Why was Jesus baptized?

We first come across baptism in the context of John the Baptist. John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). John came as a prophet, calling people to repent and, as a visible way of showing that response, to be baptized in the Jordan River. John saw this “baptism of repentance” as an act which prepared Israel for the coming Messiah, the one who would “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

This context makes Jesus’ own baptism by John all the more perplexing. If submission to John’s baptism was an act of repentance, then does that mean that Jesus needed to repent? Did he need to turn from sin? Did he need to be forgiven?

What didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism?

First allow me to stress two things that didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism. First, he did not repent from sins. Second, he was not adopted as God’s Son.

He was not repenting of sins.

John had just finished saying that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. In Matthew, he goes on to describe Jesus as the Judge of all: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). Jesus was the Judge who could adjudicate true from false repentance, he had no need of repenting himself. That is why John expressed disbelief when Jesus came to be baptized by him by saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13) Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), so he had no need of repentance.

Jesus was not adopted as God’s Son at the baptism.

There was a popular heresy in the early church that said God adopted Jesus as his Son at the baptism. This heresy arose out of a misunderstanding of Mark 1:11 and its parallel passages in the other synoptic gospels when the voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, whom I love; and with you I am well pleased.” But what we have here is the same thing we have in Romans 1:4 when Paul says that “through the Spirit of holiness [Jesus Christ] was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.” In neither event, the baptism or the resurrection, is Jesus made the Son. Instead, he is declared to be the Son. That is, his divine Sonship is made clear. His identity is confirmed, not formed, by these events.

So why was Jesus baptized?

If Jesus didn’t need to repent or be forgiven, why then did he submit to John’s baptism?

Jesus was identifying with Israel.

When the people came to John in the wilderness they were re-enacting a portion of Israel’s history. By coming to the wilderness they were entering a place associated in the Old Testament with testing and decision. When Israel rebelled in the wilderness they were met with judgment. When Israel trusted God, they were brought through the raging waters of the Jordan, into the Promised Land. By being baptized, the people of Jerusalem were committing themselves to trust God. They were, in a sense, identifying themselves with past Israel.

Jesus was doing the same sort of thing, not as an act of repentance, but of solidarity. He was saying, in a sense, “your story is my story.” I am willing to walk in the same steps as Israel, committing myself to God alone.

The problem for Israel, though, is that even though they had periods of repentance, they quickly fell back into sin. Indeed, even though “all of Jerusalem” came out to be baptized, it was also those from Jerusalem who called for Jesus’ execution. While many heard and responded to John’s call to turn from sin, they never responded, or didn’t properly respond, to John’s call to look to the Greater One.

Jesus was identifying with fallen humanity

Israel’s story, though, is a microcosm of humanity’s story. And Jesus is not only identifying with Israel, but with all of humanity. The need to trust God fully goes back not just to Israel’s wilderness wanderings, but to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In submitting to a “baptism of repentance” which he did not need, Jesus identified himself in solidarity with all fallen humanity.

Jesus was declared as the true Son

After Jesus was baptized we’re introduced to a marvelous scene: “he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)

The Father describes Jesus as “my Son.” In the Old Testament, the phrase “God’s son” can sometimes refer to heavenly beings, to kings (especially in the line of David), and to Israel itself. Here Mark wants to show us Jesus’ special relationship with the Father and restate his Messianic role. Jesus is not just son, He is The Son, a truth which becomes ever more clear throughout the gospel and the rest of the New Testament.

We begin to see a continuity and discontinuity with Israel and its kings. Israel was God’s “son” who was trapped in a cycle of repentance and failure. The same story goes for its kings. But Jesus comes along as the true Israel, and as the true Messiah-king. The rest of the story reveals to us that Jesus does not fail, that he remains faithful to the Father even to death on the cross.

Again, we can go back even farther than Israel’s story, to the story of Genesis. In the creation story the Spirit hovers over the waters and it is by God’s breath that Adam becomes a living being. God’s revelation of the Spirit in Jesus’s baptism ought to draw our minds back to creation, back to Adam and Eve. Here, though, the Spirit is at work empowering Jesus to take up the role of the true human who would succeed where Adam and Eve failed.

Why does it matter that Jesus was baptized?

Jesus’ baptism doesn’t prove his unique identity by itself, but it does remind that Jesus stands both with humanity and above humanity. The rest of the New Testament shows us that Jesus was fully man and fully God. In his baptism he fully identifies himself with fallen humanity, not because he himself is fallen, but as an act of solidarity. This is a sort of “proto-cross” event. On the cross Jesus goes a step farther. He doesn’t just identify with humanity, but he takes the penalty for humanity. Jesus’ baptism sets us up for that reality.

But it’s also clear that Jesus doesn’t just come as a normal human being standing in for the rest of all normal human beings. If he did that, his death could at best only save himself. He would only be giving to God what he already owed him. No, the voice from heaven, the presence of the Spirit, and the declaration of the Father all point us to the fact that Jesus is something more. He is the Son who pleases the Father. And, because he is the true and infinite Son, his stand of solidarity can really be effective in our salvation.

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New Podcast: What does it mean to be a Christian?

Just a quick announcement:WhatDoesItMeanToBeAChristian

I decided to get into the podcasting game. I’m starting with some content I already developed in my book What Does It Mean to Be a Christian? I won’t be reading the book, but using the structure and content as a guide for the podcast. I am developing it using Anchor and it is available on the following platforms:

Apple Podcasts

Google Podcasts

Spotify

Breaker

RadioPublic

Overcast

Stitcher

Does personal virtue matter for those who hold public political office?

Does personal virtue matter for those who hold public political office?

I ask this question specifically to evangelical Christians, in part because I am one, and in part because there is evidence that between 2011 and 2016 we have taken a U-turn on our answer. Note this quote from the linked article:

In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Now, 72 percent say so — a far bigger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.

Is that U-turn justified (were we wrong in 2011) or have we lost some sense of our moral bearing and stand in need of correction?

I will answer that question in 3 parts. First, what is the connection between personal virtue and public justice in the general citizenry? Second, does that principle also apply to leaders and those who hold public office? Third, does this hold up from what we know from Scripture?

What is the connection between personal virtue and public justice?

J. Brian Benestad[1], in his chapter in Five Views on Church and Politics, argues that personal virtue is critical for political justice. His argument is focused on the relationship between the church and the political world and so he is primarily concerned with the personal virtue of believers who are engaging the political process.

Benestad’s argument also applies to the general citizenry of a nation. He bases his argument on Augustine, who taught that “the attainment of justice in a political community depends on the presence of justice in the souls of individuals” (186).

Just laws, of course, are critical to justice, but even just laws cannot restrain evil people from doing wrong. Or, to put it as Benestad does: “People with disorder in their souls will not be inclined to give others their due” (186). Disordered souls lead to disordered society. Benestad goes on to explain the interrelationship between personal vice and public injustice by quoting Aquinas:

“But the principle of morals are so interrelated to one another that the failure of one would entail the failure in others. For example, if one were weak on the principle that concupiscence [lust] is not to be followed, which pertains to desire, then sometimes in pursuing concupiscence, he would do injury and violate justice.”

By contrast, a society where virtue is practiced (a “rightly ordered soul”) will still have just laws but would also not have much need of their enforcement so those who practice virtue will naturally practice public justice.

In evangelical circles, this argument is simply taken for granted. It is used by many to argue against more stringent gun laws. The problem, it is said, is in people’s hearts and laws cannot change hearts. Therefore, gun laws will be ineffective. If guns cannot be used, another weapon can be found. There’s a merit to this argument, even though it oversimplifies the problem and downplays the interplay between public justice and personal virtue. Indeed, Benestad also expounds on the way in which just laws both restrain evil and contribute to the virtue of the citizenry. The relationship between laws and virtue is not merely one-directional. A just society should have both just people and, given that we live in a fallen world, just laws, which can restrain evil even when personal virtue is absent.

My main point here is merely to say that there is a close connection between personal virtue and public justice.

Do these principles also apply to elected officials?

Yes.

First, in a Democracy, political leaders are also citizens, also under the rule of law, and therefore also under the principles described by Augustine and Aquinas above.

Second, political leaders are the ones primarily responsible with creating and applying laws. They will have a disproportionate influence on whether those laws are just or unjust and whether those laws will be applied fairly or not.

Third, political leaders are an example – for better or worse – to the general citizenry. Leaders who demonstrate pride, falsehood, petulance, greed, etc. will see those same characteristics mimicked by those they lead.

Does this hold up with what we see in Scripture?

Yes.

First, we see this in the patterns of the kings of Israel. Weak or wicked kings led to weakness and wickedness in Israel and Judah. Good kings were able to lead the people in reform – even if short-lived.

Second, the oft cited example of David as the exception to this is not quite as strong as it may seem. David’s personal transgressions with Bathsheba and Uriah led to disasters for Judah, not just in his lifetime, but for generations to come. When David was at his best he exemplified contrition, justice, and communion with God, but at his worst I don’t think he’s a terribly good example of who we should elect to public office.

Third, this seems to fit with the rest of Scripture including warnings in Proverbs against foolish kings, the example of John the Baptist’s experience with Herod, and the descriptions of rulers and authorities in Revelation who come against the people of God.

Finally, is this a veiled attack on Donald Trump?

I don’t want this to be a sort of passive aggressive attack on our President, implying things, but not just coming out and saying what I think. For clarity and fairness I will be explicit in what I am and am not saying here.

First, most importantly I want us to see the principle, and then apply it fairly, including to those who are “on our team” politically. It applies to President Trump, and to other political leaders, liberal and conservative.

Second, there are maybe three categories of ways in which people respond to President Trump. Based on my Facebook and Twitter feeds some see him as a genuinely virtuous person, a righteous warrior of sorts. They believe that he is unfairly maligned by the media and liberals. While I think that there have been many instances where his political enemies have been unfair to him, in my estimation, he is clearly his own worst enemy. His Twitter feed – that he himself writes­ – is enough to show serious issues of character and “disorder in the soul.” I would challenge those who want to paint Trump as virtuous to spend time listening to what he says and writes: Out of the mouth (or the Twitter feed) we can know what is in someone’s heart.

There are also those who are appalled at what Trump says and does but feel they are painted into a corner because there is a greater threat on the other side. This post isn’t about those who feel this way. There’s another discussion to be had about that, but it’s not this post.

Finally, though, I am concerned about the sizeable group of evangelicals who in 2011 saw a close connection between personal virtue and public justice and then changed their mind in 2016. Based on the poll cited above, this is not a small number. I am concerned that in an effort to “win” politically, we have “lost” some sense of our moral bearing. Indeed, I have seen many evangelicals downplay sin and its effects, and even take up the same brash and vulgar language of President Trump, mimicking both his attitude and speech patterns. Frankly, this causes me to grieve for the state of the American evangelical church. I even feel a certain sense of abandonment and loneliness in this regard, a sense of being left behind, of desertion.

I continue to have hope for the evangelical church in America because I believe that where God’s people are gathered in Jesus’s name, the Spirit is present. That Spirit will continue to sanctify us. We should, of course, be most concerned about our own personal virtue. As God’s people, may we set the example of sanctification and love, of holiness and justice to our neighbors.

The Wilderness and the “Crisis of decision”

“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:4

The gospel’s inclusion of the setting of the Baptist’s ministry in the wilderness is not merely a historical nugget but carries deep meaning in its connection to Israel’s prophetic history. No doubt John the Baptist performed his ministry in the wilderness, at least in part, to remind the Israelites of their past and bring them to a crisis of decision in the present.

The wilderness was a place of God’s provision

After God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt he led them into the wilderness. The wilderness served not only as an obstacle that Israel needed to traverse to get to the Promised Land, but as a place where Israel could learn about God’s special provision in a dangerous and unhospitable land. In the wilderness he provided food and water. He ensured that their garments would not wear out. He gave them physical security through military victories over Egypt and the Amalekites.

After Israel had rebelled against God and were facing Babylonian exile God recalls their wilderness experience: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). Then he accuses them of forgetting God’s provision: “They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD’ who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of ravines, a land of deserts and ravines, a land of drought and utter darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives” (Jeremiah 2:6).

In the wilderness Israel was like a young child, just birthed through God’s act of deliverance from slavery from Egypt, an event which culminated in the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea. In the wilderness the Israelites found themselves in a place of childlike dependence upon God’s miraculous provision.

The wilderness was a place of God’s renewal

Yet Israel did not remain in the wilderness. God brought them out of a land of scarcity and into a land of abundance. Moses predicted that there they would grow complacent and prideful and that they would turn away from God. His prediction proved true and God brought judgement on their rebellion in the form of the destruction of their land (so that their once fertile land became an inhospitable and dangerous place like the wilderness) and the ultimate expulsion from the land in exile.

The prophets called on God’s people to remember and return. And, in doing so, they would find that God would be faithful to his promise and restore his people. Here again we see the wilderness come into effect. Isaiah vividly describes how God will bring hope to even the most hopeless situations:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
    the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
    steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
    he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
    he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
    and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert. 
(Isaiah 35:1-6)

Later, the voice of one who declares the good news of God’s restoration is a voice in the wilderness. The gospel writers apply this directly to John the Baptist:

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

Out of the natural danger of the wilderness God brings both creation and recreation. In the first case, God uses the wilderness to form his people. In the second, he transforms the wilderness itself.

The wilderness brings about a crisis of decision

Yet the wilderness is not a place of guaranteed restoration. It is not a pleasant place, and its unpleasantness can either bring reliance or rebellion. Israel rebelled in the wilderness as often as it trusted. They complained that there was no food and water. They built a golden calf when Moses was on Mount Sinai. They rebelled when God instructed them to go into the Promised Land. The wilderness brought Israel to a crisis of decision. They could either trust God, or they could turn away.

The wilderness in John the Baptist’s ministry

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness he called people to repent, to turn away from their sin and return to God. His call for a turning of the heart was mirrored by a call to return to the wilderness, the place where God’s relationship with his people began and could begin again.

John called the people to reenact Israel’s birth as a nation. In baptism they reenacted the Red Sea experience. In the wilderness, they reenacted a radical trust in the God who provides. In confession and repentance they forsook their old ways in Egypt.

In doing so John called the people to a crisis of decision. They could either rebel like their ancestors or trust God and find renewal. But John didn’t simply call them to work harder. He pointed them to Jesus. The way that they would express their trust in God would be to trust in the One who He sent, the one more powerful than John.

The wilderness and the start of Jesus’s ministry

Finally, it’s worth it to show how the gospel writers use the wilderness motif in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus himself is baptized, identifying himself with Israel specifically, and with humanity in general. He, too, has a Red Sea experience in which God the Father publicly calls him out as chosen for a purpose. Immediately afterwards he is led into the wilderness where he experiences intense temptation from Satan himself. Here he must face his own crisis of decision. Does he trust God or does he go the way of Israel and humanity and rebel?

His answers are given in Matthew: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4), “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7), and “Worship the Lord God, and serve him only” (4:10). At the precises place where Israel and humanity was faithless, Jesus proved faithful.

Our wilderness experience?

John the Baptist called people to a crisis of decision and, in reading the gospel story, the evangelists draw us to that same decision. We encounter in Jesus the chance to repent, find renewal, and restart our lives afresh. This isn’t just a call to “try harder”, or “do better.” It’s a call to receive a transformed heart. John baptized with water, an outward sign of new birth. But, Jesus promised a baptism by the Holy Spirit. That transformative power is enough to bring streams in the desert, to make the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk, and to turn the rocky soil of our hearts into a field where life can flourish.

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

I just came across this question on a blog ranting against Christians. But, if I’m honest, I’ve asked this question many times myself, sometimes honestly, sometimes as an attempt to justify myself. The “it” in question could be any number of things which the Bible teaches against, from our perspective, don’t seem to harm anyone. Why does God still call these things “sin”?

First, a quick observation: Even from a secular perspective, the notion that we tend to judge our actions or thoughts as right or wrong based solely on whether they cause harm to someone else is a notion peculiar to our culture. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, shows that the human brain has several different “moral taste buds”, or moral intuitions. One of those has to do with causing harm to others (compassion), but in other cases it’s less obvious (the remainder are fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty). These moral taste buds span cultures, but different cultures have different “preferences” between them. We in the 21st century West place the biggest emphasis on harm to the exclusion of the others. Now, our culture could be right in doing so, but in deciding that we are, we should at least note that our perspective is largely driven by our own cultural bias.

Second, the Christian perspective: Christians view sin, first and foremost, as being against God. This is why David can confess “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” (Psalm 51:4) David’s sin, in fact, harmed Bathsheba and Uriah and David’s entire family, but he recognized that sin at its core is rebellion against God. When we sin against others, we always sin against God. But it seems possible to sin against God, without necessarily sinning against others.

Third, our question sometimes comes from a lack of understanding. Sin is fundamentally destructive to God’s creation, even if we can’t see it. Something may not be harmful from our perspective, but here we simply suffer from our limited perception of reality. Here are a few observations on what we might call “private” or “harmless” sins:

(1)    Sin is self-degrading: Even if a sin caused no measurable harm to someone else it still causes harm to the one who sins. In turning away from God, we turn away from the one who can heal our souls. Since we as humans made in God’s image are the most precious thing in God’s creation, it is a sin to do damage to our souls.

(2)    The private self is intrinsically tied with the social self. We inevitably act and speak out of our nature. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) The social consequences of a sin aren’t always obvious, but if given the chance, they always come.

(3)    Sin grows: James describes it well when he says, “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:15) We sometimes think that we have the power over the small sins, that we have control. This is a deception. Sin, unchecked, gains power over the one who indulges it.

Fourth, thank goodness for grace. God has the power to reverse sins’ trajectory, to heal what is broken and to restore whatever was taken away. God gave us the law to limit the negative impact of sin, but it is ultimately the Spirit of God that brings life, and it is the Spirit of God, through Jesus, that we all need the most.

Prayer and the knowledge and sovereignty of God. What’s the point?

Q: What’s the point of prayer? After all, if God already knows what we need before we ask, why do we need to ask?

A: First, prayer includes more than simply asking God for things. It also includes praise, thanksgiving, and confession of sin. Still, it’s right to focus on specific requests, since such prayers dominate Scriptural examples and instructions.

As to the question about God’s knowledge: Prayer – even the request – is not simply a way of getting what we want/need from God. It’s a means of forming a personal relationship with him. God knows what we need, but he wants us to ask him for it. In doing so, we learn to be dependent on him. We learn the proper relationship between Creator and created. We need. We ask. God has. God gives.

Q: I have heard it said: “We pray, not to change God, but so that we ourselves might be changed.” Is that what you’re saying above? Is the primary purpose of prayer to bring about an internal change?

A: Prayer does change us, and it’s good that it does. But I’m hesitant to say that the primary purpose of prayer is internal change. That’s simply not how the Bible usually puts it. Take, for instance, Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 6:18-20. Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for the Lord’s people, and to pray specifically for him, that he would preach the gospel without fear.

Now, there’s the possibility that by praying in this way the Ephesians would be changed internally: They would become more dependent on God. They would see God’s hand in missions. They would become less self-focused and more others-focused. They would see the need for boldness themselves. Etc.

But Paul’s main point isn’t that they be changed, but that their prayers for him would lead to his boldness in sharing the gospel. In other words, Paul is implying a cause and effect relationship here. The Ephesians pray. God answers. Paul preaches fearlessly.

Q: I’m uncomfortable with using the phrase “cause and effect” relationship when talking about prayer. It seems too much like magic. Are you saying the Ephesians’ prayers caused Paul’s boldness? Does that mean that without the Ephesians’ prayer Paul wouldn’t have been bold?

A: That seems unlikely in this case, given that Paul’s whole ministry prior to his work with the Ephesians was characterized by boldness. Still, it does seem that there might be some instances where God will only give us something if we pray for it. James writes “you do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

I don’t think that Paul is drawing such a straight line between the Ephesians’ request and Paul’s boldness. Perhaps we could say that the Ephesians’ requests “contributes” to Paul’s boldness. But even then, it isn’t the request itself that contributes, but God’s response to that request.

Here it’s important to remember that God is not a formula but a personal being with an independent will. We are called to address him as Father and the father-child relationship is the lens by which Jesus instructs his disciples to approach prayer. The Father is not bound to our requests, but neither is he deaf to them. He hears and then chooses his own response. To the extent his response is connected to our request, our request contributed to that response. But we must always remember that God is able to act apart from our request.

Q: You speak of God “responding” to our prayer requests. Does such language impinge upon God’s sovereignty? Is it right to say that the Creator responds to his creation?

A: It may be that we are now in the realm of mystery, where language begins to fail us, but this is the way the Bible speaks. God is outside of time, but we experience God in time. And, in time, in relationship, we see an interplay. God’s people call out for help. God hears. God acts. If “response” is not the right word to describe what we experience, I do not have a better one.

Q: It still doesn’t make sense. How does God’s sovereignty relate to our prayers? God knows all things and can do all things. Why should prayer matter?

A: We might as well ask why anything we do matters. God knows I need food and he has the ability to make it appear on my table. Does that mean that my work for that food is useless? Obviously not. We have the capacity to see that two things contribute to my stomach being filled: (1) God’s divine provision and (2) human actions. God’s provision is the ultimate source of food. Human action is often the means by which God provides. It’s a secondary, but usually necessary step. We see that God is able to work apart from human action, but he often works through it. The two actions – human and divine – are not mutually exclusive – but find harmony in the will of God.

This principle is harder to see with prayer, but it’s still there. I think it’s hard to see because prayer sits at the intersection between human action and God’s action. That is, when we pray we act, but our action is indirect, it’s merely a request for God to act. Perhaps this is why prayer can seem confusing to us. Still, the principle applies. Like other human action, prayer becomes the means by which God acts in the world. God can act apart from prayer, but sometimes he uses it in a more direct way, as we see throughout the Bible.

Q: Ok, it’s starting to make sense. Can you summarize this for me?

A: It’s good to see how prayer fits into a robust picture of God’s sovereignty, but the primary lens Jesus gives us to see prayer is the parent-child relationship. My own children have taught me a lot about prayer (good and bad). They come to me with requests all the time. This demonstrates dependence. It shows that they understand that I can provide. As a father, I won’t always give them what they ask for, because I know that they don’t always ask for things which are (ultimately) good for them or for others.  Often, I give them things without them asking for them. But there are some things that they only get if they ask for them.

There could be a danger in thinking of God too much like a human father. Human fathers can be manipulated and worn down. Human fathers sometimes need their kids to ask because they don’t already know what their child needs. Human fathers lack the perfect will of the heavenly father. “God is not a human” (Num 23:19).

Dangers noted, and with proper reverence in our hearts, we ought to come to God as our Father, through the Spirit, in the name of His Son. Understanding these relationships ought to help us understand prayer. Hopefully, it also helps us pray.

What does it mean to “Pray in the Spirit”?

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18

What does Paul mean when he says that we should pray “in the Spirit”?

First, we should not be surprised to see prayer connected with the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes spiritual conversation possible and effective. The Spirit empowered the prophets to speak God’s words. He speaks through the Bible. He testifies to us about Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (John 15:26). The Spirit empowered the disciples to preach the gospel at Pentecost. So, if prayer is conversation with God, then it makes sense for the Holy Spirit to be involved.

Yet, it’s still unclear what it means to pray in the Spirit. After all, God speaks to us through the Spirit, but if we think of prayer primarily as us speaking to God (which Paul seems to do in the rest of the context of Eph 6:18) then what role does the Spirit play?

The most extensive teaching on the connection between prayer and the Spirit is found in Romans 8:26-27.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

The entire chapter of Romans 8 is about the work of the Spirit. We have been set free because of the “law of the Spirit” (8:1). Those who are set free live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4). They “have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (8:5). They are therefore “in the realm of the Spirit” and the Spirit lives in them, just as they belong to Christ (8:9).

This inner spiritual reality creates in us an obligation, to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (8:12).

The Spirit also brings about our adoption as children of God (8:14-15). The Spirit communicates this reality directly to our own spirit (8:16) so that by the Spirit we can come to God as our “Abba, Father” (8:15).

This glorious reality – our freedom, our adoption, our inner transformation – is set aside present suffering, and not only our own suffering, but the groaning of all of creation. Yet, since we know that we are God’s children, and therefore heirs of the promised glory, then we can continue to live with hope (8:18-25).

This is the context for the “weakness” Paul refers to in 8:26. In the midst of our present suffering, we do not even know what to pray for. Along with the rest of creation (8:22), we can only groan inwardly. Things aren’t right, and we’re stuck in the tension between suffering and hope. It’s here the Spirit steps in and enables our communication with God. We may not know what to say, but the Spirit is able to search our hearts and minds and intercede on our behalf (8:26-27).

This context of struggle and suffering in Romans 8 is not too far from the context of Ephesians 6. In Ephesians 6:10-17 Paul instructs his readers to prepare for spiritual battle in advance of a “day of evil” by putting on God’s armor. In Ephesians 6:19-20 he specifically asks the readers to pray for him in his own spiritual battle, that he will remain fearless even though he is in chains for the gospel.

And, when he asks them to pray, he asks them to pray “in the Spirit.” In light of Romans 8, what does he mean?

1.       Pray with a recognition of the indwelling Spirit. Seeing that the personal presence of God is with you as you pray should change your outlook, from simply reciting a list of requests to communing with the living God.

2.       Pray that the Spirit will search your heart and mind. You may not know what to pray. Ask God to bring the right things to mind and, when you can’t even do that, ask the Spirit to intercede on your behalf.

3.       Pray, confessing your sins and asking for a renewed Spirit. By the Spirit we put to death our sin and we do that through confession. One evidence of praying in the Spirit, then, is a recognition and hatred of our sin.

4.       Pray to your Abba. Through the Spirit we are adopted as God’s children. We approach our Abba with the same confidence and trust a young child approaches a good and generous parent.

5.       Pray with hope. Are you in a time of present suffering? Are you in the midst of a spiritual battle? The Spirit helps you know that your suffering is incomparable to your future glory, that your temporary defeat will be swallowed up in Christ’s ultimate victory.