Reasons for praise - Ephesians 1:15-23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Had you been on the coast of Britain in 1845 you might have seen two ships being boarded by 138 of England's finest sailors setting sail for the Arctic. Their task was to chart the Northwest Passage around the Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean.
The Captain, Sir John Franklin hoped that this effort would be the turning point in Arctic exploration. And so it was, not because of its success, but because of its failure. The ships never returned. Every member of the crew perished. What was the lesson learnt? The lesson was this: Be prepared for the journey. Apparently Franklin wasn't. Though the voyage was expected to last for two or three years, he carried only a twelve day supply of coal for the auxiliary steam engines. But what he lacked in fuel he made up for in entertainment. Each ship carried a 1,200 volume library, a hand organ, and china place settings for officers and men, cut glass goblets and sterling silverware. The sailors carried no special clothing to protect them from the cold, only the thin blue uniforms of Her Majesty's fleet.
Of course the inevitable occurred. The two ships had sailed ill prepared into freezing waters. The seas froze and the ships became trapped. The sailors set out for help, wearing their uniforms and carrying their belongings, dragging a wooden boat across the ice. For the next twenty years, remains of the expedition were found all over the frozen sea. The silver knives and forks so ornately designed would later be found near a clump of frozen cannibalized bodies.
Franklin died on the boat. Search parties would later find a piece of the backgammon board Lady Franklin had given her husband as a farewell present.
It is strange, isn't it? How men could embark upon such a journey ill-prepared, more equipped for afternoon tea than for the open sea.
Stranger still is the way many Christians act in the same way as they travel on their hazardous journey from this world to the next. If the truth be known we sometimes act as if the Christian life is a retirement cruise. We have little fuel but lots of entertainment. We give more thought to the silver cutlery than surviving the journey. And so when the big freeze comes, we step out onto the ice with the spiritual equivalent of forks, games and skimpy clothing, passing our final days walking against the wind and often blaming God for getting us into such a mess, when in fact we only have ourselves to blame.
Now the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians is passionately concerned that these young believers, and so us, are fully prepared for that journey. And he knows that preparedness is related to prayerfulness. And that is exactly what we see being worked out in the section we are looking at together this morning in chapter 1:15ff. It is in many ways a model prayer for how we should be praying for each other so that we do not get caught out on the long journey to our heavenly home.
The first thing we notice is the motivation for prayer which is the miracle of salvation- vv15-16, 'For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.'
Exactly what is 'this reason' which propels Paul into incandescent praise and prayer for these Christians scattered throughout what is now modern day Turkey? Well, everything that he has been unpacking in the eulogy to God in verses 3-14. Put simply, Paul could never get over the miracle involved in people becoming Christians. Sadly, in the West we tend to have a low view of conversion. Some people join the health club; others join the church. That is the way it is often perceived isn't it? But that is not the way the God sees it. For him it is a matter of moving heaven and earth. It is like raising a dead man. It is freeing an enslaved criminal. It is bringing into being a whole new species, one new man as he will later say in the next chapter. Your salvation and mine was not some divine afterthought, God had you and me in mind before the world was even created and in his heart before we were born-v4. And your new life cost him the life of his one and only Son-v7 'In him we have redemption through his blood.'
Let me tell you something. Around 1546 Michelangelo did a pencil drawing of the Pieta for Vittoria Colonna, his godly aristocratic friend. With the dead body of Jesus supported by angels at her feet, Mary does not cradle her son as in his other renderings of the Pieta but raises her eyes and hands to heaven in speechless wonder. On the upright beam of the cross Michelangelo inscribed a line from Dante's Paradise, which is the focus of the drawing's meditation and reads "No one thinks how much blood it costs." Well, Paul certainly did think and that is why he prays the way he does. And just maybe if we thought how much blood it costs, we would pray this way too.
There are two things in particular which have given Paul confidence to give thanks to God in this way- he has heard of these people's 'faith' in the Lord Jesus and their 'love' for all the saints. This was all the evidence he needed that these people were genuinely converted. They believed the right things about Jesus, who he is and what he has done, and they accordingly put their trust in Jesus, his person and his promises. They had faith' about' Christ and faith 'in' Christ. So a Christian is not someone who has got 'religion', but definite beliefs. Anyone can call themselves a 'Christian' but unless they hold to certain essential Christian truths; they are deluding themselves and others. And this letter is a magisterial treatment of those key truths. However, this does not remain at the level of head or heart alone; it overflows into practical generosity-'love for all the saints'. As we shall see over the next few weeks, being a Christian involves not only a change of heart but a change in lifestyle. And fundamentally this shows itself in how we relate to other Christians both within our own fellowship and wider a field. And without doubt one of the primary ways of expressing true partnership in the Gospel is through giving in order to help promote Gospel work and to support the needy. That is why we have this annual event, rightly called a 'Thanksgiving Day', when we have a God given opportunity to express our gratitude to him and love to each in a very practical way by reassessing our level of regular giving to the church. Returning our giving forms as the Holy Spirit moves us, is, if you like a visible prayer, a 'thank you Lord' for all that you are and all that you have done and thank you for my brothers and sisters whom I want to support. 'Faith' and 'love' you see, two things which will move the heart of any believer when they see God working in someone's life. And it certainly thrills me to see it in the lives of so many in this place and I pray that I will never take it for granted or rob God of the praise he deserves. The motivation for prayer then- the miracle of salvation.
But if that is the motivation for prayer then the content of prayer is the fruit of salvation vv 17-23. Just take a look at verses 17-20, 'I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.'
This is a prayer for 'knowledge'. It is not so much a matter of asking God that certain things will be true as such, but recognition of what is true.
Now let me tell you of my reoccurring nightmare: I dream that I am back in the sixth form, not as a Sixth former, but as I am now, and I am about to take my A level history exam again. The problem is I have not studied 'A' level history for 30 years. I have not had any lessons so how on earth am I going to sit the exam? Increasingly I begin to panic. But then about two thirds way through the nightmare, I realise I already have 'A' level history, as well as two degrees, so who needs to take it? That is when I wake up- usually with my heart pounding and sweat pouring. (You Freudians make of that what you will!) In other words, it is when I come to realise what is true of myself that the discomfort disappears. The problem is, as Christians we often content ourselves with living the nightmare of our previous lives, because we fail to recognise what is now true of us as Christians- what resources are now available to us and what a difference those make. We need to wake up to our new found position in Christ. That is what Paul here is praying will happen. In fact his prayer has a threefold focus- a focus upon a person, a privilege and power.
First, there is a focus upon a person-namely knowing God v17. How do we know God better? Well, here we are told of the God given means. Knowing God who is the glorious Father or better translated, Father of glory- glory is the manifestation of God's supreme power and luminous presence. When you see a bride walking down the aisle radiating beauty, her very presence creates an impression on the people around her causing their heads to turn. What are they doing? They are responding to her 'glory'. So where do we find God's glory shown to us? Well, in the Lord Jesus Christ. So if we are to know God the Father better, it means getting to know his Son better and that is done by turning to the place where he is to be found-the Scriptures. But this is no mere academic thing, for there is also the personal work of the Holy Spirit, who is the 'Spirit of wisdom and revelation.' When a person becomes a Christian he or she comes to know the one true God as Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. No other human being on earth knows God in this personal way. But like any relationship it is to grow- so we are to 'know' him better. And as with any knowledge of a person it has to be worked at- having that 'holy conversation' with the Lord on a day -to -day basis-inviting his thoughts and views on every aspect of our life, which means attending to His Word as well as speaking to him in prayer and meeting with his people.
What is more, Paul wants us to have the' eyes of our hearts' opened so that we might know the privilege which is ours, namely, the hope to which we have been called (v18)-that is the certainty of belonging to God's new heaven and earth which is yet to come- and the fact that we are God's glorious inheritance. Just think about that for a moment. Let me ask you: what is your idea of a 'glorious inheritance'? Someone leaving you a house? A valuable painting? Some jewels perhaps? Well, I have some news for you if you are a believer- you are God's priceless inheritance- that I what the text says. You are God the Father's gift to God the Son. When our son Michael was married here last year, he was showered with all sorts of gifts. But I tell you this; the greatest gift on that day was the sight of his beautiful bride walking up this aisle. And do you know what the greatest gift that will be presented in the royal courts of heaven? It will be Christ's bride, his church, you and me together with all his people as rescued from hell, washed from sin, and perfected in every way we are led to the very throne of God. Now that is a thought to hold on to the next time you feel that your self-esteem has taken a beating- you are God's glorious inheritance, say that to yourself because it is true.
But let's be honest. Don't you sometimes wonder whether you will make it to the end? Is there not always the suspicion at the back of your mind that you will end up as the spiritual equivalent of those sailors I mentioned at the beginning who set out full of adventure but was met with a complete disaster? I am sure you do. But one of the major differences is this: their Captain was a complete wuss, ours, the Lord Jesus is completely reliable. Their Captain failed to provide adequate resources whilst our Captain provides infinite resources- hence the focus on power vv 19, 'incomparable power for us who believe.' says Paul.
Let's face it, it is going to take some power to ensure that stubborn, foolish, wayward sinners like us finally get to heaven isn't it? Even more so when we also realise the opposition which is implacably set against us, the 'authorities and powers' mentioned in v21 and the 'ruler of the kingdom of the air' mentioned in chapter 2. In other words the whole invisible demonic world which sometimes operates through earthly governments and powers, like the media for example is lined up against us. I for one am very glad that these are not visible to the naked eye because if I could see them I am sure I would be scared witless, and so would you. But the Bible tells us that although we cannot see them, they are very real and very powerful nonetheless. They were also very real to the Ephesians, a city steeped in pagan magic and superstition.
So what power of God can Paul point to in order to illustrate the divine power which is in each one of God's children and say look "That is the sort of power to which you have access moment by moment so I need not be afraid?"
Well, Paul draws our attention to three related events in history in which God's infinite power has been displayed and from which we are to take comfort and say 'Yes that is mine.' They are Christ's resurrection, Christ's exaltation and Christ's domination.
From the moment of Adam's first sin, death has held humanity in its ice cold grip. Millions and millions of people have died and no power in heaven or on earth has been able to resist it. All the decrees of Kings and princes that have ever lived have not been able to reverse it. But there was one moment when the King of heaven did precisely that. When King Jesus was physically raised from the dead a power was unleashed which sent shock waves into the very depths of the demonic world. Now for all who trust in Jesus, death does not have the final word, God does, and that word is eternal life. Well, says Paul in v 20a- that is the same power which is keeping you going as a Christian today, and will keep you going tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.
When Yuri Gagarin was launched as the first man into outer space- the power required to do that was immense. But now God has lifted his Son into the very heavens, seated at his right hand-the place of privilege, victory and rule. God's original plan as stated in Genesis 1:26 and Psalm 8 to rule his world in love is now a reality, for Jesus is that man.-v20b. He is above every rule, authority, power and dominion. No being- human or superhuman- can curtail the will and authority of Jesus Christ. Now that is some power! Well, says Paul, the power which achieved God's original purpose is now the very same power that is working in you-and yet you still worry that you will not make it or that God will somehow lose you in the frozen wastes along the way?
No, you see according to verse 22, God has placed all things under his feet, including those evil powers which would seek to make your faith shipwreck. Jesus is to be the head, that is ruler over everything. Why? For the sake of his body, the church, which he fills with his glorious presence. You see, Jesus has to rule over every twist and turn of existence, including the unseen spiritual world, and the events of history both great and small, so as to ensure that the people he came into the world for and died for will eventually be with him in eternity. While he will allow his people to be tested, as Job was tested, he will not allow them to be destroyed, as Job was not destroyed. How can he when they are his inheritance of infinite value to him?
George Herbert, the 17th century Christian poet, wrote a prayer in one of his poems: 'You have given so much to me. Give me one thing more a grateful heart.' God obviously answered that prayer for the apostle Paul, may he do so for us in the light of these wonderful truths.
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