Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Marching as to War

“... making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel ... that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”

This is not the only time Paul asks for prayer specifically for himself and for the work he was engaged in. Colossians 4 contains a similar request, as do both Paul’s first and second letters to Thessalonica. We may take it this was an apostolic custom. The writer to the Hebrews does the same.

I wonder why.

A Work of Critical Importance

“Well, that’s obvious,” we say. “He knew the work he was doing was of critical importance and he wanted it to succeed.”

Perhaps. Paul’s work in church planting all over the Middle East, Europe and Asia was certainly important in a way no single missionary effort can be today. He was writing at a time when scripture had yet to be completed. The things he taught in these new, largely Gentile churches were not just the product of years of Old Testament study but of the prophetic word of God, as Paul tells the Galatians. He speaks of “revelation” repeatedly; things newly discovered in re-examining the Old Testament scriptures in the light of the life of Christ, but also new truths revealed specifically to him, and, as we know from the books of Acts and Revelation, to other apostles as well.

This revelation was transformative. Lives were changing, churches were being planted and thriving, and whole cultures were experiencing seismic upheavals. Demetrius the silversmith complained, “Not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.” The groundwork was being done for Christianity to spread not just across the world but down through the centuries so that we continue to benefit from that word of truth today. We must concede that Paul’s work was of unique importance and certainly worthy of the attention and time he asked his fellow believers to devote to it.

Rallying the Troops?

However, a moment’s reflection reminds us that the success of the work of God does not depend on successfully rallying the troops. God’s purposes are never frustrated because of insufficient numbers in either the physical or spiritual realm. Do we seriously imagine angels are tabulating the number of committed prayer warriors weighing in on every divine initiative and either canceling or delaying proposed acts of God’s sovereign will when Christians react to them with insufficient enthusiasm? Please. The very idea is absurd.

Moreover, God has a well-established track record of undertaking major initiatives in this world with pretty much zero ground support. Consider the following examples: To give birth to Israel, he selected Abram and unilaterally brought him out of Ur on the recommendation of exactly nobody. To save a nation, he chose Joseph against the wishes of all his brothers. To bring Israel out of Egypt, he chose a rejected shepherd, and to bring his people into the promised land, his understudy, who had stood against the Israelite majority at every turn during their time in the wilderness. To establish Israel in prominence among the nations and to foretell the coming millennial reign of Christ, he raised up David, who was the very last son of Jesse anyone thought would amount to anything, and then Solomon, whose own brothers tried to thwart his rule and steal his throne. To destroy Baal’s influence in Israel, he called Elijah, through whom he accomplished his purposes in a single day against 450-to-1 odds. To save his dispersed people from genocidal Haman, he chose Esther, who nobody even knew was a Jew, and who was one women among hundreds in a pagan harem. To bring that nation back to its inheritance, he used Ezra and Nehemiah, figures of comparative insignificance in the world order. In none of these choices did he consult anyone.

To prepare the way for the Lord, he selected John the Baptist, who lived in the desert eating locusts and wild honey. To effect eternal salvation for millions, a single babe in a manger in Bethlehem. To transform the whole world with his message of the gospel, a mere eleven men, none of them prominent members of society.

None of these game-changing events required the prayers of the saints to make them happen, though surely there were many in Israel and elsewhere who prayed for and anticipated them. None of them depended on mustering adequate numbers of prayer warriors. God may have kept for himself seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed to Baal, but they were no help to Elijah when he stood on Carmel alone in front of 450 sworn enemies and a king who wanted him dead, not even as a morale booster; Elijah didn’t even come to know of their existence until a chapter later.

One Man with God

God is almighty. He will be what he will be, and he will do what he will do, and nobody will ever gainsay him, frustrate his purposes or even slow him down. One man with God on his side can put 1,000 to flight. If God intended to reach the Gentiles through Paul, he was going to reach the Gentiles through Paul, whether every foaming-at-the-mouth Jewish Christian-hater, every down-at-heels Gentile silversmith, every king and every empire stood in his way. In this sense at least, the prayers of the saints in Ephesus, Colossae, Galatia, Thessalonica and even Jerusalem were superfluous at best.

So then, Paul was not asking the Ephesians to pray for him because their spiritual involvement was of critical importance to his success in accomplishing the work to which God had called him. We need to look elsewhere for the apostle’s motivation in making his request. Perhaps we should look at the passage.

The Whole Armor of God

Paul has just been writing about putting on the whole armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the foundation of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, praying at all times in the Spirit, which is not to say in some euphoric state, but in harmony with and under the direction of what the Holy Spirit has written for us in God’s word.

The reason for putting on armor, and for praying “at all times”, is that believers are engaged in a war. We need spiritual armor because we are called to fight against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” We Christians are not merely hobbits sitting comfortably in the Shire, hoping one day to make our way from the Grey Havens across the sea in a great white ship far into the West. We are called, in all our smallness and weakness, to march into Mordor under the eye of Sauron.

Enough Tolkien metaphors. But perhaps you get my drift. Paul is telling the Ephesians prayer is serious business. Warriors need to be aware they are in a war. They need to be watching the tide of the battle, engaged at every twist and turn. They need to be listening eagerly to every word from the Commander in Chief and acting in absolute harmony with his goals and purposes.

Onward, Christian Soldiers

So then, when Paul asks for their prayers for him, he is not asking selfishly, and he is not asking because he needs them. He is asking for the sake of the Ephesians, for their spiritual profit and in view of their Christian maturity. He has not shared the word of God with them merely to make their current existence more palatable and peaceful. He wants them to be conscious participants in an ongoing work of unbelievable scope and significance, and he wants them to benefit from the reward of victorious soldiers.

God will win the battle, of course. He always does. Ask Elijah. But he does not want his people sitting idly by as we are moved inexorably toward the ultimate exaltation of Christ on this earth, oblivious to the big picture view of what God is doing in the world, our prayer lives consumed with our own petty needs and desires. That would not befit warriors. Warriors fight.

So how big-picture are your prayers? How big are mine? Are we praying at all times in the Spirit with our eyes on eternity or, when looking to heaven, are we occupied with material goodies, health, safety, peace and satisfaction in the here-and-now? Are we in a spiritual war, or are we too busy begging to be preserved from COVID-19 to make the cosmic powers over this present darkness the subject of fervent and regular prayer?

Think about that during your next prayer meeting. Ask yourself if you are praying about things with which God is truly concerned, or only about things with which we are.

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