Stream or download the audio recording from this breakout session titled From Exegesis to Exposition: Help in Sermon Preparation with Don Carson and Ligon Duncan that was delivered at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. Dr. Duncan and Dr. Carson led a TGC breakout designed to help pastors and Bible teachers prepare to preach and teach the Bible more faithfully and effectively. Using Dr. Carson’s exegesis and commentary work, Dr. Duncan gave examples of sermon structure, illustration and application on select passages.
The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check audio/video before quoting.
Don Carson: So Father, all of us here are interested in the question of how to be more faithful expositors of Your most holy word. To become workers, as Paul says, who do not need to be ashamed. So grant that that might be the end result of this workshop together, that we do a little better than we have done so far. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Ligon Duncan: Amen.
Don Carson: Let me tell you how we’re going to proceed. We’re going to proceed primarily by looking at two passages—one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament— and we’ll begin with a brief presentation of the exegesis of one particular passage, and then the exposition of the same passage. We will, then, do the same thing for the other Testament. But along the way, we reserve the right to grill each other: ask rude questions, say “You’re kidding.” So let me begin with the first zinger. Do you really think we can separate out exegesis and expository preparation?
Ligon Duncan: Yes and no…
Don Carson: I told you.
Ligon Duncan: …in the sense that, for me, good exegesis is what gives me confidence that I understand the passage and can convey it faithfully to people.
That’s one reason I read commentaries. I don’t want to be coming up with some novel interpretation of a passage on my own. I want to be confident that responsible exegetes have come to the same conclusions that I’ve come to, so that I can be confident that I’m actually telling people what the Bible says.
I also then want to start asking the question, “Okay, now that I know what the passage says, what’s the best way to explain that to people?” And so, I think, good exposition ought to be really closely tied to and flow out of exegesis. But asking the question, “How do I preach this?” can be a little bit different from asking, “What does the text say?”
I really want to outline my teaching along the lines that the biblical writer says it in the text. I think that keeps from confusing people. If you have a totally different exposition outline from the way the author did it, it can sometimes confuse people as to where are you getting this from. So I really want to be informed by exegesis but I am asking the question, “How’s the best way for me to explain this?”
Don Carson: And do you, in your own mind, always separate out for yourself those steps as two distinct steps?
Ligon Duncan: No, they’re constantly interacting. From the minute I’ve read a passage, I’m already getting excited about certain parts of things in the passage and I know, “Okay, that’s got to come out when I’m preaching the passage.” But I want to make sure when I’m thinking about applications, I ask: “Is this application something the biblical writer is wanting Christians to see, or am I just imposing an application on the passage, that popped into my mind, that may not be part of the flow of the argument?
So I may get excited about a couple of things, but I really want the biblical writer (communicating through the passage itself) to inform me how I’m going to, not only teach this, but apply it.
Don Carson: Right. I think that I’ve been assigned the exegesis of a passage, and then, Ligon will tell me what we’re supposed to really do with it shortly.
Old Testament Passage: Genesis 39
I hope that you have your Bibles, you’ll need them to follow because we’re not going to take time to read the texts in detail. The Old Testament passage that we’ve agreed to look at is Genesis 39. Genesis 39 is sometimes summarized simply as the temptation of Joseph, or Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.
Now, especially when you are in narrative contexts like here, you must see what the unit is and how it’s related to the units around. So the outline of Chapter 39, in large bold brush, is something like this:
Joseph has been sold into slavery, he’s taken down to Egypt, and there he is bought as a slave, the larger context shows he was only about 17-years-old, by Potiphar. Almost certainly, he didn’t know the Egyptian language, most Canaanites didn’t, and so, he probably starts at the bottom end of things historically. But, after a few years, he is the most trusted senior slave in the establishment and is basically running the household. We’re told that God was with him and everything that Joseph touched had prospered because of God’s blessing on his life. That’s the way the chapter begins.
And then, the attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife—we’ll turn to that in a moment. And you remember how the story ends up with jail time. In other words, Joseph ends up in jail precisely for being a person of integrity. He is more interested in being a person of integrity and thought crooked than being crooked and thought a person of integrity.
But the interesting thing is, from a literary point of view and exegetical point of view, is that for the second time—at the end of the chapter— the end of the chapter begins very much in the categories of the beginning of the chapter. We’re told, Genesis 39:20–21:
“While Joseph was there in prison, the Lord was with him. He showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison and he was made responsible for all that was done there,” and so on.
In other words —the language, the comment on the blessing on Joseph’s life on the fact that God was with him and so on—it all recurs. It occurs at the beginning of the chapter and recurs at the end of the chapter. And that is what is often called a literary inclusion, an inclusio.
So the chapter is not primarily about the seduction of Joseph, it’s not primarily about how to escape sexual temptation. Now, we can work through the central verses and talk a lot about this temptation that is there. And my suspicion is that, most of us who have preached this chapter, have focused most of our attention on those sorts of questions.
What are the various things that went into Joseph’s temptation—the persistence of it, the sudden attack, the loneliness of being so far from home or whatever. And then, one can think through line by line, line by line what the text says were the arguments, in Joseph’s mind, for fighting off this temptation. He starts raising rhetorical questions, “No one is greater in this house than I am, my master has withheld nothing from me except you because you are his wife.” (Genesis 39:8). So he has a high view of marriage.
“How then should I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” he doesn’t call it a momentary weakness or a peccadillo, he calls it a wicked thing. He sees the action with reference to God. Those are all exegetical details from the text, line after line after line after line that can be developed in a good sermon. But if you look at the beginning and the end of the passage, then you must see that God’s hand of blessing is on Joseph regardless of his circumstance.
When he’s sold as a slave, God’s hand of blessing was upon him. When he’s dumped in prison, God’s hand of blessing is upon him. Joseph recognizes that. It doesn’t affect his own personal integrity, you don’t get to be the trusted warder within the prison unless you are a person of integrity. And he does that—even while, as subsequent chapters show, he’s trying to get out. He doesn’t want to stay locked in prison. He’s not a fatalist, but he trusts the good hand of God and God’s hand is displayed upon him. Which leads you to observe that God’s hand of blessing is sometimes independent of our circumstances.
That is to say, exegetically, you have to see that God is more interested in our integrity than in giving us happy circumstances. And then, you must ask yourself, “But what would the book of Genesis suffer if Genesis 39 weren’t there? What is Genesis 39 adding to Genesis that the book really needs to be the book?”
So you start looking at Genesis 38, and Genesis 40, and following. So in Genesis 38, you find Judah, one of the brothers who sold him into captivity, sleeping with his daughter-in-law. So here you can be a person in relative freedom and prosperity (fine cattle and all the rest) and be making a moral wreck of your life. And you can be a slave and live a life of value and integrity before the Living God. In other words, each serves as a foil to the other at a purely moral level. But it’s more than that.
Because he’s in prison, he ends up interpreting the dreams, in Chapter 40, of the baker and the butler. And do you know how that leads. After a long period of time, two years after they’ve been released—before the butler remembers his pledge to Joseph—it eventually leads to him actually being released from prison and suddenly being lifted up to the role of prime minister of Egypt.
So what? You see, you must not think merely personally, how does that affect the biblical narrative? Well, because of that, in the narrative of the whole book, because of that event, Joseph ends up saving not only the lives of the Egyptians—but the lives of the 70 or so of his own kinsmen according to the flesh who go down to Egypt to find food.
Because otherwise they’re going to starve to death back in the so-called Land of Promise, in the Land of Canaan. And because of that, the Messianic Line is preserved. That’s not just something I’ve pulled out from some later scripture. Chapter 49 speaks of the lion coming from the tribe of Judah. In other words, humanly speaking, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea and became our Savior because Joseph kept his zipper up.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, you have to remember the words of Mordecai, theologically speaking, “Who knows what God has raised you up, Esther, for such a time as this? But understand this, if you don’t do your part, God will save his people by some other way” (cf. Esther 4:14).
It’s not as if God’s hands are tied to what Joseph decides to do with his zipper. But yet, humanly speaking—humanly speaking—that is the truth of the matter. You are here today, in this conference, a redeemed believer because Joseph kept his zipper up. We have no idea about the consequences of the actions we take that lead on to the 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th, and 50th, 123rd generation.
And all of that is—either hinted at or spelled out emphatically—within the Book of Genesis when you read the chapter within its immediate context, within its Genesis context, within its Pentateuchal context, within its canonical context, the Lord reigns.
Ligon Duncan: Amen. I brought my sermon outline that I preached at First Presbyterian Church on this passage many years ago. And I was deeply relieved to find that I had outlined the passage, like Dr. Carson did, and had, in fact, highlighted the things that he did. By the way, let me just circle back to the comments that he made about the Joseph and Potiphar’s wife story.
This is a dangerous passage to preach in a #MeToo #ChurchToo age. So be careful here. One thing that will be said is, “See, here is the Bible presenting all women as temptresses and seductresses and men as the innocent victims of those women.”
No-no-no-no-no, look at what Moses has just told you in Genesis 38. He’s told you the story of Judah and Tamar where she is shown to be right. So when you get into a passage, and certainly in the cultural moment that we’re in right now, remember the Bible is going to have given you all sorts of ways to deflect ways that people try and use to accuse it and dismiss it.
And Moses has actually helped you textually, in this very passage, in that way. Don is exactly right, in terms of the emphasis of the passage; he’s emphasized really the Providence of God in Joseph’s life. And notice how every time the name of God, “LORD,” is used in the first paragraph.
Look at Genesis 39:1–6. Every time it is used in the first paragraph, it is used to emphasize either that the Lord is present with Joseph or that His providence is blessing Joseph. Look at it in verse 2, “The Lord was with Joseph and so he became a successful man.” Verse 3, “His master saw that the Lord was…” so even a pagan master sees that the Lord is with Joseph. And His pagan master sees how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand. And then, look at verse 5, “It came about that, from the time that he made him overseer in the house and over all that he owned, that the Lord blessed the Egyptians’ house on account of Joseph.”
So the Lord doesn’t even just bless Joseph, he blessed those that Joseph works among because of Joseph. And then, again in verse 5, “The Lord’s blessing was upon all that he owned.” And so, there’s an emphasis on God’s presence and providence in the life of Joseph.
By the way, the way I outlined the passage—in light of Don’s description of the parts of the passage—is this way:
- Gen. 39:1–6 – God’s providence to Joseph even in slavery.
- Gen. 39:7– 19 – Joseph shows his commitment to God even in a dangerous and tempting situation.
- Gen. 39:20– 23 – God’s providence to Joseph even in prison.
So you might get sort of a health and wealth reading of God’s providence if you only had verses 1 to 6. But the passage is going to end with him in prison. And it’s going to show that God’s providence is still on him, but that doesn’t mean that you stay out of prison. And of course, even when you get verses 7 to 19, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t put in very dangerous situations where you’re very, very vulnerable. So in verses 7 to 19, again, you see Joseph’s temptation and resistance and Potiphar’s wife’s false accusations.
And by the way, Derek Kidner is one of my constant companions when I’m preaching through Genesis. He will say such short pithy phrases that pack in not only wonderful biblical truth, but even outline the passage for you.
And here’s what he says about verses 7 to 19: “Joseph’s reasons—for refusing Potiphar’s wife’s overtures to him—Joseph’s reasons for refusal were those that another man might have given for yielding.”
Notice Joseph says, “My master has given me freedom in supervising his household.” Another man might’ve said, “I’ve got freedom.” Joseph uses that as a reason not to take his master’s wife. He realizes that the only thing that his master had withheld from him was his wife. Now remember Satan had come to Eve and said, “Why did God withhold that one thing from you? Shouldn’t you take it?”
Joseph says, “He’s not withheld anything from me but his wife. So I shouldn’t take that.” So he’s almost the reverse of Eve, in Genesis 39. Then he says, “And this would be wrong in the eyes of God, it violates the moral categories of oughtness that his God has given to him.”
And so, Kidner just says:
“Notice how his reasons for not doing these things might have given a weaker person, a person with less self-discipline, an excuse to actually engage in the wrong behavior. His freedom from supervision and his rapid promotion which have corrupted other stewards”— and of course, that’ll be exactly what happened to the other people that are in prison with him (they exploited their position and got in trouble). He didn’t and got in trouble. But he was morally upright in what he did—”these things which would’ve corrupted other stewards and his realization that one realm only was barred from him were all arguments to him for loyalty. By giving the proposition its right name of wickedness, he made truth his ally. And by relating all of these things to God, he rooted his loyalty to his master in his loyalty to God.”
And so, there’s a lot to teach and apply just right out of that passage, but it’s all part of this story of providence. And then, of course, the next scene he’s in prison. Verses 20 to 23: God’s providence shown to Joseph even in prison.
And again, even in jail the Lord is with Joseph. Look at verse 21, “The Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him.” And I really think verse 23 is the summarizing verse—giving you the theme of the whole passage—and it says, “The Lord was with him, and whatever he did the Lord made to prosper.”
So the whole passage (focusing on Joseph’s cycle in Genesis) is filled with emphasis on God’s providence and how God is sovereign and He will rule and overrule, even human wickedness, for His own purposes. And this passage almost foreshadows the Genesis 50:20 passage, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good that many should be saved in the land.”
So I really do think Don’s exactly right: if you set this down in the context, it’s an important passage setting up other things that are going to happen in the story (that wouldn’t have happened) if this hadn’t happened to Joseph. But it’s really also instructing the people of God in how God’s providence worked. God can be with you and watching over you and things can go really badly. But He always has purposes in that for your good and for His glory.
Don Carson: Do you want to stay up for a minute?
Ligon Duncan: Sure.
Don Carson: May I ask a question or two?
Ligon Duncan: Please.
Don Carson: I’m not disagreeing with anything you said, and I agree with your remarks on Kidner as well, very insightful. He has an artist’s pen, doesn’t he?
Ligon Duncan: He really does.
Don Carson: Do you think that there is a place for breaking this chapter down into two sermons or three sermons, maybe one on the morality of it and the other on the providence of it?
Ligon Duncan: You certainly could. And look, in this very time that we’re living in might be a good time to do that. Because there’s so much in, it’s a long passage to read. If you read it well, it’ll take you a few minutes to read it aloud to your congregation. And then, if you do each of those parts and you preach maybe for 35 minutes or so, you’re going to possibly need 10 minutes per part. So you could very well say, “Boy, the whole Potiphar incident is so potentially incendiary in the way that our culture may hear it that I’m going to break that out and explain that, and then, work through the passage as a whole.”
So you certainly could. I did it in one sermon and I tried to be sensitive with how I handled the Potiphar’s wife story. But I certainly couldn’t camp on it and address some of the misuses that you hear from otherwise good expositors who teach this passage. So you certainly could.
Don Carson: Do you think Joseph was a type of Christ?
Ligon Duncan: It is interesting to me that Joseph is pretty unique in the patriarchal line, in Genesis—whereas Abraham is presented with full warts. I read Genesis 37 as expressive of a youthful hubris in Joseph that the Lord sort of knocks out of him by the providence in his life. And I have friends of mine, Miles Van Pelt will argue with me about that. He’ll say, “No-no-no-no, you’ll notice that what Joseph says about the dreams turns out to be exactly right.” I see hubris there, I’d love to know what you think about hubris in Joseph. But he is idealized in the way that other characters, Abraham, Jacob, and others, are not.
So I’ve really not thought through the typology issue. What do you think about Joseph and typology and what do you think about the hubris? Is there hubris in Genesis 37?
Don Carson: Oh, I agree with you.
Ligon Duncan: Okay. Good, wonderful. Yes, Carson’s on side.
Don Carson: Yeah, on the hubris thing, it’s hard to be sure because the text doesn’t spell it out. Where the text doesn’t spell it out, you want to be careful about being too dogmatic either way. And there’s hubris—that is the hubris of youth and immaturity. And there’s hubris—that is a hubris of arrogance and mature rebellion against God. And at the worst, it’s youthful stuff. It’s hard to be sure.
And as for the typology, I think everything depends on what you mean by typology. I think that there are several different types of typology in Scripture. In the stricter definitions, you have a typology that is grounded in a person, institution, or a thing that repeats with time and gradually accelerates to some fulfillment that is greater than that which pointed to it.
So Passover is like that, for example, it’s celebrated year after year, year after year after year. It’s looking back, it’s looking back, it’s looking back. Then as the people go into new exiles and so on, inevitably, it’s beginning to look forward next year in Jerusalem. And so, it’s beginning to look forward and back until Paul gets to the place where he says, “Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed for us.” But it’s not typology in that sense because it’s not as if Joseph gets repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated.
If you can use the language of typology of Joseph, then it seems to me it has to be cast in a slightly different way. I think there are three or four different kinds. This is the kind of typology where there are patterns of God’s actions with his people that recur so that you can see God’s grace in the context of sin, God’s providence in the context of malevolent situations, and so on.
All of which get played out again and again and again until you see, for example, the providence of God and the wickedness of the cross. But that’s a bit different from the kind of typology where there’s a pattern that keeps recurring in Scripture, and where, eventually, the writers along the line of that pattern can say, “You know, I’m writing part of this typological line.”
I doubt that Moses was saying, “Oh, this is a lovely picture of Jesus,” so it’s not typology in that kind of sense.
Ligon Duncan: And certainly some of the older commentators—well, I say “older commentators,”—some of the 19th century commentators made much of the typology, especially Scottish Calvinists writing in the 19th century—George Lawson and others like that. I was reading those commentators (and reading those will profit you) but I actually never went the direction of talking about typology as I expounded the passage. I want to be really sure before I start using that kind of language in a sermon.
Don Carson: I think that’s right. I recently gave some lectures at Southern Seminary on the different kinds of typology. And I’m sure that there’s more to be explored in that line. One should be suspicious of the over-typologizing that is uncontrolled (Rachel’s Red Court is referring to the blood of Jesus and all of that, the standard shibboleth).
But on the other hand, one should remember that God has ways and patterns of dealing with His people, that keep getting thrown up in picture after picture after picture.
Should I turn to a New Testament passage?
Ligon Duncan: Please do.
New Testament Passage: Ephesians 3:14–21
Don Carson: This one is Ephesians, and it’s one that Ligon Duncan chose himself. Ephesians 3:14–21.
So we moved from the Old Testament to the New. We’ve moved from narrative to articulate exposition. And, in fact, we’ve moved, in particular, to a prayer. One of several prayers of Paul’s. This is one of the longer ones. I’m going to take the time to read it and draw your attention to a few structural matters in the prayer before I outline a few exegetical details before Lig comes to preach it.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.
It’s helpful to get an overall view of the development of the argument. And, in this case, the bigger elements fall out of the text automatically. Verse 14 and verse 15 give the ground for Paul’s praying. Why does Paul pray?
He offers two reasons “for this reason…” —we’ll see what that is referring to in a moment—and because he is addressing the God from whom every notion of fatherhood derives. I’ll come back to both of those in a moment. Then verse 16 to verse 19 summarizes Paul’s petitions. And if you take a look at the Greek text, and various English translations, they’re sometimes divided into three petitions as opposed to two petitions.
That’s a decision you’ve got to make yourself before you settle on your outline. In my view, it should be two petitions that are shaped syntactically by certain things in Greek and by two requests for power. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power,” so this is a prayer for power, a certain kind of power, but it’s power.
And again, halfway through 17, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all the saints.” And then, the last two verses, 20 and 21, are transparently a doxology. But although it’s a doxology, it’s a doxology that ends a particular prayer—so you want to know why the doxology has this shape. What is it in this doxology that shapes it this way as the end to the prayer?
Now let’s go back and look at the petitions again for a few moments. The petitions themselves are extremely dense. What that means is that you are going to have to give some thought to virtually every clause. You’re helping people to make sense of each sentence. You keep repeating the sentence, adding in another clause, repeating the sentence, adding in another clause, until people see what the sentence, as a whole, says.
So, “I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power.” The first question to ask is, “Is power a big theme in Ephesians?” If so, where does it get introduced?
And, in fact, it’s a huge theme. In another prayer of Paul, at the end of Ephesians 1:19, Paul is talking about that incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength He exerted when He raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in heaven, in the heavenly realms.
So this power that focuses Paul’s attention is the power of Almighty God in resurrecting His son from the dead. Now he says, “I pray that God may strengthen you with power.” That theme keeps recurring in Ephesians.
“He may strengthen you with power.” Where? “In your inner being.” By what means? “Through the Spirit.” With what purpose? “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” You see, you want all of those elements in so that you can see the focus of this first petition.
What is the supply? “I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power.”
So you do a little homework on that expression, “glorious riches,” and discover that it’s a recurring Pauline formula that talks about the glorious riches that we have because Christ has risen from the dead, and has bestowed these things upon us.
Do you see? “I pray that out of His glorious riches” (the source of supply— there’s no question about the adequacy of it); “He may strengthen you with power, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead through His spirit, in your inner being” (not your outer being, not necessarily healing your body of cancer but in your inner being’), “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Well, I thought that Christ already dwells in our hearts through faith. So you have to think about that one: why should he write to Christians and say, “I pray that He may strengthen you with power so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith?”
And then, you start thinking about it and remembering how often Paul uses expressions that are formally equivalent: both for entering into the faith and for growing in the faith—they’re formally equivalent but they’re different depending on the context.
Does Paul know Christ? Of course he knows Christ. Is he still trying to know Christ? Yes, “O, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering.” So there’s a sense in which Paul would be the first to insist that Christ dwells in our hearts through faith already. But it’s a strong verb used for “dwell”: that Christ might take up his residence within us and establish our hearts as His own home.
Now you can flesh that out in all kinds of pastoral and homiletical ways. That’s the first request for power. The second, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with,” and we’ll come to that. Now, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,” has Paul talked about love elsewhere in this book?
Back to Ephesians 1:3–5:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship…
Small wonder, then, that Paul says, “You, being rooted and established in love,” well, yes, grounded in eternity, “may have power,” you who have already been rooted and established in love…” The summary of the rest of the sentence is to grasp how big God’s love really is. It’s not a request that we may love God more, but that we might better grasp how big His love is for us. And this with a larger goal in view: “That you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God,” Ephesians 1:19, which is a Pauline formula for that you might be mature.
For example, you find it very similarly expressed in Ephesians 4:13, “Attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” So Paul is praying that you, who have been established in God’s love, might have power. You’ve been established and rooted in God’s love to grasp how long, and wide, and high, and deep is the love of God. To know this love that surpasses knowledge. That you may know what is just not quite knowable so that you might become fully mature.
Do you want to be a mature Christian? Pray that you might better grasp how much God loves you. That’s what the text is saying. And then, inevitably, you start asking the question: When was the last time you prayed that prayer for yourself, for your church members, and so on?
So you’re moving pretty clearly from direct exegesis to transparent applications—that are rich and valuable—in a pretty straightforward way. And the doxology in this case, it seems to me, is focused on the fact that the God whom we’re praising is the one who does immeasurably more than we ask or think.
That is to say, it’s easy for us to become cynical about the things we ask God for. “Oh yeah, we pray for this because the Bible says we should pray in line with Paul, so we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.” Paul slaps us in the face and says, “Wait a minute: “Now, to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all you think or imagine.”
Your problem is you’re not asking for enough. To Him be glory in the church. That is, if this prayer is answered, according to the doxology, there’ll be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus. And then, when you go to the other end of the prayer and go back to the reasons—“For this reason I kneel before the Father,”—obviously it’s referring to something that’s in the preceding verses.
When you read the preceding verses, you discover another, “For this reason,” in Ephesians 3:1. “For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you, Gentiles…” It sounds, in other words, as if the, “For this reason,” in verse 14, is resumptive of the, “for this reason,” in 3:1.
Which means, if you want to know what the “this reason” is, you have to study Ephesians 1 and 2. And the trick then is how to summarize chapters 1 and 2 in a way that avoids beginning another whole sermon. But when you do study chapters 1 and 2, you discover that these chapters lead into providing a very valid reason for praying exactly this way.
Chapters 1 and 2 basically argue that God has His high purposes in redemption, and adoption, and election (and so on) to bring together two peoples. The Jews and the Gentiles—essentially all of humanity—into one new humanity. One new humanity which is described in (for example) Ephesians 2:15: “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”
And He shows the elements of continuity, and wholeness, and transformation among them. We all have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Ephesians 2:19–23: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, you Gentiles, but fellow citizens with God’s people, also members of His household built on the foundation…”
Now watch it, you’re going to start talking about a building. The first prayer is that God might work in us, by His power, that we become the house, the building where God dwells: “…on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
In other words, the reason for praying this sort of prayer is that it’s in line with gospel promises. So often our prayers are independent of gospel promises, but here, Paul’s prayers are strictly speaking in line with what God is doing in the gospel in any case.
If I go on any longer, I’m going to end up preaching.
Ligon Duncan: He already is preaching. Okay. One of the reasons I suggested to Don that we do this passage is his exegesis and exposition of this passage has been so formative for me. Years ago, Don did a conference for Australian ministers on prayer, and he later repeated some of the talks from that conference at the Cambridge University Christian Union. In both places, there was something like a quickening, the Lord did a remarkable work in people’s hearts.
He eventually put those expositions into a book that was initially called A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities From Paul and His Prayers. That book has since been revised and republished with a title that better characterizes what it’s about, Praying with Paul. You need that book in your life.
His exposition of this passage in that book is not only helpful to me on preaching Ephesians, but really forming what I’m supposed to do as a minister. Because you’ll notice, in this prayer, Paul makes it clear he doesn’t just want this for the Ephesians. He wants this for every single Christian in this world.
Now, Don’s already explained that, from a biblical-theological standpoint, by pointing you back to the temple language of chapter 2. But Paul just tells you point-blank in the prayer: he wants this for the Ephesians together with all the saints. So this is not some secret mysterious thing that a few super Christians experience, he wants the Ephesians to have this along with every other Christian.
And notice the flow of argument in the passage. Notice how Paul just naturally, almost incidentally, weaves the doctrine of the Trinity into this prayer. He bows his knees to the Father that the Spirit would give you power so that Christ dwells in your heart by faith so that you’re filled up to all the fullness of God.
So the Pauline trinitarianism is just natural as can be, Father, Spirit, Christ, God. And I really think you could sum up the Christian life in one sentence using the doctrine of the Trinity: We come to the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. That’s Christianity. We come to the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. And you just see that woven naturally into Paul’s prayer.
Now notice how each of the petitions are tied together by “that” or “so that” in the English text. He prays in Ephesians 3:16–19:
that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—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.
Notice that however you outline the passage, it’s all going in the direction of verse 19: that you would be filled up to all the fullness of God.
Now, as Don has already brought to your attention, in at least two of these prayers, you’re going to be asking, “I thought I already had the Spirit? I thought that Christ dwelt in my heart by faith?”
Paul has already told you, in chapter 1, that you’re sealed with the Spirit. So he wants you to have what you have. And so, clearly this is the language of ongoing work of the Spirit in your life. This is the ongoing aspect of the Christian life, the Spirit having His way with you.
In this case, he wants the Spirit to give you power. Let that make you a little bit nervous. “Okay, what does he want me to have power for? Am I about to be persecuted? Am I about to go through trials? Am I going through tribulations?” No, he’s actually, as Don has already said, repeat the power word again to tell you why he wants to have power. We already start thinking, “Why does he want the Spirit to give me power?”
Now Paul knows that because we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities, we can’t wrestle in our own strength. We need strength. But notice, he says that strength does not come from within us. We need strength within us but it doesn’t come from within us! It comes from outside of us; it comes from the Spirit putting it in us. So he’s really teaching basic things about the Christian life.
You need power to live the Christian life, but it’s not your power. But the power needs to be in you but it doesn’t come from within you, it comes from the work of the Spirit in you.
So outside of you into you the power that you need. Then he says, Ephesians 3:16-17: that “he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”
And again, for Paul, the Christian life is fought at the level of the heart—meaning the desires. You know, in English parlance: we think with our minds and we feel with our hearts. So on Valentine’s Day, there are little hearts everywhere, right? That’s not the way mind and heart are used in the Bible.
And usually, when the Bible wants to talk about feel—it talks about your kidneys or your guts. Which interestingly, we actually do that in English too. You know, “Boy, when I heard the news that she had cancer, it hit me in my gut.” We mean feelings there.
Paul’s thinking about heart, in the sense of what you set your wants on, what you set your desires on. And Paul knows that, unless Jesus takes whole of your inmost desires, you can’t live the Christian life. So the Puritans—and I think Don actually says this in his exposition—the Puritans used to say that what Paul is praying is that the Spirit would cause Christ to make your heart a suitable habitation for Him.
You know, so that if somebody could look into your desires, they would say, “Boy, that person wants what Jesus wants, loves what Jesus loves, hates what Jesus hates, longs for what Jesus longs for.” The desires of the heart, the inmost seat of your being has been taken occupancy by Christ.
For what? Well, he comes back to the strengthened-with-power language again in verse 17. And really, this part of the petition runs all the way from 17 to the middle of 19: “that you would have strength to comprehend” what? Notice this amazing phrase: “To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
Now hold on. Did you hear what Paul just said? Paul wants you to know something that is beyond your capacity to know. He’s not talking nonsense; he’s clearly moved into the sphere of experience. He is very concerned that Christians know the love of God for them in Christ.
Now, why, pastorally, is that important? Because there are so many godly Christians in this world who struggle to know that God loves them. There are so many pastors that love Jesus, believe the gospel, preach the Bible, want to serve Him faithfully, that really struggle with knowing that God loves you. And Paul knows that too. And so he knows that you need the power of the Holy Spirit in order to know the love of God in Christ for you.
That’s hugely important. And, of course, what does that lead to? Verse 19 to the end of the passage: that you would be filled up to all the fullness of God, that you would be matured.
Now, Don tells an amazing story that I have told over and over after reading his commentary. In fact, I preached on this passage at Tenth Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia, and told your story about Perry and Sandy Downs. Several people there knew Perry and Sandy and had studied under them at Trinity and other places.
But he tells us that Perry and Sandy Downs were foster parents. They were colleagues of Don’s at Trinity, and they took in twin boys who were 18-months-old who had been in something like 9 different families in the first 18 months of their life (and they had been abused in some of those families). And the social workers felt like the boys would never be cognitively and effectively normal.
And they were in the Downs home for 2 years before they were placed into an adoptive family. And when the post-testing was done on the boys, it found that the boys were completely normal. What had happened? They had experienced love, like children were intended to experience from parents, in the Downs’ home. And it had literally matured them.
Now, you see why I used that story over and over, because God’s love matures Christians. By the way, Robert Murray M’Cheyne said his whole ministry was based on this philosophy of ministry: to cause people to know the love of Christ for them that they might return that love to Christ.
I think it probably flows out of these kinds of Pauline paradigms that you see here in Ephesians 3. What do I want to do in gospel ministry? I want Christians to know the love of God in Christ so that they are set free to love the unloving and the unloved in this world.
Because of God’s love to them, it matures them to give themselves away. And then, of course, he comes back to that amazing language in the doxology: that He would do beyond what you can ask or think.
Now if you think about it, this is a Pauline thing to do. In Philippians, he talks about a peace that passes understanding. Here he wants you to know a love that passes understanding, and he wants you to have something done in you that is beyond all that you can ask or think. Paul prays big audacious prayers because your God is a big audacious God.
Sometimes one of the reasons we have a hard time believing that God loves us is because of our own personal experiences in life. We may not have been loved in the context of our families. We may have experienced awful things that make it hard for us to even trust people. And so, here’s the Apostle Paul saying, “Yes, but you have something that the unbeliever doesn’t have. You have the almighty Holy Spirit working to build a beachhead in your heart so that you have a way to receive the love of God.”
And Paul wants that because he wants Christians to be matured. So again, go read Don’s exposition of this in Praying with Paul and preach this passage to your congregations. Thank you.
Don Carson: Now the little clock down there says we’re just about out of time. But let me make a comment or two. And you can end up with final comments and prayers, if you like.
Ligon Duncan: Sure.
Don Carson: Now, in this last case, we did some of the same reading.
The previous case, there was no collusion. Now, we had read same commentaries and so on, but what I would really want you to see is that the exercise we’ve gone through is nothing special.
It doesn’t take superior intellect. We just worked hard at the text, including some reading around the text, and we’ve come to remarkably similar theological conclusions.
Why should that surprise us? It’s one Bible; it’s one gospel. When you get serious people doing serious exegesis and trying to do faithful exposition, you will find( again and again and again) how close they come together. And I think that’s part of what is to be taken away from this particular exercise.
Ligon Duncan: Amen. Yeah, and just memorize that prayer and pray it for yourself and for your people and get your people to pray it for one another. The Christian Church would be dramatically matured if this were an aspiration that we all had. And it would enrich our ministry, our witness, our evangelism, and the fame of the name of our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. Let’s pray to Him now.
Heavenly Father, I bow my knees before You, from whom every family on earth is named, that you would grant according the riches of Your glory that these—my brothers and sisters in Christ—would be strengthened with power by the Spirit in their inmost beings, so that Christ dwells in their hearts by faith, so that He takes control of those hearts, that He shapes those hearts, so that they might be rooted and grounded in love, the love of God for them. And that they might know a love that is beyond our capacity to ever fully comprehend. For my Savior loves me so He will hold me fast. So that they might be filled up to all the fullness of God, so that they would be matured in God, so that the image of God would be so restored in them that people would see their lives and say, “What kind of a father must they have.” Our Heavenly Father who loved us and, in love, set his heart on us before the foundation of the world to build us into a new man, into a new temple, to be His inheritance forever. Lord, do this in the way that only You can do, beyond any capacity of our asking or thinking. And Lord, get all the glory for yourself. In Jesus’ name, amen.