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Pray Without Ceasing, and With Understanding (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

by Doug Van Meter | Miscellaneous Sermons 2024

A brother in the church who knew I was preaching on prayer recently sent me quotes by two godly men of the past.

Samuel Chadwick, wrote,

Satan dreads nothing but prayer. Activities are multiplied that prayer may be ousted, and organizations are increased that prayer may have no chance. The one concern of the devil is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.

Spurgeon added,

A prayerless church member is a hindrance. He is in the body like a rotting bone or a decayed tooth. Before long, since he does not contribute to the benefit of his brethren, he will become a danger and a sorrow to them. Neglect of private prayer is the locust which devours the strength of the church.

To these, we might add these words by J. C. Ryle:

Why is it that there is so much apparent religious working and yet so little result in positive conversions to God—so many sermons, and so few souls saved—so much machinery, and so little effect produced—so much running here and there and yet so few brought to Christ? Why is all this? The reply is short and simple: there is not enough private prayer. The cause of Christ does not need less working, but it does need among the workers more praying…. The most successful workmen in the Lord’s vineyard are those who are, like their Master, often and much upon their knees.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “What a man is when he is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more.”

In this study, I want to briefly motivate and practically instruct us concerning prayer, both individually and corporately.

One of the most important parts of our church has for decades been that of corporate prayer. What began as a pre-Sunday night service prayer meeting has, over the years, become part and parcel of our Sunday evening worship.

The early church was characterised by praying together as a part of corporate worship (Acts 2:42), as well as when there were particular needs (Acts 4:23–31; 12:1–5). Our church should be similarly characterised.

Each Sunday evening, usually, we have anywhere between fourteen and twenty prayer requests for which individual members will be asked to pray. The prayers are short, but they are important (remembering that Jesus taught that God’s children are not heard in their praying “for their many words” [Matthew 6:7]). This prayer meeting is one that we prioritise and protect to be a consistent time of prayer. It is important that church members pray together and that they pray for the same things (which is why we don’t break up into small groups to pray).

But, of course, these corporate times of prayer are not to be the only time that we pray. As Jesus instructs, we are to enter our closets and pray “secretly” (Matthew 6:6). Yet I maintain that these corporate times of prayer are helpful in preparing us and training us for our private times of prayer at home in our closet, or with our spouse and/or family. As we listen to one another pray, we learn to pray—sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly.

In this study, I want to help us to understand what it means to pray without ceasing and how to so with understanding. But first, a caveat.

When we pray corporately, we must not do so as critics. We should therefore not do so wrongly self-consciously. We will always make mistakes. In fact, I was recently asked to close in prayer after a pastors’ meeting and stumbled over what I thought I meant to say. That happens. Nevertheless, in a culture of grace, we should do our best to improve and to help one another to improve in our prayers.

The text we will look at today lends itself to a brief study. To be frank, however, a study of this text could actually go much longer and even become a series. For our purposes, however, we will focus on three major points:

  1. We Are to Pray Dependently
  2. We Are to Pray Deliberately
  3. We Are to Pray Devotedly

We Are to Pray Dependently

Christians are characterised by prayer. We pray constantly as well as itinerantly. The Spirit of God compels us to do so.

The church at Thessalonica suffered at the hands of hostile Jews and so Paul’s closing rapid fire instructions would have been particularly meaningful. When you are afflicted, it seems strange to think you would need to be exhorted to pray. But Paul exhorts. At the least we can assume that he wanted these believers to be aware of their continual dependence upon the Lord and hence this itinerant imperative.

A pastor friend and I often engage in friendly banter about this verse. He is of the view that Paul is exhorting believers to literally be at prayer at all times—always. I, on the other hand, argue that he is exhorting a pattern or habit of prayer. In other words, he says that, even when we are driving, we should be in a spirit of prayer (which is not a bad idea on South African roads!) while I argue that Christians should be those who have a regular habit of prayer. I think the Greek wins the argument for me.

Paul writes in what is called an “itinerant aorist” tense, meaning that we could translate this, “Time and again, pray.” Or “Pray frequently, not infrequently.” For instance, we speak of an itinerant salesmen, which means that she is regularly, frequently on the road making sales. She is not doing so 24 hours a day. Without belabouring the point, Paul is reminding the Thessalonian believers that they (all Christians, in fact) are continually dependent upon the Lord and, by praying, are confessing this dependence.

Jesus prayed “without ceasing” because he was dependent upon the Lord. In his humanity, he did nothing apart from dependence on the Holy Spirit and the Father. If he was so dependent, why on earth would we think we can be independent?

Paul constantly asked for prayers and often spoke of his continual prayers because he, too, was dependent.

If we can go through the day without meaningful prayer, we are in trouble. Living in a world that is not only not a friend of grace but actually hostile to grace reminds us just how dependent upon the Lord we are. Our congregation is dependent upon the Lord. At the risk of causing a stir, it is a revelation of an unhealthy spiritual life if you never have a prayer request! Be careful. We pray as a congregation because, as a congregation, we are dependent on the Lord. Lone rangers should repent.

We Are to Pray Deliberately

We should think when we pray. We must pray with discernment. We must be “careful” as we pray. Here are some helpful considerations.

Pray Specifically

It is okay—indeed, it is very helpful—to have a prayer list. If it is large enough for you to be concerned about, it is large enough for you to pray about—within reason. Make sure Scripture is informing your requests. As a well-known verse puts it,

Thou art coming to a King,
large petitions with thee bring;
for his grace and power are such
none can ever ask too much.

Pray Scripturally

Praying God’s word is the most effective way to pray for, in doing so, you are praying God’s revealed will.

A large part of praying scripturally is praying accurately; that is, as scripture reveals the truth. For example, the Father did not die for your sins. Jesus did not regenerate you. The Holy Spirit did not predestine you to salvation. There is no biblical ground for assuming healing, wealth, etc.

Let the prayers in scripture inform the “what” of your prayers. Pray for the spread of the fame of God’s name. Pray for spiritual illumination. Pray for the unity, health, and growth (spiritual and numerical) of the church. Pray about your spiritual struggles, as Jesus did in Gethsemane. Pray for conversions, for God desires all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). Pray for missions (2 Thessalonians 3:1–2). The list is as long as the pages of Scripture!

Let the prayers in Scripture inform when you pray. Pray, as men and women of God did in Scripture, when you rise and when you go to bed. Pray, as God’s people of old did, when you are in prison. Pray, as the holy women of old did, when you are barren. Pray when you have sinned (Matthew 6:12; Psalm 51). Pray when you are sinking, when you are in a storm, when you are persecuted (Matthew 5:44), when you feel that the Lord has forsaken you (Psalm 22), when you are sick (James 5:13–14), when you are dying (Isaiah 38:1–2), when you need to be saved from your sins (Acts 2), when your loved ones are ill, when you want to praise God, when you gather with God’s people (1 Timothy 2:1–8), when you need wisdom (James 1:5), when you are in exile (Jeremiah 29:7), when you struggle with the world, the flesh, the devil (Ephesians 6:18), when you are burdened (1 Peter 5:7), when you need provision (Matthew 6:11), when you are tempted (Matthew 6:13), when you desire others to have spiritual sight (2 Kings 6:20), When you desire to know God’s word (Psalm 119:18), when you are confused (Proverbs 3:5–6), when you are afraid (Psalm 56:3), when you are chastened by the Lord (Numbers 21:7; 1 Kings 8:30), when you are responsible to lead others (1 Samuel 12:23), when labourers in the mission are few (Matthew 9:38), when you simply desire communion with God (Matthew 14:23), when you need to make a major decision (Mark 6:46), when others need to be restored (2 Corinthians 13:7–9; 1 John 5:16), when doors are closed to the gospel (Colossians 4:3), when you desire to strengthen the faith of others (1 Thessalonians 3:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:11), and when other Christians ask you to pray for them (Hebrews 13:18).

In short, pray without ceasing, for the needs and opportunities are without ceasing!

We Are to Pray Devotedly

When you pray, really pray! prostrate yourself before God—not necessarily in your physical posture but rather in your mental, spiritual posture. We must be reverent when we pray rather than merely “routine,” and certainly not mindlessly ritualistic. This calls, again, for being deliberate, for thinking when we pray.

Consider the one to whom you are speaking. Beware of transgressing the third commandment when praying—of using the Lord’s name in vain. For instance, when you pray and use the name “Lord,” “holy Father,” “heavenly Father,” etc., are your thinking as you speak those words or are you sometimes guilty of “vainly” speaking God’s name? We must not take God’s name in vain—ever—especially not when we claim to be worshipping him!

Remember that you can only come and pray in Jesus’ name (John 14:13–14; 15:16; 16:23–26). The New Testament refers often to believing in the name of Jesus, being baptised in the name of Jesus, working miracles in the name of Jesus, gathering in the name of Jesus, etc. This speaks of Jesus’ authority. We need to remember this when we pray.

We are authorised to come to God’s throne in Jesus’ name. This is not a superstitious use of five English letters. Rather, to come and pray in Jesus’ name is to acknowledge the gospel privilege to come to God has his sons and daughters. It is the practical application of John 14:6. Guard against using this phrase as a talisman. Guard against the flippancy of ending your prayers with “in your name.” In whose name?

Much more could be said about prayer, but suffice it for now to chew on these few truths. And, having considered God’s word concerning prayer, let us corporately pray without ceasing and then individually let us do likewise.