About the Contributor
My grandfather was a farmer. He farmed in Southwestern Oklahoma. Started during the depression and lived through the dust bowl. For good reason, the land he farmed was some of the last of the unclaimed. It was as red as fire ants. He farmed in the morning and died in the afternoon.
He was a farmer and he was a man of deep faith. Farming that land and forming deep faith probably went hand in hand. The whole thing was an act of prayer. He married a woman, my Grandma, who to this day writes cards to all of her grandchildren where she describes her life and faith and how “God sent two 1 inch rains” and that “God is a good God who loves young and old people.”
I remember my Grandpa once saying, in the simplest of ways, “if you want to know what a person really believes listen to what they pray.”
Ephesians 3:14-21 is a prayer. Through its three petitions, it lays bare what Paul really believes and desires: that the kingdom may come, that the good future of God may establish already some little foothold in the life of the church and that all who are in Christ would grow into the new humanity.
In these petitions Paul is frequently saying “you” and that “you” in consistently plural. These are petitions for the church and not primarily for individuals. So when we get to the first petition and Paul asks God to “grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being” it’s not a prayer for the spiritual part of a solitary individual. It is more a request that God would grant to y’all, as my grandpa would say, the power to grow, not into a temple, but into the inner man. Who is the inner man? It is Christ, the new man who establishes a new humanity. The request is that the church will be empowered by the Spirit to grow into Christ.
This happens, Paul continues, as Christ dwells among them and fills them. If they are to grow into Christ it is only by the grace of Christ who fills the church.
The plural you helps correct our individualistic tendencies to hear these phrases espousing ‘having Jesus in your heart.’ The trouble with that line of thinking is when people reduce being a Christian down to Jesus living in their own individual life. Here it is helpful to remember that Paul often speaks of Christians being ‘in Christ’ while he rarely speaks of Christ being ‘in Christians.’
That said, it is profoundly true, and this beautiful prayer makes it clear, that the Lord makes his home within each Christian. God chooses to dwell with us and, even more, to fill us. It is that dwelling and filling that supports the second and third petition.
The second petition, “I pray that you (again, plural) may have the power…,” is a request for strength amidst struggle. Paul is literally praying that these young Christians, being rooted in the love of God, would have the strength to hold onto the immeasurable nature of the love of God. To describe this love of God Paul utilizes four dimensions: width, length, height, and depth.
Paul’s prayer is that the church would grasp the four-dimensional nature of the love of God. But, honestly, how is that inescapable mystery something that could ever be fully grasped or fully understood? Furthermore, to comprehend or to understand seems to imply some level of mastery. Surely, Paul is not praying that the church would have God figured out?
Allen Verhey makes an interesting suggestion. In the book of Job Zophar makes a powerful speech reminding Job that he cannot claim to be wiser than God.
Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
and wider than the sea.
Here, the four dimensions refer to the mystery of God. Zophar reminds Job that he cannot fully comprehend that mystery. Yet, “Job finally holds onto God without claiming to understand God exhaustively.”
That, Verhey suggests, is how this petition should be read. Paul is pleading that the church will grow to be able to hold onto the mystery of God without fully understanding the mystery.
Finally, Paul prays that the church will be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul’s hope and desire – what he longs for – is for you (plural), the body of Christ, to be fully filled with the presence of Christ.
Following the three petitions, the prayer moves into a doxology. A few notes. Earlier in the letter Paul described the power of God as immeasurable (1:19). Here, Paul makes it clear that the immeasurable power of God is at work “within us.” The immeasurable power of God is at work within the church. Even more, the immeasurable power of God is at work within the church filled with Christ.
If this is true – and Paul is desperately praying and believing that it is – then the enmity between Jew and Gentile, while significant, is not beyond God’s power. That is the power at work within the church.
Secondly, this doxology is a call for the church to fully embody the reality of God’s power at work in the world. It is the task of the church, then, to display and make visible the power of God. Doxologies must be embodied in a people. Doxologies must be lived and it is the primary task of the church to live doxologically.
Pastor, Lafayette Church of the Nazarene