March 5th, 1989 @ 8:15 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-5-89 8:15 a.m.
And I am so happy in my heart to welcome our Chapel Choir, our young people, and all of you in this sanctuary and the uncounted multitudes and throngs of you who share the hour on our own radio station, KCBI. God bless you for listening and praying as the pastor of this First Baptist Church of Dallas delivers the message entitled Importunate Prayer.
I have turned aside from preaching through the Gospel of John to deliver three messages – today, next Sunday and the following Lord’s Day – on prayer and soulwinning. I have done that in keeping with our dedication to win people to Christ and to pray for the salvation of their souls. And I ask God, humbly, to remember us in our dedicated effort to tell the others who do not know Him of the marvelous goodness of God in Christ Jesus.
The text this morning is in the last chapter of the Book of James. James was the pastor of the church in Jerusalem. And he writes:
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 years and six months.
And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.
Prayerlessness is practical atheism. The child of God will inevitable turn to our Lord either in love and adoration or in time of need and necessity. Both of those encouragements to intercession are written here in the last chapter of the Book of James. He says, "The Lord is full of pity, and of tender mercy" [James 5:11]. And that elicits from our souls paeans of praise and love and thanksgiving to our Lord.
Then the second: "Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any sick among you? Let him pray" [James 5:13-14]. This is the appeal to our Lord in the hour of an exigency and an urgency beyond our own power to meet it. We look to God for help.
Those are two beautiful things that encourage us in prayer, our love and adoration of our Savior. In the tabernacle and in the temple, both, before the veil of intercession that separated the Holy of Holies, there was a golden altar of incense. And in the Book of the Revelation, twice that beautiful symbol of our prayers ascending up to God, twice is it gloriously delineated.
In Revelation 5, verse 8 "The four living ones and the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" [Revelation 5:8], the incense calling on the name of the Lord in a beautiful and effective illustration.
Then again in the eighth chapter:
And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne
– our prayers of love and adoration, thanksgiving, just communing with the Lord who made us, a beautiful privilege shared in by all of those who love Jesus.
There’s an old Talmudic legend concerning Sandalphon, the angel of prayer. And an author took the legend and placed it in these words:
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" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]
A glorious thought, the fragrance of the flowers, like the incense offered on the golden altar, come before God. That is the natural response of a child of the Lord; to talk to Him, to express your love for Him, your adoration of the great God of heaven who saves us.
Then the other: our praying in need and necessity; "Are you afflicted? Pray. Any among you sick? Pray. For the effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much" [James 5:16]. Then he gives the illustration of Elijah; a man, just like us of like passions. He prayed earnestly and God shut up the heavens like brass and iron. Then he prayed again and God poured forth blessings upon the earth. That’s a remarkable illustration, the power of intercession. Elijah was a mountain of a man. He had the whirlwind in his heart; speaks of his passion.
In a passion of condemnation, he confronted Ahab and Jezebel. In a passion of scorn and contempt, he looked upon the prophets of Baal. In a passion of destruction and determination, he cast down the altars of idols. In a passion of intercession and prayer, he prayed for rain upon the earth. And in a passion of despair, discouragement, and disappointment, he sat down under a juniper tree and asked to die. He was a man filled with passion.
There was an unearthliness about Elijah. There was an other-worldness about him. He was like a volcanic eruptiveness. He was just suddenly here, and then he was gone. For example, when I open my Bible to the seventeenth chapter of the 1 Kings, "And Elijah the Tishbite." Where did he come from? Nobody knows. What was he doing there? Nobody knows. Just suddenly here in the Bible, "There is Elijah the Tishbite." Suddenly he stands before Ahab,, before Ahad, and then he’s gone. Suddenly he stands before Obadiah, and then he’s gone. Suddenly he stands before the message of messenger of Uzziah the king, then he’s gone. Suddenly he stands by Elisha, then he’s gone. And as they walk along together, across Jordan, suddenly he’s gone; wafted up to heaven to the glory of God [2 Kings 2:11]. That’s Elijah.
He was a character, alone in his grandeur. It’s interesting to me to note that the Old Testament closes with Elijah, and the New Testament, the New Dispensation, begins with Elijah. Our Lord said in Matthew 17 that John the Baptist was the promised Elijah that was yet to come [verses 10 and 11]. He lived in the day of decline and depravity in the state of Israel, illustrated by its highest society in Queen Jezebel and illustrated by its mudsill in the traders who were suborned and condemned Naboth to be stoned to death. That was Israel in the days of Elijah.
And he appeared, this fearless man of God, to confront Ahab and Jezebel and the prophets of Baal and Asherah and to bring revival back to the people of God. When I think of Elijah, as you do, you think of a man who is fearless in the presence of God.
In my reading, I came across an instance in the life of Francis of Assisi. In 1215 AD he and his brothers – his disciples, his brethren – Francis of Assisi went down to Egypt, praying God help him convert sultan Kamil, the Mohammedan and Islamic ruler of Egypt.
And he stands, Francis of Assisi – a sainted man of God if there ever was one – he stands there in the presence of the sultan in Egypt, and around the sultan are the priests of Mohammed. And the priests of Mohammed say to the sultan, "These men ought to be slain. Their heads ought to be cut off." And they say to the sultan, "You are the defender of the faith, and we’re asking you to decapitate these men" – Francis of Assisi and his brothers.
And Francis of Assisi replies, "Your Eminence, I cannot get your priests to speak to me. So maybe they will act. I’m asking you," said Saint Francis to the sultan Kamil, "I’m asking you to build a great fire. And I will enter it. And your priests of Mohammed will go with me, and we’ll walk into the fire. And it will be that the God who saves, whether it be my God or their god, let Him be God."
And by the time Francis of Assisi had done his appeal, to build a fire and to walk into it, those priests of Mohammed, one by one, sloth away, till all of them were gone. And the sultan said to Francis of Assisi, "They seem to be much in their speaking, but they’re not much in their acting." You can’t help but be moved by the fearlessness of a man of God, whether it be Elijah or whether it be Francis of Assisi or any other bold, devoted exponent of the faith.
That’s Elijah and his praying. He sought in that day of calling Israel back to the Lord God, he sought to teach the people their dependence upon Jehovah God who rules in heaven and in earth. So Elijah got down on his knees, and he prayed, "O Lord God, teach these people their dependence upon Thee. Shut up heaven, that it doesn’t rain for three years and six months." And God heard the prayer of his prophet. And the heavens became brass and the earth became iron. The cold stars looked down from the sky, and there was no dew. The river courses and the water courses dried up, and there was no vegetation. The sun beat down on the parched earth and there were cracks and fissures everywhere. The herds of cattle and the flocks of sheep died in the field. Even the Brook Cherith, where Elijah was staying, dried up. And the whole earth cried out for rain – teaching our dependence upon the Lord God [1 Kings 17:1-7].
Then in the day when the idols were destroyed and the prophets of Asherah and Baal were destroyed, Elijah got down on his knees on the brow of Mount Carmel, a small mountain that juts out on the Mediterranean Sea. I’ve stood there as many of you have. Knelt down before God and said, "Lord, imprimatur, signify Your presence. The people are hurting. They are suffering, and the poor are seeking release in their graves from poverty and wretchedness. Lord, open the windows of heaven and pour out blessings upon us." Then he sent his servant to the brow of the hill and said, "Do you see any sign of rain?"
The servant came back and said, "There’s no sign. The sky is iron and the earth is brass." Importunate praying. And Elijah prayed the second time and sent the servant, "There’s no sign." Prayed the third time; no sign. The fourth time, no sign; The fifth time, no sign; the sixth time and no sign.
And the seventh time, the servant came back from the brow of the hill looking over the sea and said, "Sir, there is a cloud the size of a man’s hand [1 Kings 18:41-45]." If God helps at all, He helps mightily! If God sends His advanced guard, the great battalions are just behind. And Elijah rose and said, "Send word to Ahab, there’s a sound of an abundance of rain"; prayer, importunate and a praying-answering God.
Well, you can easily say, "Pastor, that’s just wonderful in the Bible. That’s a marvelous story, moving, affirming. But dear pastor, that’s no illustration for me. That’s impossible for me. I can’t be like Elijah." Maybe more than you think.
There are three things about the prophet that we can be like; I can be like. Number one: I can be counted for God. I can believe in God. I can stand by God; I can be on His side. I can be numbered among the followers and believers in the Lord. I can be counted for Him. That’s a reason I had you read that marvelous story of the intercession of Abraham. Did you ever think – as you read that, as we read it this morning together – did you ever think, "Why did Abraham quit at ten?" [Genesis 18:32]. Praying for that wicked city that God would spare it because Lot and his family were there, he started with fifty, "Lord, if there are fifty, if You count fifty, Lord, would You spare it for fifty?" And God says, "Yes. If I can count fifty that love God, that own Me, that are on My side, that call upon My name, if I can count fifty I will spare it for fifty’s sake" [Genesis 18:24].
Then for the lack of five, "I will spare it for forty-five, for forty, for forty." And Abraham kept on before the Lord, "Lord, I’m just dust and ashes, but I’ve taken upon myself to speak unto Thee, Lord would you spare it for thirty? For twenty? For ten?" And Abraham quit, "For ten."
Did you ever think, "Why did he stop at ten? Why didn’t he go on down to five or to one?" I’ll tell you exactly why. Abraham took it for granted – took it for granted, didn’t think anything else – Abraham took it for granted that all the years and the years and the years that Lot had lived in Sodom – the city of Sodom – that he would certainly have won three to the Lord.
You see, there was Lot, there was Lot’s wife – that’s two – there were those two maiden, unmarried girls – that was four. And it speaks of his sons-in-law, plural – that had to be three. There were seven at least in Lot’s family and [Abraham] took it for granted that in the years and the years that Lot had been mayor of Sodom, he would at least have won three to the Lord, and that would have made ten.
God counted them. God counted them. And just to be counted for God would have saved the city – just counted. I can be counted. I can be on God’s side. I can be one who is named as the disciple and a follower and a believer in the Lord Jesus. I can be counted.
Number two: how we can be like Elijah? Says here in my text that he prayed fervently – prayed fervently, earnestly – and I can pray earnestly. Not just sounds and syllables and words, but I can pour my heart before God in intercession. I can pray earnestly.
Did you ever hear about that socialite, beautiful woman, beautifully, gorgeously dressed? She was seated in a beautiful hotel lobby, waiting for her affluent husband. And while she was seated there – this gorgeously dressed socialite, this beautiful woman – while she was seated there, a stranger came and sat close to her and began to talk to her about her soul, and about God, and about the judgment.
And when her husband came and they went up to their suite together, she was quiet and pensive. And the husband said, "Sweetheart, what’s the matter with you? What’s the matter with you? What has happened to you?"
And she said, "Husband, I don’t know how to describe it." She said, "While I was in the lobby waiting for you, there came a man who sat close to me. And he began to talk to me about my soul and about my relationship to God."
And the husband in anger said, "Why didn’t you tell him it was none of his business about your soul or your relationship to God?"
And she replied, "Husband, if you had seen the look on his face and if you had heard the tone of his voice, you would have thought it was some of his business."
We can be earnest, like Elijah. He prayed earnestly. I can be earnest. I can be committed.
And a third: I can be like Elijah. I can be importunate. I can pray and pray and pray. I don’t think God hears our flippant intercessions, our indifferent petitions.
If it is something meaningful and it is in our souls and in our hearts, we can pray and pray and pray until God gives the answer. One time, two, three times, four, five times, six, and the seventh time when God answers from the throne of grace.
Jesus had much to say about that. In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Luke, His disciples come to the Lord and say, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples" [Luke 11:1]. And the Lord taught them how to pray. And He illustrated it with a story.
There was a man who had a friend come. And it was midnight and he didn’t have any food to set before him, and he went next door and knocked on his neighbor’s house. And the neighbor answered from the second loft, "What is it you want down there?"
And he said, "I have a friend who has come from a journey and I don’t have any food to set before him, and I’ve come to borrow."
And the man from upstairs said, "Go ahead. You leave. You go. You go. Don’t knock at my door. It’s midnight and I’m in bed. My children and all my family are in bed. Now you go on your way."
Then the Lord says, "Though he will not give him food, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity" [Luke 11:8]. The man just kept knocking at the door, knocking at the door, knocking at the door. And how could you sleep with a man down there knocking at the door, knocking at the door?
And the Lord said, "That man upstairs will come down, give him all the food that he wants because of his importunity." Isn’t that a remarkable illustration?
Then the Lord did the same thing again as though that were not enough – encouraging us to be importunate in our praying, staying with God in our praying and intercessions. In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, our Lord says, "You ought always to pray, and not to faint" [Luke 18:1]. Pray and not to give up.
Then He illustrated that again with a parable, with a story. There was a woman who before an unjust judge asked to be avenged of her adversary. And the judge wouldn’t do it. And then finally the judge said, "Because this woman wearies me, I’ll defend her" [Luke 18:5] – importunity.
Then the Lord emphasized it:
Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.
For he that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
If one of you has a child and he asks for bread, do you give him a stone?
If he ask for a fish, do you give him a serpent?
If he asks for an egg, do you give him a scorpion?
If you, being evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will God give things glorious to His children who ask Him?
Praying; ask, keep on asking. If it’s in God’s will and if it’s right, ask. Be importunate in your praying. Elijah was that. I can be like that.
May I close? In my reading, I brought back to my mind a time in my youth that I heard Howard Taylor and his wife. They made a profound impression upon me. Howard Taylor was the son of Hudson Taylor, who founded the China Inland Mission.
And in the life of Hudson Taylor, the founder of that great mission, there came a young man up to him, like these young fellows that are here in our school; and some of them as on our staff. There’s one of them there. A young fellow came up to Hudson Taylor, the missionary, and said, "God has placed in my heart to be a missionary, but I have no talents and I can’t preach. All I can do is pray."
And Hudson Taylor replied to him, "We’ve got too many preachers. We have too few prayers. You come."
And the young fellow went to China as a prayer. And the thing I read about him was this, that in his little cottage room, he poured out his soul to God in intercession for those lost people, calling them by name before God and pleading with the Lord that He would send His Spirit of salvation and revival and interposition.
And what I read was, that what happened was, the people gathered round that cottage room, listening to that young fellow pour out his heart in intercession, calling their name in prayer. And the story closed with the word, "There came to be a great outpouring of the Spirit of salvation in that city." They came before that young fellow with their burdens, with the emptiness of their lives. They came asking how to be saved and how to know the true God of heaven: praying, praying; importunate prayer.
And everyone of us, however untalented and unversed we may be, everyone of us can pray. I am hoping that the spirit of intercession will come upon our people and that we would give ourselves to this knocking at the throne of grace, asking of God’s blessings that only He can bestow. And if that ever happens here – you count on it – there’ll be an abundance of grace. There’ll be an outpouring of the Spirit of Pentecost. There’ll be revival in our midst.
Now Fred, I want us to sing us a song. And while we sing the song, a family to come, a couple to come, a one somebody to come into the fellowship of our church, into the communion and love and fellowship of our Savior, accepting Him as your Lord; or answering a call of the Spirit in your heart, while we sing this hymn of appeal, on the first note of the first stanza, come, while we stand and while we sing.
Dr. W. A. Criswell
A. Prayerlessness is practical atheism(James 5:11, 13-14)
B. The prayers of the people of God
1. In love and adoration, a sweet incense before God(Revelation 5:8, 8:3)
a. Talmudic legend of Sandalphon, the angel of prayer
2. In time of need, a source of illimitable power
II. The example of Elijah (James 5:16)
A. A mountain of a man, with a whirlwind for a heart
1. A man of passions
2. A volcanic suddenness about him (1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 2:11)
3. Stood in solitary grandeur(Malachi 4:5, Matthew 17:10-13)
B. Israel in days of Elijah corrupt, depraved
1. Elijah alone undertook revival – fearless, praying
a. Francis of Assisi before Sultan Kamil 1215 AD
C. Led in a demonstration of dependency upon God(James 5:17, 1 Kings 17:1-7)
D. His intercession before God – petition on Mt. Carmel(1 Kings 18:41-45)
III. Ways we can be like the prophet
A. We can look to God, believe in Him(Genesis 18:17-33)
B. We can be earnest
C. We can be importunate
1. Jesus on the subject(Luke 11:1, 5-13, 18:1-5)