Preached 16 May 1999 at St James Church, Bolton, Bradford.
There’s the clatter of the letter box. The pastor puts down his piece of toast and marmalade, stops reading the gladiatorial results on the back page of the Ephesus Guardian, and goes to look in the hall. There’s only one envelope … but it’s quite heavy. He looks at the front. It’s addressed to The Church c/o Pastor Aristarchus, Artemis Avenue, Ephesus. Aristarchus turns it over. There’s a little sticker on the back: “From the Apostle Paul, c/o The Emperor Nero, Imperial Prison, Rome.” Aristarchus’s hand begins to shake with excitement … and a little trepidation. The great apostle … writing to them! But why? Have reports of the church in Ephesus reached Paul in Rome? And if so, were they good? Or bad? Should he open the letter? He’d like to, but … better not. It’s not addressed to him personally. It’s to the church. Better wait until tonight when the church meets in his house.
So … ten hours later … there he stands, looking at the little group of men and women in front of him that make up the church in this capital city on the west coast of what will one day be called Turkey…. slaves and free, rich and poor, Jews and gentiles, but all chatting happily with each other, each life centred on the Lord Jesus Christ, who had died for them on a Roman cross in Palestine just thirty years before. Aristarchus clears his throat. “Brothers and sisters … Can I have your attention, please. Listen, I’ve something really special to share with you tonight. We’ve had a letter from none other than the great apostle himself, from Paul in Rome.”
There’s a silence as the news sinks in. “A letter to us?” exclaims someone.
“To us,” says Aristarchus.
“Well, open it then,” says another.
“All right,” says Aristarchus. He slits open the envelope … takes out the letter … unfolds it … and skims down first page. Then he looks up and a big smile has spread across his face. “Listen to this,” he says. Then he reads from the letter the words that Malcolm read to us tonight: “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.” Aristarchus stops. “He’s been hearing good things about us,” he says.
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” says Dorcas — a young slave girl who was sitting next to her mistress. “We do believe in Jesus and we do love each other.” Her mistress smiles at her and puts her arm round her shoulders. “But surely all Christians do the same? Isn’t that what Christianity is all about?”
“Well, yes, it is,” says Aristarchus, whose eyes have been flitting over the rest of the page. “But Paul seems concerned that we don’t just settle for what we’ve got or where we are at.”
“What do you mean?” asks Ephraim — a Jewish merchant who has recently become a convert to Christianity.
“Well, let me read on,” says Aristarchus. “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.”
“Well,” says Ephraim. “I can go along with that. I certainly want to know Jesus better than I already do. Don’t we all?”
“Well, yes and no,” says Demas, one of the first people to have become a Christian in Ephesus. “I find that it’s all too easy after a while to become … settled … in your relationship with Christ. To slip into well-worn routines of prayer and worship. To go through the motions. I for one find what Paul says a real challenge. Human relationships that don’t deepen with the years tend to come to an end. I don’t want that to be true of my relationship with Jesus. And it’s interesting to see where he says a better knowledge of Jesus comes from. Did you notice? He says he’s praying that we’ll receive a ‘spirit of revelation.’ He’s saying that it’s the Holy Spirit who will show us more of Jesus, if we want him to do so.”
“I thought we all had the Holy Spirit,” says Dorcas, looking puzzled.
“So we do,” says Aristarchus. “But Paul is saying we need to keep receiving him afresh. It’s not a case of ‘receive him once and then forget all about him.’ We are to go on receiving. And that’s not all that Paul is saying. Listen to this: ‘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.’ Now, what do you think of that, Demas?” …
But let’s not wait to see what Demas thinks. Let’s leave that imaginary church meeting in Ephesus in AD 63 and return to this church meeting in AD 1999. But let’s bring that last prayer of St Paul with us and look at it a bit more closely, for it’s just as much his prayer for us as it was for those early Christians in Western Turkey.
First … “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” What an unusual and striking expression. We don’t think of our heart, our inner being, as having eyes. But, “yes,” says Paul, “it does. But they are like eyes that are straining in a dark room. They are open but seeing very little. They need the light to be switched on.”
Why, Paul? What is it that the Ephesians needed to see … what is it that we need to see?
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” The first thing that Paul says we cannot see because we have not enough light are the good things that God has prepared for us. He’s saying that if the light were to come on, as he’s praying it will, we would see what lies ahead, beyond the earthly horizon … the glories and the bliss of an eternity to be enjoyed with Jesus and with all the saints. We would see that God himself has called us to that future. Faith would reach out and grasp all those promises and claim them for our own, and hope would fill our hearts and sustain us and give us joy. That’s how it’s supposed to work: God makes a promise, faith reaches out and claims it for us, then hope looks forward to what is now our own. But it all breaks down if we cannot see the promise. Faith has nothing to grasp, and hope has nothing to look forward to. We become hope-less. And, in his prayer, Paul is recognising that most of us are indeed pretty hope-less people. We are short-term and earth-bound forward-lookers. We get excited because we’re going on holiday in June, or because we’ve booked to see a show the week after next. But then, once there’s nothing in the diary for two months, we’re down … we’re a bit depressed. How different from the hymn-writers of yesteryear who could write …
Why should I shrink at pain or woe
Or feel, at death, dismay?
I’ve Canaan’s goodly land in view
And realms of endless day.
Our problem is … or one of them … that we don’t have Canaan’s goodly land in view … or we don’t have it in view clearly enough or often enough. And that’s because we don’t have sufficient light. So … “I pray that the eyes of your heart my be enlightened,” says Paul, “in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.”
But that’s not all. “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” We Christians think we are poor. That is another of our problems. Listen to us talk. “I wish I had more faith,” we say. “I’m so lacking in compassion,” we say. “I don’t have enough joy … or love … or peace … or patience,” we say. You name it, we are short of it. “I don’t have the words to be able to tell others about Jesus … I don’t have the courage to speak out … I don’t know my Bible well enough to stand up to them.” We are poor. Or so we tell ourselves. And so we back away from situations where all the qualities that we think we lack are needed. But “no,” Paul says, “you are not poor. You are rich. God has placed all his riches “in the saints” … that is to say among believers, in the fellowship of believers. All the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, courage, eloquence, wisdom etc etc that you need is here, in the fellowship of the church, waiting for us, in great overflowing treasure chests. But it’s too dark for us to see it. So, says Paul, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.”
I was reading just the other day an article by Jackie Pullinger — that incredible woman of faith who has ministered to the poor and lost of Hong Kong for the last thirty years. She tells how she tried to help an addict called Xian. But how, in the end, he abused all her love and trust. “And,” she says, “I told God — ‘Well God, there you are. That’s it. It isn’t that I don’t want to go on. I just can’t. I used up all my heart on Xian.” But it was then, she says, that God taught her a profound lesson. When you’ve used up your heart, God gives you his, and his infinite capacity to love and go on loving. “The riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” Paul wants us to have more light so that we can see that too. Not just “the hope to which he has called us” but “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints”.
And, finally, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … his incomparably great power for us who believe.”
Christians get down and depressed because they cannot see the hope to which they are called. They think they are poor because they cannot see the riches God has placed for them in the church. And they think that they are weak because they cannot see the power God has made available to them in their lives. So the third thing Paul prays that Christians will be given light to see is the power that is theirs to use.
A few nights ago I was watching Caribbean Holiday on BBC1. It’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary about an hotel in Barbados. We were taken into the kitchen where the new British chef was preparing a banquet for 370 guests. As we watched, he was feeding carrots, one after another, into a machine which sliced them in split-seconds. He grimaced at the camera. “I didn’t know they had one of these until just now,” he said. “I’ve just spent three hours chopping vegetables by hand.” That’s the position most Christians are in. We’re doing everything by hand — using only natural abilities and natural resources — because we don’t realise we have a power tool — the supernatural might, energy and dynamism of God — available to us to use in each and every situation into which God puts us. Let’s be honest. When was the last time that, faced with a problem, we put “the power of God” in number one position on our list of solutions? More often than not, we make it our very last resort.
“Oh, how I want your eyes to be opened to see that power,” says Paul. And then he says this: “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.”
How do you gauge the power a person or a nation possesses? You look at the things they have done to demonstrate their power. That’s why India and Pakistan have been performing controlled nuclear tests. “See how powerful we are,” they are saying to each other. “Yes,” says Paul, “but if you want to see God’s power, look at the resurrection, look at the ascension. The power of God energised and invigorated a dead Jesus. It filled him with indestructible, eternal, everlasting life. It moved him through the barrier between this world and the next. And it installed him in the place of ultimate authority over the entire universe. And it did it effortlessly. And,” he says, “this is the truth you need to see. That power that raised Jesus from the dead and put him at the right hand of God in heaven is available to the least of all the Christians in the church, if only they will believe it, accept it, and wield it in the service of God.”
Amazing! Quite amazing!
Has Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians struck any cords in your heart tonight? It’s struck any number in mine. If so, let’s pray his prayer for ourselves:
Lord, may the eyes of our heart may be enlightened in order that I may know the hope to which you have called us, the riches of your glorious inheritance that we have here in the fellowship of the church, and your incomparably great power available to us who believe. Amen