Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21
This section of the letter offers a bit of relief from the heavy theological portions that have been read up to this point.
It presents a moment of tenderness, in which the author speaks directly to his readers about his care for them. He speaks of his prayer for his readers, which he does on bended knee.
The paragraph begins abruptly with the phrase: “for this reason.” But for what reason? It refers to what has been said in the previous paragraphs about Paul’s ministry.
Paul, like other apostles, had been entrusted with revelation by the Spirit. Specifically, it had been revealed to him that Gentiles, who receive the gospel in faith, are fellow heirs of the promises of God. They too are members of the body of Christ, and therefore they have access to God. “For this reason,” the author prays that his readers may be strengthened in spiritual power, love, and knowledge.
The content of the prayer being offered is conveyed in Ephesians 3:16-19. Essentially there are four matters for which the author prays for the sake of his readers that they may have:
- inner spiritual strength
- the indwelling of Christ in their hearts
- the ability to comprehend all the dimensions of spiritual realities
- knowledge of the love of Christ
The third and fourth of these petitions beg for special comment. Ephesians 3:18 reads, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” One might rightly ask here, “Breadth, length, height, and depth of what?” We might picture in our minds all the vectors listed, imagining lines going up, down, side-ways, and beyond us, but in the end we are left with uncertainty as to what is being described. Normally the vectors have to do with the dimensions of physical realities, and so the author might be referring to comprehending the various dimensions of the physical universe.
Most likely, the author is using a metaphor to speak of the wonders of a multi-dimensional God, who is a God of power (Ephesians 1:19), rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4), lavish in his grace (Ephesians 2:7; 3:7), and rich in wisdom (Ephesians3:10). The NIV takes liberty to interpret the verse by adding words to it: “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.” Here is a good illustration of how “translation” inevitably involves “interpretation” — for better or worse.
In 3:19, the author speaks of knowing “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” The expression “the love of Christ” by itself is ambiguous, for it could mean either Christ’s love for us or our love for him. The phrase probably means Christ’s love for us. To know his love is greater than knowledge itself. The Greek word used here for “knowledge” is gnōsis, and it is likely that the writer is referring to the kind of (spiritual) “knowledge” that, Paul says, can sometimes become puffed up (1 Corinthians 8:1).
The section closes with a doxology, giving glory to God (Ephesians 3:20-21). This glorification is “in the church and in Christ Jesus.” That is to say, it is within the company of believers in union with Christ that God is glorified. Such glorification is possible because the church is Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:23; 4:15-16; 5:30). Christ and his church are deeply and intimately one.
That does not mean that the church is Christ’s presence on earth, an extension of his incarnation. But it does mean that all who are incorporated into the church by faith and baptism are also in union with him, who is their Lord.
Reading this text in English can leave the impression that all those addressed by the pronouns “you” and “your” are singular. But in the Greek text, all of these pronouns are plurals. In other words, the writer addresses the readers as a corporate body. Thus, the four spiritual resources prayed for, and listed above, are to be found, developed, and exercised within the body of believers. At 3:16, however, that pattern is broken by use of an awkward expression. Both the NIV and NRSV translate the phrase eis ton esō anthrōpon as “in your inner being.” The RSV has “in the inner man.” The phrase refers apparently to the inner being of each person, the cognitive and spiritual aspect of each. But the phrase is placed within a sentence that addresses the readers corporately (the plural “you”).
Noticing the plural forms of address in this text is important for preaching on it. While each of those things prayed for are good for the individual, they are particularly appropriate for the church as a whole. In light of that way of thinking, it is possible to develop a sermon that explores three areas of life together in the congregation.
First, there is the matter of being strengthened (Ephesians 3:16). For most of us, we are strengthened and sustained by the witness of the company of believers with whom we worship. Beyond that, we are strengthened by the witness of those from the past whom we remember in the cycle of the church year — including those whose hymns we sing, and those whom we commemorate for their preaching, teaching, and acts of courage in society, based on Christian faith.
Second, it is the indwelling of Christ in the hearts of the congregation where love is produced (Ephesians 3:17). Christ cannot be simply a concept or a memory. The risen and living Christ comes to us in Word and Sacrament, and he seeks to find hearts in which to dwell. Where he is, there is love.
Third, it is in our life together as Christians that we find ever new vistas and insights into the vast world of God (Ephesians 3:18). If we have time to listen to one another, we discover stories of faith beyond our own. In conversations with others, listening to their prayers, and observing acts of kindness and generosity, we gain understandings of God and the world that we have not known before.
Finally, to know the love of Christ surpasses all other forms of our knowing (Ephesians 3:19). That is not to say that knowing other things is irrelevant for the Christian life. On the contrary, to know all we can about our world is important for living well. But to know the love of Christ is not something we can find out there “in the world.” Rather, it has been revealed to us by God, who sent his Son into the world. We celebrate that love whenever we gather for worship.
God accomplishes all this “by the power at work within us,” which exceeds our expectations. For all of this, we give thanks, joining with others in glorifying God forever (Ephesians 3:20-21).