Powerful Prayers: The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation III (His Incomparably Great Power for Us Who Believe)

(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 The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation III (His Incomparably Great Power for Us Who Believe)

(Ephesians 1:18-23) 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. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. 

Imagine you are at your high schooler’s track and field regional finals. She has already run the 100-meter relay and won’t run the 200 for at least a half-hour, so you mosey over to watch some of the field events. The shot putters are competing right now and they are well-matched and they are remarkably good. A couple of them are throwing around the 60-foot line.

At the moment, your school has a pretty strong lead, which might be unsurpassable. Then a shot putter from another school steps into the circle. He hoists the shot, gets into position, spins and releases. The shot flies not 60 feet, not 65 feet, but 75 feet. He doesn’t beat the previous best by inches but by 15 feet. It is astounding. It is miraculous.

What word would you use to describe the difference between this shot putter’s throw and all the rest? Greek has the perfect word for it: huperballon, which means literally “throw beyond,” and figuratively to outdo something by a long shot. That is the word St. Paul uses to describe the power of God. It is not even in the same ballpark with any other power we can name or conceive. It is beyond our grasp.

When Paul wrote this, the Roman Empire was the paradigm of power. Its enormous standing army, garrison cities, elite special forces, and latest military hardware were well beyond any other earthly power. But God’s power surpasses Rome’s like the world record shot putter surpasses the high school freshman’s best throw.

In order to impress his readers with the enormity of God’s power, Paul piles on one descriptor after another. You could translate verse 19 like this: “and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, according to” – now listen to how he piles it on – “the working power” (we get our word “energy” from this word) “of the ruling power” (the word “autocrat” come from this root) of the forceful power of him.”

The primary word for “power” here is frequently translated “miracle” in the gospels. A miracle is an expression of power and God’s power is nothing short of miraculous. The word has the idea of ability and is sometimes translated that way. To possess power is to possess the ability to do what one chooses. In its verb form, the word is frequently translated as “I am able” or “I can.”

We are not always able. Human power is strictly limited. We cannot do everything we choose to do. I may choose to open a jar of homemade preserves but lack the ability (the power) to unscrew the lid. Jesus pointed out that we lack the power to add a single hour to our lifespan, no matter how desperate we are to do so. Human power is limited.

Even collective power, as displayed in government or business, is limited. Rome might have been the paradigm of power in the first century, with its enormous army and advanced weaponry, but even Rome lacked the power to root out rebellion. Rome lacked the power to end starvation and disease. Rome didn’t possess the ability to create a just society based on mutual respect. And though we’ve come a long way since the first century, today’s “superpower” still lacks the ability to do those things.

God does not. His power knows no limits. A critic will immediately ask: Then why is there still starvation and disease? Why does justice evade us? Where is universal human respect? If God is so powerful, and he wants these things, why hasn’t he made them happen?

There’s no getting around it: that is a difficult question, with a multi-part answer and none of us has all the parts. So, even after we have given our best and truest answer, there is much that we don’t understand. But here, at least, is one part of that answer. God has chosen to demonstrate his ability to do these things through the saints, effectively transferring (or, better, investing) some of his incredible power in his people. He wants to demonstrate what he can do in the Church. Later in this same letter, Paul will write of God’s immeasurable, unimaginable ability (the verb form of the noun translated “power” in this passage) which is at work in the church!

But before writing that, Paul tells the Ephesians that God’s intention is to make known to rulers and authorities his wisdom – the absolute brilliance and effectiveness of his plan – and to do so through the Church. The Church is his proving ground, his test track. The church is intended by God to be a model of what can happen – what God has the power to make happen – in the world. The Church is on display as the prototype of God’s wisdom and power.

Every year in January, Las Vegas hosts the country’s biggest tech show. People come from all over to see the latest tech innovations: self-driving cars, delivery drones, next-gen software solutions – even bathroom mirrors that respond to voice command and turn on the shower, make it warmer, soften the light, and more. This year at the tech show, Char Broil introduced smart propane grills, which will take the temperature of your meat, raise or lower the heat at your command, and warn you if a burner goes out. (Next year’s model will actually eat your steak.)

Imagine you are at the Char Broil demonstration at the tech show. The guy running the demonstration looks at an app on his phone and it tells him the temperature of his T-Bone: 130 degrees. That’s not high enough, so he touches his phone screen, and the grill turns up the heat to medium high. He shows his audience the phone and smiles knowingly. But then something happens. Flames start leaping from the grill, catch the display deck and its backyard furniture on fire, and the entire Las Vegas World Trade Center has to be evacuated. That demo will probably not generate many buyers or investors.

So with the church. God has a display. He is demonstrating his know-how and power in a group of very imperfect people, transforming them into “an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with himself as its primary sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.”[1] As God transforms us into this work of art, (functional art, by the way), we experience his power in our lives. Our desires begin to change, as do our attitudes and our relationships, and we gradually become that beautiful community of loving persons. While undergoing this transformation, we become witnesses to Jesus. We experience his power, and others see what God is capable of doing.

But when we sin and fall short of the glory of God – when we fall short of bringing glory to God – because we refuse to give; refuse to forgive; act hypocritically; gossip; mislead; manipulate – we catch fire, burn down the display, and empty the church. There are not many people wanting to buy in when that happens.

Paul longs for Christians to know, to the full extent of their mind’s ability, the supreme greatness of God’s power. He knows that when the Spirit of wisdom and revelation opens people’s eyes to God’s surpassing power, it changes them. It gives rise to reverence in them, what the ancients called “the fear of the Lord,” and makes them passionate worshipers. As our knowledge and experience of God’s power grows, the fear of failure, fear of people, fear of the future, fear of privation is extinguished. Knowing the power of God sets people free to try, to give, to enjoy, to love. We need to know, to the very limits of our ability, the power that God possesses.

This power, Paul says, is “for us who believe” or “for us the believing.” Do you think that is an accurate description of you? John the believing. Dawn the believing. Ethan the believing. Emily the believing. Not everyone is in position to take advantage of the power Paul is talking about.  It is for the believing.

That begs the question, doesn’t it? What are “the believing” believing? In my experience, many people who confess belief in God have little more than a blur or smear of religious thoughts – some quite pagan – about a God who is generally nice and will look after us, and take us to heaven when we die. Would Paul recognize those folks as “the believing”?

I don’t think so. A fuzzy belief in god doesn’t mean much to Paul. “The believing” believe in Jesus the Lord, the rightful ruler of the earth. They believe that what Jesus says is true and his sacrifice is sufficient. “The believing” have more than head knowledge. They have a heart – that is, a command center – commitment to Jesus the Lord.

There is a correlation between belief and the experience of God’s power. In the gospels, there is a remark made in passing by the narrator that has enormous implications for our experience of God. The Evangelist comments, “And he [Jesus] did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matthew 13:58). St. Mark says something even more starting: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay hands on a few sick people and heal them” (Mark 6:5). God’s power – his energetic, working, ruling, overcoming power – is for “the believing,” whose belief becomes a conduit for the exercise of God’s power.

But what if I doubt? Doubt is not a big problem. Unbelief is. Doubt exists in the absence of knowledge and when the knowledge is supplied, the doubter believes. But unbelief – the refusal to believe – is different. It is not motivated by lack of knowledge but by an unwillingness to commit. Doubt is routinely the predecessor to belief. Unbelief is the predecessor to ruin.

Is the power of God capable of meeting your need? It is. As difficult as your situation might be, Jesus’s was worse. He was dead and in the grave when God’s power changed everything. One minute, Jesus was dead and gone and the next he was alive and raised. He was as an impotent corpse, then he was ruler of heaven and earth. Paul says that God’s power for us is just like that power.

“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  (Ephesians 1:19-21).

If you’re in need of power – capable, energetic, authoritative, overcoming power – the person to see is Jesus. He has been raised to the heights of power (verse 21), all things have been subjected to him (beginning of verse 22) and he has been appointed head over everything for the Church. Now, if you’re not in the Church, this power is not for you. But if you are in the Church – you’ve joined Jesus and believe in him – he is the one to go to.

It is important to realize this power is not meant for individuals in isolation from the Church. God loves the Church of Jesus so much he chose it for his inheritance. He invests in the Church and values it tremendously. He releases his great power to “the believing.” This means that, if you are not in the Body of Christ; if the Church is not important to you; if you’re not invested in it; you won’t see much of God’s power.

There are people who are not in the Church, not involved in its mission, not committed (or even giving a thought) to what God is doing in the world – summing up all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ – who still wish to see God’s power in their lives. They want God to use his great power to get them a job or cure their disease or change their son’s attitude but none of that is happening and they cannot understand why. They give to a TV ministry that promises – quid pro quo – that God will heal them or help them, but it appears God is not keeping his end of the bargain. They pray, they ask others to pray, but nothing seems to happen. Why not? Because they are not where the power is.

Imagine living on Lockwood Road in 1936. You don’t have electricity (and don’t really trust it, either). None of your neighbors have electricity. But then Edna and her husband – he works at the car dealership in town – become the first to sign up. The Electric Company runs a wire from Angola Road to the new pole and then to their house. If you want to see what electricity can do, you need to go to Edna’s house. They’ve put in electric lights, a refrigerator, and even a toaster. The only way you’ll see electric power at your house is if lightning strikes, which is not very likely. Just so, God’s power may strike someone who is outside the Church and doesn’t care about Jesus’s mission, but it’s not very likely.

This is hard for us to understand. Western Christians tend to see a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” in isolation from Jesus’s mission, his church, and God’s glorious inheritance in the saints. But when God displays his power, it happens where Jesus is obeyed and his mission advanced. Since the Church is the prototype or the test site or the working model for what God can do, it is where we find his power at work.  

Imagine again that it’s 1936 and you’ve just got on the bandwagon and had the electric company run a wire to your house. You’ve got two electric lights in your kitchen, a lamp in your living room, and one in each of your bedrooms. You have five places where the electricity can actually accomplish something in your house.

It’s a good start. Now imagine that its 1966, and those five light bulbs are still the only electricity-using devices in your home. It’s what you’ve become accustomed to, and you don’t think much about it, but you’re not experiencing many of the benefits electricity could provide.

Similarly, if we have little outlet for the power of God, we will have little experience of the power of God. The first time many people are aware of God’s power is when it flows through them to someone else. This is supposed to happen in the church all the time. Power runs through me for you, through you for me, and through us for everyone else. A Christian who doesn’t serve others doesn’t experience God’s power. We want God’s power in our lives. God wants our lives in his church, delivering power where it is needed.

If you want to become a conductor of God’s power, as well as a recipient of it, try this: Begin praying seriously for something (for example, Children’s Ministry, Family Ministry or Youth Ministry) or some person (for example, someone on the prayer panel in the bulletin). Make yourself available to God for his will regarding that person or ministry. If he brings something to mind for you to do – it can be as simple as sending a card or making a phone call – do it. That’s how you plug in to the power.

This is not simply volunteering for a job. This is connecting to God so that his energy can flow through you. Every time someone does that, it’s like a light comes on in the church. When we all do it, the church becomes the success of the entire exhibition known as life on earth. It becomes, in Jesus’s metaphor, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.

Let’s light this thing up!

We’ll close our time by praying Paul’s prayer for our church family. We’ll personalize the words to our situation as we pray:

God of our Lord Jesus Christ, glorious Father: give us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that we may know you better; that the eyes of our heart may be enlightened in order that we may know the hope to which you have called us, the riches of your glorious inheritance in the saints, and your incomparably great power for us who believe. Amen.


[1] Dallas Willard

This entry was posted in From the Pulpit, Prayer, Sermons, Theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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