Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (12)
Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart… Luke 18.1
“Ministers should imitate their great Master in his fervent prayers for the good of the souls of men. We find it to be Christ’s manner, whenever he undertook any thing of special importance in the work of his ministry, first to retire and pour out his soul in extraordinary prayer to his Father.”
- Jonathan Edwards, Christ the Example to Ministers
The first tool of ministry
The pastor’s tool kit for ministry contains three indispensable resources: prayer, the Word of God, and the pastor’s own example (cf. Acts 6.4; 1 Pet. 5.1-3).
Of these, prayer is the most important, and the least effectually employed.
Who of us can say confidently, “In my prayers, I am imitating what I see in Jesus”? Who of us does not regularly lament the state of our prayers, and resolve to improve them by some means?
We all recognize the importance of prayer, and, to the extent we do pray, we have at least made a good start at following the example of our Good Shepherd.
Edwards gives us some succinct guidance on the kind of prayer life we should strive to attain if we would imitate our Master in this most important work of ministry. Let’s take a closer look.
A standard for our prayers
We could say much more about this area of pastoral ministry than is outlined in the quote from Edwards above. But let this suffice for now to reflect on the state of our prayers, and to seek the Lord for concrete ways of improving in this work, so that we may be more like Jesus in the work of prayer.
First, though, let’s consider a word from the Master Himself, namely, that we ought always to pray and not lose heart. Jesus was continuouslyin communion with His Father in prayer, as we see by the ways He would sometimes break into prayer in the midst of some conversation or situation (cf. Matt. 11.20-30). Paul’s instruction that we should practice prayer without ceasing is based on Jesus’ example and teaching (1 Thess. 5.17).
Here is an area in which we can all improve. Prayer without ceasing is an elusive goal, but one we must embrace and work toward nonetheless. By setting aside times to pray throughout the day; making prayer the way into and out of every meeting or task; taking cues from the revelation of God around us in the world to give the Lord thanks and praise; and working deliberately through the list of our church’s members as a focus of prayer; we can steadily improve in making prayer a more continuous reality in our lives and work.
The many promises that attend to the work of prayer should encourage us to work harder at becoming shepherds who take Jesus’ and Paul’s instruction to heart, and realize more consistently the standard of prayer without ceasing as the baseline and foundation of our ministries.
Now to Edwards: He notes that Jesus prayed fervently, seeking the Lord’s good for the people He served. Here we make two observations.
Fervent prayer is, of course, the opposite of perfunctory prayer. Fervent prayer engages our whole soul in earnestly seeking the Lord. Fervent prayer engages our entire soul: our minds are clear and focused, our hearts are devoted and fully engaged, and our consciences keep the love of God and neighbor continually before us as we pray. Fervent prayer can be exhausting, but it can also be exhilarating. While we should always be quick to pray brief words of intercession, thanks, or praise, fervent prayer requires more focus, time, and investment of our entire souls. We must seek the Lord to help us learn to pray fervently.
Fervent prayer longs to see the goodness of the Lord come to light in the people we serve, our churches, and our world (Ps. 27.13). This assumes, of course, that we have some sense of what that goodness entails, and that we are seeking it for all the people entrusted to our care. The good each person requires will be related to his or her spiritual condition, calling from the Lord, and daily needs. While a pastor probably will not be able to know the specifics of all these for all the people he serves, he must nonetheless pray in general terms for these regularly, and specifically for the people he serves by name. And he should work to make sure that each member of the church has a shepherd who doesknow the details of these areas and prays fervently and faithfully for the people under his care, that they might know the goodness of the Lord increasingly.
Edwards notes that Jesus focused His prayers on the souls of men – that they might be revived and transformed from the inside-out. Too often our prayers concentrate on outward matters of the body, or of the church – health, safety, relationships, leadership needs, budgets, and the like. The shepherds of God’s flock have as their primary focus to spend and be spent for, and to watch over, the souls of those entrusted to their care (2 Cor. 12.15; Heb. 13.17). Do we know how to pray for the souls of people? For how they think? What they should feel and desire? Their values and priorities? Do we pray for the souls of the lost people in our community, that they might be awakened to the Gospel and come to faith in Jesus?
Finally, Edwards reminds us that Jesus’ prayer life featured times of extraordinary prayer, when He went off by Himself, sometimes for an entire night, to concentrate on seeking the Lord for His work and those He came to save. Few are the pastors today for whom such a commitment is a regular discipline.
Shepherds who pray
If pastors are to be shepherds after the example of our Good Shepherd, then pastors must be men of prayer. We must work hard to pray without ceasing, to pray for all those entrusted to our care, and for the Lord’s good to be accomplished in their lives; and to pray fervently and in extended seasons of prayer that God will bless and strengthen those over whom He has appointed us as shepherds in His flock.
He prays for those who pray and appeals with those who appeal. He does not, however, pray for servants who do not pray continuously through him. He will not be the Advocate with God for his own if they are not obedient to his instructions that they always should pray and not lose heart. It says, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they should always pray and not lose heart. In a certain city there was a judge, etc.” … Who would hesitate a moment to be persuaded to pray if he believes that the mouth of Jesus cannot lie, when he says, “Ask, and it will be given you … for everyone who asks, receives”?
- Origen (185-254 AD) On Prayer
Resources to strengthen your prayers
We invite you and the other shepherds of your church to work together through ourAilbe Seminary course, Parameters of Prayer (for a preview, click here). This course will show you the whys, hows, and promises of prayer, and help you and your leaders make better use of this most important tool of ministry.
Please prayerfully consider sharing with The Fellowship of Ailbe through your giving. You can contribute to The Fellowship by clicking the Contribute button at the website or by sending your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 19 Tyler Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Quotations from Jonathan Edwards, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” are from Edward Hickman, ed.,The Works of Jonathan Edwards(Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834, 1995), Vol. 2, pp. 955 ff. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).