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"In the Name of Jesus:" The Mission of Prayer
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All blog posts originate from Pastor Bob's website, bobkaylor.com

 

JOHN 14:8-14

We have now come to our third lesson in the School of Prayer and, like any good course of study, it’s often helpful to have some review before moving ahead. In our first lesson, we looked at the reasons we struggle with prayer and one of those major reasons is that we don’t know why we pray. For that we need a comprehensive biblical theology of prayer in order to understand what prayer is and what it does.

 

We started into that biblical theology last week. The biblical phrase “calling on the name of the Lord” means asking God to come through on his covenant promises. We tracked that through the Old Testament beginning in Genesis 4, as people began to look for the offspring of Adam and Eve who would one day crush the head of the serpent and liberate humanity and creation from its slavery to sin and death. We know that God delivered on that promise in the person of Jesus—an offspring of Adam and Eve, of Seth and Enosh, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this was not only a son of Adam, he is also Son of God. All prayer, then, is gospel-shaped and centered around this fulfilled promise of God in Jesus. We still live in a fallen world where the snake still speaks, but we know his days are numbered. We “call on the name of the Lord” with the confidence that God has already begun to deliver on his promise to his people in Christ.

 

The Gospel story actually begins with prayers to that effect. Luke’s Gospel begins a series of prayers that point to the fact that God has kept him promise in the birth of Jesus. Mary praises God for helping “his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever”(1:54-55). Zechariah, the priest and father of John the Baptizer, praises God saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David…to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace” (1:68-79). And then there is the prayer of old Simeon at Jesus’ dedication: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…” (2:29-32). These are gospel-shaped prayers prayed by people who have counted on God to deliver on his promises.

 

Jesus is born, the promise fulfilled—but Jesus himself also prays, a prays a lot. That seems curious to many people and raises some important questions. Why does Jesus need to pray if he is God in the flesh, as the New Testament and our creeds confirm? Is it just an example for us, or is there something else going on here? How does Jesus pray and, when he does, what does he pray for? And lastly, what does that mean for our prayers? These are important questions for followers of Jesus if we want to really understand prayer and its practice.

 

So, let’s dive in. First, why does Jesus pray? One of the questions I am often asked is, “When Jesus prays, isn’t he just talking to himself?” It’s a good question and the answer is yes and no. We believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity—fully one with God. Jesus says this himself in our Gospel lesson for this morning: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” They are the same in person and nature. At the same time, however, we also know that Jesus became human in every way like we are, which the apostle Paul says was a limitation for him. He “humbled” himself, which means that, in human flesh, Jesus experiences the limitations of distance from the Father that are the result of human sin living in a fallen world—a fallen world that makes prayer necessary. Jesus himself did not sin, but he identified with sinners and yet still maintained an intimacy with the Trinity through prayer. In that sense he is a model for us—that we can be fully in relationship with God despite our separation and distance from God. Philip wanted a grand display—“Show us the Father”—a kind of Monty Python-esque revelation of God in the clouds. Jesus reveals the Father in his own person—a person of prayer.

 

And how does Jesus pray? If you read through the Gospels you will notice that there are lots of times that Jesus slips off by himself to pray. Most of the time we look at that and think, “Yes, Jesus needed quiet time, so we do, too.” That’s certainly true, but what we often fail to notice is when the Gospel writers note especially that Jesus went off to pray. Jesus was a Jew and Jews have a regular rhythm of prayer, but Jesus’ practice of prayer is more than routine. Observant readers of the Gospels will note that whenever Jesus is noted as praying it is nearly always at a key turning point in his gospel-shaped mission.

 

After his baptism, the first thing Jesus does is go into the wilderness for forty days of prayer and fasting as preparation for his ministry. Before choosing his disciples, Jesus prays all night. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus slips away from the crowd to pray rather than bask in their adulation. Before sending out the twelve and then the 70 disciples on their mission of kingdom announcement, Jesus prays. It is during a time of prayer that he is transfigured before three of his disciples and reveals his glory. Sometimes these times of prayer are a form of spiritual recovery after a dramatic event, while other times they are preparatory for what is to come. Luke summarizes this practice in 5:5-16 – “But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”

 

The point is that at every key turning point in his mission, Jesus is found at prayer. He continues the practice of “calling on the name of the Lord” that his ancestors practiced. He is the promised Savior who calls on God to keep his promises through him.

 

JESUS PRAYS FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF GOD’S SERPENT CRUSHING MISSION

 

And that’s what Jesus prays for—for the advancement of his serpent-crushing mission. He prays for God to follow through on his promises, even if that means he will suffer for it. His prayers are not for himself, but for the mission.

 

In the longest of Jesus’ prayers, in John 17, we see him praying for his disciples before his crucifixion, that they might be one and carry on the mission, protected from the evil one and girded with the truth. It’s a missional prayer, asking God to continue to uphold the gospel promise through them.

 

But nowhere do we see this more powerfully than in the prayer Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. I have had the chance to visit there many times, sitting among the olive trees (that’s what “Gethsemane” means—“olive press”). And like those olives, Jesus is about to be squeezed and crushed by the cross. As he prays there in the garden, he could look up and see the walls of the city where in just a few hours he will be tried and sentenced to the worst death one imagines. By contrast, a five minute walk down the Kidron Valley would have taken him into the desert where he and his disciples could have disappeared and avoided all this.

 

But Jesus prays—and he prays for the fulfillment of his serpent-crushing mission, even if that means that he himself will be crushed. The sweat is squeezed out of him like drops of blood as he prays: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will, but yours be done.” The mission of God, the will of God, is his primary concern. Even when Jesus is nailed to the cross, he does not call on the Father to deliver him, but rather calls on the Father on behalf of those who are killing him —“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

 

For Jesus, as for his human ancestors in the Old Testament, prayer was always about asking God to fulfill his promises, even if they would suffer as a result. Jesus’ prayer life and teaching on prayer wasn’t merely about bringing God a laundry list of personal needs and wants; it wasn’t a prosperity gospel of “name it and claim it; nor was it about empty words and formality. For him, prayer was always about the mission.

 

That has implications for us as we pray. One of the reasons we struggle with prayer is that it seems God doesn’t always “answer” our prayers in the way we want. We often blame God for that, but perhaps the real problem is in the weakness of our asking.

 

Back to our Gospel lesson. Jesus says to Philip, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

 

The “asking” to which Jesus invites us has a context, and that context is the “works” that he does. What are those “works?” Earlier in John, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to accomplish his work” (4:34). The “work” to which Jesus refers is nothing more and nothing less than to accomplish God’s mission, fulfilled in Jesus and now expanded in his disciples. Indeed, they will do even “greater works” because they have the assurance that the serpent has been crushed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Whatever we ask for that is part of this work, this mission, Jesus will answer.

 

In other words, praying “in the name of Jesus” is the New Testament equivalent of “calling on the name of the Lord.” They are both ways of asking God to do what he has promised—the work of his mission to redeem his people and his creation. The Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs “called on the name of the Lord” to send a serpent-crushing Messiah, and the New Testament church prays “in the name of Jesus” that the Messiah’s mission will be carried out in and through us until he returns to make all things new and crush the snake once and for all. Whatever we pray for in Jesus’ name, the context of that work, that mission, he will do.

 

In fact, Jesus secures that promise in the next passage when he promises that the Holy Spirit will come upon the disciples. The coming of the Spirit is what enables disciples of Jesus to accomplish the work. They cannot do it on their own, but God keeps his promises and works in them through the Spirit to accomplish his purposes.

 

If we take all this seriously, then praying “in the name of Jesus” will radically alter how we pray. It takes prayer out of the realm of self and into the realm of God’s mission. So often, prayer is seen as a way of getting God to give us what we want, when prayer is really about the opposite—it’s about aligning our desires and our asking with God’s mission. Praying in the name of Jesus means that sometimes suffering may be involved for God’s mission to go forward, as it was for Jesus himself. The goal of prayer is thus not to get God to give us what we want, but to enable us to “bear fruit” for God’s mission, as Jesus teaches in the next chapter, John 15. Our lives are not about ease, about safety and security, but about God’s mission—our prayers and our asking should follow that mission.

 

How does this work practically? Well, for example, we often we feel compelled to pray for healing, for ourselves or someone we know. Those are most of the prayer requests we see on a regular basis. I believe that God invites us to pray for healing, but we also pray that God might use this healing, or even this illness, as a way of advancing his mission. I don’t believe that God wills us to be sick or hurt—those are the consequences of living in a fallen world—but I do believe that God can turn something tragic into the advancement of his serpent-crushing mission.

 

Jesus intimates as much in John 9 and the story of the man born blind. It’s a tragic condition. People in Jesus’ day believed that someone in that condition must have sinned or their parents must have in order for them to be in this situation. Jesus dismisses that. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:3-4). “That God’s works might be revealed in him”—what if that was our prayer in the midst of illness and suffering? God, heal this person, but whatever happens, may your work, your mission, be revealed.

 

I’ve seen this so many times throughout my years of ministry—terrible tragedy turned to opportunity for God to work his mission. It’s not a fatalistic “thy will be done” but rather using the eyes of prayer to see where God is at work despite the circumstances. I think of Cheryl who has had cancer three times and yet sees it as an opportunity to witness to what God can do. She shares her faith with her doctors and nurses. I think of the many times we have seen what we are seeing now in Houston and what we saw here in the fires of 2012 and 2013—that God is at work in the lives of people even in the flood and the flames. We don’t always get the miracle we ask for—and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask for it—but when we ask for God’s mission to be revealed in Jesus’ name, we always get what we ask for, even if we have to look closely to see it.

 

Praying in this way affects all of our focus. When I pray for my kids, I don’t just pray, “God protect them,” though I certainly want that! I pray that God might use them to advance his mission, because that’s where they will find their ultimate purpose. When I pray about finances, which I have been doing a lot lately with both kids in college, I ask God to provide enough so that they’re education will advance his kingdom. When I pray for the church or for my own concerns, I ask God to advance his kingdom through us, even if that means it might stretch us and make us uncomfortable.

 

The prayers that God always answers are the ones that align with his mission in the name of Jesus. Next week we’ll look at the five prayers that God always answers—prayers that will begin to shape you as a disciple.

 

Jesus said: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” When the mission and work of God is our focus, we will see our prayers answered in ways we never imagined.

 

Source:

Millar, J. Gary. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer. New Studies in Biblical Theology series (ed. D.A. Carson). IVP, 2016. p. 167-189.



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