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What’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)

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Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we’re on about: we’re training students to think theologically, not just “learn the Bible”. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we’re driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we’re committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic that connects to all of them: theology. Unfortunately, the word “theology” can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that’s just a caricature. It’s not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone.

So what exactly is theology? And what is the point of theology?

The essence of theology is knowing and speaking about God (theology: theos=God + logia deriving from logos=speaking/thinking). God has made himself known to us in his Son Jesus Christ. That means it’s possible to know him and speak about him. Of course, since God is so amazing and his ways can often seem mind-bending to our human understanding, theology needs care in the details. Sometimes theology needs some serious discussion and thinking. But that doesn’t mean theology is just for experts or people who like nit-picking arguments. Theology matters for everyone. Why? Because knowing God matters for everyone. And knowing God is possible for everyone who comes to him through his Son Jesus Christ. That’s why, when we study the Bible together, and train people in ministry and mission, the core of this study and training is knowing God, and helping others to know God.

Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and White

Because God is so big and wonderful and beyond our own ability to fully comprehend, prayer must be at the heart of theology. We need to ask God to reveal himself to us and to others. And this is precisely what Paul does in Ephesians 1:17–18. He prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. Paul’s prayer is a big prayer. It’s a prayer for more theology:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation as you understand him—having had the eyes of your hearts enlightened—so that you would know what is the hope of his calling: what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance among the holy ones.

Ephesians 1:17–18

Paul prays that God would help them to understand more and more what he has already revealed to them in the gospel. He’s not simply praying they’ll know more technical stuff, or that they’ll have bigger heads stuffed full of information. He’s praying that they will know more about God himself. He prays this prayer because he knows they need it, and he knows it is utterly life-changing. And because Jesus Christ God’s Son has come and revealed God to us, it’s a prayer that Paul can pray with great confidence, knowing that God will answer it.

Let’s look at some of the details of the prayer Paul prays.

God

Paul begins by describing the God he is praying to.

Firstly, he is the “God of our Lord Jesus Christ”. This phrase reminds us that to truly understand God, we need to know his Son Jesus Christ (see verse 2). It also reminds us about all the incredible blessings God has given us “in Christ”, like adoption and forgiveness (verses 3–14).

Secondly, Paul describes God as the “Father of glory”. “Glory” because God is glorious and wonderful. And “Father” because, as God’s children, we can look forward to great glory from him.

Thirdly, Paul describes God as the one who gives the Spirit. Here we see the one God in three persons—later Christians used the term “Trinity”—at work. God the Father is glorious; he brings about his glorious purposes in his Son Jesus Christ; and he does this through the Holy Spirit who enables us to know God more and more.

Paul is not praying that God would give the Spirit as an entirely new gift, as if the Spirit is some supernatural force separate from the Father and the Son that can be provided as an optional extra for some Christians. Paul has previously said that those who believe in Jesus Christ have already been sealed with the Holy Spirit (see verses 13–14). But Paul is praying that God would keep giving his grace to them even more; that the Spirit would enable them to grow more and more in their knowledge of him.

Knowledge

Bible and the horizon. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

How does Paul describe this knowledge of God? It’s not about impractical technical details, is it? Paul describes the knowledge of God with two words: “wisdom and revelation”. “Wisdom” simply means understanding the shape of the world and acting appropriately. We need wisdom to live in this world; we need wisdom to live as Christians; we need wisdom for Christian ministry; and we need wisdom for mission, as we seek to share Jesus with others. But we’ll only have that wisdom when we understand the true shape of the world. And because the true shape of the world is something that only God knows, we need God to reveal it to us. We need to know who God is, and what his plans are. In other words, we need “revelation”. That’s what the Spirit does. He is the Spirit who reveals God and his purposes to us, so that we can understand God, understand the shape of the world, and act appropriately.

In one sense, if we have heard the gospel and believed in Jesus Christ, we already do understand God, and we already do understand the shape of the world at its most basic level. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, we’ve had “the eyes of [our] hearts enlightened”. God has brought that light to our eyes, so we know who he is and what he has done for us. The Spirit has revealed God’s plans to his “holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:5), and as the apostles and others have preached the gospel, we have heard it and know it too. Paul is not praying that the Spirit will reveal totally new things. But Paul is praying that the Spirit will enable his readers to see even more the true significance of what they already know. We need the Spirit to keep showing us who God is. We need the Spirit to keep showing us what the gospel really means for us—for our lives and our desires and our longings. We need the Spirit to help us join the dots between the gospel and every little aspect our lives. In particular, in these verses we see that we need the Spirit to help us to grasp our “hope”.

Hope

Sun over city

Paul prays that his readers would know “what is the hope”. He’s not just asking for a stronger feeling of hope, or a general increase in optimistic outlook. He’s praying that they would know the content of the hope. This is a prayer to understand more and more what we hope for, and what it means for us. What do Christians hope for?

Firstly, this hope involves “his calling”. God has “called” us to something. This calling defines who we are and gives us our identity. This isn’t just an individual “calling” to a particular role or a job. This is something that God “calls” all Christians to be a part of. What is it? Paul has already described it in verses 3–10. We are called to be God’s children. We are called to be forgiven and adopted by God. This is our place in the world; this is our identity. In other words, this is our “vocation” (the word “vocation” comes from the Latin for “calling”). Being a forgiven and adopted child of God through Jesus Christ is the central and primary “calling” Christians have, beyond any individual role or job. This calling gives us hope, because it means we are God’s holy people: we are loved and valued by God, and we are God’s very own possession. And we know that God will redeem us in the future, and love us forever.

Secondly, this hope is also rich and glorious. Yes, our sins are forgiven and we’re rescued from God’s judgment—but we’re not just forgiven and rescued from judgment, we’re also rescued for something. We’re rescued to be with Jesus forever. Jesus Christ is even now risen from the dead and more powerful than anything or anyone in the universe. And we can look forward to being with Jesus in the future. Our bodies grow sick and die, don’t they? But in Christ, there will be a time when we will be raised forever with him, to live as God’s people in a new creation.

Thirdly, our hope involves God’s “inheritance among the holy ones”. This is a reminder of what Paul has already said in verses 11–12. In the Old Testament, God’s “heritage” or “inheritance” was Israel, the people he loved. But now, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, God has claimed his inheritance, and extended that blessing to all those who believe in Christ (see verse 14). This helps us to see how sure and certain our hope is. Since we’ve already seen how God kept his Old Testament promises to Israel through Jesus Christ, we can trust him to keep his promises in the future. Our hope isn’t some uncertain wish about something that might or might not happen. We can know that we are God’s possession, and we can know that he will redeem us.

Of course, all this comes from the Bible, doesn’t it? We can’t bypass the Bible when it comes to learning theology. The Bible is God’s word to us, and it’s how God reveals himself to us. But we always need to remember that the purpose of reading the Bible isn’t just to know the Bible. The purpose of reading the Bible is to know God and his purposes, so that we might have hope. And in the following verses (which we’ll look at in the next post), we also see that it gives us strength.

Prayer

Youth praying, Finchale Priory

This is a prayer we might pray for ourselves, isn’t it? Many of us work long hours and days and years to gain knowledge for our earthly “vocation”. How much more should we pray that God will work in us, by his Spirit, to deepen our knowledge of him; to deepen our appreciation and love of our true heavenly vocation and hope, and our ability to share it with others? This is something to pray for each other, isn’t it?

And this is why colleges like ours need your prayers, as we engage in this particular form of “intensive” theological study together in Christian community. Indeed, this intensive theology might be something for you to pray about and consider for yourself too, especially if you’re being encouraged in the leadership or teaching of God’s people. But growing in the knowledge of God isn’t just something to pray for people at a college. It’s something for all of us to pray for and long for.

Pastors: like Paul, will you pray for more theology? Will you pray for the people you serve, that they will deepen and grow in their knowledge of God and his purposes? Will you pray that they will grow in their hope, so they might lift their eyes to see it more? Will you pray for a greater sense of our heavenly calling and a greater appreciation of the riches of God’s glory?

Even more, pastors, will you pray for more theology for yourselves? There is a danger for those involved in Christian ministry, that we can just “assume” our theology, as a given. That is, we can treat theology as a skill to master, or a package of material that we’ve already mastered (maybe at theological college), and use it as a springboard to move onto something else like church organisation or preaching skills. We can treat theology as something just to “get right”, to tick off our list, to tuck under our belts and then move on to other things. But this can be disastrous, for you and the people you serve. They don’t just need you to have good skills (though of course you need skills too). They need you, most of all, to be a person who is praying for an ever-growing depth of insight into God and his ways, and to be growing in hope. This is the point of theology.

For reflection

What aspect of God and his purposes listed here strikes you the most?

How can you make sure that you are praying for growth in knowing God and his purposes, for yourself and others?

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Want more?

This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.

Published inEphesiansLift Your Eyes

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

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