Read the words of the Apostles to the early church: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word(Acts 6:4). This Apostolic commitment gave the church of the new covenant the priorities of a twofold vocation: it was to be characterized by prayer to the Father in the name of His Son and by the preaching of the Bible. Let me seek to open up something fresh about both of these marks.


Recently, I began to read a book that I found interesting in its concept, purpose, and accomplishment. A woman named Berenice Aguilera discovered a copy of John Calvin’s commentaries and realized that the original transcriber of his sermons—more than four hundred years ago in St. Peters, Geneva—also transcribed and printed his closing prayers. These brief living intercessions are printed in most of Calvin’s books of sermons. Berenice was so moved in reading them that she proceeded to gather them together, and she seems to have published them herself in England—because there is no name of a publisher to be found anywhere in a 255-page book that she has titled Praying through the Prophets. Publishing the book herself would have required not only cash but a strong conviction that there was something very valuable in listening to John Calvin speaking to God after he had spoken to the people in his congregation. This one book contains more than three thousand prayers of the Genevan Reformer at the close of each of his sermons on the Major and Minor Prophets from Jeremiah to Malachi.

I initially dipped into these prayers and found them refreshing. In daily readings, I am in the latter chapters of the prophet Jeremiah and Lamentations, so I have begun, at the end of the verses apportioned for each day, to read the prayers of Calvin on that chapter. These latter chapters of Jeremiah contain both a relentless declaration of the forthcoming destruction of mighty Babylon and also words of encouragement to the Lord’s people in captivity there. Let me give an example of a portion of Jeremiah as he seeks to encourage the people of God in their long exile from Jerusalem, and then the prayer of John Calvin when he finished preaching on them:

“You who have escaped from the sword, go, do not stand still! Remember the LORD from far away, and let Jerusalem come into your mind: ‘We are put to shame, for we have heard reproach; dishonor has covered our face, for foreigners have come into the holy places of the LORD’s house.’ Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will execute judgment upon her images, and through all her land the wounded shall groan. Though Babylon should mount up to heaven, and though she should fortify her strong height, yet destroyers would come from me against her, declares the LORD.” (Jer. 51:50–53)

This is the prayer of John Calvin after he has preached on these verses:

Grant, Almighty God, that when you hide at this day your face from us, that the miserable despair that is ours may not overwhelm our faith, nor obscure our view of your goodness and grace, but that in the thickest darkness your power may ever appear to us, which can raise us above the world, so that we may courageously fight to the end and never doubt that you will at length be the defender of the church which now seems to be oppressed, until we shall enjoy our perfect happiness in heaven, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

What simplicity, theocentricity (God-centeredness), humility, and submissive yearning that expresses the oneness of the redeemed. That spirit is what we long to experience when we are hearing public prayer. Christians meet at the mercy seat. When we all bow there in the presence of our Lord in prayer, we are never closer together. There are Christians who will refuse to read anything that was written by John Calvin. They are missing so much. He was a man of prayer. You will never understand or appreciate the Genevan Reformer or realize his impact in the world until you grasp how there was a part of his life lived at the throne of grace. I often heard Ernest Reisinger say, “It is a sin to preach and not to pray.”

When one visits the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Trust website, one discovers that five examples of the congregational praying of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones are recorded there. They are most moving, comprehensive, and deeply reverent as spoken by one addressing the almighty Creator of the cosmos through what His Son Jesus Christ has achieved. The first recorded prayer was prayed on the opening Sunday of a new year, and so it is the longest—fifteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds. The others average between ten and eleven minutes, but all are so gripping and relevant that the last thing one thinks of is their length. Little wonder people looking back sometimes said that when they went to Westminster Chapel for the first time, it was the praying of the Doctor that moved them more than the preaching. Only a man who knows the Scriptures, prays privately, and who walks in the Spirit could pray for that length, gripping and lifting a congregation of 1,400 into the presence of the Holy One. John Owen said, “If the word does not dwell with power in us then it will not pass with power from us.”

When we all bow there in the presence of our Lord in prayer, we are never closer together.

There are also four different versions of some of the pulpit prayers of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, prayed on Sunday mornings in the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The most accessible is published by the Banner of Truth. It has been said about Spurgeon’s praying:

The things that were given him to utter in prayer were often more profound and beautiful than the sayings that left his lips in preaching. This has often been a feature of the greatest ministries. . . . A man of God is frequently at his intellectual best in prayer. Assuredly it was like that with the beloved Pastor. I once heard him speak thus with God: “O Lord, if some of us began to doubt Thee we should begin to doubt our senses, for Thou hast done such wonderful things for us. Thou hast done more for us than Thou didst for Thomas. Thou didst allow Thomas to thrust his finger into Thy wounds; but Thou hast often thrust Thy finger into our wounds, and healed them.” . . . His wonderful knowledge of Scripture made his prayers so fresh and edifying. No man can pray with high effect unless he is steeped in Scripture. Mr. Spurgeon lived and moved and had his being in the Word of God. He knew its remoter reaches, its nooks and crannies. Its spirit had entered into his spirit; and when he prayed, the Spirit of God brought all manner of precious oracles to his mind.1

My own church prayer meetings are really fine. Some pray with a special blessing of God on them, and then also we can rejoice when we hear the novice in prayer. All pray reverently and humbly. It is the happiest evening of the week.

Preaching the Word

The other mark of the new covenant church found in Acts 6 is preaching. The Twelve said, “We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Haven’t you been struck with Paul’s words to the Corinthians that “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in an tongue” (1 Cor. 14:19)? Five words . . . Christ died for our sins . . . Jesus rose on the third day . . . At God’s right hand—Jesus . . . Lord Christ is coming again . . . Do not go to hell . . . Believe on the Lord Christ. What potential life-transforming power is found in those phrases—timeless truths—in five words, spoken with humility, authority, tenderness, and love by the Holy Spirit. Understood and received, then, such clusters of words are infinitely better than ten thousand words unappropriated. Ben Ramsbottom says about them: “One point is transparently clear here; it is not how much religion we have, it is whether it is real. Better to have five words sealed on our conscience by the Holy Ghost than to be able to recite the whole Bible through from Genesis to Revelation. An old English preacher used to ask this searching five-word question, ‘How big is your Bible?’ and you understand what he meant.”

The other mark of the new covenant church found in Acts 6 is preaching.

We all have the one God-breathed Bible with its sixty-six books in our hands, in our homes, and on our pulpits, but how much do we possess of that Word? How much of it have we got in our understanding, in our conscience, and hidden in our hearts by the discernment that the Spirit has given us? A question of five words, “How big is your Bible?” John Bunyan could say: “I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now. The Scriptures that I saw nothing in before these days are made in this place and state to actually shine upon me.” He often saw, as it were, a whole world in one text: “I have sometimes seen more in a line of the Bible than I could well tell how to stand under.” How big is your Bible?

Big Bibles make big preachers. John Bunyan might be the greatest of the Puritan preachers. Thousands would gather when they heard that the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress was coming to preach in London. Three thousand heard him on one Lord’s Day preaching in the metropolis at short notice, and many had been turned away. Bunyan himself had to be lifted over the heads of the congregation to get into the pulpit. Early on one winter weekday, 1,200 gathered to hear him preach. Bunyan spoke with joy in his voice and would haul his hearers along with him as they growingly felt his assurance like a hand on their backs, until they could see the truth as he could, until the Word was shining in the air. They could feel the thing—the “connect”—happening in the meeting.

In 1685, a man called Charles Doe made his way at dawn to the home of a Christian named Stephen Moore. There he heard Bunyan preach on Proverbs 10:24: “The desire of the righteous will be granted.” Doe broke down in tears as he heard Bunyan; in fact, this was his frequent response when he listened to one of the former tinker’s sermons. That particular message was full of the love of God. When King Charles II heard of the influence of John Bunyan in London, he asked John Owen why thousands of the citizens were going to hear Bunyan preach. Owen told the king of his ability to touch the hearts of men, and that he would gladly relinquish all his learning if he had that gift.

One reason for Bunyan’s vivid preaching was the way he responded to and used the metaphors and similes of the Scriptures. For example, in the Bible saving faith is described as a flight (fleeing to Christ), a feast (feeding on Him), a rest (resting in Christ), or an entering (opening the door to Him). Then why don’t preachers develop such images in their preaching? I remember once hearing a friend preach on John 3 and the new birth. He told the congregation that the new birth was like a phone. A phone? How? He lost me. I could not see it. It was confusing. Regeneration is like a birth. Use the picture that our Lord has given us. How different it had been on one occasion on a Sunday attending Westminster Chapel hearing how Lloyd-Jones opened up a phrase in Acts—“times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord”—by showing how sin’s influence could be compared to an oppressively hot, sultry, and uncomfortable day with electric fans ultimately failing as the air moved around and got warmer (Acts 3:20). Then redemption is like Jesus Christ coming near, delivering and refreshing us with His presence. Get cool, sinner, through Christ.

Even a single word in the Scriptures is marvelously big enough and relevant in its images for the twenty-first century. Think of Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ sermon on the two words “But God . . .” One of Bunyan’s biographers said of his preaching that he had a unique ability of bringing “deep things into a familiar phrase.” His words were his own as was his manner. Preachers, it is necessary to discover your voice and have the confidence to use it.

Ben Ramsbottom speaks of the “big” Bible, and then he follows that up by saying, it “fits in with the wisest of men who once said that, ‘A little that a righteous man has is better than the riches of many wicked.’ Oh to have a little that is real! A little that God has given us, a little of the Holy Ghost’s work in our hearts, a little desire, a little prayer, a little of the tender fear of God, a little humility, a little hope, a little repentance, a little love! Someone said, ‘This big “little.” ’ ”

To have something, however little, that is real and that clings like a limpet to our souls—how life transforming. What grief and calamity to have acquired an abundance and then to find at last that it’s all a mere pile of muck. The one thing that really matters is this: to have a religion that will bring us safe at last to the new heavens and the new earth. To have that “little that a righteous man has,” to have faith that is lodged in Jesus Christ even if our trust seems as fine as a spider’s thread. To believe in your heart and to say with your mouth, “I know my Redeemer lives.” Five words. At the great day when God will sift us then to find this finally remaining: “Jesus Christ, my only hope.” Five words. That will be glory—glory for me and glory for you.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on August 11, 2021.

  1. Dinsdale T. Young, Spurgeon’s Prayers Personalized, 7, ↩︎

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