God’s Power for Us: Ephesians 3.14-21

One could make a case that the first three chapters of Ephesians unite around the theme of power. The basic theological thrust thus far has been that God’s power over all of the world’s other so-called powers was expressed in the vindication, raising, and glorification of Jesus that puts all other claims to power — including those that divide humanity into insiders and outsiders — under his power. Now, as Paul wraps up the first half of the letter in 3.14-21, he makes a further bold claim: That same divine power is at work in us in ways we cannot even begin to fathom. This claim sets the tone for all that is to follow in the second half of the letter, which applies this truth to the practicalities of human lives and relationships.

First, let’s look at the text:

(3.14) This is why I bend my knees before the Father, (15) from whom every lineage in heaven and on earth is named: (16) that the Father, on account of the wealth of his glory, give you to be strengthened in power in the inner person through his Spirit; (17) that Christ dwell in your hearts through faith; and rooted and grounded in love, (18) that you may have the strength to understand with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, (19) and to know the all-surpassing nature of the knowledge of Christ’s love — that you be filled unto the whole fullness of God.

(20) To the One who has the power to do well beyond anything we can ask or imagine, in accordance with the power working in us, (21) be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever; Amen.

While the overall message of the text seems clear, I did leave my initial reading of it with a few questions that deserve more intentional consideration:

  • In what ways does the text look back on and summarize what’s come before, and what does Paul add to look forward to what’s yet to come?
  • What does Paul mean when he refers to ‘the inner person’?
  • To what do the dimensions, ‘breadth and length and height and depth’ refer? (i.e., What are these measurements measuring?)

Looking Backwards and Forwards

There are many aspects of this section of Ephesians that refer back to the first two-and-a-half chapters. These include syntactic markers, shared vocabulary, and common themes. The text starts with the same words that started the previous section. Indeed, it seems likely that Paul meant to offer up this reported prayer there in 3.1, but got distracted by his reflection on his divine mission, and is now returning to his original intention. At any rate, the ‘This is why’ refers back to the end of chapter 2, where Paul celebrated the extension of the blessings and privilege of the people of God to the Gentiles, and imagined both communities being built together into God’s Temple.

He then reports the content of his prayer to God, whom he calls here by the title ‘Father,’ which hearkens back to Jesus’ practice and instruction, but also to how Paul introduced God in 1.2-3. As it happens, it also allows him a play on words, lost in English, to emphasize his point from 2.11-22 about ethnocentrism and religious nationalism: God is the common divine Father (Pater) of every lineage (patria, ‘paternal line’), the shared origin of all peoples, so no one has any better claim on God than any other.

The prayer itself is structured around three main intercessions that share a common grammar and purpose: First, he prays that the Father would grant them to be ‘strengthened in power in the inner person through his Spirit.’ In the earlier prayer (1.15-23), Paul prayed that they would come to understand God’s power; here he goes one step beyond and prays that they be themselves strengthened in power. Connected to this, he asks ‘that Christ dwell in your hearts through faith;’ this is an interesting twist on the motif of life ‘in Christ’; here, instead of us being in him, Paul talks about him being in us. This line of thought picks up on the Temple imagery from 2.11-22 (especially 2.20-22, which explicitly references the community of faith being a Temple where God dwells).

The second major intercession is “that you may have the strength to understand with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” This again ties to the 1.15-23 in an interesting way: there the prayer was for them to understand God’s power; here it is for them to be empowered to understand. This understanding is then connected with Christ’s love, which was the idea at the heart of 2.1-10.

In between these two intercessions is an interesting phrase, ‘rooted and grounded in love.’ It’s a beautiful image, and one that fits in well with the content of the prayer and also 2.4, but curiously, it doesn’t fit into the grammar of either the preceding or following clause. It would seem to be a parenthetical statement tied to both in the author’s train of thought. So, we see that love is intimately connected to both understanding and power here.

Finally, the third intercession is that they be ‘filled unto the whole fullness of God.’ This links back to 1.23, which described the Church as the fullness of Christ. As Clinton E. Arnold puts it, “Under the new covenant, the “fullness” becomes coextensive with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit because this is the principal way that God manifests his presence.”* This Spirit, is present in and empowers the faithful in the Church.

So then, the content of the prayer in Ephesians 3.14-19, both looks backward and forward, bridging the two halves of the letter. It repeats the themes already covered, but pushes them further: The faithful aren’t just to understand God’s power, but to experience that power in their own lives; they aren’t just to be built up together into a Temple, but to be truly a Temple, filled with the presence and power of God.

The Inner Person

Considering how much of Ephesians is about the Church and community life, this prayer has a perhaps surprising interiority to it. This is best seen in 3.16, which prays that we be “strengthened in power in the inner person through his Spirit.” The following verse clarifies this with “that Christ dwell in your hearts through faith.” The expression ‘inner person’ is rare, but Paul uses it elsewhere in Romans 7.22 to mean something like, ‘in the depths of my being’, and a similar construction in 2 Corinthians 4.16, where it is contrasted with ‘outer being’ and refers to that part of us that endures. While there has been some effort by scholars to place the origin of this expression in some philosophical movement of the day, it seems best to trust the text itself and treat it as a gloss for ‘the heart,’ in its Semitic use, which Klyne Snodgrass helpfully defines as “the controlling center from which life is comprehended and choices are made.” The heart becomes the dwelling-place for Christ, just as the Temple was the dwelling-place of God in the life of ancient Israel.

While the language of Christ ‘dwelling in us’ is common for Christians today — this is especially true in Evangelical Christianity, where “inviting Christ into your heart” is a common way of talking about conversion — it is the opposite of Paul’s more common idea, which is us living ‘in Christ.’ (According to Snodgrass’s math, Paul uses the ‘in Christ’ idea about 164 times, as compared to just 5 instances of Christ being in us (see Romans 8.10, 2 Corinthians 13.5, Galatians 2.20 and 4.19 for the others).) The two images are both accurate, but they have different purposes: As we’ve seen, the ‘in Christ’ image refers to our participation in his life, death, resurrection, and glorification; it is thus both personal and collective, since faith is a personal commitment, yet all of those who are faithful are ‘in Christ’ together, formed into one body. The language here of Christ ‘in us’, on the other hand, is about our inner empowerment and transformation. But, of course, the two are connected: it is being ‘in Christ’ that allows Christ to dwell ‘in us’; and it is Christ dwelling ‘in us’ that empowers us to be ever more ‘in Christ’ and more conformed to his likeness. This chicken-and-egg problem this ties in with what I call the ‘fractal’ nature of Christian faith: What happens to Christ happens to us, what happens to us happens to the Church, what happens to the Church happens to Christ. As Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17.20-23 suggests, the more we engage with the life of faith, the more our lives will be caught up in each other’s lives, and in turn, in the life of God, which is itself a dance of Father, Word, and Spirit.

The point is that, while this prayer for Christ to dwell in our hearts and to empower us in our inner being happens to us as individuals, this can never lead to an individualistic faith, for this process will always lead us into a greater sense of responsibility — of faith — for one another.

Dimensions of What?

The text also includes a strange request, “that you may have the strength to understand with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” We are left to ask what exactly these dimensions are measuring. There are a number of options in context, but it really boils down to two, depending on how far afield you look for the referent. The option most translations take is to see the answer in the references to love, which occur in the preceding and following clauses. In this case, the prayer is for readers to understand the immensity of God’s love. The main alternative is to look at the larger context of the passage, in which case it is a prayer for them to understand the immensity of God’s power that is available to them as they face off against opposing spiritual powers. This perspective makes sense when we think of the ways this prayer reaches back to the prayer in 1.15-23, which was about the knowledge of God’s power. In a fascinating extra-biblical piece of evidence to support of this view, Arnold notes that the only other time this expression has been found is in a magical papyrus, “in a context where a magician is seeking illumination into all aspects of a deity’s power,” so as to appropriate that power for himself. Albeit in a very different worldview and context, this is exactly what Paul has been getting at in Ephesians 1-3: He wants his readers to grasp the immense power God has demonstrated for them and which is now available to them in the indwelling of Christ and empowerment of the Spirit.

While it’s perhaps not intellectually satisfying, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which interpretation we choose, since the passage strongly links love and power. God’s love is revealed in power and God’s power is revealed in love. Perhaps this linkage is fitting, since Paul began both the letter and this section by calling God ‘Father.’ the perfect coming together of love and power — particularly as the term is reimagined by Jesus. I’m reminded here of the terminology originated by Just Associates (and more famously promoted by Brene Brown) about the difference between ‘power over’ on the one hand and ‘power to,’ ‘power for,’ ‘power with,’ and ‘power within’ on the other. Normally when we think of images of power, we think of ‘power over’ — and indeed that is the dominant image of fatherhood in the Roman world, with its nearly all-powerful paterfamilias who had legal control over everyone within his household (and with the Emperor acting as the paterfamilias of the Empire itself). But, as Just Associates points out, we can have all kinds of relationships to power, and ‘power over’ others is the only one that lends itself to problems — and it’s one that Jesus reminds us is to be entirely absent from Christian understanding of leadership. (This is clearly not a teaching Christians have been good at following. Alas. Lord have mercy!) Instead, power can be used to support others and to benefit others, and it can shared or given away. And this is how Paul talks about God’s power here. In Ephesians 1, it was power enacted for us; and here it is power enacted with us and in us. In the words of the wonderful doxology that ends this section, it is “power working in us” that can accomplish “well beyond anything we can ask or imagine.”

And it is this loving power and powerful love that allows us to live out the life ‘in Christ’ that Paul outlines in the rest of the book. But before we move on in Ephesians, I’d like to spend a post on a targum — a paraphrase of the text directed for the present context — on the first three chapters. This, I hope, will set us up well to engage the second half of this wonderful, challenging, book.

*Please see the full bibliography for the series for details.

8 thoughts on “God’s Power for Us: Ephesians 3.14-21

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s