Strengthened by God’s Power

| Ephesians 3:14-21

The Point:  God does not leave us on our own but empowers us through His Spirit.

Confidence in God’s Power: Ephesians 3:14-21.

[14]  For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, [15]  from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, [16]  that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, [17]  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, [18]  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, [19]  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. [20]  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, [21]  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.  [ESV]

“One of the best ways to discover a Christian’s chief anxieties and ambitions is to study the content of his prayers and the intensity with which he prays them. We all pray about what concerns us, and are evidently not concerned about matters we do not include in our prayers. Prayer expresses desire. This is certainly true of this second prayer of Paul’s in Ephesians in which he pours out his soul to God. He has been explaining both Christ’s peace-making work, which resulted in the creation of the new society, and his personal involvement in this because of the special revelation and commission he had received. Now he turns from exposition to intercession. He prays that God’s wonderful plan which he has been elaborating may be even more completely fulfilled in his readers’ experience. Prayer and preaching should always go together. As Jesus watered with prayer the good seeds of instruction He had sown in the Upper Room [John 13-17], so Paul follows up his teaching with earnest prayer, and he recording it enables us to overhear him.

 

1. The introduction to his prayer [14-16a].  The apostle begins for this reason, resuming his train of thought where he had left it in verse 1. What reason is in his mind? What is it that moves him to pray? Surely it is both the reconciling work of Christ and his own understanding of it by special revelation? These are the convictions which undergird his prayer. This being so, an important principle of prayer emerges. The basis of Paul’s prayer was his knowledge of God’s purpose. It was because of what God had done in Christ and revealed to Paul that he had the necessary warrant to pray. For the indispensable prelude to all petition is the revelation of God’s will. We have no authority to pray for anything which God has not revealed to be His will. That is why Bible reading and prayer should always go together. For it is in Scripture that God has disclosed His will, and it is in prayer that we ask Him to do it. Paul goes on: I bow my knees. The normal posture for prayer among the Jews was standing. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican both men stood to pray [Luke 18:11,13]. So kneeling was unusual. It indicated an exceptional degree of earnestness. Scripture lays down no rule about the posture we should adopt when we pray. It is possible to pray kneeling, standing, sitting, walking and even lying down. Already the apostle has called God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and therefore because we are in Christ our Father, from whom all blessings flow [1:2-3]. He has also declared that Jews and Gentiles are fellow members of the Father’s family, who enjoy equal access to their Father in prayer [2:18-19]. Here he goes on to affirm that from this Father, before whom he kneels in reverent humility, every family (or ‘the whole family’) in heaven and on earth is named [15]. The addition of the words in heaven and on earth will indicate that the church militant on earth and the church triumphant in heaven, though separated by death, are nevertheless only two parts of the one great family of God. To this Father Paul prays that He will give his readers certain gifts according to the riches of his glory [16]. Both riches and glory are characteristic words of this letter. Paul has no doubt either that God has inexhaustible resources at His disposal or that out of them He will be able to answer his prayer.

 

2. The substance of his prayer [16b-19].  I like to think of the apostle’s petition as a staircase by which he climbs higher and higher in his aspiration for his readers. His prayer-staircase has four steps, whose key words are strengthened … love … knowledge … fullness. (a)  Strengthened with power. The opening two petitions clearly belong together. Both refer to the Christian’s innermost being, his inner being on the one hand and his heart on the other. Then, although one specifies the strength of the Spirit and the other the indwelling of Christ, both surely refer to the same experience. For Paul never separates the second and third persons of the Trinity. To have Christ dwelling in us and to have the Spirit dwelling in us are the same thing. Indeed, it is precisely by the Spirit that Christ dwells in our hearts, and it is strength which He gives us when He dwells there. Some are puzzled by this first petition when they remember that Paul is praying for Christians. ‘Surely’, they say, ‘Christ dwells by His Spirit within every believer? So how can Paul ask here that Christ may dwell in their hearts? Was Christ not already within them?’ To these questions we begin by replying that indeed every Christian is indwelt by Christ and is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the indwelling of Christ is a thing of degrees. So also is the inward strengthening of the Holy Spirit. What Paul asks for his readers is that they may be fortified and invigorated, that they may know the strength of the Spirit’s inner reinforcement, and may lay hold ever more firmly by faith of this divine strength, this divine indwelling. That this is Paul’s meaning is further confirmed by his choice of word for the dwelling of Christ in the heart. There are two Greek words for dwelling. One is weaker and means to ‘inhabit as a stranger’. The second word, on the other hand, means ‘to settle down somewhere’. It refers to a permanent as opposed to a temporary abode, and is used metaphorically both for the fullness of the Godhead abiding in Christ [Col. 2:9] and for Christ’s abiding in the believer’s heart [here in 3:17]. Thus Paul prays to the Father that Christ by His Spirit will be allowed to settle down in their hearts, and from His throne there both control and strengthen them. For the fourth time in the letter one is struck by the natural Trinitarian structure of the apostle’s thought. (b) Rooted and grounded in love. If we had the opportunity to ask Paul for what purpose he prayed that Christ would control and strengthen his readers, I think he would reply that he wanted them to be strengthened to love. For in the new and reconciled humanity, which Christ is creating, love is the pre-eminent virtue. The new humanity is God’s family, whose members are brothers and sisters, who love their Father and love each other. Or should do. They need the power of the Spirit’s might and of Christ’s indwelling to enable them to love each other, especially across the deep racial and cultural divide which previously had separated them. To express how fundamental Paul longs for their love to be, he joins two metaphors, both of which emphasize depth as opposed to superficiality. These Christians are to be rooted and grounded, or to have ‘deep roots and firm foundations’. Thus Paul likens them first to a well-rooted tree, and then to a well-built house. In both cases the unseen cause of their stability will be the same: love. Love is to be the soil in which their life is to be rooted; love is to be the foundation on which their life is built. (c)  Know the love of Christ. We observe that the apostle now passes from our love to Christ’s love. Indeed, he acknowledges that we need strength or power for both, strength to love and power to comprehend Christ’s love. Certainly the two cannot be separated, and it is partly by loving that we learn the meaning of his love. Paul prays that we may have strength to comprehend the love of Christ in its full dimensions – its breadth and length and height and depth. We shall have power to comprehend these dimensions of Christ’s love, Paul adds, only with all the saints. The isolated Christian can indeed know something of the love of Jesus. But his grasp of it is bound to be limited by his limited experience. It needs the whole people of God to understand the whole love of God, all the saints together, with all their varied backgrounds and experiences. Yet even then, although we may comprehend its dimensions to some extent with our minds, we cannot know it in our experience. It is too broad, long, deep and high even for all the saints together to grasp. It surpasses knowledge. Paul has already used this ‘surpassing’ word of God’s power [1:19] and grace [2:7]; now he uses it of His love. Christ’s love is as unknowable as His riches are unsearchable [3:8]. Doubtless we shall spend eternity exploring his inexhaustible riches of grace and love. (d) Filled with all the fullness of God. Fullness is a characteristic word of Ephesians, as it is of Colossians. In Colossians Paul tells us not only that God’s fullness dwells in Christ, but also that in Christ we ourselves have come to fullness [Col. 1:19; 2:9-10]. At the same time, he makes it plain in Ephesians that we still have room for growth. As individuals we are to go on being filled with the Spirit [5:18], and the church, although already the fullness of Christ [1:23], is still to grow up into him till it reaches His fullness [4:13-16]. Growth into fullness is therefore the theme of Paul’s fourth and last petition in his prayer for his Asian readers. God’s fullness or perfection becomes the standard or level up to which we pray to be filled. The aspiration is the same in principle as that implied by the commands to be holy as God is holy, and to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect [1 Peter 1:15-16; Matt. 5:48]. Such a prayer must surely look on to our final state of perfection in heaven when together we enter the completeness of God’s purpose for us, and are filled to capacity, filled up to that fullness of God which human beings are capable of receiving without ceasing to be human. Another way of expressing the prospect is that we shall become like Christ, which is God’s purpose and promise [Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2], for Christ is Himself the fullness of God. Yet another way of putting it is to say that we shall attain the fullness of love, of which Paul has just spoken in His prayer. In saying that Paul’s last petition points to heavenly perfection, we have no liberty to try to evade its contemporary challenge. For God expects us to be growing daily towards that final fullness, as we are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ’s image from one degree of glory to another [2 Cor. 3:18].

 

3. The conclusion of his prayer [20-21].  We notice now that the apostle’s four petitions are sandwiched between two references to God. In verses 14-16 He is the Father of the whole family and possesses infinite riches in glory; in verses 20 and 21 He is the one who works powerfully within us. Such a God can answer prayer. God’s ability to answer prayer is forcefully stated by the apostle in a composite expression of seven stages. (1) He is able to do or to work, for He is neither idle, not inactive, nor dead. (2) He is able to do what we ask, for He hears and answers prayer. (3) He is able to do what ask or think, for He reads our thoughts, and sometimes we imagine things for which we dare not and therefore do not ask. (4) He is able to do all that we ask or think, for He knows it all and can perform it all. (5) He is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, for His expectations are higher than ours. (6) He is able to do much more 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 than all that we ask or think, for He is a God of super-abundance. There are no limits to what God can do. The infinite ability of God to work beyond our prayers, thoughts and dreams is according to the power at work within us, within us individually (Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith) and within us as a people (who are the dwelling place of God by His Spirit). It is the power of the resurrection, the power which raised Christ from the dead, enthroned Him in the heavenlies, and then raised and enthroned us there with Him. That is the power which is at work within the Christian and the church. Paul’s prayer relates to the fulfilment of his vision for God’s new society of love. He asks that its members may be strengthened to love and to know the love of Christ, though this surpasses knowledge. But then he turns from the love of God past knowing to the power of God past imagining, from limitless love to limitless power. For he is convinced, as we must be, that only divine power can generate divine love in the divine society. To ask anything more would be inappropriate, except the doxology. To him be glory. Paul exclaims, to this God of resurrection power who alone can make the dream come true. The power comes from Him; the glory must go to Him. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations.”  [Stott, pp. 131-141].  

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What was the reason [14] Paul prayed this prayer? What important principle of prayer does Stott find here? What was the basis of Paul’s prayer? Why should Bible reading and prayer always go together? How can you apply this principle to your prayers?

2.         Stott sees the substance of Paul’s prayer [16-19] as a prayer-staircase with four steps. What are these four steps and what are the four key words?

3.         How does Paul conclude his prayer? What are the seven stages Stott finds Paul using to describe God’s ability to answer prayer? How confident are you that this God can answer your prayers?

4.         On this last week of the year, take the time to study the content and intensity of your prayers. What changes do you need to make in your prayer life? 

References:

Ephesians, James Boice, Baker.

The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter O’Brien, Eerdmans.

The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Ephesians, Frank Thielman, BENT, Baker.