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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
January 21, 2007
The Proper Purpose & Practice of Prayer
Prayer. It is very elementary in its essence. Its most simple definition is “talking to God.” Yet prayer is also one of the most complex subjects that can be discussed.
How can a human talk with the creator of the universe? How does an insignificant human address the creator of the universe? How can God hear all those prayers at once? How does prayer work? God is sovereign and does not change, yet prayer somehow moves Him to do things differently? How does God know what to do? One farmer prays for rain because his crops are getting dry, and another farmer prays for a sunny day because he just cut his field of hay and rain would ruin his crop. How come some prayers are answered quickly, others after a long delay, and some get a “pocket veto.” Why are some people so good at praying and others not? What is a good prayer? What should we pray for?
As children we were taught to repeat simple prayers. Things like: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I Pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. (I have always wondered how interjecting the idea that the child might die that night is supposed to comforting).
We learn other prayer habits as children too. We ask a blessings before eating: “God is great, God is good. Now we thank Him for this food” Or as reported in a Boy Scout Troop where hunger preceded thought, “God is good, God is great, We now thank Him for the food we ate”
What is proper prayer? How should we come to God? What should we pray for? Those are questions that will involve a lot more discussion to answer. Two weeks ago I stressed that the proper motivation for prayer rises from an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Last Sunday I gave you a good definition for prayer: “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or 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.” I hope that definition has been helpful to you as you pray.
This morning we will begin an examination of the pattern of prayer that Jesus gave to His disciples in Matthew 6:5-15. But before we can get into what is often called “The Lord’s Prayer” we must look at what Jesus taught His disciples about the proper purpose and practice of prayer. Turn to Matthew 6:5.
BACKGROUND: This passage occurs within the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon Jesus presents His kingdom program. He describes how those who are truly righteous should live and contrasts that with the teachings and practices of the Scribes and Pharisees. In chapter 5:3-20, Jesus presented the characteristics of those who are truly righteous. In 5:21-48, Jesus contrasted His teaching with that of the Scribes and Pharisees using the examples of Murder, Adultery, Divorce, Vows, Revenge, & Love. In each case Jesus showed how the hypocritical religious leaders had twisted the interpretation of the Mosaic law to fit the traditions they created.
In Chapter 6, Jesus begins to contrast the behavior and practices of the Scribes and Pharisees with true righteousness. In each case Jesus exposes the self righteous and self centered practices of these religious leaders while explaining what the practice of a truly godly person would be. In 6:1-4, Jesus speaks against the way they gave alms/charity to the poor. Instead of their giving being an expression of heartfelt compassion that desires to meet the needs of another, their giving was done simply to feed their self righteous pride. They were more interested in the reward of the acclaim of men than the acclaim of God.
In 6:5 Jesus begins His teaching on proper prayer. In this section Jesus explains to His disciples the Proper Purpose and Practice of prayer before explaining the Proper Pattern of prayer in verses 10-13.
The Proper Purpose of Prayer
Jesus tells them the Proper Purpose of Prayer in vs 5 & 6.
“And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen be men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you” – vs 5,6.
The hypocritical Jewish religious leaders feigned or pretended to be something they were not. That is what a hypocrite does. They act out a part that is not true of them in reality. These religious leaders gave the appearance that they were close to God but in reality they did not really care what God thought of them. What was important to them was what the people thought.
In a warning to His disciples about the scribes hypocritical piety, Jesus said this of them in Luke 20:46,47, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets, 47 who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation
The scribes and pharisees wanted to the people to think they were pious and close to God, so they made it their practice pray in such a way as to be seen by men. They went into temple and the synagogues and made a show out of their prayers. They would stand before all the people, lift up their hands and the speak very loudly. In the streets they would stop on the corners and do the same thing. They would call attention to themselves and their supposed piety. Jesus says here that their prayers went only as far as the sound of their voice. They did not reach God because they were not meant for God.
An example of this is seen in Luke 18:9-14 where Jesus gives a parable contrasting the prayer of a self righteous Pharisee with that of a penitent sinner. And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’
Take note of what it says in verse 11 that this Pharisee “prayed thus to himself.” I do not get the sense that this man was praying in silence. He may have mentioned God at the start of the prayer, but everything in it was about himself. His prayer was not directed to God in true thanksgiving, but to himself in pride. “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself.” He would have been more honest if he had began his prayer, “self” instead of “God, and then continued in his boasting.
The tax-gatherer is quite a contrast. 13 “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
This man was truly speaking to God and it is demonstrated in the humility of the prayer. It is a cry of confession and a plea for mercy. God granted this man’s request.
There are plenty of people around today that are like the Pharisees. They pray only when someone else can take note of their show of piety. This can be very subtle.
Martin Lloyd-Jones tells about a supposedly very pious man who liked to demonstrate his godliness in that when walking down a hallway he would suddenly drop to his knees and pray. Lloyd-Jones wondered if that was necessarily honoring to God. Could he not have just as well prayed to God in secret while walking rather than calling attention to himself by his physical demonstrations.
I have to be frank, this is one of my concerns about the behavior of some “Christian activists.” Yes, public prayer is proper if it is truly directed to God. But I wonder if this is what is happening when people get down on their knees and clap their hands or lift them up and call out a prayer in front of a government building, movie house, pornography store or an abortion clinic. I am not saying that it is wrong to do these things but there is a question about motivation. That is what Jesus is addressing here. What is the motivation behind the prayer. Is the manner and place of prayer for the purpose of being seen of men and make the evening news or for petitioning God regardless if men pay attention or not?
Jesus says in Matthew 6:6 “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” We are to pray to our heavenly Father in secret and let our reward come from Him instead of men.
Does this mean it is improper to pray in public or with other people? Not at all. Jesus prayed in public (John 11:41,42), the apostles prayed in public (Acts 3:1; 21:5), and the early church held prayer meetings (Acts 12:12). But this does mean that you must have the proper purpose in your prayer of talking with God and not a motive of trying to make an impression on men.
Example: Your habit is to give thanks to God before you eat (1 Cor 10:31; 1 Thess 5:18) and you go to a restaurant. Do you pray before you eat or not? If it is your habit to pray when you are alone, then you should pray just as you do when you are alone. Do not call undue attention to yourself, but at the same time do not cease your godly activity for the fear of men. Remember Daniel ignored the King’s decree that prohibited prayer to anyone but the king. Daniel 6:10 says, “Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously.” Daniel did not make himself conspicuous, but neither did he hide. He simply continued to do what was his normal practice. We need to do the same including when we are in a public place such as a restaurant. However, if it is not your habit to give thanks for meals when you are alone, then it is hypocritical for you to do so just because you are now in public.
This same principle applies to church prayer meetings. Praying with other believers is a good and proper thing to do as demonstrated by the early church (Acts 2:42 – devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer). Praying together allows others to join in our prayers, and we learn better how to pray by hearing others pray. But public prayer is built off of personal time spent with God. If the only time you pray is when you are praying with other believers in a group, then you are only fooling yourself because you are not fooling God.
There is a weekly prayer meeting on Wednesday evenings at the home of the Colóns and there is a monthly prayer meeting here at the church. It would be great if everyone came out to these times of prayer, but in truth, I don’t want people who pray just to be heard by other people to come. The only people I want to come are those who are serious about prayer. Does that mean you should not come to prayer meeting unless your prayer life is all together? Of course not. But you should want it to be and you should earnestly desire to pray properly.
Maybe you are experiencing what David Brainerd, that great missionary of the 1700’s called his “Dark Night of Soul.” I have been there. Here was a man sold out to God. He was a “fool for Christ” in the modern vernacular. Yet, he felt God was distant and his prayers were not getting past the roof of his house, but that did not stop him from continuing to pray! Spend some time alone with God this afternoon. Start pouring over your schedule to see what has usurped the priority of prayer in your life and then do something to change it! Regain the proper purpose in praying.
Jesus’ concern over prayer was not just the proper purpose, but also the Proper Practice. If the motivation is wrong, then it is easy to fall into an incorrect practice of prayer. But even if our purpose in prayer is correct, we can still fall into the wrong practice of prayer.
The Proper Practice of Prayer
In vs 7,8, Jesus warns against an improper practice of prayer:
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him.”
Because most of us learn our practice of prayer from others, it is not unusual to find very godly people that pray with sincerity and with proper motives that fall into this trap of an improper practice of prayer. What Jesus is speaking against here is not just the foolishness of repeating “the rosary” or some other formal prayer so much that it basically means nothing. He is also speaking against praying the same thing over and over and over again like God can not hear you. Yes, we are to continue to persevere in prayer and may pray for the same request many times over a course of period of time, even years, such as in praying for the salvation of a loved one. However, we are not to spend hours at a time making the same request as if that will somehow gets God’s attention and wear Him down so that we will gain our request. Kids might get something from their parents that way, but that is the wrong way to treat God. God hears and will answer in His timing in His manner.
It is said of George Mueller of England that he began to pray for the salvation of 5 personal friends and that after 5 years, one of them came to Christ. After 10 years, two more came to Christ. After 25 years the 4th man came to Christ. George Mueller prayed for the salvation of the 5th man for rest of his life, a total of 52 years. The man came to Christ a few months after George Mueller’s death. That is perseverance in prayer and it is an example for us to follow, but spending hours praying for the same things over and over again trying to get God to listen is not. We do not move God by producing an excessive amount of verbiage.
Years ago when I was in California working in a singles ministry I met a young lady that ended up having some confusion over this principle. Of course I think most of you would understand that within a singles groups one of the major decisions of life is taking place – Who am I going to marry? That question can take on added emotion and urgency with some of the ladies as they approach 30 years old. There was one lady in the Bible study I was teaching that was in that situation in regards to a particular young man (now that I am in my late 40’s, anyone in their 20’s is young!). This woman was recognized by all for her godliness and was already a deaconess in the church. She was faithful in her devotional life. She took advantage of opportunities to witness to others about Christ. She was actively discipling other women and involved in church ministries.
She took the question of who she would marry very seriously and she set aside a day to take the matter before the Lord in prayer. This was all very commendable, yet she ended up with a problem. By the time she had prayed almost the whole day she was both exhausted and more confused than when she began. Why? She had not repeated some prayer formula all day. She had honestly bared her heart before God for many hours on end, but she had missed one important aspect of prayer which left her in confusion and anxiety rather than in the peace prayer should bring. She thought that she had to bring the matter to the Lord over and over and over and over again. The real problem was a lack of understanding of God’s love for her and trusting him to take care of the matter she was praying about.
Our text says that the Gentiles used a lot of meaningless repetition supposing that in doing so God would hear them for their many words. But look at vs 8: “Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him.” Do you understand the personal interest that God has in you? You do not need to keep going over and over something in order for God to pay attention to you. He knew your need before you even began to ask Him about it. The proper practice of prayer is to bring the matter before the Lord and leave the matter with Him. That is why prayer can bring us peace.
Paul said of prayer in Phil. 4:6,7, Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The peace comes because we can trust God for the matter. Isaiah 26:3,4 Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. 4 Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength:
We can trust God to hear our prayers and do what is best for us because He loves us. When His answer is a “no” or “wait,” then it is because He knows better than we do what would be good for us. We can trust Him. We can rest in His care.
Our confidence in God should be like that demonstrated by a little English boy that was watching over his families flock of sheep one Sunday morning. The bells were ringing for church and the people were going past the field where he was when the boy began to think that he too would like to pray to God. But what could he say? He had never been taught any prayers, so he knelt down and started to recite the alphabet. A man walking by on the other side of the hedge heard the lad’s voice and peering through the bushes saw the little fellow kneeling with folded hands and closed eyes saying, “A,B,C..”. What are you doing there, my little man,” the gentleman said. “Please, sir, I was praying,” said the boy. “But what are you saying your letters for?” replied the man. “Why, I didn’t know any prayer, only I felt that I wanted God to take care of me and help me to care for the sheep; so I thought if I said all I knew, he would put it together and spell all I want.”
We do not have to be long winded or eloquent to gain God’s attention. As with this little boy, we do not even have to know how to pray other than coming to God with humble hearts seeking His will for our lives. God is so attentive to us that, as Jesus says here, He even knows our needs before we ask.
The proper purpose in prayer is communication with God and seeking Him. It is not about gaining recognition of men. The proper practice of prayer is bringing our needs to Him with simple faith that He knows our needs, hears our prayers and will provide for us. Neither eloquent speech or being long winded will impress God in any way. God longs to hear the prayers of those who long to be righteous from the heart. Next week we will begin our examination of the Proper Pattern of Prayer.
Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Count the references to prayer in the sermon. 2) Talk with your parents about the proper purpose and practice of prayer.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.
What is prayer? How does prayer work? What is a “good” prayer? What should we pray for? How did you learn to pray? What is the context of the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 5-7? What is the subject of chapter 6 and how does that fit in the flow of the sermon? What was wrong with the way the Jewish religious leaders prayed? What warnings did Jesus give the disciples concerning them and their method of praying? What principle from that applies to today? What was wrong with the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9f? What was right with the prayer of the publican in that passage? In Matthew 6;6 Jesus said to pray “in secret.” Is it then improper to pray in public? Why or why not? If it is proper, then what was Jesus teaching his disciples here that would also apply to public prayers? What guidelines should be applied to public prayer? What is “meaningless repetition” in prayer? Describe. What is the difference between being repetitious in prayer and persevering in prayer? Have you ever been repetitious in your prayers? Do you persevere in prayer? How can prayer bring you peace? Explain. Is God ever impressed by either the length or eloquence of our prayers? Why or why not? What does God want in our prayers? What is the proper purpose of prayer? What is the proper practice in prayer? What has been your practice in prayer? Should anything change about it? If so, what? Find someone to hold you accountable / keep you encouraged in your prayer life.
Sermon Notes – January 21, 2007
The Proper Purpose & Practice of Prayer? – Matthew 6:5-15
The Proper Purpose of Prayer – vs. 5 & 6
Sincere, Not Hypocritical – vs. 5
To God, not Men – vs. 6
The Proper Practice of Prayer – vs. 7-8
Not with Meaningless Repetition
To a God that Hears
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