The Ministry of Christian Intercession

Urbana 84 Exposition of Ephesians 1:15-23


Prayer is the hard work of the kingdom of God, and that is probably the reason that the smallest meeting in the vast majority of churches and fellowship groups is the prayer meeting, because that is where the real work goes on.

There are two areas in which the apostle Paul clearly gives himself to every church in the New Testament. This is illustrated by the fact that so many of his letters are really the exposition of truth sandwiched between two things: an assurance that he prays continually for the recipientsand an appeal that they will pray for him.

For example, in Romans 1:9-10 Paul says, "God ... is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times." Then at the end of the letter he appeals to them, "I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me" (15:30). Again and again in Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and other letters, we find this same pattern. The great exposition of truth at the center of the letter is sandwiched between this assurance that he prays for them and the appeal that they will pray for him.

Prayer and preaching are the two great emphases of the apostle's ministry. There is no question that the secret of the effectiveness of his ministry lies here, in that particular marriage of teaching and prayer. There is no question either that the secret of all effectiveness in Christian ministry and service lies precisely in this marriage. If we try to divorce these two things from each other; we discover that in some sense we are disabled. But when preaching and prayer have been brought together, we are following in theapostolic tradition.

The Work of Prayer

If God is calling you to serve him, you really need to ask him to make you effective in the ministry of prayer. There is no doubt that here is where the real workis done. We betray our conviction about this when we speak about praying forthe work. In fact prayer is the real work. Prayer is the hard work of the kingdomof God, and that is probably the reason that the smallest meeting in the vastmajority of churches and fellowship groups is the prayer meeting, because thatis where the real work goes on.

In his book entitled Prayer, O. Hallesby has a marvelous chapter which is simplyheaded "Prayer as Work." In it he likens the work of the kingdom tomining. He says there are two great operations: one is the extreme, exhaustinghard work of boring into the solid rock to plant the explosive; the other issetting off the charge and sending the rocks flying in all directions. That'sthe exciting part. Everybody likes to be involved in it. But the really hardlabor is boring into the solid granite in order to plant the explosive.

Hallesby compares the work of prayer to that labor. Anybody can light the fuse, he says, but the difficult work takes real commitment, real perseverance, real toil, sweat and tears. And few are willing to do it. Prayer is where the real work is done. In the kingdom of God prayer is fundamental. The disease of modern evangelicalism is that we have made it supplemental. And this is one of the vital lessons for us to learn from Paul's prayer in Ephesians 1:15-23.

There are several issues which arise in Paul's remarkable prayer here, and I think it would be helpful to approach them by looking at three aspects of the prayer: Why Paul prays, how he prays and what he prays for. It is that general pattern I want us to look at so that God may teach us to pray.

Why Paul Prays

The phrase "for this reason" at the beginning of verse 15 gives us the first key to the motive of the apostle's prayer. It refers back to the first half of the chapter. Paul is prompted: to bow down in thankfulness before God for the sheer glory of this salvation that he has been expounding to us in verses 1-14. And he thanks God for the unmistakable evidence of that salvation in the lives of the Ephesians. That evidence, according to verse 15, is twofold. First, they have appropriated the riches of this salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus: "For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus." Second, they have exhibited the first fruit of the Holy Spirit's work in their lives by their love for all the saints: "Ever since I heard about your faith in. the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints."

These are the two classical and crucial evidences of true Christian experience: belief and behavior, or faith and love, or a right relationship with Jesus and a right relationship with our fellow believers. Paul says he is constantly giving thanks for them for this reason that this glorious gospel has come to them and they have appropriated its riches by faith and have shown evidence in their lives of its reality by the love that theyhave toward their fellow believers.

Notice that this is the great hallmark that the saving grace of God has come to us - the salvation that God the Father planned, that God the Son procured and purchased, and that the Holy Spirit applies and seals in our lives. Paul says the evidence that this glorious salvation has come to us is that we have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and have love toward our fellowbelievers.

This Christian love of which Paul speaks is a primarily moral and not an emotional love. Christian love does not mean having an emotional attitude toward other people or an emotional involvement with them. It quite simply means the moral condition of putting others before ourselves. Therefore, the opposite of Christian love is not hatred: It is self-love. That is why love in the New Testament can be commanded. Have you ever thought about that? You cannot command somebody to be emotionally involved with someone else. But God can command unto putothers first and ourselves second.

So someone has wisely said that Christian love is not the victim of my emotions, but the servant of my will. That is why this kind of love is an evidence of grace. By nature we love and serve ourselves rather than God. So Paul gives thanks to God because he sees the evidence of salvation in the lives of the Ephesian Christians by the love they have for one another. "Since I heard about ... your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanksfor you."

We need to ask whether our souls respond in the same way. We often use the phrase, "Itdrove me to my knees." I find it interesting that when we say that we arealmost always speaking about some crisis or adversity. Isn't it strange howseldom we are driven to our knees in thankfulness to God for the glories of thegospel as we see them evidenced in the lives of his children? Are you askingGod to cultivate in you a spirit of thankfulness like this? I think it is vitalfor the sweetening of the whole of life. Paul prayed like this because he livedlike this. We, too, will never pray any other way than how we live. Our prayerlife is a reflection of the whole of our life. We need to cry to God to cultivatewithin us this spirit of thankfulness, of rejoicing in the blessings of God'sgrace, chiefly when we see God's grace in the lives of other people.

Paul also prays for the Ephesians. In verse 16 he writes, "I have not stopped ... remembering you in my prayers." In verse 17 he says, "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you ..." and so on. In his prayer Paul is motivated to do two things for the Ephesians.

First, he is motivated to pray the truth in. That is really what he is doing in this intercessory passage. He is taking these mighty truths of the gospel that he has been expounding, and now he prays them in. His exposition and teaching are linked with his intercession and pleading with God. This is how the truth of God is bored into the hearts of people.

Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones said the best teaching in the world is useless unless the Holy Spirit takes hold of it and gives it a deep lodging in our whole being. And the way that the Holy Spirit does that is when the truth of God is prayed in. So, when we have taught the truth or shared Christ with people, our task is not over. We really need to go away and spend time praying that truth in.

Second, Paul is motivated to pray the Ephesians on. He has seen the evidences of grace in their lives, and he has bowed before God with thankfulness. He could say with the apostle John, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth" (3 Jn 4). But Paul never confuses gratitude with complacency. He now prays them on into new depths of understanding and new experiences of God's grace and power, praying them into new stability. This is how people grow. Paul cries to God in Ephesians 4 that these Christians may no longer be mere infants spiritually but may grow up into the fullness of the stature of Christ, into mature manhood and womanhood in the Lord Jesus.

How do people do that? They do it by the teaching of the Word. But they also do it when somebody takes the burden of their spiritual stability on their heart and prays them on. Have you ever taken somebody on your heart like that? Some child of God who is in the nursery stages of spiritual experience? The marks of a baby are beautiful in babyhood (except perhaps at 3 in the morning). But when they persist year after year, that's a tragedy. And when people remain spiritual babies year after year, playing around with the dolls of spiritual infancy, that's a greater tragedy! We need to be given the diet of the Word of God that will put sinew and fiber and muscle into our spiritual beings and cause us to grow and go on into spiritual manhood and womanhood. One of the ways that happens is when somebody really prays us on. I give thanks to God with all my heart for my brother, who, before he died at the age of twenty-nine, spent years praying me on through days of spiritual stagnation. After he died I will never forget reading what he had written about me in his journal, "Lord, take him on. Take him on!"
And I say to you, there may be people for whom that is God's ministry for you - to pray them on. In this passage the apostle is praying these Ephesian Christians on.

How Paul Prays

We now turn to the manner of Paul's praying. The first thing to notice is that he prays with perseverance and persistence. In verse 16 he writes, "I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers." In verse 17 he says, "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ ..." In other words, his praying is not spasmodic, crisis praying or praying which is controlled primarily by his feelings.

So he exhorts the Ephesians, "Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints" (6:18). Prayer and perseverance aretherefore frequently tied together in the apostle's appeal.

We have difficulty with this. I think one of our problems arises from our failure to grasp that prayer in the Scripture is not primarily an emotional experience.It is a duty commanded by God. Have you ever really grasped this? "Praywithout ceasing" is a commandment. "Men ought always to pray." Nowought is a word of duty. This is a matter of moral obedience. We cannotwait until we get some kind of tingle in our spine which makes us feel we reallymustbegin to pray. It's a matter of obedience.

In my own church we have a prayer meeting every week, and generally it's difficult for people to get in to pray. But on one occasion there were great long silences. Few people were praying, and a young student came up to me afterwards and said, "That was rather a dull, dead prayer meeting." I said, "Yes." She said, "Wasn't it strange that so few people prayed?" And I said to her, "Well, now, I happened to notice that you didn't pray." "No," she said. "I didn't feel like praying." I said to her, "My dear, prayer in the Scripture is a duty commanded by God. It is not a glandular condition." We need to recognize that, because it is one of the things that so much controls our thinking. Do not misunderstand me and imagine that you will never feel warmed in your soul towards God and lifted up into the heavenly places as you pray. But when that does not happen, that doesn't mean you stop praying.

The second thing we need to notice is that Paul reminds himself of God's nature and character. In verse 17 he writes, "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father ..." or "the Father of glory" (RSV). Nothing is more important in our approach to God than this recollecting of his character, his true nature, his majesty and his glory. The real qualification for praying is not that we have read all the right books or that we know some technique. It is that we are getting to know God.

The apostle says, "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ ..." Now there is a great phrase: You will remember how the Old Testament saints would pray to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What they were saying was that God has revealed himself in his dealings with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He had dealt with them in grace; he had covenanted with his people through Abraham. The Old Testament saints reminded themselves of God's nature and character. Likewise, they reminded themselves of his mighty acts in history. "You are the God," they said, "who brought us up out of the land of Egypt and from the house of bondage." They also reminded God of his acts in history. Now it's not that they were giving God a history lesson. They were saying, "This is the God you are. We have seen you in days past. We have proved you in the days of our fathers, and we come to you today and plead with you on the ground of your character." Now that's the great ground of prayer. That's how God's people come to him and plead with him.

Where do we see God's character most gloriously revealed? It is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. Where in history has God manifested his glory most perfectly? It is in all that he has done in the coming, living, dying, rising and ascending of the Lord Jesus. And so Paul said, we come to you as the God of` our Lord Jesus Christ: Everything that God has revealed of himself in Jesusis a great encouragement to the apostle as he prays.

Then he says God is "the glorious Father" (v. 17). The reference is to the infinite majesty and excellence of God. Paul is not only encouraged to approach him by this, he is also awed before him. He is the Father of glory. That is the great keynote of Paul's prayer. He is concerned about the glory of God. That is the great underlying burden of the prayers of men and womenin Scripture. That needs to be our great concern and longing too.

Do you know the ultimate motive for the Great Commission? It is not so much the condition of the lost in all their appalling anguish and agony. The ultimate motive of missions is the glory of God. This is what drives us to prayer. If we have a true zeal for God's glory and there is some area of the world where God is being robbed of his glory, then it will drive us to God to cry to him as the glorious Father. Ultimately that is the great burden on theapostle's heart.

But as he reminds himself of the majesty and glory of God, he is also reminded of the adequacy of the God to whom he comes, who has no limitations of any kind in what he can do for his children. Do you see how important it is to pray with this picture of the character of God before our eyes and in our hearts? This is why Jesus combines these two beautiful things in the Lord's Prayer, when he teaches us to come with intimacy and simplicity to God as our Father. But he doesn't leave it there. He says, "When you pray, say 'Our Father in heaven.' " Now that doesn't mean that God is in distant location from us. It means that he dwells in the place of unlimited,unbounded power and authority.

That is the difference between earthly fatherhood and heavenly fatherhood. There are many occasions when children come to their parents asking for things, notrealizing that their resources and wisdom are limited. Often parents do not knowwhat is the best possible thing to do for them. But our heavenly Father suffersno such problems. His resources are endless and unlimited. His wisdom is perfect.And his love is unchanging.

What Paul Prays

We now come to the third aspect of Paul's prayer - what he prays about. There are three elements in his petitions.

He prays for an increase in their knowledge of God.

"I keep asking that God ... may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may knowhim better." Paul desires that their knowledge of God might deepen. Andthat, of course, is the very essence of salvation. If you were to be asked, "Whatis the real purpose of life in this world? What is the key to our existence?What is the heart of eternal life?" I wonder what you would say. I'll tellyou what the Scriptures would say. They would say, in the words of Jesus, "Thisis eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ;whom you have sent." "Knowing" in Scripture does not refer toknowing a subject. It speaks of a deep, intimate, personal knowledge.

How does that relationship come about? How do we come to know God? And how do we get to know God better? Paul says we need the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. He prays that God "may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better" (v. 17). Now there is not really much difficulty getting to know, for example, a language or the geography of an area, because these are matters which can be researched. But it's different when you start speaking about getting to know a person. We sometimes say about people, "He's very difficult to get to know:" That is because we can conceal ourselves. We can withdraw ourselves. It is possible for us to refuse to be known.

Now if that is true of ordinary humans, how infinitely more is it true of God from whom we are separated by our sinfulness and his holiness? We can only know God as he is willing to reveal himself to us. So Paul prays not only for a spirit of wisdom to enlighten our minds and understanding, but for a spirit of revelation. Where has God revealed himself? He has done so in two places chiefly: in Christ and in the Scriptures. Of course, God has also revealed himself in creation, but he has not revealed himself savingly there. That's an important distinction. There's a little verse that somebody gave me to put in my garden when I came to Glasgow seven years ago. It said, "You are nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth." Do you know, I began to wonder if Adam and Eve would have agreed with that after everything that happened to them! I doubt it, really. Because although God does reveal himself in his majesty and glory in creation, he is not revealed savingly there. He is savingly revealed in Christ and in Scripture.

So where shall we go if we want to grow in the knowledge of God? The answer is to holy Scripture, begging God to give us the aid of his Holy Spirit, that spirit of wisdom, to open the eyes of our understanding, for this is what Scripture is for. God has not given us holy Scripture simply that we may survive another day, although it gives us grace to do that. Nor was it written to give us a blessed thought to encourage us at the beginning of a day, although it also does that. But the primary reason that God has given us his Word is that we might come to know him, that we might be acquainted with his ways and understand his purposes and identify ourselves with him. This is the great reason for holy Scripture.

How would you feel if people were only interested in you for the things they could get out of you? Wouldn't you call that insincere love? Yet isn't it true that sometimes that's the focus of our interest in God? But the great reason for holy Scripture is that we may come to know God, understand the glory of his purposes and identify ourselves with him. He made us to know him. The great tragedy of the world is expressed in Jesus' heart cry in John 17, "Oh, righteous Father, the world has not known thee" (v. 25 RSV). This is the ultimate tragedy, because the knowledge of God is what life is all about.

We often say that knowing of God is different than knowing about God, and that's true. A person can know a great deal about God and be a prime theologian and not know God personally at all. But I want to balance that by saying it is a very strange love relationship where somebody doesn't want to get to know absolutely everything they can about the other person. The lover constantly says to the beloved, "Tell me about yourself." We need to have this same attitude about getting to know God.

He prays for their understanding of the call of God.

"I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints" (v. 18). One of the great longings of the apostle Paul is that these believers in Ephesus might have their eyes set not on earthly treasure but on heavenly glory. That they might live as Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount, with their eyes on their treasure in heaven. This is what Paul is praying for them, "that you may know the hope to which he has called you." That's the great distinction of the Christian salvation. It brings a sure and steadfast hope to us concerning the future and declares that our true citizenship is yet to be revealed to us. The glories of the gospel that we have tasted here in this world are not to be compared with the glories that still wait for us. "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived" the glories of the inheritance that God has reserved in heaven for us.

Now this kind of spirit that he prays for, this future dimension in our salvation, is what our forefathers would have called heavenly-mindedness. It is, I suppose, an unpopular phrase in our day. People say, "He's so heavenly-minded he's no earthly use."

Do you know, I've never met anybody like that. I don't have problems with people like that in my church. My problem is with people who are the opposite - so earthly-minded they're no heavenly use. I think we need more and more to have our eyes set on that infinite glory. It was said of Samuel Rutherford, a great Scotsman; that he had his heart on heaven, his hands to the plow and his feet firmly on the ground. And that's a great combination.

Paul prays for their awareness of the power of God.

"I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know ... his incomparably great power for us who believe" (vv, 1819). Paul prays that a revelation might be given to them. Now for Paul the place where the power of God is most visibly seen is not in creation or in natural phenomena like earthquakes, storms or volcanoes. It is seen in the gospel. He says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Rom 1:16). What saves us and sanctifies us and glorifies us is the power of God. In verse 19 Paul calls it "his incomparably great power." It's one of those superfantastic words in the Greek, a multiplying of language. He also prays that we might: know the "immeasurable greatness of the energy of the might of his strength" (v.19). That's a literal translation. It's almost impossible to put into English. The apostle is piling words upon words to describe this glorious power of God that has been revealed in Jesus Christ.

Where has God demonstrated his power? Paul says, "That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come" (vv. 19-21). What is that power? Do you notice that it is power for us who believe? The very same divine power which raised Jesus from the grave and brought him to the right hand of the Father and set him in a place of incomparable glory is the very power that is available to us. No wonder the apostle cries to God that the eyes of our understanding might be opened that we would grasp this! How awful it is that we often live in such poverty and in such spiritual paralysis when the full magnitude of God's power is available to us!

My favorite Old Testament story is about Ben Hadad, the king of Aram (2 Kings 6). Ben Hadad was in great trouble. He was an enemy of Israel and had discovered that whenever he made an attack on Israel, somehow or other all his plans had been made known beforehand. He went to the people within his courts and said, "Which of you has betrayed us?" And they said, "Nobody, my Lord, O King. It's that little prophet Elisha down in Dothan. He seems to know even the things that my Lord the king plans in his bedchamber." "Well," said Ben Hadad, "send an army. In fact, send the cavalry, send the artillery, send everything we have, and get him!" So down they went, launching everything they had to find Elisha, the little prophet of God.

It must have been quite amusing. I'm sure Scripture is full of this kind of beautiful humor. Somebody would stop this great army and say, "Where are you going? What battle are you going to fight?" "Oh," they would say, "we are going to arrest the little prophet down in Dothan."

Elisha was there with just his servant, a young man. The young man looked and saw all the army and cavalry of Ben Hadad and all the horses, chariots and artillery - and his heart quaked! He ran to Elisha, dragged him outside and said, "Do you see this?" "Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." The young man looked around and saw the hills full of the horses and chariots of the enemy and all the soldiers standing on guard. Then he looked at Elisha and himself. I'm sure he said to himself, "That's the trouble with these old fellas. They don't face reality. They should have retired him a long time ago."

But it was Elisha who saw reality, and he cried to God, and said, "Lord, open this young man's eyes!" And the Lord opened the young man's eyes, and he saw that the hills were full of the horses and chariots of the Lord. And that day a mighty victory was wrought by God.

"Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world." My friends, if we have that confidence, we can go anywhere in the name of God. Oh, may God make us conquerors and more than conquerors through him. Amen.