Effective Fervent Praying
November 17th, 1974 @ 8:15 AM
EFFECTIVE FERVENT PRAYING
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-17-74 8:15 a.m.
On the radio we welcome you to the services of our First Baptist Church. And this is the pastor bringing the message from the fifth chapter of James, entitled Effective Fervent Praying. You will see the text when I come to it, those words are in it in the sixteenth verse [James 5:16]. But we begin reading at the thirteenth verse; the last chapter of James:
Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
To pray and to use means, both of them; not just pray but also the anointing with oil [James 5:13-14], a medicinal substance; prayer and means; prayer and the physician, prayer and the hospital, prayer and the pharmacist, prayer and the whole medical gift that the Lord has laid in our hands. Where did penicillin come from? It came from God. Where did all of these marvelous herbs and chemicals come from? They come from God.
Is any among you sick? let him pray and use means in the name of the Lord.
And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he hath committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
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.
Elijah 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 and a half years.
And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.
It is only an atheist that does not pray. It is as normal for a child of God to pray as it is for a child to talk to his earthly father. There was a fine, dedicated member of our church that came by the office the other day and said, “Pastor, I am entering the hospital, facing a serious surgical operation. Would you pray for me?” That is natural and normal. And in every area of our life, God is pleased with our praying.
To the Lord, in the Bible, He likens our intercessions, our appeals, He likens them to incense, a sweet savor that comes up into the presence of the Lord. And God says He delights in the fragrant odor of our prayers ascending heavenward [Psalm 141:2]. That is so much in the Word of God.
In the tabernacle, when you entered, in the temple when you entered, to your left would have been the seven-branched lamp stand; to your right would have been the golden table of showbread; in front of you, in the center, right immediately before the veil, there was a golden altar, and that was the altar of prayer, the golden altar of incense [Hebrews 9:1-2]. And on it, while the people prayed in the courtyard, there the high priest burned incense, and the fragrance filled the sanctuary and ascended upward to God [Luke 1:9-10]. The imagery of that is so oft seen in the Holy Scriptures.
In the dramatic portrayal of the apostle John, who entered through a door into heaven [Revelation 4:1-2], and saw in the right hand of Him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the outside, sealed with seven seals [Revelation 5:1], the book of redemption, our names in it [Luke 10:20; Revelation 17:8]. And there was no one found worthy to open the seals and to look on the book. And John cried, wept, because no man was worthy to open the book and to look thereon [Revelation 5:1-4].
And while he wept, one of the elders said to him, “Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah… hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof” [Revelation 5:5]. And John says he looked, “and in the midst of the four cherubim, and in the midst of the elders, there stood a Lamb. … And He came and took the book out of the right hand of Him that sat upon the throne” [Revelation 5:6-7].
Now look. “And when He had taken the book, the four cherubim, and the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having each one of them harps, and golden vials full of fragrances, which are the prayers of the saints” [Revelation 5:8]; your prayers.
I take time just for one other. In the eighth chapter:
And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.
I could not imagine a more beautiful, glorious, meaningful, significant portrayal of how our prayers are accepted in the sight of God than this constant imagery throughout the Bible: that it’s like incense, fragrance, coming up before God. And the Lord smells the sweet odor of our intercessions, and He is pleased and delighted [Psalm 141:2].
There is an old Talmudic legend, concerning Sandalphon, the angel of prayer. And I read a poetic rendering of his assignment in heaven:
Standing erect at the outermost gates
Of the City Celestial he waits,
With his feet on the ladder of light,
. . .
. . . listening breathless
To the sounds that ascend from below,
From the spirits on earth that adore,
From the souls that entreat and implore
In the fervor and passion of prayer;
From the hearts that are broken with losses,
And weary with dragging their crosses
Too heavy for mortals to bear.
And he gathers the prayers as he stands,
And they change to flowers in his hands,
Into garlands of purple and red;
And beneath the great arch of the portal,
Through the streets of the City Immortal
Is wafted the fragrance they shed.
[from “Sandalphon,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]
Isn’t that a beautiful thought, that such an angel of prayer should take our petitions, and as they ascend up into heaven, he changes them into the fragrances of flowers, and he wafts them before the throne of grace in glory? Well, that, though it is just a Talmudic legend, an ancient Jewish legend, yet it is true to the spirit of what we read in the Bible concerning our entreaties before the Lord.
Then as my text reads, he uses an illustration of the power of prayer, avowing that, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” [James 5:16]. Then he says,
Elijah was a man just as we are, human, mortal, of like passions, as we are, he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not for three and a half years.
Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.
What a marvelous illustration of the power of effectual fervent praying [James 5:16].
Elijah was a mountain of a man, with a whirlwind of heaven in his heart. And when the text says that he was a man of passion, the text says it correctly. He was passion compact. Everything about him was just like that. He was eruptive and volcanic. He was a surge of fire and fury. He was a man of passion! [James 5:17].
In a passion of anger, he stood before Ahab [1 Kings 18:17-19]. In a passion of contempt and scorn, he chided the false prophets of Baal [1 Kings 18:25-29]. In a passion of dedication to God, he destroyed the system and places of idolatry in Israel [1 Kings 18:30-40]. In a passion of prayer, he pled with God for rain [1 Kings 18:41-45; James 5:17-18]. And also, in a passion of despondency and melancholia, he fled before Jezebel, and seated under a juniper tree, prayed that he might die [1 Kings 19:1-4].
He was indeed a man of passion, of moving feeling, of deepening response. But he was a mountain of a man. There was something glorious and mysterious about Elijah. Suddenly he will appear before Ahab and as suddenly does he disappear [1 Kings 17:1-5]. Suddenly he will appear before Obadiah and as suddenly will he be gone [1 Kings 18:7-12]. Suddenly he will appear before Ahaziah and his company and as suddenly will he be gone [2 Kings 1:2-4]. Suddenly he will be walking by the side of Elisha and as suddenly is he taken away [2 Kings 2:11]. There is something awesome and mysterious about the prophet Elijah.
Can you see the white of that Bible? That’s the close of the Old Testament. How does it close? “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” [Malachi 4:5]. That’s the way it closes. And in a like manner, Elijah opens the New Testament. He is the messenger sent before the face of the coming Messiah [Matthew 3:1-3; 11:10].
And in the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Matthew, the Lord says to the disciples when they say, “But before Messiah comes, Elijah is to come first” [Matthew 17:10], and the Lord replied, “Elijah truly must come and restore all things; But I say unto you, That Elijah is come already, and they knew him not” [Matthew 17:11-12], speaking of John the Baptist, the next verse says [Matthew 17:13]. This man Elijah is the great prophet that announces the coming of the kingdom of Christ [Matthew 17:13].
And even though our Lord identified John the Baptist with Elijah [Matthew 17:12-13], and the priest Zechariah said that his son John should come in the power and spirit of Elijah [Luke 1:17], preparing the way of the Lord, even though that is in the introduction of the new Christian age, there are many of us who believe that at the coming of Messiah, Elijah himself will precede the presence and the glory of the Lord Christ, when He comes down from heaven [Malachi 4:5].
This man Elijah stood alone in a nation that was given over to apostasy and to idolatry. From Queen Jezebel at the top of the upper crust, down to the mud seals of those suborned liars who witnessed against Naboth, and caused that righteous man to be stoned to death in his own inheritance; from the top to the bottom it was corrupt [1 Kings 21:5-13]. Kind of like America is today. And Elijah stood alone, fearless, to confront the king and the queen and the whole nation [1 Kings 21:17-24].
You know sometimes as I read, I am simply overwhelmed by the fearlessness, the bold confrontation of God’s people. For example, in 1215 AD, Francis of Assisi made a journey to the Mohammedan world, to Egypt and to Palestine, to Syria. And he went over there with the message of Christ to preach to them Jesus.
While he was in Egypt, he stood before the sultan of Egypt. The Mohammedan ruler of a country is called a sultan. And the boldness and the fearlessness and the sweet humble spirit of Francis, made a profound impression upon the Mohammedan ruler, the sultan of Egypt. And as the days passed, Francis stood before the Sultan Kamil, before the Sultan Kamil, with his Christian followers, a little band of Christian disciples. And while Francis began to speak, making an appeal for Christ to that Mohammedan Islamic ruler, the priests of Mohammed interdicted. And they said to the sultan, “Sire, thou art versed in the law, and thou dost know the commandments given us by the prophet Mohammed; and we are asking, therefore, that the heads of these men be cut off.” And Francis of Assisi turned to the sultan and replied, “Sir, we have sought to get the priests of Mohammed to talk to us, but they refuse. Maybe, therefore, they will act. I ask, sire,” said Francis of Assisi to the sultan, “I ask that a great fire be kindled, and I and my fellow Christians will enter the fire, and Mohammed’s priests will also enter the fire, and we shall see whose faith is the true faith, and whose faith is of God.”
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that? “Heat the furnace seven times, and I’ll walk in it; and let the Islamic priests also walk in it, and let God choose between us.” By the time Francis had done his speaking and had presented his challenge, one by one, the priests of Islam, horrified at such a prospect, dissolved away; and Francis and his followers stood alone before Kamil. And the sultan looked around and said, “My priests seem to be men of many words, but they are not men of great faith.” This is Elijah the prophet of God [1 Kings 21:17-24]. And this is the people of the Lord [Luke 12:8].
So “Elijah prayed that it might not rain: and it rained not upon the earth for three and a half years” [James 5:1; 1 Kings 17:1]; that is, the prophet sought to bring to the hearts and cognizances of the people their dependence upon God. It is in God’s will that we live. It’s in God’s hands that we breathe. It’s in God’s sovereign grace that the earth is watered and that the earth brings forth her increase.
Our lives are lived in the hands of God. We are dependent upon God. And to bring to the minds of an apostate nation that dependency, Elijah prayed that it might not rain. And in answer to that supplication of the prophet, the heavens turned to brass, and the earth turned to iron [1 Kings 17:1-7]. The cold stars looked down out of heaven upon an earth on which there was no dew. The water courses dried up, and there was no vegetation. The burned and parched ground opened in fissures.
The Brook Cherith, where Elijah was fed by the ravens [1 Kings 17:6], dried up and the whole earth became barren and sterile, and the animals lowed and cried for water [1 Kings 17:1-7]. And in the midst of that awesome drought, for three and a half years, Elijah prayed before God and said, “O God, it is enough. It is enough. The time has come for God to bear His great arm to save, that the false prophets of Baal and that Baal himself might be openly presented for what he actually is, a false and sterile and barren god with an empty faith. O God,” said Elijah, “the poor are suffering, and find rest just in their graves. O God, send rain. Send rain, send rain.” And Elijah bowed and prayed, “O God, send rain” [James 5:18].
And he prayed the second time and the sixth time. And after the sixth time and the seventh time, his servant came from looking over Mt. Carmel to the sea, and returned saying, “The Lord hath sent a cloud, just the size of a man’s hand” [1 Kings 18:42-44]. And Elijah rose up in the promise of that faith [1 Kings 18:45-46]. If God helps a little, he will help mightily. If God sends a small group, it will be followed by His battalions from heaven. And Elijah stood up and said to Ahab, “Get thee up, for there is a sound of abundance of rain” [1 Kings 18:41]. And Elijah, in the power of that promise, ran before the chariot of Ahab from Carmel clear down to the Jordan in Jezreel [1 Kings 18:46].
But, immediately, we would say, “Pastor, how could we ever emulate any prayer like that? How could we be classified in any category like Elijah? We’re not Elijahs. And the illustration of prayer that the apostle James uses here has no pertinancy to us” [James 5:17].
Wait, wait. Look. James knew that! That’s why he writes as he does; he’s a pastor, an undershepherd, and he knows his flock. Look: he says, “Elijah was a man homoiopathes” [James 5:17]. Why, you know that word “homo, homo,” homogenized milk is milk that’s the same all the way through, it doesn’t separate cream from milk, “homogenized, homo, like.” The word is used in a thousand ways, “homo, like,” pathes. If I just change the vowel a little bit, pathos, pathos, pathos is feeling, feeling, homoiopathes, he’s a man just as we are. He’d get discouraged. He’d get lifted up. He knows hurt. He knows weakness. He is a man just as we are [James 5:17].
That word homoiopathes is used by Paul in the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, when at Lystra after the miracle of the healing of the lame man [Acts 14:8-10], they sought to offer sacrifices to him and Barnabas as though they were gods come down in human flesh [Acts 14:11-13]. And Paul uses that word homoiopathes, “We are just like you, we are mortal men just like you” [Acts 14:15]. That’s what James is saying about Elijah, “just like us he is, a man just like us” [James 5:17], but, he prayed earnestly [James 5:18], “And the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” [James 5:16].
In the little moment that remains, and I need an hour for us, let us look at that. Elijah, just as we are, when he faced great critical times, he prayed, he prayed. To the widow of Zarephath, he said to her, “Bring first the little cake. You say you have a little meal left in the barrel, and a little oil left in the cruse; first bake a little cake and bring it to me.” And the widow said, “I am just cooking this for me and my son, and then both of us die of starvation” [1 Kings 17:8-12]; the famine’s so great. “No,” said Elijah, “bake it first for me” [1 Kings 17:13]. I just am amazed at how God puts things together. Give it first to God, the firstfruits to God. Make Him first, and see if the barrel of meal refuses to waste and the oil in the cruse refuses to dry up [1 Kings 17:14]. First to God, said Elijah, “First to the Lord, and then God will feed you and your son throughout these years of the drought” [1 Kings 17:15-16].
And as the days went by, the lad died, the boy died. And Elijah took the boy up to his room, laid him on his own bed, covered him with his own body, breathed into his mouth his breath, and prayed, and prayed, and God heard the prayer of Elijah, and the boy was raised up. And he brought him down from the upper chamber and placed him in the arms of his widowed mother [1 Kings 17:17-24]. He did just as God encourages us to do; in a critical time in life, Elijah prayed [1 Kings 17:20-21].
Now the pastor, in writing of the story, he says two things about us. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” [James 5:16]. He gives two qualifications there for our praying; one; that we be righteous; and the second that we pray fervently [James 5:16]. That we be righteous; God has regard to the righteous. God looks upon them. Isn’t it something?
When Abraham stood before the Lord, when God said, “I go down to Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain to see if it is as the report is come up unto Me” [Genesis 18:20-21], and Abraham, knowing the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, stood yet before the Lord and said, “Lord that be far from Thee to destroy the righteous with the wicked [Genesis 18:22-23], if there be fifty righteous.”
“I will not destroy if there are fifty righteous” [Genesis 18:24-26].
“Lord, if there lack five of the fifty?”
“I will not destroy it for the lack of five” [Genesis 18:28].
“Lord, if there were just forty, thirty, twenty, Lord? [Genesis 18:29-31]. I take it upon myself to speak unto Thee, I who am but dust and ashes. Lord, weary not of my appeal. If there are just ten,” and the Lord said, “I will spare the city for the sake of ten” [Genesis 18:32].
Do you know why Abraham stopped at ten? He took it for granted that Lot and Lot’s family would have won enough to the true faith to number ten. It never occurred to Abraham that Lot wouldn’t have at least, in his family and in the circle of his friends, ten. And God promised, “For ten I will spare the city” [Genesis 18:32]. He has regard to the righteous.
There weren’t ten. But had there been ten, He would have spared the cities for ten’s sake [Genesis 18:32]. When a righteous man gets on his knees and talks to God, something happens in heaven. God bows down His ear to hear, and the angels stop what they’re doing, to work by the side of that man, who in his righteousness pleads before heaven [James 5:16].
The second: to pray earnestly [James 5:17]; not trippingly, lightsomely, indifferently, but to agonize before God, to pray earnestly, to mean it, to just be importunate: “Lord, Lord, give me my request, lest I die.” And when God sees His people in righteousness, praying earnestly, you have an unusual word here, translated “availeth much, effectual” [James 5:16], polus, “much strong, much prevailing,” energoumene, a participle from energeō, which means “to work to accomplish.” You know that word, “energy,” energy. God’s Book says here there is energy in it [James 5:16]. I never said that. I’m just an echo. God said that. There is energy in prayer, energy. There is working in it. There is accomplishment in it.
My dear people, there’s no section of your life, there’s no part of your life in which the energizing power of prayer cannot pour God’s blessing into what you do. There is working in it. There is accomplishment in it. That’s what the word means exactly [James 5:16].
And I think, not only here with us in our lives, in the church, in what we’re doing, is there poured energy from God in praying, but I think the same thing happens in heaven. The whole strength of heaven is marshaled to help those who pour out their hearts to God in intercession; energeo, energy, the working of prayer [James 5:16].
So God bless us as we take our lives, our sorrows, our frustrations, our difficulties, our weaknesses, all of the complexities of our life, as we take assignments that are too great for us to do, burdens to heavy for us to bear, as we take our whole lives to God. There’s energy in it. There’s answer in it. There’s heavenly blessing in it [James 5:16].
We stand now to sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, to give himself to the Lord who answers by fire, to the Lord who answers prayer, on the first note of this first stanza, come. Make the decision now in your heart. And in this moment when we stand, walking down one of these stairways, coming down one of these aisles, “Here I am, pastor and here I come. I make it now.” Do it so, come now, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.
[Congregation sings Sweet Hour of Prayer]
Even though at this hour practically all of us are members of the church, yet in so great a throng, always, always there are some who ought to come. This is God’s time and God’s hour for somebody you, putting your life in the church, taking the Savior as your own; looking to God in faith, in prayer, in commitment, answering the Holy Spirit’s appeal in your heart. Always there are some who ought to come, even this precious and holy hour. We are going to bow our heads, all of us. Our Master that somebody to whom the Holy Spirit makes appeal today, Lord in that hour, in this moment of holy worship and adoration before God, Lord say the right word, as only the Spirit can say it. We can’t pronounce it, but God can. Lord, may they answer with their life, “Here I am. Here I come.” In a moment while the choir sings the appeal, that somebody you, out of the balcony, into the aisle on this lower floor, this moment, this hour: “I make that decision for Christ, and I’m coming.” “Putting my life in God’s church, or taking my Savior as my very own in my heart, I’m coming now. I’m on the way now. Here I am.” Do it now. Make it now. There’s time and to spare. If you’re in that upmost balcony, “Here I come pastor; here I am,” while we pray and while we sing our word of appeal.