In the second installment on missional prayer, I discussed how the early church in the book of Acts understood the discipline of prayer in relation to the mission and progress of the gospel. While Acts provides us with a glimpse in the journeys of the Apostle Paul and how prayer impacted his mission, his letters reveal a powerful exchange of intercession and request among the churches wherein he labored. before his mission began, you might recall the instruction Jesus gave Ananias, which was to “look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying” (Acts 9:11).
Although his name changed, the fact that he was praying did not. His exhortations to prayer was everywhere. To the Romans, Paul encourages them to “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:2); to the Ephesians, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:18); to the Philippians, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6); to the Thessalonians, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17); and to the Colossians, “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Col. 4:2). It is evident that the call to fervent, continuous prayer was expected among all believer everywhere, and in no less than five churches, missional prayer was demonstrated in the life of Paul. Let’s consider his letters to the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians.
In the introduction of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes “that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you” (Rom. 1:9-10). His desire to come to them not only was a cause of continual intercession for the Roman believers, but also an appeal for their prayers. Toward the close of his letter, he writes,
“I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Rom. 15:30-32).
Paul’s intercession and the grounds of his appeal to the Romans for pray was for God’s will in his deliverance for furthering the mission and service to the saints. In a letter so filled with the meat and marrow of the gospel, like book ends, these references show Paul’s heart for the mission through prayer.
After articulating the benefits, privileges, and blessings of being “in Christ,” Paul “did not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers . . .” (Eph. 1:16) because they had “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him . . .” (Eph. 1:13). His reason for praying for them was motivated by the gospel and their response of faith and repentance. The more the mission advanced, the more he prayed. And this is why Paul also requested prayer from the Ephesians. He requested that they would
“[pray] 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” (Eph. 6:19-20).
Paul could of requested any number of personal prayer requests, but his requests are exclusively centered on the mission Christ had given Him and the proclamation of the gospel. The requests focused on the proclamation of the gospel, and Paul’s intercession was a result of the triumphs of the gospel.
While imprisoned, Paul wrote to the Philippians,
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5).
While it was the reception of the gospel among the Ephesians that motivated Paul to pray, for the Philippians it was their partnership in the gospel. They had join him in the mission of both advancing and defending the gospel (Phil. 1:12-18). Following a powerful acknowledge of God’s providence in His imprisonment, he shares his confidence that “through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil. 1:19). His understanding of providence as a means for encouraging brothers to be courageous also included the prayers of believers as a means of grace to serve as a cause for his deliverance. Either in prison because of divine providence or deliverance because of their prayers, the mission continues with their partnership in the gospel.
To the Colossians Paul again intercedes for the believers on the foundation of their reception of the gospel. He writes,
“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth . . . And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding . . .” (Col. 1:3-6, 9).
Between the two references of continual prayer in this passage is again the gospel and how it has worked in the lives of the Colossians as it has around the world. As he came to the close of his letter, Paul continues to ask for prayer:
“pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3-4).
Paul is starting to sound like a broken record, is he not? Pray for me. Pray for the gospel. Pray for the mission. Pray for an open door for the word of God to advance. This is Paul in prayer. This Paul on mission. But we are not done . . .
In both of his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul is found interceding for them. In his first letter, Paul gives thanks to God
“always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:2-5).
In his second letter, Paul writes:
“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:11-12).
The Thessalonians had become an example of what true faith and repentance looked like, having received the gospel with power, conviction, and the Holy Spirit. The good of the gospel was to continue among these believers among whom God would make worthy of being called-out ones, set apart for the glory of Christ and satisfied by the grace of God.
Paul makes two simple requests to these believers. In his first letter, he concludes by exhorting, “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25). In his second letter, Paul again brings the mission and the gospel to bear in his request. He writes:
“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:1-2).
How was the word of the Lord honored among the Thessalonians? They did not receive it as the words of men, but the word of God. It was attended with the Holy Spirit and power, bringing genuine conversion and conviction in their hearts. But more than that, the word of the Lord “sounded forth” form them to Macedonia and Achaia and their faith in God has “gone forth everywhere.” The fruit of the gospel and focus on the mission among the Thessalonians a cause for gratefulness and a call for continued prayer for greater things to be done.
Having considered Paul’s correspondence, one would not have to ask Paul, “How can I pray for you?” Sure, Paul had a lot of things that warranted prayer–just consider the opposition he faced, the persecution he endured, the abandonment of others he experienced, and so on. Yet his circumstances, pain, and the rest were not matters of great concern for Paul. For him to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Living = Christ, so let’s get on with the mission and the gospel, and if you pray for Paul, make it about those things. In spite of the fact that he bore in his body “the brandmarks of Christ Jesus” (Gal. 6:17), Paul wants to leave a mark for the glory of Christ’s name on the earth. It is evident that this mission would not have been possible apart from prayer, and not just any ordinary kind of prayer; rather, it was grand, sweeping prayers where the gospel transformed lives and the mission triumphed over cities. The reports of these men upsetting the earth and “turning the world upside down” was effected because heaven was being opened through prevailing mission-saturated prayers continually offered according to the will of God. God have mercy on us to so believe, preach, and pray with the gospel and mission as our magnificent obsession.