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Prayer: the heart of evangelism (Ephesians 6:17–20)

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Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

What do you pray for? How someone answers that question says a lot about what is close to their heart.

Prayer is clearly a very important theme in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. As the apostle sits in chains in a Roman prison, writing this letter, he keeps coming back to this topic of prayer. He prays for his readers, that they will be able to lift their eyes to see the greatness of God’s purposes and plans through his Son Jesus Christ. He prays that they won’t be discouraged by the news of his imprisonment. He prays that they will be able to grasp how immense God’s plans and purposes are, and how immeasurably vast is his love for us through Christ. In previous posts in this series on Ephesians, we’ve seen that prayer involves praise, humility, thanksgiving, and asking God for things. We’ve seen that the God to whom we pray is both infinitely wise and powerful, and also our loving heavenly Father who is patient and kind and willing to forgive. These great truths should shape our prayers and encourage us to pray more and more.

Youth praying, Finchale Priory

Now, at the end of Paul’s letter, after modelling his own prayers to his readers, he asks them to pray. What’s more, he gives them some specific instructions and requests about what to pray for. We can learn a lot from Paul’s words here about what we should be praying for. Of course, we can pray for anything, big or small: our daily needs, our personal struggles, our relationships, our loved ones, and our hopes and dreams. God always hears believers in Christ when they pray. Yet for Paul, there is something central to God’s plans and purposes that he wants his readers especially to pray for. It’s at the heart of what Paul has been writing about throughout his letter to the Ephesians. In short, Paul wants his readers to pray for evangelism. He wants them to pray that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ will go out to the world, both through his readers and through others.

Paul writes:

And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit—that is, God’s word—praying with every kind of prayer and petition, at every opportunity, by the Spirit. To that end, stay alert with all perseverance and every kind of petition for the holy ones and for me. Pray that the word would be given me as I open my mouth, so that I can boldly make known the secret of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I would be bold in speaking it, as I must.

Ephesians 6:17–20

What exactly is Paul asking his readers to pray about here? And why does he see it as so important?

Salvation and evangelism: The final armour for the struggle

At this point, Paul is finishing off his call to his readers to “put on the full armour of God” (Ephesians 6:10). He’s been urging them to take their part in God’s great spiritual battle. Throughout his letter, Paul has been describing how God is fulfilling his plan to “sum up all things in Christ: things in heaven and things on earth, in him” (Ephesians 1:10). This plan involves many dimensions, including a cosmic and spiritual dimension. And believers in Christ have a key part to play in this plan. So at the end of his letter, Paul urges believers to stand their ground (Ephesians 6:10–13) and keep struggling (Ephesians 6:14–16) in the spiritual battle, as God fulfils his purposes. Paul has already mentioned many pieces of armour for the battle: truth, righteousness, the readiness of the gospel of peace, and faith. Now in verse 17, at the end of the list, Paul urges his readers to take “the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit—that is, God’s word”. These two pieces of armour form the climax of the list; they are both highly significant, and they are intimately related to one another.

Why does Paul describe this armour in this way? Paul here is, in fact, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah. It’s worth looking briefly at what Isaiah says, because it helps us to understand what Paul is talking about in Ephesians. The “helmet of salvation” is a reference to Isaiah 59:17. Isaiah, in his day, was talking about God’s “salvation”: that is, God rescuing his sinful and helpless people from their enemies. For Isaiah, the “helmet of salvation” is something that God puts on. That’s because all God’s people are sinful and unrighteous and helpless to rescue themselves, so God must act to save them all by himself (see Isaiah 59:2–16). Here in Ephesians, however, Paul describes this “helmet of salvation” as something that God has given us to wear. That’s because believers in Christ are people whom God has already saved and rescued—from sin, from death, from the devil, and indeed from God’s own righteous judgment. Believers in Christ are forgiven through Christ’s death, loved by God, saved by his grace, safe in his loving and secure care, raised with Christ in heaven, and looking forward to a wonderful future (Ephesians 2:5–7). This is our “salvation” that God has given to us. That’s why we ourselves can put on “salvation” as armour for the spiritual battle. The more we remember that we are secure and safe in God’s salvation, the more confidence we can have in living for him and struggling against sin.

But that’s not all. Let’s go back to Isaiah chapter 59 once again. According to Isaiah, when God saves his people, he also does something else. God also gives them his “Spirit” and his “word”. Once Isaiah has described God’s “salvation”, he says:

 “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore.”

Isaiah 59:21 ESV

So according to Isaiah, God’s saved people are also God’s Spirit-empowered speaking people. Not only do they have God’s salvation, they also have God’s word in their mouths. This is how Isaiah describes this Spirit-empowered ministry a short while later:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news [literally, to bring the gospel] to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound

Isaiah 61:1 ESV

So God not only saves his people; he also gives them his Spirit and his word. What word? The powerful word of the gospel, which is a word that God’s saved people are to speak! And so this word of the gospel is a word that saves other people from captivity. According to Paul (as we have seen), this gospel saves people from sin, death, judgment and the power of Satan. And notice that this proclamation of the gospel is not just a job for a small number of special Spirit-inspired prophets and evangelists. Paul says here in Ephesians that all of us believers are to take up this spoken message, the “word of God”, which is the “sword of the Spirit”. This gospel message is a key weapon in the spiritual battle. As we speak the good news of the gospel, we are taking part in God’s great plans and purposes to free people from the power of Satan and sin, and to bring them to salvation. Of course, each one of us will speak this gospel in different ways, and different circumstances, depending on who we know and the kind of relationships we find ourselves in. We’re not all going to be up-front speakers or professional evangelists. But we are all involved in the same spiritual battle, in different ways. And, according to Paul, all of us are to take up this word of God and speak it to others.[1]

And yet, it’s a struggle to share the message of Jesus Christ with others, isn’t it? After all, it’s a battle, not a picnic. It’s really hard. And that’s precisely why we need to pray.

Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

Prayer: At the heart of the struggle to speak the gospel

As we take up this sword of the Spirit—and so engage in evangelism—we must be “praying with every kind of prayer and petition, at every opportunity”. Notice that Paul doesn’t describe prayer as just one of the many weapons in the arsenal for the spiritual struggle. Rather, prayer is the foundation for everything else. Prayer is the key thing that needs to be happening all the time, at every opportunity, as we wield all the other weapons in the struggle. Prayer must undergird and accompany everything in our Christian lives, especially as we speak the message of the gospel to others. That’s why, when it comes to evangelism, prayer—not our own plans or wisdom or activity—must always be the first item on the agenda.

But prayer isn’t simply a task that we must perform. Our prayer, like our evangelism, is something that happens “by the Spirit”. Paul isn’t talking here about some special “spiritual” form of prayer, or a special “spiritual” experience of prayer that’s different from the normal experience. Rather, he’s reminding his readers that whenever believers pray, God will hear us, because through Christ we “have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). In other words, prayer is incredibly powerful. Why? Because it is a prayer to a powerful God, and is empowered by God’s own Holy Spirit. The Spirit who has wielded the word of the gospel in our lives and brought us to salvation is the same Spirit who now enables us to pray that the gospel will go out to others and bring them to salvation. This should give us great confidence to pray.

Yet prayer is not easy, is it? It still needs persistence and vigilance. That’s why Paul says: “To that end, stay alert with all perseverance”. We need to be intentional about prayer, and not let it slip. This is why it’s vital that we develop daily prayer habits. If you don’t have a daily prayer habit, how could you develop one? Maybe you need to get up a little earlier to pray? Maybe you need to give up some other activity so you have time and energy to pray? It’s worth starting small and growing your habits. Don’t create an ambitious program that just sets you up for failure. Start with, say, 5 minutes a day. It can take months before prayer is truly a habit. But persevere with it. If you’re in a stage of life where you have lots of time, don’t waste it. Pray more! If you’re in a stage where time is precious—like being a parent of young children, for example—hang in there! Don’t give up completely; keep fighting for that prayer time. Remove distractions wherever you can.  Use whatever mode on your phone you need to turn off notifications and beeps and little red circles, so you can concentrate on prayer.

And as we pray, we should be including prayer that God’s Spirit will wield his sword—God’s word—through us. We can pray, for example, for specific people in our lives with whom we long to be able to share the saving message of Jesus Christ. We should pray for opportunities, for wisdom to speak the right words, and for boldness.

Photo by Sai de Silva on Unsplash

Prayer for others to speak the gospel

Yet evangelism is not a solo endeavour. That’s why we should also be praying for others who are speaking the gospel throughout the world, especially those people whose lives have been specifically set aside to be missionaries and evangelists and ministers of the gospel.

Paul here asks his readers to engage in “every kind of petition for the holy ones and for me.” The “holy ones” were the original apostolic community in Israel, the people who “first hoped in Christ”. These “holy ones” were central to the original proclamation of the gospel to the nations. That’s why Paul asks his readers to pray for them particularly. Furthermore, Paul sees himself as the “leastest of all” these “holy ones” (Ephesians 3:8). Yet Paul realises that, by God’s grace, he has been given the great task of bringing the gospel to the nations. That’s why, here at the end of his letter, he asks that his readers would pray especially for him.

This call by Paul for his readers to join in prayer for him sums up so much of Paul’s purposes in writing Ephesians. Paul wrote his letter to encourage his readers to lift their eyes to God’s great purposes and plans in Christ. God’s purposes involve summing up all things in Christ. God is achieving these purposes through the preaching of the gospel. Paul is a key preacher of the gospel to the nations. But right now, he’s in prison. Yet even in prison, he doesn’t want his readers to be discouraged. Rather, he wants them to see what God is doing through the gospel—even through his suffering, which is for their glory. And now, he says, he wants them to pray for him! As he has prayed for them, now he wants them to join in and pray for him, sharing that fellowship in the proclamation of the gospel as they struggle together. This shows us how important it is for us to pray for others who are speaking the gospel: missionaries, evangelists, ministers, and others. Prayer is a fundamental way that we can join in fellowship with others in the mission of the gospel.

What and how should we pray? This is what Paul asks for his readers to pray for him:

Pray that the word would be given me as I open my mouth, so that I can boldly make known the secret of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I would be bold in speaking it, as I must.

Ephesians 6:19b–20

This is a great model for the kind of things we can and should pray for others who are proclaiming the gospel throughout the world:

We should pray that God would give them the right words for the right situation.

We should pray for boldness in the face of things that might make them afraid or discouraged. Paul himself is only human, and as his imprisonment went on, he himself would have been tempted to be discouraged. He calls himself “an ambassador in chains”. It must have been very hard to be in chains. Paul has been encouraging his readers to lift their eyes to see God’s purposes and plans—now he wants them to pray for him that he’d be able to take his own advice!

We should pray that the word of the gospel goes out even in the midst of suffering. The word “boldly” can also mean clearly and freely. Paul wants his readers to pray that the word itself won’t be hindered or shut up, even though the ambassador is.

Why should we pray about these things? Because it really matters. It’s what God is doing in the world. Paul “must” speak it—that’s his task, because this is what God is doing in the world! And it is a key part of our struggle, too.

Mission. Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Prayer for evangelism: A couple of practical suggestions

Here are a few things I do that help me to pray that the gospel will go out to the world. You might like to try something similar.

Firstly, I use a phone app called PrayerMate. In PrayerMate, I keep lists of all the different people and matters I want to pray for, including people I want to share the gospel with. Each day, the app gives me a list of some of those people so I can pray for them, and it keeps track of how often each one comes up, according to the settings I’ve put in. This helps me to keep my prayers broad and comprehensive, but not to be overwhelmed by all the things I want to be praying for.

Secondly, I receive prayer letters by email from missionaries and other people involved in evangelism. Whenever a prayer letter comes in, I send it to a specific folder in my email system. Then each morning, as part of my prayer routine, I open up the folder and see if there is a newsletter there to pray for. This is a great way to pray specifically for the requests of those who are engaged in the ministry of the gospel.

There are many things that we can pray for. And God is always willing to listen to the prayers of those who believe in Christ. But as we pray, let’s remember to pray for those things that are central to God’s purposes. Let’s pray that the gospel will go out to the world—through us and through others.

For reflection

Do your own prayers include prayers for people to come to know Jesus and so be saved?

What is one practical way you can change your daily habits to make sure you are staying alert and persevering in prayer for the gospel to go out to the world?


[1] I’ve written more about this in my book Gospel Speech: A Fresh Look at the Relationship between Every Christian and Evangelism (Matthias Media, 2015).

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Want more?

This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.

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