I am committed to an expositional approach to the ministry of the Word, and this typically takes the form of preaching sequentially through books of the Bible. I recognize, however, that this approach has its drawbacks. One of those is in the area of application.
I’m thinking especially of epistles that have a doctrine-duty structure. Here an extended theological section foregoes elaboration of practical relevance since a second section will be devoted to application. If our hermeneutical objective is the author’s intent, however, the two sections cannot remain separate for long.
This was likely not a major concern in the original setting since the epistle would presumably have been read in its entirety in a single church meeting or over the course of a few meetings. But what if a year of expository sermons passes before you get to Colossians 3? Or four years before you get to Romans 12? (These are modest estimates compared to some famous expositors.) I doubt that Paul intended his readers to wait months or years before thinking through the application.
I hasten to say that doctrine inherently promotes intellectual growth, faith, assurance, and worship. These are vital types of application that require attention. But in the context of an epistle typically the doctrine is also moving toward a more concrete response, and one can easily lose sight of this during prolonged exposition of the theological sections.
In preaching the doctrinal sections, the preacher may choose to develop applications that are inferential or secondary to the book’s emphasis. This can be appropriate, but it can also overshadow the author’s ultimate purpose. Yet the time constraints of a sermon do not suffice to cover the author’s stated applications as well as explain his doctrinal material.
We need to keep the theological joined to the practical. One way to do this is to identify verbal or conceptual links between the two aspects. This struck me recently as I preached on a portion of Ephesians 1.
Verses 15–23 record Paul’s prayer that the Ephesian believers would come to know more deeply the spiritual blessings they possess in Christ. Such knowledge would surely prompt them to join Paul in adoring the Triune God for his eternal plan of redemption. It would also minister to them a deep and satisfying sense of their unshakable security in Christ.
Beyond these kinds of applications, one take-away is that we should model our prayers after Paul’s and prioritize requests for spiritual understanding and growth. I believe that is a valid application, and I have often preached the passage that way.
But was “pray like this” the primary practical application Paul intended? Within this letter where was the apostle heading with the requests he was praying? By reading Ephesians repeatedly, we discover important links between Paul’s theological prayer and his later practically oriented teaching.
First, Paul prays that the Ephesians would know the hope to which God had called them (1:18b). Corresponding to that, chapter 4 begins with an exhortation to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (v. 1). The first dimension of this worthy walk is unity within the church, and Paul lists multiple spiritual realities that bind Christians together. These include the following statement that picks up on the prayer in chapter 1: just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call (v. 4). Thus, knowing the hope of one’s calling is not merely about one’s own assurance and encouragement. It will produce unity with others who share the same destiny.
Second, Paul prays that the Ephesians will know the riches of his [God’s] glorious inheritance in [or, among] the saints (1:18c). This may refer to the eternal inheritance they anticipate in Christ, but that idea would seem redundant given the preceding statement about the hope of their calling. Additionally, the wording more naturally points to God’s set-apart people as his own inheritance. This parallels OT passages that speak of Israel as Yahweh’s special possession or inheritance (e.g., Dt 32:9). What a stunning way to picture the love God has for his people and the delight they bring him!
In Ephesians 3 Paul prays again, longing for the Ephesians to grasp the immensity of Christ’s love for them (vv. 17–19). This love is applied in chapter 5: God’s beloved children should imitate him and walk in love (vv. 1–2). Similarly, believers must shun all forms of immorality because they are saints, having been set apart by God’s special favor (v. 3).
Third, Paul prays that the Ephesians would know the immeasurable greatness of his [God’s] power toward believers (1:19), and he prays the same in 3:16. The ultimate goal of this divine power (and love, 3:17–19) is that believers would be filled with all the fullness of God (3:19b)—that his character would be displayed in them completely. Such transformation requires great power indeed! Especially when a supernatural enemy attacks us with discouragements, falsehoods, temptations, and persecution. Thus, when dealing with spiritual warfare Paul’s opening charge is, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might (6:10), echoing the power terminology in his opening prayer (1:19).
The upshot of these connections is that Paul is going somewhere with the themes he introduces in the prayer in Ephesians 1. He prays for the Ephesians’ spiritual knowledge because such knowledge was foundational to their own peace and stability. But this knowledge was to serve a purpose bigger than themselves. It was designed to spur them on to love, unity, holiness, and perseverance.
In preaching the first half of an epistle, the expositor doesn’t need to detail the applications in the second half. But he can at least point out the links between the terms and themes of the letter. This enables him not only to present a holistic perspective of the epistle but also to keep doctrine wedded with practice.