Jesus taught His disciples that “at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1 NASB).
Obviously, that message took a while to sink in, given the disappointing news from the Garden of Gethsemane.
Yet, some 2,000 years later, how could we survive without a snooze alarm app on our phones to awaken us from (for example) a prayer-induced slumber long enough to finish the task at hand?
At least Paul, who humbly described himself as “the very least of all saints” (Ephesians 3:8), got it, as seen throughout his New Testament letters even without a smart phone in hand. So, how did Paul do it? With an application powered not by inventive human minds but by the Holy Spirit. Simply put: old school-style prayer.
Granted, first-century technological advances were probably limited to more pressing needs: building better chariots, repelling invading armies or rendering the tedious work of scribes obsolete. But when it came to prayer, there was no substitute for such time-tested basics as a desire to seek the Lord and His will, having humbleness before Him, faith to believe Him, silence to hear His voice, patience to wait for Him, and discipline to not lose heart. Now, you might respond to that list, saying “I am already doing all those things.” If so, then what is the primary direction and focus of your prayers? Before you attempt to answer that question, I invite you first to journey through this seven-part series on Paul’s prayer recorded in Ephesians Chapter Three.
Paul recognized early on that God’s Spirit generates the power behind effective ministry. Consequently, nearly every one of Paul’s New Testament letters contains references to prayer. He knew it was crucial. Paul often expressed prayerful thankfulness for his fellow-believers with words of endearing encouragement in his letters. Examples can be found in Ephesians 1:16, Philippians 1:3-4, Colossians 1:3 and Philemon 6. Each of these scriptural passages comes from four letters collectively known as the “Prison Letters” that Paul wrote during his first Roman imprisonment. These letters give us insight into Paul’s view of prayer, one largely shaped by his truly thankful heart, genuine concern for his fellow believers, and relentless, dogged ministry focus—common threads running throughout all his letters, forming a heavenly pattern designed by God’s own loving hand.
Paul was devoted to prayer in every sense of the word, utilizing it to its fullest potential. His prayers illustrate the mission and ministry given to him by God. Accordingly, Paul emphasized the eternal or spiritual aspects of his fellow-believers’ health and well-being, having a deeper goal of nurturing and mentoring their faith, so that they would grow and mature in that faith and be filled to all the fullness of God—and, just as importantly, to share the gospel, make disciples and teach those disciples all that Jesus had commanded them.
Even when Paul thrice asked God to remove a “thorn” from his flesh, he accepted God’s answer. That was good enough for him. As Paul began understanding more of God’s mission for him, it became clear that he couldn’t do it alone, certainly not without the Holy Spirit’s power. It was a task too big to tackle single-handedly, requiring Paul to enlist his fellow-workers and his “spiritual children” whom he personally mentored to carry on the good work that God had begun in all of them.
Prayer encompassed every part of Paul’s life. Paul ignored the temporal boundaries that stop many 21st century believers in their tracks. Technology is not at fault. Imagine what Paul and his fellow-workers could have done with the technology available today to spread the Gospel! No, the problem is our tendency to lose sight of eternity in deference to those things that will one day pass away. Yes, we hurt, we mourn and we suffer right along with the world’s unbelievers. Consequently, it’s only natural to focus so much on the temporal. Christ knows how much it hurts. Yet, Jesus reminded His followers of the far-sighted cost of discipleship when He drew a “line in the sand” saying, “…do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28).
Certainly, Paul had many temporal concerns that he undoubtedly prayed about… after all, he was a man of intense prayer. Moreover, Paul was no stranger to suffering physically. Yet, Paul’s love and concern for everybody—Jew and Gentile alike—pushed him to pray even more, beyond the limited world he had known as a Pharisee. Now, as a believer, Paul’s heart desire and prayer for his fellow Jews was for their salvation in Jesus. (Romans 10:1). Likewise, Paul and Barnabas received this command from God: “I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles that you should bring salvation to the end of the earth.” (Acts 13:47). They got that message!
Paul didn’t waste any time—even while imprisoned in Rome—writing the aforementioned New Testament prison letters including the one whose second prayer began: “For this Reason, I bow my knees before the Father,” (Ephesians 3:14). This will be our starting point, but first, let’s consider some background context. Searching for the immediate contextual clues for this prayer’s purpose takes us back to Verse 11 of the previous chapter. From there, Paul explains the “mystery of Christ” in detail and its impact on his readers.
Downloading a Pauline prayer app is easy and it’s user friendly. Jesus paid a steep price to make it free just for the asking. Part Two of this series continues framing Paul’s reasons for his prayer and begins our in-depth look at the prayer itself. Journey with us through Paul’s prayer of spiritual encouragement—and challenge—that takes us beyond human measurement of what’s important to God and the eternity that He has set in our hearts.
All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).
Alan Summers, GBC Elder