The Measure of Thankfulness:
Jesus, Paul, and the
Life of Prayer
Charles G. Dennison
In 1972, Harvie Conn wrote an excellent article for Christianity Today entitled, "Luke's Theology of Prayer."1 This article makes it clear the gospel of Luke is concerned to convince us that, with Christ's coming, a new day of prayer has arrived. Jesus' example and instruction in prayer, therefore, are meant to teach his disciples and us, his church, how to pray in the new day in which the kingdom has come and is yet to come in consummate glory.
We need only think of Christ's practice of addressing God as his Father, as well as his invitation to us to do the same. With his appearance, the new day of intimacy has dawned. But, further, Jesus encourages us to ask, seek, and knock to an unprecedented assurance that we will be heard. Not just the new day of intimacy with God but, truly, the new day of confidence in our access to him has arrived.
One way to gain a better grip on this new day of prayer is to look past Luke to the man many believe was his mentor, the apostle Paul. Consider Paul's prayers in light of what we have been saying. For instance, they con-
1 Volume 17 (Dec. 22, 1972): 6-8.
trast, in certain ways, the prayers we find in the Old Testament. The Psalms, since they are often called prayers, provide a helpful backdrop.
Unlike the Psalms, Paul's prayers overflow with profuse joy for others. The apostle is continuously thanking God for those to whom he writes. We do not find such expressions in the Psalms, or in the Old Testament prayers generally. Neither do we hear in Paul's prayers the anguished cries of distress so regularly punctuating the Psalms. Instead, Paul's prayers become studies in consistent, fearless wonderment, an explosion of thanksgiving, reflective of the radical transition that has now occurred in the history of redemption.
I have tried to capture the sense of this transition in a little rhyming couplet:
is the same
Since Jesus came . . .
Not even our prayers!
Possibly, you find what I am saying a bit unsettling. Being Reformed and presbyterian, you are not accustomed to such distinctions as you move from your Old Testament to the New. In fact, you sense that I am positing a preliminary and provisional quality for the Old Testament, even implying an inadequacy for the Psalter.
This is particularly disturbing to you because you have always looked to your tradition to maintain, not only the unity of the Testaments, but the liturgical use of the Psalms which, in some quarters, means their exclusive use in the singing of the church at worship. You may not be an exclusive Psalmodist yourself; however, you have taken great comfort in the fact that such people and churches exist, since they connect you to your history and provide you a settled corner to which you can look, away from the burlesque of present-day liturgical chaos.
Please understand me. What I've said is not meant to suggest a surrender of the Psalms in Christian praise, much less a surrender in worship to the adolescent preoccupations of the contemporary church. However, the Reformed church does not serve her cause well when she dishonors her own regulative principle and defends a practice that falls short of the Scripture's intention. First of all, the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament never were the
exclusive content of praise for God's people in Bible times. But, secondly and more positively, the practice of singing Psalms and hymns in Christian worship rightly reflects our present situation: The old with the new; the content of the new rising in relationship to the pattern and reverence found in the old; but the new exhibiting the reality of what the old, even its songs, could only be the shadow.
As I continue with this message, I hope our further look into Paul's prayers will be helpful to us in understanding these things better. I have chosen Paul's letter to the Colossians as our route of entrance.
Just a word about background. Toward the end of the sixth decade in the first Christian century, Paul was arrested in Jerusalem. He was moved to Caesarea for two years before being taken to Rome. You can read about his journey to Rome in the latter chapters of Acts. Once in Rome Paul remained under arrest, many believe, into A. D. 62. During his imprisonment he wrote a block of letters that now are called his prison epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
While each of these letters is distinct, Colossians stands out at least in one regard: It was written to people Paul had never met. He tells us in chapter 2, verse 1, the Colossians, among others, had not seen his face. Now, we might not make much of this fact, except that it provides us a unique opportunity to observe the dynamics of Paul's involvement with those for whom he labored and prayed.
You see, Paul is self-conscious of the bond between himself and the living Christ. In fact, he deliberately patterns his own ministry after Christ's. If you need proof of this, look at Colossians 1:24. Here, Paul says he is doing his part for the church by filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions. Without question, this is a difficult statement. What, after all, could be lacking in Christ's afflictions? Do we not hold to the finality and sufficiency of our Savior's sacrifice?
Without answering all the questions about this passage, let me say this much: Paul in this verse sees his own ministry in light of Christ's. But notice how clear this point is when we join 1:24 to 2:1. Paul provides his own exposition of the afflictions he is filling up when he writes, " . . . I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf . . . and for all those who have not personally seen my face."
Do you grasp what Paul is doing? He suffers in his ministry for these Colossians because Christ suffered in his ministry for his people. And just as Christ performed his service for so many who have not as much as seen his face, Paul does the same.
Here is the constraint and discipline upon the apostle. Not a vast following; not a so-called "successful ministry"; not an impressive record of statistics to showcase before a worshipful public; not even the collection of credits for future canonization. Instead, Paul, clear-eyed and clear-headed, is driven by his deep sense of vital union with Christ. His ministry testifies as to how Christ is coming to expression in him. In another prison epistle, he says it this way, "For to me to live is Christ . . ." (Phil. 1:21).
Paul's living in and from Christ comes to particular focus in his prayers. He reflects on his prayers for the Colossians in chapter 1, verses 3-12. Right away he tells these people he prays always for them (v. 3; cp. v. 9). So predictable a feature is this persistence in his prayers that we are liable to pass over it without much thought. We must not do this, especially in light of the things we have already said about Paul's awareness of his union with Christ. For that awareness opens up for us his motivation in prayer.
What do you think? Was Paul into what has now come to be called "spirituality," that is, those religious arts, practices, and techniques thought useful as the means to deeper involvement in the mysterious, hidden dimensions of human existence? Or was Paul an advocate of the "prayer as therapy" school, that approach by which one more important step to better mental health is honored in the interests of the gospel of "feeling good about yourself"? Or do you think Paul believed in heroic feats of piety to secure for himself an elevated level of religious assurance before the majority, sanctification-shirking Christian public?
I've known ministers of the heroic piety type. I remember one in particular who would berate his hearers by telling them they had no real evidence of their sanctification until they had prayed the whole night through. Of course, this fellow was quick to tell us about his own experience and how it had changed his life. Now, I'm sure Paul prayed many a night through; not only does he not tell us about it but, I'm sure, his motivation in prayer was much different than that of this misdirected minister.
Let me point out two passages that move us in a different direction, one from Paul, another close by. Romans 8:34 reads:
Who is he that condemns? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.
Hebrews 7:25 extends the thought:
Wherefore [Jesus] is able also to save them to the uttermost that come to God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.
Is not the connection clear? What I have been contending for is this: Paul's motivation in constant prayer comes from his union with Christ. Just as Christ offers constant prayersince "he ever liveth to make intercession"even for those who have never seen his face, so also Paul, being bound to his Savior, does the same.
And you will note, this activity by Christ and by Paul, in and through Christ, has Old Testament foundation. In shadow form, the altar of incense, which perpetually offered up its fragrance through the morning and evening service of the priests, anticipated the ministry of Christ and his servants. These latter prayers become an expression of the purified sons of Levi (Mal. 3:3), as the dim and faint light of the former administration gives way to the luminous reality of glory.
But having accounted for Paul's attitude toward prayer, we still must say something about his attitude in prayer, namely his persistent thanksgiving for others. Here we are faced with a rather formidable challenge. I say this because, when looking at Paul's thanksgiving for others, we are immediately at a loss for an adequate biblical analogue for his practice. What grounding, we might well ask, does his thanksgiving have elsewhere in Scripture?
As we pointed out at the beginning of this message, the Old Testament prayers are devoid of thanksgiving for others. To be sure, someone might suggest we come close to the mark in Psalm 16:3. But this is a single and disputed text.
We may be accustomed to the Authorized Version's translation of this verse, ". . . but to the saints that are in the earth, to the excellent, in whom is all my delight," in which the Psalmist could be understood to be giving thanks for the saints. However, even the Septuagint (LXX) sees the saints here as the objects of the Lord's magnified pleasure, rather than the objects of the Psalmist's thanksgiving. It may even be that the LXX moved in this direction because it could find no further example in the Old Testament of saints giving thanks for saints.
When we turn to the New Testament, we might think of stretching the witness of certain texts in the interests of discerning the same pattern in Christ that we observe in Paul. For instance, could we squeeze such thanks by Christ from his prayer in John 17, although this is not explicit in the prayer itself? In other words, can we rightly posit Christ's thanksgiving for the elect for whom he so earnestly prays without the expressed sentiment being in the text?
Along the same line, we might infer Christ's present thanksgiving for others from the argument in Hebrews 2:12, where the writer speaks about the inseparable bond between Christ and his own against the background of Isaiah 8:17, 18. But again we lack an explicit statement.
Closer to Paul in Colossians is the conclusion we might draw from Ephesians 1:18. In this verse the apostle speaks of the inheritance God has in his saints. In view are the riches of his glory which he delights in giving to his elect. The verse is suggestive of the final delight God takes in his people, a delight reciprocated toward God by the people themselves. The mutuality of this delight, expressive of the covenant and the inheritance God and his people have in each other, opens up for us the substance of the eternal state of glory.
What is striking, however, is that Paul speaks of a similar relationship between himself and the people he serves. In possibly the most instructive text in this connection and with language most likely unsettling to some, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is their boast and they are his in the day of the Lord (II Cor. 1:14).2 Paul's thanksgiving for others finds its anchor here; it derives from this future reality and becomes a present expression of it. Interestingly, Paul, in verse 11 of this same chapter, speaks about the many who give thanks in their prayers for him (v. 11). He understands this thanksgiving for him and his thanksgiving for others as partaking of the same heavenly world.
Drawing together these considerations, let me summarize what I'm contending for: Paul's thanksgiving for others is grounded in the mutual delight God and his saints take in one another, particularly as that delight reaches over into the realm of eternity and flows from the eschatological thanksgiving in glory. In the great day, we will rejoice in God as God rejoices in us. At the same time, we will boast in one another and, even presently, do so, particularly in our prayers. In this new day of prayer that has come in Christ, our prayers, like Paul's, grasp hold of the coming glory in our thanksgiving for one another.
But is it true that nothing of this can be perceived from the Old Testament? While we found no explicit expression of thanks for others in the Old Testament, this does not mean the foundation for such thanks is lacking.
2 The Greek word, which I translate here as "boast," is kauchema. This provides a literal rendering, e.g., " . . . you are our boast and you are ours . . . ." The KJV translation is as follows: " . . . we are your rejoicing . . . ;" the RSV translates more expansively and loosely, " . . . you can be proud of us as we can of you . . .;" while the NASV offers " . . . we are your reason to be proud as you also are ours . . . . "
In fact, that foundation may well be discerned in Psalm 16:3, despite what we said earlier. This Psalm is full of language about inheritance, with the third verse making its own contribution to that theme. As we saw in the New Testament and from Ephesians 1:18, here was the route into the mutual delight that not only God and his people take in each another, but God's people have in one another.
In the new day of prayer, this latter consideration opens up for us as never before. The reason for this may well be the diminishment of the creational and territorial focus for the inheritance in the New Testament and the ascendancy of that communion, belonging to God and his elect in the full range of their eternal blessedness.
In light of these things, I do not hesitate to say that you will be my boast in the day of Christ, if in fact I have been able to minister to you; and that you will be mine insofar as you have made my ministry your own. This being true, I presently give thanks for you always, Christ himself being the measure of my thanksgiving. I trust he is the measure of your thanksgiving for me.