The Lord's Day Morning
January 8, 2006
“Praying to Our Father”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians 3 as we continue to make our way through this great letter of the Apostle Paul. We’re going to be looking at verses 14-16 today, but I'd ask you to look at verse 1 first, because we've said all along that the Apostle Paul began this chapter getting ready to pray for the Ephesians. He had started off with the words, “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles…” and then suddenly this long parenthesis comes from verse 2 through verse 13, in which he seeks to encourage these Ephesian Christians.
They were discouraged by the persecution that Paul was enduring. They were confused by what was going on. Paul was God's apostle: he was the chosen messenger of the Lord to bring the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and it was deeply troubling to them that he would be imprisoned, and that he would be the object of Roman persecution, and that he was being restrained from going here and there throughout the land to preach the glad tiding of salvation in Jesus Christ; and they were concerned for him deeply. And so before Paul even gets to the point of praying this beautiful prayer in verses 16-19 for them, he pauses to give them encouragement so that they might not be disconsolate, that they might not be discouraged by what he was enduring.
He reminds them of God's plan for them and God's purposes for His people, and for all those reasons he encourages them not to be discouraged. But then in verse 14, he goes right back to where he had intended to go in verse 1. Notice again the repetition: “For this reason, I bow my knees….” Now we've finally gotten to the prayer! He had started to pray in verse 1. There was something important that he needed to say. Now he's going back to that prayer that he had almost started in verse 1.
We’re going to study that prayer together closely over the next few weeks, but today I want to emphasize we're not even going to get into the content of the prayer proper. We’re going to look at the introduction, as it were, to the prayer; we're going to look at what Paul prays in light of; we're going to look at these things which set the framework for the specific requests of this prayer in proper focus. (You’ll see why that's so important in a few moments.) In fact, when we read, we're not even going to read all the way through verse 16. We’re going to stop right in the middle of the sentence, right in the middle of the verse, because what I want you to see today is why Paul prays this prayer, and I want you to see to whom Paul prays this prayer, and I want you to see how Paul prays the prayer — in what manner he prays the prayer — and I want you to see in light of what great reality Paul prays this prayer, because understanding the why and the who and the how, and then the ‘in light of what,’ will help you appreciate the glory of the substance of this prayer, and give you confidence in God's answer to the substance of this prayer – not simply for the Ephesian Christians, but for you as you are trusting in Jesus Christ. And so it's very important that we understand the framework in which these requests are made. That's what we're going to look at today.Let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing as we do so.
Lord God, this is Your word, and we need Your help to understand Your word, and we need Your Spirit to apply Your word to our hearts and enable us to believe and live it. So, O God, by Your Spirit, open our eyes to behold wonderful things from Your word. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God.
“For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory….”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon your hearts.
I really did mean to end right there. You see, at the end of that phrase in verse 16 we begin the specific petitions. Paul begins to rattle off the things that are in the depths of his heart that are part of his heart's desire, not simply for these Ephesian Christians huddled in this house-church on one Lord's Day morning in Ephesus, but for all Christians around the world and for you and for me here gathered today. And I want us to see the prologue, the introduction, to these petitions so that we can appreciate the glory of these petitions themselves.
I. Why does Paul pray?
And I want to start in verse 14 with “The Why” of Paul's prayer: Why is it that Paul prays? He's said twice now in verse 1 and in verse 14, “For this reason…I pray; For this reason…I pray.” What reason? What reason impels Paul to pray? What reason compels Paul to pray? Well, the answer is found in Ephesians 1 and 2.
First of all, he is absolutely gob-smacked about God's eternal plan of redemption, whereby, through the blood of Jesus Christ, He has redeemed to Himself people from every tribe and tongue and nation; and all for the glory of Christ, in whom all things are summed up under His headship. And that's Ephesians 1.
And he is absolutely bowled over by the reality that God has for the church. As a faithful, Bible-believing Jew, Paul had certainly looked forward to the day when the Messiah would sit on the throne of His people, when the people of Israel would be ruled justly by David's Son – David's greater Son; and Paul no doubt would have looked forward to the day the prophets described when the nations would stream to Jerusalem.
But now that God's revelation has come clearly in Jesus Christ and the Day of Pentecost has come, Paul realizes that God has done something that he never imagined: God has not brought the nations, as it were, to Jerusalem; God has brought the nations to Christ. And He's not brought the Gentiles to Jerusalem to obey the ceremonial code; He's brought the Gentiles to Christ by faith on the same basis He has brought believing Jews in the Messiah, so that there are no longer two types of believers in this world with a middle wall of partition driven between them, but there is one kind of believer in this world: a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, whether Jew or Greek or slave or free, male or female, all are one in Jesus Christ, and the Apostle Paul is amazed that God has not brought these believers to a rebuilt Solomonic temple, but He is making them to be the temple of God. Just as we said in the Call to Worship today, He's making them to be the holy city, He's making them to be the holy mountain, He's making them His family, them His temple, them His building.
The Apostle Paul is boggled by this! This is one of the things he had been most offended by in Christianity…not only the declaration of this crucified hoodlum as the Messiah of Israel, but this proclamation of the good news to Gentiles. And here the Apostle Paul is saying that that's exactly what God has done. He's brought together Jew and Gentile in one body, and “For this reason,” he says, ‘my friends, I am compelled to pray these petitions for you. I'm longing to pray these petitions for you.’
You know, what we pray reveals what really matters to us. When your husband or wife is diagnosed with cancer, or a child is hanging by a string to life, or a friend is in dire need, or your family is falling apart, or whatever dire situation has come into your experience, you are urgent and earnest in prayer because what you’re praying about really matters to you.
Behold what matters to the Apostle Paul. When we look at these petitions you’ll get a glimpse of his heart, of what really matters to him, but even here in the introduction you can tell what really matters to the Apostle Paul is the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, wherein the person and work of Christ is set forth as the One whom God the Father has sent into the world, who has lived and preached, and died and been buried, and raised again from the dead for our salvation so that He might unite all Jew and Gentiles into His church, His people, His family, by faith, and that we together might magnify the name of the Lord and glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. And the Apostle Paul begins at the very outset of this prayer saying ‘that impels me to pray, that motivates me to pray. For this reason I pray.’
But I want you to also see that the Apostle Paul prays out of this sense of the overflowing bounty of God's grace and love to him. He realizes that he and the Ephesians are the recipients of unfathomable blessings; and, my friends, that is absolutely crucial for us when we pray…when we pray our petitions, to realize that we are not coming to God as beggars, as paupers for whom God has never done anything and never given anything, and to whom God has not given a rich bounty. No, we come to God asking for help and aid and blessing in our need, having already received an unfathomable bounty from God. It's so important for us to remember. Yes, we come to God in a genuine sense of need and pray. That is true, that is reality, and it's right! We ought to pray out of a sense of our need, but in our need we should not forget that He has already given us a rich bounty, and so we come asking for blessing, having received a blessing. We do not come asking for blessing out of abject poverty, never having received anything from God.
The Apostle Paul says ‘My dear friends in Ephesus, the things I'm getting ready to pray for you, I pray because of what God has already done for you and me and which I've described in excruciating detail in chapters 1 and 2, because it's so important for us when we come to God asking for His help and blessing to remember, to realize, what He has already done for us in Jesus Christ.’
Paul elsewhere puts it like this, doesn't he: “He who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things?” If He has given us His Son, anything, everything, else we ask of Him is superfluous to that bounty. All other things that He could give us could not equal what He has already given us in His Son, and that sense of the enrichment that God has already given us is absolutely vital to a proper balance in our petitions in coming to God. We’re not coming to a stingy heavenly Father who's parceling out grace in tiny little increments: ‘Oh, I’ll give you just a little bit…I’ll give you just a little bit….’ We’re coming to a heavenly Father who has given us more already than we could ever ask or think!
Some of you have been following that heartbreaking story coming out of West Virginia in these last seven or ten days, and you've see the anguish of those people — an hour of false hope in which they thought all thirteen are alive — and you've seen the brokenheartedness of people: one of the thirteen has been saved, and he hangs by a thread. And maybe you saw the meeting in the church as the word went out, and maybe you heard the cry of one of the miners, one of the colleagues, when someone was exhorting them in the midst of their loss, their pain, their bereavement, to trust in God; and he shouted out with anger, “What in hell has God ever done for us?”
My friends, the Christian has an answer to his question. We've sung that answer, we're going to say that answer in The Apostle's Creed. What in hell has God ever done for us? He's sent His Son! His only Son, Jesus, whom He loved before the foundation of the world, to taste the pains of hell on our behalf! That's what He's done in hell for us! The Christian says when he or she comes to his heavenly Father with whatever dire event ‘O God, You have already given Your Son, who has tasted hell for me; and though this prayer that I pray is urgent and it is earnest, and it is the desire of my heart that You answer it, I realize that You have already given me bounty that I would not have dared to ask!’ Who of us would have said ‘O God, give Your Son for me’? And He has already done that, and He has consigned His Son to the flames of hell on our behalf.
And so, when we come, we come with the sense of the bounty that God has already given us in Jesus Christ, and that's why Paul is saying ‘For this reason I pray….He's already given me this. He's already given you this. I'm praying out of a sense of the greatness of God's already gift to us in Jesus Christ, the gift of bringing us into His family, the gift of adopting us as children, the gift of justifying us by grace, the gift of eternal communion with God. He's given us this, and so I come asking for blessing from blessing. I've already received blessing from God.’
And, my friends, doesn't that put into perspective every prayer that we pray, no matter how deep the need? I want to say, by the way, in passing…young people, that is why those words that came out of that poor anguished miner's mouth ought never to come out of our mouths. Even Job, in the loss of his own family–you remember, his wife would say ‘Oh, Job, curse God and die.’ ‘Will I do such a thing? NO! I will not!’ because he realized God's bounty. “Shall I accept good from the Lord and not ill?”
No, you see, the Christian is always aware of the greatness of what God has already done for him or her, no matter what the reality of the struggle that we're in now that impels us to prayer. And so the first thing that Paul teaches us in the ‘why’ of his prayer is that we pray from blessing for blessing, not from poverty begging for that blessing. He's already blessed us more than we can ask or think.
II. To Whom Paul prays.
And Paul goes on, and you see he focuses your heart, your mind, on the One to whom he is praying; not only why he is praying, but to whom Paul prays. You see this at the end of verse 14 and all through verse 15: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name….” Maybe that translation is better “from whom the whole family of believers in heaven and on earth derives its name.” There's a play on words, there's a rhyming pattern in sounds in that song that makes it hard for the translator to render it fully, but the idea is this: when Paul comes to pray, he comes to pray to his heavenly Father.
Jesus had told His disciples ‘When you pray, you pray ‘Our Father.’’ And the Apostle Paul wasn't with Jesus in His earthly ministry when He gave that instruction, but surely he had heard it from His other disciples; and the Apostle Paul, commissioned by the Lord Jesus Himself on the road to Damascus, surely knew this was the truth; and here he is commending the same thing that Jesus had said: When I pray, I pray to our Father. Yes, He's the sovereign God of the universe; yes, He's the Lord of time; yes, He's the Lord of hosts; yes, He's God Almighty; yes, He's the Lord of armies: but He is our Father.
And not only our Father, but the Father who has given the name, His name, to every one of the whole of the family of God in heaven and on earth. You remember in the Old Testament, when God wanted to signify how close He was to His people He would sometimes change their names, and in the changing of their names He often took names that were less honorable and replaced them with names that contained His name in them: ‘Jacob–grasper, usurper, deceiver! You are now Israel, prince of God.’ Did you notice el there at the end of Israel? That's God's name. ‘Prince of God, that's who you are now.’
God gives His name to His people to show His nearness, and here the Apostle Paul is saying ‘God…if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female…if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, God has given you His name. Your name comes from Him. He's your heavenly Father. He's adopted you as His child. You’re a part of His family. You’re made joint heirs with Jesus Christ. You remember that when somebody calls you a Christ-ian. Just another testimony: God's given you His name. You bear His name.’
The Apostle Paul says ‘I remember that, Ephesians, when I come into God's presence. I remember that I'm praying–yes, to the Almighty God; yes, to the Lord of hosts–I'm praying to my heavenly Father, and I only have the privilege of praying that prayer to my heavenly Father because of God's grace.’
Don't ever forget that, parents, when you’re kneeling at night to pray with your children and you’re encouraging them to pray to their heavenly Father. That is not a privilege to be taken lightly: that is a gift of God, that He would call Himself our Father and that He would call us His children.
And Paul says ‘That's who I pray to. I pray to the heavenly Father from whom the whole family of believers in heaven and on earth is named.’
III. How Paul prays.
And then, look at how Paul prays. You see it right smack-dab in the middle of verse 14: “I bow my knees….” What's that? It's a lot, because what was the usual posture of a Jew praying? Standing! When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, and they’re in the temple praying — one praying a very self-righteous prayer, one praying an importunate prayer of repentance — how are they praying? They were standing in the temple to pray. That's the normal way that a Jewish believer prayed. When Moses was praying for the great armies, how did he pray? He prayed standing with his arms upraised. That's one reason we’ll begin the worship service like this, praying the Invocation. It's the normal pattern of worship. Our Scottish Presbyterian friends still practice that. If you want to get an entire congregation of Scottish Presbyterians to stand, you only have to say three words: “Let us pray.” They’ll be up off their seats and on their feet! That's how they do it.
But in the Old Testament also, from time to time we see people…how? Bowing their knees, and even on their face before God. Those are times of great earnestness in prayer, great importunacy in prayer, great wrestling in prayer. They are times which indicate the greatness of our need – our acknowledgement of our own dependence on God. Think of Jesus in the garden prostrate before the Lord praying, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not My will but Your will be done.” And here the Apostle Paul is saying to the Ephesians and to you and me ‘I'm on my face before the heavenly Father with these petitions because I realize my utter dependence on Him. I realize this is so urgent, what I'm about to pray, and I realize the greatness of my God. I bow before Him.’
My friends, that's so important for us today. We live in a time when man the creature is BIG in the church, and God the Creator is small. And for the Apostle Paul, man the creature is small, and God the Creator and Redeemer is BIG, and so he bows before Him even though He's his heavenly Father. He reverences Him, and he casts himself in utter dependence upon Him, and he prays with earnestness for us. This is how important what Paul is about to pray for you is to him.
IV. In light of What Paul prays.
One last thing: In light of what does Paul pray? What reality controls these petitions he's about to pray for you? Well, look at verse 16 —
“…that He would grant you according to the riches of His glory….”
In other words, before Paul even gets a petition out of his mouth, he wants you to understand that he is asking God to answer this prayer out of His measureless bounty, His limitless resources, His glorious abundant riches. In other words, Paul wants it fixed in your mind that God's answers to these prayers are not a question of His ability. God is able to do far above and beyond all that we can ask or think. It is a matter of His will.
Coming to God in prayer is not ever a matter of asking Him if He is able to do something: it is always a matter of coming to Him and aligning our desires with the will that He is able to bring to bear on any and every circumstance. That's why Jesus’ prayer, “Not My will, but Thy will be done” is the model Christian prayer, because the great question in the answer to prayer is not God's ability, but what God's good and perfect will is for us, and there is a mighty lesson for us in that, my friends. It reminds us that prayers which are answered by “Wait” or by “No” or by seeming silence are not a matter of God's inability to answer that prayer, but they are a matter for every believer of God's good purposes for you. And so that “No” may be ‘I have a great plan for blessing in the answer of ‘no’ to you, My child.’ Think again, my friends, of the Lord Jesus Christ, who never sinned and never prayed a wrong prayer, praying, “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass.” And you know what the heavenly answer is: “No!” And by that “no!” a multitude of men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will rejoice and give praise to Jesus Christ and glory to God for eternity, because the answer was, “No!”
So, my friends, in prayer it is never a matter of God's ability, nor is it a matter of our manipulating Him — if we just have enough faith we can ‘make’ Him do something. No. His good and perfect will is always at work in prayer, so that God answers our prayers not as we pray them, but as we would pray them if we were wiser. And the Apostle Paul wants that to be crystal clear to these Ephesians, because what he is about to ask God is staggering; and so when he asks God for this for you, he wants you to know that he means business, and he wants you to know the reality of why he's praying this prayer, and to whom he's praying this prayer, and he wants you to see his dependence on God in how he prays this prayer, and he wants you to remember the riches out of which God is able to answer our prayers. And we’ll look at that substance – the content, the stuff, the matter – of that prayer when we come together next week, but now we come to His table where we feast on the ‘all’ that God has already given us in Jesus Christ. Let's pray.
O Lord, this is Your word. Bless it for Christ's sake. Amen.
Take your hymnals out, and let us sing to God's praise in preparation for coming to the Lord's Table, No. 378. Many of you know that for years and years this hymn was always sung, when Reed Miller was the pastor of this church, on communion Sunday. Let's sing to God's praise.
[Congregational hymn: Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face]
Please be seated.
As we come to the Lord's table, let us attend to the words of institution of this sacrament spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ and given by Him to the Apostle Paul:
“For this I received from the Lord, that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is My body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink, it in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly.”
Amen. This is God's word.
This Table, this Supper, is a sacrament. It's a sign, a covenant sign – that is, a sign of a promise of God given to believers in His word. It serves to confirm God's word of promise and to strengthen our faith in that word of promise. It's appointed by God as a means of grace. We just sang ‘here we would get a firmer grasp’ on that grace which is offered in Jesus Christ: that's exactly what a sacrament does. It is a firmer grasp upon the promise that God has held forth in His word. As such, when we come to the Lord's Table, the ultimate focus of these signs is Christ Himself. We’re going to sing the words of C. H. Spurgeon in a moment, and he will remind us that when we look at the sacraments what we're really wanting to see is Christ. We feed on Him by faith.
So, this is the Lord's Table. It's a table for those who are trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, and so on behalf of the elders of this church I want to invite to the Lord's Table all of you who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation as He is offered in the gospel and who have joined yourselves to a church, the body of Christ.
If you’re not a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ…you’re not a believer who has identified himself or herself with your church, don't come to the Table; rather, wait and think, and pray, and repent and believe the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and then when we come again to this Table, come as one of our brothers or sisters.
Let's set apart these common elements to a holy use in prayer. Let's pray.
O Lord, You give us these earthly things so that we might see and touch and taste Your grace, which we hear in Your word. Lord God, by faith grant that we would rest and trust in Jesus Christ. Strengthen our faith, even as You confirm Your grace at this table. Meet with us. We give You thanks for Jesus Christ. Apart from Him, we could not come to this His Table, but in Him we feast at the Table He has spread for us through His own death. These prayers we ask in His name. Amen.
Since the Lord's Table is for professing believers, it's only appropriate that we confess our faith in Jesus Christ coming to this Lord's Table; and, so, I would invite you to do that by saying The Apostles’ Creed. Let's stand as we say The Apostles’ Creed together.
Christian, what do you believe?
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church;
The communion of the saints; the forgiveness of sins;
The resurrection of the body;
And the life everlasting.
Remain standing. It's also wholly appropriate that we say The Ten Commandments as we come to this Table. Saying The Ten Commandments reminds us of the sin that we needed to be forgiven by Jesus Christ's death. It reminds us that Jesus Christ kept those commandments in our place for us, and took the penalty of our breaking of those commandments on Himself, and it reminds us that He has regenerated us and renewed us so that we would be like Him, and say with the psalmist, “How [we] love Your Law, O God.” So let us say together The Ten Commandments:
You shall have no other gods before Me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not worship them or serve them.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet.
Please be seated.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night He was betrayed took bread, and He broke it and He gave it to His disciples, as I now, ministering in His name, give it to you. And He said to them, “Take, eat. This is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.”