Earnest, Agonizing Prayer

“And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.”Exodus 2:24, ESV

How earnest are our prayers? Do we rise with great thanksgiving before Jehovah and praise the precious name of Jesus Christ, and then find ourselves cutting our time with God short because we must rush off to “more important” matters? Or perhaps we categorically justify the weakness of our flesh by quoting the Lord’s rebuke to His disciples, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew26:41). Yes, I grant you that it was a gentle rebuke; nonetheless, it was a rebuke from the Lord of glory just the same; for He preceded that remark with a command; not a mere request, but a command: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.”

Oh, beloved saint of God, consider the earnest and agonizing prayers of the Master on that night He was betrayed. His anguish was such that He sweat “great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Our flesh, our pride, our obstinate minds, whatever, the hindrance, that should, no, must be laid aside so that we may persevere in prayer and in the Word until this truth comes forth in our souls. The weakness of our intellects (though we boast such great things with them, and by them) will often get hung up on the words, “as it were” so that we can say, “You see, Mr. Cardwell, Christ didn’t sweat great drops of blood, but God, who certainly minces not His words, said very plainly and very clearly that the sweat of Jesus fell on the ground like great drops of blood, not that they were great drops. Let’s not strain the text and miss the point; and let’s not go to the Greek text with this one because your pre-school aged grandchildren are both watching your walk and listening to your sermons.” Yes, I agree with you; and you’re absolutely right because I do not have to go to the Greek text. Nevertheless, whether He did or did not sweat great drops of blood, the clause is descriptive of the subject predicate; that is, Jesus was praying; He prayed in earnest; He agonized in His prayers. The incarnate Son of God was not fretting nor was He anxious or worried of the death set before Him. That would be sin; and Jesus was that spotless Lamb of God who is completely without sin, neither was He intimately acquainted with sin (Philippians 4:6; Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus spoke of His crucifixion and resurrection from the earliest moments of His earthly ministry (see John 2:19-21), and in fact, having been prophetically uttered from the very beginning of His public ministry (see John 2:18-22). As the time approached, He determined to enter Jerusalem (Luke 9:51; Isaiah 50:7) because, as very God, His counsel shall stand and He will do all He has decreed and determined (Isaiah 46:9-10). “Then,” you ask, “why did He agonize so?” That is the question to be asked, my dear friend; that indeed is the point.

Jesus agonized because His form of flesh was no different from yours and mine, in that, He had the same substance of flesh and bone. Therefore, He is the perfect substitute in the place of mankind. Yet, make no mistake about it, that is where the similarity ends, and aren’t we overjoyed by that truth. He is unique for never a man lived like Jesus. He did not have the corruptions that were passed along the line through Adam’s fall because He was Holy Spirit conceived and virgin born. His precious blood was pure, not having the taint and stain of sinful humanity. His perfection as the Son of Man notwithstanding, His flesh was indeed weak (Psalms 73:26). He got hungry and got tired (Matthew 4:2; 8:24); and in strength, was so very much lower than the angels (Psalms 8:5). The prayers of Jesus that night, however, must harness all divine power to bear witness of God’s will on earth as He had decreed in pre-creation eternity of the Son of God’s vicarious atoning death. This is just as the Lord taught us to pray, in the model prayer: “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2). Amen and amen.

Although we have examples of men anointed by the grace and good pleasure of God, they are all fallen (that is, we who have that very distinction of being called as ministers of His precious gospel, we most certainly are fallen); and we are thankful for them so that we may have a visible example and witness of the life redeemed by grace (1 Corinthians 11:1). Yet, there is only One truly supreme example, Jesus Christ the Righteous.

Now, Christ’s prayer was not to reconcile heaven’s decrees and earth’s commands as if to settle them in His own soul. Christ, as God, would not have needed reconciliation between heavenly truth and earthbound animation. That would imply a disunity of the Godhead and that cannot be according to scripture (the LORD is one, Deuteronomy 6:4, and He cannot deny Himself, 2 Timothy 2:13). When the Lord prayed those three times in Gethsemane, He was bringing a witness before all the heavenly host as well as leaving an example for all His disciples to follow of the glorious wonder of the Son of Man bringing all truth to bear in His Person. This is why Jesus agonized, and even prayed the more earnestly. Christ’s prayer brought, not the glory He once had to His incarnate Person, for that would not happen until after His resurrection; but His servant’s frame (Isaiah 52:13-52:15; Philippians 2:5-11) would be strengthened with the Spirit’s anointing. The smallest portion of the whelming strength of this power was enough to bow Moses to the earth in haste and worship (Exodus 34:8); enough to cause Isaiah to cry out in woeful despair for his sinfulness before such holiness (Isaiah 6:5); enough to move Jeremiah to weep over a city and people that brought to him nothing but grief, ridicule, and imprisonment (Lamentations 1-5); enough  to manifest God’s condescending grace to create the heaven and earth in six normal consecutive days; enough to promise redemption to rebels in a perfect garden planted by God Himself; enough to secure the very power to strengthen men of faith to subdue kingdoms, do works of righteousness, pursue and obtain God’s promises, shut lions mouths, quench fiery violence, escape violent death, and be strengthened in weakness; enough to evince the very power of divine grace that healed the sick, opened blind eyes, brought speech to mouths of ears born deaf, raised the dead, fulfilling and establishing God’s Word, and enduring every trial, hardship, persecution and tribulation. As Christ was truly and completely man in His humanity, He sought to go to the cross to shed His precious blood and pour out His life an offering unto God by a power that only comes from beyond all humanity: the power from on high, the strength of a mere human filled with the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s power.

Our precious Savior must go in a full and intimate power from on high because He was facing death, the enemy of God, the destroyer of righteousness. He must pray the prayers He prayed, otherwise He would be doing what Adam did, rush headlong into death. Adam failed to seek his Creator Father when Eve was being deceived. Jesus was obedient unto death in seeking to make His every action a reverent and harmonious submission with the Heavenly Father, even unto the death of a cross (Philippians 2:8).

Today, our dear old friend, Mr. Spurgeon, reminds us that “[p]rayer is the forerunner of mercy…. God has given you many an unsolicited favour, but still great prayer has always been the prelude of great mercy with you.” It is true, and of a truth that is much more than we can cover here (believe you, me). The Lord prayed earnestly, not so that He might receive mercy for Himself, but rather to secure by His sacrificial and vicarious death, “mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7).

By His death, Christ rent the veil that separated us from intimate prayer and communion with God, yet we pray as if the veil was still there and the blood of bulls and goats must still be shed. His praying the Father and sending the Holy Spirit through His resurrection and ascension has secured us immediate access to the throne of grace by that very same Spirit, yet we often pray as if God is not sovereign, as if Christ does not sit upon His throne at the Right Hand, and as if the Spirit has not been sent to live within us to intercede with unuttered groans on behalf of our weakness, guilt, and ignorance─ and also prompt us at times when He has enlightened our understandings, grown us in the grip of grace, and strengthened us in faith.

I realize that an article like this is bound to make the most holy of God’s children indignant, but if it rises in you, just as it has risen in me through this conviction on more occasions than I care to confess on the Internet (for it is more than I could recall in a single sitting), please remember, dear saved one, that this is merely the nature of the flesh. It “lusteth against the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17). This is why we must continually mortify the flesh and put to death the deeds of sin.

We do sin and fall short of the glory of God each time we pray, for who can attain unto the prayers of Jesus, especially in such a way as He prayed in Gethsemane? We must understand that even then we need His grace upon grace to spend a moment in prayer before the Divine Presence to whom we’ve been given intimacy of fellowship. We fall asleep in prayer; and even when we do not tire physically and nod off actually, we do often pray mindlessly (and more often than our boastful flesh will even confess before God, who knows you and I better than we will ever know ourselves). We often cannot, and more often will not persevere in prayer, getting up and leaving off after one utterance, or even after two, whereas our blessed Master prayed with that singular topic thrice until He was satisfied that heaven and earth bore witness of Himself. Do we leave off before heaven and earth is settled in our souls? That is, do we move before the Word of God is settled in our minds about the certainty of Christ’s s Person and redeeming work? Do we arise before we are comforted in our souls of the truth of His Redemption and at peace with the ramifications of His eternal Presence with us and in us? Do we end our time of prayer before we are fully relying upon His faithfulness according to all He has decreed, commanded, and promised? If there is the slightest doubt about any of these being yea and amen in our soul during our time of prayer, we have no business rising from prayer. Of a certainty, we are no less saved when we rise prematurely for it is grace, all of grace that covers us with love and forgives our iniquity, transgression and sin as surely as it prompts us, provokes us, keeps us, and sustains us to the end. Yet, as we are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we should not deceive ourselves to think that we have any strength to rise from prayer and communion with Christ to present our bodies a living sacrifice if we doubt we have worshiped Him with the understanding of our minds, the peace and comfort of our souls, and assuredness of heart. It just cannot be; and it will most certainly be, at best, an hypocritical expression of the second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Of course, it will be an ironic reality because to leave off prayer as unsettled in that way is to not love ourselves. If God loves His people with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3), then certainly to arise from prayer apart from the power and certainty of that love is to likewise go forth in powerless uncertainty.

As His disciples we are commanded to take up our crosses daily to follow Him (Luke 9:23), yet, we depart our Gethsemane and rise from our prayer closets bearing witness that we think that the cross He has commanded us to take up can be borne through casual, careless, or even prayerless prayers. Christ’s earnest determination to fulfill the Father’s will and be crucified for the souls of men and women lost in the whelming flood of sin was a serious matter that in praying, He brought all heaven and earth to bear witness of what would take place the rest of that night, and most especially, take place upon that tree when He hung between heaven and earth.

Do we not realize that earnest, agonizing prayer can only come in our own Gethsemane, and that for us, it must come daily because we must face the God-hating, Christ-rejecting world daily? We take up a daily cross because daily we live in a world that hates Christ and crucified Him for bearing record of the truth (John 15:18-20; 18:37).

The Israelites lived in Egyptian bondage. They were slaves to Pharaoh’s oppressive hatred and there was no escape from it. They cried unto El Shaddai, for His name, I AM, would not be revealed for another eighty years (Exodus 3:14; 6:1-3). The children of Israel sighed because of their bondage. They cried in desperation over their condition. The people groaned earnestly and agonized ceaselessly before their God by reason of their desperation.

Do we not see our desperate condition? Do we not see that although we have been miraculously and mercifully delivered by Jehovah’s nail pierced hand, quite often we cannot sit with Him one hour as He intercedes for us? Do we not see that we often arise from Gethsemane to take up a cross in His name by the power of the flesh and not the grace that comes by the Spirit through supplication?

May God’s grace grant us the grace of repentance that we may agonize in prayer in our private Gethsemane.

May He be merciful to us to give us the strength to see our pathetic weaknesses and expose them as such so that we may cling to His grace alone, else we will never proclaim in power the gospel of grace alone to save savingly.

May YHVH God, the great I AM, grant us the grace to dwell in the richness and power of the grace of His Son Jesus Christ by prayer so that we may come forth by grace through earnest prayer, and likewise go forth with grace having secured great power and boldness in the Spirit.

May our everlasting King Jesus grant us that blessed grace to see death as it is, and as He was crucified as the Ransom for the souls of many, may we be crucified with Him daily, for His sake, and having been crucified with Him, rise with Him in His resurrection, but only by the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings.

And lastly, may He grant us grace upon grace, to pray earnestly without ceasing, even if He tarry and His answer delay in coming (remember that it was eighty years from the cry of the people in Exodus 2 until their deliverance in Exodus 12). Remember, that although it cannot compare with that which is to come in that Day, what abides in private, persevering prayer is fullness of joy in His presence, and pleasures forever more at His Right Hand.

About Jon J. Cardwell

"The Spirited Speaker" - Pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Anniston, Alabama. Nationally recognized speaker and publisher. Author of several books, including the bestseller, Christ and Him Crucified.

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