Does it really make any difference whether you pray for others? After all, can't they pray for themselves? Just what is the role of intercessory prayer?
We know very little about Epaphras as a person. He is mentioned only briefly in the Bible. But what a lesson for us! When the apostle Paul wrote to. the brethren in the city of Colosse, he said Epaphras was "always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God" (Col. 4:12). Here was a man who worked ("laboured") long ("always") and hard ("fervently"). Doing what? Praying for others. Praying earnestly that they might overcome and grow to perfection. Now did the prayers of Epaphras really make any difference in whether the brethren overcame and grew to perfection? Couldn't they "stand perfect and complete in all the will of God" without his diligent prayers? If they could, what good was all the effort Epaphras put into it? In other words, what purpose is served by intercessory prayer?
Praying for the unconverted
The Bible leaves no doubt that Christians are obligated to pray for others. We should pray for our unconverted family members and friends. Jesus said we should even pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:44). Jesus did (Luke 23:34). So did Stephen and David (Acts 7:60, Ps. 35:12-14). Job prayed for his unconverted friends. They had made many unkind and untrue remarks about him. Still, it was only after Job prayed for them that God blessed him (Job 42:10). Though we may at times be annoyed or even disgusted with some of the actions of sincere but unconverted people, we need to develop compassion. "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" Jeremiah exclaimed (Jer. 9:1). Isaiah prophesied that in the last days evil, crime and injustice would be rampant. At the same time the lack of anybody with the courage to get involved in solving the problems would be amazing. As Isaiah described, God "wondered that there was no intercessor" (Isa. 59:16, see also Ezek. 22:30). It is true that there are times when it serves no purpose to pray for people in the world. God told Jeremiah: "Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee" (Jer. 7:16). The attitude of the people was so wrong that God would not spare the punishment they so sorely needed. But unless God makes this evident we should not assume it to be the case. But why should we pray for fellow Christians, when they themselves have contact with God?
Praying for brethren
"Pray one for another," James exhorted Christians (Jas. 5:16). Paul wrote that he prayed for other Christians (II Cor. 13:7, Phil. 1:3-4, 9) and that he did so "without ceasing" (II Tim. 1:3, Eph. 1:16). In turn 'he entreated, "Brethren, pray for us" (I Thess. 5:25). Praying for each other is a Christian duty. Why? God is interested in developing teamwork among the future members of His Family. He wants us to get our minds off ourselves, to be concerned with the needs of others. That's God's nature and character. It is not wrong for a Christian to pray for his own needs. The Bible instructs Christians to "let your requests be made known unto God" (Phil. 4:6). And if no one else is praying for a Christian in need, certainly God will hear his prayers and answer them. But scriptures about intercession show that God likes to supply the answers as a result of the prayers of a third party. This fulfills His desire to see concern for others, rather than only for the self. "Bear ye one another's burdens," the Bible tells us, "and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). The law of Christ is the universal law of love. It is Christ's mind, the same mind we must have if we wish to be in God's Kingdom (Phil. 2:5). "Let each of you look not only to his own I interests [it is not wrong to look to your own interests!], but also to the interests of others" (verse 4, Revised Standard Version). Teamwork. Unselfishness. Individuals pulling for each other. That's what God wants to see among His children. God is forming a Family that will rule the universe as one solidly united team in which every member looks out for the welfare of every other member. Solomon saw the value of teamwork: "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.... and a threefold cord is not quickly broken" (Eccl. 4:9-12). This verse beautifully expresses the attitude Christians should have in bearing each other's burdens before God's throne.
"What can I do?"
Did you ever have this happen to you? For one reason or another you feel a special sentiment toward a particular brother or sister in the Church. You just wish with all your heart that there were some great feat you could accomplish for that person. Some blessing or gift you could bestow. But your finances aren't adequate for what you have in mind; you wouldn't really know exactly what to buy anyway. Perhaps the person lives thousands of miles from you, so you are separated geographically. Yet the desire to do something for that individual is just overwhelming. Is there anything you can do for that loved one? Yes, there is! You can cause an outpouring of blessings, spiritual and even physical, to rain down upon that person — by praying for him. "Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it" (Prov. 3:27). It is in the power of your hand to do it — through intercessory prayer. Moses pronounced a wonderful blessing upon the unconverted house of Israel, God's physical people. Surely God can be asked to place a similar blessing upon a member of spiritually converted Israel — God's Church. Moses proclaimed: "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace" (Num. 6:24-26). Such a blessing is priceless. But that is only one possible use of intercessory prayer. We need to pray for all of the brethren — especially for those whose needs we know, those who are going through trials, those who are sick, those who need to be comforted by God. As Ephesians 6:18 shows, we should be "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching." Yes, watching. We should be watching for opportunities to pray for others. It is a question of being aware of what others need. This verse is part of the section dealing with the Christian armor (verses 10-19). Parts of that armor, such as the shield, the helmet and the breastplate, are basically for defense. They protect against the attacks of the enemy. But the armor Paul describes here is not for defense only. Using the "sword of the Spirit" (verse 17) and prayer (verse 18), Christians are to go on the offensive — to attack — against the powers of darkness. "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty 0 through God to the pulling down of strong holds" (II Cor. 10:4). Remember that Epaphras put real effort into interceding for others. He "laboured" at it (Col. 4:12). In the final analysis, how many people received blessings, help and maybe even owed their salvation in part to this one intercessor? Epaphras will not know until the resurrection. Is anybody going to come up to you in the Kingdom and deeply thank you for all the times you brought about divine intervention in his or her life by your prayers? "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Our lives are composed of portions of time. Are we willing to lay down some of that time for others? Can we forego watching a meaningless television program and spend that time instead bringing about, through prayer, divine intervention in the lives of others? Or is there still doubt that it would really make any difference at all if we prayed? Here faith comes in. We, by our own human strength, are not capable of blessing, healing, delivering or granting understanding, faith or any other spiritual gift. Even Jesus, as a human, affirmed, "I can of mine own self do nothing" (John 5:30). But after He was resurrected He declared, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth" (Matt. 28:18). What are we going to do when we receive supernatural power? How are we going to use it? For the good of others? That's what God wants to find out while we are still mortal. That's why we must develop the habit of looking out for the welfare of others, of bringing God's power into play through prayer to help others. Being thus minded must become a part of our, character if, in the resurrection, we wish to be given direct control of that power.
What to pray about
Many have found it helpful to note on a "prayer list" the names and needs to be prayed about. With such a list at hand there should never be a time when one runs out of subjects. Some ideas as to how to pray for the brethren may be gleaned from the following scriptures: Colossians 1:9-11, Ephesians 1:16-19, 3:14-19, II Corinthians 13:7, Philippians 1:9-11, I Thessalonians 5:23, II Thessalonians 1:11, 3:5, I Peter 5:10, I John 5:16, James 5:16. As these passages reveal, you "an pray that your brethren receive wisdom, hope, spiritual understanding, revelation, increased knowledge of God's will, love, abundant strength, healing, Christ living within, more of the Holy Spirit, freedom from sin, the full fruits of righteousness, sincerity, patience, longsuffering, joyfulness, the ability to walk worthy of God. In short, anything and everything really good! Be especially aware of the necessity to intercede for God's Work (Col. 4:3-4, Eph. 6:19, II Thess. 3:1). You by your prayers can increase the effectiveness of the ministry, the broadcasts, the publications, Ambassador College — all facets of the Work. Never underestimate your part! "They that turn many to righteousness [shall shine] as the stars for ever and ever" (Dan. 12:3). By prayers of intercession for the Work and the Church you can help turn many to righteousness. Remember, too, that the principle of praying for others works both ways. If you have a need, instead of just praying about it yourself, ask some of your brethren to pray about it. You may be surprised at how quickly the answer comes. "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (Jas. 5:16). Yes, praying for others does avail much. It is not wasted effort. Such unselfish prayers please God and He responds to them. All the power in heaven and earth is ready to be moved if we will get involved and pray for one another!