Knowing God (Ephesians 1:15–17)

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Doug Van Meter - 1 November 2015

Knowing God (Ephesians 1:15–17)

Ephesians Exposition

One commentator on Ephesians says of the prayer in vv. 15–23: “The only gifts desired for these converts were gifts of a spiritual order, meaning a better acquaintance with God Himself.” What more could you and I possibly need? Knowing God is what life—in fact, eternal life—is all about (John 17:3). It may take some difficulties to help us learn this lesson, but whatever it takes to grow in our knowledge of God is worth it.

From Series: "Ephesians Exposition"

This series comprises the sermons preached at BBC during an exposition of the book of Ephesians.

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“From praise to prayer” is a good title for this section. After a 203-word sentence, praising God for so great salvation (vv. 3–14), Paul now prays that these believers will share in his experience: the experience of knowing God; an experience that has produced this elongated praise.

For most of my life, I had read of the wonders of Paris and had yearned to visit there. By God’s grace, I had opportunity to visit Paris with my wife a few years ago. It was everything I had read, but experiencing it was so much better than reading about it. Some friends recently told me about their visit to Rome, and my appetite is now whet to visit there! It’s great to hear about it, but experience is so much better than word of mouth.

There is no higher knowledge than the knowledge of God. Paul’s desire was that these believers would know God. This is the overriding theme of this rich prayer.

Knowing God is the Christian’s—the church’s—purpose for existence.

Professor Salmond, in his commentary on Ephesians, says of this prayer, “The only gifts desired for these converts were gifts of a spiritual order, meaning a better acquaintance with God Himself.”1 When you think about it, what more could you and I possibly need? Knowing God is what life—in fact, eternal life—is all about (John 17:1–3). There is no higher knowledge than the knowledge of God. Ask Moses (Exodus 33) and Paul (Philippians 3).

And as Daniel teaches us, those who know God will be strong and do exploits (Daniel 11:32). This is seen in this prayer as well. We will organise our study under two major headings.

Prayerful Commendation

We are called in vv. 15–16 to encourage one another to know God: “Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers” (vv. 15–16).

Paul writes, “Therefore I also” or, “For this reason” (ESV).

Having praised God for His wonderful work of redemption, past, present and future, Paul is moved to pray that these believers will join him in appreciation of so great salvation. But first he gives a word of commendation and affirmation. Oh, how necessary this is for the community of faith!

Paul continues: “After I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, [I] do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers.” There are several things to notice about this.

First, Paul was not hesitant to commend these people as believers, nor was he hesitant to express appreciation for them—especially for their “faith” and “love.” Paul was keen to express affirmation. Even though the church had its problems, and even though it had a long way to grow, Paul affirms his gratefulness for the evidence of God’s grace in their lives. We can take an important lesson from this. As Austen helpfully comments, “Although the churches of which we are a part are all far from what we would like them to be, thanksgiving for what we are must not be forgotten.”2

Some time ago, I wrote an article called, “When Silence Screams.” The gist was that, all too often, Christians are guilty of failing to express appreciation for one another, and this silence often screams, “Rejection!” Whether intentional or not, we cause unnecessary and sometimes untold harm to those in the body of Christ when we fail to affirm or commend when we have cause and opportunity to do so.

The apostle understood better than perhaps anyone else (other than Jesus) that salvation is completely by the grace of God and that we are undeserving of this (vv. 3–14). At the same time, he was not averse to praise those who responded to Christ as God prescribed.

We can all learn an important lesson here. When we commend believers for their faith and obedience, we are ultimately giving more praise to God. So stop being so stingy with your speech. Be thoughtful, be considerate, be kind. Affirm!

Specifics

Paul had received word that these believers were continuing in their “faith in the Lord Jesus,” and one proof was their “love for all the saints.” In other words, Paul affirmed them as the real deal. It was this report that gave Paul encouragement that they indeed had a share in God’s redemption and that they would understand His praise for God (vv. 4–14).

There are two issues here that are true of everyone who has been blessed by the grace of God to know Him; two characteristics of those who are God’s portion.

First, those saved to know God are characterised by believing that Jesus is Lord. This is not merely a statement of Christ’s deity (many claim to believe this); rather, it indicates faithful submission to His lordship. “Lordship salvation” is the only kind that the Bible knows. Those who believe on Jesus as their Saviour at the same time believe on Him as their Master. They obey. This is why the Bible speaks of obedience to the faith (Romans 1:8; 16:26).

Second, those saved to know God are characterised by love of the church. In fact, the argument can be made that it is this “love of all the saints” that proves one’s “faith in the Lord Jesus” (see John 13:34–35). It has been well said that “it is impossible to be in Christ and not to find oneself drawn both to him in trust and to his people in love.”3 Indeed, “outgoing love is the evidence of genuine faith.”4

These believers loved “all the saints.” Whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, wealthy or poor, free or bondservants, they loved each other. And this was proof that they were God’s children.

It was the report of the presence of obedient faith and non-discriminatory love that caused Paul to be thankful for them. And he wanted them to know this. This is a strong statement, for he says that he does “not cease to give thanks” for them. Paul was constantly grateful to know that they were Christians. This was a remarkable statement when you consider that, at the time, he was under house arrest. The report of their Christ-centred faithful love for each other was a source of great joy to him in his time of trial. They were evidence of the reality of what he had just praised God for. The church was a source of persevering joy to Paul.

It should be as well for you and I.

Prayerful Commendation

But note that Paul says that this knowledge of their genuineness has moved him to pray for them, “making mention of you in my prayers.” As we are grateful for one another, we will be prayerful for one another. In fact, the reverse is true as well. As you are thoughtfully prayerful for others, you will soon find yourself grateful for God’s grace in their lives. So pray for one another!

This is quite significant in the light of the context. Paul has spent twelve verses praising God for His sovereign, predestined purpose. And rather than this leading to a fatalistic approach to life, it drives him to prayer. Praise of God and prayer to God are two sides of the same coin of worshipful dependence. As Boice says, “For Paul, the knowledge that God was working was an inducement to prayer, not an excuse for neglecting it. It was because God was at work that he could pray with confidence.”5 The sovereignty of God drives us to our knees. It drives us to deeper dependence. It drives us to hopeful because believing prayer.

Paul, it would seem, was constantly (“do not cease”) “remembering,” or mentioning by name, these believers before the throne of grace. This is very instructive. Paul certainly had his own challenges, yet he was concerned for others. In fact, it is likely that Paul was praying that his imprisonment would not be a source of discouragement to them. He wanted to assure them that God was at work and that this was a large part of his prayer for them, as we will see below.

Prayer for Comprehension

In vv. 17–23 wee see that Paul’s constant prayer for this church (or churches, if this was a circular letter) was not a vague, please-bless-them kind of prayer, but was specific. It was focused. Paul constantly prayed that these believers would know God. He desires for them to know God experientially. This can be seen in three major areas, though for our purposes in this study, we will only consider the first and introduce the second. We will pick this up in our next study.

Knowing God is Our Purpose

Paul constantly made mention of these believers in his prayers “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (v. 17).

He wanted them to know more of God’s person—experientially, not merely expositionally.

Doctrine is essential for a healthy Christian life and for a healthy local church. Without this foundation, our knowledge of God will suffer. In fact, Paul will make this point quite clearly in chapter 4. But doctrine alone is not sufficient. After all, the demons believe in God, and they are not models of the victorious Christian living (James 2:19)! Verse 17 drives home the experiential knowledge of God.

Paul constantly prayed that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.” The “Him” is clearly God the Father. In fact, we might go so far as to say that it is a reference to the triune God.

In the doxology at the opening of the chapter, there was clearly a trinitarian emphasis (vv. 3, 5, 13), and this trinitarian note continues in this prayer.

Verse 17 mentions the “Father” and the “Lord Jesus Christ,” and though the word “spirit” is an immediate reference to a “spiritual” understanding of truth, yet such spiritual understanding comes by the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6–10).

What does Paul mean by his desire that God would give to them (and us!) “the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him”?

“Wisdom” speaks of insight into things as they really are. “Revelation” is the word from which we derive “apocalypse.” Contrary to popular usage, an “apocalypse” is not a synonym for destruction but rather a “disclosure,” an “uncovering” or, as here and as in the last book of the Bible, a “revelation.” It refers to the revealing of something otherwise hidden. Finally, the word translated “knowledge” is a rich one. It carries the idea of “a real, deep, full knowledge”—a “thorough knowledge.”6

In summary, Paul prayed that they would experience a spiritual insight into God as He is really is. He desired that they would come to know God, not as some mysteriously hidden being, but rather as God known in experience. Paul knew God subjectively and objectively; he knew God not merely in an abstract way but also in a more concrete, personal way. This was his prayer for them. This needs to be both our experience and our prayer for one another.

Nominal Knowledge

Is it not true that too often our knowledge of God is nominal, in the sense that we see God in utilitarian terms? We view God primarily for what He does and for what He can do for us. This is often grounded in right exegesis of the text of Scripture.

For example, we know that God is sovereign and all-powerful and all-wise. We therefore pray for Him to meet our many needs, to heal the sick, to provide sustenance, and to save the lost. We believe the facts of the gospel and we preach this to ourselves and to others. But in so many cases, though our knowledge of God is very much true knowledge, nevertheless it is one-sided and God seems to be at a distance. This is primarily because we have kept Him at distance. Too often in our experience, God is merely the Great Abstraction. What we need, and what Paul is praying for, is for God to become to us the Great Affection.

Jonathan Edwards once defined a nominal Christian as one who finds Christ useful (to get those things the heart finds “excellent” or beautiful), while a true Christian is one who finds Christ beautiful for who He is in Himself.7

Insufficiency of Exposition

Though exposition is essential for healthy Christian experience, it is not sufficient. The Word of God is indeed sufficient for all that we need spiritually, but this sufficiency must be experienced to do us any good. We need the ministry of revelation that the Holy Spirit gives as we encounter His Word.

I am not speaking of what is commonly known as “neo-orthodoxy,” which teaches that the Bible becomes the Word of God in some existential moment. Rather, I am saying what the Bible teaches: that we need the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit to bring the always inspired and sufficient Word of God home to our hearts (see 1 Corinthians 2:6–16; Ephesians 3:5). In fact, this is hinted at in Ephesians 1:13.

The Spirit of God at some point enabled these people to really hear the word of truth, the gospel, and then they believed.

Paul prayed that the experiential understanding of the gospel they had initially would continue as an ongoing experiential knowledge of God. After all, this is the reason for the gospel (John 17:1–3)!

Application

So let me ask, is your knowledge of God merely theoretical, exegetical and expositional or is it also experiential? (Note that I say “also”! It is both/and, not either/or.)

Too often, theologically sound and biblically orthodox Christians and local churches lack this “spirit of wisdom and revelation of the knowledge of Him,” while those less theologically sound and those perhaps muddled in their orthodoxy do have it. We should have both.

There are many (Hudson Taylor, George Mueller, D. L. Moody, Henry Blackaby, etc.) who were (or are) incorrect in their exegesis of vv. 3–14, yet v. 17 was (or is) their experience more than not.

Let me put it this way: Knowing about God is one thing; knowing God is often quite another. Both are essential. Don’t stop with the first one.

This principle is perhaps illustrated in Mark 8:22–25. There, Jesus touched the eyes of a blind man. Initially, the man could only see people vaguely, like trees walking, but a further touch from the Lord enabled him to see clearly. We sometimes see blurrily and need a second touch from the Lord to see clearly.

Again, to quote Edwards, there is a world of difference between describing the taste of honey and actually tasting it. Too many of us have merely read the label telling us about God while we live without the experience of His sweetness adding to the flavour of our lives. We are like travel guides who give the encyclopaedic explanations, having never experienced the destination themselves.

The amazing thing is that this experiential knowledge of God is closer than we usually think. Because we have the Holy Spirit within us, the experience of the full knowledge of God is ours.

It is said that Martyn Lloyd-Jones would often express some irritation at people taking notes during his preaching because he believed that the experience of God in preaching was far too important to allow the distraction of note-taking. Tim Keller says that he can often tell when his church has moved from theory to experience during his preaching because shifting in the chairs stops and a holy hush descends.

The point is simply this: There are some things that we learn only by experiencing them from God. If knowing God is our purpose, we would do well to pray earnestly to God to know Him better.

Summary

The psalmist exhorts us, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). Have you? Are you? Will you? There is nothing like it. Bible study is no substitute; in fact, without the pursuit of a full (experiential) knowledge of God, such study is as dry as toast, and just about as fulfilling. Psalm 119:18 needs to be our expressed and pursued desire: “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law”—namely, You!

Knowing God Protects our Perspective

As we draw this particular study to a close, I want to briefly touch on the second thing we learn from this prayer: Knowing God protects our perspective. Paul prayed that “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (v. 18). This speaks to the believer’s hope and inheritance.

Paul continues to express his prayerful desire that they will know God. In v. 18 he says that he prays that they will come to an experiential awareness of all that this great God has provided for them. He prays that they will come to grips—experientially—with the reality that they are God’s portion, that they really belong to Him and that this is what they have been called to. Paul knows that if they grasp this experientially then they will live hopefully.

Paul prayed for “the eyes of your understanding [to be] enlightened.”

“Understanding” might also be translated “heart” or even “mind.” In the ancient world, this denoted the seat of a person’s thoughts, understanding, and will. For instance, Jesus said that it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). The heart is the controlling impulse of our lives. Paul prays that it will be “enlightened.” He prays that it will be “illumined.”

As we have seen, this is a prayer for these believers to experientially know God. An important question to be addressed therefore is, in what way(s) will this prayer answered? We could mention several, but I will touch on just one as we bring this study to a close.

In Communion

By “communion,” I mean that we need to seek God in His Word and prayer—by the aid of the Holy Spirit. If we will know God, then we must know His Word. Again, exposition is important. We must do our exegesis (interpretation of the text) and find out from God’s Word who He is.

But we must do so in the Spirit. We must, as it were, study God’s Word on our knees. God’s Word is His self-revelation and so we need exposure to this. Read, study and pray. Boice’s telling of a story involved Harry Ironside illustrates the point well:

Harry Ironside tells of meeting a very godly man early in his ministry. The man was dying of tuberculosis, and Ironside had gone to visit him. His name was Andrew Fraser. He could barely speak above a whisper. His lungs were almost gone. Yet he said, “Young man, you are trying to preach Christ, are you not?”

“Yes, I am,” replied Ironside.

“Well,” he said, “sit down a little, and let us talk together about the Word of God.” He opened his Bible, and until his strength was gone he opened up one passage after another, teaching truths that Ironside at that time had never seen or appreciated. Before long tears were running down Ironside’s cheeks, and he asked, “Where did you get these things? Can you tell me where I can find a book that will open them up to me? Did you get them in a seminary or college?”

Fraser replied, “My dear young man, I learned these things on my knees on the mud floor of a little sod cottage in the north or Ireland. There with my open Bible before me, I used to kneel for hours at a time and ask the Spirit of God to reveal Christ to my soul and to open the Word to my heart, and he taught me more on my knees on that mud floor than I ever could have learned in all the seminaries or colleges in the world.”8

Do you desire to know God—to know Him experientially? You will only attain this kind of knowledge by prayerful exposure to His Word. Be, therefore, much in God’s Word, praying earnestly that He would reveal more of Himself to you.

Show 8 footnotes

  1. S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), ??.
  2. Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus 2012), 64.
  3. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 53.
  4. A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:29.
  5. James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 34.
  6. R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 50.
  7. Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 162.
  8. Boice, Ephesians, 38.