For this reason 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. (Ephesians 3:14-21)
ACCORDING TO THE POWER AT WORK
I have a confession to make. I really don’t know how a car works. I understand some of the basic principles of an engine. I can fumble my way through minor auto repairs with the help of YouTube. I can change a tire or jump start a battery, but I don’t understand everything that’s going on under the hood. Even so, I can still jump into my car, turn it on, and drive it to my destination.
Many of us are the same way about our spiritual lives. From the time of our conversions, we jump in and get going. We join others for worship, we pray, we avoid sin, and we commit ourselves to doing good works. We may even begin to study doctrine and work through the finer points of Christian theology. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily understand the full extent of what’s going on within us. We drive the car, but we don’t know how the engine works.
There are three verses in the Bible that I wrestled with for a long time. I didn’t know what to do with them.
The first is John 14:12 where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do” (Jn 14:12). Lord, are you telling me that I have the ability to not only do what you have done but also do even greater works than you have done? What does the average Christian do with such an overwhelming statement?
The second verse is Acts 1:8. Again, Jesus is speaking, and he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Ac 1:8). At times, I can barely muster up the courage to speak about Christ in personal, intimate conversations, yet we have the power to publish the gospel across the entire earth. In fact, Jesus uses the word, dynamis (or power), from which we get the word, dynamite. We have an explosive force within us because of the Spirit working in us.
The third and final verse is found here in Ephesians 3. Look at verse 20: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work—” (Eph 3:20). Stop right there. If it weren’t for the last two words, then I would have no trouble at all this verse. Of course, God can do far more than we ask or think. Of course, he has tremendous power. But notice those last two words: “Within us.” Paul says, “According to the power at work within us.”
Many of you are probably thinking, What power? I don’t know whether I have this power. Am I doing greater works than Christ? Am I an effective witness to those around me as Jesus implied I should be? Do I feel the power of God at work within me? Remember my analogy. Most of the adult population gets into a car every day, turns it on, and drives to work. Most of them are like me. They don’t know how the engine works. They don’t marvel at the modern mechanics at play under the hood. They just drive. The thing is, you don’t have to know how an engine works to drive a car.
Having said that, Paul does want us to know not how an engine works, but how a Christian works. You may remember that this prayer in Ephesians 3 is not Paul’s first prayer in this letter. He prayed at the end of Ephesians 1. First, he prayed that we (that is, believers) might know our power. Here, he prays that we might use it. Of course, we’ll be far more effective in using our power if we understand how that power works, where it comes from, and so so.
I believe a pastor’s role can be summed up with these two things. Elders, especially teaching elders, have a responsibility to (1) tell believers who they are in Christ and (2) urge them to live accordingly. We’ll examine this subject further when we reach Ephesians 4, but briefly stated, the role of a pastor is to bring the church to a place where they are functioning as Christians with maximum power.
Read Paul’s prayer again. It serves a double purpose. While it is a prayer to God, it is also a plea to believers. He is urging the Gentiles in Asia Minor as well as us that we should respond to the God’s sovereign provision. God is the provider. He is the one and the only one who can activate that power within us, but we are called to faithfully use that power, which all begins with the inner person.
I BOW MY KNEES BEFORE THE FATHER
For this reason 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. (Ephesians 3:14-16)
For what reason? I believe Paul is referring back to everything he has said up to this point in the letter. God chose us in Christ. He made us holy and blameless. Through his Son, he provided redemption and forgiveness. He caused us to believe in him and sealed us with his Spirit. He grants us wisdom and revelation. Though we were dead in sin, he made us alive with Christ. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. We were alienated, having no hope and without God in the world, but now we are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
For this reason, Paul bows his knees and prays to God. But notice that he doesn’t approach God with grandiose titles. Rather, he simply calls him, “Father.” After all that God has done to sovereignly save us, sinners, Paul’s first reaction isn’t to call him, Lord or Master. No, he calls him, Father. That’s not to say, of course, that Paul wasn’t expressing reverence for God. I’m just pointing out that salvation brings us into intimacy with God. As Paul says in Romans 8, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Ro 8:15-16).
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in the middle of a prayer, and I just stop. Suddenly, I find myself marveling at what I’m doing. I’m speaking to the Creator of the universe. Better yet, he’s listening to me. He cares about what I’m saying, what I’m going through, or what I’m struggling with at the moment. Furthermore, he’s not listening to me as a distant king on a throne who feels obligated to hear what his subjects have to say. He’s listening to me as a Father would his son. It’s incredible.
To be clear, Paul is not prescribing a required posture of prayer here. The Bible doesn’t command us to pray on our knees. It doesn’t tell us that we have to close our eyes or bow our heads. But I do think a person’s posture can speak to the nature of his prayer. For instance, when Jesus was in tremendous agony before his crucifixion, we’re told that he “fell on his face and prayed” (Mt 26:39). It was as though he threw himself to the ground, perhaps signifying just how desperate he felt.
As for bowing on our knees, if nothing else, that position represents an attitude of submission. While Paul was speaking to his Heavenly Father, he was also in the presence of divine authority. Psalm 95 says:
For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! (Psalm 95:3-6)
Beyond reverence, bowing the knee in prayer can also express intense emotion. In Ezra 9, we read of Ezra falling to his knees because he felt so heartbroken over the sinful actions of Israel. We’re told that Daniel kneeled three times a day, no doubt realizing that he could soon face consequences for breaking the king’s law which forbade praying to anyone but him. Here in Ephesians, perhaps Paul’s posture tells us something about the earnestness in which he prayed this prayer.
What does Paul mean when he refers to God as the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”? (Eph 3:15). We should be careful about our interpretation of this verse or else we might make God the Father of those he does not claim as his children. There are two distinct fathers in this world. The first is God and the second is the devil. Look at John 8 where Jesus tells the unbelieving Jews:
“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. … Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” (John 8:42-44)
John makes a similar distinction in his first epistle. He says:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:9-10)
When Paul speaks of God as the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,” he is referring to all of the saints whether they are in heaven or on earth. He is not referring to every person who has ever lived. Liberal theologians teach a universal fatherhood of God, but it isn’t true. That would undermine the unique and special relationship that God’s redeemed people have with him. We are born into his family. We are adopted into his family. According to John 1, God gives us the right to become his children. In other words, we don’t begin as God’s children. By his grace, he makes us his children.
ACCORDING TO THE RICHES OF HIS GLORY
Let’s look at the specifics of Paul’s prayer. It’s a prayer that builds upon itself. One part leads to the next and the next. It progresses as it goes.
First, let me comment on prayer in general. We should never underestimate the power of prayer. Jesus told two parables about prayer that have always stood out to me. In Luke 11, he tells of a man who knocks on his neighbor’s door late at night to ask for bread. Of course, it’s late at night, so the neighbor refuses to get out of bed to help him. But the guy knocks again and again. He’s relentless. He simply will not leave until his neighbor answers the door. In the end, the neighbor gets up and gives him bread.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells of a poor widow who seeks the help of a wicked judge. The judge doesn’t care anything about her plight. He’s not a just man. But the woman won’t leave him alone. She petitions and petitions until he finally says, “Okay. Enough is enough. I’ll help you.”
The Bible teaches us to pray relentlessly. We are to pound on the door of heaven until God gives us an answer. He may not give us the answer we want, but we should return to his throne of grace until he gives us something. You and I are in constant combat. We are fighting Satan, a corrupt society, and even our own divided self. The truth is, we’re even fighting God. If you don’t like the sound of that, let me rephrase it: We are struggling with God. In Genesis 32, Jacob literally wrestled with God. In this constant warfare, we need to pray without ceasing.
Is prayer effective? Let me share with you a story about Martin Luther’s good friend and assistant in the ministry. In the year 1540, Luther’s friend was dying. The physicians gave him a very short time to live. When Luther found out about it, he wrote a letter to his friend that most of us would never think to write. In the letter, he said:
I command thee in the name of God to live because I still have need of thee in the work of reforming the church. … The Lord will never let me hear that thou art dead but will permit thee to survive me. For this I am praying, this is my will, and may my will be done, because I seek only to glorify the name of God.
What audacity. Right? I’m not sure that I would call it, audacity. It may stretch us out of our comfort zones, but I would call it, boldness, and boldness is a good thing. By the way, Luther’s friend survived. He lived six more years, dying about two months after Luther.
We need confident, bold prayer lives. If you believe what Paul has said about you in the first two chapters of Ephesians, then your prayers should reflect that. Pray like a child of God, an heir of God. Pray like you believe God is listening and cares about your struggles. Pray as though you believe God will answer because he does. He answers “according to the riches of his glory” (Eph 3:16).
I believe that I made this point before, but let make it again. We’re not told that God gives out of his riches, but that he gives according to his riches. Do you hear the difference? If Warren Buffet gives out of his riches, he may give only a dollar. Technically, that dollar comes out of the billions of dollars that Warren Buffet has. But if he gives according to his riches, he gives—how much? He gives billions. He gives an amount that is comparable to all that he has, his entire net worth. God gives according to his riches, not out of his riches. He gives it all. He gives abundantly.
STRENGTHENED WITH POWER
Speaking of Warren Buffet, I think it was his son who once gave an interview claiming that he didn’t know his family was rich while he was a child. They lived in a modest home, drove average cars, and did nothing to suggest that his father was incredibly wealthy. Sadly, Christians tend to live like that from day to day. We have access to the riches of God’s glory, but we live as though we’re spiritually impoverished. Our prayers are a good example of that. I know that we’re just trying to be humble, but we pray as though there is little chance that God will answer. No, pray with boldness. Live as though you are a child of God.
Here’s the first step: Strength with power through God’s Spirit in the inner man. Paul prays that “[God] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Eph 3:16). Isn’t that interesting? The Christian walk doesn’t begin with external things. Going to worship with the church does not make one a Christian. Praying to God does not make one a Christian. Avoiding sin and keeping commandments does not make one a Christian. Christianity begins on the inside.
How many times have you felt that your faith was lacking? Maybe you felt down about yourself as a Christian disciple and thought, I’m a lousy Christian. That’s normal. The question is, where did you go from there? Did you think to yourself that maybe you should give more money to help those in need? Did you think that maybe you should volunteer more of your time to help others or maybe spend more time reading your Bible? These are good things. They are excellent things. But I would encourage to stop. Before you act, dig a little deeper. It may be that your inner person needs the help.
Paul was very concerned for the physical well being of the churches. He worked tirelessly to raise money for the church in Jerusalem because they didn’t have food and basic necessities. Even so, he tells the Corinthians, “Do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2Co 4:16). The inner self needs to be a priority for us. While we should be sacrificially serving others, how long can we continue those efforts if our own inner man is wasting away, losing strength?
So how do we strengthen the inner man? We can’t. Only God can reach and heal the inner person. Only God’s Spirit can give us that deep, internal strength we need. Only he can energize and empower us from within. Do you remember those verses I read in the beginning? What do they all have in common? It is the Spirit that gives the power. The Spirit grants us the ability to do great works. It is the Spirit who makes us able to be effective witnesses for Christ.
Of course, that begs another question: If the Spirit must strengthen the inner man, then what are we to do? First, we pray. Isn’t that what Paul is doing here? He’s praying that we might have strength in the inner being. Second, we indulge ourselves with every morsel of spiritual food we can get. Like physical growth, spiritual growth needs nourishment. Peter said, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1Pe 2:2). What is spiritual milk? Based on the previous chapter in 1 Peter, he’s likely talking about “the living and abiding word of God” (1Pe 1:23).
Listen to J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase of what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:
We are handicapped on all sides, but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled, but never in despair. We are persecuted, but we never have to stand it alone: we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out! Every day we experience something of the death of the Lord Jesus, so that we may also know the power of the life of Jesus in these bodies of ours. Yes, we who are living are always being exposed to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be plainly seen in our mortal lives. We are always facing death, but this means that you know more and more of life. (2 Corinthians 4:8-12 PHILLIPS)
Then, he says, “This is the reason why we never collapse. The outward man does indeed suffer wear and tear, but every day the inward man receives fresh strength” (2Co 4:16 PHILLIPS). In other words, the health of the inner man is more important than the health of the physical man. If we are neglect either of them, we’re prone to neglect the inner man. We have it backward. The inner man can support the outer man, but it won’t work the other way around.
CHRIST MAY DWELL IN YOUR HEARTS
What happens when the inner person is strengthened by the Spirit? Paul says:
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. (Ephesians 3:17-19)
He says that strengthening in the inner being Christ will dwell in our hearts. It seems backward. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t Christ need to dwell in us before we can be strengthened from within? Of course, but Paul chooses his words carefully here. There is a difference between living in a house and making that house your home. “Dwell” comes from a word which means to settle down. Christ is in your heart, but a little sanctification is needed before he’ll feel at home.
Let’s use this heart-house analogy to think through the practical implications. Imagine that you own a home which is full of decorations and stuff you’ve collected over the years. One day, Jesus calls you up on the phone and says, “Hey, I’m coming over tonight.” So you go to work cleaning the place from top to bottom. Jesus is the most important guest you’ll ever have, so you want the house to be immaculate. That’s great, but a clean house by itself does not make a fitting home for Christ. Let me show you.
Listen to this brief story Jesus told in Luke 11. He said:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)
What does that mean? Jesus described the person whose moral reform is shallow. He attempts to clean house, but he does little more than create the appearance of a clean house. He doesn’t create a welcome environment for Christ. He merely makes the place more pleasant for the devils.
The devils love a clean house. They thoroughly enjoy people who attempt to tidy up their lives but do very little to make real, substantial changes. It’s like the church member who hides his beer in the back of the fridge when his pastor comes over for a visit. The beer is still there, not that there’s anything inherently wrong with beer, but he gives the impression that he’s not a beer drinker.
If we are to create a fitting home for Christ in our hearts, then we must do more than a light dusting and a quick sweep of the floor. What good is a clean house if our computer history is full of pornographic material? Who cares if your collection of DVDs is straight and alphabetized if many of the films romanticize sin and ungodliness? Do you see what I’m getting at? By all appearances, we may look like good Christians, but the real question is, what’s in our heart?
Going back to 1 Peter 2, let me read the entirety of what Peter says:
So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1-3)
Before we dig into the Bible to better understand Christ and his will, to nourish our born-again souls, we need to remove all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. What about our lust for prestige, materialism, and some of the other subtle sins? The heart is where we hide our sins, so that must be the place we fight our most aggressive battle against wickedness.
ROOTED AND GROUNDED IN LOVE
Notice what comes next. Our inner being is strengthened by the Spirit, Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, and then we become “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph 3:17). We find ourselves on a strong foundation of selfless love. In other words, we become increasingly like our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the epitome of sacrifice and kindness. More than feeling obligated to love, we suddenly want to love. We want to serve. We want to do good works for the benefit of others.
From this love, then, comes divine comprehension of “the breadth and length and height and depth [of] the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:18-19). Keep in mind that Paul is writing to born-again believers. They already believe that Christ is Lord and Savior. They already believe themselves to be sinners in need of God’s grace, yet Paul prays that might be able to grasp the fullness of Christ’s love. Is it possible for a believer to remain ignorant about the extent of God’s love? Absolutely.
When the famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong was asked to explain jazz, he said, “Man, if I’ve got to explain it, you ain’t got it.” What’s true about jazz is true about love. God’s love is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” when we are born again, but that doesn’t mean we fully comprehend it. It certainly doesn’t mean that we’ve learned to love accordingly. We grow into a mature awareness of God and what he has done.
Comprehension of love comes from being continually immersed in the things of God. Jeremiah said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16). Notice that it wasn’t until after Jeremiah consumed God’s words that they became a joy and delight to his heart. The same is true for us.
Ultimately, we can’t explain the depth of God’s love. It is a love that “surpasses knowledge,” according to Paul (Eph 3:19). It can’t be studied or articulated. It has to be experienced. Once it is, then “you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” a concept which Paul alludes to several times throughout this letter. What does it mean? It’s total dominance. If you’re filled with rage, then you are dominated by it. If you are filled with God, then—what? You are dominated by God. There’s nothing left of the old man. You are not only a new creation in Christ, but you are a mature creation in Christ. You love him. You serve him. You seek his will in all things. Your life is entirely reformed into one resembling Jesus Christ.
FAR MORE THAN ALL THAT WE ASK OR THINK
Finally, we come to the grand conclusion of this passage:
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. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
When the Spirit has empowered us, Christ has indwelt us, love has mastered us, and God has filled us with his fullness, then he is able within us to “do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” When those conditions are met, then God’s working through us becomes unlimited. Apparently, we can’t even imagine what he’s capable of doing. We can’t even think to ask for what he’s able to do.
We sell ourselves short. Don’t we? We think that we’re being humble, but God called us for a purpose. He put us into the positions we find ourselves. He recreated us for a reason, and he has provided everything that is necessary for us do even greater works than Jesus. We are made capable of carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. We need to stop playing the part of a bump on a log. The God who is able to do far more than we ask or think is working within us. He’s working through us.
Why? For his glory, of course. He deserves it now and forever. So don’t get the impression that God’s grace in these matters is about us. No, it’s about him. It’s always about him.
In closing, I want to encourage us to put away our fears, to put away our excuses. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as passive nobodies who merely fill a seat on Sunday morning. If you are in Christ, you are a child of God. Everything Paul has said in these first three chapters of Ephesians is about you. You were chosen before the foundation of the world. You are made alive with Christ. You have the power of God working within you, assuming you follow Paul’s simple formula for spiritual growth and maturity.