The Prophetess Anna and the Ordinary Means of Grace

Reading the Bible

by John Ellis

As the first month of 2018 comes to its close, I’ve been prayerfully reflecting on my commitment this year, as well as the years to come, to submitting myself to the ordinary means of grace ordained by God for His glory and the sanctification of His children. When doing so, it’s easy to pat myself on the back because of what I’m doing (while ignoring what I’m not doing).

However, this morning, as I read the story of the prophetess Anna found in Luke 2:36-38, my conscience was pricked. On the tail end of Luke’s relating the birth of Christ, the reader is introduced to an 84-year-old widow who, “did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.”

Here is a child of God who devoted her life to submitting herself to her Heavenly Father through her wholehearted submission to the ordinary means of grace. Sadly, like many of my contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, I’m afraid that the same cannot consistently be said about me. Devotion means much more than simply doing.

There is a direct correlation between our submission to God’s ordained means of grace and our sanctification. In fact, taking a giant step over the platitude “correlation does not equal causation,” God has promised to work through the ordinary means of grace as the primary tools the Holy Spirit uses to make Christians more like their King and Savior Jesus Christ.

For those unfamiliar with the term “ordinary means of grace,” they are the Word of God (the Bible), prayer, and the ministry of the local church, specifically the preaching of the Word, the praying of the Word, the singing of the Word, the reading of the Word, and the seeing of the Word (the sacraments/ordinances)[1].

While it is important to note, as theologian Louis Berkhof wrote of sanctification, “though man is privileged to co-operate with the Spirit of God, he can do this only in virtue of the strength which the Spirit imparts to him from day to day,”[2] it is also important to note that the Bible does not allow Christians to take a purely passive role in their being made more like Jesus. Neglecting the reading and study of God’s Word, prayer, and the ministry of our local church is a recipe for spiritual anemia. Even worse, by neglecting the ordinary means of grace, it may eventually be revealed that we are the rocky soil or the thorny soil. Soil that produces fruit must be watered by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

We see the positive outworking of embracing the ordinary means of grace among the early Church on the heels of the Day of Pentecost. Acts 2:42 commends the early Christians because, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.” One of God’s blessings because of their “praising God (v. 46)” was that, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

1 Peter 1:13-15 exhorts Christians to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” Skipping ahead to 2:2, we learn that we should, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.”  As Philippians 2:12-13 commands, we are to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Whatever tension we believe exists between God’s sovereign rule over our sanctification and our responsibility before God to be active participants in our sanctification, the Bible feels no tension and doesn’t allow for it. We can, and often do, work ourselves into a lather playing tug-of-war over God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. Doing so takes our eyes off the glorious truth that God has promised to make us more like Jesus and He does so as we submit, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the ordinary means of grace.

Of course, that raises the question – does faithfully having devotions every morning earn the commendation of devoting ourselves night and day to fasting and prayer? Or, are we required to literally spend every possible minute in prayer, Bible reading, and fasting?

To answer those questions, think of it this way – the Christian life, or, to invert it, the life of the Christian is not to be compartmentalized. We should not view the ordinary means of grace as a line on our daily itemized check sheet:

“I woke up at 6 this morning and read the Bible for an hour and then prayed for 30 minutes.”

That’s great! However, are you carrying your morning devotions with you throughout the day? Is your reading of God’s Word and your prayer informing every part of your busy day?

I think that this is where many of us who read the Bible and pray regularly and are actively involved in our local church fail. We fall into the trap of priding ourselves on checking off spiritual things on our checklist. In fact, we don’t just check them off on our checklist, we faithfully check them off first, before anything else; we make reading our Bible, praying, and involvement in our local church our priority. But is that enough?

The answer is, no, it’s not enough. Our position in Christ and all the comes with it should not be our priority, it should be our identity.

The prophetess Anna devoted herself to “worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.” Since she lived to at least the age of 84, we know that she ate, slept, and even got some form of physical exercise. Luke is not claiming that she fasted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Throughout Psalm 119, the poet repeats a version of the refrain, “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word (verse 16).” In verse 22, he writes his awe-inspiring confession that, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times.”

Reading that prompts me to ask myself if that’s true of me. Am I consumed with a longing for God’s Word? Or, for example, when I’m watching something on TV that tempts my soul away from Jesus, do I excuse myself by saying, “I can handle this, I read my Bible and pray regularly,” and then keep watching, allowing temptation to dance before my eyes? Even if I don’t fall into sin, what does it say about me that I’m willing to entertain needless temptation in my life?

In verse 37, the Psalmist prays, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.”

Our minute by minute interactions with fellow Image Bearers and the material gifts from God should be governed by a desire for God so that like the Psalmist our constant prayer is, “give me understanding that I may learn your commandments (verse 73).”

By God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we should want to find our identity in Christ holistically in ways that cause us to view all of life through the lens of the ordinary means of grace. We should want our interactions with the world around us to reflect that we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. Doing so requires constant prayer and constant meditation on the Law of God.

What we read in the Bible during our morning devotions should dominate our thoughts throughout the day. Our prayer list should never be far from our heart; each moment of our daily life should be bracketed and woven through with constant prayer. The faithful preaching of God’s Word from the pulpit during the worship service should be reflected on and prayed over throughout the week. Songs of praise to God should escape our lips when confronted by God’s continual blessings in our life. During times of trouble, praise to God should escape our lips because He is faithfully making us more like Jesus. During boring times, praise to God should escape our lips because, well, we’re obviously not doing thing else at the moment.

Upon the conclusion of our race, we should want it said of us at our funeral that we did not depart from the presence of God but spent our days and nights meditating on God and praising Him. Without that testimony, all of our accomplishments, all of our moments of enjoyment, all of our relationships will be burnt up as a waste.

The short account of the prophetess Anna ends by revealing, “And coming up [to the Temple] at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem Luke 2:38).”

After finally seeing the Christ-child, Anna’s story ends with how her story began. She gave praise and testimony to God. For those of us who are repenting of our sins and placing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we, too, have looked on the Christ-child. We have seen Jesus, and because of his perfect obedience in life and death, we are now called sons and daughters of God. How can we respond any less than Anna?

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Some include the giving to the ministry of the Word, too. This is why some churches still manually take up the offering instead of merely providing a link on the website for members to contribute the tithes and monetary offerings. We are blessed by being part of the visible, corporate giving to the ministry of the Word.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 535.


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