‘Prayer is the conversation of friends. It is not a mere convenience for letting God know what we are thinking or what we want.’ So writes Tim Chester, in The Message of Prayer. The development of this ‘conversation’ may be traced from Genesis to Revelation:-
The riddle of creation
Genesis 1:26-27. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Note the plural pronoun in v26: it suggests a conversation within God. God has created through his word, and now addresses himself through that word.
One element in the image of God is the communal, relational element: God did not make us solitary but male and female. We are made for community with one another and with God. The trinitarian community extended its communal life, not out of a lack of anything within itself, but out of grace. The riddle of creation is not, ‘Is there a God who created the world?’ but, ‘Why should God, who is complete in himself, choose to create the world?’ The answer is found in the word ‘grace’, and it is this that forms the foundation of prayer.
A broken relationship
Genesis 3:8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
This verse pictures the community of God with people for which we were made. It also identifies the point at which the experience was lost, for they are hiding. Because of their sin they are no longer able to appear before one another naked without feeling shame. Still less can they appear before God without shame.
Genesis 3:23 The LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
The root problem is not that people now shun God, but that God now excludes them.
The promise of a people
Genesis 12:1-3; 17:7 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”…”I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”
At this point God begins the movement back to himself. It begins with a promise, a promise that is pivotal to the whole message of the Bible. And at the heart of the promise is a people who will be God’s people, a people who are restored to relationship with him, a people who know and worship him.
Exodus 3:7-8; 6:7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”
By the beginning of Exodus a single man, Abraham, has become a great multitude. But the people are in slavery and in exile from the Promised Land. God makes a promise with Moses, and sustains this with a restatement of the covenant relationship. The covenant relationship means that prayer is based on willing communion and conversation rather than emforced compliance.
Exodus 33:14-15 The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.”
God redeems his people from slavery and brings them to Sinai, where he gives them his law. God’s presence is hedged about with limitations: God is present with his people, but it is a fearsome rather than a comforting presence. The instructions for the tabernacle (and later the temple) capture the sense of presence and distance. After the golden calf incident, Moses intercedes for the people, saying that there is no point in prosperity in the promised land without the presence of God.
The book of Joshua represents the conquest of the promised land as God’s battle. Despite the people’s repeated unfaithfulness, God does not disown them, but gives them judges to guide them. Under David the nation finds rest from warfare. Under Solomon the temple, representing God’s presence, is built and dedicated.
A tale of two psalms
Psalm 48 Great is the LORD, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, his holy mountain. It is beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth. Like the utmost heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King. God is in her citadels; he has shown himself to be her fortress…
Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love. Like your name, O God, your praise reaches to the ends of the earth; your right hand is filled with righteousness. Mount Zion rejoices, the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments. Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers, consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation. For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.
What makes Jerusalem special is that it is the city of God.
Psalm 137 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
This Psalm, in contrast, makes poignant reading. Jerusalem has fallen, and the temple has been destroyed. The people are once again in slavery. To remember Zion now is to weep.
1 Kings 9:8-10 Though this temple is now imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the LORD their God, who brought their fathers out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them–that is why the LORD brought all this disaster on them.'”
1 & 2 Kings, together with Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are written to show that this is not due to any failure on God’s part, but to unfaithfulness on the part of Israel.
Jeremiah 31:33-34 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD.
But the prophets hold out a hope of restoration after judgement, and Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, and of a time when the law will be written on people’s hearts and the knowledge of God will be unmediated.
Ezekiel 48:35 “The name of the city from that time on will be: THE LORD IS THERE.”
Ezekiel sees a vision of a new Jerusalem, ch 40-48.
Zechariah 2:10-13 “Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD. “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. The LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.”
The return of the exiles is recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah. When they rebuilt the temple it was not based on Ezekiel’s vision; nor was it a replica of Solomon’s edifice. The new temple was far inferior to both. The post-exilic prophets Haggai and Zechariah looked forward to a greater work of God.
The presence of God
Matthew 1:23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” –which means, “God with us.”
Over 500 years after the ministries of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, a young woman gave birth to a child, whose name was Emmanuel, (Isa 7:14).
John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The oft-repeated promise was now being fulfilled: God is with his people. In the above verse, the expression ‘made his dwelling’ is lit. ‘tabernacled’. The signs of the tabernacle and temple have now given way to reality. There is also an allusion to Ex 33, where God allows Moses only a glimpse of his glory.
John 2:18-21 Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
The temple symbolises God’s presence, and in this passage Jesus identifies himself as the true temple.
Luke 22:20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
At the last supper Jesus makes a new covenant, constituting believers as the people of God.
Eph 2:19-22 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
1 Peter 2:9-10 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
All that the temple represented is now true of the community of believers, and the church is the place where God dwells on earth.
Hebrews 12:18-24 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
This passage contrasts the terror of the encounter with God on earthly Mount Sinai with the privilege that is now ours in Christ. The relationship is restored.
The conversation of friends
John 15:15 “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
Jesus gives us access to God, and he makes us family. He invites us to call God ‘Father’, and he himself calls us his friends. Jesus glories in the title, ‘friend of sinners’, Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34.
It was for this we were made: to know God, to be with him, to enjoy friendship with him, to share the life of the trinitarian community. ‘God does not want us as objects, but as covenant partners, partners who can converse. He desires our conversation input, our spontaneous gratitude, our free concurrence, but also our patient or impatient questioning; and even our vehement protest is dearer to him than a silent, unconvinced acquiescence.’ (Hendrikus Berkhof)
To suggest that we might seek friendship with the One who created the far reaches of the universe, who is the ruler of all history and who dwells in unapproachable light, sounds outrageous; yet this is the gospel. Prayer is an expression of the very heart of God’s eternal plan to have a people who are his people; to know us and to be known by us.
The fulfilment of prayer
Revelation 21:1-3 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
But even prayer is not the ultimate reality. Prayer is an anticipation of the day when we shall truly know even as we are truly know, 1 Corinthians 13:12.
Revelation 22:21-22 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
Based on Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer, 27-38.