October 28, 2018
Throughout his sermons and letters, the apostle Paul attested to prayer’s power and importance not only by exhortation and example but also by requesting it for himself. As he reached the end of his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul’s specific prayer requests as an ambassador for Christ in chains affirmed his desire to freely proclaim the Gospel with confidence and clarity. When our conviction rests solely in the power of Christ’s name, we stand ready to boldly declare the message and mystery of the Gospel to a dying world.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I’d like us to read from the end of 2 Timothy—2 Timothy and chapter 4. And these are Paul’s final words to Timothy. They are estimated to be his swan song, his last letter, and therefore, we read them with all the depth that we understand if someone were to write closing words to us, and pay particular attention to them.
So, after his exhortation in the first five verses, he then says from verse 6,
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
“Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers.
“The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.”
We thank God for his Word.
Well, I invite you to turn once again to Ephesians chapter 6. This morning we’re beginning to look at verses 19 and 20, where Paul, having given a comprehensive call to prayer, has then said in an almost matter-of-fact way, “And [pray] 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.”
So, Father, help me to this end now, in these moments that are before us.
Speak, Lord, in the stillness,
While we wait on thee;
Hushed our hearts to listen
In Christ we pray. Amen.
Well, we said this morning—and I won’t go back through it all—but we said this morning that it was important for us to recognize that Paul was not a superhero; that he was the mighty apostle, peculiarly gifted by God, and yet he was aware of his vulnerability. He was vulnerable in so many different ways, and even in rereading the end of his letter to Timothy, in that second letter, I think that sense of vulnerability comes across again: the extent of his humanity, his need for friendship, for companionship, for warmth, and all of these other things. Any idea that we might have that somehow or another any of the apostles were able to sort of fly above the events of life is a concept that we cannot derive from our Bibles. And we thought together about how his vulnerability was in some ways correlative to the humility of his heart, which urged him then in turn to ask for the prayers of others.
And we began to look at the fact that his request for prayer was specific—that he wasn’t making just a general exhortation, but he had something particularly in mind, and that was first of all that he might have the words that would be given to him in opening his mouth to be able to boldly proclaim the mystery of the gospel. And we thought about just what that meant for Paul.
And what we did not say, but what is worth pointing out, is that I don’t think we have any reason to believe that Paul was a natural speaker. I don’t think there is anything about Paul that suggests to us that it was second nature to him—that he would have been, if you like, part of the debating society in school. In fact, it would seem that Apollos was the one who was peculiarly gifted in that way, and that when Paul identifies the fact, in writing to the Corinthians, that there was something of diffidence about his delivery—that there was something fearful, if you like, about his approach—that that was not, on Paul’s part, a sense of undue self-deprecation, but it was an acknowledgement of the fact that when he said, “I want you to pray that words that may be given me, that I may have that sense of God enabling me so that my language will flow, so that I have freedom, so that I have unction, so that I am able to do beyond my own natural ability to do,” that it was the genuine cry of his heart, and it was a sincere and honest request.
And we recognize too that Paul, no matter where he was and how large or how small the context, was engaged in the task of evangelism and that this was his great concern. So we considered the first part of that—specifically, “that words may be given me in order that I might open my mouth boldly.”
Now, that’s the second part of his specific request: first of all, for utterance, and then for boldness. It doesn’t come across here in the ESV, and I don’t suppose that it matters a great deal, but it’s worth pointing out, because some of you follow up on these things, I know, because you tell me. But although it is an adverb here in the ESV—in other words, it’s “boldly” both in 19 and 20—in actual fact, in the text, it is a noun in verse 19 and it is a verb in verse 20: “that I might have boldness” is his request in 19, thereby identifying the noun; and “that I might then speak with boldness,” “that my speech may be marked by this same thing.”
His arrival in Corinth, remember, was “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” And so, when he says, “I would like to be able to speak boldly,” it did not come naturally to him, and he would be as surprised as anyone when he was enabled and quickened in that way. And surely he would have had many times to sit and ponder afterwards just exactly what had happened to him, and how he had been so amazingly helped, and how the Word of God had gone out, as he has often said, in a fashion that is unhindered. And he must have had occasion, before he put his head on the pillow at night, to thank God for those who had responded to his request for prayer, that he might speak in this way and with a boldness that was characteristic of the gospel.
Now, you will notice that his great concern, as we said again this morning, was not his liberation but rather the proclamation of the mystery of the gospel. That ought to make you turn immediately back to 3:7, where he is speaking of the gospel, and he says,
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
And he has already, in chapter 2, made much of the fact that both Jew and gentile have been caught up as a result of the good news of the gospel—the amazing news that both the Jew and the gentile alike can and must be saved through faith in the crucified Christ. No matter to whom he spoke, whether to his own people in his background of Judaism or whether into a pagan environment amongst the Greeks and the Romans—those who had no context whatsoever for the gospel—he was saying the same thing. Because he was absolutely convinced, as one of the other apostles post-Pentecost, that “there is no other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved.” And it was that deep-seated conviction that then fueled, if you like, his sense of boldness.
In fact, just mentioning Pentecost, it makes me want to turn back—which I’m going to—to Acts chapter 4 and just point out to us the importance of boldness and where this boldness emerges. And this is, remember—there’s been a healing of the man at the Gate Beautiful. That has caused great consternation amongst some of the religious folks. They are now holding the apostles in a form of custody, because they don’t like what’s going on, and they want them to essentially stop this kind of stuff.
And so, Peter and John are before the council, and so this is what they say: “Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel”—that’s a pretty good start, isn’t it?—“that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified”—that was quite bold—“whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” And here’s my verse: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” And then Luke immediately says what? “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”
In other words, it was not that they looked at them and said, “Well, this makes perfect sense. After all, if you think about their background and their university acumen and their stature in the community and so on, it follows.” It didn’t follow! The boldness was striking. And what was the basis of the boldness? The proclamation of Jesus. Unashamedly: “This is Jesus. This is who Jesus is. This is Jesus, the crucified Lord, the risen King, the ascended one.” And it was on account of that that they were then able to proceed.
When you go through that chapter, you will see it comes again. When the believers pray for them, what do they pray for them? Verse 29: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” In other words, they didn’t say, “Okay, Lord, I think we’ve had enough of this. Let’s get these fellows out of here. They’ve done a good job so far. There’s no reason for any more of this to keep going.” No! They didn’t pray for their safety. They didn’t pray for their peace of mind. They prayed for boldness. And verse 31: “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Boldness.
Now, you see, in the face of external pressure—or for that matter, within the church, internal pressure and opposition—boldness is necessary. You remember that God says to his prophet of old, he says: “Now, do not be afraid of their faces.” What is the number one fear in life? It’s the fear of death. Number two is speaking in front of a large group of people, by all accounts. You oughta try it. It is fearful.
But boldness, to speak boldly, does not mean to speak unkindly. We make a major mistake if we think that boldness then somehow or another allows us to just about qualify everything else and then determines the tone of our delivery: “Well, he was very bold, and therefore, he can get away with murder.” No, Paul has already said, actually, in chapter 4, that it is absolutely essential that we would be “speaking the truth in love.” So in other words, what we’re looking for, then, and what Paul is praying for, if you like, is a sweet boldness—that he’s not partisan, he’s not a fanatic, he’s not sectarian, but he is bold. And it is a boldness that is tied directly to the message that he proclaims.
You see, one of the reasons that the church gives such an uncertain sound in our day and seems to be prepared to equivocate on so many different things—in other words, is absent a sense of boldness—is because of a loss of conviction about the gospel itself. Why would you be so bold enough to say to the whole world, “There is [only] one mediator between God and m[a]n, the man Christ Jesus,” unless you believe there is? Why would you go to your Jewish friends and say to them, “When you read the law of Moses, there is a veil over your heart, and only in Jesus is the veil taken away”? How unkind is that? Unless, of course, it’s true.
I put in my files earlier in the summer an article that just caught my eye. And I hadn’t really made much of it; it was written in the Daily Telegraph on the twentieth September, earlier this year. And the heading is what caught my eye, and this is what it says: “Western Christianity Isn’t Dying Out from Natural Causes. It’s Dying of Suicide.” Now, this article, I think, is written by a Roman Catholic man. It comes from a fairly objective point of view, and I’m not going to read it all to you, but his thesis is worth considering.
What he says here is this: that the church—at least speaking of the British Isles—that the church has now for decades been chasing after cultural acceptance by trying somehow or another to offer itself to a world that is disinterested in it in such a way that it will excite them. And he actually speaks of a particular place in San Francisco, as it turns out, where “you can watch a video online,” and “down the aisle come clerics, musicians and men on stilts dressed as trees.” And somehow or another, this is in order to, you know, attract people, so you can say, “Would you like to go to church on Sunday? Some of our elders will be wearing stilts and will have branches sticking out of their jacket.” I mean, it’s beyond comprehension, isn’t it?
So they spend all these decades… Now, so, for example: “At the weekend,” he said, “there was a discussion in [the] newspaper about whether or not God has a gender. ‘I don’t want young girls or young boys to hear us constantly refer to God as he,’ said [the] Rt Rev Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester, because that might alienate people.” He goes on to say, “[She] doesn’t need to worry because no one is listening. [We] blame our falling numbers on everything [except] ourselves …. The truth is that Western Christianity isn’t dying out from natural causes …; it’s committing suicide.” And he just articulates the fact that when the church of Jesus Christ ceases to pray as Paul prays here—that we might be enabled to have utterance so that when our mouths are open, we speak the Word of God with boldness—when it ceases to do that, it deserves, actually, to fizzle out and to die.
One final quote from this: it says that these people are interested in seeing the church prosper, but
they are smothering it. They have transformed a faith that only extended as far as it did through preaching and martyrdom into something anxious and introspective, excessively concerned with gender pronouns and saving the redwood tree.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a debate about Left [and] Right in Church politics …. No, it’s about whether the Church talks chiefly about man or about God. [It is about] whether Christians have a distinct message at all.
Now, loved ones, this is why, you see, it is so foundationally important that in every generation we learn again to pray.
The last thing that I said this morning I would mention is that to which we come now. Number one, that Paul was not a superhero; he was marked by vulnerability and an accompanying humility. That when he requested prayer from those to whom he wrote, he was specific in his request: “That I may have the words, that I may have freedom in delivery, that I may be able to speak the word of God boldly.” And then he identifies himself as “an ambassador in chains.” “An ambassador in chains.”
We quoted extensively this morning from the end of Acts, and in that same closing chapter, Luke says, “And when we came into Rome”—that is, he was accompanying Paul—“when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier [that] guarded him.” And when he was addressing some who had come to listen to him talk, he said, “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” It was on account of his faithfulness that he had lost his freedom. He had told the Corinthians when he wrote to them, “We are ambassadors for Christ, [and] God [makes] his appeal through us.”
And there is something of an irony in this. There is a paradox in the way this comes across, and I think we’re supposed to catch it. I’m not sure I get all of it, but I think I’m safe in this: by and large, ambassadors today, as best we understand it, justifiably enjoy the privileges of access and of freedom. They enjoy, if you like, a measure of diplomatic immunity. It goes with the territory. They are representative of a government from another place, and therefore, they’re able to speak on behalf of that government, and they’re able to speak on the authority of it as they represent it. If, then, those ambassadors were to come in their finery, then, in Paul’s day, it may well be that the chains that they wore were chains of adornment, in the same way that every so often, I go somewhere, and a local dignitary is there—it happens most in Britain I think; I don’t see so much of that here. But they’ll often have some big medallion round their neck. It seems somewhat embarrassing to them and to everybody else, but it is an insignia of their power and of their influence. And so, the ambassador in Paul’s day may well have worn that kind of chain, and people would have looked at it and said, “Now, this is a very important man, and he represents a very important authority, and that’s why he’s marked in this way.”
Well, Paul says, “I have chains too. But these chains I’m not wearing round my neck. But they are an insignia of the one I represent.” Because Paul was aware of the fact that he represented a higher throne than all this world had known—that he had been set apart, as we saw at the beginning, as the ambassador of the King of Kings and of the Lord of Lords. And the insignia that God had chosen for him, that was to mark him at this juncture in his life, was one that identified him in all of his need, in all of his vulnerability, in all of his apparent weakness before the might of the empire which held him in its grip.
I remember years ago—and Mickey may remember this, because we went to mainland China together. And one evening we were taken to an apartment somewhere in China, and we were there in the company of some of the leaders of the house church. It was a very difficult evening, because we didn’t speak any Chinese, and they didn’t actually speak hardly a word of English. And they had the stereo up very, very loud, because they were convinced that people were intruding on them and listening in, especially if they had foreigners come to meet when they were gathering.
And at one point, somebody asked these Chinese brothers about the established church in China and about someone who had come from America, a very high-profile person from America, who had come and then had been lauded by the Chinese government, had spoken in these large gatherings that were sanctioned by the atheistic Chinese government. And I’ll never forget the fact that I couldn’t understand the man. And I don’t mean to be unkind to my Chinese friends here, but this is my attempt at Chinese. So, whatever he said, he said in Chinese, and then… But he did this. He did this. And what he said was “When Paul came, he came in chains. When this man comes, he comes and is lauded.” He said, translated, “I think it is in chains that we represent the King, and we stand against the might and the power of those who oppose us.”
Now, why does Paul point this out? He’s not currying their sympathy. He’s not telling them this so that they’ll feel sorry for him, nor is he actually including a PS which says, “And by the way, please pray for my freedom so that I might get out of here.” No. He wants freedom, but he wants the freedom for the gospel itself. And he wants them to pray so that he can deliver it boldly—so that whether it is an entreaty, where he says, “Be reconciled to God,” or whether it is in warning, where he says God “has set a day when he will judge the world,” he does this. And in doing this, he not only affirms his place as an apostle in the founding of the church, but he, if you like, blazes a trail for other frail, weak souls who are set apart to gospel ministry—who are asked to stand, often fearfully, consistently, unrelentingly before a group of people Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, and who desperately need to know the prayers of those to whom they preach, that words may be given and that boldness may be the accompanying dimension.
I haven’t read Lloyd-Jones in a couple of weeks, although he has helped me through Ephesians. But just tonight, as I came into the building, I thought, “I wonder what Lloyd-Jones has to say about this closing section.” And the one thing that stood out to me was this. He’s talking about the need for boldness, and he says, “And this is most important at the present time.” And then he says to his congregation,
Do you pray for the preachers of the Gospel? Do you realize what happens every time a man enters a pulpit—frail, fallible, weak, and yet called of God to be His representative, and an exponent of His glorious truth? Do you pray for preachers of the Gospel? And do you pray in particular that they may speak boldly?
And he was talking about it being of great importance quite a long time ago in the British Isles. Surely, if he were to come back and see this place, he would reiterate his sentiment many times over.
This is a critical moment. It always is. And therefore, our great concern should be as it is.
Is there any indication that what he asked for happened? I think there is. I wouldn’t want to go to the stake for it, but he, at the end of 2 Timothy—and it’s one of the other reasons I read from it—he is able to say—and I hope you picked this up—“At my first defense no one came to stand by me, [they] deserted me. May it not be charged against them!” And then, here we go: “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
Well, we thank God for those who have gone before us. It’s Reformation Sunday, and I’ve had Luther with me. He stays with me in my room, and every so often I bring him out for a trip. And as I picked him up tonight, I thought about how he was one man among many. I thought about how much he valued the ministry of Jan Hus, the Czech Roman Catholic who became a Christian, who was greatly influenced by the writings of Wycliffe, who was subtly and outrageously encouraged to attend to the Council of Constance in November of 1414. It was a trick. They imprisoned him, and they put him in chains. And they gave him, over a period of about ten months, every opportunity to recant. And then, on the sixth of July 1415, they dressed him all up in the finest robes of a priest, and then, deliberately and brutally, they removed his garments one piece at a time. And then they tied him to the stake, and they set fire to him. And as he died, he said, “Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.” And he recited the Psalms as the flames engulfed him.
What could a man like that possibly make of the equivocation that is represented in contemporary Christianity in this great nation in 2018? Surely the call to pray is a most necessary call to us as a church. May God help us to heed this call and not miss this moment. And who knows but that God may choose to open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing upon us such as there would not be room enough to contain it?
Let us pray:
Our gracious God,
We bear the torch that flaming
Fell from the hands of those
Who gave their lives proclaiming
That Jesus died and rose;
Ours is the same commission,
The same glad message ours;
[And] fired [with] the same ambition,
To you we yield our powers.
Lord, take our lives, and let them be consecrated to you. Help us in this moment of great need and great opportunity to seize the privilege of storming, as it were, the gates of heaven, of coming directly into your presence through the work of your Son, and saying, “Father, hear us as we cry to you for our loved ones, for our nation, for the nations of the world.” For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Emily Crawford, “Speak, Lord, in the Stillness” (1920). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See 2 Corinthians 10:1.
 1 Corinthians 2:3 (KJV).
 See Acts 28:30–31.
 Ephesians 3:7–10 (ESV).
 See Ephesians 2:11–22.
 Acts 4:12 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 3:1–10.
 Acts 4:10–13 (ESV).
 See Jeremiah 1:8 (KJV).
 Ephesians 4:15 (ESV).
 1 Timothy 2:5 (ESV).
 See 2 Corinthians 3:15–16.
 Tim Stanley, “Western Christianity Isn’t Dying Out from Natural Causes. It’s Dying of Suicide,” Telegraph, September 20, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/20/western-christianity-isnt-dying-natural-causes-dying-suicide/.
 Acts 28:16, 20 (ESV).
 2 Corinthians 5:20 (ESV).
 See Ephesians 3:7–13.
 2 Corinthians 5:20 (ESV).
 Acts 17:31 (NIV).
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Soldier: An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10–20 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 359–60.
 See Malachi 3:10.
 Frank Houghton, “Facing a Task Unfinished” (1930).
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.