Imagine that you have the privilege of starting a church. Through God’s work in your own life, people begin to believe. They learn. They grow. They struggle with their culture. They struggle with their own sin. Yet, more and more come to faith in Jesus. And deeper and deeper go the roots of their faith into Christ Himself. You are profoundly encouraged as you see God at work in the lives of others and thrilled to recognize that He has chosen to do this work through your efforts.
If you’re like most Christians, you might be tempted to pray that time would stand still, that you’d be able to spend the rest of your life in this meaningful fulfilling ministry with people you are growing to love more and more every day. Even if you were like Paul, with a vision to start many churches in ever more remote parts of the world, you probably wouldn’t be looking forward to the time when you would have to move on.
But in our imaginary scenario, that time comes. God makes it clear that he has work for you to do elsewhere. You say your farewells and leave. How do you feel? How will you support the new Christians you’re leaving behind? What can you do that will make a difference?
We know from the Bible that when Paul was faced with such questions, he did two things. The first is obvious. He wrote letters to those he’d left behind when he had to move on. The letter we’re studying is one of these. In it, Paul mentions something else that he did far more regularly than writing letters, which, by the way, wasn’t as easy in the 1st Century as it is in the 21st Century. In addition to his correspondence with them, he prayed for them.
You might think that you’re not so different. You likely pray for people, too. But if you pray like most of the people I’ve heard praying in church, you probably don’t pray like Paul. Don’t be offended by my saying that, it’s just that we 21st Century Christians have incorporated a lot from the culture of the world around us. But before I explain more about that, let’s read a specific prayer of Paul’s for his friends in Ephesus:
Ephesians 3:14 “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
A few programs ago we dealt with an earlier prayer of Paul, recorded in chapter 1 beginning at verse 15. The two prayers have some similarities, to be sure. For example, we observe that in both prayers, he is not primarily concerned with physical or material problems, as many of our prayers are. But the two prayers also have some differences. In the earlier one Paul was focussed on their grasp of their spiritual blessings, their position in Christ, and their hope for the future. In this prayer, his emphasis is on their tapping into God’s resources so they could live successfully as followers of Jesus in a fallen physical world and a social context which did not generally accept Him.
As we look closer at the verses we just read, we see that this prayer can be divided into four specific requests. The first is that God would strengthen them spiritually in proportion to His glorious riches. If you go back to the book of Acts and read about some of the things that happened on Paul’s visit to the city, you’ll understand why he prayed that God would give them spiritual strength.
Ephesus was a principal city within the Roman empire. With a population of a quarter of a million people in the 1st Century, it boasted impressive architecture, including baths, theatres and places of worship. Chief among the latter was the great temple of the goddess Diana (or Artemis as she was known to the Greeks). This great building was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the people of Ephesus were very proud of both their goddess and her temple. They were ready to charge with blasphemy anyone who dared to challenge her place in the spiritual world. That’s why we read of the riot when Paul and his friends presented the gospel there.
For the handful of Christians living in that social and spiritual environment, life was hard. They would have stood out from their neighbours. They would have been seen to be disloyal, not only to the goddess, but to the social fabric which gave her such prominence. So it’s not unusual to find Paul praying for them that God would give them strength from above to help them live in a hostile environment.
The second item in Paul’s prayer was that Christ would establish his residence in their hearts through faith. We see this in verse 17. The idea of God dwelling in the temple of His people was an old one with Jewish roots. God’s presence was centred in the Temple in Jerusalem. He was not there physically, for God is a spirit, but dwelt there in a way that was different from the way He was present anywhere else. Now, as Paul was writing to the Ephesian Christians, God no longer lived in an earthly temple made of stone or brick or any other construction material. He dwelt, by His Spirit, in the lives of believers.
Paul’s prayer that Christ would “dwell in their hearts through faith” emphasized the sharp difference between those who worshipped God and those who worshipped the goddess. Remember that the city of Ephesus was famous for being home to the temple of Diana. Her worshippers could take you there. It was a physical place. Inside of it was a huge sculpture of her. There was a tangible representation of her. And if that wasn’t enough, you could purchase little silver idols all over the city. The Bible tells us in Acts 19 that there was a thriving idol making business.
But what about the Christians? What did they have to show anyone? Nothing. No buildings, no impressive statue, no idols. By faith they believed that the Lord Jesus Christ dwelt inside each and every one of them. They were his church. They were his body. They were His dwelling place on earth. Again, given their environment, it’s entirely reasonable that Paul would be praying that Christ would dwell in them by faith. They needed faith to keep their hope alive as they lived day-by-day in a world that despised them.
The third thing Paul prayed for specifically was that as they were rooted and grounded in love, they would be able to understand and embrace the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love. It wouldn’t be helpful to get too literal in trying to understand these individually. What Paul wants here is that they might know the love of Christ in all of its dimensions.
Experiencing the love of Christ in all of its dimensions would certainly include being able to share that love in the same way their Lord did. Jesus experienced a lot of hostility, especially as He approached His death on the cross. What did He do? He loved His tormentors. He loved those who were nailing Him to the wood. That was the kind of love the Ephesians needed to survive in their city. They were a minority – a hated minority at that. They didn’t fit in with the lifestyle of their neighbours. They didn’t belong. We all know what people do with those who don’t fit in, that don’t belong. They persecute them.
Paul knew that the Christians in Ephesus needed a special revelation of the love of Christ if they were going to be able to be His witnesses in their inhospitable surroundings. So he prayed specifically that they would be rooted and grounded in love and that they would know that love by experience in their everyday lives in the 1st Century.
The last thing Paul prayed for them was that they would be filled with all the fullness of God. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how to be very precise with this. How can a finite human being be filled with all the fullness of God? I suspect Paul’s intent may have included at least a couple of things. One was that they would be overwhelmed by His presence. Nothing would protect them from being drowned in the sea of godlessness around them like having a massive awareness of God’s presence with them.
The other thing Paul likely meant was simply that they would be filled to capacity with the fulness of God. When Christians reserve space in their lives for other things, they take away space from the fulness of God. Paul knew that and he knew that the easiest thing in the world would be for the Christians in Ephesus to start downplaying the role of God in their lives, hence his prayer that they would be filled with all the fullness of God.
Paul closes his prayer with a doxology – an outburst of worship in recognition of the greatness of God: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Few of us find ourselves in anything approaching Paul’s situation, but all of us have people we care about for whom we should pray. This week, let’s take what we’ve learned from Paul’s prayer for his friends and apply it to our prayers for our friends. Focus on the spiritual resources that will carry them forward in their spiritual lives regardless of their physical circumstances.