“All Kinds of Prayers”
March 3, 2002
We pointed out last Lord’s Day morning that prayer is the last piece of equipment with which the Christian is armed to stand against the Devil’s schemes. In Paul’s Greek it is clearer than in the NIV’s English that v. 18 is a continuation of the main thought begun at v. 14 with “Stand firm, then…”
But, more than simply the last piece of armor, prayer is given the most prominent place in the description of the fully armed Christian soldier. It gets more space than any other item in vv. 14-18 and is given special emphasis with the four-fold use of “all” in v. 18 (the NIV repeats only three of the four). Finally, this is the thought that Paul picks up in v. 19 when he has concluded his description of the Christian in complete armor. [O’Brien, PNC, 483-484]
Paul, remember, has twice described prayers that he regularly made for these believers, that they might know the greatness of God’s power (1:15-23) and that they might grasp the greatness of God’s love and be filled with all the fullness of God (3:14-21). Now he asks their prayer for himself.
v.18 A more literal translation captures Paul’s emphasis. “through every prayer and petition, praying at all times in the Spirit, and to this end keeping alert in all perseverance and petition for all the saints.”
It is possible that the through with which the sentence begins should be taken to mean that prayer is not simply the last piece of armor, but the means by which all the other pieces are made effective. Everything else – truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God – are effective only when employed in a spirit of dependence upon the Lord, which is, of course what prayer is, active dependence upon the Lord.
Alertness and prayer are brought together several times in the teaching of the NT. Remember the Lord telling Peter, that fateful night in Gethsemane, to “keep watch and pray.” It means more, of course, than simply to stay awake. It means to keep one’s spiritual wits about him or her, not to fall into the spiritual sleep of the darkness of this world. [Lincoln, WBC, 453]
v.19 Remember, in biblical parlance, mystery refers to something that would not be known except that God had revealed it. The term has been used already several times in Ephesians to refer to the gospel itself and to the fact that Jews and Gentiles were alike embraced by it.
v.20 The great Apostle was aware of his own need for God’s help both to fulfill his calling faithfully – proclaiming the gospel of Christ – and to bear fruit in the hearts and lives of others. Like anyone else he was subject to the fear of man. What is more, in prison as he was when he wrote the letter, he needed the Lord’s help if he was to continue his itinerant preaching. This was Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, remember.
“Ambassador in chains” is a kind of oxymoron. An ambassador was entitled to diplomatic immunity and to arrest one was the gravest insult both to the king who had sent him and to proper order.
If 2 Tim. 4:17 refers to Paul’s appeal to the Roman authorities on this occasion, then prayer for him was heard and answered. “…the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth.”
Now, what Paul exhorts us to here – a life filled up with prayer – we get everywhere else in the Bible. All kinds of praying and all the time. We are treated to set, daily prayers for the church of God and the kingdom of God. We see such prayers in the Psalms. We see the prophets praying such prayers, and Daniel, and the Lord Jesus suffered the loss of desperately needed sleep so as to offer such prayers late at night and early in the morning. But, we also have examples of the famous “arrow prayers”. Prayers of the moment shot up to God, offered on behalf of the people of God, such as Nehemiah prayed in a moment before the Persian king, or on behalf of the lost as Jesus prayed on the cross, or Stephen as he was being pummeled by stones thrown by an angry mob. Then we have the prayers of the church at worship, such as are commanded in 1 Tim. 2:1-3 and are illustrated in the Book of Acts. And then we have the church’s prayer meetings such as the one reported in Acts 12 that was offering the very sort of prayers on Peter’s behalf, when he was in prison, as Paul asks believers to pray for him here. Paul often tells us of his prayers for the churches, some of which no doubt he prayed when he was alone and others he prayed together with his assistants, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and others. All kinds of prayers for the saints.
All these prayers, of course, may be turned to other matters, to the needs of our own hearts and the circumstances of our private lives. But, here, Paul is thinking especially about prayer that is offered in advancement of the kingdom of God. And, surely, that should be a major interest of our prayers. Our Savior, who had no sins to confess and few physical needs or wants to bring to his heavenly father, nevertheless spent whole nights in prayer. For what did he pray, except the kingdom of God, the salvation of men, and his own faithfulness and fruitfulness in doing the work he had been sent to do. In this too he left us an example that we should follow in his steps. But not only all kinds of prayers for the saints.
Prayer at all times and in all occasions. The marvelous Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, the 16th and 17th century saint and translator of parts of the King James Bible, begins with a list of the various “times of prayer” that are mentioned in Holy Scripture. Listen to Andrewes’ list. Here is when we should pray, according to the Bible.
Always, Our Lord.
Without ceasing, Paul
At all times, Paul
He kneeled upon his knees three times a day and prayed, Daniel
Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, David
Seven times a day do I praise you, a psalmist
In the morning, a great while before day, Our Lord
At daybreak, David
The third hour of the day, Peter
About the sixth hour, Peter
The hour of prayer, the ninth, Peter and John
The evening, Isaac
By night, the servants of the Lord
At midnight, David
Following that horology, that list of times, Andrewes then gives us a list of places for prayer such as are mentioned in the Bible.
In the assembly of the upright and in the congregation, David
Enter into your closet and shut the door, Our Lord
They went up into an upper room, the disciples
He went up upon a housetop to pray, Peter
They went up together into the temple, Peter and John
We kneeled down on the shore and prayed, Paul and the church
Members at Tyre
He went across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden,
Let them rejoice on their beds, the saints in Ps. 149
He departed into a desert place and prayed, Our Lord
In every place, lifting up holy hands, Paul
And we could multiply both times and places, both opportunities and occasions for prayer. All kinds of prayers, alone and together, at all times. That is what Paul is summoning us to: a life filled up with prayer and prayer offered for the saints and for the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Now, there was a lot of prayer being offered in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, just as multitudes of people offer prayer today who do not pray in the Spirit and do not pray in Jesus’ name. Most non-Christian prayers in the world today – including many offered in so-called Christian churches – are like the prayers that multitudes of pagans offered in the first century. Theirs were “contract religions” according to which certain rituals were performed by men so as to secure the blessing of the gods. Roman citizens, like many religious people today, were free to believe what they wanted and, within certain limits, to live as they pleased, so long as they met the terms of the contract, primarily the performance of the required rituals in the proper manner. [Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament, 90]
Such rituals included sacrifices and dances with traditional prayers offered according to a precise form of words. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (23.10) describes the care taken to pray such prayers properly.
“The text for invoking a happy omen is different from that for averting an ill or that for making a request. The highest officials pray in fixed forms of words, and to make sure that not a word is omitted or spoken in the wrong place, a prompter reads the text before them, another person is appointed to watch over it, yet another to command silence, and the flute-player to mask all other sounds.”
The prayers of Islam are such prayers today, precisely given at precise times of day. And so Buddhist prayers, assisted by prayer wheels and the like. How different the prayer Paul is speaking of here!
It is different not only because it is, as all Christian prayer, all the praying taught and illustrated in the Bible, real communion with the living God, “earnest and familiar talking with God,” as John Knox put it, like children to a father as our catechism puts it. It is different because the prayer Paul is talking about and urging us to penetrate our lives with is not a ritual in the ordinary understanding of the term. The prayer Paul is speaking of and demanding from us is not a religious performance. It is, in James Montgomery’s happy phrase, “the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air.” It is not something he does from time to time so much as it is the principle of all that he does all of the time. What is more, to be faithful prayer, sincere prayer, effective prayer, it must be the effulgence, the expression, the utterance of everything else in his life.
This is Paul’s point in connecting prayer to the rest of the armor of God and by indicating that prayer is the means by which all the rest of that armor is made effective in defense and in attack against the Evil One. In the Bible’s understanding and in Paul’s teaching, no one can really pray for himself or for others who has not embraced in his or her life the truth of the gospel and committed himself or herself to serving the Lord Jesus Christ.
As Paul makes clear here, to pray for the advancement of the kingdom of God one must be willing to commit himself, even sacrifice himself for the sake of that advancement. It must be personally important, of first importance to him or to her. It was for Paul. He prayed as he did for the saints because their salvation was for him the most important thing in the world. His life was spent for their salvation and for the glory of Christ revealed in that salvation. He was in prison because of his commitment to proclaiming the gospel of Christ. To pray for the salvation of the lost, to pray for the encouragement of the saints – the saints you know and those who are suffering, some terribly in other parts of the world – to pray for the gospel’s progress in the world and the revival of the church is an act of hypocrisy unless you are ready to commit your own life, your reputation, your time and energy, to sacrifice your ease for the sake of the progress of salvation and the glory of God. You either care about those things or you do not, and God knows whether you do or don’t.
To pray for the kingdom of God without the commitment to it, is the exact equivalent of prayer for forgiveness by a man or woman who refused to extend his or her own forgiveness to others, or the prayer of a woman for deliverance from debt whose sole interest is in the ability to buy more things for herself, or the prayer for daily bread by a man who willingly made himself rich by making others poor and hungry. A person who will not live for what he prays for is, one person said, “like the handsome title page of a worthless book.” [P.T. Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer, 28]
No, this prayer Paul is talking about is a Christian’s looking up to God for the very things which are precious to him or to her precisely because they are precious to God and preciously because the Christian recognizes them to be the most important things of all. If a man, like Paul, is willing to risk his freedom, even his very life, on behalf of the gospel of Christ, then it is no surprise that it is this that he is found always speaking to God about. And if a Christian really sees the world in the terms Paul has described it here – a battlefield where bitter combat is being waged between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of God, a battlefield from which souls pass on to heaven or to hell – well, he or she is going to talk to God about that all the time!
If he or she has Paul’s view of the greatness of this salvation, the wonder of it, the indescribable glory of the love of God for unworthy sinners, well, then, that Christian is going to care about the spiritual warfare, about the cause of the Lord Jesus in the world, about the salvation of the unsaved, and so is going to talk to God about all these things. This prayer comes up out of the heart because it concerns those very things the Christian’s mind and heart and will have been devoted to as matters of first importance in life. The Christian prays such prayers as Paul is urging upon us here because he knows that not to pray them would be the denial of the very things he most firmly believes and she knows that not to pray them would be tantamount to betraying her own heart and mind.
Well, I don’t imagine that a single Christian in this sanctuary this morning disagrees with any of that. You do agree. You want to be a faithful prayer and you want your life to be filled up with all kinds of prayers for the saints and for the kingdom of God. Perhaps you feel, as many Christians have, that this is the single greatest defect of your life, that you do not pray as you should. You know that prayer is, to some significant degree, the measure of your faith. You have told yourself times without number that if you really believed that the living God would hear and answer you whenever you spoke to him, surely you would pray more often, more expectantly, more earnestly, more perseveringly than you do.
When you hear the great John Newton confess about himself
“I find in my own case an unaccountable backwardness to pray. I can read, I can write, I can converse with a ready will, but…prayer is far more spiritual than any of these. And the more spiritual a duty is the more my carnal heart is apt to start away from it.”
When you year Thomas Shepard, the early pilgrim father and first president of Harvard admit
“There are times in my life when I would rather die than pray.”
You first heave a great sigh of relief. If these great and godly men also struggled to pray, perhaps there is hope for me yet. But, if you are an earnest Christian, you will also think, “These men were not happy with themselves and I cannot be either. They were not willing to remain prayerless and I cannot be either. They felt the force of Paul’s argument and exhortation here, and I must too. Their admission of backwardness to pray was intended to spur them on to greater faithfulness in prayer. And it must be so for me as well. And, to be sure, for all their honest reckoning with their own failure, they prayed more and better than I do by a long shot! I must not fail, I must not, to become much more faithful at prayer than I am now. That faithfulness lies too close to the heart of what a Christian should be and do in this world.”
Well, what then? If that is all true and that is what you think, what then? Well, take Paul to heart: all that he says about the gospel of Christ and the schemes of the Devil and the whole armor of God. Tell the Lord that you believe and ask him to help your unbelief. Make it a matter of personal inspection. Hold yourself to account. Do not take “no” for an answer in this matter. And if it is a struggle, then so be it. As Rutherford once wrote, “Say, I would rather spoil twenty prayers, than not pray at all.” Remember the Holy Spirit will help you and take your broken prayers and make them better than they were when they left your heart and mouth. Hold before yourself the image of your praying Redeemer.
And, this one thing more. Come to prayer meeting. Join others in prayer for the kingdom of God, such as we do here on Wednesday nights. Can you read Paul here and not think that he fully expects you to join with other believers and pray for the progress of the gospel, the salvation of the lost, boldness and effectiveness for Christian workers, the revival of the church, and so on? When Jesus ascended to heaven that was the first thing the first disciples did, gather for prayer. They knew he would hear and answer! And the early Christians did the same as we know from the Book of Acts. They met together to pray for the kingdom of God.
And what a great way, and what an easy way to add much more kingdom prayer to your life. I told the Prayer Meeting a few weeks back that I had figured out that over the 23 plus years I have been your pastor, just by coming to prayer meeting on Wednesday nights I had prayed for the kingdom of God and its progress the equivalent of more than three months straight of eight hour days, 7 days per week. Much as I deplore my prayer in other respects, I am so grateful for that prayer that has been offered to God, the very prayer Paul is urging upon us here. Can you think of a surer way, a simpler way to be sure that you heed Paul’s exhortation and obey the Word of God as we have heard it today?
My pastor in Scotland raised eyebrows once when he said that most of his praying was done at prayer meeting. Of course, that was a three-hour prayer meeting every Saturday night of the year! In a booklet published more than 100 years ago, bearing the title, Only a Prayer Meeting, C.H.Spurgeon lamented the decline in attendance at church prayer meetings. “Brethren,” he wrote, “we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians.” [Cited in Derek Thomas, “Only a Prayer Meeting,” Banner of Truth No. 313 (Oct. 1989) 11]
Is that not true? Surely it is. Paul as much as says it is here in these great verses. Let us fill our hearts and mouths with the names of other Christians and with the interests of the gospel in the world. Let us pray the downfall of evolution as the reigning myth of our culture. Let us pray the emergence of great men to preach the gospel powerfully in our day. Let us pray the descent of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray for individual believers being battered by the Evil One that he be denied a single victory. Let us pray for individual unbelievers. Let us pray for Christians in prison for their faith. There are many such today. Let us pray for the return of Jesus Christ.
These are the prayers our Savior prayed. These are the prayers that kept him up at night and got him out of his bed in the morning and, no doubt, he offered these same prayers to God briefly throughout the day as a face or a mentioned name made him remember what is really going on in this world!
And, believe me, the Lord will not forget your service! As Rutherford wrote to a correspondent of his, “I seldom made an errand to God for another, but I got something for myself.”
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be given to you as well.”