Theology in 3D

Ministering Alongside of One Another Through Prayer

Greg Stiekes | June 12, 2018
New Testament

Many of us know college students who have special ministries this summer such as interning at churches, traveling on mission teams, and serving at summer camps. While we all realize that it is important to pray that God will guard them and use them, I wonder if we really understand how vital is the link forged between our prayers and God’s deliverance.

In 2 Corinthians 2:8–11, we find not only that the apostle Paul asks believers to pray for him, but also that he actually depends upon their prayers for the success of his ministry.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

The apostle Paul experienced near-fatal trials on his missionary journeys, several of which he refers to in 2 Corinthians 1:3–74:8–11, and 11:24–28. Yet because the God Paul serves has the power to raise the dead, Paul knows God will deliver him to preach the gospel once again (1:10).

What is striking about this text, however, is that the confidence Paul and his fellow-ministers have in God is not enough by itself to assure them of their deliverance. Paul links the deliverance of God directly to the effective prayers of God’s people (1:11). Unfortunately, the ESV translation masks this connection by beginning a new sentence and treating the verb synypougeō (join together with, i.e., “help with”) as an imperative. “You also must help us by prayer” (1:11). But the participle actually adheres to the previous verb, rhuomai (deliver), so that the translation actually reads closer to the NIV: “… he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers” (2 Cor 1:10–11).

In other words, when Paul envisions the prayers of the Corinthians on his behalf, he doesn’t see them as launching feeble requests up to heaven from a long way off, asking God to please look down on Paul, wherever he is, and help him. Rather, Paul envisions these believers alongside of him, ministering with him, assisting him, helping him.

There are several observations we can make about this indispensable relationship between those ministering for God and those laboring with them through prayer. For one, the blessings of God come “through” the prayers of God’s people (1:11). We are tempted to think that God is going to deliver his ministers whether his people pray or not. But Paul expects God to work “through” prayer. No prayer, no deliverance.

Another observation is the emphasis on the number of people praying for Paul. Twice he uses the word “many,” reminding us that prayer is a community effort that we participate in not only on our own but also together.

Furthermore, we see that the prayers of “many” result not only in Paul’s deliverance, but also in much thanksgiving to God, so that God himself is glorified through the prayers of his people when he moves to answer them.

But the most profound observation, I believe is seen in the verb I mentioned above, synypougeō, “help with” in verse 11. To create this verb, Paul takes hypougeō, “to help,” and adds the prefix, syn, “with.” In other words, he chooses a word that already has the idea of assisting someone and emphasizes the partnership of the one with the other. Not only is this form of the verb its only occurrence in the NT, but the form is also very rare in ancient Greek literature. In fact, Hippocrates from the fifth century BC, 500 years before Paul wrote to Corinth, provides one the only definitive example.

Of course, Hippocrates was a famous physician, and doctors today still take the Hippocratic Oath. This is how the great physician, Hippocrates, uses this verb, synypougeōin one of his writings called, On Joints. Hippocrates talks about the effects on the joints of the leg when a person is trying to walk with one leg injured or lame, and the other leg is strong. He explains that, in the case of a strong and weak leg that the strong leg assists the weak leg, or works together with or helps with the weak leg, using this rare form of the Greek verb.

So consider this picture. You see a man limping along—one leg is obviously the strong leg, and the other leg is not contributing as much to the ambulation. And yet, there he goes, walking, however imperfectly along the way. What do we think about this?

First, no one says, “Oh, look, poor man. He has only one leg.” No. Not for a second. We see a man with two legs. In fact, if you were to say to the man, “I’m so sorry about your weak leg. Why don’t you have it amputated?” He would probably kick you (if he could). He would say, “No! Even though this leg is struggling, I’d rather keep both legs, thank you very much.” To have a weak leg is to be lame, but to have no leg is to be deformed.

Second, we see that both legs are working toward the same end, propelling the man in a single direction. Just because one leg is assisting the other, does not mean that the legs are in competition. If this is an illustration of assisting a person in ministry through prayer, we notice that both the servant of God—the ministers in the trenches, the college students you know who are ministering this summer—and those who are praying for them, are equally important. To not have both would be a deformity in the way ministry works. When we look at Paul’s ministry we see his fervent ministry to Christ and we see his genuine call for believers to pray for him, so that the work of Christ will be accomplished.

Third, if we are to take Hippocrates’s use of the verb “to help with/to assist with” and apply it directly to the context of the servant of God and those praying for him, who is assisting whom? Is it not the stronger who is assisting the weaker? But we have this picture turned around in our minds when it comes to prayer. We think almost intuitively that the work of the ministry is the heavy lifting and prayer is the little bit of extra support that we need to get the job done. I’m suggesting that it’s really the other way around.

Was it not Martin Luther who said, famously, that he had so much work to get done in a day that if he didn’t spend the first three hours in prayer nothing would be accomplished?

Did not Paul most often confess his weakness rather than his strength and ability? (Several times in 2 Corinthians, in fact, Paul refers to his weakness.) And is it not to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 1:27 that Paul says God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty? And then he says a few verses later in 1 Cor 2:3, I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling?

If I were told to build a house, the first thing I would do is hire a person who can actually build a house. And I would gladly help. I could hand the builder nails, go get lunch, or stay out of the way. But my point is that we see prayer as the “help,” and the builder as the person doing the real ministry. I think we could make a good argument for the fact that Paul saw things the other way around.

Paul saw himself as a farmer and a wise master builder in 1 Corinthians 3. But Paul had the sense that he was building with drawings he hadn’t seen, with tools that he didn’t know how to use, relying on experience he didn’t have. And so he depended upon the prayers of God’s people, moving his powerful God to give the increase and to secure the building (1 Cor 3:616).

Paul did not simply see believers who were praying; he saw believers who were partnering. He saw fellow-believers working alongside of him in the ministry, so that he, the weak servant coming face to face with his own vulnerability, his own dependability every day, would be strengthened through the prayers of God’s people.

Let us keep the full value of our prayer efforts in mind as we pray for those who are ministering this summer. Let us ask God to greatly advance his mission through his church, realizing that as we pray for those who serve we are actually ministering alongside of them.

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