Preaching is the chief means of advancing the kingdom of God: ‘God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:21). It is through the preaching of God’s Word also that Christians grow in grace. That being so, those involved in this vital business will be the special objects of Satan’s wrath, and that is reason enough to pray earnestly for them.
What a man of God the apostle Paul was! What gifts were his! But was Paul self-confident? No, he was very conscious of his weakness and of his need of prayer. Many times in his letters he asked for the prayers of those he addressed. Sometimes it was a request for general prayer. For example, to the Thessalonians he said, ‘Brothers, pray for us’ (1 Thessalonians 5:25). It is encouraging for a pastor to know that he is prayed for.
Most times Paul was specific in his prayer requests. By looking at some of these requests we can learn to pray more intelligently and fervently for pastors. Writing to the Ephesian church Paul said, ‘Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should’ (Ephesians 6:19-20).
Words that count
First of all the Apostle asked that in his preaching words might be given to him. Paul was a gifted speaker, but he could not rely on gift alone. What was the source of Paul’s words? Who told him what to say? As an Apostle he received direct revelation from God, but that would not eliminate the need for study of the Old Testament Scriptures. It is likely that he set aside time to study them in preparation for his messages. Pastors today certainly cannot rely on direct revelation. They need to study the Bible and spend much time in preparation. Basically, what is preached is what has been prepared. There are always exceptions to this. There are times when a preacher will feel constrained to abandon his notes and speak on a topic that comes to him at that moment. Quite often illustrations and fresh thoughts will occur to him in the middle of his message that were not considered during preparation. However this is not the norm, and a preacher cannot rely on this happening. He prepares his message, and generally preaches what he has prepared. It follows therefore that preparation is very important, and prayer for it is vital.
How many pray for the pastor’s preparation? What are some of the specific things that are important? The choice of topic preached on itself is vital. Pray that the pastor will be given wisdom in selecting his subject. If the subject is clear, he needs an appropriate text from which to preach it. He needs direction in the use of Bible commentaries. He needs faithfulness and honesty in expounding the meaning of the Scripture. For all these matters prayer is required.
In his preparation he must bear in mind the needs of his congregation. There are mature Christians who need spiritual meat. There are young believers who require basic instruction. There are unbelievers who obviously need the gospel. Pray that the pastor will bear all these in mind and have at least something that will be appropriate for each group. There should always be at least one ‘arrow’ for unsaved hearts. There may be special situations to remember either in the church as a whole or in individual cases. Pray that the pastor will be sensitive to current needs as he waits upon God.
In the verses quoted above, Paul also asked the believers to pray that he might be bold. He wanted to declare the word ‘fearlessly’. It is a strong temptation for a preacher to cater to his audience in a wrong way, by avoiding certain truths that might offend people. There might be an unsaved person who also happens to have been generous to the church. The pastor might be tempted to stay clear of anything that could upset that person. Pray that he will be bold in his preaching, and that the fear of man might not become a snare (Proverbs 29:25). Pray also that his boldness will not be abrasiveness! Boldness without abrasiveness in preaching requires the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Anointing by the spirit
There needs to be much prayer that the pastor would know heavenly unction, so that the message would be ‘not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5). There needs to be a deep awareness that ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain’ (Psalm 127:1). However faithful a man might be to the truth of Scripture, without the power of the Holy Spirit his ministry will be fruitless. It might interest people, it might bring him praise, but without that anointing it will accomplish little of a soul-transforming nature. Daniel Herbert’s hymn contains helpful sentiments:
Lord, fill Thy servant’s soul today
With pure seraphic fire,
And set his soul at liberty,
And grant his soul’s desire.
O may he preach the word of God
With energy and power;
May gospel blessings spread around
Like a refreshing fire.
An open door
We find another of Paul’s prayer requests in the Epistle to the Colossians: ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should’ (Colossians 4:2-4). The apostle was of course a prisoner, so he could not go where he wanted. Opportunities to preach the gospel had to come his way. Opportunities meant not merely people being in front of him, but them having ears open to listen to the Word of God. In praying for your pastor, you can pray that there will be open ears and hearts as the proclaims the gospel. If the message is to be effective, people must have receptive hearts. The most powerful preaching in the world will accomplish nothing if the Holy Spirit does not apply the Word to people’s hearts. The proof of this is seen in the earthly ministry of the Lord himself. As the temple guards testified, ‘No one ever spoke the way this man does’ (John 7:46), yet few responded to his message.
In the light of this it is obvious that external success is not the only criterion by which to judge preaching. A man may be godly and faithful yet see few results, nevertheless it is also true that without the Spirit’s work in the hearts of the hearers, people will not be converted, nor will Christians grow in grace.
Paul is also asking for prayer that the message might be clear. The Holy Spirit can do marvellous things in the lives of people, but he does not bypass the mind, and if the preaching is unintelligible to the hearers, there can be no response to the message. Pray for clarity in the preaching, that the message will be put together in a way that people can grasp. A Scottish lady was once asked if she enjoyed the preacher. She replied, ‘Far be it from me to claim to understand such a learned man!’ That is not what the Apostle had in mind when the Word was preached — he wanted it to be understood.
One further passage where Paul requested prayer for his ministry is found in the second letter to the Thessalonians: ‘Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith, (2 Thessalonians 3:1). The apostle wanted his message to be effective, and so he asked the Christians to pray to that end.
Not in vain
We do have promises that God’s Word will not return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11), and that our labour in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Some have laboured faithfully for many years without much apparent fruit, but surely it must eventually come. Even Paul had occasions when there was little to show for his efforts, for example at Athens, but he always looked for fruit, and asked for prayer that there might be fruit. Can it not be said, ‘According to your faith will it be done to you’? (Matthew 9:29). An incident in the life of C.H. Spurgeon is relevant. A young preacher was bemoaning the fact that he did not see conversions. Spurgeon said, ‘You don’t expect to see conversions every time you preach, do you?’ ‘No,’ the man replied. ‘Then,’ said Spurgeon, ‘thats’ why you don’t!’ There should be an expectation of blessing on the part of the pastor, but there should also be the same expectation on the part of the Christians who hear the Word, and there should be earnest prayer to that end.
There is a valuable lesson in Exodus 17. The Israelites, fresh out of Egypt, and with little experience of warfare, were attacked by the Amalekites. Moses sent Joshua into battle while he went to the top of a hill. He held up his hands, and Israel were successful against the enemy. But in time his arms grew weary, and when he let them down, Israel started to lose ground. So Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands until the battle was won. Pastors do get weary and unable to stand alone. They need God’s people to hold up their hands in the battle. Pastors may be in the front line of the battle, but no battles are won just in the front line. Those who plan, those who bring supplies and many others are vital if victory is to be achieved. That is certainly true in the kingdom of God. Behind the preacher there must be those who support him, those who encourage him and especially those who pray for him.
How much do you pray for your pastor? Will you determine to pray more? If the apostle Paul needed the prayers of God’s people, how much more do those who must labour with lesser gifts? Regular, earnest prayer for pastors and preachers of the Word would doubtless make a significant difference to our churches. May God give us all a burden to do that! It was well said by the Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne, ‘A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.’ There is no question that the pastor has a solemn responsibility to keep himself pure. He must also work hard at the preparation and delivery of the Word of God. But how much more effective would pastors be if they had congregations that prayed fervently for them?