The General Instruction
With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints. (6:18)
The four alls introduce the five emphases Paul makes regarding the general character of the believer’s prayer life: the variety, the frequency, the power, the manner, and the objects of prayer.
the variety of prayer
Proseuchē (prayer) refers to general requests, while deēsis (petition) refers to those that are specific. The use of both words points to the idea that we are to be involved in all kinds of prayer, every form of prayer that is appropriate. Scriptural precept and allowance suggest we may pray publicly or privately; in loud cries, in soft whispers, or silently; deliberately and planned or spontaneously; while sitting, standing, kneeling, or even lying down; at home or in church; while working or while traveling; with hands folded or raised; with eyes open or closed; with head bowed or erect. The New Testament, like the Old, mentions many forms, circumstances, and postures for prayer but prescribes none. Jesus prayed while standing, while sitting, while kneeling, and quite probably in other positions as well. We can pray wherever we are and in whatever situation we are in. “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray” (1 Tim. 2:8), Paul said. For the faithful, Spirit-filled Christian, every place becomes a place of prayer.
the frequency of prayer
The Jewish people of Paul’s day had several prescribed times for daily prayer, but the coming of the New Covenant and the birth of the church brought a new dimension to prayer as it did to everything else. Jesus said, “Keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place” (Luke 21:36). Among other things, the earliest Christians in Jerusalem “were continually devoting themselves … to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The God-fearing Cornelius, to whom the Lord sent Peter with the message of salvation, “prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:2). In many of his letters Paul urged his readers to regularly devote themselves to prayer (Rom. 12:12; Phil. 4:6; Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17). The apostle assured Timothy, his beloved son in the Lord, that he prayed for him “night and day” (2 Tim. 1:3). The early church knew the importance of prayer, and God honored their prayers, even when faith was sometimes weak—as in the case of those who were praying for Peter’s release from prison but did not believe Rhoda when she reported that he was knocking at the door (Acts 12:12–15).
David said, “Evening and morning and at noon, I will complain and murmur, and He will hear my voice, … God will hear and answer” (Ps. 55:17, 19). There is no time when we do not need to pray and no time when God will not hear our prayers. In many ways prayer is even more important than knowledge about God. In fact, only through a regular and sincere prayer life can God’s Holy Spirit add spiritual wisdom to our knowledge. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “our ultimate position as Christians is tested by the character of our prayer life.” A person may be a Bible school or seminary graduate, a pastor or a missionary, but his deep knowledge of and relationship to God are measured by his prayer life. If knowledge about God and the things of God do not drive us to know Him more personally, we can be sure that our true motivation and commitment are centered in ourselves rather than Him. Jesus’ deepest prayer for His disciples was not that they simply know the truth about God but that “they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Studying and learning God’s Word in the right spirit will always drive the believer to know Him more intimately and to commune with Him more faithfully in prayer.
To pray at all times obviously does not mean we are to pray in formal or noticeable ways every waking moment of our lives. Jesus did not do that, nor did the apostles. And it certainly does not mean we are to devote ourselves to ritualistic patterns and forms of prayer that are recited mechanically from a prayer book or while counting beads. That amounts to no more than the “meaningless repetition” that characterizes pagan worship (Matt. 6:7).
To pray at all times is to live in continual God consciousness, where everything we see and experience becomes a kind of prayer, lived in deep awareness of and surrender to our heavenly Father. To obey this exhortation means that, when we are tempted, we hold the temptation before God and ask for His help. When we experience something good and beautiful, we immediately thank the Lord for it. When we see evil around us, we pray that God will make it right and be willing to be used of Him to that end. When we meet someone who does not know Christ, we pray for God to draw that person to Himself and to use us to be a faithful witness. When we encounter trouble, we turn to God as our Deliverer. In other words, our life becomes a continually ascending prayer, a perpetual communing with our heavenly Father. To pray at all times is to constantly set our minds “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2).
The ultimate purpose of our salvation is to glorify God and to bring us into intimate, rich fellowship with Him; and to fail to come to God in prayer is to the deny that purpose. “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also,” John said, “that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Our fellowship with God is not meant to wait until we are in heaven. God’s greatest desire, and our greatest need, is to be in constant fellowship with Him now, and there is no greater expression or experience of fellowship than prayer.
the power of prayer
The most important and pervasive thought Paul gives about prayer is that it should be in the Spirit. This supreme qualification for prayer has nothing to do with speaking in tongues or in some other ecstatic or dramatic manner. To pray in the Spirit is to pray in the name of Christ, to pray consistent with His nature and will. To pray in the Spirit is to pray in concert with the Spirit, who “helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26–27). As the “Spirit of grace and of supplication” (Zech. 12:10), the Holy Spirit continually prays for us; and for us to pray rightly is to pray as He prays, to join our petitions to His and our will to His. It is to line up our minds and desires with His mind and desires, which are consistent with the will of the Father and the Son.
To be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) and to walk in His leading and power is to be made able to pray in the Spirit, because our prayer will then be in harmony with His. As we submit to the Holy Spirit, obeying His Word and relying on His leading and strength, we will be drawn into close and deep fellowship with the Father and the Son.
the manner of prayer
Whenever he prays, the believer should be on the alert with all perseverance and petition. Jesus told His disciples to watch and pray (Matt. 26:41; Mark 13:33; cf. Luke. 18:1). Paul counseled the Colossians to “devote [themselves] to prayer” (Col. 4:2). The Greek verb behind “devote” (proskartereō) means to be steadfast, constant, and persevering. It is used of Moses’ faithful endurance when he led the children of Israel out of Egypt (Heb. 11:27). To be devoted to prayer is to earnestly, courageously, and persistently bring everything in our lives before God.
The parables of the persistent neighbor and the importunate widow were both told by Jesus to illustrate the manner in which His followers should pray. At the end of the first parable He said, “And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened” (Luke 11:9). At the end of the other parable He explained, “Now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily” (Luke 18:7–8).
To dispersed and persecuted Christians in the early church, Peter wrote, “Be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Pet. 4:7). To pray in the right manner is to pray sensibly, with our minds and our understanding as well as our hearts and spirits. “I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15), Paul said.
To pray in the right manner also involves praying specifically. “Whatever you ask in My name,” Jesus promised, “that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13). God answers prayer in order to put His power on display, and when we do not pray specifically, He cannot answer specifically and thereby clearly display His power and His love for His children. To pray, as young children often do, “God bless the whole world,” is really not to pray at all. We must think about particular people, particular problems, particular needs, and then pray about those things specifically and earnestly, so that we can see God’s answer and offer Him our thankful praise.
Most Christians never get serious about prayer until a problem arises in their own life or in the life of someone they love. Then they are inclined to pray intently, specifically, and persistently. Yet that is the way Christians should always pray. Sensitivity to the problems and needs of others, especially other believers who are facing trials or hardships, will lead us to pray for them “night and day” as Paul did for Timothy (2 Tim. 1:3).
Because the greatest problems are always spiritual, our greatest prayer concern and concentration—whether for ourselves or for others—should be for spiritual protection, strength, and healing. It is certainly appropriate to bring physical needs before our heavenly Father, but our greatest focus should be for spiritual needs—for victory over temptation, for forgiveness and cleansing of sins already committed, for unbelievers to trust in Christ for salvation, and for believers to have greater dependence on Him. The context of Paul’s call to prayer is that of spiritual warfare, and the Christian’s prayer should, above all, be about that warfare. Our greatest concern for ourselves and for other believers should be for victory in the battle against the enemy of our souls. Our deepest prayers for our spouse, our children, our brothers and sisters, our fellow church members, our pastor, our missionaries, and all others would be that they win the spiritual battle against Satan. Examining the prayers of Paul throughout his epistles yields the insight that he prayed for the spiritual well-being of the people of God (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 1:4–7; Phil. 1:9–11; Col. 1:9–11; 2 Thess. 1:11–12).
Many years ago a saint of God prayed:
O Lord, in prayer I launch far out into the eternal world, and on that broad ocean my soul triumphs over all evils on the shores of mortality. Time, with its amusements and cruel disappointments, never appears so inconsiderate as then. In prayer, O God, I see myself as nothing. I find my heart going after Thee with intensity, and I long with vehement thirst to live with Thee. Blessed be the strong winds of the Spirit that speed me on my way to the new Jerusalem. In prayer all things here below vanish and nothing seems important but holiness of heart and the salvation of others. In prayer all my worldly cares and fears and anxieties disappear and are as little in significance as a puff of wind. In prayer my soul inwardly exalts with thoughts of what Thou art doing for Thy church, and I long that Thou shouldest get Thyself a great name from sinners returning to Thee. In prayer I am lifted above the frowns and flatteries of life to taste the heavenly joys. Entering into the eternal world I can give myself to Thee with all my heart forever. In prayer I can place all my concerns in Thy hands to be entirely at Thy disposal, having no will or interest of my own. In prayer I can intercede for my friends, ministers, sinners, the church, Thy kingdom, with greatest freedom and brightest hope as a son to his Father and as a lover to his beloved. And so, O God, help me to pray always and never to cease.
the objects of prayer
Elsewhere Paul commands us to pray for unbelievers, for government leaders, and for others, but here the focus is on all the saints. It is only saints, Christian believers, who are involved in the spiritual warfare for which God provides the armor Paul has just been describing and who are able to pray in the Spirit.
It is not inappropriate to pray for ourselves any more than it is inappropriate to pray for physical needs. But just as the Bible primarily calls us to pray about spiritual needs rather than physical, it primarily calls us to pray for others rather than ourselves. Even when he was concerned about his own needs, Paul does not mention that he prayed for himself but that he asked other believers to pray on his behalf, as he does in the next two verses (Eph. 6:19–20). The greatest thing we can do for another believer, or that he can do for us, is to pray. That is the way the Body of Christ grows spiritually as well as in love. When one member of the Body is weak, wounded, or cannot function, the other members compensate by supporting and helping strengthen it. Samuel said to the people of Israel, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you” (1 Sam. 12:23). With God’s own Holy Spirit to indwell us and help us even when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26), how much more do we as Christians sin against God when we fail to pray for fellow saints?
The spiritually healthy person is devoted to the welfare of others, especially fellow believers. On the other hand, the root of both psychological and spiritual sickness is preoccupation with self. Ironically, the believer who is consumed with his own problems—even his own spiritual problems—to the exclusion of concern for other believers, suffers from a destructive self-centeredness that not only is the cause of, but is the supreme barrier to the solution of, his own problems. Usually such selfishness isolates him from the other believers, who if they were intimately involved in fellowship with him, would be regularly praying for his spiritual welfare.
Praying for others with sincerity and perseverance is, in God’s immeasurable grace, a great blessing and strength to our own souls. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones reported that before the outbreak of the Spanish civil war that country was experiencing such an epidemic of neuroses that psychiatrists could hardly handle them all. But the war, terrible and destructive as it was in most respects, had the unexpected effect of “curing” many of Spain’s thousands of neurotics. When they became concerned about the welfare of their families, friends, and country instead of their own, their neuroses disappeared and hospitals and clinics were almost emptied of such cases. “These neurotic people were suddenly cured by a greater anxiety,” an anxiety that reached beyond their own selfish welfare. (The Christian Soldier [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977], pp. 357–58.)
18 Abandoning the metaphor of the soldier’s equipment, Paul now instructs the believers to engage in prayer “on all occasions” and “with all kinds of prayers and requests.” The formidable nature of the battle against the evil powers underscores the need for prayer. Prayer is a key weapon in the battle; it gets more attention in Paul’s summary than the other weapons do. Yoder Neufeld, 305, observes, “Prayer is ‘militarized’ and drawn into the struggle with the powers.” Paul employs the common verb for prayer, proseuchomai (GK 4667), which means “to petition the deity.” The tense of the verb “pray” is present: believers are to keep on praying. “All kinds of prayers and requests” (the two terms are roughly synonymous) should accompany this continual praying. They ought to pray “on all occasions” or at every appropriate time (kairos, GK 2789); recall Paul’s use of kairos in the phrase “making the most of every opportunity” (5:16). And they ought to pray “in the Spirit,” suggesting prayers that are consistent with the Spirit’s desires and are energized by the Spirit. Schnackenburg, 282, puts it well: “Our human praying only achieves power and effectiveness in the strength of the divine Spirit.”
What is more, believers ought to pray in a continually watchful mode (“be alert”); alertness ought to rouse their prayers into action. Jesus also connected these ideas: “Be always on the watch, and pray” (Lk 21:36). Who knows what will require urgent prayers and petitions? The enemy will not let up. Watch and pray! This alert praying should be accompanied by, literally, “all perseverance” (en pasē proskarterēsei [GK 4675], NIV, “keep on”). This noun, another hapax, means “firm persistence” (BDAG, 881). Do not be quitters; discipline yourselves in prayer.
Finally Paul adds an object for their prayers: “for all the saints.” “Saints” comprise God’s people—those who belong to him (see commentary at 1:1; 15; 2:19; cf. 1 Co 1:2). Perhaps to counter the normal tendency to pray mostly for their own concerns, Paul reminds his readers that they need to remember the entire body of Christ in their prayers. Pray for other believers, particularly those in the thick of the spiritual battles.
6:18 / Although the military imagery continues into this verse—arm yourselves and be alert—the prayer to which the readers are summoned should not be taken as a seventh piece of the Christian’s armor. God has given his splendid armor to the believer, but the “putting on” and the utilization of that armor in battle calls for discipline in prayer in the Spirit. According to Stott, “Equipping ourselves with God’s armor is not a mechanical preparation; it is itself an expression of our dependence on God, in other words, of prayer” (p. 283).
The prayer that the believers are admonished to utter has some significant qualities about it. First, it is to be unceasing: pray … on all occasions. The Christian warrior, although heavily armed, can only stand firm against the enemy through the agency of prayer. Praying is done in the Spirit. To do so is not to be transposed into some ecstatic or euphoric condition beyond the senses but to live in the realization that the Spirit is the believer’s helper (5:18) and intercessor (Rom. 8:15, 16, 26, 27). “It is an approach to God relying not on our own piety, but on the help which God in his Spirit offers to us” (Mitton, p. 228).
The Greek, and most English translations (rsv, niv), employ the two expressions prayers (proseuchē and “supplication” or requests (deēsis). Most commentators feel that “prayer” always addresses God, whereas “supplication” may be used to address either God or humankind. The gnb “asking for God’s help” takes the Greek as a request to God and not as intercession on behalf of human beings.
Second, prayer is to be intense. Be alert and always keep on praying. In other words, maintain a spirit of watchfulness and perseverance. A Christian warrior must not be caught off guard. This exhortation toward constancy and watchfulness in prayer and the Christian life is common to the nt (Luke 18:1; Rom. 12:12; 1 Cor. 16:13; Phil. 4:6; Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17; 1 Pet. 5:8). But since this phrase falls between two other exhortations, it is not entirely clear where “perseverance” (keep on praying) belongs. Should it go with the idea of praying constantly with all alertness, or does it relate to the following phrase, in which believers are summoned to intercede for others? Beare suggests that alertness refers to the believer’s spiritual conflict but that this, in turn, leads to “persevering intercession on behalf of all his comrades in the fight” (p. 746).
Third, prayer is unlimited. Always keep on praying for all the saints. Since all believers are involved in a spiritual battle, prayer must transcend its narrow individualism and encompass the entire body of Christ. As members of an army, believers must manifest a concern for all who are fighting along with them. Here the apostle’s concerns are not unlike those in 1 Peter, where, in a similar context of warning his readers about the devil, Peter writes: “Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (5:9).
18. by means of all prayer and supplication, praying at all times in the Spirit, and with a view to this, being on the alert in all perseverance and supplication, for all the saints.
In his own power the soldier can do nothing against so great a foe. Hence, as he takes and puts on each piece of his armor and as he makes use of it in the battle he must pray for God’s blessing.
- The Variety of Prayer: “all prayer and supplication”
The apostle makes a special point of it that the soldier’s communion with his General—the believer’s fellowship with his God—should not be of just one kind. Some people are always asking for things. Their entire prayer-life consists of that. But prayer—the first word is very general—should include not only cries for help but also confession of sin, profession of faith, adoration, thanksgiving, intercession. Moreover, prayer-life should be definite, not just “O Lord, bless all that awaits thy blessing,” which is a big order, but “supplication” or “petition” for the fulfilment of definite needs, a request for specific benefits. This means that the man who prays should become acquainted with concrete situations all over, at least not limited to his own contracted horizon, situations in connection with which help is needed. He should set aside, perhaps, today to stress this need, tomorrow to remember another.
- The “when” and the “where” of Prayer: “at all times … in the Spirit.”
Prayer in time of “great calamity” or “catastrophe” has long been in vogue. For many people, however, “Thanksgiving Day” comes just once a year. It is the day set aside by the national government. The apostle admonishes the addressed to take hold on God “at every occasion.” “In all thy ways acknowledge him” (Prov. 3:6).
As to the “where” of prayer, it is not to be confined either to “Jerusalem” or to “this mountain” but should always be “in (the sphere of) the Spirit,” that is, “with his help” and “in harmony with his will” as revealed in the Word which he inspired.
- The Manner of Prayer: “being on the alert in all perseverance and supplication.” Cf. Col. 4:2.
Those who are not “alert” but listless and indifferent to what is going on in their homes, in the streets of their city, in their state or province, in their country, in their church, in their denomination, or in the world at large will have a very restricted prayer-life. Those who do not know the will of God because they devote so little time to the study of the Word will fail to harvest the fruits of prayer. Those who do not know the promises cannot be expected to “go to the deeps of God’s promise” in their devotions. They will not partake of a deep and satisfying communion with God. Consequently, they will perhaps pray now and then only. There will be no “perseverance” and little “supplication” (petition for definite benefits).
- The Indirect Objects of Prayer: “for all the saints”
Christ during his sojourn on earth evaluated intercessory prayer (“prayer for others”) very highly, as is shown by many incidents (Matt. 9:18–26; 15:21–28; 17:14–21; etc.). So did Paul. The heart of our Great Intercessor who not only intercedes for us but actually lives in order to do so (Heb. 7:25) is deeply touched by such petitions! Thus the fellowship of saints is kept alive and real.
In this fellowship of prayer the Jewish convert must not forget the Gentile convert, the old must not ignore the young, the free must not neglect those in bondage, nor vice versa. It must be prayer “for all the saints.” With God there is no partiality.
Up to this point the apostle has said very little about his own physical circumstances. He is not a complainer. He has made brief mention of the fact that he was writing as a prisoner (3:1; 4:1), and has also urged the Ephesians “not to lose heart” over what he was suffering for them (3:13). But that was all; and even in the given passages he was thinking not of himself so much as of the welfare of those addressed.
6:18 Prayer is not mentioned as a part of the armor; but we would not be overrating its importance if we say that it is the atmosphere in which the soldier must live and breathe. It is the spirit in which he must don the armor and face the foe. Prayer should be continual, not sporadic; a habit, not an isolated act. Then too the soldier should use all kinds of prayer: public and private; deliberate and spontaneous; supplication and intercession; confession and humiliation; praise and thanksgiving.
And prayer should be in the Spirit, that is, inspired and led by Him. Formal prayers recited merely by rote (without giving thought to their meaning)—of what value are they in combat against the hosts of hell? There must be vigilance in prayer: watchful to this end. We must watch against drowsiness, mind-wandering, and preoccupation with other things. Prayer requires spiritual keenness, alertness, and concentration. And there must be perseverance in prayer. We must keep on asking, seeking, knocking (Luke 11:9). Supplication should be made for all the saints. They are engaged in the conflict too, and need to be supported in prayer by their fellow soldiers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1953). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.