Friday, March 9, 2018

God's Secret Plan: File #7

In the first two chapters of Ephesians, Paul had painted a picture of the plan of God, especially for the church. He was trying to show the people at Ephesus just what it was that they had become a part of as Christians. Chapter 2 ends with a vision of the church as a great building, a temple for Christ. In 3:1, Paul seems about to continue this theme, but he stops for a parenthetical section about his own ministry (verse 2-13). At verse 14 he picks up the thread: “For this cause I bow my knees...” Because of Paul's vision of the church--because of what the church was and must be--Paul offered this prayer (3:14-21) on its behalf. This was a personal prayer, specifically for the people at Ephesus. No doubt Paul prayed like this for all the churches and the prayer is still applicable for us today, but in context this is specifically Paul's prayer for the people to whom he wrote.

The first thing to notice about this prayer is the one to whom it is offered: “The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 14) Paul used this same basic formula back in Ephesians 1:17. In fact, that passage (Ephesians 1:16-23) is similar in many ways to this, both being prayers of Paul for the church and both dealing with similar matters. Verse 15 adds: “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” There is a great deal of debate about what this means and even how it should be translated and whether it is referring to Jesus or the Father. I give you Clarke's interpretation: “Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ on earth, the spirits of just men made perfect in a separate state, and all the holy angels in heaven, make but one family, of which God is the Father and Head... [A]ll this family is named--derives its origin and being, from God, as children derive their name from him who is the father of the family: holy persons in heaven and earth derive their being and their holiness from God, and therefore his name is called upon them.” (Clarke, Ephesians 3:15)

Verses 14-15 are the introductory part of the prayer and tell to whom Paul prayed. In verse 16, Paul begins the actual prayer with the words: “That [God] would grant you...” In other words, this is a prayer in which Paul was asking for something; it is a petitionary prayer. But before we go on to look at what it was he was praying for, we should note another phrase in verse 16 which gives the basis for his prayer--why it was that he was certain the prayer could be answered. “According to the riches of his glory.” (Once again, we have this phrase “riches of...”) In the glory of God's existence, there is wealth and abundance enough to answer any need we have and so need have no fear in coming to God on that score.

There are five clauses in this prayer, five things for which Paul prays. (The identification of these clauses comes from Robertson, Ephesians 3:16-19)

(1) Paul prays “that [God] would grant you... to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.” (v. 16) Paul had spoken at the end of chapter 2 of the greatness of the church, picturing it as a vast temple being built. But Paul realized that any great project is difficult. Anyone who has ever been involved in a building project realizes how hard it is, how many difficulties arise, how complicated it may be aside from being just plain hard work. Besides that, with any great project, there are probably going to be enemies, those who try to prevent its completion. As we saw earlier, Paul was very personally aware of how some tried to prevent the work of the gospel. Nehemiah's account of building the walls of Jerusalem vividly shows these two things--the hard work of the project and the danger of enemies who oppose it--in the image of the men working with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other. Because we are sitting with Christ we must be willing to walk with Christ and stand for Christ, and for either of those things you need strength, which is why Paul prays that God would strengthen the souls of those to whom he wrote, that God would, by His Spirit (who accomplishes all things for God), fill their souls with His strength.

(2) Paul prays: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” (v. 17)  At the center of Christianity is the idea of Christ dwelling in the believer. Christianity is a system of philosophy, but it is not merely a set of propositions, even true ones. Christianity is a system of morality, but it is more than a series of rules, even good ones. Christianity is a matter of history, but it goes beyond a mere set of accurate historical facts. Christianity means that God Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ lives personally in the very heart and life of a believer, through the medium of the Holy Spirit and through faith. A Christian is not one who admires Christ or studies Christ or talks about Christ--a Christian is one in whom Christ dwells and who, because of that indwelling, is being made like Christ. Just as a temple is the dwelling place of a god, so the church, that is, Christian believers, are individually and collectively a temple in which Christ dwells. Robertson says that the word translated dwell means “to make one's home, to be at home.” (Ephesians 3:17) Christ is not to be a visitor or even a guest in our lives, but to make our lives His home.

(3-4) The third and fourth petitions are connected together, both being petitions for knowledge, a knowledge built on a common foundation, “being rooted and grounded in love.” Both of these words (rooted and grounded) imply stability, like a tree which has a deep root system and a building which has a strong foundation. But it is not enough for a tree to put down its roots. A building must have a foundation, but a building is not complete just because it has a foundation. That was why he wanted them both to “to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height” as well as “to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.” (v. 17-19) Paul wanted the Ephesians to be able, to be strengthened in order to know the fullness of God's work and His love, even though the full extent of His love is beyond all knowledge. Paul prayed that they would not be content with what they knew of God, but keep pressing on to a greater understanding and experience of God.

Note that this experience is the experience of all the church. “With all saints.” All Christians have an experience of God. This is one of the things which links the church together--the fact that they are united in a common experience of one God. The church can be united because everyone in it is worshipping and coming to know the same God.

(5) “That ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” This repeats the idea stated before that Christ would dwell in our hearts. Colossians 1:19 tells us that the fullness of God dwelt in Christ. If Jesus is living in us, then the fullness of God is also. This is the ultimate goal of God's work, to fill mankind with the fullness of God. Olin Curtis explained that God did not create man because He needed mankind for some reason but because “out of the eternal fullness of a satisfied love, God wanted [men] to bring their little cups of finite possibility and fill them with everlasting joy out of his shoreless ocean.” (The Christian Faith, Chapter 36) To be filled with the fullness of God is the thing for which we were created, for which Christ died, for which all things in our life exist.

This ends the petitionary portion of the prayer. Realizing the greatness of the privileges of the church, Paul pays that his readers may be strong and take hold of their promises, may live up to their privileges. Paul no doubt intended to encourage his readers by this prayer. But it would be all too easy to be discouraged by it. It would be easy to doubt and despair when we realize just how great and high are the things God has appointed for us. That is why the final two verses of the prayer are important. They remind us that we, as the church, are not operating in our own strength. This prayer can be answered because of the one to whom it is offered. The prayer for the church can be answered because of who the God of the Church is.

Paul's closing doxology: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” (20-21)

In order to express the greatness of God's power, Paul says that he is able to do exceeding abundantly above all we ask or think. Adam Clarke says this could be translated, "superabundantly above the greatest abundance." In other words, think of the greatest thing you believe God can do, multiply it by ten, and God can still far greater things even than that. The highest we can imagine is still far below the actual extent of God's power. In Paul's prayer in Chapter 1, he made a point of showing how great God's power is by speaking of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. That is an amazing display of God's power, to take a tattered, lifeless corpse and restore it to a new and glorious life--and yet that still not the limit of God's power; He can still do things far greater than that. And that is the power that worketh in us. As Christians, the Ephesians had already known some measure of God's power at work in their hearts. But that same power, the power of God was able to do far more than that.

Paul asks finally that God should be glorified in his church “through all ages, world without end.” Or, as Barnes translates it, “unto all the generations of the eternity of eternities.” Again, this is an echo of Chapter 1, where Paul says that one of the goals of God's plan was that we, as His people, would reflect His glory--both by showing His power and His character to the world. Paul extends that principle here, saying that the church should, will continue bringing glory to Jesus throughout all eternity. The church exists only to glorify God and she can never stop until she has fully succeeded in her task, which is why the church will exist for all eternity, for eternity itself will not be long enough to complete the task of fully glorifying God.