Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 3:13 “Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations
for you, which is your glory.”
Paul is the one suffering, yet urges his readers not to lose heart. Paul never wanted to be a burden, or to cause his converts anxiety. Deeming himself their spiritual father, he believed “the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children” (2 C 12:14). Paul thus encouraged the Ephesians. “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 the reason 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. Paul stifled such thoughts immediately. If they think this now, they will be in bigger trouble soon. 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 did not indicate he was wrong about Gentiles, nor did his incarceration signal 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 cause. 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.”
This verse helps us with something essential to successful Christian living–a proper view of suffering. Prone by nature to avoid pain, we struggle with understanding trouble, and are susceptible to false teachings about it (eg. “health and wealth,” “name it and claim it”). No one likes to suffer. We flee storms, and pursue calm. Like migrating birds, we want life to be unending summer. Beware! False teachings lure our flesh, and appeal to us, but have no basis in holy writ. Trouble is no proof of failure. The sufferings of a saint are birth pangs of something wonderful God has conceived.
Eph. 3:14a “For this cause. . .”
Paul now closes the glorious parenthesis he began at 3:1, where he started to pray, but interrupted himself to explain why he had the right and responsibility to pray for the Ephesians in a pastoral way. He had begun to pray for them due to his exuberance over their inclusion in the family of God–Gentiles had been lifted up, slaves became free citizens of the kingdom, outcasts now belonged, paupers partook of God’s fullness. In the parenthesis, Paul’s enthusiasm increased as he mused on his own pivotal role in all this. Now he can contain himself no longer. He will either pray or explode.
Eph. 3:14b “. . .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 Dad, 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, too, sit to do my daily private time. To avoid drowsiness I sit in a straight-back chair. Sitting lessens distractions caused by my staying long in unnatural, uncomfortable postures.
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. “Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.” 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.
“O Lord, if our bodies can be helpful instruments in prayer, use them. If bending my body can help humble me, relieve my heart, and increase my intense, let it be–not for show, not for glory, but for more submission, freer emotions, better concentration. Into this warfare with evil help me throw spirit, soul, mind, essence, and if necessary, body. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”