Follow-up with churches that we have planted needs to include receiving ministry as well as providing ministry. Paul not only prayed for churches; he also asked them to pray for him. In this way, he practiced fellowship in the gospel.
Prayer is a struggle
Moreover, in praying for Paul and his ministry, these churches were “striving together” with Paul (Rom. 15:30). In describing prayer as struggle, Paul highlights its importance. Prayer is not just a polite convention; it is active involvement in gospel ministry. D. A. Carson comments on this struggle of prayer:
For example, Paul writes to the Colossians and tells them this of Epaphras: “He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Col. 4:12b, emphasis added). Elsewhere he writes, “I want you to know how hard I am contending for you [he is referring to his prayer life] and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally (Col. 2:1, emphasis added).
Clearly, Paul saw prayer as part of the Christian’s struggle. . . . Paul understands real praying to include an element of struggle, discipline, work, spiritual agonizing against the dark powers of evil. Insofar as the Roman Christians pray this way for Paul, they are joining him in his apostolic struggle.1D. A. Carson, Praying with Paul, 2nd. ed., Baker: 2014, p190.D.A. Carson, Praying with Paul
Consequently, Paul refers to churches praying for him and mentions specific requests throughout his letters (Rom. 15:30; 2 Cor. 1:11; Eph. 6:19-20; Phil. 1:19; Col. 4:3-4; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1-2; Philem. 22). How does Paul want the churches to pray for him?
For Opportunity to Share the Gospel
In both Eph. 6:19,20 and Col. 4:3,4 (two passages that give specific requests) Paul begins by asking prayer for opportunity to share the gospel message. Interestingly, in both these passages Paul emphasizes the “word”. He asks that “God may open a door for the word” (Col. 4:3). He asks that “words may be given to me in opening my mouth” (Eph. 6:19). In commenting on the Colossian passage, Douglas Moo writes:
It is the word that must be given entrance because it is the word that has the power to transform human beings. This emphasis echoes the beginning of the letter, where Paul gives the word a similar active role, as the word “grows and bears fruit” among the Colossians (1:6) and in all the world. In requesting prayer for the opening of a door for the word, Paul implies that it is God who prepares the way for the message of the gospel. He provides opportunities; he softens the hearts of listeners by his grace. 2Douglas Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Eerdmans:2008, p322.Douglas Moo, The Lettters to the Colossians and to Philemon
Similarly, Paul’s request in 2 Thess. 3:1 is “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” Additionally, earlier in Paul’s ministry he reported to his sending church in Antioch that God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). So, God was the one who provided the open door for Paul and Barnabas to preach the gospel. So, it seems reasonable to assume that praying for an open door for the gospel was common among New Testament churches.
Likewise, we ought to ask churches to pray for opportunities to share the gospel. We can ask them to join our prayer team and to pray for opportunities for our ongoing ministry. But of course, we want them to be praying for opportunities in their own local context, and for the Gospel work of other missionaries they send out from their congregation.
For Clarity and Boldness in Proclaiming the Gospel
Paul requested not only opportunity but effectiveness in proclaiming the gospel. Specifically, he asks for prayer that he might make the gospel clear (Col. 4:4). His apostolic ministry was centered on making the mystery of the gospel fully known (Col. 1:25-29; cf. Eph. 3:1-13). Yet, Paul was not content to rely on his own ability and knowledge. Rather, he requests intercession that God would grant clarity so that his audience would understand the message.
So, prayer must accompany our language and culture learning. Let us ask pray that our contextualization clarifies and not obscures the gospel message. We should also teach the churches we have planted to pray that their Gospel presentations to their neighbors clearly points people to Jesus.
Paul also requests prayer for boldness (Eph. 6:19-20). Interestingly, this request follows his description of the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-18), clearly, placing prayer in the context of spiritual warfare. In addition, He mentions boldness twice in Eph 6:19-20. Why such emphasis on requests for boldness? Wasn’t Paul’s ministry in Acts 3(see for example Acts 13:46; 19:8; 28:30-31) characterized by boldness?
However, Paul does mention times of fear (1 Cor. 2:3; 7:5). Certainly, the list of hardships in 2 Cor. 11:25-33 would be ample cause for prayer requests for boldness. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the boldness of Paul we see in Acts displays the answer to these types of prayers. While these requests in Ephesians are much later than the ministries recorded in Acts, we do know from Acts 4:29 that the early church was in the habit of praying for boldness. So, it is reasonable to assume that Paul’s bold ministry in Acts was an answer to these prayers.
Furthermore, clarity and boldness in gospel proclamation is how we ought to speak (Eph. 6:20; Col. 4:4). This is not to be confused with arrogance for we are called to gentleness and patience (2 Tim. 2:24-25). We, like Paul, are dependent on God’s grace to enable us to clearly and boldly declare the gospel. So, may we follow the pattern of Paul and the early church in encouraging prayer for clarity and boldness.
Subject to the Will of God
Paul’s prayer request in Romans 15:30-33 was not answered in the way he probably wanted or expected. This example shows us that prayer is not magic and that our anticipated answer is subject to God’s will. A lesson also learned from Paul’s thorn (2 Cor. 12:8-10). Douglas Moo comments on the phrase “so that by God’s will” (Rom. 15:32):
. . . Paul thereby reminds his readers that all his plans and hopes are subject to the will of God. We find somewhat ironic confirmation of this in the way in which God “answered” Paul’s prayer here. He was delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, but only by being locked up by the Romans for two years. The collection was apparently, accepted by the Jewish Christians . . . And Paul did get to Rome and experienced some measure of joy and refreshment, but he arrived there in Roman chains. 4Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, Eerdmans:1996, p 911.Moo, The Epistle to the Romans
Focused on Gospel Ministry
Paul’s personal prayer requests are linked to his gospel ministry. Certainly, he also calls for all kinds of prayers for all people (1 Tim. 2:1). So, it is not wrong to pray for health and other needs. Yet, the specific requests highlighted in this post provide a model for cross-cultural missionaries. Consequently, we ought to request prayer for opportunities to share the gospel, for clarity and boldness in our gospel witness, and for safety in our ministry plans and that our service will be acceptable to those we serve. Yet, most importantly, by requesting prayer from churches we plant we honor them as participants in the gospel ministry. In this fellowship of intercession, we glorify God by expressing our dependence on him for effective ministry.