It happened once near my house in Uganda. I was driving and saw a car with a bible verse on its vanity license plate. It was a very nice car, a recent model Land Rover Discovery in a forest green color. Beyond a nice and functional ride, this car also serves as a status symbol. The license plate displayed “Eph 3 20” for all Uganda to see.
A typical Ugandan license plate is yellow with black letters stamped into it. But it is not uncommon to see vanity plates in Uganda. They are typically on nicer cars. You can spot them because they have green letters instead of black ones.
The cost of these plates has been a mystery I have yet to fully untangle. I have been told they cost $2,000 USD. I have been told that they cost some considerable amount each month. The only commonality is the fact that they are much more expensive than a typical license plate.
This particular plate had me upset. It was common prosperity gospel (all too common in Uganda as with much of the world) stamped onto the owner’s car declaring God has blessed him with such a nice car. To be clear, I take no issue with the niceness of the car or of putting bible verses on vanity plates. I take issue with the false message this particular car displayed.
I saw this car and its plate the one time. Then I saw it again and then a third time. I had to get a picture. But driving and being able to get a picture of a passing vehicle is not easy or recommended. Then one day my dreams came true, it was parked in the same parking lot I was. I whipped out my phone and snapped a picture.
Why do I take issue with this car? Its message isn’t biblical. Sure it has a bible verse on it but what it communicates distorts the teaching of that passage.
What does Ephesians 3:20 say? “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” This vehicle communicates that this car is the owner’s because God can do far more abundantly than all he could ask or imagine. But is this the point of the text? Is his material wellbeing (i.e. prosperity) what the passage is discussing?
This passage is ascribing praise to God for the wonders of the salvation He provides in Christ. The context tells us this. In Ephesians 3:8, what is preached are the unsearchable riches of Christ. It is Paul’s prayer in verses 16-19 of chapter 3 that his readers would understand just how amazing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Notice the ‘unsearchable’ and ‘surpassing knowledge’ aspect. God’s work is so wonderful and far above human understanding and even expectation that prayer should be made to understand it.
Then in our verse Paul moves into praising God for doing things that are so amazing we dare not call them true save for the fact God has revealed them as true. This salvation in Christ, forgiveness and freedom from sin, is amazing. It is so wonderful. Too often we take it for granted. We pass by it. But Paul here is pausing to praise God for providing redemption in Christ. We need to stop and ponder the salvation God has brought.
To then apply this to something comparatively worthless as a nice car is too much. As C.S. Lewis and John Piper have said, the car owner’s desires are not too big but too small – he is too easily satisfied. It tremendously devalues what God has done.
So yes, I take issue with this car and its message.
Should we thank God for everything He gives us? Yes. From the wonder of salvation to the wonder bread, from being called a child of God to phones to call others. But this is not the verse to do it. The owner has taken something unsearchable and reduced it to something far less.
This vehicle highlights thinking that is far too common in Uganda and throughout the world. That is the expectation of temporal and material blessings. It is not God’s will that every believer should be rich. God has promised to take care of material needs, not to make every Christian financially wealthy. The testimony of Christ and His apostles is enough to show that. What He has promised is eternal life to all who believe in Christ. What He has promised is forgiveness, adoption, and the Holy Spirit to power our love of others. Those are the things we should seek and expect from God.
We need to expect great things from God, greater and more beyond knowledge than a Land Rover Discovery.
Here is a video of something fun on the roads in Kampala: