Yesterday I did not preach since my second daughter was born over the weekend. As per my usual pattern, here is older sermon notes that I haven’t yet posted.
praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Ephesians 6:18-20 ESV
In his book, Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper dedicates the second chapter to discussing the role of prayer in missions. He opens up the chapter like this:
Life is war. That’s not all it is. But it always that. Our weakness in prayer is owing largely to our neglect of this truth. Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief. It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den. God has given us prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie so that we can call headquarters for everything we need as the kingdom of Christ advances in the world. Prayer gives us the significance of frontline forces and gives God the glory of a limitless Provider. The one who gives the power gets the glory. Thus, prayer safeguards the supremacy of God in missions while linking us with endless grace for every need.
All that we have discussed in verses 10-17 give us the necessary context understanding Paul’s final emphasis upon prayer in these verses. We have seen that the Christian life, as Piper said, is one of warfare, a wrestling against the schemes of the devil and standing firm only when we are strengthened with Christ’s own strength and clothed in Him as our armor. While the analogy of a wartime walkie-talkie is a good one, prayer in the cosmic war around us rather defies simple metaphors. For while the full armor of God is necessary, prayer is the force that makes the armor usable. Without prayer, faith is not our shield. Without prayer, the readiness of the gospel does not gird our feet like shoes. Without prayer, we cannot properly wield the Word of God as a sword. If we strip prayer out of its warfare context, we risk turning it into something that is biblically unrecognizable.
Paul begins his discussion on prayer in verse 18, and within this verse, we find four all statements made about prayer. So we will divide our study and view prayer through the lens of these four declarations before moving into verses 19-20.
AT ALL TIMES
The apostle first tells us to pray at all times in the Spirit.
It is worth noting that there is never an inappropriate time to pray. That may be incredibly obvious, but even so, I think it is still worth saying. Prayer is always appropriate. After all, Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing.
Wait a minute.
If ceasing truly means to stop, does this mean that we are supposed to pray continuously throughout the day? If so, how often does Paul intend? Every hour? Every minute? Every second? How are we supposed to pray without ceasing at all times?!
Here is my suggestion at what Paul means: our entire day should be prayerful, though not necessarily with words. Remember for a second what prayer is: communion, or communication, with God. Though we may not always use words, living our lives in fellowship and communion with God is living prayerfully.
The Bible frequently calls our lives with Christ a walk with Jesus, so perhaps walking is a helpful metaphor to use here as well. When I am walking somewhere with my wife, our conversations tend to be numerous but not necessarily constant. Even if there is a moment of silence, we are still together; we haven’t left one another’s presence.
I think Paul desires for us to have this kind of attitude of prayer throughout each day. Praying at all times means living our lives in constant fellowship and communion with God, and like walking with a friend, verbal communication will be frequent but not necessarily constant.
How then do we live prayerful lives?
Praying in the morning tends to be immensely helpful. Morning prayer is not necessary, but it is wise. It doesn’t have to be anything lengthy, just begin the day with prayer. Is there really a better way of beginning our day than by immediately coming into the presence of our loving Father?
We also need to address the final three words of our present phrase: “in the Spirit.” Rest assured that Paul is not describing the need to speak in tongues or anything like that. In Romans 8, Paul describes the Holy Spirit’s role in prayer as being the One who enables us to call God our Father (8:15). The Holy Spirit guarantees us that we are children of God, and it is only by His strength that our prayers are able to reach the throne room of God.
This means that we could very much call prayer an act of the Trinity. We pray to the Father. The Spirit lifts our prayers into the presence of God. And the Father hears them as the prayers of His children only through the mediation of Jesus Christ.
In this way, true Christian prayer cannot be made outside of the Holy Spirit. We cannot come to God as our Father without the continuous power of the Spirit. If we do not pray with the Spirit at all times, it is only because we do not have the Spirit. Prayer in the Spirit is the regular, but powerful, prayer of a Christian.
WITH ALL PRAYER
Paul’s next ALL statement is that we should pray with all prayer and supplication. Since supplication is a particular type of prayer, I believe that Paul means for us to use various kinds of prayer whenever we pray, with a special focus on supplication. The acronym ACTS stands for four kinds of prayer that have often been used throughout church history: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Let us briefly discuss these kinds of prayer, as well as one other.
Adoration isn’t used much outside of saying that kittens are adorable, but biblically adoration is a great word to describe our worship of God. Adoration simply means to deeply love and respect someone or something in a worshipful way, and this loving worship is a critical component of prayer. But in order to adore God, we must first know who God is and what He is like.
When Jesus’ disciples asked Him how to pray, Jesus gave them the Lord’s Prayer as a model for them to use. In this prayer, He taught His disciples to begin praying by focusing upon God and His character.
Here are a few characteristics of God that can be seen within the Lord’s Prayer:
God is our Father, which means like an earthly father, He loves us, wants what is best for us, and is willing to discipline us as needed for our own good.
God is heavenly, which means He is not physical nor living on earth.
God’s will is done in heaven, and it will also be done on earth, which means that God is sovereign and in control.
We can ask God to provide for our needs, like having food to eat, which means that He loves us and cares for us.
We can ask God for forgiveness, which means that He is ready and willing to forgive us.
We can ask God to keep us from evil and temptation, which means that He is able to help us overcome our sins.
Notice that Jesus spends the first half of the Lord’s Prayer describing God and praying for His will to be done. Jesus worshiped the Father before He asked Him for anything. Jesus knew that prayer is not about our desires but about submitting ourselves to His will. God is not a genie, granting us our wishes. He is the Creator of everything who will do whatever He wills.
The best way to adore God in prayer and know His character is by reading the Bible, which is how God has revealed Himself to us. The Psalms in particular are filled with prayers of adoration, and there are dozens of small ones in the New Testament called doxologies.
Because confession is pleading guilty of our sins before God, confession cannot be properly understood without first knowing what sin is.
The Bible gives a clear definition of sin in 1 John 3:4, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”
Of course, John is not merely referring to city, state, or country laws; rather, he is talking about God’s laws, which are summed up nicely in the Ten Commandments.
But the problem does not end with simply being guilty of sin. In Isaiah 59:2, the prophet describes how our sins separate us from God: “But your iniquities [sins] have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”
Notice how frightening is that last part: our sin stops God from listening to us!
We broke God’s laws, so we rightfully deserve His punishment and to be cut off from any relationship we might have had with Him.
But by the grace of God, even though sin earns us eternal separation from God and left us incapable of doing enough good works to repair it, Jesus Christ came to offer eternal life with God as a free gift instead.
Of course, believing the good news that Jesus came to save us from our sins does not mean that we stop sinning. We continue to break God’s laws on a daily basis. The gospel is not a get-out-of-hell-free card that we believe in once, continue to live in sin, and still go to heaven when we die.
Rather, the Bible calls us to continually kill the sin in our lives and to admit the sins we commit to God in prayer. This is called repentance.
When we repent, we confess our disobedience to God and strive to obey Him henceforth.
Confessing our sins in repentance to God is so important that John uses it as a test to see if we are truly Christians: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).
Followers of Christ confess and repent of their sins to God, knowing that He will graciously forgive them because of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us.
Most Christians probably agree that we should give thanks to God in our prayers, but why is that? By journeying through a few texts of Scripture, we should be able to get a brief look at what thanksgiving is and isn’t, and why it’s important.
The story of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19 is one of the most popular in the Gospels because of its lesson on thanksgiving.
Of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, only one returned to thank Him, which Christ equates with giving praise to God. Because they did not give thanks, they failed to praise God for healing them. Thanksgiving goes hand-in-hand with praise.
Some people have wondered how the other nine lepers could be so ungrateful, but I imagine that they were indeed very grateful. Because it is a highly contagious skin disease, people with leprosy were exiled from normal society and forced to live in groups with other lepers. They were completely cut off from their friends and family, forced to die a slow death alone. How could they not be grateful for being cured!
But Jesus did not fault them for being ungrateful; He faulted them for not giving thanks. Ultimately, gratitude is a feeling, while giving thanks is an action. Jesus never questioned how grateful the other nine felt. He only remarked that they did not give praise to God through giving thanks. We, therefore, must understand first of all that thanksgiving is not the same as feeling grateful. If thanksgiving is not spoken, then we have not truly given thanks.
Furthermore, if Jesus equated giving thanks to praising God, why should we give our thanks and praise to God?
James gives us a pretty great answer to this question: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17-18).
Notice James’ wording: every good gift comes from the Father.
All of the good things in this world come from God. As the Creator, He has given us the ground we stand on, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Rain and sunshine, friends and family, meat and fruit, dogs and cats. Everything comes from Him.
As our Savior, God declared His love for us by dying on a cross for our sins, allowing us to be called the sons and daughters of God.
This is why Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Notice that Paul views thanksgiving as so important that he calls it the will of God for us.
God’s will for your life is for you to give thanks in all circumstances.
Because God has given us countless good gifts, we always have something to give thanks for. There is no circumstance in life where we cannot thank God for something He has done for us.
Supplication isn’t exactly the kind of word that comes up in everyday conversation, but even though it’s an uncommon word, supplication is probably the most common type of prayers that we pray. Supplication simply means to make a request or petition, so praying a prayer of supplication is asking God to meet our needs or wants.
It can be tempting to feel uneasy about making requests to God after having discussed confessing our sins to Him, adoring Him in worship, and thanking Him for everything. We might even begin to wonder why we should bother God with our small needs at all. Fortunately, bringing our requests to God isn’t only something we are invited to do, we are commanded to do it:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Paul commanded the Philippians not to be anxious but to bring their request to God instead.
Let’s think through this verse together for a bit.
What does it mean to be anxious, and why does Paul command us to pray instead?
Anxiety is excessive worry about something, and the Bible repeatedly tells us to trust God by taking our needs to Him instead of bearing the anxiety ourselves.
What kind of requests does Paul urge us to bring to God?
The answer is all of them. Paul commands us to bring ALL of our needs to Him in prayer. God as our Father invites us to bring everything to Him, no matter how small it may seem.
Now before you get too crazy about bringing God your requests, it is important to remember once more that God is not a genie. He does not exist to grant our wishes, and He makes no promises about giving us everything we want.
In the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6:9-13, before Jesus taught His disciples to pray for their needs, He told them to pray for God’s will to be done.
God’s will often doesn’t match our own, which can lead to God not answering our prayer (or Him simply telling us no). This is ultimately for the best because God’s will is better than our own. God may deny our requests because what we want may not be what we need. We think we know what we need, but God truly does. It’s important for us to trust that He knows best when we bring our requests to Him.
If you noticed, I just described a popular acronym for prayer, ACTS. While adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication are certainly biblically mandated types of prayer, we must take care to understand that they do not encompass every form of prayer. In fact, there is one more type of prayer that often gets neglected, but it highly prevalent throughout the Scriptures: lamentations.
Praying a lamentation, or lamenting, is a form of bringing our trouble, sorrow, or suffering before the LORD. Too often, we feel uncomfortable about praying our sorrows or complaints to God for fear of being disrespectful. While fear of disrespecting God is healthy, God is also big enough to handle our questioning, and He is loving enough to listen to our pain and confusion. As with all prayer, lamentations are best guided by Scripture, which help prevent us from praying unbiblical prayers.
WITH ALL PERSEVERANCE
In this third ALL statement, Paul tells us to pray with all perseverance and alertness. Alertness means to stay awake and sober, and perseverance means to be constant despite difficulties.
Translation: prayer is hard.
We often read the story of the disciples in Gethsemane with frustration. They were present with Jesus right before His crucifixion, and yet they couldn’t stay awake praying. They kept falling asleep. And they were praying beside Jesus! But with each year of walking with the LORD, I realize more and more how similar to the disciples I am. Too often I pray to the LORD from my bed, and I am fast asleep before I ever move past praying for God’s will in the Lord’s Prayer.
Staying awake and persevering in prayer are difficult tasks.
Part of the reason for prayer’s difficulty is that prayer is a humbling work. Dying to our pride and selfishness is often the most painful aspect of sanctification, and prayer forces us to die to self. When we truly pray to God, we must first acknowledge that He alone is God, not us. We must recognize Him as holding all strength and power, while we are frail and needy. Humbling ourselves by coming before God is a difficult thing, but we must persevere in it nevertheless.
But we must be vigilant not to merely treat prayer as an act of desperation either. As Christians, we should never use the phrase, “All we can do now is pray.” If we truly believe that God is sovereign and supreme, prayer should never be our final option! Prayer should always be the first thing we do, since we know that God desires for us to bring everything to Him in prayer.
Paul urged the Colossians toward the same goal of prayer: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (4:2). Arguably the greatest enemy of prayer is concentration—or more accurately, the lack thereof. The issue of concentrating on prayer has always been an issue of concern, but it has never been so deadly as it is today. With the advent of the smart phone, modern society is constantly connected to the world via the internet. Much of today’s media content is now broken in bite-sized chunks, so that we can quickly move onto the next item of information. If we are not careful, this trend can leave us with a goldfish-sized attention span. This makes the call for alert and persevering prayer more important now than ever.
May we give the best of ourselves and our mental faculties to prayer!
FOR ALL SAINTS
The final ALL statement of Paul is for us to make supplication for all saints.
We have already seen that supplication means to bring our requests before God, but who are the saints? The word saints means holy ones, which refers to all Christians. Peter calls us in his letter a holy nation and a people for God’s own possession (1 Peter 2:9). As followers of Christ, we have each been bought with the precious blood of Christ by the Holy One. Therefore, since He has purchased our freedom from sin, we now belong exclusively to Him. We are holy because we belong to God. We are no longer common; we are uniquely reserved for the purposes of God.
We should, therefore, pray for believers of our own congregation, but it is also necessary to pray for ALL saints. Our prayer radius is often far too small. We should gladly pray for the other churches within our city, even those belonging to a different denomination! We should fervently pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout our state, throughout our country, and across the world. We must make supplication for all saints.
Unfortunately, our minds tend to fixate on prayer requests whenever we think about praying for other Christians. We pray for sickness, accidents, hospital visits, surgeries, job losses, lost pets, grieving hearts, broken hearts, and much more. Let me emphasize: it is good to pray for those things. God has commanded us to bring everything to Him in prayer; therefore, we should pray for each other about physical needs and sufferings. However, it is not good for us to ONLY pray for our fellow Christians about their physical needs. I think it is Paul Washer who frequently discusses the tragedy of Christians that only ever pray to keep other Christians out of heaven but rarely pray to keep sinners out of hell.
AND FOR ME ALSO // VERSES 19-20
In verses 19-20, Paul informs the Ephesians what he most desires them to pray for him: boldness and words to proclaim the gospel. Keep in mind while reading this the high likelihood of the apostle writing this letter from prison and the great sufferings that Paul already endured throughout his ministry. Paul certainly did not lack physical prayer requests, but he doesn’t ask for any of them here. Instead, Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for words and boldness to faithfully proclaim the gospel.
Could the reason many of us are weak in evangelism correspond with our lack of prayer for evangelism? Think about it. Paul was asking for boldness. This was the same Paul who was stoned nearly to death, but then immediately went back into the city (Acts 14). This is the same Paul who was miraculously broken out of prison by God in Philippi alongside Silas (Acts 16). This is the same Paul who received 39 lashes five times, was beaten with rods three times, was shipwrecked three times, and boldly faced crowds of people that wanted him dead (2 Corinthians 11). When we look at everything that Paul did, he sometimes looks more like a superhero than an actual person, but still, he asks the Ephesians to pray for him to be bold.
If Paul felt the necessity of prayer in order to boldly speak the gospel, why do we so often expect to share the gospel without first praying for words and boldness? This is a failure to use prayer as the weapon it is, and it can lead to us thinking that prayer is ineffective. Here is what John Piper has to say about how we can use prayer incorrectly:
Probably the number one reason prayer malfunctions in the hands of believers is that we try to turn a wartime walkie-talkie into a domestic intercom. Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for. Prayer is for the accomplishment of a wartime mission. It is as though the field commander (Jesus) called in the troops, gave them a crucial mission (go and bear fruit), handed each of them a personal transmitter coded to the frequency of the General’s head-quarters, and said, “Comrades, the General has a mission for you. He aims to see it accomplished. And to that end he has authorized me to give each of you personal access to him through these transmitters. If you stay true to his mission and seek his victory first, he will always be as close as your transmitter, to give tactical advice and to send air cover when you need it. But what have millions of Christians done? We have stopped believing that we are at war. No urgency, no watching, no vigilance. No strategic planning. Just easy peace and prosperity. And what did we do with the walkie-talkie? We tried to rig it up as an intercom in our houses and cabins and boats and cars—not to call in firepower for conflict with a mortal enemy but to ask for more comforts in the den.
Of course, prayer does not itself deliver the gospel, but by prayer, God gives His people the courage and boldness to proclaim it to a lost and often hostile world. That is how prayer helps to fulfill the Great Commission. Prayer gives us the boldness to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light, out the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of God!
This makes evangelism and discipleship fundamental strategies in the cosmic warfare all around us (since it expands God’s kingdom ever further), and because we cannot make a single person believe, they are entirely dependent upon the work of the LORD. Again, we must open our mouths to speak, but only God can ultimately change anyone’s heart and give new life in Christ. Prayer, therefore, is the lifeblood of this task, our calling upon God to do what only He can do. And since we should be ready with the gospel at all times, we should also be praying at all times.