Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Preached June 30 and July 1, 2001
Eph. 3:13 “Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations
for you, which is your glory.”
When we see a “therefore” in Scripture, we need to take time to see what it’s there for. In this case, Paul has been celebrating his ministry to the Gentiles. Though in prison, Paul is pleased, not disappointed, with what God is doing. Therefore Paul wants the Ephesians also to rejoice, rather than grieve, over him.
Paul is the one suffering, yet urges his readers not to lose heart. Paul never wanted to be a burden or cause anxiety. “O heroic breast, which drew from a prison, and from death itself, comfort to those who were not in danger” (Calvin).
Knowing they, as Gentiles, were why Paul was in prison, the Ephesians might speculate, if Paul’s Gentile ministry is correct and of God, why is he having to suffer? They might succumb to thinking a person in God’s will should not have troubles.
They had to be set right quickly, for Paul’s plight will soon get worse. “A man of this quality is never killed midway; there is too much of him to perish by the roadside; he must fulfill his course, fight the fight out to the end” (Parker).
Paul wanted the Ephesians to know his suffering was for their good, though surface observations made it easy to lose heart. The main Apostle to the Gentiles was jailed, his work thwarted, yea, seemingly ended.
Rome looked invincible, the world remained 99% lost, the Church was minuscule. Paul, however, looking past the surface, saw “glory,” not discouragement.
Paul’s sufferings and incarceration did not indicate failure. Instead, his sufferings proved God deemed the conversion of Gentiles a cause worth fighting for, and worthy of conflict and sorrow.
Paul’s chains denoted a noble cause. God did not let Paul suffer for an insignificant reason. Paul’s imprisonment was for us Gentiles “glory,” indicating our value and dignity before God. In my mind’s eye, I see Paul holding up his chains, and saying, “John, you are worth it.”
Trouble is not a proof of failure. To Paul it was the sign of a cause worth giving his whole life to. Bringing the lost into the family of God is still worth whatever suffering it requires from us.
Paul’s exuberance over Gentiles being brought into the kingdom could hardly be restrained. In our text, he has reached a point where he can contain himself no longer. He will either pray or explode.
Eph. 3:14a-b “For this cause I bow my knees. . .”
Kneeling was not a Jew’s usual posture for prayer. One normally stood, the customary “at rest” position of subjects in the presence of a king. Pleading for Lot, Abraham “stood” before the Lord (GN 18:22). As Hannah poured out her “bitterness of soul, and prayed,” she “stood” near Eli (1 SM 1:10; 2:26). Praying at the temple, the Pharisee “stood” and the publican was “standing” far off (LK 18:11,13). Jesus spoke of this customary stance, “When ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have aught against any” (MK 11:25).
While standing to pray, the Jews also raised their arms with palms upwards, the position of a child entreating a father. Based on this custom, Paul said pray, “lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1 TM 2:8). In a practice adopted by my dad, my Grandpa Hill offered public, pastoral prayers with right hand lifted about shoulder height, and palm outward.
Despite this widespread, ancient Jewish custom of standing, Scripture nowhere commands a particular posture for prayer, and even mentions other body positions.
In the Garden, offering the most intense prayer ever, Jesus “fell on His face and prayed” (MT 26:39). Due to this example, a pastor-friend of mine daily offers his private prayers lying prostrate on the floor.
David, promised a posterity forever, went to pray “and sat before the Lord” (1 CH 17:16). H. A. Ironside often did his private time in a comfortable big chair. With a Bible open before him, he would from time to time close his eyes and lift his heart to God. I usually do my private time at night, while reclining on my bed.
In addition to standing, lying, and sitting, Scripture often discusses kneeling as a prayer position. Obviously, posture is not the ultimate issue in prayer; profound and submissive reverence is. This does not mean posture in prayer is meaningless.
We need to avoid two opposite extremes: formalism and carelessness. Never depend solely on outward gestures. A bent knee is meaningless without a bent heart.
However, if form is totally forfeited, something is often lost in the essence, too. Body posture can speak volumes, and be an extension of, and an aid to, our praying.
This is especially true of kneeling, the focus of our present text. One can pray while lying in bed, driving the car, walking, working, sitting, or standing, but kneeling has always symbolized something important to the people of God.
James, our Lord’s brother, supposedly died with “camel’s knees” due to huge calluses formed by spending much time kneeling in prayer. Livingstone’s dead body was found kneeling in prayer by his bed. Payson’s knees wore grooves into the hardwood boards where he prayed often and long. Believers learned long ago we see farther on our knees than on our tiptoes.
Kneeling can help our praying in at least three ways. First, kneeling can help us with submission. The position is based on the posture of a slave before his master.
This is why the Greeks, proud champions of individualism and democracy, refused to kneel in worship. Turks also refused to kneel, or to uncover their heads, for such actions were regarded unmanly.
Kneeling is definitely a position of total, absolute, yielded surrender and submission. To kneel is to acknowledge one is in the presence of someone of higher rank and authority.
Christians should have no qualms about kneeling to pray. The lost may balk at the idea now, but someday “every knee shall bow” to God (RM 14:11) as an expression of absolute submission.
Second, kneeling can help us relieve pent up emotions. When something grips our heart and stirs our essence, we are almost irresistibly forced to our knees. Kneeling is not inherently sacred, but can help relieve surging emotions in need of being expressed.
The distraught father came to Jesus, “kneeling down to him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son” (MT 17:14). A leper came to Jesus, “beseeching him, and kneeling down to him” (MK 1:40). In the Garden, before Jesus fell headlong, He knelt down (LK 22:41). At Paul’s emotional, last meeting with the elders from Ephesus “he knelt down and prayed with them all” (AC 20:36) on the seashore.
Now, in a Roman jail, Paul’s emotions are flowing again. He did not bow a “knee,” singular, as in formal, ceremonious kneeling, but “knees,” plural, as if driven down, collapsing under a heavy load.
Paul prayed because he could not keep from praying. A force rushing from within produced pressure so great that it affected even his physical body, and impelled him to the ground. He worshipped God not only with mind and spirit, but also with body, omitting nothing which might be an expression of devotion.
His thoughts were so intense that he collapsed before God in an upheaval of entreaty. What a poignant image! the mighty Apostle in shackles on his knees in a dungeon, with a bursting heart.
For a moment, the fetters of imprisonment fall off, and Paul is free. His body is chained, but his heart is on wings. His hands are bound, but his spirit soars. A river of sheer joy is flowing freely from his breast. Nero can keep Paul from traveling, but not from praying.
Nothing can ever obstruct the path which leads from a believer’s heart to the throne of God. If your heart is happy or hurting–whatever the emotion–let it fly unto the Father. Kneel, and find release.
Third, kneeling can help increase earnestness in prayer. Prayer is vital. Church-members who attend many meetings can easily forget the primacy of prayer. If unable to meet, some believers feel useless. Not true! Prayer is primary. In it we must ever be intense, never lackadaisical.
Kneeling can help us focus better, concentrate more, on the gravity of prayer. At the momentous dedication of the temple, Solomon knelt before the people (1 K 8:54). Daniel knelt three times a day in prayer (DN 6:10). Why? His people were in exile, and in need of earnest prayer.
Stephen, as stones flew thick about his head, knew this was no time for shallow praying. It was time for earnestness. “And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (AC 7:60). By the deathbed of Dorcas, Peter knew no frivolous praying would do. After he “kneeled down, and prayed” (AC 9:40), Dorcas opened her eyes, and lived.
In prayer we often put heart, soul, mind, and strength. Sometimes we need to include our bodies in the prayer cannon. If bending our body can help humble us, relieve our heart, and increase our intensity, let it be–not for show, not for glory, but for more submission, freer emotions, and better concentration.