The Lord's Day Morning
February 5, 2006
“To God Be the Glory”
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 work our way through this great prayer.
I'd remind you of a couple of things. One is that this book begins with a doxology. We studied it in Ephesians 3:1-14, so the whole book begins with an ascription of praise to God, and this prayer that we've been studying for a number of weeks began back in verse 14…began with a doxology. Remember? Take a peek at verses 14, 15, and the first part of 16. It's a praise to the God who is the Father of every family of believers in heaven and on earth, and who has glorious riches to pour out on them in answer to prayer.
So, just as this prayer of petition began with a doxology, Paul is ending precisely where he began both the prayer and the book. He's back to doxology. This brings us, really, to the end of the first part of the Book of Ephesians. Now he will turn his attention, especially in chapters 4, 5, and 6, to the living of the Christian life.
And I also want you to note that as we look at this doxology we are reminded repeatedly that the Christian church (the people of God united to Jesus Christ by faith and to one another), because we're united to Jesus Christ by faith, the people of God are simultaneously designed to be the display of God's glory and to give Him glory, to acknowledge His glory, to praise Him for the glory of His grace. So we are to be on display as living demonstrations of His glory, the glory of His grace, and we ourselves are to acknowledge or ascribe to Him the glory that is His. It is not our job to give Him glory that He does not have, but to acknowledge the glory that He is and to praise Him for what He has done. So, when we praise Him we're not adding something to Him that He doesn't have; we're only acknowledging what He already is and what He has already done.
But we are also in our lives to be the display to the world of the glory of His grace. If you will remember that, it will really help as we study this passage today.
Now we've already seen Paul's great petitions in Ephesians 3:14-19. He prays an audacious prayer, an astounding prayer. He prays that you would be strengthened in the depths of your inner being by the power of God's Holy Spirit. It's a stunning prayer: that you would become a little tabernacle where the Spirit of God has come down in His Shekinah glory and made it, as it were, a temple for the living God.
Now, my friends, that would be a glorious prayer to pray for those young men who are with us here today, these Boy Scouts. Their names are on the back panel. You could just take the prayer of Ephesians 3:14-19 and pray that prayer for them that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith; that they would become living temples of the Holy Spirit; that they would live out that truth and be that witness to the world. You could take the missionary who's listed on our bulletin every week and say, ‘Lord God, I want to pray Ephesians 3:14-19 for the Chinchens They’re who we're praying for today. Derek's already prayed for them. Or, you could take the prayer reminder and you could pray through our church roll as it comes to you in The First Epistle each week, and just pray for one another these powerful prayers.
And Paul goes on to say that he prays that we would be strengthened in our inmost being by the Holy Spirit's power so that we would be able to grasp something that is ultimately ungraspable by any human, and that is the height and depth and breadth and width of the love of God in Jesus Christ, that we would be rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus Christ.
Paul wants us as believers to be awash in the sense of the greatness of the love of Christ to us, the unfathomable love of Christ, the deep, deep, love of Jesus that we sing about.
And then he goes on to conclude the prayer with something absolutely astounding. He says ‘And, Lord God, fill them up to all Your fullness.’ You know, if that prayer hadn't been in the mouth of the Apostle Paul, you would have wondered….
You know, there was once a serpent who came to a woman and said to her ‘Take that fruit and you will be like God.’ And we know that serpent is the agent of Satan, and the temptation was to her to attempt to grasp God's authority and His power and His rule and His omniscience and His omnipotence, and we know that that's exactly what Adam meant to do when he took that fruit. Paul tells us in I Timothy that that's exactly what Adam meant to do; he meant to usurp God's position and prerogatives and be like God in that sense. But the Apostle Paul is essentially saying, ‘Lord God, make them like You. Not in Your omnipotence, not in Your omniscience, not in Your ruling authority, but make them like You morally so that they love what You love and they hate what You hate, and they look like You…people look at them and say they can see that that is a person who has been transformed by the grace of the heavenly Father; I can see the moral character of the one true God shining through in the lives of those people.’ And that's an absolutely astounding prayer. He's basically saying, ‘Lord God, make them perfect. Make the Ephesian Christians perfect. Make them like You. Make them like their heavenly Father.’
And then, in the wake of that he sings a doxology, and we're going to see that that doxology is intimately connected with the preceding requests, the preceding petitions. Now before we read it, let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord, this is Your word. Help us to believe it, to understand it; by Your Spirit work its reality deep into our inmost being, and grant that we would live it out for Your glory. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This is an extraordinarily rich passage, and we could spend many, many days on it alone. I want to draw your attention just to four things that we find here.
First of all, I want you to see Paul giving praise to God for God's power; then, I want you to see his exhortation to us to praise God for God's power that is already at work in us. Thirdly I want you to see that God's glory is displayed in the church and in Christ, and the church is called on to praise God for His glory displayed in the church and in Christ; and then, fourthly, I want you to see how Paul points us to the heavenly, to the eternal, praise for which we are destined.
And again, all along let's remember that Paul has made it clear already (and he’ll make it clear again before he's done with this letter) that we as His people, we as the church, are the display of His glory. We are God's public manifestation of His glory to the world, and we are called upon to glorify Him, to praise Him, to give Him glory for His grace and goodness to us.
I. Christians are to praise God for His unlimited ability.
Let's begin in verse 20 by looking at God's power first. Here the Apostle Paul tells us that Christians are to praise God for His unlimited ability: “Now to Him who is able….” Now, that language may obscure for you the connection between this doxology, this ascription of praise to God, and the petition that has gone immediately before it. You remember how Paul had prayed in verse 16 “…that He would grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit.”
Now Paul says, ‘O God, You are able.’ What's that about? Well, he's just prayed that God's power would strengthen you. Now what is he doing? He's acknowledging that God is powerful, God is able. He has no limit to His ability. His ability is unlimited, so having just prayed that God's power would be at work in you, now he says, ‘O God, You are all-powerful.’
And notice how he does it in no uncertain terms: he actually piles up six particular aspects to this ascription of power to God. Just in the first part of verse 20, notice what he does. He says first ‘You are able. That's who You are. You are the able One.’ Secondly, ‘You are able to do what we ask.’
That's so important for Paul to say, because he's just prayed an audacious prayer: ‘Lord God, make them perfect!’ and he knows the Ephesian Christians are going ‘Come on, Paul. You’re going a little too far.’ And the Apostle Paul says, ‘He is able to do what we ask!’
But he doesn't stop there… ‘In fact, He's able to do what we ask or even think; things that we wouldn't even dare pray for in public, He's able to do.’
But he doesn't stop there… ‘He's able to do what we ask or think; He's able to do all that we ask or think,’ he says. He's able to do more than all we ask or think. In fact, what Paul does in this passage is – he makes up a word! And when Paul makes up words, watch out! He's got something important he wants to do. He says God “…is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we can ask or think.” He has to make up a word to express this!
What's his point? His point is that God is powerful! His point is that when the people of God go to Him with a prayer, with a big prayer, with a prayer that they think is just futile, that His power is never in question. It's only a matter of what is His good and perfect will, because His power is absolutely unlimited.
And, my friends, that is so important for Christians to know, because sometimes we go to the Lord with prayers that are hopeless. We’re grieving deep in our hearts about some matter. It may be a child who's astray; it may be a deep wound in our soul because we've lost a loved one and we know that we will never ever see them this side of glory, and we're wrestling with it. It may be a betrayal of a friend. It may be a failure on our own part, a sin that we cannot conquer, and we feel futile when we go to God with that prayer. And the Apostle Paul wants you to understand that God's power is not in question as to His ability to answer! And so he says ‘You praise God for His power.’
Now, isn't that interesting? He's prayed that God's power would be at work in you so that — what? — so that you could understand the ultimately incomprehensible will of God in Christ, so that you would be rooted and grounded in love. So God's power is going to be at work in you so that you are grounded in love; now he turns around and he says ‘Lord God, You’re all-powerful. Your ability is unlimited.’ Isn't that interesting? He prays for God's power to root you in love, and then he turns around and praises God for His power. What's going on there?
My friends, when you praise God for what He is as He reveals Himself to you in the word, one of the things that is happening there is that God is actually grounding you in that truth for which you are praising Him, so that when the day comes that you need to rely on God's power God has worked into your soul deeply the belief in His power that you have been praising Him for for years. Isn't it interesting that even when you’re going to the throne of grace to praise Him for Him, He's giving back something to you that you’re going to need one day: faith – and you've just praised Him for it!
Samuel Rutherford, the great Scottish preacher, put it this way: “I never run an errand to the throne of grace when I do not fetch back a blessing for myself.” What he means is even if he's praying for somebody else — he's not praying selfishly, he's praying for somebody else — and he goes to the throne of grace to pray for somebody else…what does the Lord do? The Lord sends him back with a blessing. Even when he's going to the Lord to praise God for who God is, God sends him back with a blessing. And that's how praise works.
It's ironic, isn't it? The minute you get out of yourself and you get out of your self-preoccupation and you give yourself away in praise to God, what does God do? He sends you back with more than you came with. That's how it works. Praise simultaneously decentralizes self. You cease to be the center of your universe, and at the same time you receive more than you could ask or think from your gracious God, who is ready and willing and able to bless you.
And so the first thing that Paul wants to say is that we're to praise God for His unlimited ability. He is able, and it's important for us to believe that in light of Paul's audacious prayer.
II. God's power that is already at work in us.
But he doesn't stop there, does he? He goes on to verse 20, and he says God's power, this power for which you’re praising Him, is already at work in you, and you need to praise God for that.
You remember this power? Paul described it in Ephesians 1:15-23. You remember what power it is? Look at verse 19 of Ephesians 1:
“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 seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places.”
In other words, the Apostle Paul is saying ‘What is the power that's at work in you? It is the power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that's the power that's at work in you!’
And again, do you see why it's so important that you praise God for that power? Because it is so hard to believe sometimes that that power is really at work in me and in you. We look at ourselves and say ‘Come on, Paul. Look at me. I'm struggling with sins that I was struggling with twenty years ago. I'm not as loving to the flock as I ought to be. We’re not as caring for one another as we ought to be. The church is a mess, Paul! What do you mean, the power of the resurrection is at work in us?’ And the Apostle Paul says ‘Yes, it is. It is the very power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at the right hand of God the Father Almighty that is already at work in you.’
And you know, those Ephesian Christians, I just don't think they could have foreseen what was coming. Now, how many of them were in that room? Thirty-five, forty? Fifty? Sixty scrunched into some house in Ephesus hearing Paul's letter read? Could they have imagined just a few years later an 86 year old man who had come under the ministry of the gospel being called up before a Roman consul and being told ‘Polycarp, you renounce Christ or die.’ Could they imagine him standing before the Roman power and saying, “I've served the Lord Jesus Christ for 86 years and He's never done me any harm. How could I reject Him now?” and being willing to die for Christ. They couldn't have imagined, perhaps, the young martyrs, Perpetua and her dear friend — young girls who were taken and tortured, forced to do unspeakable things because the authorities wanted them to renounce Christ – ultimately dying, and yet professing their faith to the end. They perhaps could not have imagined the coming of Augustine and Calvin and Luther and Spurgeon and Whitefield, and a great host of martyrs and preachers and Christians. They couldn't imagine that today there would be two billion people around this earth that would profess the name of Jesus Christ. But God says ‘Ephesians, don't doubt it: My power is at work in you. And even if it's imperceptible to you sometimes, do not doubt that My power is at work. It will prevail. It seated Christ in glory, it raised Him from the dead, and it will accomplish everything that I intend to accomplish in you.’ And so we're to praise God for that power.
III. God's glory displayed in the Church ad in Christ.
And then he says ‘…and remember…remember that God's glory is displayed in the church and in Christ Jesus.’ Look at what he says in verse 21: “To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus….” He's saying that God's glory is displayed in the church and in Christ; God's grace is displayed in His one people, redeemed by the blood of His Son. His grace is displayed in His Son's person and work. His grace is displayed in His people. This is an astonishing thing. Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God, but the Apostle Paul is saying that the heavens pale in comparison to the glory that God is showing amongst His people.
Now, that's a humbling thought if ever there were one: that God's glory is most displayed in you, my friends, trusting and resting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, gathered into a Christian congregation to worship Him, to witness to Him, to do outreach and evangelism, and to do discipleship together. God's glory is most displayed in His church. That's what Paul is saying. That's what the word says: that His glory is displayed in the church and in Christ Jesus.
His glory is displayed when sinners are brought out of deserved condemnation into the adoption as sons and daughters, forgiven of their sins, transformed by God's Holy Sprit, made to be those who delight in God. God's glory is displayed in that. God's glory is displayed when people with different backgrounds and different colors and different cultures are brought together around Jesus Christ and they love one another because they love the gospel and love Jesus Christ, and they want to be together praising Him. God's glory is displayed, and the world is shown His glory.
My friends, the Apostle Paul is saying something quite extraordinary here: the church is the display of His glory.
Now again, you may say ‘Look around you, Ligon! We don't look like the display of His glory.’ Well, I want to say three things to that.
The first thing I want to say to that is this: My friends, you don't always see what God is doing, because what we're looking at right now is the scaffolding. You know, for about eight months we have been looking at a gigantic hole in the ground on North State Street, and it depresses me every time I pass it! And it's been so heartening this week to see just a little steel coming up out of the ground! Well, you know, that building will one day be a beautiful building. It will be absolutely gorgeous. Right now it looks horrible, but one day, because they've taken the time to do what needs to be done, it's going to be a handsome building, a wonderful, comfortable, glorious place to gather to worship God. And that's what we see when we look out at the visible church today: all we're seeing is the construction ground.
Have you ever gone to a city and you wanted…there's a building you've wanted to see your whole life…and you get there, and it's surrounded by scaffolding! You know, you always wanted to see Westminster Abbey, and you get off the plane and you take the bus into London, and —whoosh! — the scaffolding is around the whole thing! You can't see anything but a couple of things sticking up from the spires. Or you wanted to go to Washington about three years ago and see the Washington Monument, and all there was was this gigantic scaffolding around it with the top sort of sticking out. Or you wanted to see the Cathedral of Chartre, you wanted to see Notre Dame, and the scaffolding was all around it.
Well, my friends, that's what you see right now of the church, is the scaffolding. It's the workplace right now, and one day God is going to bring down that scaffolding and He's going to say ‘This is what I have been building from eternity to be the bride of My Son, and she is altogether glorious.’
So that's the first thing I want to say, is that you don't always see all that God is doing.
The second thing I want to say is this: sometimes we do see some of the glory of what God is doing. You know, that meeting — what was it? Five, six, seven years ago? – between Archbishop Kolini in Rwanda, the head of the Anglican Church there — a godly, consecrated evangelical, Bible-believing man who had presided over that people as they went through one of the most genocides ever perpetrated in our time. And this embassy of evangelical Anglicans from the United States, richest country in the world, coming to poor, bereft Rwanda and asking that Archbishop ‘Would you give spiritual leadership so that we can plant evangelical Anglican churches in our country?’
Now, what Archbishop Kolini did is he sent them all over the country to see the spots where Rwandan Christians — what was it? A million or more of them? — had died; to show them the spots where they died, where they had been slaughtered en masse. For three days they toured those sites. They came in, and they finally had a visitation, a meeting, an embassy with Archbishop Kolini, and he said ‘Now, you tell me. What are you here for?’ And they said, ‘Well, Archbishop Kolinii, we're here to ask for your help.’ And he said, ‘That's good. I want to tell you something. When my people were dying, we sent to you for help, and no help came. Now you have come to us for help, and I am going to tell you something. We will give it to you.’
Friends! That is the display of God's glory in His church! When people with nothing say ‘We will bless you who have everything that the world has to offer, but nothing of what God has to offer. We will bless you with it. We will help you.’ God sometimes just unveils in a striking way in His church His glory, and veils that glory.
But thirdly, I would say this. My friends, when you look at the church and you see it imperfect and you see it not living up to the expectations of the New Testament, you don't see it displaying God's love, you don't see it displaying God's holiness, you don't see it displaying a delight in God, just remember this: All you’re seeing is the proof that what Jesus said was true, because Jesus told us that His church would never be perfect until He came again and made us perfect. And so if you can show me a perfect church somewhere, I would show you a demonstration that Jesus had not told the truth. But because you will never be able to show me a perfect church anywhere, I will once again contend that Jesus was exactly right in what He said. He said there will never be a church that is perfect; but God is going to display His glory in the church!
We’re to praise Him for that. It's a stunning thing, that it's not the heavens declaring the glory of God that will bring the nations to Christ; it will be the display of God's glory in the church. What is God's great plan for evangelism? You! The display of His glory in you.
IV. God's heavenly/eternal praise.
Now one last thing: Notice how Paul says “To Him be the glory to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” What's the Apostle Paul reminding us of there? He's reminding us of God's heavenly, eternal praise. He's reminding us that when we gather Lord's Day after Lord's Day, it's not that the saints above are joining us in worship: it's that we are joining them in a worship that's going to go on forever. You see, they’re doing the real worship, and we have sung with the fullest emotion of our hearts. When we have responded to the word with all the powers of our mind and being, when we have come into worship as full as we have ever been, we have not seen an inkling of the worship above. It only vaguely approximates the glory of the worship above, but we are participating in that worship, and we're preparing for that worship, and we have the privilege in the church of joining in that worship.
Didn't you love that line from Isaac Watts where David prays “Oh, may Thy house be mine abode, and all my work be praise”? Well, that's a picture of glory, and we're just participating in a tiny inkling of that when we gather Lord's Day after Lord's Day. And the Apostle Paul says you praise God because you’re going to be a part of that eternal heavenly worship; in fact, what you’re doing here is just a little tiny foretaste of that perfect praise above.
You know, when Samuel Rutherford was writing to Lady Kenmure, a godly woman for whom he had enormous respect…she lost several children while he was the pastor of the little church in Anwoth. After she had lost one of her children — it may have been her third child that she had lost, died in infancy — he wrote to her a letter, and he was pulling every biblical comfort that he could possibly think of and pouring it into that letter to minister to her soul. And one of the things he said to her was this:
“My dear Lady, when you are got up thither, you will say ‘Four and twenty hours in this place is more than all the three-score years and ten of sorrow that I have endured below.’”
In other words, he was saying ‘Dear Lady Kenmure, you’re going to be there 24 hours and you’re going to say ‘This is beyond anything that I could have comprehended, and everything that I experienced by way of trial in seventy years of life on earth, it cannot even remotely compare to what I'm experiencing now.’
And, you see, Paul's reminding us of that there. You’re just…all we are are the suburbs of glory, the outposts of heaven. When you enter into those gates….! Mind cannot comprehend, word cannot tell of the glory that you will experience. But you’re to praise God for that now in anticipation of it, and join in just a little foretaste of it as you gather Lord's Day after Lord's Day.
May God bless His word. Let's pray.
Oh, Lord, to You be all the glory, for Christ's sake. Amen.
Let's sing to God's praise the first stanza of To God Be the Glory.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, both now and forever more. Amen.