Let Us Go At Once

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A humble essay on corporate prayer, especially with regard to revival
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even inhabitants of many cities.The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the LORD and toseek the LORD of hosts; I myself am going.’Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD.’”
Zechariah 8:20-22

A Note from the Author:
Being impressed by great men of God who desire revival, I have been encouraged to write an appeal to some of the men of my church to come together in corporate prayer. It should be noted the mode of prayer discussed in a corporate sense is not of a modern evangelical slant, but a historical and Scriptural prostrating of one’s self before God. This is not an exhaustive treatise on prayer-based fellowship. This is a briefer look at Scripture and historical revival. I think it is important for me to say that corporate prayer is never to replace individual prayer; however in the right context, corporate prayer can buttress an already thriving individual prayer-life. Scripture is saturated with the prayers of the righteous. It is widely held that one of the greatest spiritual disciplines is fervent prayer. Exemplars of such white-hot, God-centered prayer fuel the passion of Psalms and of Christ’s own ministry. These things are not up for debate. A Christian’s spiritual development is based upon systematically praying through Scripture. There are two venues in which a person may pray. There is the devotional, closeted prayer, and there is the edifying, corporate prayer. The devotional prayer is clearly acceptable from Scripture, and there is little done by anyone to malign such a thing. However, it is imperative that we defend corporate prayer; such things as worship, revivals, and discipleship are at stake.
In humble submission to Christ,
Joseph Dethrow
A Brief Encounter with Scripture Regarding Corporate Prayer:
In the Sermon on the Mount, we come to a passage that seemingly could be used to assert that prayer should be taken out of gatherings:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:1-8)

At first, Jesus appears to be condemning all public prayer. A closer examination, especially in the context of the whole passage, yields an alternate result. Moreover, I would say that a correct analysis of the whole passage develops a defense of public prayer based on a proper framework. Here, like elsewhere[2], Jesus cites specific behaviors of the Pharisees to elucidate a fallacy in their doctrinal framework. Many would argue from this passage that we are to pray only in closets, i.e. privately. If we read earlier in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:48, we see that we are called to perfection.[3] Then in 6:1, Jesus expounds upon the aspects of true holiness. He does this by contrasting righteousness (shown in obedience) from faith[4] and the apparent holiness of the Pharisee. Jesus makes clear the motives of the Pharisee do not flow from a pure heart[5], explaining that their “righteousness” issues from a wicked delight in the admiration of an audience rather than from a holy hunger for the honoring of God. Now we come to the difficult statement in verse 6, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Does Jesus truly mean that prayer should always be done in secret? He is not. Instead, to correct the blazing hypocritical notion of righteousness propagated by pharisaical exhibitions, Jesus shows that the motive for prayer should be diametrically opposed to that of the Pharisee’s.[6] Furthermore, the emphasis of the passage has less to do with praying with men and more to do with not praying before men. We are to pray before God.

Having had their idol of paraded righteousness for the joy of public adulation cast down, the disciples need new instruction on prayer. Therefore, Jesus shows them a model prayer built upon the rock of humble, God-exalting motives. Strikingly, Jesus gives them a corporate prayer:

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13)

John Piper devotes an entire sermon, “Sweet ‘Our’ of Prayer,” to the doctrine of corporate prayer, in which, he states,

When crafting a summary prayer for his disciples Jesus puts it in a form that will commend it for social or corporate use more than private use…You have to at least bring to your mind the truth that you are praying as part of a family of other believers. The prayer naturally lends itself to a group prayer because of its using “our” instead of “my” and “us” instead of “me” and “we” instead of “I”. So I see the Lord’s prayer as an invitation…to pray together with other believers. There is something self-contradictory about praying with the words “our,” “us” and “we,” but never experiencing the our, us and we in prayer.[7]

If this were the only argument to make for earnest, God-fearing, corporate prayer, I think it may be well received by most. However, it would be desirable and beneficial to view the purpose of such fellowship in prayer. We do know that God is present in a special way to answer the requests of His own, according to Matthew 18:19-20. The pressing question would then become, “How does God respond to the requests of His children?” The Scripture is replete with examples.

First, we will look at Acts 4 for one such example. Even though I will presuppose that being filled with the Holy Spirit is an experience distinct from regeneration,[8] you may differ with me on that point and still reach a similar conclusion. After Peter and John had been released by the council of rulers and elders and scribes, they met with their friends to relay the story. This gathering

…lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Act 4:24b-30)

Now, I believe that it is clear that these friends of Peter and John are believers, i.e. regenerate, before they start this God-exalting corporate prayer. Their supplication is saturated with a love for God’s sovereignty. This being the basis for their petition, they rightly view themselves as unable to speak the word of the Lord without a sustaining work of God. What is the result of this plea? “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Act 4:31). In modernity, we invite men to our gatherings to speak an evangelical message, calling this scheduled event a “revival.” D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said of the Church of the last 100 years, “[W]hen things are not going too well, the church does not exhort people to pray for revival, but decides to have an evangelistic campaign; she organizes one and then, of course, asks God to bless that. That is her solution.”[9] That is nowhere to be found in Scripture. What we do find is that God’s people gather together in prayer and study of the Scripture. It is then up to the sovereign Holy Spirit to bring revival. Lest we think that that such an “earth-shaking” experience of God’s presence can only occur at conversion, we read about Paul and Silas’ imprisonment in Acts 16:25-26:

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.

It is important to note that the jailer was saved after this display of the glory of God. Such revivals may bring such miraculous signs as described here, but one of the necessary evidences of such a move of the Holy Spirit is always conviction. During such revivals, the Church grows and is edified, all by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.

A Brief Encounter with History Regarding Corporate Prayer:
These citations from Scripture may squelch some resistance toward prayer-meetings, but some may relegate (wrongly) such experiences to the early Church. Of course, experiences are not enough to derive doctrine; that is the purpose of the prior study from Scripture. We can now look on recorded events from the history of our Church to see if such experiences persist beyond the early Church. Joyfully, we see such things are indeed recorded. To name just a few men: Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, Thomas Aquinas, George Whitefield, John Howe, the Wesleys, Daniel Rowlands, and John Livingstone.[10] Now, if all of these men were given to hysteria or sensationalism, then we could easily disregard their experiences. However, such a sampling of God-fearing men with this recorded in their lives needs to be examined.

Practical Applications of Hopeful Corporate Prayer:
Finally, if corporate prayer is wrong, then men stop praying with your families and pastors cease praying with the flocks you tend. However, if corporate prayer is a method by which we commune with God in fellowship with the entire body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, then we must cry out to God for a great movement lest the Church become half-hearted. When was the last time that place in which you were praying was shaken by God? It may take years of faithful, Christ-exalting, pleading with God in prayer, but you must believe that the Holy Spirit can fall upon a place.

Lloyd-Jones quotes an entry from George Whitefield’s journal for November 5, 1740, where Whitefield says:

Mr Gilbert Tennant preached first and I then began to pray and to give an exhortation. In about six minutes one cried out, “He is come! He is come!” and I could scarce sustain the manifestation of Jesus to his soul…But having heard the crying of others for the like of favour obliged me to stop, and I prayed over them as I saw their agonies and distress increase. At length we sang a hymn and then retired to the house, where the man that received Christ continued praising and speaking of Him until near midnight. My own soul was so full that I retired and wept before the Lord, and had a deep sense of my own vileness, and the sovereignty and greatness of God’s everlasting love. Most of the people spent the remainder of the night in prayer and praising God. It was a night much to be remembered. [11]

May we gather for prayer and plead with God to move; I myself am going!

[1]For an essay on this passage, see Edwards, Jonathan. “A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People, in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Ed. Edward Hickman. Vol. 2. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995. A copy can be viewed at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library from Calvin College: <
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.viii.html> Also, all Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.
[2] Matthew 23:23ff
[3] When a Christian is called, he is called to a life of holiness. We fail in this, but God is conforming us to the image of His Son, Romans 8:29; cf. Romans 12:1ff. Also see n. 4.
[4] Cf. Romans 1:5, 2:13; Galatians 5:6,22-24 (see also n. 3)
[5] 1 Timothy 1:5
[6] Cf. Matthew 5:20
[7] <
http://www.desiringGod.org/library/sermons/87/010487.html> Here John Piper also lists several verses where corporate prayer is exercised.
[8] For an intense treatment of this subject, see Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Joy Unspeakable. Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne. 2003..
[9] Joy Unspeakable, p.431.
[10] Since these things occur as the Spirit wills, some are not in a corporate setting and some are.
[11] Joy Unspeakable, p. 97