Topic: Topical Passage: Ephesians 6:18–20
The last couple of years, I’ve used the first Sunday of the year to introduce our theme for the coming year. Two years ago, our theme was “Reach Your World.” We emphasized our need to be evangelists in our backyard and also to reach the ends of the earth by partnering with our missionaries.
Then our theme last year was, “Be a Disciple. Make a Disciple.” We emphasized our need to grow into strong disciples ourselves, and then to replicate ourselves in others. So, the last 2 years, we studied the most basic duties we have as Christians and as a church. We must reach the lost with the gospel and help them grow into mature disciples.
Several months ago, I began to occasionally reflect on what our theme for 2020 should be. And my first impulse was to have a theme on prayer. occasionally thought of another idea, but I always came back to the sense that we needed to emphasize prayer. Therefore, our 2020 theme is, “Devoted to Prayer.”
The basic reason why we need to emphasize prayer is because the Christian life and the work of the church are spiritual works involving spiritual powers far beyond any of us. We’re kidding ourselves if we ever think that human talents, efforts, or programs can win such a war. I’d like to read one of my favorite quotes on prayer from Charles Spurgeon. It specifically concerns preachers, but the principle applies to every ministry.
“The minister (or you could insert church, children’s worker, parent, etc.) who does not earnestly pray over his work must surely be a vain and conceited man. He acts as if he thought himself sufficient of himself, and therefore needed not to appeal to God. Yet what a baseless pride to conceive that our preaching (or teaching, discipling, parenting) can ever be in itself so powerful that it can turn men from their sins, and bring them to God without the working of the Holy Ghost. If we are truly humble-minded we shall not venture down to the fight until the Lord of Hosts has clothed us with all power, and said to us, ‘Go in this thy might.’ The preacher who neglects to pray much must be very careless about his ministry. He cannot have comprehended his calling. He cannot have computed the value of a soul, or estimated the meaning of eternity…He will surely become a mere superficial talker, best approved where grace is least valued and a vain show most admired. He cannot be one of those who plough deep and reap abundant harvests. He is a mere loiterer, not a labourer. As a preacher he has a name to live and is dead…for his praying is shorter than his preaching (Lectures to My Students, p. 48).
What Spurgeon says is equally true of all ministry. If we want to “plough deep and reap abundant harvests,” we must be a praying people. Ephesians 6:18–20, emphasizes this reality. For sake of context, I’d like to read vv. 10–20. Verses 18–20 challenge us that we must be devoted to prayer, first, because…
I. We are at war for our souls (v. 18).
Notice again in vv. 11–12…
The Spiritual Struggle (Read): These verses ought to be very sobering as we think about the struggle for holiness. So often we get very comfortable. We act like we are hanging out at the beach with our feet up, sipping on lemonade.
But the Christian life is not a relaxing day at the beach. Instead, we live in the killing zone of spiritual forces far beyond any of us. Verse 11 states that we are at war against “the schemes of the devil.” And v. 12 says again that we are at war against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And these powers are infinitely greater than any of us. There is no way we can hope to stand against them on our own.
Furthermore, they are out to destroy. Jesus warned Peter that Satan desired to “sift you (Peter) as wheat.” The analogy is of a wheat head getting crushed under a heavy sled. And Jesus said that Satan wanted to crush Peter, he wants to crush you, and he wants to crush all your brothers and sisters who are sitting around you.
When you live with this perspective, it changes how you approach the Christian life. Suddenly the Christian life feels less like a casual Sunday afternoon stroll, and more like the desperate struggle of a soldier on the front lines of battle.
It’s only when we appreciate the struggle, that we will truly appreciate our desperate need of the divine graces that are listed in vv. 13–20. Of course today we want to focus on the final grace, which is prayer. Verse 18 calls us to pray like wartime soldiers who are battling for holiness.
The Response (read): Ephesians 6:10–20 is a famous passage, mostly because the imagery of spiritual armor is so memorable and engaging. However, we often glance over vv. 18–20, because Paul doesn’t use any sort of war tool to describe prayer.
But that’s not because prayer is less important. Instead, Paul wants to set prayer apart as foundational to the other weapons. In other words, prayer expresses our dependence on God and brings down the power and grace of God for our struggle. We enact the other weapons through prayer. Because it is so significant, Paul first urges us to…
Pray constantly. Notice how Paul piles terms. First, he repeats all He says, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit,being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.” He also piles words for prayer. He says, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication (a synonym for prayer) in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.”
The point is clear. Prayer must be a dominant feature of our lives individually and as a church. We must always be pleading with God to intervene in our struggle for godliness. I’m reminded of Acts 2:42. The first members of the NT church, “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Luke says that prayer was one of the outstanding features of the church’s time together. Apparently, they spent a lot of time praying together, which probably means that they spent a lot of time praying privately.
I say that because generally people will only endure this much prayer if they sense their desperate need of God, and they are used to spending a lot of time in prayer on their own. Could the same be said of us? If someone were to write a summary of your life as a Christian or of our lives together as a church, would they say that we are devoted to prayer? We must pray constantly. Then Paul follows with a second, closely related challenge.
Pray vigilantly. Paul goes on to urge the Ephesians, “Being watchful to this end with all perseverance andsupplication for all the saints.” The idea of “being watchful” fits well in a context about spiritual warfare. Think of watchman looking out for an approaching army. All of his senses are on high alert, because he knows the enemy is coming.
Similarly, Satan’s forces are always lurking. We need to be watchful, but not so that we can defeat them ourselves. Instead, God says we need to “be watchful” so that we “persevere” or you could also say “persist obstinately” in “supplication” or prayer.
Again, God calls us to pray like Christians who appreciate the urgency of war. I liked this line from Harold Hoehner. “Nuclear wars cannot be won with rifles. Likewise, satanic wars cannot be won by human energy.”
Therefore, we should be challenged to sense the urgency of our situation, and to pray like a desperate soldier radioing for help from the front lines of the battle. We must believe that I cannot go forward without the grace of God leading me on. We must pray vigilantly. The 3rd challenge of v. 18 is…
Pray corporately. Notice how v. 18 ends. It says, “Being watchful to this end with all perseverance andsupplication for all the saints.” This little phrase is so important, because it emphasizes that we aren’t just responsible to pray for ourselves or even just our family. As well, it’s not just pastors or deacons who must pray for the church.
No, God commands all the saints to pray “for all the saints.” This means that God expects you to pray for your brothers and sisters in the church.
It’s a great way for you to use our directory. Make a plan to pray for 5 or 10 or 15 families per sitting, because all of us need your prayers. Everyone in this church, no matter if they appear to have it together or not, is in the same struggle, and Satan is trying to crush them. They need your prayers. So, sense the urgency of the war, and pray for your comrades.
But I believe that Paul is doing more than simply urging to add church people to our prayer list. Specifically, this phrase fits the consistent teaching of the NT that spiritual warfare is not exclusively individualistic. As Americans, we tend to think only in individual terms. “My pursuit of holiness is about me and God fighting the devil.” But the NT always looks at spiritual warfare corporately. So, we pray “for all the saints,” because we are all fighting together. We are a team, a family, a brotherhood.
That’s why Acts 2:42 says that prayer dominated the corporate life of the early church. They prayed together, because they were family. They cared about each other, and they sensed their deep dependence on each other.
I pray that God will especially grow us in this area. We need to sense Satan’s attack against us collectively so that we are driven to pray together so that WE will stand together. So, the first reason we must be devoted to prayer is because we are at war for our souls. The second reason is…
II. We are at war for gospel advancement (vv. 19–20).
I’d like to make 2 simple points from these verses. First…
We have a great responsibility. In both verses, Paul mentions the weighty responsibility God has given us to advance the gospel. You can hear the sobriety in Paul’s voice when he requests prayer in v. 19 for “utterance…that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel.”
Then in v. 20, Paul calls himself “an ambassador in chains,” and his concern is that “I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” Both verses express Paul’s deep burden that the Lord would give him opportunities to present the gospel and that when those opportunities came, he would speak freely, boldly, and clearly. He didn’t want any outside noise or any weakness in his own spirit to get in the way of a clear and potent gospel presentation.
This was very important to Paul, because he was a “gospel ambassador.” God had entrusted him with a huge responsibility to represent the Lord and to make the gospel known.
Of course, we don’t have the same apostolic responsibility as Paul in that we are not called to lay the foundation of the Gentile church. However, we are responsible to continue the mission that Paul began of taking the gospel to all people.
And I especially want to emphasize that this mission is NOT within our ability. So often we fail to be courageous, clear, and compassionate. We need God’s help if we are going to take the gospel to our neighbors, family members, coworkers, and community and not get in the way of the mighty gospel of Christ.
But even when we get all of that right, and we do a great job of sharing Christ, we can’t give life to the dead. We can’t make sinners understand and believe.
And the same is true of all of our efforts collectively as a church. We can put on some incredible services with great music, great fellowship, and dynamic preaching, but none of that can accomplish the miracle of regeneration. We can put on some great programs with sharp advertising, fun games, tremendous volunteers, and great gospel presentations, but again none of these things will save a soul.
So, God has given us an the most important responsibility in all the world. We are responsible to reach our world with the gospel, but we can’t do it on our own. Therefore, the second basic point of vv. 19–20 is that…
We must pray for God’s help. This is just one of many instances recorded in the NT where Paul asks others to pray for his ministry. So, Paul was constantly asking others to pray for his ministry.
On the one hand, it ought to be very encouraging that even the great Apostle Paul felt overwhelmed by God’s calling, so you aren’t alone if the task oftentimes feels too big.
On the other hand, Paul’s example is very convicting if we have begun to think that we are sufficient for the task. We can so easily get into rut of serving in children’s church, AWANA, or youth group, and we rarely pray. Or we put on big events like VBS, the Freedom Festival, or the Fall Festival, and we sink lots of time and money into a great program. We get so focused on running a great event that we never consider the spiritual war taking place and our desperate need for God’s help.
But if Paul couldn’t wing it on his own and produce spiritual results, we certainly can’t either. So, we need to pray constantly that God would do a truly spiritual work through us that cannot be explained as anything other than a supernatural work of his grace.
Folks, we have a great church. I think it’s fair to say that we have a lot about which we can boast in the Lord regarding our church. But God forbid that our boast would ever turn into complacency or that we ever measure the blessing of God solely on buildings, budgets, and bodies. There is vast gospel need all around us. There is so much to be done.
We need to pray with desperate hearts that God would do mighty things through us. We must pray that God would radically save sinners here in Apple Valley. We need to pray that God would raise up strong disciples who grow into strong co-laborers in the spread of the gospel. We need God to do what only he can do.
Of course, God is sovereign, and there is nothing we can do to change his sovereign will. But the Scriptures are also abundantly clear that God works through the prayers of his saints. Paul obviously believed the Ephesians’ prayers would bring down God’s grace on his ministry.
And we should believe that he can do the same for us. God can do great things through Life Point, and we must pray accordingly. We must devote ourselves to urgent and extended prayer that God would advance the gospel, build disciples, and protect disciples for his glory. We must be devoted to prayer.
In light of this text, I’d like to circle back to our theme and just preview my heart for the coming year. First…
Why did we choose this theme? To put it very bluntly, for all of the strengths Life Point has, Pastor Kris and I have talked many times throughout the years about the fact that we are not a strong praying church. To be fair, we are probably stronger than most churches of our day, because most churches hardly pray at all. If the goal is to keep church lively and entertaining, there’s not much of a place for long times of prayer.
But when you compare us to the Acts 2 model, we have a long way to go. We don’t labor in prayer like they did. And it’s not just a matter of sticking more prayer times in the order of service. All of us have to sense our need to pray, and I don’t believe we are there. For example, our annual concert of prayer is without fail one of our worst attended services of the year. Something is wrong if we are more motivated to come out for a nacho night than we are to pray together as a church.
And if we aren’t motivated to pray corporately, or if we feel uncomfortable in that setting, I’m fairly certain that we aren’t doing much better at home. This is because the health of our corporate prayer life generally reflects the health of our private prayer lives. People who are devoted to prayer privately are going to want to pray corporately.
And I want to emphasize that part of the blame lies with leadership. We as pastors need to teach on prayer and build devotion to prayer into the practices of our church. But we will also never be a praying church unless we all embrace the importance of prayer to our life as a church.
And unless we are a praying church, we will never enjoy the blessing of God that is essential to truly fulfilling our God-given mission. So, there aren’t many more important themes we can emphasize than prayer. So…
How are we going to pursue growth? First, we are going to pray. We are going to pray that God will increase our sense of dependence on him and our awareness of the war taking place around us. And that this will lead to a greater devotion to prayer in our individual lives and in our life together as a church.
Second, we are going to teach and preach on prayer. Part of the challenge with prayer is that life pulls us in so many directions. Therefore, we are going to keep reminding you to pray until you build strong habits. Not only that, we want to revisit many of the wonderful patterns in Scripture about how we should pray. By God’s grace, we want to come away knowing what prayer is, how to do it, and hungry to build strong habits of prayer.
Third, we are going to model how to be devoted to prayer. Specifically, we want to make prayer more prominent in our services, and we want be more intentional with how we use these times. Hopefully, we can grow our devotion to prayer and your confidence in your own ability to pray by showing you how to do it from the pulpit and in prayer circles.
In conclusion, the very first sermon I preached as your senior pastor was entitled, “We Need God.” I wanted to begin my ministry here by emphasizing our desperate need for God’s work through prayer if we are going to do anything of true eternal significance. I believe that even more today. Prayer is the lifeblood of the church and of the Christian life. So, we must learn to pray like people who really believe we need God and that God is all that we need. We must devote ourselves to prayer.