The Ableness of God
October 25th, 1970 @ 8:15 AM
THE ABLENESS OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-25-70 8:15 a.m.
Now on the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message from the last part of the third chapter of the Book of Ephesians, and the title of the message is The Ableness of God.
Now I read our text, Ephesians , beginning at the prayer:
For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—
Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,
That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man;
That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love,
May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;
And to know the love of [Christ], which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us,
Unto Him be glory in the church by Jesus Christ throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.
This is one of the sublimest prayers in all the Holy Scriptures and is one of two prayers in the Book of Ephesians. The first prayer is in the last part; it closes the first chapter of the Book of Ephesians, and in this first prayer, Paul prays for spiritual enlightenment [Ephesians 1:16-23]. There are depths and heights. There are spiritual revelations in the gospel that go far beyond the thought of our carnal and mundane mind. There are treasures in Christ and in the redemptive message that are beyond what our common thought would ever encompass. God must illuminate our mind, that we might see and enter into the riches of God’s revelation in the gospel. And that first prayer in the first chapter of Ephesians is for that spiritual illumination, that God might give us spiritual eyes to see and spiritual understanding to comprehend [Ephesians 1:16-23].
Now, the second prayer in the epistle, the one I have just read, the second prayer in the epistle is for spiritual strength [Ephesians 3:14-21]. As we cannot enter into the glories of the gospel without divine illumination [Ephesians 1:16-23], so we cannot grasp and hold and implement the revelation of God without divine help, and this prayer is for that ableness that God is able to bestow upon us [Ephesians 3:14-21]. Now, he begins the prayer, “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; for this cause” for that divine enablement, that spiritual strength, “I bow my knees” [Ephesians 3:14].
Next to the picture of our Savior down on His knees in Gethsemane [Mark 14:35; Luke 22:44-45], I would think there is not a more moving picture to be found in the revelation of this holy Book than the apostle Paul down on his knees in that Roman prison [Ephesians 3:14]. Evidently, Paul liked to pray on his knees. In the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts, when he met with the elders from Ephesus down at Miletus on the seashore, when he spoke to them, the Scriptures say that he knelt down: “Paul kneeled down, and prayed with them all” [Acts 20:36].
So here, in this Roman prison, he kneeled down in prayer. And he does so expressly before the angels in glory of whom the whole family in heaven and on earth, of whom the whole family in heaven is named [Ephesians 3:14-15], before that great throng whose names were given to them by God in heaven.
And he had just said here in the tenth verse that there was given to him this dispensation, this oikonomia, this stewardship of the gospel that unto the archē and the exousia, unto the—translated “principalities and powers” [Ephesians 3:10]—unto those orders, the angelic hosts in heaven, might be made manifest by the church, this infinite wisdom of God [Ephesians 3:10].
Paul said, in the fourth chapter of the first Corinthian letter and the ninth verse, that we—talking about the apostles—”We are made a spectacle to the angels” [1 Corinthians 4:9] The imagery back of that thing is the Greco-Roman amphitheater. The arena is the world, the great galleries in the amphitheater are the angels looking down, and the spectacle is the people of God, the church [1 Peter 1:12]. So he bows in the presence of the angels of glory [Ephesians 3:14], the dark roof of the prison above him becomes transparent light, the very stones in the walls and the iron of the prison become clear as crystal, and Paul looks up to the angels, and they looked down on him. And he sees with spiritual eyes that great heavenly host in their many-faceted ministries, the archangels in their heavenly dominion, the cherubim in their dazzling glory, and the seraphim in their burning love [Isaiah 6:2; Revelation 4:8].
And as Paul looks up to them, down on his knees, the angels of glory look down on him [Ephesians 3:14]. What are they like? In whose image did God make you [angels]? Of what substance are you? In what language are you addressed? What do you know of God? What do you know of sin? When one of you is marvelously talented, does envy enter your heart? What did Gabriel say to you when he went back to glory? [Luke 1:26-38]. What did the angels of the nativity say when they had done their glorious announcement of the Savior of the world? [Luke 2:8-14]. What did the angels at the tomb say to you when they returned to glory? [Luke 24:1-7]. And the angels of the ascension? [Acts 1:9-11]. The ten thousand myriads of ten thousand times, innumerable of your number. What do you know about us? What did Jesus say to you about us? What is He still saying? [Acts 1:9-10]. When Satan, the archangel, the cherub that coverest [Ezekiel 28:14], when he fell and one-third of your number fell with him [Revelation 12:4, 7-9], what did you think? This is just a little piece of the depths of the treasures of God that go beyond the frontiers of our common understanding.
What an astonishing thing! The apostle [Paul] bows in prayer before the angelic hosts in heaven [Ephesians 3:14]. He’s bound, chained, but all of the fetters fall off of him, and he’s freed when he bows in prayer. His spirit soars, as he said of his imprisonment in the second Timothy letter, the one in which he found death and martyrdom: “I am imprisoned and bound, but the word of God is not bound” [2 Timothy 2:9]. It can’t be chained or kept behind iron walls or doors. So the apostle’s spirit soars and rises. He is free as he prays.
Now, in the prayer, there are four petitions, each one of them beginning with a “that.” “For this cause I bow my knees before God, from whom, by whom, the whole family in heaven and in earth is named, that first—that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man” [Ephesians 3:14-16].
Outside externalities mean nothing to the church. Nothing. Nothing. Whether it’s plush or not, whether it has stained-glass windows or not, whether the steeple is high or not, whether the appointments and embellishments are beautiful or not; externalities mean nothing to the church. It is the burning spirit of the soul that is the strength and power of the church. So he prays that, according to the riches of God in glory, we might be strengthened by His Spirit in the inner man [Ephesians 3:16]. If our hearts are empty, and our souls are sterile, and our lives are spiritual vacuities, this church is nothing, no matter how fine its appointments, or how magnificent its massive pile of buildings. It’s the moving Spirit of God in the church that makes it powerful for Jesus [1 Corinthians 12:11].
I’ve often said we could have just as fine a church in a tobacco warehouse, on a sawdust floor, sitting on split rails, at night lighted by a kerosene lantern, just as well as we can have in the finest embellishments in the earth, for externalities don’t make the house of God. It’s the burning of the inner Spirit. “That He would grant you to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man” [Ephesians 3:16]; that’s his first petition.
The second petition: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” [Ephesians 3:17]. Not just a day or an hour, but dwell every day, every hour, through all of the lifetimes that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith. That’s his second petition.
Third petition: “That ye, being rooted and grounded in love” [Ephesians 3:17]—that’s a mixing of his metaphors. Good English teacher wouldn’t like that. Rooted refers to an agricultural, horticultural situation, a taproot going way down in the ground like a pecan tree, rooted; and grounded refers to a foundation, an architectural term. Well, he mixes his metaphors. Maybe that’s not the finest English, but there is a language of the soul that is beyond grammar. “Rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; to know the love of God, which passeth knowledge” [Ephesians 3:17-19]; what the Lord has done for us.
Now the fourth petition: “That ye might be filled with all the fullness of God” [Ephesians 3:19]. What in the world does that mean? We’d have a thousand lifetimes to try to understand and all eternity to add to its comprehension. “Filled with all the fullness of God” [Ephesians 3:19]. Whatever God is, and all of the fullness of the Lord—in knowledge, in understanding, in comprehension, in compassionate love—all of it in God, that we might be so filled with the same glorious endowments. Oh, dear!
Just like the Lord said, “Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” [Matthew 5:48]. The treasures that we just barely touch. Then he concludes, “Now unto Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” [Ephesians 3:20]. He coins a word: huperekperissou. That adverb that he puts together out of huper and ek and perissou: perissou means abundance, abounding; Ek, out of; huper, over and beyond. You couldn’t translate the word, one that he concocted and compounded out of the Greek language, translated here “exceedingly abundantly above all” [Ephesians 3:20].
“Now, unto Him that is able”—how able? Huperekperissou: “exceedingly abundantly able above all that we could ask or think” [Ephesians 3:20]; the ableness of God, the exceeding, abounding, immeasurable ableness of God. Just how able? And as I speak of this, I want to do it against a background of our limiting Him. Just how able? Huperekperissou. Just how able?
I’ve flown twice over the Pacific Ocean, and the first time I did it was in a prop plane. It took us three days. We flew from Tokyo to Wake, from Wake to Honolulu, and from Honolulu to California. Didn’t fly at night, just in the daytime. Three days over that ocean, just sitting there three days, listening to the hum of those motors, looking down upon that illimitable expanse. You reckon that great ocean could hold up a ship? A little ship? A big ship? Reckon it could? That vast Pacific Ocean, hold up a ship? That sun, ninety-two million miles away, the whole planetary system could fall into it and find plenty of room and not affect it all. You reckon that great, mighty, burning orb could light up a room? Reckon it could? I flew this week twice over the Mississippi River. Do you reckon a man dying of thirst could find water to drink—enough to quench—in the Mississippi River?
The huperekperissou, the overflowing, immeasurable abundance of the ableness of God; and the apostle is saying to us that we ought not to try to do God’s work in our strength, so feeble, anemic, but we ought to attempt God’s work in His ableness and in His strength [Zechariah 4:6; 1 Corinthians 2:4]. Got any mountains that can’t be moved? God can touch them, and literally they will burn up, rise in incense before Him. That great heavy stone: who would remove it for us? It’s not only there in its weight and its size, but it’s sealed. And it’s not only there in weight and size and sealed, but it’s also watched by a guard [Matthew 27:62-66]. Are we to climb the hill in weariness and in despair, frustration and defeat? No, for God is able to roll the stone away! [Matthew 28:2]. So when we match our souls against the paganism and the paganistic institutions of our land, we feel like pygmies. We feel like the lad David before the armies of Philistia and before these giant Goliaths [1 Samuel 17].
Oh, dear! Secularism, paganism, is overwhelming our nation and our institutions like a veritable flood, and yet we stand to match our souls against it. I want to give you an illustration that you’re reading of now in these newspapers of the power of paganism in American life and in our institutions. Just listen to this. I am reading from an interview of a famed pastor evangelist from Akron, Ohio, when he met in the Canadian parliament with twenty-six members of the Canadian government. And the interview was published in a magazine, and I’m going to read from one of those questions. They asked, the Canadian officials, “What do you think about the recent violence at Kent State University in Ohio? What do you think about that?”
Answer of the pastor:
I live close to Kent State. In fact, I live between Kent State University and Akron University. Recently, I took Reverend Bob Harrington, the Chaplain of Bourbon Street, a man who can really communicate with the youth, on a tour around the Akron area. He spoke at high schools, civic clubs, junior highs and at Akron University. When he was through speaking in each place, he received a standing ovation. But they wouldn’t allow him to speak at Kent State. A religious speaker is not allowed on that campus. For many years, however, they have encouraged the radical political element to come speak. Just a week or two before the recent shootings, Jerry Rubin, one of the most notorious activists of our day, came on the Kent State campus and advocated revolution. He spread the philosophy of revolution that says, “Kill your parents, burn down your churches, and do away with the establishment.” He can do that. He can take the flag, throw it on the ground, trample it underfoot. But I cannot go there and speak to those young people, twenty-three thousand of them, about basic faith and principles and sex or anything else. This is one of the tragedies of our day. These young people ought to have a balanced program. Let them hear both sides. That is what college is for. Then the student can make up his mind more intelligently, because then he has a choice he can make. But when the student doesn’t get a chance to hear both sides, then we’re in trouble. If a man advocates violence and revolution and the destruction of Christian values, the academic community, the institutions of paganism, have a tendency to welcome him. But if a man has the gospel on his lips and the saving grace of Christ in his heart, he is not allowed even to come on the campus.
I just took that little incident, and we could go through it by the hours. And this FBI man who belongs to our church, Gordon Shanklin, could document it by a thousand illustrations. There is a turning to paganism, anti-Christianity, in our own nation that is appalling. How do we face it? We face it in the ableness and the power of Almighty God. So the apostle continues, “To do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” [Ephesians 3:20].
Here’s the mistake we make. We get down on our knees and pray. Then we rise from our knees and have this feeling in our hearts: “I have been presumptuous. I have been presumptuous. I have dared to ask more than God is able to give.” And that’s our feeling, and it cuts us down. “Exceeding abundantly, huperekperissou, above all that we could ask” [Ephesians 3:20]. Above all that we could frame to say, to ask in the petition. Who would ever have thought to ask in redemption for Jesus Christ, God incarnate, to die for our sins? [1 Peter 3:18]. Who would have dared to ask for that? In sanctification, who would ever have dared to ask for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? [Acts 2:16-18]. In adoption, who would ever have dared to ask for sonship [Galatians 4:5-6], to be made a fellow heir with Jesus Christ? [Romans 8:17]. All of us are like that prodigal son: “Lord, not a son, but make me a hired hand, a hired servant” [Luke 15:18-19]. Who would have dared to ask for sonship? In death, in death, who would have dared to ask for a resurrection? [Romans 8:11]. The most stupendous miracle that you can think of, that God marks the place where His saints fall into the earth—that dust mingled with the other dust of the ground, yet God knows it—who would have dared to ask for a resurrection, this body that shall fall, if He tarries, into corruption and decay? Who would have dared to ask for a resurrection? [Romans 8:11]. Who would have dared to ask in the renovation for new heavens and a new earth? [Revelation 21:1]. Yet, all of these things above what we have asked for does God provide. Not only that, exceeding abundantly able above all that we ask, but even above what we could think [Ephesians 3:20].
Oh, I remember the story of Joash and Elisha [2 Kings 13:14-19]. Elisha was dying, and he said to the king of Israel, Joash, “Bring a bow and arrows and shoot, and take the arrows and strike the ground.” And the king struck three times, and stayed. And Elisha was disappointed and said, “You should have struck again and again and again, for then would you have delivered your people from their enemies. But now, after three times, you stayed.”
Oh, there is no limit to the ableness of God to bless above all that we could even think for [Ephesians 3:20]. I am not to ask or to believe for selfish desires. God doesn’t honor that. The apostle James, the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, the Lord’s brother said,” Ye ask, and ye receive not, because you ask to consume it on your own desires” [James 4:3]. I can’t come before God with fleshly purposes and carnal desires and ask God for things that minister to my own conceit or selfish purposes. I can’t do that. God will not honor that. I’m not to bring before God a false and cheap personal ambition. Desire blessings? No. But I am encouraged to come before God in His kingdom’s work and to ask! God says He is able to give above all not only what I ask, but even what I could think for [Ephesians 3:20]. And God says, “Do it. Do it. Be bold in the faith!” [Hebrews 4:16]. “Ask and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” [Matthew 7:7].
I guess maybe I’m preaching this to myself. I need it. Lord, we just stagger around here at the tremendous assignment that God has placed upon us. This last week, between weeks for about six weeks here, between Sundays, I’m out on a preaching mission. And this last week, somebody said to me, “Would God we had the problem you have. Would God we had it. We don’t have any problem having any teenagers; we don’t have any. We don’t have any problem about housing Sunday school; we’ve got a little handful. We don’t have any problem about a sanctuary; we don’t half fill ours. We don’t have any problem about a building program. There’s no purpose for a building program. They say, “Would God we had the problem that you have.”
Well, we’ve just got so much to do, and we have so many people that we’re praying to win, so many families to reach, so many teenagers to teach the way and will and the Word of the Lord. And we’ve got this tremendous Bible Institute that we’re launching this coming January. And we have our School of the Prophets that we’re beginning for a week in each year. And how many other things? You just say, “Lord, Lord, Lord.” But we’re to be encouraged; not to ask for personal, carnal desires. We’re to die—we’re to die, we’re to be buried with the Lord, we’re to be dead with Him, and we’re to live His life and do His work. And that’s what it means, “In the name of Jesus”: ask for His sake and for His glory. “Ask,” says the great second Psalm, “Ask of Me, I will give Thee the nations for Thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Thy possession” [Psalm 2:8]. Ask.
The ableness of God; we never exhaust it. It’s never beyond what He can do for us—above all we ask or think [Ephesians 3:20]. Ah, Lord, who would ever have thought the little shepherd boy David would be the king of Israel? [1 Samuel 16:1-13]. Who would ever have thought Amos the sycamore gatherer would be God’s first great writing prophet? [Amos 7:14-15]. Who would ever have thought Cephas, the fisherman of such a volatile spirit [Matthew 16:22-23; John 13:8], would have been Peter at Pentecost? [Acts 2:14-40]. Who would ever have thought that Saul of Tarsus, persecuting the church [Acts 9:1-3], would have been the apostle who kneels down here in prayer? [Acts 20:36; Ephesians 3:14]. Who would ever have thought it? Oh, the whole gamut of God’s world is like that. Who would ever have thought these prison doors open of themselves in the twelfth chapter of Acts? [Acts 12:10]. Who would ever have thought the lions’ mouths would have been stopped [Daniel 6:19-22], or the three would have been delivered out of the fiery furnace? [Daniel 3:20-27].
“Above all that we ask for” [Ephesians 3:20], be encouraged, my brethren. Let’s lift up our spirits and our hearts. Let’s roll up our sleeves. Let’s ask God for great things for Jesus. Let’s ask Him for these families, these homes, these children, these teenagers; these young marrieds. Let’s ask Him. Let’s ask in faith that God will give us their souls, their lives, their children, and then, having found answered prayer, let’s teach them the Word of God. Let’s just place in their very souls the riches of that glorious revelation. Let’s just spend our days around here praising Jesus, loving God. I’ve got to quit. Man, we could just love the Lord forever, couldn’t we? Just talking about what God can do for us and how we’re going to, in His love and grace, attempt great things for Him.
Well, Phil, let’s sing us a song. Let’s sing us a song. And while we sing this hymn, in the balcony round, a family you, on this lower floor, somebody you, a couple you, as the Spirit of Jesus will press the appeal to your heart, come this morning. “Pastor, today I want to give my heart to God. I’ve decided I want to be on that side with God, and I’m coming. I’m going to give Him my life now, going to give Him my soul in death, and I’m coming,” or “The Lord has put it on our hearts to pray with this dear church”: you come, on the first note of that first stanza, into that aisle and down to the front. While we stand and while we sing.