Knowing God, Knowing Your Identity (Ephesians 1:18–23)

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Doug Van Meter - 15 November 2015

Knowing God, Knowing Your Identity (Ephesians 1:18–21)

Ephesians Exposition

To know God experientially is to love God. Paul wanted the Ephesians to know God—to love God—together. This is to be our prayer too. Because God loved us first (1 John 4:10), we will only grow in our love for Him as we learn more of His love for us. And we learn about His love by serious scriptural reflection. As we examine this portion of Scripture together, we find two evidence of God’s love for us: (1) He has chosen us to a heavenly privilege; and (2) He has equipped us with holy power.

From Series: "Ephesians Exposition"

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

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In his classic, Knowing God, J. I. Packer writes,

What were we made for? To know God.

What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God.

What is the “eternal life” that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. “This is life eternal: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment, than anything else? Knowledge of God. “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom or the strong man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me’” (Jer. 9:23f).

What, of all the states God ever sees man in, gives God most pleasure? Knowledge of himself. “I desire … the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,” says God (Hosea 6:6 KJV)….

What makes life worth while is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has, in a way no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?1

What does it mean to know God experientially? It means to trust God. It means to worship and to serve God. Fundamentally, it means to love God.

God commanded old covenant Israel, and God in Christ commands new covenant Israel, to love the one true God with heart, soul, mind and strength. This is what it means to know God beyond theory and to know Him by experience. This was Paul’s prayer for followers of Christ who lived in Ephesus. He prayed that they would know—that they would love, trust, worship, and serve—God, together. This is to be our prayer for the church, both locally and universally.

As we examine this prayer we are doing so under three headings:

  1. The Concern of the Prayer (vv. 15–18a)
  2. The Content of the Prayer (vv. 18b–21)
  3. The Context of the Prayer (vv. 22–23)

The Concern of the Prayer

Paul begins by laying out the concern of his prayer:

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: 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, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened.

(Ephesians 1:15–18a)

Fundamentally, Paul’s concern is that, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, the church will experience God’s love for them. This is what knowing God is about.

We need to experience God’s love for and to us. As John wrote, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). A few verses later, he reveals succinctly and plainly, “We love Him because He first loved us” (4:19).

If we will grow in our love for God, we need to experience more of His love. How does this happen?

Fundamentally, we must engage in serious scriptural reflection on His love for us. We need exposition; we need enlightening exposure to God’s Word.

George Mueller was raised in Prussia in the late 1800s. At the age of 21, after a wicked life, the Lord graciously saved him. The story of his life is one that highlights this matter of having an experiential knowledge and love of God.

Over a period of fifty years Mueller established a massive orphanage in Bristol, England. At the time of his death, he had housed 9,500 orphans, supported 165 missionaries and preached in some 42 foreign countries. In addition, some $7,500,000 came into the coffers to support these ministries—without his even once making his needs known to anyone besides his fellow-workers, who regularly joined him in prayer.

I read a brief account of some of his experiences the other day. He was often asked how it was that he had such faith, why it was that he had such an experiential knowledge of God. He said that the key is to “stay your soul on the Word of God, and you will have an increase of your faith as you exercise it.”2

Mueller spent much time devotedly in God’s Word, and therefore he was reminded over and over of God’s love for Him. The gospel fuelled his faith because it filled him with the knowledge of God’s love. When you know that God loves you, you will trust Him more intimately and increasingly.

In recent studies, without apology, I have warned of the dangers of the rise of the expositional emphasis in churches today. By this, I mean the danger of a theoretical, even arrogant, and often ungracious approach to the study of God’s Word. This should not be misunderstood. It is vital that God’s Word be expounded. But biblical exposition is merely the means to the end of knowing, loving and therefore trusting God. Mueller understood it. It would be hard to find anyone in his era who loved God’s Word more. (He paid for the distribution of tens of thousands of Bibles in different parts of the globe.) But for Mueller, the study of God’s Word was for the purpose of learning about God so that that He could live out an intimate knowledge of God. This was the key to his faith. In fact, he firmly rejected any suggestion that the faith he possessed was any different than the faith that every Christian should possess and exercise. He believed that faith is the expected result of knowing God through the means of His Word applied in experience.

The Content of the Prayer

In vv. 18b–21 we read the actual content of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians. He prays

that you may 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 exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places.

(Ephesians 1:18–21)

Paul highlights three things that he is praying for in relation to their knowledge of God and their knowledge of God’s love for them. We can summarise it this way: Paul prays that they will persevere as hopeful heirs towards holiness. We need to experience these three things, together that we might grow in our knowledge of God, together. We need to see these things, together.

Called to be Hopeful, Together

Paul prays “that you may know what is the hope of His calling” (v. 18).

We saw previously that, as we grow in our knowledge of God together, we will be hopeful together. Specifically, we will grow experientially in “the hope of our calling.” The most hopeful people on the planet are (to be) Christians.

Because we are certain (“know”) that God has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light, we are hopeful that, one day, we will shine perfectly like Christ. And we are equally certain that this world will shine as God’s glorious new creation. We have the pledge of the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of this future reality.

The Holy Spirit sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts, and this provides us with hope that what God has begun He will ultimately finish (Romans 5:1–5; Philippians 1:6). After all, since this hope is that to which God has called us, it is certain. We can therefore know this hope for sure. This assurance of God’s gracious love for us will increase our love for God. It will drive us to know Him better.

Called to be Heirs, Together

We are to experience the joy of being heirs, together—to know “what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (v. 18).

Our Identity

The ESV translates this as: “what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints.” In both translations, it seems clear that Paul primarily has in mind God’s inheritance, with a huge secondary implication of our resultant inheritance. In other words, Paul probably means the same thing here that he wrote in v. 11. That is, that the believers, the church, are God’s portion. The corollary, of course, is that the church’s privileged portion is to have God as their God. Our “inheritance” is that we are God’s inheritance. He does not get much, but we get Him! This is the church’s heavenly privilege.

And, according to Paul, it is a rich inheritance.

Priceless Wealth

The word translated “rich” means what you probably think that it means: wealthy. The believer is wealthy beyond description. After all, if we belong to God then we belong to the one who is all glorious, full of grace and mercy and love.

We belong to the one who has created everything and who is re-creating everything. We belong to the one who owns the cattle on the thousand hills, and even the bovines on the thousand and first hill! We belong to the one who exercised His love and justice to punish our sins without punishing us. We belong to the one who has made sure that we were pardoned so that we could belong to Him. We belong to the one who has done everything that was required for hell-deserving people to become heavenly-destined people. In fact, according to Ephesians, we are there already (1:6; 2:6)! This, brothers and sisters, is true wealth.

Warren Wiersbe’s study of Ephesians is titled Be Rich. This is because of the emphasis in Ephesians on the rich privileges of the Christian (1:7; 2:7; 3:8, 16). In this sense the church is indeed rich. We are His people and we will one day be perfected. That is a priceless privilege. We will one day live in the presence of the Lord in a perfected world. Nothing can compare with that. In the meantime, even though we are surrounded by the effects of sin, we have the rich blessing of God as our Father. But, unfortunately, all too often we live like spiritual paupers.

The story is told that John Paul Getty, the wealthy American industrialist, was once in search of a particular painting that he wanted. He tasked employees to search the world for the piece of art so that he could purchase it. After an extensive search, he was told that the painting had been located—in one of his own warehouses. He already owned it; he just did not know it.

Christians are richly blessed in Christ, but sadly many live as if they do not know it.

Identity Crisis

John MacArthur comments, “Until we comprehend who we truly are in Jesus Christ, it is impossible to live an obedient and fulfilling life. Only when we know who we really are can we live like who we are.”3 And for this we need the enlightening work of God in our hearts. This is what Paul was praying for. He desired for these believers to know for sure that the privilege of belonging to God—as they were—was theirs. With such a sense of identity, an amazing lifestyle emerges.

Unfortunately, if you are like me, then all too often you fall short of living out this identity. Because we lose sight that we have been called out of the world, we end up living like the world. This is revealed in many ways.

For example, the world ties our identity to the neighbourhood in which we live, to the car that we drive, to the brand of clothes we wear, to the career or profession that we have. The better, in fact, the more exclusive our neighbourhood, the greater sense of personal value we are supposed to have.

The same goes with the type of car we drive or the clothes we wear. The result is arrogance and then the tremendous financial, emotional, relational and spiritual cost to maintain such an identity. And all too often those who fall for such lies of self-importance will, if they are honest, confess that they still do not know who they are.

When Tom Brady recently won the Super Bowl, he admitted that, despite all his achievements, he nonetheless felt empty. He is humanly wealthy and privileged, but he has found that superficial wealth is unsatisfying.

When we lose these things, our loss of identity results in loss of security, and a whole lot more. “Finding yourself” becomes very hard. In fact, you lose your soul.

Where is your hope then? Where is your purpose and pursuit when the bottom falls out?

I wonder if some of these readers were the same ones that had lost so much financially when they were converted (Acts 19:17–20). Perhaps they had been tempted to despair at having lost so much wealth and (no doubt in many cases) personal and communal prestige. But Paul prayed that they would come to know their true identity: They belonged to God.

For others, being popular, or a successful athlete, or beautiful, or successful at your trade may be the source of your identity. But again, if you lose these, how do you cope with the sense of being a failure?

Ethnic Identity

Of course, one of the major themes in this letter is that of ethnic diversity being unified in Christ. And this is clearly an identity issue.

Those who are in Christ are blessed with freedom from superficial ethnic identity. Whether they live like it is sometimes another matter. But since God is the Father of all of His multi-ethnic children, the church is to be a community where diversity rather than uniformity is celebrated.

We need to work at being a community of faith where we are comfortable in our own skin, regardless of its colour and accent—and regardless of whether or not our ethnic heritage is any good at rugby! In Christ, we all cross the try line, together.

As you can see, this matter of our identity in Christ is of immense practical importance.

If our eyes our enlightened to see who we are in Christ, we will be rich indeed. That is, we will be freed from the poverty of relational insecurity. We will be freed from the poverty of always trying to prove ourselves. We will be freed from the poverty of one-upmanship. We will be freed from the abject poverty of competitive friction. And this freedom will lead to the wealth of joyful living. Consider the man who wrote this: rejected, beaten, impoverished, oppressed, yet joyful—and content.

Poor Man, Rich Man

The irony is that, in order to experience this wealth, we first need to be poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3). Interesting.

As we honestly and repentantly face our guilt, we find ourselves confronted by an ugly identity. Behind the fancy steering wheel, the designer labels, the prestigious positions, the athletic achievements, the high walls of our nice homes, are people who have fallen so short of the glory of God that our spiritual poverty is disgusting before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6). But to recognise this is the pathway to spiritual wealth.

As we realise that none of this satisfies, as we realise that any attempt to be satisfied by these is sinful, then we are on a good wicket. When we turn to the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, we find wealth beyond our wildest imaginations as the Spirit of God cries out from our renewed and forgiven heart, “Abba, Father!” But how does such a transformation occur?

The Infinite Cost of our Wealth

It occurs because Jesus Christ, who was rich, became poor for our sakes so that we, by His poverty, might be made rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). By His grace—by God’s riches at Christ’s expense—we shed the lies of a useless identity and embrace a new and everlastingly meaningful identity. The cross work of the Lord Jesus Christ, followed by His miraculous resurrection and all-sovereign ascension, means that our inheritance is secure. After all, with such a price paid, do you seriously think that He will let you now go? We are to know this. And to do so makes all the difference in the world.

Michael Reeves in his excellent book on the Reformation (The Unquenchable Flame) points out that today people have minimised sin and guilt to mean nothing more than the need for us to be more loved, and that the key to this is to become more attractive, in a plethora of ways. However Luther was right: “Sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”4 This is part of what Christians experience as they realises their inheritance in Christ. And this inheritance is to start being our experience, now.

The Already, Not Yet

This phrase is a helpful way to face the existential tensions that sometimes arise as we intellectually embrace the promise of ultimately experiencing our inheritance and the struggles to live in the light of this inheritance in the here and now.

In other words, this inheritance is not like most trust funds, where one awaits the day to draw on it. No, we Christians can draw on it now. Living like we are the King’s kids is to be our experience.

Of course, the wealth that is ours is not primarily, and in most cases not even secondarily, material wealth, as is so commonly claimed by health, wealth and prosperity theologians. Rather, our blessings, while they sometimes they include material provision (after all, our Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills), are primarily spiritual, relational and emotional. And if we have these blessings, then we are in pretty good shape.

Consider the ramifications of such an experience as you face various trials of life. Knowing the Lord, and therefore knowing that He considers you His portion, will give you great emotional and spiritual stability as you see others in the marketplace receive a bigger portion of the economic pie. It will guard you against envy (Hebrews 13:5).

When you experience the knowledge of God, you will face mistreatment by others with the awareness that the Lord is with you. And this provides immense perspective and emotional and spiritual support. It will also go a long way towards empowering your disposition, which in turn will make for fruitful and forgiving relationships. Just ask Joseph (see Genesis 39:3, 23; 50:18–21).

Christian, be encouraged that the wealth of your inheritance—God as your God—means that you don’t have to search for your identity apart from Him. You are wealthy in this capacity beyond your wildest dreams.

Christ wanted you. And He made sure that you came to Him. Yes, that makes you rich! So live like it (1 Corinthians 8:3).

Likewise, we often live like spiritual paupers as we search for meaning and identity. When we fail to grow in our knowledge of God then we fail to rest in God’s knowledge of us and we are the poorer for it. Anxiety, strained relationships, the sense that we are failures, and even depression can arise from such an identity crisis.

So don’t be like JP Getty. Rather, look into the warehouse of what God is to you and live above the circumstances. The Lord invites, open your mouth wide and He will fill it (Psalm 81:10). And Paul exhorts us to open our eyes and God will satisfy them. Get to know God. May God give us—together—the insight and wisdom to understand and to utilise the blessings of this inheritance. May we enjoy our inheritance, together.

Called to be Holy, Together

We are to experience God’s power for holiness, together. We are called to know

what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

(Ephesians 1:19–21)

Let’s suppose that you are convinced about your eventual full inheritance as God’s portion (and the promise that you will one day graciously receive the full portion promised to you). Is it not true that sometimes it is difficult to keep this promise before us?

This is especially so as we are inundated with scepticism, cynicism, and outright hostility to such a conviction.

Further, our own failures tend to discourage us. We have those days when the Lord seems so near and dear, and yet there are other times when He seems distant and even disinclined towards us. Compound that with our sins and we have a recipe for hopelessness.

But Paul tells us that this is unnecessary as he reminds us of the incredible power that God makes available to His people. He prays that the community of faith will grow together in their knowledge of God with the result of growing together in being holy; in being different than their culture. And this is possible because of the power God has made available “towards us”

Excessive Power

The phrase is almost breathtaking in its enormous, hope-fuelling promise: “the exceeding greatness [literally, mega greatness] of His power [force, ability] toward us who believe.” And if this is not enough to encourage the Christian and the Christian church then consider what follows: “according to the working [super human power] of His mighty [vigour, dominion] power [strength, forcefulness].”

Clearly, Paul was seeking to encourage his readers that, in Christ, they have all the power that God supplies to live like God’s people; they have all the power that God assures them they could ever need to live out their purpose on earth. They have access to all of the capability they need to live holy, to live dynamically different than the sin-cursed world.

We do not need more power. Rather we have that power now! What we need is divinely given awareness of the power we have in Christ. But what does this power look like? Are there actual examples we can look for encouragement?

Historical Grounding/Assurance

Paul weds this promise to historical example for the purpose of helping us to pursue our experience of knowing God and the experience of living like we know God. The historical examples are the resurrection of Jesus (v. 20a) along with His ascension and enthronement as Lord of all (vv. 20b–21). In other words, Paul is not merely exhorting these believers to supernatural living by some kind of “airy fairy” pep talk. No. He points to the historical reality that God powerfully raised Jesus from the dead all the way to the highest throne, where He has been ruling and reigning ever since. It is precisely such power that Paul says God makes available “toward us.” No wonder that elsewhere he could say, though still imprisoned, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Christian, Christian church, as we grow in our experiential knowledge of God we will also grow in our conviction that the power—the ability—that we need to live such an exceptional life as God purposes is not wishful thinking. Rather we truly have all we need to live a life of godliness (2 Peter 1:3). So, what does this mean practically?

For one thing, it means that Satan is not more powerful than our predestined purpose.

The terminology of this passage—“all principality and power,” “might and dominion”—includes the devil and his minions (see 6:10–12). This encourages us that, in our quest to know and live for God, nothing can ultimately stand in our way. The power of God, with which the Lord Jesus Christ defeated death and the devil, is more than sufficient to empower us to overcome the evil one (Hebrews 2:14; Colossians 2:13–14). Indeed, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

There is simply no excuse for us to ever cease to seek first the kingdom of God; there is no excuse for us to think that the devil and sin are more powerful than God in Christ. Though life may look hopeless at times, nevertheless the Lord is all powerful, and His power is bequeathed to His people. We can, we must, and we will fulfil God’s purpose for us!

We live in a time in which billions of people have yet to hear the gospel. Most of those live in the 10/40 window, and area of the world dominated not only by poverty but by spiritual darkness. That area of the world is steeped in Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism and is openly hostile to the Christian gospel. But Jesus has commanded us to go to all the world, including the 10/40 window, with the promise that all authority in heaven and earth is His.

Governments in this area of the world are not asking for Christian missionaries to be sent. On the contrary, they are demanding, often on pain of death, that missionaries stay away and even that Christians living there remain silent. But Jesus calls His people, with the apostles, to respond, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20).

We live in a world that is dangerous to vibrant Christian faith. But a proper grasp of texts like our present one will help us as we confront a terrifying world. Jesus is still in control.

Second, it means that our salvation is eternally secure.

The power of God exercised and displayed in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus assures us that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:32–39).

Martin Luther was so enlightened and therefore he wrote,

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where He is, there I shall be also.”5

Third, this means that our perseverance is a promise.

Paul understood this, as can be seen in his prayer of Philippians 3:10–14:

that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 3:10–14)

The power of God in Christ assures us that we can overcome whatever obstacles the Lord allows in our life. We will persevere to the end and the proof is in the power that we experience as we persevere.

As MacArthur comments, “Since He has such a unique and intimate relationship with the redeemed whom He loves, all His power will be used in their behalf to fulfil His loving purpose for them.”6 And our purpose is to know God.

If you do not have this power then you need to go back to the “first things” and examine as to whether you are in the faith.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), 34–35.
  2. Gary W. Smith, Life Changing Thoughts: Thousands of Inspiring, Life-changing and Homorous Thoughts (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2009), 201.
  3. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 46.
  4. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, n.d.), 31:57.
  5. Martin Luther, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 86–87.
  6. MacArthur, Ephesians, 49.