Over the years in ministry, I have found it incredibly important pastorally (especially in ministry to the frail and aged) to help people see that when they pray, they are really making a difference. The Holy Spirit uses our prayers powerfully in the unfolding of God’s plans. Paul makes this point repeatedly: “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (Rom 15:30 NIV); “[Y]ou help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” (2 Cor 1:11 NIV); “I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” (Phil 1:19 NIV).
Notice also what Paul says about Epaphras in his letter to the Colossians:
Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. (Col 4:12 NIV)
Interestingly, there are several verbal parallels to Paul’s own self-description of his ministry earlier in this epistle:
We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. (Col 1:28-29 NIV)
The italicized words—‘perfect’/‘mature’—are the same word in the original Greek. So Paul’s preaching and Epaphras’s praying share the same goal: that people would continue believing the gospel of Jesus and his atoning death (that they might be presented holy and blameless before God—Col 1:22). And the words in bold—‘struggling’/‘wrestling’—are also the same word in the original Greek. It’s the ‘agonizing’ word used both for a literal battle (or fight) and for a physical contest (like Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics). (In addition, although different words are used, the concept of working, labouring or toiling also appears both in 1:29 and 4:13, further linking the two passages conceptually.)
So Paul’s preaching and Epaphras’s praying requires the same sort of effort and hard work. Both preaching and praying are part of the same spiritual battle. Epaphras is now miles away from the beloved Colossian church that he founded (Col 1:7). But he is able to help them just as much as back when he was physically present and preaching Jesus to them.
My conclusion from this is that prayer—especially prayer for gospel preaching and believing—places a person right on the frontline of ministry. I believe this has an especially powerful application to the frail and aged, and to others who are physically incapable of doing very much. Some of them often feel useless, and wonder why God still leaves them on the earth. But they are right at the frontline of the spiritual battle, even though they are physically inactive and geographically hundreds of miles away from the people and places they are praying for.
I know their prayers are helping me in my preaching and many people in their believing, and I am thankful for them.