God’s Plan Involves Power
Explore the Bible Series
September 12, 2010
Background Passage: Ephesians 1:15-23
Lesson Passage: Ephesians 1:15-23
I struggle with prayer. The Bible promises remarkable, effectual results to the supplications of the saints, and some of these promises seem unconditional and universal. For instance, Mark 11:22b-24 records a staggering claim about prayer, from the teachings of Jesus.
Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will come to pass, he will have whatever he says. Therefore, I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them you will have them. (NKJV- emphasis mine).
The Epistle of James reflects a similar idea, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. (NKJV- again, emphasis mine).
Please allow me a bit of straightforward candor—my prayers, as best I can discern, are not always answered, at least as I have expected. If I understand James, these unanswered prayers arise from my inability to believe strongly enough, without doubting. This promise troubles someone like me, a broken, fallen, sinful man who seldom (if ever) manages to pray with acceptable faith. I recall many examples of my supplications going unanswered. Who can pray without doubt? Apparently, not me! Please see personal note at the end of the outline.
The great British apologist C.S. Lewis, in his wonderful book Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, acknowledged that he found these promises embarrassing. I assume that Lewis meant that he found his own faith struggle a source of embarrassment, in light of the majestic promises of Scripture. How is it possible to have an unwavering, untroubled, unhesitating faith in prayer? Honestly, I just do not find this capacity within me, but does the Bible offer any hope for hesitant, doubt-filled people like me?
Some years ago I had major surgery. The nursing staff roused me from the recovery bed, within a few hours of the procedure. The CCU nurses made me sit in a chair for an hour, that first day, and it was the longest hour of my life. The surgeon would not allow me to leave the hospital until I could walk down a short hallway, and this challenge took me six days to achieve. After release from the hospital, the doctor wanted me to walk every day. It took a while to work up to one mile, then two. Some months later, the walk became a shuffle, and the shuffle morphed into “wogging” (my affectionate term for my ungainly combination of waddling and jogging), and, finally, the wogging became jogging. Last night, I ran three miles, and, if all goes well, the late afternoon will find me again, on the road. Perhaps this experience serves as a metaphor for prayer. I cannot pray like Paul did, but his reflections on prayer may help me improve. Our lesson passage offers, I think, some consolation for folks who struggle with prayer, just like a struggled with walking after surgery. The Apostle Paul apparently possessed a remarkable capacity for faithful prayer, and this passage (Ephesians 1:15-23) may provide some insight into our growth in the life of prayer.
I. The Motives for Paul’s Prayer (v. 15): The apostle identifies two reasons for his prayers concerning the Ephesians.
A. The theological principles stated in the previous paragraph (See Ephesians 1:3-14): Verse Fifteen begins with the word “Therefore” (NKJV, but probably best translated “through this” or “by this”), directing the reader’s attention to the previous section. The rehearsal of these great themes (election, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, grace, etc.) informed and invigorated Paul’s supplications for the Ephesians. Paul’s convictions about these blessings held promise, for him, of additional blessing from God’s hand.
B. The witness of the Ephesians: Paul heard reports of the faith and love of the Ephesian church, and these encouraging reports encouraged him to pray earnestly for his friends. Some years had passed since he last saw these folks, and, in the intervening years, he received heartening news about their faith and love. God had answered the apostle’s prayers for these people, and answered prayers fostered more petitions on their behalf.
II. The Substance of Paul’s Prayers (vv. 16-23)
A. Thanksgiving (v. 16): The recipient of Paul’s thanksgiving was not, in this case, the Ephesians. He was thankful for the Ephesians, not to them. As with many of Paul’s letters, thanksgiving plays an important role in introducing the major themes of the epistles.
B. The central petition (vv. 17-19): Paul, it seems, had one central petition in mind for his friends—“the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.” He asked for wisdom that comes only through the power and ministry of the Spirit. This knowledge must come by revelation; that is, God opens the heart to understand things inconceivable to the unaided human mind. God fashioned reasonable creatures, from the dust of the earth, capable of remarkable intellectual achievement; however, the knowledge of God comes, Paul claims, through the gracious work of God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Three particulars characterized this prayerful request.
1. “the hope of his calling” (v. 18): God called these saints to grace, and the merciful, powerful invitation produced hope in them. Hope centers our faith on the anticipation of good things from the hand of God, good things that eventually culminate in the bliss of heaven.
riches of the glory of his inheritance”
3. “the exceeding greatness of his power” (v. 19a): The poor, struggling saint, painfully aware of his sinfulness and frailty, is invigorated and animated by the dynamic power of God, a power that sustains, refreshes, and enlivens.
C. The conclusion of the prayer (vv. 19b-23): Paul’s mention of power (in v. 19a) drew his attention to Christ, and the apostle made three extraordinary assertions about the Lord.
1. God raised him from the dead (v. 20a): The resurrection of Jesus stands as the great bulwark of Christianity. At times, the dark clouds of uncertainty assail the heart, and troubled souls may despair of the “truth” of Christianity. Many questions may arise about the Bible or concerning personal experiences of doubt, and suffering may cloud the judgment; however, the signal that, to this point, has seen me through the storms of life rests in the resurrection.
2. God seated Christ at his right hand, in the heavenlies” (vv. 20b-21): The apostle utilized powerful imagery to reflect the exalted status of Christ. These verses, of course, are not intended “literally” to restrict Jesus to a gilded chair in heaven, where he sits in idle splendor. The phrase is an analogy that draws the heart to the acclaimed, praiseworthy nature of the Lord. All things have been placed under his feet: principalities, powers, and dominions (Curtis Vaughan believed these terms referred to orders of angelic beings, but he discouraged any detailed effort to distinguish sharply between each designation).
3. God has placed all things under Christ’s authority (vv. 22-23): In addition to the general statement of Christ’s authority, Paul specifically mentions the Jesus’ lordship over the church. The church, as God designed, must submit to the headship of Christ, as the human body is subservient to the head. Also, the Lord Jesus fills the church with his presence and glory.
Personal Note: I don’t want to glibly dismiss the problem that confronts believers at this point. Let’s face hard, cold facts—sometimes God seems to ignore our prayers. I do not want to add insult to injury by suggesting that all the problems regarding unanswered prayers relate directly to weak faith. If we don’t exercise some careful pastoral concern, we can, by making such an assertion, deeply wound faithful, devout Christians who have prayed earnestly for the Lord’s help, yet feel disappointed and disillusioned that, as far as they can see, God has not answered.
Again, C.S. Lewis provides some illustrative help at this point. When his wife died of cancer, Lewis described his grief as if God had slammed and bolted a door in the poor, grieving man’s face. Lewis, by his own admission, sought God earnestly, but his desperate please were met with silence. I question the honesty of any believer who claims he has never had an experience like that. Did Lewis plead with God from a heart of unbelief? To whom do we turn when we must pray about our struggle with faith? Did he pray unworthily when he begged God for a sense of divine presence and comfort? These are serious questions, and hurting Christians at least deserve that God’s people take these concerns seriously.
Frankly, I don’t have answers to these issues. Experience teaches me that God does not dance to the tune of my prayers. Like, perhaps, many of you, I have prayed for years about certain matters, and, as far as I can see, God has not answered some of these requests—I still have some mountains that have not been moved into the sea! The interests of our growth in prayer are not well served by Pollyanna platitudes. Perhaps we should acknowledge that prayer holds many mysteries, and, at best, all honest believers wrestle with the meaning of some of these passages on prayer.