Sermon preached on Hebrews 13:18-19 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/7/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Pray for Us”
Today we will be considering the topic of prayer. As we near the end of our study in Hebrews we have a bit of a break from the grand redemptive-historical panoramic views we’ve been receiving. In many ways, today’s passage is a bit more like milk than meat compared to what we’ve been getting in this book for the most part. I was tempted to just include these couple verses along with next week’s passage. However, we would have missed considering some nuggets of truth concerning prayer.
So then, let me begin with a quick summary of what’s going on in these two verses. Verse 18 begins with a call for prayer, “Pray for us.” Hebrews is asking the original audience for prayer. As we read on, in verse 19, we see there is a reference that the author wants to visit them, but it sounds like he has been hindered or delayed in some way. This comes across because the language in verse 19 is a bit urgent sounding, that he “especially urges” their prayer that he might be restored to them the “sooner”. We are not told the specifics here. It’s possible he had encountered persecution for his gospel ministry and found himself currently imprisoned. Verse 18’s reference that they had been acting in a clear conscience might suggest that. Or, there could have been some other reason why he had been hindered from visiting them as quickly as he desired. Remember, this letter shows that its original recipients needed some serious spiritual help. And so, the urgency of this prayer request, that he could come to them quickly, likely reflects that he’s wanted to come and help them, but all he could do for now was write them this letter. Yet, he hoped to be able to come to visit them them soon. Then he could further shepherd them in person.
Interestingly, in verse 18, the author doesn’t say pray for me but for us: the first-person plural. This might be the royal we, since the very next verse the author switches to the singular, “that I might be restored to you.” On the other hand, we can think of some letters of Paul where officially there were multiple authors, but Paul was clearly the main author, and so he would switch back and forth between the first-person plural and first-person singular. For example, Colossians is a letter from both Paul and Timothy, and in Colossians 4 it calls for the Colossians to be “praying for us” which refers to prayer for Paul and Timothy. But then, later in that same chapter, it switches to the singular saying, “I” am doing this or that, and that surely refers to Paul. I suspect something similar is going on here. This implies that the authors of Hebrew were known to the original audience, even though the letter as we have transmitted to us doesn’t list the authors. In fact, down at verse 23 it mentions Timothy being already set free and how the author hopes to visit them with Timothy soon. That reminds us of how common such missionary work was done in groups of missionaries, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the author could at this point ask them to pray for “us”, even if we aren’t certain at this point who all are included in the “us” reference.
So then, with that basic explanation of these verses, let’s see some of the lessons we learn about prayer here. First lesson: such a call for prayer here reminds us of the doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers. In other words, all Christians are new covenant priests in Christ. It’s because we are priests that we can pray. In other words, prayer, is a priestly function. The fact that one can draw near to God in prayer and bring petitions and intercessions to him, is a function of a priest. We are priests in Christ. 1 Peter 2:9 says this specifically, that Christians are a royal priesthood.
Well, though Hebrews has not explicitly stated this, it has clearly taught it. Because of this, it’s especially fitting to point that out here, because we should read this call to prayer in light of the book’s earlier teachings on why we can come to God as priests. Hebrews has repeatedly described Jesus as our High Priest. We recall that under the old covenant there would be one high priest but many regular priests. This then is akin to our situation now, for we see various references to the access to God and the heavenly tabernacle through Christ our high priest. It’s Hebrews 4:16 that is especially relevant here. After describing how great of a high priest that we have in Jesus, it says, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” That is surely a statement that depicts our priesthood, especially in regard to prayer. Being a priest, in general, is about drawing near to God. But in terms of prayer and intercession, we are drawing near to him for help and mercy and grace. That’s exactly what Hebrews 4:16 speaks of. And so, when we see Hebrews here in chapter 13 call for the people to be praying, it’s rooted in this fact that in Christ all Christians have become priests.
Thinking further then about this in the context of Hebrews, realize that this priesthood, with its ability to pray to God, is something that even the least among Christians possess. That’s why we call it a “universal” priesthood. It’s true for all Christians. We see here that it’s not just a privilege for leaders, by the fact that the author of Hebrews asks his readers for their prayer. The author of Hebrews writes as someone with authority and the gift of teaching and was surely a leader in the church in some capacity. But by such an authorized leader in the church asking for prayer from all the lay people in the church, we are reminded of this fact that prayer is for all Christians. This was an area the Protestants criticized the Roman Catholics about – Catholics have clergy that they call priests and the lay person is directed to generally approach God through such priests. Thus, the existence of confessional booths among Roman Catholics.
We also see in these verses that even struggling, immature, Christians have this privilege of prayer. Remember, Hebrews has been giving a rather strong word of exhortation to its original audience. Hebrews has been very concerned that the church has been flirting with a return to Judaism. Hebrews has been warning them against falling away in apostasy. Remember back in 5:2, he rebuked them for their meager growth as Christians, that they need to go back to the basics of the Word. He said they had become like babes in the faith, that weren’t ready yet for “solid food” but needed to back to the “milk”. And yet, Hebrews was nonetheless confident of their salvation (6:9), despite this. And so, the author of Hebrews is desiring the prayers of these struggling, immature Christians. This priesthood of believers, which qualifies us to pray, is universal to all Christians.
I hope we can rejoice and recognize this as one of the gracious benefits of the gospel. The Bible does not give assurance to unbelievers that their prayers are heard. Actually, it speaks to the opposite being true. But as we respond to the good news through faith in Christ, we are made priests unto the Most High and given a privilege of prayer. Let us then rejoice in that privilege but also not miss the fact that it also now becomes a duty. We have a duty of prayer, including prayer for our pastors and our leaders. I personally make this same request: Please pray for me, your pastor, and for all the officers in our church.
So then, the next lesson of prayer that I want us to consider today is about what we should be praying for. This is often a struggle people have. They want to know what to pray for. Well, the WLC 184 answers that question like this: “We are to pray for all things tending to the glory of God, the welfare of the church, our own or others’ good; but not for anything that is unlawful.” So, to put it briefly, we are to be praying for things that are good and lawful. Yes, I know that is a rather broad answer, but it is certainly a starting point.
Well, I point that out here, because the call for prayer here subtly implies this. You see, right after Hebrews asks for prayer, there is a reason given: “For we are confident that we have a good conscience.” He tells them this so as in some way to encourage them in their prayers for them. Their clear conscience suggests they could have a clear conscience when praying for them. Let me give an example scenario where this would fit. If in fact the author was in prison for the sake of the gospel and wanting them to pray for his release, then think of how this statement would come across. He’d be assuring them that he was in prison out of persecution and not because they had committed a real crime. Think about it. If
today a Christian ends up in jail in the context of his ministry, you hope its because he’s being persecuted and not because he did something foolish and wrong and got himself into legal trouble. Sadly, that is not an unrealistic possibility. But if they did get themselves into such trouble, the reality is that in most circumstances it would not be a righteous prayer to pray for someone to get out of jail when they deserve to be in jail. That would typically not be a good and lawful prayer. And so, take that thought back here to verse 18. In case there was any doubt in the matter, the author asserts their proper conduct. They have operated in a good conscience, and he wants them to be assured of this as well. That way they can in good conscience can be praying for them and for the fruitfulness of their ministry. And if in fact he was in prison, they can in good conscience pray for his quick and speedy release.
My point then is simply to see how verse 18 helps make the point that we should only pray for things that are good and lawful. This note in verse 18 about a clear conscience brings that out in its connection with prayer. It is a wonderful grace of God that we can pray for such good and lawful things, and so let us indeed be praying for such.
Of course, an extended application then is to say that we shouldn’t be praying for things that aren’t good and aren’t lawful. As much as that sounds like an obvious thing, it’s sadly a problem at times. For example, it is too common in Christian prayer meetings for gossip and slander to be given out and then prayed about. If you are sharing a prayer request about something you have against someone else, you need to make sure you have their permission to be sharing such in a prayer group that they aren’t in. That’s just an example, though, of the bigger point: Let’s not be praying for things that aren’t good or lawful.
Okay then, let’s turn now to our third and final point for today and consider what we learn about the effectualness of prayer. In other words, what can we glean here about the nature of how God answers the prayers of his people? There is some interesting food for thought in thinking about that question here. You see, on the one hand Scripture says that the prayer of a righteous man avails much, James 5:16. James gives the example of Elijah praying for no rain and then for rain and how God answered those prayers. Yet, sometimes that passage in James has been misinterpreted to mean that any prayer of a man of God who is mature in the faith will always get the answer that they want. Yet, Scripture also records how, for example, Moses, Paul, and David each at one point offered a prayer that they didn’t get the answer they wanted. And so, we can’t take James 5:16 in some simplistic way to think that any prayer offered by matures Christians is going to receive a “yes” answer from the Lord. That simplistic thought just isn’t biblical.
And so, think about that here in Hebrews. Here, a man of God, mature in the faith, asks for a whole group of Christians to join with him in prayer – a group of Christians that are largely immature in their faith, relatively speaking. This right away proves the point that a godly person isn’t guaranteed to get the answer in prayer that they always want. If they could, Hebrews wouldn’t need to ask them to pray for him being able to come to them quickly. Right? He could just pray for that himself. If a righteous person always got exactly what they wanted in prayer, there would be no need to ever ask anyone else to pray for you. You just pray the prayer yourself and get what you want. And yet, clearly that’s not how it works. Verse 19 reminds us that this not how it works. Of course, most of us know this from personal prayer experience. But I think it is helpful to point out, because there are certainly verses in the Bible like the James example, or certain statements from Jesus on prayer, that seem, on their own, to suggest that you just need to ask and you’ll get what you ask. Some Christians, by falling into this misinterpretation, ask for certain things in prayer, don’t get the answer they want, and then they think they did something wrong. They wonder if maybe they didn’t have enough faith, or that they hadn’t been living righteously enough. But likely the issue is simply that they had misinterpreted the teaching of Scripture on prayer. That James passage and those statements by Jesus need to be understood in light of all of Scripture. Scripture has to interpret Scripture. We can’t take single short statements in isolation from the rest of Bible. And here, today’s passage reminds us that sometimes the prayer of a godly man doesn’t get answered the way they want.
And yet, there’s more to say here. Today’s verses give a little more nuance on this point. There’s a nuance here that speaks to the value of group prayer. I don’t mean to overstate that because my point here could be easily misunderstood. But, think about this. By this man of God asking for prayer like this from the group, he is implying that his prayer might not be answered just on his own, but that somehow his desired answer might be helped with the group praying for it, or that maybe it will be answered all the more quickly with the group praying for it. Again, I don’t want to overstate this. There is far more mystery here than formula when it comes to how God answers prayer. Just because a group prays for something, doesn’t mean that they will always get their desired answer either. But we can’t help but notice that Scripture shows a value and importance on group prayer, especially when it comes to intercessory prayer.
Paul’s letters are a repeated example of this. Almost all of his letters show a strong desire to for the churches to be partnering in prayer for his ministry. He sees the value in that. He shows a belief that those prayers by the churches are going to be effectual in some wonderful way or another. Let me quote a few examples. In Romans 15:30, he begs for their prayers that he might delivered from the persecution of the unbelieving Jews so he could come and do gospel ministry there in Rome. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul says how the prayers of the many Corinthians’ are a help to him so that God would deliver him from the many perils of gospel ministry. In Ephesians 6:19, he asks the Ephesians to be praying for him to have God-given boldness in his gospel preaching. In Philippians 1:19, Paul expresses confidence that he will be delivered from his current imprisonment because of the prayers of the Philippians. In Colossians 4:3-4, he asks the Colossians to pray for opportunities to be preaching the word and that when he does that he would speak clearly. At the end of 1 Thessalonians, in 5:25, Paul very simply requests, “Brethren, pray for us.” And again to them in 2 Thessalonians 3:1, “Brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified.” Paul saw the value in not just his own prayers for himself, but in having the saints as a whole be praying for him. He eagerly desired to partner with the churches in prayer.
And so, though there is much mystery associated with the effectualness of prayer, there is no mystery in this: that we are called as a church to a ministry of intercessory praying, especially for our pastors and missionaries who are out there leading the way in gospel proclamation. As we engage in such a prayer ministry, may we be on guard against thinking that such prayer is a work, as if any answers we obtain in prayer are something we earned. No, prayer is a means of grace. As we pray, should God give us the answer we seek, let us praise God because that answer is the grace of God. Of course, sometimes, not giving us what we are asking for, is how he gives us grace, because we don’t always know what best to be asking for. So then, let us be faithful to this means of grace and be thankful to God for the way he administers his grace through our prayers.
As some final application, I point to the fact that this request for prayer here is broader than the local church. The same is the case with all those examples I cited from Paul. Yes, our prayer ministry should certainly include our local church needs. When you see those prayer chains come through via email or when you get a phone call asking for prayer for a church need, please rise to the call for such prayer! But let us also be laboring in prayer for those church needs beyond our local church. This especially should point us to be praying for the needs in our presbytery and denomination. And if you are going to be doing that, you will need to be keeping aware of what those needs are. On the presbytery level, I remind you that there are various presbytery events throughout the year where you can be meeting the brethren from the other churches in our region. That will give you opportunities to learn more about our various churches in our presbytery and their needs. Likewise, for our denomination, there are lots of resources to help you be praying for them. The New Horizons magazine has a monthly prayer list. The Foreign Missions and Home Missions each publish regular reports full of specific prayer requests (I can help you get signed up to receive those via email, if you would like.)
May today’s reflection on prayer remind us of the grace God makes available to us who have been made priests in Christ. Let us see this both as a privilege and duty to labor together in prayer for the cause of Christ, here and throughout the world. Amen.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.