The Lord's Day Morning
January 22, 2006
“What to Pray For One Another (2)”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians 3. We've been looking at this prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19 for a number of weeks now. We spent the first message in this passage looking just at Paul's words of rationale as to why he was praying. You see those words, “For this reason I pray…for this reason I bow my knees to the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name…”; and from verse 14 all the way down to the first part of verse 16, the Apostle Paul gives us the context of this prayer. He explains his confidence in the abundance of God's riches and what God has done on their behalf.
And then the last time we were together, we looked at the petitions contained in verses 16 and 17–really, the end of verse 16 and the beginning of verse 17. That's as far as we got. Now just let me go ahead and confess today, we're not going to get through these five points on the outline that you have! We’re going to get maybe three points into this message and we’ll just have to pick it up later on, but there's so much here.
And so today I want you to be looking especially for these three things: Faith; Life; and Knowledge.
Notice first of all, right in the middle of verse 17, that Paul emphasizes that the indwelling of Christ and the power of His Spirit is received in our hearts — how? — by faith. Paul emphasizes that faith isn't just something that we need at the beginning of the Christian life, where we believe and trust in Jesus for salvation, and then we're done with faith and we move on to works. No, we grow in the Christian life by faith. It is a constant exercise of our faith, our trust, dependence on God, which is part and parcel of the way that we grow as Christians; and so, he wants to emphasize that this spiritual power that he's praying for us, this indwelling of Christ, is something that we receive by faith.
Then secondly, notice that the reason he's praying this prayer that we would be “rooted and grounded in God's love” is because he's wanting a certain quality of life to be produced in us as Christians in the local congregation. And so I want you to notice not only the faith, but this life–this life rooted and founded on love that Paul is concerned to see fostered in the congregation.
And then finally, notice his prayer for knowledge: that we would know, that we would be able to comprehend, the love of Christ. And so Paul is concerned to pray for faith, for life, for knowledge. That's about as far as we’ll be able to get today, so I will stop there. Let's look to God in prayer before we begin, and ask for His help and blessing.
Our Lord and our God, we do bow before You. We honor You, we acknowledge You as the one true God. This is Your word. We pray that You would speak to us by Your word, that Your word would as a living and active two-edged sword of the Spirit to pierce our hearts, dividing into its very depths, enlivening us, not returning void. Grant that we would respond to this word in faith, in humility; honoring it as Your very word, the only final authority for faith and life, your truth which is profitable for the living of this life. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God. We’ll read the whole prayer, beginning in verse 14. This is God's word.
“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, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Now before we even get into this prayer again, I want to remind you that as we work through this prayer there are two immediate applications that we ourselves can make as we work through the prayer. There are many applications of this biblical truth. I hope we’ll explain some of them together today, and when we're together again, but there are two immediate applications which ought to be in the forefront in our minds.
The first is simply this: As we work through Paul's prayer for the Ephesians and for us, we are being taught how to pray for ourselves and for one another. So one of the things that we ought to be asking ourselves by way of application as we work through this passage is ‘What is this passage teaching me to pray for myself and for my brothers and sisters in Christ?’ This passage is wonderfully practical in the way it supplies us biblical substance for prayer for one another. It guides us in how to pray for one another. Sometimes we get ready to pray, and we may be so dry, or we may be so distracted or so burdened, that we can't come up with the stuff to pray. And when we come to those circumstances (and even when we don't), the Bible is waiting for us to supply us the substance, the content, of our prayer, and here's one of those passages.
You’re stumped, you don't know where to begin to pray? Well, open up your Bible at Ephesians 3:14 and start praying it for yourself, start praying it for one another. Or, open up your Bible at the Lord's Prayer and start praying it for yourself and praying it for one another. Use the prayers of Scripture to stimulate and supply your own prayer. So, one of the immediate applications as we work through this prayer together is God is teaching us in His word how to pray for ourselves and one another.
Secondly, however, working through this prayer offers us an index of our own desires. Paul, as we see him down on his hands and knees in a prison cell with the perspiration falling off of his brow as he intercedes for the Ephesians and for you, praying that God would do this in your life, you know what we're seeing? We’re seeing a little glimpse of the desires of Paul's heart. We’re seeing just a little of what Paul wanted more than anything in the world for you as a Christian. And when we see that we ought to ask ourselves a question: ‘Is that what I desire? Is that what I desire for me more than anything else? Is that what I desire for my brothers and sisters in Christ more than anything else?’ And if our answer–if we're being honest — we're looking in the mirror–if our answer is no, that's not really what I desire more than anything else, then the immediate application is ‘Lord, make that my desire! If Paul is praying this prayer with such fervency for the Ephesians and for me, surely this must be what I really ought to want, so, Lord God, give me that desire.’
Or maybe we say ‘Lord, that is my desire, but it's not nearly enough my desire’. Then we say ‘Lord God, give me a greater desire for that.’ Or maybe it really is our deep desire. Then we say ‘Lord God, continue my desire. Stoke my desire, and give that desire to my brothers and sisters in Christ.’
So this prayer and our study of it is immediately applicable in teaching us how to pray for ourselves and for one another, and also providing us with a mirror, an index of our own desires. Is this what we really desire in life? And if it isn't, why not? And if it isn't, Lord God, give us these desires.
Now let's work through the passage together. I want you to see three things.
I. The first thing you see right there in the middle of verse 17. Paul prays that God would supply you with spiritual power to strengthen you in your inmost being, and that Christ would dwell in your heart — how? — through faith. Through faith. Paul is praying that you would know the Spirit's power and Christ's indwelling by faith. Paul is praying that you would by faith appropriate spiritual power and Christ's indwelling, that it would be by faith that you would grow, that by faith you would be strengthened, that by faith your heart would become more a suitable place for Jesus to move into and live…not just a hotel room for Him to stay in for a while, but a home that becomes like a home that He himself would be comfortable in, and the Apostle Paul says this happens by faith. Now, this is so important because Paul knows that the whole of the Christian life is lived by faith.
That doesn't mean, of course, that we don't do anything in the Christian life. There are lots of things in the Christian life that are important for us to do for our spiritual health and well-being. One of them is not forsaking to gather together with the brethren to worship God, and so there are certain habits and disciplines of the Christian life that are important for spiritual growth.
Faith is an essential component of our growth in Christ because faith, among other things, reminds us that we are totally dependent on God's power. So often in the Christian life, we want God to give us power so that we can get control of our situation, and that's never how the Christian life works. And so, when we receive the Spirit's power by faith we are reminded that we continue to be utterly dependent upon God; and that power works in us not so that we can get control of our situation, but so that we can remember the One who is in control of our situation: the Lord God of heaven and earth, Who's working everything out for the good of His own people and for His own glory.
And one of the maturing phases of the Christian life is that realization that ‘I can't make things safe for me. I can't get control of every aspect of my life. I have to walk in faith. I have to trust God, who is in control of everything.’ Faith recognizes our dependence upon God. It doesn't try and substitute our control for God's control, our power for God's power, to make things safe, to make things right in the Christian life. The Christian life has lots of things that come into it that are hard, and that life can't be made safe by our getting control and keeping those things from happening, because we don't have that power. We’re not sovereign. The Christian life can be lived with confidence and joy when by faith we realize that though we do not control our destiny, there is One who loves us and gave His Son for us who does control our destiny and our circumstances and our situations.
And so the Apostle Paul is at pains to emphasize that the Spirit's power and Christ's indwelling are something that are operative in our hearts by faith, so that faith is an ongoing aspect of our growing up as Christians.
And then, secondly, notice again in verse 17 that Paul prays that we would have a life established and anchored in God's love. “That you being rooted and grounded in love…” Don't you love that language, with the one term sort of a botanical term, rooted (think of a big oak tree with that extensive root system), and one an architectural term grounded, like a foundation — a skyscraper with a foundation that goes sixteen floors deep? That we would have a life “rooted and grounded in the love of God” — why is Paul praying that?
Well, Paul knows that we need a life that is supplied by God's love, that is rooted in God's love, that is grounded upon God's love, because God has called us to live amongst and to love sinners, even in the church; and he knows that in order for you to love one another you will need to have a life that has been established and anchored in the love of God. Even as Jesus loved sinners that let Him down, He calls us to love sinners that let us down, sinners that betray us, sinners that wound us, sinners that hurt us, sinners that disappoint us, sinners that do real sins against us. Those are the ones that He calls us to love, and He knows that no human being has the power to do that in and of himself, in and of herself. Only the power of God can root us and ground us in the love of God so that we can love like God.
We desperately need that, my friends. It is that love-witness which Jesus says the world will take note of. There are many today working very hard to make sure that Christians are ministering to the poor and the oppressed and to the downtrodden, and that's a good thing. The Bible talks about it all the time. But there are many who think that that is the key thing in order to convince the world that we are Christians. But Jesus says ‘No, the thing that convinces the world that we're Christians is when we love one another’ — because, my friends, it's easy to love somebody that you don't live with. It's easy to love someone that you’re not right next to. It's easy to love someone that you don't know. But when you live with people, when you get to know them and you know what they’re like, and then you get done in by them, you get the knife in your back, you get the stab in your heart, you get the disappointment in the relationship…ah, then and only then do you even have the opportunity to begin to love like God.
And so the Apostle Paul says ‘Ephesian Christians — Christians in First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi — I'm praying that your life will be so rooted and grounded in the love of God that you will be able to love like I love, that your life would manifest my forgiving love toward sinners in the way you relate to one another.’
II. But he doesn't stop there, he goes on to pray for another thing, and it's a glorious thing. We see it there in verses 17-19. He prays that we would have a knowledge of Christ's love, which is beyond knowledge. I really meant to say that.
He prays that we would have a knowledge of Christ's love, which is beyond knowledge! What in the world is Paul talking about here? What is he grasping to say when he says that we, being rooted and grounded in love, would be able to comprehend with …what is the breadth and length, and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge?
Paul is saying that he wants you to have the ability to grasp the love of Christ in your soul. He wants you as a believer to have a real, personal, experience and comprehension of the incomparable love of Christ.
You need to be asking yourself this question: Why would God — why would Paul — say that we needed power in order to know the love of Christ? Because, my friends, knowing the love of Christ does not come naturally. The love of Christ is naturally beyond our understanding to experience. It is hard for the love of Christ to get through. There are many in this room who have been walking with the Lord for many years who have wrestled with knowing, with experiencing, the love of Christ for them, and there are various reasons for that. Sometimes it's their own relationship with their parents. It might not have been a relationship that cultivated in them a sense of their gracious acceptance by the Almighty God and Father, our loving God who gave His own Son for us. For others it may be a life of sin, a pattern of sin, or a particular sin that they feel has separated them from God and that prevents them from ever being able to be right with God, or to approach God, and they constantly carry an unresolved sense of guilt around, and they wonder that if they get into God's presence and He realizes that sin that is there, that He couldn't possibly accept them, He couldn't possibly love them, He couldn't possibly keep them and save them, and commune with them, and fellowship with them.
And there are many other reasons as well, but for the Apostle Paul it is absolutely vital that we have a real and personal experience and comprehension of the incomprehensible love of Christ, because it is absolutely essential to our spiritual maturity. Paul knows that if we do not at least in some measure know the boundless love of Christ for us, we cannot grow up! We cannot mature as Christians.
Don Carson, in his wonderful book The Call to Spiritual Reformation, tells the story of a colleague of his at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, Perry Downs. Perry and his wife are foster parents. They, at the time of the writing of the book, had taken something like twenty children in their home as newborns and kept them until they were permanently placed in adoptive families — one of the ways that they ministered. And one day the state called them up, and they said, “We've got a little different situation here. We don't have a newborn, but we wonder if you would be willing to take this case.”
“Tell us about it.”
“Well, we've got two boys, twin boys. They’re not newborns, they’re eighteen months old. But they’ll only be with you for six weeks. Would you be willing to take them in?”
“Oh, one other thing. These boys have been abused in the families in which they have been before they came to you. In fact, they've been in nine different homes since they were born, and the psychologists tell us their affects, their emotional response, has been so deeply damaged by their experiences that they are, very frankly, abnormal in the way they respond to parents, to adults. They’re not sure they’ll ever be right.”
“We’ll take them anyway.”
Well, the first night the boys are in the home and they put them to bed. And they’re down the hall, and Perry and his wife are in the living room, and they hear something really strange: nothing! Two eighteen-month-old boys, twin boys, in the bed, 7:30 — nothing! That's strange. They were curious. They go down the hall; the boys are in the bed, pillows over their faces muffling their sobs.
Why? Because in some of the homes in which they had been before, whenever they cried they were beaten.
Those twin boys ended up being in the Downs home not for six weeks, or for six months, but for well over a year. And then they were placed in a permanent, loving, adoptive home. When the social workers and psychologists met with the Downs's as the boys were being transferred into their permanent home, they said, “Something amazing has happened to these boys. They are responding affectively, emotionally, like healthy children ought to respond.”
What had happened to those two little boys? They had experienced the love of parents as God had intended them to experience the love of parents, and it had literally matured them!
The Apostle Paul is not saying that he wants you to go out and read a book about the love of Christ: he's saying that he wants you to experience, to know yourself, the love of Christ. And you need the power of God to know that, my friends, because you can't know that on your own. That is the work of God in your heart.
When you think of what Paul is praying here, do you realize how audacious this prayer is? If this prayer weren't written down in Ephesians 3:14-19, and I stood up to pray it, the elders might call me in to check me out for heresy, because this prayer is audacious! We’re not even going to see the…the most audacious part of it is yet to come, but notice…see what Paul's saying here: ‘I want you to personally experience the fullness of the love of Christ which ultimately is incomprehensible and cannot be known. I want you to know something that can't be known to the full. I want you to comprehend something that can't be comprehended to the full.’ Paul wants you to experience that, but it takes the power of God, it takes the work of the Holy Spirit for that knowledge, that experience of the love of Christ.
R.A. Torrey, it was said, had prayed for years that God would show him His face. And one day as he was reading his Scriptures, he was doing his devotions, he was suddenly awash in the sense of the love of God for him in Jesus Christ, so much that after a period of time he cried out to God, “Show me no more! I cannot bear it!” The Apostle Paul is saying ‘That's what I want for you, Ephesians; that's what I want for you, brothers and sisters in Christ in Jackson: I want you to be so awash in the knowledge and the experience of the love of God in Christ that you have to cry out ‘Show me no more, I cannot bear it!’’
When I was in Scotland my first two years, I coached the University of Edinburgh basketball team. And we had been to St. Andrew's to play (the University of St. Andrew's) — and we were robbed! It was the lousiest officiating in the history of the world! When we played St. Andrew's the next time, we beat them by 30 points, but they beat us 72-69, and the officials stole that game from us, and I was in a foul mood when I came back to Edinburgh that night.
Now, the next Sunday, the next morning, was communion season at Greyfriars in Edinburgh. And in some of the Scottish churches, you have a “communion season” before you have Communion Sunday. You have a service on Wednesday night, on Thursday night; and on Saturday night, a preparation service where at the end of that preparation service those Christians who have gathered are given a token by the elders to indicate that they have prepared to come to the Lord's Table.
I got back to Edinburgh in time to go to that preparation service, but I didn't feel like going! I was in a foul mood! And so I didn't go.
So the next morning I got up, and I knew there was going to be a communion service, so I thought, “OK, I’ll go to church and I’ll slip in the back, and I’ll go in the back row in the section where they don't serve communion, and I’ll just kind of go to the service and hide there.” And when I walked in the door, one of my dear friends who is a ruling elder said, “Oh, Ligon! Come over here! Let me give you a visitor's token.”
I thought, “OK, well, I’ll take the token from John and then I’ll just slip in the back door and I’ll still sit down in the non-communion section.”
Well, who was waiting for me at the door? My dear friend, Deacon Martin Cameron, and Martin says, “Oh, Ligon, let me take you right up front and sit you in the very front of the communion section.” I thought, “Oh, no….Well, when the cup and the bread come by, I’ll just pass them by.”
And then, what do they do? The next person they sat down next to me was the former Principal of the Free Church of Scotland College — the equivalent of the President of RTS! They sat him down, right next to me.
And then the message began and it was on the love of God from Romans 8:32, and it was the greatest message I'd ever heard on the love of God. And God just melted my heart right there. I began to weep. In fact, I began to weep so much, I thought, “These Scots are going to think that I am absolutely out of my mind: ‘Look at that American over there, blubbering through the sermon!’” But that message prepared my heart to come to the Lord's Table.
I could not have prepared my heart to know the love of Christ that morning. God, through His word and by His Spirit, did.
And the Apostle Paul is praying for you by the power of the third person of the Trinity to know the love of Christ, because it is that love that matures us as Christians and grows us up to be what God has called us to be. Is that what you desire? Is that what you pray for yourself? Is that what you pray for one another? If it isn't, may the Lord Himself show you His love and do business with your soul. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, show us, we pray, the deep, deep, love of Jesus. For Christ's sake we ask it in His name. Amen.
[Congregational Hymn: O the Deep, Deep, Love of Jesus]
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Amen.