Pastors and preachers are entrusted by the Lord Jesus with a work of great importance and urgency. Nothing must be allowed to interfere with this work – nothing must come between them and their giving themselves utterly to it.
We see this principle illustrated in the sixth chapter of Acts. There are important lessons here, both for pastors and preachers, and for all Christians.
The churches of the New Testament period had just the same problems as we do today. Soon after the extraordinary events of Pentecost, a dispute arose within the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1).
The dispute has a very familiar ring to it. One group (‘Hellenists’, that is, Jewish Christians having a Greek background) complained that favouritism was being shown to another group (‘Hebrews’, that is, those from a Hebraic background) in the distribution of food to poor widows.
The problem was brought to the attention of the church leaders – the apostles. No doubt, they were sorely tempted to sort the matter out themselves. But they refused to get personally involved.
Instead, they directed the church to choose godly men who would be capable of resolving the issue. This they did, and the matter was satisfactorily dealt with.
Why did the apostles act in this way? Because they knew that their priorities lay elsewhere. They had been appointed by Christ to preach and to teach his doctrine (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8).
They were to be witnesses to Christ, taking the gospel far and wide throughout the world, preaching repentance and faith in Christ (Acts 1:8; 4:33). They were responsible for teaching the churches that would thereby be established (Acts 2:42; 5:42).
This was the work to which Christ had commissioned them. This was the work to which they must give themselves utterly.
Accordingly, they were not to be distracted by other work, however useful and necessary it might be. They were not called to ‘serve tables’ (Acts 6:2). Others should be appointed to that work. They would ‘give [themselves] continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word’.
The same principle applies to preachers and pastors today. They are not apostles. Yet they are called by Christ to the great work of preaching and teaching Christ crucified.
They are to preach and teach the ‘apostles’ doctrine’ (Acts 2:42) – the doctrine of Christ. Like the apostles, they must give themselves to this work. And their first-mentioned task in Acts 6:4 is to ‘give’ themselves to prayer.
Of course, it is every Christian’s duty and privilege to pray. But pastors and preachers have particularly strong reasons to give themselves to prayer.
Firstly, it is Christ who calls pastors and preachers to their work – they do not call themselves. So they need to be in constant communion with the one who called them.
They are not independent operators. They are not free simply to do as they please. They have a Captain, a Commander, to whom they are accountable.
And they must keep in touch with him – as they are privileged to do – through prayer. So they must give themselves to prayer.
Secondly, pastors and preachers depend entirely on Christ to give them power and ability for their work. How much can they achieve without him? Absolutely nothing, said Jesus (John 15:5).
Their work is not just terribly difficult – it is impossible. They are to bring souls to Christ. This is as easy as softening stone with soap.
They are to edify the saints of God – to guard them from error, teach them right ways, encourage them to seek love and unity among themselves, enable them to grow in faith and in the knowledge of Christ.
In a word, they are to bring them to ‘a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:13). Truly, this is an impossible task.
‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ Certainly, the pastor and the preacher must give himself to prayer.
Thirdly, the preacher and pastor can be sorely tempted by pride. He speaks regularly to people who listen attentively to what he says. He is looked up to. People come to him for guidance and counsel.
These things can make him think that he is ‘somebody’. He needs to be constantly reminded that he is a lowly servant – a servant of servants. And prayer fulfils this function.
It reminds him that he is totally dependent upon another for all that he does. More than that, prayer reminds him that he is utterly unworthy for the task entrusted to him.
He is a sinner before a holy God. How can he possibly handle these holy truths? Only because he is washed in the blood of Christ – just like those who hear him and believe in Christ.
So he gives himself to prayer, that he may remain humble before his great and glorious Master.
Fourthly, the pastor and preacher gives himself to prayer for his encouragement. His work is so great, it can sometimes overwhelm him.
He preaches regularly to sinners, who will not repent. He seeks to build up Christians who will not listen. He sees believers fall away and backslide. Above all, he comes to know more and more the sinfulness of his own heart.
Who will provide encouragement? Certainly not himself, or his hearers. But he can find encouragement in Christ. And so he gives himself to prayer.
There he finds provision and spiritual nourishment. There he finds the strength and encouragement he needs to return to the battle.
Fifthly, the true pastor and preacher knows that whatever eloquence he may have, however strong his arguments, however brilliant his illustrations – it will all make no spiritual impact on his hearers unless the power of the Spirit of God attends his words.
He knows that lasting spiritual work is the work of Christ alone. And so he prays for his hearers.
Before he preaches, he brings them to the throne of grace, to pray that the Lord would work in their hearts through his words. After he has finished, rather than revelling in ‘success’ or lamenting failure, he prays for those who have heard, that the Lord would work in them, despite the inadequacy of his best efforts.
These, then, are some of the reasons why the pastor and the preacher must give himself to prayer. But how is he to do so? What does it mean, for him truly to give himself to prayer?
First, he will delight in it. It is a matter, first of all, of the heart’s delight, rather than the call of duty.
He loves his Lord, and loves to come to him, to commune with him in the fellowship of prayer. He does not always feel like this. Sometimes, it will be difficult to pray – the heavens seem closed and Christ far away.
But still he comes, knowing that here lies his only hope and his true delight.
Second, he gives time and effort to it. This cannot be avoided. Anything we love and know to be right and necessary demands time. We put effort into it.
He does not imagine that this approach will merit God’s blessing. Yet, because he delights in prayer, and knows his need of it, he will give it time and effort.
Third, he will give priority to it, as the apostles did in Acts 6. This will sometimes involve difficult decisions, such as having to say ‘no’ to requests for help. He will have to choose the best over against the good.
He will have to ensure that he plans his day so as to do what needs to be done. But he knows that he cannot afford not to pray.
Fourth, prayer becomes as necessary to him as food and sleep. He cannot do without it. When he does, he becomes weak, and useless. Prayer becomes central to his being.
Prayer and preaching
The apostles gave themselves to prayer – as indeed Christ himself did in his earthly ministry. They knew it to be not just a help to their work, but an essential part of the work itself.
Every true minister of the gospel knows that he is called to an impossible and glorious work – the work of preaching Christ crucified to hardened sinners. By the same token, he knows that like the apostles before him, he must give himself to prayer.