The Spirit’s Role in Prayer (Part 3)

The Sword of the Spirit and Praying in/by the Spirit

In Ephesians 6:17-20, Paul writes a lengthy run-on sentence (which he often did). Gordon Fee translated 17-18 this way: “And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, through every prayer and request, praying at all times in the Spirit, and to this end, staying alert with perseverance and prayer for all the saints . . .”

This is his final word about how to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” and what it means to “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:10-11). After listing protective gear (vv. 14-17a), he tells them to also take the offensive weapon of the sword of the Spirit, which is both the word of God and praying in the Spirit.

About the “word of God” Fee writes: “Paul is not identifying the ‘sword’ with the book, but with the proclamation of Christ” (God’s Empowering Presence, 728-29). He cites many passages proving this understanding. We primarily attack the enemy with the proclamation of the Gospel. Of course, we can also counter the devils attacks with the written word of God as Jesus did when he exclaimed, “It is written!” (Matthew 4:4,6, 10). But this is not Paul’s meaning of the “word of God” in this passage.

We also attack the enemy by “praying in (or by) the Spirit.” So many of the English translations put a period after the “word of God” and begin a new paragraph with “Pray in the Spirit” (NIV, NASB, NLT). This has unfortunately separated “praying in the Spirit” from being a crucial part (or other side) of the sword of the Spirit. But what does “praying in/by the Spirit” mean? Fee believes that “Paul at least intends to associate the empowering of the Spirit with one’s praying” (GEP, 730). But he also believes that it refers to praying in tongues as well. Why?

Paul wrote that when a person speaks in tongues (something done by the Spirit in cooperation with our spirit and tongue), they speak “mysteries to God” and “edify themselves” (14:2-4) and they praise and thank God (14:16-17). But Paul also explicitly refers to this practice as a form of prayer: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding” (vv. 14-15). Because elsewhere Paul referred to tongues as something the Spirit empowers people to do (1 Corinthians 12:7-11; 14:2, 16), Fee translates “my spirit prays” with “my S/spirit prays” meaning that tongues is something our spirit and the Holy Spirit do together without our minds forming words. Praying in “tongues” is clearly a way of praying “in” or “by” the Spirit. As such, it may also be a way that the Spirit intercedes for us with “inarticulate groanings” (see last month’s blog for more on “groanings”).

You may not have the gift of tongues. No problem. The Spirit’s intercession for us with “wordless groans” and “praying in/by the Spirit” is certainly more than praying in tongues. I simply want to encourage you, as Paul did, to “eagerly desire the gifts of the Spirit” (14:1) including tongues to further equip you in attacking the enemy with this form of “praying in the Spirit” as well. Fee aptly concludes: “For Paul, the concern was not only that [Christians] be clothed with the armor that Christ provides in the gospel, but that they take the enemy on by Spirit-empowered proclamation and by Spirit-inspired praying” (GEP, 731). To that end, let us pray!