MAKE IT A MATTER OF PRAYER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Thessalonians 5:17
10-1-2000 10:30 a.m.
You know one of the providences of life: for a long, long time I meticulously prepared the sermon that I would bring today; then some of the elderly people of our precious church found out what I was doing, and they said to me, “We were present that first Sunday in October when you preached your first sermon. And your sermon was on prayer. And we think it would be so blessed of God if you would preach the sermon that God might place in your heart on prayer, and let the sermon be the outpouring of your heart for our dear, dear people.” Well, I turned that over in my mind and heart. So I did away with all of that long, long preparation in the first sermon, and I prepared this second one on prayer. And may God bless it as we share it together Make it a Matter of Prayer.
I stand in the presence of the Almighty Lord, and I pray in His blessed name, as a servant of dedication and communion. So the text is 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.” This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is also the retired pastor W. A. Criswell, bringing the morning message after these fifty-six years, Make it a Matter of Prayer. It is a pastor speaking who has been called of God and has been in the sacred pulpit for five and seventy years. And it is His blessing that we beseech at this beautiful and meaningful and precious hour.
We are slaves in the presence of the Lord, aging, afflicted, dying; but as slaves of the blessed, precious Lord Jesus, we look forward to the glorious triumph when we stand in His presence, the Lord God Almighty, our blessed Savior. May the Lord sanctify and hallow the words that we bring.
This is a presentation, to begin with, of a poem written by the great and famous poet and poet laureate of England, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He wrote:
More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of.
Therefore may we be found
From day and night in His presence
filled with the Spirit of God.
It is good that the Lord opens the door for prayer, both in our private life and in our public ministries.
For so the whole round earth is there in every way
Blessed by the chains of gold that bind us to God.
[from “Morte d’Arthur,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson ]
I have divided the message into three chapters; and this is chapter one.
This is the first letter that Paul wrote. It is addressed to the church in the capital city of Macedonia. It is named in the honor of the daughter of King Philip, who was also the sister of Alexander the Great. It was sent to the church at Thessalonica with his love and prayerful remembrance. The letter was immediately followed by a second one, in our Bible called 2 Thessalonians. In that letter you have an insight into the inner life of this wonderful man of God: it is one of prayer.
I look at my Bible, and on every page there are several references to intimate intercession. For example, in chapter 1 of 1 Thessalonians, verse 2, we read, “We give thanks to God always for you all” [1 Thessalonians 1:2]. Paul speaks like a good ol’ Southern Baptist. This is in the Bible; I’m not making it up: “We give thanks to God always for y’all.”
- Look in the next chapter [1 Thessalonians 2:13], “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing.”
- In the next chapter, verse 10 of chapter 3, “Night and day praying exceedingly” [1 Thessalonians 3:10].
- In the [fifth chapter], verse 17, “Pray without ceasing” [1 Thessalonians 5:17].
- In the [twenty-third] verse, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved [blameless] unto the coming of our Lord” [1 Thessalonians 5:23].
- And in verse 25, “Brethren, pray for us” [1 Thessalonians 5:25].
I turn the page:
- 2 Thessalonians, first [chapter, eleventh] verse reads, “Wherefore also we pray always for you” [2 Thessalonians 1:11].
- The next [chapter] reads, “We are bound to give thanks always to God for you, my brethren beloved” [2 Thessalonians 2:13].
- And in the last chapter and the [first] verse, “Finally, brethren, pray for us” [2 Thessalonians 3:1].
Our text is 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Without ceasing, pray.” He does not mean that we are always and continuously to be on our knees in intercession. Even Jesus did not always stay on His knees. In Luke, the first verse of chapter 11: “When Jesus ceased praying, [one of His disciples] came and said, Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 11:1]. The Lord does not mean that without cessation we are constantly to be speaking to God: but we are always to be in our hearts before the Lord. What He means is that prayer is to enter into all of the facets of our lives.
When you are weary in body and soul,
Cumbered with many a care;
When work is taking its strength-taking toll,
Make it a matter of prayer.
When you’re discouraged, distraught, or dismayed
Sinking almost in despair;
Remember there’s One who will come to your aid,
If you’ll make it a matter of prayer.
And when you are lost in the world’s tangled maze,
When life seems a muddled and hopeless affair,
Direction will come in all of your ways,
If you will make it a matter of prayer.
[from “Make it a Matter of Prayer,” Edna R. Brown, in Bible Monitor, Vol XXI,
June 15, 1943, No. 12]
A critic says, “Those who pray are self-confessed inadequate. They are people who are unable and inadequate.” What confession is that, but to our own weakness? We are not able. The distresses and the pressures of life are beyond what we can encompass in our pure, human ableness.
I think of the fortunes of life over which we have no control. For example, the passing of days age us; the coming of death is inevitable. Thoughts of life such as characterized a youth in our Sunday school, who died when he was sixteen years of age—we all face uncounted, unnamed sorrows that are never removed. O God! how we need Thee and how we learn and lean on Thy kind arm!
Look at the pertinence of that last [chapter] that closes the great Sermon on the Mount. What insight Jesus says there, concerns a man who built his house on the sand. And the wind blew, and the storm beat, and the man was there stranded, helpless, on the sand. Then Jesus says there is a man who built his house on a rock. And the floods came, and the storms beat, and the winds blew [Matthew 7:24-27]. To me the poignancy of that parable lies in this: that both men, whether the foolish one or whether the wise one, both of them in their houses stood in the path of a flood, and of the main stream of a storm, and of the hurricane wind. All of our lives are like that. We live our days before that flood and the storm and the wind. God must help us! And Jesus encourages us to bring our poor souls before Him in prayer.
Chapter two: we are encouraged to pray by the infallible Word of God [1 Thessalonians 5:17]. In Jeremiah 33:3, “Call unto Me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.” O precious Lord! In Luke chapter 11, “Do not be timid of asking. Ask, just ask, ask and it shall be done unto thee; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For the one that seeketh findeth; and to the one who knocks, it shall be opened” [Luke 11:9-10]. We’re always encouraged to pray.
Lord, at that beautiful word in Philippians chapter 4, You said, “Be burdened for nothing; but in prayer and supplication let your requests be made known unto God” [Philippians 4:6]. Ask, pray, seek the face of the Lord; He will stand by you. He will help you. His delight is in knowing how to do more and more in your behalf.
A call to prayer, I cannot sleep
A midnight visit I must keep.
For God doth call, I hear Him speak.
To prayer, to prayer, prevailing prayer
The need for such is everywhere;
It covers earth, it fills the air.
To bended knee, to bended knee;
God’s call for you, and God’s call to me
Because what is and is to be
Shall reach throughout eternity.
A truth I say, again I say,
It’s the need of prayer, let come what may
We shall o’ercome if we watch and pray.
Your place of prayer, believe and take,
Stand in the breach for Jesus’ sake.
Victory is ours when the whole earth we shake.
We’re encouraged to pray by the example of the saints through all of the generations. Where angels went on their way to destroy the cities of the plain—that included Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family—the eighteenth chapter of Genesis says, “And Abraham stood yet before the Lord [Genesis 18:22-23]. O God,” he said, “I have taken upon me to speak unto Thee, I who am but dust and ashes” [Genesis 18:27]. God gave him his entire appeal. “If there are fifty righteous, will You spare the city for fifty?” And the Lord said, “If there are fifty righteous, I will spare the city for fifty” [Genesis 18:24-26]. Then Abraham continued, “What if there are but forty-five? What if there are but forty? What if there are but thirty? What if there are but twenty? [Genesis 18:28-31]. What if there are but ten?” And the Lord replied, “If there are even ten, Abraham, I will spare the city for the sake of ten” [Genesis 18:32]. You know I’ve often wanted and wondered in that intercession: in the city there was Lot and his wife and their three daughters—that’s five, isn’t that right? Lot and his wife and their three girls. I’ve often wondered if Abraham had just had the faith to pull it down to five, “Lord, if there are five righteous, would You spare the city for the sake of five?” I think God would have said, “Abraham, for your sake and for the sake of the family, I will spare the city for five.”
As we continue to read the Bible, O God, how we’re encouraged to pray, both by the example of Thy sainted children and by Your own appeal. Jacob at Jabbok, calling the place Peniel, “I have seen the face of God” [Genesis 32:30], and wrestling with the Lord [Genesis 32:24], God changed the name from Jacob, from “supplanter,” to Israel [Genesis 32:28], a promise of the answer and presence of God.
Moses, when God said, “Stand aside, and I will destroy this people” [Exodus 32:10], the Bible says Moses stood yet before the Lord and said, “Lord, if You will forgive their sin”—then there’s a long black dash, and in the Bible there is beside that long black dash, “O God, hear me, and if not, blot my name out of the book which Thou hast written.” “If they can’t live, I don’t want to live; and You don’t spare me if You don’t spare them” [Exodus 32:32]. And the Lord answered his prayer: He forgave the people of their sin and rescued their nation [Exodus 32:34].
Hannah was barren and prayed, saying, “O God, for a child” [1 Samuel 1:11]. And God sent her a prophet-child named Samuel [1 Samuel 1:20]. Elijah knelt before the Lord and cried, saying, “O God, hear me, hear me” [1 Kings 18:37]. Our Lord prayed for us in that great intercession written in John 17 [John 17:1-26]. And the Holy Book says, “He is able to save us to the uttermost, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for us” [Hebrews 7:25]. Jesus is our High Priest; and before the throne of glory He stands, calling us by name, answering our prayers [Hebrews 4:14-16].
O Lord, how encouraged we are to be. There are at Thy feet all of the possibilities of the future glory the Lord has in store for us [1 Corinthians 2:9].
And now the last chapter, chapter three: in the brief moment I have, may I speak of one other remembrance of God? We’re encouraged to pray by the very assignments that are given us. All of us have them; all of us. There are things that God hath committed to us: works that we must do, lives that we must live; all of us [2 Thessalonians 3:6-15]. May I ask and speak of one in my life and one in my life now?
When I was a teenager, I was pastor of a little village church in Coryell County named White Mound. Around a very large churchyard there was a fence; and inside of that enclosure was a beautiful little white country church, with white columns in front of it. Then the encampment had a parsonage that was empty, because for the first thirty years of my life I was not married. For almost the first ten years of my pastoral work, I was single; I was not married. So the parsonages were empty. Once a year, and for years, there was a tremendous revival in that tabernacle. And some of the finest evangelists in America held meetings there. In it was a great, glorious week; ten days beginning Friday before the fourth Sunday in July. Well, that year, as a teenager, I was their pastor, and I was asked to hold the revival meeting. When Friday night came, and the service was to begin under the tabernacle, I stood there in that churchyard and wailed before the Lord. The people came from the ends of the earth. They came by horseback. They came by buggy. They came by wagon. They came by foot. They came by Model T Ford. They came from the whole earth. And when I stood there and looked at them, my heart failed within me. “O God,” I cried, “how can I measure up? How can I do?” It was simply an overwhelming thing that crushed me.
The singer for the revival meeting listened when I said, “I cannot do it.” And when I said to him, “I can’t do it; I am crushed beneath the burden of this meeting. I am not able,” he put his arm around me and said, “You come with me.” And he took me to the back of that empty parsonage. There were three steps from the back door to the ground. He sat me down on one of those steps. He took his Bible and turned to 1 Peter 5:6-7, “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due season: Casting all your care upon Him; for He careth for you.” Then he knelt down by my side and prayed, “God, bless and help and strengthen.” I need not tell you that the Holy Spirit came down upon that tabernacle meeting. We had a great outpouring of the saving Spirit of the Lord. That was then; that is how I began.
And now, today, I sit here and stand here in this sacred place. Dr. Truett died, the greatest preacher and exponent of the Word of God that we have ever known, Dr. Truett died the sixth of July in 1944. I was called as pastor of the church the next month, September of that year. Truett died in July. They called me as pastor of the church in September. There was just one month, the month of August, in between. And the first Sunday in October I took my text, “When you are burdened in body and soul, I will stand by you” [1 Thessalonians 5:17-24]. And, I’ll never forget it, the pulpit was here, and when I got through preaching that sermon on prayer, I knelt down on the right side of that pulpit, and I poured out my heart to God. This place was jammed; people standing around the balcony and people standing around this lower floor. When I poured out my heart to God, “O God, O God,” there were three thousand of them crowded into this place, and when I poured out my soul to God, all three thousand of them burst into tears. I never heard any sound like that, not in my life—three thousand people just crying before God. And from that day until this, the Lord has been with us.
Sweet people, it is hard for me to realize I have never conducted a service in this church that there has not been a response, a people coming forward. For over fifty years, and for many of those years I preached three times every Sunday, I have never preached a sermon here in this church but that when I gave the invitation people came forward. O God, how You help and stand by and answer prayer!
O God, out of our weaknesses we plead before Thee, and we are Thy servants, slaves prostrate before God. And in that appeal, the Lord answers from heaven. And God has sent us souls, you; and God bless you. Ask for God: He has given His word that He will hear, and He will answer, and He will pour out blessings such as we are unable even to encompass [1 John 5:14-15].
God says there are ways in heaven that are prepared for us [John 14:3]; and God means for this glorious church to continue in its powerful witness in this downtown metropolis. So we stand before the Lord, “Lord, keep on doing it.”
Pastor, the Lord bless you and keep on giving you souls.
Lord, do it for Jesus’ sake, amen. Amen [John 14:13].
You want to stand up? Amen. Amen. O God! Thank you.
Now Jack, I want you to help me; or pastor, you help me down there at the front. You got it? I want to go down there and stand at the front. There we are, down here in the middle. Thank you, son. Thank you, pastor. You stand over there.
As I stand here, I am going to hold out my hand, and I want the congregation, including the choir, I want the congregation to remain seated. I want all of you to remain seated. And as I stand here and hold out my hand, one to give your heart to Jesus [Romans 10:9-13], you stand up and walk to the aisle and down to the front, and you take my hand. That’ll be a commitment of your heart and life to the blessed Lord Jesus, who is able to save you. Then there are others of you here who ought to belong to this dear, dear church, and love that pastor as I do. You come forward, and if you have a family, bring your family with you. If you’re in the last row of that top balcony, you step into the aisle and down the stairway and down to the front, and you take my hand. Or if God has spoken to you and you want to regive your life to the Lord, you come and take my hand.
Now the choir and all of us are going to sing, “I Come, I Come.” And as we join in that hymn, from the balcony all the way down, you come and take my hand. And the Lord bless you as you give your life to the Lord and come to God [Ephesians 2:8]. Now let’s sing, and you come, you come.