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“A Prayer for the Church”

Ephesians 3:14-21
Bob DeGray
June 6, 2004

Key Sentence

Praying for people’s hearts strengthens the whole of Christ’s church.


I. Lord, strengthen us with your power. (Ephesians 3:14-17)
II. Lord, help us know your love (Ephesians 3:17-19)
III. Lord, be glorified in us (Ephesians 3:20-21)


        After living in Friendswood nearly a year I finally got a library card, which inspired me to begin reading World War II histories again. One of the books I read was, “Colditz”, about a German castle used as a high security prison. It housed French, British, Polish, and Dutch officers who worked together to devise some of World War II’s greatest escapes. For example, one tunnel, initiated by the French but worked on by all the nationalities, went down through a clock tower, under the chapel, across the German compound, and through the prison walls. The prisoners were days from their break out when the tunnel was found by the Germans. What struck me was the way the different nationalities worked together, each doing their part to strengthen the escape effort. The British had a great forger, the Polish a great locksmith, the French great audacity, and the Dutch had officers who could speak fluent German. Together they riddled Colditz with tunnels and escape routes, most discovered by the Germans, but some not, so by the end of the war 316 officers had been involved in 174 escape attempts, of which 32 were successful.

        What does this have to do with prayer? We’ve spent two weeks in the Old Testament studying prayer, and we’ve seen great principles for engaging both our hearts and our minds in this ministry. This week will want to take a look at prayer in the New Testament, and we’ll find many similarities to the prayers we’ve already studied. But one key difference seems to be that in the New Testament we much more often see people praying for one another to strengthen each other for their Christian lives.

        Prayer was tremendously important to the New Testament church, as obvious from the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. In Acts, we see the church constantly turning to the Lord in prayer. Example? When Peter and John were released after their first arrest, the church gathered and "raised their voices together in prayer to God." Acts 4:24. Before Peter raised Tabitha from death, he knelt and prayed. Acts 9:40 Before he took the Gospel to the Gentiles, God sent a vision while he was praying. Acts 10:9. When he was in prison "the church was earnestly praying to God for him. Acts 12:5. When the first missionaries were chosen it was after the church at Antioch had fasted and prayed. Acts 13;3. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned they spent the time praying and singing hymns. Acts 16:25. When Paul bid farewell to the Ephesian elders, he “ knelt down with all of them and prayed. Acts 20:36.

        The other great model of prayer in the New Testament is in the letters of the apostle Paul. In almost every one we find him praying for the people of the churches to whom he wrote. I’ve often preached those great prayers, from the first chapters Romans, Ephesians or Philippians, which I used at Jesse and Leah’s wedding, and also Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon.

         The reason I keep coming back to these prayers is that Paul is good at praying about what’s really important. In today’s text, Ephesian 3:14-21, he prays that individuals might be strengthened and grow in love not for their own sakes, but for the the sake of God’s glory. So Paul models the truth that praying for people’s hearts strengthens the whole of Christ’s church.

I. Lord, strengthen us with your power. (Ephesians 3:14-17)

        By the end of Ephesians 3, Paul has stretched himself to the limit trying to reveal the grace and greatness of a sovereign God who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ, saved us by grace alone, and called us to be part of his body. But despite his eloquent words, Paul knows these truths can only be grasped by a work of God in people’s hearts, so he has to pray: For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

        This prayer is a model that we can apply to almost any kind of struggle or difficulty or challenge, faced by individuals or in the church, because it is prayer for the inner person, for the strength God gives to those who are his. Paul begins the prayer with the phrase ‘for this reason,’ which refers to all the truth about God and what He is doing that Paul has revealed in the first three chapters of Ephesians. Go back and read this context and you will find that it is tremendous truth.

        Overwhelmed by the truths he’s shared, and longing for his readers to grasp those truths, Paul kneels to pray. Kneeling was unusual in Jewish praying. In the story Jesus told of the two praying men, the pharisee stood and prayed in his pride. But the tax collector stood as well as he confessed. Standing was the common posture for prayer. Only occasionally in cases of intense emotion, or as a mark of submission, did a person kneel. That’s why ‘Every knee shall bow’ when Jesus returns. Paul’s kneeling here shows both his intense emotion about the truth he is praying.

        He calls God ‘the Father from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.’ It’s ‘the whole family’ of believers - all who have been united with God through Jesus, and those in the spiritual realm who have always been His. In our age that’s the Church, God’s adopted family. We are his sons and daughters and therefore brothers and sisters to one another. Paul is praying for them in context of shared family ties. This is one of the ways he develops urgency in his prayers

        Paul then prays that God would act ‘according to his glorious riches’ Paul has no doubt that God has inexhaustible resources to answer this prayer. John D. Rockefeller was the richest man in the world in his generation. Rockefeller, had two choices in giving: he could give according to his riches or from his riches. History records that as wizened old man he often invited photographers to take his picture in a top hat and tails, giving a dime to some waif. That was giving from his riches.

        But think what it would have been like had he given according to his riches. He would have perhaps given the waif a grand home, one of the family estates, with masterpieces on the walls, thousands of acres of forest, the world’s most expensive automobiles. When God answers prayer, he gives according to his riches - not just from them. Not the scraps from his table, but the best he has, and in abundance.

        What does Paul pray? His first prayer request is that his brothers and sisters be strengthened in the inner man, in the inner person. “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” Last time I preached this passage I called it ‘Fanfare for the Inner Man’. Paul sometimes prays for external situations and needs, but even when he does, he also focuses on the heart needs of the people in those situations. Here, he presumes that his brothers and sisters need strengthening from the inside out. If you look at your own heart, you will know this assumption is correct. Behind the masks, behind the bluff, behind the false front you use to keep people from her to a anxiously really knowing, don’t you need strengthening? I know I do. I expect all of us need to be strengthened in the inner person, strengthened in the heart. Regardless of the circumstances of the person you’re praying for, this is the right thing to pray.

        Paul calls on God the Holy Spirit to do that strengthening: “to strengthen you with power through His Spirit in the inner man.” This is how you and I should pray for our brothers and sisters here at Trinity, and around the world. Every situation on the back of the bulletin, or on the prayer chain, or shared on Sunday morning needs this prayer. If our brothers and sisters are going to walk with Christ through the circumstances of life we need pray that they would have this spiritual strength.

        Paul explains this strengthening by adding “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Is he assuming they’re not believers, that they need saving faith? No: from the first verses of the letter, he’s been telling them what wonderful things God has done for believers. Surely he won’t now address them as non-believers. No, he’s praying that their faith will grow so that they will be able to stand in the midst of trials, troubles and oppression. Of course, you have to have faith to begin with, to trust God for rescue from sin, and payment of sin’s penalty. You can’t expect these other prayers to be answered if you’ve never allowed Christ to dwell in your heart by faith. And that doesn’t meant he lives there as a stranger but that he settles down and lives there permanently. Only those who have believed have Christ as a permanent resident, bringing spiritual strengthening.

        What is this like? Years ago Bethany and Abbie took ‘clay class’ at U of H Clear Lake. They made pinch pots and things from soft clay, which they allowed to dry, then glazed and fired. Clay is very soft and weak when you work with it. It’s not until you fire it, in a kiln at 1200 to 3000 degrees F does it really begin to be strong.

        It is the same way with our inner man. It is weak. Too weak to hold something as potent as an experience of God’s love, or Christ himself dwelling within us. It is too weak until the fire of the Holy Spirit comes and strengthens it, until we are heated to strength by his power within, prepared to be the master’s vessel.

II. Lord, help us know your love (Ephesians 3:17-19)

        This is the first part of Paul’s prayer, that each person will be strengthened by the Spirit for the indwelling of Christ. And this is how we should pray for our brothers and sisters: ‘Lord, strengthen them with your power. Strengthen them for the situations they face. Give them the experience of Christ, settling down to live in their hearts.’ The second part of the prayer then follows naturally. What is this person being strengthened for? What is this clay pot being fired for? For the knowledge of God’s love. Verses 17 to 19: And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge-- that you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.

        This is another great model of prayer - that our brothers and sisters, the Church here in Friendswood and world wide will know and experience God’s love. This is a key step in every spiritual life. If you’ve got Jesus and you’re being strengthened by the Holy Spirit in your inner person, you will more and more be rooted and grounded in love. There will be a depth to your faith like the depth of a well rooted tree, a stability to your life like the stability of firm foundation. And the cause of that depth, the soil of that stability is love. Love is the soil in which you are rooted.

        The love Paul is talking about isn’t your love for God, or even for others, as some commentators have said. Those loves are fruit, but this love is the root: it is God’s love for us. The tree can’t take credit for the soil it grows in. The house can’t take credit for the rock it’s built on. It is only because of the free gift of God’s love we can stand at all, grow at all, be saved at all. Since we were rebels and sinners, we were by nature objects of wrath. But we were rescued. Ephesians 2 says: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.” This love that rescued us now surrounds us, the same love that gave Christ as a sacrifice. The life of a believer is rooted and grounded and grows out of the love of God. Paul’s prayer is that his readers have power with all the saints to grasp that love. It’s a corporate thing, something that happens in the church: together with other saints to you are to come to know the unknowable love of God.
        Notice that this is again a prayer for strength, in this case the strength to know God’s love. As a mechanical engineer I worked with pressure vessels for years. When I hear the word strength, I immediately think of how you would add thickness or change materials so the vessel could handle the pressure and the weight of its contents.

        I remember doing calculations on a vessel in California, and they told me it was supposed to hold water. So I designed the legs a certain thickness and the cylinder, and so on. Later, I learned they were wrong; the contents were not water, but drilling mud, a very dense fluid weighing three times as much. So I had to go back and strengthen that vessel so it could hold what they were going to pour in it. In the same way we must be strengthened in the inner man if we are going to be able to hold the knowledge of the love of God that he wants to pour into us. Romans 5:5 says “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” Only after we are strengthened can we begin to grasp or comprehend this love, begin to experience how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.

        Stott talks about these things well: “Modern commentators warn us not to be too literal in our interpretation, since the Apostle may have been indulging in rhetoric or poetic language. Yet it seems legitimate to say that the love of Christ is ‘broad’ enough to encompass all mankind, ‘long’ enough to last for eternity, ‘deep’ enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and ‘high’ enough to exalt him to heaven.” Ancient commentators went further. They saw these as the dimensions of the cross. As the Wes King song says “The width of two arms outstretched on a tree - the length of the road to Calvary. The height of the crown on a cruel cross - the depth of the pain that it cost. All for you. All for me. All for love did he bleed. All to set us free.

        Our prayer for each other has to be that we would know this love, and not just as a head knowledge, but a heart knowledge, an experiential knowing that brings awe and wonder not just to the mind, but to the will and to the emotions. That’s why Paul so stretches human language, for this knowing of God’s love is the knowing of a thing that surpasses knowledge. It is knowing a piece of something that is infinite. You can know with absolute certainty that two plus two equals four. You can know with absolute certainty that any two numbers can be added. But you can never know fully the sum of all the pairs of numbers, because the number of pairs is infinite. In the same way you can know the love of Christ in your own experience and the testimony of others, you can know it in the many examples set forth in God’s word. But you can never know the love of Christ in its totality, because it is infinite.

        Yet the more you know this love, the more you will be filled up with all the fulness of God: the love he’s pouring out in our hearts communicates all of God to us. Kent Hughes tells of the time when he stood looking out on the Pacific Ocean, and it occurred to him that if he was to hold a pint jar open to the incoming waves, it would instantly be filled from the fulness of the Pacific, yet he could never put all of the Pacific into a jar. In the same way an infinite God can fill us to overflowing with himself, without diminishing at all the infinity of his love. And this glorious fullness is not just something we want for ourselves. It is more significantly, something we ask for for others: “Lord, fill them with the fullness of your love’

III. Lord, be glorified in us (Ephesians 3:20-21)

        So now we’ve seen two parts of Paul’s way of praying for the church: “Lord, strengthen them with your power. Hold them up, make them able to walk in faith.” and”Lord, give them the knowledge of your love, so that they may be filled with you” These are prayers you can pray for anyone in the body, especially those in need. For Michelle Weiss in the loss of her mom. For the Norbraten’s as they care for Mrs. Balmer. For the Bauer’s as they move to Houston. Even for Daniel and Michelle Mollenkopf as they begin marriage: pray that each person would be strengthened in power, and would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.

        God answers this kind of prayer. We’ve seen it. When he brought back my Bible in Russia it was to remind me and others of his love and his presence. When he gets hold of the heart of a young person who was moving toward some kind of personal tragedy, it is by revealing his love. When he strengthens those who are caring for others in crisis, sickness or trial it is by some unexplained power in the inner person. God does strengthen. God does reveal his love. Paul is showing us that, as much as any physical cure or miraculous change, this is the thing we need to pray for.

        Finally, as in all the prayers we’ve looked at, the request is made and the answer anticipated so that God will be glorified. Ephesians 3:20-21, a great benediction or blessing: Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

        Paul is always careful - far more careful than we are sometimes, to make sure that God gets the glory for all he does. Certainly for strengthening the inner person, filling his people with love, allowing them to know Christ, God is to be glorified. Who else but God should receive honor? Who can compare to God? Paul says “he is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or think.” Once we have measured the dimensions of his love, and seen that to know it goes far beyond any knowledge we can contain, even beyond that God is able to do immeasurably more.

        A foundation for faithful praying is the recognition to what God’s love desires his power is able to perform. Paul spends a lot of time in this letter to the Ephesians stretching our thoughts by his use of language, and this blessing is no exception. As John Stott explains in his commentary: (1) He is able to do or work, for he is neither idle, nor inactive, nor dead. (2) He is able to do what we ask, for he hears and answers. (3) He is able to do what we think or imagine, for he reads our thoughts and sometimes we imagine things for which we dare not ask. (4) He is able to do all that we ask or think, for he knows it all and can do it all. (5) He is able to do more than we ask or think for his thoughts are higher than ours. (6) He is able to do much more, or more abundantly than we ask or think because he does not give us his grace in calculated measure, but freely. (7) He is able to do very much more, far more abundantly than all that we ask or think for he is a God of super-abundance.

        The adverb translated exceeding abundantly or immeasurably is one of Paul’s coined words, a super superlative, like the super-mega-blowout sales that some car dealers proclaim. But Paul’s word is directed at God, of whom it is all true. Paul doesn’t spend as many words on praise as Hannah did or as Jehoshaphat did, but every word is packed, and his praise is just as important a part of his prayers as theirs.

        And this power is at work within us. This is what we’ve just been taught to pray for, and it’s true. God is more than able to answer this prayer. The unimaginable power that created the universe, the power that superexceeds even our wildest thoughts is that power that is at work within us, strengthening us and enabling us to know his love. It’s like trying to say that you, within you, could contain the power of a hurricane, or the nuclear power at work in the core of a sun. No way - no way - and yet Paul says it is so. And yet, if you’ve ever felt the supernatural presence and comfort of God, you have felt that power. The greatest miracle of all is not the flashy miracle of healing or mountain moving. It is the transformed heart that is able to trust him by faith. This is what we want for our loved ones, for our brothers and sisters: Not the life of external power and success, even in the service of Christ, but the internal power of a transformed heart, a heart that knows God’s love, and cannot be shaken.

        Finally, Paul prays “to him be glory, in the church and in Christ Jesus.” Paul prays that God be glorified: he sees that as the ultimate result of all that a perfect God does: he will receive honor. But nowhere else does he use this phrase ‘in the church and in Christ Jesus’. It’s God’s work in his people that results in his glory. The church is the vehicle for the outworking of God’s purpose in this age, and it has the task of proclaiming the manifold wisdom of God, as Paul taught back in verse 10 of Ephesians 3. It is never to take glory for itself - it’s goal is to give praise and glory to God, as Paul taught over and over in chapter 1.

        And yet everything that the church does, it does ‘in Christ.’ We are blessed ‘in Christ.’ He chose us ‘in him.’ ‘in him’ we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. We were included ‘in him’, marked ‘in him’ seated in the heavenly realms ‘in him.’ ‘In him’ those who were far away have been brought near. ‘In him’ the whole building, which is the church, is joined and held together. So it should be no surprise that the glory God works in us individually, in our hearts, is manifest or made known in the church, and is focused on Jesus. We are in the church and the church is in Christ, and as God works in us, the whole thing lights up like a jar full of fireflies - to his glory. Or like a universe full of stars, as Paul says in Philippians.

        Finally, Paul pray that this glory would be his ‘in all generations’ - in all of history, and ‘Forever and ever’ - in all of eternity. When we imitate Paul’s heartfelt prayer for the strengthening of each individual, the whole church is strengthened, and as the church is strengthened, Christ receives a glory that will never end.

        So what should we pray? That our brothers and sisters in Christ will be strengthened by God’s power, strengthened in the inner man as the Spirit works and Christ indwells. We should pray that they will know the immeasurable love of God that they will be overwhelmed by its height and breadth and width and depth. Prayer like this, for people’s hearts, strengthens the whole church so that it more and more glorifies Christ. And of course these are not the only things that we can learn to pray from Paul’s prayers. There are several others that also make great models. My challenge to you is to actually pray using these models. I’d like to ask you to spend a moment right now writing down the names of seven people in our fellowship for whom he would like to pray this week. Then, each day, pray for one of these people using this prayer, or another of Paul’s prayers as your model. I know that many of you already do this or have done this, but it is such a great exercise that I encourage you to pick up the discipline again this week.

        Take that moment now to write down seven names, and after a few minutes I’ll close in prayer.