One of the things that stands out in the letters of the Apostle Paul is that Paul understood the importance of prayer for individual Christians and the corporate church body. His letters are marked by at least three things related to prayer. First, he often exhorts his readers to pray for other believers, himself included (Eph. 6:18–19). Second, he thanks others for having prayed for him (2 Cor. 1:11). Third, he mentions that he has been in prayer for the particular church to whom he writes (Phil. 1:3–4; Col. 1:3) and what he has prayed for on their behalf (Col. 1:9–10; Eph. 3:14–21). With everything else that Paul addresses in his letters, his emphasis on prayer sets a worthy example for believers in all generations.
For Paul and other New Testament writers, prayer is a privilege of grace that grants bold and intimate access to our heavenly Father. Hebrews 4:16 admonishes us to “draw near” with confidence “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Peter likewise admonishes his readers, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7).
The New Testament writers (Paul in particular) by way of example and exhortation demonstrate the importance of what is commonly referred to as intercessory prayer—in other words, praying for the well-being of others. An example of this is the prayer lists that many churches keep with the names and needs of church members, family and friends of members, local churches, and missionaries. Intercessory prayer is a way of connecting with brothers and sisters in the faith and petitioning our heavenly Father on their behalf. It is a way of sharing their burden and for the moment diverting our attention from our own concerns and raising their concerns as our own.
“I’m praying for you” or “Keep me in your prayers” are common exchanges, and I’m sure these words are uttered in sincerity, but there is always the risk of their becoming rote and formulaic. In fact, the criticism that Jesus offers of the prayers of the gentiles is something that we should take to heart: “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). On the contrary, let every prayer that we offer on behalf of others be a matter of our taking their well-being so much to heart that we use our privilege of intimacy with the God of the universe to petition Him for their needs and their well-being. Let Paul’s petition on behalf of the Ephesian church be our petition for others:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you [may be] rooted and grounded in love. (Eph. 3:14–17)