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Thu, Sep 19, 2013

5 - Prayer Priorities [b]

1 Thessalonians 1:3 by Robert Dean
"With all I have to do every day, how in the world can I set aside time to pray?" If that moan sounds familiar to you, listen to this lesson to learn the importance Paul placed on prayer and how he continually found time in his hectic life to offer prayer both day and night. Hear several prayers of his and apply them to your own prayer life. Learn about Nehemiah's prayer and how the Lord Jesus Christ considered prayer such an important part of his life that he sometimes prayed all night.
Series:1 Thessalonians (2013)
Duration:52 mins 58 secs

Prayer Priorities
1 Thessalonians 1:3
1 Thessalonians Lesson #005
September 18, 2013

Gratitude is a foundational attitude that we see in the apostle Paul when he prays. We have numerous prayers at the beginning of his epistles and he frequently starts off expressing his thankfulness, his gratitude, for what God has provided in the lives of those to whom he is writing. This is something we have to work on in our spiritual life. Prayer is one of the most difficult disciplines for many Christians to develop in their own life, especially younger Christians. Younger Christians tend to be so busy consumed with many different activities, getting established in their careers or even earlier getting established in their education, dating, social activities, then having children, raising a family. As we mature physically, especially with seniors who are less active and sometimes are not able to be active at all, this is when prayer truly becomes a priority in their life.

However, it should be a priority from the time we are first believers. We need to recognize that under the ministry of God the Holy Spirit prayer should be a vital part of our life, and we need to take time to understand that this an expression of the richness of our relationship with God, that prayer is a communication basis where we can develop our intimacy with God. We speak to God in prayer; in turn He speaks to us through His Word. 

In 1 Thessalonians Paul begins, as is his style, with prayer. He opens the epistle by saying, NASB "Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace." This is emphasizing the fact of the unity of the Trinity in terms of our position before God. Then in vv. 2-4 we have his opening prayer, emphasizing gratitude. NASB "We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention {of you} in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, {His} choice of you."

It is very important to understand Paul's prayers and the priorities in Paul's prayers. There is the emphasis on giving thanks to God. What we should pay attention to as we look at these verses is something that plays out across the spectrum of Paul's prayers. He uses words like "always, remembering, without ceasing, continuously." These are words indicating that Paul is frequently and consistently throughout every day praying. This is not something simply reserved for one point in time where he just occasionally does this, but prayer is a vital part of his life.

When am I going to find time for this? Well, if we are creative we are going to find time to do it. We all do what we want to do, and how we spend our time every day is a reflection of our priorities, our real priorities, not our idealized priorities. So we have to somehow find creative ways in a busy, tight schedule to have a time alone with the Lord.

We want to look at Paul's priorities in prayer in some parallel passages. The first point is that Paul is persistent in prayer. He makes it a priority, something that he is going to accomplish every day. We can often set aside times for this.

Romans 1:9 NASB "For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the {preaching of the} gospel of His Son, is my witness {as to} how unceasingly I make mention of you." The word "unceasingly" is the same Greek word adialeiptos that we find in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 where Paul commands us to pray without ceasing. That doesn't mean that we pray all day, every day continuously; it means that there is a constancy of effort.

1 Thessalonians 3:10 NASB "as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith?" Night and day doesn't mean that he never sleeps, that he doesn't enjoy life, doesn't relax. As he is going about his work he can pray for things as they come to mind. One thing that always pops up in these verses is that he come along and recognizes that there are times when he says, "Whenever I remember you, whenever I am thinking about you, this is when I remember you in prayer." Then term "night and day" is also a figurative expression, an idiom indicating continuously. It just means praying consistently. His prayer in this verse is recognizing that there is still something lacking in terms of their understanding of doctrine. Here faith is not talking about their ability to believe, it is talking in terms of the content of their belief.

As we go through these passages we could also make notes in terms of things that we could be praying for. These prayers give us a tremendous example of the kinds of things that we can be in prayer for, and not just for others but prayer for ourselves. So part of that is bringing to completion out knowledge of the Word. We should be praying every day that God would allow us to have our faith (knowledge of God's Word) brought to completion.

Another key passage in an introduction to an epistle is Philippians 1:3, 4 NASB "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you …" Taking time to think about the people, and when somebody comes to mind just sending off a bullet prayer to God asking for aid for that person. "… always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all." Notice these words, "always, in every prayer." This is intercessory prayer for the people.

He says the same kinds of things in Philemon 4, 5, 6 NASB "I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; {and I pray} that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake." He has heard these wonderful reports about your spiritual growth and maturity, and when he is reminded of that it causes him to express gratitude to God for him, his response, for his growth and interesting in the Word.

2 Timothy 1:3, 4 NASB "I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day, longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy." Again there is this emphasis on continuous prayer for people. He makes it part of his life, training himself to focus in prayer, talking to God, and being thankful for others around him and their spiritual life and spiritual growth. In this passage "my forefathers" goes back to the Old Testament and to those spiritual leaders in the Old Testament.

Nehemiah was written around 430-440 BC as Nehemiah by Artaxerxes back to Jerusalem to complete the building of the defenses and the walls around the city. It begins with prayer. The solution comes because of Nehemiah's prayer. He identifies a problem. 

Nehemiah 1:1 NASB "The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, {in} the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped {and} had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They said to me, 'The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.'"

This is approximately 160 years after the destruction of the first temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. At that time Nebuchadnezzar took a third group of captives back to his capital back in Babylon. There had been two previous deportations so there had been a huge portion of the population of the southern kingdom of Judah taken by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon. Now 160 years had gone by and there was a sizeable Jewish population in the major cities in what has now come to be Persia. The Persian empire defeated the Babylonian empire in 538 BC and then under Cyrus the Jews were then given permission to go back to the land. Only about 40,000 went with the first couple of groups and numerous groups stayed in Babylon. Nehemiah is now concerned about what was happening to the Jewish population back in the land.

Notice Nehemiah's response. Nehemiah 1:4 NASB "When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven." The way he focuses on solving the problem is through prayer. For a period of days he dedicates his life to prayer. Everything else in life is set aside and he just focuses on prayer.

Too often people have really funny ideas about prayer and that somehow in prayer we bargain with God in some kind of a blasphemous deal that if we do X God will then scratch our back and take care of us. If I give up food for a period of time God is going to be impressed. This is not what happens; it is not the idea in fasting. Fasting was simply a sign that you were so distressed over something that you were clearing your schedule and were going to focus on taking this issue before the Lord in prayer. So for days—this is the idea of continuously or "always making mention of you in my prayers: that Paul had. This is the pattern that is set up in the Old Testament, with fasting and praying for days.

In verse 4 it says he is fasting and praying before "the God [Elohim] of heaven." In verse 5 he prays to Yahweh the Elohim – the Lord God of heaven: "I said, 'I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments." So his prayer begins with a focus on God, it is addressed to God the Father (all prayer should be), and there is an emphasis here on the attributes of God, a rehearsal of who He is and His character. The word translated "awesome" is often translated "fear." He is the God who produces fear in the hearts of people, not fear in the sense of fright but more awe and respect of God because He is the God of the heavens and the earth who made everything. Then he is a faithful God, He keeps covenant and mercy [chesed—loyal, faithful love].

Then we see his request, Nehemiah 1:6 NASB "let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father's house have sinned." He is calling upon God in a very dramatic way to pay attention to his prayer. "Day and night"—continuously bringing this request before Him. He begins the prayer with confession and he details what those sins are. 1 John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins," indicating specificity. Confession is an admission of guilt and of failure in some area. Here Nehemiah is coming like a priest representing the nation—"we have sinned against you" and he begins to identify this is verse 7.  

Nehemiah 1:7 NASB "We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses." This is a reminder going back to what Moses said in Deuteronomy chapter 28 that there would come a time when the Israelites would violate the Law of Moses and God would remove them from the land. He is identifying that. The words in this verse come right out of the section from Deuteronomy 28:15ff and it is very similar to the confession prayer of Daniel that we find in Daniel 9:17-20.

Nehemiah 1:8 NASB "Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples." Here he is claiming a promise. God promised that He would scatter the people among the nations (Leviticus 26:39-45). He also promised in Deuteronomy 30:2-4 that if they returned back to Him and kept His commandments "then the LORD your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you." That hasn't happened yet, there is just a partial return that occurred between the return in roughly 538 up until the time of Christ. Even by the time of Christ much more than fifty per cent of the Jews in the world lived outside of the promised land that God had given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only today in the twenty-first century have we seen such a massive return of Jews in the world to Israel. We are almost to the point where half the Jews in the world live in the land of Israel. This is an indication that God is finally fulfilling this particular promise.

But notice that there are two returns in the Scripture that are spoken of in prophecy. There is a return in unbelief, which is what we are seeing now, and then there will be a return in belief. That is really the return that is mentioned here: the return in belief. That is the promise that Nehemiah is claiming.

So we see examples here of confession, of the faith-rest drill, and above all we see that he is praying consistently and persistently for his people.  

Other verses to pay attention to in terms of prayer priorities has to do with the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Often people rationalize things that the Lord did by saying that He was the Son of God, He did that, that's Him. But we are to imitate Him. We are to do what He did. He is giving us an example of how we ought to live. He did not do these things because He is God. He did them because in His humanity He recognized how significant His day-to-day, moment-by-moment dependence upon God was, and that He had to turn to God and continuously rely upon Him for every aspect of His life—in His humanity.  

Luke 6:12 NASB "It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God." Jesus goes and gets away from everybody to some place where He can pray. That is not always something that we can do. Sometimes it is very difficult. You have to set aside time for prayer. The Lord did this on several occasions. Mark 1:35 NASB "In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left {the house,} and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there." Matthew 14:23 NASB "After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone." Think in terms of your schedule where at times you can get away just for the purpose of prayer.

Another priority that we see in Paul's prayer in terms of just thinking about the different aspects of prayer is in Ephesians 1:3. Paul is expressing praise to God. "Blessed {be} the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly {places} in Christ." We have focused on gratitude as the next element in prayer, and we have Romans 1:8 NASB "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world." Again and again Paul expresses his gratitude. But when we focus on God, reflecting on all that He has given us, and we take time to do that every single day, it certainly shapes and refines our whole attitude toward life. What we need above all as believers is to be a thankful people. If we are not thankful then the opposite is we are going to be angry and resentful, and that comes out eventually in our life. So we focus on the fact that God has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. We need to sit down some time and list the many spiritual blessings He has given us.