The Lord's Day Morning
January 29, 2006
“What to Pray For One Another (3)”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter three, as we continue to work our way through this great prayer in verses 14-19. We’re going to read all of 3:14-19, and we're going to be focusing on verses 18-19.
I have given you an outline of the passage, and I have recounted some of the points that we have concentrated on in the last few weeks as we've unpacked this prayer. There are different ways that you could legitimately outline the petitions of this prayer, and the outline of the material that we have done is not meant to preclude other ways of outlining the petitions of this prayer. But let me just summarize by saying this: If you look at the first four points on the outline that we have derived from Paul's petition, it's all part of one grand petition or request, and that is a request from Paul to God on behalf of the Ephesian Christians and you and me, that we would be strengthened in our inmost being by a power supplied through the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, from without us. It is a recognition that we need strength to live the Christian life; and there is a recognition that that strength does not come from within us, and in fact must be supplied by God the Holy Spirit. We want it in our inmost being; we want it to permeate the very depths of our hearts, but it doesn't come from our inmost being. It comes from the Holy Spirit into our inmost being, and thus gives us what we need to live the Christian life.
Now, this prayer is a tremendously practical prayer. It was practical not only for the Ephesian Christians who would suffer persecution for their faith, but it is practical for all Christians that are undergoing trials of various sorts. This is a practical prayer to pray for ourselves and for one another when we've just been diagnosed with cancer, or when we're struggling with children who are straying from the Lord, or when we're in the context of a marriage that is failing, or when we've lost our job or transitioning into a new vocation, or, whatever manner of trial that we have encountered, we recognize the need for strength to face it Christian-ly, to think and to act Christian-ly in the face of our challenges, to live as Christians would live in those circumstances.
But, you know, we don't just need this strength from God in the deep points of life, the hardest points of life, the most dramatic points of life: we need God's strength for the living of the everyday Christian life.
One of the things the Apostle Paul makes clear here is that the whole of the Christian life is dependent upon God. We cannot do anything apart from His strength. What did the Lord Jesus Christ Himself stress to His disciples? “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” But, “In Christ, all things are possible, through Him who strengthens me.” And so we are to be constantly dependent for every aspect of our Christian life on the strength that God Himself supplies, and so this is a prayer for all Christians, in all seasons, in all circumstances. It's a practical prayer. Make it your own, for yourself and for your brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. That's really what those first four points on the outline have to do.
Now if you look at points 5-7 summarizing what we've done over several weeks, you look at those last three. They focus on the believer having a knowledge and comprehension, and being rooted and grounded in an overwhelming sense of the love of God for us in Jesus Christ; knowing and comprehending Christ's love for us, being rooted and grounded in God's love to us in Jesus Christ, so that we are able to live a life of God-like love, a life of Christ-like love.
The Apostle Paul knows that that's not easy, first of all because we have to love sinners. Love would be easy if you didn't have to love people! But people can be hard to love. People can hurt you, people can disappoint you, let you down. It's hard to love people sometimes, even people that are very close to us, and the Apostle Paul knows that this is a task that requires the work of the Spirit. That's why he started out the prayer praying for spiritual strength.
Now, though, he prays that we would be awash in the sense of the greatness of Christ's love, because it is precisely as recipients of that undeserved and overwhelming love that we become equipped to love people who do not love us, to love people who disappoint us, because we are so aware of this love that Christ has given us, that roots us and grounds us for growth in grace and life, that enables us to give ourselves away in love even to those who are unlovely, unlovable, and unloving.
We talk about this; we sing about this. We sang last week at the end of the service,
“O the deep, deep love of Jesus,
It's fathomless, we sang. It's like the ocean.
I got a call from one of the elders during the week who reminded me of a story I had told illustrating this at some time. I didn't remember when I told it, and I had forgotten that I had told it in connection with this verse. I can't remember whether I told it in the context of a sermon or maybe to the elders in a devotional, but it does beautifully illustrate the vastness, bottomless-ness of Christ's love that Paul wants us to have some inkling of.
My father was on a troop carrier on the way from some small islands in the South Pacific at the end of the Second World War, after the surrender of the Japanese had already been accomplished. And he was on his way to the mainland of Japan and then to North China, where they were going to be involved in disarming the Japanese army there. And as the troop carriers got to the deepest part of the ocean in the world, the great Mariannes Trench, they stopped. And the captain came on over the speaker and he said, “Anybody who would like to dive off the side of the ship and take a swim in the deepest part of the ocean in the world, we're going to give you a few minutes to do that.”
And I don't know how high the deck of a troop carrier would be above the surface of the ocean, but it would be pretty high up there–I'm not even going to venture a guess, but it would be a very high dive into very deep water, because the great Mariannes Trench is so deep that you could put Mount Everest in it and the peak of Mount Everest would be more than a thousand feet below the surface of the ocean at that point. It's over 30,000 feet deep.
And Dad said, “I dove off the side of that boat into the water, and I went down, down, down and down, and thought I was never coming up!” And he said, “When I finally did come up and was swimming around in that deep, dark blue, almost black water,” he thought, “you know, I could go over 30,000 feet down and still not touch bottom.” And the Apostle Paul says that's like Christ's love. You could go 30,000 feet down and not touch bottom, but I want you to be awash in the knowledge and the comprehension of the greatness of the love of God in Christ. It's absolutely necessary for the Christian life that you be grounded in that.
And that's really what we've been talking about for several weeks, because it's so fundamental to our spiritual maturity that we realize our dependence upon the Spirit's strengthening us and the necessity of knowing the love of Christ. Those things are absolutely essential for healthy Christian experience, for spiritual maturity.
But we still haven't gotten to the end of Paul's prayer. That's what I want to focus on today, so let's look to God's word in Ephesians 3:14. Before we read it, let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help.
Lord, this is Your word, and we need Your Holy Spirit to open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it; not because Your word is unclear, not because Your word is uninspired, not because Your word is not truth. It is. It's inspired, it's clear, it's true, it's infallible. It works. It's sharper than any two-edged sword. It never returns void. It always accomplishes what You have set it out to accomplish. But, Lord, our hearts and minds are dull, so we need illumination. We need You by Your Spirit to open our eyes that we might behold wonderful things in Your word, for the world has crept in and the flesh has distracted us. And so we ask, O God, that You would help us by Your Spirit to see, to hear, to respond in faith to Your truth. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, 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.
The Apostle Paul has already prayed a glorious prayer for us. He's already taught us how to pray. He's already inspired us to these desires. He's already moved us to pray for one another for some glorious things, but he's still not done. And the two things that I want to draw to your attention are quite remarkable, because the first thing that Paul is going to do, having prayed this marvelous prayer for you, is to say ‘Now this prayer that you’re praying is not just an individual thing. It's not just a personal thing. It's not just a private thing. This is something that I have a concern for all the people of God to have and grasp.’ And he stresses that, doesn't he, in verse 18: “So that you may be able to comprehend…” [what does he say?] “…with all the saints….” So Paul, as he concludes this prayer, says ‘Now you understand that my desire is that all the saints together will know the realities that I'm asking God to work in you.’
And secondly, and frankly, it's shocking. It's audacious. If I prayed this prayer without Scriptural sanction, you’d be hauling me off to the funny farm or to the Presbytery for a heresy trial(!), the Apostle Paul says ‘I want to pray, and I am praying, I have prayed and I'm praying to God right now, that you would be filled up with all the fullness of God; that you would have in you all the fullness of who God is.’
It's a prayer for complete spiritual maturity. It's a prayer for perfection, but it's put in even more striking language than that. It's an audacious prayer; it's a shocking prayer. I want to consider these two things with you because they’re so significant.
I. A prayer that there would be a common Christian experience and expression of the love of Christ.
First, let's look at Paul's prayer that there would be a common Christian experience and expression of the love of Christ. Notice verses 17-19:
“So that you 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….”
Paul wants there to be a corporate, a bodily, a family knowledge of the love of Christ. He wants there to be a common knowledge and expression of Christ's love in this local church. He wants a common knowledge and expression of Christ's love. That's what he's praying for. In other words, it's not an isolated religious experience that he wants a few ‘super Christians’ to have.
We talked last week about how R. A. Torrey had prayed that God would give him a sense of His love, would show him His face. And after many years of prayer and study, the Lord in His mercy did come and give him an overwhelming sense of His love for him.
There's a story of an old Puritan pastor who was on his way from London to another town to preach, and he’d been meditating for many weeks on Scripture passages relating to the love of God and asking God to reveal His love to him. On his way, on his horse to this little village to preach, he came to a little glade and suddenly was struck by the greatness and the depth of the love of Christ, and he dismounted and stayed for two days in that little glade meditating upon Scripture, reflecting on the greatness of God's love. He was immobilized; he couldn't go on.
In those things we could give testimony…many of us could talk about times in our lives when the Lord so overwhelmed us with a sense of His love it was as if He were Himself in the room with us and surrounding us with His presence. We’d be encouraged by those testimonies, and those things are not unimportant and they’re not unreal, but you understand that the Apostle Paul here is praying that there would be a corporate, a bodily, a family experience and knowledge and comprehension of the love of God in Christ: “…with all the saints,” he says. And so while it's true, and it's importantly true that the individual Christian can know the overwhelming love of Christ, it needs the whole people of God to understand the whole love of God.
The Apostle Paul is instituting the “No Christian left behind” approach to the love of God. He wants every Christian together in the body to have a knowledge, a comprehension, of the love of God in Jesus Christ. It takes us together as believers to know and to comprehend and to express this love of God in Jesus Christ. It took the Jewish and Gentile Christians–the most unlikely partners ever–in that Ephesian church to express some inkling of the greatness of God's love. Who but God could have brought together those Jewish Christians and those Gentile Christians, with all the culture and all the background and Old Testament things that separated them? Who could have brought them together into a fellowship, a family of co-believers, but the gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ, the great God? And so it took Jews and Gentiles together in that local church to experience and to express Christ's love, and it takes Jews and Gentiles and men and women, and young and old, and red and yellow and black and white with all our varied backgrounds and experiences to express the love of Christ in the local church.
My friends, you may be saying today ‘Well, you know, I haven't experienced much of the love of Christ from fellow believers in this church.’ And I want to say to you, my friends, ask not what this congregation can do for you, but what you can do for this congregation (if I may borrow a speech from another time, another place, and another occasion).
You see, it takes the church together to experience and express the greatness of Christ's love, and if you feel some deficit of your experience of that from your brothers and sisters, then devote yourself to being the one who is expressing that love to your fellow believers. Because I want to tell you, my friends, it's only when you have the privilege of giving in the absence of having been given to that you can begin to experience the kind of love that Christ gave to you, because there was nothing in you that Christ needed. And there was nothing lacking in Christ that He was going to gain from divesting Himself of everything for you. But He did it because of His love, and so when you are called upon to love in the absence of having received then you are being given the privilege of tasting just a little bit of the greatness of Christ's love for you.
On the other hand, what a privilege it is when we have the opportunity to give that kind of love in the Christian church.
Just this past week, Weezie Polk called me to say that she’d just heard a story that she needed to share. One of our former communicants–one of the covenant children in the church, who six years ago went through Communicants’ Class–has a significant thing coming up in his life — an award that he’ll receive, and he's building up an invitation list. Six years ago there was an elder in the church who was his sponsor in Communicants’ Class who took an interest in him, who loved him, who cared for him. And as he made that short list of people that he was going to invite to this significant event, he said to his parents, “You know, I've just got to ask Elder So-and-So. He loves me, and he cares for me.” Six years ago it was, that he was his sponsor in Communicants’ Class! I want to tell you, it warmed my heart to know of an elder taking that kind of personal interest in a child in our congregation. But let me tell you, I could multiply that story a thousand times. Our elders don't brag; they don't toot their own horns. They just quietly minister, and ninety percent of the time you never see it. But every once in a while I get to see it, and there's nothing that encourages me more.
But let me tell you that even more encouraging than knowing that there was an elder who took the time — a busy man who had lots of other things that he could have done, but took the time to invest himself in love to a young Christian – even more encouraging than that was the fact that this young Christian felt that love. It got through! He realized there's a man who cares about me. He's not related to me; my parents weren't buddies with him; we're different, but he cares about me. And my friends, it is precisely that in the Christian church that we have the glorious opportunity to experience and express together: people that are different — who look different, who sound different, who are from different places, who have different stories, who have different backgrounds, who have different hobbies, different interests, different personalities, different likes and dislikes — come together in Jesus Christ and experience and express together the love of Christ. And the Apostle Paul is praying that there would be a common knowledge and expression of Christ's love among all the saints.
II. A prayer for spiritual maturity.
But he's still not done. Look at verse 19. He goes on to pray “…that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” Now, my friends, I'm not sure I understand all of that prayer; in fact, I am sure that I do not understand all of that prayer. But I do know this: In Ephesians and Colossians the word fullness is almost invariably used of God Himself to describe the fullness of who He is, the fullness of His wisdom, the fullness of His knowledge, the fullness of His goodness, the fullness of His love, the perfection of all that He is. And I believe–and I'm not simply running down some path on my own with some unique exposition; I think the best expositors say the same thing and have said this for many years–but the Apostle Paul was praying that you would be filled up to that kind of spiritual maturity and perfection which God gave us in the very beginning, that we might image what our heavenly Father is like to the world.
God created Adam and Eve in the Garden so that they would be image-bearers of Him, so that when other image-bearers met them they would look at one another and they would be able to say ‘You know, that person is like God in his justice…in her goodness…in her wisdom…in his faithfulness…in his believing the truth, his expression of fairness…and on and on. This person images what God is like. When I see this person morally, I see what God is like.’
He's not praying that somehow we’ll become little gods, that the line between humanity and divinity will be blurred. He's saying that he's praying that we would be made to be what God originally made us to be, and even more. Because you remember he's already said in Ephesians 2 that we are a temple, we are a building, we're a house that God is creating. And what did God do with the temple, the house, the building in the Old Testament? He indwelt it. The Shekinah glory came down and filled the temple, and He was with His people. He was in their midst and He was present with them. Paul is praying here, ‘I'm praying that the fullness of God would come down and inhabit you, and that because of this you would come to a complete spiritual maturity, that you would be holy like your heavenly Father is holy, that you would be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect, that you would bear His resemblance, that you would look like Him, that you would be like Him.
You see, this culminating prayer is aiming for spiritual maturity: that we would be what God has intended us to be. And that's what Christian prayer seeks for: it seeks for spiritual maturity, that we would look like our heavenly Father.
If you come visit me in my house, I have a picture – it's a double picture. One is a picture of a man in a military uniform. He's nineteen or twenty years old. One is a picture of a man in a blue college blazer and a gray vest. He's nineteen or twenty years old. And the picture of the man in the military uniform is my father. It was the middle of the Second World War, and he was ready to be shipped out from San Francisco to the South Pacific. And the picture of the guy in the blue blazer is me. People who come visit my house look at that and very often they’ll say, “Lig, I didn't know that you were in the military.” And I respond by saying, “I wasn't in the military. That's my Dad.” And usually the next thing they say is, “Well, you look just like your Dad.” And I love it when they say that! Because I'm not half the man that my father was, and to think that I bear something of his resemblance–well, there's no thought more delightful to me.
You see, the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Ephesian Christians, Christians in First Presbyterian Church/Jackson, I'm praying that people will look at you and say, ‘You know, she looks just like her heavenly Father. He looks just like his heavenly Father.’ And that the attention wouldn't be on us, but that the glory would be to God and they would say, ‘What a job the Father has done in that Christian to make her, to make him, so Christ-like, to bear so much of the attributes of God's own wisdom and goodness and love.’’
The Apostle Paul is praying that we would be pictures of our heavenly Father: living, breathing, walking, talking image-bearers as to the person of our great and loving God. You see, the great witness of the gospel is not only our faithful telling of the old, old story, but our living out what God has made us in Christ so that the world sees the glory of God manifested just a little bit, however imperfect, in the grace-work that He has done in our lives, so that they say it's clear that that man, that woman, couldn't be that way had not God done a work in them.
It was my first year at the University of Edinburgh doing doctoral studies, and in that semester I was reading some things that were, very frankly, soul-killing. And doubts about God and about Christ and the church, about Christianity came to my mind and heart that I had never had before. There are many things that kept me sane. One of them was just being at church Lord's Day after Lord's Day with people of God worshiping Him, praising Him.
But another, and I remember it as though it were five minutes ago, was sitting down in an Indian restaurant with a ruling elder of the Free Church of Scotland congregation in London and eating Indian food, and not talking about anything particularly spiritual, but seeing in the lives of Ian and Allison, this wonderful Christian couple…seeing in their lives marks of grace that could not have been put there by man, and were not there natively – marks of a spiritual sweetness that only could have been there by the work of God, by the Holy Spirit…and realizing, ‘Lord God, man could not have created that in those people.’ They had no idea they were having this affect on me. I'm not sure I've ever told them. But God made Himself real to me through seeing their lives, and they didn't even know that I was looking. And the Apostle Paul is praying, ‘Ephesians, I want that kind of spiritual maturity to emanate from you, so that God is glorified.’
May God make that so among us. Let us pray.
Lord God, we thank You for Your word, and we beg You, give us the mind of Christ our Savior. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you take your hymnals out and turn with me to No. 644, May the Mind of Christ, My Savior.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.