"Unanswered Prayers" is a song co-written and recorded by American country music artist Garth Brooks which hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in 1991. It goes like this:
Just the other night a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be
She was the one that I'd wanted for all time
And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine
And if he'd only grant me this wish I wished back then
I'd never ask for anything again
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers
While I can appreciate the sentiment of the song, Garth is a better musician than he is a theologian. The apostle John teaches us that Christians have the assurance of answered prayer (1 Jn. 5:14-15; cf. Jas. 5:16b) although it comes with certain limitations (1 Jn.5:16-17). Jesus assures all children of God that their heavenly Father will answer their prayers (Mt. 7:7-11) if asked in his “name” or according to his will (Jn. 14:13-14; 15:16, etc.).
What looks to us like “unanswered prayer” may be God saying, “No” (2 Cor. 12:8-9) to teach us to lean upon his grace more dependently. It may be God saying, “Wait” (Psa. 40:1ff; Jas. 5:7) to teach us the value of faithful patience. Or he may be providing a different solution than the specific one we prayer for.
But there are some prayers God will not answer.
- God will not answer prayers of doubt. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (Jas. 1:5-8)
- God will not answer prayers with impure motives. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Jas. 4:3)
- God will not answer prayers of selfishness. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 Jn. 5:14; cf. Mt. 6:9-10; 26:39; Isa. 37:16-20, etc.)
- God will not answer prayers of a spiritual hypocrite. “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Pet. 3:7; cf. Isa. 58)
Some prayers do go “unanswered” because prayer is conditional. Even the prayers of Cornelius, though he had not yet obeyed the gospel, were heard by God (Acts 10:1-2) because his heart was purely seeking God’s will (Mt. 7:7). Does God hear you when you pray?
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
Writers use contrast by laying two things side by side to emphasize their differences to make a point. Biblical authors used contrast all the time; light and darkness (1 Jn. 1:5-10), hope and despair (Eph. 2:1-10), or Paul’s contrast in the book of Romans of faith and works (Rom. 4:4-17).
The only way to be in good standing (“justified” or “righteous”) with God is through, what Paul calls, “faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22). It is impossible for us to justify ourselves, especially with our poor track record. Paul outlines that all have sinned (Rom. 1-3) and are deserving of death (Rom. 6:23). But through the gospel our gracious God has opened up a way for sinners to come to Him and receive forgiveness through the atoning work of Jesus’ death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).
By trusting in and responding humbly and obediently to Jesus’ self-sacrifice (“faith”) we can stand before God justified. This, in a nutshell, is the good news. God is not treating us as we deserve but treating us according to His mercy and grace (Psa. 103:10). He can forgive us and maintain His just nature because Jesus paid for our sin when He died on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).
Paul’s contrast between faith and works shows how absurd it is to imagine we could ever be justified apart from God’s grace.
In Romans 4:4, he says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” That is, if we were to live in such a way that we deserved to be called “just” or “righteous” then the reward of eternal life would be a matter of debt rather than a matter of grace. If we “worked” for eternal life then God would be obligated to pay us.
Paul spent three chapters pointing out that no one, with the exception of Jesus, has ever lived a life deserving of such a reward (Rom. 3:19-20). Therefore, if any sinner is to be in good standing with God it will not be on the basis his “works”. He will not achieve good standing with God through a system of works but through a new system of grace, accessible only by faith.
Furthermore, if righteousness (“justification” or good standing with God) is rewarded on the basis of works which we have done, then grace has nothing to do with it (Rom. 4:16, 5). Works would rule out grace, the two being incompatible (Rom. 11:6). If God’s blessing is of grace, it cannot be of works. If it is of works, it cannot be of grace.
But does this mean we don’t do anything to receive God’s grace? What about baptism? Is it considered “work” in the context of Romans 4? If we are baptized to be saved from our sins are we attempting to be “justified by works”? Let’s find out.
The blessing of God (Rom. 4:9) is His forgiveness of our sin (Rom. 4:7-8) or, what Paul calls, being counted “righteous” by God (Rom. 4:3-6). In this context, we can use “blessing,” “forgiveness,” or being counted “righteous” interchangeably.
The person who is justified by works doesn’t need the blessing of God (forgiveness and righteousness) because he has already achieved good standing with God on the basis of his own conduct. This is what it means to be justified by works. Again, with the exception of Jesus, no one has ever done this!
Back to baptism. Were you baptized because you were already righteous and you were trying to maintain your personal righteousness apart from God’s grace? Absolutely not! You were baptized to obtain righteousness, forgiveness and life from God. You were baptized because you realized you were not righteous on your own, that you couldn’t be justified on the basis of your works and you needed God’s gift of grace (Acts 2:38).
Justification on the basis of works is justification based on innocence. One cannot be judged guilty if he has done no wrong. If you had a flawless record of conduct then you could stand before God pure and blameless. In fact, you could proudly say, “I deserve to be in heaven with God.”
But because salvation is based on God’s grace through our faith in what He has done for us, there is no room for our boasting! (Eph. 2:8-9) We don’t deserve God’s blessing but we enjoy it because He extended His grace and we responded faithfully to it.
Faith is the condition that must be met before being justified by God and baptism falls under the umbrella of faith. Baptism is a condition of receiving God’s blessing just as David’s confession of his sins was a condition of his forgiveness in Psalm 32:1-5. This is the very Scripture Paul used to prove the point that we are all justified by faith (Rom. 4:7-8). Baptism is an act of faith in the work of God not ourselves (Col. 2:11-12; Gal. 3:26-27).
Equally important to the physical act of immersion in water is the mindset of the one being baptized. It is absolutely essential that he understands that in his baptism he is appealing to God for a good conscience and for forgiveness (1 Pet. 3:21). The basis of that appeal is in the finished work of Christ, not our own work.
In baptism, a sinner is calling on the name of the Lord to wash away his sins by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16). Baptism is an act of faith, trust, obedience and confession unto salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). God has made this act of submission (baptism) part of coming to Him in faith and receiving His blessing. We are made righteous not on the basis of our works but on the basis of our trust in God’s work for us. Therefore, the good news from Habakkuk stands: “the just shall live by his faith”! (Hab. 2:4)
“… you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.”
If you are like me, the first time you read through the law and came to a passage like Leviticus 25 you were gobsmacked. After redeeming the Hebrews from slavery God provided his newborn nation with his law and ethic at Mount Sinai. It would seem a good time to outlaw the practice of slavery but instead he does not condemn it but merely regulates it. What is more, although they were not to make slaves of their kin it seems the Israelites were allowed to enslave non-Israelites. What is going on?
It is helpful to remember that we all read the Bible through the lens of our experience and culture. When our western ears hear “slavery” we think of owned property, dehumanization, human trafficking, kidnapping, violence, rape, racism, chains, persecution, etc. This has led some people to ignore passages like these or write off the Bible as fiction.
Different Answers to the Problem
First, many opposed to the Bible use passages like these as ammunition against its credibility. ‘The Bible allows slavery so I don’t want any part of it!’ Richard Dawkins, the modern champion for Darwinian evolution, said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Second, liberal scholars use passages like these to teach the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God and question its reliability. ‘The author was speaking in the world that was and we’ve moved beyond such archaic beliefs.’ The same is said about issues concerning homosexuality or women in ministry.
Third, some have even used passages like these to justify the practice of slavery. Men actually used Scripture to defend the Trans-Atlantic slave trade! I believe all three of these views are incorrect. Consider a more nuanced and preferable reading of texts like Leviticus 25 below.
A More Preferable (Biblical) View
I don’t believe Mosaic Law is referring to the kind of exploitive labor that Africans were subjected to in this country in the not-so-distant past. The kind of slavery in Lev. 25 was more like service in the payment of an accrued debt; a temporary giving of oneself to a “master” for the purpose of paying off a debt. The master does not have total authority over his bondservant but was to treat him with dignity and love (see 1 Cor. 7:21-24; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1; Philemon). Some modern translations have picked up on this and have replaced the word “slave” with “bondservant.”
So, what does the passage teach?
First, we must recognize Lev.25 does not promote or even allow ruthless treatment of non-Israelite slaves. Lack of prohibition against ruthlessness here does not imply such brutality was ever authorized. The other portions of the law still apply and must harmonize with ch.25 (Lev. 19:18).
Second, Lev.25 does not imply the evils of slavery our American ancestors inflicted upon Africans were allowed or promoted. In fact, the evils of slavery we are familiar with are explicitly prohibited:
- Kidnapping was punishable by death (Ex. 21:16; 1 Tim. 1:10)
- Violence against slaves was not permitted; slaves killed by their masters were to be avenged & injured slaves were to be set free (Ex. 21)
- Dehumanization was strictly forbidden; slaves had human rights being made in the image of God; for instance:
- Slaves could appeal to legal courts against their masters being equal image bearers of God (Job 31:13-14)
- Runaway slaves could find asylum & freedom in certain cities & were not to be sent back to their masters (Deut. 23:15-16)
- Slaves could take the Passover & be circumcised (Ex. 12:43-44)
- Slaves were given Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:10)
So, if slavery could be used for such evil (and it was, even by the Israelites, Amos 5:11-13), then why not just ban it? “Slavery was such an integral part of social, economic, and institutional life of the ancient world that it is difficult to see how Israel could have excluded it altogether or effectively abolished it. So the Bible seeks to regulate, reform and correct the practice.” (Christopher J.H. Wright, “Old Testament Ethics”) To ban slavery outright would have thrown the ancient world into chaos. Imagine if our government passed a law today banning all automobiles. Such a law would cripple American life as it is. This is why God's Law only sought to regulate the practice instead of doing away with it altogether.
We must seek to understand the way God intended for Israel to use this system (again, see 1 Cor. 7:21-24; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1; Philemon!). This type of servitude was not ideal but “was certainly realistic given the realities of poverty in a fallen world” (Jay Sklar, “Leviticus”). In a society where poverty produced starvation and death, this type of system aimed to help the poor, giving them food, shelter, and a stable family. In this way, it is not so different than many kinds of paid employment in a cash economy today. For the apostle Paul's treatment of slavery in the New Testament see this article on Philemon.
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."
Jesus began his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River where God the Father announced that he was his "beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." (Mt. 3:13-17) It may seem strange that immediately after this clear, public declaration of his identity, Jesus was immediately led "into the wilderness to be tempted." Why not go to the heart of Jerusalem and begin his teaching and healing ministry to show the arrival of the kingdom of heaven? Going off alone into a wasteland for "forty days and forty nights" may seem counterintuitive to God's purposes. Why this withdrawal into the desert?
Matthew does not explicitly tell us but he does purposely align Jesus' story with that of ancient Israel. Like Israel, Jesus came up out of Egypt (Mt. 2:15). Israel was then 'baptized' in the Red Sea and was made to wander in the desert for a period of forty (years). But whereas Israel was tempted and sinned in the wilderness, Matthew shows us that Jesus remained faithful to God by responding to temptation with Scripture ("It is written" vv.4, 7, 10). Each temptation with each quotation of Scripture from Deuteronomy has a parallel in Israel's history. Matthew's purpose is to show Jesus to be the faithful Servant of God that Israel, along with all humanity, failed to be.
THE PURPOSE OF JESUS' TEMPTATION
It is important to note that Jesus' confrontation with the devil in the wilderness was orchestrated by God. Jesus was directed "by the Spirit," meaning God not only permitted this confrontation but arranged it for a specific purpose: "to be tempted by the devil." Jesus was not tempted by God (Jas. 1:13). Rather God permitted the devil to tempt him (cf. Job 1:12; 2:6). The devil was the agent of temptation but the initiative was God's. Why would God desire his "beloved Son" to go through such an ordeal? Here are four reasons:
- Jesus was tempted to prove he is stronger than the devil - If Jesus is to "destroy the works of the devil" (1 Jn. 3:8) and be mankind's champion against evil (Gen. 3:15) then he must be proven to be stronger than the enemy.
- Jesus was tempted to qualify him as our High Priest - If Jesus came to represent us to God as the ultimate High Priest he must know the strength of the devil from personal experience so that he can sympathize with our weaknesses and intercede for us in heaven (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-5:10).
- Jesus was tempted to teach us how to resist temptation - Jesus submitted himself to God, resisted the devil and the devil fled from him (Jas. 4:7). If we follow his example, the devil will flee from us in times of temptation.
- Jesus was tempted to teach us how the devil works - Jesus' temptation provides us with valuable strategic insight into the "schemes" of the devil (2 Cor. 2:11). When the enemy's tactics are revealed, we can use that information to our advantage in our spiritual battle against him (Eph. 6:11ff). Douglas MacArthur once said, "The greater the knowledge of the enemy, the greater the potential for victory."
God arranged this direct confrontation between Jesus and the source of all evil not only because it suited his eternal purpose but for our benefit. Seeing Jesus overcome the enemy gives us who follow him hope. He is worthy not only of emulation but of worship. All praise to the Lord, the founder and perfecter of our faith, the champion of our salvation!
THE PARADOX OF JESUS' TEMPTATION
Matthew 4:1-11 has bred many false views of Jesus' divine-human nature. In an attempt to uphold his deity, some have devalued his humanity. We should remember that Jesus is a totally unique being, at once fully human and fully divine. We must, therefore, guard against any view that minimizes one aspect of his nature (1 Jn. 4:2-3). Jesus' nature is a paradox and as a paradox it cannot be completely explained or understood. To help maintain a proper balance, keep these truths in mind when reading abut Jesus' temptation:
- Jesus was tempted to sin - While the word "tempted" (peirazo) can refer to a test designed by God for our spiritual development (Jas. 1:2), it can also refer to a temptation designed by the devil for our spiritual destruction (Jas. 1:14-15). Each test comes with it a temptation to sin. Jesus' temptation in the wilderness reveals that a situation intended by the Father for good can be, at the same time, a situation used by the devil for evil (1 Cor. 10:13). Since Jesus is a human and temptation is a part of being human in a broken world, it should be no surprise that Jesus was subject to it (Heb. 4:15).
- Jesus' temptation proves his humanity - While Jesus' divine nature could not be tempted (Jas. 1:13) his human nature certainly could. Jesus willingly subjected himself to all the limitations of the human body (Phil. 2:6-7) including hunger. He draws attention to his humanity by applying Deuteronomy 8:3 to himself: "Man shall not live by bread alone" (Mt. 4:3-4). Jesus, as a fully human being, found his spiritual nourishment in the word of God.
- Jesus could have succumbed to temptation - Jesus' confrontation with the devil was a genuine conflict. If Jesus, as a human, was incapable of sinning then looking to his victory over temptation for confidence in overcoming our temptations would lose all significance (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Saying that Jesus could have sinned does not disparage him in the least. As stated above, temptation is a reality faced by all humans. By recognizing that Jesus was capable of sinning we can truly appreciate the greatness of his choosing not to sin! "Yes, Jesus had the possibility to yield. But even more wonderful - He had the power not to yield. And in that truth is His glory and our hope" (Hobbs, An Exposition of the Four Gospels, Vol. 1, p. 47).
- Jesus overcame temptation as a human - Because Jesus faced temptation as a fully human being, he had no spiritual "edge" while being tempted. He met temptation as a human and utilized no weapon unavailable to the rest of us. This ought to give us hope. If we follow his example, we too can conquer temptation through him! Whereas Adam, the first human who was a type of Christ (1 Cor. 15:45), failed in the Garden of Eden, Jesus triumphed. In the wilderness, Jesus faced the inverse of what Adam faced in Eden; "Can you be like God?" the serpent had asked in Eden; Can you be truly human? asked the tempter in the desert" (Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 70). Jesus did not abuse his divine power by using it to serve himself. Instead, he faced temptation with the same tools available to us. He overcame sin by relying on the power of God's word and submitting to it in faith ("It is written" vv. 4, 7, 10).
- Jesus proved that sin is not an inevitable part of being human - Sin is not a necessary ingredient to being human or a forgone conclusion for us. We sin and fail to glorify God, improperly reflecting his image (Rom. 3:23). Jesus perfectly reflected God's image as a human (Heb. 1:1-2; Col. 1:15; Gen. 1:27) and demonstrated that it is not "only human" to sin. If we follow his example in our hour of trial, we too can be "more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom. 8:37).
Jesus' victory over sin in the wilderness and on the cross is an endless source of strength and hope for the Christian. Whenever we are tempted, let us always remember Jesus understands what we are going through. He lays his hand upon us in those moments of intense suffering and wants us to look to him for hope. His victory helps us overcome sin but for the times we fail, he is merciful to forgive us and advocates for us to the Father as one who understands our weaknesses (1 Jn. 2:1-2).
(Points adapted from Kenneth Chumbley's The Gospel of Matthew, pgs. 65-67)
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.
2 Peter 1:12-15
We all get tired of hearing the same things over and over, perhaps especially from the pulpit. If we've heard it stated once clearly enough why does it have to be repeated? I often feel the same way when preparing to preach sermons week after week. I will be studying a topic or a text and think, "We talked about that a few weeks ago. We better go in a different direction this week." But I've come to learn that, while variety in teaching has its merits, repetition is more valuable to the student. Jesus often repeated himself, sometimes to the point of exasperation (Mt. 15:16; Jn. 21:15-17). He told his disciples he would die and be raised from the dead on at least three separate occassions and they still were not prepared for it when it finally happened (Mk. 8:31; 9:30-31; 10:32-34).
Peter made no apology for reminding his audience of things they already knew (2 Pet. 1:12-15). Paul reminded the Corinthians of the fundamentals of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-5). Timothy and Titus were told that teaching as an evangelist includes reminding Christians of familiar truths (2 Tim. 2:14; Titus 3:1). John made it clear to his audience he was bringing nothing new to the discussion (1 Jn. 2:7). But the writers of the New Testament did not merely repeat themselves. They iterated. They held up the same truths like a diamond against the light and turned them this way and that to see the same teaching from different angles. How does the command to love apply in this situation? What are the implications of Jesus' sacrifice in that situation? How does the hope of resurrection help in these cirucmstances? etc. Each time the same truths are taught, we gain a little ground and see a deeper layer than before.
Every parent and teacher knows that repetition and iteration reinforces learning. We may get tired of hearing the same thing over and over again but we will be less apt to forget it if we do. And the more important a thing is, the more it bears repeating. One preacher said to me, "About the time you get tired of saying it, they are just starting to hear it." Parents can relate! Parents are constantly repeating themselves to their children. We can tell our children the same thing a thousand times in a thousand different ways and we might not feel like we're making any headway. But then there are moments when our children surprise us. Without any prodding from mom or dad, they start cleaning their room or making their bed in the morning or brushing their teeth. The evidence that the lessons are finally sinking in are well worth sounding like a broken record.
We are God's children (1 Jn. 3:1), and as children we should never dismiss a subject our Father is teaching us on the basis that we've heard it before. "If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know." (1 Cor. 8:2) Thinking that we've mastered a biblical teaching is a good indicator we still have much to learn. We show that we truly understand a teaching by putting it into practice. This is the difference between mere knowledge and maturity. A child of God is always learning from their Father. We must always be listening with ears to hear, humbly striving to understand God's will with the aim to do it (Jas. 1:22).
John Chrysostom, in one of his sermons, said, “If therefore you would not have us wearisome or annoying, practice as we preach, exhibit in your actions the subject of our discourses. For we shall never cease discoursing upon these things till your conduct is agreeable to them. And this we do more especially from our concern and affection for you.” In other words, he refused to stop preaching on a subject until his listeners obeyed the teaching.
If God says a thing once in the Bible, it ought to be enough for us. But God repeats himself often. The same themes occur over and over again throughout the Scriptures because our patient Father knows his children need to be told the same things several times before the lesson sinks in.
But repetition is important for another reason. In the ever-changing demographics of the local church, some people may be hearing for the first time what is redundant to others. Children mature and begin to grasp things that, a year ago, were beyond them. A familiar passage can take on new and profound implications when circumstances in life change. So let us continue to teach and preach the same truths from the Bible. Our prayer is that, together, we "may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God." (Col. 1:9-10)