Now if you would please take a copy of the Holy Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3. If you’re using one of our church Bibles you’ll find that on page 977. We will be focusing in a few moments on verses 14 through 19.
A Reflection on the Recent Supreme Court Ruling
Before we pray and turn our attention to the exposition of the Word of God, I want to do something at least unusual for me, perhaps for all of you, and to preface our study this morning with a brief reflection on the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states. It is not the calling of the church and it’s certainly beyond my capacity personally to comment on the constitutionality or the politics of the decision, however it does seem to me important that we take some time to think together about the implications of a decision that will have enormous ramifications for Christians who take their commitment to the Bible as the Word of God seriously. If anyone had any doubts before, the decision to legalize same-sex marriage has made it abundantly clear now that a tectonic shift has taken place in the moral consensus of this country. It is a shift that now officially normalizes what was once scandalous and makes offensive the orthodox Christian understanding of Biblical morality and sexual ethics, effectively punting millennia of ethical teaching to the margins.
I don’t think I need to restate it here but just to be clear, at First Presbyterian Church in common with the Presbyterian Church in America, the denomination to which we belong, we affirm with the Scriptures that marriage is the lifelong union of one man to one woman and we deny that human beings, whether individuals or courts or elected officials have the right or the capacity to define marriage in any way at odds with the revealed plan of Almighty God. Lifelong, heterosexual marriage is a given. It is pre-political. It is not a social construct. Whatever the new social and political reality, there is simply no such thing as same-sex marriage. It is an oxymoron; it is a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, we do need to face the new social and political reality with our eyes wide open and ask ourselves what this might mean for the people of God in these days.
And the first thing to say is that clearly we must be prepared to bear the cost that following Jesus inevitably is going to entail. The LGBTQI community has largely won the national debate and it has done so, I wonder if you noticed its strategy, it has won the debate in no small measure by successfully equating in the public mind opposition to same-sex marriage with the terrible poison of racism so that now to take the Biblical view and to simply oppose same-sex unions or to reject homosexuality as sin is to be labeled a bigot and an extremist on a par with hate groups and white supremacists. Brothers and sisters, there will be hard, painful, costly days ahead and we must be prepared to bear the reproach of Christ, to be the church under the cross, to go with Christ outside the camp because of our commitment to Biblical truth. Already it’s becoming clear, isn’t it, that Christian para-church educational and philanthropic institutions will face penalties for their failure to comply with the new ruling. Similarly, I do not believe it will be long before religious protections dissolve and Biblically faithful churches will lose, for example, their tax exempt status if they refuse to conform to this new ruling.
How Should We Respond?
So how should we respond? What should First Church do in the light of all that has happened? Well two things and then I want to turn to prayer and to the Word of God. First, we must not panic. We mustn’t give into fear. We mustn’t despair or think that all is lost. We may well be witnessing actually the final collapse of a residual Christian culture that has for a long time now allowed the church to live in a cocoon, especially even the south, cushioning us from the more radical challenges of our post-modern society. That Christian culture is being eroded and is disappearing rapidly. And along with it, in all likelihood, I anticipate that merely cultural Christians will begin to find identifying themselves with churches that adhere to Biblical principles simply too costly and too demanding to bear long and we will see cultural Christians absent themselves from our pews and from our rolls. What will remain over time will largely be the faithful whom God has made His children by His Word and Spirit, whom He will never forsake, who may be assured of His comfort and the supply of His grace as we stand firm with our consciences captive to the Word of God. So let’s be sobered by this decision. It is epoch making. But let’s not forget, shall we, that our God is sovereign and that He works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
We mustn’t panic, but we must get serious I think. In fact, I believe that we ought to hear in the Supreme Court decision a clarion call to personal holiness and to bold, Gospel mission. It’s hard to imagine a clearer indicator of the lostness of our world or of its need for Christ. Whatever else we might say about it, the Supreme Court has made it painfully clear to us America needs Jesus - right? Right? And so instead of fear and discouragement, it’s time to get serious about the Gospel. It is time for us to get serious about following hard after the Lord Jesus in our own lives. It’s time for us to get serious about bringing the Gospel to our city and our state and our country and the world, whatever it costs us. Certainly we need to do that with humility and compassion. We need to recognize the complexity of the issues involved in any discussion of gender and sexuality and how profoundly linked those things are for so many to the shaping of personal identity and the quest for fulfillment. We must find creative ways to serve those who are already in our congregation - and there are currently a number of members of our congregation I know personally who struggle with same-sex attraction who nevertheless seek to live lives of purity and godly obedience to Jesus despite their struggle. We must work hard to be both a welcoming and loving community on the one hand while at the same time affirming that Biblical love insists on boundaries on the other hand. We must both love and serve all people everywhere with the Gospel regardless of their moral and spiritual condition however they identify themselves, gay or straight, while at the same time calling all people everywhere to repentance and to sexual purity and to self-denial and to holiness without compromise.
And then secondly I want to say that the most radical, the most powerful, the most effective response to the moral collapse of the world and the lostness of our society we may hope to offer is to do what we are doing right now. Mightier than legal challenges, more countercultural than civil disobedience, more transformative than political change is the simple worship of Almighty God regulated by Holy Scripture and attended by the presence and power of the Spirit of Christ. As we sing our old songs, as we sit in humility under the reading and preaching of the Bible, brothers and sisters let us not forget we are supernaturalists. We believe God is wielding His Word in our midst to make us new creatures, a new humanity, not conformed to the pattern of this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds until we bear the moral likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ. So this may not look like much, but it is a radical response to the lostness of the world to take the name of the Lord your God on your lips, to adore Him, to confess your sin before Him, and to submit yourself to His rule in your life as it comes from His holy words. So it’s business as usual for us. We’re not going to slacken the pace or stop proclaiming Christ, calling the world to repentance and faith in Jesus. We will keep the main things the main things. We will run our race with perseverance, fixing our eyes on Jesus who for the joy set before Him scorned, endured the cross and scorned its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. If we will commit together anew to sit under the faithful proclamation of Biblical truth, to feed together on the Word of God trusting its promises, obeying its precepts, we have the greatest grounds for confidence and hope in a dark, despairing world. Do you believe that? We need to be Gospel optimists, brothers and sisters. No hope in ourselves, no hope in the world - not in princes, politicians, nor in powers. Our God is sovereign; His Word invincible - that is the anchor of our hope and confidence.
I think in the next few years Luther’s great, familiar hymn is going to take on a new depth of meaning and significance for many of us. I trust we will be enabled to sing it with new confidence in the truths it teaches us. You know the words. “Though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure for lo, his doom is sure. One little Word shall fell him. That Word above all earthly power no thanks to them abideth, the Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”
Our Father, spread before us now is Your holy, inerrant Word. It is the voice of the true King. We bow before You; our hearts are open to You. Send us the Spirit and wield Your Word in our hearts for Your glory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Ephesians chapter 3 at verse 14. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith - that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness 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.”
And may God bless His Word to us.
We saw and said a few moments ago we live in discouraging times. The Gospel has been publically marginalized, our ethical convictions as Christians rejected not just by the culture at large but now by the highest court in the land. The pressure bearing down upon the Church of Jesus Christ to adjust our values, to accommodate the culture, is considerable and it is growing and we have every reason to expect that following Jesus faithfully in the days ahead of us will come at a cost. But in the providence of God, the passage we have read together this morning offers real comfort and encouragement in these discouraging days. Back in chapter 2 of Paul’s letter you will remember the apostle has treated us to a marvelous survey of Christian salvation in the way of God in delivering the Ephesian believers from death and uniting them to Christ and incorporating them into the church. And at the end of that extraordinary view of God’s work in a soul in the Ephesians’ lives, Paul is ready to respond in the most fitting of ways. He’s ready to pray. And so chapter 3 verse 1 - “For this reason, in view of all that I’ve been saying about the greatness of God and the glories of His saving grace, for this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, on behalf of you Gentiles,” and then when he’s just about to launch into his prayer he presses pause. He can’t finish the thought quite yet. There is another matter that intrudes upon his consciousness and so we have an excursus from verse 2 through verse 13 of chapter 3 dealing with the nature and tasks of Gospel ministry. Paul wants to make sure the Ephesians understand his role among them.
But now as we turn to verse 14 in our passage for this morning we see the apostle Paul resumes the thought that he had broken off in verse 1. Do you see that? Verse 14 - “For this reason,” he’s picking up where he left off, “I bend my knees before the Father.” But the detour of verses 2 to 13 has served an important purpose. Originally he had set out to pray simply in light of the great doctrinal overview of the way that God saves provided in chapter 2. But now as he has gone on this detour he has been reminded of something more, something additional. Look at verse 13 of chapter 3 - “So I ask you, Ephesians, not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” He has been reminded even though God has been wonderfully at work in the Ephesians’ lives, discouragement is nevertheless a real danger for them. Paul himself is in prison for the Gospel’s sake. The persecution of believers because of their convictions was already a piercing reality. And the danger then, just as it may well be a danger now, is that we allow our contexts, our dangers and fears, the opposition and hostility of the culture to obscure the great grounds we have for hope and confidence before God. We want to know where is comfort, where is assurance and encouragement to be found for a Christian in a hostile world. That will be an increasingly urgent question for us to be able to answer in these days. And Paul’s prayer here shows us the way.
I. The Goal of Paul’s Prayer
Time is only going to permit a preliminary study of this prayer and we’ll come back to it, God willing, in more detail next Lord’s Day but let’s take a look at it together for these next few moments. First of all, I want you to see the goal of Paul’s prayer; the goal of Paul’s prayer. Look at the text. You see how it follows a very careful structure. Each request in the prayer builds on the other, all of them leading toward a single climactic aim and purpose. John Stott has called it a “step ladder prayer.” Each rung of the ladder leads to the next and to the next until you arrive at the summit. So for example, verse 16; look at the text, verse 16. He prays that God may “grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit.” What an extraordinary thing to pray for, a marvelous prayer. Strength by the power of the Spirit - a great prayer. But it is not the conclusion or the goal at which Paul is aiming, it is a means toward that goal. And so verse 17 he prays for power through the Spirit “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Verses 17 through 19 explain what that will look like for the Ephesians. What will it mean that Christ should come and dwell in their hearts through faith more? It will mean a firmer, clearer grasp and penetration into the unfathomable mystery of the love of Jesus Christ. The empowering of the Spirit, the indwelling of Christ, a clearer, deeper grasp and enjoyment of our Savior’s love - marvelous things for which to pray but none of them are the terminus, the target of Paul’s prayer. What is the end in view as Paul prays toward which all others are merely means? Verse 19 - it is all so “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Filled with all the fullness of God. I do not know that it is possible, I do not know that it is possible to explain what that means. “Filled with all the fullness of God” - what a thing to pray for.
It might help, however, to notice that the words “full” and “fullness” are used in Ephesians actually to speak about Jesus. So in chapter 1 verse 23, the church is the “fullness of Jesus who fills all in all.” Chapter 4 verse 10, Jesus ascended above all heavens that He might “fill all things.” To be filled with the fullness of God must have to do with the fullest communion possible between a human soul and the living God as He comes to us in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wants nothing short of the maximal enjoyment of God in Christ by your heart. His ultimate target in this prayer is the total saturation of the Ephesians’ lives with fellowship with the Lord Jesus. He isn’t praying for growth, though that is a good and necessary thing to pray for. He isn’t praying for the slow, steady mortification of particular sins, though we must pray for that. He isn’t even praying for help to face down and persevere through the evil and malice of an ungodly society. No, here he is praying for the final destination, for ultimate, complete unbroken communion with the Savior toward which every Christian life is moving, filled with all the fullness of God. That is Paul’s heart’s desire.
Isn’t it easy when we’re in the trenches of life’s daily battles to focus on each particular skirmish, each immediate need and to allow them to fill our whole horizons so that we feel sometimes like what we need most of all is help with our rebellious teenager or a way to fix the fight that keeps happening in my marriage or for God to help me out of my financial crisis. And don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting for a moment that God is indifferent to those needs or that we ought not to bring them to Him or that He does not stand ready to hear and answer in mercy. Not at all. But if we aren’t careful, don’t you see how easily our hearts become preoccupied with our immediate need, or immediate crisis? When our hearts were made, they were hardwired for something far more ultimate - “filled with all the fullness of God.” When we become utterly preoccupied with today’s minor crisis, when it fills our entire horizons, God, when we remember Him, is reduced to a servant of our urgent needs whose main function and use in our lives is to help us deal with our brokenness and get us through the day. I want to suggest in these difficult challenging cultural days and in the particular cultural moment confronting the church, that if all God is to you is a servant of your comforts, when comfort utterly eludes you your faith may not be able to withstand the assault of our lost and morally fragmented and hostile society. But if God Himself is the ultimate goal, if Jesus, having as much of Jesus as your soul is capable of is the main longing and desire of your heart, if He is the pearl of great price then He’s worth going and selling all you have that you may purchase Him or the treasure buried in the field that you may buy the field and possess the treasure. You’ll “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill” because He’s worth it! Take your eyes from Christ and place them on a lesser need and you may not find it so easy to persevere when trials come, but learn to look where Paul directs your gaze - at the fullness of God in Jesus for you and you will see a prize worth bearing every sorrow, carrying every weight, and enduring every cost that you may obtain Him. The goal of Paul’s prayer.
II. The Petitions in Paul’s Prayer
The Father’s Riches
Then secondly, we need to begin, while be it only a beginning today, to think about the petitions in Paul’s prayer, the things he asks for. If being filled with all the fullness of God is the final destination, the goal, how are we going to arrive at that destination and achieve that goal? Look how Paul prays. Verses 16 and 17 - he prays that the Father, “according to the riches of his glory may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Do you see how careful Paul is to outline the work of each person of the blessed Trinity? First there are the riches of the Father’s glory. As far as God’s glory is rich so far is He able to grant Paul’s request. “To come before the one from whom are all things,” writes Kent Hughes, “makes for great optimism, especially when He is no mere John D. Rockefeller who sometimes gives from his riches but is rather the one who gives according to his riches on the scale and in the style of the wealth of his glory.” In other words, do not measure the prospects for the church or for the extension of the Gospel cause in our country in these days by opinion polls or electoral races or Supreme Court decisions. Measure the prospects for the church and the extension of the kingdom of God by the yardstick Paul provides us here - the riches of God’s glory. As limitless as is the glory of God, so limitless is His ability and His readiness to hear your cries and keep His promises. The riches of the Father’s glory.
More of Christ
Then there’s the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit. Paul prays that God “may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward being.” Strength and power. Those are robust, muscular words, aren’t they? Sadly, there is a species of Christianity, I’m sure you’ve come across believers like this, that has an unwholesome love for language like this. Power - always looking for shock and awe, for displays of supernatural pyrotechnics. But there is no triumphalism here, is there? It’s not strength and power to sway public opinion or win the culture wars, much less amaze spectators with the alleged miraculous that Paul is praying for. What is it that the Spirit strengthens us with power to accomplish? What is the Spirit’s strengthening power for here? Verse 17 - it is simply that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. That’s what Paul wants for the Ephesians now of course. The Ephesians are Christians. In chapter 2 he reminded them “you were dead in trespasses and sins in which you once walked, but God who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.” They have Christ. Christ lives within them. They are His and He is theirs. Paul isn’t praying when he asks that Christ may come to dwell in their hearts for something new that has not previously existed, but rather he is praying for something more of what they already enjoy. More of Jesus! “Oh for a closer walk with God, a calm and heavenly frame. A light to shine upon the road that leads us to the Lamb.” That’s what he’s praying for. Closer. More of the Lamb. More of Jesus.
We’re going to come back to the remainder of this prayer next week, but I hope you are already beginning to see what a surprising response this is to personal suffering - Paul’s in jail; to a church that faces discouragement and loosing heart. He’s not fulminating against the tyranny of pagan authorities, is he? He’s not praying for the divine curse upon his own persecutors. He doesn’t even seek to persuade the Ephesians that their circumstances are anything other than hard and sore. But he is praying for God to fill their lives. He’s praying that the Holy Spirit would descend upon His church in fresh, strengthening power. He’s praying that every child of God would know a closer walk with Christ and be led anew to the Lamb. Brothers and sisters it’s the Fourth of July weekend. We are celebrating our liberties and our freedoms and our history. And yet what a counterpoint is the Supreme Court decision to those celebrations. And aren’t we reminded of the desperate need in our land for the church to be freshly anointed with the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit, for Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith, for holiness among the people of God? Aren’t we reminded our nation, our land, our world needs the Church of Jesus Christ, to be set ablaze afresh with zeal for the honor of our Savior and a love for the lost?
So as we look out over a dark world, what should we do? Some are celebrating the enshrinement of sin in our laws and others are despairing and wringing their hands fearing that all is lost. What shall we do, the people of God? We need to learn from Paul who will bend the knee to God the Father from whom the whole family on earth and in heaven is named that He might fill us and pour out His Spirit afresh on us and give us Christ, more of Christ, that as the world gets darker and darker we might shine brighter and brighter, radiant with the likeness of our Savior, shining as stars in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, holding forth to all the Word of life and saying to the world, “We have a Savior for you in the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is no cause for despair, none for a child of God. We have the ear of the King, the one who presides over the true Supreme Court, and He shall have the last word. Let us pray together.
O Lord our God, we confess to You how prone we are, our hearts are, to fear and to unbelief. Some of us, perhaps, live in the grip of indifference. Help us neither to fall into indifference nor into terror or despair. Instead, help us to make Christ the great prize, goal, and object of our lives. And so with our eyes fixed on Him to run our own races with perseverance through every trial bearing whatever cost, that we may possess the pearl of great price and the buried treasure, the Lord Jesus Himself. Fill us, we pray, with all the fullness of God, more of Christ, by Your Spirit, for Your glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.
© First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.