I wonder if we would be happy if our prayers were published so that others could read them. That’s a fascinating thought, isn’t it? What if every prayer you prayed, word for word, somehow ended up on the Internet so that anyone, anywhere could read them? Would our prayers be worth reading if they were published? And would they qualify for the pages of Holy Scripture or would they be more fit for the National Enquirer?
In this series we’re looking at the “published” prayers of the Apostle Paul. It takes a certain amount of courage to write down your prayers, but these prayers deserve to be studied because they are unlike most of our prayers. They set a very high standard, which if followed, would radically transform our own prayers. And that’s exactly what we’re hoping for. In 2003 our church theme is, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In these early Sundays, our prayer is, “Lord, teach us to pray like Paul prayed.”
I am making three assumptions as I begin this message:
1) Most people pray.
2) Most of us feel inadequate in prayer.
3) Most of us would like some practical help in prayer.
That’s what this sermon series is all about. As we study the prayers of the Apostle Paul, we are going to discover new patterns of prayer that will help us talk to God more effectively. If we want the Lord to teach us to pray, this is a good place to start. After all, prayer is the thermometer of the soul. If you want to know what a man believes, don’t tell me what he says; tell me what he prays. A man may say many things, but when he prays, his heart is fully revealed.
Let me suggest two things for us to consider in this area:
1) What a person prays for others is ultimately what he wants for himself.
2) How a person prays for others demonstrates the firmness of his faith.
With that in mind, we turn to the prayer of Paul in Ephesians 1:15-23. This is the first of two great prayers by Paul in this short letter (the other one is found in Ephesians 3). Before we jump into the text, I have a confession to make. For many years (25 years at least) whenever I have read this prayer, it has always seemed very difficult for me to understand. For one thing, in the Greek text verses 15-23 constitute one long, complex sentence, filled with phrases and clauses piled on top of each other. It’s easy to get lost in the details and miss the message. But it would be a shame to discount it simply because it seems complex because this is really an amazing prayer. If it starts as a whisper it ends in a roar. What begins as a trickling mountain stream becomes a mighty torrent of truth by the end. It wasn’t until this week that I saw how simple this prayer really is. The key is at the end of verse 17 where Paul says, “That you may know him better.” That’s it! That’s the whole prayer right there. Paul is praying that the Ephesians might know God better. This means that he is writing to and praying for believers who already have some knowledge of God. His central request is, “O Lord, I pray that these folks who already know you might come to a new and deeper knowledge of who you really are.” The Greek language contains a number of different words that might be translated as “know.” This particular verse contains a verb that means to know deeply, personally, intimately. For instance, I know President Bush. I know who he is and what he looks like. If you show me his picture, I’ll say, “That’s President Bush.” But I don’t know him personally and he doesn’t know me from Adam’s housecat. But I can also say, “I know my wife.” That’s an entirely different kind of knowing. After 28 years of marriage, it is a knowledge that is very deep, very personal, and very intimate. And that’s the sort of knowledge Paul is praying for.
Now if you know Ephesians at all, you know that the first part of Chapter 1, verses 3-14, is a doxology of praise to God. That doxology is followed by this long prayer that they might know God better. Think of it this way: First Paul puts the truth out, then he prays the truth in. In verse 3 he says we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. So the prayer is not, “Lord, give us new blessings,” but “Help us to realize the blessings we already have.” Not “Give us new truth,” but “Help us experience the truth we already know.” Spiritual truth can be academic and cold and formal. So he’s praying, “Lord, turn them on to the truth.” “Lord, they know you, now make them excited about knowing you."
I. The Request: “To Know Him Better”
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17).
Three things strike me as I study verse 17. The first is the phrase “I keep asking.” Paul did not believe that if you made a prayer request, you never had to make it again. When Paul prayed for the Ephesians, he prayed the same request over and over again—that they would know God better. Sometimes I hear it said that since God knows everything we say before we say it and everything we think before we think it (which is true), that we should never repeat ourselves in prayer (which is not true). We don’t pray to inform God of anything. He knows what we are thinking long before we voice our prayers to him. But if he knows all, why pray at all? The simple answer is one you have heard before: “He’s God and we’re not.” We pray to express our total dependence on him for everything. As we continue to pray for the same things for our loved ones over and over again, the godly desires of the heart grow stronger and we are reminded that every day we must be 100% dependent on him. We can’t live on yesterday’s blessings and we can’t depend on yesterday’s prayers. So just like Paul, we “keep asking” on behalf of our loved ones.
The second thing I notice is that only God can give us what we truly need. If we are Christians at all, the Holy Spirit lives within us, but we must pray that the Holy Spirit will grant us the wisdom we need to understand the things of God. Education alone will never meet our deepest needs. For most of us, we have knowledge coming out our eyeballs. We have sermons and tapes and CDs and Christian radio and Christian TV and books galore and videos and conferences and notebooks crammed with information. If knowledge alone would make us holy, we would all be honorary apostles. But the thing we need is for the Holy Spirit to do what only the Spirit can do—gives us wisdom and revelation to make the truth come alive in our hearts.
Three Levels of Knowing God
The third thing is the request itself—to know God better. That’s simple and clear, isn’t it? This week I received an e-mail from a friend who has endured a very difficult trial in the last several years. He wrote to say how his ordeal has changed his view of what it means to know God. There are three levels of knowing God, he wrote. First, there is the level of experience. All of us who know the Lord have some experiences with him that we can use to help others. Second, there is the level of knowledge. This comes from going to church, listening to sermons, reading the Bible, reading good books, going to a Christian college or to a seminary. Most people consider knowledge a higher level of the spiritual life. “This is a level I tried to work from, but it did not seem adequate,” my friend said. But there is a third level, which he called the level of wisdom. This level comes only by prayer. He offers this very helpful insight about a Level 3 relationship with God: “We begin to see things through God’s eyes and less through our eyes. Peace only comes from this level. It is not measurable, explainable, nor understandable. Levels 1 and 2 are not prerequisites. I see prayer lifting the illiterate to great levels of peace and wisdom where certain PhDs in religion may feel empty. Our prayers become less ‘gimme’ and more ‘help me see what you want me to learn through this—to deepen my relationship with you.’” Then he included the words of the old hymn, Sweet Hour of Prayer. Although I have heard it and sung it many times, one verse stuck in my mind as especially appropriate:
Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer,
Thy wings shall my petition bear,
To him whose truth and faithfulness
Engage the waiting soul to bless;
And since he bids me seek his face,
Believe his word and trust his grace,
I’ll cast on him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer.
The thing that strikes me as I read those words is that God invites us to seek his face. He wants us to know him better. It’s not as if our Heavenly Father is hiding himself from us. But we can only have a close relationship with him if we will seek it in prayer. That’s the burden of Paul’s prayer—for a Level 3 relationship with God that doesn’t depend on knowledge or experience but comes through wisdom as we seek the Lord. Any of us can have that sort of relationship with God if we want it, and if we are willing to pay the price to have it.
II. The Means: “The Eyes of Your Heart Flooded With Light”
“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18a).
This is the heart of the prayer. It is also the only time the phrase “the eyes of your heart” appears in the New Testament. That means that this is a significant truth that demands our attention. The heart has eyes. Did you know that? When Paul speaks of “your heart,” he’s not referring to the organ in your chest that pumps blood throughout your body. The term “heart” refers to what we might call “the real you,” the place inside where the decisions of life are made. The heart is the place where you decide what values you will live by and what direction you will go and how you will live your life each day. Every important decision you make is made by your heart. And your heart has eyes that can be opened or shut. When the eyes of your heart are closed to the light of God, you stumble blindly through life, making one dumb choice after another. You fall into sinful patterns, you break God’s Laws, you end up driving into the ditch, you make the same mistakes over and over again, and you enter one dead-end relationship after another. Why? Because the eyes of your heart are shut and you can’t have moral vision. The light of God is shut out of your life. And that means you can see and be blind at the same time. That is, you can have 20/20 vision with your physical eyes but the eyes of your heart can be blind to the light of God. There are lots of people like that in the world. Physically they can see but spiritually they are totally blind.
I think a lot of Christians live like that. They know God but their eyes are so filled with the things of the world that they are blind to the truth. Let me illustrate. Here we have a Christian young man who has been raised in a Christian home. He’s been going to church for years—Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, children’s ministry, and the youth group. Now he goes off to college and at last he’s on his own. He meets a girl and they start dating. Soon they are sleeping together. When his parents hear about it, they are furious and worried and upset and they wonder what to do. They argue and plead and cajole and threaten and quote Scripture, all to no avail. What is the problem? It is precisely this: The eyes of the heart are shut to the truth of God. And until those eyes are opened, all the yelling in the world won’t make much difference.
But at this point we encounter a most liberating truth from our text. Paul prayed for the Ephesians that “the eyes of your heart might be opened.” One translation says, “that the eyes of your heart might be flooded with light.” Opening blind eyes is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He and he alone can do it. But he can do it, and this is the source of our hope. This is why we pray for our children and grandchildren and for our family members and for friends and loved ones who today are far from God. As our children grow older, we discover over and over again how little control we have over them. We cannot compel their obedience because we cannot compel their hearts. But we can pray and cry out to God and say, “O Lord, open the eyes of their heart. Help them to see the light of truth.”
Christ at the Center of Life
When Eugene Peterson translated the last part of this chapter for The Message, he included this unique sentence. “At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church.” There are two radically different ways of looking at things. Either the world is at the center and Christ is at the periphery or Christ is at the center of life and the world is off at the edges. So many Christians have bought into the notion that this world is all that matters. They’ve pushed Christ to the periphery of life. But when Christ comes to the center, the world is seen for what it really is—something on the edges.
Not long ago I talked with a friend who is struggling with this very issue. I explained living for Christ is like a football game. You’re either on the bench or you’re in the game. “Your problem is, you’re sitting on the bench goofing off when you ought to be in the game serving the Lord. Bench warmers sit around, goof off, laugh, cut up, and trade jokes while the game is going on. If you ever decide to get in the game, you won’t have time to do the things you do now.”
If our young people sleep around, or if they get drunk on the weekends, if they cheat and cut corners, if they are rebellious and unmotivated, those things are only symptoms of a deeper, more fundamental issue. They’ve never made a personal commitment to get serious about Jesus Christ. They’re sitting on the bench when they ought to be in the game. And I tell you this with total certainty, once you get into the game, once Christ becomes the center of life, no one will have to tell you not to sleep around, and no one will have to tell you, “Don’t get drunk on the weekends.” You just won’t do it. Once the eyes of your heart are opened, the light of God’s truth will come flooding in and you’ll never look at anything the same away again.
Sometimes we worry too much about the symptoms without dealing with the root issues of life. We should pray, “Open the eyes of their heart, Lord,” because when that happens, life will radically change. They will grab their helmet and get in the ballgame for the Lord. They’ll go to the huddle and say, “You call the play, Lord. I’m ready to do whatever you say.”
III. The Result: “That you may know …”
As Paul prays, he has three things specifically in mind that will result from the eyes of their heart being opened. First, they will know …
A. All That God Has Given
“The hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:18b). This looks back to the moment of their conversion. Verses 3-14 list some elements of that hope:
Blessed with every spiritual blessing, v. 3
Chosen in Christ, v. 4
Predestined to be adopted as sons, v. 5
Recipients of his grace, v. 6
Redeemed through his blood, v. 7
Forgiveness of sins, v. 7
Wisdom and understanding, v. 8
God’s plan made known to us, vv. 9-10
Chosen and predestined, v. 11
Included in Christ, v. 13
Sealed by the Holy Spirit, v. 13
Given the earnest of the Spirit, v. 14
All this is ours. It is the permanent possession of every child of God. We are rich and blessed beyond all measure. Paul prays that we might understand how rich we already are.
B. All That God Has Promised
“The riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18c). This looks ahead to the end of time when we will see the Lord face to face and receive all that he has promised us. It is beyond our capacity to describe the glory of that moment. Eye hath not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him. Sometimes we wonder what heaven will be like. I think it will be everything we dreamed of and nothing like we imagined. Going to heaven is not so much going to a place as it is going to a person. If I’ve been on a trip, away speaking for a week, I may say to someone, “I can’t wait to get home again.” But I’m not talking about the literal bricks and the literal carpet. It’s not as if when I come in, I say, “Hello, drapes, I’m glad to see you again. Hello, dining room, I missed sitting in those chairs.” You’d think something was wrong if I talked like that. No, home is precious to me because of the people I love who live there. When I say, “I can’t wait to go home,” I mean that I can’t wait to see Marlene and Josh and Mark and Nick again. It’s the same thing with heaven. The glory of heaven is not the streets of gold or the gates of the pearl or even the River of Life or the angels of God. The glory of heaven is Jesus. Heaven is wherever Jesus is, and when we finally get to where Jesus is, we will be home for all eternity.
C. All That God Has Provided
“His incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:19a). There are four different Greek words for power here. He uses the word from which we get “dynamite,” the word from which we get the English word “energy.” He uses a word that means “muscular strength” and another that means “courageous power.” God’s power is sufficient for all we need. Often we are gripped by fear, inadequacy, insecurity, and a feeling that we are powerless to change things. The good news is, God’s power is wrapped up in a person, Jesus Christ. This is the power that exploded in Christ when he rose from the dead. If you know him, you have the greatest power source in the universe living within you. Yesterday I went to see Helen Kowalski who is dying of cancer. She looked so frail but her husband said that she perked right up when she heard my voice outside her door. It’s clear to me that she is down to her last few days. Speaking is difficult so I held her hand and recited the great promises of God about heaven. Someone in the room said that she was afraid to die. I told her that I wasn’t an expert on death but I know someone who is. I told her I know someone who had died and come back from the dead. His name is Jesus. He holds the keys of death and Hades in his hand. I reminded her that the phrase “Fear not” appears 365 times in the Bible, which means there is a “Fear not” for every day of the year. I held her hand and said, “When the moment comes, don’t be afraid. Just call out the name Jesus and he will come for you.” I told her that I don’t know about death by personal experience, but I know who stands at the door to make sure we make it safely through to the other side. Then I quoted some verses from Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. … Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Then I prayed and someone in the room started to sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” We all started to sing and I heard Helen singing with us. She is at death’s door but she’s holding on to Jesus.
Pray, Pray, and Keep on Praying
Why should we worry? Why should we fear? Why should we doubt? Why shouldn’t we go out singing? Our God has given us all we need. Oh, that we might know the hope of our calling, the riches of our inheritance, and the amazing power of God. It’s all ours and it’s all wrapped up in one Person, Jesus Christ. Oh, that we might know him better. Oh, that our eyes might be opened to see things clearly. Oh, that we might love him and serve him and make him the center of life.
What a magnificent encouragement this passage is. Pray, pray, and keep on praying. Pray for each other. Husbands, pray for your wives, and wives for your husbands. Pray for the class you teach. Pray for the new Christians you are discipling. Pray that they will be turned on by the truth of God. There are so many ways we might apply this message. First, here is a good guide to praying for our children. How long should we pray for them? And what should we pray for them? The answer is, never stop praying for your children. Paul said, “I keep on asking.” We can always know God better than we do. And when you pray, ask the Lord to open the eyes of their heart to let the light come flooding in.
Second, we should pray this for ourselves. “O Lord, help me to know you better. Open my eyes, Lord. Let the light come flooding into my heart. Help me to know all that you have given, all that you have promised, and all that you have provided for me.”
What if you don’t know Jesus at all? Reach out and take him by faith. He loves you and he died for you. Receive the gift of eternal life through Christ. Open your heart. Crown him as Savior and Lord of your life today.
Lord Jesus, come by your Spirit and meet us where we are. Forgive us for hearing the truth so often and never being changed by it. Some of us have kept you at the edge of life for far too long. Lord, open our eyes to see you clearly. Apply the truth individually, where it will do the most good. Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.