I pray that the eyes of your understanding may be opened and enlightened and flooded with light in order that you may know and understand the confident hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people. (Ephesians 1:18)
I hold to the presupposition that what Paul prayed in the context of his letters was exactly the right thing in the will of God. That is deeply, in the Spirit and full of God’s wisdom and the mind of Christ. I believe that because of what he wrote in the first 15 verses of Ephesians, the people to whom he was writing were not lacking in grace nor general spiritual understanding. The recipients of this letter were what we would refer to as “mature believers.” They had been birthed into the faith in the deep mists of satanic fires of persecution, as well as the equally deep cloud of the divine fires of the miraculous, comprising deliverance and healing as well as the prophetic word – all issuing from Paul’s ministry, and undoubtedly from some of his team. It is also plain that the recipients of the letter were spiritual enough to be loving people in the most practical way, and generally living life to a high degree of consistency with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul had received news from trusted people that they were people of God and expressing faith in a widespread number of circumstances. All this data makes the contents of Paul’s prayer something of great significance.
He was asking God to open the eyes of the understanding of these people. Because of the persecution of Paul as revealed in Acts chapters 19 and 20 and 2 Corinthians 1 and 2 and the concurrent “great door and effectual” that was opened to him (see 1 Corinthians 16:9), Asian and Ephesian Christians saw heaven opened and satan attacking right from their first moments as Christians. The open door was a threshold of liberty, power and the warm reception of those that were converted as expressed in Ephesians as well as in 1 Corinthians, and the heat of the battle in the invisible world concerning the preaching of the gospel in Asia was obvious to the newly born again Christians. Simultaneous to a remarkable move of God, where the whole of Asia (modern Turkey) had heard the word, in the midst of this peak of apostolic ministry there was an equally remarkable astonishing demonstration of threats and near death experiences made towards Paul and his associates. It is hard to conceive of the main body of Christians being kept clear from such attacks. It is my opinion that the Asian church generally was persecuted in those early days. These people undoubtedly “grew up” in Christ quickly. All that goes before in Ephesians chapter 1, and all that follows throughout the epistle explicitly informs us that they knew and understood lots of things that suggest they were mature in the faith.
Many philosophical and theological questions spring up in the mind of the thinking Christian whose life is lived in such an environment. Profound existential and teleological questions become the daily mind food of the newest converts as well as children and youth who come to faith. There are huge challenging queries concerning causality and the direct activity of God in the midst of life threatening persecution. Phenomenally, two thousand years of Christian history demonstrate clearly that in the midst of such a “death to all Christians” atmosphere, people of faith just flourish.
It is clear that Paul was not duped into believing that because these people displayed such all-round spiritual maturity and faith they did not need prayer. Such people in such circumstances require constant prayer and encouragement. The apostle was actively supplying that covering.
It is the twenty-first century, and in our somewhat cossetted westernised cosmos and culture, we get upset at the expression of anti-Christian activity as seen from governments and the odd story in the media. There are however corners of the globe where persecution of the same kind as what faced Paul and the people of God across Turkey is rampant as I write. North Korea is understood to be the worst in the world for their level of atrocity and persecution towards Christians. It is persecution addressed at people for no other reason than their faith in Jesus Christ. The pseudo deity worship of their president Kim Jong-Un leaves no room for any other religious understanding. It has considerable similarity to the “Ceasar is Lord” demand of New Testament Roman culture. Reports suggest it is even worse than Nero’s anti-Christian atrocities. Christians there live under what is to us in the west, unimaginable pressure in every aspect of life. The regime of religious intolerance forces Christians to meet in secret. Many are reported as not even being free to tell members of their own family of their faith. Threats of horrific labour camps hang over all believers. Public executions have even been filmed. Should we believe that anything less occurred in Asia and Ephesus after reading 2 Corinthians’ first chapter? Western Christians need to bow the knee and pray in a similar fashion for the fifty to seventy thousand Christians imprisoned in labour camps in North Korea, as well as divine protection for workers and contacts in that country who are known to provide relief and shelter for their brothers in Christ. There are 300,000 Christians in North Korea in a population of twenty four and a half million.
Paul does not ask God that people have intellectual brilliance in such a hellish set of circumstances. Neither does he pray for a surge of philosophical academic learning to handle such a swarm of anti Christian arguments. No! What he asks for is that the eyes of their understanding are opened. It is visions of, and an understanding of God’s purpose for their own lives in the midst of these seeming contradictions of their faith. It is the perception that enables them to see their worth in the eyes of God. It is also Paul’s own passionate prayer that they understand that even in the worst persecution, God’s power working towards them and within them is the same power that raised Christ from among the dead and set Him far above all Principalities and powers in the entire cosmic universe.
The words are passionate, the perception behind the words are deep and overcoming. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1 is not in the scripture for any lightness of reason. It is a masterclass in intercession, love for others and general selflessness. God help us to emulate Paul not in his words only, but in his voluntary joyful slavery to the Lord Jesus.