Lesson Focus: Paul prays for us to grow in our knowledge and experience of God’s unknowable love so that we might be rooted and grounded in that love.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Seek to be strengthened in their inner being by God’s Holy Spirit.
Seek to become rooted and grounded in love.
Seek to know the unknowable hugeness of God’s love.
Catching Up… At the beginning of chapter 3, Paul declares that he is currently in prison because he has been faithful in his proclamation of the Good News to the Gentiles. The beginning of this chapter is partly intended to communicate Paul’s credentials. Paul is a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles. He is a servant of Christ because of the grace and power that has been working through him.
Though Paul believes that this is not new news to his readers, he is counting on the fact that they have already heard of his suffering and the mystery revealed to him by God. This mystery, of course, is nothing other than what Paul has already written about, that God has brought the Gentiles into the family of God. Since the Gentiles’ salvation is according to God’s eternal purposes, Paul encourages his readers not to lose heart over his current suffering.
This week’s passage can be described as a prayer that Paul issues on behalf of his Ephesian friends. Verses 14-19 are one long sentence with an introduction, three specific prayer requests, and one sub-request. The concluding verses of chapter 3, verses 20-21, serve as a doxology. Of course, a careful reading of the surrounding context will show that this concluding passage continues the prayer begun in chapter 1. The material between 1:15-22 and 3:14-21 is not simply a digression but instead carries us to that point, and it prepares us for the second half of the letter beginning in chapter 4.
Bending the Knee – 3:14-15 Again, Paul begins this section with the familiar, “For this reason….” This opening clause connects what will follow with what Paul has previously written. Because God has revealed to him the mystery of the salvation of the Gentiles and their inclusion as part of God’s new and unified people, Paul now bows his knees before the Father.
We’re accustomed to the imagery of kneeling regarding prayer, but Paul’s readers would not have automatically thought that Paul was praying. The typical Jewish custom was to stand during prayer. While it is certain that Paul is offering a prayer here, the image of bending the knee speaks more to the recognition of submission to a higher power.
In this context, rather than making a direct petition, Paul engages in an act of worship (Fowl, 119). Yet, it also must be understood that there is a connection between worship and petition. Part and parcel of worship is the confession that we cannot provide for ourselves in any meaningful way. Thus, Paul is bending his knee on behalf of his friends so that they might be given what they need to flourish in a Christ-like manner.
There can be no other option than to see that the one to whom Paul bends his knee is God the Father. This is no generic father, but God the Father, the creator of everything. Paul confesses that everything, in heaven and on earth, derives its name, very being, and substance from this Father. This fits the theme of Paul’s letter so far. If God, through Christ, has made one new and unified humanity, then this same God is the Father of all.
That According to… – 3:16-17 In verse 16, we come to Paul’s first worshipful request for strength in the Ephesians’ inner being. A few things are important here. First, Paul’s appeal is to the riches of God’s glory. For Paul, “glory” is shorthand for the total of all of God’s attributes. “Because God himself is infinite and eternal, his glory is inexhaustible and provides the measure of his generosity when he bestows his gifts. Because his resources are inexhaustible, he cannot be improvised by sharing them with his children” (Bruce, 326). Paul is confident that God will strengthen his friends precisely because of God’s superabundance and generosity. Second, this superabundance and generosity mark the economy of God’s giving, which stands in stark contrast to the world’s giving. Because God is not diminished when God gives, God’s economy does not work through the systems of reciprocity or indebtedness. Instead, God’s economy is governed by lavish excess and grace (Fowl, 120).
The strength for which Paul prays is a divine gift. But what is the “inner being” that Paul seeks to see strengthened? This inner being is the new creation that has come into being because God, through Christ, has drawn us near to him and made us into a unified people. Our inner being is the place where the Spirit of God dwells.
Our strength comes not from human assertions but the power of God’s Spirit dwelling in us. While the Spirit is strengthening us in the inner being, Paul prays that Christ might also dwell in us. As Christ dwells in us, we are being rooted and grounded in love. The work that the Spirit and Christ do in us gives us the foundation of our continual growth. The phrase “rooted and grounded” mixes agricultural and structural images. Plants need strong roots if they are to flourish and bear fruit. Buildings need steady foundations if they are to withstand the elements. The self-sacrificial, self-giving love of Christ is both the foundation and the means by which we grow and are strengthened in the Christian life.
Filled with all the Fullness – 3:18-19 After Paul prays that his friends would be strengthened in their inner being, he now prays that they may have the power to understand the great love of God through Christ in which they are being rooted and grounded. The power to comprehend or understand God’s love is not attainable by human means. Nor is it a gift to be given to only a few select individuals who have proven themselves worthy.
Instead, Paul requests that the Ephesians be granted this gift to join “all the saints.” Paul hopes that all Christians would steadily grow in their comprehension of God’s love in all times and all places. At this point, I think we must stop and ask ourselves why we would need divine help understanding God’s love? It is something that Christians talk about with some regularity. Indeed, we have some grasp on it already?
Even the smallest child who has been raised in a faithful home will tell you that God’s love looks like Jesus on the cross. They would not be wrong, of course, but perhaps we often fail to truly grasp the radical and completely counter-cultural nature of this love that Jesus displays for us? The simple truth is that the love that God demonstrates for us through Jesus Christ is more significant and grander than we can generally know. Sure, we have developed some language to talk about it, the language of self-sacrifice, but that breaks down in the face of our day-to-day lives.
Part of what Paul is driving at here is that God’s love is unknowable apart from a significant indwelling of the Spirit. We can know of God’s love, but we must also intimately know the One who is God’s love. This is the knowledge for which Paul prays. In fact, this is the drive behind Paul’s life that he would know the full depth of God’s love. Paul recognizes that this is a journey that takes a lifetime, and his prayer is that his Ephesian friends, and you and I, for that matter, would join him on the way.
Paradoxically, Paul confesses that this love of God surpasses knowledge, yet we’re to pursue it anyway. “To speak of knowing something that ‘surpasses knowledge’ is to be deliberately paradoxical; but however much one comes to know of the love of Christ, there is always more to know: it is inexhaustible” (Bruce, 329). The same thing could be said for Paul’s prayer that we would be filled with the fullness of God. No matter how much the Spirit might dwell in us, no matter how much we might be filled with God’s love, there is always more to gain. These petitions paint a picture of Paul’s hopes and dreams for his Ephesian friends. Like a parent who wishes that their children grow up to exceed and surpass the parents’ accomplishments, Paul hopes that the Ephesians will surpass him in their attainment of Christlikeness. “The final end is to be filled with that which fills God. Given the current context, it is precisely God’s love that is in view. Thus the end of the Christian life is to be filled up with God’s love, that which is the very essence of God, that which characterizes the relations of the Triune persons, that which will make us one with God” (Fowl, 123).
Now to Him… 3:20-21 Paul ends this chapter and this section of the letter with a benediction or a doxology.
These concluding verses serve to draw together Paul’s hope and confidence in the prayer that has just been offered. While Paul has just noted the unknowable splendor of God’s love, he now draws on the ability of God to do much more than we could ever dream God could do. It may seem impossible that we could ever truly know the depth and height and length and breadth of God’s love, but it is not impossible because God has desired that we should know it.
So What? If there is any hope for the unity of creation or Christ’s church, it will only come through the indwelling of God’s Spirit and an ever-growing knowledge of God’s love through Christ. From our vantage point, unity is scarcely attainable. Yet, along with Paul, we are to confess that God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.
Paul’s hopes and dreams for his Ephesian friends are his hopes and dreams for us. His prayer for us is that we would know the vast riches of God’s glory, the inexhaustible nature of God’s love, grace, and mercy. Paul’s prayer is that the Spirit of God would dwell in our innermost parts so that the roots of God’s love in us would dig down deeps so that we might grow strong in the Lord. His prayer is that we would be able to understand, not just in our head but in our hearts, the full and true and incomprehensible nature of God’s love. Paul is supremely confident that God has already begun to do these things for his Ephesian friends, and he is also supremely confident that God has begun to do these things for us.
Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What is the reason that Paul now bows his knee before the Father?
What does it mean that “every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” from the Father? What does that say about God’s intentions for creation?
What are the “riches of his glory?”
What is your “inner being?”
Part of Paul’s prayers is that we would be “rooted and grounded in love.” This is partly an agricultural image. Think about how plants need strong roots from the very beginning to grow and bear fruit. How might love help start and continue growing in our faith?
Paul prays that we would have the power to know the unknowable hugeness of God’s love in Christ. What does God’s love for us look like? Do we have a tough time understanding God’s love? If so, why? If not, why?
If God’s nature (his love) surpasses knowledge, then how can Paul hope that we are filled with all the fullness of God?
Verses 20-21 are a concluding blessing or benediction. Paul gives glory to God, who is able to do way more than we can ever think of imagine. Why does Paul conclude this section with this blessing?
As you go this week, make this passage your prayer. Pray that you might be strengthened in your inner being through the power of the Spirit. Pray that you might be rooted and grounded in Christ’s love. Pray that you might honestly know, experience, and give out God’s unknowable love.
Works Cited: Stephen E. Fowl, Ephesians: A Commentary, ed. C. Clifton Black, M. Eugene Boring, and John T. Carroll, First Edition, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984).