July 1, 1991 Issue
by Taylor A. Joyce

The synagogue and the temple were two quite different places. The one was essentially a school; the other, a place of worship. Meetings in the synagogue were characterized by scripture reading and expository comments. (Lk 4:16-21) The temple ritual centered around animal sacrifice. (Heb 9:6-7) The one activity they had in common, however, was public prayer.

When the Lord built the church, he made prayer one of its central features, as well. (Acts 2:42;1 Cor 14:15) From the beginning, prayer was an integral part of Christianity. Some scholars believe Christ, during his earthly ministry, spent more time in prayer than in any other activity. Scant wonder that prayer would also have been very important to the church, His spiritual body.

The New Testament scriptures are filled with references to public and private, congregational and individual prayers. Luke says of the Jerusalem congregation: "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine, in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and prayers." (Acts 2:42)


Prayer is essentially an expression of personal piety, praise, and prostration before God. James links prayer to righteous behavior, saying, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." (5:16) Paul lists supplication as one form of prayer. (2 Tim 2:1) W.E. Vine says this word "stresses the sense of need." Abraham Lincoln often prayed in this way, declaring, "I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go."

Private prayer is frequently an unrehearsed outburst of praise or a cry for help. "Bless the Lord, 0 my soul:" said the psalmist, "and all that is within me, bless his holy name." (Psa 103:1) Finding himself mired in sin, he cried, "Have mercy upon me, 0 God, according to thy loving kindness... blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." (Psa 51:1-2)

Overwhelmed by problems, we sometimes find it impossible to articulate our needs, and prayer becomes little more than an unintelligible groan. According to some scholars this gives the Holy Spirit an opportunity to intercede, giving grammatical meaning to our groans, making sense of our nonsense. (Rom 8:26)

Thus prayer can take a variety of forms -praise, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession. And the conditions for acceptable prayer are just as varied as its forms. One must pray "in faith, nothing wavering." (Jas 5:16) He must pray in harmony with the will of God. (Col 4:12) The one who prays must be righteous (Jas 5:16)-- not a sinner. (Jno 9:31) He must pray in Jesus name. (Jno 14:13-14)


It is doubtful that one is qualified to pray in public until he is first qualified to pray in private. He would not want his prayer on behalf of the congregation for whom he speaks to be impeded by any deficiency in his own character or conduct.

Additionally, Jesus provides guidelines for public prayer by telling us what to avoid. (Matt 5:5-15; 23:14) "Thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray... that they may be seen of men." The temptation to impress others with how well we can pray is very great. Every effort must be made to forget that others are listening. Every effort must be made to speak as though God alone would hear.

"But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions..." Repetition is not necessarily condemned-- only vain repetitions. The importunate widow was commended for her repetitiousness -- "her continual coming." (Lk 18:1-8) Isaac may have prayed the same prayer for 20 years. "And Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren." (Gen 25:21) At the time of his marriage to Rebekah, Isaac was 40 years old The answer to his prayer came with the birth of Jacob and Esau when Isaac was 60. (Gen 25;20,26)

One may repeat, but one must never be vainly repetitious. The best way to avoid this error is to rid your prayers of hackneyed phrases. Triteness is often a symptom of thoughtlessness. Vague redundancy always results in vain repetitions.

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers." Long prayer. How often is this teaching violated!

The longest public prayer of which we have record (Jno 17:1-26) in the New Testament requires less than three minutes to read. In private Jesus might pray all night, but in providing a model for his disciples, he used only 69 words. (Matt 6:9-13) As has been said, "A man who prays much in private will make short prayers in public."

A public prayer doesn't always have to contain everything, even the proverbial kitchen sink. We need to learn that prayers, as well as sermons and pastries, are often improved by a little shortening.

"Lord, teach us to pray."

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