April 27, 2003
This is the final sermon in the series, Praying with Paul. We started on the first Sunday of January and we come to an end on the final Sunday of April. In my first message I introduced our church theme for 2003, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and I mentioned that this was a logical follow-up to our emphasis last year on reading through the Bible. I also said that I hoped three things would happen as a result of studying the prayers of Paul in the New Testament:
1) We would know what Paul prayed for.
2) We would know what God is saying to us through the prayers of Paul.
3) We would know how to pray more effectively as a result of this series.
I can only speak for myself but I have found this series personally enriching. Over these weeks together, I have found myself praying, “Lord, open the eyes of my heart that I might know you better.” And I have asked God to strengthen others with power through the Spirit on the inside. And I prayed that my loved ones would have insight to make wise choices under pressure. These are themes that come directly from Paul’s prayers. So I am personally grateful for what the Lord has done in my life as I have studied Paul’s prayers week by week.
From a larger perspective, I believe that we as a congregation have taken some important steps forward in prayer. For instance, during April many of us have placed little dots over the “1” on our wristwatches to remind us “Pray for one at one.” That means we are taking one minute at 1:00 p.m. each day this month to pray for one person to come to Christ. That little dot has kept me praying day by day for someone who needs the Lord. I’m very sure that I’ve prayed much more for him this month than I would have otherwise. In the last few weeks we have seen a harvest of people coming to Christ through our various ministries, especially on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. But this should not surprise us. Prayer and evangelism always go together. When God’s people get serious about prayer, the doors of heaven open to pour forth God’s blessings.
In this final sermon, I want to summarize what we have learned and then I want to briefly look at the final prayer from Romans 15:30-33.
I. Lessons Learned
How can we summarize the prayers of Paul? Here is my own list. Paul’s prayers were …
Aimed at spiritual growth
Not focused on outward circumstances
Among other things, he prayed for enlightenment, power, discernment, growth, love, encouragement, endurance, boldness, protection and unity. He prayed for believers to be thankful, cheerful, strong, stable, and fruitful so that they would walk worthy of the Lord and bring great glory to God.
As I thought about these various qualities, I put them in the big “sermon pot” in my mind and started stirring them around. The Lord eventually showed me 12 things we need that come from the prayers of Paul.
A. Our first need is to know God better.
This comes from Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:15-23 where he prays that the eyes of your heart might be opened so that you may know God better. Until the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, we will never know God deeply and personally. This is where all spiritual growth must begin. Until we come to the knowledge of God, everything else is just religious decoration.
B. Our second need is a new appreciation of God’s power to help us.
In Ephesians 3 Paul prays that we might be strengthened with might through the Spirit in the inner man. This is a prayer for power on the inside so that we will be strong in the face of adversity.
C. Our third need is the ability to make wise choices under pressure.
This calls to mind the motto of our local high school—tagarista, a Greek word meaning “those things that are best.” When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he prayed that they might be filled with insight to choose those things that are best (Philippians 1:9-11). When facing so many choices in life, we truly need God’s help to sort out the good from the bad, the better from the good, and the best from the better. And we need the ability to do it on the spur of the moment, when the pressure is on, which is where most of life’s decisions are made.
D. Our fourth need is genuine love for others.
This theme comes up again and again in Paul’s prayers. In I Thessalonians 3, he prays that their love may increase and abound toward each other. This sort of overflowing love is made visible in the way we treat other people. It is one of the most obvious proofs that we know Jesus Christ.
E. Our fifth need is strength to endure so we won’t give up.
In Colossians 1:11 Paul prays for strength that leads to patience and endurance. We need this for those inevitable times when the going is rough, when things aren’t going our way, when it would be easy to give up, when we are tempted to throw in the towel, and say, “I quit!”
F. Our sixth need is to be fully equipped to face spiritual opposition.
In several prayers Paul mentions the opposition he faces from unbelievers who actively opposed the preaching of the gospel. We see this, for instance, in II Thessalonians 3:2. He prayed to be strong and bold in the face of such opposition and he asked God to remove the opposition so that he could tell more people about Jesus. Sooner or later, we too will face people who oppose our Christian faith. We need that same boldness, and in some cases, we need divine intervention to remove the opposition.
G. Our seventh need is a willingness to trust God for the impossible.
At the end of his prayer in Ephesians 3, Paul offers this doxology: “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” (v. 20). God’s power is far beyond our imagination. Our largest, boldest prayers don’t begin to exhaust his mighty power. We need strong faith in a big God to overcome the challenges we face.
H. Our eighth need is a life pleasing to the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Colossians 1:10 Paul prays that his readers would walk worthy of the Lord. This means living in such a way that God is pleased with us. This touches every part of life, from the tiniest choices to the most major decisions.
I. Our ninth need is growing thankfulness to God.
Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1 ends with a call for thanksgiving based on all the blessings of God in salvation. This includes redemption, becoming citizens of God’s kingdom, and having a great inheritance in the life to come. We ought to be thankful when we consider all that God has done for us—past, present and future.
J. Our tenth need is boldness to share Christ with others.
This theme comes up in Colossians 4:2-4 where Paul mentions the open doors that were set before him. He asks others to pray that he might be bold in preaching the gospel and that he might make the gospel message clear and plain and easy to understand. This is a prayer we should pray for ourselves as we share Christ with others.
K. Our 11th need is cheerfulness in the midst of our trials.
In II Thessalonians 3:5 Paul mentions the “patience of Christ.” This refers to having Christ’s attitude of joyful submission to his Father’s will, even to the point of going to the cross. He endured the shame because he kept his eyes on the joy that would come from the salvation of those who believed in him. Likewise, we should pray for a “heavenly perspective” during our trials so that we can smile even during the hardest moments.
L. Our 12th need is the humility to ask others to pray for us.
On more than one occasion Paul said, “Pray for me.” If the great apostle felt no shame in asking others to pray for him, neither should we feel shame in asking others to pray for us. Pride keeps us from asking for help, which is why many of us fail when crunch time comes. Far better to ask for prayer than to wish we had.
These 12 prayer themes sum up a great deal of what Paul prayed about. They also touch needs that we all have. Here is my challenge to you. Take this list and place it in your Bible, using it as a prayer guide this week. Or put it on your mirror so you have something to pray while you’re getting ready in the morning. As you pray this week, pray along the lines of these 12 points. Use them to pray for yourself, use them also as you pray for others.
II. A Final Reminder
We come now to the final prayer by the Apostle Paul. It’s not the final prayer that he prayed or even the final prayer of his in the New Testament, but it is a fitting closing prayer because it is a prayer request by Paul for his own personal ministry. This is what he says: “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen” (Romans 15:30-33). Two things strike me as I ponder his words. First, notice how personal he is. Seven times in verses 30-32 he uses the words “I, me, my.” “Join me” in “my struggle” by praying “for me.” This is the most personal of all of Paul’s prayers. Second, notice how honest he is. He speaks openly about the “unbelievers” in Judea. The word literally means “disobedient.” He is referring to Jews who had heard the gospel and not only rejected it, but had become hostile against it. They followed Paul wherever he went, harassing him, accusing him, doing all they could to stir up the Gentiles against him. Often their tactics were quite successful. No doubt Paul had come to a crisis moment and felt that his ability to minister was in jeopardy. Rather than pretend he was doing fine, he bares his soul and begs for help from his friends.
Agony, Unity, Ministry
As we look at this request from the standpoint of the 21st century, three lasting truths emerge. First, prayer is agony. When Paul says, “Join me in my struggle,” he uses a Greek word from which we get the English word “agony.” Join me in my agony. What a thought that is. Prayer is agony. But someone says, “I thought prayer was supposed to be fun.” Who told you that? The Bible nowhere calls prayer “fun.” Prayer isn’t fun; it’s hard work. And true prayer is agony of the soul. Prayer is wrestling with God, it is striving in the realm of the spirit, it is spiritual warfare against principalities and powers and the forces of evil all around us.
When was the last time you agonized in prayer?
When was the last time you wrestled in prayer?
When was the last time you shed tears in prayer?
You’ll discover what agony means when you have a sick child in the middle of the night with a rising fever and you can’t get the doctor on the phone. You’ll learn about agony in prayer when your marriage is on the ropes. You’ll know how to agonize in prayer when a loved one is wheeled away for life-saving surgery. Sooner or later, we all learn to agonize in prayer.
Second, prayer promotes unity. Paul says, “Join me in my struggle as you pray for me.” Though they were hundreds of miles away from Paul, they became one with him through their prayers. Distance doesn’t matter when we are on our knees. We can be anywhere in the world and yet in the realm of the spirit through prayer, we can be joined with brothers and sisters thousands of miles away.
Third, prayer advances ministry. He asked for deliverance from his foes; then he prayed that his ministry to the poor saints in Jerusalem might be acceptable; then he prayed that one day he might come to Rome, meet the saints face to face, and be refreshed by his fellowship with them. Paul understood that the church advances on its knees.
The power of the church lies not in money, plans, buildings, preachers, programs, or anything else that comes from the hand of man. Our only true power is the power of prayer. When we pray, God moves from heaven. When we pray, things happen that would not otherwise happen. By prayer all things are possible. If we want to see the church move forward and the kingdom of darkness vanquished, we must pray and pray and pray. We have no other secret. If prayer won’t do it, there is no Plan B.
Don’t Stop Now!
You may remember that in the first sermon of this series, I asked the congregation to pray for me specifically. Many of you took that very seriously. I know that because you told me so. I also asked that you pray for me before you come into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Someone asked me why I asked for prayer this year. I told them that I didn’t really know the answer but that it would probably be revealed later. In the several months since then, I have encountered a number of things on a personal level that were totally unexpected, some of them quite difficult. Through it all, I have sensed the sustaining power of the Lord, and I have felt the prayers of many people. For that I am profoundly grateful. I simply add this: Don’t stop now. It’s only the end of April. There are still eight months left in 2003 and I still need your prayers.
No, Yes, Yes, But …
One final note and I am done. Paul mentioned three specific prayer requests:
1) He prayed that he might be rescued from those who opposed his ministry. That prayer was not answered. His opponents became even stronger and eventually had him arrested, put in jail, and eventually he was sent to Rome for trial before Caesar.
2) He prayed that his ministry in Jerusalem might be acceptable to the saints there. That prayer was answered and his ministry was successful.
3) He prayed that he might come to Rome and be refreshed with the saints in that city. That request was answered but not in the way he prayed it. He eventually made it to Rome—in chains, as a prisoner.
So his three prayers were answered this way:
Yes, but …
That’s the way it is for all of us. We never have all our prayers answered exactly as we pray them, and sometimes the answer is clearly no. Yet even in this we can see the hand of the Lord at work. Sometimes it is better for us if our prayers are not answered immediately. Sometimes it is better if they are not answered at all. The great question is not, How can I get my prayers answered? The great question is, What will it take to draw me closer to God?
According to one account, the following poem was found on a body of a soldier who died in the Civil War:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, then I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed.
It is a great advance in spiritual understanding to be able to say, “I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.”
Great doors are open before us—Pray!
Great challenges face us—Pray!
Great needs rise in our path—Pray!
All things are possible when the church begins to pray. So Lord, do whatever it takes, but please, O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.