a coming day – perfect praise. It is wonderful to think about that.
Let us finally look at Thessalonians. I would like to read it again. “For the Lord Himself, with an assembling shout, with archangel’s voice and with trump of God, shall descend from heaven; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we, the living who remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall be always with the Lord.”
This passage does not speak about prayer, but when I read this passage, I am a bit ashamed because, if the Lord is coming to get us and take us to the place where He is, I want to know Him now. I do not want to live my life now and, when He comes, be ashamed because I just know His work at the Cross. Forgive me when I say ‘just’ – it is the greatest work that has ever been done – but it does not stop there for the believer, it goes on. It goes on in our relationship, in getting to know Him day by day, minute by minute. To get to know Him!
Think of how wonderful it must be when suddenly He comes and we say, ‘This is my Saviour, I know Him. I know Who He is! I know His attributes. I know His character. I know His love.’ Think how wonderful that must be, and we do not have to be ashamed, because we know that we spent most of our time with the Lord and not with the world. It would be terrible, really terrible, if it were the other way around. The Lord is waiting for that moment, and so should we! We should wait for Him. Waiting for Him means that I have a relationship with Him.
Maybe some of you have had a pen-friend – when you have not seen someone yet, but you write letters to him. We sometimes did it at school. We had these pupil exchanges, and before we met them we wrote letters. So you write a letter to someone you do not know. It is a bit similar: we do not see the Lord right before us as a Person in flesh, we do not see Him in flesh. But we can discover Him in Scripture, through faith; we can discover Him in prayer.
Some might think prayer is only something in which we should talk. I tell you, sometimes it is better for us to be quiet in prayer, and to let the Lord speak to us. It is not something just to talk about, it is something to live and to discover. Let us be always in this condition, to wait for the Lord.
It was really amazing for me to hear in an address that all the prophecies that have to be fulfilled before the coming of the Lord here in First Thessalonians are already fulfilled. There are a few that have to be fulfilled before the coming of the Lord to Israel, His coming to them as King – there are a few that have yet to be fulfilled. But all those that need to be fulfilled before this moment when He comes to take His assembly, these are all fulfilled.
Please take it seriously: it may be tonight. It may be tomorrow. We do not know how much time we have left. I think we should not think about the time. We should not think, ‘How much time may I have left until the Lord comes?’ This is not what Daniel did when he decided in his heart not to pollute himself with the king’s delicate food. We should be constantly waiting for the Lord’s coming to take His assembly.
It is wonderful how Paul describes it. “The dead in Christ shall rise first; then we, the living who remain.” That is exactly what should mark our thinking in our life. “We, the living,” we shall see Him coming in the clouds while we are alive. This keeps us away from all that surrounds us, and what is part of the evil world. I have to say that so clearly. May we be encouraged!
We shall hear His voice, archangel’s voice and the trump of God. What a sound that will be! We have never heard it, but the moment we hear it we shall know what it is. This is God. He does not leave us without knowledge. When this sound arises, we shall hear it!
When the Lord comes, I hope we shall know Him through our prayer life that we have had with Him. Through prayer in a practical way, we know what it is to be protected from the world, to be sanctified, to be part of His assembly, and in a way to worship Him. Prayer has a wonderful odour of incense, a wonderful odour for God that He loves to smell. And it is for Him, just for Him, through Christ. Let us get to know Him, and let us do it in prayer, and it will help us a lot.
It should encourage the young ones among us to do something for the Lord. Serving does not mean for everyone to go out and preach the gospel, in England, or in South America, or in Africa. It does not necessarily mean to give an address very early in our faith life. It may be done in little things, small things – care for brethren, encouragement for young ones to make commitments, personal commitment; to put ourselves a bit aside. That is very hard: I know that, believe me! I am saying this because I need to grow in that. Little things to start with, and also little prayers – they can grow!
Prayer is not a thing for older ones only. Prayer is not only for those who preach the word. Prayer is for everyone. The Lord said, “Suffer little children to come to Me” (Luke 18:16). So I would like to encourage the young – it is for you! And when you pray for something, and you do not have a reaction from God immediately, do not be discouraged. The Lord acts with you differently from the way the world acts. When you say something to a person, you might get an immediate reaction; a good one, a bad one; the reaction might bring joy with it, or tears, or pain even. You might get an immediate reaction. The Lord is able to do the same, but do not be discouraged when He does not answer in the way you wanted Him to answer. That is often our problem, why we give up prayer, because the Lord does not answer us the way we want Him to. We have something in our mind, in our head, and we want it. ‘I want it.’ We go into prayer – no answer. We say, ‘Prayer – it is nothing for me. Others may be good in that, but I am not.’ This is wrong. Beloved children, young ones, this is wrong!
Prayer leads us to get to know God as He is. In the end we shall discover that He is faithful. The First Epistle of John is a wonderful letter about the faithfulness of God, about God as the loving One, about God Who appreciates it when we decide not to walk in sins. It is wonderful to know that.
To finish, maybe we can read one verse. 1 John chapter 2 verse 6, “He that says he abides in Him ought, even as He walked, himself also so to walk.” That is a wonderful thing to close this address with, to turn to the Lord and to point again to Him. It is pleasing to Him when we walk as He did. Therefore it is necessary to look at Him. When you want to discover what prayer really means, go through these passages in the Gospels where you can find out how He prayed, and why He prayed, and what He prayed.
Sometimes we get a glimpse of what He prayed. Think of John chapter 17. So look at it, go in for His prayer life. It will lead us to wonderful worship like what we find in Psalm 84, wonderful worship! God is worthy to be worshipped for sending Christ, for putting our sins upon Him.
Look what He has given to us: not things that are a matter of time, but things that are a matter of glory, things that are eternal, that will never end. A rich treasure we have in Him, because these are unseen things of glory. There is a wonderful hymn we often sing:
I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.
I would like to finish with these words and to encourage us all. May the Lord bless this word for His name’s sake.
20 June 2015