October 14, 2018
Christians know that prayer is essential, but we often struggle with knowing how to pray best. As Paul instructed the Ephesians in wielding the spiritual weapon of prayer, he both exemplified and explained how to pray, when to pray, and what to pray for. Walking us through Paul’s imperatives on prayer, Alistair Begg helps us understand what it means to pray continually, varyingly, and perseveringly for all our brothers and sisters in Christ with God-centered perspective and trust.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to Ephesians and to chapter 3. As we continue to heed the exhortation of Paul in chapter 6 in relationship to the importance of prayer, we read one of his examples of prayer as he prays here from verse 14. Ephesians 3:14:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Well, I invite you to turn again to Ephesians and back to verse 18, which is our text again for this morning, as last time.
Gracious God, as we turn now to the Bible, we pray for the help, the enabling of the Holy Spirit, to teach and to listen, to understand, to believe, to obey, to live in the light of its truth. Accomplish your purposes in us, Lord, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, as we come to the end of Ephesians—and we have spent some significant time in this final section—it’s important for us and helpful for us to keep in mind that this is not a section that exists on its own. It is the closing part of one letter, and it is also the concluding part of what we referred to, as we began chapter 4, as the more practical part of the letter. We said that Paul, in the way in which he wrote his letters, would lay down what was indicative—what was true doctrinally—and then, on the strength of that, he would come to the imperatives and to the “so whats” and to the “therefores” and to the application.
And if you turn back just one page in your Bible, you’ll be reminded of the fact that this practical section began by his exhortation, his urging his readers, “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” And he then is going on to point out that to walk in this way is to walk, first of all, in a culture that is alien. It is to walk alongside others who are part of the family of God in a church that is made up not of people just like us but of people often very different from us—different by background, and by age, and stage of life, and in other ways too. It is to walk worthy in the framework of our everyday lives in the workplace, and it is to discover what it means to walk in this way within family life and within marriage and in the raising of children. In other words, in short order, he is pointing out now, as he reaches this final section, that all of this walking is taking place, if you like, in a war zone. And that is why he has come to the end of it and he has pointed out the importance of putting on the armor and of picking up the weapons. And he has begun to make clear to his readers—and, I hope, to us—that in the spiritual battleground, prayer is absolutely essential.
And one of the ways in which we can gather that from Paul’s letter here is simply in the amount of space he gives to this matter of prayer. You will notice—and you could, some of you who are put together that way, may even count the number of words that we have in English—but it is clearly disproportionate. And it is also important for us, in recognizing that, to remind ourselves that he is not addressing this first of all to us as individuals. In fact, he’s not writing to an individual; he’s writing to a community of believers. He is writing to those whom he addresses at the very top of his letter as “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”
Now, when he uses that word “saints,” it’s important for us to understand that what he’s describing there is not some unique group of individuals separated from all the rest, but it is simply a New Testament word for all who have become the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. And they are “saints”; they are set apart as holy in Jesus. So it is to these individuals that he issues this comprehensive call—a call that is as important for us today in twenty-first-century Cleveland as it was for the first readers in first-century Ephesus.
We considered last time the fact that prayer is something of a mystery, we reinforced the fact that it is an absolute necessity, and then we began to consider the activity itself. And so, it is from there that we proceed: “Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” Those “alls,” and there are four of them, give to us the framework of this study.
First of all, then, our praying is to be “at all times.” “At all times.”
Whenever we are on the receiving end of an exhortation from someone, it’s almost inevitable that we say, “Well, I wonder if he or she is actually doing that herself.” And we need be in no doubt in relationship to this concerning Paul, because we can go back through the letter and find him saying, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” In other words, he is absolutely true to what he is now urging upon his readers. He is praying all the time. All the time.
Now, this whole matter of constancy or consistency is something with which I think all of us, if we are prepared to be honest, wrestle. Therefore, it is a quite remarkable thing, isn’t it, when we come across somebody who is able to say to us, “I will pray for you,” and then does pray for you. I’ve told you before of my deep affection for the late Alec Motyer, how I had occasion years ago—1986, I think it was—to be in a conference with him in the north of Ireland. And on that occasion, we walked each afternoon. I think I’ve told you this before, but I’ve started, so I’ll finish. And we walked in the afternoon. At the end of the time, he said, “My dear boy, I will pray for you. I will pray for you.” And I said, “Thank you.”
Well, some time elapsed—maybe a year, maybe two. And it was on a Good Friday, in the afternoon, that I had reason to go to one of his books, a commentary on Isaiah. And as I was helped by the commentary, I thought, “You know, I’ve never spoken to Alec since that time. I think I’ll just call him up and say hello.” And so I went on the phone, out of the blue: “Hello, Alec.” He said, “Hello?” And he said, “Before you say anything,” he said, “you’ll be interested to know that Beryl”—that was his wife—“Beryl and I have just had a cup of tea.” And this would probably be nine o’clock in the evening. And he said, “And before we had our tea, we remembered you in prayer. And we prayed for Susan, for Cameron, for Michelle, and for Emily.” There’s no way in the world he could pull my kids’ names out of the blue. The only reason he knew them was because he prayed for them.
T. S. Mooney, my little friend from Ireland, was the exact same. When they found T. S. Mooney dead at the age of eighty-three in his bedroom, he was fully dressed in his little tweed suit, had his tie on, and he was kneeling on the floor, and he was over his bed. When they removed his body, they found that underneath him had been his Bible and his prayer lists. And he is the one who, when he would write to me, would say, “I remember you daily at the best place.”
Now, some of you are prayer partners to people. Do you realize what an amazing privilege that is, that you are able to go to the living God, the creator of the ends of the earth, and seek him on behalf of a brother or a sister or a place? All the time? All the time. Continually. Not spasmodically. But you know, such a call makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Because the battle goes on continually; therefore, the need for prayer is in the same realm.
I remember reading some years ago now of a resident in New York City who used to go routinely to a delicatessen where, I think, it was a Korean man who was the proprietor. And on one occasion, as he’d gone in some strange hour of the early morning, maybe two or three in the morning, he said to the proprietor, he said, “You know, I’ve never come in here but you are here.” He said, “Why are you here twenty-four seven?” And the man said, “Because I pay rent twenty-four seven.” There’s a lesson for all the economists among us. Why would you pray continually? Because we face the battle continually.
Now, it’s important as well, when we think about this, that we don’t imagine that Paul is suggesting that every so often—like, every time they encounter something along the way—they stop and they have a sort of formal prayer meeting, you know, so that all these members of Ephesus are bringing everything to a crashing halt in their workplace or whatever it might be because they have to engage in prayer in this way. No, I don’t believe that he has that in mind at all. I think probably what he is recognizing is the fact that the prayers of the faithful may be loud, they may be audible, but they often will be inaudible.
The hymn writer gets it well when he provides us with this terminology:
Prayer is the soul’s [sincere] desire
Expressed in thought or word;
The burning of a hidden fire,
A longing for the Lord.
This is prayer. So it is expressed both in thought and in word—so, continually engaged, as it were, with the living God.
Prayer is the secret battleground
Where victories are won;
By prayer the will of God is found
And work for him begun.
So, in short order, this call to “all prayer” is an expression of our dependence upon God. It’s not optional; it is essential, because actually, it is impossible for us to enjoy an intimate relationship with God without it, no less than the fact that you can’t enjoy an intimate relationship with your spouse apart from the engagement of communication. Not necessarily talking all the time! You can drive in the car for fifteen or twenty miles and never talk. But there is communion.
That’s the first “all.”
Then the second “all,” you will see, is right there in the text as well: “Praying at all times,” and then, “with all prayer.” What does that mean? Well, the NIV translates it, “with all kinds of [prayer] and requests.” That is helpful, and I think that is exactly what Paul is saying. He’s talking about the way in which we come to God in prayer.
Some of us have learned through our years as Sunday school students, and then in Bible classes, the importance of ACTS, helping us to remind ourselves that part of prayer is A for adoration—that we come to God, as it were, in the words of the popular song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Nothing more, nothing less. Were you ever worried by your children doing that? Did you ever say, “Well, that’s an irrelevancy”? Not for a moment! They called you from college: “I’m busy right now, but I just wanted to say…” We come to God like that. Adoration. Sometimes we might write a poem and say it.
C for confession—recognizing that, as Luther says, repentance is not something that triggers off our Christian life but that repentance is a daily experience; saying to God in the course of a day, catching ourselves, “I confess to you, Father, that I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
T for thanksgiving—thanking God in our prayers.
I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart,
I will enter his courts with praise;
I will say this is the day … the Lord has made,
I will rejoice, for he has made me glad.
What I find most helpful about that is it’s entirely volitional. None of it is emotional. So, the real test of our thankful hearts is when there doesn’t really appear to be very much for which to be thankful. When it was like, you know… When it was raining like Glasgow, your immediate reaction—at least mine—is not to go, “This is the day the Lord has made.” It’s to go, “Man, I hate this day. This is what it used to be like.” No, you see, it is an expression of who God is and what really is.
Supplication. S for supplication, or petition, or expression of needs—coming to God and acknowledging that it is entirely legitimate to ask, to knock, to seek. Indeed, he bids us do this. He bids us come and tell him exactly what’s going on and where our concern lies and what we’re really interested in. And sometimes they’re big things, and other times they’re small things. Daniel, in chapter 9, comes to God; he says, “O my God, incline your ear and hear [my prayer]. … Delay not, for your own sake, … because your city and your people are called by your name.” You see the significance of that? He’s not concerned about himself. He’s concerned about God and his glory. How vastly different from most of my prayers! How vastly different from the average time of prayer when a small group gets together and says, “Now let’s pray.” Learning to pray enabled by the Holy Spirit and guided by the Scriptures will inevitably focus our eyes on the gospel and the glory of God and the purpose of the church.
It is a real tragedy, isn’t it, when, in conversation with those whom we love, it has become entirely perfunctory, saying the same things over and over again. In fact, instead of it being marked by variety, it is marked by monotony. And so I said to myself this week, “I need to learn to pray.” I said with the disciples—I’m sure you’ve done in the week that has passed—“Lord, teach us [how] to pray”: “Teach me to pray when I walk along the road, when I lie down, when I get up. Teach me to pray formally and structured prayers as I have to. Teach me to pray standing or kneeling, audibly or inaudibly, publicly or privately. Teach me to pray groaning. Teach me to pray crying. Teach me to pray.”
It’s a long time since we studied Nehemiah for the first time; it was actually 1983. And when we began to look at that book together, we realized that the immediate response of Nehemiah to the condition of the people of God in Jerusalem was for him to sit down and to weep, and then to pray. And his opening prayer is fairly extensive. But as we began to work our way through the book, we realized that he didn’t always pray at such length. In fact, some of his prayers we would regard as what we refer to as “arrow prayers”—just fired it straight up, immediately. And, for example, he, on one occasion confronted by the animosity of the folks who were against him, said, “[So] we prayed to our God and [we] posted a guard.” Or when going to the king to make his request, he said, “So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king…” There probably wouldn’t be very much in that, just a silent prayer: “Oh God, help me.”
You see, often prayer is actually in the groaning and in the crying. You know, it’s true that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” You remember when Isaiah, in the midst of his circumstances, he says, “Oh!” “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.” There’s a ton just in the “oh.” “Oh!” God listens to our “ohs.” He listens to our groans. In fact, we know that the Holy Spirit actually makes sense of our groans, so that we pray constantly, and we pray variously.
And thirdly, we pray perseveringly: “all perseverance.” “To that end, keep alert with all perseverance.” In other words, we dare not be overcome by dreamy carelessness, the way in which the disciples were overcome by a kind of dreamy carelessness. Jesus had said to them, you remember, in the prospect of his death, “Watch and pray [so] that you [do] not enter into temptation.” And they did neither, and they found themselves in real difficulty.
In many ways, what you have here is an echo of the words of Jesus, and also it is in keeping with what Paul said to the Ephesian elders, which is recorded for us in Acts chapter 20. Before he took his leave of them, he said to them, “After my departure there will arise fierce wolves who will seek to draw away people after them and draw them away from all that I have taught you about Jesus and about the gospel. And so,” he says, “keep alert.” Keep alert! Keep alert. Stay awake. Be watchful. And it is the watchfulness which then is the key to the perseverance. Sinclair Ferguson, helpful as ever, says, “Christ is building his church on territory that has been occupied by an enemy. Alertness is always essential when living in a war zone.”
Now, in this matter of perseverance… And I think persevering in prayer is very, very difficult. It’s a bit like an exercise program. When you go for your physical, the fellow says to you, doctor says to you, “And how are you doing with the exercise?” I say, “Well, I have bursts of enthusiasm followed by periods of chronic inertia.” And he said, “Okay, I get that.” I’d have to say, that would be true in terms of prayer: bursts of enthusiasm followed by periods of chronic inertia.
We used to have Jim Reeves records in our home. My father played them on Sunday afternoon. It was dreadful. He used to put a stack of them on—LPs—and he would fall asleep within two or three tracks. He never knew how horrible it was. But if you ever tried to turn it off, he woke immediately. But one of his favorites was a Jim Reeves record—that old country singer. And I can still remember Reeves’s voice singing out,
How long has it been since you talked with the Lord
[Since you] told him your heart’s hidden secrets?
How long since you prayed, how long since you stayed
On your knees till the [dawn broke] through?
So you see, even my father was teaching me with his dreadful records. ’Cause then I would be ten, and now I’m sixty-six. So fifty-six years after those dreadful Sunday afternoons, the voice of Reeves mingles with the voice of Paul, mingles with my voice to your ears, so that together we might ask ourselves, “What do we know about persevering in prayer?”
You see, one of the reasons that we’re tempted to quit, to give up, is because we see no immediate response. And in our atomized world, our instantaneous world, this is a real difficulty. When you used to write letters across the Atlantic Ocean, it took five days to get there, a few days to be read and absorbed, and then a while before it came back to you. Well, you learned to wait. But now you want to see on your phone that it says, “Delivered.” And then now you want to know why it is that since it was delivered, you don’t have any kind of answer.
Surely this is why, in part, Jesus said to his disciples, “I’m gonna tell you a parable. I’m gonna tell you a parable to help you with this, to make sure that you understand that you should always pray and not give up.” And the temptation to give up often combines with the gap that exists between the prayer, or the continual prayer, and the period of time that is represented in the journey of our lives where we don’t see an answer.
Have you never prayed with the psalmist in Psalm 13? “How long will you forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long must I have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long are you gonna hide your face from me?” You see, that’s the cry of a persevering pray-er. It’s the cry of an honest pray-er.
Well, you say to me, “Well, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to explain the fact that God doesn’t seem to answer? What do you do in that situation?” Well, you can either just give up completely, or we can persevere—persevere in the knowledge that God loves me, that God reigns over the affairs of the universe, and that God and his way are always best.
Anselm, who was the archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the eleventh century, writes on one occasion, “God does not delay to hear our prayers because he has no mind to give, but that by enlarging our desires, he may give us the more largely.” “I want it now. I want the answer now. I want to see this now. I want this resolved now.” And the Father, who knows best, determines that when it is resolved, then, according to his time and his good purpose, the benefit to the prayer will be realized with a greater sense of joy because of the wait.
Similarly but more colloquially, Spurgeon, in his own inimitable way, says some blessings are like ripe fruit in autumn, which falls readily into our hands; but for some blessings, you need to give the tree a good shaking. And some of us have been shaking some of these branches for a while, have we not? Some of us are gonna have to be content to trust God that he will fulfill his covenant promises, and that should we not see it this side of eternity, we will on the far side realize that God who loves us, the God who reigns, the God whose will is best, will fulfill his promises. And in that, we continue.
That brings us to the fourth and final “all.” “All times,” constantly. “All prayer,” variously. “All perseverance,” unstintingly. “All the saints,” expansively or globally: “making supplication for all the saints.”
Now, I looked at this again and again. I said, “It would have been so much easier if it had said ‘some’ instead of ‘all.’” ’Cause then we could all have relaxed, you know. Praying sometimes: “Oh, yes, I do it sometimes.” And “some perseverance”: “Yes…” And “for some of the saints.” ’Cause there’s a number of them I don’t wanna pray for!
You see, it’s natural and it’s entirely legitimate for us to pray about our own personal needs. The Bible encourages us to do that, to bring the concerns of our own hearts and our own homes to him. But when we do so, and when we see prayer only, if you like, in that limited way—when we see prayer providing for, if you like, our personal benefit—then what we need to realize is that that is exactly the way the non-Christian views the notion of prayer. Unbelieving people, if they have any idea of prayer at all, they view it in those terms. It’s something that’s like a divine ATM that you can get stuff for yourself if you just go about it the right way. So it’s all self-oriented. So when the Christian population appears only to be preoccupied in a very isolated way—even a church concerned only for itself—then we’re not much different from those who’ve got no idea about the things that Paul is teaching us here. No, what Paul is calling for his readers to do—and we’re his readers—is to look beyond themselves to the needs of “all the saints.” “All the saints.”
The very last new song that was recorded by the Beatles on the third of January 1970— that’s a long time ago, nearly half a century—was recorded without John Lennon being present. It was written by George Harrison, and there is a prize for the person who can tell me the title of the song. “I Me Mine.” “I Me Mine.” Harrison, influenced by his Hinduism, was addressing the issue of the ego. And the irony of it was that it was the very issue of the ego which was destroying the band. It was the fact that they were only concerned, actually, about “I, me, and mine.” And, of course, what happened? You will never be able to sustain community life on the basis of that kind of self-focus.
And so I think it is legitimate to segue from there to say this: that our prayers, individually and corporately, will always languish and will finally stutter to a halt without two things: number one, a God-centered perspective, and number two, a God-centered trust. So in other words, we are asking ourselves, “What is God’s plan for the world? What has God promised to do?” Well, he has promised to put together a people that are his very own from every tribe and nation and language and tongue and so on. Therefore, we can legitimately pray to the end that many people from many places, both in our own immediate area and throughout the entire globe, will become the committed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why is it that in certain periods of history certain areas of the world have been singularly blessed? Why is it that New England prospered as it did in an earlier part of our history? Why is it that Jonathan Edwards is buried over there on the East Coast? Why is it that so many influential people were there, and there was such a pulsating power of the gospel via Whitefield and the rest? And yet today there is very little evidence of it at all. Why is it that mainland China has known such a significant growth under persecution? Well, why is it that around here, as I drive back and forth, some fields are fallow, and some fields are already reseeded? I don’t know. But I can find out if I ask the farmer. Because the farmer knows exactly what he’s doing with his fields, and he has a plan that the average bystander will not be able to lay hold on without checking.
So what is God doing in the world? We will have to ask him. We will have to acknowledge that if we’re going to pray for all the saints, it’s gonna force us to a radical shift in perspective. It’s gonna address us as Americans to stop seeing the world as spinning outwards from Washington, D.C., or as Brits from still clinging to some strange notion that we have an empire and that it is entirely legitimate that this tiny cluster of islands known as the United Kingdom should be in the very middle of any map of the world, thereby suggesting what it was planned to suggest: “We are the center of the world. Didn’t you know?”
I came across an old article in the BBC Magazine. It’s old, 2012. I found it by happenstance. The article’s heading was “Why Modern Maps Put Everyone at the Centre of the World.” “How,” the writer asked, “will the death of paper maps change the way we live[?]” “A thousand years ago Jerusalem stood at the centre of the Christian world view, or if you lived in China it was Youzou. But now it is … a throbbing green dot on our [phones]. We no longer travel from A to B”; we travel “from Me to B.” Because as soon as we bring it up, there we are, right at the center of it all. And you know that if you have used a GPS walking—for example, in a city like Chicago—you could walk three or four miles without ever looking around to see who is there or what is there or anything’s there at all, ’cause all you’re doing is tracking in that way.
Well, is the application legitimate? You can decide. The writer of that article said, concerning this, “The loss is historical, social and monumental.” I said to one of my grandchildren the other day, “I met a couple, and one is from Syria, and one is from the Ukraine.” And the girl said to me, “Where are they?” And I said, “Well, I can show you on the globe in my study.” And then she didn’t say anything at all—but I know she was sitting there, goes, “What is a globe in a study?” And I realized I’m a Neanderthal. But you knew that.
No, the application is clear, at least to me. The task assigned is unfinished: to reach the world for Jesus Christ. And the unfinished task will never be accomplished absent God-centered praying. Without sincere, sensible, Spirit-filled outpouring of our souls to God, asking him for such things as he has promised, we will remain in the doldrums.
It’s a challenge, isn’t it? I find it such.
 Ephesians 4:1 (ESV).
 Ephesians 1:1 (ESV).
 Ephesians 1:16 (ESV).
 James Montgomery, “Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire” (1818).
 Stevie Wonder, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (1984).
 See, for instance, the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.
 Isaiah 6:5 (paraphrased).
 Leona von Brethorst, “I Will Enter His Gates” (1976).
 See Matthew 7:7.
 Daniel 9:18–19 (ESV).
 Luke 11:1 (ESV).
 See Deuteronomy 6:7.
 See Nehemiah 1:4.
 Nehemiah 4:9 (NIV).
 Nehemiah 2:4–5 (ESV).
 Matthew 12:34 (ESV). See also Luke 6:45.
 Isaiah 64:1 (ESV).
 See Romans 8:26.
 Matthew 26:41 (ESV).
 Acts 20:29–31 (paraphrased).
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005), 186.
 Jim Reeves, “How Long Has It Been” (1958).
 See Luke 18:1.
 Psalm 13:1–2 (paraphrased).
 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Special Prayer-Meeting,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle 21, no. 1247, 437.
 See Philippians 4:6.
 See Revelation 7:9.
 Simon Garfield, “Why Modern Maps Put Everyone at the Centre of the World,” BBC Magazine, 12 October 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19908848.
 Garfield, “Modern Maps.”
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.