What causes you to worship God? What sorts of things move your heart to overflow in praise to God? And I’m not just talking about Sunday morning when you are singing hymns that you didn’t write. I’m asking: what are the kinds of hymns that regularly emerge from your heart during the week? What are the wells of joy that your soul draws from that causes you to break forth into singing? Are they things that make your life easier during the week? Is it that promotion you have longed for all those years? Is it deliverance from some temporary setbacks?
Now, don’t get me wrong: we are to thank God for everything, and therefore everything, the good and the bad, the surprising and the mundane, ought to all provide subject matter for the believer’s worship: “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18). But when we look to the NT and see what sorts of things caused the apostles to start singing, we come face to face with the first doxologies of the church. They go like this:
“Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began. But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith: to God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen” (Rom. 16:25-27)
“Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20-21)
“But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 5:10-11)
“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).
And then there is our text:
“Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21)
The word doxology literally means “to speak (or ascribe) glory” from the Greek words doxa and logos. In each of the doxologies above, there is an ascription of glory to God, as in our text, “unto him [that is, God] be glory.” To glorify God is to give him the highest adoration of our heart. It is to ascribe worship and praise to him above all else. To give God glory is to be transfixed by a sight of his majesty and dominion and holiness and grace. It is to recognize that God is supremely worthy of our affection and admiration, our reverence and esteem.
Above all, it means that we have come to see that God is transcendent, that there is no way that we can compare God to anyone or anything else. Everything else in comparison is nothing. The way the apostles used the word “glory” comes from a Hebrew word, kavod, whose basic meaning portrayed something as being “weighty.” From this it came to signify things with significance or importance. In the OT, it is almost never used with reference to man, but it is often used with reference to God. We are light and feathery things in comparison to God. Our lives are like a vapor, but his has no beginning and no end. He only has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light (cf. 1 Tim. 6:16). All of reality depends upon God for its existence. There is nothing or no one else in all of creation that can say, “I AM THAT I AM.” Only God can do that. And therefore, to God alone belongs the glory.
I think Paul breaks forth into doxology because he has experienced the things for which he prays for the Ephesians. He knew what it was like to be strengthened with might by the Spirit of God. He knew from personal experience what it was like to have Christ at home in his heart, to be rooted and grounded in love, and to know the limitless love of Christ, and finally to be filled with all the fullness of God. These were not abstract concepts to him: they were realities. Paul had experienced fellowship with the living God. He knew how precious and sweet and courage-building and faith-strengthening and sin-killing these realities were to him, and therefore he couldn’t help but exult in these gifts of grace that had come to him and all the saints.
Hence doxology for the apostle was inevitable. He is not writing this because he is supposed to. He is writing it because he must: he must in the sense that having tasted and seen that the Lord is good, he could not but sing this praise to God. As C. S. Lewis famously put it, worship is the culmination of delight that one has for another. Those who truly love God cannot help but worship him.
So this morning I want to look at this doxology with you and to so hear it that we will join Paul in it. These verses are full of reasons to be encouraged in the Lord. You cannot hear or read one of these NT doxologies without sensing the note of triumph in them. Doxology and defeat don’t go together. We praise God because in him we are overcomers. We praise God because despite our weakness and sin and helplessness we have a God who is sovereign over all and who loves his children with a never-ending love. Doxologies remind us that we are saved. Yes, we are not glorified yet. But the glorification of the saint is sure. Romans 8 begins with no condemnation and ends with no separation. God has saved us, he is saving us, and he will save us. And so we sing to God and love him and rejoice in him and give all the glory to him.
There are four things in this doxology that I want to focus on. First, we will look at the object of worship: “unto him be glory”. Second, we will note the sphere of worship: “in the church.” Third, the possibility of worship: “by Christ Jesus.” And finally, the duration of worship: “throughout all ages, etc.”
First of all, let us consider the object of our worship: “unto him be glory” (20, 21). The referent to “him” in verses 20 and 21 is “God” in verse 19, from whose fullness we are filled. As we have already been saying, God alone is worthy of our praise and worship. There is no other being or thing in the realm of the universe that can take his place. It is why idolatry is so repugnant. Idolatry is ascribing to a created thing what only properly belongs to God. The calf may be golden, but it is still a calf.
But Paul doesn’t just say, “Praise God!” and go on. “Unto him” is filled with meaning in verse 20. Paul’s praise is rooted in very Biblical ideas about God. This is important. It is important that we are continually reminding ourselves of who God is. And it is important that as we do this, we are doing so in terms of the parameters of Scripture.
This is of course where doctrine comes in. Those who eschew doctrine usually end up with very shallow views of God. Worse still, their view of God is hopelessly tainted by the godless culture in which we live. The reality is that if you are not grounded in the Biblical teaching of who God is, your worship is going to superficial at best. True worship, our Lord tells us, is performed in spirit and in truth. Both the mind and the affections must be engaged. Fire without fuel will burn out. And worship without doctrine won’t last long. Worship has an object, and that object is God. So far, so good. But the question is, what kind of God are you looking at? Is he the God of the Bible, or he a god of your imagination? A god of our own making will not sustain worship. Only the God of the Bible can do that.
So what is the portrait of God that Paul paints for us? He tells us in verse 20: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.” Paul does two things here. First, he piles on word after word that tells us something about God’s power. The verb “that is able” literally means, “to be powerful.” This is the verbal form of the noun “power” he also uses in this verse. And then the phrase “that worketh in us” again points to God’s power. It is the word from which we get the term “energy.” Paul uses all these words to give us the unmistakable portrait of a God who is powerful.
But he goes further. He also says that God is “able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” The apostle is straining language here to convey to us the idea that there is nothing impossible with God. The words Paul uses here are described as “the highest form of comparison imaginable.” There are no limits to the power of God. That is what the apostle wants us to realize.
We are full of limitations, especially in terms of our physical selves. We can only be in one place at one time. We only have so much strength and endurance. We only have so many talents. We are circumscribed on all sides by the limits of our abilities. God is not. As the Bible reminds us over and over again, what is impossible with man is possible with God.
But then the mind can sometimes free itself of such shackles and roam in the imagination where we could not physically go. We can close our eyes and imagine ourselves doing things that we could never actually do in person. We are not nearly as limited in the mind and imagination as we are in the body. Like Han Solo said to Luke Skywalker, “I can imagine a lot, kid.” But here is the amazing thing. The apostle tells us that God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. We may be able to imagine a lot. But we cannot even think our way past the power of God. It is truly infinite, unimaginable, and unfathomable.
The sad thing is that we do think that we can imagine the boundaries of the power of God. We think that God cannot do this thing or that. So we don’t ask. We don’t expect. We don’t believe. Like the Israelites of old, we turn back and tempt God and limit the Holy One of Israel (Ps. 78:41).
Now we don’t want to interpret this passage in a way that would sabotage the rest of the NT message. Paul is not saying that if you have enough faith then God will grant you whatever you want. God is not a vending machine. But he is saying that there is no power on earth or hell that can prevent God from doing for you what is for your ultimate good and his glory. As Paul put it to the Romans, “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32). God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think for us anything, no matter how far-fetched we might think it is, that is for our joy in him and the advance of his kingdom in this world.
Power is not the only attribute of God, of course. But this power that the apostle is talking about is incomprehensible apart from all his other attributes. God’s glory is the publicity or manifestation of all his attributes. And therefore since this power is operative for the sake of his glory (21), it is therefore a holy power, a loving power, a gracious power, a wise power on the behalf of those who belong to his Son.
Worship is hamstrung when we limit God. Delighting in the power of God for us and in us is essential for true worship. The God that we worship is powerful, infinitely so, and he is powerful for us not against us. That is surely something for which we ought to rejoice.
Second, we notice the sphere of worship: “in the church” (21). Now there is a sense in which all the creation glorifies God. Even the wicked will glorify the justice of God in their punishment at the Final Judgment. But that is not what Paul is talking about here. The praise here is unique to the church. This is because the church is the body of believers in the world. The church is the institution consisting of those who have tasted and seen the goodness of God and so the church consists of those who worship God in spirit and in truth.
And we have every reason to glorify God. For we do not only behold God’s power from afar. We experience God’s power for us and in us and through us. In particular, Paul focuses on God’s power in us: “according to the power that worketh in us” (20). We would not even be Christian if it were not for the power of God. We were dead in trespasses and in sins. It was God who raised us up, exerting in us the very power that raised his Son from the dead. He prays that we would know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (1:19-20).
God not only raised us from the dead and gave us life (2:1-9), he also continues to work in us. We are God’s “workmanship” (2:10) past, present, and future. We still pray that we would “be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man” (3:16). There is never a time in the life of the believer when God’s power is not ready to be extended for their sake.
This power is not just given so that we will not remain dead in sins. It is given so that we will serve him in this world. God has not only saved us, he gives us the privilege of working with him in the advance of the kingdom. It is his power that gives us the ability to do this. With Christ, we can do all things; without him, we can do nothing. It is his power that works effectually in us that enables us to serve our Lord.
And this is a truly amazing privilege. Sometimes you get the impression from some that God needs the church, and that without believers he could do nothing. But that is not the picture the NT gives. God does not enlist us because he needs us. He enlists us because we need him. It is not because God could not advance his kingdom without us that he brings us alongside for ministry. Rather, it is because God wants to bless us by giving us the privilege of serving with him in kingdom work. There is nothing more meaningful than engaging in that which has eternal significance.
God is so committed to this that what he does in this world to advance his kingdom agenda, he usually does through the church. We should never allow our belief in the power and sovereignty of God for his people to cause us to think that therefore we don’t need to contribute to the cause of God and truth in this world. God is powerful, yes; but he exerts his power in and through his people. If there is something to be done in this world for the sake of the gospel, it will be done in and through the church. God gathers his elect into the church through missions, and missions are driven by people who are giving their lives for the sake of Christ. God moves to save the lost through his people who share the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. God disciples and grows his children through other mature believers who teach them the word. God breaks the power of Satan through the prayers of believers. Where God is doing something in the world for the sake of the gospel, he is almost certainly doing it through believers, through the church.
There is this amazing scene in the book of Revelation. We are brought into the throne room of God where seven angels prepare to blow seven trumpets. But before they do this, we read: “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake” (Rev. 8:3-5). These verses seems to indicate that the prayers of the saints are very much a part of God’s plan to bring about the final salvation of his people and the culmination of his plan of redemption. This is especially remarkable because the overwhelming focus in the book of Revelation is on God’s unfettered sovereignty over all his enemies and his power to bring about the salvation of his people. The focus is not on believers and what they do, and yet here we have this scene where the prayers of the saints play an important role in the unfolding of God’s plan.
Is there something that needs to be done for the cause of the gospel? Pray about it, but don’t pray about it without asking God what he would have you to do about it. Because if there is something to be done, it will be done through the power of God working through believers like you and me.
Now one of the reasons why I am stressing this is because there is no better way to prepare our hearts for worship than in serving our Saviour in this world. If the primary purpose of your life is to pad your life with comforts, then don’t expect God to be working in you and through you. But when you surrender your life to the cause of the gospel – whatever that may look like for you, and it will be very different depending on where God has placed you – then expect to experience God’s power. And when we experience the power of God in us and through us, doxology is inevitable.
This brings us to the third thing I wish to notice in the text: the possibility of worship. I find this in the words, “by Christ Jesus.”
There is no way that worship can exist apart from Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ, we remain hostile toward God and alienated from God. Apart from Christ, we will die in our sins. Apart from Christ, we have no righteousness and no forgiveness. It is only in him that we can be reconciled to God. It is only because on the cross he took our sins so that we might have the righteousness of God that we can approach God’s throne as a throne of grace. Apart from Christ, the power of God is terrifying. Apart from Christ, God’s power is against us. But when we trust in Christ, when we belong to him, God’s power is no longer against us, it is for us. It is no longer the power of God to condemn and destroy; it is the power of God so save and to rescue.
I think it was John Piper who said that missions exists where worship doesn’t. Missions and worship go hand in hand. Which is why missionaries carry the gospel with them. It is why the preeminent message of the church to those on the outside is to preach Christ and him crucified. There is no hope for worship to exist where the gospel is yet unknown.
Not only does the work of Christ make worship possible by breaking down the barriers to worship, it also makes worship possible by giving us a window into the character and love of God. How is it that we can be filled with all the fullness of God? It is only as we come to see the multifaceted love of Christ which is supremely magnified by the work of redemption that he accomplished through his life of obedience and sacrificial death. The more we come to know God through Christ, the more we will be able to worship him in ways that are appropriate to his glorious nature. So it is that the church gives glory to God “by Christ Jesus.”
And finally, we note the duration of worship: “throughout all ages, world without end.” There is nothing on this earth that deserves eternal praise. But the fact of the matter is that we couldn’t even if we tried. No created thing can give us eternal satisfaction. No created and finite thing can delight us forever. We would eventually tire of it. And at that point our praise would run out.
And so the fact that Paul says that doxology will be given to God for ever and ever tells us something about God. It tells us not only that he is worthy of eternal praise, but also that he is such a fountain of blessing and delight that the saint will never tire praising God. In heaven, our experience of God will be undiluted and pure, and so the expression of our hearts will be forever overflowing in praise to God.
Thank God, we can begin even now. Through Christ, we can come into a relationship with God our Father and begin to experience all the fullness of God. May we do so more and more. And as we do so, may our lives become a chorus of praise and doxology to our powerful and gracious and loving and glorious God. Amen.