We conclude our series of studies on the references to prayer in the Pauline letters with a survey of the remaining letters—beginning with Philemon and Colossians, and then turning to consider the references in the disputed letters of Ephesians and 1 Timothy.
Philemon 4-6, 22
The letter to Philemon was, of course, written to an individual rather to the collective believers of a city or territory. Even so, the references to prayer follow the same pattern of the other letters addressed to congregations. The references occur in the introduction (thanksgiving) and closing (exhortation) sections of the letter-body, and are framed specifically in terms of the relationship between Paul and his audience. The prayer references in the thanksgiving (vv. 4-7) could have easily been lifted right out of one of the other Pauline letters.
“I give thanks to my God for (His) good favor, always making mention of you in my (time)s of speaking out toward (Him) [proseuxai/], hearing of your love and trust which you hold toward the Lord Yeshua and (directed) to all the holy (one)s, so that the communication of your trust might come to be working in (the) knowledge about every good (thing) that (is) in you for (the sake of the) Anointed…” (vv. 4-6)
Several of the features here we have seen repeatedly:
- Paul refers to making mention of the believers (here, Philemon) to God regularly during his times in prayer
- He gives thanks because of their faithfulness in response to the Gospel (as it has been reported to him)—trusting in Jesus, demonstrating love, growing in faith and virtue and understanding
- He expresses the wish that they continue to remain faithful
But Paul’s prayers are only one side of the relationship that he holds (as an apostle) with the congregations—they are also asked to pray for him. And so Paul would request this of Philemon as well, just as he does at the close of the letter:
“…but also make ready for me a place (of lodging) for the stranger, for I hope that, through your speaking out toward (God) [proseuxai/], I shall be given to you as a favor (from God).” (v. 22)
The middle-passive verb xari/zomai means “show favor, give (something) as a favor”; in the passive, it refers to the gift or favor itself. It is related to the verb eu)xariste/w in v. 4, which, in a religious context, refers to the favor shown by God, and the gratitude or thanks that we show to Him (in response) for this favor. Here, the favor God will show, through the cooperation of Philemon in his prayers, is to allow Paul the opportunity to visit him.
Colossians 1:3, 9
The prayer references in Colossians follow the same Pauline pattern. The first references occur in the introduction (exordium), which may be divided into two sections—the first containing the thanksgiving (1:3-8), and the second, Paul’s exhortational prayer-wish for the Colossian believers (1:9-14). The opening reference to prayer in the thanksgiving (v. 3) is virtually identical to the statement in Philemon 4 (cf. above). Notably, the statement in Colossians is given in the first-person plural: “We give thanks to God for (His) good favor…always over you, speaking out toward (Him) [proseuxo/menoi]”. In Colossians, Paul gives particular emphasis to his co-workers and fellow missionaries, and so the plural here is significant (cf. verse 7, and further below).
As is typical for Paul, his thanksgiving effectively takes the form of praise for the faithfulness of the believers he is addressing. Specific mention is made of their trust and love, remaining firm in the truth of the Gospel (vv. 4-5), as also of their growth in virtue and understanding (vv. 6-7), and of unity in the Spirit.
The second prayer-reference in the introduction, correspondingly, comes at the opening of the exhortational prayer-wish in vv. 9ff:
“Through [i.e. because of] this we also, from the day on which we heard (this), do not cease speaking out toward (God) [proseuxo/menoi] over you…” (v. 9a)
Paul’s wish (as a prayer to God) is for the Colossians to continue in faith and virtue, growing further in spiritual knowledge and understanding, etc.:
“…and asking (Him) that you would be filled (with) the knowledge about His will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (v. 9b)
The remainder of the prayer-wish—also to be characterized as an intercessory request—is phrased in the typical manner of early Christian ethical instruction and exhortation, of which there certainly are a number of Pauline examples:
“…(for you) to walk about (in a manner) up to a level (worthy) of the Lord, into everything (that is) pleasing (to Him), bearing fruit in every good work, and growing in the knowledge of God, being (em)powered in all power, according to the might of His splendor…” (vv. 10-11a)
Also typical of Paul, is the eschatological aspect of this exhortation—a theme that is developed throughout the letter—but nuanced here with a strong dualistic Christological emphasis:
“…(the Father), (hav)ing made us fit for the portion of the lot of the holy (one)s in the light, (and) who rescued us out of the power [e)cousi/a] of darkness and made (us) stand over into the kingdom of His (be)loved Son—in whom we hold the loosing from (bondage), the putting away of sins” (vv. 12-14)
Colossians 4:2-3, 12
The Pauline pattern continues with the prayer-references in the closing (exhortation) section of the letter (4:2-6). Typically, in these sections Paul emphasizes the other side of the prayer relationship between himself and the congregations—namely, that they should regularly be praying for him. He leads into this with a general exhortation for the Colossians to remain firm in prayer:
“In speaking out toward (God) [proseuxh/], you must be firm toward (it), keeping awake in it with thanks for (His) good favor” (v. 2)
The verb proskartere/w (“be firm/strong toward [something]”) is a key word characterizing the unity of believers in the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:42, 46; 6:4; 8:13; 10:7). Paul also uses it in Romans (12:12; 13:6), and the prayer context of its use in 12:12 is comparable to what we find here. The noun eu)xaristi/a corresponds to the related verb eu)xariste/w in 1:3 (cf. above), emphasizing again the relationship between prayer and the favor God shows to us. As Paul makes clear, there are two aspects to this relationship: (1) we give thanks for the favor God has shown, and (2) we ask that He will continue to show us favor, and that we will act in a manner that is worthy of His favor.
The prayer-emphasis shifts in verse 3:
“…at the same time, also speaking out toward (God) over us, that God would open up for us a door for the account [lo/go$], to speak the secret [musth/rion] of the Anointed, through which I have been bound”
The prayers believers are to make on his behalf typically relate specifically to his missionary work, defined in terms of preaching the Gospel. Here, two key terms are used, in a technical sense, for the Gospel:
- lo/go$, “account,” that is, a spoken account, shorthand for the expression the “account of God” (Acts 4:31; 6:2, et al)—viz., the account of what God has done through the person of Jesus.
- musth/rion, “secret” —on this usage, cf. the recent discussion on Rom 16:25-26, as well as my earlier word study series. The Gospel of Christ is a “secret,” hidden throughout all the ages past, and revealed only now, at the present time, through the kerygma (proclamation) by the prophets and apostles of the early Christian mission.
This is a regular theme in Paul’s prayer-references—that believers work together with him (and his fellow missionaries), through their prayers. We have seen repeatedly in our studies the importance of praying for the needs of others, rather than simply for our own needs. It is a key New Testament principle that such selfless and sacrificial prayer is assured of being answered by God.
As in the introduction (cf. above), Paul uses the first-person plural. Sometimes he does this in his letters as a rhetorical device, but here he is specifically including his fellow missionaries and co-workers with him. In the closing that follows in vv. 7-17, Paul mentions ten different persons, among them Epaphras in vv. 12-13. He was mentioned earlier in 1:7, and also in Philemon 23 (both in the context of the prayer-references, cf. above). Epaphras apparently was an apostolic missionary in his own right, and one who would have had much more frequent contact with the congregations of the region. Paul refers to him much as he does to himself, as a “slave” (dou=lo$) of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1). In 1:7 the word is su/ndoulo$ (“slave together with [me/us]”), while in Philem 23 he is called “one taken captive [lit. at spearpoint] together with (me)” (sunaixma/lwto$), i.e. “co-prisoner, fellow prisoner”.
Like Paul, Epaphras’ role as an apostolic missionary led him to pray frequently (and fervently) for the believers of that area. Paul describes this here in v. 12 as “struggling over you in his speaking out toward (G0d) [proseuxai/]”. The verb is a)gwni/zomai (“struggle”), used, viz., in athletic competitions; it is something of a Pauline term, as 6 of the 8 NT occurrences are in the Pauline letters (elsewhere, 1 Cor 9:25; Col 1:29; 1 Tim 4:10; 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7). The occurrences of the substantive (verbal noun), a)gw/n, used in a similar context, should also be noted—1 Thess 2:2; Phil 1:30; Col 2:1; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7. In Paul’s usage, the verb alludes to believers (esp. missionaries) laboring—and enduring suffering—for the sake of the Gospel.