10 Years of Praying Ephesians 1
Praying Ephesians 1 the past ten years has changed my life and ministry. I’ve recently found myself reflecting a lot on the past years of seeking the Lord. This year ticks the ten-year mark of giving myself to ministry in a full-time capacity. Pondering such things is an interesting endeavor; like venturing into an unguided place, I find myself not knowing how to go about the assessment. I guess this is because I’m just now reaching the age where hindsight over something like a decade is even possible. When I think about the interval looking back I get feelings of aging, and yet, considering it in light of a broader mosaic of life and others around me, I feel the lack of experience and maturity that typically characterizes youth. In this scattered process, I’m stunned by the leadership of the Lord in my life. He has been so kind to my underserving heart to lead me well through these years. I’m finding that hindsight produces gratitude, as well as provokes a repentance that humbly determines to walk a different path if presented like kind scenarios in the future. Whereas I could say more on this, I’d rather affirm that, from my perspective, ten years in ministry is not so much an accomplishment as a milestone that has and is producing a deeper conviction that I need much more humility, conformity (to Jesus’ example), and trust as I follow the Master as a disciple.
Prayer is an expression of trust. As I consider my own expression, I find that in my predisposed self-reliance and blind spots to my real need, I don’t pray as much as I need. Prayer also strengthens trust, and in that place, God gives deeper revelation of what’s real to bolster this dependence. My start in ministry started in a place of learning to pray (and it continues). I jumped into the deep end of hours set aside to pray and worship and study the Scriptures, with only little capacity for these things; quickly learning the reality of my unfamiliarity with God. Many prayers and Scriptures were offered up for things that I barely, or at best, minimally understood. By saying this, I don’t want to communicate that I see it as a waste. Through the process of emptying ourselves and trusting Him, motivations are exposed and acknowledged, clarity develops, and humble dependence begins to bear fruit. One of the prayers I have consistently prayed over the years has been Ephesians 1:17-19: “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might.” This apostolic prayer, set within the framework of petition for a particular group within a community in Ephesus, had become a staple petition I brought before God for my own life. Though the content of the phrases have been applied to a host of things in my life, I am now realizing that the actual context of what the apostle prayed for has begun to, in small and various ways, be answered in my life over these past years.
Having much arrogance in my heart, and growing up in one of the most narcissistic cultures on earth, I’ve naturally read and interpreted the epistles firstly, particularly, and directly applying to me. Every “we,” “us,” “you,” and “our” (except the most outright negative statements, of course) was quickly transported into my 21st century life with little regard for the people, context, or broader story that the Bible is communicating. This over universalization of the Scriptures, though often masked with good intention towards relevancy, does little to honor them. On another note, it can become dangerous, as the very content we appeal to for instruction regarding life and trust in God, can be extracted from the larger narrative of what God is doing, and thus often arrive at very different conclusions about Him and His plan than what is actually set forth in the sacred texts.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he addresses two different ethnic groups of people, dancing back and forth between them in unfolding its content. From the outset, the groups are identified as 1) the “saints” and 2) the faithful in Christ Jesus. The contextual anchor for the saints, or “holy ones,” has its moorings in its usage in the OT, especially Daniel, as “the holy people;” a reference to the righteous remnant of Israel. Though arguments could be marshaled for the ethnic inclusion of Gentiles in this title in some other epistles of the NT, the exchange in Ephesians makes its historical and Jewish connection abundantly clear. From verse 3 in chapter 1 we see Paul begins a benediction, in the form and style of other Jewish blessings, toward God regarding all His relations to “us.” This section of Jewish style blessing (1:3-11) has an ethnically Jewish group as its object. The “we” and “us” in this section of the chapter is Paul speaking to and on behalf of other ethnically Jewish followers of Jesus about the great blessings in Messiah (the righteous remnant of Israel, or “saints”). The section is filled with language and ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the national election of Israel, allusion to the exodus, inheritance promised, etc. Furthermore, whether Paul and the chosen apostolic remnant leadership of Israel, or Jewish followers of Jesus in general, the chronological statement of “we who were the first to hope in the Messiah” (1:12) speaks of an ethnically Jewish group as well. In verse 13, there is a shift in the address to “you also,” speaking to an ethnically Gentile group of disciples of Jesus concerning their initial trust in the gospel and subsequent sealing of the Holy Spirit on the basis of faith. This sets the stage for the “you” who the prayer is addressed to in verses 15-19. Though it can be difficult to accept, Ephesians 1 follows the pattern addressed in Romans 1:16 – “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
Having heard of the Gentiles trust in the Messiah and the love they have for all their Jewish brothers and sisters in the faith (1:15), Paul records the content of his prayers for them. The first phrase is for a spirit of wisdom and a spirit of revelation in the knowledge of God (1:17). The background to this is found in the wisdom literature of the OT, particularly in the book of Proverbs 1:20-33, where “wisdom” is shouting in the streets looking for someone to turn and accept her counsel. Those who turn to her will be given the “spirit” of wisdom (v. 22) and will choose the fear of the Lord in knowledge (v. 29). Another backdrop to this phrase in Ephesians is found in Isaiah 11, where the confirmed Spirit of the Lord rests on the Messiah: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Is 11:2)
What once characterized their condition as pagans in darkness, hardened hearts, and exclusion from the God of Israel (Eph. 2:12; 4:18; 5:8) now has been illumined by the knowledge of God through the gospel and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul prays this light would increase in their hearts as God gives the spirit of wisdom and revelation to them. All of this is unto, or “so that” these Gentile disciples would know three things. The first is that they would know the hope of His calling (1:18). This is referring to God’s calling, specifically of the nation of Israel through His covenant with them; the calling that is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). The next phrase is related to Gentiles knowing the riches of the glory of God’s inheritance in the saints. As the Scriptures say: ‘Yet they are Your people, even Your inheritance, whom You have brought out by Your great power and Your outstretched arm.’ (Dt 9:29) and “For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.” (Dt 32:9) and “The portion of Jacob is not like these; For the Maker of all is He, And Israel is the tribe of His inheritance; The Lord of hosts is His name.” (Je 10:16). What does it mean that God has chosen a people as His own inheritance? What are the implications of such things? The glorious riches of God receiving the fullness of His inheritance in His people will be “but life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15) for the whole earth through the faithful fulfillment of the covenants He’s enacted. Finally, Paul petitions that they would know the surpassing greatness of God’s power toward those who keep on trusting in Him; in particular here, the righteous Jewish remnant. The same power through the Spirit evinced in the resurrection of Jesus as the definitive confirmation of the promises of God is at work in this remnant that has faith, which will lead to their resurrection (as well as Gentiles) at the Day of the Lord. Paul sees this prayer as necessary for the well being of the community at Ephesus. The opposite of this wisdom and revelation that is granted in context to the fear of the Lord is the folly that comes along with arrogance and conceit in ignorance of God’s purposes related to His people (Rom. 11:18, 20, 25). The gravity of man’s innate prideful persuasions carry dreadful consequences (Rom. 11:19-22), nevertheless God’s purposes will surely be accomplished “just as it is written” (Rom. 11:26).
The crux of Paul’s continued prayers for the Gentiles in the community of Ephesus has to do with them rightly, in the fear of the Lord, seeing and understanding God’s purposes in choosing the nation of Israel and His continued commitment through covenant with them. In so doing, Gentiles can accurately see themselves in the larger story and thus put their trust in God through Jesus; because all of God’s demonstration of faithfulness has to do in regard to Israel. This is the way He has orchestrated that redemption and blessing would come to the whole earth (Gen. 12:1-3). This is the outcome Paul erupts with in light of the humble grounding that takes place when God’s purposes are truly understood in fear, kindness, mercy, and knowledge: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Ro 11:33). It seems here in Ephesus, as well as in Rome, Paul has a concern for those “taken from among the Gentiles a people for His name” (Acts 15:14) to see and trust God in His faithfulness to His covenant promises and rejoice in His mercy (Rom. 15:8). Ephesians continues on, often selectively addressing “we” Jewish or “you” Gentile disciples (as seen especially in chapters 2-3) as Paul communicates his letter.
In light of the content of this prayer, I look back over the last 10 years and feel so amazed by how the Lord has taken my weak and uninformed petitions and directed them to bring forth fruit. My approach to the Scriptures has shifted dramatically over the past decade and I feel such an honor to have them, read from them, and help others, in the fear of the Lord, do the same. God has begun to help me understand His story, and in turn, see myself rightly in the midst of it. This has required a lot of repentance, humility, change of perspective and overall labor. Seeing slews of passages I’ve often (mis)interpreted selfishly in their correct framework creates an awkwardness that only humility can accept. In the outcome of this, truth can be discovered and reality conveyed; and authentic trust can be formed between the One who is always consistent and faithful to His word and my variable life.
This prayer has dramatically shifted our ministry over the years. Growing in the knowledge of God, clarity in the gospel, and deeper conviction of the faithfulness of the God of Israel, has led to a markedly increased boldness to give testimony of the message. Beginning to relate to the nature of God’s covenant with Israel has also produced a relation to the Jewish people as a priority because of it. Their God, covenants, promises, Scriptures, and Messiah has elicited a expanding gratitude for God’s mercy and a humble desire to give testimony to them, accompanied with a deep longing for their restoration. Carrying this covenant priority in our hearts, this has led us across the globe – to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia — to give witness of the gospel to both Jew and Gentile. Ten years ago, I would have never imagined going to some of the places we have gone the last several years. I really believe asking Him along the contours of this prayer in Ephesians, has brought us to where we are in serving in ministry today; and we pray, in His great mercy, it would continue to.
We go on praying this prayer for ourselves and for many other people in our lives. Please pray these things for us whenever we come to mind.