God's Story from Beginning to End
In the devotional magazine titled In the Word dated January of 1990 there is a story that is told concerning prayer, “from its early days, Dallas Theological Seminary was in critical need of $10,000 to keep the work going. During a prayer meeting, renowned Bible teacher Harry Ironside, a lecturer at the school, prayed, "Lord, you own the cattle on a thousand hills. Please sell some of those cattle to help us meet this need." Shortly after the prayer meeting, a check for $10,000 arrived at the school, sent days earlier by a friend who had no idea of the urgent need or of Ironside's prayer. The man simply said the money came from the sale of some of his cattle.”
Prayer is a powerful tool that we, as Christians, possess. In prayer there is power. In prayer there is healing. And in prayer there is forgiveness and salvation. Polls have shown that most Americans say that they pray regularly (about 60%) and most of us in this room would probably fit in the category of people who pray regularly. I am sure that we all at least pray before meals, maybe before we go to bed, or especially when we find ourselves in difficult circumstance or in trouble. When I look at this statistic, I wonder, how people are praying? Do these prayers consist of just asking God for things or making deals with God? Does their prayer involve more than just thinking about someone who is having a hard time? We often hear people say, “They are in our thoughts and prayers.” after losing a loved one or a tragic event. Prayer needs to be more than thinking about people and asking God for things. Now, I admit there are times in my life when my prayer life is shallow. There are days when I get up and say a quick prayer to help me get through the day or if I am in a tough, I pray that God would help me, and there isn’t anything wrong with this. But is this the essence of my prayer time with God? No, it is not, and I believe God wants so much more from me in my quiet times with Him other than me rattling of a list of wants and needs. My prayer needs to go deeper.
Today we are going to look at Nehemiah and the importance of prayer in his life and ultimately the necessity of prayer in our lives today. But before we do this let’s get a little background on the prophet Nehemiah.
If you recall, last week I talk ed about the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Not much has changed in the structure of the city. The walls of Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, despite multiple attempts to rebuild them, remained in ruins and disarray for almost a century and a half. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes 1 and he was a member of some standing in Persian royal circles. The Jerusalem of Nehemiah was not much different than the Jerusalem of Haggai some 70 years earlier. The temple was rebuilt, but it was a mere shadow of the awe-inspiriting edifice that Solomon constructed. It served as a reminder of the crushed hopes of restoration, and it served only as monument to remind Israel of the messianic expectations. The promises of restoration were all but forgotten as the post exilic people caved to the pagan gods of the pagan empires known around the world. The reality of Israel’s existence was threatened by their hostile neighbors and communities that surrounded them. This hostility continued throughout Nehemiah’s plan to restore the wall to its former glory for security and protection of the city. Jerusalem also encountered spiritual empathy, social decay and injustice, improper worship, intermarrying with foreign women, neglect of the tithe, and abuse of authority on the part of the priests.
Nehemiah was the cup bearer of King Artaxerxes I. One the primary function of the cupbearer is described by Xenophon who writes: “Now, it is a well-known fact that the kings’ cupbearers, when they proffer the cup, draw off some of it with the ladle, pour it into their left hand, and swallow it down—so that, if they should put poison in, they may not profit by it.”
Nehemiah & Prayer
In the book of Nehemiah God continues, as He does throughout the Bible, to remind Israel of his promises and providence. The best-known covenant in the Old Testament was the Abrahamic Covenant which was a promise made by God to make Abraham great among the nations, to bless Him and to make his name great so he and the nation he would father could be a blessing to all the nations. God promises to bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. Ultimately the intent of the covenant would result in all the families of the earth being blessed by God through the nation of Israel. This was intended to be God’s way of being involved in human affairs. He will be with His people, and they will be with Him.
While promises and providence are the underlying theme of Nehemiah the one aspect of the man Nehemiah that is apparent to me is that he was a man of prayer. We know this because there are many recorded prayers in this book named after him. They prayers range from…
It is safe to say that prayer is a vital part of the Christian life but, unfortunately it is often the most neglected discipline. For us to gain a better understanding of prayer, it would be well for us to journey from the Old testament and spend some time in the Epistle of James, the brother of Jesus, and what he has to say about prayer.
James 5:13 - 16
Verse 13: The Epistle of James was a letter was written to persecuted and oppressed Christians. James is aware that there are people suffering amid this body of Christ. What he instructs them to do is nothing knew nor is he informing them of some new formula for breaking free from pain and suffering. He simply reminds them that in their suffering they should cover one another in prayer. Those suffering should pray for spiritual strength to endure the difficulties before them. In their suffering they should pray for relief but also that they should find their comfort in trials through prayer.
Prayer is not only for those suffering but also for those who are “cheerful” or “happy”. Theologian Douglas Moo writes, “A reminder to turn to God is needed even more in times of cheer than in times of suffering.” This is true. Personally, I am less likely to be prayerful when things are going great than I in times of turmoil, chaos, and sickness. This should not be the case for me nor any Christian. Therefore, James exhorts the cheerful or happy people to sing praises. Praise should be as much of a priority in our prayer lives as intercession, thanksgiving, confession, supplication etc. When all is well, we still need to be mindful of our desperate need for God.
Verse 14: If there is any sick among the body then they are commanded to do the following. Let’s pause here for a moment and look at what James is saying. What are most of our natural responses when we are faced with sickness or health issues? We fear, we may react negatively, or maybe we hunker down in depression and anxiety. Some keep their ailments to themselves because they are stubborn, or they don’t want to be a burden. They can become prideful as they don’t want to come across as weak or that can’t handle it. Some are just private people and don’t want to seem like they are broadcasting to the world their infirmities. James sets the record straight. He tells us that if anyone is sick or ailing, we are to call upon the elders to pray, and to anoint with oil in the name of the Lord.
Now this church does not have “official” elders, they would be like those we call Deacons or those who are considered spiritually mature. The prominent role and qualifications of an elder suggests that elders be spiritually mature people who oversaw the spiritual progress of the body of Christ. The elders, deacons, and spiritually mature (whether formal or informal) cannot pray and anoint if they are never called upon. Prayer is one of the main purposes or callings of the church body. This is one of the reasons why we meet. Praying for one another is a privilege and a blessing so why would we want to hinder these prayers by not making our requests known to the body of Christ? Laying on of hands and anointing with oil are two practices I would like to see happen more often in this church. Whether you are a private, stubborn, or anxious person you are truly missing out on the blessings of God when you refuse to allow others to pray for and over you.
Anointing with oil is an ancient practice that has both medicinal and spiritual value to it. Oil has been used in the ancient world as a skin conditioner and a medicine. It is also symbolic of the Holy Spirit. When we anoint with oil, we in essence are symbolically anointed others in the Holy Spirit. It is not the oil or the prayer that heals the sick person it is the Lord. It is a symbolic act to show that we believe that through the Holy Spirit the Lord can and will heal whomever he chooses and I fully believe he uses our prayers as a means of healing and restoring.
Verse 15: Here is a promise, “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick…” So often we look at this passage and think that if we can muster up enough faith then God will do the healing. We turn it into being about us and not God. If I can find the faith, then God will do what I ask. Yet we forget that faith is not something we can go out and get more of, it’s a gift from God. When it comes to praying in faith, we need to understand that faith is given to us by God. I don’t really think God is up in heaven measuring our faith on a scale and saying, “Oh, if they just had a little bit more then I could heal them. Sorry, try again tomorrow.” James says prayer in faith will save the sick, yet God is the one who gives us the necessary faith we need to bring healing. Isn’t God wonderful like that? He gives us the resources to accomplish what he sets out to do. It’s amazing that he puts it in our hearts to pray for individuals and then He gives us the faith we need to believe so that He will heal. It has little to do with us (we are called to be obedient in prayer) and everything to do him (he will respond how he wills).
You may notice that James seems to be tying sin and sickness together. Well, in the ancient world the two were often associated together. It is true, there is some sickness that results from sin. In Jesus’ encounter with a paralytic man in Mark 12 and heals him of his ailment by declaring his sins are forgiven. In I Cor. 11:27 – 30 Paul implies that sin is the result of some sickness. Yet, on the other hand, not all sickness is the result of sin.
Overall, we can look at these verses and conclude that those who struggle with illness can take confidence in knowing that God will heal us in the end. Yet, one of the main factors that we must consider is God’s will. Douglas Moo writes again, “A prayer for healing, then, must usually be qualified by a recognition that God’s will in the matter is supreme. And it is clear in the NT that God does not always will for healing of the believer… The faith with which we pray is always faith in the God whose will is supreme and best.”
Verse 16: “Therefore…” Since the prayer of faith saves and heals then the logical conclusion is we should pray for one another and confess our sins to one another. Why should you confess? Because there may be sins present in the body that are hindering our prayers for healing. We see in this passage that when we confess and pray healing happens.
“The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” One who is in tune with God in prayer and is a spiritually submitted person will pray according to God’s will because His will is what they seek. Our goal as followers of Jesus is to be righteous people whose prayer has great power, and we should seek out people who pray powerful prayers. I have people in my life who I know are righteous people and I ask them to pray for me whenever I need wisdom, comfort, and guidance. Yet I also desire to be a person who prays great prayers.
Prayer is the heartbeat of the Christian life. Without it we are dead. With it amazing things can happen. I believe in the power of prayer, and I believe God answers our prayers. Many of us are faced with sickness, health issues or even in difficult circumstances, so we let’s become people of prayer. May we commit today to becoming these righteous people who pray powerful prayers that brings healing and restoration to a neighborhood, city, and a church in desperate need of both?
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Jeff has been in ministry for well over two decades. He currently serves as Campus Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Southside Campus in Bradenton, Florida.
Jeff Has authored an Advent Devotional (The Advent of Jesus) and a devotional on the book of James (James: Where Faith and Life Meet). Both are available on Amazon.
He is married to Carrie and they have four children, Micaiah, Gabe, Simon, and Berea.
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