November 27, 2016
After praying for his readers in Ephesians 3, Paul proceeded to praise the perfect and powerful God who would answer his requests. In this message, Alistair Begg describes the need to ground our praise in theology and an understanding of God as Creator and Sustainer, revealed in the Bible. The world around us will see His glory in the transformed lives and godly character of believers and local churches, and we are encouraged to look to God for grace and power as we live to bring Him praise.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me in the New Testament to Ephesians chapter 3. If you’re visiting with us this morning, we are studying in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians, and we have reached the final two verses of chapter 3, which seem quite fitting on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, although we haven’t planned it that way.
“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.”
And just a brief prayer:
Father, what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, these two verses form a doxology. A doxology. It’s a familiar word. Many of you would be familiar with the melody of our opening song this morning, which often is the melody that goes with the singing of “The Doxology,” which I seem to recall, at least when I visited America in the early years, that this would often be sung by the congregation, standing, when they were bringing the morning offering. But a doxology—doxa, “glory”; logos, “the word”—is simply an ascription of praise and of adoration to God. And Paul is frequently employing doxology in his writing. You will find as you read through his letters that every so often, he breaks away, as it were, from instruction and goes directly to adoration, essentially encouraging his readers to join with him.
Now, that’s not unique to the New Testament. In the Old Testament we find the same thing happening. For example, on the occasion that’s recorded in 1 Chronicles 29, when the people have brought all of their provisions for the construction of the temple, David then leads them in a prayer, and the larger part of that prayer is essentially a doxology. You perhaps recall: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. [And] yours is the kingdom,” and so on. He just lifts his voice to God in praise.
Now, the psalmist does this. And we’ve responded to that already in the singing of the Hundredth Psalm. The psalmist encourages us to enter into the courts of God—into the presence of God, in the context of Jerusalem, into the temple there; for us, gathering where God’s name is praised and his Son is exalted. And he says, “I want you to enter there with thanksgiving and with praise.” And then he explains why: he says, “Because, you see, the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting, and his truth endures to all generations.” So what he actually does is he makes his theology—that is, his knowledge of God—the impetus for his doxology. One of the old Anglican bishops years ago used to say we have to be careful that we do not have “untheological devotion” or “undevotional theology,” so that what we know of God in terms of his being then becomes a basis for our giving praise to God.
And the best of hymns do the same thing. We’re familiar, I think, some of us, with the hymns of Horatius Bonar, who lived in the nineteenth century in Edinburgh, in Scotland. He was a Scottish churchman and a hymn writer. And one of his hymns, which has a glorious opening line—the opening line is “Not what I am, O Lord, but what thou art!” That gets it off to a terrific start: a reminder that all doxology, all praise, begins with who and what God is; it doesn’t actually begin with who and what we are. And it is a wonderful antidote to the kind of selfism of our generation. And in the heart of that hymn, here he moves from theology to doxology. Listen to how it goes. Let me sing it for you. No. Just a joke, okay? “’Tis what I know of thee, my Lord and God, that fills my soul with peace, my lips with song.” “’Tis what I know”: didactic, theological. “’Tis what I know of thee, my Lord and God, that fills my soul with peace, [and] my lips with song.”
We quoted last week from Spurgeon, didn’t we, as a twenty-year-old preaching on God? And in then another part of that same sermon, he says, “He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe.” “No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God.” So it is imperative to think of God, and it is imperative to think properly about God. And it is vital that we grasp this essential tie between theology and doxology.
Now, Paul comes to this song of praise at the end of chapter 3 on the back of his prayer for them. It’s very easy for us to take two verses like this and just take it away from the context. But that’s to do despite to it. The context is that he has been praying, and he has scaled the heights, if you like, in his prayer. Between his opening prayer and the prayer that we most recently considered here in verse 14 and following, he’s been praying that the eyes of his listeners, the eyes of their heart might be enlightened; that they might know the greatness, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power; that they might be strengthened, you will remember, in their inner being; that they might comprehend and know the love of Christ; that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith; and that they may be filled with all of the fullness of God. And at that point, he really reaches the highest point of all. What a request! He would have understood John Newton, the other good hymn writer, in his hymn that begins, “Thou art coming to a King; large petitions with thee bring.”
You see, because there would have been people who were listening to this letter being read for the first time. And we have to imagine that people took a pause at the end of things. They perhaps would have said, “Well, we’ve read far enough; we’ll come back and start again,” or even just had a drink of water. If you can imagine somebody reading this letter out to a gathered company for the first time, and they had reached the end of this prayer of Paul’s in verse 19: “and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God”—that “all that you can know of God may be yours in the reality of your experience.” That’s what he prays. Now, let’s just suppose that whoever is reading it out pauses for a moment just to catch their breath. We would not be surprised if the person next to us, if we were present in the congregation, nudged us and said, “How in the world is that supposed to happen? How could you possibly have an understanding of God’s strength in your inner being? How could Christ really dwell and indwell you? How could you know God in this intimate way? How could you be filled up with all of his fullness?”
And Paul actually answers that question, although it is unposed. And he answers it not by sending out a memo, but he answers it by singing a song. He answers it while apparently still on his knees, moving from intercession, or from petition, to adoration. “Now,” he says, “to him who is able to do far more abundantly,” and so on.
But let’s just stop at “to him.” Who is the “him”? You may be here this morning, you don’t usually read the Bible. And so you come to this, you go, “Okay, fine.” I say, “to him,” and you say, “Who is the ‘him’? Who is the ‘him’ that this hymn is about?” Because this is a hymn to him. Don’t you love the English language? Yeah! The people are going, “What does that mean? It’s tautology.” No: h-y-m-n to h-i-m. This is a hymn to him. Who is the “him”? Twice it comes: the beginning of 20 and the beginning of 21. “To him who is able … to him be [the] glory.” So, it’s very, very important that we get this.
And Paul, when he was asked, essentially, that question by the intelligentsia in Athens—recorded by Luke in Acts chapter 17, where he had gone into the city; he was waiting for his friends to come. He’d had a look around. He realized they were very religious, and people had an inkling of what he was on about, and so they invited him to come and give a talk. And he began in a very nice way: he said, “I can see you’re a very religious group of people. You’re obviously interested in God. I can see you’ve got a number of gods in your pantheon, and I was intrigued to see that you’re trying to cover all your bases, because you actually have a statue ‘to the unknown God,’ just in case you missed one. That makes perfect sense to me,” he says. “Now,” he says, “what I’d like to do is to tell you about the God that you don’t know. I’d like to tell you about the unknown God.” And how does he begin? “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by [any] human hands.” Well, that was quite staggering.
But Paul does this again and again. When he writes to the church in Rome, he says, “Now, let me ask you a couple of questions before we go any further: Who has known the mind of the Lord? Who has known the mind of God?” he says. “Who gave God lessons?” The answer is: no one did, because no one could, because no one is wiser than God. In contemporary terms, God did not have to hire a management consultancy team like McKinsey or Accenture or one of these groups to help him rule and rescue the world—because he’s God! He asks, secondly, “Who has ever given to God so that he could say to God, ‘You owe me’?” The answer is: no one. God finances his own projects. He didn’t borrow from anybody. He is self-existent. He is God.
So when Paul says, “to him,” he’s not speaking about God in the way contemporary spiritualities often do. Contemporary spiritualities—things like radical environmentalism (and I mean radical), combined with a little bit of yoga, combined with a little bit of Eastern mysticism, all rolled in together—those contemporary notions of God which are out there alive and well on the main streets of our towns suggests that in one way or another, God is dependent on the created universe. Actually, that God is contained in it—that he is contained in it, so that nature (and it’s always nature) includes and contains the divine. And since we are part of creation, we are part of nature; therefore, somehow or another, pantheistically, we are included in this divinity. And so the contemporary idea of God, if you want to meet God, is you look within, because he is within.
The Bible says, “No, he’s not.” This notion of the divine spark has some semblance of reality, insofar as we’re all the children of God by creation. But when Paul talks about being “filled with all the fullness of God,” he’s not talking about something that accrues to us by dint of our physical existence but rather the reality of the invasion of God into a life that knows nothing of God. Because, you see, the Bible says that God is outside of time, that God is outside of his creation; therefore, we can’t confuse him with creation—that there exists “an invisible boundary” between God and ourselves.
That, incidentally, is why so many areas of life testify to that sense of disengagement. I’m sorry that I have to keep quoting people who are basically grandmothers when I go to so-called contemporary songs, but let me just quote to you Annie Lennox. I’m a fan of Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, and mainly because she’s Scottish. But anyway, Annie Lennox, in one of her songs, which I have on my phone, the song is called “Oh God.” And if you know it, it just starts,
Where are you now?
And what you gonna do
About the mess I’ve made?
If there ever was a soul to save,
It must be me. …
Oh, how can I survive? …
When it all comes to this,
[As I look] down at the abyss …
… Where do I come in?
[I’ve] gone and broken everything.
So I hope you’ll understand
If someone need[s] a helping hand ….
“Oh God.” Okay. So somehow or another, I need to reach out and get ahold of this. But that’s a real problem. Because, you see, the Bible says that we’re alienated from God; that we’re unable to cross the boundary to God; we’re unable to know God savingly by ourselves; that God is not found in our deepest self; that, as my friend Wells puts it, he is beyond “the range of our intuitive radar,” so that we cannot meet him on our own terms, and we cannot engage him in our own time. If we are to know him, he must cross the boundary to us. And that is what he has done in Jesus. That, you see, is at the very epicenter of the Christian story: “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world [to] himself”; that—as we will quote as we go through Advent, I’m sure—“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for [our] sake[s] he became poor, … that [we through] his poverty might become rich.”
So, when we think of Paul saying, “Now to him,” he is addressing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God has done and continues to do what we cannot do for ourselves. And our view of God determines the way in which we approach him. Some people think of God as a God, you know, who lives away up there and doesn’t really care. Other people think of God as some benign being who’s a well-meaning God, if there is one, and he wants the best for us, but he can’t really do much about it. Well, who is God? What is God? We’ve got to find this out. What are you on about, Paul? “To him”! “To him,” yes. Who is this “him”?
Yesterday, when I picked up my mail, I found that the Church of Scientology had sent me a very nice magazine. How they got my name I don’t know. Apparently, they’re trying to recruit me. And I commend them for their attempt. But as I looked at it and I went to the back to see again the aims of Scientology—and basically, the aims of Scientology are “We can fix this”; you know, “Through our technology, through our our various stages of the Dianetic discovery and everything that goes along with it, we—you know, we’re going to be okay.” And the affirmation is that if I will commit, “we will never betray your faith in us.” Faith in who? Faith in you? Yeah, apparently. “We’ll never betray your faith in us, as long as you are one of us.” Okay. All right. Now, how does this square?
You see, essentially what this says is—and this is true with all of this spirituality, minus orthodox Christianity—the idea is if you’ve got a problem (which you should probably admit you have), you need to know that it’s not your problem. The problem is outside of you. And if you’re looking for an answer, look inside of you, because you’ll be able to fix it. The gospel says, “We all have a problem, the problem is inside of us, and the answer is outside of us.” It’s the entire opposite. One says, “Look into yourself, because you’ll be able to find divinity in there if you search hard enough, and you’ll be able to put it to rights.” The gospel says, “If you look into yourself, you will ultimately find only that which disappoints you and confronts you with your own ineptitude and your inability to even fix the simplest things in terms of interpersonal relationships, and especially in terms of a notion of God. But the wonderful news is that Jesus has come in order to penetrate that boundary and to bring down that barrier.”
So, first of all, we notice then, God’s person. God’s person. We could say more on that, but we don’t have time to.
Secondly, to say something concerning God’s power: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” Well, I think that’s very, very important, because if we’re going to come to God, presumably it’s important that he’s able to do what he says he can do. And the language here is just piled up, the superlative on top of a superlative. God is “able.” God “is able to do” what “we ask.” God is actually “able to do” what “we ask or think.” That’s not all. God “is able to do … all that we ask or think.” That’s not all. God “is able to do far more” than “we ask or think.” But that’s not all, for he “is able to do far more abundantly than all … we ask or think.” This is God. This is God. This is God’s power. And all that he is able to do is in keeping with his purpose for us.
This is not a call to health, wealth, and happiness—you know, “If you dig in here, you’ll be able to get your home in the Bahamas and whatever else it is you’re looking for by sowing a seed of your own personal conception of faith.” No. Jesus made it clear, remember, when he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” In other words, all that God is able to provide he provides in keeping with his purposes for those who are his own.
So the encouragement is a real encouragement, and that is to come to God and ask him for big things. To ask him. Look at what Paul asked him for: that these people would be filled with all the fullness of God—these Ephesian Christians that used to be such an angry, miserable bunch of wretches that they were so horribly disengaged with one another. “Fill them with all the fullness of God, please, God, will you?” How in the world could he do that? Unless God is able. He’s able to do, you see, far more.
Do you know the power of God in your life? Do you know that God’s power is unleashed in the life of those who belong to him, so that the promises of the Bible are there for our encouragement? “Delight yourself [also] in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I remember when I found that verse, Psalms 37:4. I think I was eighteen years old, and I had this girl I really, really loved, but she lived in America, and I lived in Yorkshire, and that wasn’t going to work—unless maybe this 37:4 works. “Delight yourself [also] in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Well, in this case, he actually did! He did. But I had to learn, first of all, what that first bit meant. You see, I thought it’s just “You ask for anything, you get it.” Because there were actually other desires in my heart at the time that he never gave me. He gave me new desires. Fortunately, that one he allowed to stay.
How about you this morning? How big are your prayers? How big are our prayers as a church? I looked through this—I was so amazed by it—and I thought, “You know, we believe in the living God who’s able to do far more abundantly than all that we can ask or even imagine, and these folks are taking over the world: 192 countries, 117 million books, 100 million people, 100 organizations.” They’ve got a beautiful headquarters in Dublin. They’ve got another one in East Grinstead. They’re everywhere. What’re we asking God for? Is this it? You know, just a couple of missionaries in South America and the odd trip to India? He’s able to do, actually, far more abundantly than all we can ask or even imagine asking. Why? Because he’s a powerful God. And you will notice that this power is not academic. It’s not theoretical. This is not some kind of construct.
Notice what he goes on to say. This power is not only in accordance with his purposes for us, but it is also according to his work within us: “according to the power” that is “at work within us.” What is “the power” that is “at work within us”? Well, the power that has brought us to saving faith in him. Think about Paul. Paul is a testimony to this: he was a blasphemer, he was insolent, he hated Christians, and so on. And when he says “according to the power at work within us,” he knows exactly what he is talking about. The first readers of his letter, they knew the same thing. Because in 2:1, he points out to them, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, … the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in … disobedience[.] … [You] all … lived in the passions of [the] flesh,” and so on. “You were dead men,” he says. “You were dead.” Well, how did they become spiritually alive? According to God’s power. You see, the power of God enabled them to believe. Enabled them to believe.
Has God’s power enabled you to believe? To believe him? To believe his Word? Have you been surprised by that? Have you discovered… You said yourself, “You know, I used to regard that as the strangest thing to do, to turn up a Bible and to look in it. But now I actually do it quite frequently. I used to regard those songs as just the most bizarre songs. And I can’t fully explain what’s happening to me. I’m either losing my mind, or it must be something to do with this divine power at work within us.” They “were once far off,” and now they were “brought near.” And Paul’s logic is absolutely impervious. He says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” So we sin, actually, by limiting God’s power and his willingness to display his power.
So, God’s person, God’s power, and then just a word concerning God’s praise in verse 21. All that has come our way, he says, is according to God’s grace, without exception, and it is all, without exception, to the praise of his glory: “To him be glory in the church.” So when we are looking into the Bible together and we’re saying, “Well, who is this ‘him’?” and we’re introduced to him as God who is perfect and God who is powerful and God who is praiseworthy, and his glory is going to be revealed “in the church,” what does that mean?
Well, it means that the communicable attributes of God, to put it theologically—not his incommunicable attributes (i.e., his omniscience and his omnipresence and so on, which are unique to him in his being), not those things but that which are his communicable attributes—he says God’s glory is going to be displayed in his church, big C and wee c, so that throughout all of the ages, in the church of Jesus Christ, men and women will encounter the glory of God: God’s glory, his perfections which are invisible, made visible in the transformation that he has brought about in the lives of men and women—so, for example, his love, and his faithfulness, and his compassion, and his goodness, and his forgiveness, and so on.
Those are the kind of things, when you go into a church, you’re supposed to meet. You’re supposed to say, “Oh, I think people in here love people. They actually love me. And I’m surprised, because I’m used to people giving me the elbow. But that was interesting. And you know, when I hung around with them for a little while, I discovered that there was a kind of forgiving spirit about these people. In fact, there was almost an empathetic compassion about them. And you know, they weren’t all the same. They didn’t all come from the same background. They weren’t all the same intelligence quotient. They didn’t all have the same color of skin. They weren’t all coming from the same houses or the same communities. That’s what so surprised me.” That’s what the person’s supposed to say when God’s glory is manifested in his church.
What had happened in Ephesus was just that. Because the Jew and the gentile hated each other’s guts. Jews regarded the gentiles as dogs. They wouldn’t let them in their home. So everybody knew, “You ain’t going in no Jewish home, I’ll tell you that right now.”
“What’s going on in this place? I went into one of their community gatherings, and there were Jews, and there were gentiles, and they were sitting around, and they were singing songs, and they were singing to this Jesus Messiah person, this Yeshua, this Messiah. And they actually were eating and drinking at the same table, and somehow or another, it had to do with who this Messiah is and what he’s done.” And the people said, “How could this ever happen? This is an impossibility. There is no way that this can ever happen.” How does it happen? Because he is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we can ask or even imagine, and his glory is displayed in the church, in the bride.
And his glory is displayed “in Christ Jesus,” in the Bridegroom. That’s no surprise to us. John begins his Gospel, doesn’t he—he says, “You know, we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” On the Mount of Transfiguration, James and John and Peter had the privilege of seeing this amazing transformation in Jesus. And when John writes his Gospel, presumably, he has that in mind. But presumably, he also has in mind the wonder of the resurrection, the peculiar dimension of the ascension, the prospect of the return of Jesus in power and in great glory.
Because God’s power is displayed not only in the church and in Christ Jesus, but it’s also displayed unto the generation of the ages—“throughout all generations, forever and ever.” When we studied Daniel all these months ago now and we thought of Daniel having that amazing vision of “one like a son of man”—and he’s honest enough to tell us that it just completely destabilized him. A couple of times, he took to his bed for ten days, because he was just overwhelmed by it. He was saying to himself, “Who is this one who will be the King of all kingdoms, who will have a dominion and a glory?” He’s looking forward, and he doesn’t know.
Simeon is in the temple, and he’s going about his routine business. And Mary and Joseph come in, and they’re carrying their baby. And Simeon says, “Can I hold your baby?” And Mary says, “Sure.” And he takes the baby in his arms, and he says, “Lord, I can die now, because my eyes have seen your salvation.” People look on, say, “What are you talking about, Simeon?” “What are you anticipating, Daniel?” What do you rejoice in today, believer?
We have seen his glory. We have encountered the reality. And the transforming influence of it is such that we say, “Amen.” “Amen.” You see, “Amen” is just an expression of concurrence, an expression of assent. “Amen” is like saying, “I’m good with that. Count me in on that.” You see, it’s quite wonderful, because the profundity of it is almost inescapable, and yet the simplicity of it is grabbable by some of the little children that are in here listening to me.
I didn’t bring my hymnbook with me, but it’s hymn number 605 in Hymns of Faith, in the children’s section:
God, who made the earth,
The air, the sky, the sea,
Who gave [all life] its birth,
Careth for me.
“He cares for me.” And it goes on through the progression. And the simplest child can say, “The God who made the universe cares for me? The God who established time and broke into time in the person of Jesus and called out through the darkness of my rebellious and disinterested heart to open my eyes to the truth and to enable me to believe the truth, so that now I abide in that truth; so that now I realize that although my life is not easy, that although there are all kinds of problems and difficulties that come my way, although I am often my own worst enemy, every bit of progress that I make is always by and through his grace.”
Every mountain up which I manage to climb, every time God enables me not to be the bad act that I am and to actually be compassionate and to wipe away tears from the eyes of those who hurt, that is no testimony to you or to me, how wonderful we are; that is a reminder of how amazing is the grace of God. And when that grace takes hold of a community, takes hold of a congregation, then the world looks on and says, “That is at least worth investigating.” And then we’re able to tell them that this Lord Jesus Christ is a King who will reign forever and forever.
 1 Chronicles 29:11 (ESV).
 Psalm 100:4–5 (paraphrased).
 Attributed to Handley Moule in John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1994), 312.
 Horatius Bonar, “Not What I Am, O Lord” (1861).
 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Immutability of God,” New Park Street Pulpit 1, no. 1, 1.
 See Ephesians 1:18.
 See Ephesians 1:19.
 See Ephesians 3:16.
 See Ephesians 3:18.
 See Ephesians 3:17.
 See Ephesians 3:19.
 John Newton, “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare” (1779).
 Acts 17:22–23 (paraphrased).
 Acts 17:24–25 (ESV).
 Romans 11:34–35 (paraphrased).
 David F. Wells, What Is the Trinity? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 11.
 Annie Lennox, “Oh God” (2003).
 Wells, What Is the Trinity?, 11.
 Wells, 11–12.
 2 Corinthians 5:19 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV).
 Ralph Carmichael, “He’s Everything to Me” (1964).
 Matthew 6:33 (ESV).
 Ephesians 2:1–3 (ESV).
 Ephesians 2:13 (ESV).
 Romans 8:32 (ESV).
 John 1:14 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36.
 Daniel 7:13 (ESV).
 See Daniel 7:15, 28.
 Luke 2:29–30 (paraphrased).
 Sarah Betts Rhodes, “God, Who Made the Earth” (1870).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.