“Possessing our Possessions”

Ephesians 1:15-23

October 7, 2001

Text Comment

Verses 15-23 are, as vv. 3-14 before them, a single sentence.  It begins with Paul’s thanksgiving for these Christians to whom he is writing, his prayer for them in three parts, and, then, an elaboration of the last of the three petitions, the one regarding the power of God.

v.15     “For this reason,”  that is, the people to whom he is writing are partakers in the great blessings which he has just described in vv. 3-14.  But, of course, how does he know that if he does not know these folk personally.   Well, he has heard not only that they are believers in Christ, he has heard that their lives are demonstrations of the sincerity of their faith.  He mentions in particular that they have a reputation for loving other Christians.  At a number of points in the NT that is an important demonstration of true faith in Christ:  it produces a love for the brethren.  As John says in his first letter, no one is a child of God who does not love his brother.  Faith and works always go together and they did in the Ephesians’ case.  And, it is always a good test for us as well.  Can you say that you love your Christian brothers and sisters?  I don’t mean that you love them perfectly and constantly; of course not.  But do you love them?  Can you say that you would rather be with them and spend time in the company of the saints than in the company of the great and powerful and the interesting who are not Christians?  The Devil has no answer for this.  It is the proof that the Holy Spirit is in you, for he produces in your heart the recognition of that common bond you have with other believers.  “Birds of a feather flock together.”  Is that true in your case?  We are ready to forgive things in people who are related to us that we wouldn’t in other people because they belong to our family, we share a bond and a common interest with them.  Is this the way you feel about other Christians?  [Lloyd Jones, I, 322-323]  It was the way the Ephesians believers felt about one another and other believers.  And that fact gave Paul confidence that these people were Christians in fact and not just in name.

v.17     Paul returns to the solidarity of these believers with “all the saints” in 3:18 and 6:18.

            Both “wisdom” and “revelation” reappear later in the letter.  What the Spirit gives is what the believers need.

v.18     Verse 17 concludes, literally, “should give to you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him – that is, of God the Father – and then, continues, without a break, “the eyes of your heart being enlightened…”  In other words, all that follows, all this enlightenment, has to do with our knowledge of God, especially, God the Father.

            “Hope” in the NT is a stronger word than is the word in our usage.  It does not mean a fond wish for better things but a certainty based upon God’s Word and Christ’s finished work.

            “The riches of his glorious inheritance” is more difficult.  It would be easy to think that Paul is still referring to the Christian’s future, their inheritance in heaven.  But it is not their inheritance that he mentions, but God’s inheritance in the saints.  Taking Paul’s language elsewhere also into consideration, it seems that Paul means that by the Spirit these saints would come more and more to appreciate the wonder and glory of God’s having called them to be his people and to place them among the community of the saints.  [Lincoln, WBC, 59-60]

v.21     That is how far Christ was raised up.  Think of him once seemingly at the mercy of Pontius Pilate and think of him now as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The spiritual forces of darkness also reappear later in the letter (3:10; 6:12).  That these are references to evil spirits is clear from the use of these same terms elsewhere in Paul.  Compare, for example, 1 Cor. 15:24-25.  As with vv. 3-14, so with vv. 15-23, concepts are being introduced that Paul will take up later in the letter.

v.23     This compact definition of the church and its relationship to Christ will also reappear later as it does in different forms elsewhere in Paul’s letters.  Both Christ as head and the church as his body are ideas to which Paul will return.

We are beginning to see how fundamentally Trinitarian Paul’s thought is.   Just as in the previous paragraph, so here, each of the three persons of the Triune God makes his appearance.  Paul mentions these folk’s faith in Jesus Christ in v. 15.   He prays to the Father in v. 17 that he would give these brethren the Holy Spirit.  The result of the Spirit’s work would be that these people would know still better the power of God the Father, such power as was demonstrated when he raised Jesus from the dead, and when he placed his Son as head over everything for the church.  Mysterious as all of this is, Paul has no doubt that the Christian life is not only the gift of the Three Persons working in collaboration, but that we Christians ourselves must know and have communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Now, the general drift of this section is clear.  Paul wants to see these believers grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord and in the fruitfulness of their living for God.   In the language familiar to our Reformed theological tradition, he is after their sanctification.  But the way he puts this is very interesting and important.

He prays that the Father would give them the Holy Spirit – not that they do not already have the Holy Spirit; he has said that they do in v. 13; he means a fuller measure of the Spirit’s control, a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s influence.  He wants the Holy Spirit, if you will, more and more to cast his spell over their hearts and lives.  And the way the Spirit will do that, Paul says, is by illumination, by the opening of the eyes of the heart and soul.  And what will that do?  Well, in the first place, they will see more clearly what God has in store for them – that is, their Hope –, in the second place, they will more and more appreciate the wonderful thing it is to be a part of the people of God, the saints, and, in the third place, their conviction of God’s mighty power, a power that is for us, a power that assures and secures and inspires and nerves and steels Christians who know that it is always at work for them and that they can avail themselves of it.

In other words, Paul hopes that, by the Spirit’s work in them, the truth that has already been revealed, the doctrine they already know, of God the Father, of Christ the Savior, and of the Holy Spirit, would gain such a mastery of their thinking and feeling that more and more they would live as they believed, they would live their doctrine, they would be in daily action what they know themselves to be in the salvation of God.  Christians are soon to be in heaven; they have been enrolled among the people of the living God himself, among his holy ones; and they stand under and are guarded by and provided for by the Almighty’s infinite power.  Well, then, says Paul, when that truth more fully captures their hearts, as only the Holy Spirit can make happen, they will live in abounding joy, in perpetual thanksgiving, and in confident effectiveness. 

We still sometimes hear, and more often observe, Christian people minimizing the importance of knowing doctrine, of mastering biblical teaching, because, so they think, the knowledge of the head interferes with the devotion of the heart.  Well, that was certainly not Paul’s view.  He thought that the Holy Spirit could do nothing better for us than to impress upon our hearts the various truths concerning God and our salvation.  He prays for the Holy Spirit on their behalf that they might know things, know them with a powerful conviction.  He says it twice, first in v. 17 and then again in v. 18:  that you may know…  Again and again this emphasis surfaces in the New Testament.  Paul elsewhere says that the transformation of a Christian’s life proceeds from the renewing of his or her mind!  That is what Paul is praying for here:  more renewal of the mind.  Or, as Peter puts it in 2 Peter 3:1:  he is writing to those Christians “to stimulate [them] to wholesome thinking.”  He knows that if he can get them thinking correctly, the loving and the living will come apace.  The Scripture strikes for the heart, to be sure, but it always strikes for the heart first through the mind!  “First light, then heat,” was Richard Baxter’s Puritan maxim.  [In Packer, Quest for Godliness, 69]

The Scripture writers and the great masters of the Christian life since all say the same thing that Paul is saying here in his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus:  if only the eyes of your understanding might be opened still further, then look out!  Truth is powerful.  Truth sets people free, Jesus said.  And, later, he said that truth also sanctifies his people, it makes them more holy, more fruitful, more effective.  Of course the connection between that truth and its practical application in life, its inspiring and purifying power, was not left to chance.  Paul will spell out that connection between truth and life in the chapters to come.

The old writers used to say that the mature and holy Christian life had three dimensions or spheres:  doctrine, or the knowledge of the truth about God, man, sin, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the Christian life; experience or the life transforming force of the truth in the heart, producing sorrow for sin, hunger and thirst for righteousness, love for God, joy, and peace; and practice or the obedience of life, the keeping of the commandments of God, serving him, the body of Christ, and the gospel in one’s daily life.  As Rabbi Duncan once pithily put it:

            “…if you preach doctrine and experience and practice, by the

            blessing of God, you will have head and heart, and hands and feet

a perfect man in Christ Jesus.”  [Colloquia Peripatetica, 1907 ed., 167]

Well, that was Paul’s doctrine.  We get all three dimensions or spheres of Christian life in Paul all the time.  But it all begins and it grows with the knowledge of the truth.

And both that knowledge and the increase of its force in the mind and heart are the work of the Holy Spirit.  He is, as the Puritan, Thomas Goodwin described him, “the public secretary of heaven.”  [In Packer, Quest, 100]  He went on in his quaint Puritan way, “he only hid the treasures of knowledge…and he only knows where they lie; what an advantage is it then by prayer to unlock God’s breast, obtain the key of knowledge that unlocks God’s study, and can direct [us] to all his notes and his papers!”  And that is precisely Paul’s mind here.  He is asking for the ministry of the Holy Spirit in their hearts to increase their knowledge, that true knowledge that is not only an intellectual understanding but an engagement of the heart.

Very clearly here it is not new or secret knowledge that must somehow be discovered.  It is a deeper knowledge of what these Christians already have been taught:  knowledge of heaven and the world to come; knowledge of the riches of the grace of God that has made them saints and members of God’s household, and knowledge of the limitless power of God.  These are not things that would come as brand new discoveries to these Christians.  They had heard of these truths since they were introduced to Christianity and they had been taught these same things again and again as they became Christians and grew in Christian maturity.  But Paul wants them to know them still better and to feel the force of these truths still more powerfully in their hearts and then to live them out more and more consistently in their lives.  That is why he is praying that the Holy Spirit might enlighten the eyes of their hearts.  There are many things for you to learn, things you will profit from knowing, but you do not need to know anything more than you already know to live a far nobler Christian life than you are now living; only that knowledge must burn in your heart. 

Now, let me put it to you directly.  Is there anyone here who cannot see how he or she could and should go on in the life of a Christian:  in devotion to God, in purity of heart, in love, in humility, in obedience, in service?  Surely, you know that there are many ways in which you could and should grow as a Christian, in which you should go up higher and down deeper as a follower and a servant and a lover of Jesus Christ.

Well, then, ask yourself this question:  is it not obvious that being enlightened in your heart in these three ways – the magnificence of heaven and how surely and how soon you will be there; the greatness of that gift of Christ’s righteousness that has made you one of God’s own saints, sinner that you are; and the infinity of God’s power that is for you in this world – I say, is it not obvious that the force of these truths would lead you on to deeper, higher, and greater things as a Christian?  Were the Holy Spirit to make your heart sing with the conviction of these things, would it not transform your daily life in many important ways:  in joy, in love, in humility, in determination to obey and serve, and in every other good way?  Of course it would!

Think, for example, of “the hope to which he has called us” as Paul puts it in v. 18.  Perhaps you have, as I have, from time to time, felt, if only for a short time, a thrill pass through you at the thought of the day, the moment, when you will first find yourself in heaven and will open your eyes on the indescribable wonders of that place:  the glory of God and your first sight of Jesus Christ himself, the city that has foundations, the tree of life, the company of the first born with their white robes and their smiling faces – to know that you are finally there!  What a moment that will be, that must be!  What an indescribable joy will seize our hearts!

But, what if we, much more than we now do, carried that sense of anticipation around with us day by day?

Samuel Rutherford wrote to one of his correspondents:

“Madam. Tire not, weary not; … when ye are got up thither, and have cast your eyes to view the golden city, and the fair and never-withering Tree of Life, that beareth twelve manner of fruits every month, ye shall then say, ‘Four-and-twenty hours’ abode in this place is worth threescore and ten years’ sorrow upon earth.’”  [Letter XIX, p. 68]

But only a strong faith knows that and believes that and is convinced of that so strongly that the prospect gladdens and strengthens life already here in this world.  And only the Holy Spirit can so strengthen our faith.

Think of the great heroes of faith whose names are enrolled in Hebrews 11.  There we are told that these men and women endured as they did, their faith remained as sturdy as it did, through many severe trials, precisely because of the strength of their hope in the world to come.  Well, when you feel that the fight is too much for you, that all is against you; when you are complaining of all that is happening to you, can you not immediately recognize that nothing would lift you up so surely and so powerfully, nothing so encourage you and nerve you to face what you must face, than simply the sight in your soul of the world to come where Christ, the angels, and the redeemed will live together forever?  And is that not precisely what Paul means when he speaks of the Holy Spirit enlightening the eyes of your heart in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you?  He means giving you a spiritual sight of the glory of heaven, of giving power and force to that prospect in your mind and soul.

An unbeliever can gain no strength in this way.  It is one of the great differences between believers and unbelievers and one of the ways to test whether you are a Christian.  Can you look at heaven, as the Bible teaches heaven to be, and find there the fulfillment of everything you are and desire.  Do you long to be there?  Can you see yourself in ecstasy there?  The unbeliever can’t.  Somerset Maugham, the English writer, expressed the unbelieving mind perfectly when he said of that perfect world, “It is apt to be dull.”  But a Christian knows and feels that it is going to be wonderful, beautiful, beyond the power of words to describe.

And so with the power of God, the last of the three doctrines or truths, the one which Paul spends most of space celebrating, that in vv. 19-23.  You see the drift of his argument.  If God can raise the dead, as he raised Christ Jesus, what can he do in your life and mine, or, better, what can’t he do, what can’t he accomplish?  We so easily give up as if progress were impossible.  How wrong that is when God is our heavenly father and his power is infinite.

Why, as Paul goes on, that divine power is so great that all the other great powers in this universe, the mighty powers of evil, the Devil and his minions, are a drop in the bucket before the living God.  Verse 21 ends with a rhetorical flourish designed to remind us that there is no power that is not under God’s control, no power that should discourage us, no conceivable reason why Christians should ever imagine that they are subject to the power or the authority of someone other than their heavenly Father.  And, if that were not enough, verse 22 heaps on still further emphasis:  Jesus Christ is over all.

But, we all know that it is one thing to know that, and another thing to believe it so confidently, to be so sure of it, to feel the force of that truth so powerfully in our soul, that we venture out on it, that we undertake in the confidence that God’s power is beneath and behind and above us.  I know it is so with me.  I find myself so easily living, so thoughtlessly living, as if it were my power that would tell the tale, my power that I had to rely on either to kill my sins or to serve the Lord or to bear up under trials or to love others.  And why do we forget the terrible and wonderful power that is all around us and is always for us, as Paul says?  Because the eyes of our hearts have grown dull and sleepy.  They are not wide open and sharp-sighted as they need to be.  They do not survey the spiritual world and, with sharp focus, see reality as it is.  There is a mist or a fog in our hearts that renders the truth indistinct, a shadow.  We need the fog to be dissipated and the sunshine to make everything bright and clear.

And what is the antidote to that?  Well, says Paul, “I am praying that the Holy Spirit would enlighten the eyes of your heart so that you might know, really know, powerfully know these great truths.  Truths you are already aware of, truths you believe, but truths you need still to know better and to feel the force of more powerfully.

Remember, do what you pray!  Read the Word of God, where the knowledge of the truth may be found.  But, when you read, do not depend upon your own wisdom or the power of your own mind.  No, pray the Holy Spirit to be your teacher, pray that he will not only explain the truth to you but expound it to you and lead you into it and inscribe it on your heart.  Pray for this enlightenment, this illumination of the eyes of your heart every day.  Paul thought it what these believers there needed.  Is there a believer here today who does not think that it is what he or she needs before anything else?  Can you see him in your mind’s eye, there in Rome, under house arrest, on his knees praying for these believers!  Seeing him doing that, do you not know you must, you must pray as he did? 

There is a verse in a poem by Andrew Bonar that reads:

Be what thou seemest; live thy creed.

            Hold up to earth the torch divine.

            Be what thou prayest to be made;

            Let the great Master’s steps be thine.

Be what thou seemest; live thy creed!  There is the idea.  Possess your possessions.  Live out the truth that has been revealed to you.  Put it to work in your daily life, your love, your service, your godliness.  You don’t need to know something else, you just need to know, really to know, to see with your heart and mind’s eye what you already know and believe as a Christian.  That sounds simple.  Practiced Christians know it is not.  That is why the ministry, the illuminating, enlightening ministry of the Holy Spirit is everything to Christian growth, holiness, fruitfulness, and prosperity.  Paul prayed for that for others.  We hear him and obey him when we pray earnestly for that same ministry of the Holy Spirit for ourselves and for others.