Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 26, 2015
Ephesians 3:14-21 Commentary
Comments and Observations
As I’ve said before, there is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time, and that is surely the case with this text. This is an extraordinary prayer for Ordinary Time. Paul has just described the church’s calling in cosmic terms. The unity of Gentile and Jew in the church is intended by God to make known the manifold wisdom of God “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (3:10) That high calling is why Paul begins our text with “for this reason I kneel….” The only way the church can attain the heights to which God has called us is to kneel in prayer.
What a prayer it is! When I compare Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians with my prayers for those I love, I am humbled. I pray for such ordinary things as safety and provision and healing. Not Paul. He may be on his knees, but his prayer soars to spiritual heights most Christians never approach. His picture of God as he prays and the requests he makes are breathtaking. If ever there were hard proof of the “God breathed” character of Scripture, this prayer is it.
If I always pictured God as Paul does here, I would pray with much more boldness and imagination. In keeping with the teaching of Jesus, he calls God, Father. But notice the play on words in verse 14. The word “family” is patria in Greek, while “Father” is patera. Commentators are not in agreement about the meaning of patria or about the connection between those two words, but at least we can say that we should not make God in the image of our earthly fathers. Rather God is the model for us. We should not reason from our earthly fathers up to God, but let God be the authoritative pattern for earthly fatherhood.
This is an important point, because so many people cannot pray to God as Father after being abused by their earthly fathers. Not being able to call God “Father” makes prayer less intimate than Jesus intended, so Paul reminds us that God the Father is the creator and redeemer of all human fathers. Thus, he excels them in every possible way. He is the Father of everyone in heaven and on earth. Given the immediate context here, Paul is probably not talking about the universal Fatherhood of God of nineteenth century liberalism, but about the redemptive Fatherhood of God revealed in the absolute unity and equality of Gentile and Jew in the church.
Paul’s picture of God grows even brighter when he talks about “the glorious riches” of God. Not only is God willing to answer our prayers, but he is able to do so in a way beyond our imagination (cf. verse 20). Paul’s exact words here are inspiring. The Greek is ploutos tes doxes, the riches of his glory. God is willing to help us not just out of his glorious treasury of resources, but out of the riches of his own inexhaustible Self. In other words, there is no limit to what God can do in response to our prayers, because God himself is limitless. What’s more, Paul prays that God will answer not only “out of” his glory, but “according to” that glory, in proportion to his glory, in the full measure of his glory. If I had such a full and intimate picture of God when I pray, I would be more confident and peaceful when I pray.
The actual content of Paul’s prayer is structured around three hina clauses in verses 16, 18, and 19: “that he may strengthen you with power;” “that you may have power… to grasp;” “that you may be filled.” These hina clauses are like rungs on a ladder; each request takes Paul a step higher in what he dares to ask for. First he asks for power, but not power to accomplish some herculean earthly task, like being a good father or running a large corporation or bringing world peace. His prayer is theological in the extreme, because we can never accomplish those earthly tasks unless Paul’s first, deeply spiritual, request is granted. He prays for the power that will strengthen his faith, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
Such power comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells within, “in your inner being.” Such Spirit given power is absolutely essential given the daily challenges to our faith. Everything in our world militates against a truly Christ centered faith, so it is nearly impossible to “live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) But now, there’s a problem with Paul’s deep prayer. Why does Paul pray that Christ “may dwell in your hearts?” Doesn’t Christ already dwell in our hearts? Galatians 2:20 says “Christ lives in me.” So why does Paul pray this? Because our experience of Christ’s indwelling depends on our faith. Without faith we will not be aware of Christ’s presence, we won’t rely on him, we won’t enjoy fellowship with him, and we won’t center our lives in him. If Christ does not dwell in our hearts through faith, the rest of Paul’s prayer and, indeed, the entire Christian life are impossible.
Paul’s next petition has to do with love, not power, although he prays for the power to know that love, “that (hina) you may have power… to grasp… and to know the love of Christ….” Again, his petition is amazingly complex. The clause just before that hiva, “being rooted and established in love,” tells us a very important thing about understanding the love of Christ. Unless we have love and are loved, we cannot understand God’s love. But of course, we have love and are loved because God first loved us. William Hendriksen says that this circle of love is “the most blessed chain reaction in the universe.” The practical impact of this theological mystery is that those whose love is shallow and shaky (not “rooted and established”) will not be able to understand the love of Christ. If God’s gift of love has been distorted or damaged by a lack of love in our upbringing, it is almost impossible for us to ever understand the love of Christ.
Except that the power of God is able to overcome our upbringing. That’s why Paul prays for power here, and links that power with the church (“together with all the saints”). God created the church so that together we can come to know the love of Christ. This second family, this “one new man out of the two (2:15)” is designed by God to give us a new experience of love that will usher us into the love of Christ. Yes, I know that is terribly idealistic, and it happens far too seldom. But that is God’s idea. Here Paul prays that God’s idea may happen more and more, so that all of us “may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp… and to know the love [of Christ].”
This second petition calls for careful interpretation. For one thing, note that Paul is not talking about the love of God in general, but about the love of Christ. And this is not our love for Christ, but his love for us. That’s what he wants us to understand. That’s what we need to understand if we are ever going to live by faith in the Son of God. The main reason we don’t trust him and obey him always is that we don’t really don’t grasp how much he loves us. We say we believe it; we sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But we don’t really know it, not deeply, not always. We don’t grasp, in Paul’s words, “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” Be careful as you preach that clause; don’t try to parse each adjective there. Paul is multiplying words to give us a sense of the magnitude of Christ’s love. And, be aware that the words “the love of Christ” aren’t found where the NIV puts them (after the “wide” and “deep”). That’s probably what Paul meant, but he might also have been referring to God himself.
The words “the love of Christ” are found at the very end of this hina clause for emphasis. It’s as though Paul is saying, “This is what I’m talking about with all my words. I want you to know the love of Christ.” Of course, you can’t know that love completely, because it surpasses knowledge. The Greek there is uperballousan gvoseos, meaning that this is a love that is way over your head. You can’t wrap your head around it; it is literally incomprehensible. That doesn’t mean it is nonsense or non-existent. It means that you can know it by experience, in ways that can’t be fully understood or expressed. I want you to have the full experience of Christ’s love.
That, in turn, will give you an experience of “the fullness of God.” This is the third hina clause, and with it Paul has reached the heights of prayer. This is the highest blessing we could ever pray for. It is the goal of all human life. It is what we were made for. Though all religions aim for this, it is utterly impossible for sinful human beings to attain it, except by the grace of God. And that is precisely what Paul prays for here. By the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, those who have Christ dwelling in their hearts through faith can grasp the love of Christ in their experience. Then, and only then, can we be filled to the measure of the fullness of God. That last phrase surely cannot mean that we can contain God in ourselves, for that is impossible. The finite cannot contain the infinite anymore than a teacup can contain the ocean. It must mean that God will fill us with the fullness he intended in the beginning, the full humanity that has been ruined by sin, the fullness of life Christ came to bring, “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4) The world has ever seen only one fully human being, in Christ. God’s ultimate intent is to restore us all to the full glory of the image of God. That’s what Paul prays for here.
This prayer is so majestic that it seems almost unreal, unearthly, even impossible. Is that why Paul ends with this soaring doxology? “Now to him who is able to do (not just more, but) immeasurably more, than (not only) what we ask (but even) imagine….” There is literally no limit to what God can do in response to your prayers. In fact, the power of God that can do anything is already “at work within us.” When you pray, you are not talking to a God who is simply “high and lifted up and able to do anything.” He is also within you already at work.
Given who God is, we join Paul in saying, “To him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever.” It’s fascinating that Paul links the church and Christ in this doxology. These two together bring glory to God, the Bride and the Bridegroom the Redeemed and the Redeemer. Given the context in which Paul talks about a new humanity, he is saying here that the glory of God is most clearly seen in his gracious uniting of his sinful creatures to each other and to his eternal sinless Son.
This text gives us the opportunity to lift the vision and the hopes and the prayers of ordinary people in ordinary time. As we enjoy life in the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, let us pray for more, much more than we usually do.
When I think of knowing a love that surpasses knowledge, I think of a newborn infant cradled in her mother’s arms. She is loved, but she couldn’t begin to describe that love. Indeed, she doesn’t even have thoughts about that love. All she has is the experience of that love. The fact that love cannot be comprehended or explained does not make that love any less real. Indeed, that infant experience of love becomes the basis of all later understanding and expressions of love.
Paul’s words about us being “filled to the measure of the fullness of God” made me think of the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,’til in heaven we take our place,
‘Til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.
And his words about God being glorified “in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever” brought to mind “Amazing Grace.”
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing his praise
Than when we’d first begun.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!