GCI Sermon – July 25, 2021

Paul’s Crescendo of Prayer

Ephesians 3:14-21 ESV

Any symphony will have a crescendo—perhaps a few, as the piece goes on. You know it, it’s the loud part—that deafening roar at the end when the kettledrum booms and the violins wail and the conductor’s hair falls out of place. It’s a musical summary where the composer revisits the theme of a piece and resolves the tension in conclusion, or before moving on to another part of the symphony.


In this section of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul enters a crescendo of prayer for this community. He brings the themes of Ephesians to a high pitch and draws together the story before moving on with the rest of the letter.

Ephesians, which was written by Paul in prison, falls into roughly two parts. He spends the first few chapters developing the theology of the message, then after this prayer at the end of chapter 3, he moves on. The last three chapters of the book are the practical implications of this theology.

Like a crescendo between movements of a symphony, this song of prayer brings us from one discussion to the next. Paul tells us what it means to be God’s people, and then he shows us.

Let’s look at this brief crescendo of prayer and the different themes Paul hits within it. These themes have echoed down through the centuries to us and continue to be our music.

Let’s look at:

  • New family
  • New identity
  • New heavens, new earth

Paul’s crescendo of prayer begins with the choreography, which tells us where to start: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father” (Ephesians 3:14). That’s where it all begins and ends—Paul is so overcome with what he’s asking and who he’s talking about that he can’t help but fall to his knees.

Theologian Tim Keller says it well: “Prayer is awe before an infinite force, and yet it is intimacy with a personal friend.” Prayer begins with awe and wonder and ends in love. Holding onto awe-filled worship and the warmth of relationship at the same time is a primary tension of prayer.

Paul knows that he’s out of his depth and all he can do is pray. Let’s look at his themes.

New Family

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. (Ephesians 3:14-15 ESV)

One of the things about the ancient world that we don’t understand as moderns is how disparate and divided it was. The tribes, the locales and the different strata of society stayed separate from each other.

One of the major distinctions of the early Christians was gathering around the communion table as equals. Greeks, Jews, Romans, Macedonians, as well as masters and slaves met as one family in worship. This was unheard of in the time Paul wrote this letter and was highly disruptive to the social order.

Religion in that society could be very divided as well. It was often tied to your local or tribal identity. The idea of one supreme, unifying truth was foreign to them. One of the issues of the early church was that people wanted to add Jesus to the collection of gods they already had. The gospel called them to worship the one true God.

The fragmentation of the world is a common theme in Ephesians. Paul writes a few chapters before “… as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Jesus is the lynchpin of the universe, the key that opens the door. The Greek here says that everything “comes to a head” in Jesus.

Paul also connects them to the past. He talks about how every family in heaven and on earth takes its name from God. He’s writing to a Gentile audience, and one of the early discussions was how their story connected with the thoroughly Jewish story of Jesus.

Paul, the apostle to Gentiles, works on this connection through this writing. He proclaims here that all the families in the diverse, disconnected ancient world have one name. The Israelite story brought us Jesus and he is Lord of all.

A new family—a new unity that heals the fragmentation of the world. And if segmentation and fragmentation don’t remind you of the modern world, then you haven’t been looking around.

Most of the developed world spends 6-10 hours a day online. There are over 14 billion mobile devices (cell phones, etc.) in the world today. Television did enough to kill conversations when we all watched shows together, now everyone has their own screen in their pocket!

Instead of a harmonious, connected world, we live in the age of distracted co-existence. Instead of messages, we tweet. Instead of conversations, we text.

Paul calls us to live against this. To meet for worship and prayer together, to depend on each other, even belong to each other (Romans 12:5). He calls us to express what is the very center of the triune God—unity.

New identity

So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—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, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19 ESV)

The poor beggar is a secret prince. The chambermaid is a princess. The estranged stepdaughter is magical royalty. The ugly duckling is a swan. The theme of identity—forgotten and remembered, lost and discovered—weaves throughout the myths and narratives of all of history. The human longing for true identity drives stories all across the world. The current fascination with super-heroes speaks to this as well.

Paul’s crescendo of prayer moves on to his audience discovering their true identity in Christ. He acknowledges this driving need of our humanity and says that it finds its end in Jesus.

His prayer is not for them to start a huge successful ministry. His prayer also is not for healing of physical ailments or the end of political oppression. He doesn’t even call them in this moment to change their behavior.

His only call for them is to be. His prayer is that they will fully live into who they are in Christ.

Paul talks about God dwelling and interacting with us “together with all the saints” (Ephesians 3:18). He calls the Ephesians to explore that fully and he prays they have eyes to see it—to reach into its length, height and depth.

Too often we are human doings, not human beings, and the same is true in our walk of faith. Paul is reminding us to have our identity in Christ, rather than in what we do, to fully explore what it means to be in Christ, to stop and live in that. This passage calls us to live in Christ.

New Heavens, New Earth

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. (Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV)

Throughout the New Testament, the return of Christ is a theme of hope and mystery. From his own discussions of it to John’s cosmic visions in Revelation, the message has always been that the story is still incomplete, there’s more to come.

Having talked about the past and connected us with the story of Israel, Paul turns toward the future. He connects all the story of the human family, brought together under Christ. Then he turns to Christ, glorified through all generations.

Paul gets explicit here by talking not only about Jesus’ life and teaching, but about Jesus’ mysterious cosmic identity as the Son of God. Paul makes it clear that he’s not just talking about a local deity or a philosopher hero—he’s talking about Jesus, who sums up all there is in the universe.

This is what he wants believers in and around Ephesus to understand. Paul likely sent this letter into the area around Ephesus, to several churches he had planted in the region. As an epicenter of religions of the day, Ephesus was dominated by a giant temple to Artemis, a Greek goddess of hunting and wilderness. This temple was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world, and stood 450 feet long, 250 feet wide and 60 feet high. By the standards of the ancient world, it was a palace.

With this theological and religious culture in the air, the Ephesians needed to hear these cosmic truths about Jesus. They needed to understand he wasn’t a Jewish political figure or another prophet or one of their poets or soothsayers. Jesus is the end that all the impulses and signposts point to.

Paul’s language is what we need to hear today. In our separated, individualistic society, people regard so many things as personal choices, especially faith. What “works for me” is the new measure of reality. Matters of faith—which should involve absolute truths and coherent thought—are now just matters of opinion.

Faith then becomes as meaningful as your choice of sports team or your preference for a hairstyle. Paul’s language of a new heavens and new earth and Jesus the cosmic king of it all speaks against this. The paradox of the gospel is to hold these truths in tension—Jesus is your best friend and he’s also the emperor of the universe.

In our time, we err on the side of Jesus being our own personal experience. Jesus as my buddy who is subjective and meant for my own personal edification and comfort. At other times in history, think during the Holy Roman Empire, Jesus is portrayed as so conquering and powerful that he was unapproachable. How do we hold these realities in tension?

I think we come back to where Paul started—on his knees. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14-15 ESV).

We need to be on our knees in worship of the God who brings us together in a new family, who gives us a new identity, and who will come again to bring the new heavens and the new earth.

New family: No matter our background or social status, if you know Christ, you are part of the family. Other people are, too – they just don’t know it yet.

New identity: People resonate with stories of hidden royalty because people yearn for a significance greater than what they currently feel. The truth is that we are more significant that what it looks like on the surface. We are hidden royalty. Christ won your identity in his finished work on the cross, and nothing can change that.

New heavens, new earth: The picture we see is incomplete. We know how this will end, but we are still in the time between the times. Jesus, who lives in our hearts and rules the universe at the same time, is still writing the story.

This is Paul’s crescendo of prayer, may it sound again and again.

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