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Ephesians 3:14-21

God's Church: Its Theological Foundations (the Indicative) 1:1-3:21

A.  Prologue 1:1-2

B.  Praise 1:3-14

C.  Prayer 1:15-23

D.            Our Salvation 2:1-22

1.   its individual implications 2:1-10

2.   its corporate implications 2:11-22

E.  The Mystery 3:1-21

Before we examine this prayer in its details, let's survey its overall message.

Paul prays for several things here, all of which pertain to our sensible experience of the person of Christ. He prays that we might be internally strengthened by the Spirit so that Christ might dwell in our hearts. But how can that be, if we have already received Christ into our hearts when we were born again? The only viable explanation is that Paul is referring to an experiential enlargement of what is already theologically true. He wants us to be strengthened by the Spirit so that Jesus might exert a progressively greater and more intense personal influence in our souls.

The result of this expansion of the divine power and presence in our hearts is the ability to "grasp how wide and long and high and deep Christ's love for us really is." Again, this is Paul's way of saying that God intends for us to feel and experience and be emotionally moved by the passionate affection He has for us, His children. D. A. Carson, in my view, is right on target when he says that

"this cannot be merely an intellectual exercise. Paul is not asking that his readers might become more able to articulate the greatness of God's love in Christ Jesus or to grasp with the intellect alone how significant God's love is in the plan of redemption. He is asking God that they might have the power to grasp the dimensions of that love in their experience. Doubtless that includes intellectual reflection, but it cannot be reduced to that alone" (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 191).

Bu how are we to compute such love? What are its dimensions? Does it come in meters or miles? Do we measure it in yards or pounds? Does Paul intend for you to think in terms of mathematical proportions, as if to suggest that God loves you one-hundred times more than he loves the angels or fifty times less than He loves a purportedly more godly Christian?

Quit to the contrary, says Paul. There is a width and length and height and depth to Christ's love for you that goes beyond human measurement. The immensity and magnitude of that love is incalculable. Its dimensions defy containment. It is beyond knowing. Yet, Paul prays that we might know it! This deliberate oxymoron serves to deepen what is already too deep to fathom. Andrew Lincoln summed it up best by saying "it is simply that the supreme object of Christian knowledge, Christ's love, is so profound that its depths will never be sounded and so vast that its extent will never be encompassed by the human mind" (213).

Now for the details.

After the parenthesis of vv. 2-13, the apostle resumes the prayer he broke off in v. 1 (again, note the phrase "for this reason" in v. 1 which is repeated in v. 14 ["for this reason" points back to all of chapter 2, but especially the concluding words which focus on his readers being part of the new temple in which God's Spirit dwells]). The prayer contains 4 parts, each of which is related to the one which precedes it as an effect is related to its cause. These 4 elements or stair-steps, as it were, are found in vv. 14-19: Paul prays that (1) they may be strengthened by the Spirit, (2) so that Christ may dwell in their hearts, (3) so that they may be able not only to understand but feel Christ's love for them, (4) so that they may be filled to the fullness of God. Paul then closes his prayer with a doxology in vv. 20-21. Note also the Trinitarian structure of the prayer: Paul asks that his readers be strengthened through the Spirit, indwelt by Christ Jesus, and filled to the fullness of God the Father.

This prayer (vv. 14-19), much like the hymn of praise in 1:3-14, is one long sentence in Greek.

1.   Paul's apostolic burden 3:1-13

2.   Paul's intercessory burden 3:14-19

Before we examine the actual content of his prayer, we need to look at the introduction to it in vv. 14-15.

a.   Introduction to Paul's prayer 3:14-15

 

Paul's posture is significant: he bows his knees, whereas standing (Mark 11:25; Luke 18:11) was normal among the Jews (although, see 1 Kings 8:24; Ezra 9:5; Lk. 22:41; Acts 7:60; 9:40; 20:36; 21:5. It is 'the instinctive expression of homage, humility, and petition (Eadie, 240). Kneeling may be an expression of Paul's intensity. For him, intercession was a struggle, a battle, a fight (see Rom. 15:30; Col. 4:2,12). Lincoln suggests that "kneeling would have had more emotive force and conveyed a greater fervency of entreaty on the writer's part than the earlier reference to his praying in 1:16" (202).

What does Paul mean when he refers to God as "Father?" Options include: (1) Inter-trinitarian (Father of our Lord Jesus Christ); (2) Creative (of all mankind; see Acts 17:28-29; Heb. 12:9; Js. 1:17-18); (3) Theocratic (Father of the nation Israel; see Ex. 4:22-23; Dt. 14:1-2); (4) Adoptive/Spiritual (of Christians only). It is surely the latter that he has in mind in this text.

There are three views on the meaning of v. 15. (1) The translation "every family" would include all people ("on earth") without exception (and perhaps even groupings and classes of angels "in heaven"), thereby making God "Father" in the creative sense. The word translated "family is patria and 'stands for a group derived from a single ancestor and . . . can denote a family, one's father's house, a clan, a tribe, or even a nation" (Lincoln, 202). The fact that God "names" every such "family" points to both his creation of them and his dominion over them. (2) Others insist that it may be rendered, "the Father," from whom all fatherhood in heaven . . . On this reading, God's fatherhood is the archetype of every other kind of paternity; i.e., the very notion of "fatherhood" is derived from God. Human fatherhood is more or less an imperfect reflection of his perfect fatherhood. If then human fathers (who are but faint shadows of the truly ultimate Father) love their children so intensely and care for them so generously, how marvelous must be the love and care of the heavenly Father. This thought then provides a basis for Paul's confidence that his subsequent request for the children will be granted. However, "fatherhood" is an unlikely rendering of the Greek patria. (3) Still others argue that the phrase should be translated "the whole family" (or "his family") and refers to believers only. Thus "in heaven" = deceased believers, now with Christ, and "on earth" = Christians still physically alive. However, this rendering would require the definite article, which is lacking in the original text. View (1) above is most likely the correct one.

b.   the content of Paul's prayer 3:16-19

The essence of Paul's prayer is for power. He earlier prayed that believers might "know God's incomparably great power toward them" (1:18-19). Now he prays that they might inwardly and personally experience it as well.

1.   he prays that God might strengthen them v. 16

Lit., that He may give to you . . . to be strengthened with power.

This strengthening is:

*          according to the riches of God's glory (v. 16a) The word translated "according to" points beyond the idea of source/origin (merely, 'out of his riches) to that of correspondence (i.e., in proportion to his riches; on a scale commensurate with God's riches; God gives as lavishly as only God can; cf. Phil. 4:19).

*          with power (v. 16b) To be strengthened with power according to glory may simply mean to be strengthened by God's radiant power! "Believers," notes Best, "are not left to whistle up strength from within themselves in order to be able to do God's will" (340).

*          through the Spirit (v. 16c) Divine power is in one sense synonymous with the Spirit and in another sense mediated by the Spirit. This passage, notes Fee, also "shows that for Paul the 'power of the Spirit' is not only for more visible and extraordinary manifestations of God's presence, but also (especially) for the empowering necessary to be his people in the world, so as to be true reflections of his own glory" (695).

*          in the inner man (v. 16d) see Rom. 7:22; 2 Cor. 4:16; it is "the interior of our being . . . the seat of personal consciousness, . . . [and] of our moral being" (Fee, 695-96) = heart. I.e., "that part of them which is not accessible to sight but which is open to his energizing influence" (Lincoln, 206).

2.   he prays that Christ might dwell in their hearts v. 17

Some commentators (e.g., O'Brien, Fee) argue that the dwelling of Christ in our hearts is simply an expansion upon or further definition of what it means to be strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man. But it seems better to understand Paul as praying for inner empowerment of the Spirit so that we might more deeply experience the presence of Christ himself. In the final analysis, the difference is minimal.

There are two words typically used for the concept of indwelling. The first, paroikeo = to abide or to inhabit, but not necessarily permanently. The second, the one used here, is katoikeo = "a settling in or colonizing tenancy" (Best, 341); i.e., to live permanently (cf. Col. 2:9). Christ doesn't sojourn in our hearts. He is no divine nomad! He is, reverently speaking, a squatter. He is a permanent, abiding resident.

Two questions: First, isn't "indwelling" a ministry of the Spirit? See Rom. 8:9-10. According to the NT, Christ dwells in his people by means of or through his Spirit (see 1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 4:6). Second, if Christ, through the Spirit, indwells the believer from the point of the new birth, how can Paul pray as he does in this text? It would seem that he is praying for the emotional increase or experiential expansion of what is already a theological fact. His desire is that the Lord Jesus, through the Spirit, might exert an ever-increasing and progressively more powerful influence on our lives and in our hearts. It is what I like to call, the incessant spiritual reinforcement in the human heart of the strength of Jesus and his love.

Several things should be noted:

*          This indwelling influence occurs in the human "heart" (i.e., in the depths of our personality; the core of our souls).

*          This indwelling influence occurs only through human "faith" (i.e., it isn't automatic; it is only as we, through the Spirit, continue to trust Christ as our only hope, our only source of salvation, the lover of our souls; the point is that doubt and skepticism concerning who Jesus is and what he has done is the enemy of feeling his affection). Lincoln has this helpful reminder:

"Faith involves a relationship of trust between two parties, and so there can be no implication that the notion of Christ living in the center of a believer's personality means the absorption of that individual personality or the dissolving of its responsibility" (207; cf. Gal. 2:20).

One more interesting observation: although the concept of Jesus being 'in our hearts is a popular way of expressing what it is to be a Christian, this is the only place in the NT where that precise terminology is found!

*          This indwelling influence is in some way related to being "rooted and grounded in love." Here Paul employs a double metaphor: one from agriculture and one from architecture. Love, says Paul, "is the soil in which believers are to be rooted and grow, the foundation on which they are to be built" (Lincoln, 207). Is this yet another, perhaps subsidiary, prayer, or does it describe the attendant circumstances, so to speak, in which this experience might come to pass? If the latter, then a precondition for experiencing the fullness of Christ's indwelling presence is having been rooted and grounded in love. But whose love? (1) Is it God's love for us in Christ? That would mean: you are rooted and grounded in God's love for you so that you can know God's love for you(?). (2) Is it our love for God? No, for how can that enable us to know his love for us? (3) Is it our love for one another? Yes. See 1 John 4:7-12. But there may be another option. O'Brien suggests that these two metaphors express "the contemplated result of the two previous prayers, which in turn provides the condition for the next request. Thus, 'through the strengthening of the inner person by God's Spirit and Christ's indwelling in their hearts, the readers are to be established in love so that they will comprehend the greatness of the love of Christ'" (260).

3.   he prays that they might grasp the incalculable dimensions of Christ's love for them vv. 18-19a

Before looking at the object of Paul's prayer, note that only God himself can impart this knowledge. Divine enabling is absolutely essential. Human will-power alone, together with good intentions and fervent passion, cannot produce the experiential knowledge Paul has in mind.

The breadth and length and height and depth . . . of what? Options:

*          the perfections of God (i.e., his infinite attributes; cf. Job 11:7-9);

*          the mystery of salvation itself (Eph. 1:3-14 and esp. 3:9);

*          the actual physical structure of the cross (pointing up, down, left, right) which supposedly symbolizes love in its breadth, hope in its height, patience in its length, and humility in its depth (Augustine); it is highly unlikely that such developed symbolism would have developed by this early stage in the life of the church;

*          the dimensions of the Christian temple, i.e., the Church (cf. 2:19-22 and Rev. 21:16);

*          the multiple expressions of divine power as an antidote for reliance on magical practices so common in southwest Asia Minor (Arnold);

*          the manifold wisdom of God (3:10; Rom. 11:33-34);

*          a metaphor of the immeasurable and incalculable and unfathomable dimensions of Christ's love for his own (as defined in the subsequent clause in v. 19a). Says Stott: "the love of Christ is broad enough to encompass all mankind (especially Jews and Gentiles, the theme of these chapters), 'long' enough to last for eternity, 'deep' enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and high enough to exalt him to heaven" (137).

v. 19a simply restates v. 18b. To grasp the incalculable love of Christ for his own is to "know what can't be known!" This oxymoron (statement of apparent inconsistency) is designed to emphasize that what we might know in part is ultimately incomprehensible. We may know Christ's love in some measure but we will never exhaustively comprehend it. No matter how much we learn, no matter how much we think we know and see and feel and grasp, there is always an infinity left over! John Eadie put it best:

"It may be known in some features and to some extent, but at the same time it stretches away into infinitude, far beyond the ken of human discovery and analysis. As a fact manifested in time and embodied in the incarnation, life, teaching, and death of the Son of God, it may be understood, for it assumed a nature of clay, bled on the cross, and lay prostrate in the tomb; but in its unbeginning existence as an eternal passion, antedating alike the Creation and the Fall, it 'passeth knowledge.' In the blessings which it confers the pardon, grace, and glory which it provides it may be seen in palpable exhibition, and experienced in happy consciousness; but in its limitless poower and endless resources it baffles thought and description. In the terrible sufferings and death to which it led, and in the self-denial and sacrifices which it involved, it may be known so far by the application of human instincts and analogies; but the fathomless fervour of a Divine affection surpasses the measurements of created intellect. As the attachment of a man, it may be gauged; but as the love of God, who can by searching find it out? Uncaused itself, it originated salvation; unresponded to amidst the 'contradiction of sinners,' it neither pined nor collapsed. It led from Divine immortality to human agonies and dissolution, for the victim was bound to the cross not by the nails of the military executioner, but the 'cords of love.' It loved repulsive unloveliness, and, unnourished by reciprocated attachment, its ardour was unquenched, nay, is unquenchable, for it is changeless as the bosom in which it dwells. Thus it may be known, while yet it 'passeth knowledge'; thus it may be experimentally known, while still in its origin and glory it surpasses comprehension, and presents new and newer phases to the loving and inquiring spirit. For one may drink of the spring and be refreshed, and his eye may take in at one view its extent and circuit, while he may be able neither to fathom the depth nor mete out the volume of the ocean whence it has its origin.

Yet, for all its glory and the great heights from which it came, such love can only be experienced 'together with all the saints (cf. 1:1,15; 3:8; 6:18)! Our experience of Christ's love is personal, but not private. It is meant to be felt and proclaimed and enjoyed in the context of the body of Christ. It is a personal, yet shared, experience. 'The comprehension the writer desires for his readers is not some esoteric knowledge on the part of individual initiates, not some isolated contemplation, but the shared insight gained from belonging to the community of believers" (Lincoln, 213).

4.   he prays that they may be filled to the fullness of God v. 19b

See Eph. 4:13. God's "fullness" = his moral perfections or excellencies, as well as his empowering presence; i.e., all that God is as God. "That fulness or perfection is the standard or level to which they are to be filled" (O'Brien, 265). What does that do to our low expectations of what is available to us in this life?

But with what are we to be filled? The "power of God?" The "love of Christ?""The Spirit?" Certainly, but there is more in Paul's mind. Note well: they are to be filled by God, "and presumably if they are to be filled up to the fullness of God, it is with this fullness [emphasis mine] that they are to be filled" (Lincoln, 214). In some sense, then, it is with the radiant power and presence of God himself that we are to be filled, the measure of which is God himself! Whereas the church as Christ's body already shares in, embodies, and expresses his fullness (Eph. 1:23), we have not yet experienced the plenitude of God in the way that is available for us. That is why Paul now prays as he does. "What the Church already is in principle, it is increasingly to realize in its experience" (Lincoln, 214).

3.   Paul's doxological response 3:20-21

Robinson said of Paul's request: "No prayer that has ever been framed has uttered a bolder request (89). Has Paul, then, exceeded what is proper? Has he gone too far? Has he asked for too much? Has his boldness gotten out of hand? 'No, for it is impossible to ask for too much since the Father's giving exceeds their capacity for asking or even imagining'" (O'Brien, 266).

a.   God's greatness 3:20

Paul's effusive praise of God reflects the unbounded bounty of his ability to bless his people in response to their prayers:

(1) He is able to do or to work, for he is neither idle nor inactive, nor dead (contrast the dumb idols in Ps. 115:1-8).

(2) He is able to do what we ask, for he hears and answers the very prayers that he commands we pray! Principle: when it is God's will to bestow a blessing, he graciously incites the human heart to ask for it!

(3) He is able to do what we ask or think, for he reads our thoughts, and sometimes we imagine things which we are afraid to articulate and therefore do not ask. In other words, his ability to provide for us must never be measured by the limits of our spoken requests.

(4) He is able to do all that we ask or think, for he knows it all and can perform it all. There is nothing that is proper for us to have that transcends or outstrips his power to perform.

(5) He is able to do more . . . than (hyper, "beyond") all that we ask or think, for his expectations are higher than ours.

(6) He is able to do much more, or more abundantly, than all that we ask or think, for he does not give his grace by calculated measure.

(7) He is able to do very much more, far more abundantly, than all that we ask or think, for he is a God of superabundance (the single Greek word that stands behind this idea, huperekperissou (see 1 Thess. 3:10; 5:13), has the idea of an extraordinary degree, considerable excess beyond expectations, etc.).

(8) All that he does he does by virtue of his power that even now energetically works within us.

b.   God's glory 3:21

 

1.   in the church (How? See 1:22-23; 2:7,22; 3:10. Amazing! Of all the places one might think God would choose to reveal and embody and express his manifest glory, the church, with all its weaknesses and divisions and failures, scarcely seems to qualify! Yet such is God's intent.)

2.   in Christ Jesus

3.   to all generations forever and ever