Over thirty years ago I read the classic Knowing God by J. I. Packer. I have read it a couple of times since and I often return to it for help. Packer helped me to understand that knowing about God is one thing, but knowing God is the main thing.
Over the years I have come to a greater appreciation of this truth, as well as another truth intimately connected with this: God has purposed that the church will know God (and make Him known) together. In other words, our experiential knowledge of God is in community. And as the community of faith grows together in her knowledge of God we will experience what the Lord revealed to Daniel: “the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32), or as the ESV translates, “shall stand firm take action.” When the community of faith grows together in the knowledge of God we will persevere as hopeful heirs towards holiness. And, yes, we will happy together! This seems to be the major theme of Ephesians 1:15–23.
It is for this reason—to exhort the community of faith to grow experientially in their knowledge of God, together—that Paul writes this epistle. This is the big idea of this passage before us.
Paul was grateful that these men and women had “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (v. 13) and the proof was in their ongoing faith in Christ and their love for Christians—all kinds of Christians. But Paul also knew that this was not to be taken for granted. On the contrary, such countercultural living is difficult. Beginning as a member of the church is one thing, persevering is another. Therefore Paul says that “I … do not cease to … mention … you in my prayers” (v. 16).
Paul was aware of how quickly we can lose our focus, and so he let these Christians know that he was praying that they would continue to be Christians; that is, that they would continue to grow in their experiential, thorough, deep, full knowledge of God.
Previously, we spent our time focusing on what this means and, to some degree, what it looks like. In this study we will continue on that path while emphasising that the eternal journey of eternal life—defined as knowing God (John 17:3)—is one that we do together. We do it together now and we will do it together forever.
So let us study this passage together with a view to growing “in the knowledge of Him” (v. 17).
We will approach not cover the entire prayer in this study, but these verses might be approached under three broad headings:
- The Concern of the Prayer (vv. 15–18a);
- The Content of the Prayer (vv. 18b–21); and
- The Context of the Prayer (vv. 22–23).
The Concern of the Prayer
The overriding concern of the prayer is set forth at the outset.
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; that you may know what is the hope of His calling.
The Christian life begins with the new birth evidenced by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Saving faith is dynamic, not static. It grows, and as it grows it is expressive. It expresses itself in love for the church (v. 15). But why is this? Because the Christian loves God and therefore the Christian loves those who also love God—other Christians (see 1 John 4:7–11; 4:21–5:1). As Stott comments, “It is impossible to be in Christ and not to find oneself drawn both to him in trust and to his people in love.”1
Paul recognised that the believers at Ephesus had faith that was real because they had faith that was relational. This encouraged him to write and to let them know that he was grateful for this evidence of grace. But his awareness of their faith also motivated him to add them to his prayer list. He knew that they were on a journey of faith and he wrote to let them know that he was praying that this journey would be deeply satisfying, that it would be one that was deeply experiential to the glory of God.
We should note that Paul held an unshakeable conviction concerning the sovereignty of God (cf. vv. 3–14), yet he prayed. Indeed, his unshakeable conviction in God’s sovereignty drove him to pray. 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.”2
As we have noted, Paul’s prayer arose out of his concern that they would know God. This is to be our concern as well, both individually and corporately.
We must be aware of the ever-present danger of merely nominal or “notional” Christianity. Experiential knowledge of God is to be what we know, and it is to be that in which we grow. Experiential knowledge of God is what we are to expect of one another and therefore it is to be our prayerful concern. Doing good things is important (see 2:10), but knowing God is the ultimate source of that. Holy Spirit instructed and “inebriated” church members is to be our pursuit.
It is important that we grasp the significance of the phrase, “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.” At the very least, this teaches us the truth that knowing Jesus Christ is about knowing God (John 17:3). Don’t glibly quote John 14:6. Rather, understand that Jesus Christ came to bring us to God. Do not neglect Him.
We need to be careful of the danger of by-passing or neglecting the Father in our love for the Son. Many Christians speak often about “Jesus” while missing out on the one who sent Jesus to die for us. Don’t lose sight of the message of John 3:16: “God so loved that world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Christians (followers of Jesus Christ) have the privilege to know God.
Second, and related, the God whom we are saved to know is “the Father of glory.” He is our glorious Father. He is weighty. He is matchless in comparison. And we have the privilege to enter and to enjoy the experience of knowing Him! This is an amazing, gospel-wrought privilege.
Under the old covenant, God did all that was necessary to keep people away. Under the new covenant He has done everything necessary to bring us near (see Hebrews 7:19; 10:22)!
This is fundamental: Paul prayed that “all the saints” of this church would share in this experience of knowing God. “No one left behind” may be a suitable way to sum up his concern.
We must not rest as a congregation while there are those among us who have only an expositional knowledge of God.
Is this not a large problem in the church of our day? And is this not why the church in communities so often has such little impact?
Consider the social media profiles of those professing to be Christians. In far too many cases the message conveyed is a denial of any real knowledge of our glorious God.
Consider the social media and blog content of those professing to be Christians. In many cases the messages come across with the same mundane, nasty, superficial, cynical tone of those who make no pretence of knowing God.
Consider our attitudes both towards and in the workplace. Is there discernible evidence that our knowledge of God makes us different?
We can further consider those who profess to be Christians who drag themselves to corporate worship, check the box and then check out the rest of the week. Is it any wonder that such display no “spirit of wisdom or revelation in the knowledge of” God? Is it any wonder that we often sound like clanging symbols when he speaks of “the Lord”?
We must know God experientially and we must pray and partner with one another to know Him better—together.
Be careful. If you have no hunger to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), then your lack of appetite is most likely due to the fact that you are yet dead in your sins, regardless of your baptismal certificate or signed church covenant.
I can recall a man, years ago, who attended our church and made an appointment to see me. He told me that he had no appetite for God and the things of God. With something of a smirk on his face, he asked me what I thought of his admission. I told him that I thought he was not a believer. He admitted that he was not and stopped attending. Two years later, he died of a massive heart attack. I hope that he came to know God before he died.
Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord
Paul prayed that “the eyes of your understanding [would be] enlightened.” Without belabouring the point, we need to pause to be reminded again that such an experiential knowledge of God comes as a work of God the Holy Spirit. This is the privilege of the Christian, and only of the Christian.
I recently read ISIS is claiming credit for the recent downing of the Russian aeroplane in which 224 people lost their lives. They claimed that God was pleased with them. There is a group in America, Westboro Baptist Church, which carries banners to the funerals of fallen soldiers that read, “God hates you,” or, “This soldier is in hell.” Whether Muslim or professed Christian, neither of them has any enlightenment from the true God. To think that they can even speak of God as the one they worship should actually humble us as we realise that, apart from the grace of God, we too could be those blinded by foolishness without any revelation of the true God.
The privilege to have true knowledge of God, as He truly is, is an immense privilege and one that we should be praying that each of us enjoys in its fullness.
The reason we should be concerned is because we are all in this together. We need to care for the souls of one another. We should always be concerned in this regard, but perhaps particularly when we sheep straying, relationships in the church strained, the attitudes of believers hardened, or the countenance of church members visibly changed. Yes, there is a danger of drawing false conclusions based on mere personality issues, but we should nonetheless care enough for fellow church members to engage them when we see cause for concern.
The Content of the Prayer
Having expressed his prayerful concern (the only kind that really matters), the apostle specifies the content of his prayer. His prayer was
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.
There are here three specific outcomes of an experiential knowledge of God.
Our Hopeful Purpose
First, we will experience a hopeful purpose: “that you may know what is the hope of His calling” (v. 18).
Paul knows that, as these believers grew to know God together, they would be hopeful together. This is the first specific for which Paul prayed concerning their experiential knowledge of God. He prayed that, as they grew in their deep knowledge of God, they would come to appreciate experientially—not merely notionally—the hopeful certainty of that for which they had been saved: to be like Jesus.
The word translated “know” is strong, and it means “to know with certainty.” Such conviction is indisputable. In other words, Paul’s prayer was that these believers would know the experience of a certain hope regarding their future; that is, “the hope of glory” (see Colossians 1:27).
Bryan Chapell is a very gifted preacher and a well-known teacher of preachers. I recently read his conclusion that the great preachers that we identify throughout history are those who gave (and who give) hope. The tone of hopefulness, to Chapell, is a mark of great preaching. Well this was certainly true of the apostle Paul. His epistles are filled with hope. We see this here and elsewhere in Ephesians.
The “calling” they had received (see 1:13) was God effective calling them out of the world to Himself. He salvifically called them out of darkness into His marvellous light (5:8). The Lord called them from the futility of serving themselves to serving the Saviour (4:17–24). God effectively called them from the pursuit of dead-end worship of false gods (Acts 19) to the worship of the one true God. He called them out of a pursuit of a life that increasingly was doomed and damned to a life that will be eternally glorified (2:1–10). He called them from a life that would end in corruption and condemnation to a life that would eventuate into one of incorruption, commendation and Christlikeness. Yes, the Lord effectively called them to an eternal hope (2:11–13). And all of this was certain.
To the degree that we come to know God experientially, we will grow in clarity regarding what really matters in life and what we should truly be pursuing—that is, our purpose, which is to be like Jesus (see Philippians 3:10–14).
To Save Us from Our Sins
We must keep before us the purpose of God’s salvific, effectual calling of sinners to Himself; namely, to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:21). And this work is intimately connected to our knowledge of God.
As we grow in our knowledge and devoted dependence upon Him, we will at the same time be growing in a hatred of sin. This will be accompanied with a greater zeal for holiness. It will lead to longing for the day when we are, in the words of the hymnist, “saved to sin no more.” Paul prays that these believers will experience this.
Further, as we grow in our experiential knowledge, as we grow in our heartfelt love for the Lord, we will experience more and more of His love and grace in forgiveness. This will increase our certainty that, one day, we will be perfectly conformed to the image of God’s dear Son (Romans 8:28–30). But further, when we know God in the experiential way that Paul prays for, we will also have great hope concerning the future of the world. When all seems hopeless, the Christian is over and again (to borrow the title of N. T. Wright’s book) surprised by hope.
This is the kind of faith-filled hope that has been exemplified by God’s servants throughout the ages. One thinks of Adoniram Judson who, at one of his lowest moments, confidently asserted, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” William Carey, who likewise faced extended periods of deep discouragement in his pioneering missionary efforts, said, “The Lord Jesus is now reigning in India and He will forever reign there.”
We should note that, as our experiential knowledge of God grows individually, it will have a corporate effect. We will be increasingly concerned to encourage one another in this direction. We will seek to help others to enjoy this hopeful certainty and certain hope. We will work to help one another to live hopefully. Among other things, this means that, when a sister or brother falls, our experiential knowledge of God will overflow in merciful and helpful ministry rather than cynical and unhelpful condemnation.
Are you hopeful? If so, then are you helpful to those who need to be hopeful? Hope-filled people are forgiving.
Are you not? Then why not? Pursue the knowledge of God.
Pollyannas Need Not Apply
One last point needs to be addressed. Someone has said, “The gospel calls us to hope not to hype; to believe and not to make believe.”3 Paul did not pray that this church would not have any difficulties. He was not intimating that, if they knew God deeply, they would always see clearly and be free of trouble. Rather, he was reminding them that, as they knew God experientially, the circumstances of life would no longer be the source of their convictions about reality. Rather, their knowledge of God’s character, and therefore of His unyielding promises, would sustain them. They would no longer live “under the circumstances,” but would rather hopefully live through them. They would declare with Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). With Daniel’s friends, they would trust God’s ability to deliver them but commit to serve Him even if He did not deliver them (Daniel 3:16–18). If they knew God, they would be strong and do great exploits (Daniel 11:32).
If the Ephesians needed a living example of hopeful courage, they could do no better than look to the apostles who, in the face of great oppression and serious threats from the religious leaders, declared, “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). When the apostles were further orders to cease their gospel ministry, they boldly replied, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
As we grow together in our experiential knowledge of God, may our rallying cry be the beloved words of Martin Luther: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still—His kingdom is forever.”
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 53. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 34. ↩
- Scotty Smith, Everyday Prayers: 365 Days to a Gospel-Centred Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 323. ↩