What is the epistle to the Hebrews? What was the author trying to do? Well, he tells us in verse 22, when he writes, “And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation: for I have written a letter unto you in a few words.” It is fundamentally a word of exhortation. That is, it is not something just to read and move on; this is meant to move the audience to action. It is very much like a written sermon with the same ends that a sermon has. A sermon doesn’t just attempt to inform, though it should do that. Nor does it just attempt to move a person emotionally, though it ought to do that. A sermon is a word of exhortation, a message whose content is intended to change the life.
And as we have moved through this letter, I hope you have seen that the main thing the author has tried to exhort his readers to do is to persevere in their hope in Christ, despite all the discouragements they are facing. And to do that, he has argued for the supremacy of Christ. To do that, he has argued that Christ is the eternal and unchangeable Son of God, and that he is also the Son of Man who has become our High Priest before God. As such he is better than the angels (chapter 1-2), better than Moses (chapter 3), better than Joshua (chapter 4), and better than the priests and the sacrificial system they served (chapters 5-10). In calling them to persevere in their hope, he reminds them that they are not alone in the arduous journey to heaven, that there are generations of faithful and believing saints that join him in encouraging them to endure to the end (chapters 11-12).
And so we come to the end of this great letter in chapter 13. As we come to the end, I want you to notice that it essentially ends in prayer. In verses 18-19, the author asks his audience to pray for him. Then in verses 20-21, he prays for them. Though it is true that verses 22-25 deal with some final bits of information for the audience (such as the release of Timothy from prison), the real conclusion of this epistle comes with verses 18-21, which are all about prayer. And of course, the formal conclusion of the letter is a prayer in itself: “Grace be with you all. Amen” (25).
This is the right way to end. It is the right way, because God is the only one who can accomplish the ends for which this epistle was written. God is the only one who can open blind eyes to see the glory of Christ and change hearts to receive him as Lord and Savior. And God is the only one who can guarantee our perseverance in the faith to the end. And so as we end our consideration of this epistle, I want us to consider the importance and place that prayer ought to have with us. And then I want to close by considering what kinds of prayer are requested and offered so that we will pray these kinds of prayers too. Or, to put it a bit differently, I want to consider why we pray, and then for what we pray.
Why we pray
Because God commands us to pray.
The fundamental reason why we pray is because God commands us to pray. There is no better reason than this! “Call upon me in the day of trouble,” says the Lord, “I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me” (Ps. 50:15). Our Lord talks about “when ye pray,” not “if ye pray” and teaches us how to pray in Matthew 6:6-15. One of his parables in Luke 18, the parable of the unjust judge, was told “to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (1).
The apostle Paul writes that prayer is the way we wear the Christian armor: “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Eph. 6:18). He exhorts the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), and to Timothy he
writes, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all [meaning: of first importance], supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men” (1 Tim. 2:1), and goes on to say, “I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting” (8).
On the other hand, a lack of prayer is a sign of godlessness. The prophet Isaiah lamented over the apostasy of his day, and this is the way he lamented: “And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities” (Isa. 64:7).
Because God promises to bless those who pray.
So we pray because we are commanded to pray. But that is not the only reason to pray. God gives us many encouragements to call upon his name. There are great and breathtaking promises attached to the call to prayer. In fact, you see it there in Psalm 50 – God promises to deliver those who call upon his name. But this is not in one or two places; it’s all over the Bible. For example, our Lord put it this way to his disciples: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye ask anything in my name, I will do it" (Jn. 14:12-14). A few verses later, he essentially repeats this promise: “If ye abide in me,” he says, “and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (Jn. 15:7).
Or there are several promises in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, in Mt. 6:6, our Lord tells us, “but thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Or this: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:7-11).
The apostle James reminds us of the promise for wisdom to those who ask (King Solomon is an example of this!): “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (Jam. 1:5). At the end of his epistle, he gives this advice: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” (5:14-18).
The God who cannot lie has given us these promises. Let us therefore bank on them!
But there is an implicit warning in the above promises that we must not miss. If God promises to bless those who pray, if he promises to give to those who ask, seek, and knock, what about those who never ask, seek, or knock? What about those who do not pray? What about those who take God’s blessings for granted? These promises don’t mean anything if it doesn’t matter whether we pray or not. God
commands us to pray, he expects us to pray. And that means we can expect to not expect more blessings when we don’t pray.
Now God is a good Father. He will not let his children down, even if they are too stupid to pray. But those who refuse to pray are keeping themselves from wonderful blessings that they might have had otherwise.
But what about unanswered prayer?
One of the arguments that Richard Dawkins gives in his book The God Delusion against the existence of God is the fact of unanswered prayer. In his book, he cites a study that was done in which some folks were tasked to pray for selected sick people in a hospital, and notes that prayer really did not give any statistical advantage to those who were prayed for. But even apart from arguments from guys like Dawkins, I think a lot of us know by experience the reality of unanswered prayer. In fact, it’s in the Bible. Every time a Biblical writer cries out, “How long, O Lord?” he is giving witness to the painful reality of unanswered prayer (cf. Ps. 13:1-6; Hab. 1:2). God just doesn’t say yes to every prayer. In fact, the apostle Paul himself gives witness to this as well: “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). God said no to Paul’s prayer; he didn’t relieve him of the thorn but gave him grace to bear it.
Now some will say that prayer is unanswered because of little or no faith. There is some truth to that: our Lord could not do many might miracles in “his own country” “because of their unbelief” (Mt. 13:58). The Lord will not honor unbelief (cf. Jam. 1:6-7). However, that doesn’t quite explain it, for surely we cannot say that Paul’s thorn didn’t get removed because of his unbelief! No, the fact of the matter is that God doesn’t always say yes to our prayers, no matter how much faith we have.
On the other hand, God seems to often give great blessings to those who are ungodly, who may in fact never pray! Our Lord himself said that God gives rain on the just and the unjust (Mt. 5:45). The psalmist noted: “For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment. Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish. They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth. Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them. And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High? Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches” (Ps. 73:3-12). These are not praying people, for they don’t think God notices or cares about humanity, even if he does exist. These are prayerless people who nevertheless get on quite well without prayer, thank you very much!
What are we to say to that, especially in light of the promises we’ve considered? The problem of unanswered prayer is really only an apparent problem which you get when you get the purpose and method of prayer wrong. The following principles need to be regarded.
First, the promise of answered prayer is always associated with asking in the Lord’s name, with abiding in him and in his word. And we should not think of asking in the name of the Lord in terms of a mere formula. This is praying so “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn. 14:13). In other words, there is a type of prayer to which the promise is attached: it is the kind of prayer that brings glory to the Father in the Son. Not every prayer we pray does that, and we should thank God he does not answer those types of prayers. God would neither be wise nor loving to do so. The apostle John puts it this way: “And this is the confidence that we have in him [Christ], that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us” (1 Jn. 5:14). Not every prayer is a prayer according to his will even when it is prayed by someone with a lot of faith.
Second, the purpose of prayer is not so that we can make our lives as comfortable on this earth as we can possibly be. If that were the case, then perhaps the problem of unanswered prayer and the prosperity of the wicked might be a problem. But that is not the only or even the main reason we pray. We pray because God is our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. We pray because it is natural for children to bring their burdens to their father. We pray because it is right for us to express our dependence upon Christ in every way and at all times. We pray because it is in prayer that we experience fellowship with God. In other words, the main purpose of prayer is to express through praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication our relationship with God as our Father through the Son by the Spirit. This is the point that the apostle makes in his letter to the Romans: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16).
But there is another roadblock to praying. This doesn’t come from a lack of belief in God but from a very robust view of God. It comes from the conviction that God is sovereign and that whatever he ordains comes to pass. The question is then asked: if God is sovereign, why pray? Won’t his will get done anyway?
So what about the sovereignty of God?
I believe that God’s decree is sovereign and all-encompassing. I believe this because this is what the Bible teaches: “in whom [Christ] also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things [not some or most but all] after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). I also believe that prayer is effective and necessary, and that it is right to say that certain blessings depend upon our praying for them. But how do we put both these things together?
Well, let me put it to you in the words of C. H. Spurgeon. He put it this way, and I don’t think I can improve upon it, so I’ll give it to you in his own words:
Why should the Church continue in prayer? For several reasons, and the first is, God will answer her. It is not possible that God should refuse to hear prayer. It is possible for him to bid the sun stand still, and the moon to stay her monthly march; it is possible for him to bid the waves freeze in the sea, possible for him to quench the light of the stars in eternal darkness, but it is not possible for him to refuse to hear prayer which is based upon his promise and offered in faith. He can reverse nature, but he cannot reverse his own nature, and he must do this before he can forbear to hear and answer prayer. The prayers of God’s Church are God’s intentions—you will not misunderstand me—what God writes in the book of his decree, which no eye can see, that he in process of time writes in the book of Christian hearts where all can see and read. The book of the believer’s desire, if those desires be inspired of the Holy Spirit, is just an exact copy of the book ofthe divine decree. And if the Church be determined today to lift up her heart in prayer for the conversion of men, it is because God determined from before all worlds that men should be converted; your feeble prayer today, believer, can fly to heaven, and awake the echoes of the slumbering decrees of God... Prayer is a decree escaped out of the prison of obscurity, and come to life and liberty among men. Pray, brother, pray, for when God inspires you, your prayer is as potent as the decrees of God.1
Do you hear what he is saying? If God has ordained that something should happen, he will put it in the hearts of his people to pray. You see, it is precisely the sovereignty of God that makes our prayers both effective and necessary. We pray, not in spite of the fact that God is sovereign, but because he is sovereign!
What we pray for
Well, let’s look now more particularly at the content of the prayers here at the end of Hebrews 13. I want you to notice that he requests prayers from them (Heb. 13:18-19) and then prays a prayer for them (20- 21). Let me just notice in passing that these are prayers from the saints for the saints. We need to pray with each other, and we need to pray for each other. Let’s beware of becoming entirely self-focused in our praying. It’s not for no reason that our Lord teaches us to pray with plural pronouns: Our Father, give us this day our daily bread, and so on.
The prayer from them
“Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly. But I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner” (18-19). You might think that since each believer has God for his or her Father, it makes no difference whether we pray for them or not. After all, won’t God take care of them? Yes, of course he will. But again, this mistakes the meaning and purpose of prayer. We don’t pray to inform the Father of our needs or the needs of others, for he already knows our needs before we ask (cf. Mt. 6:8). Instead, we should see prayer for each other as an important way our mutual dependence upon God is expressed and as an important way that our hearts are united together. And for that reason, God is pleased to hear the prayers that the saints pray for each other. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us; Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf” (2 Cor. 1:8-11). Thus, the apostle asks the Roman Christians to pray for him: “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ's sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints” (Rom. 15:30-31).
The fact that he encourages them to pray for him because (for) “we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly [well, good]” probably indicates that he wishes them to continue to pray that these things would be true of him. He is asking them to pray for him so that he will be able to continue to have a good conscience and in all things to live well before God (cf. Acts 24:16). He wants to be holy, and he is asking the saints to pray for him to that end. This is how we ought to pray for each other. Let’s pray that God’s kingdom come more and more in our lives, that his will be done more and more in our homes and in our church. That’s not to say we can’t pray for other things (like physical healing or a better job, etc.), but this ought to be the main thing we pray for each other (think about how Paul prays for other believers in his letters and let this also be a pattern for us).
His prayer for them
Verses 20-21 is one of the great doxologies of the New Testament. But it is also a prayer: “Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (20- 21).
What is he praying for? He is praying that they would do God’s will more and more, indeed, that God would equip them with everything they need to do this. He is praying that they would do what pleases God. Just as he desires to be more holy himself, he prays for them that they too would be holy.
In other words, he is praying that they persevere in holiness. Not just that they barely make it over the finish line, but that they flourish in their walk with the Lord and bear much fruit for his glory. This final prayer really is therefore connected to the overall burden of this epistle. For at the end of the day, perseverance in the faith to the end is not just a matter of focusing on the end; it’s also a matter of daily life. It’s a matter of daily dying to sin and self and living to God. It’s a matter of daily refusing to be conformed to the world in the little things as well as the big things. It’s a matter of daily being transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:1-2). Thus, it’s a matter of daily holiness and of growing in holiness. So the prayer that they are made perfect in every good work to do God’s will really is a prayer that they would persevere in faith and holiness to the end.
Now prayers like this are very instructive, theologically. The object of the prayer is that they would do something, namely, God’s will. He is hardly imagining them passive in this. This is something they are very active in doing. They are the ones doing God’s will. But the one making them, equipping them, is God. The one working in them so that they work, is God. What they are praying for is a reminder that we are active and responsible to live holy lives. Who they are praying to is a reminder that God is ultimately decisive in enabling us to do his will. It is the prayerful expression of Phil. 2:12-13, “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
Hence, we notice the basis of our confidence in prayer. It is not confidence in man but in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is confidence in the grace of God over our sin (for the blood of Christ was shed as a sacrifice for sin), in the victory of God over our death (for Jesus who died was raised from the dead), and in the faithfulness of God over our broken promises (for the blood is the blood of the eternal covenant). It is the benevolence and love that our Lord Jesus has for us, for he is the good shepherd of the sheep. He gives his life for them so that they might have eternal life. This reminds us that God desires to and in fact will save and sanctify his people. This is therefore no idle prayer.
Over it all stands the God of peace. For the Christian, God is the God of peace, for he has through Jesus his Son brought those who believe in him into fellowship and friendship with him.
And it is ultimately a prayer for the glory of God, which is why it is also a doxology. God is glorified in us when the good in us is the result of his work for us and in us. God gets the glory for the good works of his people because we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10). God gets the glory because he doesn’t just put us in a position where we can on our own please him – he actually recreates our hearts so that we willingly please him and do his will. We don’t therefore praise ourselves but the Lord from whom all our good comes.
Brothers and sisters, this is why, despite the opposition of Satan and a hostile world, and despite our own weakness and frailty, we can have confidence that we will glorify God through lives that please him. We can have confidence because God is the one who enables us to do so. And the end of God-pleasing lives is the glory of God which is the end for which God has created everything. You can be sure then that God will do it. The book of Hebrews ends on prayer because prayer centers the heart and mind on God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Prayer takes the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world and makes it personal. In prayer, we call upon the name of the Lord and are saved. We are saved because the God to whom we pray is the sovereign God, the gracious God, the promise-keeping God, the eternal God, the unchanging God.
1 Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 7. Sermon No. 354, “A Sermon for the Week of Prayer”