I love to hear children pray. The prayers of my own children have on some occasions brought tears to my eyes, on other occasions have necessitated a stifled laugh, and on still other occasions left me wondering what they were even thinking about when they said that. One of the best things about the prayers of children is their transparency. They haven’t yet learned to mimic the standard religious phrases of the day and they just say what they are thinking. You can often tell what is really important to them by listening to their prayers.
Of course, listening to children is not always the best guide for praying ourselves! Unfortunately, listening to other adults pray is not always helpful either. At some point, we learn (perhaps too early) what the accepted religious expressions are and tend to parrot those without thinking what we are saying. Even worse, we pray for the ears of men and try to impress them with our spirituality or theological knowledge. Such prayers are not necessarily instructive. Where then do we go for instruction in prayer?
For that, we need to turn to the Scriptures. And there is no better place to start than to study the prayers of the apostle Paul in his epistles. If you want to know what the Biblical priorities for prayer are, then listen to the apostle as he prays. I’m not saying, of course, that these few prayers found scattered in his epistles are meant to be an exhaustive resource for prayer. The prayers of the saints throughout Scripture, and especially the Lord’s Prayer, fill out the Biblical teaching on prayer. But Paul’s prayers are a good starting point for our own prayer times.
The thing that immediately strikes me as I study the apostle’s prayers is their spiritual focus. Sometimes our prayer time can just end up being a laundry list of things we need to make life here more comfortable. But Paul’s prayers are entirely focused on the spiritual well-being of believers. He was intensely concerned about growth in grace. Now we do have to be careful here because Paul is addressing believers from a distance and it’s possible that this letter was meant to be shared with other churches. So his prayers would have had to be a bit general. And given the way information traveled in those days, he probably didn’t know the present material circumstances of most of his readers so he couldn’t have prayed for those things anyway. Nevertheless, the apostle knew and understood that no matter where they stood on a material level, they all needed to grow in grace and in the knowledge of their Lord. And so he prays for that . . . in every single recorded prayer. And I think that says something about how we ought to pray. No matter where we are at on a material level, we are always in need of spiritual growth and maturity.
Of course, at the same time, we shouldn’t take from this that God doesn’t care about our material needs. We should always remember that the Lord’s Prayer contains the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” As we’ve noted, the reason Paul didn’t pray for material needs had nothing to do with the non-acceptability of praying for such things. Rather, the point I’m trying to make is that praying for our spiritual needs is a priority no matter what our material needs are. The Lord’s Prayer begins and end with a focus on spiritual needs, and our prayers should mimic the same priority.
You may not be what you used to be, but it is equally certain that you are not what you ought to be. We all need to be praying for spiritual growth, for God’s sanctifying work in our lives and hearts. The very worst place to be is to have the attitude of the Laodiceans, who said that they were rich and increased with goods and had need of nothing (Rev. 3:17). I think it’s pretty clear that one of the reasons they felt so spiritually adequate was because they were materially well-off. In other words, they might have interpreted their material prosperity as a sign of spiritual success. If that’s so, it’s all the more reason for us who live in a very prosperous country to be on our guard against such an attitude. How much money we have is never a good barometer to gauge our spiritual condition. We could be dangling on the edge of steep cliff spiritually when we are lounging in a hammock materially. We may be rich, but the real question is, are we rich toward God?
The question then is, since spiritual growth is so important, how do we get there? How do we keep ourselves from being lulled to sleep like the Laodiceans? Here I think our text can help us. The first thing it tells us are what the prerequisites to spiritual growth are, which you must have to grow at all. If your yard contains only rocks, you can water it all you want to, but you are never going to get grass to grow there. You need good soil. Not just soil, but good soil. The ground in much of the Middle East used to be very fertile thousands of years ago. Places that are now desert used to be farmed. What happened is that the water farmers used to make their crops grow contained small amounts of salt in it, and over the years this very slow process of salinization sterilized the ground. Thus, we need to have hearts that are prepared to grow spiritually and that aren’t so contaminated by the spiritual salinization process at work in the world that we can’t receive God’s word into our hearts.
What needs to happen? First of all, we have to be born again. God has to prepare our hearts and make the soil good before the seed of God’s word will do anything there. That’s why before Paul even prays for the Ephesians, he takes notice of the spiritual realities that were already there: “Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints, cease not to give thanks for you making mention of you in my prayers” (15-16). Paul points to their faith in Christ and their love to the brethren as the reason why he went on to pray for them. If these things hadn’t been realities in them, it would have been pointless for him to pray as he did.
Paul mentions faith and love because these are the two graces that every person who has been born again has to have in some measure. Every Christian is a person who has faith in Christ and who loves other believers. Both of these things are pointed to in 1 John as evidences of the new birth. Consider, for example 1 John 5:1: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is [has been] born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.” Here John is saying that both faith and love are products of the new birth. The new birth produces faith in Christ and love to the saints. Note the universality of the apostle’s language. His language rules out the idea that you can be born again and yet not believe in Jesus or that you can be born again and be an unloving person.
It’s significant that they both go together. John points to that in the text mentioned above. Faith in Christ produces love to people. Paul says that the believers at Ephesus were known for their love to “all the saints,” not just some of the saints. John explains why: those who are born again recognize the family likeness. If you love God, it stands to reason that you will love those who are being recreated in his image (cf. Eph. 4:24).
So before we even ask how to grow in grace, we need to find the evidences of the new birth in our lives. Have we been born again? Do we have faith in Christ? Have we seen that even one sin justly keeps us from heaven and eternal life? Have we renounced our sins and turned to place ourselves entirely in the gracious hands of our Lord to save us from our sins? Do we love the brethren? Are our favorite people to be around those who share our faith in Christ?
The next prerequisite for spiritual growth is prayer itself. Paul prays for the saints at Ephesus that they might know and grow (16). Now I know that this is Paul’s prayer for them, but it stands to reason that if he is praying this for them, they should be doing the same thing as well. In any case, the point is that supplication is indispensable to sanctification. If God just did this without us seeking him for it, why would Paul pray that God do it? Paul clearly saw a correlation between prayer and spiritual growth. In the same way, we need to recognize the place of prayer in our spiritual lives. We cannot expect to grow to spiritual maturity if we do not consistently pray.
However, if we’re honest, many of us (including myself) have to admit that our prayer life is not all that it should be. Many of us don’t give it the time it deserves. The hymn puts it: “Take time to be holy, the world rushes on; \ Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.\ By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be; \ Thy friends in thy conduct his likeness shall see.” I don’t think the problem is that we lack the time, however busy we are. The problem is that we don’t often enough feel the urgency of our desperate dependence upon God. Sometimes we do. But the problem is that while our felt need for Christ fades, our real need of him never fades and never lessens. And self-sufficiency is deadly in the battle for holiness.
God will not bless those who rely upon themselves. If he were to do so, he would be robbing us of the joy of knowing more deeply the triumph of his grace in our lives. God does not want us to live in self-deception. He does not want us to live the idolatrous lie thinking that we are pulling it off when all along it is God doing it. And thus the call to prayer is a call to know more fully the reality that God and God alone is the one who gives us spiritual success. Those who, like Paul, cease not to give thanks and pray are precisely those who are living in holy dependence upon God. And as such they are the ones who grow spiritually.
This brings us to the final prerequisite mentioned in the text. It is intimately linked with the previous one, prayer. We need the Holy Spirit not only for new life but also at every stage in our journey toward heaven. In verse 17, where Paul begins to pray, he asks “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,” to “give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” I think it is very likely that Paul is not speaking of the human spirit in verse 17, but of the Holy Spirit (in many translations, the word for spirit is capitalized). The word “spirit” could refer to either. But the primary reason I think this is a reference to the Holy Spirit, is the fact that Paul asks for the “spirit of wisdom and revelation.” Revelation does not originate in believers but in the Holy Spirit. In 3:5, Paul says that the mystery which we preached “was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” And even if we interpret “spirit” in verse 17 as the human spirit, we still must understand the gift of revelation as something revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. Either way, it comes down to the same thing. Wisdom and insight and revelation originate in the Spirit of God, who gives it to those who belong to Christ.
This does not mean, of course, that a believer can completely lose the influence of the Holy Spirit upon his/her life. We can grieve him but not lose him. The point is that we can only grow in grace through the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is only through the power of God through the Spirit that we can make any real progress in the Christian life. And so Paul prays that God would give it to the believers at Ephesus. Two thousand years later, you and I are as in much need of the Divine influence as they were.
Now what is all this for? What does Paul see as the essence of spiritual growth? It is the knowledge of God (17). Do you want to grow in grace? Then you must grow in your knowledge of God. That is the key to sanctification and spiritual growth. Adolphe Monod famously said, “Philosophy taking man for its centre says know thyself; only the inspired word which proceeds from God has been able to say know God.”
You want to know the spiritual secret of the giants of the faith? Their secret was that they knew God. In the book of Daniel, we are told that in the midst of apostasy some would hold firm. Why? “But the people that do know their God shall be strong and do exploits” (11:32). At the end of the day, the very essence of spiritual and eternal life is summed up in the knowledge of God. Our Lord put it this way, “And this is eternal life, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jn. 17:3). We can see now why this is what Paul would pray for the believers at Ephesus.
It is true, of course, that every believer in some sense knows God. After all, according to our Lord you can’t even have eternal life without a saving knowledge of God. One of the New Covenant blessings, which belong to all who are in Christ, is that “they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest” (Heb. 8:11). But even saving knowledge of God is incomplete. No one can know God fully because he is infinite and we are finite. It will take eternity for us to fully appreciate and know God. We will never stop learning more about him.
What kind of knowledge is this? Since our Lord defines salvation in terms of knowing God, it can’t just mean knowing information about God. Even the devils believe and tremble (Jm. 2:19). The commentaries tell us that the word Paul uses in verse 17 for “knowledge” in fact denotes something more than just knowing about God. It involves experiencing God; it is an intimate knowledge of God. Thus, Paul wants the saints to experience more of God.
But it is more than just “experiencing God.” I suppose you could experience God and still be lost. Aaron’s sons saw God on Mount Sinai and then offered an unauthorized and unholy sacrifice before God and were killed. Rather, to know and experience God in a saving way means that he is real to me, more real than the things I can touch or taste or see. It means further that God has become infinitely relevant to me. He is not just a Being that I’m supposed to believe in. He is not just “the Man upstairs.” He is the one with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:13). Whereas before I cared less about God, now he is near and surpassingly important. The things of God are weighty and significant whereas before they were distractions. It means, above all, that I have come to taste and see that God is good (Ps. 34:8). I have come to see that God is a God of glory and I have come to love the glory of God.
Let me illustrate the difference. It’s the difference between reading about a tornado and being in a tornado. It’s the difference between seeing pictures of the Rocky Mountains and standing on a peak of one of them. You can read all you want about God; that will never in itself give you the kind of knowledge for which Paul is praying.
Perhaps the best commentary on what Paul is praying for here are his own words in Philippians 3, where he says he aim and desire in life is “that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering, being made conformable to his death” (3:10). Knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection is more than just knowing about the resurrection and believing it occurred. Paul has felt its power in his life and he wants to know more of it. Knowing the fellowship of his suffering is to experience the reality of his sufferings in one’s life. That is obviously not merely grasping the intellectual content of the sufferings of Christ – it is to experience them in one’s own body (cf. Col. 1:24). And for Paul, this was not something you attained and then moved on. It was his life’s goal, something he kept striving after: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14, ESV). Knowing God more fully is the journey of a lifetime. In fact, it does not even end in heaven; we will go on knowing more and more of God forever.
Thus we see why this is necessary for spiritual growth, for this is the purpose for which God has saved us. Everything God has done for us and in us and to us, he has done so that we would know him more fully. The reason why he elected us and redeemed us and adopted us into his family and sealed us was so that we would see and experience the wonder of his grace, the fullness of his love, the richness of his generosity, the awesome glory of his power and sovereignty. God does what he does in us by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit so that we will love him more earnestly and behold him more clearly. In fact, the perfection of heaven is described in Scripture as knowing God with a clearness that we will never attain this side of heaven: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12). When John wants to describe the perfection of the new heavens and earth, he puts it like this: “and they shall see his [God’s] face” (Rev. 22:4). So when Paul prays that his readers know God more fully, he is just praying that the salvation Christ purchased for them be applied to them more completely.
And so knowing God has a sanctifying effect: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). To know Christ in this way is to become more like him.
Now none of this means that there is no doctrinal content to such knowledge. It is no vague spiritual experience that Paul is advocating here. The God whose knowledge Paul desires his readers to have is described as “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “the Father of glory” (17). You cannot know God unless you know him as the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, you can only know God through Christ. There is no other way. Our Lord himself said, “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Mt. 11:27).
You cannot know God apart from the gospel. Yes, it takes the work of the Spirit of God to open our eyes and to enlighten us (cf. Eph. 1:18). But the Spirit speaks to us in the pages of Scripture. The sword of the Spirit – the instrument he uses to pierce our souls – is the word of God (6:17).
And yet, the miracle is that in Christ, we can know God. We can know him in this personal, saving, life-giving way. And those who know him can know him more and know him better. God does not stiff-arm his children. He welcomes them into his presence to enjoy his fellowship and experience his love and grace and power. It is possible, increasingly so, this side of heaven. And then the vision of God becomes infinitely clearer and wonderful. May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give unto you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. Amen.