Romans Lesson 153 - On Your Mark, Get Set . . . Pray!
What do you do when God's will seems contrary to the desires God gave you? How do you continue to move forward in your service for God when He keeps closing doors? The apostle Paul wrestled with some of these same questions. In Romans 15, he confides in us his expectations for the future of his missionary work, but these great expectations never become reality. How will he cope with his disappointment? Find out now.
“On Your Mark, Get Set . . . Pray!”
Steve May recorded an interesting story some time ago in one of his books, about a young boy named Gilbert. When he was 8 years old, he joined the Cub Scouts. He had only been a member of short time and during one of his first meetings he was handed a sheet of instructions, a block of pine-wood and four little tires and told to take it all home and give it to dad.
This was not an easy task for Gilbert to do, since there was no dad at home. So the block of wood remained untouched for weeks. Finally, his mother stepped in to help figure it all out. The project began. Having no carpentry skills, she simply read and explained the directions to Gilbert and let him do all the work – which he did happily. The read the measurements – the rules of what could and could not be done and within a few days his block of pine wood turned into a “pinewood derby car.” It was a little lopsided, but it looked okay to them and they proudly named it “Blue Lightning.”
Finally, the big night arrived. With Blue Lightning in his hand and excitement bursting in his heart, he and his mom headed to the race. Once there, it was obvious that Gilbert’s car was the only one made entirely by a Cub Scout. All the other cars had slick paint jobs and sleek body styles designed for speed. Some of the other boys laughed when they saw his crude little lopsided car.
Gilbert was undeterred however and waited his turn. The race was a process of elimination. You kept racing as long as you were a winner. And Blue Lightning kept winning. In the final run it was Blue Lightning and the sleekest, fasted looking car Gilbert had seen that night. Just as the final race was about to begin, Gilbert asked if he could pray. The race stopped. With a wrinkled brow, clutching his little derby car, Gilbert bowed his head for a very long minute and prayed to his Heavenly Father.
Then he announced, “I’m ready now.” The crowd cheered with anticipation. Gilbert watched his block of wood swoosh down the ramp with surprising speed and cross the finish line a fraction of a second in front of the other car. Gilbert jumped into the air and shouted, “Thank You!” as the crowd roared in approval.
The Scout Master, with microphone in hand, asked Gilbert, “So, you prayed to be the winner, huh, Gilbert?” To which he responded with a surprising answer, “Oh no sir; that wouldn’t be fair. I just asked God to help me so I wouldn’t cry when I lost.”
Steve May, The Story File (Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), p. 243
I wonder how much of our praying is motivated by a desire for winning in life, rather than responding to life.
I wonder how much of the believer’s prayer life is directed to life working out, rather than how to act when it doesn’t.
If the Christian life could be analogous to a Box Car Derby, we would all look a lot like Blue Lightning. Some of you are thinking, “As long as it’s Carolina Blue, that’ll be fine with me!”
There isn’t a Christian alive who isn’t like Gilbert’s car – a little lopsided; a little rough around the edges; unevenly painted; anything but sleek and impressive.
The Body of Christ is not made up of engineering perfections, but blocks of common pine in need of shaping and molding and refining.
Frankly, we need to pray more, not to come in first, but how to race, no matter what place we come in . . . with a Christ-like spirit.
If ever there was a sleek model of Christianity; spiritually aerodynamic; perfectly balanced, it was the Apostle Paul. If anybody knew how to win, it was this converted Jewish attorney who became the pioneer missionary for the cause of Christ.
Yet, over and over again, the Apostle Paul begged the church to pray for him as he began a new lap in his race.
To the Ephesians he asked for prayer that he might be able to speak godly for the sake of the gospel as an ambassador in chains . . . he said, “pray on my behalf . . . that I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6:19)
Paul asked the Corinthians to help him by praying for him (2 Corinthians 1:10)
To the Thessalonians he asked that they pray for the entire missionary team that the word of God might spread rapidly and that they might be rescued from evil men who sought to do them harm. (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2)
He asked the Philippians to remember that their prayers for him would be the reason for his effectiveness. (Philippians 1:19)
He asked the Colossians to pray that God would open doors for him in the ministry. (Colossians 4:3).
You might think that Paul would see doors open automatically; sermons and speeches flow effortlessly from his lips; that he would never shrink back in fear, but naturally speak with boldness.
Over and over again, Paul stood beside the race track of life with his little blue car, about to hear the race-master say, “On your mark, get set . . .” And Paul would say, “Wait! Can we pray?!”
Why? So things will work out? Sure, but more than that . . . in case things don’t work out.
Paul was obsessed with prayer for God’s will to be accomplished in his life – no matter what it was.
Beginning with verse 14 of Romans chapter 15, we have already discovered Paul’s obsession
- with godly living;
- with the glory of God;
- his fixation on the grace of God
- his passion for the global cause of God . . . and now here, as we reach the end of chapter 15, we discover
- Paul’s obsession for intercession before God.
Verse 30. Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.
If anything you get the idea that Paul does not view himself as a spiritual lone ranger. He was a part of the body of Christ and he is asking for the body’s help.
I mentioned in our last session that this letter to the Romans was, among many other things, a missionary letter, asking for support.
Earlier in this paragraph, Paul asks for help along the journey (v. 24) – a word for financial assistance . . . for food.
And now, like any good missionary letter, Paul asks for prayer.
But he doesn’t just ask!
His words are packed with intense vocabulary.
“I urge you.” This could be translated from parakalw – “I beg you . . . I exhort you.”
Donald Grey Barnhouse said, “This word carries the urgency of an SOS” – I am calling you to pray for me.
Adapted from Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans: Volume 4 (Eerdmans, 1964), p. 108
But remember, it isn’t just on my account – it is ultimately for the namesake of Jesus Christ, Paul writes further in verse 30, and by the love of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, Paul is asking for prayer, but reminding the believers that true prayer ultimately seeks the glory of Jesus Christ and obeys the unifying call of the Holy Spirit to love one another.
Paul wants people to join him who want to see Christ honored and the Spirit of God demonstrated through the love of the body for Christ.
I urge you . . . I summon you . . . I beg you. The same verb Paul used in chapter 12:1 I urge you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”
How important is it for the believer to give their lives to God? It really isn’t optional, is it?!
Paul employs that same verb here in chapter 15, as if to say, it can’t be an option that you pray for me, for the glory of Christ and the love of the Spirit.
But Paul goes even further in verse 30, “strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.”
I won’t gore you with all the details, but I can remember being in that delivery room with Marsha – we were about to have our fourth child. I say “we” rather generously.
If it were up to men to have babies, the world would have none – not one! Ever. And all the men said, “Amen!”
We wouldn’t be able to take the incredible pain, not to mention the physical demands and emotional strain to carry and then deliver a baby. Forget it . . . we could never do it!
In that delivery room where we were, on that Halloween night, nearly 13 years ago . . . I will never forget the intensity of my wife’s pain and she gripped my arm – that would never be the same again – and looked up with her blue eyes filled with a mixture of pain and fear and said, “Help me.”
I have never felt more helpless in the face of my wife’s utter agony.
That’s the word Paul uses here, translated, “strive together with me.” It’s the word, sunagonizomai – from which we get our word, agony.
Literally, “agonize with me.”
It’s the only time this compound word is found in the entire New Testament.
Other derivatives are used, for instance when Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world, otherwise me servants would fight.” (agonizomai: John 18:36). Paul used a shorter derivative of this word in 2 Timothy 4:7 when he said, “I have fought a good fight.”
Paul is not asking the believer to say a couple of short prayers on his behalf, with words like, “Well, Lord, please bless Paul out there somewhere . . . Amen.”
This is the same word used of Jesus Christ as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Luke records, “And being in agony, He was praying very fervently, and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
Imagine that . . . Paul is asking the Romans to agonize with him like Christ agonized before the Father.
This isn’t the kind of prayer you limit to a prayer meeting at the church from 6:30 to 7:30 pm. You don’t restrict this obsession to the bulletin or the prayer list or the online prayer sheet.
This is spiritual labor. This is entering the contest of life and every time you hear the Game Keeper say, “On your mark, get set” you want to say, “Wait . . . not until I’ve prayed.”
I will confess to you, dear flock, that I usually get passionate about praying only after Blue Lightning is in 4th gear.
Frankly, I think this kind of obsession for intercession is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Thessalonian believers when he said to them, “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Why should we pray like this?
For the glory of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, for starters.
R. A. Torrey once wrote out 10 reasons why you should pray like Paul exhorts us to pray:
- because there is a devil and because prayer is the God-appointed means of resisting him.
- Because prayer is God’s way for us to obtain what we need from him
- Because the apostles considered prayer to be the priority business in their lives
- Because prayer occupied a prominent place and played a very important part in the earthly life of our Lord
- Because prayer is the present ministry our Lord, since he is now interceding for us
- Because prayer is the means God has appointed for our receiving mercy from Him and help in time of need
- Because prayer is the means of obtaining the fullness of God’s joy
- Because prayer with thanksgiving is the means of obtaining freedom from anxiety and peace which passes understanding
- Because prayer is the means by which we are to keep watchful and be alert
- Because prayer is used by God to promote our spiritual growth, bring power into our work, lead others to faith in Christ, and bring all other blessings to Christ’s church.
After reading a list like that, the question is not, should we pray, but how can we afford not to!
I wonder if Reuben Torrey was especially passionate about prayer because of his own story. He never forgot that one night as an unbelieving student at Yale, overwhelmed with grief and guilt over his sinful lifestyle, he decided to take his own life. That night, in 1875, he stumbled to the wash basin in his dormitory room, looking for his razor to cut his wrists . . . in such guilt over his rebellious life, having rejected the gospel of his mother and father. He couldn’t find his razor and suddenly became overwhelmed with conviction to pray. Unknown to him, his mother, at that very same hour was inwardly compelled to get on her knees and begin praying for the salvation of her son . . . miles away, at the same hour, Reuben knelt by his bed and gave his life to Jesus Christ.
R. A. Torrey went on to become the president of Moody Bible Institute, and later Dean of BIOLA in Los Angeles.
He would remain passionate about prayer his entire life.
Now, as any good missionary letter will model, Paul becomes extremely specific in this urgent matter of prayer.
In fact, he will deliver 3 specific prayer requests for the church in Rome to pray over.
The first prayer request appears in verse 31. That I may be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea.
His first prayer request – you could summarize in one word – safety.
Paul was enemy #1 of the Jewish people. His face was plastered on bulletin boards in every Post Office in Jerusalem.
The Jews in Jerusalem have already killed Stephen out in the open after he delivered his first and only sermon. They had thrown Peter in prison, only to have lost him in a miraculous escape as an angel came and delivered him.
The blood of the Christians had already stained the soil in and around the city and into other regions.
Paul, the former prosecutor of Christianity is now the famous preacher of Christianity. And they are all infuriated at this man’s conversion to Christ and doctrines of this new thing called the church.
And Paul knew full well he was headed for trouble. He was walking into the path of a tornado.
He says here, “Agonize with me that I might be delivered from – actually – the unbelieving Jews.”
His word translated “deliver” (ruomai) is a word that means to be preserved . . . to be rescued.
Out Lord used this word as he taught us to pray to be delivered from the lure of the evil one (Matthew 6:13);
It’s used to describe the redemption of believers who are delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son. (Colossians 1:13)
Paul knew he was a wanted man . . . and that unless the Lord so protected him, he would die in Jerusalem.
The evidence of the Jews hatred for Paul was seen in what happened not long after Paul arrived in Jerusalem.
According to Acts 21, Paul is indeed recognized by some Jews as he goes to the temple. He enemies see him and stir up the masses of the people, shouting, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people, and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place . . . and all the city was aroused and the people rushed together; and taking hold of Paul, they dragged him out of the temple and . . . began to beat him.”
Can you imagine . . . this riot breaks out; Paul will nearly be beaten to death by this mob out to pay him back for betraying Judaism and openly declaring that Jesus was the Messiah.
They would have killed him had the Roman soldiers not rescued him from the mob.
So Paul’s first prayer request for safety was answered – although not exactly the way Paul expected.
And probably not the way the Roman believers had prayed, right?
We would expect God to answer our prayers for safety to mean you don’t get nearly beaten to death.
Safety usually doesn’t involve near-death experiences at the hand of a blood-thirsty mob!
But God did have Paul’s protection in mind – protection by Roman soldiers, where he will be safely stored behind bars.
As I’ve thought about the assassination attempts on Paul’s life, I don’t have any doubt that he would have never survived had he remained in the care of Christians. It would require the Roman empire to defend his life.
Roman soldiers who would be assigned to guard him for the rest of his life.
Without them, I don’t believe Paul would have had the opportunity to write his letters and guide the church with his inspired doctrine.
The first prayer request was answered – in an unusual manner.
Maybe that’s exactly what God is doing in your life as well.
Answering your prayers . . . in a way you wouldn’t have chosen or even thought of . . . you would never have scripted it like it played out, but after time and growth and insight – through the tears and travail, you are beginning to understand.
Maybe you have just begun to know what this kind of agonizing prayer is all about.
A humorous story told about three friends who were discussing the proper posture for prayer. The first one said that Christians ought to be on their knees with their heads bowed in reverence to God. The second man said, “No, you should stand with your head raised looking into the heavens and speaking into the face of God.” The third spoke up and said, “I know nothing about that, but I do know this: the finest praying I’ve ever done was upside down in a well, I’d fallen into!”
Suddenly, what it meant to agonize in prayer, dawned on him and it didn’t matter if his eyes were open or closed – I did my finest praying upside down in a well.
The second prayer request is equally, if not more, significant to the cause of Christ and the love of the Holy Spirit.
Notice the middle part of verse 31b. and that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints.
The first prayer request had to do with Paul’s safety; this prayer request has to do with Paul’s service.
You need to remember that the relationship between Jew and Gentile was abominable.
Throughout the ministry of Paul, there were Jews who never came around . . . they argued with Paul and debated his insistence that Gentiles did not have to become Jews to enter the church.
So Paul had unbelieving Jews who wanted to kill him, and believing Jews who would be cool toward him. Paul was hoping that the offering he was delivering to the church in Jerusalem would help heal the rift and encourage this unity of love in the Spirit.
Would the Jews be offended? Would they think the Gentiles are being superior in their gifts? Would they think the Gentiles were trying to buy their affections?
All of these were possibilities.
Ladies and Gentlemen, so much of this is lost on us because of time and distance and culture.
Imagine what it was like.
The temple of Paul’s day had been built by Herod the Great. Much of it was overlaid with gold and it sat on a raised earth platform known as the temple mount. It was surrounded by courts. The innermost court was called the Court of the Priests because only members of the priestly tribe of Levi were permitted to enter.
The next court further out was Court of Israel; it could be entered by any Jewish male.
The next court beyond this was the Court of the Women which could be entered by any Jewish woman or any Jewish person for that matter.
Now note this: although there were differences, these three courtyards were all on the same level.
But all that changed past the Court of Women for one had to descend five steps to a level area where a 5 foot stone wall was built that went all around the entire temple. Gates were installed where the Jewish people could take stairs up to the Courts of Women and Men and Priests . . . but no Gentile allowed.
From that level ground, where the stone wall was built, you would have to descend 14 more steps to another level space –called the Court of the Gentiles. 19 steps below the Jewish courts – and on that stone wall, by the way, Josephus, the Jewish historian, informs us, there were inscriptions warning the Gentiles. I’ve seen pictures of them – one was unearthed in 1871 which read, “No foreigner is to enter within the wall and embankment around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his death which follows.”
Adapted facts about the temple from James Boice, Romans: Volume 4 (Baker, 1995), p. 1905
The signs were clear – “Gentile trespassers will be killed.”
No wonder the orthodox Jewish man would rise every morning and thank God that he had not been born a Gentile.
But now that Jewish man comes to faith in Christ. Now he discovers that the ground at the foot of the cross is level.
There are no 19 steps in the church, separating Jew and Gentile.
Jew and Gentile alike have been born into a new race – one
holy nation – a possession of God, that they – together – might show forth the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into marvelous light. (I Peter 2:9)
But it was all so new . . . grace was intimidating . . . the gospel was humbling.
Would they accept Paul’s gift of money, collected primarily from Gentile churches?
That’s why Paul asks the Romans, “pray that my service will be acceptable to the saints in Jerusalem.”
The prayer request was answered exactly as Paul had hoped! This one was.
Luke records the event in Acts 21 where we read, “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly . . . and after Paul had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things (note this) which God had done among the Gentiles.
I’m thinking, Uh oh . . . don’t push it, Paul . . . don’t
No, they need to know.
And Luke reports the Jewish believer’s response, “and when they heard the news they began glorifying God.” (Acts 21:17, 19-20)
Paul’s service to the saints was acceptable. Praise God!
There is one more prayer request – in verse 32. so that I may come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company.
Paul’s first request dealt with his safety. His second prayer request had to do with his service. This third request has to do with his spirit.
In a tender and open manner, Paul refers to the Roman church as a safe harbor he can’t wait to sail into. One author said, “Paul desperately wasn’t to drop anchor in the quiet haven of the assembly in Rome and rest. He had left Ephesus in an uproar; he had conflicted with Corinth over their immaturity and sin; he had written sharp words to the Galatian churches . . . he just wanted to rest – to spend time refreshing his spirit and recharge his batteries with joy . . . that was the longing of his soul.
Adapted from R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Romans (Augsburg Publishing, 1936), p. 896
But Paul would be arrested in Jerusalem and more several years later arrive in Rome – not the pioneering missionary, but the prisoner who will one day become a martyr for Christ.
How did the church in Rome receive him? I wish I could tell you a different story, but we know that when he first arrived in Rome, only a few believers came to meet him, while the rest of them were afraid to make themselves known because of the chains and the Roman guards and the potential of persecution.
Barnhouse, p. 110
In his final letter to Timothy, Paul wrote of the Roman believer’s fear and timidity, if not cowardice. Listen as he writes, “Timothy, you are aware that everyone turned away from me . . . may the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me – may the Lord grant him mercy from the Lord.”
So Paul was refreshed after all. Not by the assembly, but by one family who came and visited him – daring their own safety.
Did Paul lack joy? No. That prayer request was answered.
It would be in Rome, under house arrest where Paul would write his letter to the Philippians . . . a letter drenched with joy – in fact that word joy will appear 16 times.
Paul had discovered God’s will was vastly different than his earlier prayer list . . . and he was willing to allow God’s spirit to change his spirit, so that, even in the face of dramatic reversals, Paul indeed came to Rome and found joy.
Paul ends this paragraph with a customary Jewish benediction – referencing the peace of God that would be able to blend Jew and Gentile into one harmonious body.
He writes in verse 31. Now the God of peace by with you all, Amen.
Let me make three closing observations about his scene
- Spiritual maturity does not automatically erase the pain of an unsettled heart.
He was facing danger, battle, hatred, prejudice, conflict – and possibly death. Such unsettled feelings brought an agony that he needed to share . . . he needed others to pray – yes, pray for the great Apostle Paul.
What we are most often tempted to do is use prayer for God to change our circumstances, when God is using circumstances to change us.
Spiritual maturity does not erase times of struggle with an unsettled heart.
- A disciplined prayer life does not automatically erase the potential of unanswered questions.
In other words, intimacy with God does not alleviate times of wondering and confusion and even discouragement.
Walking with God doesn’t always mean your Blue Lightning Soap Box Derby car comes in first place . . . sometimes you come in last.
And you can’t figure out why . . . and God chooses not to give you answers.
An obsession with intercession is surrendering to a sovereign God who has the right to answer any way He pleases . . . even if He chooses not to answer at all.
E. Stanley Jones wrote, “Prayer is simply surrender to God. If I throw out a boat hook from a boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to whatever God wants.”
Charles Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart (Word Publishing, 1998), p. 453
A disciplined prayer life does not automatically erase the potential of unanswered questions.
One more final thought.
- A commitment to serve Christ does not automatically erase the possibility of an uncertain future.
As the Apostle Paul was about to set sail for Jerusalem, in a very touching scene, he bade farewell to the elders of the Ephesian church. And in his comments he made this remarkable statement, “I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there . . .” (Acts 20:22)
Imagine that! I’m on my way to Jerusalem . . . and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me there . . .
On your mark . . . get set . . . wait! Let’s make sure we pray before and during and after the race.
Then you can say with Paul in verse 33. “May the God of peace be with you all, Amen.
Peace! Perfect Peace! The old poem reads,
Our future is unknown?
But Jesus Christ we know, and He is on the throne!
John Phillips, Exploring Romans (Moody Press, 1969), p. 260
Peace, perfect peace;
Our future all unknown?
Jesus Christ we know . . . and He is on the throne!
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen
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