For whom was the apostle praying? He was praying mostly for people that had recently converted to Christianity from paganism. These people had grown up in an environment that had little to no knowledge or concern for Biblical principles. Instead, they were raised in a milieu that assumed a polytheistic worldview, had little regard for the value of human life, and a disturbing appetite for sexual immorality. Paul was not exaggerating when in the next chapter he would describe his readers as “Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:11-12). In chapter 4, he describes the culture in which these Christians had formerly lived: “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (4:17-19). Note the word henceforth in 4:17. They had one time lived that way. In other words, these were people who undoubtedly had a lot of baggage, as we sometimes put it. These were not people with minor issues.
What did Paul do about it? How did he pray for these people? How did he exhort them to live? I think what Paul did not do is almost as instructive as what he did. The apostle did not spend an inordinate amount of time telling them how bad were the sins in which they once wallowed. That’s not to say he didn’t (as in the verses in chapter 4 quoted above). But most of his time is spent on inculcating positive virtues. The apostle evidently understood that if you love the good enough, you will lose your appetite for the bad.
And this is what the apostle is doing in this prayer. He is praying that God would so give them a taste of the glory of God and an experience of his goodness and greatness that they would find the sins of the flesh to be disgusting. He wants them to be so convinced of the truth about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that they will not fall prey to the lies that so many of their friends believe. It’s the converse of C. S. Lewis’s famous analogy: the ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot understand what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. If you’ve been at the sea on holiday, why would you want to trade that for mud pies in the slums?
That’s not to say that they are still in the dark. “But ye have no so learned Christ” (4:20). We noted last time that the fundamental prerequisite for spiritual growth of any kind is spiritual life; you have to be born again and that the new birth inevitably produces faith in Christ and love to the saints. Paul returns to that theme at the beginning of verse 18, when he reminds them that “the eyes of your understanding [heart]” have been “enlightened.” This again is what makes the prayer meaningful, and what makes these things possible for the Ephesian believers. If you’ve been born again, your eyes have been opened to see the glory of God and the urgent relevance of the gospel to your life. That in itself is going to create some changes. If you are a new creation in Christ then the old has passed and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). Those who say a person can be born again and yet exhibit no change of life is like saying a blind man can receive his sight and yet still go one bumping into things that he’s looking at. Imagine our Lord during his earthly ministry healing a lame man; is it possible to imagine that such a man would go on limping? The power of our Lord is greater than that. The triumph of the new birth really does produce new life and new sight and new desires after godliness. The grace that brings salvation teaches us that we should say no to ungodliness and worldly lusts and to say yes to self-control, righteousness, and godliness in this present world (Tit. 2:11-12).
I think this is one reason why the apostle didn’t try to micromanage their lives. He understood that God’s grace and power were at work in the lives of true believers. They were enlightened. However, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t need to grow in the knowledge that they had. As we noted last time, every believer has to some extent true knowledge of God, because the essence of eternal life is to know God. But we all need to grow in that knowledge, as Paul’s prayer here demonstrates.
Another thing that is important is in what direction we grow. I have a peach tree in the back yard that is desperately trying to grow out of a taller tree’s shade. It’s amazing how plants reach for the light and do so in a way that maximizes their exposure to the sunlight. In the same way, you and I need to grow spiritually so that we maximize our exposure to gospel influences. We don’t want to end up with the world blocking the light of God’s grace from our lives.
In what direction then do we grow? The text we are looking at this morning, Paul’s prayer in verses 18-23, helps us here. For in these verses, the apostle prays that the knowledge of God for which he prayed in verse 17 will exhibit itself in three directions. Note the progression in Paul’s prayer. In verse 17, he prays that God would give them the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God, so that (verses 18-19) they would know three things: the hope of God’s calling, the wealth of God’s inheritance in the saints, and the greatness of God’s power. We can see immediately why knowing God is foundational to knowing these things. For the calling is God’s calling, the inheritance is God’s inheritance, and the power is God’s power. If you don’t know God, you can’t know any of these things either.
And we need to know these things. This is not just a prayer for former pagans. It’s a prayer for you and me as well. We may not have been raised in a pagan environment (though our culture is tending more and more that way), but there is paganism in all our hearts. The new birth gives us new eyes and a new heart and new desires but it does not take away the sinful tendencies that remain in our hearts. We are still vulnerable this side of heaven. Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).
The fact that it is an apostle praying for these things makes it even more important that we follow his footsteps and pray the same things for ourselves. These are the directions in which we need to grow. Let’s consider each one in its turn.
First of all, the apostle prays that they “may know what is the hope of his [God’s] calling” (18). It is often said that the three things Paul prays for in verses 18 and 19 point to the past (God’s calling), to the future (God’s inheritance), and to the present (God’s power). Although it is true that God’s call is something that happened in the past for the Christian, the emphasis in Paul’s request is on hope, which clearly points to the future. It would seem at first glance that there is little difference between the prayer that they would know hope and the prayer that they would know the riches of God’s inheritance. However, it is not so much the object of hope that Paul wants them to know (that’s the next petition), but the grace of hope that he wants them to fully experience. Hope is a subjective experience that links the one who hopes with the object hoped for. There are three things (at least) that are implied in the prayer for hope.
First, Paul wants us to have confident expectation in the promises of God. He wants us to have a rock-solid confidence that God’s word is trustworthy. Abraham “against hope believed in hope that he might become the father of many nations; according to that which was spoken, So shall thy see be. . . . and being fully persuaded that, what he [God] had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:18, 21). Thus, hope is an extension of faith. We believe that what God has said will never be unsaid through a failure from God to follow through.
Second, to have hope implies that we have applied God’s promises to ourselves, that we have laid hold of the promises of God. There are some who think that this is presumption. But it is not. The Scriptures everywhere encourage the Christian to not only believe the promises of God are true for others but to believe that they are true for them as well. And though there is such a thing as a false hope, the hope of a hypocrite, that does not mean that all hope is bad. We do need to be careful that we are not deceiving ourselves, but it is not wrong to apply God’s truth to ourselves when God’s word warrants it. The problem is that we either don’t pay attention to the warrants of Scripture or we add conditions to the promises of God that were never there.
What is the warrant of Scripture? What gives anyone the right to hope for heaven? It is simply faith in Jesus Christ, and its concomitant, repentance of sin. Our warrant to the promises of God does not come through being “good enough” but by relying upon the goodness and grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God’s word teaches us that all who believe in Christ will be saved. Paul has been teaching in this very chapter that if we are “in Christ” by faith then we are elected, predestined, adopted, redeemed, given an inheritance, and sealed. For us to refuse to accept these blessings which have been freely given to us in Christ is not a mark of humility but of unbelief and does not honor God but dishonors him.
Third, to have Biblical hope implies that we long for that in which we hope. As we noted before, hope is confident expectation, a real desire to have that which God has promised. Of course, a lot of people might say that they want to go to heaven when they die and so have hope. But this hope is not just a hope to escape the wrath of God but a hope to enjoy the presence of God forever. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Romans: we “rejoice,” he says, “in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). Paul would later exhort his readers to join him “rejoicing in hope” (Rom. 12:12).
When you put these three things together – confidence that God’s promises are true, appropriating them by faith and longing for them – we can see why hope is so important to the Christian. Someone who has this kind of hope is impregnable to the assaults of Satan. It is why Paul calls on the Thessalonian believers to put on “for a helmet, the hope of salvation” (1 Thess. 5:8). It is a helmet. It’s the reason why Paul says that we are saved by hope (Rom. 8:24). The reason is that “if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience [endurance] wait for it” (Rom. 8:25). Hope is that which keeps us persevering when the going gets rough. It’s what keeps us from giving up.
Of course, it is not just any hope that Paul is calling for. You can have hope in the wrong things. When you do that, instead of building up your faith, you will destroy it. The hope for which the apostle prays is “the hope of his calling.” Paul is referring here to what theologians denote the effectual call. It is God’s call to salvation (Rom. 8:30). God has called us to be saints (Rom. 1:7), to be holy (1 Thess. 4:7). He has called us to the fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9). He has called us to glory and virtue(2 Pet. 1:3). And this is why our hope will not make us ashamed in the end (Rom. 5:5); God is on the other end of our call. This hope is not something that we give to ourselves but something God has given to us when he called us to salvation in Christ. And God is able to complete that which he has begun (Phil. 1:6). We can therefore have every confidence in the God in whom our hope resides.
The next thing that Paul prays for is that the saints would know “what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (18). Now some believe that Paul is talking about the saints as being God’s inheritance. However, Paul has just said that the Holy Spirit is “the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchases possession” (14), and I think it is likely that Paul is referring to the same inheritance in verse 18. It is God’s inheritance in the sense that the inheritance the saints enjoy is both from him and centers around him. We are heirs of God (Rom. 8:17). When Paul says that this inheritance is “in the saints” he doesn’t mean that the saints are the inheritance but that the inheritance is not something we enjoy to ourselves but among the saints; it is something we enjoy in common with other believers.
Now in the previous petition, Paul is praying that believers will have a strong and confident expectation of the glory to come. However, you cannot have that unless you see and believe in the glory of that inheritance. I once read an interesting story of a swimmer who was determined to swim the English Channel. On the day she attempted it, however, it was very foggy and she couldn’t see the coast she was aiming at. She began to swim, full of determination and hope, but eventually she got to the point where she just couldn’t go on and gave up. She was then pulled into the boat that had been following her across. If I remember the story right, the fog lifted suddenly and there was the coast. She had almost made it. If she had been able to see the coast she might have had the determination to continue. The fact that the coast had been shrouded in fog kept her from being motivated by the goal. In the same way, we do not only need hope but we need that hope to be fed and strengthened by a clear vision of the glory to come.
And so notice how Paul puts this. “The riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.” He could have just said, “I want you to know the inheritance that will be enjoyed by all the saints.” Instead of this, he heaps together these descriptive words to help us see just how wonderful and surprising this inheritance really is. Riches, glory, inheritance. This inheritance makes those who possess it incalculably wealthy. The riches of the richest people on earth is nothing compared to what the saints in heaven will inherit. It is breathtakingly glorious. By using words like “riches” and “glory” to describe the inheritance, Paul is not only praying that we will know about the inheritance but that we would see it as a place that is infinitely desirable above earthly joys; in other words, something on which we can place our hopes.
We have all heard about people who are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. The Bible does not support this notion. Here, the apostle is saying that if you really want to grow spiritually and have victory over sin you will have to be heavenly minded. You will have to see that the inheritance to come is something that is worth putting your hopes in. And you will have to be the kind of person whose ultimate focus is on the prize to come. Like Moses, who chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward” (Heb. 11:25-26).
The final thing Paul prays for here is that the saints would know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power” (19). Here again, the apostle piles on these descriptive words, this time for power. There are four different words for power in this verse (dynamis, energeia, kratos, ischus). Paul wants us to understand that the fulness of God’s power is available to all who believe. It’s not just that God’s power is toward those who believe. No, it’s the greatness of his power – no, it’s the exceeding greatness of his power! And just in case we didn’t get the picture, he goes on in the next verse, “which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly placed” (20). The very power that raised Christ from the dead is operative in the saints.
Now why would Paul pray for this? And what relationship does this have to the two preceding requests? Let’s start with the relationship to the prayer for hope and knowledge of the inheritance. The connection is this: those who have placed their hope in the inheritance that will be theirs at the end of the age need to know that they will get there. Though in the big scheme of things our lives are like a vapor, they still seem long to us while we are in the journey. The question is, will we make it? Or will we die along the way (like my van’s transmission did when our family was on the way to New Mexico)? Will we commit spiritual suicide? Paul’s answer is no: we are not going to heaven on our own. God is not only working for us, he is working in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
I do not tire of saying this because it is true and because it is necessary for us to hear it again and again: you cannot persevere in holiness on your own. It is true that we are do labor and strive and work and will and mortify and deny ourselves. But we do this in the strength God provides: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13). You and I have to mortify (put to death) the deeds of the body. That is something we have to do. But we can only do it through the Spirit. There is simply no other way. The flesh is simply too strong for us to try to manhandle it on our own. But we do not need to worry: greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world. God is for us and God is working in us. And not only is he working in us, but he is extending to us the very power that raised his Son from the dead. God is not stingy with his grace, wealth, or power. He freely gives it to us. The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead works in us to put sin to death.
And so we see why Paul prays for this. It would be very easy for us to become discouraged were we at this alone. But we are not. Moreover, this means that there is no task to which God has called us that we cannot do. It may seem sometimes that the task to which God has called us is impossible. On one level that may very well be true. Paul talks about being “pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8). “Above strength” means impossible in human terms. So how did Paul make it through this trial? He answers: “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead [like he did when he raised Christ from the dead]: who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us” (2 Cor. 1:9-10). It is only when we die to trusting ourselves and look to God who raises the dead that we will discover the power that enables us to remain faithful in hard times.
In fact, Christ’s resurrection is not just a demonstration of the power available to the church; he represents the church in his exalted state. His ascension to glory guarantees the complete salvation of the church. This is the apostle’s point in verses 20-23. He is exalted at God’s right hand and from there he dispenses the Spirit and every blessing and grace (20). Moreover, he is exalted above every power that might pose a threat to the Christian (21). There is nothing, either in this world or the world to come, that can successfully be against the believer. All things have been put under the feet of Christ (22), and he is the head of the church which is his body, “the fullness of him that filleth all in all” (23). Christ losing the church would be like a body losing its head. That will never happen to Christ. The church is Christ’s fullness; he would be incomplete without his elect. Not because he needs the church, for he fills all in all, but because he has committed himself by covenant and promise to see that the blood he shed for his people will not be in vain.
These are the things that you and I need to know. They are indispensable to spiritual growth. Thankfully, they are already ours in Christ. We just need to pray for them and grow in them. May the Lord make it happen for each and every one of us.