What should we pray for?
Eight prayers of the Apostle Paul are found in his epistles:
- Ephesians 1:17-23; 3:14-21
- Colossians 1:9-14
- 1 Thessalonians 3:10-13
- 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12; 2:16-17; 3:16
- Philippians 1:9-11
What can we learn from these prayers?
These are things of great importance. A commentator on this prayer, found in Philippians chapter one, said this: “What an excellent prayer this is! In our day when we tend to voice prayer requests for physical needs primarily we need to follow Paul’s example of putting the spiritual needs of others high on our prayer lists. Christians still need God’s supernatural enablement to value highly the things of greatest importance as revealed in Scripture. Only then will we make choices that will prepare us to give a good account of ourselves at the judgment seat of Christ.”
They are things that we should pray for, for ourselves. James 4:3.
These are things that we should pray for, for others. Ephesians 6:18
What motivated Paul to pray?
He loved the believers in Philippi. He had them in his heart. He longed to be with them. He cared for them with the “affection (lit. inward parts) of Christ Jesus.
He understood that he and the Philippians were both partakers of grace. We are partakers of grace. We all share in God’s grace. God is rich in grace. He has lavished His grace upon us. He sits on a throne of grace and bids us come that we might receive His grace and mercy. Paul prayed knowing that, as much as He cared for the believers in Philippi, His prayers ascended to heaven itself to the One who loved the Philippians even more.
He had a heavenward perspective to his prayers. He was looking forward to the “day of Christ.” He understood that the church is the bride of Christ that will be presented to Him that day “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such things” (Ephesians 5:27). He was looking past the everyday concerns that occupy our earthly existence. He understood that God is doing a good work in preparing us for heaven and he prayed that way.
He had a “glory to God” perspective. He prayed what he prayed because he was ultimately concerned that these believers might bring glory to God. So oftentimes we pray in a “God please fix this” sort of way. But Paul’s prayer ascended to a higher plane. These believers had been saved unto the glory of God. The transformation that He had worked in them was to His glory. They were all His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus. God had done this work “to the praise of the glory of His grace.”
- That We Would Be loving
It should not escape our notice that Paul’s first matter of concern in his prayer that they would be loving. The command to us “to love one another” is God’s great command to us. We’ve been studying this matter in Sunday School.
Love = agape.
Love (agape) comes from God.
We are born again to this kind of love. Agape is the “mark of the Christian.”
It is the fruit of the Spirit.
Agape love purposefully, sacrificially and consistently seeks what is best for its object.
Agape love is exemplified for us in the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 John 3:16.
It is best described for us in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. It is not a feeling, it is an act of the will whereby we deliberately seek not our own interests, but those of others.
The love Paul had in mind is not some kind of “slippery, slurpy, sloppy, agape”—as J. Vernon McGee once said—it is a love that is instructed by “true knowledge.”
Note this about love. According to 1 Corinthians 13:2, if a person has knowledge without love he is NOTHING. The other side of that equation is likewise true. Love exercised apart from the knowledge of the truth is likewise of no value. There is much said and done in the name of love that is not “with knowledge.” How dependent we are on the Spirit of God in this matter. Love is not something we figure out or something we grow in by trying harder to be better. Love is in us as the fruit of the Spirit. Or, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:9, we must be taught by God to love one another. In that sense Paul was in effect praying that we might be good students in God’s classroom. We are all enrolled in LOVE 101 having God Himself as our instructor.
Note that this love is a love exercised with discernment. Now any Christian whose been around for a while, knows something about this matter. You are in a difficult situation. How are you to respond? What is the loving thing to do? The loving thing is oftentimes not the easy thing. Sometimes we want to fight. Sometimes we flee. Sometimes we respond, especially when it comes to children, by catering to their demands. Sometimes in the name of love people do things that enable others in sinful behaviors. But what is the best response? What is the wise response? That is not always easy to discern. In discerning love, the Apostle Paul once wrote an incredibly difficult letter to the church in Corinth. In discerning love, the Apostle Paul rebuked the Apostle Peter to his face. In discerning love, he will urge two women in the church in Philippi to get along with each other, calling them out by name. Love exercised in discernment is not easy. The best example of discerning love is the Lord Jesus Himself. He always knew exactly what to say and do in responding to others.
Now Paul’s prayer was that they might abound more and more in this kind of discerning love. The standard to which we measure ourselves when it comes to the practice of agape love is Christ Himself. There will always be room to grow. Paul commended the church in Thessalonica, saying, “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more” (1 Thess. 4:9-10). Now the reason why this is possible is that we are immersed in an inexhaustible stream of love which flows from the heart of God. We are merely channels through which God’s love flows. God has already poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The limits to the exercise of Christian love are never on the Divine side of the equation. They have to do with us and our reluctance to be submitted to God and to allow Him the freedom to work in our lives.
Paul will speak to this matter later in his epistle. Our example when it comes to agape love is Jesus. And Paul will speak to Christ’s example—in one of the most beautifully, descriptive passages in all of Scripture—in Philippians chapter 2. And he will exhort us to “have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”
- That We Would Exercise Discernment
“So that you may approve the things that are excellent.”
Literally “distinguish between the things that differ.”
The term “approve” was used of the testing of metals. Back in the gold rush days there were some who mined and panned for gold who were not able to distinguish between true gold and fool’s gold. They’d scoop up a bunch of fool’s gold and take it to the assayer only to find out that what they had wasn’t worth a thing. They had no ability to “approve the things that are excellent” when it came to gold.
The phrase here is related to that. To approve through testing.
To “affirm and practice what is excellent” is the idea.
We are talking about discernment. What is discernment? Webster’s defines the term discern this way: “to recognize or identify as separate and distinct.”
So, Paul is praying that these believers in Philippi might be able to exercise discernment. Why is that important?
Well on the opposite side of discernment is being naïve and gullible. It is to believe what anybody tells you. It is to be led astray in wrong beliefs and practices.
Ephesians 5:14, “As a result, we are not longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”
2 Corinthians 11:2-4. Paul’s goal for the Corinthians here coincides with what he prayed for with respect to the believers in Philippi. He wanted to be able to present them to Christ and a pure virgin. The challenge was that the Devil was at work trying to move them away from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. And the false teachers came, preaching another Jesus or different spirit or a different gospel, and the believers in Corinth had no ability to “approve the things that are excellent.” They had no ability to discern.
That’s one of the reasons why is important for every believer in Christ not just to hear the word taught but to endeavor to study the Word of God for himself. It’s not good enough simply to believe what you hear from a pastor or Sunday School teacher or someone on the radio or TV. You need to possess the truth for yourself.
Hebrews 4:12-14, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
Paul prayed that they might possess discernment. It is through putting the Word of God into practice that we grow in our ability to discern.
Now discernment is not an end unto itself. The exercise of discernment leads to a desirable result. “That you may be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.”
There are two terms used in speaking of the objective, “sincere” and “blameless.” You will find similar terms used in Philippians 2:15. Why two terms? One speaks to what’s inside, the other to what’s on the outside.
The term translated “sincere” means “unalloyed, pure.”
The term translated “blameless” means simply “void of offence.”
Pure inside and out. If you keep on approving the things that is excellent eventually anything that is not “excellent” will no longer be a part of you. This all has to do with preparing you for heaven. In heaven there will be no need for discernment. Why not? Only what is excellent will be there!
- That We Might Bear Fruit to the Glory of God
Much attention is given, in the Scriptures, to the issue of bearing fruit.
The OT Jews were compared to a vineyard from which a harvest was expected, but none came forth.
A key NT text on fruit bearing is found in John chapter 15, verses 1-16. The terms “abide”, and “fruit” appear numerous times in the passage, leading us to conclude that the key to bearing fruit is abiding, abiding in Christ.
The heart of Jesus towards His disciples is evident. His desire is that we bear fruit (15:2), more fruit (15:2), much fruit (15:5, 8), and lasting fruit (15:16).
The analogy Jesus used instructs us on both the means of fruit-bearing and the nature by which it happens. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Just as a branch bears physical fruit through its connection to the vine, so the believer can only bear fruit by abiding in Jesus. The one who abides in Jesus, is one who has Jesus’ words abiding in him also (15:7).
Apart from Jesus we can do nothing (15:5). No fruit-bearing, in the God-approved and God-pleasing sense, can take place apart from intimate fellowship with and dependence on Jesus.
What is this “fruit” of which Jesus speaks? The passage speaks of keeping Jesus’ commands (15:10), and preeminently, His command to “love one another” (15:12), so fruit then can be defined, to some extent, to an obedience to Jesus, and especially in demonstrating Christ-like love towards other members of the body of Christ.
Paul’s prayer deals directly with an issue of preeminent concern to all. We’ve a short stay on this earth. What matters most, as we live our lives here looking forward to Christ’s return and that day when we will appear at the judgment seat of Christ? What will stand the test of his judgment and be as “gold, silver and precious stones?” What will be burned up, as “wood, hay, or stubble” (1 Corinthians 3:12)? Paul’s prayer was that these believers would bear lasting fruit.
That great missionary, C. T. Studd, put it this way:
“Two little lines I heard one day,
Traveling along life’s busy way;
Bringing conviction to my heart,
And from my mind would not depart;
Only one life, twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’ twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Ultimately, Paul was praying that his beloved friends in Philippi would grow in Christlikeness. This is God’s chief concern for every believer in Christ.
Is this where your heart lies? To grow up in Christ. To love, as He loved. To exercise “Spirit and Word” borne discernment in your walk with Him? To bear lasting fruit, to the glory of God, as you abide in intimate fellowship with Him?
Is this how you pray for yourself and your family and friends? So many of our prayers are “earth-bound,” when they need instead to soar to the heights of God’s eternal plan and purpose for us. Paul’s prayer here is a reminder to us of the need to elevate our prayers in a heavenward direction.
The story is told of Michelangelo. How a big piece of marble had been provided for a sculpture of David at the Cathedral in Florence. Michelangelo was hired after two previous sculptors failed to finish the project. So, Michelangelo was there before this huge block of marble with his hammers and chisels and various tools. Someone came up to him and asked him “But how are you possibly going to turn that huge chunk of marble into a statue of David? His reply? By chipping away all that is “not David.” So, God has this work in us to chip away in us all that is “not Christ.” And we have a part in this work. With God’s objective in mind, we pray towards that end. God works in us, and we are transformed into Christ’s image “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
1 John 3:2-3, “Beloved, now we are the children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”