This sermon looks at how to pray for others and is based on Philippians 1:3-11. This remarkable passage offers great insights into how we can pray effectively for the people in our lives.
How to Pray for Others (Philippians 1:3-11)
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”
Verse 3 again: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Praying for Paul involved remembering. When he prayed, he thought about people; he brought them before his mind. I have often interceded without doing that; I have remembered requests but not people, and my prayers have been poorer because of it. But when I have brought the person to mind, remembered them in the presence of God – their personality, their strengths, their weaknesses and, above all, their future – it has informed and enriched my prayers for them.
This was Paul’s practice. He frequently speaks of remembering people in his prayers. He remembered the Ephesians when he prayed for them, as well as the Romans, the Philippians, the Thessalonians, and the missionaries Timothy, and Titus. This was Paul’s practice. We should make it ours too. It might change how we pray for people.
He says that he “thanks God” and that he “always prays with joy.” What about you? When you pray for people, is it with thanksgiving and joy or with complaint and worry? Too often my prayers have been motivated by my worries for people rather than by my joy over them. But how can we pray with thanksgiving and joy, when things are up in the air and the outcome is so uncertain?
The answer is: we can’t. No one can, not even the great Apostle Paul. That is not how it works. If you believe that everything is up in the air and uncertain, your prayers will be filled with worry and tinged with complaint. But Paul’s prayers were filled with thanksgiving and joy. Why? Because he did not believe that everything is up in the air. He believed in the one who is up in heaven. He looked at things differently than most of us do, which explains why he could do things most of us cannot do.
He prayed with joy because he believed certain things were true about the people for whom he was praying. And he believed those things because he believed certain things were true about their God. A person’s beliefs really do govern their life. Look again at verse 4: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…” All my prayers for all of you I always pray with joy.
Really? We know that the Philippian church had problems. We know that two of its leading members, both friends of Paul, Euodia and Syntyche, were not getting along and their disagreement had impacted the church. Yet, when Paul prays for them, he does so with joy and with confidence. There were then, as there are now (and always will be), people suffering, dying, arguing, and hurting. We will never pray with joy and confidence if we are waiting until there is no suffering, dying, arguing, and hurting.
So how did Paul do it? He could pray with joy and confidence because, verse 5, he had been convinced by the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel that God was working among them, and he knew what God is like. Things are not up in the air when God is on the scene. Look at verse 6: “…being confident of this” – better “being persuaded” (by years of experience with God) – “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Paul prayed from a position of strength.
If we are going to do the same, we must know: people so that we can remember them meaningfully as we pray; and God so that we will have no doubt that the work begun in them will be completed. But there is more.
To be a great pray-er, it is not enough to know people; you must also love them. Love is key. Look at what Paul writes in verse 7: “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart.” Love is the secret sauce, the hidden power, the enduring dynamic in effective prayer. Paul didn’t just have these people and their needs in his prayer journal or even on his mind; he had them in his heart.
It is common to hear Christians talk about inviting Jesus into their heart. That’s good; but they should also invite each other into their hearts. There will always be people on our minds, but our church family should be in our hearts with Jesus.
How did Paul – who knew a lot of people – have room in his heart for all of them? There is something magical about the human heart: like the Grinch’s heart, it is capable of remarkable expansion. We say of someone we admire: “He has such a big heart.” What that means is that he has taken a lot of people into it. And just think how big God’s heart is! He opens his heart to everyone – “For God so loved the world!” – and he still has room to spare.
Because the Philippians were in his heart, they were with Paul wherever he went. When he was in chains in an imperial prison, the Philippians were with him there. When he was out on the streets, they were in his heart. When he stood before some judge, defending the gospel and confirming its truth by his life, the Philippians were with him. But we need to take this a little further.
Jesus told us to pray for our enemies – the people who stand opposed to us, who want us to fail, to not get what we want. How on earth do we do that? We do it by taking the enemy into our heart. Once we have, we can pray for them. We can take our spouse into our heart. Our nosey neighbor. Our missionary. Our kids.
The first step is to bring them before your mind. Let yourself remember them. Feel their needs, their fears, their hurts, their potential. That will unlock your heart. And then choose to love them. That will bring them in.
But they are Democrats. They are Republicans. They’re arrogant. They’re Muslim. They’re gay. They’re Ohio State fans! Take them into your heart and your prayers for them will grow powerful.
In verses 9-11 we have an example of a powerful prayer. Now, it’s not the only example. Paul’s prayer for the Colossian Christians differed from this one, and his prayers for the Ephesians differed from both. Prayers that grow from love will be personal, relevant, and Spirit-inspired.
The thrust of this prayer for Paul’s friends is that their love will abound more and more – will overflow and continue overflowing – in knowledge and depth of insight. Isn’t it interesting that Paul does not pray for their health, safety, freedom, or financial security? He prays rather for abounding, overflowing love. Love is at the center of the Christian life.
The word the NIV translates as “abound” (verse 9) is one of Paul’s favorites. Two thirds of its New Testament uses are by him. He regarded the new life as one of abundance, of more and more—of constant increase. How different that is from the view that Christians are straightjacketed by rules and laws.
Paul writes about grace abounding (Romans 5:15-17), hope abounding (Romans 15:13), generosity (2 Cor. 3:9), thanksgiving (2 Cor. 4:15), good work (2 Cor. 9:8), comfort (2 Cor. 1:4-5), service (1 Cor. 14:12), and wisdom (Eph. 1:8). In a word – the word he uses in 2 Corinthians 8:7 – everything good abounds in the new age, which Christ has already launched and will usher in. It is the age of lavish, profuse, rich abundance.
For his friends in Philippi, he prays that love may abound more and more. What a great prayer! People wrongly think they can be happy if their money abounds more and more. It does, but they don’t stay happy. Love is what people need, and “love comes from God” (1 John 4:7). He pours it into the hearts of Jesus’s people by the Holy Spirit.
Paul prays that this “love will abound in knowledge and depth of insight.” The word translated “knowledge” suggests a full understanding and the one translated insight has to do with perception. The idea is that love enables a person to understand what lies beneath the surface and perceive what others miss. People say, “Love is blind.” But Paul says, “Love is sharp-eyed and penetrating.” Real love doesn’t overlook things; it sees beyond them. It is selfishness that is blind – or at least acutely near-sighted. Love sees.
If there was ever a time when Jesus’s people needed to understand what lies beneath the surface and perceive what is not obvious, it is now. Ours is a spin-doctored world of half-truths. How will we ever know what is best? How will we remain unpolluted in this environment of deceit?
The surprising answer is: by love. The love God puts in our hearts is prophylactic. When it abounds, we are protected from the pollution of half-truths, hate, and sin. It is abounding love that enables us (verse 10) to discern what is best and … be pure and blameless…”
Because love enables us to see the way things really are – to perceive things what we would otherwise miss and understand what lies below the surface of the so-called facts paraded before us – we are able to discern what is best. Non-Christians know as well as we do that we live in a spin-doctored world, but their options are more limited: to fall in with the deception or to fall into cynicism. Cynicism is more noble, but it is not love. It sits alone and curses the darkness. Love enters the light and joins with people Cynicism leaves the world as it is; love changes it into what it should be.
Both those words, “pure” and “blameless” are picturesque in the original language. “Pure” comes from a compound Greek word with two roots, one meaning sun and other meaning judged – sun-judged. Paul prays for the Philippians’ love to abound to such an extent that their lives can be examined in the full light of day. The idea here is that they will be genuinely good.
Karen and I were in a market in Istanbul, where she was shopping for a decorative bowl. The light in these little shops is quite poor; it is hard to see flaws in the workmanship. It was the same way, only worse, when Paul was writing. In his day, people would take the item they wanted to purchase out into the bright sunlight. If the item passed inspection, they would say that it was “sun-judged.”
Of course, the proprietor didn’t want people to take his goods into the light if they had flaws and cracks in them. Who would? But what about God? We are his goods (in more than one sense). But he bought us used, and many of us were the worse for wear. But God is patiently repairing our faults and fixing our cracks with his love. He is getting us ready for the day when the Sun of Righteousness rises with healing in its wings. And he will carry on the good work that he is doing “to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
The word translated “blameless” by the NIV and “harmless” by the scholar Gerald Hawthorne means “cause to stumble” in its verb form. Paul’s prayer is that there will be nothing in his friends’ lives that will cause people to stumble and fall away from Christ. Sadly, I have, seen this happen. People leave the church, and sometimes leave the faith, because they stumbled over the hatred in a Christian, or the pride, or the blind selfishness. If love had abounded more and more, that would not have happened.
But understand: none of this – knowledge, insight, purity, blamelessness – happens overnight. Picture a fountain, dry as a bone, resting on the crest of a round, barren hill. Then one day the spring opens and water flows into the fountain basin. It continues until it overflows the basin and begins running down the hill on all sides in little rivulets of life-giving water.
In time, the hill turns green. Flowers begin to grow. Root systems develop. Fruit trees spring up. Wherever the water flows, good things sprout. That is the way it is in a life that overflows with love. The knowledge, insight, purity, and blamelessness don’t appear full-grown. They develop as love continues to abound more and more.
And the result, verse 11, is the fruit of righteousness. God is a Johnny Appleseed. He goes all around planting people who will one day be filled with fruit. It’s a brilliant idea. The fruit that grows from these believer’s lives will draw people to God. Like Moses, who came to see the burning bush but stayed to hear God’s life-changing words, people will come for the fruit but stay to hear the gospel.
This fruit-filled life “comes through Jesus Christ.” It is not self-generated. Neither our efforts nor our sincere intentions can produce it. It is his loving life in us, delivered to us by his Spirit, that fruits in the beautiful things we see in verses 9-11.
Now, notice that this fruit-filled life leads (v. 11) “to the glory and praise of God.” We usually equate glorifying and praising God with the spoken word, but there is more to it than that. More even than the deeds we do. It the life we live or, more precisely, the people we become. That is what results in the praise and glory of God.
Talk alone does not bring God glory. In fact, talk alone, when not accompanied by a fruit-filled life, brings shame, and causes unbelievers to think and say bad things about our God. It is Jesus and his love that makes all the difference.
Then is there nothing we can – or need – do to cooperate with Jesus and is love? There is much we can do, just as there is much the apple farmer can do to help his orchard succeed. He sprays the trees, trims, and composts them. He can raise bees to help pollinate them. He can plant cover crops to add nitrogen to the soil.
What can we do to help the fruit of righteousness grow in our lives? We can make sure we are connected to the source of love by connecting to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Our efforts cannot sustain this kind of life. We must be connected to God’s love. If you haven’t connected, today can be the day. At the close of this meeting, come up to the front of the room and find a prayer helper. He or she will be glad to assist you.
Next, we can (and must) choose to act lovingly. A wise man said, “Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” (You will take him into your heart.) “If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.” Let people into your heart and choose to love them.
Next, if you have a decision to make and find yourself unsure about what the right thing to do is, don’t just go over the pros and cons or consult with friends. Check to see if your love is in the right place. Remember that it is love that overflows in the knowledge and depth of insight that discernment requires. If your love for God or others has waned, ask God to show you any obstructions to love and with his help remove them.
One last thing: try bringing remembrance into your prayers this week. Hold the people for whom you pray before your mind. Wait on God’s Spirit to shape your prayers for them. And see what a difference that can make.
 Hawthorne, Gerald, Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Revised)
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity