Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21
This text comes at a hinge point in Ephesians.
Chapters 1-3 are an expansive statement about God’s overflowing and saving grace. That is brought to a fitting conclusion with this prayer and doxology, as the author prays that the church be filled by the God who is able to do more than we can imagine. That life of being filled is then described in the exhortations of chapters 4-6 (see 4:1). The author’s vision of the church’s mission is breathtaking: “that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). In order to live out that mission, the church needs God’s own strength, power, and presence; that is, the church needs this prayer, and the one who is the object of its closing doxology.
God the Creator names all the stars (Psalm 147:4). The act of naming is a sign of authority and sovereignty over that which is named (see Genesis 2:19-20). So also the claim that all “families” get their name from the one Father of all is a declaration of God’s universal authority. The “families” mentioned here should not be thought of in terms of nuclear families named Jones or Smith. In a word play that is more evident in Greek than in English, the point is that God is the “pater” (father) of every “patria” — every clan or tribe, every grouping imaginable. Before the author launches into this prayer for the church, he reminds the readers that the God to whom they pray is the God and Father of all, the one who has reconciled, and will reconcile, all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). This God has already broken down the wall that divided Jews and Gentiles (2:14-16). This prayer will be focused on the church, but the gracious plan of God is as wide as the cosmos, and it is the God who is Father of every race, tribe, clan, and nation who calls, equips, and sends the church on its mission to that whole wide world.
Ephesians 3:16-17 list, in a bewildering array, several things that seem to be the content of the author’s prayer: that the church would be strengthened inwardly, that Christ may dwell within the church, and that the church may be firmly founded upon and growing in the soil of love. In the end, all of this amounts to the same thing. God’s strengthening, the indwelling presence of Christ, and the foundation of love are inseparable; any of these entail the other two as well.
Ephesians 3:18, in keeping with Ephesians’ effusive style, talks about knowing the breadth and length and height and depth, though the author doesn’t identify the reality about which the church will know such dimensions. The most likely understanding is that the author is talking about Christ’s love (mentioned explicitly in 19a). It is not that Christ’s love can be measured and its limits determined; rather, the author prays that the church will come to know the infinite reach of this love in all directions (see Romans 11:33, Philippians 4:7). It is such love that we “comprehend with all the saints.” This is what worship, service, fellowship, and the whole life of the church is about. This divine love is not knowledge gained by private study, but love learned in the fellowship of the church. In this community we learn the love of Christ — both Christ’s love for us and what it means to love Christ in others, including our enemies from “every family.”
To know such love, indeed to be possessed by such love, is “the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19b). This fullness is not something we possess and hold; rather, we are filled for the sake of the fullness of God in the world. We are filled by God’s grace so that the reconciliation which has been accomplished in Christ might become the actual experience of the world. On the front wall of many Orthodox churches is an icon of Mary, with her child Jesus in her lap, and her arms spread wide. In traditional terminology, this is Mary who is “more spacious than the heavens,” because within her body she held and brought to the world the one who holds all things together (again, see 1:10). In an analogous way, as a result of knowing the love of Christ, we carry into the world that love which is the embracing fullness of God in Christ.
And so we are not simply filled “with” God’s fullness as something to make us feel satisfied and content, but we are filled for the goal of God’s fullness in and for the world. In this way, we come to know the love which surpasses knowing (Ephesians 3:19a). To know what is beyond knowing — what a wonderful phrase! This is not mere gnosis, but is that love which is the very life of the Triune God. Being filled with such love is what landed Paul in prison (and this author knows that Paul did not return to freedom but found martyrdom). This is not the fullness promised by a “prosperity gospel,” but the fullness of a life given in love for the world. Indeed, that path of suffering love may be “beyond what we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20) precisely because we are unwilling to do so.
The text closes with a word about “glory” in the church. The language may, either consciously or unconsciously, conjure images of big churches, filled parking lots, expensive buildings, and high-salaried leaders. But where is the glory when the witnesses to God’s love are martyred, or when the temples of cultural and imperial power around us attract larger crowds, more money, and more appreciation? As with the 1st century church for whom this letter was written, we need strengthening, and a vision of what it means to be filled for the fullness of God (which is Christ himself), so that we can recognize where the glory of God is present.