Sunday, January 21, 2018

Soli Deo Gloria – Ephesians 3:20, 21

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.”[1]  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.

[1] BAGD, p. 840; quoted in Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, p. 493.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Love of Christ, the Fullness of God – Ephesians 3:18-19

In these verses, we reach the pinnacle of Paul’s prayer for the saints in Ephesus, and, indeed, the pinnacle and climax of all Christian experience.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in one of his sermons on this text, rightly said, “There is no more staggering statement in the whole range of Scripture than this.”[1]  It is something we could not dare to pray for were it not in Scripture itself.  It is this: “that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.”  That is what Paul is ultimately praying for.  The reason they needed to be strengthened with might by the Spirit in the inner man was so that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith, so that, being rooted and grounded in love, they might be able to comprehend the love of Christ so that they would be filled with God’s fullness.  It all leads to that.

Now it is important to see that the culmination of this prayer really explains what it means to be filled with all the fullness of God.  The structure of Paul’s thought here requires that it be explained by knowing the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.  That is how we are filled with all the fullness of God.  Recall that to the Colossians, Paul would write of Christ, “For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.  And ye are complete in him” (Col. 2:9-10).  The only way for us to be filled with all the fullness of God is to know most fully the love of Christ in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.  The climax of spiritual experience is to know and experience as much as humanly possible the love Christ for us.  Which goes to show that many of us have very little knowledge of the love of Christ. 

One way to put this is to say that the apostle is praying that the believers to whom he is writing would discover and experience God in ways that they had not up to that point.  Surely there is no greater goal for which we should strive.  God made us to do this.  He put us on this planet so that we should seek him and find him, as the apostle put it to the philosophers in Athens (cf. Acts 17).  It is the reason for which Christ died.  He died to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18).  The forgiveness of sins is an important accomplishment of the death of Christ, but it is subservient to this greatest of all ends, to bring us into the fellowship and presence of the living God.  And it is this in all its fullness for which the apostle is ultimately praying for here.

And yet, so many, even in the church, are left uninterested in the prospect of being filled with all the fullness of God.  Why?  I think one reason is to be found in the fact that we live in an age where technological discovery is proceeding at a lightening pace.  Our world is opening up to wondrous technological marvels that just a generation ago would have seemed like science fiction.  And it is easy to get sucked into the vortex of excitement generated by such discovery.  There are many who would look at what they doing and experiencing due to such scientific advancements, and look on this passage and wonder what the relevance of it all is.  They are not interested in discovering God.  They would rather discover the next step towards quantum computing.

In fact, a lot of people would go further.  They would say that there is nothing interesting about finding God.  God is just for the weak-minded, they would say.  They look at themselves and think they are too sophisticated for God.  God is boring, uninteresting, and a fable to boot. 

Now I grant that if God is a fable, then there is nothing in fact to discover.  But if we proceed upon the assumption that he is real (an assumption which can be backed by many solid arguments and evidences),  then it is manifest folly to think that pursuing the next technological marvel is more interesting or more important than pursuing the knowledge of God.  Every scientific discovery is but a discovery of something in a universe that God created.  So, if we consider it from that point of view, then what they are doing is at least several levels down from the discovery of the God of the universe itself.  I’m not saying what they are doing is not important.  I’m just saying that it’s not anywhere nearly as important or exciting as the discovery of the God who gave the human mind the propensity for discovery and innovation and who gave us a universe which can be harnessed to the service of human advancement through scientific endeavor. 

To pursue human advancement apart from the knowledge and service of God is to build a Tower of Babel.  It may be impressive, but it is doomed to failure in the end.

But this is not the only reason people put off seeking the presence of God. Another reason why people think that the discovery of God is uninteresting is because they think they know all there is to know about God.  There is this notion that the knowledge of God is elementary, something which is limited to a few doctrines.  You read your Bible a few times, a couple of systematic theologies, and you’re done.  Moving on!

But the apostle’s prayer here shows us that this view of the knowledge of God is clearly insufficient.  It is stupid to assume that we know all there is to know about the fullness of God!  He is infinite, and I am finite.  There is simply no way a finite human being could know or experience all there is about God in a finite amount of time.  The apostle himself interrupts such a line of thinking in these verses.  In verse 19, he talks about knowing the love of Christ, “which passeth knowledge.”  He is not saying that the love of Christ is unknowable since he is praying that they might “know the love of Christ.”  Rather, he is saying that we can never exhaust the riches of the love of Christ for us (cf. 3:8).  No matter how much we know about the love of Christ, there are still dimensions to his love which we still have yet to discover.  The love of Christ is infinite, and it surpasses our ability to comprehend it completely.  The saints will spend the rest of their lives and eternity exploring the vastness of Christ’s love for them.

I think people also make this mistake because they fail to realize that there are two levels upon which we proceed in our knowledge of God.  One is intellectual, and the other is experiential.  It is agreed by the commentators upon these verses that they word Paul uses for knowledge here encompasses both the intellectual and the experiential components.  Now those who think they have exhausted the knowledge of the fullness of God and the love of Christ, only approach this on an intellectual level.  Of course they are wrong even here; there is no way we can exhaust even the knowledge of the love of Christ even on this level.  Again, we are dealing with the fullness of God here; a finite mind cannot completely grasp the infinite.  Those who think God is boring simply fail to come to terms with the reality of the infinity of God.

But there is also this experiential aspect to the love of Christ and the fullness of God.  You can know a lot of doctrine about God and the love of Christ and yet know nothing of experiencing the richness of fellowship with the living God.  Here is the test for those who think God is boring.  If they think that, it is because they have never really experienced God.  It is because they know nothing of the love of Christ.  Knowing the love of Christ turned the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul.  It takes ordinary people and motivates them to love others even when they are being persecuted by the people to whom they are showing love.  The love of Christ constrains them, it controls them.  It causes them to rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Pet. 1:8).  The saints will spend all eternity exploring the vastness of the dimensions of Christ’s love for his people.  And so we cannot say that we know all there is to know about the love of Christ and the fullness of God.  The fact of the matter is that we know little of what we ought to know, even here.

Another reason why people find discovering the fullness of God to be uninteresting is because they think it is unpractical.  There is this idea that to be a top-of-the-line Christian, you must be an activist.  You must be doing something, achieving something.  On the other hand, they think that those who spend their lives pursuing an experience of the love of Christ are selfish and impractical and unhelpful.  Their focus is not upon a doctrinal knowledge of Christ’s love to them, or an experience of Christ’s love for them, but upon doing something for Christ.

Now there is something true in this perspective.  We don’t want to become Christians who just sit on their hands.  But we are in danger when we think that developing a real, experiential knowledge of the love of Christ for us is impractical.  Both Scripture and church history tell us exactly the opposite.  If you really want to be useful in the kingdom of God, you must first revel in the love of Christ to you.  For the chief mission of the church is to share the love of Christ.  But how can we do this if we ourselves don’t know it very well?  To use an expression the Lloyd-Jones used, the danger is that we become advocates for the gospel and not witnesses to the gospel.

Moreover, it is going to be hard to do real ministry in an unloving world if you are not empowered by a love that is not tied to this world.  Only the love of Christ can keep us going when everything else is against us.  It is what kept Paul going.  He was not only persecuted by the unbelievers in his day, he was also persecuted by other church leaders!  You see this in his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians, and you also see it in the first chapter of his letter to the Philippians.  How could he keep going when he had so much negative feedback?  It was because the love of Christ constrained him (2 Co. 5:14).  If you want to know the secret of Paul’s ministry, it was that he knew and experienced what he here prays for the Ephesians. 

I do want to push back on this idea that doing, doing, doing is the key to a successful Christian life and ministry.  I don’t think I’m wrong to say that we live in a time where churches are doing a lot of things.  There are a multitude of ministries out there.  And yet look at our society.  It is getting worse, not better.  Why?  Could it not be because so much of what the church does today is not empowered from the knowledge of the love of Christ but rather out of a desire to produce statistics?  It seems unarguable that the church today is more interested in statistics than it is in really knowing Christ.  And therein lies a great part of our problem.

There are many illustrations from church history to back up the fact that experiencing the fullness of God is essential to true usefulness in the kingdom of God.  As just one example, consider D. L. Moody.  There he was, preaching the gospel, but doing it, as he put it, as “a great hustler,” in the energy and power of the flesh.  Then one day in 1871 as he was walking down Wall Street in New York, the power of God fell upon him in such a powerful way, that he had to go into a nearby house where he experienced such joy that “at last he had to ask God to withhold his hand, lest he die on the spot from very joy.”  He pointed to that experience as a watershed event in his life, and although the sermons that he preached afterward weren’t any different from those before, they were accompanied by a power that led to the conversions of hundreds.[2]  The power of God, the fullness of God!  Note that he didn’t do anything different in terms of external activity after as before.  But there was a power that was present, a power that could only be explained in terms of his experience of God.  We are so confident in our methods, that we forget about the God apart from whose power and enabling we can do nothing.

Now where are you and I at in terms of knowing this love of Christ and experiencing this fullness of God?  Of course, if you are a Christian, you do know something of the love of Christ.  But there is so much more that we could experience, and the more we experience it the more we will realize how little we actually know.  One of the reasons why I pursued graduate school in mathematics is because when I finished my undergraduate degree, I looked at all my books and they almost all had the words, “Elementary” or “Introduction to…” in their titles.  I realized that even though I had obtained a bachelor’s degree, I still had only been introduced to mathematics!  So I realized that if I really wanted to know what mathematics was all about, I had to go on.  The problem is that by the time I finished graduate school I realized that I still was only scratching the surface.  In fact, I have a book in my office with the title, Advanced Linear Algebra, but which opens with the words, “This book is a thorough introduction to linear algebra.”  So even advanced books in mathematics can only claim to be thorough introductions!  If this is true in mathematics, it is even truer in theology and the knowledge of God.  None of us can really claim to have gotten beyond an introduction to the knowledge of God.  And yet, for those who go on, there are riches that make the journey more than worth it.

Edward Payson puts all this in a way that I think is very helpful and instructive.  He describes classes of believers who are ranged in concentric circles about Christ:

Suppose professors of religion to be ranged in different concentric circles around Christ as their common centre.  Some value the presence of their Saviour so highly that they cannot bear to be at any remove from Him.  Even their work they will bring up and do it in the light of His countenance, and while engaged in it will be seen constantly raising their eyes to Him as if fearful of losing one beam of His light.

Others, who, to be sure, would not be content to live out of His presence, are yet less wholly absorbed by it than these, and may be a little further off, engaged here and there in their various callings, their eyes generally upon their work, but often looking up for the light which they love.

A third class, beyond these but yet within the life-giving rays, includes a doubtful multitude, many of whom are so much engaged in their worldly schemes that they may be seen standing sideways to Christ, looking mostly the other way, and only now and then turning their faces towards the light.  And yet further out, among the last scattered rays, so distant that it is often doubtful whether they come at all within their influence, is a mixed assemblage of busy ones, some with their backs wholly turned upon the sun, and most of them so careful and troubled about their many things as to spend but little time for their Saviour.[3]

I think this is a very accurate way of putting it.  The point is that we are on one of these concentric circles, closer or further away from the center who is Christ.  The goal for every Christian is to move toward to the center.  That is what Paul is essentially praying for here.  He wants them to be so close to Christ that everything in their life and work and play is flavored by their relationship to him, and they don’t want to do anything that would endanger their nearness to Christ. 

Now I like the way Payson describes those who are removed from the center.  The further out you go, the more interested in engulfed you are by the things of this world to the exclusion of Christ.  The less the rays of Christ’s love enflame you, the less you are interested in your relationship to him.  The closer you get, the more you want of his presence and nearness, the more you want to know of his love.

So in evaluating ourselves, we need to pause and ask ourselves, “How attracted am I to the love of Christ?  How constant is my affection for him?”  As with gravity, distance affects the attraction we feel towards our Lord.  The closer we are to him, the more we want to move towards him, the more we want to know of him and his love toward us, the more we want to experience the fullness of God. Whereas, the further out we are, the less we will tend to be attracted by the gospel and its glories. 

Another way to put this is that we are on a continuum between two poles.  At one end is Christ and at the other end is an idol of some form.  For different people the idol may be different.  But the battle that is being fought in this prayer is the battle against idolatry.  It is the fight to move away from the idol and towards Christ.  The more you know of the love of Christ, the less you are going to be interested in the idol.  The more you are filled with the fullness of God, the less room there is going to be in your heart for that idol.

The closer we move toward Christ, the more we will realize that every idol is but a shadow of Christ and therefore less desirable than Christ himself.  Most idols are gifts that God gives that we then put in the place of God.  Pleasure, power, fame, money: these can all be legitimate gifts that can enrich our lives.  The problem is that we begin to look to pleasure or power or fame or money to give us what only God can give.  We also tend to give to the gifts what only God deserves: worship and affection and devotion and love.  They cannot gives us what only God can give and we should not give to them what only God deserves. 

It’s like exalting a sun beam over the sun itself.  The sun beam is great.  It is what makes flowers grow.  It’s what gives us warmth.  But the sun beam would not exist without a sun.  To praise the sun beam while ignoring the sun is stupid.  Even so, when we put God’s gifts in God’s place, we are praising the sun beam and forgetting about the sun.  Clearly, the sun is greater and more important the beam of light it emits.  And in the same way, God is infinitely exalted and above his gifts.  It is folly when we idolize the sun beam.  The Giver is greater than any of his gifts. 

How do we get there?  How do we move towards the Center?  To be completely honest, I do feel like I am preaching more as an advocate here than as a witness.  I don’t feel like I’ve experienced the fullness of God anywhere nearly as I should.  But I want to get there.  And we should be encouraged in our journey, if we are related to Christ.  Because the apostle prays that they “may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ.”  This is not something that is out of reach except only for a few super-saints.  It is for all the saints, for every believer, for anyone who knows Christ. 

We ought to be intensely thankful that our Lord has not put this on a level that only few can reach.  This is one of the glories of the Christian religion.  It is not reserved only for the intellectuals.  It is not reserved only for the wealthy.  It is open to all who know Christ, no matter their IQ or their status in society.  Our Lord himself said, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Mt. 11:25).  It is not only there for you, but our Lord himself wants you to experience the fullness of God in his love.  He stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3:20).  There is no reason, beyond those of our own making, why we cannot attain to what the apostle prays for here.

However, it is not automatic.  When my wife and I were in Colorado several years ago, we stopped by this mountain and near the top of it you could see little people ascending to the peak.  I decided that I wanted to do this, and so I set off.  However, I was not exactly in shape, nor were my lungs conditioned for the rarified air at that elevation.  At some point I had to give up and turn back.  In the same way, many of us are spiritually out of shape.  That doesn’t mean we can’t ascend to the peak and behold the majesty of Christ’s love for us; it just means that there has to be some conditioning for us to be able to ascend to the top.

What are some of the things we must do?  Well, first, we have to want it.  If we want our idol more than Christ, we are going to stay away from the Center.  God does not reward those who do not seek him diligently, with the whole heart.  The prophet put it, “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).  Our Lord compares seeking him with a man who sells all that he has to have a field for the treasure buried within it, or to a merchant who sells everything to obtain that one pearl of great price.  Do we want the Lord that much?  It is the only way we will find him.

Unfortunately, even if we are aware of our need, we are often also simultaneously aware of a lack of desire.  We feel the pull of the idol even as we reach for the Center.  It is here that prayer is so important.  We must pray.  We must pray for it when we feel like we want it and we must pray for it when we don’t feel like we want it.  God hears prayer, and it is not for no reason that Paul puts this in a prayer for the Ephesians.

And then, we must repent of our idols.  If we are aware that we are putting something in the place of Christ, we must do what it takes to repent of this.  John’s first epistle begins with an invitation to the fellowship of God, which is what the apostle Paul is essentially praying for in this prayer.  It is therefore instructive that John ends with this exhortation: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21).  If we want this fellowship with God, if we want to experience the fullness of God and the love of Christ, then we must keep ourselves from idols.

Further, since this is all centered on Christ, we must constantly remind ourselves of the gospel and what Christ has done for us.  This is not something we do just on Christmas or during certain seasons of the year, but every day of every year.  It is only when Christ dwells in our hearts by faith that we will be able to comprehend the dimensions of his love for us and be filled with all the fullness of God. 

So as we come to the end of this year and look forward to a new year, let us resolve with the apostle in this prayer, to go on through Christ our Lord and Savior, to know more of his love for us and to be filled with all the fullness of God.  Surely there is no greater resolution for a Christian to have.  In some sense, any New Year’s resolution should be subservient to this one.  May the Lord make it so for us in the year to come. 

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, p. 278.
[3] Quoted in Lloyd-Jones, p. 242-243.

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