Monday, December 21, 2009

The Prayers of Paul in Ephesians (Part 2)

One development that characterizes the contemporary church is the rise of the church consultant. Churches spend good money on consultants to help develop mission statements, strategic plans, and the like. Yet the apostle Paul has as good a mission statement as one can find in Ephesians 3:8-9 -- "To me, though the very least of all the saints, this grace was granted and graciously entrusted: to proclaim to the Gentiles the unending, boundless, fathomless, incalculable, and exhaustless riches of Christ, wealth which no human being could have searched out; also to enlighten all men and make plain to them what is the plan of the mystery kept hidden through the ages and concealed until now in the mind of God who created all things by Christ Jesus."

The New American Standard renders these verses this way: " preach...the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery..." In other words, to bring to people's knowledge what the riches are of Christ, available to believers, and whst is the "administration" of Christ's work, namely, how these riches work out in the lives of believers.

What is key to knowing the riches of Christ in one's life? The answer is found in Paul's prayer of Eph. 3:14-19.

I want to highlight the theme of Paul's prayer in Eph. 3 by coming to it through the backdoor, namely, by starting the consideration from the letter to the Ephesian church found in Revelation 2:1-7.

In the letters to the seven churches in the opening chapters of Revelation, the Lord Jesus has words of praise, but also words of warning for the church in Ephesus.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: "I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary. "
He commends the Ephesian church for the fact that they had suffered and yet endured persecution; they did not abide immoral behavior; and they took a stand for sound teaching, opposing apostasy and false teachers. Any Bible-believing congregation would likely be pleased with such a commendation and reputation for standing firm in the faith.

But Jesus also communicates a word of warning.

"But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place--unless you repent."
While acknowledging all they had done to defend the faith, even to the point of suffering for their position, nevertheless Jesus says they are deficient in a more important area: they had left their first love, namely, Himself.

The serious warning in the letter to the Ephesian church is that it's possible to suffer for being a Christian, to be a stalwart defender of sound doctrine, an opponent of false teachers, a champion and example of moral living, to oppose the influences which eat at the surrounding culture, and yet to completely miss the point regarding the purpose to which one is called. It's possible to give an appearance of being sound and solid on the outside, and yet to leave or neglect Christ. In the case of the Ephesian church by the time John was given the Revelation, they had gotten off track in the one thing that is most important to the church.

Their problem was this: they had centered on something other than Christ. The focus of their ministry was sound teaching and defense of doctrine; however, Jesus Himself was no longer the center of their church. They had a reputation as defenders of the faith; but they should have had a reputation as lovers of Jesus Christ.

Churches getting their focus off of Christ and onto something else is an ever-present potential problem. Paul mentions what some of these distractions are in Colossians 2:8 -- "See to it that no takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ."

And so we see, and have probably known, churches where the emphasis was upon philosophies or schools of thought or schools of theology, where the preaching from the pulpit was mainly principles for living life, or the emphasis was upon certain traditions or specific denominational distinctives.

Paul's contrast or "formula" (I use the term advisedly) is found in Col. 3:1-3 --
Since you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God.

As Paul says in I Cor. 1:23, "We preach Christ" -- not an alternative set of rules, not a lifestyle, not a system of ethics, not a philosophy.

If each of us were given the assurance of one answered prayer for the church, what would we pray for? Some might pray for a more loving spirit among the people, and that would be good; others might pray for unity; still others might pray for increased membership, or the finances to hire more staff; still others might pray for those within the congregation who are suffering from various distresses, be they physical, emotional, or material.

But Paul's prayer in Eph. 3 reveals a different emphasis. Taking the opportunity in his letter to articulate his heart's desire for these Christians he mentions the following:
  • That God would reveal to them 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 toward those who believe;
  • That they might be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be enabled to know the love that God has for them;
  • That they would know (the Amplified Bible translates it "...know through experience, rather than through a knowledge which comes without experience...") what is the height, and depth, and length, and breadth of the love of God for them; that they would know this love of God with a knowledge that surpasses comprehension;
  • That they would be filled to all the fullness of God.

Put simply, Paul prays for a greater awareness by the Ephesian believers of the presence of God in their midst; that they would come to know -- through experience, not just through study and head-knowledge -- the reality of the life of Christ within them, as the motive power of their lives; the end result being that they actually experience in their hearts the richness of the love of God for them, resulting in their being filled to the fullest with God. This is tied to Paul's "mission statement;" his commission to inform believers of the riches they have in Christ, and to explain to them how these riches work out in their personal lives.

The church is the place where Christ not only resides, but is where a group of people, together, corporately, in common, experience the reality of Christ's presence, His love, His life, and become the means of His outworking in the world, not in a metaphorical sense, but in reality.

Essentially, it should be our focus, our hope, that Christ would be alive and real in our midst -- not in a theoretical sense or simply as a theological affirmation, but in actual reality; and that, consequently, we are being changed, we are growing together as He expresses Himself in our fellowship, and His life and reality are seen by those outside our group as we come into contact with others. This should be the central focus of any church ministry: that we would be known as a fellowship which, first and foremost, loves Jesus Christ, which lives by His presence, and which draws what is sufficient for life from His riches and His resources. This is the focus of Paul's prayer for the church.