Prayer is an essential part of our relationship with God. It has been called one of the tools of Christian growth and one of the spiritual disciplines. Prayer is part of each Christian's life, and it is part of the spiritual health of the church.
Various verses remind members to pray for the leaders of the church. In this article, I will focus on the need for leaders to pray for the people. Although most of this article is based on the prayers of Paul, a good foundation is laid in the Old Testament:
In 1 Samuel 12:23, Samuel told the Israelites, "Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you." It would be a sin for a leader to neglect praying for his people. We have a duty — and it should also be a desire — to lead God's people toward his Son. But of ourselves, we cannot do it.
We have a desire, and we have a need. We have a request, and we should therefore bring it to God in prayer (Phil. 4:6). God will help us in our need. If we are mindful of how great the task is, and how small our own abilities are, we'll find it easy to ask for help from the great Shepherd of our souls.
Prayer serves not only the people we are praying for — it also serves the person who prays. Part of ourneed, as leaders of God's people, is to pray for the people God has called us to serve. This is for our benefit as well as for theirs.
Prayer in Paul's Epistles
Part of the normal format for a Greek letter was the thanksgiving section, and most of Paul's letters have this. Often it is just a prayer of thanks; sometimes it is also a request. Paul prayed about his churches, and he also prayed for his churches. He prayed for other churches, too, including the church at Rome:
"I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times" (Rom. 1:8-12).
Although Paul did not know the people he was writing to, he began his comments to them by saying that he was praying for them. And I ask myself, Am I willing to do this? Can I learn something from Paul's example here? Am I willing to tell people that I am praying for them?
Notice also that Paul emphasized his prayers by calling on God himself as his witness. Paul wanted the Roman Christians to realize that they were important to him. Why was Paul so persistent in prayer for them? Because he wanted to visit them so he could strengthen them, as we see in verses 10-12:
"And I pray that now at last by God's will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong — that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith." Paul had a desire to visit Rome and to help the Christians there. He had a request, and he made it known to God constantly — and he also let the Romans know that he was praying for them.
Regarding the members in Corinth, Paul also expressed thanks in his prayers: "I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:4). When we consider the many sins that existed in the church at Corinth, we can understand why Paul would be so thankful for God's grace. Perhaps a question for us today would be this: If we were dealing with a church full of problems, would we express our thanks to God for the grace given to the church in Christ Jesus? Would we begin our message to such a church by praising the grace of God? Paul sets an interesting example for us today.
In the next letter, he begins with praise: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
Paul realized that what God gives us, he wants us to give to others. He gives us comfort so that we might comfort others. He gives us grace so that we might be gracious to others. He forgives us so that we might forgive those who sin against us. Paul's prayers are not empty platitudes or vague generalities — they are specific and based in theological truth.
Prayer was important to Paul.
Paul's apostolate began in prayer and, according to tradition, ended in prayer as he was martyred. His whole ministry was grounded in, and developed from, prayer. For Paul, the Christian experience was essentially (and unceasingly) an act of prayer. Those redeemed and hence overwhelmed by the sovereign grace of the "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," intentionally and purposefully pour out their lives as a perpetual act of thanksgiving, ever conscious of dependence on an omnipresent and omnipotent God, as they are motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Apart from prayer, life as a redeemed bondservant of Christ was both inconceivable and impossible. (W.B. Hunter, "Prayer," Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by G. Hawthorne, R. Martin and D. Reid [InterVarsity, 1993], p. 725)
Prayers in Ephesians
In Ephesians, the thanksgiving section is unusually long. Paul begins with praise in verse 3: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ."
He mentions his thankfulness for what God had done in the readers: "For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers" (verses 15-16).
Paul habitually made specific requests to God: "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe" (verses 17-19).
It must have been very encouraging for the people to realize that the apostle was praying for them, that he was thankful for them, that he wanted them to have more spiritual benefits. They could pray for themselves, of course, but it would really help them to know that their leader was praying for them, too, even though he was far away. The prayer helped the people feel united with Paul. It helped bind them together. And it was not just the prayer — it was Paul's telling them that he prayed.
Christ told his disciples that he prayed for them. Paul told his people that he prayed for them continually. But how often do we tell our people that we pray for them? How often do we specify exactly what it is we are thankful for, or what specific request we are making on their behalf, what kind of spiritual growth we desire for them?
If we say, "I'll pray for you," it helps a little. But if we say, "I have prayed such and such on your behalf," it's more credible, and more comforting. Pastors should pray for their people. Small group leaders should pray for their people. Members in any sort of ministry should pray for the people they strive to serve, including those who are not yet members.
Paul gives more specifics in Ephesians 3:14-21:
I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
I marvel at the profound theological insights that are included in Paul's prayers. No doubt these insights helped the Ephesian Christians not only be encouraged by Paul's prayers for them, but these details would help the Ephesians in their own prayers.
Praying in Public
Let's go to the next epistle in the canon: "I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.... God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God" (Phil. 1:3-5, 8-11).
What a marvelous prayer! — and a marvelous thing that Paul was not hiding his prayer in a closet, so to speak. He did not pray to show off, but he was not ashamed of his prayers, either. He wasn't afraid to talk about prayer or to pray in public. It isn't wrong to pray in public — Jesus himself did it. What makes it right or wrong is the motive, not whether it's public. We don't pray to show off or to be seen or heard by people — we pray to speak to God. When Jesus was on the cross, he still prayed audibly, even though many unbelievers were there. He didn't let it stop him. How much more willing should we be to allow our prayers to be known, especially when they are on behalf of the people of God!
It is a constructive thing, an edifying and unifying thing, to tell our people that we pray for them — and it is more effective to mention some specifics of our prayers for them.
When a pastor tells them, "I ask God to give you this particular thing, and those particular things," doesn't that set a instructive example for them? Doesn't it encourage them to pray, too? It sends a message that prayer is a worthwhile activity, and it encourages members to pray for one another in greater detail, to be more mindful of one another's needs. This will strengthen the church, help unify it and build it up.
In this respect, people today are no different than those of the first century. We are encouraged when we learn that people are praying for us, so it only makes sense that we can encourage them by acknowledging some of the details in which we are praying for them. We have it in our power to do some good, and we should not withhold it from the people who need it most from us.
Let's go to the next epistle and see how consistent Paul is: "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints" (Col. 1:3-4). Note the plural here — Paul and Timothy were praying together, in prison (cf. Acts 16:25).
"For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light" (Colossians 1:9-12).
Again, we see here some theology made practical. Paul's prayers are tremendously encouraging and informative. And they are public, for our benefit. We can read about them. I'm thankful that he did this in public.
Paul was not the only leader who prayed for his people. "Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured" (Colossians 4:12).
Paul is very open with the fact that he prays for his people, and he is open with some details of those prayers. Paul's example helps us see one of the ways in which a spiritual leader serves his people. We can be praying for things like this, making requests like this, thanking God for how he is working in our people's lives, and letting our people know what we are praying.
Let's continue this survey of Paul's epistles by looking at 1 Thess. 1:2-3: "We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ."
And in 2 Thess. 1:3-4: "We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring."
There are some prayers in 1 Timothy, and some exhortations to pray, but not quite like the previous epistles. However, 2 Timothy begins with the more familiar pattern: "I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers" (1:3).
There is no prayer in Titus, but it is prominent in Philemon: "I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ" (verses 4-6).
Even in a private letter, Paul shared his prayer for that person. How many of us pray, as Paul did, that our members are active in sharing their faith? One result of sharing the faith, Paul says, is that we can grow in understanding the blessings Christ has brought to us. This is something good for us, and something worth asking God for help in doing. As we grow in our understanding of Christ's blessings, let's share our blessings with others. Let's pray for our members, and let's let them know we are praying for them.
If you'd like to study this subject more...
David Crump, Knocking on Heaven's Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer (Baker, 2006)
D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities From Paul and His Prayers (Baker, 1992)
D. M. Stanley, Boasting in the Lord: The Phenomenon of Prayer in Saint Paul (Paulist, 1973)
R. N. Longenecker, Into God's Presence: Prayer in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2001)
G. P. Wiles, Paul's Intercessory Prayers (Cambridge University Press, 1974)
P. T. O'Brien, Introductory Thanksgivings in the Letters of Paul (Brill, 1977)