Power Through Prevailing Prayer
March 6th, 1983 @ 10:50 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-6-83 10:50 a.m.
And welcome the uncounted multitudes of you who are sharing this hour with us on radio and on television. This is the pastor bringing the message, one in a doctrinal series on prayer. A few Sundays ago, I did something I never had tried before in all of the fifty-four years that I have been a pastor: I delivered an exegetical message; a message on the words themselves. It greatly pleases me and fits me personally to attempt such a thing because I believe not only that the idea and the thought of the Holy Scriptures are inspired [2 Timothy 3:16], but I believe the word that God uses to express that revelation is no less inspired. So a few weeks ago I delivered an exegetical sermon, a sermon on the word that God uses to express His revelation. To my great surprise, God seemed to bless it. So about two or three weeks ago, I tried it again, and it was no less blessed. The people listened so intently and seemed to be encouraged by an exposition of what that passage says in its word, an exegesis of the word itself. So, encouraged by having twice tried it, I am thus attempting a third exegetical sermon; a sermon concerning the word, the words that God uses to express what God reveals to us.
The title of the message is Power in Prevailing Prayer, or Striving in Agonizing Prayer. In Romans 15:30, the apostle Paul writes, “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that you strive with me, agōnizomai, that you strive with me in prayers to God for me.” It is a term, agōnizomai, that Paul has taken out of the athletic world. Paul often uses words in the New Testament that he has chosen from the Greek games. He was born in a Greek city, Tarsus, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia [Acts 21:39]; and all of his life he was familiar with Greek games, Greek athletic contests. Wherever Hellenic culture invaded, pervaded, was introduced, in the whole Greco-Roman Empire, wherever Hellenistic culture and civilization was spread, there also accompanied it these Greek games. They were universal; they were everywhere. Some of them were very famous: for example, the Isthmian games played every three years on the isthmus between Corinth and Athens, the Pythian games played every four years on the plain before Delphi, and the Olympic games played every four years on the plain of Olympia. Having all of his life been accustomed to seeing and watching those Greek games, Paul often uses words out of them to describe our Christian pilgrimage.
Here are some of the examples of Paul’s use of words out of Greek athletic games.
- In 1 Corinthians 9:24 he chooses words out of the race on the track, the runner. First Corinthians 9:24: “They which run in a stadion, a race.” A
stadion was a Greek race track, six hundred feet, Greek feet long; six hundred six and three-fourths of English feet. “And they which run in a
stadion,” he says, “they run all, but one receiveth the brabeion, the prize in the public games.”
- Then in the same chapter he uses words out of boxing, out of a contest with boxers. He says, “So fight I”—pukteuō: so combat, so box, so fight I—“not as one beating the air, just missing the mark: But I keep under, “hupōpiazō”—literally means, “I hit under the eye, I keep under my body”; these are words out of a boxing match, a Greek boxing match [1 Cor. 9:26-27].
- In the epistle to the Philippians, he uses words again out of the race. He says, in Philippians 3:13, “Reaching forth unto the things which are before,” epekteinō, stretching out over, just a word that describes the tremendous burst of energy of the runner, “reaching out over unto the things which are before, I press” —another athletic term: diōkō, to pursue, to press forward—“I press toward the mark”—the skopos: that was a square column at the end of the stadium toward which the runner ran; keeping his eye on that mark—“I press toward the mark for the prize,” brabeion again [Philippians 3:13-14].
- Then in Ephesians 6 and verse 12, he uses a word out of the wrestling match: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood”; he actually wrote in that original Greek, ouk, “not,” estin, “is,” hēmin, “to us,” hē palē, “the wrestling.” In the English translation, they verbalize it; as Paul wrote it, it is a substantive, “the wrestling.” That is, characterizing us in our work before the Lord “is not,” he says, “with flesh and blood” such as you see in these Greek matches, “but it is with the principalities and [powers] of the air.” It is a spiritual combat [Ephesians 6:12].
But of all of the words that are used by the apostle out of the athletic world, there are none that are used so often and so poignantly as the word agōn and agōnia and agōnizomai. Agōn refers to the game itself, to the contest itself.
- In Hebrews 12:1, the author writes, “Wherefore seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses”—referring to those who were watching the games, such as in an amphitheater, or charioteers in a hippodrome, or in the stadion—”Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight,” when the runner ran he tied a weight on his foot when he was practicing, then when it came to the actual race, he took it off, and it was as though his feet were wings.
- “Let us lay aside every weight, the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the agōna, the race, the contest that is set before us, looking unto Jesus,” [Hebrews 12:1-2] that skopos, that goal at the end of the stadion track.
- In Philippians 1:29, the apostles write, “For unto you it is given in behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake; having the same agōna, having the same conflict, the same contest, which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me” [Philippians 1:29-30]. He’s in the Roman prison, and his life, he says, is an agōna; it’s a contest; it’s a conflict.
- In 1 Thessalonians 2:2, he writes, “We were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much agōni, much conflict,” that is, in the midst of much trial and confrontation which arose out of his persecution, such as he had experienced at Philippi.
- In 1 Timothy 6:12 he writes, “Fight, agōnizomai, fight the good fight, agōna, the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.”
The word agōnizomai is verbal and refers to the contest itself. It was used also to describe the spiritual battles that we fight against our adversaries.
- For example, Jesus will say, in John 18:36, to Simon Peter [verse 11], “Put up your sword [John 18:11], put it up; for if this were a contest in the world, then would My servants agōnizomai, they would fight [John 18:36]: but this is in the will of My Father.” We’re moving in a spiritual world. Agōnizomai, to agonize, to strive.
- In Luke [13:24], our Lord says, “Strive, agōnizomai, to enter in at the strait gate.”
- In 1 Corinthians 9:24, the apostle says, “In a stadion, in a race, one receiveth the brabeion, the prize; so run, that ye may obtain. And every one that agōnizomai, that strives for the mastery is temperate in all things” [1 Corinthians 9:24-25].
- In Colossians 1:29, the apostle describing his ministry, says, “I also labor, agōnizomai , striving according to God’s working, which worketh in me mightily.”
- Even Jude uses the word; he puts an intensive in front of it: epagōnizesthai, “Earnestly contend, epagōnizesthai, for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” [Jude verse 1:1-3].
- And in Hebrews 12:4 the author writes, “You have not resisted yet unto blood, antagōnizomenoi, striving against sin,” anti, against, “striving against sin.”
Then the word agōnia, agōnia refers to the contest itself, the intense struggle of the athletic struggle.
- In Luke 22:44, it says of our Lord, Doctor Luke describing our Lord, “And being in an agōnia, and being in an agony He prayed more earnestly: and His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
- In Colossians 2:1, the apostle Paul writes, “For I would that ye knew what great agōnia, what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face.”
- In Colossians 4:12 the apostle writes, “Epaphras, who is one of you,” that is he is a Gentile, “a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always laboring fervently, agōnizomai, for you in prayer.”
- And then in Romans 15:30, my first text, “I beseech you, brethren, by the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye sun-,” with, “agōnizomai, in your prayers to God for me.”
Then Paul speaks of our final victory in those same athletic terms. Second Timothy [4:7], “I have fought, agōnizomai, I have fought a good fight, agōna; agōnizomai agōna, I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
One of the most remarkable of all of the chapters in the Bible is the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews. It is a roll call of the heroes of faith. And after he has called the roll, named one great servant of God after another, he summarizes, speaking of them, in Hebrews 11:33, “These mighty men of God who through faith agōnizomai, conquered, subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire” [Hebrews 11:34], they did that agonizing in prayer before God. If we had the day, O Lord—I refer to my planet: some of these days, when I get to heaven, God’s going to give me a planet, and I’m going to get me a little soapbox, and I’m going to preach forever, never a clock to watch. And anybody wants to visit my planet, you just come—I wish we had time to take that roll call of the faithful, these great men and women of God, and speak of their agōnizomai in prayer; what God did for them in answer to their earnest intercessions.
We’re going to take just one; one he mentions here in this summarization: “Who through faith agōnizomai, conquered kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire” [Hebrews 11:33-34]. We’re going to take Daniel, the illustration here of one who stopped the mouths of lions; the example of Daniel in agonizing prayer. The story of Daniel, all twelve chapters, the story of Daniel is one marvelous answer to prayer after another, one glorious deliverance after another, in answer to his agonizing intercession before the Lord [Daniel 9:3].
- In the first chapter, he faces the wrath of the king by refusing to eat forbidden food and drinking alcoholic beverages [Daniel 1:8].
- In the second chapter, he, in answer to prayer, tells the king the dream he’s forgotten and interprets it: the whole revelation of history to the end of time [Daniel 2:1-45].
- In the fourth chapter, he interprets the king who is facing madness [Daniel 4:1-26].
- In the fifth chapter, he interprets the writing on the wall [Daniel 5:26-28].
- In the sixth chapter, he’s delivered from the lions’ den [Daniel 6:20-23].
- And in the ninth chapter, in answer to an agonizing prayer, there is revealed to Daniel what I think is the greatest prophecy in the Bible: the outline of the history of God’s people to the coming of Christ and to the consummation of the age; the revelation of the seventy weeks [Daniel 9:24-27].
- And in Daniel 9:23, it says that the commandment came forth, the answer came forth from God in answer to his agonizing prayer.
Well, how did Daniel get the ear of God? And how did he receive such power and such marvelous wisdom and revelation? What we need to remember is that there is power and energy in God available for us if only we are able to reach it. We live in a world of stored-up energy. There are tremendous forces above us, beneath us, all around us; and they are strange and mysterious and mighty. I remember one time sitting in a class, and the teacher, a physicist, held up before us a spoon of water, of tap water, a spoon of water. And he said, “There is enough energy in this teaspoon full of water to drive a passenger train from one side of this continent to the other, if it could only be released.” If we can discover the conditions for these workings of God, we can draw on them for wonderful results. For example, in this lower plain on which we live our physical life: you touch God’s creation in the right way, and you will find the commandment going forth in answer to your touching God’s creative power. Out in the field, you cultivate and sow according to the working of God, and you’ll reap a harvest. Take this world around us of ether waves: you touch it correctly, and it will carry your voice around the world, and it will carry a picture of this service to the ends of the earth, if you touch it right. There are airplanes that can fly above the clouds if we observe God’s laws of aerodynamics. Or, if you do it correctly, you can find fuel in the heart and in the depths of the earth.
Now, what we find in this lower physical plane of God’s creative stored-up energy available for us if we touch it right, use it right, if we observe those laws, the same thing applies on the higher plain of spiritual life and power. Here God also responds to the man who supplicates God in the right way, who touches God in His infinite creative power, if we can do it. Now what way? How the way? That’s why I think that the author of Hebrews, in Hebrews [11:33], used the example of Daniel. First of all—and we’re talking about touching the almightiness of God, the power of God—first, Daniel 9 and verse 2: “In the first year of the reign of Darius, I Daniel understood by scrolls,” translated in the King James Version “books,” the Holy Scriptures, “I understood by studying the scrolls, the Holy Scriptures, whereby the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet” [Daniel 9:2]. He begins with an earnest study of the Word of God. The most basic of all of the conditions of our touching the power of almightiness is that we study, pore over, read, the Word of God. In Daniel 9:17, that chapter, he prays, “Cause Thy face to shine upon us.” The favor of God is not something; it is everything! All that is goodness for us is found in the favor of God. And we must study, and read, and pore over God’s Word [Daniel 9:2]; then we are to pray and to ask according to the purpose of God [Daniel 9:3; James 1:6]. The Scriptures reveal for us personally, in every area of our lives, and in the church, in the communion of the saints, and in the history of the world, God plainly reveals for us His purpose of grace, His will for us; He does not becloud what He wills for you, for me, for us. It is plainly stated [Genesis 18:17; Romans 10:8]. And not only do we have it written in the Holy Scriptures, but the Holy Spirit Himself reveals to us, He speaks to us from the sacred page [John 16:13]. And when I give myself to a study of the Word of God, I am thereby achieving the first great foundational presupposition of the gift of the tremendous power, answer, that God has for me, for us, from heaven.
That’s the reason why you cannot emphasize too much the study of the Word of God. When you build your Sunday school, and call our people together to sit before the Holy Scriptures, you’re doing the first and fundamental of all things in order to touch, to reach, to posses the power of God. It lies first of all in the Holy Scriptures [Daniel 9:2]; it begins there. And the people who refuse to read the Bible and study the Word of God, have no opportunity at all to touch, to reach for, to receive the great power that is latent in answered prayer.
Number two—looking at Daniel as an example of agonizing prayer, getting things from God—number two: “I set my,” that’s the next verse, verse 3, “I set my face unto the Lord my God” [Daniel 9:3]. I presume toward Jerusalem, that’s what the Scriptures say in Daniel 6:10, he set his face. The second great fundamental condition for touching and reaching the power of God is found in our importunity, our intensity of praying, our agonizing in prayer, our never turning aside, and our never giving up. That’s the illustration the Book of Hebrews says, in Daniel 6:10, “Now when Daniel knew that the decree was signed, he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chambers toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before God, as he had always done aforetime.” Well, to do that meant cast into the lions’ den [Daniel 6:11-16]. That didn’t deter Daniel; he never hesitated. Time came for prayer, and when time came for prayer Daniel was down on his knees [Daniel 6:10].
I have here on this platform, as you know, a representative of the English nation. Geoffrey Hammond is our British minister. There was a time when England was the greatest nation in the earth. It is now one of the weakest and one of the poorest. The only reason England is considered at all among the nations of the earth is because of her past tradition, not because of any power she wields today. She is a weak, suppliant nation. Well, what was the difference? I can illustrate it well. In these days gone by in England, there was a man, Sir Thomas Abney; all of his life as a father and as a husband he gathered his family for an altar, prayer service in the evening. He was elected Lord Mayor of London, the highest office in the British capital. And on the night of his elevation, the king and all of the celebrities and scintillating social and political groups of England gave a great banquet honoring Sir [Thomas] Abney. And when the time came, while he was in that banquet, for prayer, for the altar, he excused himself from the king, and from the people who governed London by his side, gathered his family together, had prayer with them, then returned to the banquet.
Today there’s not one in a thousand Englishmen who even bother to go to church. That’s the difference between a great nation and a weak nation, and it’ll be the difference in America. Prayer, never giving up, never turning aside; of all of our work—and this church is a typical church of intensest ministries, and I have helped further them all—but out of all of our work and out of all of the pastor’s ministering, the most important is intercession, it’s praying. We go further on our knees than we ever could running before the chariot of Ahab [1 Kings 18:45-46]. We are admonished in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” Our whole life is to be one of looking up, crying from our inmost soul, talking to God when our hands are busy, making everything a matter of prayer [Philippians 4:6].
You know this last week, reading in Exodus, Exodus 14:15, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward, into the Red Sea, speak unto them that they go on.’” Yet it is not recorded, not a syllable in the Bible, that Moses ever said a word. And yet Exodus 14:15, God says to Moses, “Why criest thou unto Me?”
But the Bible never says he said a word. What happened was he was agonizing in his soul, he was crying in his heart, he was begging God! Same kind of a thing as you read in Romans 8:26: “With groanings which cannot be uttered.” The same thing you read in 1 Samuel 1:13: “Hannah, her lips moved, but her voice was not heard”; she only spoke in her heart. Our praying is to be like that: always, God look, God bless, God remember us, the Lord help; the intensity of our praying and the importunity of our praying, the agōnizomai, as the word is used [Romans 15:30].
Now we’re going to take a Hebrew word. In this verse we’re speaking of, in [Daniel] 9:3, “I set my face unto the Lord God”: a resolute purpose, a fixed determination, a committed perseverance. So I went through the Hebrew Bible looking at that word nathan, translated “set,” “I set my face unto the Lord God” [Daniel 9:3].
- In Genesis 1:16-17, “And God made two great lights, and God nathan, and God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.”
- In Leviticus 20:2-3, “Whosoever be of the children of Israel that giveth any of his seed, his children, unto Molech, to be burned before the god Molech, he shall surely be put to death: I have nathan, I have set my face against that man! You are not to burn your children before any Molech; I have set My face against that man that would do that.”
- In Psalm 8:1, “O Lord our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth! Thou hast nathan, set Thy glory in the heavens.”
- Ezekiel 33:7, “O son of man, I have nathan, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; thou shalt hear the word at My mouth, and warn them from Me.” The agony, the intensity, the importunity of Daniel’s praying is seen in that setting of his face toward God! [Daniel 9:3]. And then it is revealed in the kind of a praying that he did [Daniel 9:4-19].
- In this same chapter 9, verses 18 and 19, listen to him: “O my God, incline Thine ear, and hear; open Thine eyes, and behold [Daniel 9:18], O Lord, hear; O God, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; for Thine own sake, O my God” [Daniel 9:19].
I don’t have any word against eloquent prayers, beautifully worded; I’m just pointing out that sometimes prayers are in broken sentences. “Lord, Lord, I can’t frame the word to say it, I can’t put the sentence together to pronounce it; Lord, Lord.” That is agōnizomai, praying in intensity and perseverance.
I have one other here before I have to close; a third thing about Daniel’s praying. The first was the basis of his intercession was the Word of God, reading the scrolls, the Holy Scriptures [Daniel 9:2]; the second was, “I set my face,” the intensity and importunity of his intercession [Daniel 9:3]; and the third: he made his pleading on the basis of the atoning blood of the Lamb of God we know as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Daniel 9:21, “While I was speaking in prayer, the man, the angel Gabriel, touched me, touched me about the time of the evening oblation, the evening sacrifice,” when they offered the lamb unto God [Daniel 9:21]. In the verse before, we have Daniel’s confession of sin: “While I was speaking, and praying, and confessing my sin, and presenting my supplication before the Lord my God” [Daniel 9:20]. The sinner came to the altar, and over the head of the sacrificial victim he placed his hands, and he confessed his sins, and then the sacrifice was offered unto God; a type of the atoning grace of our Savior who dies for us, our confessed sin [Leviticus 4:33, 5:5].
Isn’t that a remarkable thing? I do not know in literature, I do not know in the Bible, a somebody, a anybody who in life was more holy and saintly than the prophet statesman Daniel, and yet he is there confessing sin as though he were the vilest of God’s creation [Daniel 9:4]. You can listen to the holiest saint as he prays, and you’d think he’s the vilest sinner. You turn that around: you can listen to the dirtiest, vilest rogue, and listen to him and you’d think he’s the most virtuous and innocent of men. In God’s light, we see our darkness. In God’s holiness, we see our sin. In God’s strength, we see our weakness. In God’s perfection, we see our faults and shortcomings. In God’s fullness, we see our want. And in God’s glory, we see our fallen nature. When the man comes before God, he comes with a bowed head.
Job closes the forty-second chapter of Job, Job closes with all of the pride of his life: “I have heard of Thee,” he says, “O God, by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee: Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and in ashes” [Job 42:5-6]. Abraham, when he came before God in the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, says, “Behold, I take it upon myself to speak unto Thee, I who am but dust and ashes” [Genesis 18:27]. And the twenty and four apocalyptic elders, in the fifth chapter of the Revelation, they bow before the Lamb, having golden vials of the prayers of the saints [Revelation 5:8]. So Daniel in his praying: he prays, not a personal merit does he plead, not a good deed does he commemorate, not one; but he comes before the Lord with a bowed head, a bowed heart, a bowed soul, a prostrated inner being [Daniel 9:3-19]. And he pleads the blood atonement, he pleads the merit of the Lamb of God [Daniel 9:9, 18-19], like us when we come before the Lord: “Lord, Lord, I’ve taken upon myself to approach the throne of grace, I who am the vilest of sinners; but I come pleading the blood, the atoning outpouring of the love of Jesus for me. And I am accepting God’s invitation, ‘Wherefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that ye may find help in time of need’” [Hebrews 4:16]. That’s the way to pray. That’s the way to find an answer from God. Do it on the basis of God’s Word; do it in importunity and intensity, agōnizomai; and do it on the basis of the atoning grace of our Lord in His dear and blessed name [Romans 5:11]. And if we do that, all of the latent power of omnipotence is at our touch, it’s at our fingers; God is with us [Psalm 55:17]. Bless His name forever! May we stand?
Our Lord who presides over the heavens and the earth, what abounding, immeasurable, illimitable power is in Thy omnipotent hands; all of it available for us, if we but approach God correctly, if we but touch God aright, if we but agonize in this intercession, in keeping with the Word of the Lord. And our Lord, if we observe Thy laws in this earth, and are so bountifully rewarded, think how we can be rewarded when we observe the laws of heaven, God’s spiritual laws. Teach us to pray. No wonder those apostles approached our dear Lord, seeing Him pray: “Lord, show us how to pray like that” [Luke 11:1]. Teach us, Lord, that we might have in our lives and in our work the same glorious fullness of power and grace.
And our prayer now is as a people, as a church, as a pastor, as a choir that sings, our prayer now is that you will respond with your life. “Pastor, God has spoken to me, and I’m coming forward today.” A family: “The Lord’s spoken to all of us.” A couple, a single, or just that one somebody you, when we begin our song, on the first note of the first stanza, come, stand by us. “Pastor, I’ve cast my life and lot in the will of God; I’m answering His call, here I stand.” And our Lord, may the angels that surround Thee in heaven no less surround these who come today. In Thy saving and keeping name, amen. A thousand times welcome, while we sing, while we sing, while we sing.