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Learning to Pray with Paul

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Ephesians 1:15-23

 

What prompts prayer for you?

This is the last week in a short series on prayer. We’ve spent two weeks learning to pray from Jesus – reflecting on his prayer for us in John 17, and then the model prayer he gives to us, what we call ‘the Lord’s prayer’.

Today in this last talk, we’re learning to pray with the Apostle Paul. We’re reflecting particularly on that passage from Ephesians 1 that was read out for us, where Paul tells the Ephesians what he’s been asking God to do for them. And as with the prayers of Jesus, we’re reflecting on how that should shape our own prayer life.

And as we approach this passage and consider what we learn from it about prayer, I think a helpful question to ask ourselves is what normally prompts prayer for us? What leads us to talk to God and ask him to act? And what are we actually asking for? Because those things are often related aren’t they?

 

Often, really most of the time I think, what prompts us to pray is our material circumstances and our desire for them to be different – to be better.

Things are happening to us, like sickness or relational breakdown, and we want relief from them, and so we bring these concerns to God – we ask for him to act, to help. Maybe there’s an opportunity for things to change for the better, and so we ask God to provide. A new job, a marriage partner, a promotion, to get into the course we want…

Or things are happening in the world around us – viruses are spreading out of control, economies are crumbling, governments are acting unjustly or unwisely. And we pray, rightly, that God would intervene and bring health, prosperity and justice.

On Thursday morning, before I got to work on this sermon, I was working through emails and at the top of the daily news summary email from NY times was an account of how the 2nd wave of coronavirus in India is just spiralling out of control. There were nearly 300,000 new cases on Wednesday alone, and the cases have kept increasing since then… The situation is bad, and it’s hard to imagine it getting better quickly. As I read over the short summary of the situation I began to pray – God, please bring relief. Please bring the spread under control. Please turn this around.

 

Now this is a good thing to do right? We want to react to tragedy and difficulties and issues of all sorts, by bringing them to God in prayer. God tells us to bring all our concerns before him – whether they’re personal or global.

But the issue is if we are only ever really responding to our circumstances or world events and praying formaterial blessing in the face of material problems.

There’s a problem if we’re letting the events of our lives and the world around us completely set the agenda for what we pray about. There’s a problem if our desire for better material circumstances fills our vision for what to pray about. And as good and right as it is to pray for what’s happening in India and the practical needs of people, if that’s all that prompts us to pray, there’s a problem. We’re missing out.

You see, there’s more to be had. There’s something bigger and better that can and should be driving our prayer life and prompting us to pray. What we really want is to let God’s vision for us as his people, for this world, to set the agenda for our prayers and to prompt us to pray.

We want to proactively pray for God to act in people’s lives according to his good plans and purposes. And ultimately, that means praying for people to experience a transforming personal knowledge of the God who has made them, loves them, saved them and rules over them. What we really want is for the gospel to prompt us to pray.

 

Giving thanks…

It’s this kind of focus and drive in prayer that we see very clearly in Paul’s example of prayer here in Ephesians, and we’ll dive into the detail in a moment. But where it starts is with giving thanks. What Paul gives thanks for when he thinks of the Ephesian Christians is connected with what he thinks is really important in life, and so it’s directly connected with what he goes on to ask God for.

From verse 15, we read: ‘For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.’

 

What does Paul give thanks for? What prompts him to express gratitude to God? Hearing about other people put their faith in Jesus and express love for all God’s people. This is a simple way of describing the Christian life – faith in Christ, and that faith working itself out in love for others. Word comes to Paul that these communities have heard the gospel and put their faith in Christ, and have then begun to live out that faith by loving all God’s people – not just the other people who are like them, or the ones that are easy to love, but allGod’s people as their brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

What prompts you to give thanks? To express gratitude to God? Sunshine on your face? A beautiful day at the beach? A quiet afternoon with coffee and a good book? Your kids getting a merit award at school? A good meal out with family and friends? A new job; a holiday; finishing renovations on your house?

It is, isn’t it? Because these are the things that fill our social media feeds – that make us happy. And hopefully we are thanking God for these things!

Now I’m sure the Apostle Paul was thankful for all the material blessings he experienced – although he spent a fair chunk of his life in not-so-great material circumstances. My point is not that we shouldn’t be thankful for these things, or that we shouldn’t enjoy them or even want them. It’s that there is something more precious, something greater that should prompt joy and thanksgiving. We want to be people who notice faith and love. We want to be on the lookout for it, ready to praise God and give thanks for it, because we care about it. We want to see more faith in Jesus and love for his people.

 

When I was on holidays after Easter at the beach, I was on the lookout for good weather. For sunshine and decent surf to swim in. My head was in that space. It’s what I cared about. I’d wake up, go for a short walk to the beach and either grumble about the weather or thank God for a beautiful day ahead of us.

We want to be on the lookout for faith and love. We want to react, naturally, with gladness and thanksgiving when we hear of it and see it in others. When we think of others and consider what we are thankful for, first and foremost, it should be evidence of their trust in Jesus and the various ways we can see them expressing that faith by loving others around them.

Why? Because we’re seeing people brought from death to life! We’re seeing the evidence of God’s powerful work of redemption – setting things to rights, drawing people into his kingdom of peace. We’re seeing people embrace the very purpose of their lives – the path that will bring them joy and peace in a way that nothing else will. We want that for people in our lives, don’t we?

Give thanks for promotions and good results and good friends. But even more, learn to notice and care about and give thanks for faith and love.

 

And of course, this is only really going to happen if God’s mission, if the good news of Jesus, has captured our hearts and imagination. We give thanks for what we care about.

So, we’re going to explore more now what Paul actually prays for, but just before we do, it’s worth you pausing and asking yourself – what do I give thanks for? Do I ever give thanks for the faith and love of others? Do I even notice it? Because if we don’t, that’s probably an indicator that there’s an issue. We don’t value enough what God really values, and we probably need to start by exploring that and bringing that issue itself before God. Learning to pray with Paul begins with learning to give thanks for God bringing people to faith and teaching them to love.

 

Praying for…

So, what then does he go on to actually pray about? Paul explains, as he’s regularly remembering and giving thanks to God for the Ephesians, he keeps “asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”

 

To know God better

The big idea is there in verse 17 – the first line. He’s praying that God would ultimately enable them to know him better through the working of his own Spirit of wisdom and revelation in their midst.

They have the Holy Spirit already – God has given them his indwelling Spirit when they become Christians. They have heard and understood the gospel – the revelation of God’s wisdom and salvation in Christ. They’ve responded with faith to this message and been sealed with the Holy Spirit as a foretaste and guarantee of what is to come. We see all that in verses 13 and 14, just this passage.

Paul’s praying, because they have the Spirit, because they are included in Christ and share in all his spiritual blessings, therefore, for this reason, may God’s Spirit grant them wisdom and revelation to know the fullness of what they have in God through Jesus Christ – to be gripped and transformed by it. Paul’s praying that they might understand more fully the God they have been brought back into relationship with and what this relationship means for them.

 

A deepening experience, not a different reality

Now, two things to note here. Firstly, the whole premise of this prayer is that there is something important we should all experience as Christians, but that it’s possible to not experience it. Paul prays that the Ephesians would experience God’s Spirit bringing wisdom and revelation so that they end up knowing God better and, as the rest of the letter makes clear, having their lives transformed as a result. Paul wants this for everyone and so he prays – he asks God to act – so that these people might experience it. He doesn’t want them to miss out. It’s possible to be Christian – to have God’s Spirit living in you – and yet to be stagnant and not grow deeper in knowledge of God. It involves deliberate activity on our part, as well as God’s active work in our lives. We don’t want to miss out. We don’t want others to miss out. So we pray for it to happen!

But secondly, we’re not looking for and praying for a new spiritual experience that’s distinct from what it means to become a Christian in the first place. Some people talk about a second, distinct experience of being ‘baptised in the Spirit’ so that you can really know God’s power and love in your life. That’s not what Paul is talking about or praying for. This is about an ever-deepening grasp of what we have and who we are in Christ, as the Spirit of God helps us understand and be transformed by what he has revealed to us in the gospel.

 

So that you might know…

This becomes clearer when we realise that the rest of Paul’s prayer is really just filling out what he means by this big idea. The prayer to know God better through the experience of God’s Spirit of wisdom and revelation is filled out by the ideas to follow – it means to know more deeply the hope we have in Christ, the riches of God’s inheritance in the saints, and the power of God for us who believe.

To know God better, through the revealing power of God’s Spirit, is, as Paul goes on to explain, to have ‘the eyes of your heart enlightened’ to grasp the truths of the gospel…

So let’s unpack these three things that Paul prays the Ephesians might know, through the Spirit opening the eyes of their heart.

 

Know what you have in Christ

So, firstly, Paul is praying that they will ‘know the hope to which he, God, has called you.’

Now this doesn’t mean being a hopeful person. It’s not about being a ‘person of faith’ or someone who’s always looking on the bright side. It’s about knowing and appreciating the objective hope of the gospel – what God has promised us in Christ.

This is not like someone saying, “I hope I get to travel the world one day.” It’s someone who has been invited by a wealthy relative to travel the world with them, and so they pour over the travel brochures and google all the places they are going to visit – filling their minds and hearts with visions of what they will experience.

God has called us to a particular hope, and it’s a done deal in Christ. We want to know that hope.

 

It’s what Paul has just been praising God for in the opening paragraphs of his letter, in verses 3-11. In Christ, we have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. In Jesus, we are destined for holiness and perfection. We’ve been chosen and adopted as God’s children. We have redemption from sin and death, forgiveness and mercy. We are looking forward to everything being brought back into harmony and unity under the good and loving Lordship of Jesus.

We could go on and keep filling up the picture with the rest of the letter – with the whole rest of the New Testament!

In a sense, what Paul’s praying for, what we should be praying for, is that we might know God’s word deeply and be affected by it. That we would grasp the fullness of what God reveals to us in the Bible about what he’s done for us in Christ, and therefore, what’s in store for us in Christ. The wisdom and revelation that God’s Spirit grants us is grounded in the wisdom and revelation of the Scriptures. Paul’s praying that we’ll grasp – better, we’ll be gripped ourselves by the hope promised in the gospel, as we understand more and more what God has called us to in Christ. And as we do, as we are gripped by it, we would know and wonder more and more at the God who has done all this and promised all this for us.

 

Know what God has in you

So the first thing is that we’d know what we have in Christ. The second thing, is related, but kind of the opposite. It’s that we’d know what God has in us. Know what God has in you.

Paul explains, he prays that the Spirit would enable us to ‘know… the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.’

Notice it’s God’s glorious inheritance in us? We expect Paul to say, the riches of our glorious inheritance for his holy people. We assume it’s some kind of restatement of the first idea – knowing the glorious hope of heaven – our inheritance in Christ.

And it is kind of that, but also not. It’s not just about what’s coming to us, it’s about who we are and what that means to God. Paul wants the Ephesians, he wants us, to grasp the supreme value God places on us as his redeemed people.

 

Psychologists will say that one of the most important things for a person’s wellbeing is to know they are loved. One of the best things a parent can do for a child is simply to delight in them – not spoil them, not worship them, but delight in them. To know you are valued and cherished is literally life transforming.

At the very heart of Christian faith, at the heart of the gospel, is understanding just how much God loves you. To know God is to know his love for you in Christ.

At the end of Chapter 3, after Paul has dived deep into the theology of what God has done for us in Jesus and his purposes for us as the church, he returns to pray for the Ephesians in a very similar way to this prayer here in chapter 1. You’ll know it, I’m sure. Paul prays that “out of his glorious riches may [God] strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 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, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

What will fill us with the fullness of God, what will be a life transforming experience, is knowing the enormity of the love of God for us in Christ – knowing the love that surpasses knowledge. When we have even a tiny inkling of how precious we are in God’s eyes, how hard he has fought to bring us back to him, how much he has paid to secure our redemption, how God beams with delight in us as the fruit of his glory and grace… when we have even a tiny glimpse of this, we begin to know God as he truly is, and it changes us.

You want to change someone’s life for the better? You want to see you own life transformed? Don’t start by praying that they would be a better person or a more loving or wise person. Pray that they would know how much God loves them. Pray that they would grasp the value God places on his people – how much he delights in and treasures those he has redeemed in Jesus.

 

Know the Power of God at work in you

So Paul prays the Ephesian Christians would know God better as God’s Spirit opens the eyes of their heart to know just what they have in Christ, and also to grasp what God has in them. And then finally, he explains, he keeps praying that they might know God’s ‘incomparably great power for us who believe.’

We need to know God’s good plans for us. We need to know his love for us and how much he values what he has in us. But we also need to know how capable God is of making it all happen. To know God and grow in spiritual maturity, we need to appreciate just what kind of power is present and at work in us as we seek to know and follow Christ.

 

I often take the kids over to Chatswood oval to run around and get their noisy energy out in the afternoon. One of the things they like to do (other than cartwheels!) is to simply race from one end of the oval to the other. As you can imagine, George and Grace are a fair bit faster than Benji. Now, he’s a very speedy four-year-old, make no mistake. But truth is, he’s easily outrun by George and Grace, who are around double his age.

Except that Benji has a secret weapon called turbo-booster. That’s where he starts running, but then I pick him up under his arms and run as fast as I can while he flies through the air with his arms and legs pumping, looking a little like sonic the hedgehog or roadrunner. He looks very pleased with himself as he zooms past George and Grace…

Benji feels like he has incomparably great power at his disposal and all he has to do is yell ‘turbo-booster!’. The truth is of course, that I’m about to collapse after 30 meters of turbo-booster, and am doing my best to beat the other kids whilst carrying one of them. It’s not going to happen for much longer…

But for those of us who believe in Christ, there really is utterly incomparable power available and at work in us and for our good. Power that can and will lift us up to soar over any obstacle that stands in the way of what God promises us – even death itself. As Paul goes on to explain, this incomparably great power towards us is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.’

The incredible power of God that pulled Jesus back out of the grave, that pushed through death, that transformed his beaten and lifeless body into a glorious, immortal, life-giving body… that same mighty strength that exalted Jesus to rule above all other powers, names, authorities in all reality – spiritual and physical – into eternity… this same power is at work in you and for you. We just need to realise it.

That same power will resurrect and transform your body to share in the glory of Jesus for all eternity. The goal is guaranteed. There is no obstacle that could possibly derail the plan. God’s mighty power will accomplish what he has promised.

 

And, the thing is, this power is at work in you even now. Even as we live in this age of ‘now, but not yet’ – as we experience God’s kingdom and salvation by faith, and not by sight, we need to grasp the enormity of God’s power for us and in us. God has called us. He has begun a good work in us. He is working out our salvation in us. He is the one who will hold on to us and bring us to completion.

There is nothing we need to fear between where we stand now and standing before God in his glorious kingdom. There are warnings to take seriously. There are dangers. But there is nothing to fear. Nothing that compares to the power of God for us.

You can do it. Not because you’ve got it in you. Not because you can do anything if you believe in yourself. But because of his incomparably great power for us who believe.

When we grasp this; as we appreciate it and know it and rely on it, more and more, then we’re getting to know God better and better, and it changes us.

 

Paul returns to this theme at the end of that other prayer in Chapter 3. After praying that we might have power to grasp the depth of God’s love for us, Paul finishes with words that I’m sure many of us will know – “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

The truth is that many of us, myself included, have way too small a view of what God can do in our lives. The path to spiritual maturity – to fullness in Christ – involves grasping that God can not only do what we ask, but immeasurably more than we can even imagine. And it’s according to the power that is at work within us.

If we want to pray for someone’s good, if we want to make a difference in their lives, we will be praying that they might know and appreciate to some small degree the absolutely incomparably great power of God that is at work in us to bring his good plans to fulfilment.

 

Gospel Driven Prayers

So what prompts you to pray? What fills your vision as you pray for yourself and the people around you – the world around you?

Hopefully as you see people in need, as you see tragedy and injustice unfolding, you bring these things to God in prayer. Hopefully you ask him for what you need, and the challenges and responsibilities before you.

But don’t stop there. Don’t let that be the whole picture.

Look for faith and love. Give thanks for it when you see it. Look for ever deepening, life transforming, personal knowledge of God.

Learn to fuel and fill your prayers with the gospel. Pray for yourself, pray for people around you – pray for people you’ve never even met! – to know God better through knowing the hope we have in Christ, the supreme value God places on his people, and the incomparably great power of God at work for us who believe.