NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–As I am privileged to travel across our nation and present the Empowering Kingdom Growth strategy, I always state this is not a program but a passion. This passion demands supernatural empowering, and supernatural empowering is dependent upon prayer.
Everyone nods agreement and some respond with a hearty “Amen!” But are we really praying with fervor and intensity? Is it our first recourse rather than our last? Do we truly believe God wants to accomplish something so great in our day no one can get credit for it but Him? If so, do we believe it will only come when the people called by His Name humble themselves and pray?
THE PRIORITY OF PRAYER
I have been intrigued by the story of the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8. David had desired to build the temple, but the Lord had only allowed him to provide the resources so that his son Solomon could accomplish the building. During the dedication, Solomon breaks forth in impassioned prayer. The content of his prayer reflects the prayer of his father David as recorded in 2 Samuel 7.
Solomon repeatedly underlines that God had kept His promise to his father, David. He then requests that in a similar manner God would fulfill the promise that had been made to him through his father, David. In other words, Solomon recognized that prayer is the tool that God gives His people to participate in the actualizing of His Word and the advancing of His Kingdom on planet Earth.
It is at this point that Solomon pauses to reflect: “But will God indeed live on earth? Even heaven, the highest heaven, cannot contain You, much less this temple I have built” (1 Kings 8:27, HSCB). What, then, is the purpose of the temple? It is at this point that Solomon begins to recite a formula that we are more familiar with in Chronicles. He speaks of such issues as personal sin, military defeat and famine. What should happen when such calamities occur? Listen: “When Your people Israel are defeated before an enemy, because they have sinned against You, and they return to You and praise Your name, and they pray and plead with You for mercy in this temple, may you hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your people Israel” (8:33-34a, HSCB).
The zenith of this prayer litany is found in verses 41-43 where he anticipates the foreigner who comes from a distant land because of God’s name. Why would the foreigner be attracted to this place? He will see and hear of what God has accomplished through the prayers of His people, and they will be drawn to God. The end result is then “all the people on earth will know Your name, to fear You as Your people Israel do and know that this temple I have built is called by Your name” (8:43, HSCB).
The temple was to be a place for prayer and praise. I am delighted that we have rediscovered the joy and power of praise. Yet with the revival in praise, we seem to be strangely apathetic about prayer. We can fill the building for a celebration of praise, but we can hold our solemn assemblies for prayer in a small classroom.
Prayer is the mighty tool that God has given us to participate in Kingdom activity.
PRAYER AND THE NATIONS
There is a curious passage in Mark 11 where the Gospel writer brings together several elements that appear to be incompatible. First we have the triumphal entry of Jesus followed by the story of the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. This section is culminated by the incredible promise: “If anyone says to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him” (Mark 11:23, HSCB).
The focus in the entire section is on the King and His Kingdom. The triumphal entry takes us back to the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 where the King enters seated on the fold of a donkey. Here it is helpful to read the context. Verse 10 indicates that this King will proclaim peace to the nations. The rightful King has come, but He is not a political conqueror nor is He concerned only for the Jews. He is the universal King who alone can bring peace.
The story of the cleansing of the temple is actually surrounded by the story of the withering of the fig tree. We are familiar with the story of the cleansing of the temple but we often misapply it in terms of “selling books and tapes in the foyer of the church.” When you read the text carefully, you will note that it was His teaching that prompted the chief priest and scribes to plot His death, not simply the temporary cleansing of the temple.
What was so radical about His teaching? Jesus quotes from Isaiah 56:7: “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?” They had made a flea market out of the court of the Gentiles, thus ignoring God’s concern for the nations. The issue was their lack of concern for reaching the nations, which is the heartbeat of God.
The fig tree story seems as if it intrudes into this story. We are surprised to think that Jesus would curse the tree for not having fruit, particularly when the text makes it clear that it was not the season for figs. How do we explain this, and how does it relate to the cleansing of the temple? First, the text does not indicate that Jesus cursed the tree. It tells us that He spoke to the tree saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” (11:14). It was Peter who concluded that Jesus had cursed the tree. When Peter asserts this, Jesus does not even bother to answer him directly.
Matthew tells us that the disciples were only surprised by how quickly the tree died (Matthew 21:20). In other words, the death of the tree didn’t surprise them. Mark’s Gospel gives us another important hint -— it withered or died from the roots up (11:20). Jesus’ attention was drawn to the tree because it was blooming out of season. When a tree blooms out of season, it is often an indication that it is dying. This tree was systemically dead and the miracle here is the suddenness with which the tree died.
When Jesus speaks to the “out of season” tree, He declares only that it will no longer provide fruit for man. In other words, it no longer served the purpose for which it was created. The tree and the temple had this in common: Neither was serving their intended purpose. The temple was not serving as a house of prayer for the nations. Both gave the appearance of life and fruit, but both were systemically dead. The death which quickly came to the fig tree would surely come to the temple.
When we think of this story, we are aware that the temple had all the outward signs of health and fruitfulness, just like the fig tree. It was full of activity, noise and people, and yet it was systemically diseased because it had failed to serve the purpose for which it was created — a house of prayer for the nations. We must ask if our churches would be characterized as houses of prayer for the nations. Are our churches blooming with activity but devoid of fruitful prayer?
Jesus ends the section by talking about mountain-moving faith. I think we must again return to Zechariah to understand the point of the statement. Zechariah prophesies concerning a day of the Lord that is coming which will result in mountains being split asunder, moving to the north and the south (14:4). Further, he tells us that on that day Yahweh will become king over all the earth -— Yahweh alone, and His name alone (14:9). This must surely refer to the final and triumphant return of the King to the earth.
Thus, the promise about having faith to move mountains is not a “name it, claim it” prayer promise. Nor is it a manipulation of sovereign God to provide us with miraculous signs. It is used to clarify a primary purpose of prayer. Prayer is the fast forward button for Kingdom activity! The miracle with the fig tree was the fast-forwarding of root rot. Jesus now allows the disciples to glimpse the ultimate end of all the kingdoms of the earth.
If we want to see Kingdom activity fast-forwarded in our church, we must pray Kingdom-focused prayers. Perhaps you are wondering what such prayers would look or sound like. Take a look at the prayer of Jesus in Matthew 6. Jesus prays: Your name be honored as holy, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Did you hear it? Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven -— fast forward!
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the Southern Baptist Convention’s national Empowering Kingdom Growth strategist.