Faithlife Sermons

Getting the Emphasis Right

Notes & Transcripts


Getting the Emphasis Right

(Ephesians 3:16-19)

Fred was playing off the sixth tee at the Royal Quebec Club. The fairway of the sixth ran right alongside the road. Fred sliced the ball badly and it disappeared over the hedge bordering the road.  So he took his penalty, and teed off with another ball.  He was having a drink after the game when the pro joined him in the bar. "Excuse me Fred, but was it you who sliced this ball into the road at the sixth this morning?"  "Yes, but I took the penalty." "That’s good, but you might be interested to know that your ball hit and killed a young man on a bicycle; the bike fell in the path of a Mountie on a motorcycle. He skidded and was thrown through the window of a car, killing the nun at the wheel. The car then swerved into a cement mixer which wasn’t too damaged but had to veer slightly and in doing so ran into the local school bus with such an impact that it sent it flying through the window of the St Lawrence shopping centre. At last count from the hospital there are thirteen people dead and seventy-nine people seriously injured."

The golfer turned a deathly shade of white and said, "What can I do?"

The pro said, "Well, you could try moving your left hand a little bit counterclockwise to a weaker position on the shaft  Should help."

It’s all about priorities, isn’t it?  Nothing wrong with improving your golf game – but it would  hardly be the thing to emphasize in light of a disaster like that above, right?  Emphasis in the wrong place.

We have come to what is in some ways the apex of our journey through Ephesians.  In these last verses of chapter 3, Paul is completing the doctrinal section of this book and in chapter 4 he will move into the practical.  Note his comment in 4:1, “1) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  His message is, I’ve told you all about your calling, now let’s talk your conduct.  In the next several chapters he will talk about conduct ranging from home to work to church.  How should we live?  BUT, he realizes that without the proper preparation, these folks won’t make it.  So, he prays for a toolkit equipped with 5 specific things they will need in order to live right.  A life of fulfillment and joy and victory – life lived in the Holy Spirit – live with a capital L doesn’t just happen.  It takes some preparation.

So, we’re entitling a series of sermons on verses 16-19, “Preparing to Live”. In following weeks we will unpack the 5 elements of preparation that Paul prays for, but today I want to look at this prayer as a whole and note the things that Paul did to get the emphasis right.  We can have great plans, great intentions and great ideas, but if we get our priorities wrong, put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble, things can get confused, can’t they?  So, let’s note where Paul placed his emphasis in this great prayer.

I.                    Emphasis on Spiritual, not Physical


The first thing we note here is what Paul did not pray for.  The negative is always important in Scripture.  So, what he did not pray for is noteworthy.  And what we find is that there is nothing here about their physical well-being – jobs, health, finances, freedom from persecution – none of those.  This is not to say that those are not important or worthy of prayer – but in this model prayer, they are not the priority – not where the emphasis lies. 

This prayer is exclusively spiritual. He is concerned, not about the material but the spiritual. He focuses his attention and his concern on the spiritual state of the Ephesians. This is where Paul always starts.  We may get around to it, but I’m afraid it isn’t where we usually begin.   I think this is a principle which we ignore at our peril, but which we nevertheless do ignore.  When was the last time you can remember really, truly, honestly praying for another believer’s spiritual well-being first and foremost or even at all?

In this matter Paul is following our Lord Himself who taught, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these (other) things shall be added unto you’ (Matt 6:33). Our Lord was there dealing with people who were always worrying about food and drink and clothing and material things. Aren’t those important?  Sure they are, but Jesus is saying, The trouble is that you are starting at the wrong end, you are starting with the material and with the seen; start with the unseen, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’. That is precisely what the Apostle does here. It is the spiritual condition and welfare of these people that is uppermost in his mind, and in his heart.

I heard of one employer who said, “I’ve heard every excuse from co-workers for missing a day of work.  But I got one the other day that really took the cake.  A lady called to say she wouldn’t be in that day.”   Of course the employer asked, “What’s wrong?  Are you sick?”  “No,” she said with frustration in her voice.  “I can’t find a cute pair of shoes to wear.”   Unfortuantely, that’s a bit like us when we’re focused primarily and firstly on physical things.  We get hung up on the trivial.  We’re stalled at the material.  You say, “I beg to differ.  It matters to me whether I’ve got a job or not – whether my son or daughter gets well or not – whether the car runs or not.”  And I grant you that all of those are important and all worth praying about.  But the question is, have they crowded out our spiritual sensitivity to what God is trying to accomplish?  I’m afraid that most of the time we are urgently driven by material concerns.  This is a good test for us.  Let’s check our prayers  If we find that they are primarily about physical things we can almost be sure that we have become willful in our prayer lives, and it’s time to change that.  Get the emphasis on spiritual over physical.

II.                 Emphasis on Specific, not General


There is another characteristic of Paul’s prayer worthy of note and it is that his prayer is specific.  It is not a mere general prayer that God “bless” those Ephesians; he singles out certain matters, he isolates certain particulars and brings them forward one by one in his prayer to God on behalf of the Ephesians. True Christian praying—praying in the Spirit, praying in Christ—is not only spiritual, it is always specific. We betray much of the truth concerning ourselves in our prayers and in our praying.

You may have heard about the fellow who prayed for a foreign car dealership?  The next thing he knew he was living in Tokyo selling running a Chrysler dealership.  I guess he was specific, but maybe not specific enough.  The point is, we often reflect a true lack of urgency and concern when we rattle off our general little requests tried and true requests without any thought.  We’re all guilty.  Not Paul.  He knew what specifically he wanted for these Christians and, brother, he asked for it with a boldness I don’t think we would have. 

You say, “Well, beyond the physical needs, I really don’t know what to pray for spiritually.”  If we have a prodigal son or daughter, we pretty well know what to pray for there, but in general, we fall back on generalities or non-specifics, right?  Listen, let me make a suggestion.  How about this?  Let’s start praying by name for the salvation of some of our friends and neighbors who do not know Christ.  Right?  Bless you if you are doing that.  We should all be doing that.

Then, try praying, with real intent, the prayers you find in the Bible.  As a starting point, why don’t we pray for each other the prayer we find in Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 3 on behalf of each other for the next few weeks and months and see what God will do.  Do we really believe He would answer those prayers?  Would we want to see Him answer them?  Do we care more for these things than some of our material concerns?  I must tell you that God has impressed upon my heart to be praying for these things for us as a congregation since I’ve been studying them, but why not all of us?  Folks, let’s believe God for something great.  Let’s pray that he would strengthen us in the inner person, that Christ would be at home in our hearts, that we would have a foundation in love, know the surpassing love of Christ and be filled with the fullness  of God.  Wouldn’t that be amazing to see?

III.              Emphasis on Strength, not Solution


The third thing to note in this prayer is that Paul is concerned with strength, not solutions.  Did he care that physical problems get solved?  Yes, he did, but he also knew realistically that God allows us and even gifts us with suffering as we’ve seen before, so Paul is much more interested in strength to see it through than he is in solutions for escape.  Look at verse 16.  Paul prays  “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being”  Paul is always much more concerned about strength than he is escape or solutions. 

Our natural, human tendency when we see difficulty, pain and suffering is to say, “Get me out of this!”  That’s only human, but when we let it drive our prayer life, we are missing something.  We are missing the possibility that there is some greater good that God is driving us toward – something that requires strength to get there rather than a solution to escape.  Is it wrong to pray for the removal of pain, illness, mistreatement and disease?  Is it wrong?  Of course not.  But we’re talking priorities this morning and the priority would be for strength whether the problem remains or is taken away.  Do you see?


Patty and I have always loved to go to Yosemite National Park – usually camping.  It is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  About 20 years ago we were there with our son, Tim, and decided to climb to the top of Yosemite Falls.  That is a rigorous climb.  It’s a 3-1/2 miles trail that goes up over 2500 feet – almost a half mile.  Yosemite is the sixth highest falls in the world – so it is a steep trail with many switchbacks and rugged terrain.  Now, unbeknown to us, Patty was suffering from Graves Disease – a malfunction of the thyroid.  It wasn’t finally diagnosed until a few months later, but symptoms were already evident – the most dominant of which was unusual fatigue.  So, when we discussed the possibility of doing this climb, the question foremost in our minds was whether she would be able to make it or not.  Now, at that time, we had a choice to make.  We could solve the problem and avoid the pain -- by not going.  But we would miss the joy and pleasure and exhileration of the view from the top of the falls as well as the sense of accomplishment.  Or – we could pray for strength and go which is what we decided to do.  And we learned something.  We learned that if you take sufficient time, rest when necessary, drink plenty of fluids, you can make it to the top of Yosemite Falls even when you are not 100%. 

Now – what we must realize as believers is that with God every difficulty that comes our way has a spiritual version of Yosemite Falls behind hidden away somewhere.  Every one of them.  Think of it this way, when we pray only for a solution – for escape – it is possible that we are praying our way out of some growth experience that the Lord knows is critical in our life.  So while we may and could and should pray for a solution that will glorify God – is it not even more important to pray for strength to go through in the meantime whatever the hardship? 


We all prayed with urgency for Jeff and Michelle Sutter recently.  And God graciously and through the wonders of modern medicine eventually removed the cancer – but what if He had not?  And what about those weeks and months of uncertainty and anxiety in between.  What was needed in either case?  Was it not inner strength?  Thankfully, we saw it demonstrated in spades in the lives of those young people.  Strength is always the priority.

Scripture never tries to minimize a problem or a difficulty: it never takes the worldly way of trying to help us when we are in trouble by patting us on the back and to saying, “It will be all right!”  But what if it is not all right?  It is very wrong to say that all is right if it is not so.

Christianity does not lightly promise that every problem or difficulty will soon be removed. Some will, but some will not. Nothing is so characteristic of the Scripture as its realism. I emphasize this because it is the key to the understanding of this prayer. The New Testament tells us very frankly and plainly in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”  There is the promise of trouble, but the promise of strength all succinctly stated in the same verse. 

Our Lord’s priority as expressed in His Word is that we have joy in the midst of trials, rather than exclusion from trials.  There is no promise that once you come to Christ the whole world will be changed; that you will walk with a light step and never again have any problems as so many of our positive-thinking, faith-healing TV evangelists would have us believe. On the contrary these are the Bible’s statements: ‘We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). ‘Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake’ (Phil 1:29). ‘Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution’ (2 Tim 3:12). 

Paul does not pray for the removal of difficulties – at least not as his first resort.  The Apostle’s method is rather to pray that, faced with persecution, imprisonment and all that Satan could throw at him, that we might ‘according to the riches of his glory’ ‘be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man’. In other words, the Christian way of dealing with all life’s problems is not, in the first place, to do anything about them, but to deal with our own spiritual state. The Christian method is to build up our resistance in our inner man, by the Spirit.  The priority is strength over solutions.

If you really want to get an insight into Paul’s mind, listen to II Cor 4:17-18:  “For this light momentary affliction (shipwrecked, beaten with rods, imprisoned, stoned, 5 times beaten with 40 lashes) is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18) as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”  Now, think what he is saying there.  He’s been through affliction, but not only has he overcome and retained is faith and joy in it, he actually sees the affliction as a preparation for glory.  In other words, he’s not only wrestled it to the ground, he’s turned it around and is using it, or seeing that God is using it for good. A greater good than the affliction.  All because he is concentrating on the unseen and not the seen.   The oppression has become the servant.  Isn’t that incredible – but that’s the reason for strength over solutions!

My favorite Bible story from the time that I was a child is the story of Joseph. Remember how Joseph was the favorite of his father Jacob; how this caused his brothers to hate him; how they sold him into captivity in Egypt. Imagine the feelings of pain and loneliness that Joseph went through. Then, even Joseph did everything right, accepted his fate, did wonderful work for his master, refused what must have been an overwhelming temptation to enter a sexual relationship with Potiphar's wife -- he did everything right and get thrown in jail for it. How would you feel? Then, you did a favor by interpreting a dream for the Baker promptly forgot leading to two more years of imprisonment. Let's face it, most of us would've been filled with bitterness by this point, would we not?

But while Joseph wanted a solution, and escape, but he concentrated on was the strengthening the inner man.  He got the priority right, and when the time came, as it always will, whether in this life or the next -- when the time came God exalted him. My favorite part of the story has always been when he eventually revealed himself to his brothers who by that time were in dread fear of what he might do to them. Of course he moved them all in Egypt, including his father Jacob. But do you remember, when Jacob died, the brothers became fearful again. They thought, maybe Joseph has been kind to us for dad's sake. Now he will extract revenge. Then come these wonderful words recorded in Genesis 50 beginning of verse 19, " But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  You’ll never understand the Bible you don't understand that verse. Things that sin, Satan and others intend in our lives as evil are intended by God for a greater good. That's why strength is more important than solution. So when we pray for escape, we should pray even more for strength to go through whatever it is.

IV.              Emphasis on the Inner Man, not the Outer


In getting the emphasis right, the final thing we would note is that Paul puts the emphasis on the inner man, not the outer.  “16) that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”  Is it important to be physically fit and strong.  Of course it is, but far more important – being strong in the inner man. 

Of course, the obvious first question is, what is meant by the inner being?  And we have the answer in 2 Corinthians 4, verse 16 where the Apostle says, “16) So we do not lose heart. (note language very like 3:13)  Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”  Paul says in Rom 7:22, “22) For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.”  The inner man in the opposite of the outward man.  This is a profound discovery in our Christian experience.  Now please get this.  This is not what you learned in Biology in school most likely.  There absolutely is, according to the Bible, an inner man, a spiritual part of you – your mind, will, emotions, heart, soul.  Whatever you want to call it, it is distinct from the outer man.  And while the outward man is gradually wearing down, getting older, less able, more decrepit, that inner being can be, in Christ, being renewed on a daily basis. 

It is this inward man – a spiritual entity separate and distinct from the body that lost fellowship with God in the fall in the Garden of Eden.  It is that entity that is renewed when one accepts Christ as Savior and Lord so that Paul can say in II Corinthians 5:17) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  What is new, Paul?  My face did not change when I accepted Christ.  My hands are the same.  My feet and my hair and my eyes are the same.  I might have wished for some of those to change, but they did not?  So what changed?  Why, it was the inner man that is being renewed day by day.  It is on this basis that Paul can make the wonderful statement in II Cor. 5:8 that to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord – that is, for the one who has had his inner being renewed and restored to fellowship with God through faith in Christ. 

But that inner man needs to be strengthened just as does the outer.  Only the priority – the emphasis -- needs to go to the inner man. I read of one woman who while on leave brought in her new bundle of joy along with her seven-year-old son into the office where she normally worked to show off the newborn.  All attention was on the baby until the 7-year old boy asked, “Mommy, can I have some money to buy a soda?”   “What do you say?” she asked.  He replied, “You’re thin and beautiful.”  The woman reached into her purse and gave her son the money.  It seems like a safe assumption that her priority was on the outward, wouldn’t you agree.  But we can be just as trivial if we are not careful.  Paul never was.  He got the priority right – emphasis on the inner man as opposed to the outer.

That’s why Paul basically didn’t worry about beatings and shipwrecks and financial disasters.  He could be content in good times and bad.  Why?  Because he saw every outward problem as an opportunity to build the inner man and that drove him, as it should drive us.  We care so much about where our next meal is coming from; do we care when our next feeding from God’s Word is coming?  God help us to get the emphasis right.


Beloved, let me close with this.  We become what we act like.  We are driven naturally to put our emphasis on and care for those things which are seen and physical and present and precious to us.  They are tangible.  They give feedback; they are enjoyable; they are at hand; they are many times dazzling and attractive and near.  They create desire and we respond.  They are NOW.  They are also – now get this – this is the core of Paul’s message here.  They are also impermanent, transient, fading away and will soon be gone.  They do not last.


Opposed to that are things spiritual.  Unseen, uncertain, in the sense that they require faith on our part to care about, not subject to any of our senses.  No wonder it takes the miracle of faith to get our attention on them.  But at some point in our lives, we must.  We must.  We absolutely must get focused away from the sensual and onto the spiritual.  We must begin to feed the inner man.  We must find our attentions, desires and loves drawn away from the seen to the unseen. 

Otherwise, we become what we act like.  During the Persian Gulf War, one soldier was assigned to go to Saudi Arabia. As he was saying good-bye to his family, his three-year-old son, Christopher, was holding on to his leg and pleading with him not to leave. "No, Daddy, please don’t go!" he kept repeating.   The family was beginning to make a scene when the wife, desperate to calm the boy, said, "Let Daddy go and I’ll take you to get a pizza."  Immediately, little Christopher loosened his death grip, stepped back and in a calm voice said, "’Bye, Daddy."

You see, children have very tangible priorities.  Mature people have moved beyond what can be seen.  Let’s not be checking golf grips while the world is dying around us.  Get the emphasis right.  Let’s pray.

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