The Lord's Day Morning
September 25, 2005
The Surpassing Greatness of His Power….to the Church
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter one, as we continue making our way through this great letter of the Apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus and to you and me, because we know that every word is given by inspiration, and every word is profitable to equip us for every good work as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, Paul has been leading us in an intercessionary, petitionary prayer from verse 15. We've been studying this for a couple of weeks now, and we're going to look today at verses 19 through 23, but you’ll notice that verse 19 actually begins in the middle of a sentence so I need to remind you where we've been. He has already prayed in this petition that the Lord would “enlighten the eyes of your heart” to know three things: To know the hope of your calling — in other words, the Apostle Paul wants you to realize that from the foundation of the world God has invested your life with His purpose. He has given you a calling. There is a meaning, there is an eternally significant meaning, to your life that God has given. There are a lot of people that would go through this life not knowing what they’re here for, not knowing if it means anything, and here's Paul at the outset saying ‘Lord, I want these Christians to have their eyes so opened that they understand that You have invested their life with an eternally significant meaning. Their calling gives them hope in this sin-darkened world.’
But he now only wants our eyes to be enlightened so that we know that hope of our calling, he also wants us to see “the riches of the glory of God's inheritance in the saints”, and whether we take that as God's inheritance of us or the inheritance that God gives us, that is something that will only in its fullness be displayed in the future. We are God's inheritance, and God has granted us a rich inheritance in Jesus Christ, but we won't experience the fullness of that until kingdom come in all its glory. We have foretastes of it now; we've got a down payment of it now. Paul's already prayed about that in Ephesians 1:13, 14. The Holy Spirit Himself is a down payment of that future glory, but we will not experience [it until the future].
Well, how does a believer get from beginning to end? How does he get from knowing the purpose of his life to finding the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises in life? He needs God's power. And isn't it interesting that that's the next thing that Paul prays for here. He prays that our eyes would be enlightened to know the surpassing greatness of God's power.
Now, really, the rest of the chapter is taken up with convincing you of the surpassing greatness of God's power. It's convincing you of the reality of this petition which Paul is lifting up. He prays that you would know the surpassing greatness of God's power to us in Jesus Christ, and then he begins to add on to that petition, and in the process of adding on to that petition he shows us evidences of God's power because he knows in our heart of hearts, when we run into trials an difficulties and when we see the sin of our own hearts, we will begin to question the adequacy of God's power to deal with those trials and to deal with our sins, and to get us from the beginning to the end; and so he prays ‘Lord God, for these Ephesians, Lord God, for these Christians in Jackson, would you enlighten their eyes so that they could see the surpassing greatness of Your power towards them in Jesus Christ.’ And that's what we're going to focus on today, and it is so, so important in the Christian life. We need to know when we go to the Lord in prayer that those prayers far beyond what we could ask or imagine. We need to know when we walk with the Lord that He has the power to keep us from stumbling. We need to know when we're walking with the Lord that He has the power to conquer the intractable sin that we still see in our hearts, battling against that sin, becoming sometimes so discouraged in our battle against that sin that we throw our arms up in the air and we wonder, ‘Lord, are we ever, ever going to see some modicum of victory over this sin? Over this habit? Over this attitude? Over this problem?’ And we need to know the greatness of God's power as we wrestle with all
those things, and that's what Paul is going to point us to today.
Now before we read God's word and hear it proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask His help and blessing.
Lord God, this is Your word, and You give it to sanctify us in Your truth; so by Your Holy Spirit we do pray that You would help us to understand it, but also that You would by Your grace conform us to the image of Your Son, even in the understanding of Your word. We pray, O God, that we would approach Your word as we ought: as Your word, inspired, inerrant, infallible, and that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment and Your glory. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Hear the word of God. We’ll begin in verse 19.
“…And what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and stated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection 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.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
You've already caught that verse 19 is in the middle of a sentence, and that sentence begins in verse 18, and we've looked at the first two parts of that sentence, so to catch the gist of what we've just read in verse 19, go back to verse 18 and see where Paul says
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know… [and then you can go to verse 19] …what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.”
Now he's already spoken of two other things in verse 18 that he wants us to know by the Holy Spirit's enlightening the eyes of our hearts, and now he comes to a third thing here in verse 19. He wants us as Christians to know the surpassing greatness of God's power towards us, because he knows that that's absolutely essential for the living of the Christian life.
Many people have been pondering the significance of these great storms which have come ashore in the Gulf of the United States over the last month — Katrina, and now Rita — and various answers have been given in response to ‘What is God doing in this?’ or ‘How do we relate these storms to a sovereign and good God?’ Some of those answers are better than others.
One really bad answer that has been given of late was given by Tony Campolo, the controversial theologian and sociologist who suggested that one of the things that we need to learn from Katrina is that God is not all-powerful. He emphasized that though God is the most powerful force in the universe, He is not all-powerful; and that, therefore, many things are out of His control and that is what we're to learn when we see disasters and tragedies and gigantic natural phenomena like Katrina in the world causing destruction and havoc and harming the lives of human beings. We’re to learn that “God is not all-powerful.” Well, of course, this seems to be pointing in precisely the opposite direction of Paul's words today.
Paul knows that believers need to know that God has the power to get them from the beginning to the end of the Christian life. And even when we're not pondering gigantic questions like God and Katrina, we are asking ourselves very often questions about God's power. Some of us are looking at our own lives and we're asking ‘Is there a power that can subdue my tongue? Is there a power that can subdue my anger? Is there a power that can subdue my bitterness? Is there a power that can subdue my lust? Is there something that can conquer the sin that I continue to see in my own life that I don't ever seem to get a hold of? Can I really believe that God, in His word of grace, is going to grow me up so that I am not captive by these sins, by these habits, by these patterns of life that I know that are wrong, and yet don't ever seem to be able to get hold of? Well, the Apostle Paul is there waiting for us when we're asking questions like that, and he says that he is praying that God would open the eyes of your heart (or, enlighten the eyes of your heart) so that you will know the surpassing greatness of His power toward us to believe.
The Apostle Paul is especially speaking here, you see, about the power of God at work for His people. Notice the phrase “…toward us who believe.” Paul is especially thinking in terms of the power of God in operation towards believers, towards Christians, for their sanctification: for making them more like Jesus Christ, for growing them up in grace, for making them more gracious people, more faithful people, more believing people. And he gives a long series of evidences of God's power precisely in prayer of petition to help convince us of the greatness of God's power; and I want you to see three of the things in particular that he says that remind us of the greatness of God's power.
Notice the phrase that begins in verse 19, that “…the surpassing greatness of His power” is in accordance with the working of the strength of His might, which He brought about in Christ. Now Paul is telling you there that one way you can see the power of God, and one way that you can see that the power of God is sufficient to help you along in the Christian life, is to look at the power of God at work in the life of Jesus Christ.
Now, he could have chosen many things, but he points us to three particular things, and the first thing you’ll see there in verse 20. We see the power of God at work in the life of Jesus Christ in the resurrection. When He raised Him from the dead, there we saw the working of the strength of His might, which He brought about in Christ when He raised Him from the dead. And so the apostle is saying this: The power that is at work in you is the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. When you begin asking yourself ‘Lord, is there a power that can subdue my sin?’ Paul's answer is ‘The power that is at work in believers is the same power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a death-conquering power, and therefore believers can be confident that the One who is at work in us is greater than anything in this world, because that One who is at work in us has already raised His Son from the dead.
Death is the grand reality from which none of us can escape. One of the commentators I was reading in preparation for this message was talking about a visit he had made to a lady in his congregation who (he had gotten word at the church that she was very seriously ill) had been taken to the hospital and did not have very long to live. And so he rushed there expecting to find her at death's door, and found her sitting up in the bed smiling and chatting and joking and laughing. And he walked into the room, and she said to him, “Well, the doctors told me that I was going to die, but I just decided I wasn't going to do that today!” And he said she had a lot of spunk in her; but, he said (writing in the book), she's dead now. She did later on die. We all die. None of us have in and of ourselves the power to cheat death. Only God has the power to reverse the effects of the fall and raise from the dead, and the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Christian, it is that power that is at work in you. When you’re questioning whether God can conquer than sin, whether God can grant you the grace to endure your particular trial, remember that it is the power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead that is at work in you.
And he doesn't stop there. He goes on to say in verse 20 that it's the same power that seated Him [that is, Jesus Christ] …. that “seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places….” This is referring to the ascension of Jesus Christ and His heavenly session, His rule from the right hand of God the Father Almighty. And so, Paul is saying ‘Let me give you another proof of the power of God being enough to help you in the Christian life: the power that is at work in you is the same power that caused the ascension of Christ and has undergirded His heavenly session at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’
And in verses 21-22, he tells you three things about Jesus’ ascension and heavenly rule. First of all, he says that when Christ was seated at the right hand, He was placed far above all rule and all authority, and all power and all dominion. Now, this especially indicates that there is no opposing force in the universe over which Jesus Christ does not reign. Remember Psalm 110, where God promises the Lord Jesus Christ, His Son the Messiah, that He will reign and make His enemies His footstool? Well, this is the fulfillment of that truth that Paul is praying about: that God has brought all things in opposition to Him under the rule and subjection and authority of Jesus Christ. And Paul is saying ‘Look. The power that subjected all of the demonic forces of this world, all of the opposing forces of this world against God, the power that subjected those to Jesus Christ is the power that is at work in you.
And he doesn't stop, he goes on. Notice again “…And every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come.” This indicates that Christ was exalted above the highest angels, above the most exalted names in the universe; that He is given pre-eminence. You remember what Paul will say in Philippians 2, that “…at His name, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.” And so, the same power that exalted Jesus to the pre-eminence in this universe is the power that is at work in you.
But he doesn't stop there. Notice verse 22. He goes on to say a third thing about Jesus’ ascension and His heavenly session at the right hand. He tells us that the Father has “…put all things in subjection under His feet.” Now, notice there what he says. What has been put under subjection? “All things.” Now that's a phrase that Paul uses all the time. “All things.” Does that mean that there are some things that are out of God's control? No, it says that “all things” are put under Jesus Christ. All things are put under Him; they are put in subjection under His feet. What is the Apostle Paul doing? He's again reminding you of the greatness of the power that is at work in you.
But he doesn't stop there. He's told you first that God's power is displayed in the resurrection of Christ; and he's told you, secondly, that God's power is displayed in the ascension of Christ to the right hand and in God's granting Christ rule from His right hand. But he goes on to say in verse 22 “…and He gave Him as head over [once again] all things…” to whom? “To the church.” Now there's a very interesting thing: that this rule over all things that Christ has been granted has been granted for the benefit of those He loves, of those who love Him, of His people, of those who trust in Him — of His church. That is, He rules the world by His word and Spirit for the benefit of His people.
When we're asking ‘Lord, is there a power that can liberate me from the bondage to my anger? Is there a power that can liberate me from the bondage to this sin or that sin? Is there a power that can get me through the trial that I'm enduring now? Lord, am I a pawn in this world of powerful forces?’ the answer is that the same power is at work in you which raised Jesus from the dead, which caused Him to be set at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and which has granted Him as the ruler over everything for the sake of His people. All of these Paul is piling up so that we will be confident in God's provision for us.
My friends, we will never pray effectively if we do not believe that God has the power to answer our prayers. We will never live the Christians life confidently unless we believe that God has the power to answer our prayers, and has the power to protect us, and has the power to guide us, and has the power to take us to the end.
And then I want you to see here that he says about the church…what does he say about the church in verse 23? That the church “…is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Now, the commentators have spilled gallons of ink over that phrase, and we won't explain all of it today, but I do want to draw your attention to two things very briefly.
First of all, notice that the church itself is called ‘the body of Christ.’ That is how intimately connected we are to our Savior; and as it is with the Master, so it is with the disciple. That's why we expect there to be hard things in this world, and losses and crosses. But even as there are hard things in this world, because it is true that as it is with the Master so also with the disciples, so we shall be raised to newness of life with Him. His power will triumph over everything arrayed against us in this life, in Jesus Christ.
But the second thing I want you to see is this: Notice that the church, His body, is called “…the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Now just file that away, because we're going to come back to that phrase the fullness again in the Book of Ephesians, in chapter three and in chapter four, and it's going to have special encouragement for believers. But I do want to give you a little hint. One of the things that it's pointing to is that God's purpose is to make us mature and to grow us up to be like Jesus Christ, so that if you’re a believer and you’re struggling with sin and you’re wondering if there is a power out there that is strong enough to give you victory in that battle against sin, you remember that it's God's power — who raised Jesus from the dead, set Him at the right hand — that is at work in you, and it is that power of God that is determined to fill you up to all the fullness of Him who fills all in all. To mature you — that is His purpose. He will not be thwarted. Death could not stay Him in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. All the principalities and powers of this world and its present rulers of darkness could not stay Him in the exaltation of Jesus Christ. Nothing will stand before Him when He comes again in power and glory. That same power is at work in us, and the Apostle Paul wants us to believe that, and that's why he's praying this prayer of petition: that we would understand, that we would see with the enlightened eyes of our heart, the surpassing of His greatness, of His power, to us in Jesus Christ.
Our Lord and our God, it is easier for us to read and in a measure to understand these words than it is for us to see them worked out in our experience, because we are very acquainted with our own weakness. And yet, O God, we know that the power that is at work in Your people is Your limitless, surpassingly great power. So we pray, O God, that You would grant that we would pray to You in confidence in that power, and that we would live in confidence in that power. So often we live below the reality that You have granted to us in Jesus Christ. We do not grasp blessings You hold out for us that would prove much comfort of heart in time of trial. Grant that You would, by Your Spirit, enlighten our eyes so that we would see Your surpassing greatness, Your power, and would live in accordance with it. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Let's take our hymnals in hand and sing the first stanza of No. 347.
[Congregational Hymn: The Church's One Foundation]
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.