“Because of this, and hearing of your faith in the Lord Jesus and the love you have toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, making remembrance of you in my prayers in order that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.”
For what does Paul pray when he gives thanks for the Ephesian church? His prayer is that God would give to the the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God. This does not so much seem to be a matter of the Holy Spirit (hence we have not capitalized the noun, plus there is no definite article); they already have the Holy Spirit as he is the one who converted them and made them believers in the first place. No, it is so that they would have a spirit of wisdom and that they would have a spirit of revelation.
We have already discussed wisdom at length, but this is just one more reminder of the importance that the Bible places upon wisdom as well as the source of that wisdom, which is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). You can have no authentic wisdom if you do not first approach God with fear and reverence. As the psalmist states, nothing but sin results from the lives of those who do not fear God.
“Transgression utters to the wicked in the depth of his heart;
there is no dread of God before his eyes.”
(Psalm 36:2 — verse 1 in English translations)
The second thing for which Paul prays is for a spirit of revelation. We often think of revelation — ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis) in the Greek — in terms of the Revelation of Jesus to John that closes our Canon. Because of that, we often only think of revelation in terms of end times things. To be fair, Paul does use this term in such a way (cf. Romans 8:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:7), but he also uses it to speak of God’s revelation to him (Galatians 1:12), and in terms of the full revealing of the Gospel (Romans 16:25). That seems to be the context in which he is using the term here — in other words, that God would more and more reveal to their understandings the magnificent outworking of His Gospel.
Don’t miss the clarification at the end of the verse, though. Paul is praying for the spirit of revelation for the Ephesian church, but that such revelation always be in the knowledge of God. Indeed, how important this principle is, for anything received or held without the knowledge of God is in vain and worthless. As I look around at the evangelical world today, it strikes me at just how often knowledge of God is downplayed. As a result, this generation is without fear of the Lord even in the bodies that proclaim themselves to be churches (for many are not!). Paul makes it abundantly clear that knowledge, to be of any value, must first and foremost be of God. Plenty of people have knowledge of the world but the world is passing away. The things of God are eternal.
“And this is my prayer: that your love might overflow more and more in knowledge and all discernment.”
And so, out of Paul’s love for his friends in the church in Philippi, he offers up his prayer for them as they seek to grow in their spiritual maturity. He begins with a prayer for agape love…there are several different words in the Greek to reflect different aspects of love; agape love reflects the idea of a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether the love is reciprocated on the part of the beloved. Ultimately, it is the love demonstrated by Christ who died for the sins of the elect while we were yet dead in our sin and in rebellion against the King of Heaven. It is also the kind of love that all believers are to strive toward as we live our our lives in community…as the old hymn based on John 13:35 goes: “They shall know we are Christians by our love.”
But notice something. Often Christians seem to end there when they talk about God’s design for our lives. There is an assumption that we are just to love one another, love the world, and all will be happy. And what we end up with oftentimes is this mushy, sappy, love that has no real backbone to it. Yet, Paul does not end his prayer here. Paul asks that the agape love that the church would have would indeed overflow (arguably a reference to Psalm 23:5), but that it would overflow in knowledge and discernment.
In other words, love does not stand on its own, but is guarded and guided by something else in the life of the believer. The term that Paul uses for knowledge is ejpi/gnwsiß (epignosis), which is typically used to refer to a knowledge of the transcendent — a knowledge of that which is outside of you, whether moral or spiritual. And while the term ai¡sqhsiß (aisthasis), which we translate here as “discernment” only shows up once in the New Testament, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is found 22 times in the Book of Proverbs (no great surprises there). Thus, according to Paul’s prayer for spiritual maturity, love does not stand alone, it is accompanied by both the knowledge of God and the discernment that comes from the fear of the Lord.
The idea virtue seems to have been replaced by freedom in our culture today. People champion personal expression and personal pleasure over the idea of chivalry, honor, integrity, and duty. People seem to value personal experience over transcendent truth. And that shift is a dangerous one for the culture; more significantly, it is our calling as a church to pull the culture back from the edge of the cliff. But we cannot do that unless we, as Christians who make up the church, also embrace a Biblical model of knowledge and discernment that guides and guards our love. May indeed Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi be a prayer that we embrace in our lives and may we strive to cultivate the knowledge of God (found in the scriptures) and godly discernment (begun with a fear of the Lord) in our lives in every way.
“But you are elevated eternally, Yahweh.”
(Psalm 92:9 [verse 8 in English])
God is lifted up! He reigns on high! There is no god like our God, he is the great Yahweh, who sets his throne in the heavens and makes the earth his footstool. Can we not praise him highly enough? Will we ever exhaust the praises that our God deserves even in the light of eternity? Never! Our God reigns and he does so from on high.
What is amazing, wonderful, and remarkable about our God is that he condescends to us in relationship. Yet, in light of this relationship, let us never lose sight of the total “other-ness” of our God. It is my concern that, in the emphasis on a personal and intimate relationship with God that we downplay his elevation…in other words, we treat him as casually as we might treat a friend or neighbor and thus forget who he is and the reverence that he rightfully deserves. Indeed, is it not the “Fear” of the Lord that brings knowledge and wisdom? Where there is no fear, will not foolishness multiply? Is that not the plight of the church in our age today?
In many circles, God is merely treated as one of many gods rather than the God above all others and in a class entirely of his own. To borrow from the Medieval theologian, Anselm, he is “The being greater than whom no other being can exist.” There is none like him and it ought to give us goosebumps to draw near to him while at the same time we do boldly draw near to the Holy One of Israel in our midst. What a glorious gift, but in our worship, let us be drawn up to him and not seek to draw him down to us.
So, friends, as you pray this day and in the day to come, may you be altogether aware that it is the God who is lifted up who has given you permission to come into his presence. Celebrate that, but do so with a holy fear as well, for in that fear you will find knowledge and wisdom.
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of values in terms of what was worthwhile for individuals and society to pursue. For Aristotle, the highest value was the knowledge of truth for its own sake. Of course, Aristotle was an Empiricist, which means that his real interest in “Truth” has to do with what one can observe with one’s senses or through the use of observational tools. Some might be tempted to simply label this, “science,” but such a label would shortchange both science and Aristotle’s view. Much of science is based on the use of reason built upon basic presuppositions and Aristotle recognized that observation could be applied to things outside of the realm of what we would typically classify as science (metaphysics, for example).
Aristotle’s second value was the discovery of practical knowledge—what Christians and Jews typically refer to as wisdom. This is the kind of knowledge that can guide one to live a life well and skillfully. For Aristotle, this was exemplified in the Four Cardinal Virtues of Greek thought: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation. Finally, the value at the bottom of Aristotle’s list was that of learning to be skilled in Technique—what we would refer to as technical or vocational skills. These are the skills by which one would earn a trade.
I began to reflect on these ideas for two reasons. First, I heard a contemporary philosopher argue that our modern culture has turned Aristotle’s hierarchy upside down—that those who our society values the most (based on their paychecks) are those who demonstrate a high degree of skill in technique and those who are valued the least are those whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake. Thus we live in a society where professional athletes, popular musicians and actors, and skillful doctors (again, technique with the surgical instruments) are the wealthiest class and preachers, teachers, and philosophers make up one of the poorest classes in society. The second reason that I began reflecting on this idea is because I happened to be teaching on Augustine’s approach to the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Greeks. Ultimately, Augustine affirmed these virtues as Christian virtues, but only when they were joined by faith, hope, and love—especially love.
Thus, I began asking the question, if I had to construct a hierarchy of values for the Christian life, how do I think that they would be reflected in the Christian life. One might be tempted to begin, as Aristotle begins, with a knowledge of truth for its own sake. Jesus said that his purpose in coming to dwell with men was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). God, of course, is the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) and those who reject God suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). In addition, those who have no knowledge of God (as truth resides in God) destroy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:34). Also, the implication of scripture is that it is the knowledge of God that allows his people to be faithful (Hosea 6:6) and when there is no faithfulness in the land, it is joined by a lack of the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).
Yet, it seems to me that a higher virtue sets the stage for the knowledge of the Lord. When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus’ response is not to congratulate him on that knowledge, saying it was the highest virtue, but Jesus instead said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah” for this knowledge came from “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). There are two things that need to be brought out from this verse in light of understanding Christian virtue. First of all, the source of the knowledge of God is God himself, not something gained through a human pursuit—and if something has a source, or a precursor, it ought not be seen as the “highest” virtue. Secondly, Jesus does not say, “virtuous are you,” but he says, “blessed are you.” The Greek word for virtue, ajreth/ (arête), refers to one’s moral excellence or other attributes that make one praiseworthy. Yet, blessedness, maka/rioß (makarios), has to do with one’s internal state as a result of their relationship to God. Thus, Jesus can say, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake…” Similarly, Peter’s blessedness does not come from anything he has done, but because of what has been done to him.
Now, we may be tempted to engage in a discussion of regeneration, but since the purpose of a hierarchy of virtue is to give us something of merit to pursue, such a discussion does not seem to have a place here as regeneration is something that God does in us which in turn precipitates a response of faith and repentance in the believer. Our temptation, too, might be to jump immediately to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to Peter’s instructions on how to build up our faith (2 Peter 5-7), but again, these seem to have their source in a virtue that is more primary.
And that brings us to the question, what then does the Bible present as primary? The logical answer seems to be that the highest virtue is the fear of the Lord. We are told in scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). The fear of the Lord gives life and health not only to the individual believer, but it is also a sign of a healthy church (Acts 9:31). And then, out of the fear of the Lord proceeds the pursuit of the other Christian virtues.