Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Calling on the Father (Matt. 6:8)

Matthew Henry writes that every prayer is like a letter sent to heaven, and in this title ‘our Father’ we have the inscription. Many a letter has begun with ‘Dear Father’, and these two words describe a very precious relationship. 

In calling on the Father, we should do so in a spirit that is aware of the riches of his grace. The doctrine that stands out in this phrase is the doctrine of adoption whereby believers 'are received into the number of his children, have his name put upon them, the Spirit of his Son given to them, are under his fatherly care and dispensations, admitted to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, made heirs of all the promises, and fellow heirs with Christ in glory’ (Larger Catechism 74). We have become members of his family. So a believer can always speak to God as his Father. A Christian does not draw near to the throne of grace only as a servant, he also comes as a son. In his heart, there is the Spirit of adoption who enables him to cry out strongly, ‘Abba, Father.’

At the same time, he or she will come to the heavenly Father with great reverence. Although he is the Father, he is not to be treated with disrespect. He is an august King, and while we are his sons, we are also his subjects. If we do not respect him, he will chastise us, and that will not be a pleasant experience (Heb. 12:5-11).

Nevertheless, each believer can approach his Father God with a spirit of freedom, aware that he is able to speak to the Lord about whatever is on his heart. He can speak in his Father’s ear the concerns, burdens, fears, embarrassments, delights, pleasures, joys and anticipations that he has. In his hand, as he draws near to his heavenly Father, are all the great and precious promises given to him in the Bible. 

Here are three of these promises. Luke 11:13: ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ Luke 12:30: ‘For all the nations of the world seek after these things [temporal needs], and your Father knows that you need them.’ Luke 12:32: ‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’ Jesus here instructs his disciples to pray according to their privileges.

Further, Jesus tells his disciples to remember that they are coming to a covenant God. This is one meaning of the pronoun ‘our’. It is the plural equivalent of the pronoun ‘my’. When a person says to the Lord, ‘You are my Father,’ he is describing an eternal relationship. He belongs to the Father for ever, and nothing in all the universe will separate him from the Father’s embrace and hold. So, this is a prayer that stresses security and safety as well as delight.

The use of ‘our’ reminds us that in all true prayer, there is a corporate emphasis. The plural is not only used in the opening address to God, but it also appears in the various petitions that occur later in the prayer. Jesus wants his disciples to pray for the needs of others (our daily bread), for the forgiveness of others, and for the protection of other believers (lead us not into temptation). We cannot pray to God without this sense of brotherly interest and concern. There is a reminder here that answered prayer is given to those who can say ‘our’ Father. To refuse to pray for another Christian is the same as denying for ourselves answers to prayer. If we have ill-will towards another believer, we will not be heard by their Father.

Of course, when we pray for the spiritual and temporal needs of others, we discover reasons why we should pray for ourselves. Does my brother need to show more love, so do I. Does my brother need to spend more time in the Bible, so do I? Praying for others becomes a means for praying for myself.

Finally, praying to the Father creates expectancy because we are speaking to a great, compassionate forgiving God. He does not deal with us the way our sins deserve (Ps. 103:10), so we can look for lots of grace. He has almighty power, so he can give us all we need and he desires. He has limitless resources, and he will withhold no good thing from those who walk uprightly (Ps. 84:11).

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Father’s Desire (Matt. 6:8)

One distinction between the Old and New Testaments is the way God is addressed in prayer. Jesus, in instructing his disciples how to pray, could have chosen other titles for God from the Old Testament and urged his followers to use them instead of saying ‘Father’. The Old Testament has many names for God; he is called the Almighty, the Sovereign Lord, the Creator, the Redeemer and others. Only occasionally is he called ‘Father’, although the title is used.

Isaiah uses in Isaiah 63:16: ‘For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.’ The verse suggests that God’s people had a sense of isolation, even from their roots, as they underwent the captivity in Babylon. The consolation they found was in the fatherhood of God.

And Isaiah also uses the title in Isaiah 64:8: ‘But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.’ The need for Israel was great. The exile in Babylon demanded that they be re-created as a people. The one they turned to was their covenant God, the Father.

Malachi also mentions this relationship to God: ‘Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10). In the darkness of their unfaithfulness, they turned to the light of his faithfulness, the loyalty of the Father.

Perhaps the saddest reference to Israel is found in Jeremiah 3:19 where God says to them, ‘I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beautiful of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.’ This statement by God indicates that it was his intense desire that his people address him as their Father.

Therefore, we can deduce that Jesus was teaching his disciples to say in prayer what was pleasing to the Father’s heart. Although more is included than the mere saying of words, to say them is very important. It gives great delight to the Father when his people address him by this intimate title.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

T,he Lord's Prayer

When a person looks at the Lord’s Prayer, three features stand out immediately. First, he notices the simplicity or straightforwardness of the contents. Every word used in it is easy to understand. There is an obvious lesson in this, especially in connection with public prayer. The individual who is speaking must use words that all his listeners can understand. Praying with others is not an opportunity for stating theological jargon or erudite words that only the initiated can understand.

Second, although simple words are used, the prayer is doctrinally rich. A sample list of doctrines in it include adoption, the unity of God’s people, the fatherhood of God, the dwelling place of God, the kingdom of God, the providence of God, the compassion of God, the preservation of God, the existence of the devil and temptation, and so on. Prayer reveals how much a person understands about the God to whom he or she is praying. A simple prayer has to be a biblical prayer.

The third feature of the prayer that is immediately noticeable is its structure. It begins with adoration of God before it details intercession for oneself and others. Given that this prayer on another occasion was supplied by Jesus as a model prayer for his disciples to use in order to learn how to pray, it is evident that adopting a structure is part of learning to pray.

Since the prayer is known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, the impression may be assumed that Jesus used it first and then gave it to his people to use. But that is not the case. Jesus never prayed for the forgiveness of personal sin. So while he may have used some of the petitions in the prayer he could not use the entire prayer.

Another issue that has arisen within the church concerns whether or not this prayer should be used only word for word. This must have been a matter of discussion in the early church because the Didache, a church manual from the early second century, says that Christians should use the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. Furthermore the prayer has been included in liturgies since the days of the early church. Even at the Reformation, when many extra-biblical requirements were thrown out of worship, the use of the Lord’s Prayer was retained in Calvin’s liturgy in Geneva and in John Knox’s liturgy in Scotland.

The Directory for Public Worship, which was composed to accompany the introduction of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms says, ‘ And because the prayer which Christ taught his disciples is not only a pattern of prayer, but itself a most comprehensive prayer, we recommend it also to be used in the prayers of the Church. ’

Monday, 28 October 2013

Resolve to engage in secret prayer (Matt. 6:5-7)

There is no value in knowing we should engage in secret prayer but do not do so. The fact of the matter is that there are no valid excuses for not engaging in such occasions of prayer. We cannot say that we cannot find the place (we can pray anywhere that is suitable), we cannot say that we cannot find the time (if it comes to a choice between the news on TV or a time of prayer, switch off the TV), we cannot say that we have not the right words (God can interpret our groans, even our wrongly worded desires).

We should resolve to engage in secret prayer because we will know whether or not our prayers have been answered. When God answers a prayer offered in church, the devil can suggest that it was answered because somebody else prayed for it. But when God answers a request that we have brought before him in the secret place, then we know that we have been heard, and that answer becomes an encouragement to pray for other matters. In this regard, it is important to keep a note of our prayer requests and their answers (a private record not shown to others). General prayers get vague answers, specific prayers receive definite answers.

Further, we should resolve to engage often in secret prayer because it is the best means of getting to know God. The way we get to know one another is by speaking to one another; the way we get to know God as our Father is by spending time with him. In the secret place, God will reveal to us his love and care for us, and we will discover an increased assurance in our hearts (‘He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “ He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in him I will trust’ [Ps. 91:1-2]).

Another reason for engaging in secret prayer is that it is an effective aspect of the process of sanctification. It is there that we obtain power from God. In that place of direct dealings with God, we become like Jacob who wrestled with God and prevailed; we discover that God changes us in the place of secret communion.

Again there is no doubt that one of the main reasons for the ineffectiveness of the church today is the lack of secret prayer (there are plenty organised public meetings for prayer, although sadly they are poorly attended as well). A healthy Christian is one who prays much in secret and who attends the public prayer meetings when possible. Our attendance to private and public prayer reveals how strong is our desire for the church to prosper today.

The example of Jesus should cause us to engage in secret prayer. No believer would deny that the Saviour is the one we should imitate. If the sinless Saviour had to engage in secret prayer, how much more do we?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

How to pray personally to God (Matt. 6:5-7).

First, says Jesus, we have to have a place of privacy. In the time of Jesus, most Jewish homes would have a small room where a person could go and not be observed or interrupted. We have to locate such a place: it can be done going for a walk, it can be done by sitting in a chair, it can be done in many different locations. What is important is that we find a place where we can pray to God in secret.

Second, we have to realise that we are coming into the presence of God, the heavenly Father. As Jesus says about the Father, he sees us there. Jesus is not stating a mere truism here – we know that God sees us everywhere. Instead Jesus is stating a wonderful reality, which is that God is present in a special way when his child engages in secret prayer.

Third, we must remind ourselves who the God is to whom we are praying. Jesus does not mention every attribute of God here; in addition to God’s presence, he also mentions God’s knowledge (he knows what we need) and God’s goodness (he rewards or answers the prayers). In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells his disciples to begin by thinking about their relationship with God. 

Therefore, we should focus on any of his attributes that meet our particular needs at a given time. If we are confused, we should think of his wisdom; if we sense weakness, we should focus on his power; if we are sensing the end of the journey, we should think of his heavenly home.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

How not to pray (Matt. 6:5-7)

In his comments here on prayer, Jesus gives two wrong motives for prayer. The first is that we should not use prayer to increase our reputation in the esteem of other people. In addition to referring to the practice of public prayer in the synagogue, it is possible that Jesus is alluding also to the fixed hours of daily prayer that took place in the temple. No doubt, people could not be in the temple on each occasion, but the Pharisees, if they were away from the temple, would engage in an ostentatious display of public prayer. At such times, there would be nothing wrong if the Pharisee had kept on walking along the road or continued with whatever he had been doing, but with a particular focus of mind and heart on prayer. What was wrong with the Pharisee’s response was the motive for his prayer whether in the synagogue or on the street corner – he wanted the praise of people. Why would he have such a wrong motive?

One possible reason would be his desired identity in the eyes of the public. After all, the people in general would expect the Pharisees to pray; in fact, they would be shocked if they saw a Pharisee who failed to pray at the stated times. Therefore, in order to maintain his place of public respect, he had to pretend to pray. As a hypocrite, he used the mask of prayer to protect his status.

Connected to this reason is another subtle but wrong motive for praying in this wrong manner. The Pharisee did not get his sense of security from a living relationship with God. Therefore, his religious outlook was marked by insecurity and every insecure person will try and find security in other ways, and one such place was the opinions of others. The Pharisee would feel secure when people commented on his devotion, therefore it was a comfortable mask to put on.

It is important to note that Jesus is not prohibiting public prayer, rather a wrong motive for it. For example, it is appropriate for a Christian to pray publicly with strangers in a crisis. Yet we know that there are situations when we can put on other masks in addition to the public performance engaged in by the Pharisees.

Some can pray to flaunt their use of language (they are more articulate, but forget that God hears with delight the groans of his people). Others can pray to show off their knowledge of Calvinistic theology (they have read more books, but forget that often Arminians and other Christians have received astonishing answers to their prayers from a sovereign God). Yet others can use their prayers to put down other believers or they can use their prayers to draw attention to their pet ideas, and both of these motives are connected to influencing others apart from God. And others can even use the practice of private prayer to impress others; they can do this by dropping little hints that they regularly engage in this very helpful (to them) discipline. I know I am playing the hypocrite when I am a spectator of my own prayer rather than a supplicant in my own prayer.

The second wrong of praying occurred when people prayed like the Gentiles, with repeated phrases and many words. Jesus is not forbidding long prayers; he himself would pray throughout the night. What is being forbidden here is the use of words to try and persuade God to hear us. The Gentiles assumed that the interest of their false gods had to be worked on, so they would repeat mindless phrases. One biblical example of what is meant here is the prayer contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah. They chanted and repeated pointless prayers for a prolonged period, he utter a simple, short and straightforward prayer and he was heard. Prayer cannot be used as a means of manipulating God, that if I say the right words for the right period of time, I will definitely be heard. We are to pray meaningfully, not mechanically.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Meaningful Spirituality (Matt. 6:5-7)

Jesus is instructing his disciples about basic Christian living and in this section of the sermon he focuses on three areas of behaviour that were commonly accepted as religious activity: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. In each of these examples, Jesus tells his disciples how not to do them before he tells them how they should do them. With regard to fasting, praying and almsgiving he says that they are not to draw attention to themselves when they engage in these spiritual disciplines.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has concentrated on inner features. He begins with the Beatitudes and each of them describes an attitude of the heart. Then he deals with heart obedience to God’s commandments, stressing that a limited outward conformity is of no value. Now he focuses on these three areas of charity, prayer and fasting, and says that they too belong to the inner life more than the outer life.

This emphasis on inner characteristics and assessments and attitudes reveals that when Jesus informed his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world he was not urging them to develop outward activities that would reveal who they are. Instead, he was teaching that his disciples are salt and light when they have inner qualities. For example, it is easy to imagine that the Pharisees imagined that they were having a good effect by their outward performances that were done in the public gaze. When people saw them, they would be inclined to imitate them. If they did, it was not evidence that the Pharisees had become salt and light; instead it was evidence that they had produced more hypocrites.

The danger of hypocrisy will be realised once we understand that it is easier to develop an outward religious lifestyle than it is to have an authentic inner spirituality. The example of the Pharisees, as well as the comprehensive devotion of followers of many religions and cults, makes it clear that one does not need grace in order to live a very religious life. Yet their wrong example obviously does not mean that true spirituality does not have outer activities. Giving to the poor, how we pray, and fasting each involve physical expressions. Yet it is clear that the inner must drive the outward expressions.

Firstly, with regard to each of these disciplines, Jesus stresses the importance of regularity. He says, ‘ When you give alms, when you pray, when you fast.’ His use of ‘when’ does not indicate an occasional practice. Instead it points to regular engagements in each of these disciplines. In other words, Jesus is teaching that structure and not haphazardness should mark the lives of his followers. There is nothing unspiritual about having regular times for spiritual disciplines, and there certainly is nothing spiritual about a chaotic approach to them.

Secondly, Jesus teaches that there has to be a consistent outlook in how we perform these disciplines. The one consistent feature in each of them is that we do not draw attention to ourselves.

Thirdly, since he gives more space to prayer than he does to charity and fasting, it suggests that prayer is more important than the other two disciplines. We can imagine a person who is unable to give alms because he has no money, yet such a person is still expected to pray. Or we can imagine a hungry person not engaging in fasting because he has nothing to give up; yet such a person is still expected to pray. Of course, we do not need to be in such extreme circumstances in order to see that prayer is more important; it is not possible to engage in charity and fasting all the time, but we can pray at all times. In fact, there should not be a situation in a believer’s life in which he cannot pray.