THE LORD has stated many times through the Scriptures that for the believer the words of the Negro Spiritual are true - "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through." We are however very attached to this material world and usually find it far easier to enthuse about this life than eternity. My purpose in preparing this study is to encourage disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ to develop a godly mind-set which sees this world and all that belongs to it from the perspective of Heaven, where we are seated in Christ.
Strangers and exiles on the earth.
Hebrews 11 is the great passage which places faith in God in its true context. The writer lists a catalogue of men and women whom THE LORD reckoned as righteous because of their confidence in Him. These are the cloud of witnesses who are watching as we negotiate the course set before us (Ch. 12). We are told of these men and women, the overcomers of their day,
"All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them." (v13-16)These Old Testament believers, although less informed than we are of God's purposes, set their hearts on His eternal plans. The effect was that they lived with the knowledge that they were no more than visitors to a foreign country. We are told that if they had desired to return to their homeland, then they would have been able to. Abraham, like all the others listed, rejected that option, being confident in THE LORD's promises and so kept his eyes on eternity. Imagine the loss if Noah, like his neighbours, had been so attached to the society of his day that he did not apply himself to being ready to leave it behind! The people listed in this passage recognised the unbelief of the culture around them and chose to live outside its parameters in order to be prepared for God's best. This even though it was so long in coming that not only did they fail to obtain it in their lifetime, but we too look forward to its fulness.
Men of whom the world was not worthy!
Towards the end of this catalogue of faithful people the writer lists the various trials that they had to endure. If you are not familiar with these, can I encourage you to read the whole chapter noting v32- 40. We find mentioned some whose experience we recognise from the Old Testament, and others where we are not sure whom the writer was citing. Some believe, for example, that it may have been Isaiah who was sawn in two. The reason I highlight these people and their rejection by their contemporaries, is because the Holy Spirit is quite clear about the reason for this rejection. They were not tolerated by the world of their day because it was not worthy of them. These men and women were precious to God and whilst their societies ostracised most of them, THE LORD makes it clear that the mis-match was due to the unbelief of others and not their disobedience to Him. Similarly, we recognise that Jesus was crucified because He shed light onto men's darkness. Some rejoiced in this, but many turned against Him preferring their godless deeds to repentance.
Jesus emphasised to His followers that His experience of rejection by the world would be theirs also (John 15:18-25). The world's hatred of Him, Jesus said, was "without cause". This is no doubt what Paul had in his mind when he wrote to Timothy reminding him "And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Tim. 3:12). From both the example of believers in the Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus and the apostles we should be left in no doubt that there is a gulf between the world and the Church. This is not due to a lack of communication, but a clash of objectives resulting from different directions of travel.
The believer's task, by word and life, is to call their neighbours to turn around and live with an entirely different purpose than before. We are to call them away from living for themselves, to living for THE LORD. From pleasing themselves, to serving their creator and judge. From sin to righteousness obtained through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The majority, we are told, will not thank us for this (Mt. 7:13-14) but some, like Cornelius, will (Acts 10). Amongst those who reject the gospel, there will always be some who will want to silence any voice which highlights their sinfulness. The majority of the prophets experienced this first hand. John the Baptist, Stephen and obviously Jesus all paid with their lives when they insisted that the whole duty of man is to "fear God and keep His commandments" (Eccl. 12:13). There is nowhere that I know of in the the Bible where we are told that this state of affairs will be reversed until after the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do not love the world, nor the things in the world.
There has always been and always will be pressure on the Christian to value the things which exist for this world only. John wrote of the pull of the world, identifying the three aspects of temptation which affect us (1 John 2:15-17). He stated that it was not possible to love both the Father and the world at the same time. In other places Scripture identifies many things which would pull us away from the love of God. Family, possessions, prestige, power, wealth and of course sex are amongst the things which like this world will one day come to an end. They will also take a higher priority in our lives than THE LORD if we do not discipline ourselves. However, the real encouragement to be found here is in John's conviction that whilst the world and all it contains is passing away, "the one who does the will of God abides forever".
Here then is a strong, clear warning that anything which exists for this world, even if it was instituted by God Himself (e.g. families and governments) can take on a wrong priority for the Christian. We are to respect our parents, but not love them more than we love Christ. We are to obey the civil authorities, but not when they contradict God's will. Even then we should still submit to their authority, confident that if He wills it THE LORD will rescue us from their tyranny (Dan. 3:17-18; 6:21-22; Acts 5:17-32). The attraction of the things of this world for the Christian remains powerful and seemingly offers quick rewards (though the advertised dividends do not always materialise). The New Testament is full of warnings which emphasise the dangers of making the things of this world a priority.
Enemies of the cross of Christ
"For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ;" Phil. 3:18-20Paul, like John, was convinced that we are not able to desire things which belong to this world, be it possessions, power or prestige, and be faithful to Christ. In the above passage he was very clear about his own emotions concerning those who hold on to fleshly ambitions. His reminder was that the true believer knows where their home and their saviour are to be found. Our treasure is in heaven and not upon the earth! Perhaps Paul's tears were partly for Demas who had failed to grasp this truth (2 Tim. 4:10).
"If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God." Col. 3:1-3To the Christians at Colossi Paul emphasised the discipline that is required in our hearts and our minds. We are not to seek after that which belongs to this present world. Jesus had been very clear that his Kingdom did not belong here (John 18:36). The issue is so clear and yet we struggle to keep our desires focused on the right place. We are people who live in a material world, part of a generation on which materialism has a very strong grip. We not only expect material comfort, but also long for material power. Christians can easily be seduced by the attractiveness of "peace in our time". We long for streets where we can live unthreatened perhaps more than we long for personal wealth. Yet these belong to this world and even if we achieve them both, neither will carry over into eternity. To fix our hopes on either is to attach our hearts to a very different ambition than Calvary.
Adam or Christ?
In John 3:31-36 we read of John the Baptist's message which pointed to Jesus. He contrasted Jesus, who was from above and therefore above all, with those who are focused on this planet, "he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth". Paul also drew this comparison when he sought to correct the Corinthian Church's wrong teaching on the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:35-58). He contrasts Adam, who though he was the source of life to mankind also became the source of sin, with Christ, who is a life-giving spirit. Adam who was made from the earth is earth-bound (confined). Christ who came from Heaven, was focused there and has returned there. Paul is clear - we are focused on the same place as the Adam we identify with (v44-50) - the first or the last. The true believer, though once identified with the earthly Adam, has entered into Christ Jesus and will take on His heavenly image if they remain faithful to Him. We are reminded not to remain attached to this body because, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable."
In a later letter to the Christians at Corinth Paul referred once more to our earthly bodies and their decay (2 Cor. 4:16-5:1). He wrote that such frailty was no discouragement because believers recognise it is the inner person, not the temporary tent, which is important. He carries on to say "we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal". In context he is saying that it is this knowledge which enables us to cope with the "passing" and "light" affliction of this life. However, we also have here a reminder that if we are to endure to the end as Jesus commanded (Matt. 10:22; 24:13), then we need to be focused on something other than that which we can see with our eyes. Why? We are reminded yet again that the things of this world are passing away. Only that kingdom which is founded and built in Heaven will last into eternity.
We are looking for new heavens and a new earth.
John and Paul were not the only two apostles to have their eyes focused away from this earth. Peter also wrote with a new universe in view. In his second letter he warns of the danger of joining the sceptics who, choosing to forget the flood of Noah's day, now question if THE LORD will ever return. Peter is adamant that this universe is destined for destruction by fire. The problem is with our clocks not God's, he insists. He tells his readers that this realisation should provoke them to live holy lives, as they look forward to the day when what we see around us comes to an end. All this is to be found in 2 Peter 3. It is a message which cannot be emphasised enough. Sadly it is also a neglected one.
What was Peter looking forward to? He clearly remembered Isaiah's prophecy of new heavens and a new earth (65:17; 66:22). This is to be the place where God's righteousness would dwell for ever. John was shown this new universe in the Revelation of Jesus Christ which was given to him. By chapter 21 he has seen Jesus return in judgement and establish his rule on this earth. After a period which is described by John as a thousand years, Satan is released from captivity. Men and women are once again free to follow a different king to the Messiah. Many choose that option, revealing that in spite of all the criticism levelled at THE LORD over the centuries, men would not obey Him even when the world had been without suffering and violence. We then have the last war, followed by the second resurrection. Next, all men and women stand before THE LORD to be judged. By this point John records this heaven and earth had fled from the presence of the one on the great white throne (see also Ps. 75:2-3). Only after this judgement is completed does John say that he saw THE LORD's new universe.
"And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them," (21:2-3).This is the city the exiles listed in Hebrews 11 were seeking. This is the place that Jesus is preparing for us (John 14:2-3). This is the city whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10). The writer of Hebrews was so convinced of the importance of gaining access to this eternal city, he wrote that we had to be prepared to suffer outside the present camp (of this world and its values) alongside Jesus. For like the Old Testament sacrifices, He also died outside the city (13:12-15). It seems that if we are to be amongst those who inherit the eternal world, then any love for this one has to be taken to the cross and crucified along with our old selves.
Fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
There is no space given in the New Testament for the Christian to share their love of THE LORD with anyone (or anything) other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter wrote instructing his readers to focus their hope only on the grace which would be revealed when Jesus returns (1 Pet. 1:10-16). He added later that the fiery ordeal of this life, the sharing of Christ's sufferings, if responded to with joy now will enable us to rejoice when Christ's glory is revealed (4:12-14). If our hearts are attached to the things of this world, its comforts and possessions, then we will struggle to find such joy because our eyes will be drawn away from Christ and towards that which we love more than Him.
Genuine discipleship takes everything that we desire which belongs to this world to the cross and abandons it there. However, this is achieved not in an instant, but over time. The Holy Spirit refines us daily as we walk in obedience to THE LORD. This refining is often achieved through the fire of adversity and hardship, suffering and persecution. None of this is attractive to our old self, the flesh, which is of course still drawn by the things of this world. This is why we need the daily discipline of focusing our whole attention on Christ Jesus, away from this earth and towards heaven where He is seated at His Father's side. There is no easy formula which will achieve this. We are told to apply ourselves to the task. If we fail to do this then we are spiritually short- sighted, unable to see beyond the end of our earthly noses.
"Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you." 2 Peter 1:2-11So earthly minded, no heavenly good.
There are a few well-known sayings which might seem innocent, but actually work strongly against true godliness. The one misquoted above is such. There is of course a wrong way to be "heavenly minded". Superspirituality is of no use to anyone. THE LORD has no use for it and neither has any serious believer. This study has not been written with the intention of encouraging that type of attitude. In my opinion worldliness amongst its members one of the greatest dangers facing the Church today. We continually ask THE LORD to bless us with the good things of the world. Some have even adapted the gospel to this end (prosperity doctrine). Our children learn from an early age to ask God to give them with a "nice day". We treat Him as our servant, and do not recognise the folly of this reversal of roles. It is hard work to continually humble oneself before THE LORD and to wait for our true reward in eternity (James 4:10), but it is a must if we are be pleasing to Him.
Unless we learn to be heavenly minded at all times, we will never fully be a joy to our Lord. At best we might be spasmodically of use to Him here. The rest of the time we will be building with wood, hay, straw and stubble - those things which will be burnt up before the judgement seat of Christ. For such carelessness we will not lose our place in the New Jerusalem, but in a way we do not understand at present we will be poorer in eternity as a result (1 Cor. 3:11-15). Let us press on to the maturity of having our minds and hearts fixed on things in heaven and not on the temporal things of this earth. In this way we will be both useful and fruitful in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ on this earth and the next.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: - 1
A consideration of the application of the above to one aspect of life today.
There is always a danger that we can discuss principles without ever applying what we learn to life. In this section I want to encourage you to reflect upon how what we have discussed already may change your attitudes in one area in particular. If what I raise is not new to you and is something close to your own heart then I hope this will encourage you. Perhaps what I raise will be an entirely new way to think about the matter for some. If so, then please ask THE LORD to confirm where the words below do express His will for His people. My hope is that we will all press on "to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 3:13).
The world in which we live.
In the Western world the majority of countries are in the midst of a moral crisis. Crime, violence, immorality, corruption and many similar indicators of moral breakdown are on the increase. "I don't know what the world is coming to", is an increasing cry of despair. No one with a basic sense of right and wrong can be content at what we see happening in the streets of our nation. It is no surprise therefore that Christians are also concerned about the moral decline that is taking place.
The Christian response?
Given the situation I would ask, as a basic principle, what type of response should believers have to life in the West today? I stress that this is "as a foundation", because I realise as members of the body of Christ we have differing ministries, consequently our response to "on the ground" situations may also vary. This is only to be expected and should cause no conflict as long as each has their feet firmly rooted in Christ (Col. 2:7). If one has a good understanding then what they build, if done prayerfully, should be on a firm footing. Problems are seen to arise though when we act "in the name of Christ" but with motivations which are not of Him.
There are two extremes of response to the world around us common in the Church. For some years evangelicals have tended to wash their hands of the society around them. Thinking based upon "In the world, but not of it" taken to one particular conclusion. This resulted not only in most Christians being unconcerned for political and social matters, but also leaving the world to develop its own godless philosophies. In turn this has allowed for example, education to become totally secular in its objectives and content. We now live in days when there is an enormous communication gap between the Church and the people around it. A gap which does not find precedent in the ministry of Christ.
What has happened in the last two decades could be seen as a reaction to the above imbalance. Evangelicals and charismatics have acquired a new social conscience. First to develop was practical caring almost on a one-to-one basis. This grew and now there are numerous Christian care agencies. This has been followed by the growth in political action and pressure groups. Christians are constantly encouraged to get involved in society at every level. In many ways this is far more welcome than the absence of communication which preceded it. However, I find myself having to question the motivation which lies behind much of what is happening at present. Is this really the work of God, or is it the work of men?
Faulty doctrine or faulty hearts?
There can be little argument that present attitudes have been influenced by what is known as "Restorationism". In a nutshell this teaches that before the return of Christ, the Church will come into maturity and will influence all nations for good. There is no doubt that the decline in the West has much to do with our rejection of the Gospel and our arrogant claims that we are now enlightened and know that God was a myth. The appeal of Restorationism is that by prayer and involvement this situation can be turned around. Nations can be "discipled" as nations and godly laws and practices established. Those committed to this view believe that only when this is accomplished will it be possible to prepare the earth for the return of Christ. It is the agenda which undergirds many different Christian groups today.
By contrast it is not only Restorationists who would like to see society reformed. In fact amongst those whose theology is classed as "Reformed" are many who recognise that the Reformation was not concerned with the Church only. Rightly, they point out that the Christian thinking of that time influenced lawmaking in many European nations. There is an acknowledgement that whatever was gained at that time has now, for the most part, been lost. Amongst these believers there is also a hope also that the present trend can be reversed. However, they do not see this as inevitable and for the most part see that much depends upon the Church and how Christians respond to the situation that exists today.
There is one subject which brings these theologies together, along with the majority of believers who are somewhere in-between in their thinking. Many Christians in Britain hope that revival will happen one day. Many acknowledge that the Church is far from attractive to outsiders and therefore see a sovereign move of God as the only way to rectify this quickly. Others seek to make the Church attractive to the un-converted and so precipitate revival. What motivates us to pray for this catch-all solution to the present predicament? Is THE LORD desperate to do this, but finds the Church not ready in heart or structure? Are demonic forces lined up against the gospel, preventing men and women from responding? Have we departed from the faith "once and for all delivered" so much that He will not trust us with many new babes in Christ? There are many more questions we could pose and, like the above, there may be some truth in them, but are they the right questions. James addressed the problem of unanswered prayer in his letter.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures (James 4:3).What could be wrong in asking for revival?
John knew the key to answered prayer,
"And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." (1 John 5:14).When, as James highlighted, we ask for our own pleasures we are almost certainly asking for something which is not according to His will. Generally, if we are praying for something outside His purposes we will not find those prayers answered. The question I am asking here is does our desire to see society change spring from THE LORD's heart or our own? I believe that for a significant number of Christians there is a confusion of motivation in this matter. It is not just "revival" that attracts us for the wrong reason. On more than one occasion that I know of, the motivation for political or environmental action by Christians has been "for the sake of our children".
Today many in the West expect high living standards. Christians are on the whole as caught up with this materialism as much as non- Christians. Do some of us, at heart, want society to change more because we want a comfortable life on this earth than we believe it will accomplish the purposes of God? There is of course encouragement for us in this view if a gospel is put before us which brings God's purposes in line with our desires. Notice the popularity of prosperity teaching! For some time I had been praying for revival because, like others, I felt that the only way to see the number of people being saved rise to an "acceptable" level was if God changed the spiritual climate in Britain. Some months ago I read one group's publicity which described their purpose as "To encourage prayer for repentance, reconciliation and revival leading to the reformation of our societies". This goes further than I can accept given what the Scriptures say about the history of the world prior to the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Where is our future and our security?
I have raised these issues in the context of a Bible study discussing the believer's relationship with the world, because I believe there is a confusion of agendas in the Western Church at present. There is much in the Bible, as I have sought to highlight, which instructs believers to focus their minds and hearts on things not of this earth. This is clearly a struggle for us. It is far easier to adapt the gospel to changing what we do not like in society than to accepting that things will get worse. This especially so when it is Christians who are warned that they will suffer as this happens. Given the choice, who would not opt for power before persecution? Authority before martyrdom? Wealth before destitution? Adulation before rejection? This however is not the gospel of the New Testament.
Much contemporary teaching focuses our attention on this planet and the things of it. Those things, as we have already noted, are far more wide ranging than possessions. All of them however, remain earth bound as was the first Adam. To quote someone else they are "the things that are here for now" and they are not "the things we are here for". I would encourage you to examine all teaching carefully to see if it is teaching which concentrates your attention on this planet or on Heaven where Christ is seated alongside His Father. Question where you are being encouraged to invest for the future. If you are being told that your future well-being is linked to this earth then reject that teaching as another gospel. Jesus was quite clear that this heaven and earth would one day pass away (Matt. 5:18; 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:32). It is not the place to invest in, so be careful not to.
Should we therefore opt out of society?
By no means! We must not leave a sinking ship whilst men and women remain to be rescued. However, let us see that their salvation lies in getting off the vessel and not in patching it up with a view to an eventual refit. In fact in the light of Peter's instruction to hasten the day of judgement (2 Pet. 3:11-12), we may find ourselves working against the purpose of God if we seek its reformation. I believe we do have a role in our societies, but we must be sure our vision is in accordance with the will of God.
THE LORD does not work according to human logic (Is. 55:8-9). Not many today would have enjoyed Jeremiah's ministry. From the outset he was told by THE LORD that everyone in Judah would reject his message and fight against him as the messenger (1:17-19). The truth of Scriptures such as "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." 2 Pet 3:9 must be understood so as not to contradict other passages. Take Matthew 7:14 for example, "For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it." THE LORD not only knows those who are His (2 Tim. 2:19), but He also knows how His purposes will be worked out. Jesus used a parable to speak about the future "marriage feast" being prepared by His Father, and the refusal of many to attend. At the same time He expressed His Father's determination that there would be no empty spaces when the appointed time came (Luke 14:23). We can be confident that there will be no vacant place to be found in the New Jerusalem!
An incredible amount of both the Old and New Testaments consists of the record of God's messengers confronting people with their refusal to obey Him. This is not confined to the people of God (Israel and the Church) but was many times addressed to those who were outside a covenant relationship with Him. The Old Testament records some of those who though Gentile by birth demonstrated that they were believers by faith because they responded to the testimony of Israel (weak as it was). Since Pentecost the equivalent testimony has been evangelism and its results. However, we must not assume that the large numbers converted in the early days of the Church are the normal fruit of a healthy Church. It is not long before the rest of Acts and the New Testament records the unbelief of many and the consequent persecutions. Though this was the common experience of God's messengers before and after Christ (and of Christ Himself), THE LORD continued to send further prophets to generation after generation.
Destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.
Paul, defending Himself against varied accusations, described the nature of spiritual battle he was engaged in (2 Cor. 10:1-6, often partially quoted). Paul saw his conflict as being against godless philosophies and the thinking they propagate. By opting out of society over the years the Church has failed to fight the increasingly humanistic attitudes of the last 200 years. I cannot find the confidence that THE LORD will turn Western society to Himself, even though many would "prophesy" otherwise. However, I do believe that we must still engage on the same front as Paul did. The popular philosophies of today are all "strongholds" which captivate men and women in their unbelief. If God chose to release multitudes from these dungeons of darkness, I would rejoice with others. However, what if He does not? For the sake of the few who do search out that small gate and narrow path we must challenge these "doctrines" of unbelief as boldly as Paul did.
The world, with the exception of one man, was not impressed by the death
of Jesus. Jesus had already rejected the spectacular knowing that His Father
does not see as men see (Matt. 4:7 & 1 Sam. 16:7). I acknowledge that
the mission of snatching a few from the burning which is to come, is not
as attractive as the promise of revival and reformation affecting millions.
However, as each of us seeks to work out our own salvation with fear and
trembling (Phil. 2:12), we must prayerfully before THE LORD ask which,
if either, of the above outlooks does both the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures
testify to? Which turns our attention towards earth and which towards Heaven?
PRACTICAL APPLICATION - 2
How should we pray for the nation(s)?
I make the following comments as one who benefited greatly in the past from involvement with a ministry dedicated to praying for this nation. It was very much a school of prayer for myself and others. I am also aware that in recent years prayer for this nation and others has risen to the top of many Christians' agendas. Much of this is focused on the objectives of Restorationism. My concern here though is not to examine that teaching alone. Once more I would ask you to examine your own motivation in praying for any nation. Are your objectives focused on Heaven or on the earth? Are you praying for things that will continue after this universe is destroyed or is what you hope to receive by way of answer temporal in nature?
This is not intended to be an exhaustive consideration of this topic. Far more could be written or said if one was looking at this area alone. My hope is that by looking at three passages of Scripture which are often quoted in this context, I might encourage you to pray with insight and wisdom for the people of this generation.
"Pray for all men, for kings and all who are in authority": 1 Tim. 2:1-4.
Here we have the basic New Testament text which instructs us to pray for all people especially those who have the responsibilities of government. This we should do. Note however, it is not "the government" or "the nation" we are told to pray for but the people themselves. Why this emphasis? First, throughout the Bible there are reminders that those in authority are THE LORD's representatives in a particular way. We should first pray for them therefore, that they might recognise this in the way they use their positions. Ideally this would result in increasing godliness in a nation. However, history (secular as well as Biblical) is full of examples of people who have failed in this matter. Even in Israel the majority of kings did what was evil in the sight of THE LORD! Where those who govern a nation do for a time act in accordance with godliness, then the result will be increasing civil order, the tranquil and quiet lives of 1 Tim. 2:2. In context we see that Paul equated such social order with fertile conditions for the gospel. Like Peter he knew that THE LORD would see all men saved. Righteous rulers, because they are acting in accordance with God's wisdom, provide the best conditions for the gospel. This should be our objective in prayer.
The second reason why we should pray for those in authority is for their own sakes. Every person will one day give an account to THE LORD concerning how they have lived on this earth. He will of course be interested in how we have used the authority and handled the responsibility He has given to each of us. The way those who have been given civil roles have acted will be examined. Perhaps, like teachers in the Church, they will incur a stricter judgement (James 3:1), because they were responsible for influencing many people. Consider again the kings of Judah and Israel, the people usually followed their example. Godly kings who nurtured good were quickly forgotten when succeeded by those who turned away from THE LORD. There is no statement in Scripture which would suggest that this pattern will not be the norm for any nation prior to the return of Christ.
The pitfall as we pray for those in authority is to shift away from praying for the office bearers onto some other focus. This could be policies, social problems, ideologies and many other issues as they arise. I would suggest that all such emphases need to be tested carefully to see if they genuinely contribute to THE LORD's eternal purposes. It is very easy to switch from praying for a good climate for the gospel to praying for a comfortable situation for one's flesh! Further, we must guard against being deluded by our own hopes into thinking that our nation is "special" in God's eyes. That privilege belongs to the Jewish people alone. THE LORD does seek a rich harvest from every land but to believe the one you were born in has extra significance is probably rooted in what the apostle John called the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16 & see main study). Perhaps there would be some wisdom in using the same language as Scripture and speaking of praying for rulers and not for nations.
"Seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you": Jer. 29:7.
This is often cited as a command instructing Christians to pray for the city/nation where they live. Jeremiah added "and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare". However, this is clearly a verse out of context. Firstly, I have omitted, because they are often left out of our thinking, two words from the first phrase. Restored, that clause becomes "...to which I have sent you into exile". The context of this command of God is not one we identify with readily. Jeremiah had been instructed to write to the Jews who had been taken into captivity in Babylon. This was the result of the faithlessness of the people of Judah over many generations. I accept that the Church has not been a model of righteousness over the years, but I do not believe that we are at present in exile. We are aliens and foreigners passing through this place, not captives because of disobedience!
The context also makes it clear why Jeremiah had to write the way he did. False prophets were telling the Jews that this was only a temporary exile, perhaps a matter of months. Presumably, these were the same prophets who had ridiculed Jerimiah's predictions of judgement (Jer. 23). In their arrogance they continued to tell the people what they wanted to hear, "You will be back home soon". Jeremiah was very clear, "You are here for seventy years". THE LORD's advice to them was therefore, "unpack your bags and settle down until I tell you to leave". The place of exile was to become their home and as they sought its good so they would benefit too. We must note though that seventy years later when first Ezra and later Nehemiah led groups of "exiles" back to Jerusalem, many Jews stayed behind in Babylon. It seems that they had become too attached to the place, so that when THE LORD said leave, they once again choose to do the opposite.
Here we have both an encouragement for realism and a warning against becoming too attached to the place we are only in for a short while. How can the believer find balance in similar areas today? I would suggest first of all by recognising that we are passing through this world, our future is not tied to its destiny. Secondly, we do have a role to fulfil here in THE LORD's purposes. We must get on with that task and not dream of heaven to the extent that we are of no benefit to the people around us. There is only one way to maintain true balance in such matters:
"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please." Gal. 5:16-17"If My people....... I will heal their land": 2 Chron. 7:14.
This is another popular passage when it comes to encouraging prayer for a nation. Once more though we find it is taken out of context and therefore can be applied in an inappropriate manner. As with the Scripture above it is to do with events that would follow unfaithfulness by God's covenant people. That, I admit, might be equally appropriate today. What is significantly different is that Israel actually possessed a physical land which could suffer from drought and pestilence. The Church does not. There are no grounds in the passage or in Scripture generally for taking this promise made by THE LORD to Israel concerning its territory and transferring that promise to any Gentile nation. This is the case even if the nation concerned was at one time known as a "Christian nation". We deceive ourselves if we treat the Bible in this way.
We know that the Old Testament was written for our benefit as New Testament believers. Paul was clear about one of its main benefits "Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved." (1 Cor. 10:6). We should first take heed and live so that we never come under THE LORD's judgement as the Israelites did. If we fail in this we should recognise that it is not the nation we live in that will suffer drought and pestilence, but the Church. This study started by recognising that the believer has no earthly city to which they belong. Scripture is clear that our citizenship is in Heaven. If this is true, and I believe it is, then if the promise of 2 Chronicles 7 can be applied today, it can only relate to the spiritual nation of which we are a part. Perhaps if we humbled ourselves, walked in His ways and not our own, THE LORD would call an end to the drought that is severe in the Western Church. This famine persists in spite of our latest gadgets and doctrines.
To transfer our future hopes to any nation on earth is to focus our attention away from heaven. There is a fine line for watchmen to walk as they pray for all men, for kings and those in authority.
A CONCLUDING CASE STUDY
Perhaps one of the most commonly used Scriptures when Christians are being taught how they should pray is Daniel 9. It has so many important elements recorded in it. First, Daniel bases his intercessions on what he has read in the Scriptures. He prays earnestly - fasting, sackcloth and ashes. His prayer opens with adoration of THE LORD and rigorous confession of the sinfulness of the people of Israel. He vividly contrasts God's faithfulness with their unfaithfulness. The calamity which has come upon them is exactly as THE LORD warned them through Moses, they have no ground for complaint against Him. They are victims of their own folly!
Daniel's emphasis then changes (v16). He now begins to pray for Jerusalem and its restoration. Perhaps he had heard the song of the Psalmist - "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Ps. 122:6). The whole of this psalm is very much an encouragement to pray for the stability and prosperity of Jerusalem. Many people today, with this Scripture firmly in mind, encourage believers to pray for Israel and its welfare. Daniel is therefore to be commended as he seeks to remind THE LORD that it is His own name that is being held in contempt whilst the holy city and the sanctuary are in ruins! Daniel is clear he is not praying for himself, or his fellow Israelites, but "for Thine own sake, O my God, do not delay". At this point Daniel receives his answer, but this is also where most lessons in intercession conclude.
It is my purpose here to go further. I acknowledge that what follows is difficult to interpret with its references to 70 weeks, broken into various portions. However, there is great benefit to be found from turning our attention away from speculating what these weeks are or are not and looking at the overall thrust of the message Gabriel delivered to Daniel. We must note first that his prayers and supplications have been heard and a response sent not because he had used the right words in the right way, but because he was greatly beloved by the Father (v23). What follows must have devastated Daniel. Yes there would be a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem, but the period from then until Messiah arrived (7 + 62 weeks) would not be one of peace and prosperity, but "times of distress" (v25). The rest of the book (Ch. 10-12) prophetically details events in this period with an accuracy that causes many unbelievers to claim they had to be written after the events and not before them.
Gabriel however, had brought Daniel even further "bad news" - Messiah would not halt this upheaval in the city which bore THE LORD's name. Firstly, Messiah would be cut off and then both city and sanctuary would be destroyed again! He is told "And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined." (v26). Perhaps an indication of how this devastated Daniel is that the account ends with no comment from him, where previously he closed his record of a vision with some short statement about his own response to what had been revealed to him (see Ch.7 & 8). This was not the response from God that Daniel, in spite of all his previous understanding of THE LORD's ways, had expected. He had been praying for the welfare of the city where God's temple was. He had had clearly stated that it was THE LORD's name that he wanted glorified. Yet, the very opposite of what he had hoped for was foretold. Destruction and distress not peace and glory.
Can we today learn anything from Daniel's experience? Surely we can. First I would remind you that Daniel was loved much and this is why he was given a honest response by THE LORD. Yes, there was something misguided about the way he was praying, but he was not reprimanded for this. Gabriel was sent so that Daniel could "gain understanding". THE LORD wanted him to understand properly what He was to do with Jerusalem and how His purposes could be fulfilled in a way which seems foolishness to the human mind. Why did Daniel need correction, especially when he had begun by reading the Scriptures? Perhaps because he had only been able to interpret what he read from his own earth bound perspective. He knew it had been prophesied that they would go back to Jerusalem, here though human wisdom took over. This he thought should only be a glorious return, one where God would be honoured by a holy people. This is what would honour THE LORD and bring the nations to fear Him, is probably how Daniel was reasoning.
How different is God's agenda for Jerusalem. Before Christ was born the years were filled with little Israel being run over as armies from north and south passed through to make war. The awful climax was the desecration of the Temple by Antiocus Epiphanes, who is surely a type of Antichrist. When Christ was born many of the Jews hoped for a political saviour, but Daniel had been shown different. Messiah would "die" and a prince follow him who would once again destroy the city and the temple. Right through to the end of Jewish history, Daniel was told, Jerusalem would experience war and desolation. Events towards the end of the 20th century are still fulfilling this prophecy.
Through this incident Daniel not only gained insight into the plans of God for Jerusalem, but also saw that THE LORD does not work according to human agendas. He thought that God's honour was dependent on worldly glory not divine sovereignty. A mistake it is very easy to make. Most Christians have at some time or another believed they knew what God should do to turn the whole situation around, be it in Church or nation. Yet what our Heavenly Father has decreed is often the very opposite of what the human mind would desire. The cross is both foolish and offensive. Godlessness is on the increase. Few, not many, will find the way which leads to life. The nations will persist in wholehearted rebellion against THE LORD and His anointed. Peace will only come to Jerusalem when Messiah returns and Satan is bound. Before then there will be an increase in troubles and a false Messiah will mislead many people. This antichrist's appeal will be peace on this earth, though he will not deal with the real cause of unrest, sin. Christians who have not disciplined their hearts and minds to concentrate on things above, will be in danger of being deceived by this man. He will promise what they have hoped for, security and order on this earth.
The Biblical record is clear, it is written, we are "strangers and exiles
on the earth." This world can never be home for true disciples of the Lord
Jesus Christ. If, like Daniel, we seek God with an honest heart, He will
give us understanding of all we need to know. However, let us guard against
turning the words of this righteous man (6:22), into a "formula" for successful
prayer - THE LORD looks on the heart. Let us remember that Daniel's prayer
for the restoration of Jerusalem was not answered. Let us, like he came
to understand, invest our futures in the heavenly Jerusalem whose architect
and builder is God.
"Revival - Should it be sought?" by R H Johnston
This study is aimed at providing a basic treatment of the topic, as a stimulus to personal bible study. Every effort has been made to be accurate, but the reader should test everything (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess 5:21). Please report errors and omissions, and queries unresolved after consulting THE LORD to the writer: Email Randall Hardy
© R Hardy June 1996. This paper may only be copied in
its entirety for private non-commercial use. All other usage requires
the written permission of the author.