A Pastoral Prayer
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 3:14–21
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
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 within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
The most important ministry of a pastor each week takes place long before he stands to preach on Sunday morning. That most critical work even precedes his sitting down in his study early in the week to begin preparing the message that he will deliver. A pastor’s most essential task—apart from which everything else he does is doomed for failure—is to pray for the people in his care.
The Church of Jesus Christ was still in its infancy in Acts 6:4 when the apostles realized that “prayer and...the ministry of the word” go hand-in-hand. That is still true today. Apart from faithful and consistent prayer, the ministry of the Word quickly withers and bears no fruit.
It has been said that the importance we assign to prayer rises in proportion to the things we are willing to give up in order to pray. A pastor’s weekly schedule can fill up pretty quickly; and, if he is not careful, his time spent in conversation with God can be the first thing to be sacrificed. He must do everything he can to keep that from happening. That’s because there is no aspect of serving the people of God is more critical than to pray for them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that pastors who do not regularly and faithfully pray for their people have no spiritual authority to preach to them.
A major aspect of Paul’s apostolic ministry involved planting new churches and teaching new believers in an oversight role. Throughout his epistles we are able to detect his pastor’s heart. Where correction was called for, he spoke with firmness; and where encouragement was needed, his tone was gentle. But regardless of the church to which he was writing and the specific circumstances each faced, he never ceased to remind them that he was praying for them.
But what specifically did he pray for on their behalf? Perhaps you recall from chapter 1 that Paul offered prayer for these Ephesian believers that they would be “enlightened” as to “the hope of their calling” in Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:15-23). Now here in these latter verses of chapter 3, he prays for them to be “empowered” in order that their lives would fully demonstrate the power and the glory of God.
That may tend to sound theoretical, but Paul was far more than a theorist. He was a practitioner, and he wanted his readers to be practitioners as well. We can see that in the way that he structures the passage before us. At face value, this text can be divided into two main parts. The prayer is found in verses 14 through 19, and then praise is expressed in verses 20 and 21. But if we are willing to dig a little deeper into this passage, we are able to discover that there is more here than just that.
Perhaps you noticed as we read this text earlier that there are a number of purpose clauses that are sprinkled throughout this section...phrases that begin with “that” or “so that.” Paul intentionally piles phrase upon phrase in urging on his readers toward spiritual maturity. That’s his purpose. And, as we shall see, it all leads up to the glorious climax found in verse 21.
We could think of the methodology that Paul employs here on the order of a set of “Chinese nesting boxes,” in which slightly smaller boxes fit inside larger ones and are opened one at a time. The apostle has structured his intercession in that way, so that one phrase in the prayer builds upon the previous one until we arrive at his conclusion.
Rather than trying to explain it, we are better off to look at the passage itself. So, we’ll start by looking at the introduction to the prayer in verses 14 and 15 and then work our way through the prayer itself. Paul begins by telling us that...
The reason for the prayer is the spiritual maturity of the believer (verses 14-15)
I remind you that Paul had started to pray in verse 1, before interrupting himself and inserting a lengthy parenthesis that ran from verses 2 through verse 13. It was in this parenthetical section that he expounded upon “the mystery” of “the gospel.” And, as we saw last week, that “mystery” is the unveiling of the Church...the one body of Christ, made up of the redeemed from every ethnic group on the planet.
So now Paul enters into his prayer for the Church. More precisely, his prayer is for a specific local church, “the saints who are in Ephesus” (cf. Ephesians 1:1). And while nearly six thousand miles and twenty centuries separate us from that gathering of believers, the relevancy of Paul’s intercession continues to resonate with us today.
When the apostle repeats, “For this reason,” he is referring back to the content found in the first two chapters of this epistle. For those of you who have been with us, you will recall that he reminds them of their having been “blessed...with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” including being “chosen” by God from “before the foundation of the world,” being “predestined...for adoption as (His) sons,” being “redeemed” through the blood of Jesus Christ, having obtained “an inheritance,” being “sealed with the...Holy Spirit,” and being made a part of the Body of Christ. Their lives in Christ were founded upon these “blessings.”
Because that was so, Paul now says, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father.” The emphasis here isn’t on the posture of prayer...even though John Calvin and others would beg to differ. The point is that the recognition of the love which God has lavished upon us should evoke from us heartfelt prayer. If it doesn’t, then it speaks to our lack of spiritual understanding. Little children have to be told to say “thank you” when they are given a gift, but adults should know well enough to do so instinctively. Some of us demonstrate our lack of spiritual maturity when we fail to render to God the thanksgiving and praise that He alone deserves. Paul has told us both in chapters 2 and 3 that “we have access” to the Father at any time. If we are not availing ourselves of the great privilege of discourse with Him, it is doubtful that we have adequately considered the “blessings” that have been given to us by a gracious God.
As for this God, verse 15 reminds us that He is the one “from whom every family in heaven and earth is named.” There are those who use this verse to support “the universal fatherhood of God,” but that is not at all what all what the writer is getting at. It is, in fact, just the opposite. Paul’s point is that “every family in heaven and on earth” derives its existence from God and, because of that, owes its allegiance to Him. That was the main point of Paul’s Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17:24-31.
Here in verses 14 and 15 Paul alludes to the reason he prays for this church. It is the same reason that every faithful pastor prays for his people: that they mature spiritually. In chapter 4, he will call it, “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:10). So, in these first two verses, Paul has laid the foundation for his pastoral intercession.
I mentioned earlier that the prayer is structured on the order of a set of “Chinese nesting boxes,” where one box fits inside the other. We come to the first of those “boxes” in verse 16, where it is introduced by the word, “that.” Remember, the purpose of the prayer is the spiritual maturity of these Christians. So, inside this first “box,” we learn that...
The road to spiritual maturity begins with the development of inner strength (verse 16)
From where does this “inner strength” come? In verse 16 we are told that our growth in Christ does not come about as a result of our grit and determination, or by trying to live up to a certain standard. Instead, it is the product of God working “through his Spirit” within us. You see, when we finally abandon all attempts to produce our own righteousness and trust the One who delights in imputing His righteousness to us, then He—by means of His Spirit— comes to live within us. And along with His personal presence comes the strength and empowerment to live for Him. In a very real sense, the crucified, resurrected, ascended, and glorified Christ lives out His life through us. That is why Paul can say, “according to the (limitless) riches of his glory,” He grants us “to be strengthened with power...in (our) inner being.” We’ll talk more about that when we get to “box number two.”
Paul is not referring to a temporary strength in a moment of felt-weakness, but rather a more permanent and consistent strength that characterizes the believer’s life. The root word for “strengthened” (“κραταιοω”) means “to become mighty.” Christians are to be “mighty in strength” with a “powered-by-God” seal radiating from their “inner being.”
It’s interesting that Paul does not say that God gives us “out of” His “riches,” but rather “according to” them. God’s “glory” speaks of the sum-total of all of His attributes. That is because His “glory” is inexhaustible. No matter how freely and abundantly He gives to us, He is never diminished in any way. He is a gracious Father who gives to those who ask of Him. Paul sounds a similar note in Philippians 4:19, where he wrote, “My God shall supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
So, when it comes to gaining that inner strength that propels us toward spiritual growth, we do not lean on our own ability to “hold on” or to “hold out.” Instead, as the hymn writer has expressed it, “Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Therefore, Paul prays in verse 16 that the road to spiritual maturity begins with our looking to God, who “according to the riches of his glory...may grant (us) to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in (our) inner being.”
That is the aspect of Paul’s prayer that we find in the first “box.” As one begins to grow spiritually in the Lord, he/she is then able to open the second “box.” And it is here that he is able to realize that...
The result of inner strength is the increased indwelling of Christ in the heart of the believer (verse 17)
Notice verse 17, which is introduced by another purpose-clause: “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” If spiritual maturity is produced through the inner strength of the believer, which is a result of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in his life, then how can we be assured that nothing interrupts this process?
The answer is found in the word, “dwell” (“καταοικεω”). Paul’s prayer is that “Christ may dwell in your hearts.” The word means “to inhabit,” “to reside,” or “to settle down.” Whenever you and I travel or are on vacation, we may spend a night or two in a hotel room. But it’s always nice to get back to our own place where we can be “at home.” That is what Jesus is looking for...to be “at home” in our lives.
When Paul speaks of Christ being “at home” in our “hearts,” that “location” is parallel to the “inner being” mentioned in verse 16. It refers to “the real us,” our whole personalities, and especially to our “moral being.” In 2 Corinthians 4:16, we are told that “our outer self is wasting away, (but) our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Therefore, although we are to told to “glorify God” in our bodies (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:2), it is the cultivation of the “inner man” that must take precedence.
Just how is this done? Paul answers “through faith.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because we encountered that phrase earlier in chapter 2, verse 8, where the writer made it clear that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith.” What this suggests to us is that in the same manner that we appropriate salvation—“through faith”—we appropriate the indwelling strength of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Is Jesus “at home” in your life? Some of you are familiar with the little booklet by Robert Boyd Munger entitled My Heart, Christ’s Home. I gave away dozens of copies when I first arrived at this church. That small booklet, which has gone through numerous printings since its initial release in 1954, describes our need to surrender every “room” of our lives to Jesus—including the “hall closet”—if we are to be truthful in calling Him our “Lord.” Some of you know that you need to do some serious “house cleaning” in order to make room for Jesus. There is too much “junk” lying around in your life for Him to be “at home” with you. Are you willing to eliminate some things—even some good things—to make room for Him?
If you were to do that—to use Paul’s imagery—you would find your “roots” going deeper and your “foundation” becoming stronger in Christ. In verse 17, Paul employs both agricultural and architectural metaphors to illustrate the point. In both cases, these are perfect passive participles, suggesting that the action has taken place in the past, and that the results of that action remain. So, in other words, Paul is suggesting that believers recognize that they have been “rooted and grounded” and they are to remain that way. His desire is that the work that the Lord has begun in their lives will reach full maturity. And he is confident that it will, as the place that Jesus occupies in their hearts grows deeper and more secure.
So far we have opened two “boxes” of Paul’s prayer and are about to open the third. In the first “box” we found that the process of spiritual maturity begins with the development of inner strength. And in the second we discovered that the result of inner strength is the increased indwelling of Christ in the heart of the believer. “Box number three” reveals that...
The result of the increased indwelling of Christ is the ability to know His love (verses 18-19a)
In the original Greek, there is actually another purpose clause found at the beginning of verse 18, indicating that this is the third aspect of Paul’s prayer. As we open this “box,” we are exposed to a tremendous prospect. The deeper our relationship is with Christ and the firmer our foundation in Him, the better able are we to know His “love.”
The “love” that is referred to at the end of verse 17 is identified in verse 19 as “the love of Christ.” What is it that compels us to go deeper and become stronger in our faith? It is His love for us. It is imperative that we recognize that. As one of the more contemporary Christian songs of our day reminds us, it’s not we who are holding on to Him, but He who is holding on to us. But we will never be able to see this unless there is a willingness on our part to go deep and to go far with Him. Paul prays that we “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to (experientially) know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
Do you know Christ in this way? Before you answer, listen to what John Stott has written: “The love of Christ is ‘broad’ enough to encompass all mankind, ‘long’ enough to last for eternity, ‘deep’ enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and ‘high’ enough to exalt him to heaven.” Are you able to relate to that?
That is the glorious prospect that our Lord holds out to those who are His “through faith.” Paul’s prayer here is not that they would love Christ “more,” but that they would more fully know the depths of love that Christ has for them. Granted, we will never be able to fully comprehend such love. After all, how does one go about measuring the immeasurable? We simply can’t! Nevertheless, we will never mature as followers of Christ until we begin to understand the magnitude of God’s great love for us.
As we grow to know and understand the love of Christ due to His indwelling presence, we near the pinnacle of Paul’s great pastoral prayer. As we open the fourth “box,” we realize that...
The result of knowing the love of Christ enables the believer to be filled with the fullness of God (verse 19b)
This is what we are told in the final phrase of verse 19. It is introduced by another purpose clause: “that you may be filled.” As a faithful pastor, Paul prayed that the people under his care would grow toward spiritual maturity by cultivating inner strength that comes from the indwelling ministry of Jesus Christ. He further prayed that by permitting Christ to be at home in their hearts, they would come to more fully understand His great love for them. And as they did, they would “be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Paul will explain in greater detail what this means in chapter 4, so we won’t expound upon that now. But even here, one thing is being made perfectly clear...Paul’s pastoral heart will not rest until those to whom he has been called to shepherd reach a level of spiritual maturity that allows them to possess all that God is for them in Christ Jesus.
But how will that happen? I believe the answer can be found in what Jesus said in one of the Beatitudes from the introduction to His Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:6 we read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” There isn’t a week that goes by, as I sit at my study desk preparing to preach, that I do not to pray that God will give to you—the ones who gather in this sanctuary week after week—an unquenchable “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Without that, His Word will never find fruitful lodging in your hearts. And the result is that your spiritual lives will be barren.
But Paul has one more thing to add...one more “box” still needs to be opened. And it is within this final “box” that the main kernel of truth is to be found. And it is this:
The result of being filled with the fullness of God is the ability to recognize His power and His glory (verses 20-21)
In another of Jesus’ beatitudes, He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Is “seeing God” important to you? I don’t believe that Jesus was speaking primarily of one day being able to “see God” with our eyes. Rather, I think what he had in mind was our ability to “see God” manifesting His active presence in our lives here and now. That is something for which every Christian should long. Are you “seeing” God’s active presence in your life?
In verses 20 and 21, Paul concludes the theological section of this letter. With the opening of chapter 4, he will get into the ethical section. As he transitions from one to the other, he wants to make certain that the foundation has been properly laid. To try and build a “Christian” life on a less-than-secure foundation is not only foolish...it is impossible. Before we can live as followers of Christ, we must know what we believe and why we believe it. Failure in that regard is why many who “profess” to know Jesus end up being shown to have never “possessed” Him at all. One day the ship of their lives will crash on the rocks of this world, and their half-hearted allegiance to Christ will be shown to have been none at all.
As a faithful pastor, Paul labored day and night to make certain that his people understood the greatness of that God to whom he was calling them to fully yield. Many of us first heard—and possibly memorized—these last two verses from the King James Version. So, let me read these last two verses from that translation. Listen how the apostle adds superlative to superlative in attempting to capture the excellence of God’s greatness:
“Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
“Amen,” indeed. Paul began in chapter 1 by reminding these believers of all that God had done by choosing them for salvation. Now here at the close of this letter’s doctrinal section, he reinforces that by stating there are no limits to what God can do. As A.T. Robertson has said, “The highest aspiration is not beyond God’s power to bestow.”
Now let’s be clear, lest any of us think that Paul is leading us toward a “name it-and-claim it” brand of theology. Although Christians are indeed the beneficiaries of “his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (cf. Philippians 4:19), Paul’s doxology is not referring to “blank check” prosperity in the “here and now.” What we have here is actually an expression of praise to the One who is not only able to do all things according to His purposes and for His glory, but has done everything necessary to make us one with Him and with one another.
It is that last point—our togetherness in Him with one another—that leads Paul to once again point to “the church.” It is “in the church” that God is glorified, and will be glorified “throughout all ages, world without end.” As we saw last week, “the church” is the masterpiece of God’s grace and wisdom. Therefore, the honor of Jesus Christ in every generation has been deposited with “the church,” and we have become its caretakers.
Paul was well aware of that, which is why he prays for “the church”...that each member grow to full strength and maturity under its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, “the church,” like the physical body, is only as strong as its weakest member.
Before preaching, the pastor must prepare. But before preparing, he must pray. Any pastor who is worthy of the title prays for his people, regularly and consistently. In fact, he has no God-given authority to preach to them until he has prayed for him. It is no overstatement to say that prayer is his most critical work.
In a sense, Paul is preaching to himself—as well as to every other pastor—in this passage. Every honest pastor is forced to admit that his faithfulness in praying for his people needs to be more consistent. Paul’s pastoral goal has been that those in his charge grow to maturity in their relationship with Jesus Christ, as well as with one another. That is my goal for Temple Hills Baptist Church, as well. And it is how I pray for each of you.
Spiritual growth does not take place in a vacuum. It has been pointed out that maturity begins with the development of inner strength. Another way of saying it is that we must have the desire to grow in our walk with the Lord. Have you examined your priorities lately? Are you investing the time that needs to be devoted to the Word and prayer? Are you “hunger(ing) and thirst(ing) for righteousness” (cf. Matthew 5:6)? It is very difficult for a pastor to feed his flock when they come to a service already “filled” with so many other things. With what areas of your life do you need to practice greater discipline into order to strengthen your soul before God? Are you willing to make it a priority to cultivate your inner life so that you may grow closer to the Lord?
We also saw that inner strength is the result of the increased indwelling of Christ in our hearts. Jesus desires to take up residence in our lives, not merely be a guest to whom we open our door once a week. He longs to be welcomed by us, and not treated as an intruder. More and more He wants to be “at home” with us, sharing in every aspect of our lives. If Jesus were to show up at your house today seeking lodging, would you prepare for Him the best room or your home, or would you give Him a cot to sleep in on the back porch?
In addition, through the increasing awareness of His indwelling presence we are able to know the love of Christ more deeply. Paul says that such love is so “broad” and “long” and “high” and “deep” that we will never be able to fully comprehend it...much less embrace it. But it is real! Just ask those who have experienced it. The peace that comes from knowing the love of Christ brings a joy that nothing else in this life can satisfy. Isn’t it time that you rid yourself of those temporary things you now crave, and cling instead to the realization that Jesus’ love for you is greater than anything you can possibly imagine?
And then, as we experience more and more of the love of Christ, we become progressively filled with the fullness of God. Does God seem distant and impersonal to you? If so, then I would recommend that you retrace the steps that we have considered so far. He already knows us more closely than we know ourselves, and He desires to make Himself known to us as that “friend who sticks closer than a brother” (cf. Proverbs 18:24). He longs to share intimate fellowship with us (cf. Revelation 3:20). Far too many of us are content with small portions of God when He offers to us so much more. Were our eyes able to see what He freely holds out to us, we would not hesitate in running to Him in order to be filled. How easily we become distracted by lesser things. What is it that is keeping you from experiencing God’s fullness?
All of that leads to this final point: when we are filled with God’s fullness, we are able to recognize His power and His glory. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds that man’s “chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Can you honestly say that you “enjoy” God? If that is not the case, then you are not glorifying Him. What place does He occupy in your life? Is He truly your Lord and Savior? Do you, as Moses did in Exodus 33(:18), long to see His glory?
In his book, The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis has described us well: “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Most of us live our lives as if this present time were the ultimate reality. We consider eternity to be a dreamlike state that lies somewhere in the far distant future. One day, however—and sooner rather than later—each of us will awaken to discover that the reverse is true. Have you considered that day may be closer than you might have cared to imagine?
The pastor’s responsibility is to prepare his people for that rapidly approaching day. He does that through the faithful preaching of the Scriptures...Sunday after Sunday. But before he can do that effectively, he must pray for them. Praying and preaching are the means that God uses to bring His truth to the hearts of His people. The pastor can and will do more for those under his care. But he cannot and must not do nothing less.