The context of this passage, in the first thirteen verses, Paul lays out his calling as an apostle to preach to the Gentiles. The church in Ephesus prays for and supports him. From verse fourteen through nineteen, he prays for them. Then he closes in verse twenty and twenty-one with a doxology, a praise to God. These are favorite verses of many believers, especially when we feel our need of God.
We can use these words to prioritize our prayers. We can ask, what was the apostle Paul praying for the Ephesians? He wants them to endure – this is apparent throughout the book. He wants them to live godly lives, to live in community with other believers. We see that in Ephesians 5 and 6.
Here, he focuses on larger, broader ideas. In verse sixteen, for example, he prays, “be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being”. He wants them to be strengthened in the inner man by the Holy Spirit. This is the mode by which he’s praying for strength. We should be encouraged to pray this way, whether for emotional strength or mental or physical strength. The Holy Spirit is our source of spiritual strength as we go about the tasks God has given us.
In addition to strength, Paul also focuses on faith and love. As we pray, we should be focusing on these themes. Paul says, I want you to have the Holy Spirit (verse 17) “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”. This is the ultimate desire for the believer. We want to be more like Christ: the person, the character, the disposition of Christ. We want Christ in us so that our reactions day in and day out is like Christ. We want a Christ-like walk, Christ-like thinking, Christ-like words, a Christ-like church.
Paul continues in verse seventeen, “that you, being rooted and grounded in love”; that we might know not only the love of the Father (verse 14), but the love of Christ (verse 19). This is a riddle, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”. It is spiritually discerned; not just an intellectual exercise. He desires the knowledge to grow as we meditate on it, to fill us beyond our ability to express. Then Paul ends the prayer, “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (verse 19)”.
Verse twenty and twenty one ends the passage with this encouragement that God is able to do more than we can ask or think, even these things in verses fourteen through nineteen, things which we often don’t understand: that we would be strengthened, that Christ will dwell in us and that He would be glorified amongst us, His church. So, we can come, humble and anticipating, with big ideas, to our God.
God is a God of truth. This is important to remind ourselves in this postmodern age, when people tell us that there are no absolutes. It doesn’t matter what you believe. What I believe, I believe. What you believe, you believe. What’s true for me is different than what’s true for you. So, we can understand why the nation is going through a massive identity crisis. Never before in the history of our country have we seen anything like this. People are confused; they don’t know who they are. The world is in chaos.
Even in this psalm there are cataclysmic judgments taking place. What is the ballast for the psalmist to hold on to during these upheavals? Verse 10, “Be still and know that I am God.” For the Christian, there is probably no greater truth to provide ballast in the boat than the doctrine of God. Tozer says, “There is no more important thing to know about a man than what he thinks about God.”
When we come to pray what attributes are vital to keep in mind? Tozer says, “Our God is a God of a thousand attributes.” When we come to the throne of grace, which attributes do we focus on? Mercy, sovereignty, faithfulness, goodness, immutability, and especially grace.
Perhaps the most important attribute when it comes to prayer and the Christian life is grace. Astounding grace! He’s called the God of grace. John 1: 17, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”. I remember someone saying, “Grace has a face” – in Jesus Christ. No everyone on earth experiences His grace, this special grace, but all experience common grace – the sun that shines, the rain that falls, food on the table.
Where can we go in our Bibles to see God’s special grace, His saving grace? Any conversion story, whether Matthew the tax collector, blind Bartimaeus, or Zacchaeus. The epistles are also a good place to go, for example Ephesians 1; Romans 8. Throughout the Scripture we often hear about the doctrines of grace. Total depravity – we have a dire need of grace, limited atonement, unconditional election – what Scott Meadows calls astounding grace, effectual calling – irresistible grace, and preserving grace. We can’t live the Christian life without grace.
John Owen illustrates keeping, or preserving grace, as a living spark in an ocean of water. What keeps us day after day in temptations, trials and difficulties? God’s grace.
Notice in this passage that it is the Holy Spirit who sets apart Saul and Barnabas (v 2). He is actively involved in sending out these men as missionaries to do His work. What are they called to do? Are they called to do whatever their own minds design? No, we see back in verse 2, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” It is a specific work that God has called them to do; God’s work, defined by God.
We see in verse 1 that the churches had been fasting and praying. Then in obedience to the Holy Spirit’s calling, the churches (verse 3) send Barnabas and Saul off. Verse 4 highlights that it is the Holy Spirit who sends the men. So, the Holy Spirit, working through the local church, sends them off. This work was to fulfill Jesus’ words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19 & 20).
So, as we look at their journey, we then see that Barnabas and Saul followed these instructions. In v 5, when they arrive in Salamis, proclaim the Word of God. Later, in verse 32 & 33, we read, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus…” Again, they continue city by city, proclaiming the Gospel. Verse 47, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” They understood their commission to preach the Good News.
Near the end of their journey in Acts 14: 21-23 they return to the previously visited churches, preaching, discipling and strengthening them, encouraging them to continue in the faith. They also appointed elders in the newly established local churches. They expanded God’s kingdom into areas that had previously had no Gospel witness.
When they returned they reported back to their church. How did they recount what they did? “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” (Acts 14: 27) Barnabas and Saul understood that it wasn’t themselves that did all this. It wasn’t themselves that caused people to hear the Gospel and turn to God and establish churches. They understood it was God the Holy Spirit working through them during their entire missionary journey.
The Holy Spirit was at work from the beginning in calling and sending out Barnabas and Saul. He defined the work to be done, He blessed their preaching by saving the lost, and He opened the door of faith even to the Gentiles. This was the first missionary journey; the work God did during Paul’s day. Today, God is still working through missionaries, saving lost sinners and establishing churches.
Where in the Bible can we go to teach God’s people about commitment to the church? The church is likened to the bride of Christ, a family, the army of God – all connotate commitment. In Acts 2 the Spirit came; it is the birth of the New Covenant community. One of the Old Covenant promises is that in this new community all will know the Lord. That certainly can’t be said about the Old Covenant community. Not all those who belong to the visible church know the Lord. We certainly have pretenders and hypocrites. But the New Covenant community is marked as those who know the Lord.
In Acts 2, after they have embraced the Word, been baptized and join the church we read, “They devoted themselves…” In Acts the Holy Spirit is mentioned fifty times as the church and the apostles are brought into focus. When the apostles fulfill the commission given by Christ, two disciplines come into focus – prayer and preaching. God has ordained these two means to birth His church and maintain the health and growth of the church. Five different words for prayer occur forty-two times; the Spirit fifty times. Acts emphasizes prayer more than any other book. The church is committed to prayer.
There are five key activities to which the early church is devoted: teaching & learning, loving one another, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper – the worship of the church, and prayer. The main verb is “devoted”. Other translations render it “constant”, “unremitting”, “steadfast”, “perseveringly”. This is mentioned several times in Acts 1:14; Romans 12:12; Colossians 4:2 – they devoted themselves to prayer. One of the greatest distinctives of the church of Christ is prayer. Spurgeon would often take visiting preachers down to the basement of the Metropolitan Tabernacle to show him those who were gathered in prayer. Spurgeon would say, “Here is the powerhouse of the church.” You can’t explain Spurgeon’s effective and Spirit-filled preaching ministry apart from the church praying.
When Jesus illustrates prayer, he uses the parable of the perseverant widow. There is much pressure today to cease praying; the Devil doesn’t want us to pray because of its importance. We need to remind ourselves of the priority to pray. Spurgeon said, “There is no deeper conviction than this, that prayer is the most efficient spiritual energy in the Universe next to the Holy Spirit.
Philippians 3: 8-11
In Sunday school we’ve been reading the classic work “Knowing God” by J.I. Packer. This book is probably his most well-known book and in it he argues that our greatest ambition in life is to know God. The church father Augustine also said, “I desire to know God in my soul. Nothing more? No. Nothing at all.” It was his great ambition to know God. Do you know how Calvin’s Institutes begin? He argues that we need to know two great things: we need to know God and we need to know ourselves. The famous question from the Westminster catechism is, “What is the chief end of man?” Answer, “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” As Christians it is our great privilege to know the living God.
Dr. Piper says, “He is infinitely greater than the greatest person you could ever know or have ever heard of. He’s the most important person who exists. Nobody comes close. Being infinite, he is inexhaustibly interesting.” We never have to worry that God is boring. Every pleasure we enjoy, everything we consider beautiful is derived from Him. Every delight we have – the food we ate today, the sunset we saw, is a shadow pointing to God. He is greatest delight; there is beauty in His holiness. Dr. Piper says, “It’s astonishing, if you think about it, how little effort in this world is put to knowing God. It’s as though the President of the United States came to live with you for a month and you only said ‘hello’ in passing every day.” We can spend a lot of time on trivial things, can’t we?
How do we get to know God? What are the two great revelations He has given us to get to know Him? His Word and His world. The world is His general revelation (Psalm 19 and Romans 1) and the Word is His special revelation. Some things we can only know through His Word. His justice, for example, and His holiness. What is the great danger when it comes to knowing God? We can know about God but not truly know Him. He says, “You can know as much about God as John Calvin and not know God at all.” Think of the Pharisees, who studied God’s Word but didn’t know Him. It reminds us how dependent we are on God to know Him well. We need His Spirit to reveal God to us.
We see in Philippians 3 that Paul’s great ambition was to know God. It’s obvious that it wasn’t merely an academic knowledge. Verse 10 points to an experimental, personal knowledge of God, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”. In order to share in your friend’s suffering, you have to really get to know them. Of course, we will never know God comprehensively. We don’t even know our spouse comprehensively. One of the delights of Heaven will be growing in our delight and knowledge of God for eternity. We can never know God too well or too much. We will always be growing in our knowledge of Him.