"Praying for the Gospel"
(Delivered Sunday, July 29, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak (Col. 4:2-4).
This morning's passage speaks of one the most important and most powerful thing you and I can do to advance the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's something that doesn't require that we have an advanced academic degree; or that we have a great amount of financial resources at our disposal; or that we have access to high-tech communications equipment. In fact, it's so simple that a child can do what needs to be done. And yet, God has designed His plan of redemption in such a way that, to a certain degree, the spread of the gospel of salvation is inseparably linked to our faithfulness in doing it.
I'm talking about prayer.
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There's been, in recent times, a lack of confidence in the power of prayer when it comes to spreading the message of Jesus Christ. The sense of it's essential nature has declined in the minds of many church leaders. Some have put far too much trust instead in such things as marketing strategies and principles. Others have behaved as if the draw of entertaining programs or big-name celebrities is more important than concerted prayer.
My wife and I have an experience that illustrates this. We were once with a group of people in a relatively new church who were discussing possible outreach strategies. One of the things that they were seeking to do was to start a coffee-house ministry to reach unchurched people (which, by the way, was a great idea). We became concerned, however, when they were seriously debating whether or not ceramic coffee mugs would be more "seeker-friendly" than styrofoam cups. Prayer and dependency on God's sovereignty was conspicuously absent from the discussion. My wife broke in with the comment: "You do realize that salvation depends on work of the Holy Spirit; ... don't you?" The blank stares suggested that this was something that hadn't been given much consideration in these outreach plans.
The fact that the spread of the gospel, and the salvation of lost people, depends ultimately on the sovereign work of the Spirit in people's hearts makes morning's passage extremely relevant. As important as anything else might be that we can do to reach people for Christ, none of our efforts will produce fruit if we aren't praying. In fact, nothing we can do to reach lost people can be considered 'essential' but just these two: faithful proclamation and devoted prayer. And they are related in such a way that proclamation must be supported by prayer. When Paul gave us his powerful discourse on spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, he concluded with this appeal concerning prayer and proclamation. And notice how he makes his own proclamation of the gospel dependent upon the prayers of God's people!
... Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints - and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak (Eph. 6:18-20).
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Why is prayer so essential to evangelism? It's because it's only by the sovereign grace of God that any man or woman can put their faith in the gospel - let alone hear it. The Bible teaches us that the faith itself to believe the gospel is a gift of God's grace. No one can even believe the gospel unless God enables them to do so. Paul wrote, in a passage that's familiar to many of us; "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).
We traditionally love that passage, because it affirms that salvation is a gift of God's grace through faith - and not as a product of our works. But have you ever asked yourself what the "that" of this passage is? ... "And that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God ..."? The "that" is faith! The faith itself to believe the gospel and be saved is not even of ourselves, but is a gift of God! And that being true, then no one can ever be saved by the gospel unless God, in mercy and grace, first acts to give them the faith to believe it! Only God can do that. No wonder prayer is so essential!
In fact, even the proclamation itself that leads to faith is a gift of God's grace. Paul wrote, "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom. 10:14-15a). The chain of believing and hearing and proclaiming begins by someone being sent. God does the sending; and so, once again, prayer is essential.
Salvation is, from beginning to end, a gracious work of the sovereign God! The multitudes of redeemed saints who will stand before the throne of Jesus will shout, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Rev. 7:10). It will all prove to have been brought about by His doing; and so, prayer is now, always has been, always will be, an absolute must!
It's not by coincidence, then, that some of the greatest evangelists of church history relied on the prayers of God's people for the success of the gospel. D.L. Moody, the greatest evangelist of the 19th century, was deeply reliant on prayer in his evangelistic efforts, and continually sought the prayers of God's people for the advance of the gospel. Similarly, Charles Spurgeon, one of the most noted pastors and preachers of the 19th century, was dependent on prayer for his preaching ministry. Someone once asked him the secret of his success each Sunday; and he took the inquirer down to the basement of his large church and showed him the prayer meeting that was going on. He called it the "powerhouse" of the church.
Billy Graham has consistently sought prayer for the success of his evangelistic ministry. His first question to his associates, whenever he is preparing to go to a city and hold a crusade, is never, "How are the finances going?" or "Do we have enough church support?" or "Is the advertising in order?" His greatest concern is, "Are the people of God praying?" One elderly woman named Pearl Goode - a real heroine of prayer - followed Dr. Graham from crusade to crusade over a span of 18 years until she died. She lived in small hotels, and prayed in seclusion for God's blessing on Dr. Graham's ministry each time he preached. With prayer warriors like that, no wonder people come forward in the thousands when Dr. Graham gives the invitation! It isn't because of his persuasive powers or his brilliant preaching or dynamic persona. It's because God has responded to the faithful, devoted prayers of His people!
When Jesus looked at the multitudes of people who were gathered around Him, He was moved with compassion over the depth of their need. They were all weary and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd. And He turned to His disciples and told them what He saw. "The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few." And we should pay attention to the fact that He didn't then say, "Hurry, men! Get out there right away and harvest them!" Instead, He said, "Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest" (Matthew 9:38).
If we do anything else before we do that, we're disobeying our Lord's command! Prayer is absolutely essential, because the Lord of the harvest is the sovereign God. He knows who is best suited to reach the particular people He has prepared for a hearing of the gospel. He knows the unique needs and readiness of people that He has already prepared for a hearing. Before we put one foot forward to spread the gospel, it's absolutely essential that we first bow the knee in prayer, and yield ourselves to the leading and enabling of the Lord of the harvest. Those who pray may very well be called to go; but it must only be because the Lord of the harvest sends them and empowers them as a result of prayer. Otherwise, their efforts will be wasted. "... Without Me," Jesus said, "you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
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And so, while it's crucial that we be a gospel-preaching church, it's crucial to our preaching that we, first of all, be a gospel-praying church. God responds wonderfully to the faithful prayers of His people for the souls of men and women. This morning's passage teaches us to become a church of prayer-warriors for the gospel.
Notice, first, that it teaches us ...
I. HOW WE ARE TO PRAY FOR THE GOSPEL (v. 2).
Paul had been speaking in this section of his letter to the Colossians about the life that should be lived by someone who has been united with Jesus in His death and in His resurrection. Such men and women should see themselves as having been raised from the dead; and who should now be living brand-new lives in Christ. The "old man" - that is, the old ways and patterns of living that characterized their lives before they were saved in Christ - should be progressively "put off" from themselves like old clothes. Now, they should be progressively putting on the "new man" - that is, the new patterns and life-style practices that are to characterize someone who has been raised in newness of life with Jesus.
Paul describes in detail the sort of life-style patterns and behavior practices that should characterize someone who has been raised with Christ. There's to be a whole new pattern of living in the way they manage their internal attitudes (3:5-11), and their relationships toward others (3:12-16), and in their families (3:18-21), and in their work-place (3:22-4:1). And now, he describes another practice that is to characterize the man or woman who has been resurrected with Christ: prayer. "Continue earnestly in prayer," Paul writes; "being vigilant in it with thanksgiving" (4:2).
Paul is intending in this to bring all that he has to say about prayer to bear on evangelism. But I believe that what he has to say applies to prayer in general. He tells us here, first, how we are to pray; and in his instructions, he emphasizes three universal characteristics of prayer.
First, he says we should pray persistently. "Continue earnestly in prayer." The two English words "continue earnestly" are the translation of one word in the original language of Paul's letter. And this single word itself is composed of two Greek words: one being the word that means 'to continue without wavering' in something, and the other being the preposition 'toward'. Thus, this is a word that describes the act of persisting or adhering steadfastly toward a thing or a goal - in this case, the object of our prayers.
We are commanded to pray; and our prayers are to be characterized by an attitude of resolute persistence. We are told to pray and not give up. Luke's gospel contains Jesus' clear teaching to His disciples on this.
Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying, "There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, 'Get justice for me from my adversary.' And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, 'Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.'" Then the Lord said, "Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily" (Luke 18:1-8a).
Jesus wasn't saying that God is reluctant to answer our prayers and must be badgered into doing so. He affirmed, in fact, that God will answer speedily. But that's when He zeros in on the real question: "Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?" (v. 8b). Jesus is telling us in advance that we must be prepared to persist in our prayers; and He makes it clear that the real issue isn't whether or not God is willing to answer them, but whether or not we will be faithful in the asking.
My wife and I had some elderly friends from a former church who once announced at a prayer meeting, "Hey, we have a praise item. Henry's sister finally came to the Lord!" "Great!" everyone said. "Yeah; we've been praying for her for a long time!" "How long?" we asked. "Fifty years," was the reply.
I wonder how long you or I would be willing to keep on praying persistently for the salvation of someone we love? I'm afraid many of us are ready to give up after fifty minutes! But this elderly couple prayed faithfully for fifty years; and their persistence in prayer finally paid off. Isn't one soul in the presence of Jesus for eternity worth fifty years of faithful praying?
I suspect that God calls upon us to keep on praying persistently - even though He can surely answer any time He chooses - because He wants to test our resolve. He wants to see to it that we want the salvation of someone as much as He wants it; and to keep believing that He is able to bring that salvation to pass when the time is right. May God help us to keep on praying, and not give up.
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Second, Paul teaches that we must pray watchfully. "... Being vigilant in it ...", he says.
The word Paul uses that's here translated "vigilant" is a particularly precious word to me. It's my name. The Greek word is 'gregoreo'; and it means "to be awake" or "alert" or "watchful". And that Greek word, when applied to prayer, describes the act of praying with an attitude of careful attention and observation to what's going on around us; so that we're praying intelligently and accurately - with a keen sense of what's happening, and what God Himself is wanting to have happen in it.
Watchfulness and alertness in prayer is something that Jesus stressed. When speaking of the end times to His disciples, and describing the events that would foretell His coming, Jesus said, "Now learn this parable from the fig tree:When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near - at the doors!" (Matthew 24:32-33). And He added that no one would know when that day would come; and so He said, "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (v. 42; also 25:13). He says, "Be ready" (24:44). "... What I say to you," He told them, "I say to all: Watch!" (Mark 13:37).
Jesus was teaching His disciples to have an attitude of watchfulness for His return. And so did Paul. He urged believers, "... You, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober" (1 Thess. 5:4-6). But Paul also urged that we have the same sort of attitude with respect to the Christian life in general. He tells us, "See then that you walk circumspectly [that is, looking carefully where you're going], not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil" (Eph. 5:15). He urged Pastor Timothy to "be watchful in all things" (2 Tim. 4:5); and he urged the pastors from Ephesus to "watch" because of the danger of false teachers arising and afflicting God's people (Acts 20:31). He urged the Corinthian believers, "Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong" (1 Cor. 16:13).
And this prevailing attitude of watchfulness and alertness is meant by God to be brought to bear in the manner in which we pray. Peter once wrote to the suffering, persecuted Christians in his day, "But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers" (1 Peter 4:7).
So often, we pray in lazy generalities. We pray broad, unspecified, "God bless everyone" kind of prayers. And I suspect that the reason we tend toward praying in such unspecified ways is because of a lack of faith on our part. If we pray in unspecified ways, we don't have to look to specific answers. But if we truly expect God to answer specific prayers, we will demonstrate that faith by praying with specific requests - requests that seek to bring the details of God's revealed will to bear on the details of what's going on around us.
God wants us to be intelligent about our prayers and pray for specific, strategic things that are true and faithful to what He wants. This requires watchfulness and alertness on our part. We must be paying attention to what is going on around us. We must be observant of people's true needs. We must be watching for what it is God is doing in the world around us. We must be sensitive to the receptivity within people to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. We then, backed by such careful watchfulness, we must pray accordingly. We must pray "vigilantly".
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And thirdly, our prayers must be characterized by thankfulness. Paul says, to pray, "with thanksgiving ...".
Like persistence and watchfulness, thanksgiving is frequently presented to us as a key component in prayer. Paul said, in Philippians 4:6, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God." To the Thessalonian believers, he wrote, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:16-18). He included thankfulness in the list of characteristics of someone filled with the Holy Spirit, when he wrote, "And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ ..." (Eph. 5:18-20). And similarly, the writer of Hebrews said, speaking of Christ, "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name" (Heb. 13:15).
Thanksgiving toward God is, in fact, a defining element in worship and godliness. It's by giving thanks to God that we acknowledge Him for who He is and what He has done. Those who have rejected God and have spiraled down into paganism began to do so by, first, withholding the thankfulness to God that is due Him. "... Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Rom. 1:21).
Whenever we pray, and for whatever we pray, we should always do so with a spirit of true, genuine thankfulness to God. When we do, we're affirming Him for who He is and what He is able to do. We're acknowledging His goodness and faithfulness to us when we thank Him.
And this is crucial when we pray for the spread of the gospel, and for the salvation of lost souls. When we thank God in our prayers, we're acknowledging that salvation comes, ultimately, from Him; and that He will ultimately give His gospel message success. We're acknowledging that neither the world, nor the flesh, nor the devil, can stop the spread of His gospel message; and that all whom He chooses for salvation will surely be saved. We're proclaiming our confidence in God's sovereignty, and in His ability and wisdom to bring about His desired in the proclamation of the gospel. And we're affirming the ultimate victory of God's saving grace whenever we give thanks in our prayers for the gospel's proclamation.
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Paul's great emphasis is on spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. These principles should apply to prayer in general; but they should especially be characteristic of our prayers for the lost people around us. We should pray persistently for the salvation of the people around us and for the spread of the gospel - even when it's being opposed. We should pray with an attitude of careful watchfulness and alertness toward the things that the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of people. And we should pray with thankfulness to God for the privilege of sharing His good news, and for His ultimate victory and glorious outcome as a result of its faithful proclamation.
That's how we should pray for the gospel. Next, this passage teaches us, specifically, ...
II. WHAT WE ARE TO PRAY FOR THE GOSPEL (v. 3-4).
Paul urges us to pray, first, for the preachers of the gospel. He says, "... Meanwhile praying also for us ...".
One of the most important things we can do is to pray for those who are sharing the gospel with others. Paul, certainly, desired the prayers of those two whom he was writing. He needed their prayers because he was suffering for the cause of the gospel, "for which I am also in chains".
I have talked with folks who are frustrated with their pastor (I mean, of course, from some other church!). Sometimes they'll complain that their pastor isn't zealous enough, or isn't interesting enough. He's biblical, they say, and a very nice guy and all; but he's dry and boring. And in such cases, I've asked, "Are you praying for him?"; and often, I hear them say, "Well, no ... not really." I then suggest that that's the biggest part of the problem. Before a church gets too quick to get rid of a pastor they don't like, they should have the integrity before God to pray for him for a while first, and ask God to change the pastor they got! When it comes to preachers, you get what you pray for.
But we should also be praying for others whose special calling is to spread the gospel. We should pray with persistence, watchfulness and thankfulness for our missionaries. We should also pray for evangelistic ministries, such as that of Luis Palau. We should learn what they're doing and where they're going; and pray for their specific needs and for the fruitfulness of their efforts.
We should even be praying for each other. God has placed lots of people around us who need to hear the good news of God's grace through Christ. Our church has set aside the last Sunday evening of each month to gather together and pray for the lost people God has placed in our lives. We should be keeping one another informed; and we should be praying regularly for one another's witness for Christ.
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Another thing Paul urges us to pray for is the opportunities of the gospel. Paul asks that his readers pray for him and his co-workers, "... that God would open to us a door for the word ..."
Paul was constantly on the alert for opportunities to share the gospel. While he was in prison, for example, he wrote to the Philippian believers and told them, "... I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear" (Phil. 1:12-14). Peter wrote to his fellow believers, "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who ask you a reason for the hope that is in you ..." (1 Pet. 3:15). It's God alone who must open those doors of opportunity for the gospel. Every time we try kick a door open, we make a mess of things. But God is faithful to open doors that we could never even begin to kick down ... if we'll just ask.
Prayer is essential in seeking these open doors because not only is it God Himself that must open them, but the opening of them is greatly opposed by the devil and by those who are blinded by Him. Paul told the Corinthian believers, "... I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries" (1 Cor. 16:8-9).
We should pray regularly not only for those whom God sends out to proclaim the gospel message, but also that God would grant them "open doors" for the hearing of the gospel - doors that He Himself not only opens, but also keeps open in spite of the opposition.
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And then, as God provides the preachers of the gospel and the open doors for its hearing, we should pray for the faithful proclamation of the gospel. Paul said to pray for him and his co-workers, "that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains".
Paul refers to the gospel as "the mystery of Christ", because it contains saving truth that human beings cannot know unless God, in grace, reveals it to them. Earlier in the letter, Paul spoke of "the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:26-27). And because it is something that can only be known through God revealing it, Paul longed for prayer that he might be enabled to "speak the mystery of Christ" whenever God gave him an open door.
But I think that there's another reason why Paul wanted prayer for his proclamation. He was suffering persecution for the cause of the gospel; as he says, "... for which I am also in chains." And I believe that even Paul was, at times, intimidated by the powerful opposition he met with whenever he preached. He needed to be given a boldness from God to proclaim the gospel when God opened the door. He told the Ephesian believers to pray for him, "that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak" (Eph. 6:19-20). Frankly, many opportunities can be lost, and open doors not entered, because we lack the courage to speak as we ought to speak.
The message to be proclaimed, and the boldness to proclaim it, both come from God. And so, we need to pray that the ambassadors of the gospel message will faithfully proclaim it when God gives the opportunity.
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And finally, we are to pray for clarity in the proclamation. Paul said to pray for him, "that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak". The word translated "manifest" means 'to bring a thing to light'. Once God raises up a proclaimer of the gospel, and grants him or her the open door to proclaim it, and then grants them the boldness to proclaim it, we need to pray that the message will be heard and understood with clarity.
One of the great burdens of Paul's heart was that he be enabled to make the gospel as plain and clear as he possibly could. He wrote to the Corinthian believers, and told them,
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
And not only must we pray for the clarity of the proclamation of the message; but we must also pray for the clarity of the hearing of the message. There is powerful spiritual opposition applied to those who hear. Paul made every possible effort to make the gospel as clear as he could; saying that he and his co-workers were, "by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them" (2 Cor. 4:2-4).
And so, once again, we must pray persistently, watchfully and thankfully, that God would not only raise up faithful messengers of the gospel, and would open doors of opportunity to them, and would give them the boldness to faithfully proclaim; but also we must pray that God would give the message itself a clear hearing, and enable those who hear it to understand without distraction and confusion, so that they might believe the gospel and be saved by it.
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In closing, let me ask you a question. If you knew that it would advance the cause of Jesus Christ and result in the salvation of souls, would you faithfully donate a portion of your income to the cause? I'm sure that many of you would, and do. Or, if you knew that it would result in the spread of the gospel, would you give up some of your leisure or your personal comforts to help spread it, would you? If you were convinced that it would truly help, I know that many of you would do this and more.
Well; the fact is, there is something you can do. You have it on the authority of God's own word that it is crucial to the success of the gospel. And you can begin right now. It takes a little thoughtful planning, and a little sacrifice of time; but this essential part of the spread of the gospel is within your grasp.
Please don't ever discount the value of your prayers for the spread of the gospel. Will you pray?
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)
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