I have been extremely convicted lately in the area of prayer. I do pray as a matter of devotion most mornings, but I am not happy with it. I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel the way I do, but I have decided to read A. W. Pink’s book Gleanings From Paul: A Study of the Prayers of the Apostle. This book is in the public domain and is freely available at several locations, but I will be posting chapters here regularly over the next few weeks if you want to read along with me. I hope you will find this as challenging to your prayer life as I am. In the introduction, Pink makes some startling observations that I have never seen before when reading the Bible. Which goes to show that we need to read carefully, thoughtfully, slowly, and most of all, prayerfully!
Gleanings From Paul
Much Has Been Written upon what is usually called “The Lord’’s Prayer” but which we prefer to term “The Family Prayer,” and much upon the high priestly prayer of Christ in John 17, but very little upon the prayers of the apostles. Personally we know of no book devoted to the same, and except for a booklet on the two prayers of Ephesians 1 and 3 we have seen scarcely anything thereon. It is not easy to explain this omission, for one would think the apostolic prayers had such importance and value for us that they would attract the attention of those who wrote on devotional subjects. While we very much deprecate the efforts of those who would have us believe the prayers of the Old Testament are obsolete and unfitted for the saints of this dispensation, yet it seems evident that the prayers recorded in the epistles are peculiarly suited to Christians. Excepting only the prayers of the Redeemer, in the epistle prayers alone are the praises and petitions specifically addressed to “the Father,” in them alone are they offered in the name of the Mediator, and in them alone do we find the full breathings of the Spirit of adoption.
How blessed it is to hear some aged saint, who has long walked with God and enjoyed intimate communion with Him, pouring out his heart before Him in adoration and supplication. But how much more blessed should we esteem it could we have listened to the utterances of those who accompanied with Christ in person during the days when He tabernacled in this scene. And if one of the apostles were still here upon earth what a high privilege we should deem it to hear him engage in prayer! Such a high privilege that most of us would be willing to go to considerable inconvenience and to travel a long distance in order to be thus favored. And if our desire were granted, how closely we would listen to his words, how diligently we would seek to treasure them up in our memories. Well, no such inconvenience, no such journey, is required: it has pleased the Holy Spirit to record quite a number of the apostolic prayers for our instruction and satisfaction. Do we evidence our appreciation of such a boon? Have we ever made a list of them and meditated upon their import?
No Prayers of the Apostles in Acts
In our preliminary task of surveying and tabulating the recorded prayers of the apostles, two things have impressed us, one at first quite surprising, the other to be expected. That which is apt to strike us as strange——to some of our readers it may be almost startling——is the book of Acts, which supplies us with most of the information we possess about the apostles, yet has not a single prayer of theirs in its twenty-eight chapters. Yet a little reflection should show us that this omission is in full accord with the special character of that book, for the book of Acts is much more historical than devotional, consisting far more of a chronicle of what the Spirit wrought through the apostles than of what He wrought in them. The public deeds of Christ’’s ambassadors are there made prominent, rather than their private exercises. True, they are shown to be men of prayer, as is seen by “We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Again and again we behold them engaged in this holy exercise (Acts 9:40; 10:9; 20:36; 21:5; 28:8); yet we are not told what they said, the nearest approach being Acts 8:15, for their words are not recorded. We regard the prayer of Acts 1:24 as that of the hundred and twenty, and that of Acts 4:24-30 as that of “their own company.”
Paul Eminently a Man of Prayer
The second fact which impressed us while contemplating the field before us was that the great majority of the recorded prayers of the apostles issued from the heart of Paul; and this, as we have said, was really to be expected. You ask why? Several answers may be returned. Paul was preeminently the apostle to the Gentiles. Peter, James, and John ministered principally to Jewish believers (Gal. 2:9), and even in their unconverted days they had been accustomed to bow the knee before the Lord. But the Gentiles had come out of heathenism and it was fitting that their spiritual father should also be their devotional exemplar. Moreover, he wrote twice as many epistles as all the other apostles added together; nevertheless there are eight times as many prayers in his epistles as in all of theirs. But chiefly we call to mind the first thing said of Paul after his conversion: “Behold, he prayeth” (Acts 9:11). It is as though that struck the keynote of his subsequent life, that he would, to a special degree, be marked as a man of prayer.
The other apostles were not devoid of this spirit, for God does not employ prayerless ministers, as He has no dumb children. To “cry day and night unto him” is given as one of the distinguishing marks of His elect (Luke 18:7). Yet certain of His servants and some of his saints are permitted to enjoy closer and more constant fellowship with the Lord than others (excepting John), and such was obviously the case with the man who on one occasion was even caught up into Paradise. A special measure “of grace and of supplications” (Zech. 12:10) was vouchsafed him, so that he appears to have been favored above his fellows with a spirit of prayer which dwelt in him to a remarkable degree. Such was the fervor of his love for Christ and the members of His mystical body; such was his intense solicitude for their spiritual well-being and growth, that there continually gushed from his soul a flow of prayer to God for them, and thanksgiving on their behalf. Many illustrations of what has just been said will come before us, examples of where ebullitions of devotion broke forth in the midst of his doctrinal and practical instructions.
The Inclusiveness of Prayer
Before proceeding further it should be pointed out that in this series of studies we do not propose to confine ourselves to the petitionary prayers of the apostle, but rather take in a wider range. In Scripture “prayer” includes much more than making known our requests to God, and this is something which His people need reminding of, and some of them instructing in, in these days of superficiality and ignorance. The very verse that presents the privilege of spreading our needs before the Lord emphasizes this very thing: “In every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil. 4:6). Unless gratitude be expressed for mercies already received and thanks be given for granting us the continued favor of petitioning our Father, how can we expect to obtain His ear and receive answers of peace! Yet prayer, in its highest and fullest sense, rises above thanksgiving for gifts vouchsafed: the heart is drawn out in contemplating the Giver Himself so that the soul is prostrated before Him in worship and adoration.
Though we ought not to digress from our immediate theme and enter into the subject of prayer in general, it should be pointed out that there is yet another aspect which needs to take precedence over those referred to above, namely, self-abhorrence and confession of our unworthiness and sinfulness. The soul must solemnly remind itself of who it is that we are approaching, even the Most High, before whom the very seraphim veil their faces (Isa. 6). Though divine grace has made the Christian a “son,” nevertheless he is still a creature, and as such at an infinite and inconceivable distance below the Creator; therefore it is fitting he should both deeply feel and acknowledge this by taking his place in the dust before Him. Moreover, we need to remember what we are, namely, not only creatures but (considered in ourselves) sinful creatures, and thus we need both a sense and an owning of this as we bow before the Holy One. Only thus can we, with any meaning and reality, plead the mediation and merits of Christ as the ground of our approach.
Thus, broadly speaking, prayer includes confession of sin, petitions for the supply of our needs, and the homage of our hearts unto the Giver Himself. Or, we may say prayer’’s principal branches are humiliation, supplication, and adoration. Hence we hope to embrace within the scope of this series not only passages such as Ephesians 1:16-19 and 3:14-21 but also such verses as 2 Corinthians 1:3 and Ephesians 1:3. Psalm 100:4 makes clear that “blessed be God” is itself a form of prayer: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.” Other references might be given, but let this suffice. The incense which was offered in the tabernacle and temple consisted of various spices compounded together (Ex. 30:34-35), and it was the blending of one with another that made the perfume so fragrant and refreshing. The incense was a type of the intercession of our great High Priest (Rev. 8:3-4) and the prayers of the saints (Mal. 1:11). Like the spices our humiliation, supplication, and adoration should be proportionately mingled in our approaches to the throne of grace——not one to the exclusion of the other but a blending together.
The Ministerial Duty of Prayer
The fact that so many prayers are found in the New Testament epistles calls attention to an important aspect of ministerial duty. The preacher’s obligations are not fully discharged when he leaves the pulpit, for he needs to water the Seed which he has sown. We will enlarge a little upon this point for the benefit of young preachers. It has already been seen that the apostles devoted themselves “continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word,” and therein have they left an excellent example to be observed by all who follow them in the sacred vocation. Observe the order, and not only observe but heed and practice the same. The most laborious and carefully prepared sermon is likely to fall unctionless on the hearers unless it has been born out of travail of soul before God. Unless the sermon be the product of earnest prayer we must not expect it to awaken the spirit of prayer in those who hear it. As we have pointed out, Paul mingled supplications with his instructions. It is our privilege and duty to retire to the secret place after we leave the pulpit and beg God to write His Word on the hearts of those who have listened to us, to prevent the enemy from snatching away the Seed, to so bless our efforts that they may bear fruit to God’’s eternal praise.
Luther was wont to say, “There are three things which go to the making of a successful preacher: supplication, meditation, and tribulation.” This was taken down by one of his students from his “Table Talks.” We know not what elaboration the great Reformer made, but we suppose he meant that prayer is necessary to bring the preacher into a suitable frame to handle divine things and endue him with power; that meditation on the Word is essential in order to supply him with material for his message; and that tribulation is required as ballast for his vessel, for the minister of the gospel needs trials to keep him humble, as the apostle was given a thorn in the flesh that he might not be unduly exalted by the abundance of the revelations given him. Prayer is the appointed medium of receiving spiritual communications for the instruction of our people. We must be much with God before we are fitted to go forth and speak in His name. The Colossians were reminded that their minister was “always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that we may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12). Could your church be truthfully told that of you?
The Duty of Believers to Pray
But let it not be thought this marked characteristic of the epistles points a lesson for preachers only. Far from it. These epistles are addressed to God’s people at large, and everything in them is both needed by and suited to their Christian lives. Believers too should pray much, not only for themselves but also for all their brothers and sisters in Christ, and especially according to these apostolic models, petitioning for the particular blessing they specify. We have long been convinced there is no better way——no more practical, valuable, and effective way——of expressing solicitude and affection for our fellow saints than by bearing them up before God in the arms of our faith and love. By studying the prayers in these epistles and pondering them clause by clause we may learn more clearly what blessings we should desire for ourselves and others, What spiritualgifts and graces we most need to ask for. The very fact that these prayers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have been placed on permanent record in the sacred Volume intimates the particular favors which are to be sought and obtained from God.
Believers to Address God as Father
We will conclude these preliminary and general observations by calling attention to a few of the more definite features of the apostolic prayers. Observe to whom these prayers are addressed. While there is not uniformity of expression but rather appropriate variety in this matter, yet the most frequent manner in which the Deity is addressed therein is as Father: “the Father of mercies” (2 Cor. 1:3), “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3), “the Father of glory” (Eph. 1:17), “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 3:14). In this we may see how the apostles had heeded the injunction of their Master, for when they requested Him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” He responded thus: “When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven” (Luke 11:1-2), an example which He also set before them in John 17:1, 5, 11, 25. This has been recorded for our learning also. We are not unmindful of how many have unlawfully and lightly addressed God as “Father,” yet their abuse does not warrant our disowning this blessed relationship. Nothing is more calculated to warm the heart and give liberty of utterance than a realization that we are approaching our “Father.” If we have received “the Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15), let us not quench the same.
The Brevity of the Apostles’’ Prayers
Next, we note the brevity of the prayers of the apostles. Not some, nor even most, but all of them are exceedingly brief, most of them comprised in but one or two verses, and the longest is only seven verses. How this rebukes the lengthy, lifeless, and wearisome prayers from many a pulpit. Wordy prayers are usually windy ones. To quote again from Martin Luther, this time from his comments on the Lord’’s Prayer to laymen: “When thou prayest let thy words be few, but thy thoughts and affections many, and above all let them be profound. The less thou speakest the better thou prayest… external and bodily prayer is that buzzing of the lips, that outside babble that is gone through without any attention, and which strikes the ears of men; but prayer in spirit and in truth is the inward desire, the motions, the sighs, which issue from the depths of the heart. The former is the prayer of hypocrites and of all who trust in themselves; the latter is the prayer of the children of God who walk in His fear.”
Observe too the definiteness of the apostles’’ prayers. Though exceeding brief yet they are very explicit. They were not vague ramblings or mere generalizations, but specific requests for definite things. How much failure there is at this point. How many prayers have we heard that were so incoherent and aimless, so lacking in point and unity, that when the amen was reached we could scarcely remember one thing for which thanks had been given or request had been made, only a blurred impression remaining on the mind and a feeling that the supplicant had engaged more in a form of indirect preaching than in direct praying. But examine any of the prayers of the apostles, and it will be seen at a glance that theirs were like those of their Master’’s in Matthew 6:9-13 and John 17——made up of definite adorations and sharply defined petitions. There is no moralizing, no uttering of pious platitudes, but a spreading before God of certain needs and a simple asking for the supply of same.
Consider also the burden of these prayers. In the apostolic prayers there is no supplicating God for the supply of temporal needs and (with a single exception) no asking Him to interpose on their behalf in a providential way. Instead, the things asked for are wholly of a spiritual and gracious nature: that the Father may give to us the spirit of understanding and revelation in the knowledge of Himself, the eyes of our understanding being enlightened so that we may know what is the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of His power to usward (Eph. 1:17-19); that He would grant us according to the riches of His glory to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith, that we might know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, and befilled with all the knowledge of God (Eph. 3:16-19); that our love may abound more and more, that we might be sincere and without offense and be filled with the fruits of righteousness (Phil. 1:9-11); that we may walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing (Col. 1:10); that we might be sanctified wholly (1 Thess. 5:23).
Note also the catholicity of the apostles’’ prayers. Not that it is either wrong or unspiritual to pray for ourselves individually any more than it is to supplicate for temporal and providential mercies; rather are we directing attention to where the apostles placed all their emphasis. In only one instance do we find Paul praying for himself, and rarely for particular individuals. His general custom was to pray for the whole household of faith. In this he adhered closely to the pattern prayer given us by Christ, which we like to think of as the Family Prayer. All its pronouns are in the plural: “give us” (not only me), “forgive us,” and so on. Accordingly we find the apostle exhorting us to be making “supplication for all saints” (Eph. 6:18); and in his prayers he set us an example of this very thing. He asked that the Ephesian church might “be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:18-19). What a corrective for self-centeredness! If I am praying for “all saints” I include myself.
A Striking Omission
Finally, let us point out a striking omission. If all the apostolic prayers be read attentively it will be found that in none of them is any place given to that which occupies such prominence in those of Arminians. Not once do we find God asked to save the world or pour out His Spirit on all flesh. The apostles did not so much as pray for the conversion of the city in which a particular Christian church was located. In this they conformed again to the example set them by Christ. “I pray not for the world,” said He, “but for them which thou hast given me” (John 17:9). Should it be objected that the Lord Jesus was there praying only for His immediate apostles or disciples, the answer is that when He extended His prayer beyond them, it was not for the world, but only for His believing people unto the end of time (see John 17:20-21). True, the apostle exhorts that prayers “be made for all [classes of] men; For kings, and for all that are in authority” (1 Tim. 2:1-2)——in which duty many are woefully remiss——yet it is not for their salvation but “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (2b). We may learn much from the prayers of the apostles.