The Idolatry of Prayer
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
The people of Israel had religious fervor during the time of the great apostasy under the reign of King Ahab. They rebelled against the lordship of God and turned to other gods, particularly Baal, but their religious expression did not change that much. For example, when the great showdown between the Lord and Baal took place, they both had altars, prophets, sacrifices, worshipers, and prayer. The difference is that God answered not the prophets of Baal, although they outnumbered Elijah, but the one prophet who worshiped the true and living God. In other words, God answers the prayer of the one who knows him. Perhaps a great passage that makes this point is found in the first chapter of 2 Kings, when Ahaziah proceeded to reign briefly after the death of Ahab. He angered God because he sought Baal instead of the Lord when he became ill. He arrogantly ordered a large procession to retrieve Elijah who by this time was infamous among the pagans after the death of prophets of Baal. Notice what 2 Kings 1:9-10 proclaims, “Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty men with his fifty. He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, ‘O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’ But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, ‘If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.’ Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.” Elijah informs them that his relationship with God is the reason why the Lord answers his prayers.
Recently, I have heard people say that we need to pray in times like this. Many of us have even heard about the power of prayer before our recent pandemic began. Once I heard an interview of a doctor saying how important faith is for one who is undergoing surgery. He was not specific about which faith but only said faith is important. This philosophy of religion within the medical establishment is dangerous because it replaces the value of God with what he provides. Prayer is nothing but an overflow of one’s relationship with the sovereign Lord of heaven. We do not need books to teach us how to pray but what we truly need is to be closer in the presence of God. I am thankful for the famous song’s lyric that proclaims the truth from Psalm 84:10, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” It is idolatrous to love the gift God provides more than God himself. Sometimes, a non-believer will pray for God’s help, but that person does not want God but only his power fulfilling the person’s desire. During this pandemic, we do not need Christians praying more, but we need them drawing near to the presence of God. Who will God answer? The person who prays continually all day long, or the person who has been in God’s presence all day and humbly asks for the Lord’s help?
John Bunyan wrote the famous book called The Pilgrim’s Progress which is an allegory of a Christian’s life. I believe it is one of the greatest books I have ever read and highly recommend it to all who would ask. Bunyan wrote the book while serving a twelve-year sentence for preaching the gospel. They offered to release him if he would promise to not preach and he told them that if they released him today, he would preach tomorrow. C.H. Spurgeon once said he read The Pilgrim’s Progress at least 100 times in his life and he often quoted it in his sermons. He said regarding John Bunyan, “Read anything [by John Bunyan], and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. . .Why, the man is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him” Bunyan defines prayer as “a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart and soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.” Prayer is the supernatural overflow of a Christian’s devotion to the Lord for Bunyan. He knows nothing of a lukewarm Christianity pleading with God in times of trouble.
Hebrews 4:14-16 is often used as a comfort for Christians regarding their prayer lives as the passage declares, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” It is interesting to note the emphasis of the passage is not on the act of prayer but nearness to the Lord. The only way we are able to have more effective prayers is to draw closer to the Lord in our relationship with him.
The Gospel as the Means to Approach the Lord
God is unapproachable without the power of the gospel applied to the soul of believers through Jesus. We cannot approach God in our own righteousness, and 1 Timothy 6:15b-16 describes this truth, “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion, Amen.” This truth is not well known among those who proclaim they are good people and God will accept them. In theological terms, they are claiming a certain righteousness that Paul rejected referring to the Jews when he said, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
The Christian has an imputed righteousness through Jesus who is called the great high priest. The high priest had the role of approaching God on behalf of the people of God, and now Jesus has that role. There is no longer any need for a human priest because God’s Son fulfills that role today, and he is far superior than any priest in the Old Testament. They all had shortcomings and agendas, but Jesus is called great, which indicates he is better than all of those who were before him. Jesus was tempted just like all the other high priests and humanity for that matter but was perfect without sin. The author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is greater than the prophets, patriarchs, Moses, and the angels. Jesus’ position is also greater because he does not enter the most holy place once a year with great fear, but he sits on the right hand of the Father in heaven. We are reminded of this fact when Stephen is being martyred and he looks up and Jesus is standing in heaven.
The text says concerning Jesus, “has passed through the heavens.” Every believer rejoices in this fact, that Jesus died, was buried, and was raised on the third day. Jesus passing through the heavens is a reminder of the fulfilment of the gospel and the promise of God concerning our own resurrection. Christians rejoice in their future resurrection when they leave this temporal world and enter God’s eternal kingdom. Heaven is the place where we belong and desire throughout our journey in this world. When the passage tells us to “hold fast to our confession,” it means to not let go of the gospel but be reminded by it and believe it with all our heart. The resurrection is essential and is a non-negotiable theological truth. If Jesus was not raised from the dead then there is no gospel and Paul makes this same point in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”
Confidence in Approaching the Lord to Receive Grace and Mercy
Prayer may not be the act of lifting our voice to heaven as much as it is the response of those who are in the presence of God already. It is a matter of “already but not yet,” because we are not physically in heaven but positionally we are members of his eternal kingdom. In this way, prayer is less about asking God for things, and more about being in his presence. Think about the Psalmist’s prayer life. He asks God for deliverance and protection, but he prays like he is already in the presence of the Lord as he thanks him for his mercy and goodness. One does not have much difficulty seeing this in the Psalms, but one example is Psalm 113:1-3, “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!” It is not difficult to notice the Psalmist’s nearness to the Lord as he praises God for who he is.
The Christian’s life should be described as one that is confident positionally in Jesus, belonging to heaven, as a recipient of the promises of God, and even in God’s love. There is no uncertainty in Christ. We should be confident that we have received God’s grace and it is not based on works but God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 makes this evidently clear, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Our confidence will be evident on the day of Jesus’ return when he separates the sheep and goats. We should be confident because the Lord knows who are his own. Non-believers should also be confident they will not be able to fool God because perceived good works, church attendance, and even records of baptism will not save. Praise God that he saves his unworthy servants and that he calls us to enter into his presence with confidence and boldness.
What do those who are able to approach the throne receive? They receive grace and mercy at an urgent time in life. Grace is God’s gift to those who have not earned it. This certainly describes our salvation. We do not deserve to be saved and we have not earned it, but it is the gift of God. John connects our receiving grace with Jesus’ work in John 1:16-17, “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God’ the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” If Jesus never came to the earth, where would we be? We would be lost without any hope but praise the Lord he did come and die creating a people for his possession. We also receive mercy in our time of need. Whereas, grace is an unearned gift, mercy is not receiving what you have earned. We know the cost of sin is death, and so death is what we deserve but we have a merciful God who grants to us eternal life and does not give us the eternal death we have earned. Romans 6:23 sums the idea well, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, we have earned death, but God has graciously given to us by his grace and mercy eternal life.
In conclusion, what is there to say about prayer? We should definitely pray, but we should also remember that we cannot out-pray our devotion to the Lord. Our prayer life will suffer if we keep God at a distance. The closer we are to the throne of God’s grace and mercy, the more fervent and powerful will be our prayer life. We should not get close to God because we want something from him, but rather we should approach him because we want to be near our Lord. Prayer is not the goal, but the glory of God is, and God is glorified when his people desire to be near him as they lift their voices to him in both their joy and in times of distress.
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Pastor Steven Lookabaugh has been our pastor since 2016 and is passionate about proclaiming the gospel of God through the weekly exposition of God’s Word; believing application is possible when one understands the historical/cultural meaning of the text. He leads our church in fulfilling our purpose toward the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, and to the Great Commandment as we seek to love one another. He has a Doctor of Ministry degree in Expository Preaching from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with an emphasis on parabolic exposition. He is married to Jennifer and they have three children, Andrew, Kate and Olivia.