God's New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians: What to Pray For One Another (3)

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on January 29, 2006

Ephesians 3:14-19

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The Lord’s Day

January 29, 2006

Ephesians 3:18-19

“What to Pray For One Another (3)”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with
me to Ephesians, chapter three, as we continue to work our way through this
great prayer in verses 14-19. We’re going to read all of 3:14-19, and we’re
going to be focusing on verses 18-19.

I have given you an outline of the passage, and I
have recounted some of the points that we have concentrated on in the last few
weeks as we’ve unpacked this prayer. There are different ways that you could
legitimately outline the petitions of this prayer, and the outline of the
material that we have done is not meant to preclude other ways of outlining the
petitions of this prayer. But let me just summarize by saying this: If you look
at the first four points on the outline that we have derived from Paul’s
petition, it’s all part of one grand petition or request, and that is a request
from Paul to God on behalf of the Ephesian Christians and you and me, that we
would be strengthened in our inmost being by a power supplied through the third
person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, from without us. It is a recognition
that we need strength to live the Christian life; and there is a recognition
that that strength does not come from within us, and in fact must be supplied by
God the Holy Spirit. We want it in our inmost being; we want it to permeate the
very depths of our hearts, but it doesn’t come from our inmost being. It comes
from the Holy Spirit into our inmost being, and thus gives us what we
need to live the Christian life.

Now, this prayer is a tremendously practical
prayer. It was practical not only for the Ephesian Christians who would suffer
persecution for their faith, but it is practical for all Christians that are
undergoing trials of various sorts. This is a practical prayer to pray for
ourselves and for one another when we’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, or
when we’re struggling with children who are straying from the Lord, or when
we’re in the context of a marriage that is failing, or when we’ve lost our job
or transitioning into a new vocation, or, whatever manner of trial that we have
encountered, we recognize the need for strength to face it Christian-ly, to
think and to act Christian-ly in the face of our challenges, to live as
Christians would live in those circumstances.

But, you know, we don’t just need this strength from
God in the deep points of life, the hardest points of life, the most dramatic
points of life: we need God’s strength for the living of the everyday Christian

One of the things the Apostle Paul makes clear here
is that the whole of the Christian life is dependent upon God. We cannot do
anything apart from His strength. What did the Lord Jesus Christ Himself stress
to His disciples? “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” But, “In Christ, all
things are possible, through Him who strengthens me.” And so we are to be
constantly dependent for every aspect of our Christian life on the strength that
God Himself supplies, and so this is a prayer for all Christians, in all
seasons, in all circumstances. It’s a practical prayer. Make it your own, for
yourself and for your brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. That’s really what
those first four points on the outline have to do.

Now if you look at points 5-7 summarizing what we’ve
done over several weeks, you look at those last three. They focus on the
believer having a knowledge and comprehension, and being rooted and grounded in
an overwhelming sense of the love of God for us in Jesus Christ; knowing and
comprehending Christ’s love for us, being rooted and grounded in God’s love to
us in Jesus Christ, so that we are able to live a life of God-like love, a life
of Christ-like love.

The Apostle Paul knows that that’s not easy, first
of all because we have to love sinners. Love would be easy if you didn’t have
to love people! But people can be hard to love. People can hurt you, people can
disappoint you, let you down. It’s hard to love people sometimes, even people
that are very close to us, and the Apostle Paul knows that this is a task that
requires the work of the Spirit. That’s why he started out the prayer praying
for spiritual strength.

Now, though, he prays that we would be awash
in the sense of the greatness of Christ’s love, because it is precisely as
recipients of that undeserved and overwhelming love that we become equipped to
love people who do not love us, to love people who disappoint us, because we are
so aware of this love that Christ has given us, that roots us and grounds us for
growth in grace and life, that enables us to give ourselves away in love even to
those who are unlovely, unlovable, and unloving.

We talk about this; we sing about this. We sang last
week at the end of the service,

“O the deep,
deep love of Jesus,


It’s fathomless, we sang. It’s like the ocean.

I got a call from one of the elders during the week
who reminded me of a story I had told illustrating this at some time. I didn’t
remember when I told it, and I had forgotten that I had told it in connection
with this verse. I can’t remember whether I told it in the context of a sermon
or maybe to the elders in a devotional, but it does beautifully illustrate the
vastness, bottomless-ness of Christ’s love that Paul wants us to have some
inkling of.

My father was on a troop carrier on the way from
some small islands in the South Pacific at the end of the Second World War,
after the surrender of the Japanese had already been accomplished. And he was
on his way to the mainland of Japan and then to North China, where they were
going to be involved in disarming the Japanese army there. And as the troop
carriers got to the deepest part of the ocean in the world, the great Mariannes
Trench, they stopped. And the captain came on over the speaker and he said,
“Anybody who would like to dive off the side of the ship and take a swim in the
deepest part of the ocean in the world, we’re going to give you a few minutes to
do that.”

And I don’t know how high the deck of a troop
carrier would be above the surface of the ocean, but it would be pretty high up
there–I’m not even going to venture a guess, but it would be a very high dive
into very deep water, because the great Mariannes Trench is so deep that you
could put Mount Everest in it and the peak of Mount Everest would be more than a
thousand feet below the surface of the ocean at that point. It’s over 30,000
feet deep.

And Dad said, “I dove off the side of that boat into
the water, and I went down, down, down and down, and thought I was never coming
up!” And he said, “When I finally did come up and was swimming around in that
deep, dark blue, almost black water,” he thought, “you know, I could go over
30,000 feet down and still not touch bottom.” And the Apostle Paul says that’s
like Christ’s love. You could go 30,000 feet down and not touch bottom, but I
want you to be awash in the knowledge and the comprehension of the greatness of
the love of God in Christ. It’s absolutely necessary for the Christian life that
you be grounded in that.

And that’s really what we’ve been talking about for
several weeks, because it’s so fundamental to our spiritual maturity that we
realize our dependence upon the Spirit’s strengthening us and the necessity of
knowing the love of Christ. Those things are absolutely essential for healthy
Christian experience, for spiritual maturity.

But we still haven’t gotten to the end of Paul’s
prayer. That’s what I want to focus on today, so let’s look to God’s word in
Ephesians 3:14. Before we read it, let’s look to God in prayer and ask for His

Lord, this is Your word, and we need Your Holy
Spirit to open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it; not because Your word
is unclear, not because Your word is uninspired, not because Your word is not
truth. It is. It’s inspired, it’s clear, it’s true, it’s infallible. It works.
It’s sharper than any two-edged sword. It never returns void. It always
accomplishes what You have set it out to accomplish. But, Lord, our hearts and
minds are dull, so we need illumination. We need You by Your Spirit to open our
eyes that we might behold wonderful things in Your word, for the world has crept
in and the flesh has distracted us. And so we ask, O God, that You would help us
by Your Spirit to see, to hear, to respond in faith to Your truth. We ask it in
Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every
family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you,
according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His
Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;
and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with
all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know
the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all
the fullness of God.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

The Apostle Paul has already prayed a glorious
prayer for us. He’s already taught us how to pray. He’s already inspired us to
these desires. He’s already moved us to pray for one another for some glorious
things, but he’s still not done. And the two things that I want to draw to
your attention are quite remarkable, because the first thing that Paul is going
to do, having prayed this marvelous prayer for you, is to say ‘Now this prayer
that you’re praying is not just an individual thing.
It’s not just a
personal thing. It’s not just a private thing. This is something that I have a
concern for all the people of God to have and grasp.’ And he stresses that,
doesn’t he, in verse 18: “So that you may be able to comprehend…” [what does
he say?] “…with all the saints….” So Paul, as he concludes this
prayer, says ‘Now you understand that my desire is that all the saints together
will know the realities that I’m asking God to work in you.’

And secondly, and frankly, it’s shocking.
It’s audacious. If I prayed this prayer without Scriptural sanction, you’d be
hauling me off to the funny farm or to the Presbytery for a heresy trial(!), the
Apostle Paul says ‘I want to pray, and I am praying, I have prayed and I’m
praying to God right now, that you would be filled up with all the fullness of
God; that you would have in you all the fullness of who God is.’

It’s a prayer for complete spiritual maturity.
It’s a prayer for perfection, but it’s put in even more striking language
than that. It’s an audacious prayer; it’s a shocking prayer. I want to
consider these two things with you because they’re so significant.

I. A prayer that there would
be a common Christian experience and expression of the love of Christ.
First, let’s look at Paul’s prayer that there
would be a common Christian experience and expression of the love of Christ.
Notice verses 17-19:

“So that you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth
and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ, which surpasses

Paul wants there to be a corporate, a
bodily, a family knowledge of the love of Christ. He wants there to be a common
knowledge and expression of Christ’s love in this local church. He wants a
common knowledge and expression of Christ’s love. That’s what he’s praying for.
In other words, it’s not an isolated religious experience that he wants a few
‘super Christians’ to have.

We talked last week about how R. A. Torrey had
prayed that God would give him a sense of His love, would show him His face. And
after many years of prayer and study, the Lord in His mercy did come and give
him an overwhelming sense of His love for him.

There’s a story of an old Puritan pastor who was on
his way from London to another town to preach, and he’d been meditating for many
weeks on Scripture passages relating to the love of God and asking God to reveal
His love to him. On his way, on his horse to this little village to preach, he
came to a little glade and suddenly was struck by the greatness and the depth of
the love of Christ, and he dismounted and stayed for two days in that little
glade meditating upon Scripture, reflecting on the greatness of God’s love. He
was immobilized; he couldn’t go on.

In those things we could give testimony…many of us
could talk about times in our lives when the Lord so overwhelmed us with a sense
of His love it was as if He were Himself in the room with us and surrounding us
with His presence. We’d be encouraged by those testimonies, and those things are
not unimportant and they’re not unreal, but you understand that the Apostle Paul
here is praying that there would be a corporate, a bodily, a family experience
and knowledge and comprehension of the love of God in Christ: “…with all the
saints,” he says. And so while it’s true, and it’s importantly true that the
individual Christian can know the overwhelming love of Christ, it needs the
whole people of God to understand the whole love of God.

The Apostle Paul is instituting the “No Christian
left behind” approach to the love of God. He wants every Christian together in
the body to have a knowledge, a comprehension, of the love of God in Jesus
Christ. It takes us together as believers to know and to comprehend and to
express this love of God in Jesus Christ. It took the Jewish and Gentile
Christians–the most unlikely partners ever–in that Ephesian church to express
some inkling of the greatness of God’s love. Who but God could have brought
together those Jewish Christians and those Gentile Christians, with all the
culture and all the background and Old Testament things that separated them? Who
could have brought them together into a fellowship, a family of co-believers,
but the gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ, the great God? And so it took Jews and
Gentiles together in that local church to experience and to express Christ’s
love, and it takes Jews and Gentiles and men and women, and young and old, and
red and yellow and black and white with all our varied backgrounds and
experiences to express the love of Christ in the local church.

My friends, you may be saying today ‘Well, you know,
I haven’t experienced much of the love of Christ from fellow believers in this
church.’ And I want to say to you, my friends, ask not what this congregation
can do for you, but what you can do for this congregation (if I may borrow a
speech from another time, another place, and another occasion).

You see, it takes the church together to experience
and express the greatness of Christ’s love, and if you feel some deficit of your
experience of that from your brothers and sisters, then devote yourself to being
the one who is expressing that love to your fellow believers. Because I want to
tell you, my friends, it’s only when you have the privilege of giving in the
absence of having been given to that you can begin to experience the kind of
love that Christ gave to you, because there was nothing in you that
Christ needed. And there was nothing lacking in Christ that He was going to gain
from divesting Himself of everything for you. But He did it because of His love,
and so when you are called upon to love in the absence of having received then
you are being given the privilege of tasting just a little bit of the greatness
of Christ’s love for you.

On the other hand, what a privilege it is when we
have the opportunity to give that kind of love in the Christian church.

Just this past week, Weezie Polk called me to say
that she’d just heard a story that she needed to share. One of our former
communicants–one of the covenant children in the church, who six years ago went
through Communicants’ Class–has a significant thing coming up in his life — an
award that he’ll receive, and he’s building up an invitation list. Six years ago
there was an elder in the church who was his sponsor in Communicants’ Class who
took an interest in him, who loved him, who cared for him. And as he made that
short list of people that he was going to invite to this significant event, he
said to his parents, “You know, I’ve just got to ask Elder So-and-So. He loves
me, and he cares for me.” Six years ago it was, that he was his sponsor in
Communicants’ Class! I want to tell you, it warmed my heart to know of an elder
taking that kind of personal interest in a child in our congregation. But let
me tell you, I could multiply that story a thousand times. Our elders don’t
brag; they don’t toot their own horns. They just quietly minister, and ninety
percent of the time you never see it. But every once in a while I get to see it,
and there’s nothing that encourages me more.

But let me tell you that even more encouraging than
knowing that there was an elder who took the time — a busy man who had lots of
other things that he could have done, but took the time to invest himself in
love to a young Christian – even more encouraging than that was the fact that
this young Christian felt that love. It got through! He realized there’s a man
who cares about me. He’s not related to me; my parents weren’t buddies with
him; we’re different, but he cares about me. And my friends, it is precisely
that in the Christian church that we have the glorious opportunity to experience
and express together: people that are different — who look different, who sound
different, who are from different places, who have different stories, who have
different backgrounds, who have different hobbies, different interests,
different personalities, different likes and dislikes — come together in Jesus
Christ and experience and express together the love of Christ. And the
Apostle Paul is praying that there would be a common knowledge and expression of
Christ’s love among all the saints.

II. A prayer for spiritual

But he’s still not done. Look at verse 19. He goes
on to pray “…that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” Now, my
friends, I’m not sure I understand all of that prayer; in fact, I am sure that I
do not understand all of that prayer. But I do know this: In Ephesians and
Colossians the word fullness is almost invariably used of God Himself to
describe the fullness of who He is, the fullness of His wisdom, the fullness of
His knowledge, the fullness of His goodness, the fullness of His love, the
perfection of all that He is. And I believe–and I’m not simply running down
some path on my own with some unique exposition; I think the best expositors say
the same thing and have said this for many years–but the Apostle Paul was
praying that you would be filled up to that kind of spiritual maturity and
perfection which God gave us in the very beginning, that we might image what our
heavenly Father is like to the world.

God created Adam and Eve in the Garden so that they
would be image-bearers of Him, so that when other image-bearers met them they
would look at one another and they would be able to say ‘You know, that person
is like God in his justice…in her goodness…in her wisdom…in his
faithfulness…in his believing the truth, his expression of fairness…and on
and on. This person images what God is like. When I see this person morally, I
see what God is like.’

He’s not praying that somehow we’ll become little
gods, that the line between humanity and divinity will be blurred. He’s saying
that he’s praying that we would be made to be what God originally made us to be,
and even more. Because you remember he’s already said in Ephesians 2 that we are
a temple, we are a building, we’re a house that God is creating. And what did
God do with the temple, the house, the building in the Old Testament? He
indwelt it. The Shekinah glory came down and filled the temple, and He
was with His people. He was in their midst and He was present with them. Paul
is praying here, ‘I’m praying that the fullness of God would come down and
inhabit you, and that because of this you would come to a complete spiritual
maturity, that you would be holy like your heavenly Father is holy, that you
would be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect, that you would bear His
resemblance, that you would look like Him, that you would be like Him.

You see, this culminating prayer is aiming for
spiritual maturity: that we would be what God has intended us to be. And that’s
what Christian prayer seeks for: it seeks for spiritual maturity, that we would
look like our heavenly Father.

If you come visit me in my house, I have a picture –
it’s a double picture. One is a picture of a man in a military uniform. He’s
nineteen or twenty years old. One is a picture of a man in a blue college
blazer and a gray vest. He’s nineteen or twenty years old. And the picture of
the man in the military uniform is my father. It was the middle of the Second
World War, and he was ready to be shipped out from San Francisco to the South
Pacific. And the picture of the guy in the blue blazer is me. People who come
visit my house look at that and very often they’ll say, “Lig, I didn’t know that
you were in the military.” And I respond by saying, “I wasn’t in the military.
That’s my Dad.” And usually the next thing they say is, “Well, you look just
like your Dad.” And I love it when they say that! Because I’m not half the man
that my father was, and to think that I bear something of his resemblance–well,
there’s no thought more delightful to me.

You see, the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Ephesian
Christians, Christians in First Presbyterian Church/Jackson, I’m praying that
people will look at you and say, ‘You know, she looks just like her heavenly
Father. He looks just like his heavenly Father.’ And that the attention wouldn’t
be on us, but that the glory would be to God and they would say, ‘What a job the
Father has done in that Christian to make her, to make him, so Christ-like, to
bear so much of the attributes of God’s own wisdom and goodness and love.’’

The Apostle Paul is praying that we would be
pictures of our heavenly Father: living, breathing, walking, talking
image-bearers as to the person of our great and loving God.
You see, the
great witness of the gospel is not only our faithful telling of the old, old
story, but our living out what God has made us in Christ so that the world sees
the glory of God manifested just a little bit, however imperfect, in the
grace-work that He has done in our lives, so that they say it’s clear that that
man, that woman, couldn’t be that way had not God done a work in them.

It was my first year at the University of Edinburgh
doing doctoral studies, and in that semester I was reading some things that
were, very frankly, soul-killing. And doubts about God and about Christ and the
church, about Christianity came to my mind and heart that I had never had
before. There are many things that kept me sane. One of them was just being at
church Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day with people of God worshiping Him, praising

But another, and I remember it as though it were
five minutes ago, was sitting down in an Indian restaurant with a ruling elder
of the Free Church of Scotland congregation in London and eating Indian food,
and not talking about anything particularly spiritual, but seeing in the lives
of Ian and Allison, this wonderful Christian couple…seeing in their lives
marks of grace that could not have been put there by man, and were not there
natively – marks of a spiritual sweetness that only could have been there by the
work of God, by the Holy Spirit…and realizing, ‘Lord God, man could not have
created that in those people.’ They had no idea they were having this affect on
me. I’m not sure I’ve ever told them. But God made Himself real to me through
seeing their lives, and they didn’t even know that I was looking. And the
Apostle Paul is praying, ‘Ephesians, I want that kind of spiritual maturity to
emanate from you, so that God is glorified.’

May God make that so among us. Let us pray.

Lord God, we thank You for Your word, and we beg
You, give us the mind of Christ our Savior. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you take your hymnals out and turn with me to
No. 644, May the Mind of Christ, My Savior.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our
Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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