A Prayer for Africa (Ephesians 1:15-19)

African prayerEphesians ch. 1 has a great prayer for Christians in Africa, especially considering our backdrop of African Traditional Religions with their strong belief in spirits, spiritual powers and the influence of the ancestors.

Thankful for your faith

(15) For this reason I also having heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and the love towards all the saints, (16) I never cease giving thanks for you. (Ephesians 1:15-16)

Paul began his prayer by thanking God for his readers – the Christians in Ephesus. In Ephesus it was not unusual for families to offer public thanks to the Greek goddess Artemis, such as dedications inscribed in stone. In 1:15-23 Paul wanted to publicly thank his God. The reason Paul thanked God refers back to 1:3-14, especially 1:13-14, where the eulogy was applied to Gentile believers who were now in Christ and on an equal footing with Jewish believers. Paul had good reason to thank God for his work in the believers’ lives, especially because the Ephesians had heard and believed the gospel and were sealed with the Holy Spirit. The phrase “having heard of your faith” explains why Paul was giving thanks and. The brevity of this thanksgiving report may give credence to the theory that this was a circular letter intended to various home churches. It should be remembered that Paul had not been in Ephesus for a few years and there were most likely many new converts whom he did not know personally. The recipients’ faith was “in the Lord Jesus”. Their faith was originally in Artemis, but now it was in the Lord Jesus.

Grateful for your love

The second thing Paul had heard about and gave thanks for is their “love towards all the saints”. The term “saints” can be translated “the holy ones”. Paul used this term to refer to believers, not just an extra-holy few. Here in 1:15 the term referred to all the believers in the local church, both Jew and Gentile. The phrase, “I never cease giving thanks for you” indicates that Paul not only gave thanks to God for having given the Ephesian believers every spiritual blessing and for having sealed them with the Holy Spirit when they heard and believed the gospel, but he also gave continual thanks for their faith in Jesus (as opposed to Artemis) and their resultant love for their fellow believers. Love and faith very often occur together in Paul’s writings (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:3, Galatians 5:5-6). “I never cease” simply means that Paul did not forget the believers at his regular prayer times or in his “constant thanksgiving”.

Intercession

(16) …making mention of you in my prayers (17) in order that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, may give you [the] Spirit of wisdom and revelation in order to know him [better], (18) having had the eyes of your heart enlightened… (Ephesians 1:16b-18)

The phrase “making mention of you in my prayers” in 1:16 indicates that Paul not only gave thanks but also interceded on behalf of the believers in Ephesus by mentioning the believers in his prayers. It is very likely that Paul was aware of the believers’ difficulties and challenges because of their newfound “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” in the midst of the polytheistic and magical climate of western Asia Minor and therefore he interceded on their behalf to the one true God.

What did Paul specifically ask for?

The request is found in 1:17. Paul requested that God would give the readers the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that they may know God better or more intimately.

Eternal Son

Paul emphasised who the God is to which he prayed. He is the “God of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:17). The Arians – forerunners of the Jehovah Witnesses cult – misunderstood this phrase to mean that Christ was the created Son of God rather than the phrase referring to submission within the trinity. The three persons within the trinity have traditionally been seen to have different roles and therefore the three persons relate to each other in different ways. The difference in roles and relationships in no way implies inferiority or superiority. The title “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” is best understood to bring to mind the eulogy in 1:3-14 where God is addressed as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” who has given the believers every spiritual blessing.

The God of glory

“The Father of glory” in 1:17 is a unique phrase, but also has its roots in the Old Testament and Jewish writings. God was often referred to as “the God/ King/ Lord of Glory” (cf. Psalm 29:3, Psalm 24:7, 1 Enoch 22:14). “Glory” indicates the splendour, radiance and power of God; it is the summation of all God’s attributes. Clinton Arnold suggests that God as Father brought to mind the concept of God as creator and source of life (cf. Ephesians 3:14). Knowing that Paul’s God and indeed their God was the glorious creator and the source of all glory would have reassured the recipients that God was indeed capable of fulfilling the requests that were directed towards him.

Knowing God

In the phrase “may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” in 1:17 Paul requests “wisdom” and “revelation” for the believers. The “spirit” here probably refers to the Holy Spirit, rather than the human spirit or disposition. Andrew Lincoln also argues that in this letter “revelation” is always by God’s Spirit, not man’s spirit (cf. Ephesians 3:3, 3:5). “Wisdom” may be described as an understanding of God’s will and “revelation” as some mystery of God that is unveiled by God. Why did Paul want his readers to have the Spirit of wisdom and revelation?

1:17 is the answer: to know the God of the Lord Jesus Christ, the source of all glory, more intimately. Paul therefore prayed for the Holy Spirit to give the Ephesian believers more insight and revelation so that they might know God better, including his purposes and, as we shall see, his power. In the mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world only a select circle of initiates could unlock the “mysteries” and have access to “revelation”. For Paul the “mystery” and “revelation” had been made known to all believers.

Paul could pray for wisdom and revelation because the believers in Ephesus had already had their understandings enlightened when they heard and believed the gospel (1:13, 18). Light and darkness are often used concepts in the Pauline literature, including this letter (cf. Ephesians 3:9, 4:18, 5:8). In the Magical Papyri, Artemis is addressed as “bringer of light” and is extolled as the “bringer of light to mortals”.

Silver denarius,42 BC, showing Artemis as light-bringer and huntress
Silver denarius,42 BC, showing Artemis as light-bringer and huntress

It may be that Paul advocated that this “enlightenment” (1:18) was the true enlightenment, as opposed to other religious enlightenments found in western Asia Minor, because it enabled you to know the true God, the Father of glory. Knowing God more intimately would mean knowing at least three things about God and his salvation expounded by Paul in 1:18b-23. These three truths would have been of particular relevance to the Ephesian believers (and African believers today).

 

(18) …in order that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, (19) and what is the exceeding greatness of his power in us who believe according to the working of his mighty strength . (Ephesians 1:18b-19)

#1: The hope of his calling

The first concept Paul wanted his readers to know was “what the hope is of his (God’s) calling” or perhaps better translated as, “the hope to which he has called you”. The noun “calling” was used in classical Greek for a “summons” to court or an “invitation” to a feast. In the present context it referred to the believers’ call of God to salvation, since they were chosen by God before the creation of the world (1:4) to be adopted into his family (1:5). The “hope” was not the believers’ subjective hope as in 1:12 but the objective content of that hope; that which was hoped for. This “hope” is interwoven with the notion of bringing “all things in heaven and on earth together under Christ” (1:10) in the future. Nevertheless the emphasis is on the past. The Ephesian believers had been summoned by God himself in the past to a certain hope in the future. The believers’ “calling” by God was in contrast to the Ephesian and indeed Greco-Roman belief that one’s fate was at the whim of Artemis or some other pagan deity or “power” . God had summoned the recipients and secured their future.

#2: The wealth of his glorious inheritance

The second concept in Paul’s request builds on the first. The text claims the “inheritance” is “the inheritance of him” (God’s inheritance). This clause probably means that God’s inheritance, namely his own people, would be fully his when all things are brought together in Christ. In the Old Testament God’s inheritance was frequently used as a synonym for his people (cf. Deuteronomy 4:20, 2 Samuel 21:3, Psalm 28:9, Isaiah 19:25). The believers themselves were God’s inheritance! Paul thus emphasized the believers’ inherit worth to God and the extraordinary value God placed on them. Paul not only wanted his readers to know the hope to which they had been called to, but also how his readers in the present were highly prized by God who viewed them as his own inheritance. It may be that Paul was inferring that God would protect his valuable inheritance against any forces or hostile “powers” that might seek to oppose or prevent his inheritance from being fully realized “when the times will have reached their fulfilment” (1:10).

#3: The exceeding greatness of God’s power in believers

The third reason for Paul’s request was that the Ephesian believers’ may be given a renewed insight into the supernatural power of God that was at work in them. According to Clinton Arnold, the believers needed to know how they should respond to and how they should view the former gods and goddesses they had venerated, not forgetting the various underworld spirits and demons they had feared. Most scholars agree that the author in 1:19 was trying to convey the great magnitude of the divine power by attempting to exhaust the resources of the Greek language by piling up the synonyms for power (μέγεθος, δυνάμεως, κράτους, ἰσχύος). Most of these terms also appear in the magical papyri.

Magical spells and incantations

One incantation in the Magical Papyri which has a spell to make a ring for success, favour and victory, begins:

“Greatest God, who exceed (same term) all power (same term), I call on you”

Another invocation to Apollo, Artemis’ brother, reads:

“I adjure your power which is greatest over all”

Thus Paul was deliberately using words and terms the readers would understand as denoting supernatural power and attributing this power to the God of Jesus Christ (1:3) to emphasize the supremacy of the power of “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:17). The author wanted to point out the “absolutely unique and superior power exerted by God in the resurrection of Christ.

We again find hints of the cultural background here as we note that often invocations and spells in the Greco-Roman world constantly sought the gods’ power to intervene in human affairs in some way. In 1:19 the power of God is supreme and was the same power that was available to and indeed “in” the ones who exercised faith in this God.

Another spell reads:

“Come to me…air-traversing, great god. Hear me in every ritual which [I perform], and grant all the [petitions] of my prayer completely, because I know your signs, [symbols and] forms, who you are each hour and what your name is.”

Powerful Jesus

In contrast, the power of the true God according to 1:19 is received by faith; not by recipe, chanting formulae or magical signs. This supreme power of God is available to those “who believe” or the “believing ones”, not the “chanting-ones” or the “ones who know the signs or formulae”.

God’s abundant and all-surpassing power was in and available to the believers. In comparison to Artemis and the other well-established Greco-Roman gods and “powers” this perspective on the power of God was not necessarily self-evident. Artemis presided in a world-renowned temple; Jesus was a wondering preacher who was executed by Rome. Paul, Jesus’ follower, was in a Roman prison (cf. Ephesians 4:1, 6:20). The power of God was not self-evident and so Paul reminded his readers of this powerful truth.

Conclusion

The three reasons of Paul’s prayer for the Spirit of wisdom and revelation was that the believers might comprehend the hope to which God himself had called them to in the past; the inestimable value they were to God as his inheritance that would be fully realized in the future; and the all-exceeding, all-surpassing, supernatural power of God that was in them and for them in the present time as believers.  This is a great prayer for us Africans to pray.