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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Prayer in the New Testament

My church, other churches I visit, and I, myself, don't pray according to the New Testament pattern. What is that pattern? Praying for other Christians.

I did a search for the word "pray," using the Bible Gateway, and the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. The KJV uses outdated language, but is in the public domain, so that I can include it on this page without violating copyright. A search for the word, "pray," without specifying whole words only, also returns such words as "prayer" and "praying." I searched the New Testament from Romans through Revelation, because I supposed that these 22 books give the best possible picture of the New Testament church. There were 59 occurrences of "pray," or a word containing it, in these books.

The churches that I attend spend most of their prayer time on people who are sick. I don't believe that there is anything wrong with that, but praying for the sick is not the emphasis of the New Testament. Of the 59 occasions mentioned above, only 4 seemed to be references to praying for the sick, and some of these were not certain, as they used the word "afflicted," which may refer to spiritual or other problems. (Please don't take the numbers given in this document as absolute. Using another version might have given a different count, and others might correctly interpret a meaning, where I have not.)

So, what did the New Testament church pray for? (Prayer, here, has the narrow meaning of supplication, or petition--asking for things. There should be other types of prayer, including confession, thanksgiving, and adoration.) Surely, if not for the sick, they must have prayed for non-believers to come to belief? Sorry, but that's not true. There are three references to praying for a brother (already a believer) who has sinned. The only clear reference to praying for someone to come to belief is this: Romans 10:1: Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. This is Paul's heart cry for his fellow Jews.

Perhaps the greatest mass conversion of unbelievers in history took place in conjunction with Pentecost. Although it is possible that the 120 disciples, meeting as described in Acts 1-2, were praying for non-believers, there's no evidence of that. It's hard to believe that they were praying for each of the 3,000 or so who came to belief, since this was a diverse group, people from several different racial and ethnic types, even speaking languages that the 120 didn't know. But the 120, especially Peter, were transformed, as a result of drawing aside and praying, and as a result of the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had told them to wait for the "promise of the Father," the infilling of the Holy Spirit, so presumably that's what they were mostly praying for.

So, what did the New Testament church really pray for? In two words, the answer is "each other."

In a number of places, Paul wrote that he prayed for other Christians, beginning with Romans 1:9: For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers. He described himself as Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; (Ephesians 6:18) and that he was constantly in prayer for the believers he had won to Christ: 2 Timothy 1:3: I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day;
Paul also wrote that Epaphras prayed for other Christians: Colossians 4:12: Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.
There are several other indications that Paul prayed for other Christians. Here are some of the things Paul prayed for, and, I believe, I should, also:

That other Christians don't sin: 2 Corinthians 13:7: Now I pray to God that ye do no evil; not that we should appear approved, but that ye should do that which is honest, though we be as reprobates.
The wording in the NIV for the last portion suggests that Paul wanted to be sure the the Corinthian church knew that his motive was not so that he, the founder of the church, would look good, but that they should not sin, just because God doesn't want Christians to sin. All Christians are subject to temptation--Christ Himself was--so can sin. We shouldn't.

That the love of other Christians may increase: Philippians 1:9: And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment;
And not just random love, but love guided by the Holy Spirit--Christ-filled love. According to C. S. Lewis, there are four types of love, corresponding to four different words in the Greek. The kind of love we should mostly pray for is the agape (agaph) love described in I Corinthians 13.

That other Christians might know God's will: Colossians 1:9: For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;
I suppose that this should be prayer for God's will for the life of the individual I am praying for, and also prayer for God's will generally--where does God want to work at this time, and how?

That other Christians might be sanctified: 1 Thessalonians 5:23: And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Merriam-Webster OnLine indicates that being sanctified means being set apart, and also free from sin. That should be me: set apart for God's use, and, so that God can use me, free from sin.

That other Christians may be worthy of God's calling: 2 Thessalonians 1:11:Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power:
How can we, imperfect, human, sinners that we are, be worthy of God's call on our lives? Obviously not at all, in our own strength. No wonder Paul prays for the Thessalonians, not exactly that they be worthy, but that they be counted as if they were. Here he also prays that these other Christians may do God's work.

That other Christians may effectively communicate God's message: 2 Thessalonians 3:1: Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you:
God wants His message to be communicated effectively. He wants us to pray that that will be so. God could have chosen to work without us (and sometimes He does) but He usually chooses to work through us. Prayer of this type is, apparently, a necessary part of God's plan to spread the gospel. If we do that, sinners will be saved.

In the letters of the New Testament, the readers were asked, and expected, to pray for Christians who were leaders. Here are some examples:
Romans 15:30: Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ's sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me;
2 Corinthians 1:11: Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf.
Colossians 4:3: Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds:
1 Thessalonians 5:25: Brethren, pray for us.
Hebrews 13:18: Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.

And then, of course, we have the best example possible, namely Jesus Christ. One of His most important prayers is recorded in John 17. The heart of that prayer is verses 9 - 18:
9 I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.
10 And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.
11 And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.
12 While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.
13 And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.
14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
15 I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.
16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
18 As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.

Christ's prayer was that Christians will be sent out into the needy world around us, and kept from the evil in that world.

Clearly, praying for other Christians is very important. I wish that I had done more of it, and that other Christians had prayed more for me. What should I pray for other Christians? What I should pray for them is that they become, or remain, pure in an impure world, and that their ministry be effective. I believe that these are the main things that the New Testament teaches that Christians ought to ask God for. (I should also thank God for them in my prayers.) This does not rule out praying for my own needs, and those of others, be they believers or not, but, it seems, if we place most of our prayer efforts on praying for other Christians to be pure and effective, God's kingdom can advance as it should, and many of the other things will take care of themselves.
For a much more thorough treatment of this subject, including scripture, see New Testament Verses on Prayer. It was published by Stand to Reason.

* * * *

My wife found a typo on July 25th, which I corrected. Thanks, and sorry.

I have also posted a list of places in Acts where a group of the members of the early church prayed together.

* * * *
On October 20, 2010, I found a typographical error, and corrected it.

I also noted, in reviewing the scripture used in this post, that there doesn't seem to be an example of prayer that Christians will have sufficient funds for their ministry.

* * * *
On March 7, 2013, I added the fifth paragraph, on Pentecost.

* * * *
On May 3, 2014, I posted this related bible study, on things that the New Testament says are in God's will, so that we can pray for them with confidence.
* * * *
On July 25, 2018, I re-did the search for the word, "prayer," and variants thereof, using the Blue Letter Bible, and the New International Version New Testament. This returned 72 uses of "pray" in the NIV NT, in 68 verses, plus 32 of "prayer," 21 of "prayed," 24 of "praying," and 3 of "prays." My search showed me that only 1 John 1:2, Acts 28:8, and James 5:14-16 mention praying for the sick.


Anonymous said...

Very good point Dr. LaBar. I think all of us at one point or another get into the habit of praying to God only to ask for help when we need it for ourselves, when we should be praying for our fellow Christians. Its something I definately need to work on.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article, Martin, thank you for posting it. I have never done a study on NT prayer in that way and it has certainly revealed to me how skewed my own emphases are. This will give me something to work on this week.

Nice work :-)

Anonymous said...

This is a great post!! Though my only disagreement is that the only place that we are commanded to pray for non-believers is Romans 10 (though, looking it over, I guess your point was pryaing that people would come to faith...). I would also add in 1 Timothy 2:1 - even staying away from the controversy among some circles of 2:4, the passage seems to clearly teach to pray for the leaders of our countries...which during Paul's day could hardly be called believers.

Not that this detracts from your main point at all - which was excellent.


Anonymous said...

An excellent and useful post. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

I fifth the motion, Martin :-)

I've always been bothered by routine prayers that seem superficial even when the concerns are real, i.e., prayers for needs other than spiritual ones. It's as if people are afraid to get too "personal" in their prayers, and sometimes, of course, privacy and other boundaries must be respected. But you've got to get a bit personal in order to really care for someone and really pray for them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Very much for your in depth analysis...It came at a time when my friend was deeply questioning the action of praying out loud...

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for your comment. I'm glad my post helped.

Martin LaBar said...

My apologies, Bonnie (although I may have commented on your blog, rather than here). Thanks for your comment. I agree.

atlibertytosay said...

This is an excellent observation.

I mostly pray for my family and friends of which 99% (maybe more) are fellow Christians - some more outward showing than others.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, atlibertytosay!