Ephesians 3:14 – 21

Ruins of Celsus Library in Ephesus

(Eph 3:14-19 ESV) 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.

After addressing the gospel and God’s eternal plan to bring the nations into the Kingdom through the gospel, Paul finds himself compelled to pray for his readers.

“The Father” — singular — emphasizes that we have but one Father and therefore we are but one family.

Vs. 15 is a bit puzzling. Lenski argues that “every family” should be translated “the whole family,” as the KJV and NIV have it. And that makes better sense.

“In heaven and on earth” refers to the idea, a large part of Eastern Orthodox thought, that the Kingdom exists both on earth and in heaven. After all, the saved who’ve died already are just as much as part of the Kingdom — and still alive! — as are those on earth. We are, in a very real, powerful sense, still in community, still members of the same church.

And I think that Paul would include the Old Testament heroes here as well, just as does the Hebrews writer —

(Heb 11:13-16 ESV) 13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

The verb of Paul’s prayer is “may grant.” This is a prayer for “power through his Spirit in your inner being.” Now, this is plainly a prayer for a “direct operation” on the readers’ hearts. Paul wasn’t praying that the readers read their Bibles and apply its lessons to their lives (although he would want that, too). No, Paul was praying to the Father — not the readers — because he wanted the Father — not the readers — to do something. And that something is to strengthen the readers with power.

“Power” is a very significant word in Paul’s vocabulary. It first appears in Ephesians back in chapter 1 —

(Eph 1:16-19 ESV)  16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,  17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,  18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,  19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might

In this passage, Paul prays that his readers be “enlightened” to know the greatness of God’s power toward us. It’s used in parallel with “might,” and both words are repeatedly used in the Old Testament of God’s miraculous workings.

We also see “power” in —

(Eph 3:7 ESV)  7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power.

Again, the reference is to God’s miraculous working to reveal the gospel to Paul — most likely a reference to God taking Paul to the third heaven to meet with Jesus and then giving him the gift of apostleship.

Paul is therefore praying that God use this same power “in the inner being” and “through the Spirit.” Of course, the Spirit is associated through both testaments with miraculous workings.

But Paul was writing to people in many cities, many of whom he never personally met — much less laid hands on. The power he is praying for is a power available to all his readers through prayer and the Spirit — not a special apostolic visitation and the laying on of hands. And yet he speaks in terms of a direct operation with language that has a long history of referring to God’s own miraculous powers. He prays for a miracle! (But what prayer isn’t a prayer for a miracle?)

What miracle does Paul ask for? First, he asks that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” What on earth does that mean? The language is parallel with —

(Rom 8:10 ESV)  10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

(2Co 13:5 ESV)  5 Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you fail to meet the test!

In chapter 2, we were taught that we are “in Christ” —

(Eph 2:10 ESV)  10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

We are part of his body. In a sense, the church sits on the throne of heaven with Christ — for we have been united with him.

Paul now prays that Christ will be in us. It’s not enough to have legal status as a part of Christ’s body. The blood of Christ must flow through us so that we share in his death and his character. We have to become like him by having him in us — through the Spirit.

God himself works a miracle in us so that we become a new creation. Eph 2:10 says that we’ve been “created in Christ Jesus.” “Created” is a reference to Genesis 1. When we are baptized, God creates again, re-shaping us to be like his Son — through the Spirit. We are changed by the hand of God. We aren’t just accorded a new legal status, shifted from the “damned” column to the “saved” column. We are given a bit of God himself, in our hearts and minds, to transform us (Rom 12:1-2) into God’s own image, to make us what we were meant to be back in Genesis 1.

And so, it’s both a new creation and the repairing of the old creation or the completion of the first creation. God makes us into his image, so that we can, once again, walk with him in the Garden in the cool of the morning.

But Paul also prays that God will use his miraculous power to allow us —

(Eph 3:18b-19 NIV) 18 … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

This is obviously a prayer for a miracle. Paul wants us to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” That’s a contradiction in terms! Humans can’t know the unknowable. You can’t know something that’s beyond knowing — unless God gives you the power.

Christ’s love is so big, so vast, so huge that we need a miracle — the working of God’s hand through us by the Spirit — to understand the incomprehensible! Now, this is a huge thought. You see, the love of Jesus is so big that it’s hard to accept. We struggle to imagine that we can receive so much generosity and so much love. Indeed, it’s so hard for us that we refuse to believe it. We invent arcane, elaborate, legalistic schemes in an effort to narrow and control the love of God. We are so unable to accept God’s love that we find it hard to accept that we’re saved at all!

I can’t count the number of students who’ve come to me after class, often in tears, saying that they never before had felt saved! That’s right. There are many, many Churches of Christ that teach a “gospel” so small and a love of Christ so narrow that their members have no confidence, no assurance, and little hope at all.

Paul’s answer is: pray! Pray that God will use the Spirit, who is in all his children, to awaken their hearts to the power of God’s grace, to the breadth of God’s goodness. And realize this. When you teach the gospel — the true gospel — you are doing God’s work. Indeed, you may well be being used by God to answer someone else’s prayer! It might be that someone, somewhere prayed that God would open one of your student’s eyes to the love of Jesus, and God may well have chosen to use you as his vehicle for that very message. That’s a big deal. That’s a cosmic, for-the-ages deal!

But if a student is moved to finally — finally! — understand God’s grace and feel forgiven, you can take no credit. It was God working through you and in the heart of your student. The blessing for you isn’t that you are some kind of extraordinary teacher. No, what you should celebrate is getting to watch a miracle! God chose you to see his hand at work, to watch the Spirit, still active today, transforming one of his children to be a little more like Jesus.

Because, you see, we can’t be like Jesus until we understand Jesus better. If we see Jesus as a stingy, narrow-minded giver of grace, then that’s how we’ll be. We won’t really be much like Jesus at all. But if we see Jesus is gracious, generous, and abundant in his blessings, then we’ll know that’s how we’re supposed to be. We’ll be more like Jesus, because people who understand what they’ve been given are the same people who have a faith worth sharing and living.

Finally, Paul gives his reason. He prays for all this so his readers will be “filled with all the fullness of God.” He wants Christ to be in us and he wants us to understand God’s love — so that we may enjoy the “fullness of God.” Oh, wow! This is an astonishing thought — so astonishing as to be hard to fit into our minds.

This takes us back to the equally difficult passage —

(Eph 1:22-23 NIV) 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,  23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

The church, as Christ’s body, is the “fullness” of Christ.

We’ll see the same idea in —

(Eph 4:10 NIV)  10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

The thought is too big for an Internet post. Christ fills the universe. Part of this filling is via the Spirit, who fills individual Christians.

(Eph 5:18 NIV) 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

Through the Spirit, as we take on the character of Christ and come to understand the love of Christ, we become filled “with the fullness of God.” That is, the plan — the cosmic plan that produced Jesus, the gospel, and the Kingdom — comes together, and we become like God. And because we are like God, we participate in his mission and ministry.

(Eph 4:22-24 NIV)  22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;  23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds;  24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

We’ll say more about this verse when we get to it. But here we again the idea of creation — God’s miraculous re-making of each of us — so that we’d “be like God.” And one way we are to be like God is in “true righteousness.” And to see what “righteousness” really means, well, turn to the Old Testament prophets and to Romans. But that’s for another day.

You see, Eph 5:18-21 isn’t a lesson on how to run the assembly. In part of a larger, vastly more important lesson on how God’s cosmic plan, conceived before the creation of the world, is fulfilled in each of us through the Spirit, so that we become new creations, in the image of God — “like God”! — and so share in the fullness of Christ, sit on his heavenly throne with him, and share in his mission on earth as his body. It’s about unity with God, having an Abba Father relationship in which we walk with him in the Garden. It’s about much, much more than rules or even a relationship. It’s about oneness — a divinely granted sharing in the very nature of the Trinity.

But that’s too big of a thought. We struggle to accept such generosity. And so we re-write the scriptures to be man-sized. Rather than having confidence in God’s ability to truly unite with his Son and place us on the heavenly throne, we look for something we can do on our own. And that lack faith and understanding sucks the joy and the miraculous and the majesty out of God’s word, turning it into an instruction manual on how to hold a meeting.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Ephesians 3:14 – 21

  1. laymond says:

    "The blood of Christ must flow through us so that we share in his death and his character."

    question; through our veins, or through our mind.

  2. mark says:

    Yes one thing I can say is it amazes me the wave of interpretations in the Bible. Just when you think you can handle the wave another wave comes crashing through. It is also a phenomena of our present time. Must be climate change. But I continue to find that Biblical relevance is morphing into an aura of spiritual meanderings. Maybe that's how it is to be. Eph 3:18 reflects a lot of Paul's mind grasping at the right words to express things that are truly out of reach for the average Christian . Paul writes “the strength to comprehend” Wow it must be big news! For the church today, it to needs to brace itself to a new wave and have the faith to understand breadth, length, height, and depth of change.

  3. Aaron says:

    When you say Christ fills the universe, I assume you are making an exception for those pesky musical instruments that God hates so much, right? 🙂

    Good posts, Jay…even if they don't get read/commented on as heavily as the topical material, they are certainly appreciated.

    God bless.

  4. Jay,
    Except for the 1st 2 paragraphs and the picture, this is a wonderful post! The only time I saw a game in Tuscaloosa, I was far from the "Ivory" section, but I did get to see Joe Namath play in his first college game. (In those days, I was an Alabama fan – as I still am, except when they play Florida, my childhood favorites.)

    I notice the difference in number of responses to your posts on Ephesians 3 (one of my favorite chapters in the Bible – except possibly Philippians 3) and your review of Ferguson's article in the Advocate. Huge! and tragically showing our flawed focus.

    Power to know the love that surpasses knowledge! What a mind-boggling idea! But Paul is full of similar ideas in the passages that we glibly pass over – and we wonder why our people are lethargic and complacent.

    I remember speaking once when there were several preachers in the audience. I said something to the effect that here is Paul's secret to getting the church involved – and read Titus 3:8 where "these things" refers back to 3:4-6 at least, and I am sure back to 2:11ff if not all the way back to chapter 1:9 where the elder must hold fast to the faithful message of salvation in Christ by grace through faith. You should have seen the preachers thumbing through their Bibles to get Paul's secret! But we pay little attention to such passages, to our loss.

    Keep up the good work. We need your voice speaking loud and clear!


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