The Apostle Paul: Praying on Behalf of Others
To pray on behalf of others is to do a good thing that pleases God, impacting both the one praying and the one being prayed for.
When one reads the Apostle Paul’s letters, one is struck by how often he prays for others. He is devoted to praying on others’ behalf. Paul is also firmly convinced that he needs others to pray for him. At least eight times, Paul asks others to pray for him (Rom 15:30-32; 2 Cor 1:10-11; Eph 6:18-20; Phil 1:19; Col 4:2-4; 1 Thess 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2; Phm 1:22).
Paul’s teaching about prayer is based on the fundamental principle that praying for others is important and purposeful, for both the one praying and the one being prayed for:
Praying for others is foundational.
To pray on behalf of others is to do a good thing that pleases God, impacting both the one praying and the one being prayed for.
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy packs a lot of teaching into a few sentences. Praying for others is foundational. “First” is the Greek proton, denoting temporal, or conceptual primacy. We are to pray for all people, even people who are clearly not in the household of faith (e.g., the many secular rulers with whom Paul and the early ecclesia interacted).
Our prayers for others are built on the premise that our will is aligned with God’s in an important way; namely, we have the shared desire for others to come to the knowledge of gospel truth, to repent, to be baptized, and to be saved through God’s grace. Bro. Cyril Tennant comments on this important facet, stating that there is a “much deeper significance to praying for others—it is a reflection of our own understanding regarding salvation.”1 In praying for others, we acknowledge God’s mercy towards us and ask that others’ have the same blessing:
In his exhortation to Timothy, Paul lists specific prayer actions that we must engage in on behalf of others: supplications (deésis), prayers (proseuché), intercessions (enteuxis), and giving of thanks (eucharistia). Although deésis can refer to the general practice of prayer (e.g., 2 Tim 1:3), it seems to be used often in the context of asking for something specific.
For example, Paul states that the supplications of others helped keep him safe (2 Cor 1:9-11; Phil 1:19) and in Ephesians 6:18-20, Paul uses the word to refer to requests that he preach the gospel boldly. James also uses the word to describe a specific request to God on others’ behalf:
As James asserts, in some cases where the need is not evident, our specific requests to God for others requires a relationship of mutual trust so that the need is made manifest. As I reflect on making supplication for others, I am moved to ask, “Do I know my brothers and sisters well enough to make supplication for them?” James is not only teaching about the power of prayer on behalf of others; he is teaching about the power of prayer that is founded on honest and genuine relationships between believers.
The word translated “intercessions” in 1 Timothy 2 is a rare one, used only one other time: “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer [enteuxis].” (1 Tim 4:4-5). In the context of prayer, the verb form of the word (entugchanó) is used to describe Elijah’s prayers to God against Israel (Rom 11:2) and to describe Christ’s current work (Rom 8:27, 34; Heb 7:25).
In praying on behalf of others, we acknowledge that our prayers of intercession pale in comparison to Christ’s work on our behalf. Paul acknowledges this in the context of his teaching regarding praying for others:
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men…For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. (1 Tim 2:1-5).
Clause 14 of the BASF states that Jesus:
Is a priest over his own house only, and does not intercede for the world, or for professors who are abandoned to disobedience…he makes intercession for his erring brethren, if they confess and forsake their sins (Luke 24:51; Ephesians 1:20; Acts 5:31; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 8:1; Acts 15:14; 13:39; Hebrews 4:14, 15; John 17:9; Hebrews 10:26; 1 John 2:1; Proverbs 28:13).
Unlike us, Christ has the power of God, and unlike us, his will is completely aligned with God’s (Rom 8:27). Unlike us, he has a unique place of power from which to intercede (Rom 8:34). Unlike us, Christ’s intercession is continual (Heb 7:25).
our prayers for others are impactful
Given that we can add nothing to the effectiveness of Jesus’ intercession, why does Paul exhort us that intercessions be made on others’ behalf? Paul was acutely aware of Christ’s efficacy as an intercessor, yet he repeatedly asked for others to pray for him. James tells us that our prayers for others are impactful: “The active prayer of a righteous person has great power.” (James 5:16 Mounce).
Paul knew that praying for others makes us focus on their needs, not ours, helping to develop a Christ-like mind in us. Individually and collectively, we are strengthened by praying for each other. Bro. Alfred Nicholls wrote,
The important thing is… that the intercession should be made, if not in public then by each of us in private… The ministry of prayer is something in which all can engage and many can testify to the strength, courage and increased faith that comes from the knowledge that others, individually or collectively, remember them ‘without ceasing’ in their prayers.3
Peter seems to have this in mind in 1 Peter 3, where he quotes Psalm 34 (“His ears are open to their prayers”) to describe prayer as a tangible action stemming from the exhortation to “be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” (v. 8 NIV).
Every member of the Body is valued and valuable.
Giving Thanks for Others
When it comes to praying on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ, where do we start? Paul’s starting point was to be thankful for his family in Christ. For Paul, giving thanks in this way was something that he “owed” (Greek opheilō):
Paul recognized that we were indebted to each other because we needed each other. Every member of the Body is valued and valuable. We are blessed to have brothers and sisters who can help build up our faith and we give thanks to God for this blessing.
Paul was thankful for the experiences that he shared with brothers and sisters. To the ecclesia at Philippi, Paul wrote:
Similarly, Paul told the ecclesia at Thessalonica:
We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father, knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God. (1 Thess 1:2-4).
This kind of thanksgiving prayer is easy to give for those I know well, because it is grounded in common experiences and shaped by shared memories.
The closer the relationship, the easier it is to be thankful for the other members of One Body. Paul’s close relationship with Timothy was expressed in prayers of thanksgiving:
One of the great blessings of a life as a part of the One Body is a collection of deep and rich personal relationships, some new and some of which span decades and generations. Like Paul, I give thanks to God for my brothers and sisters, as well as their parents and grandparents. I also give thanks that I know them, their tears, their joys, their struggles, their victories, and their needs.
Always and Without Ceasing
If being thankful was the first thing that Paul thought of when he was praying for others, then it seems that it was also the second, third, and fourth thing. Paul asserts in several places that he is “always,” “without ceasing,” offering prayers of thanksgiving to God for other members of the Body:
Paul exhorts us to “always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Eph 6:19 NIV). By his words and his actions, Paul is teaching us that praying for each other begins with thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Changes the Way We View Each Other
How would our ecclesias be different if we made thanksgiving for each other the consistent starting point when we prayed for our brothers and sisters in Christ? How would the worldwide Body be different? I have tried this in my own prayer life, and it changed me, especially in contentious matters.
My prayers on behalf of others used to focus on differences. Frequently my prayers devolved into a variation of me asking God to help other members of the Body see things my way. Building on the metaphor of the One Body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, I was essentially asking God to make the “hand” be like the “eye.”
When my prayers changed to simply being thankful to God for the members of the Body, who were different from me, and trusting God’s wisdom in arranging the Body in keeping with His purpose, then my attitude towards my brothers was positively transformed. It made me understand, and be thankful for the truth of Paul’s statement: “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” (1 Cor 12:18 ESV).
Again, Paul’s example is powerful. In 1 Timothy 2:1-4, Paul is teaching us to pray for others who are actively seeking our harm. His teaching regarding prayers on behalf of “kings and all who are in high positions” had special resonance for Paul. He likely wrote 1 Timothy following his first imprisonment at Rome; therefore, he was praying for the very people who had jailed him and who would ultimately sentence him to death.
Paul takes this same prayerful approach to Jewish rulers who persistently sought to kill him: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” (Rom 10:1). Both the Jewish and Gentile authorities caused Paul great harm and anguish; however, he prayed that they might be saved. In praying for his enemies, Paul recognized that he was once the beneficiary of Stephen’s prayer for him to be forgiven. (Acts 7:57-60).
In 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14, Paul states that he is “bound” to always give thanks for the members at Thessalonica “because God from the beginning chose you for salvation.” Paul recognized that he didn’t choose the members of the One Body—God did. Therefore, Paul gave thanks for those at Thessalonica, even though these were the some of the very same people who earlier leveled a series of slanderous accusations (see Paul’s response in 1 Thessalonians 2).4
I have found it very challenging to pray on behalf of those other members of the Body who, through words and actions, expressed “I have no need of you.” Yet Paul shows me how to enact Jesus’ admonition to “pray for anyone who mistreats you.” (Matt 5:44 CEV). In seeking a restored relationship, a crucial step is praying for those with whom there is conflict: “So the Lord restored what Job had lost after he prayed for his friends.” (Job 42:10 NET).
Prayer as a Joint Struggle
Paul teaches us that if we pray for others, then we are joining them in their struggle. Paul tells the ecclesia at Rome:
Paul commends Epaphras for this:
The Greek word agon, which had powerful semantic associations in the Greco-Roman world (i.e., a public contest, such as an athletic event, where the struggle was both noble and beautiful), is the root for these descriptions of prayer on others’ behalf.
Sometimes, it is easy to grow weary and not support others.
A cognate of this Greek word also describes Jesus praying through his most demanding struggle, “And being in agony [agónia], He prayed more earnestly.” (Luke 22:44). It is interesting to note that Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to “watch and pray” about their temptation while he too was praying. Rather than supporting Jesus, the three fell asleep and an angel was sent to strengthen Jesus (Luke 22:43).
Sometimes, it is easy to grow weary and not support others. It is easy to feel like we are mere spectators in the struggles faced by our brothers and sisters. It is similarly easy to feel that we are alone in our own struggles. However, Paul teaches us that we are not spectators. By praying for others who struggle, we are in the fight with them. Neither are we alone in the arena when our brothers and sisters pray on our behalf.
When We Pray for Others, What Do We Say?
In some cases, it is clear what to pray for. Deliverance from illness, injury, and dangerous circumstances are axiomatic things for which to pray. Paul invites others to pray for him in these circumstances. He asks the ecclesia at Rome to pray for his deliverance from the Judaizers in Jerusalem (Rom 15:31).
Paul states that the prayers of the Corinthian brothers and sisters aided his deliverance from death: “who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us, you also helping together in prayer for us.” (2 Cor 1:10-11).
Paul commends the Philippian ecclesia for their prayers on his behalf, addressing the circumstances of his imprisonment: “For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer.” (Phil 1:19). Similarly, Paul invites the believers at Thessalonica to pray for his deliverance: “Finally, brethren, pray for us… that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men.” (2 Thess 3:1-2).
As it was for Paul in the first century, so it is for us in the twenty-first century. We know what to pray for when brothers and sisters are physically sick or injured. We know what to pray for when they are persecuted and in danger. We know what to pray for when there are tragedies and natural disasters. We know what to pray for when others’ challenges are visible.
However, many challenges are not visible. Spiritual, mental, and emotional struggles are not always apparent. Relationship challenges are not always observable. Even areas of apparent strength can be real challenges for us. Paul humbly revealed some of his challenges and asked others to pray for him.
We think of Paul as a gifted and fearless proclaimer of the gospel. However, this is the very thing that he asked his brothers and sisters in Ephesus to pray for:
Similarly, he implored the believers in Colossae:
Paul trusted his relationships with other members of Christ’s Body; therefore, he disclosed some of the challenges he was facing and asked others to pray for him.
Paul’s critics highlight the very things that he humbly asked others to pray for on his behalf. In 2 Corinthians 10:10, he quotes his critics: “’For his letters,’ they say, ‘are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’” Paul is accused of being timid in person, but he asks for prayers to fearlessly declare his message. He is accused of being a poor oral communicator, yet Paul asks for prayers that he be clear in his communication of the gospel. This is a powerful lesson for all of us. Perhaps the best way to respond when others criticize us (fairly or unfairly) is to ask for their help through prayer.
Being Bold on Behalf of Others
Perhaps the best summary of Paul’s prayers on behalf of others is found in Ephesians, where his two longest prayers are recorded (Eph 1:16-21; Eph 3:14-21). Boldness in prayer was on Paul’s mind. His digression that interrupts his prayer in chapter 3 is punctuated by “Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.” (v. 11-12).
In the first chapter, Paul asks that God help believers to fully appreciate the greatness of His plans for them and the “exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power.” (Eph 1:19). Essentially, Paul prays that the believers at Ephesus can understand something that strains the limit of human comprehension. Paul asks that:
God’s blessings to us are so profound that we can only understand them when He enables “the eyes of… understanding being enlightened.”
Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 is similarly bold. Here, Paul uses the concept of the family (patria) following the Father’s (pater) example to contextualize his prayer. On behalf of the Ephesians, he petitions the Father to:
- Strengthen with might through His Spirit in the inner man.
- Have Christ dwell in hearts through faith.
- Root and ground in love.
- Enable collective comprehension of the four dimensions of Christ’s love.
- Fill with His fullness.
Paul asks that God help the believers at Ephesus move beyond simple intellectual knowledge of God and Jesus. Paul asks that the believers’ characters be like God and Jesus. Bro. John Carter explains the intent of Paul’s prayer in this way:
The very climax of the prayer is that the saints may be filled with the fullness of God. It is a bold and amazing thing that is here desired. The words, few and simple, easily slipped over in the reading of the chapter, express the highest possible aim of mortal man. All that God is, they must try to be. The Son of God was manifested to make it possible… When a man receives of the grace and truth that came by Jesus, and of which he was “full,” he is justified. But he must go on to perfection.5
Paul’s example shows us that we can “go big” when praying for others. We can pray that others manifest God’s character, that the members of God’s family demonstrate the attributes of the Father.
Paul prayed that others might be saved. That was his purpose in his near constant prayers on others’ behalf and in his frequent requests that others pray for him. We, too, pray that God will save the other members of the One Body and ask for their prayers. Our prayers for others are purposeful, effective, and transformative, especially when use thanksgiving as the starting point. We will give Paul the final word:
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it. Brethren, pray for us. (1 Thess 5:23-25).
Cambridge Ecclesia, ON
- Tennant, Cyril, The Prayers of Paul, The Christadelphian, Jan 2007.
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the New King James Version, unless specifically noted.
- Nicholls, Alfred, The Christadelphian, April 1979.
- William Barclay notes that “Beneath the surface of this passage run the slanders which Paul’s opponents at Thessalonica attached to him.” (William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible: 1 Thessalonians).
- Carter, John, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Christadelphian Publishing Association, 1944.