The Gentile Woman The Woman Who Put Prayer Into
O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour (Matthew 15:28).
We believers stand in constant need of instruction in prayer. He who prays knows that there is a mystery connected with it. This mystery is suggested in this story of divine silence to the petition of a needy woman and in the reward which her prayer received because it was accompanied by faith.
Most people who pray are conscious of their inability in this realm. The disciples were very conscious of this when they saw and heard Jesus praying. As a result, they said, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). Paul experienced the same sense of futility and inability in prayer. He said, "For we know not what we should pray for as we ought" (Rom. 8:26). And we Christians who have the full light of divine revelation on this subject of prayer as given to us in the Bible still find a great mystery connected with it. We must admit that we have unanswered prayers, that we have prayers the answers to which have been deferred, and that on other occasions we have remarkable answers to prayer. Hence, we need more and more to be assisted in our prayers by the Holy Spirit.
The incentive to praying is given to us in the Bible commands, exhortations, promises and examples. The Lord Jesus said, "Men ought always to pray, and not to faint." He challenged men by saying, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you"
(Matt. 7:7). He promises that "what things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them" (Mark 11:24). His parables often were devoted to illustrating the practice of prayer and He Himself gave the most prominent example of one who prayed.
Instruction in the practice of prayer is concentrated in Luke 11:1-13. There we learn from the lips of the Lord Jesus the practice of prayer, the pattern of prayer, persistence in prayer, progression in prayer, and promise of prayer. This is the most extensive treatment of prayer given in the Bible and it comes from the highest authority, namely, the Lord Jesus Himself. Similar to it is the passage in James 5:13-18. There James gives the principles of effective praying which we shall later expound. In all this instruction in prayer we find that faith takes its place in prayer as it does in religion. Without such faith it is impossible to come to God, or to please God, or to move God, but with faith we find that the heroes in the roster of faith abound in the practice of prayer. Abraham interceded for Sodom (Gen. 18:23-33), Moses interceded for the condemned Israelites (Exod. 32:30-35), Samuel interceded for Saul (I Sam. 16:1,2). In like manner, Elijah interceded for Israel and brought about a revival which gave it another chance. In all these cases we see the place of faith in prayer.
THE PRACTICE OF PRAYER
The passage in James 5:13-18 dealing with the basic principles in practice may be divided into the exhortations to prayer, the experience in prayer and the efficacy in prayer. James opens the passage by referring to those who are afflicted with tribulation, temptation and trial and who are in perplexity as to the way out. He suggests, "Let him pray." This is the answer to the basic need of each of us in similar circumstances. He then raises the question as to whether any are merry, buoyed up with excitement, with stimulus and enjoyment. These he advises to sing psalms, that is, to pray the prayer of gratitude by a happy response to their environment. He then raises the question concerning those who are sick. Since sickness
is sooner or later the lot of every man and woman, it is appropriate for us to examine what James says about this circumstance. He exhorts the believers to call for the elders of the church so that they may pray over the sick person, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. Some branches of the church practice anointing oil for the purpose of healing the sick today. It is my opinion that this should only be done when the individual sick person has faith enough to ask for the elders of the church to come and to pray with him in order that by the sign of anointing and by the intercession of the elders, healing might be mediated to the individual.
In my years of pastoral ministry I have anointed numerous people in the response to their request of faith. Always this was done in the presence of the elders who joined in prayer for the healing of the individual. I think of one of our returned missionaries who was suffering dreadfully from cancer and for whom we prayed. Her cancer was not healed but she never had any further pain until the day of her death. We have had cases in which people have been healed in answer to prayer without anointing. We have had other cases when we have anointed and prayed and the person was not healed. Generally speaking, anointing with oil in the New Testament or the laying on of hands were ceremonies confined to the Jewish church. When the church broke beyond the bonds of the Jewish people, these were not universally practiced.
James promised those who practiced prayer that the prayer of faith would save the sick and that it would forgive sins. It is the joining of these two things which sometimes brings confusion in the matter of healing by prayer. We are certain that forgiveness is in the atonement made by our Lord Jesus Christ when He died on the cross. We are promised that when we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, that our sins are forgiven. If the promise of healing in answer to prayer is placed on the same foundation as the forgiveness of our sins, we may be led to doubt, for there are times when we pray for healing and are not healed. When someone passes through this experience, he may be led to
doubt the fact that his sins are forgiven. At the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the full effects of the atonement will be seen in the redemption of our bodies. In the interim, whether we are healed or not depends upon the will of God.
However, James did connect the confession of one's sins with the effectiveness of prayer. As sins are confessed, they are cleansed by the blood of the Lord. As they are cleansed, an individual is justified and as he becomes righteous, his prayer that he may be healed is heard.
James conditioned the efficacy of prayer as coming from an earnest and a righteous individual. The word translated "effectual" in our King James Version, actually means "to exercise strength or power" or "to overcome." The prayer offered in power, or in strength, with ability to bring something to pass, is the earnest or fervent prayer of a righteous man. The word translated "earnest," or "fervent," means "to put forth power," or "to be operative," or "to use energy." It is used to describe the divine power in raising the dead, or in quickening the spiritually impotent. The use of the word itself should rebuke our indifferent, careless, listless prayer. If any man is to receive an answer, he should expect to pray an earnest and fervent prayer. Moreover, James conditions efficacy in prayer to righteousness. This is not righteousness of justification, but it is grounded upon that. Only a justified man is able to be upright before God and to keep the commandments of God. This use of righteousness, however, is the personal righteousness of an individual who walks in accordance with God's law.
The illustration used is of Elijah and his prayer for rain. There was no difference between Elijah and us as to our constitution, our emotions, our weakness and our points of strength. Nevertheless, Elijah received an answer to his prayer for when he prayed that it should not rain, it did not rain for three and a half years, and then he prayed again and it did rain. Elijah did his praying and speaking at the commandment of the Lord but he also prayed earnestly, or fervently. One need only turn to I Kings 18:42-46 to get the picture of Elijah's praying fervently. There he shut the world out by putting his
face between his knees and seven times prayed unto God, each time sending his servant to the top of Mt. Carmel to look for the signs of rain. Only at the seventh time did he behold a little cloud about the size of a man's hand. James implies that it was a very earnest, profoundly fervent prayer which was prayed by Elijah and which brought forth the rain.
THE PETITION THE WOMAN MADE
This woman had no claim upon Jesus for she was a Canaanite who lived in the area of Sidon. Since she was not of Israel, her faith and her plea were unexpected. She becomes a beautiful illustration of the Lord finding faith in unsympathetic and incongruous surroundings. In this, the Sidonian woman was much like unto Rahab, the Amorite, who exercises faith in very hostile surroundings.
Jesus had withdrawn from Galilee to the vicinity of Sidon in order to gain rest. He had depleted his energy physically by giving out through teaching, healing and ministering to the multitudes. We ought to learn from Jesus that He intended for his followers to take vacations from time to time. When He saw His disciples tired and worn out, He said, "Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while" (Mark 6:31). Like all those who seek a bit of relaxation and withdrawal, He found that His time was interrupted by the need of a particular person in that area. We find a place of full withdrawal and away from human need is impossible. The woman who stood in need was a remnant of the Canaanites and the Sidonians, who were sinners above measure. Their worship of Moloch, Astarte and Baal had degraded them and set them apart as under the condemnation of God. Hence, it was all the more unexpected when this woman came to Jesus asking help. This points up the fact that there are many who live in poverty, in slums, in tenements and even in the midst of vice and crime, and yet who believe in Christ and translate that belief into a beautiful and pure life. The Scripture speaks of saints in Caesar's household. It is possible to be a Christian in the midst of any environment.
This Canaanite woman cried out for mercy and help. Her need lay in the fact that her daughter was "grievously vexed with a devil." This was the woman's own statement and it may have been her interpretation of a situation which was ascribed to a demon and which may only have been a mental and physical sickness. Suffice it to say, her daughter was tormented and in great trouble. There were cases in the New Testament of demon possession, and where the New Testament specifically teaches that a person was demon possessed, we believe that he was. Here Jesus does not refer to the demons, nor does the Bible specifically teach it, so it may have been merely the mother's interpretation of a disease which the daughter had. The mother did identify herself with her daughter.
If we were going to describe the outstanding characteristic of this woman, it is possible that we might say it was her love for her child rather than her faith in Christ. It was love that moved her to come to Jesus; it was love that made her persist in spite of all obstacles. Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus did not commend her love. He commended her faith. Apparently she stood some distance off and cried unto Him, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil." There can be no doubt that she had heard of His healing faculty, of the miracles which had followed His teaching and ministry, of His claims to be the Son of David and the Saviour. Otherwise, she would never have expressed her petition to Him. We are to learn from this that it is wise to express our petitions, to voice them, to make them known. Such expression points out the particular petition which we desire and it also definitely brings it to the attention of the Lord. But to the Canaanite woman's dismay, her petition received no answer. She was merely greeted with the dignity of silence. That silence is a strange thing, for surely it does not harmonize with the deep interest of Christ in the suffering on whom He had compassion. When others had cried unto Him, he had stopped what He was doing, had heard their petition, and had answered it. Perhaps
this silence speaks as vocally as any words which our Lord could have said. It is a pregnant silence, full of meaning. Have you ever prayed and found that the heavens were as brass? Have you expected God to speak and found Him continuing in silence?
What was the cause of Jesus' refusal to answer this woman's prayer? There are several explanations of this. One is that the Lord Jesus intended to test the woman's faith, to develop its strength, to perfect her spiritual nature before granting to her this petition. This, however, seems unlike the Lord. Moreover, His later harsh statement would also repudiate it. The second view is that our Lord had to wait until there was a dispensational change before He ministered unto the Gentiles. He declared, "I am not sent but unto the lost of sheep of the house of Israel." However, there were other Gentiles to whom He ministered and whose prayers He answered. There is the notable case of the centurion who felt that he was not worthy that Christ should enter under his roof and at whose faith Jesus marveled. There was also the good Samaritan in the parable and the Samaritan leper. But this did not call for the deliberate harshness of saying, "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs." It was possible for Him to refuse by silence, but it was not necessary for Him to insult the woman.
Another interpretation is that the Lord here had come to the transition point in His ministry when He was about to announce the immanence of the cross and when He set His face as flint toward the cross. In the next chapter He announced that cross to His disciples and they were unable to understand it. Peter even said, "Be it far from thee." In the statement of Peter he recognized the temptation of Satan and said, "Get thee behind me, Satan." It is possible that in the presence of this Gentile woman he caught a glimpse of the acclaim and faith of the Gentile world and in it He may have recognized the temptation of Satan to abandon the cross. If so, it would explain the harshness of His statement.
Some also think that the Lord here was pointing out to
His disciples and the Israelites that they had had a privileged position, they had seen His miracles, they had received His teaching, they had been the beneficiaries of His ministry, and yet they did not believe. Here was a Canaanite woman who had none of these privileges but who did believe. The Jews called these Gentiles dogs. By this statement Christ pointed out to them that the Gentiles would receive the Gospel when it was taken to them.
There may be some truth in each of one of these interpretations. Certainly the Lord declared that He was sent only unto Israel, implying the He had to fulfill the law to die upon the cross, and rise again before the Gospel could be sent unto the nations.
THE PERSISTENCE OF THE WOMAN
Whatever else we may learn from this woman, we may learn the power of persistent prayer. She made four petitions, three of these failed and the final one was answered. Here, then, is emphasized as in so many other teachings of Christ the necessity for persistence in prayer. Each of us may at some time experience this. Our prayer will go up to heaven and we will hear nothing but silence. It is good to remember that the Lord may have other reasons for withholding the answer than merely to strengthen our faith, and it will be well if we resort to persistent prayer in order to overcome these obstacles. Whatever it was that prevented the Lord from answering her petition originally, her persistence and faith overcome it and received a commendation of Christ.
Three qualities stand out: that of worship, humility and faith. This woman had evaluated the person and work of the Lord Jesus and had accepted Him as the Messiah. She gave Him the title of the Messiah; namely "Lord, thou son of David." She put her trust in Him by saying, "Lord, help me." In this she made the transition from a mere acknowledgement of Jesus as Messiah and the acceptance of Jesus as her Lord.
Her humility was demonstrated in her willingness to consider herself unworthy and as a mere dog in order to get the
crumbs from the Master's table. Her quick and witty reply to His statement, "The dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table," revealed that she was willing to accept that which was left after the Jews had received His ministrations and benefits. She had been rebuffed by Him, she had been rebuffed by His disciples, and she was willing to take it all and still to persevere. No wonder He held her up as an example unto his disciples of persevering faith which receives an answer.
Her faith rested in His ability, His willingness and His graciousness to answer her plea. Her belief in His mercy made her wishes the measure of His gifts. He said to her, "Be it unto thee even as thou wilt." To us He says, "What will ye that I do?" and then in turn the response will come, "Be it unto thee even as thou wilt." He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. This woman believed that God was no respecter of persons and that Jesus was the manifestation of God. In this she grasped the Biblical truth that God will hear the prayers of those who come to Him in faith, humility and worship.
This woman's faith was the means of the release of God's prayer in healing. The Scripture says, "Her daughter was made whole from that very hour." This was the result of her persistence. You may imagine her returning to Sidon, being greeted by a daughter who was well and sound, both of them kneeling to praise God for His wonderful gift and their subsequent life of obedience and faith. All this says that whatever your need, you should lay hold upon the promises of God and say, as did Jacob, "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me."
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