10 Jan First things first: Growing in the gospel
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
- It felt like we just celebrated New Year 2020 recently and now we are already in 2021. 2020 went by like a flash. When pandemic hit on March 2020, we thought it would end in a matter of weeks. But the pandemic got worse and worse. So, what did we do? We looked forward to 2021. We tried to erase 2020 from our life. We pretended like it never happens. We thought of 2020 as a small blip in our life and our real life will begin in 2021. 2021 will be the year where we get to do what we truly want. We might gained 6 kgs in 2020 but 2021 will be the year where we finally hit the gym and get in shape again. 2021 will be a productive year. 2020 was simply a chapter in our life that we tried to ignore. So, it did not matter what we did in 2020. What matter is what we will do in 2021. And there is no better time to start something good than the beginning of a new year. There is something about a new year that makes us very optimistic.
But let me tell you what lies ahead. For some of us, we’ve been on this road before. At the start of the year, we make a promise to ourselves to grow in the gospel. Maybe we resolve to read the Bible every day. For some of us, we resolve to wake up in the morning to pray. Or to give more of our finances to the cause of Christ. Or maybe for some of us, to finally get rid of this addiction or secrets sins that continue to haunt us. And it starts well. You are on fire for the first month. It feels like you are walking on God’s shekinah glory and everything you touch turn into holy because you are holy. That’s January. Then in February, you start to experience struggle in maintaining your relationship with Christ. Temptation starts coming your way, but you are able to fight it off. You set two or three different alarms on your phone. Daily Bible reading plan, Exodus, still on track. You are still trying. But by March, you don’t even bother to turn on the alarm anymore. You just sleep in. You give in to temptations. You say yes to your old sinful habits. Daily Bible reading plan, Leviticus, do I need to say more? You stop reading the Bible consistently. So, a year that begins with a great expectation ends up in a cruise mode. You just flow along the stream with no expectation.
Listen. I do not want that to be our story in 2021. I believe that Christians should be the most optimistic bunch of people in the world. I really do. Despite the uncertainty of pandemic, I believe that 2021 can be a great year where we grow in the gospel. And my expectation is not based on empty optimism. I have strong confidence that God will do great works in and through us because his words say so. I do not have confidence in our ability to make things happen. But I have confidence in God’s power that is at work within us. I believe 2021 can be a year where we grow in the gospel because that is God’s desire for us. And if this is what God desires for us, we should be extremely optimistic that we can do it. Listen to how Paul puts it.
Ephesians 3:20 – Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us. By the way, this verse is one of those feel-good verses that has been abused by many Christians. People like me would often say, “What do you expect God to do in your life? Do you expect him to give you a promotion? Bonus? Spouse? New car? God is saying, “I can do more.” God is able to give you more than what you ask. So, if you ask for a Honda Jazz, God says that he can give you a Ferrari.” But that is not the context of this verse. The context of this verse is about growing in the gospel. This is what Paul is saying. Do you want to be more like Jesus? Do you want your life to reflect more of Jesus? Do you want to love like Jesus? Do you want to grow in the gospel? Then Paul will tell you yes and amen. God is not only able to do it, but he is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. Far more abundantly! It is God’s word. It is his promise. Do you believe it? Let me be honest. A lot of times I find it hard to believe this promise. My past failures and experiences tell me that this promise is too good to be true. This promise might belong to someone who is holier than me. Maybe this promise is for people like John Piper but not me. But I am wrong. This is not a promise for the super Christians. This promise belongs to every Christian. That’s why Paul writes, “according to the power at work within us.” Us. You. Me. The church. Get this. Inside of every Christian, there is the power of God that enables them to grow in the gospel.
Let me put it this way. Do you want to grow in the gospel in 2021? That’s great but God is able to do so much more. Do you want to love Jesus more in 2021? That’s awesome but God is able to do so much more. Do you want to love others like Jesus? That’s amazing but God can do so much more. Do you want to become a better witness of Christ to your family and friends? That’s superb, but God can do so much more. Do you want to win 5 souls for Christ? That’s good but God can do so much more. Whatever it is that we desire to make us grow in the gospel, God is saying that he can do so much more. And what’s more amazing is that we already have the power to do it inside of us. That is why we must be very optimistic. 2021 can be a year where we grow in our walk with Christ. And not only this year but every single year we can continue to grow in the gospel.
So how do we grow in the gospel? I’m glad you asked. This passage will answer that question for us. The letter to the Ephesians is written by apostle Paul. And this particular passage is Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus. And Paul’s prayer is very intriguing. Look at verses 14 to 19. There are three things that Paul prays for: That Christ may dwells in their hearts; that they can comprehend the love of Christ; for them to be filled with the fullness of God. This is strange. Paul writes the letter of Ephesians for the Christians in the city of Ephesus. This prayer is a prayer for Christians. And what Paul is praying for is not something that Christians do not have. He is praying for something that Christians already have. Christians are those who know Christ and love Christ. Christians know the gospel. Then why would Paul pray for something that is already true for Christians?
In fact, Paul is not only praying, but he is desperately praying. Ephesians 3:14-15 – For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. He says he bows his knees before the Father. It may sound normal to us to bow and pray but not so in those days. In Paul’s time, people do not bow their knees when they pray; they stand. Yet Paul is on his knee praying. It tells us that he is desperate. He wants every Christian to get this. Yet what he asks for is something that Christians already have. Why would he do that? What is he really asking? If you pay attention to his prayer, then you will see that what Paul is praying for is not a mere knowledge of the love of Christ. He is praying for something that surpasses knowledge. He is praying for us to experience the love of Christ. It is one thing to believe and trust the love of Christ, it is another thing to experience the love of Christ in our hearts.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say that one you day you receive an email that you have inherited money from a distant relative in Nigeria you never know you had, and that money is available for you to collect at Nigeria. What would you do? You would delete that email. It is a scam. Right? But let’s say it is true. You would assume that because you never knew this person, the most you would receive is a few hundred dollars. So, you don’t even bother to go to Nigeria to get it. You pay no attention to the inheritance you received, and you keep struggling to make ends meet. After several years, a banker from Nigeria tracks you down and tells you that your distant relative had left you $100 million. All this time, you have the money. But you are not living like you have the money. Do you see what happened? There is a big difference in knowing you inherited a lot of money and have the money affected your life. You can have the knowledge that you have inherited money without experiencing the life that you could have.
This is what Paul is saying to us. For many Christians, we are not affected by the truth that we know. We still live like a poor man when we have inherited an incredible wealth. We know the love of Christ, but our lives do not express that we are loved by him. And it’s not because of lack of knowledge. We know that Christ loves us. We know the good news of the gospel that we are saved by grace alone. We can have all the right knowledge but if it does not affect our whole being, it’s not enough. This is what Paul prays for. He calls it the love that surpasses knowledge. Oh, how we need Paul’s prayer. If I can be honest, most of the times my head runs so much faster than my heart. There are so many truths that I know in my head, but I do not experience in my heart. And Paul prays for the gap between head and heart to become smaller. That we may not only know the love of Christ but also experience the love of Christ. This is what it means to grow in the gospel.
So, let’s take a look at the three petitions Paul prays for and then I’ll give you four means of grace to receive it.
Surrender to Christ
Ephesians 3:16-17 – That according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
What does it mean for Christ to dwell in our hearts? For us to understand this, we need to understand the way the Bible uses the word heart. In our context, we like to equate heart to emotion or feeling. But the way the Bible defines heart is so much more than that. According to the Bible, the heart is the control centre of personality that affect mind, will and emotion. Let me give you an example. Anyone watched Pixar’s movie “Inside out”? It is a brilliant cartoon. In the movie, we get to peek into Riley’s control centre. At the beginning of the movie, Joy is the one who is in control over Riley’s personality. Everything is seen through the lens of Joy. Joy affected Riley’s mind, will and emotion, before sadness takes over. In the same way, when Paul prays that Christ may dwell in our hearts, he is praying for Christ to be the one who is in control of our lives. He prays that the presence of Christ in us will affect our minds, wills and emotions. The word ‘dwell’ literally means ‘to make a home.’ It carries the idea of a permanent resident and not only a short visit. Paul is praying that Christ will make a home in our hearts that control who we are. So, this is what it means. When we become Christians, our hearts are no longer ours but Christ. And when Christ come and make a home in our hearts, our heart will be transformed.
The question is, is Christ at home in our hearts? A lot of time when people come over to our houses, we will say to them, “Make yourself at home.” But we don’t really mean it. We actually don’t want them to make a home in our houses. What we are saying is, “I am going to put you in the guest room, and you can be at home in this one room. You can grab drinks and a few snacks from the fridge but that’s it.” We don’t want them to enter our bedrooms, open our closets and wear our clothes as they wish. We don’t want them to explore every little detail of our houses. Because the truth is, some rooms might be extremely chaotic. We don’t want them to see the mess in our houses. We only want them to see all the nice things in our houses. And that’s what we do with Christ. We have not made Jesus at home in our hearts. We let him stay in one room for a few hours and that’s it. The room is called RSI. Christ can stay in that room for a few hours every Sunday. But that is not enough. Christ wants to make a home in our hearts. It means he wants full access to everything. He wants to see all the mess, all the dirt, all the junk, so that he can begin the cleaning process.
It is not enough for us to trust Christ with some rooms in our lives; we must trust Christ with every room in our lives. It is like this. Christ wants to turn our hearts into his home. So, he goes to our libraries. He finds that our minds are filled with useless information. And he replaces it with his words. Then he goes to the dining rooms where he finds inappropriate appetites. He replaces it with the fruit of the Spirit. He goes into the workrooms, but they are full of toys that distract us from him. He replaces it with the kingdom of God. So, Christ cleanses our hearts and makes it his home. Then he sees a small closet at the corner. A very small one. And he walks to it. And we panic. We quickly run ahead of him and stop him from opening the closet. So, Jesus asks, “What’s in the closet?” and we reply, “Jesus, I will give you everything. You can have the rest of my house. But just this one small closet. I want to keep it for myself. Please give it to me. Do not open it.” In this small closet, we store the deepest desire of our hearts. We store our secret sins that we don’t want anyone to know. We store our angers, our shames, our fears. So, Jesus smiles at us and says, “Do you trust me that I love you? If you do, give me the closet. I want it. It is mine.” Friends, this is what it means to have Christ dwell in our hearts. It is to surrender everything to Christ. He becomes the centre of our emotions, wills and minds. He is the reason for our lives. This is Paul’s first petition.
Experience Christ’s love
Ephesians 3:17-19 – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
Paul is praying for us to experience the love of Christ rather than just knowing the love of Christ. This is the heartbeat of the prayer. Ultimately, Paul is praying for the love of Christ to become so real to us. That is why he uses the four dimensions of breadth, length, depth and height. He does not want the love of Christ to be an abstract knowledge; He prays for it to become an ultimate reality. So real to the point that it becomes more real to us than the love of our spouses, children, boyfriends, girlfriends, moneys, fames, successes, pride and everything else there is. Because here is something that we know. There are many Christians who know about the love of Christ but do not experience the love of Christ personally.
One example. One day, a girl came to see her pastor for counselling. She was depressed. She felt like no one loved her and cared for her. So, her pastor tried to help, and they counted all the blessings she already had in Christ. He reminded her that she was chosen by God before the foundation of the world; that she was adopted into the family of God and she had received an eternal inheritance. And all of this was hers because of what Christ had done. Christ had paid the price of her sins so that she might receive every spiritual blessing. Ephesians 1. After talking for an hour, he asked her, “Are you still depress? Are you feeling better?” She replied, “I know that Jesus loves me and when I die, I’ll go to heaven. I know that I have every spiritual blessing in Christ. But what good is that if no boy at school wants to look at me?” Can you see the problem? And that’s not only her problem but it is also our problems. Here is the problem. We know Christ loves us. We know Christ has accepted us. But at that time the rejection of this or that person became more real to us than the love of Christ. We know but we don’t know the love of Christ at the same time. And Paul is praying that Christ’s love and acceptance become more real and more sweet to us than anything else in this world.
Why is this important? Because ultimately, we are not driven by what we know but what we love. Until the love of Christ becomes so real to us, we will not be able to say no to the things of this world. Have you ever been in love? I’m guessing most of you have. If you haven’t, bless your heart. What do you feel when you are in love? Some say it is electricity. Some say it is chemistry. Some say it is like an explosion. We can’t really describe it, but when we are in love, we know that we are in love. How? Because it dictates our minds, wills and emotions. When we are in love, we think of that person a lot. We want to please that person. Our emotions are highly affected by that person. We can’t really put it in words, but we know it’s there and it’s real. One “theologian” puts it this way, “You make me wanna call you in the middle of the night; you make wanna hold you till the morning light. You make me wanna love, you make me wanna fall, you make me wanna surrender my soul.” The love of Christ must become so real to us that it becomes a greater reality than the greatest love we have ever experienced outside of Christ. This is Paul’s second petition.
To be more like Christ
Ephesians 3:19 – and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
The phrase “the fullness of God” literally means for us to live in such a way that reflect Christlikeness. To be filled with the fullness of God is to have less space for self and more space for God. To be filled with the fullness of God is to be more like Christ. This is the ultimate goal. For our lives to reflect Christ in every way. That the love of Christ is no longer an abstract knowledge, but it changes how we live.
Imagine you dedicated your life to being a great pianist. When you play, some of your friends tell you, “You’re the best pianist.” You love your friends, and you appreciate their compliments. But imagine one day one of the greatest pianists in history happens to be in the audience when you play, and you don’t know it. Then afterwards, that person walks up to you and to your shock, hugs you and says, “You’re one of the best pianists I’ve ever heard.” No offence to your friends. But this person’s compliment fills you up and outweighs everything anyone else ever said about you. You experience glory. You feel full and it changes how you see yourself. To be filled with the fullness of God is similar to this but infinitely more satisfying. It changes everything about you. Let me confess that I feel good when I pray after the sermon, and I hear someone cry. It gives me satisfaction that I make someone cry. You know what I mean. It brings me happiness to receive a text from you saying how the sermon really touches you and speaks to you. But if it does not change the way you live, it is meaningless. That is why Paul prays for us to be filled with the fullness of God. This is Paul’s third petition.
Now that we already talk about three things Paul prays for, the next question is, how do we receive it? Let me give you four ordinary means of grace for us to grow in the gospel. Note, they are ordinary. There is no secret recipe for growing in the gospel.
First, prayer. We need to understand that it is humanly impossible for us to achieve all that Paul prays for on our own strengths. We will fail again and again, and we will be miserable. That is why Paul begins by praying. He is on his knees making these petitions for us desperately. Why? Because the power to grow in the gospel does not originate in us; it is the gift of God. Ephesians 3:16 – that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being. Listen. The power to grow in the gospel is something that God grants to us. It’s not a power we conjure on our own. This is where we get it wrong most of the time. Self-will cannot produce long-lasting growth. There is no magic button for Christlikeness. Christlikeness begins by desperately asking God in prayer.
The good news for us is that God is not stingy with his power. God will grant us the power to grow in the gospel according to the riches of his glory. Did you get that? Paul does not say out of the riches of God’s glory but according to the riches of God’s glory. It is very different. Let me give you an example. If I’m broke and you are extremely rich and I ask you to give me $1000 and you give me $50, you are giving me out of your riches, not according to your riches. But if I ask you for $1000, and you give me $1,000,000, you are not giving me out of your riches, you are giving me according to your riches. You show me that your riches are in the value of millions and not thousands. So, the question is, how rich is God in glory? Infinite. The good news for us is that when we desperately pray for God’s power, God will grant us according to his infinite riches. He is not stingy with us. He will give us more than we could ever ask or think. God can do so much more in response to our prayer than we can ever do trying on our own.
Second, meditate on Scriptures. If the first way we receive is a passive receiving, the second way is active receiving. Paul prays for “strength to comprehend.” Which mean, it requires effort to understand the love of Christ. So, when we read the Bible, first it takes humility to pray and ask God’s power to help us understand his words. But second, it requires us to use our minds to understand what God is saying. Lots of times, we read the Bible for the sake of ticking the boxes. We do not use our minds to understand the text. We need to slow down and chew and meditate on the text. Don’t go too fast. We tend to go 100km/hour and miss the beauty of Christ’s love in what we read. But Paul is teaching us that we need to use our minds and wrestle with the text. Let me give you an example using a verse that we read in our daily Bible reading plan a few days ago.
Matthew 6:26 – Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Now let’s meditate on this verse. This verse reveals to us how much God loves us. But we must slow down and engage the text with our minds to get the gem out of it. Jesus commands us to look at the birds in the air. There are many of them. Hundreds and thousands of them. They never collect foods. They do not sow nor reap. Yet every single one of them finds daily provision. How? God provides food for every one of them. So now the question is, how much of more value are we compare to them? So, we have birds on one side, and we have us on the other. Which one is more valuable? You. Me. Us. Why? Now it requires us to think. Why are we more valuable than birds? Think. It costs God nothing to provide food for the birds. But Jesus refers to God as our heavenly Father. Do we know what it cost God to make us his children? Do we? Are we sure? It cost him the life of his one and only Son to die for our sins. Now, connect the dots. If that is how valuable we are to God, and if God provides for birds that cost him nothing, would he not provide for us? Then what reason do we have to be anxious of tomorrow?
Do you see what happened? This one verse that seems insignificant gives us an amazing insight into God’s love for us. But we need to wrestle with the text. We can’t just speed over it. It requires us to think and meditate on it. Once we get the beauty of the text then we can apply it in our lives. So yes, we must pray for God to grant us the power to be strengthened, but it also takes our efforts to wrestle with the text. But the ability to wrestle and understand the text comes from the power of God that we already asked in prayer. It is a fusion of both mind and heart.
Third, community. Paul prays that we may have “the strength to comprehend with all the saints.” Christianity is much more than about me and Jesus. You and Jesus are cool. A personal relationship with Jesus is extremely important. But we need one another. We need a community to better grasp the love of Christ. Our abilities to grasp Christ’s love on our own is extremely limited. We are a finite being. God is infinite. It is impossible for finite to fully grasp the infinite. But through a community, we can have a better grasp of Christ’s infinite love. Our brothers and sisters in Christ help us see and experience the richness of Christ’s love that we won’t discover on our own.
That’s why we need a community of believers. If you do not belong to any MC, I encourage you to be planted in one. You need your brothers and sisters in Christ for you to be filled with the fullness of God. Christianity is not primarily about Jesus and me but Jesus and his church. It is God’s intention to shape us through a community as we reflect together on the gospel. So be planted in MC and also be committed in a local church. A local church is designed by God to be a place where we can grow together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Church attendance matters. There is something about singing God’s words together, reading God’s words together, learning God’s words together, that strengthened our hearts to better grasp the love of Christ. So, one of the best resolutions you can make this year is to commit to come to church weekly and be planted in MC.
Fourth, gospel-centred lens. Listen. This is an extremely important principle. Notice that Paul does not say “the love of God.” The love of God is good but it’s abstract. Paul is making it personal in saying, “the love of Christ.” The love of God becomes personal in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel gives flesh and bone to the love of God. Everything we receive needs to be interpreted through the lens of the gospel. We do not measure the love of God by our circumstances but by the person and the works of Christ. That is why every single week we never bore of preaching the gospel. At the end of the day, only the gospel of Christ can transform our hearts. That is why Paul prays in Ephesians 3:18 – may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Everything needs to be interpreted through the lens of Christ’s love for us.
Consider the breadth of Christ’s love. The book of revelation says that Jesus was slain to ransom people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. Jesus did not die for morally good people only. He died for all kinds of people from every corner of the world. Do you know why we love Avengers end game so much? Let me tell you why. Because of “I love you 3000.” We can’t help but be moved at the fact that there is one man who sacrificed his life for the sake of his loved ones. And that is the story of Christianity. In the gospel, Jesus not only loves us 3000, but he loves us 3 billion and infinity. It does not matter who you are. It does not matter whether you are a serial killer, rapist, or the scum of the earth. Christ opens his arms wide for you. There is no heart too hard for him to change. There is no one he cannot save. Do we see the breadth of the love of Christ?
Consider the length of Christ’s love. Again, in the book of revelation we discover that from before the foundation of the world, the lamb was already slain. Did you catch that? Before God created the earth, before you and I ever existed, before time began, in the eternity past, Jesus was already slain. Christ’s love for us began even before time began. And it will continue throughout eternity. Christ will never run out of love for us. He loves us from eternity past into eternity future. Christ will never abandon us. And we will delight in his love for eternity. Do we see the length of the love of Christ?
Consider the height of Christ’s love. In one of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, Jesus prays that we might enjoy the glory that Jesus has with the Father. Can you imagine it? The glory of the almighty God, the glory that belongs to the triune God, Jesus wants us to enjoy the same glory. What sort of glory is it? I have no idea! I’m not part of the trinity so I don’t have a clue. But we’ll find out together. Christ’s love will bring us to the highest height. Do we see the height of the love of Christ?
Consider the depth of Christ’s love. Do we know how much he is willing to go to love us? Let me tell you. No one ever makes a greater sacrifice to love someone else more than Jesus. He who was equal with God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and being born in the likeness of man. And being found in human form, he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on the cross. Jesus went from the glory of heaven to the depth of hell for us. In Jesus, we see the son of God became the son of man so that the son of man may become the son of God. The cross is the depth of Christ’s love for us. It is in the gospel that we see the breadth, the length, the height and the depth of the love of Christ.
This is Paul’s prayer for us. He wants us to surrender control to Christ; he wants us to experience the love of Christ; he wants us to be like Christ. That is why we as Christians should be very optimistic that we can grow in the gospel. It is Paul’s prayer for us, and it is God’s will for us. And I believe with all my heart that if we make it our resolution to grow in the gospel, God will do so much more than all that we ask or think. He wants us to grow in the gospel more than we want to grow in the gospel. It is his desire for us to be like Christ. God is more eager to answer this prayer than we do seeing the fulfilment of this prayer. Because the result of this prayer will bring glory to God in the church and in Christ Jesus forever.
Ephesians 3:20-21 – Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
- Are you optimistic about your growth in the gospel in 2021? Why or why not?
- Explain the difference between knowing the love of Christ and experiencing the love of Christ.
- What does it mean for Christ to dwell in our hearts? Why is this painful?
- Look at the three petitions of Paul’s prayer. Explain how these three petitions build on each other.
- Why prayer is such a crucial element of growing in the gospel? What does it say about your prayer life?
- How do your local church and MC (small group) play role in your growth in the gospel? Share your story.
- Why gospel-centred lens is extremely crucial?