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Ephesians 3.14-21 A Prayer for Power

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“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

“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, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”[1]

Reading the inspired account that details the expansion of the New Testament churches, I note that the apostolic churches prayed for what they knew to be within the will of God.  Therefore, there was a confidence in their prayers that is frequently absent in modern Christendom.  Jesus encouraged such confident praying.

Mark records Jesus teaching His disciples concerning prayer on one occasion.  Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”  Then, emphasising the manner in which we are to pray, He said, “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” [Mark 11:23, 24].  Jesus taught His disciples, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” [Matthew 21:22].  These first Christians prayed with confidence, and those who penned Scripture taught us to pray boldly [e.g. James 1:5, 6].

Similarly, students of contemporary church culture will observe that modern followers of Christ tend to pray for specific felt needs, and thus we frequently fail to seek what we know to lie within the will of God.  We have less confidence about what we ask, and thus we often appear hesitant and tentative in our requests.

We are taught to pray for personal needs; and that is wonderful.  We intercede for the physical needs of our family and friends; certainly, God is gracious to receive our requests, encouraging us to ask what we desire for those we love.  However, the spiritual nature of the believer needs prayer as well as does the physical.  How often the spiritual is neglected while all the attention is given to the physical.

Another significant contrast between the prayers of our spiritual forebears and those offered up today is that the first saints prayed great prayers that embraced a world.  Our prayers tend to address an immediate desire.  The prayers of the earliest believers appear to have always sought God’s glory and man’s good.  Our prayers seem often to seek our own comfort rather than God’s glory.  We are too often restricted to a local perspective.  There seems to be less humility in our prayers, as though we know precisely what is needed, and we are prepared to instruct God in what needs to be done.

In our text, the Apostle records what can only be said to be a great prayer—a prayer that he offered on behalf of all who would read the letter we know as “Ephesians.”  His request reaches far beyond the moment in which he prayed, embracing all the people of God for all time.  Moreover, the Apostle prayed with great confidence, knowing that God had already promised to do all that he was requesting.

In his prayer, the Apostle prayed for “the inner man” to be strengthened because he realizes that the outward man is passing away.  Power is needed to live the Christian life, to grow in grace, and to develop into full maturity—which is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Though there are four requests, in truth there is one great request that the Apostle makes in this text, and that is that the readers will “be strengthened with power through [God’s] Spirit in [the] inner being.”  Thus strengthened with power, believers will discover the depth of Christ’s presence in their lives, the depth will enable them to comprehend His love, and therefore be fully filled with God’s grace and goodness.

The more deeply the power to understand and to truly experience the fullness of the love of Christ is known in the church, the more intensely will it reflect the unity, harmony, and vibrant Messianic peace that will finally be restored by God in the new creation.  Paul is praying for the church to work together, to focus on what is truly important—to build one another as honours the Lord Jesus.

A Prayer for Power — “I [pray] that according to the riches of His glory [God] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”  Each subsequent request Paul makes is dependent upon the previous petition.  However, this is the initial request upon which all the remaining requests will rest.  Therefore, this request for spiritual power stands as the essential portion of his prayer.

As I have already stated, the Apostle prays that the inner man might have spiritual strength, which will, in turn, lead to a deeper experience with Christ.  This deeper experience will enable Christians to “comprehend” (get a handle on) God’s great love, which will result in them as Christians being “filled unto all the fullness of God.”  Paul is praying, then, for power, depth, comprehension, and fullness.

In the introduction, I stated that Paul’s request reaches far beyond the moment in which he prayed, embracing all the people of God for all time.  That is evident as we read the first two verses of the text.  Paul states that he bows his “knees before the Father.”  Paul’s choice of words is basically an affirmation of God as Creator of all groups of living beings, and as the one who sovereignly gives each its individual ‘shape’ and role.  Though the English reader may wonder why Paul uses the word “family” (patriá), but its appropriateness would be apparent to those first readers as a word play on “Father” (patér).  The word “family” is from the root word that is translated “father.”  It is understood to mean all those derived from a single ancestor.

To be sure, Paul is acknowledging God as Creator of all mankind.  However, though he acknowledges mankind’s origin, his request is specifically for those who know Christ as Lord.  The Apostle is expressly asking that we who are Christians will discover and appropriate the strength that comes from the power of the indwelling Spirit of God.  The Apostle seeks empowering in the “inner being” for all who are followers of Christ the Lord; he asks that that those reading the letter will be spiritually strengthened.  His request is consistent with the prayer offered in the first chapter of the letter.  In fact, his prayer in our text is a continuation of what he had previously asked.

In Ephesians 1:15-21, Paul gives us an example of prayer that is essentially the same as the prayer offered up in our text.  “Because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 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, 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, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”

In this first prayer, Paul asked that we would have a full understanding of all that Christ Jesus has provided through His death and resurrection.  He asked that we realise the impact of the presence of Christ in us, especially that we employ the power of God to do His work.  Just as Christ was raised to life, so the people of God through their witness and through their prayers bring others to life in the Beloved Son.  Likewise, as the Father is glorified through the ascension of the Saviour, so we who are believers glorify the Father as we work together to serve His Son as the Risen Lord of Glory.

Again looking to the text before us, Paul turns his attention to the matter of spiritual power, asking for God’s mighty empowering by the Spirit in the “inner being.”  This is spelled out not in terms of charismata of one kind or another, but as Christ dwelling (more fully) in the readers, so that they will be rooted in and founded on love.  Verse 17 explains the request: “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts.”

A practical example of Christ dwelling in the heart is provided by Paul in Galatians 2:20.  There, the Apostle writes, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  Then, he makes specific application, “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Christ dwelling in the heart is Christ controlling the life!

D. A. Carson aptly explains, “This is not a prayer for mystical experience—far less that our human selves should be abolished so that we become ‘channels only’.  Paul’s prayer is that Christ should dwell in us through faith; that is, that we should live our lives with fuller loving trust in him, being more and more deeply moulded by the Christ-event.  It is this indwelling of Christ that strengthens the believer’s life, and keeps him or her on a firm foundation—especially in times of trial.”[2]

The presence of the Holy Spirit is evidence of salvation [see Romans 8:9].  However, the power of the Spirit enables Christian living, and it is this power that Paul seeks for his readers.  Jesus performed His ministry on earth in the power of the Spirit [Luke 4:1, 14; Acts 10:38], and this is the only resource we have for Christian living today.  The importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church is seen in the Book of Acts.  There are 62 references to the Spirit in the book, or one fourth of the total references found in the New Testament.

As the Holy Spirit empowers the inner man, our spiritual faculties are controlled by God—we are exercising them and growing in the Word.  It is only as we yield to the Spirit, letting Him control the inner man that we succeed in living to the glory of God.  This means feeding the inner man on the Word of God, praying and worshiping, keeping clean, and exercising the senses through loving obedience.

There is no need to pray for strength if strength if never required to live this life.  Of course, Paul is praying for spiritual strength, and not mere physical strength.  We do not want to anticipate that the Christian life may require sacrifice, or that we may not get our way in every situation.  We unconsciously anticipate that when we become a Christian, everything will go our way and we will live happily ever after.  However, the Christian life is about honouring Christ and not about feeling good about ourselves.

Certainly, each of the Apostles experienced opposition and difficulties as he followed Christ.  For example, Paul testified to the Philippian Christians, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” [Philippians 4:12].

The quintessential statement of the cost of being a Christian is that provided to the Corinthian Christians.  These saints were living as though they were the centre of God’s plan, and the Apostle found it necessary to remind them of what Christian life could be.  “Whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that.  Are they Hebrews?  So am I.  Are they Israelites?  So am I.  Are they offspring of Abraham?  So am I.  Are they servants of Christ?  I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.  Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I was stoned.  Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.  Who is weak, and I am not weak?  Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant” [2 Corinthians 11:21b-29]?

Physical hardship, danger both from known enemies, even opposition from fellow Christians marked the life of the Apostle Paul.  The care of the churches consumed his attention, draining his energies.  His life is unlike what we apparently imagine the Christian walk to be.  The example provided by his life teaches us that we must seek strength to live godly lives, disciplining our bodies and bringing our own desires under the control of the Spirit in order to know the power of the Spirit in our walk with Christ.  We dare not demand our will be imposed on the people of God, but rather, in the power of the Spirit, we must seek the unity of the Faith.

Power is Expressed through Depth — “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”  The Apostle asks that Christ may dwell in the hearts of those who are believers.  He is not merely asking that Christ may live in us; but he asks that Christ may make a home in us.  In other words, Paul is asking that we as believers will give our whole life over to Him.  Perhaps we could rephrase this portion of Paul’s request by saying that He was asking that we be enabled to think the Lord’s thoughts after Him.

Paul conveys this idea of spiritual depth by speaking of Christ dwelling in our hearts.  The verb “dwell” literally means, “to settle down and feel at home.”  Certainly, Christ was already resident in the hearts of the Ephesians, or else Paul would not have addressed them as “saints” in Ephesians 1:1.  What Paul is praying for is a deeper experience between Christ and His people.  He yearns for Christ to settle down and feel at home in their hearts—not a surface relationship, but an ever-deepening fellowship.

Warren Wiersbe provides an excellent illustration from Abraham’s life to illustrate this truth.  “God was going to bless Abraham with a son, so the Lord Himself came down and visited Abraham’s tent, and He brought two angels with Him.  They came to the tent, they talked with Abraham, and they even ate a meal with him.  They felt very much at home, because Abraham was a man of faith and obedience.  But the three guests had another task.  They had to investigate the sins of Sodom because God planned to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Lot, a believer, was living in Sodom, and God wanted to warn him to get out before the judgment could fall.  But the Lord Himself did not go to Sodom.  He sent the two angels (Gen. 18–19).  The Lord did not feel at home in Lot’s house the way He felt at home in Abraham’s tent.”[3]

Paul expands on the need for Christ to dwell in our hearts as he speaks of us being “rooted and grounded in love.”  Though he mixes metaphors, he nevertheless communicates an essential aspect of Christ’s presence.  Christians strengthened in the power of the Spirit put roots down deeply and are thus grounded during the vicissitudes of life.  They are not quickly moved by the trials that come into every life.

When we speak of being rooted in love, it is the same as saying that the Christian must ensure that his spiritual roots go deep into the love of God.  Psalm 1:1–3 is a perfect description of this concept

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

“He is like a tree

planted by streams of water

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

“In all that he does, he prospers.”

God, through Jeremiah, provides an excellent commentary on spiritual depth. 

“Thus says the Lord:

“‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man

and makes flesh his strength,

whose heart turns away from the Lord.

‘He is like a shrub in the desert,

and shall not see any good come.

‘He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,

in an uninhabited salt land.

“‘Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,

whose trust is the Lord.

‘He is like a tree planted by water,

that sends out its roots by the stream,

and does not fear when heat comes,

for its leaves remain green,

and is not anxious in the year of drought,

for it does not cease to bear fruit.’”

[Jeremiah 17:5-8]

If there is to be power in the Christian life, then there must be depth to the Christian life.  The roots must go deeper and deeper into the love of Christ.

Being grounded in love implies that our foundations are secure.  Builders tell us that the most important part of a building is the foundation.  If you don’t go deep, you can’t go high.  Where Christ dwells, Christians are “rooted and grounded in love.”  Paul is describing Christians who are stable and steady in the pressures of life.

The trials of life test the depth of our experience.  If two roommates in college have a falling out, they may seek new roommates, for after all, living with a roommate is a passing experience.  But if a husband and wife, who love each other, have a disagreement, the trial only deepens their love as they seek to solve the problems.  The storm that blows reveals the strength of the roots.  Jesus told the story about the two builders, one of whom did not go deep enough for his foundation [Matthew 7:24–29].[4]

Similarly, when Christians disagree and respond to their disagreement by withdrawing, they demonstrate that they are neither rooted in love nor grounded in love.  Christians will not always agree on every issue; from time-to-time, they will disagree.  Paul prayed that the believers might have a deeper experience with Christ, because only a deep experience could sustain them during the severe trials of life.  His concern was that believers not be turned aside from spiritual unity by transient tests.

Depth is Seen in Comprehension — “[So that you] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”  When Paul prays that we will be able to comprehend “with all the saints,” he is clearly stating that knowledge of Christ’s love is known corporately, and that love unites.  The principle that is apparent from Paul’s words is that Christian love is not a solo experience, but it is realised corporately.

“The consequence and indeed the purpose of this inward work of grace is that the readers be empowered to know and experience what otherwise cannot be known or experienced, namely, the love that Christ has for them.”[5]  Paul speaks of comprehending, but it is not mere intellectual understanding that he has in view.  Rather, the Apostle longs for Christians to grasp fully, together with fellow believers, the love of Christ.

The English word “comprehend” stems from the Latin word prehendere, which means, “to grasp.”  We say that a monkey has a “prehensile tail.”  That is, its tail is able to grasp a tree limb and hold on.  Our word comprehend carries the idea of mentally grasping a concept.  But there is a paradox here.  Paul wants us to know personally the love of Christ “that surpasses knowledge.”  There are dimensions to this love, but the proportions cannot be measured.

“The love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” parallels “the unsearchable riches of Christ” in Ephesians 3:8.  We Christians are so rich in Christ that our riches cannot be calculated even with the most sophisticated computer.

“No Christian ever has to worry about having inadequate spiritual resources to meet the demands of life.  If he prays for spiritual strength and spiritual depth, he will be able to apprehend—get his hands on—all the resources of God’s love and grace.”[6]  Together with Paul, we can say, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengths me” [Philippians 4:13].

The concept of comprehension is sufficiently important that I want to take a moment longer to explore the practical aspects of what the Apostle has said.  If we have the power of the Spirit, we exhibit depth in our Christian walk.  Ours will not be a solitary walk; but rather we will walk together with the people of God in unity.  Moreover, we will comprehend the importance of Christ’s presence with us.  And the evidence that we really understand the significant of Christ with us will be that we work together as one in the assembly where Christ has placed us.

Unity of the Spirit, seen through harmony in service, is vitally important in the theology of the Apostle.  Listen to a few instances as he speaks of his concern for the churches.  “Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.  Never be conceited” [Romans 12:16].

He prays for the Roman Christians, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Romans 15:5, 6].

Later in this Letter to the Ephesians, Paul will encourage believers to seek unity.  “I … urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” [Ephesians 4:1-6].

He reminds readers that “[Christ] gave [gifted leaders] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” [Ephesians 4:11-16].

Undoubtedly, we could summarise the apostolic plea with his words to the church in Colossae.  “Above [all else]  put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.  And be thankful” [Colossians 3:14, 15].

Comprehension Leads to Fullness of God — “[So] that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  The supreme goal of the Master is that the readers be filled with all the fullness of God.  Redemption, re-creation, and empowerment are all aimed at one and the same object: to have again upon the earth a race of human beings who truly love both each other and their Creator.  And not only is this so in the future “new heaven and new earth”, but even now in this old and dying age.[7]

Paul is not suggesting that we can actually possess the fullness of Christ, for He is the infinite God.  Rather, the Apostle’s meaning is that we can be filled to the full measure God intends for us.  It is tragic when Christians use the wrong measurements in examining their own spiritual lives.  We too often measure ourselves by the weakest Christians that we know, and then boast, “Well, I’m better than they are.”  Paul tells us that the measure is Christ and that we cannot boast about anything (nor should we).  When we have reached His fullness, then we have reached the limit.

In one sense, the Christian is already “made full in Christ.”  In Colossians 2:9, 10, Paul attests, “In [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him.”  Again, Wiersbe is perceptive when he writes, “Positionally, we are complete in Him, but practically, we enjoy only the grace that we comprehend by faith.  The resources are there.  All we need do is accept them and enjoy them.”[8]

In Ephesians 5:18, Christians are commanded to “be filled with the Spirit”; in Colossians 3:16, we are taught, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”  When we are strengthened inwardly by the Spirit, Christ is dwelling in us, and when we are filled with the Spirit, the word of Christ is dwelling in us.  We could also say, in reverse, that the way to be strengthened within by the Spirit is to give Christ his right place in our hearts, and that the way to be filled with the Spirit is to be submissive to the word of Christ.  This does not imply that a Christian may not have Christ dwelling within.  It is rather that the verb implies a settled residence, as though Christ is not only living in the believer, but making himself thoroughly at home.

When Christ has His proper place ruling over the life of the child of God, the result will be ever greater depth in the love of Christ evidenced through unity with the brotherhood of believers.  As the Spirit of God reigns over our lives, we will have greater and greater comprehension of what the love of Christ means.  Ultimately, we will be “filled with all the fullness of God.”  This is the will of God for each Christian.

Throughout Scripture, the “heart” includes not only the emotional aspect of the person but also the will and the intellect.  It is the center of the personality.  Integrity and commitment are matters of the heart.  Romans 10:8–10 illustrates the importance of the heart: to be saved you must confess Jesus as Lord but also “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead…  For it is with your heart that you believe.”  In our text, Christ dwells in the heart “through faith.”

To grasp the truth that Paul describes in this four-dimensional way requires more than personal intellect or intuition.  We need power, and we need to experience this power “with all the saints.”  It may seem spiritual to sit alone and probe the meaning of God’s resources in meditation, but spiritual exercise alone is insufficient.  We need the power of God and the fellowship of believers as we share insights and experiences of God’s wisdom, love and fullness beyond human comprehension.

The full divine nature of God, present in Christ even when he was “in the form of a servant,” is available for us to experience.  We should desire to approach God as He is, even in his holiness, and through the presence of the indwelling Christ, seek to become like Him, insofar as this is possible for a human being.

Does Christ dwell in your heart?  He does if you sincerely seek to yield yourself to His control.  That yielding begins with receiving Him as Master and Saviour.  As the Word declares, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  His promise is that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” [Romans 10:9, 10, 13].

Those who are Christians are taught and urged to seek the fullness of the Spirit, experiencing the fullness of God.  We do this as we consciously, deliberately, surrender to His reign in our lives.  Setting aside our personal desires, we seek to know the will of the Saviour and to do that will.  May God give us strength to fulfil His will.  Amen.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, Rev. Ed. of: The New Bible Commentary, 3rd Ed. / Edited by D. Guthrie & J.A. Motyer, 1970, 4th ed. (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 1994), Logos Electronic Edition

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 2 (Victor Books, Wheaton, IL 1989) 32

[4] See Wiersbe, ibid.

[5] Walter A. Elwell, vol. 3, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1996, c1989), Eph 3:14.

[6] Wiersbe, op. cit., 32

[7] See Walter A. Elwell, vol. 3, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Baker, Grand Rapids, MI 1989), Logos Elec. Ed.

[8] Wiersbe, ibid.

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