The Christian Mind, Ephesians 3:14-21

“The Christian Mind”

Ephesians 3:14-21

November 25, 2001

Text Comment

In vv. 14-19 Paul gives, in different words, an account of that same prayer for these Christians that he described himself as praying in chapter 1, vv. 17-19.  All the material in between these two prayers is a description of the wonderful things of God and salvation that he prays they might come more and more to appreciate.  The two prayers are bookends for his first section of Ephesians, in which Paul describes our great salvation and the wonder of it. In the prayers themselves, Paul asks God to enable these Christian believers to grow in their appreciation of God’s love and his great salvation, to deepen their experience of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to make it more complete, more powerful and life-transforming. 

You will notice again here, as throughout the first three chapters, how Trinitarian Paul’s thought is.  You have Father, Son, and Spirit intertwined, each relating to the believer in a harmony of grace and love.  The Father, out of his love, grants us the Spirit, by whom we come to know Christ better.

v.14     “For this reason” picks up the interrupted thought of v. 1.

v.15     Remember, in v. 6 Paul has spoken of Jews and Gentiles, by faith in Christ, forming one body.  At the end of chapter 2 he has spoken of them together now in one household.  In that household, God is father.  Whether, by “heaven and earth” Paul is speaking of both angels and men or believers already in glory and believers now living in the world is the question.  Perhaps more likely is the latter:  the saints above and the saints below are what he means by “heaven and earth.”  Perhaps you remember Wordsworth’s poem about the little girl, one of seven children in her family though two of the children had died.  The little girl continued to maintain that her family had seven children.  The poem ends this way:

                        “How many are you then?” said I,

                        “If they two are in heaven?”

                        Quick was the little maid’s reply,

                        “O master, we are seven.”

                        “But they are dead; those two are dead!

                        Their spirits are in heaven!”

                        ‘Twas throwing words away; for still

                        The little maid would have her will,

                        And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

                        [Cited in Hendriksen, Eph, 169]

v.16     The Holy Spirit is here portrayed as the active agent of our sanctification, the one whose influence within us leads us deeper and higher in godliness and the experience of the presence of the Lord.

v.17     It is a great mystery, but here as elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is said to dwell in us by his Holy Spirit.  Christ and his presence are known to us in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  Now, he is going to put in other words, what it means to know more and more of Christ dwelling in our hearts by his Spirit.

v.19     Who really knows what that means:  “to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God?”  It means coming to know more and more of God’s glory, it means to be transformed in the presence of that glory, it means to be transfixed by it.  Remember how Dante’s Paradiso ends, when the poet, finally ascended to the highest heaven, beholds the glory of God?

                        O Light Supreme, that art so far exalted

                        Above our mortal ken!  Lend to my mind

                        A little part of what Thou didst appear,

                        And grant sufficient power unto my tongue

                        That it may leave for races yet unborn,

                        A single spark of Thy almighty flame!

                        For in the presence of those radiant beams

                        One is so changed, that ‘tis impossible

                        To turn from it to any other sight –

                        How powerless is speech – how weak, compared

                        To my conception, which itself is trifling

                        Beside the mighty vision that I saw!

            Paul says in 2 Corinthians that as we behold the glory of God, we are being transformed from glory to glory.  That is the idea here.  The more we know of God, the more we experience his presence, the more we see his holiness and splendor and measure aright his love and grace, the holier and more loving – the more Godlike – we must become.  That is the principle that John articulates in his first letter, you remember, when he says that, when we die and go to heaven, we will become like the Lord Jesus because we will  see him as he is!  And in this world, in the meantime, we become more and more like God the more and more we see him as he is.

v.21     Paul’s prayer for more of the knowledge of God and his love and glory leads him into a doxology.  God has poured out upon us, so much love, so much forgiveness, so much hope – all the things he has been talking about over the past three chapters – that he cannot help but give glory to God for it all.  He knows we don’t really understand how much God has done and will do, it is far beyond out capacity to measure.

Two things to note:  first, the “throughout all generations.”  That includes us, brothers and sisters!  All of this is as true for our generation as for preceding generations.  And remember this as well: when Paul wrote these exuberant words, when he found himself so carried away, he was in prison!  The blessings that we have in God and Christ by the Holy Spirit are such that they transcend all the troubles of life.  Not always subjectively, of course.  Don’t get me wrong.  We feel our troubles and ought to.  Our Savior did.  But, even in the midst of the deepest troubles, the believer knows that in Christ his troubles are nothing compared to his or her knowledge of God’s glory and the happiness and fullness of life that has come and will come forever because of God’s love.  And, sometimes, even in times of great trouble, believers actually feel the ecstasy of this knowledge of God and his glory and, when they do, the world and all its troubles recede.

Edward Payson, the saintly Presbyterian pastor of the early 19th century, whose works are still in print today, was asked on his death-bed:  “Do you feel reconciled?”  “Oh,” he said, “that is too cold.  I rejoice!  I triumph!  And this happiness will endure as long as God himself, for it consists in admiring and adoring Him.  I can find no words to express my happiness.  I seem to be swimming in a river of pleasure which is carrying me on to the great Fountain.”  [Cited in Lloyd-Jones, Romans 8:5-17, 350]  Paul had a moment like that as he sat in prison concluding this prayer to know more of the glory of God!

Paul here prays that Christian people might have minds taken up with the love, the power, and the glory of God.  No matter where they are or what they are doing, no matter whether they are enjoying prosperity or suffering adversity, Paul prays that they might be lifted up in the experience, the inward realization of God’s presence with them, of the Father’s love for them and Christ’s love for them, and of the Spirit’s power being exercised on their behalf to bring to them the knowledge of the unseen world and to keep them on that straight and narrow way that leads to the world of infinite and eternal joy.  That mind, filled with the glory of God, is the true inheritance of those who believe in Jesus Christ.

I recently read a review of a new book on the Christian faith and spiritual life of the soldiers of the American Civil War.  Those of you who remember the celebrated television documentary on the Civil War produced by Ken Burns remember how often Burns quoted from letters written by both Union and Confederate soldiers.  But the author of this new study, a professor at Texas Christian University, complains that Burns regularly omitted the expressions of Christian faith with which those letters are chock full.  One soldier cited in this new book was badly wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness, one of the most brutal battles of the war, and was left on the field among the dead and dying when his army withdrew.  He lay on the ground through that night seemingly on the brink of death.  Then, he says, he saw a star in the sky, which caused him to ask, “Who made the stars?”  And he answered his own question, “My Father, which art in heaven, made the stars, and I know Him as my Father.”  He goes on, 

“Then I thought of the suffering of Christ and how he said, ‘In me ye shall have peace but in the world ye shall have tribulation.  But fear not for I have overcome the world.’  The Christ himself was not exempt from tribulation.  He bore his suffering with the fortitude of faith because it was the divine plan of God.  As God’s child also I must bear what comes by the divine plan with the fortitude of faith, knowing that the very hairs of our heads are numbered and we are of the greatest value in the sight of our Heavenly Father.”  [Review of Steven Woodworth’s, While God is Marching On:  The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers, cited in First Things (December 2001, No. 118) 50]

Here was a young man who lay in pain and alone on a battlefield.  So far as he knew, he was dying.  It was dark.  He lay unable to move amidst the dead and listened to the groans of the dying.  And suddenly his mind was in heaven and his heart was with God and the knowledge of God’s love for him and care for him filled his inner being and made that bloody ground the brightly lit sanctuary of the Most High.  No doubt he prayed for life and the Lord answered his prayer and he lived to write about his experiences afterward, surviving the war.  But, it was that moment, at night on the battlefield, in which he experienced precisely what Paul prayed that every generation of Christians would experience more and more throughout their lives:  a living sense, an overpowering sense of how immeasurably wonderful God is and what a breathtaking privilege it is to know him.  And that experience, as no other experience can, lifted him up right off that bloody ground and set him in the heavenly places with Jesus Christ.

Oh, says Paul, if only you felt that and knew that more and more and lived every day in the active knowledge of that.  If only you felt the love of God and of Christ being shed abroad in your hearts every day and were conscious of the working of the Holy Spirit in your inner being every day.  If you are a Christian, that divine love is upon you every day; the Spirit is at work in your inner being every day.  If only more and more you would realize it and feel it and reckon with the wonder of it.  And if only we might grow in this realization and so in faith and so realize more and more of God’s love and power in our hearts and then in our daily living.

Paul knows full well that a believer’s life is not always overwhelmed by the ecstasy that overtakes the soul when it sees the glory of God and feels the love of Christ.  He had suffered through dark days.  He struggled with disappointments – both his own failings and the failings of others – he had his thorn in the flesh, his rift with Barnabas, the attacks that jealous churchmen made against him, his betrayal by erstwhile friends, his discouragement with spiritual children who had seemed to start so well and then went back to the world.  He has suffered beatings and imprisonment – once he languished two long years in a Caesarean jail! – and he was in prison as he wrote this letter.  But, again and again, as with the beam of a powerful light, his heart would be flooded with the glory of God, with the impossibly wonderful realization that the Maker of heaven and earth loved him, of all people, that Christ, the Son of God was with him by the Holy Spirit, and that soon, very soon, he would be with God in paradise.  All of this wonder was like a sweet ache in his soul – longings and thrills mixed together – that made him forget everything else.  As Tertullian was later to put it, “The legs feel nothing in the stocks, when the heart is in heaven.”  [To the Martyrs, 2]

Now, to be sure, this is a prayer.  And being a prayer, we are certainly taught that only God can grant the soul the sight of Himself, only God can warm the heart to feel the love of Christ, only God can awaken the heart to the presence of the Holy Spirit.  These graces we must pray for as Paul prayed for them on our behalf.

But there is something for us to do here.  There is a way for us to put hands and feet to our prayer.  There is a way for us to strive to become what we are praying to be made.  See that “through faith” in v. 17.  Christ dwells in our hearts through faith.  Faith is what we do, faith is our responsibility.  Faith is our taking God and Christ at their word and making a definite point both actively to consider this truth, to take it to heart, and then to practice it in our lives. 

And, then, see how v. 18 reads.  Paul prays that we may be given power or that we may be empowered “to grasp”…the full extent of the love of Christ.  God must empower us, but he does in order that we might do something.  He empowers so that we might grasp, might comprehend, might perceive.”  In the Bible, grasping, comprehending, and perceiving are both the gift of God and the responsibility of men and women.  It is the same with the knowledge of the Lord and his love in the next verse.  That knowledge can be considered both as the gift of God and our responsibility.  “Be still, and know that I am God…” we are commanded in the Bible.  And, in another place, thinking very similar thoughts to those here, Paul says that he wants to know Christ better, and to know his power better, and so he presses on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of him.  And so, he goes on, he strains forward, presses on toward that goal.  There is always this two-sided approach, always this interplay of divine and human in the Bible’s teaching of Christian experience and the Christian life.  “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” Paul says in one place, “for it is God who is in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.”

Well so here.  That for which we pray, for which Paul prayed for us, is also that for which we should press on, strain forward.  And how does one do that?  By exercising his or her faith.  And how is that done?  By setting our minds and hearts upon the truth that has been revealed to us.  By laying hold of that truth about God’s love and Christ’s presence and the Spirit’s working and setting our hearts to reckon with all the truth about the glory of God.

I know that I need to do this so much more than I do.  I know that the saints who have lived in the joy of the Lord have always done this.  I know very well and you do to that we must not pray for what we are unwilling to seek.  If we pray to know better the love and power of God, then we must strive to know better the love and power of God.  To study it, to contemplate it, to memorize it, to fix it in our hearts, to apply it to our lives, until its truth is the warp and woof of our inner being.  That is a large part of what Paul means in Galatians 5 when he commands us to “keep in step with the Spirit.”  The Spirit works to make God and Christ great to us.  We must work to the same end.  And we have to work, because by nature we make ourselves great and God small.  We all do, all the time!

When you want to know something, when you need to know something, you study it, you work it over in your mind until you are familiar with it and, finally you have mastered it.  You practice it until you know how it works, what it means in the real world.  You do this with a computer program, a football player does it with his playbook, an actor with his script, a musician with his score, a student with his text, a businessman with his products and his marketing plan.  You get so that all of this is second nature to you, it rests in permanent solution in your mind.  It is always there, living in your thoughts.  We are sometimes amazed at how completely certain people have mastered certain ideas or certain techniques or certain material.  They know it inside and out.

Well that is what a Christian does and what a Christian must do who wants to and is praying to know God better, to grasp the greatness of God’s love, to appreciate more completely the experience of God and the glory of God.  “Be still and know that I am God.”

These verses we have read are a summons to meditation.  If we pray to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, then we should ponder that width and length and height and depth.  In the great 48th psalm we read the sons of Korah say, “In your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.”  How you and I ought to rebuke ourselves for our chronic failure to think, to ponder, to mull over, to reflect upon these extraordinary things that have been revealed to us.  From our foundations upwards we have been made to think, you and I, and yet we do so little serious, hard thinking about those things most important to think about.

St. Teresa, gives some very wise advice.  She tells us to “think much, meditate much on the terrible hurt that your mind has received from the fall.”  And, certainly, anyone of us who thinks honestly and carefully about how we exercise our minds, the thoughts we indulge, how hard it is for us to set our thinking upon truly noble and pure and divine things and keep them there, upon God himself especially and his love, I say anyone who thinks honestly about that will have no doubt about the disaster that has befallen our minds in the fall.  We love to think about what is useless and what is perverse and what is small, and we are averse to thinking about the God whose glory and love will happily preoccupy our minds forever, once we are rid of our sin.

We read Paul in these few verses, the urgency but as well the enthusiasm, the thrill he feels in his knowledge of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we know, every Christian knows, that if we thought long and hard about God, his grace and love, his glory and power, if we pondered our salvation, we might never get to the bottom of these things, but, like Paul, we would grow in happy amazement the longer we tried.

When we hear Samuel Rutherford say, “When I look to my guiltiness, I see that my salvation is one of our Saviour’s greatest miracles, either in heaven or earth.  I am sure I may defy any man to show me a greater wonder,” we know both that Rutherford is speaking the clearest and purest truth and that he didn’t come to feel that way about his sin and about his Savior without deliberate thought and meditation.  That is not a flippant, a casual comment.  And, in Rutherford’s case, it isn’t an isolated comment; he was always talking that way. We don’t make such comments nearly as often as we know we should, either to ourselves or to others.  It doesn’t occur to us often enough to speak in that way and we haven’t the passion that makes us uncaring about who hears us say such things.  But is there a Christian who does not want to feel so strongly about his own salvation and about the wonder of it that he is always saying something extravagant about the glory of God?

Augustine, once reflecting on the Lord’s reply to Moses, remember, when God said to Moses in answer to the great man’s request to see his glory, “You cannot see my face and live,” well, Augustine said, “Then Lord! Let me die, that I may see your face.”  [Cited in Brooks, Works, i, 281]  Men and women do not say such things, not say them and mean them, without having come to understand through the labor of hard thought and faithful meditation something of the real glory that lies behind such words as Paul has used in these verses we have read.  But, don’t you want to think and feel as Augustine did.  Don’t you want to feel yourself so powerfully drawn to the glory of God?  Don’t you want to feel an actual hunger and thirst for that glory, an ache in your soul for the sight of that glory?

David was such a man whose heart often soared with a sense of the love and glory of God.  Remember what he said to the Lord:  “your love is better than life.”  And how was it that he came to feel so strongly and so constantly about the width and length and height and depth of the love of God?  Well perhaps it was because he could also say to the Lord, “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.”  [Ps 63:6]  He pondered the works and the nature of God and came, as a result, to feel that the love of God was the greatest thing in all the world.

We cannot come away from Paul’s great prayer here, knowing as we do how right this prayer is, how happy and how holy we would be to see it mightily answered in our own case, knowing as we do how much we ought to be filled with all the fullness of God, knowing what God has done for us and what he is to us and what an immeasurably great privilege it is to have Christ, the Son of God, dwell within us, without resolving to pray this prayer ourselves and, at the same time, without resolving to strive to know those very things we are praying for God to show us.  We are so inclined to think that we need to know other things, to see other things, to obtain other things.  But we read Paul here and we know for a certainty that we really don’t need anything, anything at all, besides an ever greater knowledge of the glory of God.

The great 19th century French Reformed Christian, Theodore Monod, has a poem in which he gives an account of the stages of his life.  In a way, each stage is judged by how much of Paul’s spirit here he had at that time.  He begins as he was as a non-Christian with no thought of the glory of God or the love of Christ.

                        O the bitter shame and sorrow,

                           That a time could ever be,

                        When I let the Saviour’s pity

                        Plead in vain, and proudly answered:

                           “All of self, and none of Thee!”

Next he recounts how even after he became a Christian there was still a time when he had not yet grasped how completely the believer gains by being filled with the fullness of God.

                        Yet He found me:  I beheld Him

                           Bleeding on the accursed tree,

                        Heard Him pray: “Forgive them, Father!”

                        And my wistful heart said faintly:

                           “Some of self, and some of Thee!”

But he continues –

                        Day by day, His tender mercy,

                           Healing, helping, full and free,

                        Sweet and strong, and ah! so patient,

                        Brought me lower, while I whispered:

                           “Less of self, and more of Thee!”

But, finally, he comes up to the same realization that animated Paul here at the end of Ephesians 3.

Higher than the highest Heaven,

                           Deeper than the deepest sea,

                        Lord, Thy love at last hath conquered;

                        Grant me now my supplication:

                           “None of self, and all of Thee!”