Imagine the situation: The “best” and most effective missionary your church supports is suddenly arrested and thrown into prison. You need to rally prayer for his situation, so you take to email, Facebook, announcements in church, specially called prayer meetings—any way you can to enlist intercession.
What do you pray? Of course, your first prayer is, “Lord, free him from prison. He needs to get back on the front lines of ministry.”
That was exactly the situation that faced the church at Ephesus—minus the email and Facebook, of course. Believers received word that the apostle Paul had been arrested in Rome. He was chained to two guards day and night. The church needed to rally everyone to pray. But how were they supposed to pray?
They were probably dumbfounded when Paul sent word: “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Eph. 6:19–20). Wait. Paul can’t possibly be asking to stay in prison. He must have forgotten to mention the obvious need to be released. Why was Paul asking for help in declaring the gospel when he was no longer able to preach to anyone while in prison? Or was he?
Paul was not being guarded by just any guards—he was being guarded by Caesar’s elite bodyguards. These were the guys most loyal to Caesar who would be given highly responsible positions in the Roman Empire for their faithful service. They would rule the Roman Legions in Judea, Gaul, Spain, and Britain. And Paul was declaring the gospel to them.
I can picture Paul, working on some letter to some church, turning to one of his guards and saying, “Hey, Marcus. Will you read this part? Does this make sense to you?” He was asking for prayer for fearlessness in his witness because he knew he was right where he could be most effective for the kingdom.
Can you imagine how rapidly the gospel could spread around the known world if these guards—who now held positions of authority over these regions of the world—became believers of Jesus Christ?
Somehow over the past 30-40 years or so, the Western Church has missed the boat on the power and purpose of prayer. In our attempts to grow our churches the American way—get as big as possible—we have changed the focus of our prayers from growing the kingdom of God to making our lives better.
Most churches focus all their prayer efforts and experiences on meeting the needs of their people. So they have prayer chains, times in services to pray for people, prayer sheets for requests, and so on. These are all good things to pray toward. But when these kinds of prayers become the main thrust of a church’s prayer focus—or worse, the only thing—something is severely out of whack. That church will not grow the kingdom!
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a challenge to put His kingdom over our needs:
“Therefore, I say to you, take no thought about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they do not sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much better than they? Who among you by taking thought can add a cubit to his stature?
“Why take thought about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They neither work, nor do they spin. Yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. Therefore, if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is here and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore, take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (For the Gentiles seek after all these things.) For your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you. Therefore, take no thought about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take thought about the things of itself. Sufficient to the day is the trouble thereof” (Matt. 6:25–34).
While Jesus’ model prayer does support the practice of asking for daily needs, He first hits the importance of the kingdom: “… your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10). It would seem that, as a believer, it is more important to focus on growing the kingdom.