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Prayer and Supplication (3)

Howard A Barnes, Westhoughton, England

Prayer and Supplication in the New Testament

“In every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” (continued)

“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil 4.6). We should certainly care about things, but not to the extent of being anxious. As the Lord Jesus emphasised earlier to the disciples: “Take no [anxious] thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on … for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Mt 6.25, 32), and also to Martha: “Jesus … said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and disquieted about many things’” (Lk 10.41, YLT¹). Peter shows us that we can only do this “having cast all your care [anxiety] upon him, for he [watchfully] cares about you” (1 Pet 5.7, JND²).

The phrase “in every thing” in Philippians 4.6 is “an all-inclusive positive, to justify the all-inclusive negative - ‘be careful for nothing’ - just before” (Cambridge Bible). Henry Alford (The New Testament for English Readers, 1863-66) points out that in this verse both prayer and supplication have definite articles, so that we should read “by the prayer and the supplication”, that is, that which is appropriate to each case (see “all [every kind of] prayer and supplication”, Eph 6.18). Prayer is not the reciting of set formulae (“vain repetitions”, Mt 6.7), but bringing spiritually intelligent and appropriate requests to God.

While prayer and supplication speak about the principles involved, in practice we usually bring specific requests to God in prayer. The Greek word translated “requests” in Philippians 4.6 is rendered “petitions” in 1 John 5.15, where we read “if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (5.14-15). The things we have requested will be granted to us if we ask for that which is consistent with God’s revealed will, and in accordance with His standards. Prayer and supplication should always be accompanied by thanksgiving as a necessary ingredient, as Paul said to the Colossians: “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving” (Col 4.2). Frivolous talk should find no place among Christians but, rather, they should be known for giving of thanks (Eph 5.4).

The natural and happy outcome of anyone engaged in such prayer and supplication is that “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep [guard] your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4.7). It has been said that D L Moody wrote in the margin of his Bible, alongside this verse, that “this [peace] is ours when we worry about nothing, pray about everything, and thank God for anything [that He sends].” The verb ‘to keep’ in this verse is the same as that used about the governor of Damascus who “guarded the city” with a garrison (2 Cor 11.32, RV³). So, in the same way, the peace that comes from God garrisons our hearts and minds against the intrusion of anxiety, hence, “Always in every prayer [supplication, RV, JND, YLT] of mine for you all making request [supplication, RV, JND, YLT] with joy” (Phil 1.4).

“First … supplications, prayers, intercessions … giving of thanks”

“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men” (1 Tim 2.1). John Nelson Darby’s New Translation of this verse is more literal: “I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings be made for all men”, highlighting the priority that Paul gave to prayer in all his exhortations. Why was this? Paul had been in Ephesus until recently, so had he detected some reluctance in the assembly at Ephesus concerning prayer? In this exhortation to Timothy we find the fullest list, in any one place, of the various ways of addressing God: supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings. All of these aspects of presenting petitions before God are on behalf of “all men”. Then, among “all men”, kings and those in authority are especially mentioned. If we understand the context correctly, then we are being told about Gospel activity, and the kings and those in authority control the laws that either permit, restrict or prohibit the public preaching of the Gospel. The God who is our Saviour is the God who desires all men to be saved, so prayer activity is “good and acceptable” in His sight (vv 3-4).

“A widow indeed … continueth in supplications and prayers”

“Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Tim 5.5). It seems that in the assembly at Ephesus there were a number of destitute widows who needed financial support. They had no relatives who could help them and, of course, they had no recourse to social support such as exists widely today. These particular widows had put their “hope in God” (5.5, JND), having no one else to look to. In such cases, the assembly should take on the responsibility of providing their care. However, in order to qualify for such help, certain practical requirements had to be met. For instance:

Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work (vv 9-10).

However, the first practical requirement mentioned had to do with the widow’s prayer life, since she was expected to continue “in supplications and prayers night and day” (v 5). We notice that the apostle had urged this upon the whole assembly earlier in his letter (2.1). It is also interesting to note that, just like the instruction to the assembly, the expectation of the “widow indeed” is also “[the] supplications and [the] prayers”, that is, those that were appropriate to her particular situation. So here again is the thought of knowledgeable prayers, based on a proper assessment of real needs and circumstances. These prayers and supplications should be engaged in “night and day”. Paul himself knew something of such prayers because, a few years later, he would be assuring Timothy that “without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day” (2 Tim 1.3). Earlier, he had declared to the Thessalonians that he, along with Silas and Timothy, were “night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face” (1 Thess 3.10). Lastly, if the widows needed a role model of such behaviour, what better could they have than the prophetess Anna, “a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Lk 2.37)? Of course, being practical, as Robertson (Word Studies) says, “Paul does not say that she should pray all night and day!” However, during all our waking hours we can each come “boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4.16).

‘Supplication’ Otherwise Translated

Bearing in mind the particular emphasis on ‘supplication’, as compared with ‘prayer’, we should notice there are instances in the Authorised Version where the translation says “prayer” (or “request”), but the Greek text indicates ‘supplication’. These include the prayer of Zacharias for a child (Lk 1.13); Paul’s prayer for Israel that they might be saved (Rom 10.1); the Corinthians’ prayer for Paul (2 Cor 1.11); Jewish believers praying for Gentile believers (9.14); Paul’s praying (with joy) for the Philippians (Phil 1.4); the Philippians’ prayer for Paul’s salvation (specifically his release from prison) (1.19); Paul’s night and day prayer for Timothy (2 Tim 1.3); and the righteous man’s effective fervent prayer (Jas 5.16, 1 Pet 3.12).

Prayer and supplication, when exercised together, are a major part of the believer’s dealings with God when coming to the throne of grace for help (Heb 4.16). Prayer believes in the power of the God who is both able and willing to answer our prayers, while supplication happily acknowledges our own powerlessness, and ardently brings our urgent needs to God.


¹ Young’s Literal Translation.

² J N Darby, The Holy Scriptures - A New Translation from the Original Languages.

³ Revised Version.


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