Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Prayers of Paul in Ephesians (Part 1)

One of the first books I read upon becoming a Christian was Sit, Walk, Stand by Watchman Nee. The book is a short commentary on the book of Ephesians. In fact, its title -- "Sit, Walk, Stand" -- is itself a short commentary on the book of Ephesians. Contrary to what is often the common assumption about Ephesians, the letter is not a manual on the husband and wife relationship, which is discussed in brief in chapter six. The title of Nee's book reflects the three primary themes of the letter:
  • But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-6)
  • I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Eph. 4:1)
  • Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (Eph. 6:11)
My focus here isn't to present a study or provide an overview of Ephesians, but to look at two key passages that often tend to be overlooked, but which I think are key aspects in the entire New Testament: the prayers of Paul for believers in Ephesis, found in chapters one and three.

To provide some context to Paul's prayers:

Paul tells us what the focus of his letter is, right at the top of chapter one:
  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. (Eph. 1:3)
This is the main topic of the book: The spiritual blessings we as believers have by virtue of being "in Christ." (This positional theme is covered in chapters one-through-three; our walk as Christians, covered in chapters four and five, flow out of our position in Christ; and our ability to stand, discussed in chapter six, is also dependent upon our position in Christ.)

Who we are and what we have in Christ is a topic which, frankly, is the focus of much of the New Testament. Peter opens his second epistle with the identical focus:
  • May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
    His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.

The blessings of grace and peace, multipled to us, are dependent upon our knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ: essentially, our knowledge, or knowing, who we are and what we have by virtue of being "in Christ." More on this "knowledge" later.

So, the riches and recources of Christ, experienced by the believer by virtue of one's union with Christ...this is the focus of the book of Ephesians, just as it's the focus of much of the New Testament.

Very specifically, chapter one begins with a dissertation of our position in Christ, our identity in Christ, what we have through the initiative of God in our lives.

In verse 3, Paul mentions that the Ephesians (and every believer) is blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus. What are these blessings? Chapter one addresses this, but approaches the topic from two angles.

First, Eph. 1:3-14 --

What are these blessings?

  • We're blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (v.3)
  • We are holy, blameless, covered with God's love (v.4)
  • We are adopted as God's children, by God's eternal sovereignty (vv.5-6)
  • Our sins have been taken away (we are redeemed) (v.7)
  • We were brought under the headship of Christ, and given an inheritance (vv.10-11)
  • By the Holy Spirit, we understand that we belong to God (v.13)

Something to notice about this section of chapter one: the emphasis on "He, Him, His." Paul refers to the person or action of God ("He, Him, His") 22 times in 12 verses. The focus of this passage is on what God has accomplished on our behalf.

Contrast this with Paul's discourse in Rom. 7:7-24. There, the focus is on "I, me, my," in terms of what life looks like when we try, through all sincerity, to live our lives by our own power (e.g., Rom. 7:15-16, notice the emphasis -- "For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing it is good."). Paul refers to himself -- "I, me, my" -- 44 times in Rom. 7, until he reaches verses 24 and 25, when the focus shifts off of himself to Jesus Christ. Twenty-two times, "He, Him, His" is mentioned in Eph. 1:3-14. The focus of the chapter is what God does for us, on our behalf, not on what we do or can accomplish for God, on His behalf.

The second division in chapter one is in verses 15-23, Paul's prayer for the Ephesians:

  • For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Notice how Paul characterizes or describes the Ephesian church in verse 15: He commends them for their faith in God, and their love for all the saints. And he says that he "heard" about these things, which means that their testimony as a faithful and loving church had been spread abroad -- they had a reputation for faithfulness and love which had gone beyond their own community.

This is a pretty good report. Any one of us would be happy, would we not, to have Jesus Christ appear among us in our churches some Sunday morning, and say, "I am pleased by what I see here -- you have faith in me, and you love all the saints." Faith and love -- what more could a church want? But Paul goes on in the prayer that follows to express not only a desire for the believers in Ephesis, but an indication of their need.

He prays, and implies here, that in spite of their reputation for faith and love, that they need a "spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him (Christ)."

This term, "revelation" (apokalupsis, from which we get the word "apocalypse," which is what the book of Revelation is often called) -- Vine's points out that it means "an uncovering" or "to unveil." It means to remove a covering which is over something of substance that is present, but not seen or perceived. It's like Paul is saying, "Here is this thing in the middle of the room. It is here. It is real, but you do not perceive what it is, or behold its presence because it has this shroud over it. I pray that this thing which you possess, which God has given to you by virtue of being in Christ, would be unveiled; that the shroud or covering which hides it would be removed and that it would be uncovered, and that you would see it."

Although the Ephesian believers are full of faith and of love for the saints, Paul implies through his prayer for them that something is missing, that they need something to be unveiled or revealed to them, and in part, it is this: That they would truly "know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power towards us who believe."

Note that these these things -- hope, riches, inheritance -- are things that Paul mentions in the earlier passage, specifically, v.12 (hope); v.7 (riches); v.11 (inheritance). In the earlier portion of Ephesians chapter one, Paul says that they already "have" these things (v.7, "In Him we have..."). We, and the Ephesians, already possess them they are part of the "every spiritual blessing" that every believer has in Christ. They are already ours.

But if they are ours, why does Paul make a point about praying about them on our behalf, and on behalf of the Ephesians?

Look at how he characterizes their need. "That God would give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him." That they, and we, might "know" these blessings in the knowledge of Him. The word "knowledge" here doesn't mean "head knowledge" or intellectual knowledge, as in "I know that 2+2=4," or that "I know that George Washington was the first President of the United States and I know this because I read it in a book." It is knowledge which comes through experience. He is saying, with this prayer for the Ephesians, and he is saying in this chapter, "Look, by virtue of being in Christ, you have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. But these blessings (which I've enumerated in the first part of this letter to you) have yet to enter into your experience as a believer. So I pray that you might come to KNOW these blessings in your experience; that your life would be characterized as an expression and outworking of these blessings in your life."

Paul is saying, with this prayer, that the Ephesian believers (and by extension, we) need to have their hearts enlightened so that they may know these things. "Enlighten" literally means "to illuminate." So, the things the Ephesians have, what all believes have by virtue of being in Christ, might become real to them by throwing off the shroud that hides them from our sight and from our exprience, and that they would not only be revealed or uncovered, but that a bright beam of light would be cast upon them so that we might clearly see them.

And what is it that is to be "enlightened"? Our hearts. This isn't a revelation to the mind as a new idea or as a philosophy or as a sound doctrine, but a revelation and enlightenment to the heart, because that is where these things are truly known and understood.

So, in summary...Believers are a blessed people. We have been (past tense, and presently) blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. And the Ephesians, and hopefully we as well, are a people charactered by our faith in Christ, and our love for all the saints. But this isn't enough. One of the key messages of Ephesians chapter one is that there is always *more* to the Christian life than what we have thus far experienced. And what Paul prays for, what we can pray for ourselves, for our family members, for the members of our churches, for the church in America and throughout the world, is that we would

  1. understand the spiritual blessings we have in Christ, but also, and more importantly,
  2. realize that to understand these blessings in a solely intellectual way -- to simply be able to recite back what we have in Christ by rote -- isn't enough. God's desire is that we would KNOW His blessings by experiencing them in and through our lives.

The application here is this: If you want to know how to pray for yourself, for your family, for your church, for the nation, start praying like Paul does in Ephesians chapter one. And in the answering of those prayers, we, our families, our churches, our nation, will begin to truly reflect what God's will is for our lives.