This single, understated, verse was written by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:25. It was a personal request to the ecclesia to include Paul, Silas and Timothy in their prayers.

How much is revealed and yet at the same time how much is concealed in a sentence.

He doesn’t tell them specifically what they should say in those prayers. There was an expectation, however, that the ecclesia knew of his exact circumstances and although they were hundreds of miles away, they could influence his work for good. He had written to them to comfort and strengthen them and in his final words he now asked them to remember him in his labours.

He made a similar request in his second epistle: “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: And that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith” (2 Thess 3:1-2).

The prayers he was seeking from them were not for any personal benefit but for the advancement of God’s work in a hostile environment. The phrase “have free course” literally means ‘to run.’ Paul was likening the advancement of the Word to a marathon, where the runners were speedily running towards a goal — the enlightenment of the Roman world. He asked them for their prayers to make the word of God run swiftly without hindrance (cp Psa 147:15; Isa 55:11).

What does this tell us about the power of collective prayer and how does this all work? If Paul was specifically called to preach to the Gentiles, surely God’s providence would achieve that outcome, come what may. Why then did Paul need their prayers at all? And how does praying for others really work?

To answer these questions we need to understand how God works amongst mankind to effect His purpose. He certainly utilises the power of nature with great effect when He needs to (Psa 148:8); but when He seeks a moral change in people, He frequently works through the labours of mortal man. This is evident from the following quotes:

  • “And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them” (Mark 16:20)
  • “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase… for we are labourers together with God” (1 Cor 3:6-7,9)
  • “he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry” (Acts 21:19)

God adds to the ecclesia by working through the mouth and hands of His people. Hence Paul wrote these words: “I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily” (Col 1:29). He ardently laboured, but he did so in full confidence that God was working in him. In Philippians 2:13 he describes how God works in us “both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (YLT). He provides the will by motivating us through His word and He provides the strength and encouragement for us to work through His providential oversight of our lives. In the case of the first century ecclesia God also worked in them physically through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This means that if God works through faithful men and women, seeking to energise and encourage them to the work, He will need to provide a great deal of assistance to them, helping them to overcome the weaknesses and frailties which they are all prone to. This in turn means that as labourers together with God we need the power of His Word to work mightily in us and we need His providential care to overshadow the direction the work takes.

Whether we are labouring in preaching, or caring, or exhorting, or teaching, or organising in the name of Christ, prayer is going to be an essential component in that work.

This is why Paul believed prayer to be powerful, effective, and necessary. Even though he was an apostle, specially chosen by the risen Lord to further the purpose of God outlined in the prophets, he knew his own weaknesses and his complete dependence upon God. He knew that his work was one of cooperation with the risen Lord and that his effectiveness in carrying out that will could only be effectively achieved if Christ laboured alongside him and in him.

So, why his request for the prayers of others? When God answers the prayers of an individual, He sends His messengers forth to accomplish His purpose (Heb 1:14). We could say that prayer, in the mercy of God, galvanises the angelic host to action. The Lord himself could have asked his Father for 12 legions of angels (Matt 26:53). Prayer moves the hand of God, and God controls the hands of men. If prayer from a single individual can result in heaven’s response of a single angel, how much more wonderful would the response be from the prayers of a multitude?

Prayer then is essential, not because God is helpless to accomplish His purposes without our prayers, but rather that through our prayers God is able to achieve great things in us. This is why Paul asked the ecclesia to pray for him, so that God could mightily intervene and do what the apostle could not.

Paul included many prayers for others in his epistles, but only a few times does Paul ask for prayer for himself. In fact there are eight instances of Paul requesting prayers for himself and his ministry.

Take, for example, the words of Romans 15:30-32, “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; that I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; that I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed”.

It was an appeal. Paul is beseeching them (parakaleo) to come to his side and to be his comforters. Prayer draws people together in comfort even though they might be hundreds of miles apart.

Paul felt a great need for support and comfort and by knowing that others were praying for him he allowed himself to feel strengthened in that knowledge. He described these prayers as a striving together. They were physically separated, yet by them entering into his needs through prayer they were participating in the work. What an amazing thought! Praying for others joins us together in the same labour. When we pray for others it is as if we are there with them, labouring alongside them, carrying the same burdens, shouldering the same difficulties, exalting in the same triumphs.

The prayers he asked from the saints in Rome were “for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake and for the love of the Spirit” or as Young’s Literal Translation renders it, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit.” All prayer to God is through a recognition of our Lord’s work, and Paul asked them to offer it with a loving spirit. When we pray for others we demonstrate our love for others.

Paul asked them “to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.” He was agonising in prayer and he sought them to join him in that contest. Praying does not come naturally. It requires sacrifice and effort, focus and diligence. And this is what Paul was asking them to do alongside him. Paul frequently acknowledged that at times “we know not what we should pray for as we ought” (Rom 8:26). How comforting to know that others might be able to be more articulate in expressing what Paul needed than Paul himself.

In 2 Corinthians 1:11 the apostle informed the ecclesia that they were helping him when they were praying for him. Praying for others helps. To know that brothers and sisters are praying for us allows us to receive their helping hand of support.

In Ephesians 6:18-20 Paul asked for their prayers that “words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (ESV ). Imagine that! The veteran apostle, the ambassador for Christ, the man who understood so much, needing providential encouragement to say the right things in declaring the gospel boldly. How great was his need and how great was his appreciation of the prayers of others.

In Philippians 1:19 he expressed this thought: “For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ”. He fervently believed that their prayers for him, along with Jesus Christ’s own contribution, would result in his deliverance. What confidence he had in the effectual outworking of others praying for him! If only we could match that same level of confidence.

Every time Paul asked people to pray for him, he first prayed for them, and when he made that request, his primary focus was on seeking the furtherance of God’s honour and purpose. How often are we conscious of the plight of others and how often do we pray for others? We may not be able to enter into their circumstances fully, but we can offer our comfort and help through the power of our prayers. We may not be able to preach the Truth to others, but we can pray for others to boldly proclaim that message of salvation. May we all follow the example of Epaphras who laboured fervently for others, praying constantly that others might “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col 4:12). “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).