"Paul's Prayer for the Church"
(Delivered Sunday, January 28, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
If you're like me, you always find it encouraging whenever you hear that someone is praying for you.
I'm especially encouraged when a wise, mature, Spirit-filled saint, who really knows how to pray, comes up to me and says, “Greg; I want you to know that I'm praying for you.” To know that I'm being prayed for by someone like that makes me very eager to see their prayer answered! And I'm even more encouraged when I find out the specific details of what they are asking God for concerning me.
And what's more, I find such prayers to be motivating. When I learn that a saintly Christian is praying that I become a specific kind of man, or that I begin to take on certain specific characteristics of Christian maturity, or that I begin to do some specific thing that he or she believes God is calling me to do, I am inspired to grow, or behave more like, or to do that thing that they are praying for.
This morning, I'm going to ask that we look at just such a prayer from just such a Christian. In my opinion, the apostle Paul was the greatest Christian who ever lived. He demonstrated a life-commitment to the Savior that was total. He had been given an understanding of the truths of the Christian faith that was deeper and more profound than could be found among any other redeemed human being. He had been given a practical and experiential grasp of our riches in Christ that was beyond parallel. He was a man who was utterly consumed and driven by the love of Christ. And that's what makes his prayer for the church such an important one to consider.
We find this prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21; where we read . . .
I am greatly encouraged by this prayer; particularly when I consider the man who prayed it—and especially when I consider that it was a prayer that was preserved for our edification by the Holy Spirit Himself. It's a prayer that serves as an example to me, as a pastor, of the sorts of things that I should pray for my church family. I believe it should also serve as an example of how we, as individual members of this church family, should pray for one another.
But most of all, I believe this prayer is meant to motivate us. It is meant to impact us with a sense the wonder and value of the spiritual riches that are ours in Christ. It is meant to encourage us to let the truth of those riches sink deeply into our hearts and lives and transform us from the inside-out. It is meant to inspire us to truly 'seize hold' of what is ours in Christ, and live out the implications of those spiritual riches in everyday life.
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So; let's get right into it. The first thing I ask you to notice in this prayer is . . .
1. WHY PAUL PRAYED FOR THE CHURCH (v. 14a).
Paul is telling the believers under his care about the prayer that he prays for them. And he begins by telling them, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father . . .” So, to truly understand this prayer, we need to understand what the reason was that he gives for praying it.
As we look backwards in this letter, we see that Paul started to describe to his readers the things he was praying for them at the beginning of chapter three. He begins, in verse one, by saying, “For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles . . .” But then, he breaks off and begins talking about the sense of wonder he felt over the remarkable privilege that had been given to him—that is, that he should be called by God to “preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8).
Paul, you see, was a good preacher. And as you know, good preachers often get so caught up in the majesty of their subject that they lose track of what it was that they were going to say about it. Paul resumes his place in verse 14, and begins there to tell them there what it was that he was going to tell them in verse 1. But this means that to find out what he was thinking of when he says, “For this reason . . .”, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of his letter.
So; look at how Paul begins his letter. After the formal greeting in the first two verses, Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ . . .” (1:3).
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Let me pause and ask you, dear brother or sister in Christ; do you really believe that remarkable affirmation? Do you really believe that, right now—as a result of your being “in Christ” by faith—you are already blessed with every possible spiritual blessing in the heavenlies? Do you really believe that, in Christ, you already have all the riches of heaven as your possession; and that because of your relationship with Him, there is not a single spiritual thing you will ever need that is lacking from your spiritual treasure-store? Well; it is that very fact—that you, as a believer, have already been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ—that led Paul to pray the prayer that is in our passage this morning.
After Paul says those remarkable words—“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ . . .”—he spends the next two chapters expounding on what those riches are. He talks about how the Father has chosen us to a sure and certain calling—having predestined us for heavenly glory in Christ, and having made us acceptable to Himself through Him. He talks about how we have been redeemed from our sins and washed completely clean by the blood of Jesus; and how we have, by faith in Him, obtained an eternal inheritance that is as sure for us as if it were already in our hands. He talks about how the Holy Spirit is placed in us as a guarantee—sealing us for the day of full redemption. He talks about the greatness of God's power that is at work in us—the very same power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at the right hand of glory; and he talks about how, from God's perspective, we have already been raised from the dead with Christ, and seated at the right hand of glory with Him. He talks about how—right now—we stand positionally before God as those who have been brought near to Him and made partakers of all of His glorious covenant promises. He talks about how we have been given a full citizenship into heaven; and are, right now, being built together as a holy habitation for Christ on earth.
I wish we had time to elaborate on all that Paul has to say in chapters one and two. We simply don't. But I hope that you will take the time on your own, sometime soon, to read about—and relish in—the wonderful spiritual riches that he assures us are already ours in Christ!
I read not long ago about a man who had been a poor beggar for nearly twenty years—standing out in the streets of some major city day after day, panhandling for dimes. A wealthy man came by; and when the beggar asked the man for a dime, the man turned to look intensely at him. The rich man soon realized, to his joy, that the beggar was his long-lost son; and that the wealthy man was his father. They had been separated those many years ago, and the father had been searching for him ever since. And now that he found him, the wealthy man told him that he would not only give him a dime . . . but that, as his son, all the riches of his great wealth were already his!
Spiritually speaking, you and I tend to live like that poor beggar. We're going through life panhandling for the world's meager dimes; when, the whole time long, our heavenly Father is trying to tell us that He has already blessed us with the indescribable wealth of every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ! It is all ours already because of our relationship with Him through His Son Jesus. It was “[f]or this reason” that Paul prayed the prayer he prayed—that the believers to whom he wrote would realize what is already theirs in Christ; and that the truths that he laid out for them in chapters one and two would sink into their hearts and minds so that they would grasp hold of them fully.
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In the light of Paul's purpose in his prayer, then, I'd also like to point out . . .
2. HOW EARNESTLY HE PRAYED (v. 14b).
I think that everything in this passage is important. And so, I think it's significant that Paul says, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father . . .”
Did you know that this is the second prayer that Paul describes in this letter? The first one is found in the first chapter—in verses 15-23. There, Paul simply says that he did not cease making mention of them in his prayers (v. 16). But here, he makes a special point of saying that, in praying these things for his brothers and sisters, he came before the Father for them in a very special and very serious manner. He said that he 'bowed his knees' before the Father in asking these things; and I believe we ought to take Paul seriously when he says that.
The Bible doesn't tell us that there's a particular posture we're to have when we come to God in prayer. We read of many saints praying in many different postures: some were sitting, some were standing, some were laying down, some were walking. There's even one saint in the Bible that I'm sure you've heard of, who prayed while in the belly of a great fish (whatever posture that might require)! There is no requirement that we pray on our knees. But to kneel before God—to 'bow the knee' to Him—suggests several things. It suggests reverent worship and awe. It suggests a humility of spirit before the sovereignty and majesty of God. It also suggests a deep seriousness and earnestness on the part of the one offering the request.
I think that the fact that Paul says he came to God for his brothers and sisters, 'bowing the knee' before Him, suggests how serious and strategic his prayer for them was. He longed for them to truly grab hold of their riches in Christ, and to let the truths about them sink into their hearts and become a part of their very being. He wanted them to live transformed lives because these things were true of them—and because they knew it!
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I need to tell you; I myself feel the urgency of that. So often in our times together, we explore the wonderful riches that are ours in Christ. We consider together what the Bible tells us about them. And it tells us these things so that we would rise up and live victorious and fruitful lives because of them; as lights shining in a dark world (Phil. 2:15). But it's a terrible thing to hear these things expounded from the word of God; and then, walk away and forget them as soon as we go about our daily lives—resuming our faithless habit of begging for the world's dimes like a poor panhandler! What a loss that would be!
The truths that Paul teaches us in this little letter are so precious and life-transforming, that they are worth getting down on our knees before God—in great earnestness and seriousness—and asking that we be enabled to really grab hold of them. As a pastor, I ought to be on my knees asking that our church truly grasp hold of these things. As believers together, we should be on our knees praying for each other, that we would be a church full of people who are characterized by these things. And above all else, we should be impressed by by how important—how strategic—these things are to living the kind of lives God wants us to live; and that we would long to have them active and alive in us.
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Now, as I said, every word Paul speaks in passage is important and has a purpose. And so, be sure that you notice . . .
3. TO WHOM IT WAS THAT HE PRAYED (vv. 14c-15).
He said, “. . . I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named . . .” (though some translations do not have the words “of our Lord Jesus Christ”). Here, he says that he asks these things of One who is “the Father”; and that “the whole family in heaven and earth” is “named” from Him.
By speaking in this way, Paul highlights God's grace. As Paul says in 1:4-5, the Father is the One who has “chosen us” in Christ “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will . . .” Think of that! One of the great spiritual blessings that is ours is the privilege we have in Christ of calling God “Father”, as His adopted sons and daughters. And it's not just 'a name'! We have truly been brought into all the privileges and rights that pertain to those who are His children. We are joint-heirs together with His Son Jesus Christ of His own glorious wealth; all of which He freely and gladly gives us as His beloved children.
And what's more, we are a part of a vast “family” that draws its name from Him. We have many brothers and sisters in Christ who are on earth right now—scattered throughout various parts of the world; living in many different cultures and speaking many different languages—but all-together one in Christ. And there are very, very many of our brothers and sisters who have already gone before us into heavenly glory—some who have lived centuries before us; and who have since gone into the presence of Christ—and who are beholding the glories of His riches firsthand even as we speak! We are where they once were; and they are where we will soon be. And we are one family with them also. As Paul goes on later to say, there is “one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (4:6).
I believe Paul tells us this to assure us that, when he offers up a prayer that we will be enabled to truly grab hold of our riches in Christ—and that, when he offers this prayer earnestly, on bended knee to the Father “from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named”—he is offering a prayer that the Father has an equally earnest and vested interest in answering toward all who are His children!
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So then; let's now consider . . .
4. THE SPECIFIC THINGS THAT HE PRAYED FOR (vv. 16-19).
I see, mainly, four things that Paul asks for. And I see them presented in such a way that one builds upon another. All-together, they constitute the things that Paul prays will be true of his brothers and sisters, so that they will live in the wealth of their spiritual riches in Christ.
First, Paul prayed . . .
a. That they be strengthened in the inner man (v. 16).
He says that he prays to the Father for them “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man . . .”
One of the glorious truths that the Bible teaches us is that, when someone becomes a believer in Jesus Christ and is saved by Him, the Father sends the Holy Spirit—the third divine Person of the triune Godhead—to dwell in them. As Paul says, we are “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession . . .” (Eph. 1:13-14). He not only dwells “with” us, but also “in” us (John 14:17). And here, Paul prays that the resident Holy Spirit would do His work in the inner person of that believer—that he or she would be strengthened through the Holy Spirit with respect to his or her will, conscience, and mind—the “inner man”; from which so much of a person's life flows.
And notice the details. Paul doesn't just pray that they will be strengthened; but prays for it emphatically—that they will be, literally “with might strengthened”. He prays that they will be made sufficiently, marvelously powerful in their inner life for whatever the circumstances may demand of them. And he prays that this will happen in such a way that every need with respect to the inner man in those circumstances will be met in unlimited abundance; because He prays that the Father would grant this strength “according to the riches of His glory . . .”
What is your inner need in your circumstances of life? How great is that inner need? The Holy Spirit can strengthen your inner man for those circumstances, no matter how great the need may be. Do you need love for someone that you can't, in your own power, love? Do you need a joy that lifts you out of the sorrow of your circumstances? Do you need peace that calms your heart in the midst of the storms of life? Do you need patience and kindness and goodness toward others? Do you need faithfulness when your heart longs to wander, meekness when your heart is proud, self-control when you are tempted to sin? God has placed His Holy Spirit in you to empower you to live a Christ-like life from the inner man.
The Holy Spirit is ever available, and more than able to exhibit His fruit in you—giving you an unlimited supply of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23) for every need. And He is able to strengthen you with these things according to the very riches of the Father's own glory!
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So; Paul prays that the inner man of his dear brothers and sisters would be strengthened in this way by the indwelling Holy Spirit. And this is in order to enable them for another crucial thing he asks . . .
b. That they experience the indwelling of Christ (v. 17a).
He goes on to tell them that he prays “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . .”
Now; Christ already dwells with a believer by virtue of the Holy Spirit who has been placed in them. The Spirit “mediates” the presence of Christ to them in such a way that Jesus could say, “Lo, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus Christ Himself never leaves us or forsakes us (Hebrews 13:5).
But here, Paul is talking about something more. The word that Paul uses—here translated “dwell”—is is one that means “to take up permanent residence”. Paul is praying that Christ will not only be “in” their hearts, but dwell in their hearts in such a way as to be permanently and completely at home in every area.
When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, it's as if we invite Him to come and make our hearts His home. But in a very real sense, He is not yet “at home” there until He takes full possession of every area. He takes us on a tour of our hearts, as it were, takes a look at a room that is behind a locked door, and says, “Child, I would like to go into this room. Would you please hand Me the key?” We might be very unwilling to do so. We might be afraid to let Him in that room because of what we keep in it. “No, Lord. I keep that room locked for a reason. There are things in there that it would not be appropriate for You to see. I have some favorite sins and habits I keep in there. I'd rather You not go in there.” For Jesus to dwell in our hearts by faith would require that we give Him the key to that room. It would be as if He says, “Child, your heart is now My home; and I must make Myself at home everywhere—even in this locked room. Give Me the key; and let's clean out this room of the things that don't belong in your life, so that I can truly be at home in every area of your heart.”
Later on, He takes us to a closet, sniffs, and says, “Child, there's something smelly in this closet. Open the door to Me and let Me have a look inside.” And we say, “No, Lord! Not that closet; because that's where I've been keeping the resentment and bitterness that I've been holding onto against someone. It's been in there for years. You can have access to everywhere else; but let's just leave that closet alone. Believe me; You don't want to open that closet.” But He says, “Child; if I can't go into this closet, then I'm not really at home in your heart. Open the door; and let's go in and clean those awful, putrid things out so I can truly be at home in your heart.”
Later on still, He says, “Let's go have a look in the basement.” You were afraid He might say that. “Oh, Lord” you say; “Please, no! Let's not go into the basement. I have some things in my past that I'm deeply afraid of down there—horrible things that I try to forget. It's dark down there; and those old things are very frightening and very ugly. I'd rather keep them there, under lock and key, so they won't ever be free to bother me. Let's just stay on the upper levels where it's well lit and happy.” But the Lord says, “Child; if I can't have full access to the basement—and you with Me when I go there—then I'm not really at home in your heart. Take My hand. Let's go down there, turn on the lights, and conquer those things together.”
And later on still, He says, “I would like to have a look at the attic now.” And once again, you groan. “Oh no, no, no, Lord! A thousand times no! Not up there! That's where I keep my thought life; and I sure don't want you to see what goes on up there! That's where I go to think about things I don't want You to see!” And, once again, He says, “Child, if I don't have the attic, them I'm not really at home in your heart. Open the door to Me. Let's go up the stairs together, and clean out what's in your mind. Let Me be the Lord of your thought-life; and then I can be truly at home in every area of your heart.”
So then; Paul prays for us that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith—truly dwell there! He prays that the Lord may gain access to every room in the house; so that He can truly make Himself at home. And you can see now why Paul says that he prays that we would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit in the inner man! We would need all of the strength that the Spirit provides in order for Jesus to make Himself at home in every area of our hearts!
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But the more Christ is at home in our hearts, the more His love will permeate His home. That leads us, then, to a third thing that Paul prays for concerning his brothers and sisters in Christ . . .
c. That they comprehend the love of Christ (vv. 17b-19a).
Paul says he prays “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge . . .”
First, Paul's prayer assumes that we are “rooted and grounded in love”. This is a mix of metaphors; “rooted” being a word that speaks of agriculture, and “grounded” being a word that speaks of architecture. But together, they convey the idea of being fixed and established in love in such a way that we sink our roots down deep and draw up nourishment from it.
This aspect of Paul's prayer reminds us that every spiritual blessing we enjoy has been a product of love. We are chosen by the Father for eternal glory “in love” (1:4). We have been raised out of death together with Christ “because of His great love with which He loved us” (2:4). Jesus loved the church and gave Himself for her (5:25). “In this is love,” John writes, “not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). So; our experience of comprehending Christ's love assumes that we are first rooted and grounded in that love—which, by grace, we are.
Second, Paul's prayer assumes that we grow to comprehend that love together with each other. He prays that we may be able to comprehend it “with all the saints”. God never means for me to fully grasp the love of Christ as a free-agent, somehow apart from you; and He never means for you to grasp His love as a free-agent, somehow apart from me. And what's more, He never means for you and me to grasp that love somehow apart from our other brothers and sisters in Christ. As Jesus has taught us, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).
And third, Paul's prayer assumes that we will grow to comprehend that which—humanly speaking—is incomprehensible; that we would “know the love of Christ which passes knowledge.”
When we consider how vast His love is, in all its dimensions, it's no wonder that Paul prays that we would comprehend the incomprehensible! Jesus' love for us is as broad as all of humanity—both Jew and Gentile; because it “preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17). It is as long as long as eternity, because it chose to redeem the objects of this love from “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4); and will gather them to Himself “in the dispensation of the fullness of times” (v. 10); and will display them as trophies of His love throughout “the ages to come” (2:7). It is as deep as the lowest hell, because it reached down to us “who were dead in trespasses and sins” (2:1); and it is as high as the highest heaven, because it raised us up, and “made us to sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6).
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Truly, the love of Jesus Christ that God's people are called upon to know is a love that surpasses human knowledge. But the more of it they know, the more they are transformed by it! That leads us to a final thing Paul prays . . .
d. That they be filled with all the fullness of God (v. 19b).
Paul says that he prays we would be strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ would dwell in our hearts by faith, so that we would grow to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; and all this, as he says, “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Paul doesn't pray that we might be filled full with God. Rather, he prays something remarkable; that we would be filled with all the fullness of God! But how can we—little creatures that we are—be filled with all the fullness of Someone that the universe itself could not contain? It can only happen as Jesus Christ makes Himself completely at home in our hearts and causes us to comprehend the fullness of His love for us.
In his letter to the Colossian believers, Paul speaks of Jesus Christ and says, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Later, he writes, “For in Him [that is, in Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (Colossians 2:9-10). To the degree that Jesus occupies every portion of your and my life, to that degree we are filled with all the fullness of God; because all the fullness is found in Him. As Paul elsewhere writes, “Christ is all and in all” (3:11).
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; these are tremendous things to ask! But these are the things that Paul asked for the believers he loved and cared about: (1) that they would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit in the inner man; so that (2) Christ may dwell in their hearts; so that (3) they may comprehend the incomprehensible love of Christ; so that (4) they may be filled with all the fullness of God! Paul prayed these things because he wanted his dear brothers and sisters to seize hold of all their spiritual riches in Christ; and so, he prayed on bended knee and asked these things of the Father, “from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named”.
And I want to close with . . .
5. THE CONFIDENCE HE HAD IN GOD'S ANSWER (vv. 20-21).
He says, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
First, Paul had confidence because of God's ability. These are things that no one but God could accomplish; but they ARE things that God CAN wonderfully accomplish in us! Note how Paul tells us that God is not only able to do what we ask; He is not only able to do what we ask or even think; He is not only able to do above all that we ask or think; He is not only able to do abundantly above all that we ask or think; but He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think! You and I. clearly, are not too big a project for such a God as our Father!
And second, Paul had confidence because of our Father's purpose. In all of these great things that He is able to do for us, it is His own glory that is advanced. The Father chooses us “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (1:6); the Son redeems us “that we who first trusted Christ should be to the praise of His glory” (1:12); and the Spirit seals us “to the praise of His glory” (1:14). It will all resound to the Father's glory; so that throughout eternity—as a result of His salvation—it will be us that will sing, “To Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
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Dear brothers and sisters; let's allow this wonderful prayer of the apostle Paul be the prayer we pray for one another and for our church. And by it, let's be inspired to seize hold, fully, of the blessing God has given us—“every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ!”
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