Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gospel-Advancing Prayer

It is impossible to think about how to be the church and do church life without also considering our need to pray.  Just a quick glance at the letters of the Apostle Paul clearly indicates our need to rely on and express dependence on God for everything.  So we pray.  This idea is no less true in the letter of 1 Timothy.  In fact, he gives it even more prominence here.

As we have seen thus far in our 1 Timothy series, Paul has been clear that he is deeply concerned about the advance of the gospel, and he talks about protecting, promoting, proclaiming, and preserving the gospel.  So what is the first thing he urges Timothy and the church at Ephesus to do to keep the gospel progressing?  He urges them to pray.  Here:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, (2) for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  (3) This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, (4) who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  (5) For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, (6) who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.  (7) For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  (8) I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. (1 Timothy 2.1-8, ESV)

We cannot gather together as Christians in a self-absorbed way without stopping the progress of the gospel dead in its tracks—and the way to avoid being self-absorbed is to humbly pray.  What are some specific ways we can advance the glory of God and His gospel in our worship gatherings?  It begins with gospel-advancing prayer.

1. We advance the gospel by valuing the priority of our prayer. (1 Timothy 2.1-4)

Immediately after challenging Timothy to fight the good fight of faith, he urges him and the Christian brothers and sisters there to pray.  He shows how the two ideas are connected by starting with “then” or “therefore,” which means that this urging towards prayer flows from the need to get the gospel out to everyone.  We see how he exhorts them to value prayer as a priority in a couple of ways.  First, among all the topics he could launch into, he starts with prayer, and even says, I urge you “first of all” (v. 1).  Even if he did not mean to specifically imply valuing prayer by that term, in which case it could be understood as, “of first priority,” the mere fact that he comes to that topic first shows that he is valuing prayer in making it a priority in the order of topics in his letter.

We also see the way he urges them to value prayer as a priority in the way he describes it.  He says that this kind of prayer is good and acceptable before God (v. 3), since it focuses the church on the mission before them: that of advancing the good news of Jesus.  As a result of making it a priority, they would see their own attitudes change and could see their cultural circumstances become potentially peaceable and more conducive to the gospel (v. 2), and many more might be saved (v. 4).  Clearly, we are to value the priority of prayer.

2. We advance the gospel by remembering the purpose of our prayer. (vv. 5-7)

Paul then reminds them why they are to pray, and in the process essentially lays out the gospel in one sentence: We needed a mediator between us and God, and only one Person could fill that role, the one who is fully God and fully man, Jesus (v. 5).  It is because of His sacrifice in our place that we can have life (v. 6).  And Paul was convinced that his role was to proclaim that gracious gospel to the nations (v. 7).

We know that Paul is still on the topic of prayer since he will again mention prayer specifically in verse 8.  So here in the middle (between verses 1 and 8) he clarifies for his first century readers, and us, that the reason we pray in this way is ultimately to be involved in the progress of the gospel.  That may not be the purpose behind every instance of prayer, but in this context it is exactly what Paul was saying.  We should remember the purpose of our prayer.

3. We advance the gospel by maintaining the purity of our prayer. (v. 8)

Some Bible translations group verse 8 with what follows after it, and some place it with what came before.  I think both are somewhat correct, since it concludes the prior thought, and then acts as a transition sentence into the next.  It seems obvious, however, that at the very least he is concluding these thoughts on prayer, since he explicitly mentions prayer in verses 1 and 8, like bookends around his thoughts.

That being the case, in verse 8 I think Paul is challenging specifically the men to step it up and lead in gospel-advancing prayer.  He will address women in a moment, but for now his attention is on the men, who he speaks to as if they were failing in their leadership in prayer.  Paul uses the term “in every place” elsewhere to refer to public worship, and that seems to be consistent here.  If so, he is calling out the men who were either failing to pray, or were failing to pray with purity in their motives.  He specifically mentions praying with “holy” hands.  The issue is holiness, not whether you lift your hands in prayer.  How do we know that?  Because he says as much in the next phrase: Pray with “holy hands without anger or quarreling.”  In other words, pray in a holy way.  We must maintain clean hands, so to speak, and pure hearts, in our prayer.

After introducing the gospel, of all of the specific topics Paul could have addressed in the church first, he begins with gospel-advancing prayer that is prioritized, purposeful, and pure.  Maybe we should too.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Intense Desire for Ministry

We can never, of course, repay God for His goodness to us through the gospel.  Nor should we try.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t sense a deep desire to serve and honor Him.

That desire is what the Apostle Paul was showing as he continued his first letter to Timothy.  After describing the command he told Timothy to issue concerning the integrity, goal, grace, and progress of the gospel, Paul is overwhelmed as he recalls all that God has done in his life.  So before he can continue, he pauses to praise God.  In what some biblical commentators (incorrectly) call a tangent, Paul actually illustrates his point about the work of the gospel by remembering the power of God though the gospel in his own life.

Although Paul knows he can never and should never try to pay off any perceived debt regarding is salvation, he realizes that he owes God his life, and that he is “under obligation” as he puts it, to live in a Christlike way and to serve Christ by serving others.  Listen to how he understands that idea of being a debtor:

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.  So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, [but to live according to the Spirit]…. (Romans 8.11-12, NASB, emphasis added)

I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.  So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Romans 1.14-15, NASB, emphasis added)

He was so driven and enthused and impassioned because he knew the depth of his sin, and yet he knew the power of the gospel of Christ to save him and set him on a new path of life, worship, and service (ministry).  This is no tangent or rhetorical digression from his topic on the gospel (in chapter 1).  On the contrary, his own life is his illustration, because Paul’s own amazing transformation is the example he knows best!  First, here is the next text from 1 Timothy, and then we’ll make some observations.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service,  (13) even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.  Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief;  (14) and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus.  (15) It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.  (16) Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.  (17) Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1.12-17, NASB)

Indeed, we serve God out of delight, not duty.  And yet, the overwhelming thought of His grace compels us to desire to give our lives to Him in return.  What do I do with this desire?

1. I respond to Him with my life as an offering of thanksgiving and praise. (1 Timothy 1.12, 17)

Notice that Paul bookends this great interjection with praise: he starts by saying he thanks Christ Jesus (v. 12), and then ends it with a brief Christ hymn (v. 17).  Some believe that verse may actually have been a recognizable hymn to these early believers.  Regardless, Paul remembers the transformation of his life, and cannot help but let that memory overflow in an offering of praise and thanksgiving.  He desires to praise God in words and song, but he also proves his praise by the demonstration of his life.  We must come to the point where we realize our entire lives are an offering back to God.  Paul said as much to the Corinthian church:

For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4.15, NASB)

When we offer ourselves up to serve others for His glory, He gets the thanksgiving.  You are an offering of praise.

2. I respond to Him with my life as a worker with a purpose. (vv. 12-14)

Simply put, Paul knew he was on a mission.  He had a task, a purpose for which he was on earth.  And when the thought of God’s saving transformation overwhelmed him, he shared the clarity and certainty of that purpose with his readers.  Despite the fact that he had formerly engaged in a terrible lifestyle (v. 13), God had shown mercy and considered him faithful, placing him into ministry, or service (v. 12).  Paul never got over this, and neither should we.  He was clear on his calling:

For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Timothy 2.7, NASB)

…for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. (2 Timothy 1.11, NASB)

Whether or not you are an apostle like Paul (you’re not) or a pastoral staff member is irrelevant: God has transformed you out of your former lifestyle or kept you from a further rebellious lifestyle in order that you might serve Him, and serve others for His sake.  You are a worker with a purpose.

3. I respond to Him with my life as an example for nonbelievers. (vv. 15-16)

Finally Paul notes that his transformed life has been an example for those who have not yet trusted in Christ through the gospel for their salvation.  He calls himself the worst kind of sinner—in his own words one who blasphemes (v. 13) Christ and his work.  Christ took that kind of man and made a prime example out of him, to show that no one, nor any sin, is out of the reach of God’s mercy and grace.  He uses all kinds of difficult situations as examples we can learn from:

Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.  …Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Corinthians 10.6, 10.11, NASB)

So why not learn from a key example like Paul, and be used by God to reach someone else?  You are an example for others.

Some folks shy away from talking about “owing” anything back to God, for fear that others might be confused in wrongly thinking that salvation is in part due to our works.  While we must never diminish the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we must also not forget, in the words of Paul, that we are under obligation.  To help me remember, I have used the first letter of the points above as an acronym.  As an…

Offering of thanksgiving and praise, and a
Worker with a purpose, and an
Example for nonbelievers

…I remember that I OWE Him my life.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]