Tonight, I want us to study a single word in the NT: proskartereo. It looks and sounds like a perfect candidate for use in a Jeopardy category: “twelve-letter Greek words that are difficult to pronounce”!
This word caught my attention as I ran across it at various times over the years in my studies of the NT in Greek, and I thought its various occurrences and uses rather interesting.
It is a compound word, composed of the preposition pros, which means, “to, toward, in the direction of” and kartereo, a verb with the root idea of “to be strong, firm.” So it literally means “to be strong toward something or someone.” As used in the NT, the word carries the sense and meaning “to be devoted to, to be dedicated to, to focus on, to be committed to, to persist in” some purpose, object or person.
This word is used ten times in the Greek NT, six of which occur in Acts. I want to briefly note each of these uses.
|Mark 3:9||of a boat being held at the ready for Jesus’ use|
|Acts 1:14||of the disciples in the upper room, devoted to prayer|
|Acts 2:42, 46||of converts’ close adherence to the apostles following Pentecost in a whole range of Christian activities—instruction, fellowship, eating together and prayer|
|Acts 6:4||of the apostles commitment to prayer and Bible teaching|
|Acts 8:13||of Simon’s close following of Philip|
|Acts 10:7||of soldiers who stood ready to met every wish or command of Cornelius|
|Romans 12:12||an admonition from Paul to the Roman Christians to persevere in prayer|
|Romans 13:6||of government officials’ life focus on their duties|
|Colossians 4:2||another admonition from Paul for believers to give particular attention to prayer|
Note that five—fully half—of these deal directly with persistent prayer.
- It has been well-said that, “prayer is the most important thing we do as believers, and the easiest thing to neglect.”
- And it can be said with absolute certainty that every great believer inside the NT and out was a person of great prayer.
Of course, there is Jesus, who though He was perfect, sinless, and always obedient to the Father’s will, nevertheless saw the necessity of constant communion with God in prayer. He set the standard for prayer. If He needed to pray that much, how much more do you and I! A most valuable thematic Bible study for each of us would be to read the Gospels and note everything that Jesus did and said with regard to prayer. Just as an example—in the Gospels, God the Father spoke in an audible voice three times, and in each case, it was in response to Jesus praying. And the Gospels record that in the last twenty-four hours of His life, He prayed at least eleven times.
Peter and Paul were notable men of prayer, and gave us much instruction about the importance of prayer in our relationship with God. Have you made a study of the prayer life and prayer instruction of these Apostles?
A multitude of great people of prayer could be mentioned from the two millennia of Christian history. Those that come immediately to mind include Martin Luther, the German Reformer, who said that he was so busy that he had to pray at least three hours a day in order to get everything done he had to do. Our notion would be: “Stop praying so much and just get busy!” He of course was wiser, knowing that prayer was the essential foundation for all that he sought to accomplish for God.
A couple of centuries later in Herrnhut, German, there were the Moravians, led by their founder Count Zinzendorf. Though few in numbers, they accomplished great things, sending missionaries to Greenland, the islands of the Caribbean, and to even India, where they arrived some sixty years before the celebrated William Carey. The Moravians were also instrumental in the conversion of both John and Charles Wesley, which, had they done nothing else, would have secured the Moravians eternal commendation. But how did this small, weak, poor, uninfluential group accomplish these things? Among their notable activities was a prayer meeting that went on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for a full 100 years. That’s how.
I mentioned John and Charles Wesley. They and their associates transformed 18th century England as Whitefield and the Great Awakening transformed America. If you will take the time to read the journals of the Wesleys, you will be struck by several things, not the least being how incredibly busy they were with study, teaching, preaching, writing, training, organizing and travel. And the number of converts they produced is just remarkable, even mind-boggling. How did they accomplish so much? You will find in those journals that an integral part of their extremely active lives was regular, frequent, extended prayer. They were up early—4 AM, often, and up late—as late a 1 and 2 AM—praying with other believers. It was as essential a part of their daily lives as breathing and eating.
And then there was David Brainerd, missionary to the native Americans in the English colonies. Engaged in a great spiritual warfare against paganism, superstition, idolatry, and spiritual blindness, he resorted of necessity to prayer and pleadings with God. So intense was his focus in prayer that even in cold weather, as he knelt alone in the woods, when he concluded his prayers after an hour or two, he would be soaked with sweat, from the intensity of his prayers for his Indians. Every time I read some of Brainerd’s journals, I feel so ashamed of myself because of the coldness and feebleness of my own prayers. Though Brainerd died at 29, he accomplished great things in his few years—and in the years afterward. His published journal had a large influence on William Carey, the “father of Baptist missions,” and on Jim Eliot, too, and many others.
And what can we say of William Carey? A few years ago I was privileged to stand—and pray—in the little workshop in Moulton, England, where as he repaired shoes, harness and other leather goods, and watched over the studies of the handful of students he took in, Carey prayed—and wept—country by country for the lost peoples represented on his home-made world wall map. God led this man of fervent prayer to propose that English Baptists begin a mission society, and then volunteered himself as their first missionary. In his almost four decades in India, he and his associates, among other labors, translated and printed all or part of the Bible in forty languages and dialects, a most remarkable accomplishment—the fruit of intense and devoted prayer.
I don’t have enough time to speak in detail of the prayers Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma, or J. Hudson Taylor, who prayed in missionaries and their financial support sufficient to plant the Gospel in every province of China. Or of George Muller of Bristol, who recorded 50,000 specific answers to prayer in his journals (if we haven’t had 50,000 answers to prayer, perhaps it is because we haven’t asked God for 50,000 specific things!). And then there is Spurgeon. Those who heard him preach were much impressed, but hearing him preach was a small thing compared to hearing him pray.
We admire and commend these great people of prayer, and are deeply impressed by what God did through them. But for all of our professed admiration, we fail to follow their worthy example as people of much prayer.
Such is the “devotion to prayer” that we discover in this NT word proskartereo.
But not only in prayer but in all things, our service to God demands dedication, commitment, devotion, persistence, our focused attention. In Mark 3, a boat was held at the ready for Jesus’ use, much as the soldiers stood ready in Acts 10 to respond immediately to Cornelius’ beck and call. Whatever his wish or command, it was their duty, and I dare say privilege, to fulfill that command. That is how we are to be in our service to God—always at the ready to do his bidding.
And in our service to God, we should always give God our best. Sad to say, too many Christians think “good enough” is good enough in service for God (and for their bosses or their customers, too). There is far too much half-hearted Bible study, slipshod lesson preparation, negligent service, and hit-and-miss Christian effort.
Some months ago, I taught a two-week course in a Bible college in Boston. Most of the students did a commendable job, in spite of a somewhat demanding professor! But one student seemed to think that little more than a lick and a promise would be sufficient. Poor effort (not lack of ability) on tests and written assignments led to a failing grade, and two weeks of time and tuition money were squandered due to inadequate devotion to the task at hand (although if the student learned that greater commitment was necessary and that success requires more than just “showing up,” then it wasn’t entirely a waste).
There are several biblical examples of conscientious devotion to task. I think first of Joseph in Egypt. If there was ever anyone who apparently had sufficient excuse to just coast through life with as little effort as possible it was he. He was hated by his brothers and sold into slavery at 17. Later he was falsely accused by an evil woman, committed to prison, and then forgotten by a fellow prisoner whose restoration to favor he had foretold.
But whether as a slave in Potiphar’s house or an inmate in Pharaoh’s prison, Joseph did conscientiously every task placed in his hands, and God blessed him and exalted him to positions of responsibility and leadership, first in Potiphar’s household, then in the prison, and finally as the second ruler in the entire kingdom of Egypt.
Another man of strong devotion to his God-appointed responsibilities was Ezra, a spiritual leader of the Jews in the period after the exile. We are told, significantly, that he had the fixed purpose of heart to first know, then to practice, and finally to teach God’s commands to the people of Israel (Ezra 7:10). He got the order exactly right: first know, next do, and then teach.
And I think of Apollos. Among the few details we are told about him In the New Testament is that he was “mighty in the Scriptures.” As a preacher, his chief task was to know and teach the Bible to others. As with the Apostles, Apollos devoted himself to the ministry of the word, much as John Wesley did, who expressed the desire to be “a man of one Book.” People will excuse a preacher for not knowing many things, but he must not be ignorant of the Book of God. He must be an expert in that.
Even in the so-called “secular” world, very few achieve greatness or notoriety in any field of endeavor without whole-hearted commitment. Edison invented the incandescent light bulb after hundreds of failed trials and experiments. I personally don’t have that kind of persistence. After 7 or 8 failures, I would have given up and simply said, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to keep using candles.”
Paul speaks of the devotion to training and preparation by the athletes of his day (1 Cor. 9:24-27). The same kind of commitment is required today, even more so, for those who wish to finish first. Among the greatest professional football running backs of all time—I think the greatest of all—was Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears.
He was smaller than the ideal, and certainly not the fastest man on the field, but his training regimen, year round, was intense, and he prepared himself to be truly the best he could possibly be. He was often in the Sunday night sports highlight films, shown making yet another of his remarkable runs breaking three, four, five tackles, and slamming hard into the man who finally took him down. Absolute focused purpose, that is what made him great.
One of my heroes is George Washington Carver. If there was ever a man who could have excused a life without achievement, it was Carver. Born into slavery on a farm near Neosho, Missouri during the American Civil War, he was orphaned of both parents while an infant. He was raised by his former owners until about age eleven or twelve when he left to go to school in Neosho. In God’s providence, Carver was taken in and assisted by various people over the years, and along the way became a devout Christian. He always had to work to pay his own way, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, farming. He spent more than a decade in various places in Kansas, ultimately gaining a high school diploma (at a time when very few people, black or white, achieved that goal). He went to college in Iowa, majoring in agricultural science, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees by the time he was in his thirties. He gained distinction as both a scientist and as an artist, and was besides an accomplished pianist.
In 1896, he was invited by Booker T. Washington to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and accepted the invitation as a call to duty by God, in a State where intense racism and bigotry were the order of the day. The school was poor, the salary low—$125 per month—and was never increased, by Carver’s own request, in his half century there. The science “lab” had no equipment and no budget. No matter. Carver had work to do. Through his various researches and discoveries, he literally transformed the highly destructive “cotton, cotton, and more cotton” agriculture of the South, into a modern productive system, one farmer at a time. His most famous discoveries of course involved the sweet potato and the peanut. He himself said that the transformation of Southern agriculture began the day he fell on his knees and asked God to show him why he made the peanut. God honored his prayer and showed him things no one had seen before.
Someone once asked Dr. Carver how he decided what to do each day. He replied that there was a little grove of trees near his apartment at the Institute. One of the trees had been cut down, leaving a stump. Rising early each day, Carver went out and sat on that stump, communing with God. He asked God what He wanted him to do that day, and then he simply did it.
Besides his research and teaching at the Institute, and his traveling farming demonstration work, he taught a weekly Sunday afternoon Bible class, and though student attendance was strictly voluntary, some 300 regularly came to hear him teach about the God of the Bible.
He told a student the secret to success in life: “Learn to do the common things uncommonly well.” Or to couch that in biblical language, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your strength,” (Eccles. 9:10). Most of what we must do in life is just ordinary, routine things. We should do those ordinary things extraordinarily well.
Paul spoke of his own “devotion to task” in Philippians 3:12-14. If I may summarize his remarks:
I haven’t “arrived”; I’m still pressing on to accomplish in life what God has placed in my hands to do. I don’t let myself get distracted by the past, with either its failures or it successes. No, I am focused forward; there’s the goal, the finish line. And I am intent on reaching it.
And he advised Timothy to do the same in 1 Timothy 4:12-13, 15:
Give no one cause to have contempt for your youth, but be an example for believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith (or, faithfulness), in purity. Until I come, give your attention to the public reading [of Scripture], to exhorting, and to teaching…. Practice these things; be committed to them, so that everyone can see your [spiritual] progress.
This, then is the New Testament word proskartereo. It means “to be dedicated, committed, devoted, persistent, focused.” Especially in prayer, but not only in prayer, but also in all other aspects of our lives as Christians. Give God your best, your “last full measure of devotion.”
That is what God expects of us; and that is what He deserves. Amen.