The Lord's Day Morning
August 21, 2005
“Praying with Paul”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter one. For several weeks now we have been working through this prayer of praise in verses 3-14. We have parked on this prayer in part because we have said it is a life re-orienting prayer: that if we could understand what God is teaching us about Himself in this prayer of praise to Him, it would change our lives.
And we've also said it would certainly change the way we pray. We have stayed so long in this passage, for one reason, because when we begin to look at verses 15 the next time we are together in this book, we will see the rest of Ephesians 1 (from verses 15-23) is a prayer of intercession; it's a prayer of petition from Paul to God asking God that you would understand and realize and experience the manifold blessings for which you have just praised Him in verses 3-14. In other words, the Apostle Paul knows that Christians struggle to take in the glory of what God reveals about Himself, and gives to them even when they use these words to praise Him. And so it has been, I think, a good use of time to park on this prayer of praise and to try and meditate on it part by part.
Now, today what we're going to do is we're going to look at this prayer as an outline for our own praise to the living God. We’re going to look at how we could take this prayer and turn it back into our own prayer to God, so that we feel that we are truly owning it as our prayer of praise to God, and in doing that we're going to look at it in seven parts. (Don't worry; we won't take a long time on each of those parts…although we could! I discovered in the middle of the sermon this morning that I could have probably taken the whole sermon on the first point, but I'm not going to keep you here until two o’clock this afternoon, I promise!)
Here are the parts: (1) You will notice as we study this passage together that this prayer is a Trinitarian prayer; (2) It is a Father-focused prayer; (3) It is a Christ-centered prayer; (4) It is a Spirit-appreciative prayer; (5) This prayer rejoices in God's reign; (6) This prayer revels in God's redeeming work; and, (7) This prayer is praise-oriented. And those are the seven things I want to look at about this prayer today. We have taken it apart piece by piece, but I think even as closely as we've looked at it in these last seven weeks, there are still yet treasures to discover here, and I trust that those treasures will help us in prayer to God. So let's go to God in prayer and ask for His help.
Lord God, we do come before You asking Your help and blessing to understand the truth that You have for us in Your word. Even in this prayer of praise to You, You are speaking to us about who You are and what You have done for us, in order that we might join with Paul in believing You to be as You are, and in realizing what You have done for us; so, help us to see You as You are and to realize what You've done, and so to live lives of worship…lives that praise You. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear God's word.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation–having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add his blessing to it.
In this prayer, the Apostle Paul teaches us that Christian prayer is Trinitarian; that is, that Christian prayer always has in view the unified work of God the Holy Trinity.
Let me ask you to keep your Bibles in hand, because we're going to look over and over at this passage to illustrate the main points that Paul gives us for Christian prayer; and I'd like you to look especially, for instance, at verses 3-6, because in those verses we see Paul focus our eyes especially on the work of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those verses celebrate especially what the Father has done for us in blessing us with every spiritual blessing. And did you note that at the end of verse 6 that there's a doxology?
And then if you look at verses 7-12, you will notice that those verses especially celebrate what Jesus Christ the Son has done, and how He will be exalted in the end. For instance, in verse 7 we're reminded that we were redeemed through His blood, forgiven through His sacrifice, and eventually, we're told in verses 9-10, all things will be brought under His headship. And so verses 7-12 especially focuses on the person and work of the Son. And did you notice at the end of verse 12 — what is there? A doxology.
And then if you look at verses 13-14, you’ll notice that they focus especially on the work of the Holy Spirit who is the seal, the assurance, the mark of God's ownership of us. And how does verse 14 end? With a doxology; so, there is a section focusing on the Father, which concludes with a doxology in verse 6; a section which focuses on the Son, which concludes with a doxology in verse 12; a section which focuses on the Holy Spirit, which concludes with a doxology in verse 14.
But you also notice that the work of the three persons of the Godhead, of the Holy Trinity, are intermingled together throughout the prayer so that nothing that the Father gives is not given — how? In Christ. And nothing that the Father has given in Christ is not bestowed on us — how? Through the seal of the Holy Spirit. And so the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is intermingled throughout the passage.
I. This prayer is Trinitarian.
Now you may be saying to me today ‘You know, the Trinity is one of those doctrines that I never quite understood, and I’ll just leave that to those theologians out at RTS to sort out — the doctrine of the Trinity — because that really doesn't touch me where I live day to day.’ Au contraire!
Let's imagine four friends, young men. They’re sitting around a table at a local restaurant, and they've been talking about this and that and finally one of the young men gets up the courage to say something to his buddies, and here it is. He says to them, “Men, I've got to tell you. I've found “the one.” We went out just a couple of nights ago, and she's the one for me. We’re going to get married, I'm certain of it. This is the one.”
And his buddies say to him, “Well, what's her name?”
“I don't know.”
“Well, what does she look like?”
“I don't know.”
“What color are her eyes?”
“I don't know.”
“How about her hair?”
“I don't know.”
“Where's she go to church?”
“I don't know.”
“What's she like?”
“I don't know.”
You would be incredulous if this were the response of a young man who had said he’d just found “the one,” for if he loves her, surely he knows something about her, and he wants to know more! Well, how is it when we burn with desire to glorify the one true God, what do we want to do? We want to know Him! And when He says “I am God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” precisely because we love Him, we want to know what that means. We want to know who He is. We want to know what He's like, and we want to be able to tell everyone about Him! And so in this Christian prayer, Paul gives us this intermingled prayer of praise to the Triune God — why? Because that's who He is! And because we love Him, we want to know Him; and because we love Him and want to know Him, we also want to tell others about Him, and so we attend to who He is.
And there's another reason, too, my friends. God has made us to be family. He has made us to live in gospel community with one another, so that everyone who loves Jesus Christ and trusts in Him for salvation and is so united to Him, is united to everyone else — no matter now different, no matter what their backgrounds are, he is united to everyone else in God's church who loves the Lord Jesus Christ and has trusted in Him for salvation; and, therefore, we love one another. But that love that we express to one another in that care and that tangible concern for one another in the difficulties of life, as good as it gets, is simply a reflection of something deeper, older, and more profound; and that is the love which has been being shared between the persons of God the Father, Son, and Holy Sprit before time. Because before there was a world and before there were people to love, the Father was loving the Son, the Son was loving the Spirit, and the Spirit was loving the Father. There was an eternal fellowship of love in the one true God. That is why John can tell you “God is love.” God doesn't need you in order to be loved. Already before He created the world, He was loved. Why? Because the Father was loving the Son, the Son the Spirit, and the Spirit the Father, and in that trinity of love we see a picture of what God would have us to be as a family. In fact, Jesus prays about that in John 17, doesn't He? He says that He wants us to be one, even as He and the Father are one; to have that manifestation of the unity of love which has been displayed par excellence in God Himself. And so the doctrine of the Trinity, far from some theoretical, abstract, impractical truth, is at the very heart of the Christian faith, because it pertains to who our God is, and it pertains to what our God wants us to be like, because He wants us to become like Him in the sense of bearing His moral image.
And so this prayer is Trinitarian, and it's Trinitarian in three specific ways — and that pertains to my second, third, and fourth points. Let's start off with the first one.
II. Christian prayer is Father-focused.
It's Father-focused, isn't it? Look at verse 3. It starts off at the very beginning by focusing our attention on who? — the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, it focuses on the divine Fatherhood of God: that even if God had had no redeemed children in this world, He still would have been the Father. Why? Because He was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In and of Himself, He was the Father. And this prayer focuses on that Fatherhood throughout. Notice — follow me along — in verse 3, it is that Father who blessed; in verse 4, it's that Father who chose; in verse 5, it's that Father who predestined; in verse 6, it's that Father who bestowed grace; in verse 8, it's that Father who lavished grace on us; in verse 9, it's that Father who made known to us His will; in verses 9 and 10, it's that Father who purposed our salvation; in verse 13, it's that Father who sealed us with the Holy Sprit. Over and over and over again, it is the Father's goodness, the Father's love, the Father's initiative in salvation towards us before we ever reached out to Him, that is celebrated.
What's Paul teaching us there? He's telling us that when we come in prayer to the God of this universe in the name of Jesus Christ, we come to the most wonderful Father that has even been. Has the Lord blessed you with a wonderful father? Did you have a wonderful father, or do you have a wonderful father? Well, if you do, as you come to prayer to the heavenly Father, you can come in prayer recognizing this: that as wonderful as your earthly father is, he is just a pale comparison of the glory and the wonder and the goodness and the love and the grace of your heavenly Father. In fact, to the extent that he is a good earthly father, he is simply imaging to you the way that the heavenly Father is far, far more.
Do you have a bad earthly father? Did you have a bad earthly father? Well, then, Paul is saying to you, your heavenly Father is not like that. Your heavenly Father will never leave you nor forsake you. Your heavenly Father will always shower on you every good and perfect gift. Your heavenly Father is ahead of you in blessing; you can't out-ask Him in blessing, for He has blessed you already with every spiritual blessing. Paul, you see, is re-orienting life by showing us the God that we love and serve.
III. Christian prayer is Christ-centered.
And this prayer is not only Father-focused, it's Christ-centered. Did you notice throughout the prayer that all these things that the Father gave are given — how? “In Christ Jesus.” This prayer is Christ-centered in that the central role of the Son's redemptive work is accentuated.
Look again. Start in verse 3: Every spiritual blessing is enjoyed — how? (Verse 3) — “In Christ.” How are we chosen? (Verse 4) — “In Him [that is, in Christ].” How were we predestined? (Verse 5) — “Through Jesus Christ.” How did God bestow grace on us and lavish grace on us? (Verses 6 and 8) — “Through [or in] the Beloved.” How did God make known His plan to us? (Verse 9). How did God purpose His whole divine plan for us, in verses 7 and 9 and 10? “In Him.” How did God seal us or mark us as His own, in verse 13? “In Him.”
You see what Paul is saying. Every blessing is based on Christ's work. We have redemption through His blood. Our receiving of God's inheritance and our being God's inheritance is solely due to Him, to Jesus Christ. You see, what Paul is saying is exactly what Jesus Himself said in John 6: “No man comes to the Father but by Me.” You want to fellowship with that glorious, wonderful, heavenly Father? You do it through trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. You do it through recognizing that He is the Son of the heavenly Father, the Savior of sinners, the only hope of salvation. You trust in Him, and in Him you meet and experience every spiritual blessing. No man comes to the Father but through Jesus Christ, and we remember that in Christian prayer. We’re praying to the one true Triune God. Our prayer is Father-focused, but it is Christ-centered because we know that we cannot come into the Father's presence apart from Jesus Christ.
IV. And this prayer is Spirit-appreciative, because Christian prayer is Spirit-appreciative.
In other words, the Holy Spirit is appreciated. His work as the conduit of all of God's blessings and the blessing of Him as the substance of God's blessing is appreciated.
Notice in verse 3: how are these blessings described that are catalogued for us in verses 3-14? They’re described as “spiritual blessings.” Now, that doesn't mean that they’re inconsequential, intangible, immaterial, unimportant blessings. It means that they are blessings of the Holy Spirit, capital “S”. They are blessings that are bestowed by the Spirit, enjoyed by the Spirit; they are spiritual in nature in that they pertain to the things of God.
And notice in verses 13 and 14 how all of these blessings are said to be received and pledged — how? In the Holy Spirit. You remember God had said to Abraham ‘Here's my promise. I will be your God, and you will be My people.’ And He had said to Moses and the children of Israel that ‘I will dwell in your midst.’ And in the glories of the new covenant, what has God done? In Jesus Christ and by Jesus Christ, He has poured out His Spirit from the right hand, so that that Spirit has been poured out and in His people, so that His people together, collectively, have become His temple. He does not indwell a thing or a place; He indwells us as His temple, so that God is with us; and that promise of ‘I will be your God and you will be My people’ is in part fulfilled in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the people of God, and it's a foretaste of the eternal fellowship that we're going to have with God forever. And Christian prayer realizes that — that we come to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, and every blessing is Spiritual.
V. Christian prayer rejoices in God's rule.
Notice a fifth thing. This prayer rejoices in the rule and reign of God. This prayer rejoices in the sovereignty of God. It unashamedly and emphatically asserts and rejoices in the fact that God is in control.
Notice how Paul just continues to rub that in your face. Look at verse 4. What did the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ do? He chose — not “you chose” — He chose. Verse 5, what did He do? He predestined. He set His love on you from before the foundation of the world. In verse 9, He purposed — it's His purpose…it's His purpose that's being worked out in this world. Notice how His will is emphasized over and over. Not your will, not my will, but His will is emphasized. Look at verse 5 — His will; verse 9, His will; verse 9 — the kind intention of what? His will; verse 11, His purpose; verse 11, His will…over and over we are told that He works all things after the counsel of His will.
And, my friends, that is one of the most comforting and praise-enticing truths that you can possibly comprehend. What did the Apostle Paul say in Romans 8? That God works all things for good for those who love Him, for those who are called according to His purpose. And the Apostle Paul is celebrating that truth here: God is in control for my good. And, my friends, until you can embrace that truth about God and juxtapose it right in the midst of the most difficult circumstances of your life and it holds up, you haven't learned the fullness of that truth.
Why is it that Job, on the day that he learned of the loss of everything, could fall down on his face and worship God and say, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”? Because he had learned first that he was made to bless God, that's what he was here for, he was made to praise God; and, too, he had learned that God Himself had so ordered everything — everything — to His own praise and for his own good, and so he could say, having lost everything, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” And if your vision for the greatness of God cannot match up to that moment when we are holding our child, our heart of heart in our hands…or our husband or our wife… and bidding farewell into eternity…if your vision for the greatness of God and for blessing God cannot hold up against that, then you need to come right back to Ephesians 1:3-14 again and remember who you are in Christ. Remember what God has made you for, and remember how big your God is, because He's bigger than every tragedy in life, He's bigger than any tsunami that you could name. There is no cataclysm in this universe that is not dwarfed in comparison to Him, and so we can bless Him, no matter what.
VI. Christian prayer revels in God's redeeming work.
There's a sixth thing. Notice that this prayer revels in God's redeeming work. God's redeeming, His saving blessings, are systematically rehearsed. I tried to count these up yesterday, and I think I've come up with roughly nine specific redeeming blessings that Paul continues to come back to in this passage. Let's just hustle through them very quickly.
Paul gives praise to God for at least nine specific redemptive blessings bestowed on us by God. Look at verse 3. He blessed, or poured His favor out on us; (2) Verse 4, He chose us; (3) Verse 5, He predestined us; (4) Verse 6, He bestowed…and then look at verse 8 also…He lavished His grace on us. He bestowed His grace on us, He lavished His grace on us; (5) Verse 7, He bought us freedom — how? By the blood of His Son. That's what it means to say that He redeemed us by the blood of His Son. (6) He forgave us our sins. (You see that also in verse 7); (7) He made us to know His purpose. You know, there are all sorts of people who don't…they honestly don't know if there is any purpose in this life, and if there is any purpose to this universe. And there are a lot of people that are absolutely confident that there is not any purpose in this universe, and here's the Apostle Paul saying ‘You know one thing that your heavenly Father did? He let you in on the secret of His purpose. He told you what this world was for.’ And, my friends, there is nothing more comforting in this crazy world than to know that you know what it's for, because God has let you in on what He made it for. And so he says He has made known to you His purposes. And, (8) Verse 11 , He has given to you an inheritance; and, (9) He has sealed you (verse 13)…He's marked you out as His own possession and assured you of it. And, my friends, do you ever catalogue these things that God has done for you, and take that in when you pray to Him?
Let's say that maybe you’re under conviction and you’re realizing what a sinner you are. And suddenly you begin to think of what God has done for [me] — ‘Lord, I am a sinful man. Depart from me. I don't deserve to be near You, and yet, You've blessed me with every spiritual blessing. You've put Your favor on me, You've chosen me, You've purposed, You've set Your love on me from before the foundation of the world. You have brought my life, which only deserved condemnation, into Your good purposes as a part of the glorifying of Christ. You've adopted me into Your family. You have redeemed me by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.’
My friends, these same things which comforted Peter when he realized his sin against his Lord of abandoning Him, of forsaking Him, of denying Him — these same things that comforted the disciples in their own recognition of their sinfulness are there for the comfort of believers today.
But not only that, what a motivation they are to zeal in the Christian life. ‘Lord, I don't deserve any of these gifts, yet You've showered these gifts on me. Surely that means, O God, surely that means that I want to live for Your glory. Surely that means that I'm going to live in such a way that worships You, that praises You, that brings honor and glory to Your name. Surely I want to know Your word, I want to love Your law, I want to walk by the Spirit, I don't want to be like the world, I want to be different. I want to be transformed by the renewing of my mind rather than being conformed to the sinful, fleshly, worldly outlook of this age.’ Christian prayer revels in God's redeeming work, and it's both comforting — when we realize what we deserve — and when we think what God's given us anyway; and it's motivating to live the Christian life.
VII. Christian prayer is praise-centered.
But that's not all. This prayer, and this is so obvious to be said, but let's not miss it, this prayer is praise-oriented. In other words, the ultimate direction of everything in this prayer…even though it keeps talking about what God has done for us, the ultimate direction of everything in this prayer is towards God. We've sent the three doxologies (verses 6, 12, 14). The first doxology “…to the praise of the glory of His grace” God is and has done all these things. Verse 12, “…to the praise of His glory” God is and has done all these things. Verse 14, “…to the praise of His glory” God is and has done all these things.
You see, that focus on God, that orientation towards praise is perhaps the most important life re-orienting truth that we learn in this passage, because what that does is it takes us off the throne and it places God where He ought to be: at the center of everything, on the throne of the universe, on the throne of our life. It decentralizes us. It puts us off to the side. We, in our own sinfulness, like to be the center of everything. We like it to all “be about me.” The irony is we think by doing that that it will make life more delightful and more satisfying, and what happens is we crumple under the weight of reality, because we cannot be at the center of all things and hold them up. But when God is at the center of all things and we have been displaced, and all of our focus is given to Him, suddenly we discover delight and satisfaction in this world. Why? Because God is where He is to be, and we are where we are to be. He is at the center of all things and we are giving praise to Him, and suddenly the world is in order as it is supposed to be in order, and delight and satisfaction occurs even in the midst of trials in this crazy world because we have been decentralized and He is at the center.
I've told some of you this story before, but I think it's a good human illustration of how praise decentralizes ourselves and frees us for delight in service.
On Midsummer's Day1314, the greatest battle ever fought in Scottish history was fought outside the little town of Stirling. It's called the Battle of Bannockburn. It was the battle in which independence was won from England by the nation of Scotland. The king of Scotland was a man named Robert the Bruce. He had never really fought a pitched battle against the English. The English had assembled under Edward II the largest army ever in the history of the British Isles, and had marched north and had camped south of the castle at Stirling. The Scottish Army had never fought an English army in pitched battle, and you can imagine the nerves that would have been in the Scottish camp the day before the battle as they anticipated fighting against a force which outnumbered them at least two to one.
On the day before the battle, on a small highland pony, Robert the Bruce, the King of Scots, who had alone kept the cause of Scottish independence alive for 20 very long years…he was out in front of his troops, inspecting them. And suddenly, one of the English knights, Sir Humphrey de Bohun spotted Robert the Bruce and began to charge across the field. He was on a great warhorse, and he lowered his lance and he came thundering at full speed towards King Robert the Bruce. All the Scottish armies began to scream, calling for King Robert to come back within the ranks, into a place of safety where he would not be harmed. You see, they understood that if that one man died, the whole hope of Scottish independence was gone. All the hopes of national independence rested upon him, and so they called him to come within the ranks. He did not listen to them. He turned his little highland pony around — and, by the way, it was so small that it was said that his feet almost touched the ground — he stood up in the stirrups and he waited. As de Bohun charged across the field he lowered his lance, readying to dismount Robert the Bruce; and then, if he were not killed by the blow of the lance, to either strike him down with his axe or his sword. As he came up upon the Bruce, the Bruce stepped his pony aside, de Bohun missed him; he pulled out his battle axe, and he clove his head in two. The Scottish army went bananas! It's like the best sports scene you've ever seen. They went bananas! Their king had just taken the guy down with one blow.
As Robert the Bruce came back into his ranks of soldiers as they reformed, and his generals were castigating him for risking everything in that foolhardy act, all that Robert the Bruce could say was, “I broke my best axe.”
Now, John Barbour, the chronicler of Bruce's life, tells us that that night in the camp instead of focusing on the fears of facing that great army, all the men of Scotland's army, all they could say was, “Now that's a king worth dying for. That's a king we can follow anywhere.” And suddenly, all their concerns had been decentralized. All their focus on themselves had been turned to focus on the greatness of this king that they were flowing.
Well, my fellow believers, we follow a far greater King than Robert the Bruce, and He has won a far greater victory single-handedly in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy of our souls, so that our focus doesn't need to be on ourselves, it just needs to be on Him.
And then we find this amazing thing: that when the focus is on Him we are freed to serve, we're freed to praise, we're freed to live, we're freed to face the challenges of this world, because our focus is where it's supposed to be. And it's then when all the delight and all the satisfaction, even in this fallen world, is experienced: when He is the center of all things, and we have become lessened and diminished. It's at that point that our exaltation comes. Those who would be first will be last, but those who are last shall be made first. Let us pray.
Our Lord and our God, we bow before You thanking You for the glory of this prayer, for it's life re-orienting power, and we ask that by the Holy Spirit that You would give us some inkling of the experience of this truth in our own lives. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
[Congregation sings Gloria Patri]
Grace and peace to you, from God your Father and Jesus Christ, your Lord. Amen.