One Voice.

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Romans 15:5-6 ESV

Why can’t we all just get along? Disunity and disagreement plagues the church today. The body of Christ is marred by a lack of harmony and portrays to the world a less-than-flattering image of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And yet, our unity was of paramount importance to Paul. It was even a high priority for Jesus, because it was the primary focus of His prayer in the garden on the night He was betrayed. He pleaded with the Father, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21 ESV). It was to be the supernatural unity of the followers of Jesus that would give living proof of His claim to be the Savior of the world. Our Spirit-empowered ability to get along would give evidence to a lost world that Jesus’ death was far more than just martyrdom. He died so that we might have new life. He gave His life so that we might receive a new capacity to love one another – in spite of all our differences and diversities. The early church was made up of all kinds of people from all walks of life. There were Jews, Gentiles, pagans, the poor, the wealthy, slaves, masters, the educated and uneducated, dignitaries, tax collectors, former prostitutes, commoners and distinguished civic leaders. And the very fact that they could all come together and exist in harmony and unity was the work of God. But Paul knew that this unity would be under constant attack by the enemy. Satan’s strategy will always be to destroy the body of Christ from within. He will do everything in his power to create disunity and sow discord among the people of God. He will encourage selfishness and self-centeredness. He will subtly promote a what’s-in-it-for-me mentality that always proves to be divisive and destructive.

But Luke describes what the early days of the church were like. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47 ESV). There was a supernatural sense of unity. They were drawn together for a common cause and shared a common faith in Jesus Christ. Each had come as a sinner, unable to redeem himself, but had received forgiveness from God as a result of their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. No one, despite the severity of their sin or the dignity of their social position, was any different than anyone else. They were all sinners saved by grace. And years later, Paul prayed that the believers in Rome would have that same sense of unity and harmony among themselves. But he knew that God would have to provide it. God would have to grant them the ability to live in unity. Their natural tendency would be toward selfishness. But God is glorified best when we are unified most. When we “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Our prayer should be for unity. We should desire to live in harmony with one another – God-ordained, Spirit-empowered harmony. Jesus commanded us to love one another, in the same way that He loved us – sacrificially and selflessly. Paul tells us, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NLT). Later in his letter to the Romans, he wrote, “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10 NLT). Peter gave a similar word of encouragement. “Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude” (1 Peter 3:8 NLT). Our unity is paramount to our testimony. Getting along is essential if we want to get the attention of the world with the good news of Jesus Christ. Because what good is our testimony of Christ’s life-transforming power if we can’t even get along with those who we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. So unity should be our constant prayer. It is God who has made us one through faith in His Son. It is God who must keep us one as we struggle to live godly lives in the midst of a godless generation. We must make unity among the people of God one of our highest priorities and a constant part of our daily prayers.

Advertisements

Visible Faith.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that the faith you share with us may deepen your understanding of every blessing that belongs to you in Christ.  – Philemon 1:4-6 NET

They say faith is hard to see, but Paul would disagree. Faith has fruit. Our belief in Jesus Christ should have a direct impact on the way we live our lives and should be visible to all those around us. Paul had heard of Philemon’s faith. Others had been able to see it and talk about it. They had been first-hand recipients of Philemon’s love – a direct byproduct of his faith in Christ. One of Paul’s other prayers, found in his letter to the Philippians, read, “May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation–the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ–for this will bring much glory and praise to God” (Philippians 1:11 NLT). As we grow in our faith, the fruit of that faith increases, impacting those around us. Which is why Paul prayed that Philemon’s faith would deepen his understanding of every blessing that belongs to him in Christ. Our faith in Christ should result in a growing awareness of the incredible blessings we have received from God as a result of our relationship with His Son. We enjoy His unmerited grace, mercy, forgiveness,and love. We have the ongoing assurance of His abiding presence. Nothing we do can ever alter our relationship as His child. He never falls out of love with His children. As the incredible nature of the our relationship with God sets in, our faith should increase, along with our love for those around us. When we realize just how much we have received from God, we should desire to share that same love, grace and mercy with others. The apostle John writes, “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us” (1 John 4:12 NLT). God’s love for us was never meant to terminate on us. His love should flow through us to others, in order that they might feel the love of God in a tangible way.

As we grow in our understanding of the blessings of God available to us through Christ, we are able to turn from our normal and natural inward fixation to a Spirit-motivated love for others. We begin to live out what Paul described: “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NLT). We become known for our love for others. Our faith in Christ takes on a visible nature that others can see, feel and experience. We become less self-centered and more other-focused. Our selfishness slowly gets replaced with a spirit of selflessness and sacrifice. Our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ should be accompanied by a love for others. That is the fruit of righteousness. Paul knew that as Philemon grew in his understanding of all that he had received in Christ, he would increase in his desire to love others. So that was the heart of Paul’s prayer for Philemon. And we should pray that same prayer for our brothers and sisters in Christ today. Our love for one another and our love for the lost are tangible expressions of God’s redemptive, restorative love for us. We are to love as we have been loved. We are to show grace as we have received grace. We are to extend mercy as we have had mercy extended to us. We are God’s ambassadors, His representatives on this earth. “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’’ (2 Corinthians 5:19-20 NLT). But the most effective way to get people to return to God is to allow them to experience the love of God through us. They can’t see God, but they can feel His love as we love them as He has loved us. Oh, that our faith would grow and that our awareness of God’s great love for us would continue to increase. Then that love would find expression in our selfless, sacrificial love for others. And the world would take notice.

Filled With Hope.

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. – Romans 15:13 NLT

Paul had hope. Not a self-manufactured hope based on some unreliable man-made institution or undependable individual. His hope was based on God. For Paul, God was the source of all hope. It was God who had sent His Son to die for the sins of man. It was God who had provided a way of salvation when there had been one. It was God who made possible forgiveness for sin when condemnation and death was the fate faced by mankind. God provided hope when there was none. Earlier, in his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul wrote, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance” (Romans 8:24-25 NET). Our hope should be in the future fulfillment of God’s promise to fully redeem and restore us to a right relationship with Him. While we can enjoy His presence and experience His power even now, there is a day coming when we will be completely transformed into the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ. The apostle John reminds us, “we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 ESV). Paul put it in slightly different words when he wrote, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5 ESV). While we are daily being transformed into the likeness of Christ by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, that process will not be completed until God calls us home or His Son returns. That is why Paul referred to the hope of righteousness – a belief in and reliance upon a future, as-yet-unseen reality. The day is coming when we will be like He is. At this point, we are seen as righteous in God’s eyes because of the sacrificial death of His Son. We are positionally righteous, but not practically so. We still sin. We still struggle with our sin natures. While positionally righteous before God, we can still find ourselves doing unrighteousness things. But our hope is based on the very real promise of God that there is a day coming when sin will be no more. We will be fully, completely, and wholly holy.

And Paul prays that we might be filled with that hope, revealing itself in peace and joy as we trust in God. Peter put it so clearly and optimistically. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3-7 ESV). Like Paul, Peter wanted us to know that our hope is based on a future promise. Our salvation, while fully accomplished in Christ, is not yet complete. Jesus saved us so that He might one day glorify us. We will be like He is. We will struggle with sin no more. Our sin natures will be done away with. These mortal bodies will be replaced with new bodies that will not suffer from disease, decay or death. We will enjoy uninterrupted fellowship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself promised His disciples, “When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am” (John 14:3 NLT).

Paul prayed that God would fill believers with hope – God-based hope that results in joy and peace. Our hope must be based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. Because of what He has done, our future is secure. Nothing that happens on this earth can change that. His sacrifice was sufficient. I can’t read this prayer of Paul without thinking of the words of a great old hymn.

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

We need the God of all hope to fill us with joy and peace as we continue to trust in Him. We can trust Him because He sent His Son to die for us. We can trust Him because He has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves. He freed us from slavery to sin and the condemnation of death through the sacrifice of His own Son. And because of that incredible gift, we have hope.

Right, Not Wrong.

But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. – 1 Corinthians 13:7-9 ESV

Paul was the consummate pastor. He had a pastor’s heart and cared deeply for the people under his care, whether they were part of church he helped start or members of a fellowship he had never had the pleasure of meeting. And as a result of his pastor’s heart, Paul prayed pastoral prayers. At one point, Paul had urged the elders of the church in Ephesus, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock–his church, purchased with his own blood–over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders” (Acts 20:28 NLT). He wanted the elders to share his heart for the people of God. In Paul’s mind, the members of the local fellowship were far more important than he was. They took precedence over his own well-being, safety and reputation. Paul wasn’t in it for the glory or the gain. He didn’t do what he did for recognition or reward. He was a servant of God, serving the people of God – selflessly and sacrificially. And the great desire of his heart was that they do might do what was right. He wanted them to live godly lives in Christ Jesus. He wanted them to understand the full scope and benefit of the gospel message. It was that message that was the heart and soul of his ministry, and he would never have done anything to harm or alter that message in any way. Paul was willing to suffer persecution, misunderstanding, rejection, physical abuse, verbal threats, false accusations and assaults on his character – all in order that the people of God might live godly lives. If he had to appear weak in order for those whom he discipled to become strong, so be it. Paul knew that his calling by Christ was to a life of service and humility. So he put himself last and the people he served, first.

And as usual, Paul turned to God for help. He prayed. He prayed regularly and fervently. He prayed expectantly and hopefully. He asked His loving Father to provide the strength, wisdom, and guidance needed so that the flock might live according to His will. It is God’s desire that we do right, not wrong. When we pray for spiritual growth and godliness in the lives of others we can pray with assurance, because we are praying within God’s will. “God’s will is for you to be holy” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 NLT). God’s greatest desire for His children is their continual transformation into the likeness of His Son. And so that is what Paul prayed for. That is what he longed for and expected God to bring about, because he knew that “God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT). Ultimately, Paul’s prayer was for the perfection. He was longing for the day when they would be fully completed in Christ. He knew that God was in the process of perfecting them, sanctifying them, step by step, from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV). Christ-likeness is the objective. Godliness is the goal. And in the meantime, it should be our prayer that each believer live their lives, empowered by God’s Spirit, and doing that which is pleasing to God – that which is right, not wrong. Only God can give us new hearts. Only God can transform our behavior. But we can pray to that end – regularly, expectantly, passionately and thankfully.

Permanent Peace.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all. – 2 Thessalonians 3:16 ESV

We could all use a little peace. We live in the midst of turmoil. Our lives are inundated with all kinds of demands and surrounded with a thousand different distractions. Technology, designed to make our lives easier, has actually ended up being little more than a huge distraction and time-waster. Phone messages, emails, texts and Facebook requests constantly interrupt our days. Our calendars are jammed. Our schedules are crammed. And our peace disappears under the pressure of it all. And that doesn’t even include all that is going on around us in the world. The news is rarely good. The media provides nothing but a steady diet of stories that leave us either restless, dissatisfied, and fearful about the future. And we long for peace. Which is exactly what Paul prayed for – the peace of God – the Lord of peace. What we all need is peace and the kind of peace that only God can provide. This world can’t provide us with peace. The things of this world are incapable of bringing a sense of peace. Like everything else associated with the Christian life, peace must come from God.

Paul was a student of the Old Testament Scriptures and he was highly familiar with the Pentateuch. So he was well aware of what it says is Deuteronomy 6:26: “May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace.” God’s favor carries the idea of Him looking on His people favorably. Rather than looking away in anger at their sins, He looks on them with mercy, grace and love. And that should bring us peace, a sense of calm, tranquility, contentment and joy – even in the midst of all that is going on around us. The God of the universe, the creator of all things, loves us. When everything is falling apart around us, we can know that God loves us, because He sent His Son to die for us. He cares for us. He has His best in store for us. And that sense of His love, care, and compassion should bring us peace. But the peace Paul prayed for was more than just personal or individual peace. He also longed for peace between brothers and sisters in Christ. The Greek word is eirēnē, and it can mean, “peace between individuals, i.e. harmony, concord.” When we get under stress and find ourselves in turmoil, it is easy to get crossways with one another. We can begin to point fingers, pass blame, grow distrustful, resentful and angry with one another. But God’s desire is that we live together in unity. In fact, Jesus Himself prayed for that very thing on the night He would be betrayed: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21 ESV). Oneness, unity, peace – the state of corporate harmony experienced by God’s people as they learn to rely upon Him. The Psalmist reminds us, “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1 NLT).

 Peace. It’s what we all need. But it seems so illusive and impossible to find. But we tend to look in the wrong places. We seek it from the wrong sources. We must never forget that when sin entered into the world, God’s peace, His shalom, was shattered. The garden, once a place of uninterrupted communion with God, became marred by the rebelliousness of Adam and Eve. Their desire to be like God brought a disruption to the tranquility of their environment and permanently damaged their relationship with God. Peace was quickly replaced with chaos. Joy was replaced with sorrow. Intimacy with God was replaced by enmity with God. But the prophet Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah came, all of this would change. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5 ESV). Long before Jesus appeared on the scene, Isaiah predicted His sacrificial death on the cross and the amazing reality of restored peace with God made available to us through His death and resurrection. Paul tells us, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). We are at peace with God. He looks on us favorably and lovingly. All because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. But we need to be constantly reminded of our new status with Him. We are no longer enemies of God. We are no longer alienated from Him because of our sin. We are His children and He loves us. And that very fact should bring us peace – even in the midst of the storms of life. Paul reminds us, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7 NLT).

Glory According to Grace.

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 ESV

Paul was a brilliant man. He was well-verses in the Scriptures and highly knowledgeable. But at the core, his theology was quite simple. It all centered on God. God was at the center of Paul’s life and the central focus of his teachings. He knew that nothing was possible apart from God. Salvation was unachievable. Sanctification was impossible. A right relationship with God was unattainable. He knew from first-hand experience that it was God who had pursued and captured him. He had been living his life in a well-intentioned, but misinformed attempt to earn favor with God. “I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin–a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault” (Philippians 3:5-6 NLT). But he had been miraculously transformed from a self-righteous, self-focused spiritual over-achiever into a selfless servant of God, and it was all the work of God.

So when Paul prayed for others, he never lost sight of the fact that anything good that needed to happen was going to have to happen because of God. Only God could make them worthy of His calling. He had saved them and He was going to have to be the one to sanctify and progressively transform them into the likeness of His Son. Our best efforts on our best day will never measure up to God’s standard for righteousness – which is His own sinless Son. Which is why Paul prayed that God would make them worthy. He knew that it was God who would have to empower them to live their lives in keeping with their status as His children. It was also God who would make it possible to change their resolve to live godly lives into reality. It was the power of God that would give intentionality possibility. He alone can fulfill every work of faith by His power. And Paul never forgot that all of this was due to the unbelievable, inexhaustible grace of God. God would do all of this, not because anyone deserved it, but for His own glory. When God accomplishes something in our lives, He gets the recognition and glory. When we attempt to do it, or take credit for it, we rob Him of glory. As children of God, we live in order that God might be glorified through our lives as we live in dependence upon Him. Our continuing transformation into Christlikeness points to Him. It is the result of His power and grace. Our good deeds, when done by His power and according to His grace, point people to Him. He gets the glory. Paul’s prayer was “that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him.” That is an amazing thought. When we live dependently upon God, the name of Jesus is glorified in us and through us. Everything He died to accomplish is made evident and proved true in our lives. We become living proof that He was exactly who He claimed to be: The Savior of the world and the Son of God. Our new lives prove that His sacrificial death was more than sufficient to redeem hopeless men and women from condemnation and captivity to sin and death. But here is the other amazing thing Paul realized: We are also glorified in Him. When God works in us, according to His grace and power, we are glorified in Christ. Our lives lived according to God’s power bring glory to Christ. But we are also glorified in Christ. Paul describes it this way: “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord–who is the Spirit–makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT). We are gradually being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Himself – from one degree of glory to another. And God gets the glory.

The Christian life is not about self-effort. It is about dying to self and living for Christ. It is about abiding in Christ and trusting in God for all that you need. It is about reliance on His power, not our own. It is about submission to His will, instead of our own. It is about seeking His glory, rather than our own. And when we do, we get the extra-added benefit of being transformed into the glorious image of Christ – a process that will find its ultimate fulfillment and completion when we go to be with Him. “Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 NLT). All because of God.



.

Our Faithful God.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 ESV

In this prayer, Paul cuts straight to the chase. He asks that God would do what only He can do: To sanctify them completely. In other words, that God would complete His work of making them holy and conformed to the image of His Son. Paul spoke of this same confidence in his letter to the believers in Philippi: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 ESV). Paul’s desire was that God continue His sanctification process in their lives. At because he knew and believed his God to be faithful, he was confidence that his prayer would be answered. Our sanctification, just like our salvation, is a work of God. He must do it. We cannot make ourselves more holy or Christ-like. Any attempt on our part of behavior modification will always fall short. We must always recognize and rest in the fact that our transformation is a divine activity in which we play a role, but one that is totally dependent upon God. Earlier in his same letter to the Philippian believers, Paul encouraged them to “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). Their primary effort would be focused on obedience and reverence for God. Our job, as believers, is to listen to what God has to say, and then to do it. We must revere Him and respond obediently to Him as our God and Father. And we are never to forget that our pursuit of holiness is a Spirit-empowered endeavor. Peter puts it this way: “So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, ‘You must be holy because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV). Don’t miss what Peter says, “you must live as God’s obedient children.” We must develop a habit of listening to our heavenly Father, because we know He loves us and knows what is best for us. Obedience comes with trust. But trust is built from learning to obey. When God reveals His will for us and we obey it, we learn the invaluable lesson of faithful dependence upon Him. No matter how much we may disagree with what He may be asking us to do, we do it faithfully. And that act is an integral part of the process of our sanctification.

It is interesting that Paul’s prayer includes the request that God would keep them blameless in spirit, soul and body. In other words, that they would be completely, wholly holy. Paul speaks of a holistic holiness that touches every part of their being – inside and out. A kind of holiness that would impact the way they live both internally and externally. Paul’s not looking for mere external conformance, but desires to see true heart change accompanied by real lifestyle change. But again, Paul wants us to remember that without God’s help, none of this is possible. For Paul, nothing could be more ridiculous than for a believer to attempt to sanctify themselves. Listen to what he wrote to the Galatian church: “How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:3 NLT). Great question, and one we should be asking one another on a regular basis. The sad fact is, we all regularly attempt to make ourselves holy. We try to work out our salvation, but we leave out the part about “deep reverence and fear.” We forget that we need His help and so we end up trying to achieve holiness in our own strength. And it always leaves us worn out and wondering what it is that we are doing wrong or not doing enough. But our God is faithful. He who save us also sanctifies us.

Now, here’s the catch. God may not transform us in quite the way we expect or desire. He may choose to use difficulties and disappointments. He may allow heartache and loss to enter into the equation. At times, He may allow brokenness in order to eliminate pride and self-sufficiency. When all is said and done, God will have been at work. He will have had His way and seen that His will was done. You can rest in that fact. He will surely do it. So why wouldn’t we pray this same prayer for our loved ones, our friends, and fellow believers? His desire for us is our sanctification. Should our desire for one another be any different?

Love = Holiness.

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. – 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ESV

Paul had an obsession with love. He prayed for it constantly. It seems that in virtually every one of his prayers, he requested that God would increase the love of those for whom he prayed. For Paul, love was synonymous with being a Christian, because the kind of love he was referring to was not of this world. It was from above. Along with the apostle John, he could say, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7 ESV). There is an earthly kind of love and then there is godly love. God’s love is sacrificial and selfless, while the love of this world is selfish and self-centered. God’s brand of love gives. The love of this world gives to get. God’s love doesn’t show favoritism. The love of this world is based on convenience and reserved for those who are lovely or deemed loveable. So when Paul prayed that the love of the believers in Thessalonica would increase and abound, he was praying for something supernatural. That’s why he prayed, “may the Lord make you increase and abound.” It would have to be a work of God. We are incapable manufacturing the kind of love God requires. When Jesus commanded His disciples, “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12 ESV), He knew that they would find it an impossible command to keep – without help. Which is why He sent the Holy Spirit. It is only with the Spirit’s divine assistance that they would find the strength and motivation to love like Jesus loved. And when the Holy Spirit descended upon them that day in Jerusalem, it was a game-changer. They were transformed from timid, self-centered disciples who lived with a what’s-in-it-for-me mentality, into selfless, sacrificial servants of God who had a lay-it-all-on-the-line attitude concerning love and life. They would willingly and eagerly take the message of God’s love, as expressed through the gift of His Son, to the world. They would spend their lives spreading the good news about Jesus to anyone and everyone who would listen. But they would also grow in their love for one another.

And that was Paul’s prayer for all believers – that they increase and abound in Christ-like love for each other. And that should be our prayer today. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV). It is our love that sets us apart or makes us holy. It is our capacity to love like Jesus loved that marks us as His followers. The kind of love Paul has in mind is a jaw-dropping, eye-popping love that is inexplicable and impossible to replicate. It comes from God. The apostle John wrote, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8 ESV). Obviously, everyone loves. But not in the way that God demands. And if our brand of love is not the love of God, then we don’t really know God. I find it interesting that the disciples once asked of Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” But you never read of the asking Jesus to teach them to love. Why? Because I believe that, in their minds, prayer was a ticket to getting things from God. Like many of us, they viewed prayer as a kind of resource that would allow them to tap into God’s power and put them on the receiving end of His blessings. But they had no desire to learn to love. Partly because they probably thought they already knew how. But also because love, even on a purely human level, requires giving. Love in its very essence is an act of giving. You give yourself away. And you don’t always get something in return. To love and not be loved in return can hurt. To have your love refused can be devastating. But that is the very kind of love Jesus and Paul were talking about. The love of God. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV).

But what’s goal of this kind of love? Well, God’s love results in eternal life. He gave His Son so that those who believe in Him might receive forgiveness of sin and salvation from condemnation and death. God’s kind of love produces holiness. Which is why Paul prayed, “so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness.” As we love as God loves, it transforms us. It changes us from the inside out. We learn to become less self-obsessed and more selfless. We discover the joy of giving without the nagging need to get something in return. We experience the life-transforming joy of loving another person for the sole purpose of seeing them come to know the love of God. Again, the apostle John puts this thought in very simple terms: “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us” (1 John 4:12 NLT). God’s love is made complete, it comes full circle, when it flows from Him to us and on to others. God’s love was not intended to stop at us, backing up within us like a stagnant pool. It was intended to be shared and to flow from us like a life-giving stream, refreshing all those to whom it touches. So our prayer should be that our love increase and abound. We should desire to see God produce in us a love that is beyond measure and imagination.

Beyond Imagination.

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

Ephesians 3:14-21

Sometimes our prayers lack faith. We ask, but we don’t really believe anything is going to happen. We talk, but we don’t expect to hear anything in return. We share, but it feels as if our words disappear into a black hole. But would have us remember that the effectiveness of our prayers are based on the faithfulness of our God, not us. He closes out his prayer for the Ephesian believers with a benediction that focuses on the unfathomable faithfulness and power of our God. He is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” God is not limited by the limitations of our prayers. The very same power that is at work within us is quite capable of exceeding our expectations and answering our requests, even when we fail to make them. Paul knows that we have divine assistance. We have the Holy Spirit within us. “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Romans 8:26 NLT). And the Holy Spirit provides us with something we don’t have on our own – an intimate awareness of the mind and heart of God. “No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:11 NLT). So the Spirit prays on our behalf. He knows the will of God perfectly. He understands the heart of God intimately. So He prays for us. And the answers are “infinitely more than we might ask or think” (New Living Translation).

And when God answers even our unspoken prayers, He gets the glory. His power gets revealed through our lives and the body of Christ, His church. God is at work in the lives of and the circumstances surrounding His people. He is accomplishing things we have not even asked to happen. He is performing miracles we didn’t even think to request. And on those occasions when we do make requests, the answers come, but often in ways we didn’t expect. Rather than giving us what we asked for, He provided what we really needed. We asked for happiness, but He gave us an opportunity to increase in holiness. We asked for comfort, but He provided a perfect environment in which to learn contentment. We asked for healing, but He chose to provide us with a chance to learn to experience His grace even in the midst of weakness.

In one of his other prayers, recorded in the book of Colossians, Paul requested that God would, “give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9 NLT). The end result of this knowledge of God’s will would be that they would grow to know God better and better. When we grow in our knowledge of God, we are able to pray more effectively and in keeping with His will. We will desire what He desires. We will request those things which He longs to give. But in the meantime, in those moments when we don’t know what to pray for, or make requests for things we don’t really need, God answers anyway. His Spirit prays on our behalf and God answers, lovingly and faithfully. All for His glory and our good. “That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.’ But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us” (1 Corinthians 2:9-12 NLT). The Spirit is our helper. He is our advocate. He intercedes on our behalf, making requests to God that reflect the heart of God. He knows God’s deep secrets. He has an insider’s understanding of God’s plan and always prays in accordance with it.

So does all this mean that there is no need for us to pray? Are we to just leave that up to the Holy Spirit? The obvious answer is, “No!” We have been commanded to pray. “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done” (Philippians 4:6 NLT). “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV). We are to pray expectantly and constantly. We are to ask of God because it expresses our dependence upon Him. But Paul would have us remember that even when we are unfaithful to pray, God is answering. He doesn’t stop giving just because we stopped asking. And He gives in ways that are beyond our wildest imaginations. He has our best in mind. Our holiness is His highest priority. Our transformation into the likeness of His Son is His ultimate objective. But let us never forget that prayer is really less about us than it is about God. We should long to see His glory revealed. We should desire to His power displayed. We should pray that His will be done and His Kingdom come – in our lives and on this earth. Because He knows best.

Power to Know.

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

Ephesians 3:14-21

Paul’s prayer for the believers in Ephesus was for inner strength, provided by God through His Spirit, so that they would know what it means to have Christ dwell or take up residence within their hearts. Paul was praying that they would have a complete awareness of Christ’s transformative presence within them. These were believers that Paul was praying for, but he knew that they could easily miss out on the full reality of their relationship with Christ. So he asked God to give them the power to recognize and realize just how remarkable a gift they had received when they placed their faith in Christ. And he emphasized that faith was the key. It was the key when they first believed and it would be the key to their ongoing relationship with Christ. Paul knew their faith would be tested. His own imprisonment had already had an adverse affect on them. They had become scared. Doubts and questions had crept into their hearts and minds. And Paul knew that they were going to need God to give them strength to endure. Not only that, God would have to empower them to understand the fulness of what they had received in Christ. He referred to them being “rooted and ground in love” – the love of God. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9 ESV). God expressed His remarkable love for mankind by sending His own Son to die on man’s behalf. And the believers to whom Paul wrote had personally experienced that love. That love had taken root and provide them with a firm foundation that nothing could ever shake. Paul believed that with all his heart and wrote the believers in Rome so that they might comprehend the truth of the unshakeable reality of God’s love. “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?” (Romans 8:35 NLT). “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39 NLT).

But Paul wanted the Ephesian believers to know beyond a shadow of a doubt the “breadth and length and height and depth” of that love. He wanted them to experience the full scope of God’s love as revealed through Christ – “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Paul knew that, on this earth, we will never fully comprehend the magnitude of the love of Christ, because it is beyond our human capacity. But with God’s help, we can grow in our appreciation for and understanding of His love. We can experience, albeit incompletely, what it means to “be filled with all the fulness of God.” God has given us His Spirit. He has made available to us His indwelling power. But we fail to experience the fulness of that power because of sin, stubbornness, self-centeredness, and our constantly faltering faith. It is like having a car with a powerful engine and a full tank of gas, but we never turn on the ignition. The power is there, but we fail to make use of it. Which is why Paul prayed for power from God to provide the strength necessary to turn the key and feel the full force of God’s indwelling presence in our lives. Far too often we wallow in mediocrity and weakness when we could be experiencing the transforming power of God. The full love of God is unknowable and incomprehensible – without God’s help. We will never fully appreciate just what He has done for us without the Spirit’s assistance. God’s love for us has no limits, but we are limited in our ability to understand it. That’s why we need God’s help. What a great reminder to each of us to pray constantly for one another for God’s divine assistance. We can’t fully appreciate all that we have been given in Christ without God’s help. We are like children who have received a massive inheritance, but lack the mental capacity to comprehend the incredible nature of the wealth at our disposal. We end up settling for so much less. We have the love of God available to us and we would rather play around with the weak and worthless affections of this world. C.S. Lewis put it well when he wrote, “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).