The Lord’s Day Evening

November 5, 2006

Ephesians 6:19-20

God’s New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians (LX)

The Full Armor of God (4):

Praying for Preachers

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Ephesians 6. We are now at the penultimate sermon in this series on the Book of Ephesians. One more to go! Tonight we’re looking at the end of the passage that deals with the armor of God.

We’ve been going through that section in Ephesians that has to do with the full armor of God. The last time we were together in this book we began to look at the prayer that was designed to undergird the whole of the armor that God has appointed for believers to wear.

Tonight we’re looking specifically at Paul’s prayer request for himself, because at the end of that section in which he exhorts Christians to pray always and to pray with all prayer and petition at all times in the Spirit, he goes on in verses 19-20 and asks for a prayer request for himself. Paul is particularly interested that the Ephesians not only pray for one another and for all believers, but that they pray for him. Especially he is concerned that they would pray for him to have boldness and clarity when he preaches the gospel. (And I find that quite extraordinary for the Apostle Paul — asking for these friends in Christ, a congregation that he had been called by God to plant and shepherd and feed — that he would ask them to specifically pray for him that he would be bold and plain…bold and clear in his preaching.) But I believe that if we look at these verses closely, we can actually find six specific petitions in them. I realize that he is explicitly asking for two prayer requests, but even in the way he asks these prayer requests, I think there are six things that remind us how we ought to pray for ministry.

Now let me say that there is a certain awkwardness in my preaching this text before my own congregation. I love to go preach this text before other congregations, to encourage them to pray for their preachers, but it feels just a little selfish for me to preach a whole sermon about how you can pray for me. So let me say very quickly that I’m concerned that we as a congregation would be prepared to pray for all faithful ministry along these lines. So you may well have connections with other faithful congregations in this city or state or nation, and this would give you an outline for how to pray for the ministers that are serving in those particular places. I am prayed for better than I deserve here at First Presbyterian Church, and so this is not a plea, it is not a jeremiad, it is not a remonstration with you to pray more faithfully, but it’s an encouragement for all of us as to how we ought to pray for gospel ministry.

So let’s go to God in prayer, and then let’s hear His word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for directing us even as to how we are to pray for preachers and for preaching, and for gospel ministry. And we pray, O God, that as we study this great passage tonight that we would be moved to greater faithfulness in prayer. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“..And pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

In this passage, the Apostle Paul, in the course of requesting two specific items of prayer from the Ephesians for his ministry, points us to the urgency of prayer for ministers, the solemnity of preaching the gospel, the goal of preaching the gospel, the aim of preaching to reach the hearts and consciences of those who are the hearers of that preaching, the importance of lifting up Christ, and of always proclaiming the gospel in preaching, and even the obligation of preachers to preach in season and out of season with regard to their own personal trials and tribulations. I believe that there is a petition for each of those six things that will inform and strengthen your prayer for gospel ministers, so I’d like to work through them with you tonight.

I. Christians are to faithfully intercede for ministers (19a) {The Urgency of Prayer}

First, notice verse 19, and the very first few words that the Apostle Paul utters: “Pray on my behalf….” This is quite an extraordinary request. Even the Apostle Paul wants to be prayed for with regard to his gospel ministry. He says ‘Pray for me. Pray particularly for me,’ and it tells us something about the urgency of prayer for ministry that he would utter this request. This is a reminder that Christians are to faithfully intercede for their ministers. Here is the Apostle Paul…let me say that again: the Apostle Paul…the one who has been lifted up into the third heavens and has been shown things which a man is not allowed to say…the man who met the Lord Jesus Christ personally on the road to Damascus, and was called by Him personally in the gospel ministry…is asking the Ephesian Christians (who had never been to the third heavens, who had never seen Jesus Christ face to face) to pray for him. Now, surely, if the Apostle Paul needed prayer for gospel ministry, the rest of us chumps need prayer for gospel ministry! If an apostle can plead with a congregation to faithfully intercede for him, surely all gospel ministers deeply need prayer in order to carry out their tasks. Paul consistently places emphasis on prayer. If we were to turn to Romans 15:14-33, we would find him making a similar request from the congregation in Rome. But he does this because there is an urgency about his ministry that requires an urgency in prayer, and so there is an urgency in his request for prayer from the congregation.

It’s also interesting that there is a mysterious personal relation in all intercession. When we pray for one another, it knits our hearts together; so when a congregation prays for its minister, it knits the heart of the congregation with that minister. William Law, a famous Christian from many years ago, said “There is nothing that makes us love a man as much as praying for him.” And so we’re knit together in a joint ministry when we intercede for gospel ministry.

I for three years had the privilege of studying in Edinburgh, Scotland, and during that time attended a congregation called the Holyrood Abbey Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland was a large and mixed denomination. There were theological liberals who were very radical, and there were gospel-believing, gospel-preaching, Bible-believing evangelical pastors in that congregation as well. And on the prayer board in the Fellowship Hall of Holyrood Abbey Church, there was a list of the names of every evangelical minister in the Church of Scotland. And on Saturday night [yes, Saturday night!], when they would gather as a congregation and pray from 7:30 to 9:30, they would pray through that board in the Fellowship Hall so that every evangelical minister in the Church of Scotland would know when he climbed the steps of the pulpit the next Sunday morning that at Holyrood Abbey Church in Edinburgh, and at Gilcomston South in Aberdeen, and at Sandyford Henderson in Glasgow, and the various other evangelical churches that had a Saturday night prayer meeting, that he had been prayed for. And very often I heard the report of friends of mine who were evangelical men, but they were serving in liberal congregations, saying that it was the only thing that enabled them to walk up those steps on Sunday morning — knowing that those congregations in Edinburgh and Aberdeen and Glasgow and elsewhere were praying for them by name on Saturday night, that their ministry would be approved by God and upheld by God and blessed by the Holy Spirit; and our hearts were knit with those men. I didn’t know most of the men that were up on the bulletin board. Some of those men are now serving in those various congregations, and I feel a closeness to them even though I haven’t met them, because I was there praying along with the congregation for them. And so, praying for gospel ministry knits our hearts with the ministers.

But you know, interceding for the gospel ministry also carries with it a mysterious personal blessing. I‘ve quoted to you many times Samuel Rutherford’s great word that “I never have run an errand to the throne of grace [intercede for someone else] when I have not fetched back a blessing for myself.” That is, when we are going to God in prayer deliberately to pray for someone else -not for ourselves, but for someone else — that God in His great love and mercy sends us back not only having heard our intercession for our brother or sister, but also with a blessing for ourselves. And so we ought to pray for ministers and ministry with an urgency because of the importance of the task and the greatness of the need.

II. Christians are to pray for their ministers’ earnestness and faithful consistency in proclamation

And that leads us into the second petition that I think we find here, and again you see it in verse 19. Notice how Paul asks for prayer: “Pray on my behalf that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth” — and it’s that phrase that I want you to latch on to – “in the opening of my mouth,” or “whenever I open my mouth.”

Now, that phrase is a phrase of particular importance in the Old Testament prophets. When the Old Testament writers are getting ready to record something really, really important that an Old Testament prophet was going to say, how will they often introduce those speeches or those prophecies from the Old Testament prophets? “And he opened his mouth and said….” Now, obviously unless one is a ventriloquist, you have to open your mouth to say something, but that is not what the writer of Scripture is talking about. Of course you have to open your mouth. It is a formal introduction whereby the reader is being told something really, really important is about to be said; listen up close, because the prophet is “opening his mouth” not to speak his own words, his own ideas, his own opinions, but the word of the living God to your ears and heart. And so when the Apostle Paul says “I want you to pray for me in the opening of my mouth,” he is reminding you of the solemnity of the task of preaching.

Do you realize that every time — every time, without fail! — that the word of God is preached, that great issues of eternal moment are being decided? The word of God is never preached when one of two, or both of two, things occur: Either hearts are drawn closer to God and prepared for everlasting fellowship with Him, or hearts are hardened against God and His gospel, and an eternal decision of tremendous and terrible consequences is sealed more and more. And those things happen every time the gospel is preached, and all of us need to feel the solemnity of that, not just preachers. Every Christian needs to understand that every time that Derek gets up here, every time that Brad gets up here, or Billy, or I get up here to preach — every time our ministers get up and preach the gospel, it may be the last time that some people in our congregation ever hear the word of God. Within hours some of them may be standing before their Maker.

You know, it becomes so routine for us. We’re going to go to church on Sunday. And it’s good to have that in our mind and ingrained in our schedule, but none of us (James reminds us) can simply say “I will do this” and “I will do that.” It’s always “God willing.” And who knows…who knows…how many of us who are a part of the congregation this week will not be here next Lord’s Day to hear the word of God? And so it is a tremendously sobering and solemn thing to proclaim the word of God, and therefore Christians need to pray for their ministers’ earnestness and faithful consistency in proclamation, because the opening of the mouth to proclaim the word of God is a solemn thing.

Richard Baxter used to say, “I preach as though never sure to preach again; as a dying man to dying men.” Martin Luther expressed this same sense of the solemnity of preaching when he said, “I preach as though Christ were crucified yesterday, rose again from the dead today, and is coming again tomorrow.” That’s the solemnity, the urgency with which he preaches, and yet John Owen rightly says, “It is easier for a minister to bring his head to preach than it is his heart to preach,” and so we need to pray, “Lord God, bring the minister’s heart to preach. Bring to bear on him a sense of the solemnity of what he’s doing, so that Your word is glorified and honored, and Christ is exalted and the people of God sense the significance of what is going on.” And we ought to pray for ministers and ministry because of the solemnity of the work.

III. Christians are to pray for their ministers to be given a divine supply of truth (19b)

But there’s a third thing that I want you to see as well, and it’s again found right there in verse 19. We’ve already read through the words twice, that here Paul says, “Pray for me, that utterance may be given to me.” Literally, “…that words would be given to me.”

Now, this again surprises me, because the Apostle Paul in Acts 14:12 so impressed the pagans with his oratorical ability that they were calling him Mercury, the messenger of the gods. I’ve never understood the Christians in Asia Minor who didn’t think that Paul was that good of a preacher, because the pagans thought that the man was a god, his words were so powerful. And yet the Apostle Paul, with his great command of language, begs that these Christians in Ephesus would pray to God that words would be supplied to him, that utterance would be given to him, because the Apostle Paul understood that mere human oratory and rhetoric cannot bind up the brokenhearted or raise the dead again. Only the Spirit of God can do that. Only the word of God can do that. And so the best ministers, the very best ministers, need prayer. In fact, the better they are rhetorically, the better they are in their abilities to speak and to hold an audience captive, the more prayer they need that they won’t rely on those native abilities, they won’t rely on their own capacities and their cleverness and their intelligence, but that they would rely upon the Spirit of God and speak the word of God plainly.

Plain preaching, our Reformed forebears used to say, is what we need. And this is so important because the goal of preaching is supernatural, and things of this world cannot produce or realize that goal. Only the Spirit, and what words does the Spirit want to use? The plain words of God. And so the Apostle Paul says ‘Dear Ephesians, pray for me, that God would give me the word that He would have me to speak, so that the word of God is spoken plainly.’

IV. Christians are to pray for holy boldness/Gospel freedom (rooted in the fear of God) in ministers’ preaching (19d)

And fourthly, again in verse 19, notice that the Apostle Paul asks that we would pray that he would “make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” And notice again in verse 20 he’ll repeat this request: “…that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” In other words, the Apostle Paul wants to speak boldly and fearlessly the truth, and so he asks that Christians would pray that he would be given holy boldness, that he would be given gospel freedom rooted in the fear of God in his proclamation of the truth.

No man ought to be in a pulpit who fears man more than God, but most preachers struggle with precisely that temptation. There always exists in ministers the temptation to fear people and their opinions, to tremble before them, to curry favor with them with their words and with their preaching, rather than fearing God. And here is the Apostle Paul saying ‘Ephesians, pray that I would have such a fear of God that it would give me gospel freedom in proclaiming the word of truth to you.’ Here is Paul — he was a man of great courage. This man was beaten; this man almost died on numerous occasions for the sake of the gospel; and yet he’s praying that he would be given courage in proclaiming the truth.

It reminds me of John Knox, when Regent Morton stood over his now-unmarked grave and spoke words of eulogy about John Knox. I think the greatest compliment that that man who was the leader of Scotland at that time (that was given John Knox) were these words: “Here lies a man who neither feared nor flattered any flesh.” And of course there was a great truth to that. In Knox’s proclamation he was fearless, and he certainly flattered no one. And yet Knox himself says that he struggled mightily with the fear of man, and with man-pleasing. C.S. Lewis many years ago wrote an essay when he sort of mocked John Knox about that. He said no, there’s never been a man who misunderstood himself more than John Knox, if he thought that he was a man-pleaser and a man-flatterer, and wasn’t bold enough. But I suspect that John Knox knew what he was talking about, because in every minister there is a temptation to tell your people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear, because sometimes telling the people of God what they need to hear is not conducive to the sustainability of your employment! And here’s the Apostle Paul saying ‘Christian, if you love God and if you love me, pray that I will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Pray that I’ll be given freedom to preach the word that your hearts need for their everlasting good, not what will make is pleasant for a while now.’

We need to pray for ministers that they would be given freedom based on the fear of God, a holy boldness in the declaration of the truth.

V. Christians are to pray for their ministers to make known the Gospel (19e

And then the apostle goes on to make a fifth request: that we would pray for him to make known the mystery of the gospel. That he would make known the mystery of the gospel…that he would preach Christ crucified, that he would have a gospel focus in his preaching, that there would be gospel faithfulness in his preaching, that there would be gospel content in his preaching. And he’s saying here and reminding us again that Christians need to pray for their ministers to make known the gospel, because it’s so tempting to do something else.

You know in our day and age there are voices on all sides saying that the gospel will not work. The liberals long ago decided the gospel wouldn’t work and they needed to update the message, but now even in the evangelical world there are voices from all sorts of people saying ‘Look, people aren’t interested in hearing that any more. We need to talk about things that immediately touch their daily lives’ — as if one’s eternal destiny was not a practical issue; as if being what God created you to be is not a practical issue; as if the way in which God has redeemed a multitude of men, women, boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people and nation to Himself by the blood of Christ is not a practical issue; and yet there are many, many people that believe that. And so more than ever we need Christians praying for their ministers to preach the gospel: salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; to lift high the cross; to show men and women and boys and girls the way of salvation, the only way of peace; because there is a danger in ministers of preaching peace where there is no peace, or of simply preaching moralism. And so the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Would you pray for me that I would not forget to preach the gospel.’

Now, again, that’s Paul who has challenged the Galatians: “If I or anyone else ever come to you proclaiming another gospel other than that which I proclaimed to you, let me and they be accursed.” And he’s saying ‘Ephesians, would you remember to pray that I would preach the gospel.’ If Paul needed that, I certainly need that prayer, and every gospel minister needs that prayer.

But do you see how that prayer even sets an expectation in your heart that the gospel will be proclaimed? So that even in the praying of that for the preacher you’re anticipating the gospel itself being held forth to the people of God in the preaching of the word. And so we need to pray for ministers for a gospel focus and a gospel faithfulness in all the proclamation of the word.

VI. Christians are to pray for their ministers’ endurance under tribulation (20)

But finally there’s this — and again, it’s not an explicit prayer request, it’s almost a passing comment, isn’t it? The Apostle Paul (you see it there in verse 20) says, after asking the Ephesians to pray for him that utterance might be given to him in the opening of his mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, notice this passing remark: “…the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.”

The Apostle Paul in passing just reminds them a little bit of the trials that he has undergone for the sake of the gospel, and in doing so he is saying to them that he wants to be faithful even in chains to the Lord Jesus Christ; and in reminding them of that he is actually reminding all Christians to pray for their ministers’ endurance even in seasons of trial.

Show me a faithful preacher, and I’ll show you a man that God has broken one way or the other. Show me a man who is a preacher worth his salt, and I’ll show you a man whom God has softened his heart by various kinds of trials. They’re different in every man, but God has His way because He wants shepherds who love His people and who know their own sins and know their need of grace, and there’s only one way to do that: you have to break the heart of the shepherd. And if that is the case (and it always is), then Christians need to pray for their ministers, for all who are in gospel ministry, that they would endure those losses and crosses, those trials and those tribulations, those things that God has appointed, that they might be tender and faithful shepherds, ministers of the word of God.

You know, Martin Luther had this provocative way of saying things, and in the middle of his sermon on Psalm 5, he pauses and he says this: “A minister is not made by reading books, but by living and dying and being damned.” (Now, as I said, Luther had a very provocative way of saying things! But you understand what he’s getting at.) He’s saying that ministers are made in the crucible. That’s where God makes ministers. So you pray for those in gospel ministry, because you can be sure that one way or another God is going to get to His servants in order to make them fit instruments in order to proclaim the gospel. And so C.H. Spurgeon could speak to the minister’s fainting spells. He went through seasons when he did not feel capable of carrying on the ministry, when he didn’t feel equipped to carry on the ministry; or Samuel Rutherford will love his congregation in Anwoth, but he’ll be sent half-way across the country to Aberdeen and held in exile there, far away from his people, and his heart will be broken; or Jim Boice will be at the very height of his ministry, and he’s diagnosed with cancer and three months later he’s gone. But God has His ways, and God knows what He’s doing. We as Christians have the privilege in joining together to pray for those faithful gospel ministers even in their times of trial.

So, my friends, I want to encourage you. Use this outline for gospel ministry. Perhaps you’ll want to pray for the pastors in the home congregations that you grew up in. Maybe there’ll be a cycle of faithful ministers across the United States in our own denomination and elsewhere, or even around the world, that on Sunday mornings or on Saturday nights you’ll want to make it a regular routine to pray through these petitions for them: that they might be faithful, proclaim the gospel boldly, fearlessly, and clearly. What we need in our day and time is a ministry with boldness and clarity, in utter reliance upon the Holy Spirit. These petitions, my friends, will prepare our hearts to receive precisely that kind of ministry, if we pray as well that they will be instruments in God’s hands for crafting precisely that kind of ministry.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Make us faithful to pray for gospel ministers and ministries; and make our hearts to be knit with faithful ministers of the word, that we might co-labor with them in the work of lifting up the Lord Jesus Christ and Him crucified. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand for God’s blessing.

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.