If we had lived in the presence of the Apostle Paul as he journeyed and laboured in the preaching of the Gospel, we would have been greatly impressed by his close personal relationship with his God through prayer. In fact it is a very profitable exercise, when following our daily readings through Acts and the Epistles of Paul, to observe the references to prayer and the power that this played in his life. To him there was no embarrassment in pausing for prayer, either privately or with the brethren and sisters, as some issue was to be faced. For example, if we had been with Paul in Philippi we would have realised that prayer was an essential ingredient of his daily life. Not only had he met Lydia “by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made”, but it was “as we went to prayer” that the damsel with the spirit of divination met Paul and was cured by him (Acts 16:13,16). Later that evening, in the darkness of the night as “Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God”, the earthquake shook the city and the final result was the conversion of the Jailer (Acts 16:25–34).

Paul was not ashamed to seek the Father in prayer publicly with the ecclesia. It was possibly in some open place at Miletus that the elders of the ecclesia from Ephesus met with Paul and after his stirring exhortation and warning “he kneeled down, and prayed with them all” (Acts 20:36). A short time later, having spent seven days in Tyre with the disciples, Paul was ready to continue his journey to Jerusalem. The disciples, their wives and children went out of the city with Paul to farewell him. There Paul “kneeled down on the shore, and prayed” with them before departing (Acts 21:5). Prayer was not something to be embarrassed about, but rather the wonderful privilege that all could freely engage in as they unitedly approached their God and Father.

Knowing the Needs of the Ecclesia

 We all give assent to the fact that we should pray for the ecclesia. But what does this really mean? Let us look at Paul’s example in this for he sets the pattern for us to follow. Firstly, before we can pray for others we need to have a knowledge of their particular needs. Do we thoughtfully reflect upon what is most needed in our ecclesia at a particular time? Do we see specific needs? Do we observe particular aspects of our ecclesia for which we feel compelled to thank God? Unless we give contemplative thought to the ecclesia then we will find that we slip into meaningless clichés in prayer.

Consider the magnitude of Paul’s awareness of ecclesial life throughout the Roman world. We have in Corinthians one of the few glimpses into the personal life and thinking of Paul. He felt compelled to write thus because of the fickleness and foolishness of the Corinthians who were affected by the Judaisers’ denunciation of him as an apostle. After listing the personal afflictions that had come upon him, he added his far heavier burden—“that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the ecclesias” (2 Cor 11:28). Another translation based upon the Greek is “the crowding in upon me every day, the anxious care concerning all the ecclesias”.

 Continually Paul received mail as messengers arrived from throughout the Empire, bringing with them news of the ecclesias and individuals in those ecclesias. From reading the epistles we realise that this news brought rejoicing, but was often tempered with sadness and anxiety. Paul relates how this affected him personally saying: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” for he felt the weaknesses of each individual member in those ecclesias. Many would be personally known to him and to hear of one in trouble was a message of great personal grief to him. Again he says: “Who is offended, and I burn not?” (2 Cor 11:29). When he heard of one stumbling as it were on a stumbling stone, or being ensnared and trapped by sin (for these are the thoughts behind the word “offended”) Paul personally felt the grief of this. He burned with remorse, feeling a fellow suffering for the brother. He knew the deceitfulness of sin. He had said of himself: “O wretched man that I am”, as he reflected upon his own weakness (Romans 7:24).

When we hear the fraternal news or are informed of the state of other ecclesias and individual members therein is this our response? Do we truly identify with them as our beloved brethren and sisters in the body of Christ, or are we so detached that we feel completely unrelated to them? Woe to us if we allow this thinking to come upon us. Very soon we will, like the Pharisee, be praying with ourself and saying: “God, I thank thee that I am not like that brother”! (Luke 18:11).

Seeing the Ecclesia as One Body

 Paul, in his deep and sensitive feeling for others, saw the ecclesias as a collective group, members of the one body of Christ of which he too was a member. He was a living testimony to the fact “that the members should have the same care one for another; and whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor 12:25–26). Paul had a sympathetic feeling for all brethren and sisters and this is the spirit we should strive to develop if we truly are members of that one body of Christ. As we read Paul’s epistles we are constantly reminded of his continual prayer and thanksgiving for his brethren and sisters in the ecclesias, with such expressions as: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request…” (Phil 1:3–4), and again: “For God is my witness, (and what a faithful witness He is since all prayer is offered to Him), that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Rom 1:9; cp 1 Thess 1:2–3 etc).

However, to those who are striving to follow the example of Paul in prayer, one could ask: “For what should we pray or give thanks in our ecclesias?” The answer is soon found by a thoughtful noting of the content of Paul’s prayers. His prayers were specific to the needs of the ecclesia, and if he was offering thanks then the purpose for those thanks is often revealed. Obviously Paul gave serious thought to the state and needs of the ecclesia before turning his mind in prayer to God. Do we identify the ecclesial or individual issues that we wish to place before the Father before we approach Him in prayer?

Specific Examples in Prayer for an Ecclesia

 The epistle to the Colossians gives two examples of prayer for the ecclesia—one by Paul and the other by Epaphras. Epaphras had arrived in Rome, being sent to minister to Paul on behalf of the Colossian ecclesia (Col 1:7–8). He brought with him their “fraternal news”. Paul’s first response was heartfelt thankfulness for such news: “We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints” (Col 1:3–4). We are a miserable people if we cannot appreciate the blessings of God in our midst and spontaneously lift our hearts and minds in thankfulness. However the news that Epaphras brought concerning the ecclesia also caused Paul to reflect upon the specific needs of the ecclesia in regard to their overall spiritual development. Notice the thoughtfulness of his prayer and the specific requests that are made. His desire was that the ecclesia “might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col 1:9). There is only one way that such a prayer can effectively be fulfilled in our ecclesial life today. Individual members need to give themselves to persistence in daily reading of the Word and serious meditation upon it. Those capable of deeper study and the ability to impart that knowledge need to commit themselves to the use of their talent in this regard for the upbuilding of the ecclesia. The members in particular need to prioritise attendance at the Study Class to receive such benefit.

Yet Paul realised that such a development of knowledge was but a stepping stone to the next and more important step in the ecclesia’s development. This growth in knowledge was, “That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work” (v10). There must follow a manifestation of that knowledge in their daily life. As that new life based on the knowledge of God’s will was put into practice, then they would experience a further increase “in the knowledge of God”. What more could one desire than to see the ecclesia, competent in a knowledge of Yahweh and understanding His character, then manifesting that character in the lives of all its members? This prayer is certainly much more focused and specific than a general cliché such as, “God, please bless the ecclesia”.

Whilst looking at the epistle to the Colossians let us observe that Epaphras also specifically prayed for his ecclesia while absent from them. Paul mentions that Epaphras was “always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col 4:12). Here is a challenge for each of us in regard to personal prayer for our ecclesia. He too desired that the ecclesia might manifest a mature understanding of God’s will in their lives. Obviously Epaphras had discussed the needs of the ecclesia with Paul and particularly spoke of these matters for which he fervently petitioned the Father. Do we seriously talk to each other of the needs of the ecclesia and are our brethren then aware that such topics are the theme of our personal prayers? If we did this among ourselves then the tone of discussion about the ecclesia would surely be lifted into a much higher level than it possibly is now.

Let us realise that we have “One Father”. We are all His children begotten by Him, though scattered in many places throughout the earth. How pleasing it must be for Him therefore to hearken to our prayers for other members of His family as we seek the well-being of our ecclesia and His guidance upon the body collectively. If we genuinely seek the Father’s blessing and guidance upon our brethren and sisters now, what a joy it will be to stand with them in the Kingdom, realising that our prayers were heard and answered by their Father and ours.