Learning to Pray the New Testament Way

In his John 17 prayer, Jesus says something to his Father that has long puzzled me: “I pray for them [my disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (Jn. 17:9). What has baffled me? Those seven words in the middle: “I am not praying for the world.”

Earth Why.jpg

Some insight into this statement—and how it relates to shared church—has come in the past few weeks. To prepare for an adult Sunday School class on prayer, I searched the New Testament for what we might call “asking” (often called “petitionary”) prayers and for instructions on what to ask in prayer.

Surprise! Out of some 70 references, 41 had to do with praying for Christians. I found only 2 examples of  prayers for non-Christians to come to faith in Christ. As I pondered this great difference, those prayer-words of Jesus came back to mind: “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” The New Testament prayer-pattern seems to echo the prayer-priority seen in Jesus’s words to his Father.

How does “I am not praying for the world” fit with God’s will that everyone “be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4)? We’ll explore that question shortly. But first, have a look at the results of my research into New Testament praying:

For God’s Purposes

  • That his name be held holy. Mt. 6:9; Lk. 11:2
  • That his Kingdom come. Mt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2
  • That his will be done on earth. Mt. 6:10
  • That doors open for the proclamation of the gospel. Col. 4:3; II Thess. 3:1
  • That God send workers into his harvest. Mt. 9:38; Lk. 10:2

For Christ-Followers

  • That they would experience the grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity. II Cor. 13:14
  • That they may come to complete unity. Jn. 17:20-23; Rom. 15:5-6
  • That God make increase their love for each other and everyone. I Thess. 3:12
  • That their love continue to grow in knowledge and deep insight. Phil. 19; Col. 1:9
  • That they may be full of joy and peace. Jn. 17:13; Rom. 15:13; II Thess. 3:16
  • That God protect them from the evil one. Jn. 17:15
  • That they may be sanctified. Jn. 17:17
  • That God sanctify them in body, soul, and spirit. I Thess. 5:23
  • That they will choose leaders wisely. Acts 1:24, 25
  • That they will favorably receive God’s messages and messengers. Rom. 15:31
  • That their hearts be enlightened to know all of Christ’s fullness: Eph. 1:18—19; 3:17-18
  • That they receive God’s Spirit of wisdom and revelation. Eph. 1:17
  • That they discern what is best. Phil. 1:10
  • That the Spirit will empower them from within. Eph. 3:16; Col. 1:11; I Thess. 3:13
  • That Christ may live in them through faith. Eph. 3:17
  • That their faith not fail. Lk. 22:32
  • That God fulfill their good purposes and actions produced by faith. II Thess. 1:11
  • That they stand firm in God’s will. Col. 4:12
  • That they reach full maturity. Col. 4:12
  • That they have full understanding. Philemon 6
  • That God heal their illnesses. Jas. 5:14
  • That tongues-speakers may interpret. I Cor. 14:13
  • That God grant them good health. III Jn. 2
  • That God grant life to Christians living in sin that does not lead to death. I Jn. 5:16
  • That they speak God’s word boldly. Acts 4:29
  • That God heal and perform signs and wonders. Acts 4:30
  • That God equip them to do his will and work in them what pleases him. Heb. 13:20-21
  • That God open a way for a visit to his people. Rom. 1:10
  • That God count them worthy of his calling. II Thess. 1:11
  • That God encourage and strengthen them in deed and word. II Thess. 2:17
  • That God show mercy to a believer and his family. II Tim. 1:16
  • That they remain pure, blameless, and fruitfully righteous until Christ returns. Phil. 1:10-11; Col. 1:10
  • That they endure to stand before Christ when he comes. Lk. 21:36

For Christian Leaders

  • That God protect them against the opposition of unbelievers. Rom. 15:31; II Thess. 3:2
  • That they receive God’s words and be fearless in speaking them. Eph. 6:19-20; Col. 4:3

For Non-Christians 

  • That unbelievers come to faith in Christ. Acts 26:29; Rom. 10:1

For Personal Needs

  • For receiving God’s Holy Spirit. Lk. 11:13
  • For daily provision of food. Mt. 6:11; Lk. 11:3
  • For forgiveness. Mt. 6:12; Lk. 11:4
  • For protection against falling into temptation. Mt. 6:13; 26:41; Lk. 11:4; Lk. 22:40, 46

For Those Who Mistreat Us

  • For enemies and persecutors. Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:28; Lk. 23:34; Acts 7:60

For Earthly Authorities

  • That they rule in ways that bring peace. I Tim. 2:2

Of the prayer-references listed, just over 58 percent are for believers, while less than 3 percent are for unbelievers. Why? Does God not care about seeing unbelievers trust Jesus and so come into right relationship with him? Of course he does. God loves the world. He does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Pet. 3:9). So why did Jesus say he was "not praying for the world"?

In the same prayer, Jesus repeatedly asks that those first disciples and later Christ-followers be one, that they might be “brought to complete unity” (Jn. 17:11, 21-22). The demonstration of this unity, Jesus says, will enable the world to believe and to know the Father had sent him. So Jesus is concerned for the unbelieving world. But he knows that the eye-opener for a spiritually blind world is the display of heaven’s unity lived out by Christians on earth.

His prayer-priority, then, is for Christ-followers, for the community he launched and left here for the world to see. Read again all those prayers for Christians—prayers that God’s colony and colonists on earth will thrive spiritually so that the world may have access to samples of the coming Kingdom. Should we, then, pray that non-Christians trust Jesus. Yes—two of the prayers listed do so. But if we are to pray the New Testament way, it seems that most of our asking should be for fellow believers. Our loving one another, Jesus said, would provide the world with evidence that we are his disciples. And one-anothering prayer turns out to be a major part of loving each other.

That’s one more reason we need to learn how to practice New Testament praying in shared church.