What does Prayer do? (Part 2) – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24
Understanding the personal aspects of prayer as an individual is one of the most important things in the life of a disciple of Christ. Until we see where we fit into the mosaic of God’s story playing out in history, we will most likely miss the larger picture all together. In other words, if we cannot grasp the fundamental elements of personal sanctification in prayer, we will most likely imagine the grander work of prayer at a universal level. So as we are asking these questions about prayer, it is important that we start with the personal applications first and build our way out.
In our first week we defined prayer at a very personal level – a relational level. This does not at all exclude the larger picture of prayer. The definition is constant throughout, but the next question about what prayer does must first be answered at a personal level first and then build its way out. That is what we are attempting to do now. We discussed in Part 1 of “What does Prayer do?” that Prayer must first humble us. We must learn to see God for who He is, and consequently see ourselves for who we are. The second thing that Prayer does in the life of the believer is change our focus. We see this built out simply as we examine the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. The humbling that we have already discussed takes place at the onset, placing God as our “Father” (v. 9) and setting Him apart as being “hallowed” (v. 9). The shift of focus closely follows as we look to His “kingdom” and “will” (v. 10). We do not find God’s Kingdom by seeing with the eyes and logic of this world. Looking back at the history of God’s people, we can easily see that man often tries to adapt the things of God into His own systems. This is why people will argue and passionately hate “religion.” Jesus in His earthly ministry taught against man’s tradition and interpretation of God’s commands. Mankind too often wants to conform God’s commands and Word to fit their own understanding. Man wants to examine the Word of a Holy, Perfect, All-Knowing God with their own intellect. How arrogant we become when we believe that we can somehow scrutinize our Creator.
The heart of a praying child of God must have a focus that is shifted from the understanding of this world. We do things that do not make sense to this world. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5 points the believers in the Thessalonian church to act differently then the world would act. He tells them to build up and challenge those who lead and those who have hard time persevering through the difficulties of being called by God (v. 12-14). He echoes Christ in challenging them in how they respond to those who do evil to them (v. 15). Then he really gets crazy, and says things like “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” There are few commands in Scripture that grind against the natural tendencies of finite man than those three commands. Let us not forget the context of Paul writing to the Thessalonians. In Paul’s visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17, riots broke out forcing Paul to leave due to the severity and violence of the mob. This is the state in which Paul left the believers living in Thessalonica. They faced harsh and most likely bitter persecution from the Jews and Gentiles alike. Some of the believers had even died although it is not stated as to how. The church is in turmoil, grieving and suffering, looking to Paul for hope and encouragement – and he commands them to rejoice, pray without ceasing, and give thanks. It is an extremely rare thing for the mourners at a funeral to be thankful at the passing of a loved one. No one feels like rejoicing while their whole community hates them. It is hard to embrace the presence of God in prayer when everything around you seems to be unraveling. Our focus must transcend this world – even our own circumstances. Prayer does this in the heart of the abiding believer.
Paul, however, knows enough about persecution and trials to know that this does not simply happen. It’s not like one day your sad and mourning and then you pray and the next day you’re rejoicing and thankful when nothing has changed. It is a work of sanctification (v. 23). God uses our communion with Him – our prayer – to steadily shift our focus off of the things of this world. When we allow prayer to do its work, we allow the Spirit to change our hearts. We begin seeing things differently. The material things no longer hold sway over the abiding, praying believer. What we want in this life is no longer comfort or peace, we simply want more of Him. The heart that is focused on Christ is a content heart. Prayer is used by the Spirit to birth life-giving peace in us. We must begin to see prayer as a work of sanctification – sanctification being the process of dying to our flesh. We let things die within us that are not eternal, and we nurture the things planted in us that are eternal. May we be people of prayer that are able to see beyond the wisdom and understanding of the world, and may we allow the Spirit to sanctify us completely. “He who calls you is faithful; He will do it.” Grace and peace,