The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on December 5th 2018
A few weeks ago Channel 5 ran a two-part documentary entitled ‘Michael Palin in North Korea.’ It was fascinating on many levels. However, what intrigued me most was his experience of crossing the border and his first encounters with the North Korean authorities.
At the border checkpoint he was asked for his papers and said on camera that one of the questions put to him during that time was, “Do you have a Bible?” Is that not incredible? Of all the things the authorities could have asked if had on his possession, they single out the Bible. This regime believes that the Bible is dangerous and a threat to their ideology. They will do all they can to keep it from its citizens.
I truly believe that the Bible is the special revelation of God to humankind. Because of that it carries a quite unique authority. Hence the reason some (e.g. the North Korean authorities) will do what they can to keep people from reading it.
However, as Christians we not only recognise its authority, we have come to appreciate its value and importance in living a life that honours God. We will see this more clearly in a moment. Before that, let us remind ourselves of our aim in reading and meditating on Paul’s prayers scattered through his letters.
“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 continue to reflect on these prayers, let us ask the question:
What would church life look like, and where would God take us, if we prayed these kind of prayers for each other?
Let us now begin to reflect on Paul’s second prayer for the Ephesians (chapter 3:14-19).
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”
Paul begins his prayer the same way he began the prayer of chapter 1 that we looked at last time. In ch.1 he prayed for the Ephesians in light of the wealth of spiritual blessing that is ours in Christ. Having praised God for what he has done in Christ, he then prays that the Ephesians would know that reality.
“For this reason…” Paul is led to prayer by the thought of the greatness of the grace of Christ in raising us to new life even though we were dead in sin (2:1-10). But not only that but also by uniting Jew & Gentile in the great household of God (2:11-22). In the light of these things he now prays as he does.
I have come to appreciate this little phrase, “For this reason…”, more and more as I have reflected on it. Paul based his prayers on a knowledge of God’s purpose. This gave him the authority to pray as he did. Timothy Keller in his book on prayer says that our ‘starting point for prayer must be immersion in God’s Word.’ Why? Because prayer is continuing a conversation that God has already started. That’s why Bible reading and prayer should always go together.
There are four requests in Paul’s prayer, each of which is inextricably linked to the others. One commentator wrote, “I like to think of Paul’s prayer as a staircase by which he climbs higher and higher in his aspiration for his readers. His prayer-staircase has four steps, whose key words are ‘strength, love, knowledge and fullness.’
Another writer said, “These four requests are more like four parts of a telescope. One requests leads into the next one, and so on. He prays that we will be inwardly strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit, which in turn, leads to a deeper experience of Christ. This deeper experience will enable us to get hold of the love of Christ, which in turn results in us being filled to the fullness of God.”
There is incredible connection and development in Paul’s prayer. Therefore, let us climb the staircase or look through the telescope and appreciate something of this deeply affectionate prayer of Paul for the Ephesians. Consider his four interconnected requests:
1. Strength (3:16-17a)
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
These two petitions clearly belong together.
It is the constant emphasis of the New Testament, that strength for the Christian life comes by the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is evidence that we are truly the children of God (Romans 8:9). Flowing out of that it is the power of the Spirit in our lives that enables us to serve Christ in the world.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem , and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
However, in this prayer Paul asks God that we will know the power of the Spirit at a much more profound level: “… so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
There are two Greek words for dwell in the New Testament. One is weaker; it means to inhabit (a place) as a stranger…living away from home… a temporary residence.
The other means to settle down somewhere…a permanent residence. It’s this second word that Paul uses here in prayer.
The verb ‘dwell’ literally means ‘to settle down and feel at home.’ Christ was already resident in the hearts of the Ephesians. What Paul is praying for is a deeper experience between Christ and his people. He longs for Christ to settle down and feel at home their hearts – not a surface relationship, but an ever deepening fellowship.
The second step on our stairs or the next part of the telescope that we pull out is:
2. Depth (3:17)
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people…”
Paul uses two pictures in this verse to communicate the idea of spiritual depth, and the two pictures are hidden in two words in this verse: ‘rooted,’ and ‘grounded.’
The verb ‘rooted’ moves us into the plant world. A tree has to get its roots deep into the soil if it’s to have nourishment and stability, and a Christian must have their roots deep into the love of God.
A perfect description of this ‘rooted’ life is found in Psalm 1:1-3:
Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.
A great commentary on this life is found in Jeremiah 17:5-8:
‘But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.’
One of the most important questions a Christian can ask is, “From what do I draw my nourishment and stability?” If there is to be strength in the Christian life, then there must be depth. The roots of our faith must go deeper and deeper into the love of Christ.
‘Grounded’ is an architectural term; it refers to the foundations on which we build. The most important part of a building is the foundation. Jesus illustrated that in his story about two builders, one of whom did not go deep enough for his foundation. When the storm came it fell with a great crash. The other house remained standing as it had its foundation on the rock.
Paul prays that believers might have a deeper experience of Christ, because only a deep experience of Christ can sustain through the storms of life.
He prays that we will have deep roots and firm foundations in the Christian life; that we will be like a well-rooted tree and a well-built house.
3. Understanding (3:18-19a)
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”
The ultimate goal to which the Christian life must move is that we know the love of God in Christ, to know how he loved and loves, and to experience his love in loving him and loving others for his sake.
Paul prays that we grasp this love and have some idea of the dimensions of the redeeming love of Christ. Paul’s concern is that we lay hold of the vast expanses of the love of God.
But there is a paradox here. Paul wants us to know personally the love of God ‘which surpasses knowledge.’ There are dimensions, but they’ll never be fully measured.
Paul never intends us to give detailed meanings to the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of Christ’s love. But what he does prayer is that we find expression of that love in experience, in joy and grief, in difficulty and in suffering, in ways too deep for us to intellectually fathom, or for human language to ultimately express or explain.
Eugene Peterson, in the Message has Paul praying that we would know the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love…
Reach out and experience the breadth!
Test its length!
Plumb the depths!
Rise to the heights!
We now arrive at the top of the staircase and our vision of what Paul is so earnestly prayers for is crystallised.
4. Fullness (3:19b)
“…that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
The climax of Paul’s prayer is that they might be filled with all the fulness of God.
Consider carefully what Paul ultimately prays for the Ephesians. The very highest he can pray for is that they will be filled with full indwelling of God. Of course, the eternal God can never be limited to any or all of his people. However, Paul prays big! He prays that we will be conformed to God’s character and and reflect his life to others.
Paul prays that the Ephesians will experience strength, depth, understanding and fullness in the Christian life. This leads Paul to offer a wonderful expression of praise…However, that will need to wait until next time!