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More Reflections on the Necessity and Power of Prayer

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A while back I wrote an article about ten things all of us should know about the necessity of prayer. Here I want to follow up with some observations on a few relevant biblical texts. Continue reading . . . 

A while back I wrote an article about ten things all of us should know about the necessity of prayer. Here I want to follow up with some observations on a few relevant biblical texts.

Look with me at what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, but especially v. 11.

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).

Paul has confidently declared that the God who already delivered him from a life-threatening affliction would do so yet again (v. 10). God’s purpose in Paul’s suffering had worked: he no longer looked to himself but now trusted wholly in the “God who raises the dead” (v. 9).

I can just hear some conclude from this: “Well, what then is the point of prayer? If Paul is so confident that God ‘will deliver’ (v. 10) him, it matters little, if at all, whether or not the Corinthians pray. God’s going to do what God’s going to do irrespective of their prayers for Paul or, conversely, their indifference toward him. Whatever will be, will be.”

That may well be your conclusion but I assure you it wasn’t Paul’s! No sooner has he spoken with assurance of God’s gracious intentions toward him than he enlists the intercessory prayers of the Corinthians on his behalf. What is it that Paul asks them to ask God? Undoubtedly he encourages them to ask God to do what God has declared is his desire and character to do! Does that sound odd? Perhaps, but there it is in black and white.

God will deliver us, says Paul (v. 10a). We have put our hope in him “that he will deliver us again” (v. 10b). Therefore, based on this assurance, flowing out of this confidence, we beseech you Corinthians to “help us” (v. 11a) by praying for our welfare. Verse 11 reads as follows:

“You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks [to God] on our behalf for the blessing granted us [by God] through the prayers of many” (v. 11).

It has been argued that the opening line of v. 11 should be rendered with a conditional force: "If you help us by your prayers," or “Provided that you, for your part, help us by interceding on our behalf.” If we follow this suggestion, and I think we should, it would serve to reinforce the emphasis Paul consistently places on prayer as a contributing factor to the success of his ministry (see below on Philemon 22; Phil. 1:19; Rom. 15:30-32).

His desire was that news of his rescue from death be the impetus for the saints in Corinth to join together in prayer on his behalf, in response to which he hoped God would deliver him yet again should similar perilous circumstances arise. If a “blessing” (ESV) or “favor” (NAS) was to be granted Paul, if his ministry was to continue with success, these believers must intercede on his behalf. And not only would he prosper as a result, God also would be glorified by the many thanksgivings that were uttered for the blessings he bestowed on Paul through prayer.

Do you see how prayer is always a win for all concerned? Look at the dynamics of intercession, how it works for the benefit of everyone involved:

The ones who pray (in this case, the Corinthians) experience the joy of being an instrument in the fulfillment of God’s purposes and delight in beholding how God works in response to their intercessory pleas (cf. Romans 10:14-15).

The one who is prayed for (in this case, the apostle Paul) experiences the joy of being delivered from peril or sustained in trial or being made the recipient of some otherwise unattainable blessing.

The one to whom prayer is offered (in every case, God) experiences the joy of being thanked, and thus glorified, for having intervened in a way that only God can in order to bless or deliver or save his people.

Thus what we read here in 2 Corinthians 1:11 is similar to the emphasis found elsewhere in Paul’s writings. On two occasions he indicated that whether or not he was released from prison may well be dependent on prayer. Although the power to set him free appeared to rest with the civil authorities, they were but instruments used of God to accomplish his purpose in Paul’s life (cf. Prov. 21:1), a purpose God had determined to fulfill by means of prayer offered on Paul’s behalf by the saints.

In his letter to Philemon, Paul wrote, “at the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you” (v. 22). The word here translated “given” means “to graciously grant a favor”. Combined with the fact that it is passive in voice indicates that Paul envisioned his physical welfare and eventual whereabouts to be ultimately in the hands of God. And it is God, Paul hoped, who had determined to act in response to the petitions of his people, specifically Philemon and his household, to secure his release.

Paul was uncertain of the outcome. He hoped to be set free, but knew that it rested with God. The civil authorities in this case were mere intermediaries who could be moved to do God’s bidding in response to the petitions of God’s people. Is it too much to say that without their prayers, Paul had no hope? Is it too much to say that had Philemon and his family not prayed that Paul may well have remained in that prison? Perhaps God had purposed to secure Paul’s release through another means should the saints have faltered in their prayers for him. Perhaps. But not to pray on that assumption would have been presumptuous and sinful on the part of Philemon and his household.

We find a similar scenario described in Philippians 1. Paul is again confident of his impending release from prison and ultimate vindication. Yet he also says, “for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil. 1:19). Paul evidently believed that God had purposed to effect his deliverance through the prayers of the Christians at Philippi and the gracious provision of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s appeal to the Roman Christians is especially poignant:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God's will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Romans 15:30-32).

The apostle was convinced that God had suspended the success of his journeys and mission on the prayers of his people. Without those prayers, Paul was at a loss. His anxiety about a threat from the unbelieving Jews in Judea was well-founded (cf. Acts 20-21). Therefore, “his request for continued prayers was not merely a tactical maneuver to engage their sympathy, but a call for help in what he knew to be a matter of life and death” (Gordon Wiles, 269).

His plan to come to Rome and enjoy the fellowship of these saints was also dependent on prayer (cf. 1 Thess. 3:10-13). Important here is Paul’s statement in Romans 15:32 where he suspends his impending journey on “God’s will”. He refused to presume on God’s determinate purpose, never suggesting that he will make it to Rome whether or not they choose to pray for him. He eventually made it to Rome, although his arrival there was not in the manner he expected (see Acts 21:17-28:16). In any case, the important thing to note is that he believed in the power and importance of prayer as a means employed by God in the effectual fulfillment of his will.

Simply put, as I said earlier, we must never presume that God will grant us apart from prayer what he has ordained to grant us only by means of prayer. We may not have the theological wisdom to fully decipher how prayer functions in relation to God’s will, but we must never cast it aside on the arrogant and unbiblical assumption that it is ultimately irrelevant to God’s purpose for us and others.

Here’s the bottom line: If we don’t ask, God doesn’t give. If God doesn’t give, people don’t receive. If people don’t receive, God won’t be thanked. And if God is not thanked, God is not glorified.

2 Comments

You help us to pray with both fervor and understanding of God's sovereignty, two good things that seem to compete in the minds of some believers. Thanks for your practical insights. Kreg Mallow, missionary to Cambodia and former student of yours at Wheaton College Grad School.

Thank you Sam for your blogs and for your faithfulness and commitment to encourage, challenge and inspire followers of Christ through them. I am a historic-pre millennial, Calvinist, charismatic, credo-baptistic, complementarian, Christian Hedonist (a 5 out of 6 overlap ain't bad). I have been very much blessed through reading your blogs. Keep up the great work brother - much appreciated.
Russ Hunt - Albany, Western Australia.

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