There are many models of discipleship, prayer, and fasting in the Gospels, including the model of models, Jesus himself. And of course there is Jesus’ teaching, which should be the authoritative voice of God for all our lives.
ZACHARIAH AS A MODEL OF DISCIPLESHIP
We will begin with Zechariah as a model of discipleship. His story is found in Luke 1:5-25, and I suggest you turn to the passage in your Bible. Obviously, Zechariah’s discipleship is pre-Christian, rather than Christian. Yet we can deduce several principles for Christian discipleship, because there is strong continuity between proper Old Covenant discipleship and New Covenant discipleship.
First, notice in verse six that Zechariah and his wife, quote, “were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” I won’t go into detail about what it meant for them, in their religious context, to be righteous and holy before God. But it is clear that true discipleship for Zechariah involved personal righteousness.
Second, take note of the fact that Zechariah was faithfully carrying out his priestly duties when the Lord suddenly revealed something to him. The revelation, found in verses 8-13, was that Zechariah’s prayer for a child (a prayer he undoubtedly lifted many times) would be answered. Thus faithful attention to the duties to which God had called him was important to the true discipleship of Zechariah.
And third, the gathered people were praying, verse 10. Zechariah probably also was praying when the word came. The text doesn’t say that, but it is a safe assumption. As we all know, prayer is the primary means of communicating with God. And Zechariah was communicating with God. Thus we can say, in summary, that a righteous, praying man who was faithful to his duties under God was given a revelation from God about his previous private prayers in a context bathed in the prayers of others.
Now then, I would like to suggest that several principles of application emerge from this passage. First, like Zechariah, we are to be righteous before God. But be careful how you define righteousness. Remember Cornelius in the book of Acts. The Jews of his day would not have called Cornelius righteous. After all, he wasn’t a Jew; he wasn’t part of the covenant community. But God said he was righteous.
E. Stanley Jones, in his book The Christ of the Mount, which is about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, declares that living by the Sermon on the Mount is the only practical way to live (p. 14). Moreover he rightly is adamant that the central focus of the sermon is the last verse of Matthew five (v. 48), “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In other words, the Christian life is a life of personal righteousness and holiness before the Lord. It is not simply believing certain doctrines, or avoiding forbidden behaviors, as important as those things are. It is a vital relationship with the Holy One of God that enables us to be righteous and holy before him. So in our journey to spiritual depth and power, we must be righteous.
Second, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we must be persistent in our prayers. Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for many years about their childlessness before a positive answer came. That is a lesson to all of us. You will remember that importunity, or persistence, in prayer was a major teaching of Jesus.
For a variety of reasons the universe is such that God cannot grant every request, and others must be delayed. He always has to take the greater good into consideration. He has to deal with the freedom he has granted his higher creatures, which he normally doesn’t violate. And sometimes circumstances in the spiritual realm affect our prayers. We will investigate this aspect of prayer more thoroughly in another essay. But for now the point is, we must be persistent in our prayers, and never give up praying for good things.
Third, we must be faithful to the ministry to which we have been called. Zechariah did not neglect his daily duty. Indeed he was performing it when blessed. If you think about it, you will realize that this is a fairly common characteristic of biblical characters. Several biblical characters that received some sort of revelation while they were faithfully working at their jobs quickly come to mind. Moses was watching the flocks on the backside of the desert when the Lord called him to deliver the people from Egypt. Gideon was harvesting grain when he was called to be a judge. The Bethlehem shepherds, when they were told about the birth of Jesus, were working in the fields. So Zechariah’s faithful loyalty to his ministry is significant.
All right, we are to be righteous before the Lord. We are to be persistent in our prayers. We are to be faithful to the ministry to which we have been called. Fourth, it helps to pray when others are praying. It is important to have a context of prayer, even if the others are praying about something else. In Zechariah’s case it was a time of routine temple ritual prayer. But the people were praying. Thus Zechariah was praying in a context of prayer.
SIMEON AND ANNA AS MODELS OF DISCIPLESHIP
In Luke 2:25-38 we see two additional outstanding pre-Christian models, Simeon and Anna. Beginning with verse 25 and Simeon, we see, first of all, that he was “righteous and devout.” As you might suspect, “righteousness” is a constant characteristic of the biblical people of prayer. Thus far we are two for two.
Second, Simeon “was looking for the consolation [or “comfort”] of Israel.” That is, he was anticipating the messianic consolation and comfort for which Israel longed. Thus Simeon was both optimistic and hopeful.
Third, “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” This one is critical. We Christians know that we can do nothing of eternal value apart from the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fourth, we can deduce from this that Simeon was a man of prayer. The fact that Simeon was “devout” implies that, of course. But the clincher is the fact that “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Persons under the influence of the Holy Spirit pray. It is like spiritual breathing. When we are filled with the Spirit, we enter into the flow of communication between the members of the Trinity. And prayer is the means of that communication.
Finally fifth, the Spirit revealed several things to Simeon. In verse 26 we see that the Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would see the Christ before he died. In verse 27 the Spirit revealed precisely when the child would be in the temple. And in verses 34-35 the Spirit gave Simeon a prophecy for Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Beginning in verse 36, we are told about Anna. Here the information is less full, but Anna is like the others. First, she was a prophetess. That is, the Lord had called her to minister as a prophet.
Second, Anna was faithful to her calling. She remained in the temple and fasted and prayed “night and day.” Now that expression doesn’t mean she never physically left the temple. It means she spent most of her time there. At the very end of this Gospel a similar thing is said about the disciples. Luke 24:53 says of the disciples, “and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (emphasis added). Of course that doesn’t mean they never left the temple grounds. It means that, like Anna, they spent much time there.
Third, notice the emphasis on fasting in her prayer life. We will have more to say about fasting at another time; but it is important to note now that fasting provides a deeper dimension to prayer that many of us have barely touched.
In summary, we found a series of characteristics in these Old Covenant characters, many of which they shared. They were called of God; they were faithful to their calling; they were righteous before the Lord; they were people of prayer; indeed they were persistent in prayer; they prayed with others; the Holy Spirit was upon them; and in one case fasting was a factor. In all of these ways these Old Covenant characters are models of empowered discipleship.