Probably the most revealing way of discovering our chief anxieties or ambitions is to listen to our prayers. We all pray about things that concern us. We don’t usually pray for issues that do not concern us. Prayer expresses desire. We see this axiom illustrated in Paul’s second prayer in Ephesians.
He pours out his soul to God. He prays that God’s wonderful plan which he has been elaborating may be even more completely fulfilled in his readers’ experience. Bishop Handley Moule asks: ‘Who has not read and re-read the closing verses of the third chapter of the Ephesians with the feeling of one permitted to look through parted curtains into the Holiest Place of the Christian life?’
1. The Introduction to his Prayer
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” (Ephesians 3:14-16)
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 the reconciling work of Christ? 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 willed. 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.4
Paul goes on: I kneel. The normal posture for prayer among the Jews was standing. Kneeling indicated an exceptional degree of earnestness, as when Jesus fell on his face to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Stephen faced the ordeal of martyrdom.5 God doesn’t tell us how to pray. You can pray kneeling, standing, sitting, walking and even lying in bed, although William Hendriksen warns ‘the slouching position of the body while one is… praying is an abomination to the Lord’.6
I kneel before the Father. The apostle has already explained that we worship ‘the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Here he goes on to affirm that from this Father, before whom he kneels in reverent humility, every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. Paul is saying not only that the whole Christian family is named from the Father, but that the very notion of fatherhood is derived from the Fatherhood of God.
To this Father Paul prays that he will give gifts according to ‘his glorious riches’. 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. The introduction to his prayer
2. The Substance of his Prayer
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. “ (Ephesians 3:16-17)
The apostle’s petition is like 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 ‘strength’, ‘love’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘fullness’. More precisely, he prays first that they may be strengthened by the indwelling of Christ through his Spirit; secondly that they may be rooted and established in love; thirdly that they may grasp Christ’s love in all its dimensions; and fourthly that they may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Lets consider these requests one at a time.
2.1 Strengthen you with Power
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (Ephesians 3:16–17a).
These 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. To have Christ dwelling in us is the same as having the Spirit dwelling us. It is precisely by the Spirit that Christ dwells in our hearts,2 and it he gives us strength when he dwells there.
But doesn’t ‘Christ dwell by his Spirit in every believer? So how can Paul ask that Christ may dwell in their hearts? Did they not already have Christ? Every Christian is indeed indwelt by Christ and is the temple of the Holy Spirit.4 Paul is praying here for a deepening of that relationship. What Paul asks for his readers is that they may be ‘fortified, braced, invigorated’,6 that they may ‘know the strength of the Spirit’s inner reinforcement’ (jbp), and may lay hold ever more firmly ‘by faith’ of this divine strength, this divine indwelling.
This is clear from the word he chooses for the ‘dwelling’ of Christ in the heart. Paul could have said paroikō which means to ‘inhabit (a place) as a stranger’ the very word Paul has already used in 2:19 for an alien who is living away from his home. No, in contrast, here Paul prefers Katoikeō, which means to settle down somewhere. Bishop Handley Moule draws out the implications: ‘The word… denote[s] residence as against lodging, the abode of a master within his own home as against the turning aside for a night of the wayfarer who will be gone tomorrow.’ Paul prays to the Father that Christ by his Spirit will settle down in their hearts, and from his throne there both control and strengthen them. Strengthen you with power.
2.2 Root and Establish You in Love
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love” (Ephesians 3:17). Why does Paul pray to God the Father that Christ would control and strengthen believers? So that they will display their Father’s likeness in sacrificial love. This new humanity is God’s family, brothers and sisters, who will 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 (one botanical, the other architectural), both of which emphasize depth as opposed to superficiality. These Christians are to be rooted and established, or to have ‘deep roots and firm foundations’ (neb). 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. Strengthen you with power. Root and Establish you in love.
2.3 To Grasp the Love of Christ
“may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.” (Ephesians 3:17-18)
The apostle now passes from our love (in which we are to be rooted and grounded) to Christ’s love (which he prays we may know). 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 power to comprehend the love of Christ in its full dimensions—its breadth and length and height and depth.
The love of Christ is ‘broad’ enough to encompass all mankind, ‘long’ enough to last for eternity, ‘deep’ enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and ‘high’ enough to exalt him to heaven. Or, as Leslie Mitton expresses it, finding a parallel to Romans 8:37–39: ‘Whether you go forward or backward, up to the heights or down to the depths, nothing will separate us from the love of Christ.’1
Some have seen these dimensions illustrated on the cross. For its upright pole reached down into the earth and pointed up to heaven, while its crossbar carried the arms of Jesus, stretched out as if to invite and welcome the whole world. The apostle prays that we have power to comprehend these dimensions of Christ’s love, with all God’s people. Yet even then, although we may accept its dimensions 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. This is because It surpasses knowledge. The Christian experience is more than the understanding of biblical doctrine. It floods our emotions and captivates our hearts as well as blowing our minds. Christ’s love is as unknowable as his riches are unsearchable (verse 8). Doubtless we shall spend eternity exploring his inexhaustible riches of grace and love.
Strengthen you with power. Root and Establish you in love. To Grasp the Love of Christ.
2.4 That You may be Filled to the Measure
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.“ (Ephesians 3:19) ‘Fullness’ is a characteristic word of Ephesians. As individuals we are to go on being filled with the Spirit,6 and the church, although already the fullness of Christ,7 is still to ‘grow up into him’ till it reaches his fullness.8
‘Growth into fullness’ is therefore the theme of Paul’s fourth and last petition for the Ephesians. He prays that they may be filled with all the fullness of God. God’s 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.9
Such a prayer must surely look on, beyond this life to our final state of perfection in heaven when together we enter the completeness of God’s purpose for us, and 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,1 for Christ is himself the fullness of God.
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.3
As we now look back down the staircase which we have been climbing with Paul, we cannot fail to be struck by his audacity. He prays that his readers may be given the strength of the Spirit and the ruling presence of Christ, the rooting of their lives in love, the knowledge of Christ’s love in all its dimensions, and the fullness of God himself. These are bold petitions. Climbers of this staircase become short of breath, even a little giddy. But Paul does not leave us in suspense.
3. The Conclusion of his Prayer
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
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 indeed 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, for he is neither idle, nor inactive. (2) He is able to do what we ask, for he hears and answers prayer. (3) He is able to do what we ask or imagine, 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 imagine, for he knows it all and can perform it all. (5) He is able to do more … than (hyper, ‘beyond’) all that we ask or imagine, for his expectations are higher than ours. (6) He is able to do much more, or more abundantly (perissōs), than all that we ask or imagine, 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 super-abundance. This adverb hyperekperissou is one of Paul’s coined ‘super-superlatives’.4 ‘Immeasurably more’ (niv) or better still, ‘infinitely more’ (AG, jbp).
There are quite simply no limits to what God can do. The infinite ability of God to work beyond our prayers, thoughts and dreams is by the power at work within us. That is, 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 up 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 add 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 together, in the body and in the Head, in the bride and in the Bridegroom, in the community of peace and in the Peacemaker, throughout all generations (in history), for ever and ever (in eternity), and ever and ever and ever and ever, Amen.
Stott, John R. W.: God’s New Society : The Message of Ephesians. Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1979, 1980, S. 131 (adapted, abridged, edited and paraphrased with heartfelt, sincere and grateful thanks)