Prayer’s Indispensable Ingredient

When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

“O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment.

Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:14-20)

What makes prayer, prayer? When does a prayer count as a real live prayer in God’s sight? We’d all agree that we can pray out loud or internally, at any time, in any posture, in any place, alone or with company. While we might have our personal preferences, none of those variables determines whether or not prayer counts as prayer. But there is one ingredient that does make all the difference. Jesus says, ‘I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you’ (Matthew 17:20). By implication, praying without faith is a worthless activity.

Matthew 17:20 was brought to my attention at a ministry training meeting some years ago. It’s been on my mind ever since, and has had a big impact on my prayer life. While there’s definitely a strong element of encouragement in what Jesus says, it’s important to bear in mind that the verse comes just after the disciples have failed to drive out a demon. In context, Jesus is rebuking his followers, so the verse challenges before it encourages.

The Challenge of Mustard Seed Faith

It’s possible to have faith in a general way without activating that faith in a particular situation. Shortly before their failure to drive out the demon, Peter declares that Jesus is, ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16). Jesus’ reply indicates his faith is genuine: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven’ (16:17). Yet despite this, the disciples do not act with faith when it comes to the specific task of driving out the demon. They seem to have no confidence in God’s power. (When Jesus says, at the start of 17:20, ‘Because you have so little faith’, it must be his rather withering way of pointing out how faithless they were during the recent incident with the demon. They didn’t even have the mustard seed-sized faith he’s about to discuss. ‘Little faith’ in Matthew’s gospel [8:26] parallels ‘no faith’ in Mark’s gospel [4:40]. See also Matthew 17:17, where the disciples are surely included, because of their handling of the demon incident, among the ‘unbelieving and perverse generation’.)

So Matthew 17:20 teaches us that we can pray in the most polished terms for the most deserving things and yet be entirely ineffective and powerless in prayer. The indispensable ingredient is to believe in our hearts that God will grant our request – if it’s in line with his purposes.

In the Christian life we constantly need reminding that, ‘The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7). We tend to think that if we drag ourselves out of bed at an early hour and pray with the right words for the right things there’ll be traction between earth and heaven. But God, as always, closely observes what’s going on in our hearts. Unless faith is present, our prayers will go unheard. This doesn’t mean we need to imagine the granting of our requests. God can do ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20). So it’s not about scaling down the hugeness of our requests to fit our faith (as Jesus makes clear with his illustration of mountain shifting). No, praying with faith means scaling up our vision of God. Children sing ‘Our God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that he cannot do,’ but do their parents inwardly agree?

Matthew 17:20 challenges us to focus on God and his promises, and therefore to go large in prayer because he’s more than able to cope. Praying with faith also means adjusting our prayers to our knowledge of God’s character and his purposes. We can’t pray with faith for certain things if Scripture informs us that God has other plans. Those who pray with faith not only note God’s limitless power, but also his revealed will.

The Encouragement of Mustard Seed Faith

At the training meeting mentioned above, the speaker pointed out that we often think of faith like a ‘dimmer switch’. We strive to have great faith rather than little faith. But while it certainly is good to have great faith, like the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:28), the really important thing about faith is simply having it – even mustard seed-sized – rather than not having it. So it might be better to think of faith as more like an on/off switch. This is tremendously encouraging. Very often my confidence that God will bring about what I ask for is as small as a mustard seed. But Jesus says that’s big enough for my prayer to count! Mustard seed faith is all that’s required to move mountains. Doesn’t that spur you on to do business with our omnipotent God today?

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How to Read the Bible in a Year

A lot of people recommend Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s scheme for reading the Bible in a year. M’Cheyne is one of the great heroes of the faith. But I’m not personally a fan of his Bible reading scheme. It requires two readings of both the New Testament and the Psalms on top of one reading of the remainder of the Old Testament, which makes the task more demanding and therefore less realistic. Reading the Bible in a year is challenging enough as it is, why make it harder to achieve?

Here’s an alternative: “The Three Track Method.” It will take you through the whole Bible just once in a year.

Track One: Old Testament
Read two chapters of the Old Testament every day, excluding Psalms and Proverbs (they’re in the other tracks).

Track Two: Psalms and New Testament
Read a psalm every day and two on Sundays. When you’ve finished the Book of Psalms, read one New Testament chapter every day and two on Sundays.

Track Three: Proverbs
Pick a month with thirty-one days and during that month read a chapter from Proverbs every night, in addition to your Track One and Track Two reading earlier in the day.

You’ll finish Track Two with a week to spare, allowing you to increase your daily Track One reading so that you finish the whole Bible by Day 365. You may find you enjoy the experience so much that you do it again the following year! One helpful tip: Psalm 119 is very long so give yourself extra days to read it by reading a couple of psalms a day in the week leading up to it.

OPTIONAL: the order of the OT

The order I’d recommend for reading the OT is the ancient order which is still followed in Hebrew Bibles today:

    • The Law: Genesis–Deuteronomy;
    • The Prophets: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah–Malachi (except for Lamentations and Daniel which are in the next section);
    • The Writings: everything else, namely, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 & 2 Chronicles.

We know it’s the order Jesus himself used because he refers to it in Luke 24:44: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (“The Psalms” is an alternative way of referring to the Writings.) Jesus’ reference to this order suggests that it is divinely-intended. To read the Old Testament according to this order, just pencil in L for the Law, P for the Prophets, and W for the Writings alongside the Old Testament book titles on the Contents page of your Bible, and then read the Ls, followed by the Ps, followed by the Ws. There’s no need to change the order of the Ls and the Ps from the regular English Bible order. When it comes to the Ws, pencil in W1, W2, W3 etc, following the order above (remembering that in this Bible-in-a-year scheme the Psalms and Proverbs don’t belong in the Old Testament reading track).

The Law–Prophets–Writings order has the following advantages:

  • It helps us understand the ‘Former Prophets’ correctly (i.e. Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings). Tim Chester and Steve Timmis put it like this in their book Total Church: ‘In the Hebrew canon the history books of the Old Testament (Joshua to 2 Kings) are called the Former Prophets. The main force in these books is not the kings or the international powers, but the word of the Lord that comes by his prophets. God’s word is sovereign.’
  • It separates 1 Samuel–2 Kings from 1 & 2 Chronicles. In fact, reading the Old Testament in the original order puts a lengthy distance between Samuel–Kings and Chronicles. As a result, the Chronicler’s retelling of Israel’s history doesn’t seem repetitive.
  • It’s helpful having the Latter Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi minus Lamentations and Daniel) positioned right after the Former Prophets (Joshua–2 Kings). It means we’re less likely to have forgotten the relevant history by the time we reach books like Isaiah and Hosea.
  • The Law tells us how God wanted his people Israel to live. The Prophets tell us how things worked out in practice after the Exodus from Egypt, and how things will work out in the future. The Writings reflect on the experience of belonging to God’s people. This is a very natural and satisfying organization of the Old Testament material.

Happy reading! Don’t forget to pray beforehand for God’s help in understanding, and afterwards for his help in obedience.

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The Consolation of Prophecy

‘This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Luke 2:12

What is your remedy when a glorious spiritual experience, which set your heart on fire and filled you with zeal and joy, has lost all power and become a dim memory? Where do you go for help when you’ve lost your confidence that God is in control?

The shepherds of Luke 2:8-20 have an encounter with divine power. It’s the kind of experience which we might imagine would set them up for life – the spiritual equivalent of a huge financial windfall. 1. An angel of God appears to them. 2. The glory of the Lord shines all around them. 3. The angel speaks to them personally. 4. ‘A multitude of the heavenly army’ (Luke 2:13, lit.) appears alongside the angel. 5. All of the angels begin praising God, with what must have been an extremely high decibel count. Surely the shepherds’ faith in the God of the Bible will be rock solid from that point onwards? The angel knows better. On top of all the marvels they are seeing and hearing, he gives them ‘a sign’. In the Bible supernatural signs are given to help persuade people of the truth, in this case the truth that ‘a Saviour has been born’ (v. 11). What is the nature of the angel’s sign, and how can it possibly trump the signs the shepherds are currently witnessing? The angel says, ‘You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

This is a prophecy. We are so used to hearing it in carol services and nativity plays that we miss its purpose. The angel predicts that if the shepherds go to Bethlehem they will find the newborn Saviour lying in a feeding trough for animals. The power of this sign comes from the baby’s bizarre and unlikely resting-place. If the shepherds had simply been told that they would find a baby, they might perhaps have put it down to coincidence when they found a newborn child in the village. But to find a baby lying in a feeding trough, exactly as predicted, could not possibly be a fluke. The point we need to grasp is that the most powerful part of the shepherds’ experience in the fields isn’t their personal encounter with an angel, or the sight of the glory of the Lord, or the extraordinary sound of the heavenly multitude praising God, no it’s the sign they receive from the angel: his accurate prediction of the newborn Saviour’s unusual crib. Astonishing sights and sounds come off second best when compared with a detailed message about the future which proves to be accurate. Note how the passage ends: ‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.’

Without that sign, the shepherds might have begun joking with one another about the mushrooms in their stew on that evening in the fields. But it is much harder to laugh off the divine power seen in the fulfilment of prophecy. In the Bible, God’s ability to predict the future is presented as proof that he can be trusted. The principle is set out in Isaiah 41:23, where God challenges the idols, ‘Tell us what the future holds, so that we may know you are gods’; and Isaiah 46:9,10: ‘I am God and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.’ Only God can predict something and then make sure that it comes to pass, and we see that happening time and again in Scripture. To take just one example, Daniel 9:26 predicts that after the Messiah has been ‘cut off’, an incoming ruler will destroy the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. God made the prediction, and then it happened.

My friend Roger Carswell once pointed out to me that not long after the joys and wonders of that first Christmas evening, the shepherds had to endure Herod’s ‘massacre of the innocents’ – the slaughter of ‘all the boys in Bethelehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under’ (Matthew 2:16). Perhaps they lost their own boys. What could possibly console them during their mourning, in the face of such injustice? Only the knowledge that God is ultimately in control, which had been proved so indisputably in their experience by his power to predict the future. In our own time when unbelief sometimes seems all-conquering, the accurate prophecies in the Bible persuade us to live by faith rather than sight. They comfort us by renewing our confidence in God’s control.

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