October 23, 2017

Praying Biblical Prayers

Layton Talbert

[A previous column concluded] with a variety of suggested prayer “exercises”—methods for making our prayers more Scriptural. Why is this necessary? Paul testifies that there are times when “we know not what we should pray for as we ought,” when we are aided by the secret intercessory work of the Spirit of God. It stands to reason, then, that much or most of the time we should know what and how to pray. But that does not mean prayer is intuitive, or that we simply pray according to our whims and wishes. Our fallenness and ignorance and need for biblical instruction affect our praying as much as they do our Bible study or our pursuit of holy living. We require grace and training in our praying as much as in any other area of Christian endeavor. To that end, the Lord has given to us in the Bible not only practical instructions regarding what and how and when to pray, but also personal examples that model what Biblical praying looks and sounds like.

Messiah’s Model Prayer

In response to a specific request from His disciples that we do well to echo (“Lord, teach us to pray,” Luke 11:1), Christ offered a model prayer (Luke 11:2–4; Matt. 6:9–13). Not an “officially sanctioned” formula for rote repetition on liturgical occasions, but an instructive example. “When you pray, say these kinds of things, voice these kinds of priorities, be occupied with these kinds of requests.”

In this most widely known (but by no means the only) instruction our Lord gave regarding prayer, the proportions themselves are suggestive. Out of seven specific requests, only one has to do with temporal needs or material concerns. Does our praying reflect that kind of proportion? A major request is “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” Christ put a very practical edge on the blade of this prayerful practice in the very next point of His teaching, when He exhorts His followers not to worry about the most basic necessities of life—food and clothing—because the Father knows we need these things and He will supply them (Matt. 6:25–32). Instead, Jesus directs our attention to where our prayerful concern ought to concentrate: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these [necessary but lesser] things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).

Do you see the link back to the prayer instruction Jesus gave only a few moments earlier? Seeking God’s kingdom does not mean searching for it (as though it were hidden somewhere), but pursuing it, being preoccupied with its priorities—including in prayer. This is not to say that it is wrong to pray (and pray earnestly) for our material needs. Indeed, we are commanded to do so. But we are equally commanded not to be preoccupied with material needs. Rather than being consumed with the temporal and the material—in life or in prayer—we are to make God’s kingdom and righteousness our central concern, the focus of our prayers and pursuits. What preoccupies our prayers is a good barometer of our personal priorities.

What does this kind of preoccupation look like fleshed out? What does it sound like in prayer? No one exemplifies this more pervasively in the New Testament than the apostle Paul.

Pauline Patterns of Prayer

Have you ever looked at Paul’s epistles as prayer letters? Ever noticed what kinds of things Paul asks believers to pray about for him? Or exactly what he asks God to do for other Christians? The remainder of this column is a study guide, a list (arranged chronologically) of all of Paul’s requests for prayer and Paul’s requests in prayer. The specific prayer requests are summarized below each passage (along with occasional discussion).

Paul’s Requests for Prayer

Beyond a general appeal for the prayers of God’s people (1 Thess. 5:25), Paul made a variety of specific requests.

2 Thessalonians 3:1, 2

  • Ministry of the Word to be unhindered and glorified
  • Ministers of the Word to be unhindered by (delivered from) enemies to the truth

2 Corinthians 1:8–11

  • Successful resolution to ministry-threatening persecution (historical context, Acts 19:23–20:1)

Romans 15:30–32

  • Deliverance from unbelievers in Judea. Was this request answered? After all, he was shortly afterward imprisoned. If Paul could be directed by the Holy Spirit to give a prayer request—for which he himself was also clearly praying (“strive together with me”)— that was not answered, what confidence can we have that our attempts to pray in the will of God will be answered? Paul certainly knew that “bonds and imprisonment” awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). Despite the subsequent imprisonment because of the Jews in Judea, this request was answered on several levels: (1) he was delivered from being beaten to death by the Jews (Acts 21:26–36); (2) he was delivered from being torn apart by the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:30–23:10); (3) he was delivered from their attempt to sway the court and ambush Paul (Acts 23:11–35); (4) he was delivered from them and to Rome (Acts 25); (5) he was ultimately delivered from prison in Rome as well.
  • Reception of gift (i.e., success of Gentile-Jewish solidarity gesture)—answered (Acts 21:15–20a)
  • Arrival in Rome by the will of God (to visit and minister to believers there)—answered, though perhaps not as anticipated (Acts 27–28)
  • Refreshment (in fellowship)—answered (Acts 28:11–16)

Paul’s following requests were made during his Roman imprisonment.

Ephesians 6:18–20

  • Utterance (opportunity for ministry)
  • Boldness (fearlessness, frankness, uninhibited openness of speech)

Colossians 4:2–4

  • Open opportunities for ministry (“door of utterance”)
  • Clarity in ministry

Philemon 22

  • A visit in answer to Philemon’s prayer

Philippians 1:19

  • Deliverance from prison by God’s will (either by death or release)

Measure Paul’s prayer concerns with Jesus’ exhortation regarding kingdom-preoccupation. Then measure your prayers and prayer requests by Paul’s. It’s great to pray over specific temporal needs for people, and great to see God answer those. Like short-term prophecies that are designed, when fulfilled, to strengthen our faith and confidence in larger, long-term prophecies, answered prayer for specific temporal needs is not an end in itself but an encouragement to faith and confidence that our prayers for larger spiritual needs will likewise be fulfilled.

Paul’s Requests in Prayer

General requests are expressed in a number of passages (1 Thess. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:3; Col. 1:3; Philemon 4; 2 Tim. 1:3–5). Specific prayers are outlined below.

1 Thessalonians

  • that we may see you and perfect what is lacking in your faith (3:10)
  • your complete sanctification and preservation of spirit, soul, and body blameless (5:23)

2 Thessalonians

  • that God would count you worthy of this calling, fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness, and fulfill the work of faith with power, that the name of Christ may be glorified, and you in Him, according to the grace of God (1:11)

Romans

  • that I “by some means” may find a way in the will of God to come to you (1:9)
  • my prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved (10:1)

Ephesians

  • 1:15–23, that believers may …
    • have the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him
    • have the eyes of your understanding enlightened
    • know what is the hope of His calling
    • know what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints
    • know what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe
  • 3:14–21, that believers may …
    • be strengthened with might in the inner man through His Spirit
      • that Christ may dwell in your hearts through Faith
    • have power to grasp the boundless love of Christ
      • being rooted and grounded in love
      • that you may be filled with all the fullness of God

Colossians

  • that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding (1:9)
  • that you may have a walk worthy of the Lord (1:10–12)
    • pleasing Him fully
    • being fruitful in every good work
    • increasing in the knowledge of God
    • strengthened with all might by His power
      • for all patience and longsuffering with joy
    • giving thanks to the Father for qualifying us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints

Philippians

  • that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and all discernment (1:9)
  • that you may approve excellent things (1:10)
  • that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ (1:10)
  • that you may be filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Christ, to the glory and praise of God (1:11)

Do we ever think about others this way? Do we even know how to pray this way for others, or for ourselves? The prayers of Paul betray a consistent preoccupation that is spiritually minded, God centered, and kingdom focused. Each prayer is a deep well that warrants thoughtful probing. A final column will explore one or two of these prayers to see how they can and should inform our praying for others, and what kinds of spiritual ambitions should characterize our own prayers for ourselves.


Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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