Last week we discovered the secret of praying well – knowing that the God we pray to is ___ (praiseworthy). That’s right, in Jesus God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. He’s adopted us into His family, called us His children, and because of that we can call Him Father. Because of Who God is and because of what God’s done, the God we pray to is praiseworthy.
If last week was about why we pray, this week is about how we pray – which the Bible sums up with the words “in Jesus’ name.” And so what does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name?
Well let me begin by saying that as fallen humans who “miss the mark” with respect to what God requires of us we’re in quite the predicament. God is holy. God is righteous. But you and I, if left to ourselves, are not holy and we’re definitely not righteous. The prophet Habakkuk says that God’s eyes are too pure to even look at evil. But if that’s true how are we supposed to pray, you know, if God can’t even look at us? That’s our predicament.
The Bible’s solution to our predicament is the priest. Now before I go any further I want to be clear – I’m not talking about myself or any other denominational priest. You don’t need me to bridge the gap between you and God. I’m just as flawed as you are – if not more. But, you still need a priest. And so to understand what praying in Jesus’ name means there are two questions we need to answer.
Who is our priest?
What does that mean for our prayer life?
Now we need to brush up really quickly on what a priest does. Does anyone know what a priest does? If you say play ping-pong and eat at New World Deli I’ll be forced to quit my job. In the Old Testament a priest does two things. First, a priest acts as a bridge between humanity and God. A priest stands in the presence of God and serves as a bridge. In the Old Testament people wanting to pray really only had one option. They’d have to find a priest – someone to offer a sacrifice to bridge the gap between themselves and God.
Second, a priest is deeply sympathetic to the needy, the poor, and the broken. Old Testament priests functioned as public health officers. It was their job to work with the lepers and the lame and the overlooked. And so being a priest is a two-fold job. It’s about standing before God as a bridge and about being deeply, deeply sympathetic to all people.
With that in mind, we now hear the story of the first priest and the first prayer that’s recorded in the Bible.
Bible reading: Genesis 18: 17-33
Then the men set out from there, and they looked towards Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him. Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’ So the men turned from there, and went towards Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
Now let’s be honest – this is a really strange story. God and Abraham’s conversation doesn’t sound like a prayer. It sounds like someone haggling a street vendor to get a good deal on a fake Rolex. But what I want you to see is that Abraham isn’t just praying. Abraham is taking on the role of a priest. You see God invites Abraham to stand before Him – to enter His presence and to serve as Sodom’s attorney. God invites Abraham to plead on behalf of the city.
It’s actually amazing what God says – “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” And then God says, “no.” “I think I’ll invite Abraham to weigh in.” And then Genesis says that Abraham “came near,” which in the Hebrew is a legal term that basically means, “to approach the bench.” And so this really is an amazing scene – the people of Sodom are on trial for oppressing the poor and God invites Abraham to be their defense attorney, to stand in His presence and to plead on their behalf.
Now at this point there’s something we need to look at, something we’ll miss if we read this story through the lens of our individualistic culture. Abraham knows the people of Sodom are guilty and he knows that God would be just to punish the entire city. Let me explain.
We live in an individualistic culture – a culture that says my sin is my sin and that your sin is your sin. And so if John Doe kills his wife, then he alone will be tried for murder and he alone will be punished – not his father that abused him as a child, not his wife who cheated on him, not the vendor that sold him the gun, not the Hollywood execs making “action” movies because they know that violence sells. Only John Doe will be punished, and in a human court that’s probably for the best. But, the Bible’s view of sin and guilt is a bit more balanced. The Biblical view leans a bit toward corporate responsibility. When it comes to our sin, the Bible challenges our individualistic leanings. Whereas we like to say, “just you – you’re responsible and no one else,” God often says, “no, you’re all responsible. I’d be right in punishing all of you.”
And so whereas our culture blames John Doe for murder, God knows that sin is a bit more complicated than that – that we’re interdependent people and that we’re complicit in each other’s sins. Does God hold John Doe responsible? Yea. But God also knows that his father, his wife, the vendor, the people working at the factory, the execs making the movie and the people paying $8 to watch it also have a role in killing his wife. And so who’s responsible for the outcry against Sodom? The entire city. God would be right to punish them all.
And so when Abraham says, “will the judge of the earth not do what is right?” he’s not suggesting that God would be unjust to destroy Sodom. No Abraham assumes God’s justice. But what Abraham is wondering is this – “Could it work the other way around?” Could God value the righteousness of the few so much that he’s willing to spare the unrighteous many? If I can be judged for the sins of someone else, could I also be let off the hook for the righteousness of someone else? Could it work the other way around? If people with whom I am in solidarity sin and I can be judged for that, what if I’m in solidarity with someone who is righteous – could that cover my sin? You see in asking God to spare the city for the sake of the fifty, the forty, the twenty, and the ten, what Abraham is asking God to do is to so honor the righteousness of the few that he forgives the unrighteousness of the many.
But here’s what’s so amazing. Abraham – the first priest that prays the very first prayer – quits at ten. This reading is like a play that’s missing the final scene – build up, build up, build up … but then the show just ends. 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, 10 … we’re almost there. The reader waits for God to spare the city if one righteousness man is found but Abraham loses his nerve, doesn’t ask, and goes home.
Now I’m not sure why Abraham did that. He probably just lost his nerve. He’s clearly getting more terrified with each request. But, I don’t think that’s the reason. I think Abraham knows that there isn’t even one righteous person in Sodom. Like him, they’re nothing more than, to use his own words, “dust and ashes.”
But, Abraham was clearly on to something. He came to see that the God in whose presence he stood valued righteousness so much that if only one righteous man could be found that his righteousness could cover the unrighteousness of the many.
And so here’s the million-dollar question. Where can we find such a righteous one? Because when we find the righteous one we’ll find our priest.
John 17 (selected verses)
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. I am asking on their behalf; Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.
This is a portion of Jesus’ prayer the night before he dies. Scholars call it the “high priestly prayer.” Why? Because in John 17 Jesus approaches the bench and He pleads for his people. What Abraham was on the verge of discovering – that the righteousness of one could forgive the unrighteousness of the many – Jesus executes. You see Jesus knew that he alone was the true high priest – the righteous one whose mission was to bridge the gap between God and humanity, not by offering a sacrifice but by becoming one. Do you see what Jesus us saying? “Righteous Father, the world doesn’t know you but I do and I ask that you would value my righteousness so much that their unrighteousness would be forgiven.” In John 17 Jesus approached the bench and He stands there to this very day.
And so who is our priest? The answer is obviously Jesus. That’s what it means to pray in Jesus’ name – to trust Him as our priest before God. As the author of Hebrews puts it, “Jesus saves those who approach God through Him for he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest – holy, blameless and undefiled” (Heb 7: 25-26). Do you understand how radical this is? Next week we’ll talk about us praying to God. But this week I wanted us to understand that God lives to pray for us. Jesus “lives to make intercession for us.” Jesus is always in the presence of God pleading on our behalf. And because He is the righteous one God never turns Him down.
So let’s get practical – what does that mean for our prayer life? Revelation 1:6 puts it like this: “to Jesus who loves us and freed us from our sins … and made us to be … priests serving his God and Father.” Peter, writing to his flock, reminds them that they are a “royal priesthood.” The author of Hebrews urges believers to “boldly approach the throne of grace,” which by now we should recognize as priestly language. If Jesus is our priest that means that we are priests, too. The work of prayer is the work of a priest. And let’s not forget what priests do.
1. A priest stands in the presence of God, has intimacy with God and speaks freely with God.
2. A priest feels great sympathy for the broken and the needy and because of that a priests wants to help.
Practically speaking, as we learn to pray both of these priestly tasks will become second nature to us. First, we’ll learn to live in the presence of God and to speak freely with God the way a young child speaks to His Father. And if you want a sign that measures how well we’re doing this, this is what I’d say. We’ll grow in both boldness and humility. In the world it’s either one or the other but God wants us to be both. He wants us to be humble, because like Abraham we’re still “dust and ashes.” In and of ourselves we’re not righteous. But God also wants us to be bold. Why? Because the Righteous One has bridged the gap. He speaks out on our behalf and He invites us to boldly approach the throne of grace right, to stand right where He is. And so as we learn to pray two things will happen. We’ll (1) look down on no one but at the same time (2) no one will intimidate us. We’ll discover the paradoxical blend of humility and boldness that only the Gospel can bring about.
Second, as we learn to pray our desire to help the broken and the needy will go up. And I don’t necessarily mean the person in the shelter – of course they’re included. I mean the broken and the needy people we interact with day in and day out. Prayer gives us new eyes. The person we once saw as a satanic devil we come to see as a wounded child, someone who’s been hurt time and time again, someone whose learned to bite back just in order to survive. It’s the only way they know how to stay safe. The person on trial for murder? His spirit was murdered long before he pulled the trigger. Prayer helps us see that there is only One who is righteous, and because we come to see it isn’t us, our anger will turn to sympathy.
To pray in Jesus’ name is to trust Him as our priest and if we do that He’ll make us priests as well. Why is this so important? Because we will never pray to God until we understand that, in Christ, God lives to pray for us.