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Friday, May 30, 2008

Have You Hur'd

"I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer," (1 Tim 2:8).

The theme of raising hands in prayer or worship is repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments. I did hear one young man use this particular verse to argue that women were not to raise their hands at all, but that just shows you can make scripture say anything you want it to if you take verses out of context.

Prayer on the Battlefield
Probably the most familiar passage about hands being raised in prayer is Ex 17:8-13. This is the account of Joshua's defeat of the Amalekites as Moses stood on a hill overlooking the battlefield. When he held up his hands the Israelites were winning; when he grew tired and lowered his arms the battle turned against them.

If you've ever tried standing for any length of time with your arms in the air you will realise how quickly they begin to tire and ache. There was a simple and practical solution to this problem. Two men, Aaron and Hur, took the responsibility of holding up Moses' weary arms until the battle was won.

The account is often used by preachers as an illustration of the importance of both prayer and action in working to achieve God's will. It's a valid use of the passage, but there is an additional insight here which could transform the effectiveness of the prayer of the church.

We are all supposed to pray for ourselves, for friends and family, for the extension of God's kingdom. But you can't be in fellowship with other believers for long without realising that some Christians seem to have a particular passion for praying for others. They're easy to spot because they are the ones who take out notebooks the minute someone starts to mention needs for prayer.

These gifted intercessors can spend hours in prayer asking the Lord to intervene in all kinds of situations from the personal to the international. Most of what they do is in the secret place so the rest of the fellowship will probably be unaware of the amount of time such people give to prayer, nor will they appreciate the physical and spiritual toll such a ministry can take on the individual intercessor.

It's also true that intercession is one of the most underrated ministries within the church. The work of the intercessor may well be the crucial difference between success or failure of a venture the church is undertaking; the effectiveness of the preacher or worship leader may be significantly enhanced as a result of intercession; the number and severity of spiritual attacks on church members can be influenced by the gifted pray-ers.

Tired Pray-ers
Several times in the past year I have heard gifted intercessors talk about becoming weary and finding it more difficult to pray than they used to. Like Moses, they have found it impossible to maintain their part of the battle because they haven't had the support they need. Intercessors are at the sharp end of the battle, on the spiritual front line, and they need support, care and encouragement.

Pastors particularly have a responsibility to support the intercessors of the church. Just like Aaron the priest, Moses' brother, they have a role to play in enabling the pray-ers to keep praying. It's all too easy to think that the people who pray effectively are in less need of pastoral care than those whose spiritual or personal life appears less stable. But intercessors, by the very nature of their ministry, are vulnerable too.

A Need For Hur's
The other man assisting Moses was Hur. We know very little about him though Jewish tradition suggests he was Miriam's husband. He did not have the same kind of prominent role in the community as Moses or Aaron. But he was on that hill with them supporting Moses through his prayer vigil.

The intercessors in our churches need people like Hur. They need friends and companions who will encourage them whilst both praying with and for them. Leaving the intercessors to themselves and letting them just get on with their ministry will lead to a weak and ineffective church. When the intercessors are being encouraged and prayed for they will become more effective and the entire ministry of the church will become more dynamic.

Prayer College Assignment
Who will pray for the pray-ers? Our intercessors need prayer. Will you be a Hur? If you don't already know who are the gifted intercessors in your church, find out who they are. Then start praying for them, that the Lord will strengthen and encourage them, that He will protect them and that their ministry will be effective.

If you are a weary intercessor make sure your pastor knows so that they can support you. Also look out for a Hur, an "ordinary" member of the congregation, who can be an understanding friend to you.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Fifth Dimension

"Praise be to the God & Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." Eph 1:3

I enjoy the Sci-Fi genre of literature. Though I rarely read such books these days, I am known occasionally to sit in front of the TV and watch Star Trek (The Next Generation). One of the recurring concepts in these stories is that of beings who live in an alternate dimension, beyond the "space-time continuum." Often these characters are portrayed as having god-like qualities - being eternally existent, having exceptional powers and so on.

There Is More Than Space And Time
As human beings we are firmly grounded in the three dimensions of space. Our bodies are designed with senses to take in information about the physical world around us and to move us through those dimensions. We also have an awareness of the passage of time but have no choice about the direction and rate of travel through that fourth dimension.

Scripture teaches us that there is a fifth dimension of which most people these days are unaware. The Bible calls this dimension, "heavenly realms". It is the dimension of the spirit and it is the place where we encounter God. In many societies around the world the existence of this dimension is a powerful reality but in the West we have become so obsessed with material things that we have largely lost our sense of the spiritual.

Paul was acutely aware of the existence of "heavenly realms". In Ephesians he mentions them five times and on each occasion he teaches us something about this world of the spirit that we need to understand if we are to have effective and powerful prayer lives.

The first thing which Paul tells us is that the heavenly realms are where we are blessed. He then goes on, through the next 11 verses, describing some of these blessings in quite extravagant terms. Words such as freely given, riches, lavished and pleasure, indicate an abundance of blessing which is ours "in Christ." When we comprehend the enormity of what we have in Christ, our identity in Him, it transforms the way we pray.

In verse 20 of chapter 1 Paul tells us that Christ is seated in the heavenly realms at the right hand of God. From this we can see that the heavenly realms are the place where both the Lord Jesus and our Father dwell. This is why Jesus told the woman at the well that those who worship God should do so in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:24). Worship which only involves body and soul is inferior worship. We are created with a spirit and that is the part of our being which communes with God. Our physical bodies and our souls (mind, will and emotions) may well be involved when we worship but it is our spirit which embraces God. Jesus told us that He is "the Truth" (Jn 14:6). It is because we are in Christ, who Himself is seated at God's right hand in the spiritual dimension, that we are able to offer worship in spirit and in truth.

But it is not only Christ who is seated in the heavenly realms for in Eph 2:5 we are told that God has raised us up to that same position in Christ. We too are seated in the heavenly realms. We have intimate access to the Father through being in Christ. When we worship, when we pray, we do so not from a position of mortals confined to time and space but from the very privileged place at the heart of the throne room of heaven. There need be no concern about whether our prayers are reaching heaven or bouncing back to us from the ceiling above. We do not pray from a distance and wonder whether the message gets through. In the spiritual dimension we are so close to God that we can whisper and be heard. Sometimes we hear Him in our spirit whisper a reply.

Rulers And Authorities
In Eph 3:10 Paul introduces the concept of "rulers and authorities" who inhabit the heavenly realms. Here he says that one of the Lord's purposes for the church is to reveal what He is like to other spiritual forces. It is not entirely clear here whether Paul is talking about angels or demons but we know from other parts of scripture that there are angels where God dwells.

But in Eph 6:12, part of that great treatise on spiritual warfare, Paul talks about the spiritual beings in the heavenly realms against whom we struggle. These clearly are forces of evil who exist in the same dimension as God and our own spirits. Some believers find it difficult to believe that the devil can exist in the presence of God, but the account of Job gives us a very clear picture of two audiences Satan has with the Lord (Job 1:6-2:10).

Prayer College Assignment
Our physical bodies have to deal with the realities of the material world and our relationship with it so it's very easy to make that the focus of our lives and forget that part of us lives permanently in the presence of God and other spiritual beings in heavenly realms. If we are to have a "successful" Christian life we need to develop our sensitivity to what is happening in the spiritual dimension. This can only be done by exercising our spirits through communion and fellowship with God. Ask the Lord to help you "see" spiritually.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Pursue Peace

"He Himself is our peace." (Eph 2:14)

I used to be one of those people who was worried if I couldn't think of anything I should be worrying about. I've lost plenty of sleep over the years simply because I was trying to solve problems I knew, if I was honest, I didn't have the answers to. Peace was not a natural state for me; anxiety was my dominant emotion. That is a very stressful way to live.

Source of Peace
This verse in Ephesians states clearly that Christ is our peace. Just as John's statement that God is love (1 Jn 4:8) means so much more than God being loving and demonstrating love, so Paul's comment is full of depth of meaning. If we have God in our lives, we know love. If we have Jesus, we know peace. Jesus is our Prince of Peace (Is 9:6). One aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is peace (Gal 5:22). The Lord promised to leave us with peace (Jn 13:27).

Acquiring Peace
If we think about what these verses mean we will see that peace is something that has been gifted to us when we put our trust in the Lord Jesus. Firstly, our salvation means that we have peace with God. A consequence of that is that we can live in peace and harmony with our brothers and sisters, though that sometimes does not appear to be the case. But it also means that we can have peace with ourselves and our circumstances. So why is it that we do not experience the reality of peace in our daily troubles?

Pray for Peace?
It seems to me that we make a mistake when we try to obtain peace by praying for it. What's the point of asking for something we've already been given. What we need to do is unpack the gift and make use of it. The Lord Jesus told His disciples that when they faced the inevitable troubles of the world they should cheer up! (Jn 16:33) Facing difficulties with a positive attitude requires an act of the will, to make a decision that they are not going to distress us or cause us to lose our peace.

Seek Peace
In 1 Pet 3:10-12, Peter quotes David who says, "whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days ... seek peace and pursue it (Ps 34:12-14). We have access to peace, but we need to take the time to practice living in it. We must take captive the anxious thoughts (2 Cor 10:5) and refocus them in the opposite direction to think about positive things (Phil 4:8).

I said earlier that praying for peace is mistaken. Why then am I writing about it on Prayer College? The reason is simple. If Jesus is our peace and we want to access that peace for ourselves, we need to spend time in His presence and dwelling on his character. The "whatever"s of Phil 4:8 could be replaced with "whoever" for they are all descriptive of the nature of the Lord. The more time we spend cultivating our relationship with Him and learning to walk with Him as we go through our daily tasks, the more peace we will find.

Prayer College Assignment
It's no good waiting until we feel anxious before we start seeking peace through the Lord Jesus. Peace must be pursued and developed over time so that, when circumstances would tend to cause us stress, we already know how to step out of the negative feelings and into the experience of the peace of God. We need daily to give time to fellowshiping with Jesus so that when trouble comes we are practiced at fixing our eyes (Heb 12:2) on the One who is our peace.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Knowing The Unknowable

"Love that surpasses knowledge." (Eph 3:19)

I was recently preparing to speak to a small group of believers I didn't know. Their pastor and his wife are friends, but I had never spoken to anyone else in the congregation. As I sought the Lord for His word to those people He asked me a rather probing question, "if this were to be the last sermon you had the chance to preach, what would you want to say?"

What Really Matters
Most of us do not know the day or hour of our departure from this world to the next, but it appears that the apostle Paul believed he knew when his life would come to an end and he set about writing some of the most moving passages of Scripture. The letters to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians are full of the heart of a man who wants believers to understand what really matters in the Christian life. Through these epistles he preached what he considered his final words to the church.

Interestingly, the great apostle to the Gentiles didn't focus on the importance of preaching the gospel. Instead his primary emphasis was on the potential of the individual believer to have a deep, personal, intimate relationship with God. He tells them there is nothing to compare with knowing Christ (Phil 3:8), he prays that his readers may know the Lord's unknowable love (Eph 3:19) and he instructs them to set their hearts and minds on heavenly things (Col 3:1-2).

Knowing Love
One line in a song by Pink Floyd says, "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way." Too many Christians are living that kind of existence because they haven't yet understood that the abundant life which the Lord Jesus describes in John 10:10 is for now. We are meant to be full of joy because of our overwhelming experience of being truly, deeply and fervently loved by the God who is love.

As human beings we express love in a variety of ways. In fact recent studies have shown that different people want to have love shown to them in different ways. There are those who like to be told in words, some prefer to receive gifts, while loving touch is more important to others. Our God expresses His love for us in all these ways. He has given us a book full of words which speak of His love and He has given us the gift of His Son to redeem us. But He also wants to touch us deep in our spirits with a tender and profound love that we can actually feel.

Prayer College Assignment
We all know what it is to love and to be loved. Paul says that he wants believers to know the love of God that is so vast it is unknowable. Our experience of the love of the Lord is meant to be far superior to our experience of any human love. If it isn't, we need to take the words of Eph 3:16-19 and pray them for ourselves until we receive that revelation of divine love.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Joy of Prayer

"You fill me with joy in your presence." Psalm 16:11

Childish Joy
This week I had a somewhat unsettling experience. Later this month I'm scheduled for some routine surgery and will be relying on the rest of the family to take on some of my responsibilities while I recuperate. My 10 year-old son is eager to be helpful and has asked to be taught how to use the washing machine.

Always keen to encourage my children to learn new life skills, I talked him through doing a basic load of laundry which he accomplished successfully. He went straight to his elder brother and told him, "I'm going to do all the laundry while Mom's in hospital." When I reminded him I expected only to be away for one night he looked desperately disappointed. I added quickly that I would still need help for a couple of weeks after that and his face lit up. It's sobering when you realise that your child is more interested in a kitchen appliance than in you.

Are You Really Happy?
Does God sometimes feel like that about the way we pray? Do we come into our prayer time full of our own needs and desires, asking Him for what we want, without making our relationship with Him our top priority? Do we express our love to our heavenly Parent or do we just want the opportunity to ask Him to do things?

Human beings tend to think it's "stuff" which makes us happy. We expect that the bigger house, the new car, the promotion, the relationship, or the holiday will bring us happiness. We see the world running after these things all the time. But Christians do this too.

Look at your own prayer life. How much of it is asking God for things you believe will make you happier? Are your prayers motivated by thoughts that you will be happier when God has healed you, when a family member is saved, or when the church has grown?

Filled With Joy
David said, "you will fill me with joy in your presence." He also said, "apart from you I have no good thing" (Ps 16:2). He had learned the secret of true happiness - being with God. If we are looking for happiness we have to look to the Lord, to seek His face for who He is and not for what He can do for us.

When we do this we begin to understand that joy is not dependent on our circumstances but on the degree of intimacy we have with Jesus. Whatever is going on in our lives we will be able to say with David, "the boundary lines for me have fallen in pleasant places" (Ps 16:6). We will learn, as Paul did, that even in a dungeon it is possible to rejoice because, "the Lord is near" (Phil 4:4-5).

Captive Joy
Paul was in a physical prison. Some of us are kept captive by our past and feel we can never truly have happiness because of what we've suffered at the hands of others. But there is nothing so powerful that it can separate us from the overwhelming love of the Lord Jesus. There is a spiritual dimension to our lives which cannot be constrained by any prison bars, physical or mental. It is possible, in the presence of the Lord Jesus, to find a true joy which takes us beyond our cell and into another world where we can begin to live above our circumstances.

Released to Joy
This week five year-old Felix saw the moon for the first time in his life. With his mother and brother he was rescued from their basement prison under an apparently ordinary house in Austria. We are not surprised to hear that he gazed up into the night sky in complete awe and wonder. This is a powerful illustration of the change we can experience if we take our eyes off the material things that crowd our lives and fix them on Jesus. We too can step into a new world, leaving our prison cells behind us, and discover a joy unimaginable to those whose hearts are set on finding happiness in "stuff".

Prayer College Assignment
David said, "I have set the Lord always before me" (Ps 16:8). Think about your own prayer life. To what extent are you waiting for answers to prayer to make you happy? Or do you know the joy of simply gazing on Jesus? If you want to be happy, do as David did and make the Lord your priority.