The Most Important Prayer
by Pastor Brian Steeves
The prayers that we offer to God are a mixture. Sometimes we praise Him, sometimes we confess our sins and seek forgiveness, sometimes we thank Him for what He has done, and sometimes we bring to Him our petitions. I used to think that the last one — petition or supplication — was the LEAST spiritual kind of prayer. Supplication means ASKING God for things — bringing our petitions to Him. And, as I said, I used to think that THIS kind of prayer was less spiritual than, say, adoration or thanksgiving, and that it therefore ought to be downplayed in our prayers.
But — this may surprise you — in the Bible, prayer is MOSTLY petition — mostly asking God for things. The prayers in the Bible — those of Jesus, those of Paul, the Psalms — the prayers in the Bible are MOSTLY petition.When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, He said, "THIS ... is how you should pray." And then He gave them the Lord's Prayer. And — have you noticed? — it is almost ALL petition: "Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." And so on — 6 petitions in all.
When Jesus taught us to pray, He used mostly petition. So, obviously, HE did not view petition as a second-class kind of prayer. Jesus' high-priestly prayer, in John Chapter 17, and His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane — these are nearly ALL petition. Jesus prayed in the garden, "Father, if it is Your will, remove this cup from me ...." [Luke 22:42 NKJV] That's petition. He's asking God for something. Whenever Paul prayed for one of the churches, or whenever he asked others to pray for HIM, these were prayers of petition — prayers of intercession. In James 5:16, we read that we are to "Pray for one another," which means to offer petitions to God for each other.
And so, there seems to be no escaping the conclusion. Prayer is MOSTLY petition. And we need to lose the attitude which views petitions as LESS spiritual — LESS honouring to God — than other kinds of prayer.
Offering petitions to God CAN be — and OUGHT to be — HIGHLY honouring to God, because, when you ASK God for something, you are demonstrating FAITH in Him. If you ask Him for something, you MUST believe He has the power to grant you your petition. When you ask Him for your NEEDS, you are acknowledging your DEPENDENCE upon Him, and your are expressing TRUST in Him. When you ask Him to supply someone ELSE'S needs, you are seeking the strengthening of His kingdom, and thus seeking the greater glory of God. Do you begin to see why our petitions can and ought to be pleasing and glorifying to God?
So, beloved, let us be diligent in offering our prayers of petition unto God. Let us pray without ceasing. Let our prayers be fervent and persistent. Let's put our hearts into the exercise, because, as James tells us, "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man (or woman or boy or girl) avails much. [James 5:16 NKJV]
WHAT should we pray for?
Are we permitted to ask Him for our physical necessities — food, clothing, a home, sound health? In the prayer our Lord taught His disciples, the fourth petition is, "Give us this day our daily bread." The word "bread" here almost certainly refers to ALL kinds of food. And SOME have even claimed that Jesus uses this term "bread" as a kind of "catch-all," to refer, not merely to all kinds of food, but in fact to everything we need in the physical realm. That was Martin Luther's spin on this word. "Give us this day our daily bread. Give us this day everything we need to be physically well and safe."
Yes, our physical needs are important. And it's clearly okay to pray for such things.
But there is something even MORE important — in fact, FAR more important.
While it is certainly okay to pray for our physical needs, we are NOT to be preoccupied with such things. A little later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?" [Matthew 6:25 NKJV] Do not worry about such things. Look at the birds of the air, and reflect of God's faithfulness in feeding THEM. Look at the lilies of the field, and see how beautifully God clothes them.
Jesus was outdoors when He spoke these words, and I picture Him pointing directly at the birds and lilies. And He probably pointed right at His audience and said, "You are far more precious in God's sight than the birds and lilies." So, do not worry about food and clothing. They are not the most important things in life. Pray for them, to be sure — God would have you acknowledge your need of His provision of such things. But such things should never form the GREATER part of your prayers — as they usually do, Jesus notes, in the prayers of the Gentiles — in the prayers of the pagans. Jesus says, in effect, "Pray for your physical needs, but do not dwell on such things. Move along quickly to the REAL priorities of prayer."
Oh — and what ARE the real priorities of prayer, Jesus?
"... Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness ...." [Matthew 6:33 NKJV] Jesus says, "Seek God's kingdom first — more than anything else."
To be a Christian, you must be concerned with a kingdom. Christ is a King. And so, being a Christian involves you in His kingdom — just as surely as being a Canadian involves you in a sovereign state that has Elizabeth for Queen and Jean Cretien for Prime Minister. To claim to be a Christian but refuse to own Christ as your King makes about as much sense as claiming to be a Canadian but refusing to recognize Elizabeth as your Queen or Jean Cretien as your Prime Minister. Christ IS a King. He is, in fact, the King of Kings. And to be a Christian necessarily makes Him YOUR King.
In the Old Testament, the prophecies looked for One who would overthrow injustice and crush all opposition and establish a government — But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me THE ONE TO BE RULER in Israel .... [Micah 5:2 NKJV] For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. .... [Isaiah 9:6,7 NKJV]
The coming Messiah was expected to be a King.
Then, when we turn to the New Testament, we read, In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND!" [Matthew 3:1,2 NKJV] In Matthew Chapter 4, we are told that From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND." .... And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM .... [Matthew 4:17,23 NKJV]
Without question, one of the most common themes in Jesus' teaching was the kingdom.
By the way, sometimes He called it the kingdom of HEAVEN — sometimes the KINGDOM of God — sometimes He called it simply "MY kingdom." These all refer to the same kingdom. Matthew uses the term "kingdom of HEAVEN" mostly, while, for Mark and Luke, the preferred term is "kingdom of GOD." Almost certainly, Jesus used BOTH terms — sometimes one — sometimes the other — but always with the same meaning.
Jesus began many of His parables by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like this ..." Or "This is what the kingdom of God is like."
The Sermon on the Mount, from which we read earlier, occupies Chapters 5 to 7 in Matthew's Gospel. It could very reasonably be assigned the title "The Kingdom of Heaven." It begins with the Beatitudes — Chapter 5 Verses 3-10. And, of the 8 Beatitudes, the first and last both refer to the kingdom of heaven:
Verse 3 — the first Beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.
Verse 10 — the last Beatitude: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN."
This twice-given promise — "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven" — forms a bracket around the Beatitudes. It was Jesus' way of saying that ALL the Beatitudes are concerned with the kingdom. The blessings described in the Beatitudes are ALL blessings of the KINGDOM. And in the character traits given here, Jesus gives a picture of what is NORMAL in the kingdom:
5:4 Blessed are those who MOURN ....
5:5 Blessed are the MEEK ....
5:6 Blessed are those who HUNGER AND THIRST FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS ....
And so on.
And you need to ask yourself — Do the Beatitudes describe YOUR character — YOUR interests — YOUR priorities? Are YOU poor in spirit? Do you realize you are spiritually bankrupt? Do you understand your utter need of the grace of God? Or are you proud of your self-sufficiency and resourcefulness? Are you meek, merciful — a peacemaker? Or are you arrogant and belligerent? How do you behave while you are doing business — when you are in a store — when you are shopping? At these times, are you like the person Jesus describes in the Beatitudes?
And consider the 4th one: "Blessed are those who HUNGER AND THIRST FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS ...."
I'll be honest — I do not see much hunger and thirst for righteousness in our churches today. I see a great deal of SELF interest and worldliness. I see people who are obsessed with their jobs and with their leisure. I see people who are largely taken up with television and movies — with sports and games and playthings.
Dr. Andrew MacRae tells of an incident in his ministry a number of years ago: He was preaching a series of evangelistic sermons at a church in western Canada. On the first night, one of the deacons told him, "Don't expect to see me at tomorrow's service — it's Super Bowl Sunday, and I plan to watch the big game."
There are EVEN church members who are so brazen as to actively pursue actions and habits that are clearly sinful. Some church members use God's names carelessly. Some wilfully neglect the Lord's Day. Some are defiant and disrespectful toward their parents. Some are dishonest and unfair in their business dealings. Some are sexually loose and impure. Some are unfaithful in marriage. Some may be drunk in public. Or they may use other abusive — even illegal — substances. Now I grant you — not EVERY church member does these things. But the fact remains: Among the people of the church today, we see very few who could be described as hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
The Beatitudes. Many church members avoid them in our day because they do not describe the kind of people they are — or even want to be. Many church members recoil from such things as poverty in spirit, and meekness, and righteousness. But if the qualities of character described in the Beatitudes are not found in YOU, or if you are unconcerned and uninterested in these traits — that just proves that you are not concerned with the kingdom of heaven — and quite possibly that you do not belong to it.
But the Beatitudes are only the BEGINNING of Jesus' sermon. In Verses 17-20, He explains the relationship between the Old Testament and the kingdom of heaven: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN."
Notice that Jesus refers here to ENTERING the kingdom. He returns to this thought in Chapter 7: 7:13 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
"Enter through the narrow gate," He says.
"Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to LIFE."
Jesus is speaking here of the gate that leads to LIFE. But it is clear from what He says just a little later that "entering the gate that leads to life" and "entering the kingdom" are the same thing: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 7:21 NKJV]
Please note very carefully Jesus' words here: Being IN the kingdom is the same thing as being ON the road that leads to LIFE. And not EVERYone does, in fact, enter it. That Jesus describes the entrance to the kingdom as a NARROW gate would suggest that it is NOT the path of leisure and recreation and sports and hobbies and vacations and pleasure trips. No, He tells us that the gate is narrow, and so is the road. Few find it. The kingdom must be entered.
It follows that some people are IN, and some people are NOT. But WHO, then, are IN and who are OUTSIDE?
Those who are IN the kingdom of heaven are described as hungering and thirsting for RIGHTEOUSNESS. It is not enough simply to serve with our lips. "Not everyone who says, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven." Not everyone, for example, who attends church on Sunday mornings, and who mouths the words of the hymns, many of which are addressed to the Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven. Not everyone who dutifully bows during the prayers, as though addressing the Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven. "Not everyone who says ..., 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, BUT only he who does the will of ... [the] Father who is in heaven." [Matthew 7:21]
Looking back at the Beatitudes, the first one is, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN." Be honest, now — are YOU poor in spirit? You certainly can have nothing to do with the kingdom of heaven until you come to God and frankly admit, "Nothing in my hand I bring — simply to Thy cross I cling."
The 8th and last Beatitude is, "Blessed are those who are persecuted BECAUSE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, for THEIRS Is the kingdom of heaven." Is YOUR righteousness so intense and so plainly evident that it attracts persecution? Unless you are hungering and thirsting for righteousness — unless you are seeking FIRST God's kingdom and righteousness — you will know nothing about persecution BECAUSE of righteousness. And you will not need to worry yourself about it.
What is the most important prayer? A strong case can be made for the second petition of the Lord's Prayer — "Your kingdom come." Jesus told His disciples, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." And, if God's kingdom is the highest priority of your life — if you are truly seeking IT over everything else — then it will be reflected in your prayers. You will not always be praying for a pass on that upcoming exam, or for a job, or for the money to pay your bills, or for safety on your vacation trip, or even for the recovery of someone who has been sick or in hospital — as important as these things are — and we SHOULD pray for such things. But the MAIN concern of your prayers will be the kingdom of heaven.
You will earnestly and fervently desire and pray for the expansion and progress of God's kingdom. You will be profoundly concerned about the sin in your life — longing for deliverance from all your selfishness and worldliness and lawlessness — hungering and thirsting for righteousness. And you will pray for such things. You will plead for the greater establishment of God's kingdom and of His rule — in your own heart — in your home — in your church — and in the world. You will be passionately concerned about salvation — the conversion of unbelievers and the growth of the church — and you will pray diligently FOR such things. You will be intensely interested in the ministries of your church, the work of your pastor, and the efforts of missionaries around the world — and you will pray for the success of the gospel of Christ.
Are you seeking FIRST the kingdom of God and His righteousness? The most important payer is, "Your kingdom come." Is that the main thrust of YOUR prayers?
if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their
enemies who took them captive, and pray to you toward the land you gave their
fathers, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your
Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea,
and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you;
forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their conquerors
to show them mercy.
1 Kings 8:48-50