Paul in Prayer
1 Corinthians 14:14,15
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. Paul suggests:
...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).
We 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.
I. Paul’s Prayers for Fellow-Christians.
The 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).
Paul’s 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 Timothy 1:3).
Perhaps 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” (Phil. 1:3,4).
These simple affirmations to churches and individuals reveal some important things about the Apostle’s prayerlife. Let us consider some characteristics of Paul’s prayers of the saints.
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 to God.
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. 1:4-7).
For 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).
While 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 Prayer.
From 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 good - his own fruitfulness for Christ and glorification of Him, whether by his life or death...” (3.159). The Philippian’s 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.
In 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).
With a different prefix the word is used in Jude as the writer speaks of their “common salvation” 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.
In 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 Prayers.
It 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 our lives.
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 Apology 66, Richardson).
In 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 of Prayer.
Both 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 Thess. 5:17).
This 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, writing:
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, Chadwick).
Paul is obviously not advocating a prayerlife 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 Him” (3.281).
B. Prayer 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 lives.
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 prayer.
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).
This 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.
Next, 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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By Kyle Pope
From Expository Files 14.6; June 2007