“Accessing the Power”
2 Tim 3:16, 17
X. Texts that Transform
Thirteen Christian missionaries and their children were brutally massacred in Zimbabwe in June of 1978. Their murderers bayoneted them to death, and mutilated their bodies, which were thrown into the bush for the elements and scavengers to consume. One of these missionaries, Wendy White, the friend of a friend of a friend of ours called out as she died, “Fear not those who will kill the body – they cannot kill the soul.”1
Fifty years ago a teenage girl dove into the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay, breaking her neck and becoming a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down. For months she wanted only to die. Eventually she was reconciled to God’s purposes for her. At the time of her accident she was a believer. However, Joni Eareckson Tada says that her immature faith “confused the abundant Christian life with the great American dream: I was a Christian and would… marry a wonderful man who made $250,000 a year, and we’d have 2.5 children. It was me-focused: What can God do for me?” Today she reflects: “Had I not broken my neck I’d probably be on my second divorce, maxing out on my husband’s credit cards, planning my next ski vacation. I wouldn’t be here extolling the glories of the gospel and the power of God to help a person smile, not in spite of the problems, but because of them.”2
How can we come to have the kind of courageous faith exemplified by these two women? How can we live and serve faithfully and fruitfully? Jesus gave to the Twelve the key just prior to His Ascension:
48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:48, 49)
How could these fearful, mainly uneducated, common men be “witnesses” for Christ to the nations? Not in their own strength and will. They must be “clothed with power from on high.” Again Jesus said to them,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The promise is “power” for ministry. Only with Holy Spirit power, Pentecost power could they be faithful in life and fruitful in witness “to the end of the earth.” The Holy Spirit, says James Davenant, is “the fountain and the principle of all might and spiritual strength.”3 Apart from the True Vine we can do nothing (Jn 15:5). Only as the Spirit unites us to Christ shall we be supplied with the power we need to live the Christian life. As John the Baptist said, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (Jn 3:27). Our dependence is absolute.
The question that remains is this: How do we go about accessing this divine strength for life and ministry? We have nothing new to say here. We access God’s strength through the ordinary means of the word and prayer, as they are administered publicly, privately, and in families. Rather than repeating what we already know about the importance of the word and prayer, we will note in the passages we cite the emphasis on working efficacy and power in relation to ordinary means. 2 Timothy 3:15-17 has played a vital role in building my confidence in the power of God’s word, and then by extension, in prayer as well, as the means by which we are able faithfully and fruitfully to live the Christian life and minister Christ’s gospel.
15 … from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:15-17)
God’s word, written, spoken, and made visible in the church’s administration of the sacraments “are able to make (us) wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 3:15). They have this capacity. They have this power “to make (us) wise.” They are able to teach, reprove, correct, and train us (2 Tim 3:16). By the Scriptures we are “equipped for every good work” – not some, not most, but all, every good work (2 Tim 3:16, 17). They have the power, the capacity to equip. Jesus prays that we be sanctified “in the truth.” The truth has that capacity (Jn 17:17). It has sanctifying power. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). It has the power to regenerate, convert, and impart justifying faith. The word of God comes to us “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5). Don’t think of the word as merely mental or intellectual. Don’t disparage Bible knowledge as mere “head knowledge.” The word, the Apostle tells us, “is at work in you believers” (1 Thess 2:13). The word has this working, effectual power. We grow by “the pure milk of the word.” It is “by it,” by the transformative power of the word that we “grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet 2:1, 2, NASB).
The “blessed man” of Psalm 1 is one whose
2 delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (Ps 1:2, 3)
The word of God is likened to a refreshing, nourishing, growth-inducing stream of water. Those who meditate on the law (torah), the fatherly instruction of God, are like a tree, a metaphor of strength and stability, planted by that stream that “yields its fruit in its season” and “prospers” (Ps 1:3). From the stream “a good man receives supplies of strength and vigor,” says Matthew Henry. The word of God “keeps him out of the way of the ungodly and fortifies him against the temptations.”4 This healthy, fruitful, rooted, thriving tree is contrasted with “chaff” which is light, weightless, and worthless (Ps 1:4). The more we meditate on God’s word (“day and night”), says Henry, “the better furnished we are for every good word and work.”5 Devote yourself to personal Bible reading. Devote yourself to Bible meditation and memorization. Devote your family to reading Scripture together. Devote yourself to the public preaching of God’s word. Devote yourself to worship that not only preaches but reads, prays, and sings God’s powerful word. Want the power of God released in your life? Then “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” God’s word.
Not only do we have the repeated promises of Jesus that if we pray what we request will be given to us (Mt 7:7-11; 18:19; 21:22; Jn 14:13; 15:7, 16; 16:23, 24; cf 1 Jn 3:22; 5:14, 15), but we have the specific promise that if we ask for the Holy Spirit, He will be given to us.
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13)
The presence of the Holy Spirit means power, as we’ve seen. This promise, by the way, teaches us that which primarily we are to seek. Our congregation utilizes a weekly prayer list in which we place at the top what we call “Spiritual Concerns.” Before we pray for current events, health concerns, or even the program of the church, we pray for the spiritual condition of the church. We prioritize spiritual growth: victory over sin, the ripening fruit of the spirit, greater holiness, and so on. Why do we pray for these things? Because prayer is the means by which they become a reality in our experience.
The importance of prayer in strengthening the people of God can be seen both in the Apostle’s great prayers for his churches and his requests for prayer from the churches. Review Ephesians 1:16-23, Ephesians 3:14-21, Colossians 1:9-14, and Philippians 1:9-11 as the Apostle prays for His disciples, for their wisdom, understanding, knowledge and discernment, all which qualities they lack on their own. He prays because through prayer God promises to impart these virtues. To what end? So that they might see “the immeasurable greatness of his power towards us who believe” (Eph 1:19). What do they need? Power that is immeasurably great. To what end? To the end that,
according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, (Eph 3:16)
They need “to be strengthened.” They need “power.” By what means shall they acquire it? By the Spirit through the Apostle’s prayers.
To what end does he pray for wisdom, etc? To the end that they may
10 walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; (Col 1:10, 11)
His people need to be “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might,” enabling them to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” and “bearing fruit.” Prayer is the means of bringing this about, of accessing God’s power, resulting in a worthy Christian walk.
To what end does he pray for “knowledge and all discernment?” (Phil 1:9). To the end that they
may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, (Phil 1:10; cf Rom 15:13; 2 Thess 1:11, 12))
How do we come to make good decisions leading to good behavior? How do we gain the capacity to “approve what is excellent” so that we might be “pure and blameless?” Through prayer.
The Apostle Paul not only prays for the churches, but also solicits the church’s prayers. Not only does the Apostle instruct the church to “continue steadfastly in prayer,” but to “pray also for us.” To what end? “That God may open to us a door for the word.” Prayer opens doors. Prayer creates opportunities. Prayer changes things. Also, “That I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col 4:2-4). The prayers of others enable the Apostle to speak wisely and fruitfully (cf Eph 6:19; 2 Thess 3:1, 2). Their prayers enable acceptable service (Rom 15:30). Their prayers impart help and blessing (2 Cor 1:11; cf Phil 1:19). As the people of God “draw near” to God’s “throne of grace” in prayer, they “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). Will I be able to endure persecution? Will I be able to handle a death in the family or news of a crippling accident, or a bad report from a doctor? Will I have the strength to meet the challenges of life? Yes I will, if I access divine power through the word and prayer.
We are meant to learn dependence, not for dependence’s sake, but for survival’s sake. We are meant not learn dependence, not to perpetuate spiritual childhood, but facilitate spiritual maturity. Dependence is necessary because reality requires it. In the natural realm, personal maturity, wisdom, and strength require increasing independence. Natural adulthood requires self- sufficiency and decreasing dependence on parents and others in human relations. The opposite is true in the spiritual realm. The spiritual realm is more like the realm of flight. We don’t fly by learning to flap our wings independently of all mechanical means. We are only able to fly when we face the reality of our dependence on machines if we are to remain airborne in a world ruled by the laws of gravity. We don’t learn to breathe under water by sucking in water as though we had gills. We can only exist and thrive in a watery environment by depending on mechanical means. Learning dependence is vital. So also is it for finite beings in the environment of a fallen world, dominated as it is by the devil, the world, and the flesh. Maturity, wisdom, strength, and even life itself come only through increased dependence on their source in Christ, the True Vine.
Look again at Hebrews 12:1:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
How can we “lay aside” our various entanglements and sins which cling to our souls? Sin clings to us. We can’t shake ourselves loose from it. How can we “run with endurance the race that is set before us?” Only by
looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
It is only as we look to Jesus for inspiration, for faith, for grace, for strength, and for power, that we are able to run the race. He is both “a pattern” and “a help,” says Matthew Poole. “The disposition, grace, ability, and success which they have for running,” Poole continues, “is all from him.”6 He who is the “founder” of our faith is also its “perfecter.” Only as we look to Him are we able to run the difficult race that is the Christian life.
Eric Liddell’s (1902-1945) most recent biographer has collected a number of testimonials about his character, so beautifully portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. His principled refusal to compete in the 100 meters because the preliminaries were held on Sunday is well known. Less well known are his post-Olympics heroics. Following his remarkable gold medal in the 400 meter run at the Paris Olympics in 1924, Liddell returned to the mission field in China where he had been born to missionary parents. His mission compound was overrun by the Japanese in 1943 and Liddell was taken into captivity. Living under terrible conditions of an internment camp the last nearly two years of his life, Liddell died of a brain tumor in 1945 at the age of 43.
Conditions were horrible. Food was scarce. The camp was infested with rats. Lice, mosquitoes, and flies tormented the internees. Disease was rampant. Conflict was common. In this dog-eat- dog, survival of the fittest world, Liddell stood out. Here’s what his fellow internees said about him: “It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint. He came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”7 They could not recall from him a single act of envy, pettiness, hubris, or self-aggrandizement. He “became the camp’s conscience without ever being pious, sanctimonious, or judgmental,” according to his biographer.8 “He was the consoling Samaritan of the camp, the epitome of a good neighbor.”9 Internees remarked of his “serene temper,” “unruffled spirit” and “constantly smiling face.” One regarded him as “surely the most modest man who ever breathed.”10 Still another said, “He was always so positive – even when there wasn’t much to be positive about, and he carried the weight of others’ worries and burdens without hesitation.” Finally this, a diary entry of one of the internees at the time of his death: “We confided in him, went to him for advice, looked on him as probably the most perfect and honorable Christian friend we had ever known and the whole camp feels that in losing Eric they have lost a real friend.”11 Don’t we all wish to become the sort of person that would attract such words of admiration? The gospel turns sinners into saints. It happens by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of the word of God and prayer.
Cited in Faith Cook, And So I Began to Read: Books That Have Influenced Me (Welwyn Garden City, UK: Evangelical Press Books, 2006), 41.
Marvin Olasky, “July 4, 10, 30, 31: Connecting the Dots and Beating Depression,” World Magazine, August 5, 2017, 64.
Davenant, Colossians, 330; on Col 1:29.
Matthew Henry, Exposition, on Psalm 1:3.
Poole, Commentary, III:869 (my emphasis).
Duncan Hamilton, For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 9.