Doug Van Meter - 28 January 2018
All Praying All Prayer (Ephesians 6:18-20)
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There is a song that we sometimes sing in our church. The third stanza reads,
Put on the gospel armour,
each piece put on with prayer.
Where duty calls or danger,
be never wanting there.
When he wrote those words, George Duffiend probably had Ephesians 6:18 in mind. Likewise, the same passage is alluded to when William Cowper wrote,
Restraining prayer, we cease to fight;
prayer keeps the Christian’s armour bright;
and Satan trembles when he sees
the weakest saint upon his knees.
E. M. Bounds, the well-known author of the multi-volume series on prayer, once said, “You can do more than pray, but you cannot do more until you pray.” Oh, how we need this reminder. Paul served us well, as he did the Ephesian church, when he penned these words, bringing his exhortations to a close.
Some believe that this mention of prayer is an additional piece of armour, but I don’t think so. Rather, Paul is exhorting them, and us, to go into battle not only well-armed, but also well-energised.
Charles Hodge commented, “It is not armour or weapons which make the warrior. There must be courage and strength—and even then, he often needs help. As the Christian has no resources of strength in himself, and can succeed only as aided from above, the apostle urges the duty of prayer.”
Lloyd-Jones observed, “Thank God, we are not only told that we have to wrestle and fight…. We are also told how we can be enabled to do so successfully”—that is, by all praying all prayer.
It is often said that there is power in prayer. Without quibbling over theological caveats, any experienced and thinking Christian will heartily agree. There is indeed power in and through prayer. And the corollary is equally true: that “many Christians can trace the secret of a defeated life to prayerlessness” (Boice).
If we will properly put on the gospel armour, committed to stand as we face the enemy, we will need to put on each piece with prayer. All of us need be praying always with all prayer. If we don’t, then all of us are in grave danger of not standing.
As we begin, we can helpfully observe that these verses teach us, at the least, that we are to pray at all times, in all ways, with all persistence, and for all saints. Let’s learn, and then do it!
We Are to Be Praying at All Times
Paul urged the Ephesians to be “praying at all times in the Spirit.” Like the previous participles, Paul is saying that prayer is a means by which we will stand. If there is no supplicating, there will be no standing—no praying, no prospering; no communicating with God, no conquest with God. Christian, pray!
The word translating “praying” means to wish or desire toward, and it connotes worship towards God. Worship means to bow down. It speaks of submission. Christians who will not submit to God will not stand for God. It really is that simple.
Doctrine in the life of the church is important. But right doctrine separated from reliant dependence is no match for the relentless devil. And nothing says dependence like prayer. Prayer is an admission of need. We need God. We need to pray.
We need to recognise to whom this apostolic commandment is given. As with the entire passage—and for that matter, the entire epistle—Paul is addressing the entire church. His participial exhortation to pray is aimed at all of the church—not only the elders, evangelists or missionaries. This is directed to the entire church. The entire church would have been gathered to hear this epistle. None of them would have thought, “This is not for me.” No, this is for every member of the church.
I’m concerned when church members refuse to gather with the church Sunday evenings for our prayer meeting. Unless providentially hindered, when you refuse to attend, you are AWOL from God’s army.
Ive heard many complain about the new prayer-focused format we’ve taken for our evening worship. But so what? Covenanted members of the church need to stop breaking their covenant—for their sake, yes, but ultimately for the sake of the church to the greater glory of God. God commands the church to pray. If you don’t, then you are disobedient to God. So, stop it—and start it. Start praying. Stop with the self-sufficiency and start praying—together with the body. Stop with the self-centredness and start with others-centredness.
It is selfish when people ask for prayer who themselves do not pray with and for others. Brothers and sisters, this ought not be! If we come to the end of our study of Ephesians without being more committed to praying together, without a greater appreciation of our need to pray, then we have missed the whole point of these six chapters.
We need God’s power to live as “one new man in Christ” (2:15). We need God’s enablement to live constructively as a compelling community of faith (3:10).
Paul urges his readers to pray “always.” The Christian is always under attack and so she must pray always. Age must be always praying because she is always facing the enemy; always praying because always needing to stand; always praying because always needing the Lord’s strength to stand.
Some Greek texts have the word kairos, which speaks of times or seasons. This idea is inherent in Paul’s meaning. The Christian is to pray whether things are sunny or dreary. Often, the darker the time, the more we pray. Yet we must never rest on our laurels. If we take this passage seriously, then we will realise the grave dangers that surround us, and we will be careful to pray always. It is when we are resting and comfortable that the evil one pounces. The devil never rests. The world system never takes R&R. The flesh never takes a sabbatical. So, pray—always. As Boice highlights, “Prayer is to be a natural and consistent part of our lives. It is not to be regulated just to special seasons or special days. We are to be people of prayer.” Jesus taught this need for prayer in Kuke 18:1–8, as did Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
Our prayers are to be dynamic and devoted: “in the Spirit.” Paul has just spoken about “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17), and immediately he speaks about praying in the Spirit. John Stott helpfully points out the connection when he writes, “Scripture and prayer belong together as the two chief weapons which the Spirit puts into our hands.” These are also two pillars in the life of the Christian, primarily because they fuel our communion and fellowship with God. The reason that we are to pray at all times is because the Spirit desires for us to heed his leadership to know the Lord (1:15–19; etc.).
The Holy Spirit is the means of delivering us from prayer being a mere formality and transforming prayer into an expression of a spiritual reality. Praying in the Spirit “is the atmosphere in which we are to live the Christian life, its all-embracing constant characteristic” (Ferguson).
Clearly, Paul has in mind the Christian praying as a result of her relationship with God. This is the kind of praying that has a spiritual reality to it. It is the kind of praying that we see in the life of Jesus, the kind of praying that flows out of fellowship and communion with our God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. This, when you think about it, is the real deal when it comes to prayer.
Paul is not referring to speaking in tongues, though in the early church this may have been one of the ways in which they prayed. Rather, Paul is reminding the church of the central empowering role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church (see 1:13–14; 1:17; 2:18, 22; 3:3, 16; 4:3–4, 30; 5:18; 6:17).
We are in a spiritual battle, which can only be won by the Lord. The Holy Spirit empowers us for this battle by his power. But he also equips us for this battle by leading us to pray (Romans 8:26).
He comforts us by counselling us to pray. I think that Paul is concerned to help the church realise that, because she is supernatural (the household of God), the church requires supernatural assistance. In other words, don’t rely on the arm of flesh—it will fail you. Rely on the arm of God, which will sustain you. Listen to the Holy Spirit as he reminds us of this reality—and privilege—of divine dependence.
We Are to Be Praying in All Ways
Next, Paul shows in what ways we should be praying: “with all prayer and supplication” (v. 18). Not only are we to praying always, but we are also to be praying in all ways. One reason that we will pray in different ways is because the Spirit of God will lead us to do so. He helps us to pray in all kinds of ways.
If the participle “praying” referred to the means of our standing, then here Paul may be referring to the manner in which we pray. The Bible, after all, recognises different forms of prayer: supplications, prayers, intercessions, giving of thanks, etc. (1 Timothy 2:1; cf. Philippians 4:4–7). Here, the apostle mentions one of the different kinds of prayers when he uses the word “supplication.” The word speaks of desire, of making requests; it speaks of petitioning, and may imply passionate praying.
I don’t think that Paul had the well-known and helpful acronym “ACTS” (Adoration—Confession—Thanksgiving—Supplication) in mind; rather, I believe that he was recognising that different seasons in life call for different types—even “passions”—of prayer.
There was a time when the apostles failed to cast out a particular demon, because that kind could not be cast out without prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:14–21). When Peter needed to be saved from sinking, he did not engage in the Lord’s prayer, but instead cried, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30). A man once testified that the most effective prayer he had prayed was when he had been standing on his head! He fell head first into a well, and prayed for deliverance. God answered in short order. Different situations indeed call for different prayers.
We Are to Be Praying with All Persistence
Paul tells the Ephesians to be praying “being watchful to this end with all perseverance” (v. 18).
The prepositional phrase “to this” marks purpose. The Christian is to keep watch (stay alert) for a particular purpose: namely, to persevere in making petitions—for all of the saints and for Paul. But more on that later.
The word “watchful” (“alert” in the ESV) means, literally, to keep awake. It is an exhortation that we must not become sleepy in prayer. Rather, we to be alert to our need for persistence in prayer. And the Holy Spirit will help those who want his help to stay awake. He wants us to be alert to pray always—in all ways with all persistence.
One can hardly read this without thinking of our Lord’s exhortation to the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane: “Pray that you may not enter into temptation…. Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40, 46). It should be noted in this context that Luke records Jesus at prayer more than any other Gospel.
Jesus was always alert to pray, and therefore we see him praying in all ways at all different times. He knew what it was to experience temptation—more than we can even imagine—and therefore we would do well to heed his words: Be alert to your circumstances and to pray. Jesus knew what was looming around the corner: betrayal, arrest, injustice, slander, mockery, cruelty—and death. We therefore need to be alert to pray.
Brothers and sisters, do not become sleepy about prayer; do not become sleepy at prayer. Be alert to your need for 24/7 dependence upon God. As Vincent helpfully notes, “One must watch before prayer, in prayer, after prayer.”
As we will soon see, one reason we must not be sleepy and careless about prayer is because our brothers and sisters need it. “‘Watch and pray’, Jesus urged. It was failure to obey this order which led the apostles into their disastrous disloyalty; similar failure leads to similar disloyalty today” (Stott).
We must pray “with all perseverance.” The word translated “perseverance” means persistent, and this is the only place in the New Testament where it is used. The word connotes to be devoted, to focus on, or to hold fast to. We can say that we are to hold fast to God in prayer in response to his holding fast to us. He preserves us and we persevere in response. And one way in which we persevere is by supplication. “Men ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). We must not give up in our prayers.
George Mueller prayed for 54 years for the conversion of two friends. When he was asked by her persevered so, he replied that God had put it on his heart, and so he prayed accordingly. Shortly after his death, God honoured his persistence and both friends were saved.
How do we persist in prayer? That is, what will help us in addition to exhortation? Let me make a couple of suggestions.
One idea is to keep a prayer journal. George Mueller, who is admired the world over for his commitment to prayer, kept one. After he died, someone calculated that he recorded some fifty thousand answers to prayer in it. I have no doubt that he at times felt that God was not hearing his prayers. Yet his journal would have served to encourage him that God, indeed, answers prayer—and consequently kept him praying.
Reading (primarily) Christian biographies, as well as church history, is another method to encourage us to persevere. As we read of God working through the prayers of others, it will encourage us to persevere in prayer ourselves. There are many great biographies that testify to God’s faithfulness in prayer. Find them. Read them.
A third suggestion is to regularly pray with others. Take advantage of the prayer meetings of your church, but also simply invite others to gather with you to pray. Not only will they hold you accountable, but they will doubtless testify to God’s answers to prayer and thereby encourage you.
Along similar lines, share your answers to prayer with others, and invite them to do the same. One of my daughters recently discovered that her wallet had gone missing. As I was preparing this study, I received a message from her that someone had found and returned it. “Praise the Lord for answered prayer,” she added. I was encouraged to pray more—and to pray believing.
Another way to remain alert to prayer is by reading and meditating on Scripture—particular sections concerning God’s historical answers to prayer. Lloyd-Jones testified that the book of Acts often served as a tonic to his soul. Read concerning God’s character and promises, and allow Scripture to encourage your perseverance in prayer.
We Are to Be Praying for All Saints
Finally, in vv. 18–20, we read of the need to be praying for all saints: “for all the saints—and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” We will only touch on these verses in this study, and will return to them next time.
Let’s listen to what God is saying to us here.
If it is true that Ephesians was a circular letter, then Paul was exhorting his readers to pray for all their fellow church members. But he may also have had in mind all the Christians they knew—regardless of where they were. Certainly, he was not suggesting that they must pray by name for every Christian everywhere. But he was emphasising that Christians are to pray for Christians. Perhaps MacArthur is right: “The greatest thing we can do for another believer, or that he can do for us, is to pray.”
The theme of this letter is the glorious body of Christ. A major theme is the display of loving unity to the glory of God—and this before the powers of darkness (3:10). The church is in the middle of a cosmic war. It has been ever since the fall and redemption of the first sinners.
In the case of the initial recipients of this letter, the formation of the church consisting of diverse cultural backgrounds was an amazing feat in human history. Paul called it a “mystery” (3:1, 3, 4, 8, 9, 14). And though this loving, caring, sharing, edifying unity is no mystery to the Christian, it still puzzles the world.
This unity is under attack, always. And so, we are always to pray, in all ways, with all persistence, for all who are in our church. And for other Christians as well. “The unity of God’s new society, which has been the preoccupation of this whole letter, must be reflected in our prayers” (Stott).
Before we examine what we should be praying for, regarding one another, we need to address the issue of caring enough to actually pray for one another—caring enough for every one another. I would argue that Ephesians 4:11–16 leads us to the conclusion that a major, if the not the major, goal of the church is to so mature that we love each other so much that none are left behind. We must pray for one another so that we would all grow up into the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus was often at prayer. We learn from his example of man’s complete dependence upon God. But we should also learn of his interceding ministry for sinners (see Luke 22:31–32). When we see Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane, we get a glimpse of his love for all whom he came to make saints. As he prayed in the Spirit, he was empowered to go to the cross fully aware of all that he would suffer.
Knowing this, we should be encouraged that our Lord’s present intercessory ministry will be completely effective. And when it comes to this matter of praying always with all prayers and supplications in the Spirit, we need an effective intercessor on our behalf. After all, we often fail at prayer. That is why it is so often exhorted in the Scripture.
If you are convicted about your prayer life, look to Jesus praying, and persevering to, and on, the cross for you. Look at him interceding, right now, for you at the right hand of the Father. Be assured that, because he loved you, giving himself for you, you are accepted in him—when your praying is well and when your praying is not well. This is because you are not saved by your praying. You are saved because of his praying—his praying at all times, for all who are his. Now, that kind of good news should drive us to our knees.