Joshua Bell is one of the world's greatest violinists. He's won a Grammy Award for a violin concerto. Last year he won the Avery Fisher Prize, given once every few years to classical instrumentalists for outstanding achievement. His instrument is a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin, which is the finest instrument, worth over four million dollars. People pay hundreds of dollars to hear him play. A magazine said that his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." One composer says that "he plays like a god."
But in January 2007, Bell took part in an unusual experiment. He donned a baseball cap, pulled out his Stradivarius, and played incognito as a busker at a subway station in Washington, D.C. Over a thousand people walked by. Only one person recognized him; few even stopped to listen. For his 45-minute experiment, Bell collected $32.17, excluding the $20 he got from the person who recognized him. Some people gave him pennies. Despite being one of the world's greatest violinists playing one of the most valuable instruments in existence, people passed him by. They didn't realize the value and beauty of what was right before them.
The apostle Paul is writing to an ordinary church, and to pretty much everybody, it looks ordinary, commonplace. There was nothing especially noticeable about this group of people. It would be easy to walk by them and give them a glance, and move on.
But the apostle Paul does something for them, and he does the same for us. He writes to them and addresses them "God's holy people…the faithful in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 1:1). And then he begins to explain just what has been going on among them. They are participants, Paul says, in the great cosmic drama of the Triune God that has been going on before the world began. They have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. They've been chosen, adopted, ransomed, forgiven, included in Christ, and sealed with the Spirit. It would take a lifetime to unpack all the spiritual blessings that they have received. Joshua Bell is a great violinist, but Paul says that this little church in Ephesus has an identity that is greater than that of any living person. Joshua Bell has a $4 million Stradivarius, but Paul says that they have spiritual blessings that are priceless. And Paul says to this church, "You need to know; you need to really understand, who you are and what you have, because it will transform everything."
So today I want to turn to you and ask for your prayers. Specifically, I want to ask you that you pray for our church. I know how difficult prayer can be. I also know that when we pray, it's easy to focus on our circumstances: our jobs, our health, and other practical needs. But Paul says that, along with these things, we need to pray something much bigger.
So let's look at his prayer, and specifically three things that I would like to ask you to pray for Richview.
1. Thank God for our faith and love
Paul writes, "For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all his people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers."
Can I be honest? When we pray for Richview, it's very easy to begin somewhere else besides with thanksgiving. Have you ever made a list of things you can complain about in a church? There are people you don't especially appreciate, music that falls flat, preaching that bores, frustrations that keep coming up, hopes that are never realized. I sometimes look at the glossy brochures and websites that churches put out. Every face is smiling; the kids gaze adoringly at their parents; the music team always rocks, the pastor always delivers the goods, and everyone is blissful. But we all know the reality. People are messy, and there are lots of reasons, in any church, to grumble.
But Paul looks at them and reminds them of what he's already said: "For this reason…" For this reason takes us back to what he's already written. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3). They are part of God's great plan, the cosmic drama that is the main storyline of this world. They're not just a group of random people; they are chosen by God, and participants in what he is doing.
For this reason, Paul says, he thanks God. Notice that there are two things he's heard about them that he mentions: their faith and their love. I have to tell you that both of these are things that I find in abundance here at Richview. In fact, they're true of every person who is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. We believe and we love. We are drawn to Christ in trust, and rely not on our own performance but on what he has done for us. That is our hope; that where we place our faith. And we love. We are not in community with each other because we are the type of people who are naturally drawn to each other. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he was thanking God that their love was proof that God was breaking down the ancestral barriers between Jew and Gentile. Our love is evidence of the power of the Gospel to break down barriers between those of us who are different races, ages, and economic classes.
So thank God. I know it's easy to begin elsewhere, but begin with thanking God for what you see at Richview. Every time you see someone who is trusting Christ and not themselves, thank God. Every time you see one person loving another who otherwise would have nothing to do with each other, thank God. We – I include myself – need to spend a lot more time thanking God for what he is doing among us. There is plenty of evidence of his work.
But then Paul specifically prays for two things on behalf of the church, and these are the two things I'd like you to pray for as well.
2. Pray that we will know God better
There are two types of relationships we can have. One is transactional. I went to Tim Hortons yesterday. When I go to order and the cashier smiles at me and asks how she can help me, I understand that she doesn't really want to have a relationship with me. I don't say, "What I can really use is some help with a decision I've been trying to make. Do you have some time?" She's going to look at me and say, "What type of donut do you want, buddy?" That's a transactional relationship. She's not really interested in me; she just wants to give me something (a product) in exchange for something else (money).
Religion is all about transactions. One creation myth from an ancient religion says, "Verily, savage-man will I create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease." There's nothing personal about this at all. The god exist for themselves, and we exist to serve them so that they can be at ease. You can tell if you are trapped in religion if you view your relationship with God as a series of transactions; you do this to make them happy; God or gods do this in return. That's not relationship at all; that is transactional. It's as personal as the relationship that I have with the cashier at Tim Hortons.
But there's another type of relationship we have. If Charlene smiles at me and says, "How can I help you," I don't say, "I'll have an extra large coffee, a toasted bagel, and a Boston Cream donut please" and then hand her some money. I don't do that, at least, if I value my life! Charlene and I don't have a transactional relationship; we have a personal one. If she says, "How can I help you?" I can say, "Can we really talk about this? I need your advice." It's not about getting from each other; it's about truly knowing and growing in a relationship together.
Paul says in verse 17 that it is this second type of relationship – a personal one – that we enjoy with God. God, the creator of the universe, the sustainer of all things, knows us, has brought us into relationship with him, and wants us to know him better. Look at what Paul writes: "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" (Ephesians 1:17). He implies that we already know God, but prays that we will, with the help of the Spirit, know him better.
Now listen: he doesn't pray that we will know more about God, although knowing more about God is important. He doesn't pray that we would obey God more, although obeying God is important. He prays that we will know God. As one person put it: "Knowing him and knowing about him are quite different."
You see, in a transactional relationship, what really matters is what you can extract from the other person. If you can bargain and get even more from them, all the better. But in a true relationships, the relationship is its own reward. Paul says that we have this personal relationship with God, and the point is not what we can get from that relationship. The point of the relationship is God himself. He is more valuable than even his gifts. And our chief end is that we would know him better, glorify him more, and enjoy him forever.
By the way, it's important that we see how this can take place. There is a means, and it is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. This is one reason why we need to pray that God will grant us this prayer. It's not just a matter of reading theology, although theology is good. We need the Spirit to reveal more of God to us so that we can know him better.
The God of this universe doesn't just want stuff from you. He wants you to know him: to deal with him as he opens up with you; to engage your mind, will, and emotions in dealing with him; to relate to him, to us together. I heard the story of a woman who saw God as caring only that she lived a good life. God was impersonal, some ethereal force who demanded obedience. She came to understand that the God revealed in Scripture is a God who walked with Adam in the garden, whose very nature is love, who knows us and wants us to know him.
So Paul prays, and I invite you to pray, that beyond everything else that we will know him better. "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." Please pray that we as a church will know and become increasingly delighted in a deeply personal, not a transactional, relationship with God.
3. Pray that we will grow in our knowledge of God's saving plan
Like the commuters who passed by the violinist without realizing what was right in front of them, it's possible for us to breeze by what God's plan is without really taking it in. It's why Paul prays, "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know…" (Ephesians 1:18). The prayer is that we will really understand and see the light of God's salvation in three areas. He wants us to know three specific truths.
The first: "the hope to which he has called you." Think back to a time in which you were counting down to a future event. I talked to a friend at the beginning of the summer and asked when he was going on vacation. He said, "Hold on a second" and looked at his computer. He had placed a countdown timer on his computer with the exact number of days, hours, minutes, and seconds until his vacation. His expectation of what was going to be his in the future sustained him while he waited.
The Ephesians really had no reason to be hopeful. They were a small minority, vastly outnumbered by those who didn't believe. Every odd was against them.
But Paul prays that they would see the hope that they have: the sure and certain expectation of a new heaven and a new earth. Our hope is rooted in the past – God called us to this hope; it was his purpose from eternity. But it is something we look forward to. Paul says, "I pray that the eyes of your heart are opened so you see, really see, the hope you have."
I asked someone recently, "What keeps you from getting discouraged?" He replied: "Prayer and meditation brings joy. God is on his throne — everything is going to be fine in the end. The new heavens and new earth are coming, in which 'everything sad is going to come untrue.'" This hope, if we have it, will get us through anything.
Here's the second truth Paul wants us to really grasp: "the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people." Read that again. I guarantee you won't get this the first time you read this. You probably think that this is talking about the inheritance that God will give to you. But look at it again. This is God's inheritance. This is what God is going to receive? And what is it: "his people." Paul says, "I really pray that you understand that you are God's treasured possession, and that you will be his completely on the last day." You need to understand the value that God places on you, not because you are intrinsically worthy, but because you are Christ's.
Imagine taking part in a gift exchange. You pull a name out of a hat and it's Bill Gates. What do you get him? I mean, what can't Bill Gates buy for himself? What does he need? The Star of India? The Mona Lisa maybe?
What does God want that he doesn't have? Amazingly, the answer is that we, his people, are his glorious inheritance. God places extraordinary value on us. God looks at us and says, "I've always wanted one of these." Paul prays that we would really understand the hope we have, and the extraordinary value that God places on us as his people.
Finally: "and his incomparably great power for us who believe." You'll notice that Paul spends the most time unpacking what this means in verses 19 to 23:
That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ 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 name that can be invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
We have the call of God, which is in the past. We have the hope, and the reality that we are God's inheritance, for the future. But what about now? Paul says we have power. The resources that you have to live are amazing. Paul prays that the Ephesians will know his incomparably great power: the same power that raised Christ from the dead, and the same power that has enthroned him over all people, and the same power that has placed him as head over all things for the benefit of the church. There is no power that can stand against his. This power is working on our behalf, right now in the present, and Paul prays that we would know it.
These aren't fresh blessings. Paul prays that God would open our eyes to see what we already have, and to grasp the significance of it. He prays that we would know the fullness of all that we have been given. How would our lives be different if we really knew this to the bottom of our toes?
There are lots of things we think we need, but Paul says, you don't really need anything more than what you have. Christ and what you have in him is sufficient. In fact, to attempt to add to Christ is to take away from him. We don't really need anything more. We just need to realize what we already have.
So do you pray for Richview? I hope you do. We need it. But what do you pray for? Please just don't pray for our circumstances. Please pray for something far more important. Thank him for his work among us. Every time you see faith or love, that is evidence of God's work among us. Thank him for it. And please pray. Don't just pray the normal types of prayers we pray. Pray that we will know God better. Pray that we will understand our hope, our value, and the power that's available to us in jesus.
Pray that we won't be like subway commuters walking by a $4 million Stradivarius and a world-class violinist. Pray that we'll understand what we have in Jesus.