Sunday, 31 January 2016
It is obvious here that Paul is describing the content of his prayers for the Ephesians. We might be surprised that he does so, but whether we are or not, the fact is that he was guided by the Holy Spirit to say what was on his heart as he prayed. It should be obvious to us that one reason for this is that Paul’s method is one that God wants us to imitate. Of course, this could be said of all the prayers in the Bible. God wants our prayers to him to be marked by spiritual intelligence, and the best place to find such information is in the Bible.
Why did Paul pray in this way?
Going by the context, there were four reasons why Paul prayed in this way. The first reason is that the Ephesian Christians were believers in Jesus. Paul mentions how he heard about their faith, which means that he is not referring to what he had known about their faith when he was present with them in Ephesus. Maybe he had been told about the current state of the Ephesians by Epaphras or by another visitor to Rome from the area around Ephesus. So Paul is praying for individuals who have a faith that others wanted to speak about. What should we pray for with regard to such? Paul tells us here.
The second reason is connected to their attitude to other Christians, which was that they loved all the saints. Paul could mean that they loved all the believers in Ephesus, but I think he means that their love extended far beyond them. Their spiritual affections embraced the people of God wherever they were. It included the believers on earth, and love would be shown to them by intercession and by providing practical help when possible. And their affections would include the people of God in heaven, the ones who have reached the Father’s house. After all, the ones there in heaven love the believers on earth and are interested in the progress of the faith. Its only real form of progress is in people who have faith in Jesus and who possess a mutual love for one another.
The third reason for Paul’s prayer is connected to what he had previously written in this chapter, in verses 3-14. In those verses, he praises the Father for what the triune God has accomplished in the plan of salvation, a salvation that will bring innumerable sinners to glory. Since God had the Father had chosen the Ephesian believers, since God the Son had redeemed them, and since the Holy Spirit had sealed them, it was Paul’s delight as well as his duty to pray for them. The evidence that we have grasped the wonder of salvation is that we will pray for the recipients of it. Paul was thankful for each of them and therefore he prayed for them. It is safe to deduce that if I do not pray for you, then I am not thankful for you, and if you do not pray for me, then you are not thankful for me.
The fourth reason for Paul’s prayer is obvious. Christians need to experience spiritual blessings. Moreover, they need to experience specific spiritual blessings, the ones identified by Paul here. It is possible to use spiritual language and not say or mean anything in particular. One such word is blessing, which is often used as a cover-up for spiritual ignorance. The next time someone uses the word in your hearing, ask the person what he or she means by it. Something similar happens when people say that what we need is the Spirit. That form of words is not saying what we need; all it is saying is that we have one, but it is not saying what the remedy is. In contrast, Paul here mentions specific spiritual blessings that believers should pray for and expect to receive when they are spiritually healthy.
Who did Paul pray to?
It is clear from verse 17 that Paul prayed to the Father, another reminder that there is a consistent pattern of prayer in the New Testament, a pattern that can easily be traced to the instruction of Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer that we should address the heavenly Father.
Yet we can also deduce from the way that Paul addresses the Father that we should not speak to him in a thoughtless way. Paul says three things about the Father and his example is a challenge to us to have something to say about God when we speak to him. Perhaps Paul spent a few minutes thinking about the Father before he spoke to him. Instead of rushing into his presence, he searched for a reverent spirit and spoke out of it to the Father.
The first detail that Paul mentions is the relationship between the Father and Jesus. We should observe that the apostle does not refer to Jesus as the Son of the Father here, which should cause us to wonder if the apostle wants us to think about the way he describes the Father and the Son. What does Paul mean when he says that the Father is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ? He is reminding us that in the plan of the Father it was his will that his Son, who is fully God, should also become the Mediator between God and man. The role of Mediator involved him becoming human as well as divine, and as a man Jesus could and did address the Father as God. Paul is indicating here that we come to the Father through Jesus the Mediator and that the Father will not deny acceptable requests made through the Mediator.
The second comment that Paul makes about the Father is to say that he is the Father of glory. It could be translated as ‘glorious Father’, but again we need to ask what that means. One way is to regard ‘glory’ as a general term that indicates his deity, the abilities that he has that his creatures do not have, such as his knowledge of everything, his presence everywhere, and his invincible power. Another way is to regard glory as having the meaning of ‘fame’ or ‘renown’, which would say to us that God is the originator of the greatest possible way for him to receive permanently the greatest degree of glory. It is the case that his amazing plan of salvation is the greatest possible expression of glory that even God could attain. Of course, we could combine the two options and say that God used and uses and will use all his abilities to bring about his great plan of salvation, for which he will receive glory for ever. It is helpful to think about who God is and what plans he has before we pray to him.
The third detail that Paul mentions about the Father is that he delights to give the Spirit. Of course, Jesus instructed his disciples to ask the Father for the Spirit and stressed that the Father would never refuse this request. So that leads us to ask how God will give the Holy Spirit and in what way he will do so.
Having the Spirit
Paul mentions two activities of the Holy Spirit here – wisdom and revelation – and he connects them to the knowledge of the Father. So he is indicating that the Spirit will give the wisdom to understand what he will reveal about the Father and the particular blessings he can give. It is important that we recognise that we have the revelation of what the Father can do recorded for us now in the New Testament. What we need is the heavenly wisdom to understand what the Bible says with regard to those doctrines and promises.
It is important to see what Paul does not have in mind here when he refers to a knowledge of God. This knowledge is not merely knowledge about God. It is possible to know a great deal of truth about God and yet not have a living relationship with him. Many people could say a great deal about the attributes of God, but that kind of knowledge might not be very different from saying that the man across the road is intelligent or perceptive, with that knowledge not being an indication that we know him.
Moreover, the activity that Paul mentions here in connection with the Spirit is the same activity that Jesus engaged in when he was living in Israel. He taught his disciples and others that he had come to reveal the Father. One occasion, he said that whoever had seen him had seen the Father. Then he also said that when the Spirit would come he would function as a similar kind of comforter as Jesus was. So here we have the Spirit informing believers in Jesus about some of the great blessings they can receive from their heavenly Father.
Again we should note that Paul is praying for a post-conversion experience of the work of the Spirit. Many of his readers would have been Christians for several years. They had already received the Spirit at their conversion when he was given by the Father to all of them. In verse 14, Paul had informed them that at their individual conversions each of them had received the Spirit as the seal of divine ownership and the mark of genuineness as well as the one who would give foretastes of the heavenly experience. We can regard Paul’s petitions in his prayer as connected to his readers being given such foretastes from God.
Where in our personalities does the Spirit give this heavenly insight? Paul says that it is given to the eyes of our hearts. There are a couple of details that we can note with regard to this area of our lives. First, the enlightenment is available for all believers – Paul does not suggest that this experience is given to believers who wish to give the impression that they are more spiritual than others. Instead, he prays that each of the Ephesian believers would receive this blessing. Second, the enlightenment involves our affections – it touches our hearts and we love what is revealed to us. Paul does not limit the experience to an intellectual awareness of what God can give, although it includes it. If we don’t have a correct understanding, it will be easy for us to assume that some experiences belong to knowing God when they may only be in our imagination.
So Paul has prayed that all his readers would receive from the Spirit an ongoing affectionate encounter with God that would result in them knowing the Father more and more. But how would this come about? Paul mentions three areas in which this should happen.
What did Paul pray for?
The first area of the Christian life that enables believers to know the Father better is connected to what Paul describes as ‘the hope to which he has called you’. In the New Testament, the term ‘hope’ is usually connected to the future, especially to what will happen when Jesus returns and brings into permanent existence the new heavens and new earth. When that great day occurs, all the family of God will enjoy the fact of its arrival and the incredible experience they will know when they become like Jesus and be sinless and glorified forever. The problem that many Christians have is a lack of assurance in connection with their destiny as the heirs of God. Some are apprehensive about getting there, especially when they see their sins, not realising that they seem them in such a manner because they have better eyesight. Remember that Paul is praying that his readers would get foretastes of that glory now. So he wants the Father to give the Holy Spirit as the conveyer of assurance to his readers about that great future occasion.
The second area of Christian living that results in knowing the Father better is linked to ‘the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints’. This phrase could refer to God’s inheritance in his people or to his people’s inheritance in God that he has given to them. Both ideas are true and there may not be that much difference in how each idea works out in our lives. Believers are God’s eternal inheritance; they are his family. So what can God give to believers as part of his inheritance? We should remember that we can receive foretastes of the inheritance through the work of the Spirit. The future inheritance will involve a heavenly environment marked by peace, joy, love and harmony in the new heavens and new earth. Notice that Paul links the discovery of these riches to an awareness of the community of the saints.
The third area of Christian living in which we can know the Father better through the work of the Spirit is the experience of divine power. Sometimes the Bible, when speaking of divine power, points us to the ways it is revealed in creation, whether at the beginning when God made the universe or in the way he upholds it in existence. Here Paul points to another incredible display of divine power that was seen in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Obviously it is good to think about Jesus invested in that position and ruling over all things for the benefit of his people. Yet Paul did not mention the place of Jesus only for information. In addition, he says that all believers can know the same degree of power.
In what ways do we need to know the power of the Father as he showed it when raising his Son from the dead and exalting him to the right hand of God? We need power in order to have our prayers answered because most of the items we pray for, such as conversions and sanctification, are completely beyond the abilities of any human, even the saintliest. Yet this reference to the exaltation of Jesus informs us that the enemies of our souls cannot prevent the Father fulfilling the details of the plan of salvation. They might try and hinder our sanctification, but Jesus is on the throne; they might try and destroy the church by persecution, but Jesus is on the throne. Death may seem to have victories, but Jesus is on the throne. Our weaknesses may be obvious, but Jesus is on the throne.
Those three blessings will be brought to us by the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in order for us to know God better. The Bible does not tell us to seek new blessings; instead it tells us to make better use of the ones we have already been given. When we grasp what our hope is, when we grasp that we are God’s inheritance, and when we grasp that the exalted Christ is dispensing divine power, then we will know in deeper ways the fruit of the Spirit such as his love, his joy and his peace.
The famous Scottish preacher and author, Andrew Bonar, said this about Psalm 23: ‘The Church has so exclusively (we might say) applied this Psalm to herself, as almost to forget that her shepherd, that Great Shepherd, once needed it and was glad to use it. The Lamb, now in the midst of the throne ready to lead us to its living fountains of water, was once led along by his Father.’
Maybe we find his assertion unusual. Yet we know that some psalms describe Jesus because the New Testament tells us that they do. Psalm 22 was on his lips when he was on the cross and Peter tells us in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost that Psalm 16 was a prophecy of the resurrection of Jesus. There is also Psalm 110 which is mentioned several times in the New Testament.
Other psalms picture Jesus because they depict a very devoted person. Such a psalm is Psalm 1, with its focus on the righteous man who meditates on and lives according to the word of God. Another psalm in this category would be Psalm 15, with its description of the righteous man who can enter God’s presence, and a very similar description is given in Psalm 24 about the man before whom the gates of glory will open. When we read and sing Psalm 24 we know that it is referring to Jesus as the perfect man who ascended to heaven.
Psalm 23 comes between two psalms about Jesus. There is Psalm 22 with its focus first on Jesus on the cross, and then a changed focus of Jesus risen from the dead and experiencing universal authority. And Psalm 24 describes the ascension of Jesus to heaven where he was exalted to the right hand of God amid great acclaim from the heavenly host. While there may not be any significance in having Psalm 23 between two psalms about Jesus, it is the case that Christians have sensed that there is. Often, the three psalms have been described as Jesus and the Cross (Psalm 22), Jesus and the Crook (Psalm 23), and Jesus and the Crown (Psalm 24), or Jesus the Sufferer (Psalm 22), Jesus the Shepherd (Psalm 23) and Jesus the Sovereign (Psalm 24). Those descriptions, of course, reveal how we see the benefits he has provided for us. As the sufferer on the cross, he dealt with our sins; as the shepherd, he leads us through life; and as the sovereign, he rules over all things on behalf of his church.
One striking feature about the psalm is that there is no reference to personal sin in it. This does not mean that David the author was not thinking about his sins when he composed it. Yet it is possible that he was guided by the Holy Spirit in such a way that the words can describe someone who is sinless, similar to how Psalms 1 and 15 do, although they are also describing a devout believer. So we can look at those psalms and say that in an ideal way they describe Jesus and then in a lesser way they describe his people. And can we not do the same with Psalm 23? Some of us may want to say that the word ‘mercy’ in the last verse points to sin that needs to be forgiven. Yet mercy is more than a response to personal sin, and it may be possible to find ways in which Jesus enjoyed mercy although he was not a sinner.
Moreover, while it is appropriate to think that the psalm describes the way a shepherd treats his flock, as far as the psalm is concerned the shepherd is only looking after one individual. And he looks after one individual who could be described as exercising complete faith or perfect faith in every situation. Is this also a pointer that the psalm is about someone special?
So if it is the case that Jesus would have used this psalm of himself, in what ways can we see this? The first point I would make is that the psalm fits with Jesus being aware of a covenant relationship. We can see a reference to a covenant relationship in the name that is used of God in verse 1. Yahweh was the name that described the special relationship that Israel as a people had with God. In a far higher sense, there was an eternal covenant between the Father and the Son, which we can read about in Isaiah 42, which is one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, and in this one the Father is referring to his Son having come as the Saviour.
There we read this in verses 6-7: ‘I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.’ Those verses clearly describe the activities of the Messiah. Yet we see in verse 6 that the Lord promises to guide and protect the Messiah, which is very shepherd-like language. So when Jesus read about himself in Isaiah 42, he would have seen that the Father had promised to take care of him, which means the Father would function as a shepherd.
The next claim made by the speaker is that he is provided regularly with divine sustenance that leads to refreshing restoration. We usually think of restoration as a recovery from sin. Yet it can be used in the sense of providing strength for the weary. Of course, the sustenance described here is not physical food and drink, but food and drink for the soul. Where did Jesus get such sustenance from on a regular basis?
We find one answer in Isaiah 50:4, another Messianic reference: ‘the Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.’ This prophecy is saying that Jesus received refreshment from God on a daily basis, and we know from the Gospels that he then passed on spiritual refreshment to his followers.
Connected to this daily activity, we are also told several times in the Gospels that Jesus went to the countryside, away from the crowds, in order to pray, and that would have been another way that spiritual food and drink was given to him from his Father with whom he had fellowship.
Paths of righteousness
The third detail that the speaker mentions is that he was led in the paths of righteousness by Yahweh for Yahweh’s sake. Why would Jesus have been led in such a way by the Father, if this psalm is about him? We get an answer to that question again in Isaiah 42 where we are told in verse 21: ‘The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious.’ There we are told that the Lord’s Servant will magnify the law and make it honourable, and there was no one who ever obeyed the law as did Jesus when he walked in the paths of righteousness. Indeed, at his baptism, the heavenly Father announced from heaven that he was delighted with the way that his beloved Son had lived for him during the thirty or so years that he was in Nazareth. And we can also know that he obeyed the law on our behalf, so we can watch him in the Gospels walking along the paths of righteousness, working out for us a way for us to justified.
In verses 4 and 5, the psalm changes from description of the shepherd to conversation with the shepherd. And in verse 4, the speaker mentions that he is walking through the valley of the shadow of death. I wonder why the Holy Spirit wanted David to describe the time in the valley of the shadow of death as a conversation, even if it is only a one-sided conversation. Is it too much to suggest that the speaker’s time in that valley was the most significant period in his life? If it was, then we can see why Jesus can be described as speaking to his Father here because the time of his death was the most important time in his life.
Obviously, when we see a shadow we know that the object that is causing it is close by. As far as Jesus was concerned, he was walking towards the cross and as he did so he was conscious of his Father’s presence. Even when near the very end of the journey, he said, as recorded in John 16:32: ‘Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.’ He said that as he was about to go to Gethsemane where he would undergo a severe testing of his commitment, where the shadow of death became very real. He even said there, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ His disciples did not watch with him, however. Still the Father was with him. And even on the cross, at the start and at the end of his crucifixion, he was conscious of his Father’s presence, first when he prayed for the soldiers who were crucifying him and second when he dismissed his spirit into his Father’s hands and died.
The speaker then mentions the fact that the shepherd’s tools – the rod and the staff – gave him comfort. It is not entirely clear what those were used for by a shepherd – some suggest they were used for protecting the sheep from wild animals. Yet we are told what the effect of them was – comfort. There is not a literal connection here, but we need to ask which of the Father’s instruments would have brought comfort to the Saviour, and I would suggest that there are two – the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
We know that Jesus found strength from the Word of God – Psalm 40 tells us that the law of God was in his heart and the many occasions on which he referred to the Old Testament we can see how much it contributed to his life. And we know that the Holy Spirit was with Jesus in a special way even from his childhood, and that it is interesting that when he described the work of the Holy Spirit he referred to him as another Comforter, perhaps pointing to the ways that he himself enjoyed the ministry of the Spirit.
Many scholars regard verses 5 and 6 as indicating a change of imagery from that of a shepherd to that of a host. The obvious reason for that suggestion is the presence of a table and a cup and a house. To begin with we should observe that verse 5 is part of the conversation that the speaker is having with the Shepherd and belongs to the speaker’s time in the valley of the shadow.
Apparently, it was the custom of Palestinian shepherds to walk the path that the sheep would later take and choose suitable places to store food for the sheep when they would reach that location. We might assume that the one place they would not do so would be somewhere in the dangerous valley where the enemies of the speaker were located. Yet in the psalm that is the exact place where the shepherd provided food and refreshment for the one travelling through the real valley of the shadow.
What was the experience of Jesus as approached and reached Calvary, the place that the shadow pointed towards? What would he have received that would have given him sustenance and that would have refreshed him in the way that oil did, causing him to say that he was full of joy (his cup was overflowing). No doubt his Father was with him in special ways.
Yet would he not have received great joy when Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross, Simon who was the father of well-known believers called Alexander and Rufus, and whose wife was a mother to Paul, and mentioned by him in Romans 16? Would it not have been a table of sustenance for the soul of Jesus and a source of refreshment in the valley of the shadow when the penitent criminal confessed his faith? Who put those tables there and who refreshed Jesus with the equivalent of oil but the Shepherd in whom he trusted?
The speaker affirms here two things about his life as he speaks in the valley of the shadow. In the first line, he says that wherever he goes he will be followed by goodness and love and in the second line he says that he will dwell for ever in the house of the Lord. The word that is translated as mercy in our version is translated as lovingkindness, faithful love and love. I suppose we have to ask whether in this life we can say that only goodness and love follow us because many, if not most, experience other things as well. Could Job say that only goodness and love followed him? Could it not be that, in the valley of the shadow, the speaker is looking forward to a better country where only goodness and love will be found? Indeed, he says that the goodness and love will rush after him.
Quite often in Hebrew poetry the second line enhances the meaning of the first. Sometimes you may read someone who suggests that ‘forever’ should be translated as ‘as long as I live’ as it is here. The problem with that suggestion is that it would require us to see that David became a priest in the temple, and we know that he did not. So whatever David meant, he did not mean that he would serve God in his earthly house.
As with the previous line, the speaker is focussing on another world as he spoke from the valley of the shadow. The speaker is telling us to think of a beautiful place that will be home to God’s children, where nothing but divine goodness and love will be known. Is that not what Jesus spoke about when he mentioned Paradise to the penitent thief that he would be with him? And is he not inviting us to go there?