Eph 6.18-24 Above All Else
Above All Else
Someone once listed what he described as the “Seven Problems of the Church.” They were, in reverse order:
7. The Unconcern for Lost Souls
6. The Uncompassionate Heart
5. The Unrealized Cross of Christ
4. The Unpaid Tithe
3. The Unattended Church
2. The Unread Book
1. The Unbended Knee
Whether or not you agree that “The Unbended Knee” is the number one problem, at least you would have to agree that the lack of prayer makes the list somewhere. The story has been told of a pastor who went to his usual prayer meeting and found no one there. He began tolling the church bell, something normally done only when someone died. Soon a dozen people came running to ask who was dead. "The church," the minister replied, as he slowly continued to pull on the rope.
When we use the phrase “The Unbended Knee” we’re not necessarily saying that the only valid prayer is offered while we are kneeling. Here’s a little poem that illustrates that:
"The proper way for a man to pray," said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
"And the only proper attitude, is down upon his knees."
"No, I should say the way to pray," said Reverend Doctor Wise,
"Is standing up with arms outstretched, and rapt and upturned eyes."
"Oh, no, no, no," said Elder Slow, "Such posture is too proud;
A man should pray with eyes closed and head contritely bowed."
"It seems to be his hands should be austerely clasped in front,
With thumbs pointing at the ground," said Reverend Doctor Blunt.
"Last year I fell in Hodge's Well head first," said Cyrus Brown,
"With both my heels sticking up, my head a-pointing down;
"And I made a prayer then and there; best prayer I ever said,
The prayingest prayer I ever prayed was standing on my head."
Today we conclude our series on Ephesians by focusing on Paul’s encouragement to pray. This would be a good topic to preach on anytime, but we have to look at the context, the verses that come just before this passage. You may remember a few weeks ago that we were talking about putting on the full armor of God, and we looked at the various pieces of equipment. Paul wrote about that in verses 10-17. So when he turns to the subject of prayer immediately after in verse 18, we have to see it as part of his original point. He is telling us to put on the armor of God while we are praying. In fact, the grammar Paul used indicates that verses 17-18 could read “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God) with all prayer and petition. Pray at all times in the Spirit” (Chip Ingram).
It’s not so much that prayer is yet another piece of the equipment. I don’t see it that way at all, which is one reason why we didn’t include it in that particular message. Prayer is more the attitude we are to have while we are putting on the armor. One of our hymns includes the words, “Put on the Gospel armor; each piece put on with prayer.” But I would like to suggest another possibility. I believe that when we equip ourselves for battle, we need to be aware that prayer is the battle! That’s where the battle is fought. Prayer is the battleground—which may be the very reason for the unbended knee in the first place. Take a look at verse 18, where you will find the words “Be alert.” The word means to go without sleep, to be vigilant, the way a soldier who has the night watch is required to be. Our world is in the darkness of night, and we are to be vigilant.
Among the guests at a formal wedding was a little five-year-old girl, sitting quietly with her grandmother. During the ceremony, the minister said, "Let us pray." Everyone bowed his or her head in prayer. The little girl glanced up and around, and noticed every head bowed with eyes turned toward the floor. In a loud whisper she asked, "Grandmother, what are they all looking for?" THAT is a very good question! When we pray—be it in solitude or in public—what are we really looking for? What should we be praying for or about? Paul helps us build our prayer list.
1. Pray about everything, v. 18a
Paul emphasizes that prayer is something that should always be a part of our lives. In fact, in this one verse (18) he uses related words for “all” four times: all occasions, all kinds of prayers, always keep on praying for all the saints. On top of that, prayer is mentioned four times in this same verse.
Understand now what this means. There is nothing which cannot be prayed for. Isn’t that good news? There is no situation when prayer is inappropriate. And not only that: the Scripture says that we are to “pray on all occasions.” In other words, every situation of our lives should draw prayer from us. Every moment, every experience, every sensation, every conversation, every happening is provided for us by our loving Heavenly Father who is in all and above all and controls all. Everything in our lives and in the world around us should prompt us to a deeper, more abiding relationship with God. Every circumstance should pull us in to a richer, more intimate life of prayer.
This is what David did. In Psalm 4, he prayed as he was going to bed. In Psalm 5, he prayed at the beginning of his day. Also in Psalm 5, he remembers all the problems he was encountering, and he prayed. In Psalm 6, he had sinned, and he prayed for forgiveness. In Psalm 7, when he was under attack, he prayed. In Psalm 8, when David was overwhelmed with the wonders of God’s creation, he prayed. He prayed in Psalm 9 when he was happy, and in Psalm 10, when God seemed far away. (Chip Ingram, Invisible War)
We know we should pray about the big things in life. Finding a job, facing surgery, getting through bereavement, hurricanes—we know we should pray about all those things. But this verse also tells us that there is nothing that is too small for our prayers. It reads that we are to pray “with all kinds of prayers and requests.” And yes, there is a difference between the two words. “Prayers” refers to general needs, while the word “requests” refers to more specific issues. So whatever they are, our great God hears our prayers, and invites us to bring our requests before Him. How sad it is, when we have been given authority to bring our requests before God into the very throne room of Heaven, that we are content to play around in the courtyard!
I once attended a Bible study as a young person where the teacher said that we shouldn’t trouble God with small things. As a young believer, and because I respected the opinion and knowledge of that teacher very much, I went along with what she taught for a while, and didn’t bother to pray about the routine things of my life. But then I discovered 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which reads, “Pray continually,” or in the words of the King James, which is where I saw it first, “Pray without ceasing.” So how could I pray continually if I only prayed about the big things? My life had a lot of little things going on in it—and still does. And since I am so small, and God is so big, wouldn’t everything in my life be considered a small thing, compared to Him?
A group of ministers had met together to study Ephesians 6, and they had just come to verse 18. A maid brought in coffee for the men, and one of them turned to her. He asked her what she thought this verse meant. She said, “Why, that's exactly what I do every day. When I wash, I think of my sins being washed away. When I light the fire, I think of the bright light that I should be for the Lord Jesus. When I wash the dishes, I think of the kind of utensil I should be for the Lord.” The ministers probably learned more about praying that day than they ever did in all their theological training.
James 5:13 asks, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.” Then we read in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Colossians 4:2 tells us “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” The Bible makes it very clear that there is no concern too small for our Heavenly Father to hear our voices lifted in prayer. In fact, it very plainly says that we are to “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 4:7).
Here is a very simple prayer that illustrates how God cares about everything in our lives: “I want to thank you, Lord, for being close to me so far this day. With your help, I haven’t been impatient, lost my temper, been grumpy, judgmental or envious of anyone. But in a minute, I am going to be getting out of bed, and I will really need your help then. Amen.” There is nothing too large or too small for your Heavenly Father to care about. We have very good biblical authority to believe that if it concerns us, it concerns Him. We are to pray about everything.
2. Pray for other Christians, v. 18b
Next Paul tells us that we are to “always keep on praying for all the saints.” What did that mean to those who first read this letter? They knew very few other believers. They didn’t have the ways of staying in touch and being informed that we do in our day. They read letters that Paul circulated around among the churches, and perhaps there were others who wrote letters, and they learned from visitors how other believers were doing in other places. And that was pretty much it. Yet Paul told them, “always keep on praying for all the saints.”
We have access to much more information in our day. There is never a shortage of things to pray for, and people to pray about. Just taking our own prayer list in hand and praying over them will occupy many minutes. But when we consider that the names on this list represent a miniscule portion of God’s Kingdom, we begin to understand that there are Christians in other places who are in need of our prayers. Christians and non-Christians alike are still reeling from the effects of Katrina, not to mention Gustav, and Hannah, and now Ike. There are Christians who are in positions of leadership, such as in government. There are Christians who are athletes and actors and politicians and teachers and coaches and attorneys and judges—each of them with a unique set of needs and opportunities.
There are Christians with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds who need our prayers. There are missionaries and pastors and doctors and nurses who need our prayers. There are sick people and poor people, and there are many rich people who need our prayers. There are lonely Christians and new Christians; there are old Christians and young Christians for whom we should pray. There are Christians in prison who need our prayers. This week’s Baptist Record carried stories of Christians who are being killed in India by mobs just because they are Christians. Christians in China may have totally different needs than do Christians in Mexico. The list goes on and on.
Southern Baptists support 4,946 missionaries around the world. Need someone to pray for? Pick one of them. Those missionaries are in 153 countries. Pick one of them. The money we give results in a half-million new believers outside of North America every year. Pick one of them. Because of our gifts through the Cooperative Program our North American Mission Board supports 5,081 missionaries who last year started over 1,700 new churches. Pick one of them. More than 400,000 people became new believers last year as a result. Pick one of them to pray for.
We obviously cannot pray for all of them by name, so we have to pray generally. But we do have occasion when we know a few more details, and in those cases, we should pray more specifically. Besides the people whose names appear on our prayer list, here are examples of people who need our prayers. I met all of these just yesterday. One was a mother from Baton Rouge, who has not been able to return to her home yet after Hurricane Gustav. She has no idea what she will find when she goes home. Her 20-year-old son is in prison, and she had just come from visiting him. She feels that her world has caved in.
The next one was Jack Oyler. Jack is 57-years-old, and he and his wife Penny have been missionaries in the Amazon Rain Forest for ten years, but are now on furlough for a few months. They go into the cities and find kids who have been out on the streets, some of them since they were two years old, and bring them out into the jungle to a camp. They try to get the kids out away from the drug culture of the streets, get them cleaned up, and introduce them to Christ. Jack’s mission board pays them a salary, but Jack and Penny spend it all on the kids. I told Jack that I was going to be preaching on Paul’s phrase “pray for all the saints,” and asked him what was the one area where they needed prayer the most. His eyes filled with tears as he said, “Pray that I will have the wisdom to know how to make the most of the very limited resources I have to reach those kids and make a difference in their lives.”
The third person I met is named Ronnie Irwin. Ronnie leaves next Saturday for Officer Training to be a Chaplain in the U.S. Army. He’ll be there for three months before accepting his next assignment. His wife Kelly and their two children will not be going with him for the first three months. When I told Ronnie about my sermon this morning, his prayer request was for his wife and kids while he was gone. Of course, he needs prayer himself, along with all the other chaplains who serve in our military and every other member of our armed forces.
Or there was the young lady who very carefully took several minutes to find just the right book to send to a friend of hers in Texas. She really struggled over her choice. She finally picked a couple of books, and made her way to make her purchase. As she was leaving, I happened to be near the door, and I asked if she found what she was looking for. She turned back and said with great enthusiasm, “Yes, I found just the right thing! She is so close to becoming a believer, and this may help!” She turned to walk out the doors, and I thought to myself, “That’s what it’s about!” So pray for that young lady and for her friend out in Texas who is so close to accepting Christ as Lord of her life.
When Paul wrote, “always keep on praying for all the saints” he had no idea how the world would develop and the access to so much information we would have. If we do not pray for other Christians it is not for lack of information about them or the things they face.
3. Pray for those who proclaim the Gospel, vv. 19-20
Paul began this letter to the Ephesians by telling them that he was praying for them. In 1:16, he told them, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” His prayers consisted of two primary requests: “I keep asking,” he wrote, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (1:17). His second petition on their behalf went like this: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (1:18-19a). Those were his prayers for them.
But now as he completes the letter, Paul asks them to pray for him. So what kind of prayer request would the Apostle Paul have? “Pray for me,” he asked, “that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make know the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”
Paul asked them to pray for him. Dare I compare myself to the Apostle Paul? Dare I put myself in the same category? If I am to make faithful application of this passage, I must do just that. It is vitally important that Christians pray for their pastors, their deacons, and other spiritual leaders.
Gardiner Spring once wrote about the importance of the congregation praying for their pastor: “If people are looking for rich sermons from their minister, their prayers must supply him with the needed material. If they expect powerful and successful sermons, their prayers must make him a blessing to the souls of men! … It is in their own closets that the people of God most effectively challenge their beloved ministers to take heed to the ministry which they have received from the Lord Jesus. It is at a fearful expense that ministers are ever allowed to enter the pulpit without being preceded, accompanied, and followed by the earnest prayers of the churches. It is no marvel that the pulpit is so powerless, and ministers so often disheartened when there are so few to hold up their hands. The consequences of neglecting this duty is seen and felt in the everlasting perdition of men; while the consequences regarding it would be the ingathering of multitudes into the kingdom of God, and new glories to the Lamb that was slain.”
Cynthia Heald is an author and conference speaker. She writes about the importance of having others pray for us. “One day I was feeling somewhat depressed. I prayed and asked the Lord what the cause might be, but I did not receive a specific answer. A little while later, the sadness lifted and I asked the Lord, ‘What happened?’ Immediately, in my heart, I heard this thought: Someone just prayed for you.”
People, I need you to pray for me. It’s not that I have any more problems than you do, or that I am more important than you are. But the Bible lays it out very clearly for us, that we are to pray for our spiritual leaders. I am the only person on the face of the earth who has the responsibility of hearing and preparing a message from God for this congregation, for whoever decides there’s going to attend Worship or Bible Study any particular week. If the message is indeed from God, then there are dozens and dozens of us who seem to believe that God does not speak to us on Sunday evenings, or Wednesday nights. Pray that I will not be discouraged when that happens.
Pray that my own relationship with God will grow and deepen. Pray that I will have more and more of a hunger for God’s Word, that my own prayer life will become more intimate with my Savior. Pray that God would enable me to develop a holy hatred of anything sinful in my life, and that I will be able to stand strong against temptations. When you approach the throne of God on my behalf, ask the Father to help me to hear more clearly the messages He would have preached here, and that I may do it boldly, without fear. That’s what Paul, of all people, was asking for in their prayers.
Pray that my ministry will flourish, that God would grant me wisdom and insight. Pray that I would have a stronger, closer, more harmonious relationship with the leadership of our church. Pray that I would always be Christlike in my dealings with others, and if I fail at any given point, pray that I would be quick to confess my sins and be restored. Pray that my marriage will be stronger, and by this time next year, stronger still. Brothers and sisters in Christ, I ask that you pray for me.
4. Pray intelligently, vv. 21-22
In verses 21-22, Paul moves into his final greetings just before he ends the letter. But he’s still on the subject. He may not mention prayer here, but following as closely as it does to his request for prayer, it follows naturally that the subject is still very much on his mind. He writes, “Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you may also know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you.”
Paul has just asked them to pray for him, then he says, in essence, I want to make sure that if you’re going to pray for me, that you know what to pray about. You’ve got to be informed if you are going to offer up prayers on my behalf. This is what we might call “praying intelligently.” There would be a world of difference between a prayer that says, “Lord, please bless Paul,” and one that lifted up specific petitions regarding the things that Paul was facing. The same thing applies to our prayers today. We can pray weak, pathetic, scrawny, feeble vanilla prayers that say, “Lord, please bless Old Joe,” or we can pray “Lord, my brother Joe is facing some real problems with his health right now. Hold him close and let him know that you are in charge of the situation he’s facing.” It’s a very small example, but do you see the difference?
It takes more work to pray like this. Praying intelligently means that I invest the time to discover what the needs are, and if I do not know them, that my prayers nevertheless are more specific, focused and strategic. Think about the analogy Paul has drawn for us of the soldier putting on his armor. Think of soldiers on the battlefield in modern times. The battle is thick and hot, and reinforcements are needed. Do they say, “Hey, we need a little help out here. Send us a few guys with pistols”? No, they ask for what they need, specifically. We can do the same thing for ourselves, and we can do the same thing for others, with full faith that God hears our prayers and will give us what we ask.
Praying intelligently means that we pray for specific people, with their particular problems and needs. It means that we dare to take Jesus at His word when He said “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13).
John Broadus was a professor at our seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in the late 19th century. He preached about prayer, asking a very important question: “My hearers why do you not all pray? God knows whether you do or not, and you know. Are you afraid to pray? Well, a man might be, when he thinks of all his sinfulness, when he remembers all the wicked things that he has done that men know of, and all the wicked things he has thought that men know not of, but God must know; when he sees he has not half confidence in the God he thinks of praying to. But there is a name we may plead; there is an intercessor we may lean on; there is a Holy Spirit to help our infirmities in praying. O! sinful and troubled soul of man, you need not be afraid to pray! If you come in the name of Jesus Christ, you may come boldly to the throne of grace. If you come leaning on the Spirit’s help, you may come assured that your request will be granted.”
Our enemy Satan won’t like it when you are kind to others, or when you decide to read your Bible or when you attend worship or Bible study. But he trembles—the very foundations of hell shake—when a Christian prays. Above all else, prayer is something in which every believer should be engaged. Why do we not all pray?
Like the minister in the wedding, I ask that we pray. Like the little girl, I ask “What are we looking for?”
09.07.08, AM--Bethlehem Baptist Church, Benton, Mississippi