Dirk Naves is chief creative officer at Ligonier Ministries in Sanford, Fla.
Ephesians 1, we’ll start reading at verse one. I’ve entitled this message today, “A Prayer for Bible College Students,” and that’s a title that can be read in one of two ways. It could be thought of as a prayer on behalf of Bible college students, or a prayer for Bible college students, and could also be a prayer for Bible college students to employ. And I’m eager for us to see, this morning, that is can serve us in both capacities, and it will be instructive in both regards. When we think about prayer and we think about our own prayer lives, I think many of us immediately feel an inadequacy. As we think about our prayer lives, perhaps we sense the sameness, or perhaps the shallowness, of our own prayers and we desire more substantial prayers, we desire deeper communion with God, and yet we don’t always know how to reach that. Perhaps we know folks in our lives, or we’ve read of them in the history of the Church, who have seemingly deep and powerful lives of prayer. And we’ve heard depth and profundity in those prayers that our own prayers perhaps lack, and we’re not sure how to move forward in prayer. How can we grow in our own prayer lives? Today, as we read this text, I want us to think of this as one helpful way of moving forward, of pressing deeper into prayer by studying the prayers we find in Scripture. So, the second half of Ephesians 1, Paul shares how he’s been praying for the Ephesians, and as we read that, let’s think about the instruction we can receive from the second half. Ephesians 1:1-23;
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Let’s have a word of prayer. Father, as we look at one of the prayers of your saints and a prayer that you inspired the apostle Paul to record here, we pray that you would indeed send your Spirit to anoint the words that are spoken this morning, that the truth of this passage would strike us, would help, would convict us, and encourage us in our prayer lives, that we would see in this prayer a model for how we might pray as students at Reformation Bible College. We pray, Lord, that as we spend time together around your Word, our thoughts, our posture, and our attitude toward you and toward the rich blessings that you are eager to shower upon your people, would be one that honors you and that we would spend our time in dependence on you. We ask this all in Jesus’ name, Amen.
So, we’re thinking about Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians 1:15-23. We’re going to spend most of our time actually looking at just two verses, vv. 17 and 18; that’s the heart of this prayer. Verses 17 and 18, “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him. Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened.” I think this prayer is particularly appropriate for Bible college students for three reasons. The first is this, you came to RBC to gain knowledge, and this prayer is a prayer for knowledge. When others ask how to pray for you, or you’re considering yourself how you ought to pray for yourself, consider this prayer. Consider praying this prayer for yourself as you seek to gain knowledge here at RBC, consider sharing this with those brothers and sister in Christ who are asking you, “How can I pray for you?” Consider the things we find in this passage as a very appropriate prayer for your time here at Reformation Bible College. Far more often than not, our prayer requests and the prayers that we offer on a day-to-day basis live at a surface level. If we think about some of the prayers we might suggest when someone asks us how they can pray for us, we might suggest that we would like them to pray that we might have good relationships with our housemates, or that we might prepare well for our exams, that we might be blessed as we prepare our papers. But Paul’s prayer, you can see, goes another level deeper. He pierces through and moves past those transitory challenges that face us daily and he asks God for the kind of knowledge that will not only serve us in those particular situations, but that will ground us and prepare us for any situation, any challenge, or any trial that we might encounter in our lives.
Ephesus was not an easy place to be a Christian, so what Paul is offering here is not an impractical sort of theoretical prayer. The depth that he evidences in this prayer is not intended to step away from the practicalities of being a Christian in a daily life, but rather he’s trying to lay a foundation. He’s pleading that God would give the Ephesians a foundation upon which they could face the very real, daily trials and challenges of being a Christian in Ephesus in the first century. He prays not for specifics regarding their daily challenges, perhaps the persecution they’re facing or the discrimination, perhaps the challenges of being in a new church, a brand-new collection of both Jews and Gentiles with very different understandings of how to worship God. He doesn’t actually bring up those particular things in this prayer, he prayers for something deeper: the sort of knowledge of God that might seem at first to be abstracted from daily life and yet forms a foundation that it eminently practical for Christian witness and for Christian life. So, you came here to gain knowledge, and this is an inspired prayer for knowledge of God.
The second reason, I think that this prayer is particularly suited to you as students here, is that you are students at a Reformed college and this is a prayer that is filled with the sovereignty of God. This is one of those truths that we celebrate at Reformation Bible College, and in the context, both in Ephesians 1, the proceeding verses, and in what follows in Ephesians 2, is a context all about the sovereignty of God. In the content of this prayer, you can see this is a prayer that is bathed in the sovereignty of God. It comes on the heels of one of the great scriptural celebrations of what God has sovereignly done through his Son, in Christ Jesus. And it’s because of that work, because of the work of a sovereign God who has manifested faith and love in the Ephesians, Paul says because I see that and I’m thinking about the sovereignty of God, I have to commit myself to pray for you in this way. He commits himself to pray to a sovereign God.
I’m sure you’ve heard people ask, or maybe you yourself have wondered, if God is sovereign why bother praying? But in Paul’s mind and from his perspective, a sovereign God is the only God worth praying to. And so, meditating on the sovereign work of God throughout all time and thinking about what he’s seeing made manifest in the Ephesians, their faith and their love for others, he turns to that sovereign God and is pleading for a growing knowledge, a growing understanding in their lives.
So, the first reason, you came here is to gain knowledge; this is a prayer for knowledge. The second, you are at a Reformed college and this is a prayer that is filled with the sovereignty of God. And then thirdly, as a Bible college student, you are at risk of emerging from these years at Bible college, having studied theology for years, with no more true knowledge of God than when you started. As a Bible college student, you are at risk of emerging of these years of study with no more true knowledge of God than when you started. Listen to this quote from D.A. Carson, “I’m scarcely in a position,” he says, “to criticize expository preaching or seminaries. I have given my life to such ministry, yet I would be among the first to acknowledge that some students, at the institutions where I teach, and some faculty, too, can devote thousands of hours to the diligent study of Scripture, and yet still somehow display an extraordinarily shallow knowledge of God.” Biblical knowledge can be merely academic and rigorous, but somehow not edifying, not life-giving, not devout, not guileless. And to avoid this fate, while we are here at RBC, I think we need to look at this passage and begin to understand what is it that characterizes this true knowledge of God that we want to emerge from these studies with. What is it that characterizes this true knowledge of God that Paul is praying God will grant to the Ephesians? So, let’s spend the rest of our time looking at three characteristics of the knowledge that Paul is praying for.
So, the knowledge that Bible college students are to pray for is number one, it is the gift of the Spirit. Look at verse 17, Paul prays for them, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.” Paul is saying, if the Ephesians are to know you, God, you must send your Spirit of wisdom and revelation. True knowledge of God is a gift of the Spirit, it is not the result of academic rigor. Academic rigor, which is a requirement of your time here at RBC, it can be a tremendous means by which you can grow into a deep and true knowledge of God. But that will not happen outside of the blessing of the Holy Spirit. And so, a question for you consider this morning is this, is that the posture with which you approach your studies? Or do you approach them as simply an academic exercise, one that results in a greater body of doctrinal knowledge but has little to do with the work of God’s Spirit? Or do you view your studies as terribly impoverished without the blessing of that Spirit of revelation? Is this how you approach your time in class, your time reading, your time writing, your time serving in the local church, are you desperate for the blessing of the Spirit of God? When Paul prays that the Ephesians might know God, that’s where he begins. He prays that God would give them the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.
So, be in prayer for this Spirit of wisdom and revelation, with that blessing you will truly grow in a true knowledge of God in your time here at RBC. So, the knowledge that Bible college students are to pray for is number one, a gift of the Spirit. Secondly, it’s a matter of the heart. Let’s read verses 17 and 18 again, “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you and what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” Note the first phrase in verse 18 there, “Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened.” So, secondly, the knowledge of God we must seek is a matter of the heart. We’re tempted to distinguish between the head and the heart, we say things like head knowledge is not enough, your hearts must be changed, and that is true. That is indeed true, but Paul, when he’s thinking about these things, he thinks about them in, perhaps, a more holistic way. He prays that the Ephesians would have the eyes of their hearts enlightened. When we think of growing in the knowledge of God, perhaps our hearts are not the first things we think of in that context. Perhaps we think of our heads first, but Paul says he’s praying that the eyes of their hearts be enlightened. Perhaps a hard distinction, or a separation, between head and heart would have puzzled Paul. His vision is of a holistic growth in faith, and in knowledge and in love, a growing knowledge that he metaphorically describes as an enlightening of the eyes of the heart. The heart, in Scripture, is that which encapsulates all that we are as beings and as people, all of our actions, our thoughts, our attitudes, even our sins, are what pours forth from our heart. It’s at the very core of who we are, at the center of our identity, and that’s where Paul says something critical has to happen if the Ephesians are to grow in their knowledge of God. The eyes of their heart must be enlightened.
This is a vision for growth in the knowledge of God that cannot merely be head knowledge, it cannot merely be academic; that can be at best a poor imitation of what God or what Paul, a servant of God, is instructing us in here. And it’s interesting to note that Paul returns to these themes later in his epistle. In chapter 4, in particular, he says that the Gentiles walk in the futility of their minds. So, he’s talking about minds there, he’s saying the Gentiles walk in the futility of their minds. He says they are darkened in their understanding, they are alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them. Why? Is it because they don’t have the right information? Is it because they’ve never had rigorous training? Is it because they’ve never been exposed to the truth? Well, we might be tempted to think of that, look at the words Paul is using there in chapter 4. Let me just look at the reference here, chapter 4 verse 17, the words he is using here, “Gentiles walk in the futility of their minds,” that makes us think of the head, of the life of the mind. “They are darkened in their understanding,” again, we’re thinking in terms of the head probably here, “alienated from the life of God because of ignorance.” Again, we are thinking of a lack of knowledge here, and yet what Paul says this is all due to is not fundamentally a head problem but fundamentally a heart problem; he says in verse 18, “it is due to their hardness of heart.”
As college students, you’re probably very concerned with the abilities that you traditional think of residing in your head, “Am I going to perform well enough academically to gain acceptance to this college? Am I going to perform well enough to maintain my grades to graduate from this college?” We are used to thinking of our success at Bible college in terms of what may characterize our heads, but if we are to grow in the true knowledge of God, we must also consider are our hearts ready, are our hearts prepared for our time at college? These Gentiles, they walk in the futility of their minds and they maintain their ignorance, not because of a problem with their head but because of a problem with their heart. And so, the knowledge that we must be seeking, as Bible College students, is a matter of the heart. It is possible to graduate from RBC with honors and with a heart that has none of the knowledge of God that Paul is talking about here. So, let’s pray that not just can we comprehend the knowledge we receive in class, not can we just grow academically and gain a greater understanding of the doctrines that we are exposed to here, but also, that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened so that we might know God.
And then thirdly, the knowledge that Paul prays for in Ephesians 1 is centered on God. Again, verses 17 and 18, “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you [a] Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.” It’s easy to breeze past that critical phrase, “The knowledge of Him,” but we need to pause there. Because it’s the knowledge of God Himself, out of which all of what Paul is about to say in the following verses flows. It is out of the knowledge of God Himself that we begin to know these other things that he’s about to address. We cannot know the hope to which we’ve been called apart from knowing God, we cannot know the glorious inheritance of the saints apart from knowing Him, and we cannot know the greatness of His power apart from knowing Him. So, the knowledge of God is the root of all the other knowledge spoken of here: the hope, the inheritance, and the power.
And it’s particularly appropriate that Bible College students would pray for this knowledge of God above all. One of the taglines that RBC has used in the past is, “Above all, know God,” and that’s an appropriate summary of what Paul is saying here. And there are great benefits that flow out from God and knowing them is important too, but it starts with this— the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. So, Paul moves on to three aspects of this knowledge, and let’s briefly look at these and think of them. What if these three things, these three aspects of the knowledge of God that Paul focuses on the following verses, what if they were the learning outcomes that you had in mind for each semester here at RBC?
So, the first one we see in verse 18, “Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” How might it change our perspectives if one of the learning outcomes we set for ourselves for this semester was an increased Christian hope by the end of the semester? The second thing he mentions, again in verse 18, following right after that, “What are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” Again, how many of us judge our semesters by asking whether or not we have grown in our knowledge, in our understanding of, and our longing for the inheritance that we have in Christ? So, what if we made that one of our learning outcomes for this semester? A greater knowledge of the inheritance that is ours in Christ. And then Paul goes on to pray, starting at the beginning of verse 19, that the Ephesians would grow in their knowledge of the greatness of God’s power. So, in verse 19, “And what is the immeasurable greatness of His power towards us who believe, according to the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at the right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”
I want to pause here for a moment to consider this idea of the greatness of God’s power and I want to start by focusing on one little word here. At the second half of verse 19, he says or let’s just start reading it at the beginning, “and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according,” that’s the little word, “according to the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at the right hand in the heavenly places.” That word, “according,” which occurs at a few key places in the New Testament, is such an important thing. Especially with respect to the blessings God gives to His people. When God deals with us according to His grace, or when He displays or works in us according to the working of His great might, we need to remember that that is not Him withdrawing a small part of His grace and applying it to you. If God has a great storehouse of grace, some small part is applied to you, or if God has a great storehouse of power, as we’ve seen described here in these verses, that some small part of that power was used to redeem us and is now being used to redeem us further. No, he says it is not some part of His power, but it is according to His power. If someone were to give any of you a thousand dollars, I’m sure you would be very thankful for that a thousand dollars. If you were to discover that the person who had given you that a thousand dollars were a billionaire, you would still be thankful for that great gift, but that gift of a thousand dollars, out of the billion dollars they possess, is a gift out of their wealth. But if they were to give a gift according to their wealth, it would be far more than a thousand dollars.
And here, what Paul is saying is there is an immeasurable greatness that is at work in God’s people and it’s according to the power that was demonstrated when God raised Christ from the dead and exalted Him over every other power. According to that power is the power that is at work in the children of God now. We so tend to underestimate the power that God brings to bear in our lives and on His Church. And we often underestimate what was required to redeem us and is still required to sanctify us. Paul even explicitly says this, later in Ephesians 3, in that famous benediction that he gives to the Church in verses 20 and 21, he says, “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.” So, Paul is explicitly saying all of us have this problem, we cannot get our minds around what God is able to do when He is working in us according to His power. We are very prone to underestimate this. And if we are to grow in our knowledge of God this semester, and if we are to think about the learning outcomes that we have for ourselves, let us add a greater appreciation not only of the power of God in abstract sense, but of the power of God according to which He is at work in our lives and in our churches.
And that brings me to another phrase that you’ve probably heard around Reformation Bible College, this idea of theology for life. When Paul is waxing eloquent about how high Christ has been exalted by God, how He has been set far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come, that can seem very abstract in our minds. It’s a big concept and a lot of those terms seem somewhat abstract. But thinking about theology for life and how that kind of high theology might apply practically to our lives, I want us to think back to the original context here, and again to the lives of those Ephesians, who are trying to be faithful Christians in that context, in the first century. Many of those people have just left pagan temples. And the priests, the leaders of the community, the civic leadership, the leaders of their religious lives up to that point are now cursing them and their families, and it is a very, very practical question in the minds of these Christians, “Is this new Savior that I have embraced in faith and this new community that I have embraced in loved, am I safe here? Not just from physical persecution, but from the demons that I used to worship? When the priest curses me, can I be assured that my Savior is more powerful than he?” And so, when Paul is talking about the exaltation of Christ above every other power, it is in our minds very abstract, but for the Ephesians it was the answer to a very practical question, which is, “Do I need to fear those demonic powers which I had previously given allegiance to,” or “Is this Savior more powerful than all of them?”
And in our context as well, thinking through the hope that is ours, the inheritance that is ours, and the greatness of God’s power according to which is at work in our lives, we, too, can think of ways in which these somewhat elevated ideas are very practical. That’s the concept on which RBC was founded, this idea that theology is for life. And so, when Paul takes us into a different sort of prayer, a prayer that probably looks different from the prayers that we spontaneously offer throughout our days as we face various challenges, and we consider a different kind of prayer; a deeper, a more fundamental kind of prayer, pleading with God for what may seem like more abstract but are also wider and have much more breadth and depth concepts and blessings from God. It is not a move away from a practical Christianity towards a lofty, theoretical Christianity. On the contrary, it’s a move deeper into a practical Christianity that will serve us not in our only in our immediate context, not only in our years here at RBC, but for all of our lives.
In conclusion, let’s look at the last two verses, 22 and 23, which say, “And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Perhaps this is the final way of judging our semesters, the final learning outcome that we might hold in front of ourselves. If all of this that Paul has described is a gift to the Church, which is the body of Christ, perhaps the final way of looking at our semesters, and our time here, and our growing knowledge of God is to ask this question: have we grown this semester in our love for, in our appreciation of, in our dedication to, and in our service of the Church? All of these great truths that Paul is praying that God would help the Ephesians grow in, they are all in service of the Church. We have a Savior who has been exalted above every earthly power but is also exalted as the head of the Church, and so our time here, as Bible College students, should be conceived of in that context. Have I grown in knowledge in these ways? And have I grown in my suitability, in my willingness, my eagerness to serve the Church? And so, this prayer, I think, is particularly appropriate for Bible college students for those three reasons. You came here to gain knowledge, and this is a prayer for knowledge, you’re at a Reformed college and this prayer is filled with the sovereignty of God, and as a Bible college student you are at risk of emerging from these years of studying theology with no more true knowledge of God than when you began. And to avoid that being the case of us, we find guidance for prayer in the knowledge that Paul prays for— it’s a gift of the Spirit, it’s a matter of the heart, it’s centered on God, and it’s in service to the Church.
Transcripts are lightly edited.