Saturday 25 February 2012

Real love (Ephesians 3:14-21)

God’s plan

The big idea in the book of Ephesians is God’s plan: God is working through all circumstances to bring all things under Jesus Christ as Lord.

I remember as a young Christian hearing of God’s plan put to me like this: God has a plan for your life. He has everything under control. His plan is to bless you through Jesus Christ.

That’s true. But what the bible is doing is pointing us to is an even greater truth: God’s plan is to bring all things under Jesus Christ as Lord. How it works out in your life and my life is like this: When things are going well; when God blesses us with good things - like a plum job, good health, a pass in that exam - we give all glory to Jesus. We say, “This isn’t because I deserved it. It is a gift from God. And it comes to me from the cross.”

But more importantly, the big difference is seen when things aren’t going well: you’ve lost your job; you are in a hospital bed, you’ve flunked your tripos - even so, you are able to say, “God is working through all these circumstances - difficult as they are - for the glory of his Son.”

God’s plan is for Jesus Christ to be Lord over everything. So, that’s the big idea. God’s plan. Our praise. Jesus’ glory.

God’s love

How does that fit in with God’s love? Think about it for a moment. How does the love of God connect with the glory of God? That’s the question we’re looking at this week. Because often times, we understand God’s love in one of two ways: (1) God demonstrates his love through the giving of his Son; or (2) I receive God’s love through his forgiveness, blessing and restoration. The first is the knowledge of God’s love; the second is the experience of that love.

And you might be thinking, “Shouldn’t these two ingredients - the knowledge of God’s love and the experience of God’s love - lead us to praise, to thank and to glorify God?” Yes it should. Don’t get me wrong. Of course, it should. The knowledge of God’s love and the experience of God’s love ought to lead us to praise God and thank God for his love.

But often times, it doesn’t.

Firstly, we can take love for granted, the way we tend to take the love of our parents for granted. The very knowledge of the stability of that love, and constancy of that love, leads us to take it for granted. We say to ourselves, “God will always love me. My mum and dad will always love me,” just before turning around doing something that will hurt the ones we love. “God must forgive me. That’s his job.”

Secondly, our hearts are prone to wander - to quote an old hymn. Having experienced God’s love, we are tempted to seek that same experience elsewhere. The bible calls that idolatry. In the Chinese culture, we tend to think of idolatry as bowing down to statues of Kuan Yin in the temple. But the real problem of idolatry lies in the heart. It has less to do with our actions of bowing down to an idol, and more to do with our motivations of seeking fulfilment and even love in something other than God; in the process, making that thing - whether it’s our job, our family, our looks, our achievements, shopping, eating, sex - which are often good things that God has blessed us with, but taking that thing and turning it into God. We end up worshipping our job, our family, our looks, our achievements, shopping, eating and sex. The sad thing is, idols always fail to satisfy, and it’s only a matter of time before we move on to something idol. Our hearts are prone to wander.

To recap: the two truths about God’s love, that is, the knowledge of God’s love and the experience of God’s love, ought to lead us to thanksgiving, worship and praise of God. But often what happens is we pervert these two truths: we take the knowledge of God’s love for granted; we turn the experience of God’s love into idolatry.

Now this is a problem for Christians. In today’s passage, the apostle Paul prays for Christians to know the “love of Christ... that surpasses knowledge.” Aren’t Christians supposed to know the love of Christ? Doesn’t Paul himself say to them that “you (are) being rooted and established in love” (verse 17).

Furthermore, why does Paul pray that Christ might dwell in their hearts through faith (verse 17)? Doesn’t the bible teach us that his Spirit dwells in every heart of every believer?

What Paul is doing is recognising how God’s love is a real struggle for Christians. We’re not talking about unbelievers. We’re not talking about people who have never heard the gospel; who do not trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Paul is praying for Christians who come to church every week, who have grown up in a Christian home, who know their bibles - he is praying for them and for us - because we constantly need God’s help to know and experience the reality of his love.

We will look at this prayer under three headings:

1. Real love strengthens us in our inner being
2. Real love stretches us as God’s people
3. Real love supersedes us to bring all glory to God

It strengthens us, stretches us and it supersedes us. Those are the three points.

1. Real love strengthens us in our inner being

For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.Ephesians 3:14-17

It might seem strange to hear Paul praying repeatedly for strength and power in the lives of these Christians. He asks God to strengthen the believers with power (verse 16), that they might be rooted and established (the word describes pillars that support a building structure - verse 17), that Christians might have power (verse 18) together with all the saints, and finally, that God’s power continues to work within us (verse 20). It is strange because Paul is praying for the strength in order to understand God’s love - not knowledge, not wisdom, not even, experience - but strength. He prays for power.

The reason we think it’s strange is because we see strength as an external quality. It is about having the muscle, having the ability, having that external attribute that enables us achieve that goal and scale that mountain. A strong person is an impressive person. A powerful Christian is an influential Christian.

But notice how Paul asks God to strengthen us with power but in our inner being. Some translations have “the inner man”. It is an internal strength. Elsewhere, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Though our outer self (literally, man) is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”

Real love is love that strengthens our inner being. That’s talking about more than just confidence. It’s talking about more than just being a nicer person “on the inside”, or feeling good about yourself.

It is talking about life. God has put his life into you. He has created a new you through his Spirit. The real you.

Meaning: if you do not know God; if you do not trust in Jesus Christ and received gift of eternal life through the cross - the reality is that you’re dead. Ephesians 2 says, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and ruler of the kingdom of the air.” (Ephesians 2:1-2) Outwardly you are wasting away. Inwardly, it’s far worse: You’re dead. Some of you reading this: that’s you. The bible says that you are spiritually dead. And all the prayers in the world to strengthen you outwardly aren’t going to address the real problem inwardly. The man and the woman inside of you is dead to the world and is dead to God. What you need is life. What you need is Jesus.

I say that because otherwise we are going to misunderstand Paul’s prayer. He is praying for Christians who have been made alive through Christ (Ephesians 2:5) even when they were dead in their transgressions. He is assuming that they have already turned to Jesus for forgiveness, reconciliation and new life - not just a changed life - a new life. And it’s that new life that they have received through faith, that Paul prays for.

Well, what is he praying for? He prays for strength that comes from the gospel. Look at verse 17:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ
Ephesians 3:17-18

The gospel is the fixed point of God’s love and what Paul is saying to us is, “Stay there!” He wants us to be rooted like a tree: A tree doesn’t get up and uproot itself - if it did, it would die. He want us to be established (meaning lay our foundations) in the gospel: your whole life is built on this foundation of the gospel.

Why is this important? The gospel is the only real context of God’s love. It is the cross. When someone asks you, “How do you know that God really, really loves you?” The gospel says look to death of Jesus Christ on the cross. That is where I get my certainty of God’s love for me; my confidence and assurance of the reality of God’s love. It is rooted in actual event in history: Jesus Christ came as a man and died on the cross. He cried out, “It is finished!” to let me know that all my sin had completely been dealt with. There is no more condemnation for me.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20

Or as Graham Kendrick puts it in an old song that I love to sing, especially whenever we celebrate the Lord’s supper:

Amazing Love! Oh what sacrifice!
The Son of God given for me.
My debt he pays and my death he dies
That I might live
That I might live

The gospel roots me into the certainty of the love of God by reminding me of the death of Christ. This is real love - that bring me life. That strengthens my inner being.

So the first point was, real love is love that strengthens the inner being. It is love shown us on the cross. It is love proclaimed through the gospel.

2. Real love stretches us as the people of God

Secondly, real love stretches us. And I get that from verse 18 where Paul talks about “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”, which almost sounds like he is describing Ikea furniture. But in what sense does God’s love stretch us?

Here, the NIV (New International Version) English translation may need some clarification. What they’ve done is combine two separate phrases in verses 18 and 19 into a single idea - the love of Christ. So it sounds like Paul is talking about the breath, width, height and depth of Jesus’ love, the way it looks in your bibles in verse 18.

However, this is put rather differently in the ESV. Notice that “the love of Christ” only occurs in the next verse.

Verse 18: may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,Verse 19: and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

You can understand why the NIV has combined the two - it’s just more readable! It is describing the many dimensions of Christ’s love.

But when you separate out the two, what you find is that verse 18 is a request for God’s love to first stretch us, and only after that in verse 19, for God’s love to then fill us in Christ Jesus. Do you see?

And it’s that first component of God’s love stretching us that is vital to our understanding of what Paul is praying for. That’s what he means he talks about the breadth and width and height and depth. He means, “Your categories of God’s love are too small. Your experience of God’s love may even be rather selfish. You think it’s just about you.”

The clue lies in the way that verse 18 begins: “That you may have power together with all the saints.” Paul is talking about the church. When you are with other Christians, your understanding and experience of God’s love is stretched is all directions. It opens your eyes to what God is doing in other people’s lives. It teaches us what it means to live as a community - to be generous, sacrificial, patient and loving. Often times, being “together with all the saints” is an experience that is challenging and even painful. But that is God’s love stretching us. The church is the context of Paul’s prayer for these Christians.

Now there’s another reason why Paul says this. He says so in verse 14, “For this reason I kneel before the Father.” For what reason? Well, then you notice that Paul says the exact same thing in verse 1 “For this reason...” meaning we have to keep on going backwards to find the answer. We finally see the reason in Chapter 2, verse 11 onwards:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:11-13

What is the reason for Paul’s prayer? God has made the outsiders insiders through Jesus Christ. The Gentiles - or non-Jews - were previously excluded, “without hope and without God”. But now, they have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

What God has done is stretched the church. Previously, God’s promise was made to one people, to one race. Previously, God’s kingdom was only for one nation. Now because of the blood of Christ, all peoples from all nations are brought into the kingdom of God.

If we are going to call ourselves the Chinese Church, we need to pay special attention to this. You come here each week and everyone has black hair. Everyone eats with chopsticks. Everyone is the same. And it is all to easy to equate our oneness in food with our oneness in Christ. It is all to easy to mistake uniformity for unity in the gospel.

Jesus Christ died on the cross so that his church would united through his blood in diversity. All peoples. All nations. All languages. All cultures. We need to be careful when we come here each week and see only one people, all from one nation, speaking one language and practising one culture. Because what we might end up doing is rejection other peoples, looking down on other nations, ignoring other languages and alienating other cultures. We may not do this intentionally, but when we focus on just our needs and our church and our mission - forget God’s mission. His plan is to bring all things, every people group, every nation under the lordship of Christ.

Paul prays that our understanding and experience of God’s love might be stretched, in order that, verse 19 says, we might know the love of Christ. What’s going on?

At the heart of Paul’s prayer for these Christians is not their love for God but God’s love for them. The focus is not us, it’s God. Not our love for God but God’s love for us.

Let me use an illustration with adoption. When a son or daughter is adopted into a new family there is great need for constant assurance and love, especially when that family is different racially and culturally. Especially even, when there are other kids born in this family. The adopted child will take one look at their new parents and go, “They are so strange. How can they love me? How can I be a part of this family?” They will look at their new brothers and sisters and go, “I’m an outsider. I’m not loved like them.”

How would you reassure this son that he really is your son? How do you let your daughter know she is in every way loved as your daughter?

We might try to assure them how lovely they look. We look out for talent that he or she has and make special note to appreciate them for it. We affirm their struggles and but help come to see how much potential they have and their unique and treasured role in the family.

Or, we could remind them of our love for them.

Paul’s prayer is in the second sense. As the church is being stretched and searching for assurances, Paul prays that God will give them strength to understand the dimensions of his love for them, not their love for God. Right from the beginning, Paul reminds his readers, God is their Father. In fact, every family in heaven and on earth is named under the fatherhood of God.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives it name.
Ephesians 3:14-15

Meaning: When you look around you in church, at other Christians and believers gathered in God’s name, you should say, “God is their Father as well. I know that he loves me much more than I could every have hoped. But the fact that these brothers and sisters are also his children reminds me that God’s love is much greater than I could have ever imagined.” This needs to happen again and again. It’s what the church is here for: “Together with all the saints,” Paul says. The church displays the immeasurable glory of God’s grace. It stretches our categories of his love shown through the cross of Jesus Christ.

And it’s in this same context of the church that Paul refers to when he speaks about the fullness of God - “That you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.” The “you” in verse 19 is a plural “you”. It’s not talking about you, individually. It is you and me and all of us gathered here on Sundays, or gathered together for bible study. This is God’s fullness - the display of men and women, all of whom different and diverse, but gathered around the Jesus Christ as their Lord.

Real love stretches us but then also fill us as the people of God. That’s point 2.

Real love supersedes us

Finally, real love supersedes us - meaning, it results not just in our good but in God’s glory.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21

We have seen so far that (1) Real love strengthens us - we are grounded in gospel, in the knowledge of God’s love displayed on the cross; (2) Real love stretches us - it constantly challenges us to see afresh the fullness of God’s love so that we can be filled with it; so that we can be overwhelmed by it.

And here we have our final point: (3) Real love supersedes us - it gives all glory to God. Remember that this was the question I posed at the beginning. How does God’s love lead to glorify God?

Or put it another way: How can God be loving and yet command his people to praise him for his glory? Some people have a real problem with that. In their minds, God is like a vain woman, needing to be praised for her new haircut. Therefore, when they hear someone say that God loves them, they think it’s a kind of manipulative love, because God is really just absorbed with himself.

They might then suggest, “If God really loved us, he wouldn’t command us to worship him, or honour him.” This is a real and genuine problem that many people face today - especially amongst students here in a place like Cambridge University - with the idea of a loving God who’s eternal plan is for all people’s to worship him through Jesus Christ. That’s his plan.

So, the question again: Why must God’s love inevitably lead us to worship Jesus Christ as Lord? Answer: Because it is the only love that saves. Because it is the only love that won’t consume us or destroy us.

You see, love is exactly the problem. You might have expected me to say something like “Hate is the problem. Anger is the real problem in this world. Or even that sin is the problem.” No, our problem is love: self-love that leads to our hatred of God; fickle loves that leads to devaluing God (and those around us, for the matter); idolatrous love that leads to unfaithfulness towards God. In our hearts we yearn to love and we long to be loved. But it’s that same love that destroys us.

Except the love of God. Real love that sustains. True love that transforms.

What we see in Paul’s prayer is God’s sustaining love. He is faithful to his promises given to us in Christ Jesus. And God strengthens us so that we remain faithful and steadfast in his love.

What we see in Paul’s prayer is God’s fullness through his love. His is a love shown to his enemies. His is an undeserving, redeeming love that adopts rebellious sinners into his family. And by his grace, he stretches us - well, perhaps it would be better to say that he transforms us - enabling us to love our enemies. As the church gathers as the body of Christ, it becomes a display of the fullness of God’s presence and power of Christ’s sacrificial love - when all nations and all peoples are gathered in worship of God and in love for one another.

One last thing we must see in Paul’s prayer, especially in these closing words of verses 20 and 21 is God’s love for his son, Jesus. In all this talk of love, it is very easy to get caught up in how much God has done for us; what a big difference God’s love has made in our lives. But the truth is God’s love is first and foremost displayed in his relationship not with us, but with his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the obedient Son who loves his Father completely and obeys his Father fully even unto death on the cross. And God is his true Heavenly Father who says of Jesus, “This is my Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), who raises him from the dead and seated him at his right hand, giving all authority and power to Jesus.

So when Paul ends by talking about God’s glory, this is what he means: It is glory that reflects the love of God, not to us, but towards his one and only Son. And Paul’s prayer ends blessing God that this glory is displayed clearly in the church and in the praise of Jesus Christ, for all generations, for all time.

This is the plan of God: That in all circumstances, all creation will clearly see Jesus as Lord of all through his death on the cross.

And this is the love of God: that sinful men and women are redeemed and transformed through the cross into the likeness of Jesus, so that he might have many brothers. It is love that saves us. It is love that gives all glory to Jesus.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Romans 8:28-29

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