Powerful Prayers: Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation (Ephesians 1:15-21)

(Note: For a few weeks , I will post the manuscript that goes with the audio (posted Tuesdays) from a sermon in the Powerful Prayers series. People have requested the sermon manuscripts many time, but I’ve always been reluctant to make it available for two principal reasons: 1) I never simply read a sermon, so what people read is not exactly what I spoke. The manuscript might be better or it may be worse but it will be different. And (2) because the sermon has not been edited for publication. With those caveats, here is Prayers God Love to Answer: Colossians 1:9-12, Part 2.)

I once read about a young Irish woman who emigrated to the U.S. in the first decades of the twentieth century. She had family in New York, who told her she could find work there, so she saved and scraped and purchased a transatlantic fare on an ocean liner.

After setting aside a little money for expenses she knew she’d incur when she got to New York, she packed a bag with food stuffs to carry her through the six-day journey, mostly crackers. When passengers headed to the dining room for lunch and dinner, she went to her small cabin, got out her cracker ration for that meal, and ate every crumb. She did this for five days.

On her final day aboard, someone asked her why she never came to the dining room and she, embarrassed by her poverty, admitted that she couldn’t afford to purchase her fare and buy her dinner. The woman said to her: “But my dear, all your meals are included in the price of your fare.”

For five days, she went without breakfast and ate crackers and drank water for lunch and dinner, even though the delicious meals in the dining room were hers by right. They had already been paid for, but she didn’t know what she had.

The same thing can happen to us who belong to Christ. He has purchased for us (as the author of Hebrews put it), “so great a salvation,” but we may not know what we have. Many Christians live on rations when they could be feasting.

Not St. Paul. He knew that God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Those blessing include being chosen by him, made his sons and daughters, granted forgiveness, and given a role in the most important project in the history of the world: the Headship of Jesus over every person, institution, and thing on earth (Ephesians 1:10).

Grace has been freely given to us (verse 6), even lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding (verse 8). The delectable fare of the grand dining room is ours, yet some of us have shut ourselves in our tiny cabins with our crackers and water. We don’t realize what is available to us.

But Paul prays we will see it. He doesn’t want Jesus’s people eking out an existence when they could be flourishing – and they could be. The opening paragraphs of this letter are a paean of praise to the God who lavishes his people with all they need. But Paul knows that many of Jesus’s people are like that poor Irish girl on the ship. They don’t know what they have, don’t know how to access it, and are living like they’re destitute.

Let’s read out text (Ephesians 1:15-21) For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 

Verse 15 plays a now-familiar tune. When Paul heard about the Ephesians’[1] faith in Jesus and love for all the saints, he knew they were the real deal: a genuine church with enormous potential to serve the kingdom of God and a real adversary who would try to stop them. In other words, they were people in need of prayer.

It should be a warning to us that this church that loved all the saints would be faulted by Jesus himself within a few decades for having “left [their] first love” (Revelation 2:4). If it could happen to that solid, exemplary church, it can happen to us too. The enemy of our souls is too clever to challenge our love for the God who sacrificially loves us, so instead he challenges our love for the saints who ignore us, exploit us, or take us for granted. God’s enemy understands that love works on a circuit. He doesn’t need to break the circuit between God and his people, so long as he can break it between some of God’s people and others of his people. So that’s where he concentrates his efforts.

When Paul heard about the Ephesians’ faith and love, he couldn’t stop thinking about them and wouldn’t stop thanking God for them. Notice how he links thanksgiving with remembering (or, literally, making remembrance) in verse 16. “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” If we, like Paul, would take a moment to remember the people we’re praying for – what they’re like, what they’ve done, what they value, who loves them and is loved by them; in other words, if we would make remembrance of them – our prayers would be more powerful. Making remembrance is so much more than rattling off names on a prayer list.

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, like his prayers for the Philippians and Colossians, features one principal request. Perhaps we ought to follow his example. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make more than one request for people but that we would do well to have a principal request for each person, one that stands out when we bring that person before our mind and then before the Lord.

After repeatedly holding these believers in his mind, Paul’s one request for them is that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father (literally) “of the Glory” (a loaded phrase, if ever there was one) would give them (literally) “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” Yet another Pauline prayer for people to receive knowledge. We pray for peace, for provision, for healing, and for comfort – all good things to pray for – but he prays for knowledge.

When Paul writes of “a spirit of wisdom and revelation,” he probably has the Holy Spirit in mind. Even if he is thinking of a human spirit characterized by wisdom and revelation, the Holy Spirit will be behind it. Wisdom has to do with knowing what you already have – those spiritual blessings Paul cataloged in verses 3-14 – and what to do with it. Go back to our friend on her transatlantic cruise. Wisdom knows what is covered by the purchase of the fare. In our case, wisdom knows what Christ has purchased, what’s available to us, and what’s possible for us.

While wisdom takes advantage of the knowledge we already have, revelation imparts knowledge that we don’t have. Because God is infinite, revelation is, and will always be, needed. So, Paul prays for the spirit of both wisdom and revelation.

Notice it is wisdom and revelation “in the knowledge of [God].” The knowledge of God is of more practical use than the knowledge of economics, philosophy, mathematics, physics, mechanics, or any other body of knowledge. The knowledge of God is life-giving. (That’s John 17:3.) The knowledge of God brings grace and peace in abundance (2 Peter 1:2). Where the knowledge of God is present, men, women, and children flourish.  

That’s why Paul asks God to give these Ephesians the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. But what happens when people are given this Spirit? The eyes of their hearts are enlightened (verse 18).

The NIV 84 translates verse 18, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” The latest edition drops the word “also.” The Greek has neither the word “also” nor the words “I pray.” They were probably added as a way to break up a very long run-on sentence. Verse 18 is a continuation of the sentence Paul began in verse 15. He is not making a second request here; he’s stating the desired outcome of the first (and only) request.

He prays that the eyes of their heart may be enlightened. The “heart” in Scripture is the human command center. It is from the heart, not the mind, that decisions are handed down. To have the eyes of the heart enlightened is to have the command center fully informed. It is from the heart that directions are decided.

Donald Miller, the author of Blue Like Jazz and a score of other Christian books, had a bad habit: he chewed tobacco. He knew it wasn’t good for him, but he liked it, and he didn’t want to stop. He couldn’t stop. He’d been told that it causes gum disease, tooth decay, and even cancer of the mouth and throat. He knew he should stop; he just couldn’t.

Then one day he was in the car, listening to the radio, and a public service announcement came on. 30 seconds later, Donald Miller no longer chewed tobacco. In a strange, distorted voice, a man warned of the dangers of chewing tobacco (things Miller already knew). Then he explained why his voice sounded like it did: he didn’t have a lower jaw. Cancer, caused by chewing tobacco, had eaten it away.

During that 30 second PSA, the eyes of Donald Miller’s heart – his command center – were opened. Suddenly, what had been impossible for him – quitting tobacco – became possible, even urgent. He says that as the man spoke, he could visualize his face without a lower jaw. He never chewed tobacco again.

The “eyes of a person’s mind” (which is not a biblical phrase, but you get the idea) are able to see all kinds of things in the Bible – good things, true things, beautiful things – but seeing them has little effect on the person. He might eloquently teach them to others but he’s pretty much the same after he sees them as he was before he saw them. But when the eyes of a person’s heart are enlightened, he is transformed. He not only thinks differently, he acts differently.

That illustration might lead us to assume that whenever the eyes of a person’s heart are opened, they will see bad things, like a chewing tobacco habit. That certainly happens, but mostly they see good things. That is where Paul puts the emphasis. He knows there are wonderful things we will miss without the spirit of wisdom and revelation, chief among them, recognizing God in our daily lives.

Years ago, a tourist to Basel, Switzerland, climbed onto a streetcar and sat down next to the twentieth century’s most eminent theologian, Karl Barth. The two started chatting and Barth asked him if he was new to the city. The tourist said he was, so Barth asked him if there was anything he was hoping to see while he was there.

The man said, “Yes, I’d love to meet the famous theologian Karl Barth. Do you know him?” Barth answered, “Well as a matter of fact, I do. I give him a shave every morning.” The tourist was absolutely thrilled. When he got back to the hotel, he went around telling everyone, “I met Karl Barth’s barber today.”[2]

Without the spirit of wisdom and revelation, we may fail to recognize God when he speaks to us. Without the spirit of wisdom and revelation, we will not make the most of the things God has made available to us. Paul mentions three of those things here. He prays that God will give the Ephesians the spirit of wisdom and revelation and so enlighten the eyes of their hearts so they can know: (1) the hope of his calling; (2) the riches of his inheritance; and (3) his power that is at work on behalf of believers.

The first thing Paul wants the Ephesians to know is “what is the hope of his calling” (literal translation from verse 18). If they know – which they won’t without the Spirit of wisdom and revelation – what God had in mind for them when he called them, their entire outlook on life will be transformed. If they know the hope of their calling, they will be able to come through hardship, pain, and even anguish in ways that will impress the world and glorify God.

Paul knew that hope keeps people from being blown off course by the prevailing winds of culture. Hope enables people who are hard pressed to endure. A shared hope makes it possible for people of different races, from different social classes, with differing educational backgrounds to work together, play together, and be for each other.

Paul refers to this hope as the hope of his calling. Let’s not misread that, as if Paul had written, “the hope of your calling.” This calling is not full of hope because we receive it but because God issues it. It is not just a vocational calling, like a calling to be a pastor or a schoolteacher, but a calling to join Jesus’s side, his campaign, and work for him – to be his special people.

In Philippians, it is referred to as the “high calling” or the “upward call” but we are liable to misunderstand that. “High calling” sounds like the vocation of a doctor rather than a factory worker. That’s not at all what Paul means. If we translate it, as some versions do, as “the upward call,” it sounds as if we’ve been called to leave earth and take an extended – eternity-long – vacation in heaven. That’s not it either.

When I was in high school, hoping to avoid Vietnam, guys would talk about their brothers getting “called up.” They were being drafted, called to active duty, called to serve. That’s more like what Paul had in mind. We’ve been called up.

In high school, getting “called up” did not sound hopeful. So, what does Paul have in mind by “the hope” (literal translation) “of his calling”? The hope of his calling is that our side (that is, Christ’s side) will be victorious. Our king will conquer the enemies of evil, suffering, and death. Heaven will come to earth and there will be peace and no more fear. As Isaiah put it: “…the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

If you wanted to sum up this hope in one word, you could hardly to do better than the word “glory.” We are hoping for God’s glory: “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:3). We are hoping for Jesus’s glory (2 Thessalonians 2:14b), when he is acknowledged head over all things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:10). And we even hope to be part of this glory, since God called us to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:14). We hope for the day when our faith will, as Peter put it, “result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6); the day when, as Paul put it, “the glory … will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

Our calling is to be a part of this with the rest of Jesus’s people. We share the “hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). We hope to play a role in the biggest, most glorious thing in history; a role in making the world come out right, in remaking it. It seems absurd to think that people like us can have anything to do with something so great and glorious and yet, because we’ve been called by God himself (entirely of his mercy and grace), we are a part of it.

You’ve been called up to live for, fight for, and even die for Jesus Christ. It is a calling that is full of glory, full of hope. It portends a better world, a united human family living peacefully, joyfully, lovingly, and creatively with God in our midst. It is not a wistful hope but a living one, already substantiated by Jesus’s resurrection – “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”

If you think, “But I have never heard his call,” then listen and hear it now. God is calling, calling you to join his side, to join his people, to serve his kingdom. God is calling you to his glory. Can you hear him? He wants you! Don’t dodge his call.


[1] “Ephesians” is used here as a circumlocution for the Christians in Asia Minor Paul was addressing in this letter.

[2] John Ross, Surrey, England, Leadership, Vol. 8, no. 4.

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