We Pray for One Another

| Ephesians 3:14-21

Week of August 2, 2020

The Point:  The church is strengthened as we pray.

 Prayer for Spiritual Strength: 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]

“Praying for Power [3:14-21]. Christians learn to pray by listening to those around them. Nothing is intrinsically bad about this. If we lived in a time and place where Christians were characterized by knowledgeable, anointed praying, it would be a wonderful privilege to learn from them. Sadly, although there are a few signs of resurgence, prayer in the West has fallen on hard times, and there are few models to hold up to a new generation of believers. Then how shall we reform our praying? Surely the best answer is to turn again to the prayers of the Bible. If every part of our lives is to be renewed and reformed by the Word of God, how much more should that be so of our praying? Then we shall learn afresh what to pray for, what arguments to use, what themes on which to focus, what passion is seemly, how these prayers fit into a larger Christian vision, how to maintain the centrality of God himself in our praying. The prayer before us has two rich and lengthy petitions, which we shall examine in depth. Paul roots them in two grounds or reasons, and he ends the prayer with a word of praise, a powerful doxology.

Two Petitions.  Paul prays (1) that God might strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being [3:16-17a] and (2) that we might have power to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ [3:17b-19]. At heart, the first petition is a prayer for power. Paul regularly prays for power. The nature of this power is carefully circumscribed. The power for which Paul prays is mediated through God’s Spirit [16]. No less important, the sphere in which this power operates is what Paul calls the inner being. Exactly what does Paul mean by that? We gain the clearest picture of what Paul means when we consider another passage he wrote where he uses exactly the same expression. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Paul writes, Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self (exactly the same expression as in Eph. 3:16) is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. Paul’s body, his “outer man,” is wearing away under the onslaught of years and of persecution, the “inner man” is what is left when the outer man has wasted completely away. The Christian’s ultimate hope is for the resurrection body. But until we receive that gift, it is our inner being that is being strengthened by God’s power. Christians are in urgent need of following Paul’s example and praying for displays of God’s power in the inner being. In short, Paul’s primary concern is to pray for a display of God’s mighty power in the domain of our being that controls our character and prepares us for heaven. We must ask two important questions about Paul’s first petition. What purpose does it have? Exactly why does Paul pray that Christians might know more of God’s power? We shall better grasp the nature and focus of this power for which Paul prays if we observe its purpose: so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith [17a]. One cannot help but notice the trinitarian character of the prayer. Paul asked the Father [14] that we might be strengthened through his Spirit [16] so that Christ [17] might dwell in our hearts through faith. Even so, on first reading this expressed purpose strikes the Christian reader as a bit strange. Do we not hold that Christ by his Spirit takes up residence in us when we become Christians [see John 14]? Why then does Paul say that the purpose of his prayer is that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith? Isn’t he already doing that? It helps to recognize that the verb here rendered “to dwell” is a strong one. Paul’s hope is that Christ will truly take up his residence in the hearts of believers, as they trust him (that’s what “through faith” means), so as to make their hearts his home. Make no mistake: when Christ first moves into our lives, he finds us in very bad repair. It takes a great deal of power to change us; and that is why Paul prays for power. He asks that God may so strengthen us by his power in our inner being that Christ may genuinely take up residence within us, transforming us into a house that pervasively reflects his own character. The idea of getting rid of the old and dirty, and adopting the new and clean, of putting off the old and soiled and taking on the new and radiant, occurs in Paul’s writings in many forms [e.g. see Col. 3:5-17]. These type changes in the lives of believers is the kind of purpose Paul has in mind when he prays for power. We may ask a second important question about this petition: With what measure of resources is the prayer to be answered? The text answers our question. Paul prays that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being [16]. What are these riches of his glory on which Paul is prepared to rely? For Paul, the expression refers to what God has already secured for us on account of Christ. From Paul’s perspective, everything that is coming to us from God comes through Christ Jesus. All the blessings God has for us are tied up with the work of Christ. So the supply of God’s glorious riches in Christ Jesus is as lavish as the benefits secured by Christ. To depreciate the supply is to depreciate Jesus; to doubt the provision God has made for us is to doubt the provision God has secured in his Son. It is far wiser to understand and believe that the God who has already so lavishly blessed us in his Son has no less lavish reserves of power to pour out on us as he brings us to Christian maturity. This first petition, then, is a plea for power – power to be holy, power to think, act, and talk in ways utterly pleasing to Christ, power to strengthen moral resolve, power to walk in transparent gratitude to God, power to be humble, power to be discerning, power to be obedient and trusting, power to grow in conformity to Jesus Christ. This brings us to the second petition: that we might have power to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ [17b-19]. Like the first petition, this one is a prayer for power. Here, however, the power of God in our lives, given in response to this prayer, operates a little differently. Its purpose is to enable us to grasp the limitless dimensions of Christ’s love. Paul does not mean to suggest that his readers have never before known God’s love for them in Christ Jesus. Far from it: he knows they are Christians, and therefore acknowledges that they have been rooted and grounded in love [17]. He cannot think of their salvation without reminding himself that it utterly depends on God’s sovereign love. The remarkable fact about this petition, however, is that Paul clearly assumes that his readers, Christians though they are, do not adequately appreciate the love of Christ. He now wants them to have the power to grasp just how great the love of Christ is. This is not a prayer that we might love Christ more (though that is a good thing to pray for); rather, it is a prayer that we might better grasp his love for us. 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. How do we appreciate love? How do we measure it? Paul resorts to metaphor, and then to paradox. His metaphor is linear measure: to know what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ. His paradox is more stunning yet: and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge – that is, to know what is beyond mere knowledge. We must not think that Paul is appealing for uncontrolled mysticism. For him, the love of Christ is not merely something to be privately experienced. Paul is not fostering some experience of love outside the constraints of the gospel. What he presupposes, rather, is that apart from the power of God Christians will have too little appreciation for the love of Christ. They need the power of God to appreciate the limitless dimensions of that love. And so Paul prays for power. A genuine and deep perception of the love of Christ rarely comes to the person who is not spending much time in the Scriptures. Paul wants us to grasp something of the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ, to know this love that surpasses knowledge, so he prays that we might have God’s power so as to be able to take this step. But why? Why does he think it so important? He tells us: he wants his readers to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God [19]. To put the matter simply, Paul wants us to have the power to grasp the love of God in Christ Jesus, to the end that we might be mature. To be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” is simply a Pauline way of saying “to be all that God wants you to be,” or “to be spiritually mature.” So you see the stunning implication? Paul assumes that we cannot be as spiritually mature as we ought to be unless we receive power from God to enable us to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ. We may think we are peculiarly mature Christians because of our theology, our education, our years of experience, our traditions; but Paul knows better. He knows we cannot be as mature as we ought to be until we “know this love that surpasses knowledge.” That is why he prays as he does: he wants us to grow in our grasp of Christ’s love so that we will become mature, “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” It is wonderful to revel in the love of God. Truly to experience that love, to live in the warmth of its glow, invests all of life with new meaning and purpose. Our speech, our thoughts, our actions, our reactions, our relationships, or goals, our values – all are transformed if only we live in the self-conscious enjoyment of the love of Christ.

Two Grounds. 1. Paul’s petitions are in line with God’s purposes. The words for this reason in verse 14 harken back to verse 1, and from there refer to Ephesians 1 and 2. The apostle praises God for his sovereign grace in bringing lost Jews and lost Gentiles together into one new humanity, one new community. This God accomplished through the redemptive work of his Son on the cross. Paul prays for this reason, namely, that God’s declared purpose in creating this new humanity is to bring the people in it to the kind of spiritual maturity portrayed in the extended metaphor of the holy temple in the Lord … a dwelling place for God by the Spirit [2:21-22]. Thus God’s declared purposes become for Paul a reason for advancing these particular petitions to his heavenly Father. In short, Paul is praying in line with what he knows of God’s will, just as he did in Ephesians 1. We quickly learn that God is more interested in our holiness than in our comfort. He more greatly delights in the integrity and purity of his church than in the material well-being of its members. He shows himself more clearly to men and women who enjoy him and obey him than to men and women whose horizons revolve around good jobs, nice houses, and reasonable health. He is far more committed to building a corporate “temple” in which his Spirit dwells than he is in preserving our reputations. He is more vitally disposed to display his grace than to flatter our intelligence. He is more concerned for justice than for our ease. He is more deeply committed to stretching our faith than our popularity. He prefers that his people live in disciplined gratitude and holy joy rather than in pushy self-reliance and glitzy happiness. He wants us to pursue daily death, not self-fulfillment, for the latter leads to death, while the former leads to life. These essential values of the gospel must shape our praying, as they shape Paul’s. Indeed, they become the ground for our praying (for this reason). It is a wonderful comfort, a marvelous boost to faith, to know that you are praying in line with the declared will of almighty God. 2. Paul’s petitions are addressed to the heavenly Father. “Father” in Western thought does not have many overtones of dignity and authority. But in the ancient world, the father was not only the one who sought the good of his family, but the one who dispensed favors and ruled the clan or family unit. The God whom we approach in prayer is not simply the transcendent Other. He is the heavenly Father, and we are members of the household of God [2:19]. The God whom we approach is not only powerful, but he is related to us: he is our Father. So as Paul approaches God with his petitions, he reminds himself that the God he addresses is his heavenly Father, the archetypal Father, the Father of all who are truly his people in heaven and on earth. He is a good God; he knows how to give good gifts. Paul dares to approach this God with these requests because he knows God to be a good God, a heavenly Father. Thus the nature and character of God become for Paul a fundamental ground for intercessory prayer. The more we reflect on the kind of God who is there, the kind of God who has disclosed himself in Scripture and supremely in Jesus Christ, the kind of God who has revealed his plans and purposes for his own “household,” the kind of God who hears and answers prayer – the more we shall be encouraged to pray. Prayerlessness is often an index to our ignorance of God. Real and vital knowledge of God not only teaches us what to pray, but gives us powerful incentive to pray.

A Final Word of Praise [3:20-21]. Paul has been asking God for some blessings of extraordinary value; he has been petitioning the Almighty for blessings that are immeasurably great. Now in his closing doxology, he puts these petitions in perspective by stressing two themes. 1. The God whom he petitions is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. That is a staggering thought. The God to whom Paul prays, the God to whom he addresses his final word of praise, is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us [20]. Partly, of course, this confidence is nothing more than the entailment of belief that God is omnipotent. To an omnipotent God there cannot be degrees of difficulty. But surely Paul is saying something more than that about God. God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, not only because he is powerful but also because he is generous. He loves to give good gifts to his children. To think of God in any other way is to demean him; to think of God in this way is itself tantamount to a call to pray. We simply cannot ask for good things beyond God’s power to give them; we cannot even imagine good things beyond God’s power to give them. Paul’s concluding word of praise thus becomes an immensely powerful incentive to pray. 2. The ultimate purpose of Paul’s prayer is that there be glory to God, in the church and in Christ Jesus. It is possible to ask for good things for bad reasons. We may desire the power of God so to operate in our lives that we may become more holy; we may ask for power to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of God – and yet distort these good requests by envisaging their fulfillment within a framework in which the entire universe revolves around our improvement. The root sin is the kind of self-centeredness that wants to usurp God’s place. How tragic then if our prayers for good things leave us still thinking of ourselves first, still thinking of God’s will primarily in terms of its immediate effect on ourselves, still longing for blessings simply so that we will be blessed. We may have improved a little on the quality of what we ask for, but the deeper question is this: Do we bring these petitions before God both with a proximate goal (that we might receive what we ask for) and with an ultimate goal – that God might be glorified? For that, surely, is the deepest test: Has God become so central to all our thought and pursuits, and thus to our praying, that we cannot easily imagine asking for anything without consciously longing that the answer bring glory to God? This is Paul’s vision in his concluding word of praise. He prays that there might be glory to God, both in the church, as the church progressively obeys God and pleases him and makes him the center of its existence, and also in Christ Jesus, presumably as Christ Jesus is lifted up by the church in thought, word, and deed. Here, then, is how we shall reform our praying. We shall learn to pray with the apostle not only in his petitions, but in his words of praise, in his ultimate goal, in his profound God-centeredness.” [Carson, pp. 181-203].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How did you learn to pray? What have been the dominant influences on your prayer life? What does Paul’s example teach you about how your own prayer life should be?
  2. Summarize the two petitions of Paul’s prayer in this passage. What are the purposes of these two petitions? To what extent have you incorporated either or both of these petitions into your praying?
  3. What are the two grounds for Paul’s prayer, as Paul reports them? What grounds or reasons lurk behind your prayers? How can you improve on these?
  4. What steps can you take to make the glory of God the central concern of your prayers and your life?

References:

A Call to Spiritual Reformation, D. A. Carson, Inter Varsity.

Ephesians, Bryan Chapell, REC, P & R Publishing.

The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Ephesians, Frank Thielman, BENT, Baker.

The purpose of this article is to provide additional reference resources for those Sunday School teachers who use Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life material.