Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, had a good friend and assistant by the name of Friedrich Myconius. In 1540, Myconius became sick and was expected to die shortly. On his deathbed he wrote a tender farewell message to Luther. When Luther read the message, he immediately sent a reply: “I command you in the name of God to live because I still have need of you in the work of reforming the church. The Lord will never let me hear that you are dead, but will permit you to survive me. For this I am praying, this is my will, and may my will be done, because I seek only to glorify the name of God.” While those words might seem bold and brash, the fact is that Myconius, who had already lost the ability to speak when Luther’s reply came, soon recovered from his illness, and lived six more years. He finally died two months after Luther did. What an amazing testimony to the power of prayer. Wouldn’t you like to be able to pray like that? I would!
One of the best ways to learn how to pray is to study the prayers of the Bible. By listening in across the centuries, we learn a great deal about the content of biblical prayer and the intensity with which we should pray. Content is obvious but the concept of intensity may be new to some people. Many contemporary Christians find themselves easily distracted when they attempt to pray. If the truth were told, often we are playing around at our prayers instead of approaching prayer with a holy intensity. How different this is from the prayers of Moses or Daniel or David or Paul. These men of God prayed with fire in their souls. They cried out to God with a single-minded focus that seemed to shut out the world around them.
The Window of the Soul
There is a great lesson here if we care to take it. Prayer is truly the window of the soul. What we pray for, we care for. We all pray for what concerns us. And the reverse is also true. What we don’t pray about, we don’t care about. That’s a solemn and convicting thought, and though we may try to escape its force, we cannot escape the truth. We can say all we want about how much something means to us, but if we never bring it before God in prayer, we cannot truly say that we care deeply about it. What we pray about, we care about.
There are at least three things that hold us back in the area of prayer. First, we fear that we don’t pray often enough. Second, we worry that we won’t use the right words or we fear we’ll say the wrong thing. Third, we think we don’t have enough faith. Or more accurately, we’re sure we don’t have enough faith to be heard by God.
That’s why here and there the Bible records the prayers of great saints of God. We listen as Moses beseeches the Lord; we listen as Nehemiah and Daniel intercede with the Almighty. In John 17 we observe the Lord Jesus talking intimately with his Heavenly Father. And scattered throughout the epistles, we have numerous short prayers by the Apostle Paul. These biblical prayers are given to us as models and examples. They are not forms to be slavishly followed, but guides to help us frame our thoughts as we come before the Lord in prayer. If we need help in prayer (and we do!), then we will be richly repaid as we study the prayers of the Bible.
I am especially grateful that Paul wrote one of his prayers in Ephesians 3:14-21. Beyond question, this is one of the greatest prayers in the entire Bible. One writer called it “the Holy of Holies in the Christian life.” Another writer called it “a prayer for the impossible.” That is a very apt description. This is the second prayer in Ephesians. We looked at the prayer in Ephesians 1 in the last sermon. That’s a prayer that the eyes of the heart might be opened so that we might know God better. If the first prayer is for enlightenment, the second prayer is for enablement. If the first prayer is for knowledge, the second is for power.
Strength Where We Need it Most
As we look at this prayer, once again it’s easy to get lost in the details. At first reading, it appears to be a complex arrangement of phrases piled one on top of the other, all leading to a very powerful doxology in verses 20-21. If we look at it that way, we’ll miss the main point. A better way to study this prayer is to focus on the main request in verse 16 where Paul prays that God might “strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” This is a prayer for spiritual strength in the inner being (literally in Greek, the “inner man"). Paul prays for one thing and one thing only in this prayer. He asks God to strengthen the Ephesians by the Holy Spirit on the inside so that they can fulfill God’s will for them. Though this prayer has many parts and builds to a big climax, there is only one basic request. Keep that in mind as we look at this text together.
How can I be so sure that there is only one basic request? The key is found in verse 13, just before the prayer begins: “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.” The phrase “not to be discouraged” can be translated “not to lose heart” or “not to give up.” This is extremely relevant because so many things sap our strength: discouraging circumstances, monotonous routine, physical weakness, personal failure, unwanted interruptions, unfinished responsibilities, and unresolved conflicts. Any one of those things could knock us out of commission, but often two or three of them hit us at the same time. And then we are knocked to the floor and find it hard to get up and get back in the fight.
Seen in that light, this is a prayer for something most of us desperately need every day—spiritual strength. When we feel weak, prayer can be difficult or almost impossible. In those moments, here is a prayer that is always appropriate. It is a prayer to pray before you faint. If you are on the verge of giving up, take this prayer to heart before you throw in the towel.
When you are weak, you need strength. And strength is the exact opposite of “losing heart” in verse 13. To be “strengthened with power” means to be made powerfully strong so that you can overcome the obstacles set before you. The word for power is dunamis, from which we get the English words dynamic and dynamite. When you are made strong in the inner man by the Holy Spirit, there will be power to blast out the unbelief, and power to overcome despair, and power to rise above anger, and power to keep going when you would rather quit. Note that this power is put to work in the “inner self” or the “inner man.” That “inner man” is the control room of life where every great decision is made. This is the place where we need the most help.
“Lord, This Hurts”
As I pondered this request, it occurred to me how different it is from most prayers I hear and (to be honest) from most prayers I pray. Most of our prayers fall into two categories:
1) Pain-avoidance. “Lord, this hurts. Make it stop.”
2) Change of circumstances. “Lord, I don’t like this. Change it, please.”
When I preached this sermon on Sunday and came to this point, I was struck by the knowing smiles that spread across the congregation. No one likes pain and no one enjoys difficult circumstances. It’s natural to pray that your pain would stop and that your circumstances would improve. The problem is, those two categories can overwhelm all our prayers so that we never pray for anything else. Yet Paul never mentions anything remotely related to either category. By the way, do you know where Paul was when he wrote Ephesians? He was in prison in Rome. Most authorities think he was chained at all times to two Roman guards. Yet he never mentions that fact until almost the end of the epistle (Ephesians 6:20). And his request is not, “Pray that I will get out of here,” but rather “Pray that I will be bold for Christ even though I am in chains.”
“You’re Only Human”
Why does he pray for strengthening by the Spirit in the inner man? Because our greatest need is for spiritual power on the inside. No believer ever advances so far that he doesn’t need God’s power. As I prepared this sermon, I remembered my dear friends from Texas, Jerry and Betty Formanek. Betty was a sweet spirit who wanted to encourage me in my ministry. Almost every Sunday she said the same thing to me. If I heard her say it once, I guess I heard it a hundred times. Sometimes she would pat my arm as she said it. “Pastor Ray, remember, you’re only human.” At first I thought it was funny. Then it sort of drove me nuts. But much later I realized how profound it was. She was right. I am only human.
I’m not as hot as I think I am.
I’m not as strong as I think I am.
I’m not as wise as I think I am.
I’m not as resilient as I think I am.
I’m not as resourceful as I think I am.
I’m not as good as I think I am.
And you’re not either. I’m human and so are you. And that means we’re all in the same boat together, all of us desperately in need of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us on the inside.
So the prayer is not, “Lord, take away my burdens,” but rather “Lord, give me stronger shoulders to carry the load.” It is a prayer for spiritual strength to do the work God gives us to do. We especially need this in three areas:
1) To do our daily tasks with joy.
2) To resist temptation with courage.
3) To endure persecution gladly.
“This is my path, Lord, the path you have chosen for me. Make me powerfully strong in the inner man to walk where you are leading.” That’s the heart of this magnificent prayer. Everything else flows from this basic request. The rest of the passage reveals the three results that come to us as we are strengthened by the Spirit on the inside.
Christ Dwelling in Our Hearts by Faith
The first great result is found in verse 17a: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” The word “dwell” comes from the Greek word katoikeo, which itself comes from two smaller words: kata meaning “down” and oikos meaning “house” or “home.” The prayer is that Christ might be “down home” in your heart. It’s the picture of a man at home in his own house. We all know there is a difference between a house and a home. A house is a building; a home is a dwelling place. It is very possible for Christ to be “in” your heart but not “at home” there. Let me illustrate. Suppose I go to visit a very nice home. The lady of the house says, “Pastor Ray, make yourself at home.” I look around and appreciate the beauty of the home as I survey how well appointed it is and how nicely everything is arranged. It is lovely in all respects, but I do not feel at home there. I don’t know where anything is. I don’t know where the bathroom is, I don’t know where the living room is, I don’t know where the computers are, I don’t know where the living room is, and (most importantly) I don’t know where the remote control is. How can a man be at home if he can’t find the remote control? If you come to my house, you’ll see a man fully at home. I know where everything is, and if I don’t know where it is, I know where to look for it. And you can rest assured that when the Super Bowl comes on later today, I’ll know exactly where the remote control is because it will be right beside me.
Many years ago Robert Boyd Munger wrote a little booklet called My Heart, Christ’s Home. In it he imagines the believer’s heart as a home with many rooms. The heart has a living room, a dining room, a bedroom, a kitchen, a computer room, a TV room, many closets, and an attic. Too many believers keep Christ in the entryway, as if to say, “Jesus, I’ve got you in the door. Now stay there and don’t bother the rest of my life.” But the Lord wants to enter every room. He wants to enter your kitchen, your bedroom, your library, your TV room, your computer room, and he wants access to every closet and even to the “attic” of your heart. As long as you keep the doors locked, he can never be “at home” in your heart. And you will never be happy as a Christian.
The question is not, “How much of the Lord do I have?” but rather, “How much of me does the Lord have?” O Christ, come in and purify my mind, ennoble my thoughts, guide my lips, and direct my path. This, then, is a prayer for a deeper experience between Christ and the believer. Call it what you will—sanctification, the “second blessing,” total surrender, dedication, or even the filling of the Spirit. I call it “what we desperately need that most of us lack.” Until Christ is at home in your heart, he will always seem like a stranger to you even though he lives in you.
He’s not just watching me, he’s with me.
He’s not just with me, he’s in me.
He’s not just a visitor, he’s at home in my heart.
This is the first result of being strengthened in the inner man by the Holy Spirit.
Growing Comprehension of the Love of Christ
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:17b-19a).
The second great result of being strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man is that you will have a growing comprehension of the love of Christ. The Greek word translated “grasp” has the idea of grasping and holding on to something. It means a growing personal experience of love of Jesus Christ. There is a sense in which all Christians experience the love of Christ. But love itself has many dimensions. Paul is saying, “I pray that you may grow in your daily experience of the love of Jesus.” He even says, “I pray that you will come to know (in a personal way) this love that surpasses knowledge.” No matter how far you go in your knowledge of Christ’s love, you will never come to the end of it.
Let me illustrate. When a man and woman meet and date and fall in love, their love is real and true, but it is not complete. On their wedding night, they will experience love in a deeper way, but there is much more to come. As the years go by, romantic love gives way to a love that springs from a deep personal commitment made stronger and more profound by the changing seasons of life. And so a husband may truly say on his tenth anniversary, “Sweetheart, I love you more today than the day we got married.” That is more than poetry or sentiment. In a good marriage, that is reality. On a purely personal note, today happens to be my wife’s birthday. We have been married almost 28 1/2 years. That’s a long time to be married. It’s long enough that we’ve been married longer than we were single. I can say without hesitation that it is better today than ever. Our marriage is stronger and happier and more satisfying than ten or 15 or 20 years ago. How that happened I could not say, but it is true, and on Marlene’s birthday, I am happy to say that I love her still. And I pray the Lord gives us at least another 28 1/2 years together.
Now take that principle into the spiritual realm and you will understand what Paul means by the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ. The early church took this as a sign of the cross. The “breadth and length” stood for the crossbar on which the arms of Christ were nailed. The “height and depth” stood for the vertical piece to which his legs were nailed. It is a fitting image because nowhere is the love of Christ more clearly seen than at the cross where Jesus died for us. Dr. W. A. Criswell liked to talk about “God’s love in four dimensions” from John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world” – Breadth “He included you”
“That he gave … his Son" – Length “He sent Jesus to die for you”
“Should not perish” – Depth “He reached down for you”
“Have everlasting life” – Height “He lifts you up to heaven”
Christ’s love is broader than the universe, longer than time, higher than hope, deeper than death. As we are strengthened by the Spirit on the inside, we will come to a new comprehension of his love for us.
Fullness of God in Your Life
“That you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19b).
This is the whole goal of the Christian life. Don’t water it down. The word for “filled” has the idea of being dominated by something. If you are filled with rage, then rage will dominate your life. If you are filled with love, then love dominates your life. If you are filled with joy, then joy dominates your life. When you are filled with God, then God himself will dominate your life. It pictures the total transformation of the human personality by virtue of the presence of God in your life. This is an amazing thought—to be filled up with all the fullness of God. Don’t shy away from the implications of this truth. As believers we have been created to be the containers of God. He desires to pour his life into ours and to fill us until we’re full.
Let’s think of this theologically for just a moment. Colossians 2:9 tells us that in Christ the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. And when we come to Christ in faith, he comes to live in us. The result is what verse 19 envisions: God in Christ now reflected in us. That must lead to total moral reformation. Let’s suppose you have a big jar of muddy water that you desire to see become a jar of clear water. What’s the quickest way to make the transformation? Take a garden hose and hook it up to an artesian spring filled with clear, cool, pure water. Now place the hose in the jar and turn on the water. As the clean water rushes it, it flushes out the muddy water. If you let the hose stay in the jar long enough, the muddy water will eventually be completely displaced by the clean water.
This is a parable of the Christian life. All of us are like that big jar of muddy water when we come to Christ. Some are muddier (and slimier) than others, but all of us are unclean when we find the Lord. It is the work of a lifetime to replace the muddy water of our sinful inclinations with the pure water of God’s holy character. This is the answer to our entrenched bitterness, lust, greed, hate, envy, impatience, dishonesty and unfaithfulness.
“Your love, O Lord, come into me and drive out my anger.”
“Your holiness, Lord, enter and drive out my greed.”
“Your purity enter and drive out my lust.”
“Your mercy fill my soul and wash away my envy.”
“Your patience come in and my impatience will vanish.”
“Your grace fill me within and I can forgive.”
“All that thou art, Lord Christ, All your shining beauty, all of it, come in this moment and fill me now.” This is Paul’s prayer. This is precisely what verse 19 envisions for every believer when we are filled up with the fullness of God.
If we believe that in Jesus Christ dwells all the fullness of God (and we do), and if we believe Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (and we do), then we may believe that in our lives this week the fullness of God, the beauty of God, the grace of God, the mercy of God, the holiness of God, the kindness of God, all that God is may fill us and drive out the evil—the lust, greed, impatience, unbelief, critical spirit, and the angry intolerance that holds us back. As the Holy Spirit changes us, the perfection of God is reflected in us.
“God is Able”
No matter what we may think, this is not impossible. It all goes back to the first request. When we are strengthened inside by the Holy Spirit, this is the end result. Yet it seems so far out of our reach. Unless God intervenes none of this can ever come true for us. How can we know God will do it? Such a big prayer! Paul gives us the answer in verses 20-21. The answer to this prayer is not up to us; it’s up to God! That brings us to the magnificent doxology that concludes this prayer: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21). Here is how verse 20 reads in the New King James Version: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” Both versions make clear that this prayer can be answered because God is able to answer it. Paul isn’t saying, “I hope this will happen but I’m not sure about it.” We all live with a certain degree of inability: “Remember, Pastor Ray, you’re only human.” We live in a “hope so, maybe so, might be, I’m not sure” kind of world. That’s okay. It’s not a sign of weakness to admit your weakness when you really are weak. In contrast to that we have this magnificent statement that God is able to do whatever it takes to answer this prayer. John Stott points out that there are seven stages in this great statement by the Apostle Paul:
1) He is “able to do” because he is not idle or inactive or dead.
2) He can do “what we ask” for he hears us when we pray.
3) He can do “what we think” for he knows what we think before we think it.
4) He can do “all we ask or think” because he knows it all and can do it all.
5) He can do “more than we ask or think” because his plans are bigger than our plans.
6) He can do “much more” than we ask or think because there is no holding back with God.
7) He can do “exceedingly abundantly” beyond what we can imagine because he is the God of the superlative.
Pay close attention to the phrase “exceedingly abundantly.” Having two “-ly” adverbs back to back sounds strange to our ears. We may wonder if it some sort of misprint, but it’s not. The translators chose that odd formulation because Paul coined a Greek word that had never been used before. The word has three parts: huper (above and beyond) plus ek (out of) plus perissou (abundant). The word means infinitely above and beyond all human measurement. It’s one thing to do what someone asks you to do. It’s another thing to go beyond what they ask you to do. But it’s something else to go infinitely beyond what they ask you to do. God’s ability is “off the chart.” It can’t be measured. It’s so great it can’t even be imagined. This verse is teaching us the “exceeding, abundant, immeasurable, infinite ableness of God.” There are no limits to what God can do. We can’t even imagine what God can do. His power is so great that we don’t even know what we don’t know.
“God Can Do Anything Now”
It is not our prayers that mark his ability. He can do far more than we can pray. It is not our dreams and hopes that mark his ability. He can do things we can’t even dream of. He is not limited by our prayers, our problems, our dreams, or even by our meager theories about who he is. This week I listened as a friend talked about what this text meant to him. Christ saved him and utterly transformed his life, his marriage, his family, and his career. With profound gratitude, he thought about his own life in light of verse 20, and then he said, “God can do anything now.” He’s absolutely right.
How should we apply this text? Let me first apply it to this church. Suppose that the Apostle Paul were the pastor of Calvary Memorial Church. Do you think he would be impressed with what we have done here? Would he look at the stained glass, the pipe organ, the beautiful sanctuary, the beautiful artwork, and say, “This is amazing"? I don’t think so. Would he go, “Wow! You’ve got Power Point!"? I doubt it. If Paul were the pastor of this church, I think that every time he lifted his eyes to heaven he would hear God saying, “I can do more in this church than you have yet asked or thought.” That would lead him to pray for power and then step out in a new venture of faith for the Lord. When he looked again to heaven, he would hear God say, “Paul, I can do more!” So he would strike out again in a venture of faith, and God would say, “I can do more!” Each time he heard that, Paul would stretch himself out of his comfort zone and into the realm of impossibility. No matter what he did, the response of God would always be the same: “I can do more … more … more.” It is in that spirit that we should consider where we are as a congregation. In two months we celebrate our 88th birthday. From our very first worship service, we have always been an Oak Park church. We’ve managed to move twice (that I know of), but always within the narrow confines of this village. In light of this text, I do not think we need to spend much time patting ourselves on the back for what we think we have accomplished. After 88 years we haven’t even scratched the surface of what God can do in this church. God can always do more.
A Trinitarian Prayer
Then there is the personal application to be made. When you are weak, pray to be strengthened in the inner man. This is a prayer God will always answer. And as you pray this prayer, ask God for these three things as a result:
1) Christ might be at home in your heart,
2) A growing comprehension of the love of Christ, and
3) The fullness of God in your life.
Our greatest need is lack of strength—so pray this prayer.
Our greatest temptation is to make excuses or to seek better circumstances—so pray this prayer.As we pray this magnificent prayer, we will discover a Trinitarian answer. Look at Paul’s words again. All three Persons of the Trinity are involved in this prayer:
That the Holy Spirit might strengthen us.
That Christ might indwell us.
That God himself might fill us.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unit to answr this prayer.
Your Prayers Are Too Small!
As I come to the end, I want to emphasize the simplicity of our response. There is one crucial word in the text that I passed over earlier. Verse 17 says that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” How simple this is. Pray in faith and all these things will happen to you. Faith and nothing else is required by God. Jesus comes in when faith opens the door. And he brings the fullness of God with him. Take the tiniest atom, infinitesimally small, far smaller than the naked eye can see. Take that atom and split it. You will release power beyond human calculation. Now take the simplest, smallest prayer offered in faith. That prayer will yield supernatural results in your life.
So, then, on the basis of this text: Pray boldly! Perhaps you’ve heard of J. B. Phillips’ book, Your God is Too Small. Someone should write a book called Your Prayers are Too Small. Pray big prayers to a big God. “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it,” says the Lord (Psalm 81:10).
Thou art coming to a King
Large petitions with Thee bring
For his grace and power are such
None can ever ask too much.
Is God Able?
At the end of the day there is one final question our fearful hearts may ask. You may wonder, “Is God able to help me?” No matter what I say in this sermon, no matter how many verses you read, still inner fear and deep doubt combine to erase any spark of hope. The question is real: Is God able? If we believe the Bible, the answer must be yes.
Is there enough sunlight to light this room?
Is there enough water in the ocean to fill a thimble?
All too often our focus is on our problems when it ought to be on God. If you look at your own weakness, the logical conclusion will be discouragement, doubt and frustration. But if you focus on his unlimited power, you will find faith and hope in spite of your circumstances. How weak we are. How Lilliputian our strength.
Consider God. Think on him. “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, if with his love he befriend you.” How strong God is! Who knows what he will do? God has thousands times thousands times thousands of ways to help us.
He is able to strengthen us when we are weak.
He is able to answer far more than we ask.
He is able to hear the faintest cry.
He is able to lift our burdens in the time of crisis.
He is able to guide us when we have lost our way.
And at last we come to the true and final “last word” of this sermon. This is for those who do not know where they stand with God. Perhaps you are religious but you fear death. Here is the good news of the gospel.
He is able to save you for he sent Jesus to die for you.
He is able to forgive you for the price for your sins has already been paid.
He is able to take you to heaven because Jesus took your punishment when he died in your place.
He is able to give you eternal life because Jesus rose from the dead.
“Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25).
So we stand at the end of this prayer and marvel at its richness. An amazing prayer tied to an amazing promise. It is an impossible prayer made possible because “God is able” to do “exceedingly abundantly” beyond all we can ask or think.
It only waits for us to pray. God wants us to pray, he invites us to pray, he waits for us to call upon him. He is able to hear us and to answer us. If we do our part, God cannot fail to do his.
Heavenly Father, thank you that your provision is far greater than our need. We come in Jesus’ name, deeply conscious of our weakness and our doubt. Grant us fresh faith to believe in you. We gladly lean upon the arm of your omnipotence. Teach us to pray big prayers that you might be honored in a big way among us. Thank you that what you have done is only the beginning. Be glorified in our midst, in this church, today, tomorrow and forever! Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.