An Unusual Prayer: A Sermon on Ephesians 1:15-23

I preached the following sermon at Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama, on July 12, 2015. I started a series on Ephesians in March 2015, and I am slowly preaching through the letter whenever I am asked to preach. This is my fourth sermon in the series. You can find the manuscript of the previous sermon here.

Introduction

One of my favorite recent commercials has been a GEICO commercial. The commercial starts out with one woman saying to another woman that you can save money with GEICO for car insurance. The other woman says: “Everybody knows that.” The first woman then says: “Oh yeah! Did you know that genies can be very literal?”

The commercial then flashes to a man in a dusty room. The man is polishing a lamp, and suddenly a genie appears beside him.

“What is your wish?” the genie said.

“A million bucks!” the man said excitedly.

The genie motions and, suddenly, the house and yard and street is full of bucks…as in male deer.

I don’t know about you, but as a kid I often daydreamed about finding a genie in a bottle. What would I ask for if I only had three wishes? A plane. Magical powers. A self-cleaning room. That’s the heart of a kid. It shows what I really desired and found important.

Praying to God & Genie Wishes

And just like getting a few wishes from a genie can show where your heart is, what you ask God for can tell you a lot about your heart and your priorities. The things you take to God are usually the things at the center of your life.

What do you most often pray for? Financial concerns? A struggling marriage? Your kids? Illness? Your job? School?

It’s good to pray about these things. But the prayers recorded in the Bible are often radically different than our prayers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we can learn a lot from these prayers. I love the passage of the Bible we’ll look at today, because we get to learn about prayer from Paul’s own prayer life.

And I think we need that!

The Significance of Prayer

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that more than half of Americans said they pray every day. But despite that, I get a sense from years of ministry and simply talking to other Christians that many feel that their prayer lives are weak. Maybe you feel this way.

I think a non-Christian who really observed how we live would be most shocked, not at our struggles with sexual sin or how little we know our Bibles, but how little we pray…how little we value prayer.

Our prayers are quick and formulaic, and we only pray when we have to –– church and meals. They are far removed from the passionate and substantial prayers that you would expect from a people who believe the Creator is listening to and answering their prayers.

The great Christian writer and thinker, Francis Schaeffer, would often exclaim: “How many churches and ministries would not even notice and would carry on in exactly the same manner as usual, even though every reference to dependence on the Holy Spirit and to prayer were suddenly to disappear from the pages of the New Testament!”

How would your life change if prayer didn’t exist? How would our church change?

By the way, I am not preaching as a prayer guru trying to fix your pitiful prayer lives. I speak as someone who wants to move toward a more vibrant and powerful prayer life. So I am preaching as much to myself as to you.

Anyway, as we look at this text, I’ld like to focus on three questions: first, why does Paul pray for the Ephesians? Second, what does he pray for them? Third, why does he pray for them to see God’s power?

Why does Paul pray for the Ephesians?

Let’s read verses 15-16:

15For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

Paul begins by telling the Ephesians that he prayed constantly for them. I like how verse 16 is paraphrased in the Message: “”I couldn’t stop thanking God for you….”  It is almost as if it was impossible for Paul to stop praying for them.

I bet that finding time to pray was difficult for him. He wasn’t an ascetic living out in the desert with nothing to do except pray. He ministered. He worked. He planted churches. He preached. He trained leaders. He was hard-working, beaten, often unsure from where his next meal would come. A thousand thoughts had to race through his mind at any given moment. And yet he is always praying.

We are so distracted and busy that we have trouble finding the time to pray. So what could make someone as busy as Paul was push all those troubles aside? What could drive him to turn to God in prayer?

I think we see three things:

1. Praising God easily turns into praying to God.

If you remember, this is immediately following one long sentence in the Greek –– broken into several sentences when translated –– in chapter 1, verses 3-14. And in those verses Paul praises God for the work he’d done in saving his people.

And now Paul moves on to prayer. He saw the greatness of what God had done in the lives of the Ephesians, and so he’s driven to pray.

What drove Paul to pray here was not a problem; instead, what drove him to pray was his vision of the greatness of God. I think this movement –– this rhythm –– is absent from most American Christians. We are driven to pray because we have overwhelming desire for God to fix our problems; Paul is driven to pray because he is overwhelmed by glory of God.

2. Paul is moved to pray because he is passionate about God’s work in the lives of others. I wonder what it was about the Ephesian church that excited Paul so much he continuously prayed for them. Was he hearing about how they shared their wealth with one another? Were they fearless in the face of economic pressure from the trade guilds? Were they bearing one another’s burdens? Were they evangelistic?

Whatever it was, Paul’s conception of what was happening in the Ephesian church was such that it moved him to excitement. I think Paul always stayed focused on what we so easily forget: what we do as a body of Christians is not just a series of small events and repeated rituals. The church is at the center of God’s plan for the world, a part of the world being renewed by God…as we saw a few weeks ago. That alone is enough to make one pray to God.

Third, Paul prays because He knows God is responsible for what happened in the lives of the Ephesians. One further thing: why thank God for what is happening in the church at Ephesus? Quite simply, you thank someone for something when they are responsible for that thing.

So Paul thanked God because God was responsible for what happened in the lives of the Ephesians. God had worked in their lives to bring about these things. You can’t read Ephesians chapter 1 and not see that Paul has a big view of God.

One thing I get from this: a weak view of God leads to a weak prayer life. Perhaps we struggle with our prayer lives not because we are bad at habits, but because we struggle with seeing God for who He really is. If your eyes are not open to see the greatness of God’s work, then your prayer life will suffer.

Praying to Know God

Paul has told us why he prayed, but now he tells us what he prays for. But first, let’s do a thought experiment.

Imagine that you are a Christian in Ephesus at the time that Paul is writing this letter. You have only been a Christian for a few years. Maybe less than a dozen. You haven’t seen Paul in four years. You are a member of a religion that is considered foolishness by Greek and Romans. People are hostile to you. And you have the stresses of marriage, parenting, and work.

What do you feel you need? Better job. More food. Protection from any threats against you because of your faith. A gentler boss or slave master. Help with your kids. Help overcoming sexual sin or drunkenness or doubts or whatever!

And then you’re reading a letter from the Apostle Paul, and he begins telling you what he prays for you. He writes:

17I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit [it’s not clear whether Paul is praying that they get an extra working of the Holy Spirit, or if he is just talking about one’s attitude] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened….

He doesn’t pray that you have a comfortable life. He’s not praying that your job gets better. He’s not praying that you avoid persecution. As Tim Keller writes in his recent book on prayer, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.” (20)

He prays that God opens the eyes of your heart. He’s praying that you would know God better. That’s what Paul finds urgent.

And this is even more strange if you keep in mind the New Testament picture of prayer. As John Piper describes it, prayer is the wartime walkie-talkie, not the intercom to call your butler to fluff your pillow. It’s a matter of urgency; of life and death. Later in Ephesians, Paul will say that our struggle is with spiritual forces, and he’s going to use warfare imagery. He knows that the Christian life is a war. Prayer is urgent and important in this context.

Yet –– Paul prays for this! He prays that they know God. That they grow in the knowledge of God. Paul is praying that they are enlightened by God so that they can see three things:

  1. The hope of their calling.
  2. The riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.
  3. His incomparably great power for us who believe.

With all the issues that the Ephesians had to deal with in their life, Paul prays that they will see these things.

When you were driving here this morning, what did you feel that you need? Was it that you need to know God better?

We should see knowing God as the most important need in our lives. The great 20th-century English preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, wrote, “Our supreme need is to know God.”

His contemporary, J. I. Packer wrote in his great book, Knowing God:
“Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives. As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesmen to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were , with no sense of direction, and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.”

I think Paul knew this intimately, since his life was changed upside down by knowing God.

We are tempted to see becoming a Christian as crossing the finish line. The goal is the waters of baptism. But that is wrong. Becoming a Christian is just the beginning, not the end, of growing in the knowledge of God. We are always striving to grow in our faith, to know more about God, to look more like Jesus.

So do you know God? Do you desire to know God? Is our church aptly described as a community of striving to grow in the knowledge of God?

When I first started studying for this sermon, I was going to say something like: Isn’t it great that Paul prays so much –– that he values prayer so much –– that he even prays for things like this.

But I see now how stupid that was. This isn’t an example of Paul valuing prayer so much that he would “even” pray for something like knowing God. It’s that Paul knows the value of knowing God is so great that it trumps nearly any other prayer for people.

Why Does Paul Pray Specifically For Them To See God’s Power?

Lastly, though Paul mentions three things that he hopes they come to see, he focuses on seeing the power of God.

Let’s read verses 1b-23 again:

“That power is the same as the mighty strength 20he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

The power that is working in us is the same power that God worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and exalted him above every power in the heavens. I like how J. B. Phillips paraphrased it:

“That power is the same divine power which was demonstrated in Christ…”

This is how Paul thinks about the power of God in your life The power that brought Jesus back to life and exalted him is working in you. We often focus on the Resurrection as the more relevant one. You hear people talking about “resurrection power,” but when was the last time you heard someone talk about “exaltation power”?

You might think the exaltation of Jesus is a piece of irrelevant theology, but you’d be wrong. Paul tells us that we are at war with the spiritual forces of the world. These are the powers that pile temptations and struggles on you until you are at the breaking point. Paul says that Christ was raised above everything, even those forces that cause you so much trouble. Christ was raised above all of that, and you are in Christ. He is Lord over all of them. They did defeat him, and, because that same power is at work in you, those forces cannot overcome you.

I am again struck by how Paul’s view of God differs so much from ours. I would pray this way: “God, do something powerful among us.” But Paul doesn’t ask God to use his power. But Paul is so aware that God is already doing something powerful in and around us, that he simply prays that the Ephesians see it.

Some people struggle to see God as active in our lives. Our theology has often encouraged us to view God as being largely inactive once we got the Bible. It’s as if God is on one side of a large wall, and we’re on the other. We shout over the wall to tell him we’re hungry, and sometimes he’ll throw a loaf of bread over. But he isn’t really that active.

But Paul doesn’t think like that. God is alive and active. He’s more active than you realize. Indeed, he’s more active than you are. While praying with Michael Waldrop  one day, he said: “God, help us to see that you are more active in this world than we ever could be.”

I think Paul would say to many of us that our biggest problems is that we are blind to God’s power. You don’t see that that same power can assist you. You should never say that you cannot overcome any sin, whether it is an addiction to pornography, hatred for someone else, greed, whatever. The power of God that works in you is stronger than all of those. No more excuses. No more despairing. You have the power of God working in you.

We need to answer one final question. Why do I need to see this power that is at work in you?

There’s so much to say about this, but let me give two reasons.

First, we need to see God’s power in order to live the Christian life.. You can’t do it on your own. My worry is that with a book like Ephesians, we open it to chapter one. “Well, that’s just abstract theology about being predestined, called, etc.” Then we look at chapter 2 and it has nice things about being saved by grace. Then the rest of chapter 2 and chapter 3 are full of weird comments about mystery and the Gentiles. Then chapter 4 has stuff about the apostles, prophets, and the unity of the faith. So we skip through all of that without hardly a pause, and we get to Chapter 5. Flee sexual immorality. Husbands, love your wives. Wives, submit to your husbands. Paul gives advice to children and to parents. “Ah,” we say, “this is more like it. This is what I need.”

And we try to fix our problems while we are still blind to the power of God. Paul doesn’t start with what you need to do, he starts with what God is doing. Don’t go to Ephesians 5 without going through Ephesians 1. You can’t apply God’s advice for your life before you see God’s power working in your life. If you think you can, then you have too high a view of yourself.

If you’re a non-Christian, please understand that Christianity is not a set of rules for life improvement. Christianity is centered not on a set of rules for ourselves, but on a God who is at work in our lives and in this world.

The second reason that Paul wants us to see God’s power is that seeing God’s power around us motivates us to do Kingdom work.

Martin Luther said:

”Pray as if everything depends on God, then work as if everything depends on you.”

I like the first part of the quote, but I’m uncertain of the second part of the quote. Because if you take it to mean, work as if God isn’t active, then NO! Work as if God is active.

I think the importance of this is easily seen through thinking of a common occurrence of being a parent. You ask your kid to do something, and their response is, “I can’t.” They don’t have the confidence or the power or even the motivation to do what you’ve asked them to do. It’s amazing how all of that changes the moment you help them, the moment you are doing it and they are sharing in your work.

Seeing the power of God can be an enormous motivation to work. It’s not because you see a void that God has left that you need to fill. Instead, you see the presence of God in the oppressed, in the struggling brother or sister, in the dying grandparent, in the impoverished communities, in the tribes who haven’t heard the gospel, in your own life in the midst of your weaknesses. That drives you into the work. Not because God needs you to pick up where He left off, but because God has invited you to be, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:9, we are co-workers in God’s fields.

So we need to have our eyes opened to see God’s power around us.

Some of you are here this morning and you are at your breaking point in your life. You need, today, to begin to see the mighty power of God that is at work in your life. To get a glimpse of the God who is struggling mightily on your side, there with you in the depths of your struggles in your marriage, of temptation, of grief. He’s there working powerfully in your life, whether you realize it or not.

We all need to see that. So pray for each other, that they will see the power of God. Husbands, pray that your wives see the power of God. Wives, pray the same things for your husbands. Parents, let me encourage you: pray that your children grow in the knowledge of God; pray that they come to see the awesome power of God at work around them. There are few things more urgent and more important for you to pray about!

And pray for our church, that our eyes can be opened to see the mighty power of God working in our midst. There’s nothing that we can’t overcome. No arguing. No temptations. No attack from the Evil One. How can we fail if we realize the power of God in our community? But how can we NOT fail if we don’t see God’s power in us?

Conclusion

One of the dangers of preachers and sermons is that if something makes a great illustration, it continues to be used whether it is true or not. So I can’t vouch for this.

But I’ve read that early African converts to Christianity were devout in their personal prayers. Supposedly, each person had a separate spot in the thicket where he or she would pray. Over time the paths to these places became well worn. As a result, if one of these believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others. They would kindly remind the negligent one, “Brother, the grass grows on your path.”

Let us not let the grass grow on your path. Let us be constantly in prayer to our God.

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3 Comments

  1. I have been looking for an exposition on Paul’s teachings on prayer. So glad I found your sermon while looking for info on John Wesley.

    I just completed a course on Ephesians looking at spiritual warfare.

    Thank you for posting your sermon

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