This morning Paul prays for you. And his prayer for you is maybe unlike any you’ve ever heard. For instance, when I hold one of my children at bedtime to help them sleep, I often take that time to pray for them. And, when I do that, one of the first things I ask God to do is to keep them safe, protect them physically through the night, and then that he blesses them the next day. I often think our prayers for others are like that. We pray for people’s physical needs, health, safety, guidance, that sort of thing. Paul here doesn’t pray for anyone’s physical needs, which seems strange, and might expect that he would pray for those things.
The Ephesians, his original audience, they lived during a terrible time. Life in first century Rome was dangerous. Some historians say during this time in history, only three out of ten babies made it to the age of two – that’s crazy! There was no such thing as health care. People weren’t just living paycheck to paycheck but sometimes meal to meal and, on top of all of that, these Ephesian believers were part of this illegal religion called Christianity which put their lives in even more danger.
But Paul doesn’t pray for any of that, not safety, not money, not circumstantial improvement. He doesn’t pray that their health improves, that their bills are paid, or that they do better in school or at work. Why? Because he knows if you get what he’s actually praying for it doesn’t matter what your current situation is. If you can grasp the love of Christ for you – this thing that you already have – and what it means in reality for your day-to-day life, if you get that, then this other stuff won’t impact you. So, let’s break down this prayer of Paul, and in general, I would describe Paul’s prayer in this way: he wants us – he wants you – to truly experience the shocking love of Christ.
Now, usually, when you pray for someone it’s because there is some sort of issue, something that needs to be addressed and possibly fixed. Here is the issue that Paul notices among believers: that many of them – and I want you to ask yourself if this applies to you – many believers know who Christ is, but don’t really know Christ. Let me put it this way. Many of you have attended church all your lives. You’ve been in Sunday School. I’m sure many of you can recite the 10 commandments from memory, and you can have a knowledgeable discussion about different doctrines in the Bible. We know these things, and Paul knows you know them, he knows you’re a believer, but he also knows that in a different sense we’ve maybe never truly grasped Jesus or known his true love.
CS Lewis wrote that theology (our doctrine, beliefs) relate to the actual Christian life like a map relates to the country itself. So, if I set you down in Milwaukee and I gave you an address, but no map, what are your chances of finding the place? Not real good. You need a map. A map shows you how the reality of Milwaukee exists. It shows you how things relate to each other. Without the map you wouldn’t find your way around, but is the map the city? No, the map is nothing but a piece of paper, it doesn’t really tell you anything about Milwaukee itself, what it’s actually like as a city.
You see as critical as doctrine is, as necessary as it is, it’s still a piece of paper. It’s one thing to say I know all human beings are sinners, it’s another thing to personally admit and experience the guilt of your own sins. It’s one thing to know Jesus’ love, but it’s another thing to experience that love and forgiveness as it washes away all your sins. And that is what Paul is praying for – that you know the experience!
Paul is praying for believers who have the Spirit of God in their life to be strengthened in the Spirit so that, as he says, “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…and you may grasp the love of Christ…and know this love that surpasses knowledge…and be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Paul is praying that this knowledge of Christ would stop being just a head knowledge, but something real and active.
I think one way to think this through is to ask yourself, “How has Christ changed me and the way I live? Or to say it another way, “Do I live and think and act differently than the unbelieving world around me?” Because – right? – it’s possible to know Christ, but it’s just as possible that, at the same time, you’re a horrible person like everyone else. Or maybe you live like the rest of the world, and you base your success and failures on the same things the world does, like wealth, or looks, or a nice fancy car. Someone like us, who knows Christ, can be just as bitter, angry, and pessimistic as someone out there who doesn’t know Christ. Now, do you still know Christ, sure, but are you fully satisfied by Christ and his love, not really. Paul isn’t here saying that this means you aren’t a Christian, but you just have not fully grasped how wide and long and high and deep the love of Jesus is. And he wants that for you.
So, how does that happen? Well, here is the book answer. I’ve referenced this verse, but we haven’t officially read it. In verse 18 – probably one of the more famous verses of the Bible – Paul talks about the dimensions of God’s love. He writes, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” You’ll notice that Paul makes mention of four dimensions. A while back in catechism class with the 7th and 8th graders, those students were asked to draw a one-dimensional object, then a two, then a three-dimensional object – and they could draw those things – but then they were asked to draw something in 4D. That got a little harder, I don’t think anyone was able to do it.
The love of Jesus is described in these four dimensions because Paul is saying this love is so insanely unique – it’s almost impossible to describe – but Paul wants you and I to grasp this important point: that indescribable love is for you. And that love of God it’s wide; it’s for all people. It’s long too; God’s love was there for you before time began and it will be there for you into eternity; it does not stop. How high is God’s love? Well, he came down from heaven to earth and then went back again to prepare a place for you in the highest heavens. What is the depth of his love? It’s not just that he came to earth, but he went even to hell for you. He was so desperate to save you and make you his own. No one else loves you like that, and no one ever will. And – here is the key – if you fully grasp God’s love throughout history (your history and the history of the world), you will experience the presence of Christ in your life.
So, here is the question: can we grasp that love? Or to better translate the Greek, does that love shock you? Paul is praying that it does. And you know what? It can. And here is how: you need to grasp the reality of yourself, and what I mean by that is you need to find the depth of your own wickedness. You need to be honest about your sin and what it is, and what it would mean if that sin was never confessed, never repented of, and more importantly, never paid for. Only then can we truly grasp the unrelenting pursuit of the love that moved God to save us and be shocked by his grace.
Okay, this is all good and great, but practically speaking, how do we do this? Paul, in this section, lays out several ways. In verse 16, Paul prays that we be “strengthened with power through his Spirit.” With these words, Paul is simply reminding us, “Hey, you need the Holy Spirit to work in your life, which means you need to be in contact with him.” And the main way we remain connected to the Holy Spirit and his power is through the Word of God, so take time for God’s Word in your life – every day!
Because look, if you go and spend time with a person, spend days and weeks with someone, you’re going to know that person in a completely different way, then say if you just read a biography about them, and everything they say and do is going to be intimately different to you than to someone who only hears about them once a week, or to someone who took a class on them way back in grade school. Spending time with Jesus in his Word, will, by the Spirit’s power strengthen your relationship with him. What else can we do to grasp the love of Christ? Two more things.
Go back to verse 14. Paul says this, “For this reason I kneel before the Father.” Kneeling isn’t the usual prayer posture for Jews, usually, they do this (Stand, hands up). Kneeling was saved for rulers. Kneeling showed reverence. Paul is demonstrating that one of the ways we get to know Christ is by submitting to him. So, if you’re willfully defying God – God says something and I say, “nah” – that’s rejecting God’s authority. When you do that, it’s not surprising if you feel distant from him. This is true in any other relationship you have. If you disobey someone who has authority over you, there’s a divide there. If we want to feel close to God, we need to remember who he is and appreciate that relationship.
Speaking of relationships, the final thing that helps us to grasp and experience the love of Christ is to not be so focused on ourselves. In verse 18, Paul prays that we “may have power together with all of God’s people…to grasp the love of Christ.” Paul is talking about this (point at us gathered). We find Christ together in our Christian community, together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Relationships for Christians is huge! Do you know why? Because God is relational. God himself is three persons, right? He’s triune. He’s all about relationships and he reveals himself to us through the words and actions of others. It’s uplifting to see God’s people gather here each week. It’s uplifting to hear God’s people use God’s Word to encourage one another. It’s powerful when we pray for and with each other, and in these things, you see, you experience Christ’s love for you. And that is Paul’s prayer for you. That you and I don’t just know, but that daily we experience the shocking love of his Son, our Savior, Jesus.
Let us end with these final words of praise from Paul, “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, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
Note: Portions of this sermon follow the thoughts of a sermon preached on the same text by Pastor John Hein in July of 2021.