Ephesians 1:15-17 “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 . . .”
It is so hard to pray alone, and that is why God has given to us a whole day each week to meet together for worship. I can’t see how anyone can maintain a personal devotional life while rejecting the enormous boost of the corporate means of grace twice a Sunday. The student learns in a class with other students. The weight-watcher sticks to her diet with the special help she gets from her weekly exercise class: that is her accountability group. The footballer has his fitness sessions along with other players. Yet to all of these people there comes a time when self-control has to lock in. You know those times when no other eyes are upon you, but you have to deny yourself and open your books and study, or refuse the temptation of the cream cakes, or say no to the alcohol. Social interaction may boost our private behaviour, but there has to be a time when you go to a quiet room and close the door. It is the same with prayer, and your Father who sees you in secret listens, and then he rewards you openly.
What encouraged Paul to pray for the Ephesians? A couple of things: first, he has been considering everything God had done for them – all we’ve been looking at. God had blessed them with every spiritual blessing in Christ. God had refused them nothing. These personalities whom Paul knew in Ephesus God had chosen, and he had adopted them into his family. He had redeemed them and lavished on them wisdom and an understanding of their destinies. He had sealed them with the Holy Spirit of promise. He had done that to every one of them and “for this reason” (v.15) Paul turns to God and thanks God for everything he has given to these Ephesian Christians. So what does this say to us about how we can be encouraged to pray? By considering other believers in all the loveliness of their lives, and considering what God has done for them. That is one means of stirring us to prayer.
Then the other means of encouraging prayer is to consider how these Christians were now behaving. The Ephesians had exemplary faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and love for every other believer (v.15). Paul had heard about it over the early Christian grapevine, and he couldn’t stop remembering them in his prayers. He thought of the pre-Christian Ephesus which he had come to – maybe a decade earlier. There were the twelve muddled men he’d met who’d only heard of John the Baptist’s teaching, and the little group of Christians daunted by the task of bringing the gospel to that immense metropolis; the early battles in the synagogue and the three years of teaching and praying and visiting and answering questions, and now . . .! What a transformation! This church could get this epistle, read it and understand it! They were not academic geniuses. They were ordinary Christians who had embraced New Testament Christianity, and one consequence of this was their mighty faith in Jesus and their strong love for one another. Paul gave thanks to God for them. Do we do that?
1. TRUE PRAYER IS CHARACTERISED BY GRATITUDE TO GOD.
“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” (vv.15&16). How can we start to open this up? Shall we point out this, that both faith and love featured in their lives. There’ve been some church members who had faith in Christ, and they took off to the high mountains with it, and to deserts and caves, living in isolation from all other Christians, especially from women, and there they lived their lives, and there they died. They had faith, but where was their love for all the saints to isolate themselves from other believers in that way? There are people who have enough theology to make them despise certain people, but not enough theology to enable them to love their fellow Christians. These Ephesians had faith and love.
Or we can say something about the faith of these Ephesians. It is hard to be precise as to what aspect of the faith Paul is thinking about. It may well be their personal trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord. Paul had preached to them of the Saviour who said, “Come to me all ye that labour and I will give you rest,” and they had come and had rest, and Paul was so thankful for their trust in God. Or he could be thinking of their faithfulness manifest in some of them for ten years in the idolatrous cauldron of Ephesus with all the lusts of the eyes and the flesh all around them. They and their families lived in the shadow cast over them by the vast Temple of Diana with her vile priestesses. But they had been faithful and they had gone on looking unto Jesus and trusting him day by day and Paul is thinking about that faithfulness. Or he is writing here of the faith he brought to them, in other words, the Christian message, and that they had kept it. When he bade them farewell at the quay side all those years ago he warned them that after his departure evil men like ravenous wolves would come in seeking to destroy them, and from amongst themselves similar men would stand up and begin to lead them astray. He told them to watch, and they had taken his counsels to heart. Every time a newcomer arrived in Ephesus and announced that he was a Christian teacher, the elders looked at one another and thought, “I wonder is this one of those that Paul warned us about?” They were wise vigilant men keeping an eye on the flock of God, and now people had reported to Paul about the way the Ephesian church was standing in a evil day and keeping the faith in Jesus Christ that Paul delivered to them. So the language of the verse allows any of these interpretations to be used and when you begin to extend any of them a little you find that all those three aspects of faith are essential.
Then we may say something about their love for all the saints. We could say this, that it is very easy to love some of the saints, especially our own bunch. The Lord Jesus talks about the tendency men have to greet those who greet them. Christ says, “But I say unto you to love your enemies, and do good to those who despitefully use you.” This extraordinary congregation in Ephesus was characterised by love for all the saints. None was excluded. Slaves were not excluded; the dying were not excluded; the senile were not excluded from this love; the wealthy and the slave-owners, even they were not excluded; the awkward and unlovable Christian was not marginalised – except to the extent that he marginalised himself. How remarkable! Little wonder Paul gave thanks for them, because such love is the result of a gift of God, and pure vertical sovereign grace. You can’t work up affection like that.
You will be aware that when Paul is talking about their love for all the saints that he is not talking about something warm and fuzzy, or touchy-feely but something deeply ethical, full of self-sacrifice. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (I Cor. 13:4-7). That was the kind of love that the Ephesian congregation had for one another.
Paul’s response was constant gratitude: “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (v. 16). You know that one of the most profound theological utterances, indeed one of the most glorious statements about Christian doctrine, is this: “Theology is grace, and ethics is gratitude.” What is my duty as a saint, that is, as a redeemed child of God? My duty is gratitude. Paul considers this congregation in Ephesus and he can’t stop giving thanks for them. There is that verse in Psalm 145 which has been made the chorus of a Sankey hymn, “Every day will I bless Thee, and I will praise Thy name for ever and ever.” You ponder that for one moment. You consider the ordinariness of it as a statement of Christian duty. “Every day will I bless Thee.” Some days doxology is easy, but there are days when it is surpassing hard, or well-nigh impossible. Yet here is the apostle Paul and he prays constantly to God, and he gives him thanks every day. There are days we rise to disappointment, and days we rise to frustration. There are days of irreparable loss, and profound anguish and sorrow, perhaps even to the irrevocableness of bereavement. I might rise to that, and then I determine, “Every day will I bless Thee.” Always, and at all times I shall give thanks to God. Why? Even this, for his immense blessings on other Christians, my children and my friends, for the great privileges of redemption which we share, for the life-changing work of grace in every believer, for their faith and love. So when I rise each day his praise shall be on my lips and continually in my mouth.
Paul was enduring a long prison sentence, and facing an uncertain trial and the possibility of execution, but nothing could part him from the love of God. When his Lord begins a good work in someone then he continues it until the day of Christ. When the devil whispered to Paul, “How are you going to survive? How will you get by?” Paul could say, “I have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. I have been adopted into the family of God. I have been given the inward seal, the Holy Spirit. Every day, and every moment of each day, though frequently I may be in heaviness through many trials, I recall everything that I and all the church of Jesus Christ has received in such abundance from God, and for this reason I haven’t ceased being grateful.”
Maybe we shall just turn this point in one more direction. Why does Paul bother to pray as he has told us that God is Sovereign and works all things after the counsel of his own will (v.11)? In other words, the evil murder of Jesus Christ was the actual will of God. The brothers selling Joseph their sibling into a life of slavery in distant Egypt – that was the will of God – “it was not you who sent me here but God,” said Joseph to them. Then why pray, if God is in charge of everything? Why do anything? Why witness? Why live a good life? Why study the Bible? Why preach? If what is going to happen is going to happen anyway, might we not as well do what we please, and let God do what he wants? Why pray to a sovereign God? The answer of course is this, that God uses means to accompany his ends, and the means he has commanded us to adopt are kindness and love and good works and witnessing and preaching and the Lord’s Supper and baptism and public worship and . . . prayer. “Pray without ceasing,” said Paul, and his Lord and ours commands us always to pray and not to faint. If we refuse to do those things we are defying God. If we don’t pray then the good things for which we pray won’t happen. It is through prayer that God brings blessing. Paul went to Ephesus with the message of the Sovereign God and the apostle was inwardly praying all the time he preached that message, “Lord I am sowing and watering, but please give the increase.” It is 100% prayer and 100% God.
2. TRUE PRAYER ASKS GOD THAT CHRISTIANS WILL GROW IN WISDOM.
“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 that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened . . .” (vv.17&18). Wisdom, and revelation, and enlightenment – this is his first concern, and not merely here in this letter. In his prayer for the Colossian church in the first chapter of his letter to them he is praying that they also might be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. The apostle is reminding us of the primacy of the intellect in the experience of the Christian believer.
Even evangelical Christians are often guilty of depreciating this particular area of the Christian life. We are so fond of referring to something we call ‘dead orthodoxy’. We are guilty of emphasising ‘heart’ as distinct from ‘head’ and playing down the whole divine emphasis on knowledge and truth. What people call ‘worship’ consists largely of singing. That is very different. There may be no connection at all between the two, and generally there isn’t. What they call ‘heart’ consists largely of feelings. They have no concept of the climactic point of worshipping being God dealing with us as his Word comes to us. So they sing a lot on Sundays, and then they have to invent a small mid-week study course with a meal on what occasions they give basic teaching. They don’t realise that depreciation of doctrine and the intellect is not the hallmark of evangelical religion at all but of modernism. Liberalism goes back to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher at the beginning of the 19th century. The very essence of his theology was feeling, the feeling of dependence, and we find ourselves amongst evangelicals so often where this is the emphasis, the stress upon feeling blessed, and the stress upon the heart and the emotions.
Now I am certainly not going to depreciate these things to the extent of saying that in the Christian life there is no emotion, because in the Christian life there is emphatically emotion, and ‘affections’ (as Edwards termed them) of unlimited degree. I would place no limit to the emotion of the believer’s joy, and no limit on the intensity of the believer’s sorrow. There is feeling; and there is emotion in all genuine religious experience, but that emotion is always emotion in response to truth and doctrine. It is affection in response to the mighty works of God. It is joy in response to the glory of God. It is sorrow in response to our own sin and depravity.
So the apostle begins with knowledge, “so that you may know God better”. This is his first concern, but he will return to it in this letter. If you go on to the fourth chapter you will find the apostle saying to this church not to live as other Gentiles lived (v.17). There was something wrong with the way Gentiles behave and Paul points out the root of their problem. They live as they do because of the futility of their thinking. Don’t copy them. There is something wrong with their thoughts, and the precise thing wrong with them is this, that their minds are absolutely devoid of certain information and knowledge. So the first thing that happens to these Gentiles when they come into the orbit of the Christian faith is that God does something to their minds. What happened on the road to Damascus was that an intellectual revolution took place in the mind of Saul of Tarsus. God gave him a totally new understanding of his own condition and who Jesus Christ was, that he was God’s Son.
The apostle tells us time and time again of the way he evangelised, that he declared to men and women the gospel of God; he was determined to give people certain information. He did it so wisely, employing a different approach when he spoke to the Jews from speaking to the Gentiles. But it was always men’s minds he addressed and he wanted all groups to know that they were sinners and that Jesus Christ was the divine Saviour. In other words, his concern in evangelism was to do something to the minds of his hearers, and instill within them certain great foundational convictions. Paul was commanded to see that they grasped certain theological propositions. He wanted them to see that Christ had died for sinners, and that he had risen again on the third day for our justification, and that such truths were the basic presupposition of faith. “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” and faith is first and foremost the assent of the mind to certain theological propositions. The way to God begins with knowledge, knowledge of Jesus Christ, information, enlightenment and persuasion.
At the end of Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan tells us of a person who goes all the way to the gates of heaven but is refused admission. Bunyan writes, “The King of heaven commanded the two shining Ones that conducted Christian and Hopeful to the City, to go out and take him and bind him hand and foot, and have him away. Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the Hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a Way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.” What was the name of the person who at heaven’s very gates was refused admission, and was thrown into hell? His name was Ignorance. Paul yearns over the Ephesians that not one of them should fall at the last because of ignorance of God and his way of salvation.
Now these Ephesians had some understanding of the Christian way to heaven; they had the basic knowledge necessary for faith, they had done a simple introductory course of study we might say, but Paul is persuaded that this is not enough, and he prays for them to seek more and increase in the knowledge of God. It is the problem in so many Christian lives, that there is initial progress in the process of evangelism so that we secure the necessary knowledge and believe that Christ is the Son of God, and we become members of the church. We enjoy assurance, and we call ourselves the Lord’s people, and of course we are, but it’s apparent that often there is stagnation. There is no growth in knowledge. I am not speaking of mystical knowledge or esoteric knowledge. I am speaking simply of knowledge, church-goers ceasing to grow in theological understanding. They have the elementary knowledge; they have done something like the Alpha course, but they do not marvel at the glory of Christ. They were no longer exploring great truths. They had stopped searching the scriptures. They had no taste for preaching. That was Paul’s concern with them all.
Such a mentality is a contradiction of the whole New Testament concern with growth. These Ephesians were Christians who could read and grasp this letter of Paul, but the apostle is not content. He wants them to comprehend this tremendous truth of the love of God, before which we stand and only say, “the height . . . the depth . . . the length . . . the breadth . . .” and Paul is asking, “Is this your desire, to comprehend God in his glorious love?” Or as Paul says again, to know the love of Christ that passes knowledge or understanding. Is our concern that we grow into the maturity of Christian grace? Do we love to meditate upon the word of God? Do we know today what we did not know twelve months ago? Do we know the doctrine of the person of Christ more thoroughly? Do we know the Bible’s teaching of the work of Christ more clearly? Do we know more of the divine revelation about God the Holy Spirit? Have we grown in knowledge? Is there increase? I am not talking in terms of emotional maturity or moral steadfastness. That is essential, of course, but all that is going to be in proportion to growth in knowledge of the truth: “Sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth.” That is where the apostle begins, God giving us a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that we know God better and better, and the eyes of our hearts are enlightened. There are two former students who sat here during the three years they were in college, but for the last twenty years they have been attending a church which has pathetically inadequate teaching. What does this couple say about this, for there are fine other churches they could attend not far from their homes? They say, “We had our teaching from Geoff Thomas when we were at university.” That was twenty years ago, and yesterday’s teaching is a day late for today. I wonder did they really get the point of my ministry?
I am talking about the crucial significance of word-centred preaching, that you sit each Sunday under the best ministry, the most biblical ministry, the most practical ministry, the most searching, the most God-honouring and Jesus-centred ministry you can find. That is how you judge a church and make your decision to worship there. That is not a luxury. It is utterly essential. Some friends of ours from the USA have spent three years in Cambridge where he obtained his Ph.D. and while they were there they worshipped in the Presbyterian Church and devoured the teaching of Ian Hamilton. After years of having to hear the feel-good user-friendly preaching of American churches they rediscovered God in England. They loved that church, but now their time in England is over and they have been back in the USA for less than three months, and they are desperately looking for a church – in the Bible-belt – with a word-centred ministry. This week I got this letter from the wife: “You are sadly correct about finding it hard to find a church in the ‘Bible Belt’. We have many Presbyterian churches to choose from but not one with the teaching and ministry we found in Cambridge. I know we shouldn’t compare, but it is hard not to. We went to a service in the evening a few weeks ago and the pastor read a question from the Heidelburg Catechism (fine) and proceeded to talk about it for maybe . . .3 minutes. Maybe, and that was it! That was his ‘sermon’ or ‘homily’ or whatever he wanted to call it. It made me weep. Are evangelicals in Britain just different?” You consider this, that her husband is teaching in a good Christian college. Where do those students go on a Sunday for the four years they study at that school? I reckon that my friends will have to get by in what would be the best of the churches there and get food by listening to the cassettes of Ian Hamilton and preachers like him. Men and women, that should not be.
Let me use Wayne Grudem’s illustration: imagine a jigsaw puzzle and the picture you are putting together is this, “What the Whole Bible Teaches us Today About Everything.” So courses like the Alpha course would perhaps fill in the borders and a few details of the jigsaw, and then you go on in the Christian life, studying the Bible, talking to Christians, listening to the word of God being preached, reading books, experiencing church life, going on to the front line of Christian service and so on. All the time you are adding pieces to the jigsaw. You are building up your grasp of what the whole Bible teaches about everything. Then you’re discovering this, that the more pieces you fit in the better your grasp of the picture and easier it is to fit new pieces in. My task in every sermon is to encourage you to put another piece or two into the picture. Of course none of us ever succeed in putting every piece in, but we have a much clearer picture at the end than at the beginning when we were simply marking out the borders with the straight edged pieces.
I came across a number of you in different circumstances this week and you were in effect putting in some of these jigsaw pieces, in other words, you were reading different books. One was reading Dr Lloyd-Jones’ “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount” and another was reading the new autobiography of the late Fraser Tallach, “Fraser: Not a Private Matter.” Another was re-reading my book on Daniel: “I can just hear your voice,” you said to me, and that was gratifying. All of you are reading books. All of you are going into the Christian Book Shop and finding helpful material to grow in your knowledge of God. A group of concerned Indian Christian leaders got together for the first time this week on Tuesday, under our friend Jyotti, and they spent the day discussing how they might strengthen the cause of the gospel in India. They do not have an organisation like the Banner of Truth or the Evangelical Movement of Wales in India. Some of them had taken long train journeys to be there. Of course they are concerned about poverty in India, and in fact that evening they went to the opening of a well in a nearby village that western Christians had paid for. They had sent money for a bore-hole to be drilled so that the people did not have to walk a long distance to get clean water. I am saying that these Christian leaders were not indifferent to physical poverty, but there is a poverty of the mind, and one of the things that came out of that meeting was a list of ten basic paperback books, quite an interesting and excellent selection. They will purchase these as cheaply as they can and send them as a gift to pastors in their area, and then as they are able, to men in India further afield. They are fulfilling the prayer of the apostle here.
We must keep growing in knowledge. Anyone who follows a profession knows that it is a mistake to stop studying, or to think, “I have now passed my final exam and I never have to study again.” What a disaster! Does your doctor keep up with break-throughs and new treatment and the latest drugs to appear and reassessments of old familiar treatments? Did he stop reading thirty years ago? If you discovered that that was the case would you have confidence in him? Surely all knowledge is dynamic and th ere are new techniques discovered year after year, and almost week by week. People are ill and in pain and doctors must keep up with those advances. So it is with the Christian. There are truths in books of the Bible that are just designed for your condition today. You are weak and ignorant because you don’t know the word. Jesus says, “Search the Scriptures!” Really ransack them.
How is it with you? Put it like this, in these moments when our minds relax, where do they settle? In other words, what is the inevitable gravitation of our understandings in moments when there is no pressure of duty, and no exterior responsibility? In what direction do our minds gravitate when there is no tension and no pressure? In what direction do our minds move? Are we filled with the knowledge of his will? So that on the very top of our minds lie great truths of the word of God so that we have some skill in using the Scriptures.
Now I am not saying that a man is holy and pious in proportion to the depth of his theological understanding, or his knowledge of various revivals, or that he is an expert on Christian experience. I don’t believe that, but I am saying that biblical knowledge is foundational, and in whatever direction Christians are growing, or not growing, they ought most emphatically to be growing in the area of Christian truth. See how important it is for Paul. He puts this in first place here in his desire for the Ephesians, but more than that, notice his approach, how he brings these two vastly different beings together, and into a certain relationship with one another. There is on the one hand God, but listen to how Paul speaks of him, in the language of reverence and awe; he magnifies the living God. This is how a man who has come to know God speaks of him: “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father . . .” Doesn’t that take your breath away? Couldn’t you imagine there would come a time of blessedness into your own life when you would read those words and each one would make you utterly prostrate? You would be lying on your face before this God. Are they not overwhelming words describing your God? Your Lord Jesus Christ? Your glorious Father? Is there not beauty in every word? “The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father.” That is the one great Being whom Paul speaks of here, and then there is the other, and it is a congregation of sinners who love this God, and they are limping, staggering, falling, following men and women and children. And Paul is praying to this immense deity about these people, and he is pleading with him that these little people will become wise and enlightened in knowing God.
“Help them to grow up,” he pleads, “take them from their infancy in knowing you, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Help them mature. May they be no longer children tossed about with every wind of doctrine. May they be like children in the malice they show to others, but in understanding – men! You are the glorious Father and it is you O Mighty God whom I want them to know, better and better.” Paul tells us that he kept asking this: “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” (v.17). How does this knowledge come? By grace. By a gift of God, the Spirit of wisdom and revelation coming upon them. Do you understand Paul’s point here? There was nothing passive or automatic about this knowledge. Let me illustrate it in this way. James Boswell, the 18th century biographer, met the playwright Oliver Goldsmith. It was the age of the Evangelical Awakening and neither man was sympathetic with the ministry of George Whitefield. Goldsmith said, “I take my shoes from the shoemaker, and my coat from the tailor. So I take my religion from the priest.” That was it. There was none of this so-called ‘enthusiasm.’ You went along to your church and the priest went through his ritual and then you went home. That was it, and that is it for many people today. They sit and participate in what the qualified man is doing in the front and then they can get on with something else more important.
“No!” says Paul. It is not like that. God, the living glorious God who sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world, and he is the most fascinating and marvelous reality there is. He cannot be kept in a box for an hour on Sunday morning and then ignored until the next Sunday. God is to be glorified in us, and known more and more, and enjoyed. The Spirit of wisdom and revelation must come upon you personally, continually, instructing, enlightening and inspiring you. He must strengthen you by the truth to meet temptation and the moral issues of our day. He must help you in your family to be the sort of parent or child you should be. Growing in wisdom is not a matter of sitting in a service and then going on to something that really grips you. It is crying mightily to God that the Spirit of wisdom and revelation be your energiser and light and inspiration and joy.
You see the phrase Paul uses here, “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” (v.17). There are no capital letters in Greek and so you have to choose whether Paul is referring to God the Holy Spirit or their own spirits being gripped by wisdom. I think that most scholars would endorse the decision the N.I.V. translation has made here and capitalise the ‘S’ making it refer to the Holy Spirit. The late William Hendriksen of Grand Rapids has in fact six reasons why it must be the Holy Spirit, one of which is the fact Paul refers to this as the “Spirit of . . . revelation” and no one has that within his life. So Paul is praying that as they hear the word of God being preached to them week by week that the Spirit of wisdom and revelation will come upon the Word and enable them to know God better. Just after the Second World War there were two important annual summer conferences of Christian students held just outside Aberystwyth. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached in both of them, the first one being on the doctrines of grace and the second one, I believe, on man’s chief end being to glorify God. They were life-transforming conferences for the hundred students there, many of them becoming leaders in the evangelical emergence in Wales in the next fifty years. Dr Lloyd-Jones preached, and as he did so the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, gave them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that they knew God better than they ever had before.
See the word Paul uses? It is the word ‘wisdom’ not the word ‘knowledge.’ What is the difference? Wisdom is knowledge applied. It is Christian truth and doctrine and theology coming right into our lives and situations assisting us in all the challenges of our daily living. The Spirit of wisdom guides us to become intelligent citizens, to spend out money properly, to choose a job and a spouse in a Christian way, and so forth. Of course, the Bible cannot answer all our questions. For example, it cannot tell us which specific person to marry, or what car to buy, but it can tell us the sort of person to marry and how best to use our finances when it comes to buying a car. The Spirit of wisdom applies the Scripture to us. In fact that is how the Bible is set out. Nowhere in Scripture do we find doctrine studied for its own sake or in isolation from life.
The great end of this whole enterprise is to know God better (v.17). Now it is crucial to know about God isn’t it? Let me use this illustration: You come to this congregation as a bachelor student and a girl catches your eye. The first essential is that you know about her, is she married or engaged or single? What is her status? What is her name? What faith does she have? And so on. You must know about her before you can proceed to know her for yourself and in a more loving and intimate way. But imagine such a man content merely to know about this woman or that woman. He would never marry would he? He must know that person in order to ask for her hand in marriage. So too we can never be satisfied with knowing about God. We can define him as a triune God; the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God and these three are one God. We can say that he is a Spirit infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. We know true things about him, but we must know him for ourselves. There must be personal dealings with this God. He chooses to open himself up to us and we begin to walk through life together. Then we get more and more personally involved with him, in mind and will and feeling. When he is honoured we rejoice. When people choose him as their God and Saviour we are thankful. When people despise him and his ways we feel acute distress. He speaks to us in his word as it is preached to us. He is making himself known to us, so that what was at first a big, living, but rather indistinct reality has new features, and we can recognise him and trace out his beauty. We experience him at work in times of pain and pressure and guilt, and we learn more and more about him. That is what Paul wants, that we all know the living God better.
This has great bearing on this matter of what is practical preaching. A person comes to our church one Sunday night and he is perplexed. He doesn’t know which way to turn. What is his greatest need? To know God and to possess a Spirit of wisdom. That is what he hears that Sunday. His particular problem was not even mentioned. During the sermon he was not told three things concerning the problem. God didn’t give him rules, but God gave him a closer and more intimate knowledge of himself. He went out a new man, equipped to see this matter through. God revealed his own greatness and glory to him. Perhaps that person was you, and you came here praying for wisdom to make a decision. Good. But God’s answer was to give to you a fuller knowledge of himself. That was the answer. When you know him better you will become more like him, and are able to act wisely in ways that are pleasing to God. You are learning to honour and please God.
Consider those hundred students over fifty years ago setting out on their careers, thinking of marriage and working in churches and advancing the kingdom of God, full of questions about all those things, and they hear three conference addresses on the Sovereignty of Almighty God. Nothing could be more relevant and helpful and practical to those young men and women than those messages, and their lives showed it as they brought reformation and life to dying congregations. Nothing was the same for them afterwards. Everything had changed. They knew God better, and so they knew themselves and one another better.
Dr Alan Bloom wrote his famous book, “The Closing of the American Mind” fifteen years ago. He begins by saying that you can guarantee any student beginning his studies in university today comes to college persuaded that every value and every fact is relative, in other words, there are no absolute and ultimate standards of truth and ethics, just things that are OK for you and things that are OK for me. That is all that this world has. University does not deliver anyone from that naive position, rather it tends to reinforce it. What is so fascinating about Bloom’s book is his argument that this relativism results in men’s minds closing to the truth. It stifles the quest for truth and goodness. How is that? It is simple. If there is no such thing as righteousness, then there is no hunger and thirst for it. If there is no such thing as truth and no possibility of anyone finding it then people aren’t going to sell all they’ve got to possess it. Relativism closes people’s minds to truth and goodness; anything is acceptable, and it all on an equal footing. Apathy saps their energy.
There is nothing new under the sun. That is how things were in Ephesus when the apostle Paul went there, and he presented these people with the One who said, “I am the truth,” and “Thy word is truth.” He told them that they need not go on living in shadowlands all their days, but they could come to the bright light of the truth of Jesus Christ, that they could have certainties and growing assurances of how they were to live, and who the true God is who made heaven and earth. God grants people real enlightenment in their hearts, and the best is that they know God better, because that is eternal life.
January 25th 2004 GEOFF THOMAS