Prayer for Strength, Knowledge, and the Fullness of God

"Paul's Farewell to the Elders at Ephesus" a woodcut Biblical illustrations by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, copied from the book "Das Buch der B├╝cher in Bilden" and made available by World Mission Collection: 
The text for today is our Epistle, Ephesians 3:13-20, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Here’s a key to properly interpreting passages of Scripture: context.  Look for what is happening and being said before and after the passage.  And consider the time in which it was originally written.  Understanding the literary, cultural, and historical contexts will help you to better understand the author’s intent. 

Permit me to illustrate.  Suppose your seven-year-old son walks up to you when your back is turned and asks, “Mom, can I kill this?”  What’s the first thing you must find out before you can answer him?  You can never answer the question “Can I kill this?” unless you’ve answered a prior question: What is it? 

This is the key question.  You see, if your son is holding a bug in his hand, you might say, “Go ahead.”  But if he’s carrying his new puppy, you’re going to freak out.  You might even have to consider seeking psychological counseling for him.  Context is king—in life and in biblical interpretation. 

This is particularly true in passages like our Epistle.  It begins: “So I ask you not to lose heart…” and “For this reason I bow my knees…” both phrases that beg the question: Why?  Why might the Ephesians lose heart?   And why is Paul bowing his knees before the Father on their behalf?

To answer that question we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 3 where Paul reveals “the mystery of Christ,” that is, the mystery that in the Christian Church God is pleased to have Jewish and Gentile believers stand as equals.  God’s undeserved gift to Paul was choosing him to be the revealer of this mystery, sending him out as the bearer of this good news, particularly to Gentiles.

Unfortunately not everyone approved of this mission to the Gentiles.  As Paul wrote this letter, he had spent the last 3 ½ years in prison and house arrest for the sake of the Gospel.  Nevertheless, Paul rejoiced in his suffering as fulfilling the Lord’s purposes for his life and others.  He uses this opportunity to pray for the Ephesians and to model faith and prayer, particularly in the midst of suffering. 

Paul begins: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named…”  In Christ, God is the Father of all believers.  All believers are united into one family, the holy Christian church—those already in heaven as well as those still on earth.  As a member of this family, Paul boldly prays to the heavenly Father.  In his first petition, Paul asks not just for enough strength to get by, but for strength according to the riches of God’s glory, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith. 

Second, Paul prays that they might have knowledge.  The Ephesians are believers because they have been rooted and grounded in God’s love for the sake of Jesus.  This is a love that surpasses knowledge—it’s beyond human abilities to comprehend.  Yet Paul prays that the Ephesians might grow to know it more. 

Third, Paul prays that the Ephesians might be filled with the fullness of God.  If the first two petitions sounded bold, the third might strike you as clearly over the top.  God is all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal, present everywhere; and Paul prays that the Ephesians might be filled with His fullness.  It sounds like outlandish hyperbole.  God has total “fullness.”  He created everything; He owns everything; He controls everything.  And yet, He allows us, His dear children, to come boldly to Him.  In fact, He invites us to pray confidently, assuring us that He will hear.

Paul’s prayer is bold.  There’s nothing bashful about his request.  He doesn’t ask for just a few crumbs; he asks for the whole loaf.  He asks that the Ephesians be filled with the blessings God dispenses through His Church, particularly strength, knowledge, and fullness. 

Your pastor prays this as he prays for this congregation.  He also prays this individually for you, because of trouble and afflictions from which you suffer.  He prays you might be strengthened in faith according to the riches of God’s glory, know His incomprehensible love, and be filled with the fullness of God.  These are not just high hopes or nice sounding words, but his sincere prayer for you.

But where is this to be found?  Where does God grant such enormous blessings?  Where does one go for this glorious strength, this knowledge of the incomprehensible, and to be filled with the fullness of God?  Dear friends, the answer to this is not far away.  And as I prepare to tell you what it is, I do so praying that the devil does not snatch away your joy because the answer is so near at hand.  Here it is: all of these blessings of God are as near to you as… His Word.

Consider that first petition, that God would strengthen your faith.  It is no mystery how the Lord gives and strengthens faith: Romans 10 declares, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”  The Word of God is not just informative, but powerful.  It doesn’t just tell things, but it does things.  The Lord—who spoke to create all things and to heal the sick—still speaks His Word to you, to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith.  By that Word, the Holy Spirit is at work so that Christ might dwell in you.  Where you are weak, He is strong—so strong He conquered death and grave for you.  In Him, you are blessed with strength according to the riches of God’s glory.

Consider that second petition, that God would grant you knowledge of His incomprehensible love for you.  Where does God tell you of His love?  In His Word.   Circumstances and events in life will sometimes echo the news of God’s love for you; but often they do not.  You know God’s love for you because He tells you about His love for you in His Word.  It is sure.  But there is more to it than just hearing about God’s love in His Word: Romans 5:8 declares, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

Consider that third petition: that the fullness of God would dwell in you.  Where might you find the fullness of God?  In the Word—in Christ, the eternal Word made flesh.  Colossians 1:19-20 declares, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross;” and again in 2:9, “For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”  St. Paul tells us that by the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus dwells in you.  Therefore, you can be assured that in Jesus, the fullness of God dwells within you even now.

All three of these outlandish blessings are far beyond our ability to earn, attain, or grasp.  But the Lord brings them all to us—not in some out-of-body or mountaintop experience, not in “liver shivers” or “burning bosoms,” but always available, in His Word.  It’s right here on Sunday, in the hymns, liturgy, sermon, and in the Sacrament.  It’s right there in your Bible at home.  And therein lies the “problem” for us sinners: the Word is so readily available that you’ll be tempted to take it for granted.  It seems so common, that you won’t make it a priority. 

But this isn’t just a problem of the world and your sinful flesh: the devil doesn’t want you to hear the Word, either.  He wants you to keep the Bible next to your insurance policies—there if you really need it, but hoping that you’ll never have to use it.  He wants you to despise the Word because it is so easily at hand, and common.  But only by the Word is your faith strengthened, your sins forgiven. 

That’s why we pastors urge you be in the Word on a daily basis.  We encourage you to make weekly worship a priority, because here the Lord is at work to feed your faith and forgive your sins through His means of grace.  To deprive yourself of the Divine Service is to deprive yourself of grace.  And because we are the body of Christ, it deprives others as well: for as you sing and speak here, you put God’s Word into the ears of those around you.  When you are not here, your fellow Christians are deprived of your voice added to the faith we confess.

We encourage you to daily reading and meditation.  There are resources out there—The Treasury of Daily Prayer is one of them; but it may be as simple as opening your Bible and reading a psalm and a couple of other chapters.  Or taking the bulletin home and reading and reflecting on this week’s lessons.

If your concentration is frazzled as mine often is, read it out loud so that the words come out of your mouth and back into your ears.  Pick out a verse or two to memorize, to meditate upon.  Close the day with a passage, as your thoughts while asleep often dwell on your last waking thoughts.  If you have children, include them too.  Read Bible stories.  Memorize the Small Catechism bit by bit around the dinner table.  The Lord works through His Word to strengthen their faith, too. 

For this is true: God answers this threefold prayer—He strengthens your faith, imparts knowledge of His love, and dwells in you—by means of His Word.  If you are not hearing His Word, your faith is weakening.  It’s just that simple.

So we bid you to be in the Word at home and at church.  It’s not because we obsess on attendance numbers, or because you earn forgiveness every time you crack open a Bible.  It’s because the Word feeds your faith, like food feeds your body.  It’s a gift of God to keep you alive, especially in times of trial and suffering.

I already mentioned that your pastor prays for you because of the troubles you’ll encounter.  You know your pains far more than anyone else, so I need not enumerate them.  But let’s analyze what happens when it’s given you to suffer. 

When trouble strikes, you worry and dwell on it.  It occupies your thoughts.  This means that you’re already meditating—you’re meditating on the trouble.  The trouble with this kind of meditation is that we just fret about how troubling the trouble is.  We sinners don’t always think to pray or to hear the Word for help.  But the Lord has much to say to you in time of trouble.  Remember: by His Word, He forgives your sins, strengthens your faith, and makes you know His will. 

As you read God’s Word, the Spirit is at work to give you all of God’s blessings.  The Word becomes part of your meditation.  Along with the whispered fears in your mind, you will also hear, “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).  You hear, “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  You hear that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).  You hear Christ Jesus your Lord promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).  These are not pep-rally words to get back in the fight; these are the promises of God to grant you strength in trial, for you are one of His beloved children for Jesus’ sake. 

Strengthened and informed by God’s Word, you pray.  You know better what to pray, because you’ve heard the help that God promises.  Having heard Him speak to you, you now speak back to Him.  And you even have help in your praying.  The Spirit intercedes for you with groanings too deep for words, crafting your prayer into one worthy for God’s ears.  And you know that God hears your prayers, because Jesus intercedes for you with the Father, and for His sake the Father delights to hear your prayer.  He also delights to answer your prayer.

This brings us back to one more bit of good news in our text: verse 20 declares that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.”  When God answers your prayers for Jesus’ sake, He does far more than all you ask or think. 

This is good to keep in mind.  When trouble strikes, you have no idea how much trouble you’re really in—for you fight against principalities and powers of darkness.  At the same time, when you pray, you don’t know how good your prayer is—for the Holy Spirit makes it far better than you can imagine.  And when God answers, you can’t comprehend how great His answer is—because He does far more abundantly than all you ask or think. 

That is why His Word is such a blessing in a time of trouble; and dear friends, as long as this world lasts, you are in trouble every day of your lives.  By means of God’s Word, you have all of these blessings.  Apart from it, you have none.  So be in the Word.  For there the Lord strengthens your faith through His Spirit in your inner being.  By means of that Word, Christ dwells in you.  By that Word, God grants that you might know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.  By means of that Word, you are filled with the fullness of God.  For by the means of His holy Word, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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