Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21
Ephesians 3:14-21 is the conclusion of the first half of Ephesians.
Like Galatians and Romans, Ephesians consists of two fairly distinct halves, with the first half focusing on theological discussion and the second half on moral exhortation. This week’s passage thus wraps up the weighty theological section of Ephesians before the letter turns to more practical instruction. This wrap-up is in the form of a prayer, which concludes with a magnificent doxology. The prayer connects back with the opening section of the letter, the latter having been in the form of a blessing of God (Ephesians 1:3-14).
Like the letter’s opening blessing of Ephesians 1:3-14, 3:14-19 consists of a single sentence in Greek. Most modern English translations break the passage up into several sentences to make it easier to follow for modern readers. The New Revised Standard Version adds “I pray” at the beginning of the new sentences in verses 16 and 18 so that the sense of the continuing prayer is not lost on the reader. The closing doxology (verses 20-21) is also a single sentence.
In the opening of the prayer, Paul emphasizes the unity of humankind under God: “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” (verses 14-15). The Greek word for “family” here is patria, which can also have the sense of a clan, ethnic group, or even nation. That every patria receives its name from God simply means that God is the origin and head of every community in existence. This expression sums up what has been the chief argument of the first half of Ephesians, that in Christ Jews and Gentiles have been brought together to form one body, the church, which is the temple — the dwelling place — of God.
The language of bowing his knees before God in the opening expression of the passage underscores this unity — the only other two places in the Pauline corpus where knees bend is in reference to the acknowledgement of God by all people at the end times. The reference in Philippians 2:10 is perhaps better known: “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…”; the use in Romans 14:11 is similar. Paul’s bending of his own knee in the context of recognizing God as the universal Father thus looks forward to that end-times moment when God’s glory will be manifest in all and all things will be gathered to him (see Ephesians 1:10). This is the glory that is “forever and ever,” as the last line of the passage expresses it (Ephesians 3:21).
The body of the prayer centers on the Trinity-empowered character of believers. There is a distinctly inward focus to the description. The first petition is for the audience to be “strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit” (Ephesians 3:16), and the second is “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (verse 17). The meanings of these two petitions are very similar, making the dual references to the Spirit and Christ striking in their Trinitarian implications. It is noteworthy here that, while today it is usually assumed that Christ lives in Christians’ hearts from the moment of conversion, Paul here makes it a matter of prayer that Christ should do so — we should earnestly desire it, but perhaps we should not assume it so easily!
The petitions of verses 18-19 continue this inward focus, but here the emphasis is on the mind. Verse 18 petitions for “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” The breadth, length, height, and depth of what? Paul does not actually say, but since the verses before and after both speak of the love of Christ, love seems the best answer, unless what is meant is the even larger “fullness of God” (verse 19). “To know the love of Christ” is the petition of verse 19, which is wonderfully ironic since Christ’s love is described as a love “that surpasses knowledge.” Verse 17 describes Christians as “being rooted and grounded in love.”
While the petitions do have this inward focus, we should not think that they are thus divorced from action. Here we should remember that after this passage comes the second half of Ephesians, where the focus is entirely on how Christians are to treat one another in the community. Love, which has already been an important term earlier in the letter (see Ephesians 1:4, 15; 2:4), is one of the chief virtues of the church as described in Ephesians 4-6.
Christians are to be “bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2); we are to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Altogether the word “love” (this is agape love) is used twenty times in Ephesians, ten times as a verb and ten times as a noun. For such a short letter it is an impressive frequency. Thus the focus on inward character in our passage should be seen as designed to produce concrete expressions of love in the lives of church members.
The closing deservedly famous doxology continues the focus on God’s work in us but also reminds us of the ultimate goal of such work: the glory of God. Just as Romans tells us that the Spirit prays for us when we do not know how to do so ourselves (Romans 8:26), here we are told that what God can accomplish in us is “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). To such wonderful news we can only reply, echoing the final verse, “To God be the glory!”