The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on November 21st 2018.
Do you remember the classic children’s prayer that perhaps many of us prayed when we were young?
God bless Mummy, Daddy too,
God bless me and God bless you.
God bless everyone, God bless everyone.
God bless children here today,
God bless children far away.
There is something profoundly biblical about praying for God’s blessing on people. But there are Christians who, in many respects, never move beyond the level of this childhood prayer. Their prayer life is no more than paddling in the shallows while all the time there is an ocean’s fullness to explore when it comes to our relationship with God in prayer.
In light of this, we are committing ourselves to a devotional reflection on the prayers of Paul scattered through his many letters in the New Testament.
At the Prayer Academy a fortnight ago I said that Paul framed all his prayers in a spirit of thanksgiving. As we began to reflect on this, I made two primary points that are worth repeating when it comes to the content of Paul prayers.
One centres on the expansive nature of these prayers, summed up in the following sentence:
“Paul’s prayers are primarily centred on drawing Christians into a deep understanding of all that Jesus has accomplished for us through his death and resurrection and a dynamic and intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit.”
The other focuses on our purpose in reflecting on these prayers over the winter months:
“As a church, our aim is to reflect on Paul’s prayers in such a way that we hear God speak to us today and find strength and direction to improve our praying, both for God’s glory and for our good.”
As we move into the substance of these prayers, I want to encourage you to ask a simple question:
What would church life look like, and where would God take us, if we prayed these kind of prayers for each other?
Tonight, we reflect on Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1. It is all about growing in the knowledge of God.
The letter that Paul wrote to the Ephesians has been described as “the Alps of the New Testament.” It reaches heights of truth almost unparallel in the great second section of Scripture. From this unique vantage point we are able to look out on a magnificent vista, captivated by the whole sweep of God’s plan of redemption. In the first half of chapter 1, Paul takes us back to the infinite expanse of eternity, where we are introduced to God’s plan of salvation. A plan, we discover, that is centred on Christ and finds visible expression in the church of which he is head.
Verses 3 to 14 Paul are really a great anthem of praise – one long sentence in the Greek language, almost impossible to analyse, in which each successive thought crowds in on the one before.
This section of Scripture reminds me of the 2011 Oban Fireworks display. As the result of a technical malfunction, the entire display went up in 50 seconds! There is a similar experience for the reader of this paragraph. What should take volumes to unpack and explain ‘explodes’ in a single sentence!
We arrive at verse 15 exhausted! Paul now prays for the Ephesians in light of the wealth of spiritual blessing that he has just been writing about.
Our Christian lives will be enriched if we can learn from Paul. What Paul does in Ephesians 1, and therefore encourages us to copy, is both to keep praising God that in Christ all spiritual blessings are ours and to pray that we know the fullness of what he has given us. If we keep praise and prayer together we are unlikely to lose our spiritual equilibrium.
The essence of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Christians is found in verse 17. Paul prays that they would KNOW GOD.
On Friday, I attended the funeral service of a man whose influence and support in the early days of my Christian walk was considerable. His name was Jim Cadzow. The man who gave the tribute to Jim said of him, “Jim wanted to know God and to be known by God.” He was like Paul in that regard, who said to the Philippian believers that his life goal was to know Christ (Philippians 3:10). And here in this prayer Paul offers a similar request to God on behalf of the Ephesians.
It is vital to understand that this knowledge of God does not just happen as we acquire more information about God, read more books or listen to more sermons. It is knowledge that is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, this revelation only comes through a life that’s immersed in the Scriptures and absorbed in prayer. We get to know God by walking with him and living out all that he teaches us on that journey.
The language that Paul uses draws on the richness of the Old Testament’s teaching on knowledge. This knowledge of God is the knowledge of understanding and the knowledge of experience. It is the personal knowledge of God himself, which in the Bible always implies the experience of life in union and fellowship with God. There is no higher knowledge than the knowledge of God himself.
Paul goes on to bring together three great truths which vitally connect to the knowledge of God that he wants his readers to know in mind and experience. They focus on God’s call, inheritance and power. More than that, he prays that they may know the ‘hope’ of God’s call, the ‘wonder’ of his inheritance, and the ‘greatness’ of his power.
1. The Hope of God’s Call
“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:18).
God’s call takes us back to the very beginning of our Christian lives.
“…having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And he gave them right standing with himself, and he promised them his glory” (Romans 8:30).
But what did God call us for? His call was not a random or purposeless thing. He had a clear goal in mind when he called us. He called us to something and for something. It is clearly outlined in the teaching of the New Testament. It focuses on:
(a) Our relationship with God in Christ
God called us “to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6).
“We have been called by God to be his very own people” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
(b) Our relationship with fellow Christians
“Let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are all called to live in peace” (Colossians 3:15). God calls us to work at maintaining unity in the church.
(c) Our relationship with an unbelieving world
“To his you were called (suffering for doing good), because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…” (1 Peter 2:21).
The big picture view of this suffering is something that Peter goes on to explain:
“…the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast”
(1 Peter 5:10).
All of this was in God’s mind when he called us. It was a call to a completely new way of life in which we know, love, obey and serve Christ, enjoy fellowship with him and with each other, and look beyond our present suffering to the glory which will one day be revealed. This is the hope to which he has called you. Paul prays that our eyes will be opened to see it.
2. The Wonder of God’s Inheritance
Paul’s second prayer to God is that we will know “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (v.18b).
If God’s ‘call’ points us back to the beginning of our Christian life, then God’s inheritance points us on to the end, which Peter describes “…an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).
Exactly what it will be like is beyond our ability to imagine. Having said that, there are glimpses of what we can expect. We are told that we will ‘see’ God and worship him, that this exalted vision of God will be a transforming vision. John says, ‘when he appears we shall be like him…’ (1 John 3:2). Also, God’s inheritance will not be some kind of private party: an invitation to a select few. John, again, talks about “…a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
For me, no one captures this better than C.S. Lewis at the end of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’
“For us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
(C.S. Lewis – The Last Battle)
This is the wonder of God’s inheritance. Paul prays that our minds will be enlightened to know it.
3. The Greatness of God’s Power.
If God’s call looks back to the beginning, and God’s inheritance looks to the end, then it follows that God’s power spans the period of our life between those two realities. It is really on this that the apostle concentrates; for only God’s power can deliver all that is contained in God’s call and bring us safely to our final inheritance. Paul is convinced that God’s power is sufficient, and he accumulates words to convince us. He writes not only of God’s ‘power’, but also of “the working of his mighty strength”, and prays that we will know “the immeasurable greatness” of it in us who believe.
How do we come to know and experience the surpassing greatness of the power of God? God has given a public demonstration of this power in the resurrection and ascension of Christ (verses 20-23). Paul refers to three hugely important events in his prayer:
(a) God raised Jesus from the dead (verse 20a)
(b) God seated him in the place of honour at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all his competitors (v. 20b, 21), and has put everything under his feet.
(c) God put all things under the authority of Christ, and he gave him this authority for the benefit of the church.
These three truths belong together. It’s because of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and his authority over evil that he has been given headship over the church. The resurrection and ascension are the decisive demonstrations of divine power.
This is the greatness of God’s power. Paul prays that we will experience it.
As an Ayrshire lad, I always keep an eye out for how Kilmarnock FC are performing. I am sure many of you do not know this but they have won the Scottish Cup three times in their history.
In 1920, they beat Albion Rovers 3-2 at Hampden in front of crowd of 95,000 people. Jack Smith scored the winner with Willie Culley and Mattha Short scoring earlier in the game.
In 1929, they beat Rangers 2-0 at Hampden before 114,780 fans this time. Jock Aitken and Jimmy Williamson scored that day.
Kilmarnock would wait another 68 years before they won the cup again, this time beating Falkirk 1-0 in what was dubbed ‘The People’s Final’ in 1997. Paul Wright scored the only goal at Ibrox stadium in front of 48,953 fans.
Why am I telling you this? Over the years I have read one or two books about Kilmarnock and so have some knowledge about their history and achievements. I read about the 1920’s Scottish Cup final victories. However, the difference in 1997 was that I was actually there! My knowledge of that victory is coupled with personal experience.
Going back to my good friend, Jim Cadzow. It was said in his tribute that his knowledge of God was an experiential knowledge. His life was immersed in the teaching of Scripture and he lived it out and experienced it in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul prayed for the Christians at Ephesus.
I wonder, where would God take us as a church if this was our depth of prayer for each other?