Praying With Paul
I am beginning a brand-new sermon series called “Praying With Paul.” For the next several months we’re going to focus on an overlooked treasury of spiritual truth—the prayers of the Apostle Paul in his epistles. That is, we’re going to study those places where Paul prays for the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, and so on. Our goal in this series is three-fold:
1) We want to know what Paul said when he prayed.
2) We want to know what God is saying to us through these ancient prayers.
3) We want our own prayers to become closer to these great Bible prayers by Paul.
If you want to learn how to pray, there are two main things you should do. First, you learn to pray by praying. That’s the most basic step. Open your mouth and start talking to God. If you come in Jesus’ name and with a sincere heart, he will not turn you away. Second, you learn to pray by listening to others as they pray. For new Christians, this may be the most important step of all. We tell new believers to get in a group and just listen as others pray. Soon you’ll know how to pray yourself. You learn by doing and you also learn by listening. In this sermon series, we’re going to turn the whole church into one massive small group where we’ll all listen carefully to the prayers of one of the greatest Christians who ever lived. As we listen to his prayers, our own prayers will no doubt be changed.
Many of us have lived too long in spiritual kindergarten when it comes to prayer. Some Christians never get beyond the “bless Aunt Bessie” level of prayer. When they pray, it’s “Bless my children, bless my wife, bless my husband, bless my friends, bless my church, bless the sick, bless the poor, bless the missionaries, and while you’re at it, Lord, bless everyone everywhere.” Now on one level, there is nothing wrong with this sort of prayer if it is offered in sincerity. The blessing of God is a wonderful thing and we ought to ask God to bless others. But there is more to prayer than asking God to bless someone. The prayers of Paul will challenge us to go both broader and deeper when we pray for others.
Since this is an introductory message, I’m not going to deal with one of Paul’s prayers in this sermon. We’ll start that next week. In this message I want to demonstrate the awesome power of praying for others. And when I come to the end, I am going to ask you to pray for me.
Our text is 2 Corinthians 1:8-11. I found this text (or rather, it found me) while the “Bible Bus” was passing through 2 Corinthians several months ago. These four verses describe a terrible experience Paul went through while preaching in the province of Asia (modern-day Turkey). We don’t know the exact nature of the affliction. It might have been extreme opposition from the Jewish leaders in the area. It might have been some sort of serious physical ailment. Whatever it was, the Corinthians knew about it and they understood that Paul thought during his ordeal that he was going to die. He writes to tell of God’s deliverance and to ask them to continue to pray for him.
Three Key Phrases
There are three key phrases that help us unlock the meaning of this text. The first one is found in verse 8 where Paul says, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” The phrase “under great pressure” translates a Greek word that refers to a crushing burden. It pictures a man walking down the road carrying an enormous load that might weigh two or three hundred pounds. It’s far more than the person can bear and each step increases the physical agony. Finally, he drops the load because he can’t go any farther. That’s how Paul felt. The phrase “beyond our ability” heightens the picture by using the Greek word huperbole, from which we get the English word hyperbole, an exaggerated statement. Here it means that the situation had become so desperate that it was “off the charts” altogether. Paul was in a state of utter despair. For once in his life he felt totally hopeless. He concluded that death was imminent.
The second key phrase comes from verse 11 where Paul encourages the Corinthians by saying “as you help us” by your prayers. Those four words are actually one Greek word that is a compound of three shorter Greek words. It is sun (with) plus hupo (under) plus ergon (work). Put it together and it means something like, “working with another under something.” It has the general idea of cooperating together to help someone in need. Go back to the picture of the man with the crushing load. That’s Paul in the province of Asia. He says that the Corinthians by their prayers got “under” the burden, and working together with each other and with the Lord, by their prayers, they “lifted” the burden from Paul. Their prayers literally saved Paul’s life.
The third phrase tells us the result: “many will give thanks.” That’s clear enough as it stands, but there is a Greek word left untranslated in our English versions. It’s a word that normally means “face” or “faces.” It’s used eight times in 2 Corinthians and in every other case refers to the literal face. I think that’s the meaning here. You could say, “Many faces will give thanks.” Picture a sea of happy faces in the church at Corinth when they hear the glad news that Paul is doing better and their prayers are answered. Many faces are lifted up to God in thanksgiving and praise for the gift of answered prayer.
Trusting in the Lord Alone
Thus we see in this passage how prayer works. First, there is a desperate need (v. 8), which leads Paul to conclude that he is under a sort of “death sentence” (v. 9). The phrase means that Paul’s condition (either physically or emotionally or externally) had deteriorated so badly that he came to the conclusion that death was knocking at his door. But God gave him a divine deliverance (vv. 9b-10). Note that Paul says, “But this happened” in verse 9. Those three words unlock a world of spiritual truth. When tragedy strikes or when hard times come or when friends turn against us or when the bottom drops out of life, we wonder why things happen the way they do. Here we find one important explanation. Hard times come to teach us not to trust in ourselves but only in the Lord who raises the dead. Most of us are adept at handling the “moderate” problems of life. We can deal with cranky children or a cranky boss or a bad case of the flu or a pile of work that gets dumped on our desk. We understand normal pressures and we learn how to deal with them. But sometimes things happen that “strip the gears” of life and force us to our knees and sometimes all the way down so that we are flat on the ground. At that point, when all human options are foreclosed, our only hope is the Lord. When that happens, we cry out to God in desperation, knowing that if he doesn’t help us, we’re sunk. Looking back at his terrible ordeal, Paul understands that it had to happen the way it did, painful though it was, so that he would learn to trust in God alone. We all have to learn the same lesson, and we have to learn it over and over again.
But when God delivers us, two wonderful things happen. First, we come to depend on God to do it over and over again. This is exactly where God wants us—to be in the place of constant dependence on him. Second, a great chorus of thanksgiving arises from those who prayed for us during our time of difficulty. Thus we move from desperation to prayer to praise, and others who prayed for us move with us as God answers our prayers.
The “Line of Prayer”
In his sermon on this text, John Piper talks about the “line of prayer” that starts with Paul and ends with God. What he says makes good sense to me. The “line of prayer” looks like this:
1) Paul is in desperate trouble.
2) Paul asks for prayer.
3) The church prays for him.
4) God delivers him.
5) The church unites in a chorus of thanks to God.
What starts with a desperate, life-threatening situation ends up in a magnificent chorus of praise and thanksgiving from many faces uplifted to the Lord. I like to think of it as a kind of “Prayer Triangle” with God at the top, Paul on one end at the bottom, and the church at the other end on the bottom. The sequence begins with Paul undergoing his terrible ordeal. He then sends a message to the church at Corinth asking his Christian friends to pray for him. The church unites in fervent prayer for their beloved Apostle Paul. Those prayers ascend upward to God who responds by sending the holy angels to provide deliverance for Paul. As he is released from the burden, he sends word back to the church, which leads to a massive, joyful release of praise and thanksgiving that rises up to the Heavenly Father. So it goes like this:
Paul –- Church –- God –- Paul –- Church –- God!
God Glorified by Our Prayers
As I thought about that, a massive truth came home to me that I had never clearly seen before. In fact, it felt as if the Holy Spirit slapped me in the face, so stunning was the revelation. This “line of prayer” leads to a simple yet profound truth: God is greatly glorified when we pray for others. I don’t know why that had never hit me before, but it hadn’t. I’m not sure I had ever thought about praying for others as a means of glorifying God. But I can think of at least five reasons why it must be true. First, God is glorified in our prayers for others because we are responding to needs in a Christlike manner. Second, he is glorified because we are demonstrating that we believe God’s Word about prayer is true. Third, he is glorified by our prayers for others because one part of the body of Christ is moving to meet the needs of another part of the body of Christ. Fourth, our prayers for others glorify God because as we pray, we are partnering with God to further his work in the world. When the puny arm of flesh is linked to the mighty arm of God’s omnipotence, miracles are let loose on the earth. Fifth, God is glorified by the end result as we give thanks to him when the answers come and the needs are met.
This is an ennobling view of intercessory prayer. Sometimes (often, perhaps) we may view such prayer as a burden or even a distraction from the “real work” of life. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our God is greatly honored when we take time to pray for others. By our prayers we help those for whom we pray and we also bring glory to our Heavenly Father.
Two Lessons Regarding Prayer
Let’s wrap up this study with two simple truths about praying for others.
1) Through intercessory prayer we partner with God in helping those in need.
The thought of partnering with God is an exciting concept because it means that when I am on my knees, I can make contact with the most powerful force in the universe. As I pray, my motives are purified, my faith is strengthened, and my heart is focused on eternal things. When I pray, I am in touch with Almighty God himself, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Through my halting words and my stumbling petitions (aided by the Holy Spirit, Romans 8:26-27), I join hands with God to bless others and to advance his cause in the world. By prayer I am knocking holes in the darkness and rolling back Satan’s evil dominion. This is why “the devil trembles when he sees, the weakest saint upon his knees.”
2) Through united prayer, we experience heightened joy as we see our prayers being answered.
This passage brings us face-to-face with a question thoughtful believers sometimes ask. Why does the church emphasize praying together? Isn’t it just as effective for me to pray by myself? Why can’t I pray while I ride my bike and you pray while you drive your car? The answer is, I can and you can, and we should, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. There are at least two things that happen when we pray together that cannot happen when we pray alone. First, when we pray together, our faith is mutually strengthened. If we are in a small group, it is inevitable that some will come with strong faith, others with weak faith, and others somewhere in-between. As we pray, the prayers of one person will spark something in another person so that your faith strengthens me and my faith strengthens you. And we all leave the prayer time with more faith than we had in the beginning. Second, when we pray together, the joy is multiplied when the answers finally come. We’ve all seen this happen, I’m sure. We may be praying for a loved one who is desperately ill and for whom the outlook seems hopeless. But when the doctor says, “I can’t explain it but she is much better today,” word spreads and all those who prayed so long and so hard begin to laugh and cry and hug and high-five each other. Our rejoicing is louder and longer and more public when we have prayed together.
Five Ways to Grow in Prayer This Year
Since our church theme this year is prayer, here are five practical ways you can grow in this area.
1) Every month we’re going to put a “prayer bookmark” in the bulletin. Don’t throw it away. Put it in your Bible to use as a guide in your daily prayer time.
2) Eleven years ago we started the Prayer Warriors ministry. Through the years the number of people involved has fluctuated between 150-225. Being a Prayer Warrior means giving special time to prayer one day each month and also spending time in the Prayer Room on a monthly basis during one of our Sunday worship services. I’m asking God to give us 400 Prayer Warriors before the year is over.
3) Starting this Wednesday night Pastor Davis Duggins will teach an introductory class called Prayer 101. It’s a basic course that will teach you what the Bible says about prayer and will give you an introduction to different types of prayer.
4) Our Men’s Ministry is sponsoring six Prayer Vigils this year. The first one is scheduled for Friday, January 10. This is an excellent opportunity for the men in our congregation to pray together.
5) Finally, we are setting aside a special part of the church lobby for the Prayer Ministry. We’ll be stocking it with literature on prayer and there will also be a box for you to give us your prayer requests. Write down your request, and don’t forget to tell us how God answers your prayers this year. We hope to share many of those stories with the congregation so that there will be many “upturned faces” giving thanks to the Father.
A Better Pastor
Finally, on a personal note, I would like to ask the congregation (and everyone who reads this sermon in print) to pray for me. It occurred to me as I prepared this message that in all the years I have been your pastor (13½ years so far), I have never formally asked for your prayers. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it from time to time but I have never said, “Please pray for me” in a definite way. But I am saying that now. If Paul needed the prayers of God’s people, how much more do I need the prayers of those who look to me for leadership. The needs of the church are enormous, and I feel the weight of it all the time. This is not a complaint because I thank God for the privilege of serving here, but as the years roll on, I am more and more aware of how inadequate I am for the task of leading this flock of God. So I ask you to pray for me. Pray that I will be a faithful man of God, a faithful husband and father, a man committed to holiness with a life reflecting the character of Christ. Pray that I will be a faithful preacher of the Word and that I will do the work of an evangelist, sharing the gospel and winning the lost. I need your prayers so that I might understand God’s vision for this church and share it clearly. Pray that I might have “tenacious, winsome courage” for all that God wants me to do.
In the 8:00 a.m. service I asked the question, “Would you like a better pastor?" A woman spoke out and said, “No!” But I answered my own question. “Yes, I would like our church to have a better pastor this year.” And we can have one if the people will pray for the one they’ve got.
When I preached this on Sunday, I asked the congregation to say a prayer for me every time they enter the sanctuary for a worship service this year. That’s an unusual request that came to me as I was preaching. Yet I believe it is from the Lord. I even said, “Please don’t come in until or unless you have prayed for me.” Without the prayers of the people, how can any pastor lead his congregation?
But I am not the only pastor at Calvary. I ask you to pray for Bob Boerman, Larry Korbus, Davis Duggins, Craig Hammond, Andrew Irvin, and for Cliff Raad, Darin Weil, Lynette Hoy, Mary Gaskill and Howard Duncan. Pray for all our staff members. Pray for our elders and our deacons and deaconesses and for all who serve in leadership.
This year our church is 88 years old. After all these years we have not even scratched the surface of what God could do in Oak Park if our church becomes a praying church. We can’t even imagine what God can do here if we begin to call on him earnestly, fervently, boldly, faithfully, constantly, corporately. May we become a church of prayer filled with men who pray, women who pray, children who pray, students who pray, young adults who pray, and senior adults who pray. I dream of the day when the unchurched drive by and say, “That church is filled with people who pray.” Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.