Romans 10:1 “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.”
My dear brothers! We are the children of God aren’t we? Not us alone of course, for in almost every congregation God has his children. But we very ordinary people in this church – we too – are God’s own sons and daughters, the real children of God; “we are family, my brother and my sister and me.” This bond we have with one another is tremendously important to numbers of us. We feel that the people we share our lives with in this congregation are by far our best friends in all the world. We meet together on Sundays twice, and we pray together on Tuesdays and we often speak together on the phone and do things together. Should a division come into the fellowship we would be really upset because it would be for us like cutting apart the body of Christ, it would be like a split in a family, tearing us apart from our brothers and sister whom we love dearly.
You know the fact that I’m an only child, without any sisters or brothers, but since I became a Christian I’ve never lacked for siblings. The moment I received Christ I was given the right to become a child of God. I became a member of God’s household, and as the years have gone by the privileges and joyful reality of that have only grown in importance. You’ve been my brothers and my sisters for many years. Maybe God has used my being an only child to reach out to this family. Many of you see the letters I get each week as I print then out on Tuesdays for you read. They are overwhelmingly affectionate in tone, though there are the liars who want money. There are some men with whom I keep in touch through conferences. I see them just see once a year. “My dear brother,” they will say to me when they see me, and we give one another a hug. Others I haven’t seen for years but we exchange occasional letters. I hate it when an issue divides us. It’s so painful. Troubles in Kenya a few years ago have caused grievous divisions. I am no longer close to some of my brothers, and that is hurtful. I think I am gregarious naturally, that it’s in my genes, but through the love of Jesus Christ it could have become a gregariousness that’s been shaped and purified and strengthened by grace. It is, I trust, a holy and affectionate gregariousness. I hope I’m not boasting. I would be speaking the truth to you, my family, always.
All these thoughts came to me as I read the very first word of this chapter, “brothers!”My old beloved teacher and brother, John Murray, says that this is a word, “charged with emotion and affection.” Paul is thinking of them in contract with those who are not his brothers, whom he’d long to become his brothers. Some were physically related to him; maybe there were some who were his actual physical siblings whom he’d shared a bedroom with. We know that Paul had a sister. He might have had brothers, but when he became a disciple of Jesus Christ and preached that the hated Nazarene was the promised Messiah, the seed of Abraham and the son of David then their physical relationship was not strong enough to sustain a brotherly feeling of love and affection. Saul of Tarsus had been saved through the Lord while they had rejected that Lord as a blasphemer and a criminal and so the brothers had drifted apart. There was no contact; now little existed any of the friendships he’d had during his student days as they’d sat at the feet of Gamaliel, or with his boyhood friends in Tarsus. The warmth and camaraderie had gone; they were now as cold as ice to one another. They’d cross the road not to bump into him. He was an embarrassment to them. They totally rejected what Paul told them of his meeting on the Damascus Road with the risen Jesus and the consequent sea change that had taken place in his values and behaviour and beliefs. He explained to them that God had so loved the world that he had given his only begotten Son, and that that Son, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, had become the Saviour of all who put their trust in him and that he did this in three ways. He saved men and women from ignorance by being God’s prophet and teacher. He saved them from the guilt and power of their sins by making atonement on the cross as the Lamb of God. He saved them from the dominion of the world and sin and the devil by becoming their Lord and Shepherd, keeping and protecting them all through their lives. Paul urged his fellow countrymen and his family to receive Jesus Christ into their lives and to follow and serve him, but they hated everything he said. They were deeply offended by his new trust in Jesus of Nazareth and they refused to be saved. They mocked the very concept of salvation by the Lord, and they’d have killed Paul if they could, just as they’d killed his Master. Now in these opening words of Romans chapter ten Paul opens his heart to his new family of faith; he tells those who are now his eternal brothers what was his response to Jewish rejection.
PAUL TELLS US OF HIS HEART’S DESIRE FOR THEM TO BE SAVED.
Paul has a new openness and integrity since becoming a Christian. Many people in the world are quite secretive. Fathers say to me, “Do you know my son? He shares nothing with me.” They won’t speak of their inner life, what they’re really thinking, their sorrows and fears that they keep to themselves. Their faces betray an unhappiness and gloom, but they won’t share with you their feelings. Paul is a transparent man. He shares with a whole congregation living in the distant world capital which he has never visited what were the desires of his heart, what he wanted most of all in life, his “heart’s desire.” When we read the phrase “heart’s desire” then we think of romantic ballads, the songs of the troubadours, “My heart’s desire is a lady fair who does not know that I love her dear . . .” The songs are mainly about the frustrations of unrequited desire. Pop songs can crudely express such themes – “silly love songs” as another Paul, Paul Macartney, described them. Base desire traps people and destroys them. It eats them up, their desire for money and success and fame and entertainment and sex. Paul’s desires were very different. They were good desires; they motivated and elevated him. He longed for the deliverance of his brothers and sisters according to the flesh. In his heart was a longing tha they came to the truth. In fact sharing with other Christians his inward feelings was so important that this is the second time he’s told us about this desire, and the second time a chapter in this letter has begun with this self-revelation. See how the previous chapter begins; “I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:1-4).
So here are two groups of brothers; those who are his eternal spiritual brothers in the family of God and those who are his alienated fellow countrymen whom he desires would also become his brethren in Christ. Paul is telling us of his feelings towards them because he wants this inward concern to characterize everyone in the congregation in Rome and in every Christian in the world. He wants an inward change in every single Christian without exception. This revelation of his own inward condition is not a unique X-ray of an apostle’s heart. These inward feelings are normative for every Christian. We present our bodies to Christ as living sacrifices. In our minds we aim that our every thought is bound captive to Christ. Our values and beliefs and doctrines whether concerning creation, or the fall of man, or redemption through Christ are all absorbed by our intellect. Our morality, how we are to live, what we are to do and what we are not to do, are also revealed in the Bible. All of us are aware of that, I’m sure, but now I am making this point, that there is also a normative Christian emotional state, that mysterious inward world of our affections, which we neglect at our peril. I am saying that how we feel is also spelled out for us in the Scripture. The Christian’s emotions are to be characterized by love, joy and peace. The Christian is to be a contented person. He is not to worry; he is not to be depressed, he is to travel life’s way rejoicing – like Luke’s description of the Ethiopian Eunuch going home joyfully as a baptized, confessing Christian.
Now here Paul is describing for us the normative emotional state of the evangelist. This is absolutely indispensable. It is as important as right theology and right morality. The evangelist’s heart’s desire is that every man and woman whom he knows and meets should be delivered from being a child of darkness and become a child of God. The Christian never thinks of them as statistics, or that it would be merely nice for them to become believers. He thinks of them soberly as lost people, and the plight of some of them he considers with the greatest sorrow and anguish. He longs for them to be saved. Every Christian, I say, is to feel like that for the lost. The youngest Christian wants his friends and family to come off the broad road of unbelief. In fact it is a great concern if that longing is absent. That would certainly disqualify a man from any involvement in missionary work. You understand I’m not speaking about a feeling of hopeless melancholy. Of course not. I have insisted that the predominant emotion in the Christian is joy. Rejoice in the Lord always. That is our chief and happy privilege, but when we are born from above God plants in our hearts a yearning for others to be saved. Often in Christian biography you read such a testimony of the preachers and missionaries’ lives.
Now the word ‘desire’ in our text is found in the prophet Ezekiel where he tells us that it is God’s ‘good pleasure’ (that is the same word as translated here by ‘desire’) that all the wicked should turn from their evil ways and live. God’s will is that they repent and be saved, and while they continue on in their rejection of God then the Lord is crying out to them, “Turn, turn! Why will you die?” In other words the Christian is being God-like when the desires of his heart are that men and women should be saved.
Paul tells us of his desire for their salvation for a number of reasons; Jesus has told us that they are going to judgment. There is a broad road and the mass of men and women in the world are on it, and it is going to destruction. They are going to hell. There is one single entrance into the place of woe but there is no exit. Jesus spoke to those who rejected him in Jerusalem and he wept over them. He said that they faced a place of darkness, and he used such pictures to describe hell so as to move them to vow never to be there. There is a worm there and it never dies; those who are there weep and gnash their teeth; the fires of destruction are inexhaustible. The devil and his demons are their companions in judgment. This is the case and so shouldn’t we break our hearts over people heading resolutely for such a place? Shouldn’t we long that they should be saved from it? You can see then that Paul’s language is not too strong; “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (Roms. 9:2).
So Paul has set the standard, “My heart’s desire . . . to God is that they be saved.” Then what about your desires and mine? How far short of these feelings is my inner life? How can I improve in sharing the faith of the Bible with others? How can I become a better personal witness to Christ? Where do we begin? What must be the first step in reaching the people of our town with the message of our Lord Jesus? We are not to think in terms of changing things out there, structures and programmes and any human engineering. Surely evangelistic effectiveness has to start inside us, in our own hearts and souls. If it is not there then we will never begin to speak a word for Jesus. John Wesley said, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen. Such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth.” That is the challenge facing us today. Are our hearts those of people who fear sin and desire God? That’s where we start. It’s not a matter of rehearsed answers and memorized texts and music events. That cannot be our priority. Those things must not be the substitutes for a congregation’s inward vacuum. It must start within our souls, with a holy desire to see men and women saved from sin and loving God. So we have to go to God and pray to him to increase and deepen our desire for men’s salvation. We educate that desire by the knowledge that the Word of God supplies. We bring to bear on it the example of Jesus Christ. More about Jesus would I know, understanding more of his longings and his tears. Then we learn by the extraordinary example of the apostle Paul. Think of the first martyr, Stephen, and how he loved his fellow countrymen so much that when they were stoning him to death he was praying for them, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” What a sign of a pure heart is shown in that prayer.
Then you learn more from the pages of church history by reading the lives of such men as Whitefield, and Edwards, and Bunyan, and Spurgeon. For example, we find one such example of a compassionate heart for the lost in the early life of Hudson Taylor. We know that no one ever became a missionary by a journey across the seas. One shows that one is a missionary by how one lives and speaks where one is now living. Hudson Taylor was one of the greatest missionaries in the whole history of the Christian church. He was born in Yorkshire in 1832 and died in China at the beginning of the 20th century. Before going out to China he sought to prepare himself by working as a medical student and district nurse in London, learning about primitive medical care. One of the patients he visited was an old man in his home where he had to dress his stinking gangrenous foot. Hudson Taylor had the strongest desire to share his Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ with this person. But the man was a defiant atheist, and very antagonistic to religion. A Scripture reader who had visited him had been ordered from the room, and he had even spat in the face of a visiting vicar.
Listen to Hudson Taylor’s own description of what happened. “Upon first commencing to attend him I prayed much about it, but for two or three days said nothing to him of a religious nature. By special care in dressing his diseased foot, I was able considerably to lessen his sufferings, and he soon began to show grateful appreciation of my care for him. One day, with a trembling heart, I took advantage of his warm acknowledgments to tell him what was the spring of my action, that I was constrained in all I did by the love of Jesus Christ for me. Then I spoke of his own solemn position and his need of God’s mercy through Christ. It was evidently only by powerfully restraining himself that he kept his lips closed. He turned over in bed with his back to me, and said not a word.
“I couldn’t get the poor man out of my mind, and very often through each day I pleaded with God, by his Spirit, to save him. After dressing the wound and relieving his pain, I never failed to say a few words to him, which I hoped the Lord would bless. He always turned his back on me, looking annoyed, but never spoke a word in reply.
“After continuing this for some time, my heart sank. It seemed to me that I was not only doing no good, but perhaps really hardening him and increasing his guilt. One day, after dressing his limb and washing my hands, instead of returning to the bedside to speak to him, I went to the door, and stood hesitating for a few moments with the thought in my mind, ‘Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.’ I looked at the man and saw his surprise, as this was the first time since speaking to him that I’d thought of leaving without going up to his bedside to say a few words for my Master.
“I could bear it no longer. Bursting into tears, I crossed the room and said, ‘My friend, whether you will hear or whether you will forbear, I must deliver my soul.’ I went on to speak very earnestly with him, telling him with many tears how much I wished that he would let me pray with him. To my unspeakable joy he didn’t turn away, but he replied, ‘If it will be a relief to you, do so.’ I need scarcely say that I fell on my knees and poured out my whole soul to God on his behalf. I believe that God then and there wrought a change in his soul, and within a few days he had definitely accepted Christ as his Saviour. O, the joy it was to me to see that dear man rejoicing in hope of the glory of God! He had not entered a church for forty years.
“I have often thought since, in connection with this case and the work of God generally, of the words, ‘He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.’ Perhaps if there were more of that intense desire for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire. Sometimes it may be that while we are complaining of the hardness of the hearts of those we are seeking to benefit, the hardness of our own hearts and our own feeble apprehension of the solemn reality of eternal things, may be the true cause of our want of success.” There are between 100 and 200 million Christians in China today, and the line to them goes back and back to a room in London, to a man with a hideous gangrenous foot, and a student whose heart had the strongest desire to see this man converted to Christ. So Paul begins by referring to his heart’s desire for their salvation.
2. PAUL TELLS THEM OF HIS PRAYING TO GOD FOR THEIR SALVATION.
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (v.1). So he didn’t just long for their salvation but he spoke to God about them, and he pleaded with the Lord that they might be saved. In other words, Paul prayed. The first evidence God gave the doubting church in Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had been truly changed was the Lord saying to them, “Behold, he is praying!” Let’s just remind ourselves what it is to pray. Prayer is not so much an action; it is an attitude – an attitude of dependency, dependency upon Almighty God. It is impotence grasping at Omnipotence. Crying to God is a real confession of the Christian’s native weakness, yea, of his helplessness. Men are dead in trespasses and sins. The gospel of the cross of Christ which we preach to them is foolishness. They are not seeking God, indeed they are alienated against him. We cannot make a single person a Christian. We cannot push them over the border into the kingdom of God. Only God can make someone a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is his grand prerogative and in that honour none shall share. “Thou must save and Thou alone.” And so it is this awareness of our own helplessness to save people that drives us to God in prayer.
Paul’s praying, asking God to save sinners, is a word to us that even the greatest of Christians and the chief of the apostles had no ability to save a solitary person. So Paul spread out his great need before God’s great loving kindness. We don’t say that an awareness of our weakness is all that there is about prayer; it is not. But it is the essential, the primary element in prayer. Question 98 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism gives a brief definition of prayer and it does exactly what Paul does here, it brings together heart’s desires and prayers. It says, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”
It is saying that prayer is both an attitude and an action. It is certainly a human action, in other words we bend our knees, and we think of what to say, and then we formulate words to God that are imperfect, and yet we do so in the name of Jesus Christ, and so they become a sweet fragrance acceptable to him. We do it with out minds and tongues, and yet there is also a divine element in praying, and it is this which makes us talk clumsily about what praying is. There is a mystery about prayer. Let me tell you this story. In Applecross that lovely seaport village on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands a preacher called Finlay Munro had a powerful ministry. A father and son in nearby Fernamore greatly profited from his preaching. They loved to listen to his sermons. The men were both named Donald Macbeath, and they slept together in the same room. One night they were lying in the darkness when suddenly the younger Macbeath said to his father, “Wake up! Finlay Munroe is dead.” He felt he couldn’t pray for him. The father merely said to him, “Son! Go back to sleep,” but then a little while later he called to his son, “Yes, Finlay Munro has died.” There is a mystery about the fellowship of prayer. There is a divine element.
Having said that, we do insist again, that a fundamental feature of prayer is that it is an attitude of dependency upon God, in other words, it is the very opposite of dictating to God. The one who truly prays is really a submissive man. Our physical posture in praying is to bend forward before God in our chair, not to loll and stretch out, our heads bowed Or we kneel at our chair; “thy will be done.” I mean by that that we are content for the Lord to deal with our prayers and supply our needs according to his own sovereign pleasure, to do what God sees best. That saves our intercession from despair. When we pray in that spirit from such a heart, every such prayer that is offered to God is sure of meeting with an answer.
So for a couple of months we’ve been considering this ninth chapter of Romans with its total insistence on the absolute sovereignty of God, that he hardens Pharaoh’s heart, that he hates Esau, that he will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. We have seen ourselves to be clay in the potter’s hands, but that does not result in any fatalism or passivity in the apostle at all. No, he is busy; he is writing letters; he is traveling; he is preaching; he is evangelizing; he is praying. He is not singing “que cera cera.” He is asking God to do what Paul knows he himself has no ability to do whatsoever, to regenerate and justify a dead rebel.
Still, here is the question, if Paul so resolutely believes that God has predestined everything that comes to pass, and if he is regulating and working all things after the counsel of his will, then why does Paul pray? Why do we bother to pray?
i] The Sovereign God has commanded us to pray. So praying cannot be without any profit. The Word of God says, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17), and again, Jesus said, “Men ought always to pray” (Luke 18:1). And further: Scripture declares that, “the prayer of faith shall save the sick,” and also that, “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jas. 5: 15, 16). Wasn’t the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our perfect example in all things, pre-eminently a man of prayer? So it’s evident that prayer is neither meaningless nor valueless. When you don’t pray you are defying God.
ii] Prayer is not intended to change God’s purpose, nor is it to move him to form fresh purposes. God has decreed that certain events shall come to pass, but he has also decreed that these events shall come to pass through the means he’s appointed for their accomplishment. God has chosen millions upon millions to be saved, but he has also decreed that they shall be saved through the means of grace, by reading the Bible, by the preaching of the Gospel, by the godly Christ-like example of his people as light and salt in the world, and by their praying. These are the appointed means for God working out his eternal counsels. Our praying is one of those means. God rebukes Christians, “You have not because you ask not.” God has decreed the means of our obtaining his will, and among those means is prayer. The prayers that come from Paul the apostle, and from me the preacher, and from you a little Christian girl, are included in his eternal decrees. Therefore, instead of prayers being in vain, they are among the very means through which God fulfils his decrees. If it were true that all things happened because of blind chance, or by Karma, or by sheer luck then praying could be of no moral efficacy whatsoever. Praying would be useless if luck reigned. But since all things are regulated by the direction of a personal sovereign God, prayers have a place in the order of events.
iii] The example of the men of Scripture teaches that our praying is not meaningless. Elijah knew that God was about to give rain, but then it was not meaningless for Elijah to give himself to prayer (Jas. 5: 7&18). Daniel understood by the writings of the prophets that the captivity was to last but seventy years, and when these seventy years were almost ended, it was not meaningless for Daniel to “set his face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:2&3). God told the prophet Jeremiah, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” but instead of adding, “so there’s no need for you to pray about these things,” He said, “Then shall you call upon me, and you shall go and pray to me, and I will hearken unto you” (Jer.29:11&12). One more; in Ezekiel chapter 36 we read of the explicit, positive, and unconditional promises which God had made that Israel would be restored, and yet in verse 37 of this same chapter we are told, “Thus saith the Lord God, I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them.” “You pray to me about this,” said the Lord.
Here then is the purpose of Paul praying to a Sovereign Lord. It was not that God’s will could be altered, but that the will of God for the church and for creation should be accomplished in God’s own good time and way. It is because God has promised certain things that we can ask that we will experience those promises fulfilled in us. “Ask and it shall be given to you because I have promised you that I will work all things together for your good.” It is God’s purpose that his will shall be brought about by his own appointed means, and that he may do his people good upon his own terms, and that is, by the ‘means’ and ‘terms’ of our entreaty and supplication. Didn’t the Son of God know for certain – even before he left heaven for the virgin’s womb – that after his death and resurrection he would be exalted by the Father? He sure did. Yet we find him asking his Father for this very thing: “Now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5). Didn’t he know that none of his people could perish? Of course he knew, and yet he cried to his Father to keep them (John 17: 11).
iv] Finally, always remember humbly that God’s will is immutable, and it cannot be altered by our praying. When the mind of God is not toward a people to do them good, then that mind of God cannot be turned to them even by the most fervent and importunate prayers of his most blessed people. Let us call for a week of prayer or nights of prayer, yes, and let the godliest people in the world pray for an awakening, yes, but let us know that in themselves these cannot guarantee that Almighty God will then give us a glorious revival. I will give you a verse that declares that powerfully; “Then said the Lord unto me, Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind could not be toward this people: cast them out of my sight, and let them go forth” (Jer. 15: 1). Again, Moses prayed that he might enter the promised land, but God did not change his mind. He had rebuked and punished Moses for his sin, allowing him to see the land but not to enter it.
This little verse, showing us the heart and devotion of Paul, is not here to rebuke and depress us. It is here to tell the little Christian girl in the congregation that she can speak to God and God will hear and answer her prayers. The work of this church in all its endeavours and agencies and missionaries must be carried on under a deep sense of our own insufficiency and helplessness and our own entire dependence on Christ.
10th February 2013 GEOFF THOMAS