Most times, when the famous James 5:16 is quoted, it is without verses 17 and 18.
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. 17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.”(James 5:16-18)
Based on James’ writing ALONE, people get the impression that Elijah was a “prayer warrior” (a term and concept that is foreign to scripture) and that BECAUSE Elijah prayed earnestly, God withheld rain and BECAUSE Elijah again prayed earnestly, the rain returned.
People get this impression because they are ignorant of the “rest of the story”, as the late Paul Harvey would say.
When you read 1 Kings 17-18, here is what you find out: In 17:1, Elijah tells Ahab that there is going to be a drought and that it won’t rain again, until Elijah says so. Now, where did Elijah get that? From The LORD God of Israel, “before Whom I stand”.
Elijah (as God’s prophet) didn’t just decide to pray really hard that it wouldn’t rain, moving God’s hand to withhold rain.
What about when the rain returned? We learned from 17:1 that Elijah knew from God that rain would be withheld and it would not return “but according to my (Elijah’s) word”.
So, it is up to Elijah as to when the rain returns, right? Let’s see:
“And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the LORD came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, show thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.” (1 Kings 18:1)
That is how God operated via His spokesmen. God works through them. What happens or doesn’t happen is not governed by people, or their prayers, or by prayer circles, chains, warriors, or anything else, but God’s Purpose.
It is very popular to believe that God is obliged to answer prayer and that if one simply has enough faith and asks in Jesus name for an outcome, God will do it. For the most part, this comes from a misunderstanding and misuse of scriptures in the gospel accounts of Christ’s ministry. Below are a couple of verses which are latched onto in order to “claim” certain outcomes:
“Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt.18:19)
“If anything ye shall ask [me] in my name, the same, will I do.” (John 14:14)
The above two verses are used without regard to the context, nor the audience to whom Jesus Christ made these statements. These statements and promises must be understood within the context of:
a. The gospel of the kingdom of the heavens
b. The signs which were to lead Israel to repentance
In Matthew 15:24, The Lord made clear to the woman from Canaan that “I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” The signs and wonders performed by Jesus Christ and His disciples were to be credentials. These were signs that Jesus was the Christ, the Promised One of the Old Testament scriptures. Paul later wrote the following:
“Since also Jews ask a sign, and Greeks seek wisdom.” (1 Cor. 1:22)
“And I say Jesus Christ to have become a ministrant of circumcision for the truth God, to confirm the promises to the fathers.” (Rom. 15:8)
Signs and wonders were credentials of the Messiah, to lead Israel to repentance. The monologue of Jesus (to his disciples) in John 14 was a specific promise to them (not anyone living in this age of grace and when the kingdom has receded due to Israel’s unbelief). Signs and wonders (including healing on demand) stopped during Paul’s early ministry. Paul advised Timothy to take wine for his stomach ailments. There was no admonition for the laying on of hands, miraculous healing, agreeing for healing, etc. Toward the end of Paul’s ministry, we read about two of Paul’s friends and fellow laborers in Philippians and 2 Timothy who Paul does not heal and leaves one (Trophimus) sick, and one (Epahroditus) is near death, but “God had mercy on him” (see Phil. 2:25-30).
Why did Paul not simply ask in the name of Jesus Christ, that Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Trophimus be healed? We read in the synoptic gospels and in Acts of healing on command, and even Peter’s shadow falling on someone and that person being made whole (Acts 5:15)!!
We have to make distinctions where the scriptures make distinctions (2 Timothy 2:15) and not attempt to make what was applicable during one administration and/or for a particular group or individual, applicable to others in a different administration.
Jesus Christ, upon His ascension, sent God’s Spirit to empower the apostles (Acts 2) to continue the signs and wonders that Jesus Christ had performed during His earthly ministry. They preached Christ Jesus and the kingdom to Israel. Many of Israel came to repentance during the early Acts period. The apostles were filled with Holy Spirit and their workings were pointing to the Messiah, who the Jews crucified. This was what Jesus was alluding to, speaking to His apostles in John 14:10-14:
“Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake. 12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. 13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
Notice carefully that Jesus Christ says that it is the Father Who did the works through him. Then, notice that Jesus states that if they believe on Him (Jesus) they will do the miraculous works Jesus did; and even greater. Finally, He gives the reason for this: Jesus knew that His time to become the propitiation for the sin of the world was coming. He knew that He would be going to the Father; but that the kingdom gospel must be offered to Israel. Verse 13 states that these things will He do so “that the Father may be glorified in the Son”. The disciples of Jesus, doing great wonders (that even the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures did not do) in the Christ’s name, would glorify the God of Israel, through the Son.
The signs and wonders meant to be signs for Israel do not belong to this time and the administration of the gospel of the grace of God. Instead, we are to be ambassadors of the fact that God is not at war with the world and sinners; but at peace with them. The gospel for today is as follows:
“And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:18-19)
Before we look specifically at how Jesus Christ prayed, I want to call attention to some things you will not see in the scriptures when it comes to prayer. You will not read anywhere in the scriptures where believers use prayer as if it some sort of magical incantation. That is however, what has become popular in many denominations of Christianity. The Word of Faith Movement is particularly notorious for this. If the specific promises of healing, for example, is to operate now, as it did during the ministry of Jesus Christ and/or the Pentecostal (early Acts period), then why all the straining? If it is a genuine movement of God, why the formulas? What you have now, are people being told that they have just the right amount of faith, get more people praying in “agreement” with them, and speaking what they want into existence.
In Gethsemane, we see the true model for prayer, both by Jesus Christ, Himself, but also with what He asked of his disciples and for what reasons.
“Then Jesus is coming with them into the freehold termed Gethsemane, and He is saying to His disciples, "Be seated, till I come away and should be praying there." 37 And taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He begins to be sorrowful and depressed." 38 Then He is saying to them, Sorrow-stricken is My soul to death. Remain here and watch with Me." 39 And coming forward a little, He falls on His face, praying and saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by from Me. However, not as I will, but as Thou!" 40 And He is coming to the disciples and is finding them drowsing. And He is saying to Peter, "Is it thus: you are not strong enough to watch one hour with Me? 41 Watch and pray, lest you may be entering into trial. The spirit, indeed, is eager; yet the flesh is infirm." 42 Again, coming away a second time, He prays, saying, "My Father, if this can not pass by from Me if I should not drink it, let Thy will be done!" 43 And, coming again, He found them drowsing, for the eyes were heavy." 44 And, leaving them, again coming away, He prays a third time, saying the same word." 45 Again, then, He is coming to the disciples and is saying to them, "Are you drowsing furthermore and resting? For lo! near is the hour, and the Son of Mankind is being given up into the hands of sinners-" 46 Rouse! We may be going. Lo! he who is giving Me up is near!" (Matt. 26:36-46)
Jesus Christ was on the verge of going to be examined by the priests, tried by Pilate, scourged by centurions, and crucified on a cross. Unlike what most pastors and theologians will tell you, it was not the will of Jesus Christ to go to the cross. If there was any other way possible to accomplish God’s Plan, apart from this, He wanted it (as any of us would!). But, He prayed, that although He would want another way, He would do what was His Father’s will; not his own. It is difficult to pray this way. I think of parents with sick children and think how amazingly difficult it would be to pray that your sick child live, but not my will; but Thine. This was the faith of Christ.
Jesus told His disciples to keep watch and pray, “…lest you may be entering into trial. The spirit, indeed, is eager; yet the flesh is infirm.” Why did Jesus not get the disciples to pray that God alter His plan? Why did He not ask the disciples to form a “prayer circle”? Why did He not say, “I am claiming that I am not going to the cross!! I am going to speak words of victory and I need you all to agree with Me!” Doesn’t that sound more like what we hear on Facebook or in a church prayer meeting? It’s odd that we see none of that in the scriptures, yet the churches which claim to only believe what the Bible teaches, practice this stuff.
He prayed three times, the same way, He checked on His disciples and encouraged them to pray; not about what He was going through, but that they would not fall into trial. And we see just that stumbling, by Peter, when the crowd came to arrest Jesus. Even though on multiple occasions, Peter was told by Christ that He would have to be betrayed, that He would die; Peter fought against it. This was the trial Christ Jesus wanted Peter to pray that he not fall into. Jesus didn’t ask His disciples pray that God change His mind, or that they go find fellow “prayer warriors” to do the same.
In fact, when it comes to His prayer in Gethsemane, I wonder what the Word of Faith folks must think about it. I wonder what they think about the Apostle Paul and his prayers. Did Jesus Christ not have enough faith that God would alter the Plan?
This of course, leads us to the purpose of prayer in the first place. Prayer is to get us in tune with God’s will and to accept God’s will in things, not to attempt to bend God’s will to our will. Should we pray for an outcome we want? Absolutely, but this must be tempered with knowing that God’s will may be very different and with the willingness to accept that.
Growing in grace and peace with what is God’s will is the purpose of prayer. This is articulated well with Paul’s words to those in Thessalonica:
“In everything be giving thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. " (1 Thess. 5:18)
Is it God’s will that in everything you be giving thanks? Probably, but I think the bigger point is that give thanks in everything, because everything that you may be experiencing is the will of God for you. God is teaching us things through the experiences we have, good, bad, or indifferent. Our spirit in that realization is to be at peace and giving thanks, knowing that this (that may be very difficult) is God’s will for us.
That is far different than what popular Christianity teaches. Instead, books abound about how to have “Your Best Life Now”, or how to be an effective “Prayer Warrior”, and sermons are taught about how speak success and life into circumstances.
Not only is that attitude very often fruitless, but it is dangerous and gives an unscriptural view of God. God is not a genie who grants wishes. Praying the same prayer for years, or believing that it is a lack of faith on your part, or believing that sin in your life is why something you pray for (or against) does or doesn’t materialize; isn’t scriptural or biblical.
As mentioned earlier, we should pray for what we want and we should also pray for others, but this must not be done with the thoughts to changing God’s mind about things.
The book I mentioned, “Prayer Warrior” interprets Galatians 6:2 as a proof text for praying on behalf of someone else to a desired outcome. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but books and teachings of this type are written from the motivation that “prayer changes things”, as the famous bumper-sticker suggests. As with the case of Elijah at the beginning of this article, prayer is not a cause to an effect. God is the Causer, and prayer is our involvement in that Plan. As to Galatians 6:2, let’s take a look at it in its context and the practicality of what Paul was saying:
“Brethren, if a man should be precipitated, also, in some offense, you, who are spiritual, be attuning such a one, in a spirit of meekness, noting yourself, that you, also, may not be tried." 2 Bear one another's burdens, and thus fill up the law of Christ."
I don’t see that Paul mentions anything about praying on one’s behalf here. What I do see is practical advice for helping others and showing love for one another (the law of Christ-see John 13:34). The Greek word, translated here as “burdens”(verse 2) is “baros”. This is a burden we can bear by helping the person and showing them love and sympathy. That is how believers are to show the world that we are believers.
When someone needs help, help them or care for them, where they are, in their circumstance. That is practical and it does much more for them in showing God’s love in a practical way, than adding them to a prayer list.
This article on prayer isn’t meant to be exhaustive but I hope that it helps in the understanding of what scriptural prayer looked like and what the purpose of prayer is and is not.
Does prayer “change things”? It doesn’t change God’s mind or plan, but it should change us and our attitude.