October 28, 2018
It’s hard to imagine a more effective minister than Paul—yet even he was no superhero. While we may assume that the spiritually mature need less prayer, Paul exemplified the exact opposite, earnestly requesting prayer for both the words and the boldness to preach the Gospel. Demonstrating how Paul’s humble acknowledgement of his vulnerability made him aware of his need for prayer, Alistair Begg spurs us on to pray for the preaching of God’s Word.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to Daniel and to chapter 9. And as we continue our studies in Ephesians and think about the priority of prayer, we read this morning Daniel’s prayer in light of the devastation that God brought upon his people on account of their rebellion.
“Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying, ‘O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we[’ve] sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we[’ve] sinned against him. He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. Therefore the LORD has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the LORD our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice. And now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day, we have sinned, we have done wickedly.
“‘O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.’”
Well, I invite you to turn again to Ephesians and to chapter 6.
Gracious God, with our Bibles open before us we say, “Speak Lord, we want to hear from you,” and we pray for the help of the Holy Spirit in all that now unfolds, that you will write your Word in our hearts that we may not sin against you but that we might love you and follow you and serve you. And we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, we have reached verses 19 and 20, and they read as follows: Paul has urged prayer, and then he says, “and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there has been a fair amount of conversation amongst us as a congregation, and not only in the realm of our leadership, since our previous study two weeks ago when we looked at this matter of prayer, and when I think we were honest enough, and, I trust, humble enough to acknowledge the fact that many of us are very good, myself including, about pronouncing on prayer; I’m not so good about practicing that concerning which we make pronouncements. And there is more that will follow for us as a church in relationship to this, and as we together pray about the very absence of prayer among us, we are trusting that God will guide us and lead us as a church. It is a vital and it is an underappreciated ministry. And our own church calendar testifies to that.
Paul has, in this letter, first of all prayed very directly for those to whom he writes. It’s some time since we looked at his prayers in chapter 1 and in chapter 3. Last time, we saw that having prayed for them, he then issued them, his readers, with a comprehensive call to pray. And we noted the four “alls” in verse 18: “at all times,” “with all prayer,” “with all perseverance,” and “making supplication for all the saints.” And then from there, with just, in our English text, a comma after the word “saints,” and into the next verse, in an almost matter-of-fact way, Paul says, “and also for me.” “Also for me.” “I want you to pray for me too.”
Now, one of the earliest pictures that we have in the Acts of the Apostles of Paul following his conversion on the road to Damascus is when Ananias is instructed by God to go and encounter this fellow, Saul of Tarsus. You will recall in Acts 9 that Ananias was understandably uncomfortable at the prospect, given all that he knew about Saul of Tarsus: breathing out murderous threats and slaughters and so on, and committed to imprisoning (at least!) those who were the followers of Jesus. But his instructions were clear: “Go,” said the Lord, “to [a] street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying.” So, the very first picture that we have of Paul in response to his conversion is Saul of Tarsus at prayer. Perhaps one day we will have the opportunity to ask him just exactly what was the nature of his prayer. Was he praying for his eyes to be opened? After all, he’d been blinded as a result of this encounter. That was to happen. But perhaps he was praying with the psalmist: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”
Now here he is, towards the end of his Christian pilgrimage, and he is aware of his need of the prayers of the people who support him and who love him. I think it’s important just to acknowledge that: that he has not, if you like, as a result of the effectiveness of his ministry, as a result of the peculiar influence of his pen, as a result of the many people that he’s had occasion to speak to concerning the kingdom and those of kings and princes and rulers and all kinds of people, some of whom have been ushered into the kingdom—he hasn’t reached some kind of plateau where he says, “You know, I’ve pretty well got this down.” No, he says, “You folks need to be praying all the time, for all the saints, with all perseverance, with all kinds of prayers, and also for me.”
Sometimes it’s those who apparently need the prayer the least who actually need it the most. Spurgeon was arguably the most effective preacher in the Western world in Victorian England. The crowds that came, and the members of Parliament that came, and even the royal family that came to hear him preach, were quite dramatic. And on one occasion someone said to him, “How is it, Charles, that you account for the amazing influence of your ministry?” And he answered in one phrase. He said, “My people pray for me.” “My people pray for me.”
So what I want us to notice first of all is simply this: that although we refer to Paul as “the mighty apostle,” and mighty apostle he was, the fact is, he was not a superhero. That was my first heading; I wrote it down in my own notes. You might not like that as a heading, but it establishes the point.
Paul was not a superhero. In fact, if he was a super anything, out of his own mouth he referred to himself as a super sinner. You remember when he says to Timothy that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and then he says, “and I’m the top of that list”: “of whom I am … foremost.” “I am the chief of sinners.” In chapter 3, earlier in his letter here, he has referred to himself as the “least of all the saints.” So this is quite encouraging, isn’t it?—inasmuch as when he writes in his letter to the church at Rome, he says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but think of yourself with sober judgment according to the measure of grace that God has given you.” So actually, what he’s telling others to do he’s doing himself. And he realizes that it is one thing for him to say, “Now, you folks need to be praying,” and quite another for him to say, “and I desperately need you to pray for me.”
I want to suggest to you just two things under this heading. First of all, to notice his vulnerability. His vulnerability. He has not written to them and said, “You do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” but rather he has said, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” He is clearly in many ways at the front of the parade. And as a result of that, he is keenly aware of the insinuations and the accusations of the enemy. He is able to write to Timothy about many of the things that will be a concern to Timothy in his pastoral ministry out of the awareness that he has had of similar circumstances.
So, for example, his vulnerability is made clear in his awareness of the wholesale desertion to which he refers when he writes to Timothy. He says to him, “All who are in Asia [have] turned away from me.” Now, even when we allow for hyperbole, there was a massive decline. He’s vulnerable to that. People deserted him. If you’re a leader, you don’t want people to desert you. If you are leading a charge, you don’t want the numbers to diminish; you want them to increase.
Now, when he writes to Timothy, he says, “There’s going to come a time when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn away from you, they will turn away from the truth, and they will turn aside to these things.” And he says, “You need to know that. And I can tell you about it, because I’ve experienced it.” In other words, he’s not writing to him out of a peculiar sense of triumph, out of a great record of unassailed victory. No, he was vulnerable to desertion.
He was also vulnerable to pride. To pride. And this was made clear to him on a number of occasions throughout his ministry, and nowhere more obviously so than when he asked the Lord on three occasions to remove from him what he referred to as a thorn in his flesh. You will remember that; you can read of it in 2 Corinthians 12. Now, what does he say of that there? Well, he says, “to keep me from becoming conceited.” Well, why would he become conceited? Well, because he was vulnerable to being conceited.
If you think about his background before his conversion, he had a stellar background: the kind of pedigree that he enjoyed, the kind of education that he had pursued, the kind of influence that he had gained. And so you can see how easy it would be for him, in the journey of his life, to revert to that, to default to that. God knows that. His Father loves him so much that in order to prevent him becoming absolutely useless as a result of a fat head, there was “given me [a thorn] in the flesh,” what he refers to as “a messenger of Satan to harass me”; and then he finishes the verse as he began it: “to keep me from becoming conceited.”
“Pray also for me.” Vulnerable to the desertion. Vulnerable to pride. Vulnerable to depression. You say, “Well, I don’t know. I think you’re overstating things.” Well, you’re sensible; you can read the Bible just as clearly as I can. And when you read, for example, as he begins his letter to the Corinthians—his second letter to the Corinthians—he’s absolutely straightforward. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, he says, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” You see what he’s saying? “We were completely overwhelmed. The burden seemed more than we could handle. In fact, we said to ourselves, ‘It looks like this is the end of the journey.’” And yet he says, “Now we believe that we had this experience of coming to the end of our tether that we might learn to trust not in ourselves but in God.” And then he says, “[And] you also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” He’s not a superhero. He’s not saying, “Hey listen, leave it to me. I have gifts.” No. Through the prayers of the many, many will give thanks.
We mentioned Spurgeon. Come back to Spurgeon in 1871, as a thirty-seven-year-old. He has to take three months off from his pulpit because of illness. The nature of the illness was partly in his mind—not sufficiently, but partly. He writes to his congregation as follows—1871:
The furnace still [blows] around me. Since I last preached to you, I have been brought very low; … my spirit has been prostrate with depression. …
I entreat you not to cease your supplications. I am as a potter’s vessel when it is utterly broken, useless, and laid aside.
This is the most effective preacher in Great Britain!
Nights of watching, and days of weeping have been mine, but I hope the cloud is passing. … In this relative trial, a very keen one, I again ask your prayers. … So prays,—
Your suffering Pastor,
[Charles Haddon Spurgeon]
“And also for me,” he says. Vulnerable.
And secondly, humble. And I think there is a direct correlation between the vulnerability and the humility. You see, when we are self-assured, there’s really no reason for us to pray. It is only when we are brought to an understanding of our need, it is only when the accusations of the Evil One come to seek to unhinge us and debilitate us, that we end up going back to God.
What does it mean that this thorn was “a messenger of Satan”? Well, it means at least this: that that which God had brought into Paul’s life to keep him from becoming conceited… In other words, it was a bad thing that was brought into his life for a good reason and was then employed by the Evil One, presumably to come to Paul and say, “You know, why doesn’t God answer your prayers? Why, if you are as useful as you are—why are you experiencing these things? Why is everything not just running smoothly for you, if you really believe this God that you serve?” Those are the kind of things that the Evil One says. Don’t you find that in your own pilgrimage?
So, his request for prayer is not unique to this. We see it as we saw at the beginning of 2 Corinthians 1. When he writes Colossians, he says the same thing: “Continue [steadfast] in prayer,” and “At the same time, pray … for us.” In 2 Thessalonians: “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may go forward unhindered.” How is it that the Word of the Lord will go forward unhindered? “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may go forward unhindered.” The Word of the Lord is going forward. Now, this is the Word of the Lord. Here is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God for his Word. How does it go forward unhindered? As a result of prayer. Prayer.
You see—just to stay with Spurgeon for a further moment—Spurgeon said to young men when he was encouraging them in preaching, he said, “Listen, you can preach the same sermons to far greater effect if your people will pray.” Exact same sermon, to greater effect, because the Word of the Lord goes home unhindered. For we have divine power to break down strongholds. What strongholds? All the strongholds of the insinuations and accusations of the Evil One that says, “This is not true,” or “Don’t listen to this,” or “This isn’t about you,” or “This is for the person next to you.” And how is it that suddenly it comes home and pierces right to the very heart of an individual? How is it that that the sword of the Spirit becomes the scalpel in the hand of the teaching pastor? Prayer. Prayer! Not the giftedness of the individual!
Very humbling, isn’t it? See, ’cause the battle is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places. It’s not an intellectual battle.
Now, if, then, he is who he is—not a superhero, but we have reason to consider his vulnerability and his humility—let us notice secondly that his request for prayer is specific. Is specific. This isn’t just a generalization. He’s not saying just “Pray for me,” but he’s asking that they will pray in a particular way.
When we noted his prayers, we realized that he wasn’t preoccupied with many of the things that are often part and parcel of our prayers. And once again, here’s the case: “and also for me.” He doesn’t say, “that I might get out of this imprisonment.” That would have been relatively natural; I think many of us would have put that right on the top of our list, saying, “You know, after all, I presumably can be far more effective if I’m out of here; therefore, let us pray to this end.” No. He doesn’t pray for liberation; he prays for effectiveness in proclamation. The strength that he required wasn’t just for his own personal confrontation with the Evil One, but actually, what he’s focused on is the evangelistic ministry of the gospel—that he wants to make sure that in the context in which he finds himself, he will have the privilege of doing that for which he has been set apart: to see people rescued from the devil’s dominion; that people will actually be transformed!
Now, when he is explaining before one of the kings, in Acts chapter 26, about what it was that God had planned for him to do… Acts 26 is before Agrippa. And it’s worth rereading these chapters when he gives his defense before Caesar, and before Felix and Drusilla, before Agrippa, and so on. But in this context he explains that he had been arrested by Jesus, as it were, on the Damascus Road, and the word of the risen Jesus to him was as follows: “Rise…” This is Acts 26:16:
Rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.
That is quite a calling, wouldn’t you say?
And so now, in this context, he asks specifically “that words may be given … me in opening my mouth boldly.” Now, the King James Version uses an old word there, but it’s a good word: it’s “that utterance may be given … me.” I actually found that word helpful, because it sort of distinguishes between simply saying, “I need words”—because he was good with words. I mean, he’s not asking for an increase in his vocabulary, presumably. He’s not asking to broaden his base of eloquence. No, he’s asking for “utterance.” He’s asking for the word to be given him.
We sometimes, as a pastoral team, talk about how with the passage of time, it is relatively easy to say something, but the real question is, do you have something to say? And what he’s saying here is, “You pray for me that I may have something to say, that I may have utterance.” It’s actually that word “utterance” on the day of Pentecost when “utterance” was given them and they spoke in various tongues. In other words, it was an expression of the direct work of the Holy Spirit. And that’s what he’s saying here.
And I think if you consider it in terms, for example, of 1 Corinthians 2, it may well ring with clarity: “When I came to you,” he says, “I was … in weakness … fear and … trembling, … my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom,” here we go, “but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” That’s what he’s asking for. He’s saying, “I want you to pray for me so that when words are given me, that my mouth is open freely to proclaim them, that it might actually have this impact.” The same thing that he’s able to say when he writes to the Thessalonians, and he reminds them, he says, “And when I came and declared to you the gospel, it came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.”
I’ve said to you many, many times that there is a distinct difference between simply hearing the voice of a mere man and hearing the voice of God. I don’t mean in some peculiar, mystical way, but in the way in which it happens. I know because it happens to me too—that the Word of God comes home with such clarity and such insight, and often such pain and such revelation, that you’re saying to yourself, “This is God’s very Word. This is not only the Bible as it is explained, but this is the Spirit of God bringing it home to my heart.” Now, it is for that that Paul prays. And it is for that that every teacher of the Bible ought to long. I certainly do.
Frances Ridley Havergal, who wrote that wonderful hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be,” also wrote a few other hymns, one which begins, “Lord, speak to me, that I may speak in living echoes of thy tone.” And one of her verses goes as follows:
O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
The precious things thou dost impart;
And wing my words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.
Seems to me that that is what Paul is asking for: “also for me, that words may be given … me in opening my mouth.”
Now, the second thing he asks for is boldness. And to that we will come, God willing, this evening, because our time has gone. But let me finish with this thought: Why does he need words? To whom is he planning on speaking? After all, he’s got a kinda limited congregation at this point, doesn’t he? Yes, but it doesn’t matter to him. He wants them to pray so that those whom he encounters—the soldiers, the visitors, the various contacts—may be confronted by the mystery of the gospel, to which we will come later.
And, most helpfully, Acts ends with the record of this. And again, I commend to you these closing chapters of Acts; they will encourage you and strengthen you. Paul is in Rome, and he is incapacitated as a result of his chains, and he is entertaining some who wanted to see him, the leaders of the Jews; they wanted to hear what he had to say. And Acts 28:23: “When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.”
“Pray for me, that words may be given me, that when I open my mouth, I may declare it freely.”
“What are you going to say to these Jewish brothers and sisters that you have?”
“Well, I’m going to show them from the Old Testament that the Messiah had to suffer and die. I’m going to show them that the Prophets told of this. I’m going to show them that Moses was a forerunner to this.”
“And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.” And so, “he lived there”—this is how Acts ends—“he lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
One of the fascinating characters in that season must surely be Onesimus, the runaway slave. Because remember, Onesimus ran away from Philemon, and did not realize that he was running away from one master to run straight into the arms of the Master. And Paul, when he writes to Philemon, asking him to take Onesimus back, no longer as useless but as peculiarly useful, in keeping with his name, what does he say? He says, “I want you to take Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” “Whose father I became in my imprisonment.”
How was it that Onesimus was converted? As a result of the prayers of the people who undergirded the ministry and the mouth of Paul, who declared the kingdom in such a way that men and women might understand it. Some disregard it, and others believe it. He did it creatively. He did it winsomely. He did it consistently. And as we will see later on, he did it boldly.
 See Acts 9:1.
 Acts 9:11 (ESV).
 Psalm 51:15 (ESV).
 1 Timothy 1:15 (ESV).
 Ephesians 3:8 (ESV).
 Romans 12:3 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 6:12 (ESV). Emphasis added.
 2 Timothy 1:15 (ESV).
 2 Timothy 4:3–4 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Corinthians 12:7–8.
 See Philippians 3:4–6.
 2 Corinthians 1:9 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 1:11 (ESV).
 Charles Spurgeon to his congregation, Clapham, 1871, in C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1899), 3:243–44.
 Colossians 4:2–3 (ESV).
 2 Thessalonians 3:1 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Corinthians 10:4.
 See Ephesians 6:12.
 Acts 2:4 (KJV).
 1 Corinthians 2:1, 3–5 (ESV).
 1 Thessalonians 1:5 (paraphrased).
 Frances Ridley Havergal, “Lord, Speak to Me, that I May Speak” (1872).
 Acts 28:24 (ESV).
 Acts 28:30–31 (ESV).
 Philemon 10 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.