True Christianity

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on January 16th 2019.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Introduction

Last Monday night I went to the King’s Theatre with Alisdair to be part of the world tour of the Banff Film Festival. The evening consisted of 7 short films that focused on adventure and the pursuit of big goals.

One of the films was entitled, ‘How to run 100 miles…” It tells the story of two friends, Brendan Leonard & Jayson Sime, who signed up for one of the most intense ultra marathons in the world, the ‘Run, Rabbit, Run 100’. Based in Colorado the race involves running 100 miles, including 10,300 feet (6000m) of elevation, in less than 36 hours. They trained for endless hours, through tedium, exhaustion and joy and in the process there was remarkable growth in their friendship.

As the film unfolds they share the lessons learned along the way:

Lesson #1

It helps to have a friend along 

Lesson #2

It’s going to be a struggle at times 

Lesson #3

You have to put in the work 

Lesson #4

Eventually, you have to start the race

Lesson #5

Commit 

Lesson #6

You have to keep moving 

Let us park these lessons and return to them in a moment. In the meantime let me remind you of the basis of ‘The Prayer Academy.’

Last year the elders issued a fresh call to collective prayer, believing as Jim Cymbala once said that ‘the prayer meeting is the engine that will drive the church.’ We come to the end of the first chapter of this new approach tonight and the future development of the collective prayer life of this church family will be a big focus of our elders’ retreat this weekend. So please pray for the leadership in this regard.

As we look back over the last three months of the Prayer Academy and much further back into the collective prayer of the church the six lessons mentioned above become quite poignant and help us as we look forward

In our experience of collective prayer:

Lesson #1

It helps to have a friend along 

Lesson #2

It’s going to be a struggle at times 

Lesson #3

You have to put in the work 

Lesson #4

Eventually, you have to start the race

Lesson #5

Commit 

Lesson #6

You have to keep moving

Brendan Leonard and Jayson Sime discovered rich rewards from the Run, Rabbit, Run 100 shared experience. If this church family will stay the course and remain faithful in collective prayer we will discover much of the blessing of God.

For our final reflection on Praying with Paul we focus on a couple of verses at the start of his first letter to the Thessalonians.

I believe we will see once again how such a brief prayer of Paul is brimming over with spiritual insight and help for us in our relationship with God.

 

Paul tells the Thessalonians that he, Silas & Timothy –

  1. always thanked God for them all, 
  2. mentioned them in their prayers, and 
  3. continually remembered them before God. 

(Remember Lesson #1 – It helps to have a friend along!)

“We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we talk to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and your continual anticipation of the return of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NLT).

There is a big message in these two verses that act like two sides of the one coin.

When you think of others do you take time to pray for them? Memory, thanksgiving and prayer belong together. Perhaps we need to pray and work for better memories. It is when we remember people (their faces, names and needs) that we are prompted to thank God and to pray for them.

And when others think of you do they thank God for you as they reflect on the quality of your Christian character?

What Paul and his companions especially remembered about the Thessalonians was the three central Christian graces which characterised their lives. 

I’d like to reflect on these Christian qualities from two important angles:

First, these qualities of Christian character are outgoing.

  • Faith is directed towards God.
  • Love is directed towards others
  • Hope is directed towards the future, in particular the glorious coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In similar fashion, faith rests in the past, love works in the present, hope looks to the future.

Faith, hope and love are the evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Together they completely reorientate our lives, as we find ourselves being drawn upwards in faith to God, out towards others in love and on towards the Lord’s coming in hope. The Christian life means little or nothing if it doesn’t pull us out of our own fallen self interests and redirects us towards God, Christ and our fellow human beings.

Secondly, these qualities of Christian character are productive. 

Faith, hope and love sound almost abstract qualities, but they have concrete practical results. Faith works, love labours and hope endures. 

A true faith in God leads to good works, and without works faith is dead…(see verse 10).

My brother sent me the following text yesterday which has given me much to reflect on:

“40 years ago!!! to the very day 29/01/79 you made a commitment that would change your life. God has been good to you and you have seen many blessings as you have looked to serve him. I still remember the Monday morning when you announced to mum that you had made a commitment to Jesus through the night. From memory I remember the speaker. He had a bit of wood and he kept changing it into various shapes but the main shape was that of the cross.”

I am grateful that I can see the truth of what Paul says in this verse in my own life. The faith which I placed in Christ 40 years ago has lead to a firm desire to serve him in the years that followed.

A true love for people leads to labour for them.

The word Paul use here is agape – a word not used very much before Christians took it up and made it their characteristic word for love. The early believers not only made use of a new term, but invested a new idea into it.

Love on a human level finds something worthy in the recipient of that love. But the Christian idea of love is something different, and finds its classic expression in Romans 5:8. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were sinners, Christ died for us.”

This is the love of the completely unworthy. God loves, not because people are worthy, but because he is that kind of God, because it’s his nature to love, because he is love.

When we come to see that God is like that, that God loves as part of his very nature, that God loves in the way which means the cross, we have to make a decision. Either we yield to this divine love to be transformed by it, to be remade in God’s image, to see people in a measure as God sees them, or we don’t. Paul thanked God that the Thessalonians displayed loving deeds.

And a true hope, which looks expectantly to the Lord’s return, leads to endurance which is patient fortitude in the face of opposition…verse 6 

John Calvin, the great second generation reformer referred to this verse as a brief definition of true Christianity.”

This is true Christianity in a single sentence.

These are the foundation facts of Christian experience: faithful work, loving deeds and continual anticipation of the Lord’s return.

A classic description of what a truly authentic Christian life looks like. 

These are the principles which form our character as Christians. 

The church is a community which is distinguished by faith, hope & love.

What Paul goes on to say in our verse 4 is the fountain from which these graces flow. The NASB capture that flow really well:

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you…”

Paul traces these streams back to the fountain, and it is found in God’s eternal calling of a people to himself. And Paul calls them, brothers and sisters loved by God. This is the reason why faith works, love labours and love endures, because we are all loved by God.

Conclusion

During the six years I lived in Campbeltown I became good friends with a young man who worked at the American Airbase at Machrihanish. We often met for bible study and prayer. On a number of occasions he would place a small card in the pulpit which I got when I stood up to preach. One of these still sits on my desk. On one side it has the words of Michael Card, “He loves you with passion, without regret. He cannot love more, he will not love less.”

On the other side it simply says, “Love them!”

That card reminds me of a central tenet of the Christian life and one that Paul prays about in the verse that has been our focus tonight. The faith in Christ that changes our life and shapes our destiny is also one that also shapes our attitude to others. 

“We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we talk to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and your continual anticipation of the return of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NLT).

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Praying with Joy

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on January 16th 2019.

Philippians 1:3-11

As this is the first ‘Prayer Academy’ of 2019 and the second last before Community Bible Experience, it is a good time to refresh our memory on the journey we have taken so far. The vision behind this winter initiative is that we learn to be a generation that seeks God. Psalm 24:6 has been our inspiration: “Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob.”

In answer to the question, ‘what does it mean to seek God?’, we found John Piper’s answer compelling. Seeking God is “the conscious fixing or focusing of our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God.” 

To help us become this generation we have spent four Wednesday evenings so far considering the prayers of the apostle Paul scattered throughout his letters.

Over the last week I have been reading the life story of Oswald Chambers, famous for the devotional based on his sermons, “My Utmost for his Highest.” The author recounts how Oswald’s brother remembers his prayers as a child. He said that he, his siblings and mother would often tiptoe upstairs at night and sit quietly to hear him pray as he knelt by his bed. Such was Oswald’s communion with God. I have a similar feeling when I read Paul’s prayers. It is almost as if we are tiptoeing up to his room and eavesdropping on his fellowship with God.

The expansive nature of what we hear Paul pray for the early church is an inspiration for us to pray with greater depth for each other and for our world. What would church life look like if we prayed Paul’s prayers for each other?

Having spent three Wednesday nights in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we come this evening to his joyful letter to the Philippians. 

Read Philippians 1:3-11

Back in December a French adventurer called Jean-Jacques Savin set off from the the Canary Islands in a vessel in which he hoped to reach the Caribbean, 2800 miles away, by the end of March. Nicknamed Terry’s Chocolate Orange, what is unique about this craft is that there is no means of propulsion beyond the natural ocean currents. He is hoping that his voyage will help oceanographers study currents in the Atlantic but he did admit that it will be impossible to determine where he will end up. He is at the mercy of the waves and will quite literally go with the flow!

What I love about Paul’s prayers, and what is abundantly clear about this prayer in Philippians, is his purpose and intention while praying. He is not lacking direction, he is not bobbing aimlessly on the currents of contemporary church life. He has such a vision for the truly authentic Christian life that he prays with clarity, focus and purpose. 

If you are looking for the big idea in this short passage it may well be that Paul, as he prays gives, some characteristics of joyful Christians. Paul’s prayer in verses 9-11 presents at least three characteristics of joyful Christians: loving relationships, a growing faith, and living a worthy life.

When we have loving relationships, a growing faith, and a worthy life, God is glorified.

1. Joy in Loving Relationships

Paul’s Prayer: “I pray that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight…” (v.9).

Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is firstly that their love would abound. To abound means to increase, to prosper, to flourish…to thrive. Love is meant to grow; it is meant to increase as time goes on. It makes sense. If we are going through the process of becoming like Christ then it is inevitable that our love will grow.

Indeed love is the primary characteristic of the Christian church. “The fruit of the Spirit is love…” (Galatians 5:22)

“God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:5). 

The very essence of Christian discipleship is love, acceptance & forgiveness of others! Godly love is produced by the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those who belong to him. 

Over and over again in Philippians we see this connection between joy and loving relationships.

Read Philippians 4:1-2

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

Look more closely at what Paul is saying in this verse. It is all too easy for love to be driven by vague, misty thoughts or emotional reactions. Paul prays that our love will flourish and that we will not only love much but well. Love is not simply emotional or sentimental – it is rooted in understanding and depth of insight.

Picture this…if love is a river then knowledge and insight act as a broad banks of that river, keeping the rushing water within bounds. 

In this sense, a deepening knowledge of others through experience, a heightening knowledge of God through fellowship with him, a widening knowledge of truth through the reading of Scripture, are goals that we should aim for and pray much for.

2. Joy in a Growing Faith

Paul’s Prayer: “…so that you may be able to discern what is best…” (v.9b). “…that you may approve the things that are excellent…” (NKJV)

When we are motivated by the love of God, we will want nothing more than to live according to the will of God. Excellence moves us to think and live biblically. 

Read 2 Timothy 2:22

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

A small handful of books have been a major influence on my life. Among them “The Shadow of the Almighty” by Elizabeth Elliot. It’s an account of  her husband, Jim’s life through the journals he kept. Jim went on to serve God in Equador and gave his life seeking to reach the Auca Indians with the Gospel of Christ. When he was studying at Wheaton College in Illinois he spoke of working toward two degrees. His B.A. from Wheaton and what he calls his A.U.G. Approved Unto God. He said of two degrees he desired most to graduate in an A.U.G. He wanted to be a man who was approved unto God.

Towards the end of his first year he wrote in his journal, “How wonderful to know that Christianity is more than a padded pew or a dim cathedral, but that it is a living daily experience which goes on from grace to grace.”

“We should remember that while knowledge may make a man look big, it is only love that can make him grow to his full stature. For whatever a man may know, he still has a lot to learn, but if he loves God, he is opening up his whole life to God.”

(1 Cor. 8:1-3, JB Phillips)

3. Joy in Living a Worthy Life

Paul’s Prayer: “…and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God (v.10b-11).

The essence of this part of Paul’s prayer is that we will be people of integrity. Integrity builds on spiritual excellence. To have integrity is to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.

Someone has said that integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is looking. Just as pottery is held up to the light to reveal cracks and other defects, we must continually expose ourselves to the light of Scripture to keep us obedient and faithful.

And when we do that we start to produce spiritual fruit. 

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.”

(Galatians 5:22)

As Paul prays for these Philippian Christians you really get the sense that here is a man praying with purpose. If we live in love, excellence, integrity and good works; in loving relationships, growing in faith, living worthy lives, we will bring glory and praise to God. 

Conclusion

This prayer ranks as one of the outstanding prayers of Paul for the churches of the first century. Almost every word must be carefully weighed if the greatness and range of the petition are to yield their richness. 

As we stand at the beginning of a new year, is this the church that we aspire to become? 

If we love one another, then we can have excellence in what we do. 

If we have excellence, then we will have integrity. 

Flowing out of integrity will be good works, produced by the fruit God has given us. 

And all of this to the glory and praise of God.

God is Able

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on December 19th 2018.

Ephesians 3:20-21

Introduction

At the beginning of the year the Moible phone giant, Samsung, launched a very clever tagline for its Galaxy mobile phones:

“Do What You Can’t” 

The company wants customers to realise that “Do What You Can’t” is what they do every day. They want it to be more than just a marketing slogan.

“Do What You Can’t”

This tagline has strong resonance in a truly Christian way of life. Two weeks ago we eavesdropped on the apostle Paul as he prayed for the Ephesians:

“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.”

It’s 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” (Acts 1:8).

In other words, to ‘do what you can’t’ in your own strength and resources achieve. That reality is brought into even sharper focus with the doxology that we will reflect on tonight.

In verses 20–21 Paul’s heart is soaring in prayer, and he closes this first half of his letter with a magnificent expression of praise.

It’s a remarkably bold request. Having been incredibly bold to ask what he did for the Ephesians he goes on to affirm that God can actually do far more than he asks.

God’s ability is powerfully demonstrated by Paul in a blended expression which has seven stages:

  • God is able to work because he is neither idle, nor inactive, nor dead.
  • He is able to do what we ask, because he hears and answers our prayer.
  • He is able to do what we ask or imagine, for he reads our thoughts.
  • He is able to do all that we ask or imagine, for he knows it all and can perform it all.
  • He is able to do more than all we ask or imagine, for his expectations are higher than ours.
  • He is able to much more than all that we ask or imagine, because he does not give his grace by calculated measure.
  • He is able to do very much more, than all that we ask or imagine for he is a God of super-abundance. 

When you scan different translations of the Bible you will find expressions like, “immeasurably more,” “vastly more than more,” “infinitely more.”

This verse states simply that there are no limits to what God can do.

Such a God can answer prayer.

The infinite ability of God to work beyond our prayers, thoughts and dreams is, “…according to his power that is at work within us…” He works in us individually (Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith) and within us as a people (who are the dwelling place of God by his Spirit). It is the power of the resurrection, the power which raised Jesus from the dead, enthroned him in the heavenly places, and then raised and enthroned us with him. This is the power which is at work within the Christian and the church (Eph. 1:15ff)

1. “To him be glory…”

The Bible is full of statements about glorifying God. Our sole purpose, our basic reason for existence is to bring maximum glory to God. Scripture virtually pulsates with the mandate, “Glorify God!”

Romans 15:5-6

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

When we study the Scriptures we find that glory is used in two major ways. 

First of all, glory refers to light, the light of God’s presence, a bright shining light from heaven. This expression of the glory of God appears in Exodus 40:34 where we read, “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” The light was so awesome that no one could approach this place. The glory of God is the beauty and brightness of his character.

But when it comes to the primary goal of the church to bring glory to God, we are not talking about the brilliant light of God’s presence, his absolute perfection. We are referring to our calling as a church to magnify, exalt or elevate the Lord as we humble ourselves and submit to his wisdom and his authority. 

Let me try and illustrate this in the following way. When the church declares before the world the words, “Glory to God,” it’s like the Manchester City team lifting their coach on their shoulders having just won the league; or like a standing ovation you would give to a band or an orchestra after an amazing performance. That is what this doxology, this expression of praise to God is like.

We are lifting God up to the world and saying there’s no one else like him.

Let me be clear. There is in the heart of every child, teenager and adult the need and longing to sing a doxology. We may sing it with greater energy to athletes or rock stars than we do to God. But there is no denying that the doxology is there in every heart. We were made to worship and sing.  We were made to have a hero to brag about, namely, God. The is the most basic impulse in the human heart. And so the reality of doxology is just as common and understandable if you take your seat at a stadium or a theatre or if you take your seat in a church or cathedral.

The experience of having your heart soar in admiration to God depends on whether you have ears to hear and eyes to see that above and behind every admirable thing on earth stands the magnificence and beauty of God.

Paul’s admiration for God was overflowing. And so at the end of these three chapters he sings a doxology.

2. “To him be glory in the church…”

How do we understand that? Well again, let us try and look at it from this angle: To Frances McDormand & Gary Oldman be glory in the Oscars, to Bruno Mars be glory in the Grammys, to Mohammad Salah be glory in Anfield but to God be glory in the church. Go back to verse 10 for a second to see how Paul imagines the church as the theatre of the glory of God: “(God’s) intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places…”

The reason God created the world and called the church into being is so that he would have a sufficiently diversified yet unified system of mirrors with which to reflect the glory of his many-sided wisdom to the universe. Cartsbridge is a local expression of this universal church. Our goal, therefore, is to be a corporate and visible and audible doxology to God.

3. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus…”

If the church is the theatre in which the principalities and powers of the universe are to see the glory of God’s manifold wisdom, then Jesus Christ is the embodiment of that wisdom and the main character in the drama played out in the theatre of the church. The way the church glorifies God is by simply providing a venue in which the work of Jesus Christ can take effect. Ministries like Alpha, King’s Club, Impact, tlc, etc. are opportunities to display God’s glory to the outside world.

4. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever. Amen.”

The greatest men and women are only shooting stars in the night sky. They, like we, last for a couple of seconds and then are gone. But God is like the sun. And generation after generation he rises on the just and the unjust and never fades in his glory. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to ALL GENERATIONS, FOR EVER AND EVER. Amen.”

…in all of history…through out all of eternity…To him be glory!

Conclusion

There is a phenomenon in hillwalking called a brocken spectre. It can appear on any misty mountainside or cloud bank. A brocken spectre is the magnified shadow of a hillwalker cast on clouds opposite of the sun’s direction. The person’s head is surrounded by halo-like rings of coloured light. It looks like an iconic saint’s halo. And the name given to those rings is a glory.

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God will be forever glorified. Nothing in time and eternity will change this reality. Having said that, it is the calling of the church to reveal his glory, to display his glory to the world around us. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

(2 Corinthians 3:18).

James, in his New Testament letter, says: “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). May that be never said of Cartsbridge Church.

Being Filled with the Fullness of God

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on December 5th 2018

Ephesians 3:14-19

Introduction

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. 

Acts 1:8 

“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. 

Conclusion

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!

Growing in the Knowledge of God

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on November 21st 2018.

Ephesians 1:15-22

General Introduction

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.

Introduction

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 praiseone 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.

Conclusion

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?