It’s been a while since Christmas, but my thoughts are still fixed on the holiday season. I only ventured out once into the shopping malls of Oklahoma City prior to Christmas Day, and once, I assure you, was quite enough. Although the atmosphere was in many ways electric and exciting and people seemed to be having a good time, I couldn’t help but wonder how these same people would be feeling the week after Christmas, after all the holiday festivities had died down and they suddenly discovered that life hadn’t changed much.
You see, for the non-Christian, Christmas is incredibly artificial. It’s a little bit like nitrous oxide or laughing gas that some dentists use to calm you down before a tooth extraction. It’s rather pleasant for a while and no one feels any pain, for a while. And then its numbing effect slowly begins to dissipate, and the pain of life returns in full force.
For those who do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, Christmas serves only to give them an excuse to pretend that they somewhat like their family and that all is well and that there is hope for the future. But once the lights are turned out and the food is all eaten and family members have returned to their homes, life is still there, waiting for them. The problems they faced before Christmas haven’t magically disappeared, the broken relationships haven’t healed, and the bills they must pay have only gotten bigger and even more unmanageable.
So how is it any different for the Christian? Well, there are countless ways, but let me mention only three. For those who know and follow Jesus there is an abiding joy that no amount of family discord or financial pressure can undermine. For those who know and follow Jesus there is peace, a tranquility of soul and spirit that has the power to overcome whatever turmoil and tragedy we’ve yet to face. And there is hope; rock solid, confident assurance that what our God has promised to do for us, he will most assuredly and absolutely fulfill.
My mind was turned to all this by Romans 15:13. Romans 15:13, as you can see, is all about joy, peace, and hope. There Paul prays: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
Although the holiday season is long since over, for those who know and follow Jesus Christ there will never be an end to joy, peace, and hope. I know this because of the way the Apostle Paul prays for the Christians at Rome, that they might continue to abound in joy, peace, and hope. And I assure you that if Paul prayed this prayer for them back then, you and I are justified in praying this prayer for ourselves and one another today.
Let me tell you why I love and appreciate the prayers of the apostle Paul.
(1) Prayers such as this reveal the heart of God for his people! This is what God wants for you! He passionately longs for his children to experience an abundance of joy, peace, and hope, and in essence says: “Just to come to me and ask for these gifts and I will supply them in overwhelming abundance!”
(2) It is in Paul’s prayers that I discover what was of greatest value to him and therefore what ought to be of greatest value to me. The apostolic prayers in Scripture challenge our priorities and strip away the veneer of superficial spirituality and expose our value systems. They reveal what we cherish, but shouldn’t. They uncover what we shouldn’t embrace, but do. If you want your spiritual world shaken to the core, compare what Paul prayed for with what you pray for.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the church in the western world is slowly and imperceptibly becoming more secularized. In its attempt to be relevant to culture, the church is becoming indistinguishable from it. It is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Christian and non-Christian. The church does not exist to conform to culture but by the grace of God to transform it. So, what does this have to do with Romans 15:13? Simply this: Paul’s prayer is just one of many biblical texts that set forth who we, the church, are to be. It describes our values, our priorities, our goals. This prayer is gospel! It declares to the world: “Here is what may be found in Jesus Christ: joy, peace, and hope!”
(3) It is in Paul’s prayers that I discover what only God can do for me. There are undoubtedly countless blessings and virtues and goals I think are in my power to produce. By looking at the apostolic prayers of the NT I see what I am absolutely dependent on God’s grace to produce. After all, if Paul thought something was ultimately ours to create or generate, he wouldn’t bother asking God to do it! Looking at Paul’s prayers typically disabuses me of self-confidence and self-reliance and casts me on the strong arms of my heavenly Father.
A good example of this is seen in Paul’s prayer for “joy”. In the final analysis, only God can create joy in God. The psalmist prays: “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us” (Ps. 90:15). As John Piper has often said, to be satisfied with the beauty and glory of God (which is the essence of joy!) does not come naturally to sinful souls. By nature we turn to anything other than God for the joy that he alone can give.
The spiritual goals we long for are ultimately beyond our reach. The changes we desire in our hearts can happen only by a sovereign act of God’s grace. That’s why it’s important to note how Paul refers to God: he is “the God of hope”, not so much because he is the object of our hope, although he assuredly is that. Rather, he is the source of hope. If there is to be hope it must come from God.
(4) Fourth, prayer glorifies God by revealing the extent of my need and the depths of God’s resources to supply them. Prayers like this reveal just how desperately helpless we are and how infinitely rich God is. God is not glorified by my efforts to do things for him, but by my confession that he and he alone can do for me what my soul most desperately needs, and then through me what most blesses others and advances his kingdom.
With this in mind, we’ll turn our attention to this prayer in the next several posts. At that time I’ll share five important observations concerning this short but powerful prayer of Paul.