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The Miracle of Prayer

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

An Approach to Prayer:

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demonstrates that pagan prayer is counterintuitive to its trinitarian Christian counterpart. Similarly, Christian prayer is distinct and unique in comparison to the mysticism that taints the animistic chars of Hmong evangelicalism. The “[pray] then like this” in Matthew 6:9 directly correlates to the faulty methodology that was being demonstrated by “the hypocrites” who sought not the face of God, but rather the approval and applause of their immediate and, in our context, virtual audience. In verses 7 and 8, Jesus gives a negative command to “not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them” (Matt. 6:7-8, italics mine). The paganism that surrounded Judaism gave rise to mindless euphoria, and valued the spontaneity of so-called spirituality. The utterances of their prayers had more to do with the sophistication of their oratory than the desire and affections of the deity to which they professed dependence upon. Did you catch that? The fundamental premise of pagan prayer is man-centeredness that starts and terminates upon the prayerer themselves (cf. 1 Kings 18:20-46). With this religious posture, the effectiveness of pagan prayer has more to do with the prayerer’s innovation than the graciousness that resides within the deity itself. 


Not so with the trinitarian God!


In John 15, Jesus, in the upper room discourse, intimately engages with His disciples and commences to prepare the inner circle for His much-needed departure. The paracletos (i.e., the Comforter; the Holy Spirit) was to make His way into the new epoch of redemptive history by indwelling His people and, in doing so, the disciples of Christ were to “[abide] in me, and I in you” (Jn. 15:4; cf. 14:17). The notion of abiding coincides with the broader theme that Christ Jesus is the Logos to which His followers are to submit to and follow. Thus, prior to the decree to abide, Jesus incentivizes His commands: “Whoever has My commandments and keeps them, He it is who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (Jn. 14:21, italics mine). Consequently, prayer—if in conjunction with the abiding principle—is informed not by an internalized gnostic innovation, but rather by the incarnate and inspired Word that derives from God Himself. Simply put, we are praying God’s Words back to Himself. We are taking perfection and returning perfection back to Himself. 


The Substance of Prayer:


Similarly, Jesus teaches us to pray not with mindlessness, but rather with a mindfulness to the truths of God.[1] That is why, among other reasons, Jesus Christ can command His followers to abide and, simultaneously say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). The Lord’s Prayer, then, is a model of how disciples of Christ are to engage with the living God of the Scriptures. Three observations from the Lord’s Prayer: (1) a familial anchor, (2) a transformative aim, and (3) an eternal assurance. 


Family Time. The initial engagement of prayer, then, is masked with the notion of familial ties, which can find its correspondence through covenantal overtones. The first few words are conspicuous: “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Meaning, the Father-language that kickstarts the petition is intrinsically linked to the in-breaking of the kingdom which derives from the inauguration of the Messianic figure Himself, Christ Jesus. The following verse in the Lord’s Prayer explicitly states: “Your kingdom come Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Not only that, the opening context of the scene is marred with kingdom language (Matt. 3:2; 4:17, 23; 5:10, 19-20). John the Baptist’s ministry is berated with preparing the way and, in so doing, calling for repentance in the coming of the kingdom (Matt. 3:2). Similarly, when Jesus Himself sought out baptism and overcame the testing in the dessert, He embarked upon His earthly ministry with the same mantra: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). 


Hence, the assertion to approach God in prayer by naming Him Father is tied to the inauguration of the kingdom through the messianic figure which is cemented upon covenantal imagery. Consequently, Christ is reminding us that when we engage in prayerful communion with the Creator God, it is not merely through the rubric of the Creator/creature relationship. Rather, the covenantal stamp of the kingdom embarks upon and invites into the fray a familial reality that has been bought by the blood of Christ. 


A Tool to Sharpen. As children in the kingdom, prayer becomes a tool in the hands of a sovereign God who seeks to conform saints into the image of the Son (cf. Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:10). The abiding principle, then, to renew the mind is to take every thought, perspective, and affection captive by submitting it to the confines of Christ (cf. Rom. 12:2; Col. 3:10; 2 Cor. 10:5). The Lord’s Prayer is formulated to assist us in asking for the right things: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). This is the wisdom, discernment, and character to yearn for such things; this is the abiding principle! Patrick Schreiner rightly assert, then, that to “understand requires more than merely intellectual effort; understanding involves the heart.”[2] Similarly, the abiding principle is not merely a cognitive exercise, but rather a transformation of the whole self. Thus, the “daily bread” has physical as well as spiritual connotations. Just as Jesus previously overcame His temptation by citing “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; cf. Deut. 8:3), children of God are to seek after physical as well as spiritual nourishment.  


There is Peace and Assurance. In prayer, the children of God enter into His holy courts with confidence and certainty (cf. Heb. 3:6). Jesus contends that the assuredness amounts to this petition: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). The emancipation from the sinful verdict is rooted upon the vicarious obedience that was demonstrated upon the earthly ministry of Christ, and was affirmed through the cross and resurrection. “The victory of Jesus over Satan in the wilderness,” according to Brandon D. Crowe, “realizes the obedience required of Israel. But this is not the end of the matter because, more fundamentally, Jesus’s obedience in the wilderness fulfils the filial fealty required of Adam.”[3] Thus, the assuredness that captures Christian prayer is not mounted upon the individual per se. Rather, the confidence is fastened amid Christ who has overcome the grave (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-26). Moreover, the Gospel not only fills our prayers with content, but it anchors our affections in knowing that our appeal is not in vain. 


Grace from God:


The God of Scripture has revealed Himself to be consistent, dependable, and steadfast in His reflection upon His own divine character and attributes.[4] The pagan deities surrounding the nation of Israel, on the contrary, were targets of mockery and ridicule by the living God who sought to display the fallacy that undergirded the worship that was heaped toward these false gods. Not only were these deities purported amid creaturely realities in the naturalistic world (cf. animals, sun, rocks, etc.), but their powers were facilitated by the people who so desperately sought to serve them. Yahweh articulates these truths through the prophet Isaiah in saying,

1 Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. 2 They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity. 3 “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; 4 even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save. 5 “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? 6 Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! 7 They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble (Isa. 46:1-7). 

These fraudulent deities declared divine accommodation by provoking so-called transformation and redemption, all the while displaying their inability to follow through on these claims. On the other hand, the God of Israel has initiated covenantal relations that are coupled with the privilege of communing with Him. Yahweh’s anger, then, fumed for at least two main reasons: (1) deception to its highest degree—idolatry—and (2) the robbing of glory that is meant to be attributed to He Himself. The work and Person of Christ reconciles these fallacies by redirecting our prayers toward its proper place, Yahweh, and by terminating their telos toward the glory of God. 

 

***footnotes***

[1] D. A. Carson, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World (Grand Rapids, MN: Baker Books, 2018), 77.


[2] Patrick Schreiner, Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 250.


[3] Brandon D. Crowe, The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 78. 


[4] See Peter T. O’ Brien, “God as the Speaking God: ‘Theology’ in the Letter to the Hebrews,” Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century. ed. Andreas J. Kostenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 196-216. 

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie Yang and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (10), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5).  He is one of the Teaching Pastors at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.


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