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What did Paul pray about, when he thought about his Christian friends? In his letters, we can find seven different passages which illustrate some of the things he prayed for. Each passage will be examined separately, for some of them are too deep and rich in meaning, for them to be easily broken-down into separate components, so that all of the verses could be combined into a single outline. [An attempt to combine the basic elements of each prayer into a single outline is given at the end of this study - see "Appendix 1."]
Read 2 Corinthians 13:5-10. Before this passage, Paul has had to rebuke the Corinthians (or at least some of them) for ongoing sin in their lives. He is fearful that some of them will continue in their refusal to repent. Because of this, he challenges them to examine their salvation, to find out if it is genuine (v.5). He seems confident that most will pass the test - and he hopes they will realize that he also passes the test (v. 6).
Paul prays that they will not do anything wrong, but only what is right (v. 7). Of course, his opponents may claim that this prayer has a hidden, self-centered agenda. They always tried to find fault with him, and might claim that Paul really wants to build-up a good reputation for himself. So he expresses the intent of his prayer: He is not so concerned about whether or not people think that he (and those with him) have passed or failed the test. Personally, he is compelled to stand strong with the truth (v. 8), but he is willing to have a reputation of "weakness" if it would be for the spiritual good of the Corinthians. His primary desire is for their perfection, or maturity - not his own reputation of "strength" (v. 9).
In previous chapters, Paul has had to write some harsh things to them. His enemies would claim that it was a pretension of "strength" - a strength that he would fail to have, if he were present (see 10:1-2). Yet everything Paul has said has been said for the purpose of building them up, not for tearing them down (v. 10). He does not enjoy having to speak in this "harsh" manner, and if they take heed to what he has written, then he will not have to be this way when he is physically present.
Read Philippians 1:3-11. These people were special to Paul, and he had plenty of reasons to be thankful for them (v. 3). God had begun a good work in their lives - it was evident by the way they lived - and Paul was convinced that God would complete the good work he had begun (v. 6). Paul's prayer was an expression of his desire for this to happen.
Paul's ultimate goal was that they would live lives that resulted in praise and glory to God (v. 11). To do this in its fullest, they would have to begin with a foundation of love and knowledge. This foundation would become the basis of their perspective on all things, and would eventually have an impact on every part of their lives.
Love cannot be torn away from knowledge and insight. Knowledge and insight provide the framework that defines genuine love; love is the practical outworking of genuine knowledge and insight. And so, the apostle prayed that their love, knowledge and insight would increase to the point of overflowing (v. 9). This would "spill out" into all their lives, and would give them the ability to discern what was best, the ability to know what really mattered in life (v. 10).
Of course, this discernment, if genuine, would affect the way they lived. As they turned away from doing things that were trivial (and at times sinful), and sought to do things that had lasting value, their lives would become characterized as being pure and blameless (v. 10). They would have "fruitful" lives, characterized by doing what was good (v. 11).
We must remember to give credit where it is due. Paul reminds them that this ability to do what is good is possible only because of what Jesus Christ has done (v. 11). We do these things, to the glory and praise of God, but we remember that it is God who made it possible for us to do them. We were once dead in sins; it is he who made us alive and able to do what is good. (Compare to Ephesians 2:1-10.) As Paul already mentioned (v. 6), it is God who began a good work in us (a work which enables us to do our good works), and he will bring to completion what he has begun in us.
Read Colossians 1:3-14. God uses the good news of salvation and hope (v. 5-6) to change a person's life. When someone accepts the good news, faith and love begin to be characteristic of his life: faith (trust) in God, and love for God and people. Paul had learned about the faith and love that emanated from the lives of these people - it showed that God was working in their lives - and he was filled with thankfulness for what God was doing.
However, these people were still growing in their understanding of what this new life meant. They were still learning about how it should express itself in the way they live. And so, in this prayer, Paul prayed that they would grow in their ability to live a life that was worthy of such a glorious life-changing calling (v. 10).
To start, they would need to grow in their understanding of God's will. This would require them to focus on God's Word, which is the expression of his will. In doing this, they would grow in spiritual wisdom and understanding (v. 9).
Scripture does not separate knowledge from action. The person who claims to know the truth, but does not live the truth, does not really know it, in the way that the Bible requires. (In that case, he is no better off than the demons, who also know the truth - James 2 19b.) In this prayer, Paul says that the reason they need spiritual wisdom and understanding is so that they will be able to live appropriately - to live a life that is fitting for a person who belongs to the Lord, a life that is well-pleasing to God (v. 10).
What type of life comes as the result of having spiritual wisdom and understanding? It is a life that focuses on obeying the two great commands given by Jesus (Matthew 22:37-40), about love for God and for neighbor. Love for neighbor is fulfilled by an eagerness to do what is good for others - the apostle calls this a "fruitful" life. Love for God involves getting to know God better - not merely gaining additional knowledge about him, but getting to know him as savior and friend. (It also involves a desire for moral purity - a desire to become "Christ-like.")
Interestingly, though love for God is the greatest of these two commands, the apostle focuses first on their love for people, for "neighbors." This may be due to the fact that the person who is unwilling to love other people cannot love God, who made those people - see 1 John 3:10 and 4:20. Those who want to be called God's "sons" (and "daughters") must love even their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).
We have plenty of reasons for wanting to get to know God better. After all, he is the source of all our strength. It is because of his power, that we can have the endurance and patience (v. 11) that is often necessary, when it comes to loving our "neighbor" (as well as for getting us through any of the other trials of life).
When we know God, and realize all he has done for us, we have every reason in the world to be filled with joy and overflowing with gratitude for what he has done. After all, it is he who made us part of his kingdom, and able to share in the "inheritance" that will be ours in the future (v. 12). It is he who snatched us away from the "kingdom of darkness" and brought us into his glorious "kingdom of the Son" (v. 13). It is he who paid our debt and forgave us our sins (v. 14).
Read verses 4-7. These people had a faith and a love that gave great joy and encouragement to Paul - who was always interested in their good. Since genuine faith always expresses itself, Paul's prayer was not that it would begin to exist, but that it would be exceedingly fruitful - that much good would be accomplished because of it. He also wanted them to grow in their understanding that every good thing ultimately came from Christ. It is when they give credit to the one who deserves it (Christ), that their expression of faith would accomplish the maximum good.
This concept of "sharing one's faith" does not refer to "soul winning," which is often described as "sharing the faith" with unbelievers. Rather, Paul prayed that, as a group, they would live-out their faith - that they would put it into practice in all that they did.
Read Ephesians 1:3-23. The apostle Paul begins this book with a focus on the wonders of God's gracious kindness - a kindness that began with salvation, but will continue for all eternity. The Ephesian Christians were recipients of this kindness - as could be seen by the faith and love (the results of salvation) that were present in their lives. And so Paul gave thanks to the God who made all this possible.
In his prayer, Paul wants them to get to know God better. Of course, he doesn't mean learning a list of facts about God, but getting to know God personally. Interestingly, we are not only dependent on God for our salvation and our wonderful future; we also depend on him to reveal himself to us, so that we can get to know him better! And so, the apostle prays that God will give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. Then they will become capable of knowing God - and increasingly so (v. 17)!
One aspect of getting to know our God involves learning about the wonderful things he has done for us - things in the past and in the present, as well as the wonderful things he has in store for us, in the future. Here Paul focuses on the future: He prays that they may begin to understand the wonderful hope to which God has called us (v. 18). This is something we can look forward to, with great expectation; it is nothing like the world's "hope," which amounts to mere wishful thinking. It's a hope based on God's own gracious kindness, which he has freely given to all who trust him. Our hope includes not only all the wonders God has in store for us, but also the presence of Jesus Christ, who will be with us forever.
Presently, we have the Holy Spirit, who is a guarantee that all this will someday take place (v. 13-14). But the apostle Paul wants to reassure us even further: Not only has God made a promise (whose certainty of fulfillment is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit), but he also has all the power necessary to accomplish what he has promised (v. 19). How great is God's power? It is incredibly great! It is the same power that God used, when he raised Christ from the dead and exalted him higher than all powers and authorities, whether they exist now, or in the future (v. 20-21)! And the amazing thing is that he did all this for us, the people who belong to Jesus. In God's sight, our connection with Jesus is so intimate, that he calls us Jesus' "body." Jesus is our "head" (v. 22-23)!
When we consider the way we began, dead in sin (2:1+), and consider the fact that God has made us alive (2:4+), and when we look at all the wonders God still has in store for us, what else can we do, but praise him for his glorious kindness (1:14)!
Read Ephesians 3:1, 3:13-21. God had given Paul the task of proclaiming the good news of salvation to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Opponents of the good news often created much trouble for him, and in this instance, caused him to be imprisoned. But he was more than willing to experience these things, for the sake of those who would accept the truth. He was willing to experience anything that might result in good for them. And so, he urged them to not become discouraged, when they saw the suffering he had to endure (v. 13). It was willingly done, for their sake.
Paul wanted them to focus on the goodness of God, not on the temporary suffering he might have to endure, for their sake. And so he prayed that God would strengthen them and would open their eyes to the wonders of his (God's) love. He wanted them to experience everything that could possibly be a part of the wonderful relationship we have with God.
God has an unlimited amount of resources, to accomplish whatever he desires. His Spirit also resides within us, to bring this power into our lives. And so, to begin his prayer, Paul asks that God would give them the inner strength they needed. He knew that, on our own, we are weak; but he also knew that the Spirit would tap into God's unlimited resources, and provide the energy necessary for this strength (v. 16).
Paul wanted them to have a growing relationship with Christ, a relationship of trust that was based on the love of Christ for them. And so, he prayed not only that Christ would be at home in their hearts, and that their lives would be firmly grounded in love (v. 17), he also prayed that their understanding of this love would increase. He wanted them to realize not only that this love was immensely great, but that it far exceeded anything they could comprehend (v. 18-19).
Rather than a life of discouragement (as in v. 13), Paul wanted them to experience life in its fullness (v. 19) - a life totally immersed in, and energized by, a love that far exceeds our comprehension. Such a "full life" can only be found in God. And with the glorious riches of his power (as in v. 16), God can accomplish this in ways that go beyond anything we could ever dream (v. 20)! No wonder he deserves eternal praise, glory and honor (v. 21)!
Read 2 Thessalonians 1:3-11. Many of Paul's prayers focus on what his readers should do. Here, the main focus is on what God alone can do.
These people had a growing faith and love - something that Paul could be very thankful for (v. 3). However, others who opposed this way of life also opposed them, and were an ongoing source of persecution. They remained faithful, even under persecution, and developed a perseverance that would shine as an example for others to follow (v. 4).
Paul reminded them that a day of justice was coming. Their suffering would not be in vain, but would be rewarded generously. On that day, all of God's holy people (all genuine Christians) will give God praise and glory. These people (who Paul was writing to) would also have a part in that glorious occasion (v. 5-10).
Although they were experiencing trials for the moment, God had called these people to something wonderful. Here Paul prays that God would do what was necessary to make them worthy of that calling. He also prayed that God would accomplish all the good they desired, and would bless everything they did - everything that was an expression of their trust in him (v. 11).
Why did he pray this? First, it is because he desired that Jesus would be glorified and honored through what they did. (Giving God glory and honor is not just something that we are to do in the future; it is a privilege we can participate in even now.) Second, Paul knew that they, too, would be able to share in Jesus' glory, because of their union with Jesus. This was made possible - and it would someday take place - all because of the gracious (and undeserved) kindness of God (v. 12).
We who choose to associate with Jesus should not be surprised if we end-up suffering for him (compare to John 15:18-19 and 1 John 3:13). In Jesus' eyes, we are sharing in his suffering. Do not be discouraged! When we suffer in this way, we have every reason to take heart, because God has promised that those who are willing to share in his suffering will also be able to share in his glory (Romans 8:17; 1 Peter 4:13).
As we go through trials, God himself will protect us and strengthen us (1 Peter 5:10). The trials we endure will make our faith purer - it will prove whether or not it is genuine (1 Peter 1:6-7). And in the end, all of God's promises will hold true. Our faithfulness and patience during the trials of this life will not be in vain, or a waste of our time and our lives: Jesus, the one who was willing to suffer for us will freely share his glory and honor with those who are willing to suffer for him (2 Thessalonians 1:12)!
Dennis Hinks © 1999, 2001
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