Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Praying in Wartime - Eph 6:18-24

Audio available here (click to stream; right click to download) and on our podcast on iTunes.

On October 22, 1939, seven weeks after World War II started, C. S. Lewis entered the pulpit of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin to deliver one of his greatest addresses which has come to be known as “Learning in Wartime.” Lewis addressed an anxious group of Oxford University students: some wondering if they should abandon their studies to enlist in the military; some afraid they would be drafted into service; and some fearful for their friends and loved ones who were already on the frontlines of battle. Lewis exposed the burning question on all of their hearts: “Why should we—indeed how can we—continue to take an interest in these placid occupations (philosophy, science, history, etc.) when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?” Lewis asked, “Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?” As a veteran of World War I, Lewis did not belittle military service or the noble ideals of nationalistic responsibilities. But as an academic man, neither did Lewis make light of the responsibility of learning. He sought to assure those students that during wartime, as in any other time, there was a rightful place for academic pursuits.

Throughout most of Ephesians 6, Paul has discussed the reality that Christians are engaged in a war with our enemy, the devil. Then he talks about prayer. Like those Oxford students, we might ask, “What’s the use in praying at a time like this when there is a war going on around us?” Who has time to pray when there is a battle raging? Lewis assured his students that there will always be something, if not war then something else, that we might use an excuse for postponing our learning. When it comes to praying, Paul assures the Christian here that it is always going to be war. The spiritual war we find ourselves in is going to continue until Jesus returns. If we say, “How can we pray when we are at war?,” then we will never get around to praying, because we will always be at war with Satan and his forces. Prayer, according to our text, is not a distraction from the battle, but is a part of the battle. Prayer is one of the armaments we have been given for the battle. It is included in the list of divine provisions for war together with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Prayer is our lifeline of communication with the Commander, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will lead us into victory. One of the enemy’s tactics is to cut off that line of communication so that we will be spiritually isolated on the battlefield. So if we forsake prayer for the sake of the battle, we are letting the enemy win. We do not pray instead of fighting, we fight by praying. As Sinclair Ferguson says, “No stronghold of Satan is safe from the remotest saint who knows what it is to pray!” Prayer is essential to our battle with the spiritual forces of evil, and without it, we will fall on the frontlines. So then, how do we pray in wartime? We might ask, how do we pray any time, but it is the same question. We are always at war, and always in need of prayer. So how do we do it? This passage offers some guidelines for effective praying in wartime. In fact, verses 18-20 are one long sentence which Ferguson has called, “perhaps Scripture’s most comprehensive single sentence on how we are to pray.” Therefore we must ask, “How then shall we pray while we are at war?” We find 8 answers to that question in these verses (This may be the first, and you may pray that is the last, time I have ever preached a 8 point sermon).

1. Pray “with all prayer and petition.” (v18)
This means that our prayer life should not be lopsided, as if we are just coming to God to ask for things we want. There is biblical warrant for doing that, even as we are told here to pray “with … petition.” Petitionary prayer is presenting our requests to God for ourselves and for others. So we need to do that, and we are welcome to do that. The Bible is filled with amazing promises about God meeting our needs through prayer. We even find in James 4:2 the assurance that we have not because we ask not. This is true for so many of our needs and desires. But it is perhaps more often the case that many Christians have never matured in the faith beyond simply making requests to God. All of us have a friend or relative, I suppose, who we never hear from unless they need something. And we know how annoying that can be. We love that person, we want to hear from them in good times and in bad times. We want to hear about the joys of their life, not just their needs, though we do want to know about their needs as well. We do not want to be that person in prayer. God loves us and wants to communicate with us in prayer beyond just hearing what we want or need. But He does want us to tell Him that too. It is a marvel of prayer that God already knows what we need and what we want before we tell Him, but He invites us to speak it in prayer, and to be a partaker of the process by which He meets our needs in His grace.

Yet the words, “All prayer,” here indicate that there is more to prayer than this. There is the worshipful aspect of prayer, by which we speak to God concerning our love for Him in light of His glorious attributes – who He is in His very nature. As we pray, we praise Him for His glory, His power, His knowledge, His presence, His sovereignty, His grace, and so on. Also prayer encompasses our confession and repentance, as we ask God to forgive our sins and empower us to overcome our daily temptations. We also have need of seeking the convicting work of the Spirit to point out our sins and their gravity so we can confess and repent of them. We have many biblical assurances that if we ask forgiveness on the basis of what Christ has done for us on the cross, that we will receive it. Then there is the aspect of thanksgiving, by which we express our gratitude for God for what He has done. This ranges from the chief gift He has given us of salvation in and through His Son, our Lord Jesus, to the specific gifts He has given to us, and the specific ways He has answered our prayers for ourselves and others. So, a balanced prayer life of “all prayer and petition” may be developed through the use of the well-known acrostic “ACTS”: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Supplication is a synonym in this context for petition, asking God to supply our needs and those of others. By using a guide like “ACTS” or something similar, we will find our prayer lives deepening beyond the monolithic approach of presenting God with a daily wish-list. We will pray “with all prayer and petition.”

2. Pray “at all times.” (v18)
All of us would readily admit that we can and should pray more than we do. I don’t know of a single Christian who would say, “Yes, I think I spend enough time in prayer.” If we think prayer is merely something we do on bended knee with closed eyes and a bowed head, perhaps with folded hands, then indeed, we do not spend enough time in prayer. In fact, we may even argue that we do not have sufficient time in our lives for much of that kind of praying. That may be debatable, as we probably all have more time than we realize. As Bill Hybles entitled his great book on prayer, some of us are “Too Busy Not To Pray.” The hectic pace of our lives actually necessitates that we spend MORE time in prayer, not less. But God is not merely concerned with the position we are in as we pray. It is the posture of the heart, not the body, that is most important. There is a need to come aside alone for that prolonged period of private prayer, but this is not what Paul has in mind when he says to “pray at all times.” We would have to completely withdraw from the world into a monastic isolation in order to pray like this at all times, but even that would prove insufficient. After all, monks and nuns do more in their convents and monasteries besides praying; and if we withdraw from the world, how can we make disciples in the world?

So how can we pray at all times? Is it possible to do as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, to “pray without ceasing”? The answer is Yes! The Bible does not command us to do the impossible, and since we are repeatedly admonished to engage in perpetual prayer, it must be possible. But how? First is by rethinking what we mean by prayer. Prayer cannot be done at all times if it is only done alone on our knees with our eyes closed. Rather, we must learn that we live all of our lives in the presence of God, coram Deo, as Calvin described it, which literally means “in the face of God.” He is always present with us. He is there in every conversation we have and in every moment of silence we have. So the idea must be that we have to “keep the conversation going” with Him throughout the day. Saying “Amen” at the end of a prayer does not mean that we have stopped communicating with Him. We can pray while we are driving (with our eyes open of course!). You can pray while you are engaged in other tasks. You can pray whenever you see or hear a need. We simply have to reckon in our minds that our prayers are never ending. Every word we speak (silently or aloud) is spoken in the hearing of God, and can be directed to Him in an attitude of prayer. I was most helped in this understanding of prayer by the late Dr. Adrian Rogers, who once said, “I rarely spend hours in prayer, but I never go hours without prayer.”

3. Pray “in the Spirit” (v18)
There is much confusion among Christians over this phrase. You will encounter many well-intentioned brothers and sisters in the faith who are genuinely born-again and who truly love Jesus and believe the Bible who insist that this means that we must all pray in unknown tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul talks about praying in tongues, but he does not call it “praying in the Spirit.” In fact, he does not even recommend the practice, but rather says that it is unfruitful because he is not engaging his mind in prayer. He says that when he prays, he will pray with his spirit and with his mind. In Revelation 1:10, John says he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day. Does that mean that he spoke all day in tongues? If it does, then it is interesting that nothing in the context indicates that is what he meant. In fact, as he records the words that he both said and heard on that day, he records them in the language that all of his readers can understand. So, when Paul says to pray “in the Spirit,” this cannot be a reference to praying in an unknown tongue.

To pray in the Spirit means to allow the Spirit to control our prayer lives. Going back to Ephesians 5:18, where we were commanded to be filled with the Spirit, we understand from that text and its surrounding context that being Spirit-filled means to be under the Spirit’s controlling influence. As we pray, we are submitting our minds, our thoughts, our wills and our desires to Him, and allowing Him to shape them according to His perfect will. Have you ever been praying for one thing, and as you pray about it, you begin to see it in a different perspective and suddenly begin to change how you are praying about it? That may very well be the result of the Spirit shaping your prayers. This is why we often say that prayer does not change God or His will, but it changes us as we pray. And because He does this in us as we pray, we need to fear if we do not know how to pray. Romans 8:26 gives us a precious promise: “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” So we don’t wait until we know how to pray or what to pray for before we start praying. We just go to the Lord in prayer with our burdens and allow the Spirit to shape us, and thereby to shape our prayers and our concerns, our thoughts and our desires, our wills even, as we pray. Praying is like playing golf. You don’t learn to do it by reading books on it or watching someone else do it. You learn by doing it. You learn to pray by praying, if you pray in the Spirit, under His control, allowing Him to shape your prayers as you pray, as He intercedes for us in our weakness.

4. Pray “on the alert with all perseverance”. (v18)
We discover what we need to pray for, what we need to praise God and thank Him for, what we need to confess and forsake in prayer, by being alert. If we are spiritually on guard, we begin to see things from a theological vantage point. I don’t like to use myself as an example in prayer, except maybe how NOT to be, but I noticed God sharpening my alertness just last week. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning one day, and didn’t fall right back to sleep, so I checked the news. An earthquake had just struck Chile. Immediately I was aware that I had been awakened in order to intercede for those people in prayer. I began praying – I even fell asleep while I was praying, but I was praying for Chile. When I woke up again a little later, I saw where there were Tsunami warnings all over the Pacific. In my mind I thought back to the Tsunami that hit Indonesia and surrounding areas about 5 years ago, and all I could think about was how many people died without Christ in that tragedy. So I began praying about those Tsunamis, and I was on Facebook and Twitter saying (some of you saw this), “PRAY for these Tsunamis!” And because we were alert to see these things, not just as news flashes but as a call to prayer, very little damage came about because of Tsunamis. I don’t take any credit for that. I am sure that God had people all over the world praying about those things. You might say, “How do you know that the Tsunamis wouldn’t have been weakened anyway, even if you didn’t pray?” I can only say, “I am glad we didn’t have to find out.” I know this, we prayed, and the waves were relatively harmless. My point is that when we pray on alert, we don’t just watch the news or read the paper. We don’t just overhear information or see things as sporadic events. We see them from a cosmic perspective and realize that it is time to pray! You see the struggles that your friends and loved ones are going through and you pray! You see the things that happen to you as a part of the spiritual warfare going on around you and you pray! You see a car accident on the side of the road, and you begin to think about the spiritual condition of the people who were involved in that accident, and you pray! You are praying on alert, and you are no longer a spectator of world affairs or an observer of the lives around you. You are a participant in these things because you take them to the Lord in prayer as they happen. And this is something in which we must persevere! We can never “clock-out” – we have to live all of life on this alert, and not grow weary. Rather we are energized by seeing ourselves as combatants in a cosmic conflict and we are wrestling for the lives and souls of men and women and children. If we become dull to this, or weary of it, we are losing ground to the enemy. We must be alert and we must persevere in prayer.

5. Pray “for all the saints” (v18)
The Bible uses the term to refer to every Christian. If you have been born-again through faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you are a saint. God has declared you to be holy, and made you holy through His justifying work of imputing the righteousness of Christ to your lives. So, every true Christian is a saint, and every saint needs prayer. This means that our prayers must not be limited to just ourselves, our families, friends, and fellow church members. Our prayers are not limited to only the sick and afflicted, but every Christian stands in the need of prayer. That includes those whom you know and those whom you don’t know. We can estimate approximately 1.4 billion people in the world who claim to be Christians. About 600 million claim to be evangelical Christians. Obviously we aren’t going to pray for them all by name! But, what Paul means here is that whenever a brother or sister in Christ comes to mind, we should pray for them. Whenever we see news from another part of the country or the world, we should pray for the believers there. We should pray for those who are being persecuted and those who are prospering. Basically, we don’t want our prayers to be limited to a very small circle of personal acquaintances. We have a responsibility to pray for all believers as we have opportunity. There isn’t a single Christian in the world who doesn’t need prayer at any given time. Each one is caught up in the battle, and we fight for them on our knees in prayer.

6. Pray for particular individuals (v19-20, “pray on my behalf”)
There is a general aspect to prayer in which we pray for one another without necessarily knowing the specific circumstances a person is in. But then there are times when we know the circumstances, and in those cases, we are called to specific prayer for them in light of their circumstances. Using Paul as a case study here, we can see two particular occasions for such specific prayer. He says that he is “an ambassador in chains.” Paul is referring here the fact that he was in prison, and we may even say that he was on “death row.” He needs prayer! This reminds us to pray for our brothers and sisters whom we know are in stressful circumstances. That may be a situation of persecution, like Paul, or other hardship, like sickness, personal turmoil, or any other crisis or hardship. When we know of the struggles of our spiritual siblings, we are to lift them up in prayer!

But then we are also to pray for those in strategic circumstances – those who are on the frontlines of the spiritual battle. Paul speaks of needing prayer for his work of making the gospel known. You have to understand that Satan hates people who share their faith with a fiery passion. He has a grip on the lives of those who are lost, and when we embark on a rescue mission to liberate them by the power of the Gospel, he works overtime to stop us. So we need to pray for those who are sharing the message of Christ with the lost. This certainly applies to pastors, evangelists, and missionaries, but it also applies to the rest of us as well. We have all been commissioned and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s witnesses. All of us know people who need Jesus, and God has sovereignly chosen us to make Him known to them. We need to make a regular habit of asking others to pray for us concerning our witness to particular individuals. We need to be willing to say in our prayer meetings and Sunday School classes, “Hey, pray for me. I’m trying to witness to my friend, my coworker, my family member, etc.” And when we know that someone is engaged in the witnessing task, we need to be faithful to lift that brother or sister up in prayer. Tim Myers preached for you last Sunday here, and on Tuesday he called me to say, “Hey brother, next Saturday (that’s yesterday), I am going to be preaching a funeral for a close relative, and there will be some people there who need Jesus. Pray for me as I preach that message.” And I prayed for him throughout the week. And I’m still praying for those who heard his message yesterday.

And how do we pray for those on the frontlines of the battle who are taking the gospel to the lost? We pray for their message – Paul says, “pray … that utterance may be given to me … to make known … the mystery of the gospel.” He wants the Holy Spirit to supply him with the words to say – the message that will break the darkness and flood the lost sinner’s heart with the light of Christ. And Jesus has promised us that He will do this for us. In Mark 13:11, Jesus said, “When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.” And if the Holy Spirit will supply the words in those desperate situations, He will surely do it at other times as well. So we should study, we should know the Scriptures, and the basics of the gospel message, but we must also pray and rely upon the power of the Spirit to supply the message in the moment of our witness.

Then he also says to pray for the opportunity. “Pray on my behalf,” he says, “… in the opening of my mouth ….” There is one thing standing in the way of us sharing Jesus with another person: our lips. Paul says “pray for me, that I will open mine.” We need to pray for each other to be ready, willing, and able to open our mouths and speak God’s truth in a loving way to those who need to hear it. We all have opportunities every day to do that. We need to pray for ourselves and for each other to make the most of those opportunities.

Then he says to pray for the manner in which he will speak. He says twice that he needs prayer to be bold (vv19, 20). Now, we have to understand there’s a difference between being bold and being obnoxious. He isn’t saying, “Pray for me to be a big jerk.” I, for one, need no help from God in that department, because I can do it perfectly well on my own. But we do need prayer for a holy boldness to speak up and speak clearly when the opportunity arises. The word Paul uses here is used elsewhere to refer to speaking plainly, openly, publicly, and confidently. The idea here is the same as Paul says in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” We ought to have confidence in our message that enables us to speak it plainly, without mixing words, softening the blow, or watering it down. Know this – there is no way to share the gospel without risking offense. It is an offensive message. It says, “Enter heaven with Christ or enter hell without Him.” Though we may not use those words, the message is the same. If our message doesn’t boil down to that potentially offensive reality, then we go the message wrong. We don’t set out to offend, but we know that if we share this message accurately, offense may happen. But here’s what we have to remember: the lost are already condemned in their unbelief. Jesus said that in John 3:18. They are not going to a worse hell because they are lost AND offended. It is not loving to try to keep from offending someone. The loving thing to do is risk the offense and speak the message plainly, openly, confidently, yes, even boldly in order that they might be saved. But everything in our human nature bucks against this, doesn’t it? That’s why we need to pray for boldness for ourselves and our fellow Christians. Lord, make us bold in the power of the Holy Spirit for Jesus!

7. Pray with information and encouragement (vv21-22)
We all have something like a “prayer list,” a list of names of people that we pray for, or sometimes that we know we should pray for but may not get around to. What I have found in my own prayer life is that I pray more faithfully for people when I know what is going on with them. Paul understood this, and that’s why he sent Tychicus to Ephesus. He is asking them to pray for him, and certainly they had been before this letter was written, but he says he is sending Tychicus “that you may know about my circumstances, how I am doing,” and “so that you may know about us.” When he comes to the church at Ephesus, he is going to “make everything known to you,” Paul says. He’s going to tell them about the ministry, about the suffering, about the successes and the trials. But he isn’t just spreading gossip – he’s helping the saints know better how to pray.

And he says Tychicus is coming to “comfort your hearts.” The news of how the gospel has advanced, and how God is answering the prayers of the people would be a great encouragement to them. It is always a joy to hear that our prayers have been a part of a work that God has done. In fact, one of the things that keeps us praying is seeing and hearing of the answers to the prayers we have already prayed. When we are comforted by the news of answered prayer, we are encouraged to bring MORE to the throne of grace, because we are assured anew of God’s love and care for us and His attentiveness to our prayers. So, when we pray, we need to expect God to answer, and we need to be attentive to how God is answering. When people tell us about things we have prayed for, we are able to pray further for them with more information, and we are encouraged to pray more fervently for them and others. So, if you’ve been praying for something, and you don’t know how your prayers are working in the situation or that person’s life, ask them; just say: “Hey, I’ve been praying about that thing you mentioned, so how’s it going?” And this should also remind us that we need to send our own Tychicus out – when someone has been praying for us, we need to let them know how we have seen God working through their prayers and in what specific ways we need more prayer.

8. Pray for the blessings of God to be experienced (vv23-24)

It was customary in the ancient world to end a letter with a statement of best wishes for the recipient. But Paul is not the ordinary letter-writer, and this is no ordinary letter. Paul is not throwing coins in a fountain, making empty wishes. Paul transforms this customary well-wishing into a prayer to the God who hears and answers. He knows that these blessings come “from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v23). And he prays for three things in particular that you and I can pray as well for every person we know who knows Jesus.

First he prays for peace. It may seem odd to pray peace upon his friends when he has just told them that they are at war. But that is partly his point. They are at war with Satan and his forces, but there is a peace available to them that is deeper than the war. Because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we are at peace with God. And because of His peace, we can be at peace with one another. And Paul’s prayer is that the Ephesian Christians would experience that peace with God and that peace with each other as a daily part of their lives. That’s our prayer for each other too! We aren’t at war with God! We aren’t at war with each other! There’s a deep sense of peace that we can experience with each other because of the infinite peace God has given us with Himself. Know that, and live in it.

Then he prays for “love with faith.” Is that two things or one? Well the two are so closely intertwined that they are inseparable. Because of our faith in God through Jesus Christ, we know that we are loved, we can experience His love, and share His love with each other. So a deepening faith leads to a deepening of love between us and God and between each other as well. So, experience this love, experience this faith. That’s Paul’s prayer for these saints, and it is our prayer as well.

And then he prays for grace. This entire book has spoken of the gifts of God that are ours because of His grace. We don’t deserve His favor. He gives us things we don’t deserve because He is a God of grace. So, live in His grace, and let it transform your life and your relationship with Him and with each other as a result. Pray that for each other. Pray for each other to experience His peace, to experience His love, an ever deepening love and an ever deepening faith, and to experience His grace in our lives. We all need those blessings far more than we realize, so pray that for one another and for yourself as well.

Now, that’s a lot of information. An 8 point sermon! Wow. That’s where I would tell my preaching students, “Do as I say, not as I do!” But here’s the thing – we are at war. And a crucial part of our warfare is our praying. We need to be equipped to do it well. We face a terrible enemy, but as William Cowper put it so well in his hymn, “Exhortation to Prayer,”
Restraining prayer, we cease to fight;
Prayer makes the Christian's armour bright;
And Satan trembles when he sees
The weakest saint upon his knees.

So, you may not remember every jot and tittle of this very long sermon, but I hope that we will all remember that here in this passage we find a most excellent handbook on praying in wartime, and that we will allow the Spirit of God to use these truths to shape our prayers, to shape our hearts and lives, and to lead us into victory in the battle through Jesus Christ.

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