Paul in Prayer
By Kyle Pope
Presented at the 2002 Florida
Introduction. The church in Corinth, which
struggled with so many issues, in particular stood in need of instruction on
the matter of spiritual gifts.
Having brought into their attitude towards the miraculous gifts which
they possessed the same concepts they had held when they were “carried
away” by “dumb idols” (1 Cor. 12:2), Paul had to correct
their misconceptions. The
Corinthians seem to have imagined that prayer could be some type of ecstatic
experience, as the pagans had advanced, in which the suppliant communicated
with a deity in unknown babblings.
...If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is
unfruitful. What is the conclusion
then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the
understanding...(1 Cor. 14:14,15, NKJV).
notice in this text that Paul teaches two things directly and one
indirectly. Directly he teaches
that prayer must involve both the spirit and the mind. While Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit
serves to clarify the unspoken need of the heart before God (Rom. 8:26), the
child of God must not imagine that communication with God involves shutting off
our minds. Nor should we think
prayer in the spirit involves some unknown “prayer language” (as
our Charismatic friends would have us to believe). Indirectly, however, he offers twice the subtle declaration
of an intention that we almost miss in the broader discussion about miraculous
spiritual gifts. That is, the
simple statement, “I will pray...” As a servant of God who is committed to “walk in the
Spirit” (Gal. 5:16) the apostle Paul maintains a deliberate and
consistent commitment to go to God in prayer.
Prayers for Fellow-Christians.
student of Scripture cannot begin to read the words written by Paul, through
the direction of the Holy Spirit, without immediately seeing the importance
that the Apostle placed upon prayer.
He begins his address to the church in Rome declaring, “...God is
my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without
ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Rom. 1:9,
NKJV). In his first epistle to the
Corinthians he shows his care in claiming, “I thank my God always concerning
you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus”
(1:4). To the saints in Ephesus,
where Paul had faced such frightening opposition (Acts 19) he wrote,
“Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your
love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of
you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15,16). The same is said to the Colossians for whom he said he was
“praying always” (Col. 1:3), and the Thessalonians for whom he
thanked God always mentioning them in his prayers (1 Thess. 1:2).
prayerfulness was not solely for congregations but to individuals like Philemon
he would write, “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my
prayers” (Philemon 1:4). He would have Timothy know that,
“...without ceasing I remember you in my prayers night and day” (2
the highest position of prominence in Paul’s prayers for brethren was
reserved for his dear Philippians.
He would write, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you,
always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy”
simple affirmations to churches and individuals reveal some important things
about the Apostle’s prayer life.
Let us consider some characteristics of Paul’s prayers of the
A. Remembrance of the brethren. The word translated “mention” (mneia), in the texts above comes
from a verb meaning “to remember” (mnaomai). The idiom “to make mention (mneia)” suggests the
utterance that is made from the recollection of the heart. When used without the idiomatic word
“making” (e.g. Phil. 1:3), it is translated simply
“remembrance” (Vincent 3:516). We generally remember those things that are dear to us, and
forget what we consider less important.
When a husband remembers his anniversary, it is not the sharpness of his
memory that pleases his wife, but the fact that in remembering the occasion he
demonstrates that the relationship he has with her is important. In this case
the recollection of his heart bears witness to the love which he feels for his
wife. Paul shows us that a vital
element of our love for others involves calling them into our minds as we talk
B. Gratitude for the faith of others. It might seem unusual that time and time again Paul expresses
gratitude to God for the faith of others.
Yet, if we consider Paul’s priorities we see there is nothing
unusual about this at all. First,
as a child of God he understands and teaches thankfulness in all things (e.g.
Eph. 5:20 – “giving thanks always for all things to
God”). Second, as a preacher
of the gospel the growth and development of faith in the hearts of others
fulfills his purpose. Finally, in
the face of all of his personal hardships, strong faith in the hearts of his
co-workers in the kingdom served to encourage him. This is reflected clearly when he tells the brethren,
“...in all our affliction and distress we were comforted concerning you
by your faith. For now we live, if
you stand fast in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:7,8).
C. Requests for the brethren. Although Paul might not be able to be with the brethren he
remains interested in their spiritual growth and maturity. Although at the time he wrote the book
of Romans he had not yet been to Rome, he prays to God that he might come to
them (Rom. 1:10). Yet, his motive
is not carnal. He is not curious
to behold the grandeur and splendor of “that great city that reigns over
the kings of the earth” (Rev. 17:18). Instead, he tells them, “For I long to see you, that I
may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established”
(Rom. 1:11). For these miraculous
spiritual gifts that gave to the early Christians complete revelation Paul
thanks God for what had already been given to the Corinthians (1 Cor.
the Ephesians and Colossians Paul prays that they may receive “the spirit
of wisdom, and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph. 1:17); and
“be filled with all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. 1:9). These requests may not involve the
miraculous, but how the saints would utilize and implement what had already
been revealed. If God would grant
this prayer, as the Ephesians and Colossians let Him work in them, they would
then “have a walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful
in every good work” (Col. 1:10); and “know what is the hope of His
calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the
saints” (Eph. 1:18). The
apostle’s prayer for the Thessalonians is that in them “the name of
our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified” (2 Thess. 1:12).
Paul’s special affection for the Philippians is evident, it is not
exactly clear for what he was “making request” with joy “in
every prayer” (Phil. 1:4).
Since the word “request” is the same word previously
translated “prayer” (with an article in the Greek) Lenski takes
this to refer back to “every prayer” for them which he had just
mentioned rather than any specific request (p. 706). In other words, every prayer he makes, he makes with joy
over their standing in Christ. On
the other hand, he may refer to the statements he will go on to make concerning
their “fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now”
(Phil. 1:5) and his confidence that what God had begun in them, He will
“complete it until the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil.
1:6). Clearly, as a spiritual man
he is interested in their spiritual endurance.
II. The Work of
Paul’s requests for the brethren and the appeals he makes for prayers for
himself it is evident that Paul had a complete confidence in the ability of
prayer to influence Deity. His
confidence is not like the quasi-new age concept of “the power of
prayer.” As some address it,
they attribute to the act of prayer some type of mystical power in and of
itself, failing to acknowledge Deity as the focus. In some cases this treats prayer almost as if it is some
untapped human power. For Paul the
value of prayer rests not in the act itself but in the fact that it allows
communication with God—the source of all power.
A. Prayer’s Influence upon Deity. The rights, privileges and gifts granted to the apostles
might lead one to imagine that an apostle would have no need for the prayers of
others. On the contrary, Paul
earnestly seeks them. Not only in
a broad sense, as in the simple appeal, “brethren, pray for us” (1
Thess. 5:25), but in specific hopes and needs. He asks the Colossians to pray that God would “open a
door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ” (Col. 4:3). As Paul, in chains faces an uncertain future,
he tells the Philippians that all “will turn out for my deliverance
[salvation, ASV] through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus
Christ” (Phil. 1:19). In
other words, he is confident that with the Spirit of Christ dwelling in him and
through their prayers he will attain “deliverance.” Chrysostom understood this to refer to
an escape from his present danger (Homilies on Philippians 3). Yet, Paul sets both life and death as
possible ends to his present imprisonment, declaring “Christ will be
magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). I believe Alford has it right in
concluding, “...from the context it must refer to his own spiritual
own fruitfulness for Christ and glorification of Him, whether by his life or
death...” (3.159). The
Philippians’ prayers then, on his behalf, will influence Deity towards
strengthening Paul so that he might be delivered faithful whether life or death
lies before him.
Paul’s letter to Philemon he expresses confidence in the influence of
prayer upon Deity as it concerns his travel. He writes, “But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room
for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you”
(Phil. 1:22). Here Paul suggests
that whether he will be allowed to come to see Philemon or not, to some degree
rests upon Philemon’s own appeals to God that he might come to him. It would be a mistake for us to see in
these words some deterministic picture of a set course of life that God had
already planned out which could not be influenced by Paul’s own
choices. Nor should we limit
ourselves to imagine that God could only answer such a prayer through
miraculously altering some natural course and, contrary to nature, manipulating
events so that Paul could make such a journey. Instead what we see throughout Scripture is the principle
that spiritual souls attribute every aspect of life to God, in the
understanding that “if the Lord will, we shall live and do this, or that”
(James 4:15). Paul simply
recognizes that since God ultimately has all control, Philemon’s prayers
have an influence upon Deity to grant, within the Lord’s permissive will,
the conditions that would allow Paul to come to him. We can recognize this same truth today, as we avoid trying
to tell God how He will answer such prayers, yet always believing that our
appeals have an influence upon Him.
B. Fellowship in Prayer. This portrayal of the role of prayer in the Christian life
makes it an active, dynamic and vital activity. The Christian who engages in prayer for some good, or for
some outcome in the life of another person is truly engaged in something that
can, within the providence of God, help to bring it about! This is illustrated nowhere as clearly
as in some of Paul’s descriptions of those who are in joint participation
with him in prayer on some spiritual front. One such co-worker was Epaphras, the Colossian who was
Paul’s companion upon the writing of the book of Colossians. When Paul extends Epaphras’
greeting to the church he describes him as, “...always laboring fervently
for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of
God” (Col. 4:12). The word
translated “laboring” (agonizomai) is a very forceful
word. Our word “agony”
comes from its noun. In its
primary usage it refers to competing in an athletic contest, or fighting in a
battle (BAG, p. 15). With a prefix
it is used in the epistle to the Romans where Paul begs the brethren to:
...Strive together with me in prayers to God for me, that I may be
delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for
Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, that I may come to you with joy by
the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you (Rom. 15:30-32).
a different prefix the word is used in Jude as the writer speaks of their
urging them to, “contend earnestly for the faith” (3). On Greek inscriptions this same kind of
wording, “contending for the common salvation” is used of warfare
(Moulton, p. 8). Paul is describing
Epaphras as “going to war” for the Colossians in prayer. He is asking the Romans to “take
up arms” with him in prayer.
Now obviously, this is not setting God in the position of being their
military opponent, but he is emphasizing the effort that Epaphras is exerting
and that he is asking the Romans to exert in their work of prayer to influence
God on their behalf.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he credits his previous escape
from death (in part) to the prayers of the Corinthians on his behalf. He claims that they had been,
“helping together in prayer” (1:11). Like the words above, this is an active, effectual claim
concerning their effort. Derived
from the Greek word for work (ergo), with prefixes that intensify the
meaning (upo) and communicate joint participation (sun), the word
translated “helping together” (sunupourgeo) shows the sense in which
the prayers of the Corinthians were a spiritual work the brethren had shared
with Paul. This is like the very
way he describes his companions who were “fellow workers” (sunergos - Phil. 4:3; Col.
4:11). The Corinthians, although
not present with him when they shared the labor of prayer, were his
“fellow workers” in much the same way.
III. Types of
is in the writings of the Apostle Paul that the Holy Spirit teaches us about
the nature of prayer by utilizing different words that describe prayer. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy
he makes reference to “supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving
of thanks” (2:1). Let us consider
each of these descriptions.
A. Supplications (deesis). While this word originally communicated the idea of the need
of something that was lacking, it came to refer to a request or an
entreaty. Lenski sees this as a rather
narrow word requesting something, as opposed to general prayer (p. 706). Plato used the word for the requests or
demands made by tyrants upon their subjects Letters 329d). In Philippians 1:4 (as noted above) the
word is used twice: “in every prayer (deesis)” and “making
request (deesis).” Here the
translators have chosen to bring out its primary meaning in the second instance
to avoid repetition in the English.
When the Christian understands, as James tells us, that God is the giver
of “Every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17) it becomes
natural for him to offer to the Lord the requests he may have for those things
he desires whether physical or spiritual.
B. Prayers (proseuche). Chadwick suggests that the word translated
“prayer” (proseuche) “is a word reserved for address to God” whereas the
other words in 1 Timothy 2:1 may be addressed to men (p. 207). Although at
times the word for “prayer” and “supplication” can be
used synonymously, in general a “supplication” (deesis) is a specific request and a
“prayer” (proseuche) is “calling on God” in general. Kittel explains that the
distinction between the two rests “solely in the content” (2.807).
Origen, considered the content of a “prayer” (proseuche) to concern “matters
of importance” presented “in a dignified manner” (On Prayer 14.2, Chadwick). This may take the the distinction too
far. In the epistle to the
Philippians Paul teaches the brethren, “Be anxious for nothing, but in
everything by prayer (proseuche) and supplication (deesis), with thanksgiving (eucharistia), let your requests be made
known to God” (4:6). This
shows that with the proper disposition the content of prayer may include both
important matters and those of little consequence.
C. Intercessions (enteuxis). The primary meaning of this word concerns encounters or
meetings between separate persons (LSJ 576). The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus used the word of a
request made to a ruler for ownership of two slave girls (16.55). Chadwick suggests that it does
“not necessarily mean what the English word ‘intercession’
does – prayer in relation to others” but “involves a
‘bold’ approach to God” (p. 207). Origen claimed that “an ‘intercession’ (enteuxis) is a request to God for
certain things made by one who possesses more than usual confidence” (On Prayer 14.2, Chadwick). The only other example of its use in
the New Testament is in chapter four of the same epistle, as Paul explains that
in Christ all food is now clean, “for it is sanctified by the word of God
and prayer (enteuxis)” (1 Tim. 4:5).
The confidence that we are granted in Christ allows the child of God to
go before God on behalf of those foods which were at one time considered
unclean, with thanksgiving. The
relationship that we have with God in Christ, which allows us to, “come
boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) allows us to appeal to God on
behalf of our concerns whether it involve other people or different events in
D. Giving of Thanks (eucharistia). The word translated “giving of thanks” has come
into the English language in connection with the name the religious world has
adopted for the Lord’s Supper – the Eucharist. While the New Testament will not apply
this word to the Lord's Supper, we do find the verb form of the word used in
all four accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper when Jesus
“gave thanks” (eucharisteo – Matt. 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:17; 1
Cor. 11:24). By the second century
Christians had begun to refer to the memorial in this way. Justin Martyr refers to “the food
we call Eucharist” in a description of the Lord’s Supper (First
general the word refers to thankfulness and gratitude. An early papyri uses it of the Emperor
Claudius’ gratitude to some gymnasts who had performed for him (Moulton,
p. 267). We see this sense of
formal gratitude in Tertullus’ flattering praise of Felix as he begins
his accusation of Paul (Acts 24:3).
The word is often associated with prayers offered before a meal. In Acts 27:35 Paul, “took bread
and gave thanks (eucharisteo) to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he
began to eat.” In I Timothy
4:4 Paul addresses Christian liberty in the eating of meats in writing,
“For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is
received with thanksgiving (eucharistia).”
It is not limited to prayers for food, but can concern anything that
demands our gratitude before God.
The Christian must live a life of gratitude for all the ways that God
has blessed us. Prayers of thanksgiving
are a continual means by which this can expressed.
IV. The Regularity
with respect to his own prayers and in those things which he teaches others,
Paul puts a great deal of emphasis upon remaining constant in prayer.
A. Prayer Without Ceasing. Four times in his epistles Paul refers to praying
“without ceasing.” The
first three of these instances refer to his own prayers. Paul mentions the Romans in prayer
“without ceasing” (Rom. 1:9).
In his prayers for the Thessalonians their “work of faith, labor
of love, and patience of hope” together with their reception of the word
of God are called to mind before God “without ceasing” (1 Thess.
1:3; 2:13). As the Apostle ends
the same epistle in which twice he had used the term for his own prayers for
them, he then tells the Thessalonians, “pray without ceasing” (1
phrase, which is only one word in the Greek, translated “without
ceasing” (adialeiptos) literally suggests “not leaving off” the particular
action to which the word is applied.
The Roman historian Polybius applied the word to the
“unbroken” series of victories Hannibal won over the Romans (Histories 9.3.8). In the Apocryphal book of First
Maccabees, it was used of regular sacrifices and prayers made in memory of
friendly allies (12:11). Origen
felt that Paul used it to describe the entire disposition of a Christian,
That man “prays without
ceasing” (virtuous deeds or commandments fulfilled being included as a
part of prayer) who combines with the prayer the needful deeds and the prayer
with the fitting actions. For thus
alone can we accept “pray without ceasing” as a practicable saying,
if we speak of the whole life of the saint as one great unbroken prayer: of
which prayer that which is commonly called prayer is a part (On Prayer 12.2,
is obviously not advocating a prayer life that prohibits all other thought or
action. Instead he is teaching by
word and example a regularity in prayer that transcends sporadic utterances
offered only in times of hardship or need. Alford suggests that supplications “may be unceasing,
in the heart which is full of His presence and evermore communing with
at All Times. We noticed above that Paul spoke of his companions in prayer
in military terms (Rom. 15:30-32; Col. 4:12). In the book of Ephesians Paul characterizes prayer as a
continuing function of the spiritual soldier. Through the Holy Spirit he writes:
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of
the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and
supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance
and supplication for all the saints (Eph. 6:17-18).
Let us notice three parts of this text:
1. “Always” (en panti kairo). The New American Standard Bible instead of
“always” literally translates the text “at all
times.” Lange suggests
that this phrase, “gives prominence to the prayer as persevering, despite
all change of relation and circumstances” (p. 225). This is one of the great challenges for
the soldier of Christ. Trials and
hardships can overwhelm us to the point that our hearts are filled with worry
and anxiety, leaving no time for prayer.
On the other hand, sometimes good times and the joys of life can keep us
so satisfied with this world that talking with the Lord is absent from our
minds. In the same way that Jesus
warns us in the Parable of the Sower that the word of God can be “choked
with cares, riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14), Paul urges us
to make prayer a part of our spiritual regiment during every phase of our
2. “Being Watchful” (agrupneo). The primary meaning of this is “to lie
awake.” It is
understood metaphorically to mean “to be watchful” (LSJ, p. 16). There are only three other instances of
the use of the word in Scripture.
In two of these instances Jesus associates watchfulness with prayer in
order to prepare for times of judgment (Mark 13:33; Luke 21:36). In the book of Hebrews the word is used
of those ruling in a congregation who “watch out” for souls (Heb.
13:17). Paul is suggesting that
the soldier of Christ must maintain a spiritual vigilance in their prayers for
the saints as well as for all things.
3. “Perseverance” (proskarteresis). While this is the only example of the use of this in the New Testament, the verb form (proskartereo) occurs a number of
times. Campbell defines the verb,
“to persist in adherence to, to be intently engaged in, to attend
constantly to” (p. 8). Three
times in the New Testament it is used of the steadfastness and faithfulness of
the early church (Acts 1:14; 2:42 & 46). The seven servants of the church in Jerusalem were appointed
so that the apostles could give themselves, “...continually (proskartereo) to prayer and to the
ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
Paul teaches the Romans to be, “...patient in tribulation,
continuing steadfastly (proskartereo) in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). Paul admonishes the brethren to
“adhere to” the saints in their continued memorial of them in
C. Everything in Prayer. In the second epistle to the Corinthians Paul allows us to
see a glimpse of his own struggles in prayer. He tells us about what he refers to as a “thorn in the
flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). While
Scripture does not reveal to us what constituted Paul’s
“thorn” there are a few things about Paul’s prayers for this
matter that are important to our study.
First, it is clear that Paul was persistent in his appeals regarding
this thing. We are told,
“Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might
depart from me” (2 Cor. 12:8).
The word translated “pleaded” (parakaleo) basically means, “to
call to one’s side,” Vine suggests:
It is used for every kind of calling to a person which is meant to
produce a particular effect, hence, with various meanings, such as
“comfort, exhort, desire, call for,” in addition to its
significance “to beseech,”... (p. 62).
is the same word Paul uses in teaching Timothy that an evangelist must
“exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2).
In Titus 1:9 Paul teaches that an elder must “exhort (parakaleo) and convict those who
contradict.” As it is used
above we see Paul calling upon God to come to his aid with an intensity that
equals the calls of exhortation made to the ungodly and rebellious.
we notice that Paul’s request was refused. Whatever this “thorn in the flesh” might have
been, the Lord concluded that Paul’s service to him was not contingent
upon its removal (2 Cor. 12:9).
Does this suggest to us that Paul had “asked amiss” (James
4:3), and because it was improper the Lord refused? Not at all.
Nicoll observes, “Like Another who prayed thrice that the cup of
suffering might be removed from Him (Matt. 26:44), St. Paul did not receive the
answer his spirit longed for” (3.111). Clearly Jesus did not “ask amiss” in spite of
the fact that His request was denied.
Sometimes as Christians we may imagine that there are certain kinds of
appeals that are too trivial to bring before the Lord. In the example of Paul’s
“thorn in the flesh” one might conclude that it was something of
such minor significance that the Lord refused his request. Perhaps, but the very fact that the
Lord answered him directly shows that it held some importance. The broader lesson is seen in the fact
that, whatever this thing might have been, Paul brought it before the
Lord. This is exactly what Paul
would teach the Philippians, “...in everything by prayer and
supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God”
(Phil. 4:6). The child of God in
our day must learn the same thing.
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