Message: The Unexpected Ending and the Hope of God | Scripture: Ephesians 6:18-24 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
I have this friend named Jason from seminary. Jason is an ex-Green Beret who has extensive military training and experience as well as being a tactical expert in the use of all sorts of different weapons. Now, Jason was in charge of a project in one of our classes where if we watched a series of documentary films on the disciplinary and training practices in the army, navy, and other protective units, we would earn an extra credit for the term. But during one of our discussions with him, we got into a discussion about his ability to handle a gun, which led, inevitably, to a discussion of his secret stash of weapons in his locked basement, which led, inevitably, to his unveiling to us that one of his best friends had a bunker under his house, like in one of those spy movies, with a storehouse of different types of guns that would potentially be able to outfit a small army in the event of global catastrophe. Now, I should tell you that this is all taking place in Louisville where second amendment rights are heartily embraced, so the idea of owning guns and weapons isn’t really an issue for a lot of people there. Eventually, our conversation led to talking about a zombie movie that had recently come out, and we had all seen it. Putting two and two together, we obviously started talking about the inevitable zombie apocalypse that was coming, and we made a pact together right there and then that if a zombie apocalypse were ever to take place, it was to this friend’s house that we would flee. We even worked out how quickly we’d be able to get to this friend’s house from where we were, how confident Jason we’d be able to strap up from there, fight our way out, find a protective commune somewhere, and live happily ever after.
See, in our minds, we had escalated the facts of our situation with Jason’s knowledge and experience from our normal state of things at a seminary, no less to a situation of all out panic, war, and fear, and our natural instinct was to think, “where can we go so that we can get the right tools to survive and fight for our lives.” I would endeavour to guess this is where all of our thoughts go when the threat of erupting danger and the end of the world come to mind. What do we do when war is on our doorstep? What is our exit strategy when we see zombies running up our driveway? It’s to run, gear up, find cover, get to the guy who has all the guns, and wage war against the coming threat.
In our text today, this is how we might expect Paul to end Ephesians. He’s given us the situation, he’s laid out the danger, he’s told us that we’ve been provided with the necessary armour to overcome the enemy, and anyone who’s ever read a story before knows that this is the time where the guy in charge yells, “Attack!” But Paul doesn’t do that. Instead, he does something drastically different—he says something wholly unexpected to the common reader, and we’re meant to notice that shift. So, let’s notice how he does this together now in Eph 6:18-24. TWoL.
Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I speak. So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, will tell you everything. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts. Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.
The overall theme of Ephesians is unity, and the world wants us to think that unity comes through our striving, our fighting, our protection of our common heritage and traditions, our success in our respective jobs. Yet, Paul brings us all to our knees in this one passage to tell us that unity isn’t worldly—it doesn’t start with looking at ourselves, protecting ourselves, waging a war on a system that’s against us. No, unity and lasting security from the true, cosmic war that rages around us begins and ends with God, and this is our proposition this morning: depend upon God for what he’s begun and depend upon him to bring it to its end. Paul might have brought us to the climactic moment of his letter in describing the battle and the need for God’s armour to prevail, but his resolution doesn’t meet the conclusion that we expect. No, instead, he brings us back to the place where he started—he brings us back to God. He brings us back to a posture of dependence and not independence, and this is what we want to get into with our first point:
1) The Posture of Dependence
The Posture of Dependence is difficult for us to unpack because in verse 14, Paul has just told us to stand. Stand by putting on all the armour of God. But the reason why this is difficult for us to truly wrap our minds around is because the way we are to stand, and the way we are to put on the armour of God isn’t like in those movies where you have that scene of the warrior occupying a dimly lit room analyzing each item and putting it on. No, the posture of dependence—the way that we are called to stand—is by being on our knees in prayer. Stand with your head bowed. Stand as one completely vulnerable to another who is able to hear you or destroy you.
Prayer is the ultimate act of faith. This is, perhaps, why we have for so long taught young people that to accept Christ, we ought to say a sinner’s prayer not because we believe that someone is saved by their praying, but because we believe that only those who are saved can pray. Let me say this again, the prayers of a non-believer are useless and empty—they are not heard by God. Praying belongs to those of faith. The prayers of a saint and a posture of fervent heartfelt trust in the Lord is God’s greatest delight in us, and he yearns to meet us in our desires to satisfy them in himself. A heart that does not trust in God cannot truly seek after God. Paul then tells us those who are standing with God are those who trust in God to enable them to continue standing. We are called to stand by submitting ourselves to him as the one who holds our lives in his hands. This cosmic war isn’t about our ability to go toe-to-toe with our enemy. No, the war is recognizing that, yes, we’ve received armour for survival, but prayer is for our endurance and ultimate victory. Prayer is for the faithful in God—those who have been equipped with belief in the sure and steady promise of the gospel.
This is why Paul, in verse 18, tells us that we are not only to pray as we’re thrust into the war, but we’re to do it unceasingly—at all times. Trust is not something that is a temporary state of being. It is a practice of hope in the fulfillment of one’s promise, and this particular promise is grounded in the character of him who has shown himself to be trustworthy throughout history. Do you see how unexpected and drastic this is? Paul at no time is saying take a swing at the enemy. Parry his attack with your sword. Strike at him when he falters. Charge at him with your shield. Paul doesn’t say any of this. He says pray. Pray as one who knows with complete confidence that we can take God at his word. We don’t have to strike or parry—not when God is the one in whom we’ve placed our trust.
And don’t just pray unceasingly as if you’re talking to an ether devoid of personality and intimacy. No, pray in the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? Praying in the Spirit means praying as one who has been provided access through the Spirit to the Father, Eph 2:18. Praying in the Spirit means praying as one who comprises the very dwelling place of God, Eph 2:22. Praying in the Spirit means praying as one who possess the Spirit of God to enable you and keep you holy, Eph 5:18. Above all these things, praying in the Spirit means exactly what Paul has just told us in verse 17 of Ephesians 6—it means searching, meditating, and being led in your dependence upon God through the Word of God. In other words, pray as one who knows and is known by God, and who has access to God at all times. The heart of prayer is an acknowledgment that we, through his Spirit, dwell with him in his most holy place, and he with us in our cleansed, renewed, and regenerated hearts.
We pray in the Spirit and in the Word because these are the means by which our God hears us and delights in us. These are the means by which we reflect him back to himself as the God who takes the greatest pleasure in magnifying himself for our joy.
We are to pray, we are to do this unceasingly, and we are to do it in the Spirit because the focus of our lives, as those who have been redeemed by God, is to possess and to be possessed by God. Paul is writing about this cosmic war, and he is telling us that the means of victory isn’t the expected display of tactical skill. No, the means of victory—the means of overcoming the enemy of God is by being with God. When we pray at all times in the Spirit, whether or not God is giving you the things that you are asking him for, you should know that all of your prayers are being answered in that very moment because what you’re receiving is the very presence of God himself. God is the gift of prayer. The additional things he gives us may be benefits of dwelling with him, but don’t miss the point—we pray to be with God. He isn’t simply beside us. He isn’t close to us. He isn’t in the room next store. No, when we pray unceasingly in the Spirit—we are communing with God, and this ought to fill us with a deep confidence that he has already and shall always meet our needs.
You see, the very last thing Paul tells us to do here in his letter is to pray—to depend upon God, and this may seem like a let-down to many of us when Paul ought to have told us to “Attack!” But to see this part of the letter as anything but the highest peak upon which we vanquish the enemy, neigh, the very tip of our heavenly hope is to miss the penetrating depth and immeasurable length of what the apostle is giving us in the command. He might not say to us attack, and he might not provide us with the instruction to defend. But make no mistake, he tells us to flee to God in Jesus who bears the weight of the war and our uselessness in himself. He, on our behalf, wades into the thick of the enemies blows so that we might see that he is not only the one who can protect us, but also so that we might see he is the one in whom we have received the power to overcome, to find blessing, and to flourish in every aspect of this life.
You see, the posture of our dependence, a heart that leaves itself vulnerable and open to the active work and provision of our God, is not vastly underwhelming—it’s not something that is offered or required of the losers in the war, it’s the complete opposite. It’s everything we weren’t expecting, but it’s the only thing that we can do to win the war. I told you that the overarching theme of this book is unity—Paul is calling for us, as Christians, to be united together in the gospel, but all of that is only possible in our unity with God—in our dependence upon God. Is it making sense how all of this comes together? Unity with God means victory with God. Dependence upon God means victory with God. Unity with God is only possible if God does the work that we could not and would not do on our own. Victory in the war is only possible if God continues to do the work that we cannot and will not do on our own.
We pray because prayer confounds the enemy, and by it, God fulfills that promise that he gave in Genesis 3 of placing the devil’s head underneath the foot of Christ, our Saviour. He fulfills that promise by bringing us to himself through his Son. So, don’t neglect that fellowship—don’t neglect his delivering power that saves us not only from the snares of the enemy but from the very wrath of God who shall destroy all those who reject his help. Depend upon God for what he’s begun in your life and in your heart. Depend upon God to bring us to his appointed end of cosmic victory and everlasting joy. And do this through ceaseless, Spirit-filled prayer.
2) The Purpose of Dependence
Verse 18 and the beginning of verse 19 continues by saying, “to that end [namely, to the end that you’re praying at all times in the Spirit with all prayer and supplication], keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me.” Perhaps this point belongs under our first heading of posture, but I want to make one more observation about the nature of our praying. Praying isn’t only humble dependence, it isn’t only unceasing, and it isn’t only in the Spirit, it’s to be accompanied by every vigilance and active perseverance.
So much of our praying becomes monotonous—we pray the same prayers: “Dear God, please help us do this,” and “Dear God, thank you for this,” as if the person we’re talking to is taking up our time, and as if we’re doing him a favour.
How terrifying is it that we might be so arrogant as to approach our God as those whom he has to listen to? You might think in your heart, at this moment, that you never come before God in this way, but ask yourself, in the last few times you’ve prayed, what was the tone of both your voice and your heart? Where was the attention of your words? Were you focused on what other people might think about the way you phrase things? Were you more concerned about the things being asked for than the person whom you were asking? Do you come before him in contrition and lowliness remembering the sins you’ve committed over the last hour? Are you intentionally considering that this God who upholds the universe is simultaneously, actively upholding, illuminating, and guiding your life? In other words, when you pray—are you praying to yourself and to others or are you praying to your God, and if your affections are not oriented towards him, what does that tell you about the state of your faith? What does this tell us about the depth of our hope?
This is why Paul, here in Ephesians 6, ends by telling us not only to pray, but to be active, vigilant, alert with every perseverance in our praying because faith and dependence upon God to do as he has planned to do from eternity is not something that we can merely assume. Our thinking can’t be God is going to accomplish what he’s planned, so I can pray like it doesn’t matter—”God doesn’t care, he’s going to do as he’s always planned to do.”
No, praying is the means by which God accomplishes his ends—and it’s not the kind of praying that we repeat like some Catholic mantra that has absolutely no impact on the way we think and feel. No, right praying is actively turning your mind to God and his plans to bring about what he has promised through the words that you speak. That’s what this word means, “keep alert”—it’s referring to that eschatological hope we have for God’s ultimate plan of salvation. It’s the same word we read in Mark 13:33, when Jesus tells his disciples to keep awake because they do not know when the end is coming, or in Luke 21:36: “stay awake/keep watch so that you might be able to stand before the Son of Man in judgment,” or Hebrews 13:17, “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account.”
Right praying is humble submission to the providence of God at all times brought about through our fellowship in the Holy Spirit with a focus that he is bringing about the future that he has promised to bring about. Let me say that more simply, God accomplishes his sovereign purposes by turning our minds to him when we ask him to accomplish his sovereign purposes. Again, let me say it another way, God has no intention to bring about what he intends to bring about without our active involvement and dependence upon him to do so. He knows what we will ask. He knows what he will do. And he takes his intimate knowledge of our asking and his intimate knowledge of his own planning and doing, and he puts these things together so that we might both be contributors and witnesses to his own faithfulness.
This is why our praying has to be active, vigilant, and persevering, because our praying is a dynamic element in God’s personal activity in the world. We can’t be flippant with our praying because to be flippant with our praying is to tell God that we do not care if he is flippant with his acting. No, if our praying is as important as Scripture tells us it is, then the method, fervour, and deliberateness of our praying ought to match the severity of the occasion.
And this is exactly what Paul tells us here. He says in verse 18: keep alert with all perseverance—have your mind boldly and confidently on what God has promised to come to pass and pray in that confidence and boldness for God to do it. And this leads precisely into verse 19 when the apostle asks the Ephesians to pray both for the saints and for him, to pray for those who are evangelizing the world with the gospel because it is precisely through our praying that God will bring about the purposes that he has for that gospel. He will bring out these purposes for the gospel despite the plans that the world has for it, despite the schemes of the devil to undermine its effectiveness, and despite the persecution that we, as Christians, might face in our open, confident, and bold proclamation of it!
The purpose of praying is that God will do as he has always intended to do, and we ought to be praying like it matters because it does!! It is so fundamentally important to the plan of God that you pray to him to be who he’s always said he is. Don’t mishear me. God’s doing is not dependent on our asking. No, our seeing and savouring is dependent on his doing, but his doing comes about, in his sovereign willing, through our human praying. It is not that he needs us to do anything, it’s that he wants us to do that thing that draws us closer to him, that allows us to witness his wisdom, that shows us that everything he’s done for his own glory is also radically for our good.
The purpose of bold, hope-filled prayer is so that we might possess bold, hope-filled confidence to proclaim God’s sovereign plan to save the world. How incredible this is. There is a war that surrounds us, and rather than fighting with our hands and on our feet, God is telling us to fight in the most unexpected way—we are to fight on our knees. Instead, of using the angels and the heavenly creatures to do his bidding and to plead for the display of his power, he uses measly humans, weak, unable, sinful, broken, and poor, and their prayers in order to confound and overwhelm the devil. Instead, of coming in omnipotent, shining glory, and destructive judgment, he sends his Son in the nature and likeness of man to partake in the vicissitudes and challenges of this life, to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, and to make known the eternal mysteries of his Father by dying upon a cross, paying for our sins and our punishment, and rising three days later as the irrefutable King over all. God uses the unexpected and lowly to bring about that which is good and holy.
Is our God not utterly dependable? Is our God not infinitely and sovereignly wise? Then why is it that our praying is often so weak, faithless, and cold? Why is it that our witnessing is so lethargic, unwilling, and lacking in desperation? The answer is that it is because we forget that God is God. We forget that we are the means for his sovereign purposes. We forget that he’s provided us a vision of what is to be, and that we are supposed to be a part of it. Pray as if it means something to you. Pray as if it means something to God. Pray as if you have come into the presence of the very one who has moved both heaven and earth to save you from sin and to do the work that he’s enabled you to do. It is the God above every god who beckons you to come to him, to spend time with him, to hope in him, and to rest in him as our only source of deliverance, and when we come to him, he asks one thing of us: that we trust him and look to him to do as he has always done. All that we are, and all that we are to be begins and ends with God. Just as we needed God to sovereignly and intimately intervene upon our lives in our deepest moment of despair, we need him to continue intervening as the world, its temptations, and the devil continue to wage their war against us. It is God who saves. It is God who sustains. It is God who shall endure us. So, depend upon him for what he’s begun and depend upon him to bring us to his intended end.
3) The Product of Dependence
Verses 20-22 paint a portrait for us of what prayer that is constant, Spirit-filled, and vigilant might look like. Yes, Paul ends here on a high note in his calling to us to pray. We don’t actually have to fight a war—the war has already been fought, and praying is the means of sustaining us in what God has brought about. But that does not mean that this life of service to the gospel both on our knees and in our conversations will not result in pain, suffering, and persecution.
Paul writes these final thoughts—these imperatives of God’s heavenly army—while himself being imprisoned, and yet, even though he is in chains, he says clearly in verse 19 that he is able to open his mouth boldly, or translated more literally, confidently and freely. Brothers and sisters, do we dare place constraints on God’s wisdom? Even when imprisoned, even when in chains, God is able to accomplish his purposes, says Paul—but do we live in such a way that we believe this? It is in the unexpected, pitiable circumstances that God has done his most astounding work throughout history, and he continues to do so, even when we are least aware of it. This is the gospel! That the Son of Man might come on our behalf to do what we could not in a way that we did not fathom. And Paul wholeheartedly embraces this. His chains testify and reveal God’s perfect wisdom to do that which we thought was impossible. Are we equally willing to allow our suffering to do this? Are we willing to do that which is personally difficult knowing that God works beauty out of brokenness?
It is because of men like Paul, because of the one man, Jesus Christ, that even in chains, even upon a cross, the power of God is displayed in our weakness so that sinners like Tychicus might be brought to the light, called a beloved brother, and commended as a faithful minister in the Lord as he goes out and encourages others with good news. The product of our dependence is having an immovable assurance that God is still working in ways that we may not see, and that his purposes are still being accomplished through what little we have to give—even in things like prayer.
Just look at what the apostle says in verse 22—look at his heart: he is the one in chains. He is the one imprisoned unjustly, and yet, his concern isn’t for Tychicus to go to him and minister to him, or to think of plans that might free him from his poor circumstances. No, his concern is for his Ephesian brothers and sisters, and even in chains, he commissions this faithful servant to go and encourage them, why? Because chains cannot restrain our God and his faithfulness. No, our God has broken the chains. He has set those in bondage free. He has liberated the slave. He has predestined to himself the sons and daughters of wrath. He has raised up the lowly. He has filled with joy the downtrodden. And he has done all of this by putting his own Son upon a cross as our recompense and propitiation.
See, Paul ends where he began. He started by pointing his readers to see and savour the omnipotent, sovereign God, and he ends by pointing his readers to see and savour the omnipotent, sovereign God. He was the God who did a miraculous work in calling you out of sin into everlasting life, and he is still the God who is doing a miraculous work by upholding you and sustaining you in himself unto glory.
This is why we can be encouraged. This is why we can persevere in the midst of cosmic war and worldly strife. This is why we can walk in a manner worthy of our calling as one body under one Christ as God’s one family. This is why we can forsake all forms of immorality and impurity and seek out the light. This is why husbands can pursue their wives in relentless love and why wives, children, and servants can submit to those placed over them. We can do all of these things because God pursued us from the very beginning, and he has not stopped pursuing us as his beloved children! All the striving and all the strife, it comes to an end in him not because we are guaranteed a persecutionless life, but because we’re guaranteed the possession of a relentlessly faithful God. Everything that Paul has written up to this point—all the theology, the ethics, the analogy and metaphor of war—it comes down to this: that you might be unceasing, fervent, and zealous for all things God, just as God is unceasing, fervent, and zealous in his pursuit of you and the glory that he receives in doing so. It is in God alone where we find forgiveness. It is in God alone where we find hope for salvation. And it is in God alone, through Christ alone, by the inner work of the Spirit alone, where we find the satisfaction and fulfillment of our life as we draw near to him in prayer. Depend upon him for what he’s begun and depend upon him to bring it to its appointed end. For our God is the blessed God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. To this God, the God of Paul, the God of the Ephesian Church, and the God over us, be all glory, honour, power, and praise forever and ever.