The fact that the disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray,’ intrigues me — for there is no record of them ever saying, ‘Lord, teach us to preach,’ or, ‘Teach us to cast out demons,’ or, ‘Lord, teach us to work miracles,’ or, ‘Teach us to heal people.’
Why would they only ask Jesus to teach them to pray? I believe it’s because, after observing Him, following Him living with Him, they understood that the power behind His preaching, behind His ability to overcome demonic entities, behind the miracles He worked so beautifully, indeed behind everything that happened through Him lay singularly in His prayer life.
Observing Him slip away to pray before the break of day, knowing that whether they were struggling on the Sea of Galilee or sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was praying with intensity and consistency, I suggest His disciples figured out early on that the key to everything Jesus did could be traced to the way He prayed — which is why they came to Him that day saying, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’
Most of us understand the principle of the primacy of prayer — that prayer is to be a priority in our lives, that it is vital to our walk. And yet, for many of us, prayer is little more than an obligation and all too often a burden. We know we should pray. We agree that there’s power in prayer. But for many of us, prayer is a chore.
That’s not the way prayer was meant to be. And I suggest to you for your consideration that the reason prayer has become no more than a duty is because we fail to comprehend three words in the text before us: ‘Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit . . .’ Following are three applications connected to these all-important words.
A Theological Application
How can we who are sinful approach a God so holy and awesome? Only through the Son.
You see, if, as an Old Testament believer, you wanted to approach Jehovah, you would bring a lamb to the Tabernacle, where it would be thoroughly and carefully inspected. Only if the priest found the lamb to be spotless and without blemish could you go into the Tabernacle and commune with God.
So too, we approach the Father not through a little lamb, but through the One of Whom John said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world, the One in Whom there is no spot, no blemish’ — Jesus. I come boldly before the Father; talk things over with the Father; receive help from the Father not because I am flawless, not because I am faultless but because the Lamb is spotless, because Jesus is perfect.
We come to the Father through the Son by the Spirit — for if the Spirit didn’t draw us, we’d never pray at all. ‘In me dwells no good thing,’ declares Paul (Romans 7:18) — including even the inclination to pray in more than a self-serving, superficial way. To pray in the Spirit means I come to the Father through the Son as the Spirit draws me.
A Pentecostal Application
Secondly, to pray in the Spirit refers ultimately to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 — when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in the Upper Room and they began to pray in other tongues. What does it mean to pray with other tongues? It means to pray with words, phrases, and — as Romans 8 indicates — with groanings that we have never learned linguistically, and that we don’t understand intellectually.
For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. Corinthians 14:14
What is the benefit of ‘unfruitful’ understanding? Simply this: We are commanded to pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17), yet I cannot pray continually with my understanding. When I’m talking on the phone, driving a car, or shooting hoops, my mind is engaged in what I’m doing.
But I can always pray in the Spirit — even while I’m preaching this sermon — because rather than using my mind to think about sentence structure and syntax, grammar and vocabulary, it’s my heart that’s praying.
I’m not on a tongues-speaking kick — but I do understand the validity of praying in the Spirit. There are so many situations about which I simply don’t know how to pray intellectually. But I can pray in a prayer language, and know I’m praying in perfect harmony with the Spirit. And as I do, my own faith is strengthened (1 Corinthians 14:4, Jude 20).
Who can pray in the Spirit? Anyone who desires to move in that dynamic, for Paul said, ‘I would that you all spake in tongues, (I Corinthians 14:5).
A Transcendental Application
To pray in the Spirit carries with it a transcendental application. I’m not referring to the transcendental meditation of the 60’s, or to the transcendentalists who gathered at Walden Pond with Thoreau, Emerson, and the boys. The word ‘transcendent’ simply means ‘above’ — a fitting description of praying in the Spirit, for when you engage in that kind of prayer, you transcend the limitations of the physical realm and move into the spiritual realm.
Warring against the nation of Israel, the king of Syria had cleverly set an ambush on the road he knew the king of Israel would travel. But just as the king of Israel was about to unknowingly walk into it, he was approached by a messenger saying, ‘Proceed no further! A message has come from the prophet in Dothan. There’s an ambush ahead. Turn back.’ Infuriated, the king of Syria set a second ambush. Again, as the king of Israel approached, a messenger came to him, saying, ‘Don’t go that way. There’s an ambush ahead.’ The king of Israel changed directions once again, leaving the king of Syria no choice but to try a third ambush — which also failed.
‘There’s a spy in our midst,’ said the king of Syria. ‘Not so,’ said one of his advisors. ‘There’s no spy — but there is a prophet in the city of Dothan who knows everything you say.’ With that, the king of Syria sent out thousands of soldiers to surround the city of Dothan and capture Elisha. ‘We’re dead!’ cried Elisha’s servant upon seeing the vast array of Syrian soldiers the next morning.
But Elisha, knowing what it meant to pray in the Spirit, to be transcendent, simply said, ‘Lord, open his eyes.’ And when Gehazi’s eyes were opened, he saw that surrounding the Syrians were tens of thousands of angels in fiery chariots (2 Kings 6:17).
That’s what it means to pray in the Spirit. You get above and beyond your present depressing, discouraging, physical limitations — and you begin to see what’s happening in the Spirit even as you pray.
Talk about a situation which seemed impossible — Jesus was in such a spot. His friend, Lazarus, had died and for 4 days lay buried in a cave, his body already beginning to decay. ‘Roll away the stone,’ said Jesus. And then He lifted up His eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank Thee that Thou hast heard Me. Everyone else thinks the situation is impossible, but I thank Thee for what is about to happen,’ (John 11:41-42).
That is what it means to pray in the Spirit, to transcend the stench and stink of death and despair. Let us quit our moaning, murmuring and mourning, and follow the example of Jesus Who said, ‘I see something about to happen, and I thank You, Father.’
What would happen if we began to pray that way? Instead of going down a list during morning devotions, saying, ‘Bless Aunt Jane. Bless my dad. Bless my school teacher. Be with the President . . . .’ we’d say, ‘Lord, I now see Your hand of blessing upon my son and I thank You. I see provision being made for my neighbor. Thank You, Lord. I see Your Spirit speaking to my stubborn husband, or my rebellious daughter, or my hard-hearted boss. Thank You, Father.’
The one who prays in the Spirit quits making speeches to God — going down a list of items to get it out of the way — and starts fellowshipping with God. His prayers slow down. His understanding opens up. His heart rejoices.
Perhaps the best example of what it means to pray in the Spirit is found in Luke 2. Bludgeoned into submission by Rome, Israel was in bad straits. Nonetheless, a man whom tradition says was 113 years and upon whom Scripture says was the Holy Ghost waited for the Messiah promised in Scripture. Day after week after month after year after decade went by and still Simeon waited, having received revelation that he wouldn’t die until his eyes had beheld Messiah.
Then came the word for which he had waited so long: ‘Today’s the day.’ No doubt Simeon shuffled as quickly as he could to the Temple, expecting to hear the hoof beats of horses and the sound of soldiers marching as Messiah came with His army to set Israel free. But arriving at the Temple, what did he see? Only a 16-year-old girl, her carpenter husband, and a Baby. Did Simeon say, ‘Let me get this straight. I’ve been hanging around for 113 years, waiting for Messiah, anticipating the emancipation of our nation — and all I find is a baby? I’m out of here,’? No. he said,
Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).
When you pray in the Spirit, believing God for a certain event, or a specific situation and the answer comes in an entirely different manner than you expected, you have a Simeon choice to make. You can either forget about praying in the Spirit, and forget about believing God — or you can do what Simeon did.
You can bless the Father. When Simeon prayed for the redemption of Israel, the problem wasn’t that his prayer was wrong, but that it was too small — for God’s plan was to set all men free (John 3:16).
That’s why Paul would say, ‘Now unto Him Who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think . . .’ (Ephesians 3:20).
Gang, if you choose to pray in the Spirit, I guarantee that your prayer lives will never be the same. While others are mourning and moaning, you’ll be rejoicing. Where others are fearful, you’ll be faithful. As others are bewildered, you’ll be blessed. Oh, may we be those who see the beauty and potency of ‘always praying with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit.’ In Jesus’ Name. Amen.