This week, we conclude our study in the 15th chapter of Romans. We have seen in this section of the letter Paul spell out his understanding of his ministry to the Gentiles. Two weeks ago, in a text where Paul reflects on his previous ministry to the Gentiles, we saw a foundational aspect of Paul’s ministry and that is, its character was thoroughly God-centered. By that we mean, he was sent FROM God to the Gentiles. He was sent FOR God, or, on behalf of God for the Gentiles and his ministry planting churches among the Gentiles was only possible WITH God. In last week’s text, where Paul shifts from writing about his former ministry to the Gentiles to laying out his future ministry plans, we saw another aspect of Paul’s ministry. Not only was Paul’s mission God-centered, it’s direction was God-driven. That is, the details of his ministry were dictated by God’s agenda, not Paul’s. We saw three ways that God had total control over Paul’s upcoming ministry among the Roman church.
We saw the timing of Paul’s upcoming visit to Rome was something Paul had given totally to God. Though he had longed to visit Rome for years, God’s ministry agenda came first. Before visiting, Paul would deliver a collection from the Gentile believers in the East to the financially struggling Jewish saints in Jerusalem. The length of Paul’s visit to Rome was also dictated by God and not Paul. In spite of his longing to visit Rome, Paul’s future visit to Rome would only be a short stopover because God’s agenda was to use Rome as a missions outpost of sorts to the unreached Gentiles in Spain. Paul’s agenda was driven by his commission from Christ to plant churches in previously unreached areas and Spain was in that category. Finally, we saw that God dictated the so-called “interruptions” in Paul’s ministry. We know that Paul didn’t make it to Spain during his third missionary journey. He was instead arrested a few days after he arrived in Jerusalem which placed him, as a Romans citizen, in the middle of the Roman legal system. It was during the time he spent arguing his case before the Roman legal authorities that he had the opportunity to fulfill another part of God’s mission for his life. That is, to carry the name of Christ before the Gentile kings, a commission God revealed when He called him in Acts chapter nine.
So in Paul’s ministry, we see a ministry that in character was God-centered and in its direction was God-driven. This morning, as we conclude this 15th chapter, we see a third and final aspect of his ministry. Let’s read verses 30-33. Here, Paul says, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. 31Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, 32so that by God's will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. 33The God of peace be with you all. Amen.” Let me ask you, is it any surprise that in this section on Paul’s God centered, God-driven ministry…is it a surprise to us that he would conclude this section with an urgent appeal for prayer from the saints? Isn’t there an all too apparent connection between a ministry that is God-centered and God-driven and prayer? How do ministries stay God-centered and God-driven if not by prayer?
How do you explain the incredible fruitfulness of Paul’s ministry apart from prayer? The message of this text for us this morning is simply this: For any ministry to bring glory to God it must be dependent upon intercessory prayer. So here we see the third leg of this tripod for genuinely fruitful ministry in the kingdom. These ministries must be God-centered, God-driven and prayer-dependent. Now, let’s look at four truths about this utterly essential, non-negotiable element of fruitful ministry. The first truth comes from the first half of verse 30 and is this: Intercessory prayer is to be motivated by a desire to be faithful to the Lord and a Spirit-given love for the person prayed for. Now, by “intercessory” prayer, we mean praying for someone else with the intention of causing their life and ministry to be more honoring to God. In verse 30 Paul calls on the church at Rome to pray for him in his ministry. He uses two phrases in this call to prayer that enable us to see what should motivate us to pray for others and their ministries.
The two phrases he uses in his call for them to pray are “by our Lord Jesus Christ” and “by the love of the Spirit.” When Paul calls them to pray “by our Lord Jesus Christ” he is telling them that this call to pray is not simply a personal, private plea from one Christian to another. This call to intercession for Paul comes from God, in the authority of the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ. Praying for each other is not simply a good idea or helpful practice, it is a command from the Lord Jesus Christ. We see this in Ephesians 6:18 in the context of spiritual warfare where Paul commands, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. This is given with the authority of command. “…Always keep on praying for all the saints.”
That sounds a bit comprehensive, doesn’t it? “When are we to pray, Paul?” “Always.” “For whom are we to pray, Paul?” “For all the saints.” Though it is impossible to pray by name for all the saints, Paul’s point is to say that part of the way we pay the continuing debt of love we owe to each other we saw in 13:8 is to pray for each other—always, at least, always being ready to. It is simply not possible to fulfill this command if you spend any significant time watching television or taking in other media that our culture says is necessary for a fulfilled life. Paul says what is necessary for an obedient life is to pray…always, for all the saints. That is a command and so part of our motivation to pray for others and their ministries is to be obedient to God.
A second motivation to pray is seen in Paul telling the Romans to pray for him, “by the love of the Spirit.” What does that mean? Well, if Paul had requested prayer for him “by the power of the Spirit” it would have meant to pray for him by the power given by the Holy Spirit. So, when Paul says he wants prayer “by the love of the Spirit” he is asking for prayer that is motivated by a Spirit-given love for him. Why do faithful Christian parents spend so much time on their knees for their kids? Is it to be obedient to God? Yes, but most would admit the primary motive behind their praying is because they love that child and want God’s best for them. Paul is asking for prayer that is motivated by a love for him given by the Holy Spirit. What enables intercessory prayer to be something we persevere in is our desire to be obedient and perhaps even more, our love for the person we are praying for. This is why faithful Christian parents pray till their dying day for their children even if they have strayed so far it seems they will never get right with Jesus. They keep praying because they LOVE their child and that love keeps their knees bolted to the floor even when years of previous prayer hasn’t seemed to have produced much fruit.
Notice the prayer is motivated by a love given by the Holy Spirit. Most of these Roman Christians had never met Paul. They would not feel any kind of real love for him on a purely human level. He was just a name and position to them—Paul, the apostle. But Paul implicitly calls on them to ask for and receive a Spirit-given love for him. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know someone very well or at all if the Holy Spirit places a love in your heart for them and burdens you to minister to them through prayer. Oh, we need to be praying for each other out of obedience to Christ and from a Spirit-given love for each other. One of the greatest losses a church suffers when there is little, if any true, agape love present is the loss of love-motivated prayer for each other. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we are sitting ducks for Satan if we aren’t praying for one another.
A second truth about this kind of ministry-dependent prayer is seen in the second half of verse 30 where Paul says, “join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” The NASB translation is more literal and says “strive together with me.” A second truth this text teaches about intercessory prayer is: When you pray for someone, a genuine partnership with them in the struggle of ministry is created. When Paul tells the believers in Rome to “strive together with me” he is not speaking in metaphor. Neither is he using language to make him appear “super-spiritual”—he is simply telling it like it is. Praying for someone and their ministry is not simply a way to “encourage” them in THEIR ministry. That’s a superficial understanding of prayer. When you pray for someone engaged in the struggle of ministry, you are genuinely, authentically joining them in their striving and that word translated “struggle” or “strive” means “to fight or wrestle.” The reason we know this is true is the nature of prayer and the nature of spiritual conflict.
Think about it. Here is Paul ministering in the power of God among the Gentiles and he is headed to Jerusalem to minister to the saints there to give an offering that would help unify the Jewish and Gentile believers across the Roman empire. How do you suppose Satan felt about that? He hated that because it brought glory to God and because it would remove a potent obstacle hindering the gospel ministry across the empire. That could enable more souls to be plucked from his domain of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. Paul was sent on this mission to accomplish that which Satan hated and we know he brought tremendous opposition against Paul. All you need to do to see how much opposition is to read 2 Corinthians 11 where Paul chronicles his imprisonments, beatings, stonings, shipwrecks and other various and sundry persecutions Paul suffered.
So Paul is engaged in this satanically opposed ministry and an indispensable part of that ministry’s success is prayer which moves God to bless and empower his mission. So here are you, a believer in Rome praying for Paul and, by that prayer, enabling him to be more and more blessed and empowered in this ministry opposed by the forces of darkness. It is your prayers, along with those of others, that are moving the supernatural hand of God enabling Paul to be protected, empowered and anointed. Do you think Satan is just going to let your prayers for Paul continue without opposition? Do you really think your power-investing, grace-infusing prayer ministry to Paul is going to escape his attention? He will come at you with everything he can muster because if he can remove this power-infusing prayer, that will greatly cripple Paul’s ministry which is dependent upon prayer for its power. Know this, when you pray for someone in any kind of ministry, THEIR enemies (those spiritual forces opposing them) become YOUR enemies. Our battle “is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Do you see the partnership here? This partnership is so real and so close that you share the same enemies—an enemy intent on destroying that partnership. If you are faithful in praying for those in ministry (which should be ALL of us) you can be assured that you will draw the same spiritual fire from the evil one the person who you are praying for is drawing. The reason is because its when you get on your knees, you are the greatest threat to Satan because when you pray, you have the capacity to move the hand of God against him and he cannot prevail against God when He is engaged in the battle. If you are skeptical about the reality of this struggle, find someone who is faithful in intercession and they will tell you of sleepless nights spent in prayer, struggling against the forces of darkness. This conflict in prayer is as much a fight as any other conflict in this world. The tragic truth of the church in North America is the men, in whom God has placed a healthy desire for competition and battle, often satisfy that longing by staring into a cathode ray tube vicariously warring through athletic gladiators rather than satisfying that desire on their faces before God, engaging the evil one in an eternally significant struggle where infinitely more is at stake. The result is a church where, generally speaking, the men know the batting averages and win/loss statistics but are pygmies in prayer, while the women do the lion’s share of intercession. For the most part, the greatest warriors in the North American church are women while men are often glazed over in front of the tube getting red in the face over the outcome of games originally intended for leisure and diversion. Then they complain that church is mostly a social affair and is boring to them as men.
The sad fact for these men is what some of the women know. That is, this prayer partnership not only calls on you to share the struggle and the fight, it also entitles you to share in the victory with God and the ones you are praying for. Not only do their enemies become your enemies when you pray, but God’s victory becomes your victory as you triumph with Him in prayer. Those who are engaged in intercession will tell you there are few things more thrilling on earth than praying through the struggle to the end when God releases you and you have the assurance God has made a break through as you prayed. There are few more rewarding experiences than to know that God has won a marvelous victory in an area of ministry and he used you to be part of that. You can rejoice because God used you powerfully to bring about his will “on earth as it is in heaven.”
It is well said there is nothing Satan fears more than a church on its knees and more importantly, there is nothing the church can do to more powerfully bring about God’s kingdom than pray. Part of the reason why intercession is so much more talked about than done in the church today is because, as Paul points out here, it is a struggle. For those who have a biblical understanding of what it is to be a Christian, this should come as no surprise. Jesus speaks of the struggle of the Christian life in Luke 13:24. He says, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” That word “strive” is the same word Paul uses in Romans 15:30. One reason intercessory prayer is a struggle is because ALL parts of the Christian life contain struggle. Though our salvation is by grace alone, it is a grace which enables us, with the joy of the Lord as our strength, to struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil and overcome them. The promise of eternal life in the seven letters in Revelation is offered only to those who “conquer” or “overcome.” When we pray for someone, a genuine partnership with them in the struggle of ministry is created.
A third truth about this indispensable part of a fruitful ministry is: Intercessory prayer should be as specific as possible. Notice in verse 31, Paul does not ask the Roman believers to pray that God would simply “bless my ministry.” No, he makes two very specific requests. First he asks them to pray “that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea.” The word “rescue” connotes “deliverance from death.” Paul knew Jerusalem was a lion’s den for him. The Jewish officials were infuriated by his ministry and his concern for his physical survival was a valid concern. According to Acts 23 when he was arrested there, 40 Jewish men placed themselves under an oath that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. We know from Acts 20, that after Paul had written this letter to Rome he was told in every city by the Spirit that “prison and hardships” would face him in Jerusalem. Paul, knowing the opposition in Jerusalem, wanted prayer for protection. And when you read in Acts 21-23 and the account of Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem, his beating, the multiple attempts on his life and his narrow escape, you can see the utter necessity of these prayers. At any one of these points, Paul could (and on a human level) probably should have been killed. Why wasn’t he? One reason is because God used the specific prayers of these Romans to spare his life.
A second request he makes is “that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there.” Paul wanted his offering from the Gentiles accepted by these poverty-stricken Jews. There was some resentment between the Jews and Gentiles that threatened this acceptance and Paul knew this needed to be broken down by God through prayer. Although we have no explicit record of the giving of this gift from Acts or other letters, there is no reason to believe it was not accepted, thereby providing another answered prayer of these Romans for Paul. When you think about it, it only makes sense that our prayers be as specific as possible. One reason for this is prayer, like every other ministry has as its final goal, the glory of God. And God is often glorified more by answering specific prayers. Think about it. It is glorious experience to see God answers a specific prayer just as we prayed it! If we simply pray for “God’s blessing” on a given ministry and God does something highly specific in that ministry, we do not perceive the same kind of direct connection between our prayer and God’s answer. But if we make a specific request and God answers it, we can more dramatically see the faithfulness of God to our prayers.
A second reason for more specific prayer is the nature of this partnership in ministry. If you are truly partnered in ministry with someone through prayer, that partnership will be more meaningful if you are well aware of how to pray for that person. If you truly see yourself as entering into another person’s ministry with them through your prayer, you will want to know as much of what is going on in “your” ministry as possible. Finally, if this prayer ministry springs, as it is supposed to, from this Holy Spirit-given love that is to motivate us to prayer for one another, it only follows that, from that love, we will want to know how to pray as specifically as possible. The satanic distortion of this specific prayer ministry is asking for specific information about someone or something and then, instead of sincerely bringing that before God’s throne, we use it to fuel our wretched thirst for gossip. That is despicable.
A final truth about this kind of ministry-dependent prayer is found in verse 32. After Paul has made these specific requests, he gives them one reason why they need to be answered. He says, “so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed.” We saw last week that Paul had longed to come to Rome for years to be refreshed with the saints there. What we want to focus on this week is that short phrase, “by God’s will.” We must understand that though we must strive to pray as specifically as possible, all our praying in this regard must be under the umbrella of God’s will. This fourth truth is this: Intercessory prayer should always be offered from hearts whose ultimate desire is to see God’s will accomplished. We must want God’s will ultimately. Those who prayed for Paul’s rescue probably wondered why he was arrested and beaten and imprisoned in Jerusalem after they had specifically prayed for his protection. But, as we saw last week, his arrest was the open door to minister to Gentile kings and those legal trials eventually did bring him to Rome. Even though the intercessors in Rome probably did not anticipate God answering their prayers the way He eventually did, He DID indeed answer their prayers HIS way to accomplish HIS will.
Praying for God’s will to be done is not a cop-out in this context. It is merely the admission that in this life “we see in a glass dimly.” Sometimes, we just don’t know what God’s will is and according to chapter eight, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” God’s will is always the ultimate concern in our prayers. We dare not think that when we pray, we manipulate God into doing something He doesn’t want to do--that prayer is some button we push to get God to do something for us. No. WE do not work through prayer to accomplish OUR will, GOD works through prayer to accomplish HIS will. As we saw last week, Paul longed to visit Rome, but he wanted God’s will more. This is to be the goal of all of those who pray.
Now, let’s make some application of these truths to our lives. As we noted before, it is no coincidence that this section of Romans which treats the God-centered, God-driven, God-empowered ministry of Paul should end with an appeal to pray. Paul was extraordinarily gifted in the Lord. But he does not rely on his gifts for the ministry. He relies on what God will do in and through him through the prayers of the saints. Likewise, if we truly want God-centered, God-driven, God empowered ministries, we MUST, MUST, MUST be bathed in much prayer. It is said that God does nothing except through prayer. If that’s true, then why is prayer such a low priority in the church. Jim Cymbala writes that in the North American church, you can count on only five percent of the church to turn out when the only thing on the agenda is to pray. Unless there is food or teaching or something for the kids—when it is just about spending time with the Christ together, Jesus Christ alone draws five percent of His church. That’s a travesty and yet we see that regularly here at Mount of Olives. What can we do to see prayer take its rightful place in our lives and this church?
First, we must understand that Satan will do whatever it takes to get us off our knees. Certainly, near the top of his priority list is to silence the prayers of the saints. As long as prayers are infrequent, his domain will remain largely unchallenged. We must see the insane busyness of our schedules as a demonic strategy to keep us away from the throne of grace and intentionally cut things from our schedules—perhaps good things—to make room for prayer. Men, we must repent of what is, in some cases, sports idolatry and join in a battle that actually means something. We will find it is much more thrilling than any Super Bowl or World Series and it counts for eternity. Finally, we must repent of our self-centered indifference to God’s glory and his ministry on earth through others. Frankly, one reason we don’t pray and make prayer lists and set aside good time for prayer is because we just don’t care about God being glorified on earth through the ministry of others. And we just don’t care much about those who are ministering and who we should be praying for. We care more about ME and MY world than we care about God’s glory or each other.
Finally, we must renounce the lie from our comfort-intoxicated culture that says we must avoid like the plague anything that might be difficult for us. Prayer and the Christian life is marked by striving. If you have not experienced that, examine yourself to see if you are in the faith. But this life of striving, though sometimes intensely difficult, is the very best way to live. This is the GOOD fight of faith—it brings the joy of the Lord for those who will trust God and enter in to it. May God give all of us the grace to have God-centered, God-driven and God-empowered ministries. And may he give us the grace to repent of our sin and do the one thing that moves God’s hand to bring those into existence—pray.
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