8. Paul's Prayer and Doxology (Ephesians 3:14-21)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (26:31)

Orante with hands lifted in prayer from the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome.
Orante figure from the Catacomb of Priscilla, Cubicle of the Velata, Rome (second half of the third century).This pose of arms lifted in prayer is found in thousands of figures in the catacombs.
"14For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge -- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20Now 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, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." (Ephesians 3:14-21)

Paul concludes the first part of his Letter with another prayer for the Ephesians and a doxology of praise to God. It doesn't do justice to this prayer to oversimplify it. However, before we delve into the details, it may help to see the bare bones of Paul's prayer. Note that Paul's Greek is somewhat confusing, so different scholars may construe it a bit differently.1 But it seems to ask God for two major outcomes:

(a) For inner strengthening by the Spirit (3:16)

 

(1) you might comprehend fully the extent of God's mind-blowing love

(b) that is, Christ dwells in your hearts through faith (3:17a)

so that (hina)

and

(c) that is, you have been rooted and grounded in love (3:17b)

 

(2) you might be filled with the fullness of God.

Now let's meditate on some of the details of Paul's prayer.

Kneeling before the Father (3:14-15)

"For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name." (3:14-15)

Paul begins this prayer with the words, "for this reason" (charin) since he is referring back to the Gentile Christians' destiny to reveal God's plan to spiritual beings in heavenly places. Paul probably mentions his kneeling posture to emphasize his earnestness in this prayer (also Acts 20:36; 21:5).

God's Resources (3:16)

Now he shares the content of his prayer.

"I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being...." (3:16)

Notice the basis of Paul's confidence in God's ability to answer prayer abundantly -- God's "glorious riches" -- fabulous wealth, unfathomable resources, unimaginable riches and the power they create. You can see this theme in several of Paul's letters (Ephesians 1:7,18; 2:7; 3:8; Romans 9:23; Philippians 4:19; Colossians 1:27). So often we pray out of our own lack of faith, out of our own spiritual poverty. Rather, we must learn to pray based on our belief in God's inexhaustible supply. When we can see that in our mind's eye, our faith can rise to the occasion without hindrance of worrying about how God will ever be able to answer our prayer.

Strengthening the Inner Being (3:16b-17a)

To that end of strengthening our faith, Paul prays that God will "strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being." He uses two "power words" in this verse. The verb "strengthen," krataioō, "become strong,"2 is used right next to the noun dunamis, "power, might, strength, force, capability."3 Together the words have the effect of accentuating the degree of strength and power, "become mightily empowered."4

The means by which this spiritual empowerment comes about is "though (dia) his Spirit." The location of this strengthening is the "inner being" (NIV, NRSV) or "inner man" (KJV). Prior to salvation, our human spirit is spiritually dead, cut off from God. When the new birth occurs, the Holy Spirit is somehow fused with our human spirit making us alive to God, vitally connected to Him through the Spirit, and infused with life of an eternal quality and magnitude (see Romans 8:1-11).

Look at the passage again:

"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." (3:16b-17a)

Paul now prays a parallel, explanatory statement -- " that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith" (3:17a). Heart (kardia, from which we get our word "cardiac") is commonly used in the New Testament to refer to the "center and source of the whole inner life, with its thinking, feeling, and volition."5 The word "dwell," katoikeō, "live, dwell, reside, settle (down),"6 refers "permanent habitation as opposed to sojourning, pitching a tent or an occasional visit."7 The Spirit's inner strengthening is the same thing as Christ dwelling in their hearts; these are two ways to express the same truth.8

Q1. (Ephesians 3:16-17)  Do the concepts of (a) strengthened by the Spirit in the inner person, and (b) Christ dwelling in our hearts say the same thing, or are they separate and distinct ideas? What do you think?
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The Process of Sanctification

Does this mean that Paul is praying for the salvation of the Ephesian saints? No. He is assured of their salvation (Ephesians 1:15). I think he is praying that the Spirit might permeate their whole being, through and through. It is possible to be a "carnal Christian" (KJV, 1 Corinthians 3:1) and still be a genuine Christian. But the Spirit has a long way to go to form Christ in your character and train you to follow him. Paul is praying for more, that the work of Christ in us might continue and deepen and grow.

Robert Boyd Munger wrote a short booklet entitled My Heart, Christ's Home (1951) that has been widely reprinted. In it he compares the heart to a home. When Christ comes into the heart he is invited into the living room as an honored guest and asked to be seated and to feel right at home. But when Christ starts poking into closets and other rooms in the house, it is obvious that the host isn't prepared for him. These rooms are off-limits to the influence of Christianity. But you asked me to live here, didn't you? asks Christ.

All of us have sins and selfishness hidden even to ourselves. As Christ's Spirit permeates our entire being, we gradually become more and more surrendered to him, every closet and room, every drawer and chest -- and we become more and more filled with a knowledge of him, that is, we come to know him better and better.

Theologically this is called "sanctification." It is a process. Paul is praying here that the process might be accelerated in the Ephesian believers. For without sanctification, our view of God and our faith is so diminished and straitjacketed that we can hardly see God in his fullness (Hebrews 12:14), nor can we be truly filled with the Spirit.

Spirit-filled Christians

Certain groups of Christians refer to themselves as "Spirit-filled." By this they mean, perhaps, that they have had a Pentecostal experience. Praise God for a Pentecost-like experience of the God of the supernatural! I know first-hand how wonderful and faith-expanding that can be. But, dear friends, "Spirit-filled" is a deceptive and somewhat prideful jargon phrase. By definition all Christians have the Spirit (Romans 8:9b). Remaining filled with the Spirit requires a day-by-day surrender to God, a dealing with and giving up of sins that he reveals, and being stretched by God to open more to receive more of his infinite Being. Dear friends, may we all be truly "Spirit-filled," not as a mark of distinction from lesser Christians, but as a description of the Spirit's gracious and present work in our lives. To be Spirit-filled is to be humbled, not proud.

Rooted and Grounded in Love (3:17b)

Paul has described a Christian's relationship to God by (1) being empowered by the Spirit in the inner person, by (2) Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith. Now he adds a third, by (3) being rooted and grounded in love.

"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, 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." (3:17b-18)

Paul refers to their present level of understanding as being rooted (rizoō) and grounded (NIV, KJV) or established (NRSV) in love. The second verb is themelioō, "to provide a base for some material object or structure, lay a foundation," then figuratively, "to provide a secure basis for the inner life and its resources, establish, strengthen."9

Remember that one of Paul's petitions that we're getting to in verses 18-19a is to fully comprehend Christ's love. Paul has recently heard of the Ephesians' "love for all the saints" (1:15b), so they are not without love. But that practice of love must be deepened. He is asking in verse 17b that the Ephesians might be "rooted and grounded in love," that is, that love might more and more be their way of life. Only if we know the experience of loving hard-to-love people, can we truly comprehend the ins and outs of Christ's immense love.

Outcome 1: To Comprehend the Love that Surpasses Knowledge (3:18-19a)

Having prayed for the Ephesians' practice of love, Paul gets to the first outcome he seeks for the Ephesians:

"And I pray that you ... may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,10 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge...." (3:17b-19a)

He prays for them "power to grasp," a phrase with two verbs. The first verb (exischuō) means, "to be fully capable of doing or experiencing something, be strong enough."11 The second verb (katalambanō) involves the imagery of chasing someone and seizing him, then used figuratively, to "understand, grasp, learn about something through the process of inquiry."12 This is the power to grasp, the ability to comprehend the incomprehensible. How can Christ love those who are his enemies? How can God send his only begotten Son into a den of serpents to redeem them? To the natural mind it doesn't make sense. It is truly mind-blowing. He acknowledges this with the phrase "love that surpasses knowledge" (3:19a), using the verb huperballō that we saw in Paul's earlier prayer in 1:19, which means, "to attain a degree that extraordinarily exceeds a point on a scale of extent, go beyond, surpass, outdo."13

But he doesn't just pray that we might "get it." He prays that we might grasp the full scope of his love -- width, length, height, and depth. Wow! Have I achieved this? I don't think so. There are many people I have trouble loving, which is an indication of how little I really comprehend the immensity of God's great love. Father, fulfill Paul's prayer in my own heart!

Q2. (3:18-19) What kinds of things prevent us from comprehending the far reaches of Christ's love? What happens in the way we live when we do comprehend, know, and experience this love? What would be different about your life if you could grasp this?
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Outcome 2: Filled with God (3:19b)

Now we come to the second outcome Paul seeks for the Ephesians:

"... That you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (3:19b)

He doesn't want the believers to be half-filled, but filled (plēroō) completely. The term "fullness" (plērōma), which we saw in 1:23 (chapter 2, footnote 13) suggests "sum total, fullness, even (super)abundance."14 Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians to be filled with "all the fullness of God." Robinson comments: "No prayer that has ever been framed has uttered a bolder request."15

What does it mean to be "filled with all the fullness of God"? Going back to Munger's analogy of Christ having access to all the "rooms" in our "house," it means unlocking some doors and cabinets that have been hitherto closed to Christ's influence -- and cleaning them out. Each of us has suffered wounds. In many of us, these hurts have not healed, but underneath the scab are festering sores of bitterness. If that is the case, we must go back, open up the wound, dress it with forgiveness, and cover it this time with God's grace that can cover a multitude of sins. Unlocking some of those doors may require rethinking our value system that has been too strongly influenced by the culture and realigning it with the Word of God. It may involve a change in the way we treat people. Perhaps making amends and asking forgiveness. Dear friends, if you and I want to be filled with all of the fullness of God, that requires Christ's access to and welcome in every area of our lives, no matter how much pain his entrance might entail. He must have all of us if he is to fill us completely.

Years ago, Dr. Sam Shoemaker advised people, "Give all you know of yourself to all you know of God." That requires our increased knowledge to be matched by a renewed dedication to God. To engage in Bible study to expand the mental understanding without a commensurate willingness to surrender our lives to conform to that knowledge is both hypocritical and dangerous (James 3:1). Bible study requires engaging both mind and heart in a dual quest to know God more fully and be possessed by him more completely.

What a profound prayer Paul prays for the Ephesians -- and for us -- "...that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (3:19b)

Q3. (Ephesians 3:16, 19) What does it mean to be "filled with the Spirit" (verse 16)? Is this a one-time experience or a continual reality? What can we do to be filled with the Spirit? Is it different or the same as being "filled with all the fullness of God" (verse 19)?
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Doxology: God's Ability to Answer Abundantly (3:20)

Now Paul concludes his prayer -- and indeed, the first half of Ephesians -- with a doxology, literally a "word of glory" (Greek doxa, "glory + "logos, "word"). "Doxologies are short, spontaneous ascriptions of praise to God,"16 usually having three parts: (1) the One to whom glory is given, (2) the ascription of "glory," and, in Paul's doxologies, (3) the expression "forever and ever." The New Testament includes other doxologies in Romans 16:25-27; Philippians 4:20; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 Peter 4:11, 5:11; 2 Peter 3:18; Jude 24-25; and Revelation 1:6, to name a few. Let's examine this one: 

"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...." (3:20)

Paul uses two words to describe the degree of God's ability to answer prayer:

  • "Far more" (NRSV), "more" (NIV), and "above" (KJV) translate the first abundance word, hyper, "over and above, beyond, more than," "a marker of a degree beyond that of a compared scale of extent, in the sense of excelling, surpassing."17
  • "Exceeding abundantly" (KJV, cf. NRSV) and "immeasurably" (NIV) is hyperekterissou, "quite beyond all measure," the highest form of comparison imaginable.18 This word is also used in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 and 5:13. Barth translates the phrase, "to outdo superabundantly."19

Notice that the limiting factor is not what we can ask or imagine. The limiting factor is the power (dunamis) that is working (energeō) in us. Whose power? God's power! Remember in Paul's first prayer for the Ephesians (1:19), the eyes of our hearts were to be opened to "his incomparably great power."

There is no limit to God's power. Our ability to comprehend God's power and desire to bless is surely limited, thus limiting the scope of our prayers. But God's power is infinite, limitless. As Annie Johnson Flint (1866-1932) wrote in the song "He Giveth More Grace":

"His love hath no limit,
His grace hath no measure,
His power hath no boundary known unto man.
But out of his infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again."

Notice that this immeasurable power is "his power that is at work within us" (3:20). Paul glorifies God that this incredible power works in and through20 us believers. How can we feel so powerless when the unbounded power of God is ready to work through us? The great saints of history could work miracles because their faith was unfettered by the unbelief fostered by a tradition of "excuse-ourselves" theology. Can you see why Paul prays that the "eyes of our hearts" be opened? When the blinders come off, the power can be released. 

Doxology: Glory in the Church (3:21)

Having described God's infinite power and capability that exceeds our ability to pray, Paul breaks into full doxology, a full word of glory:

"To him be glory in21 the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." (3:21)

In this doxology there are two sources of glory accruing to God: (1) from the church and (2) from Christ Jesus. Of course, God receives glory when Christ is seen. But Paul's deep conviction is that the Church -- that is, your congregation and mine, and hundreds of thousands more throughout the world -- yes, the Church is to bring glory and credit to God. This is a startling concept, given that the Church has accrued through its history more than its share of black marks and sordid deeds. But it has also seen times of courage and power during persecution and life-giving aid when times were dark. Jesus said, "I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).

In fact, in our lifetimes the Church has brought great glory to God. Think, for example, of the house church movement in China that is transforming a nation. Think of Africa becoming more than half Christian in the twentieth century. Recall South Korea and many other places. When the final story is told and the hidden deeds exposed for all to see, the glory of God will be seen in his Church.

Sometimes we see the faults so clearly that we can't see the glory. But we cannot be satisfied with where we are. Does our congregation bring glory and credit to God? Is our worship focused on what pleases us or what pleases him? Are the leaders of the church being exalted or is Christ? Do the good works of the church point to the love of Christ or are they self-serving? We have a long way to go, but our purpose is clear -- to bring glory and credit and honor to our God and King. And so we join our voices with Paul's doxology and fervent wish:

"To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."
Q4. (Ephesians 3:21) What might be different in your own congregation if bringing glory to God were considered the very most important function of the church? What would be different in your life if bringing God glory was your most important job, bar none?
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Disciple Lessons from Ephesians, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All the lessons are now available as an e-book or printed book for your convenience.

Prayer

Father, open our eyes, expand our understanding, help us to comprehend the immensity of both your love and your power. Break us open from our narrow, blindered views of you so that we might see you as you are in all your glory. And whatever changes in us that will require, we offer you both our permission and our humble desire that you might complete your full work in our hearts and lives. In Jesus' name and for his sake, we pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"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)

References

Common Abbreviations (www.jesuswalk.com/ephesians/refs.htm)

  1. I myself construed this prayer a bit differently in a chapter of Great Prayers of the Bible. Paul isn't speaking in precise grammatical and logical propositions, but pouring out an effusive prayer to God followed by a praise.
  1. Krataioō, BDAG 564.
  2. Dunamis, BDAG 262.
  3. Literal rendering in The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament, by Robert K. Brown and Philip W. Comfort.
  4. The phrase consists of two words: anthropos, the generic noun for man, mankind, humankind, with no reflection of male gender, and the adverb of place esō, "inside, within." (BDAG 398). See similar expressions in Romans 7:22 and 2 Corinthians 4:16, and the idea expressed in Jeremiah 31:33; Romans 2:29; and 1 Peter 3:4.
  5. Kardia, BDAG 508-509.
  6. Katoikeō, BDAG 534.
  7. Barth, p. 370.
  8. So Bruce, pp. 326-327; Foulkes, p. 111; Barth, pp. 369-370.
  9. Themelioō, BDAG 449.
  10. Is he praying that they are able to understand Christ's love for them or that they themselves would be able to love others? Both probably. Grammatically, the term "love of Christ" can be taken as either subjective genitive or objective genitive. But no doubt it begins with understanding Christ's love for us and grows from there.
  11. Exischuō, BDAG 350.
  12. Katalambanō, BDAG 520.
  13. Huperballō, BDAG 1032.
  14. Plērōma, BDAG 829.
  15. Joseph Armitage Robinson, St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians (London, 1964), cited by Foulkes, p. 114. In verse 19, Barth renders the phrase, "Filled with all the fullness of God," as "May you become so perfect as to attain to the full perfection of God." (Barth, Comment VI. "Head, Body, and Fullness," Ephesians 1:200-210). Barth draws on the research of G. Münderlein, "Die Erwählung durch das Pleroma -- Bemerkungen zu Kol. 1, 19," New Testament Studies 8 (1962), 264-276. Barth also comments on the meaning of plērōma in Ephesians 1:367, 374.
  16. Patrick T. O'Brien, "Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving," DLP, p. 69.
  17. Hyper, BDAG 1030-1031, B.
  18. Hyperekterissou, BDAG 1033.
  19. Barth, p. 375.
  20. The Greek preposition en here can be either (1) locative -- in the location or sphere of our persons, or (2) instrumental -- by means of us, or through our agency. In either case the idea is the same. H.E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Macmillan, 1927, 1955), 112. BDAG 326-330.
  21. Here again is the possibility of en being either locative or instrumental. If you take it as instrumental, "by means of," the question is: How is the church to bring glory to him? By the way we live and love. By the way we preach the greatness of Christ. By our obedience. And most of all, perhaps, by our praise. But you could also understand this phrase in a locative sense: "To him be glory in (the midst of, among) the church," where en means "in, on, at, within, among."

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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