In Ezekiel 10, a very significant event is recorded. It is a strikingly sad picture of God’s glory leaving the temple in Jerusalem. It is a picture of God’s glory, and therefore God’s blessing, leaving His people because they had abandoned Him. Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop write of this picture:
The glory of the Lord has left the temple. Unspeakable horror!
Yet nothing appears any different. The temple is still there. God’s people are still there. Life continues unaltered. It’s all the same.
At least for now.
What if the same thing happened to your church? Picture all the elements of community in your church: your main weekly gathering, the Lord’s Supper, small groups, accountability relationships, conversations after church, and so forth. Now picture the Spirit of God and his supernatural power rising up and then departing from your congregation. What happens?
- Do some people immediately feel like they no longer belong? Or do they continue coming to church for mostly the same reasons they did before?
- Do some friendships instantly dissolve because no bond remains? Or do they survive because they were based on something other than the gospel in the first place?
- Do you notice a conspicuous change in the conversations people have in your small groups? Perhaps a new reluctance to engage in difficult talk about each other’s lives? Or was the self-sacrifice in these relationships never dependent on God’s Spirit to begin with?
- Do you begin to see a flood of requests for pastoral counselling because people are no longer bearing each other’s burdens? Or have people always seen the pastoral staff as the “professionals” they call in a time of spiritual need?
I would hope that our churches would dissolve into chaos the moment God removed his supernatural power. But I fear that many of us have built church community in such a way that Ezekiel’s vision could come true in our own day, and we would never notice the difference.1
That is a very striking illustration. The apostle Paul wanted to avoid that deeply in the church at Ephesus. That is why he wrote this letter.
The church, as God has intended it, is a supernatural community. It is His new creation formed from the dust of death (Ephesians 2:1–5). It is the Bride of Christ, drawn from His bleeding side. Those who see things as God does will view God’s new creation by water and the Word as He does and will join Him in declaring, “It is good; it is very good.”
But sometimes there is huge gap between theory and practice. The popular expression, “The church must be the church,” is more easily said than done. But it must be done. This was Paul’s burden for the church at Ephesus.
Austen summarises it well: “The description of church with which we have been presented may seem a long way from our experience. We often don’t feel, or act, as this wonderful, harmonious, united body. In fact, often we find such church quite difficult. That is why this short section is so important. It is a prayer which expresses the confidence that the impossible can be made possible.” This is the content of the closing verses of this chapter.
It is important to note that Paul is praying for more than Sunday behaviour; it is expected of the local church 24/7. In other words, the community of faith is an ongoing expression of supernatural relationships brought about by the power of the gospel.
As Paul prays for these believers, he prays for them to experience power. He has already done this in 1:15–23. There, he prayed that they would experience the power of God by which He made the church. In the prayer recorded in 3:14–21, he prays that they will experience the power of God to be the church; that is, to become what they are, to live like the church. To become all that they can be to the glory of God by becoming more and more like God.
Stott speaks of these verses as a prayer staircase. Each part of the prayer builds upon the previous section. The prayer can be divided into three sections.
In the first major request, Paul prays that these believers will be strengthened in the inner man so that they will know that they belong to Christ (vv. 16–17a). In the second major request, he prays that they will become more and more like God (vv. 17b–19). The prayer then closes with a doxology that is full, not only of praise but also of promise (vv. 20–21).
In this prayer, the apostle prays for the church. Realising that the church is a supernatural community, he prays for supernatural things. Among the many things that he prays for are supernatural communion (vv. 16b–17a), supernatural confidence (v. 17b), supernatural comprehension (vv. 17c–19a) and supernatural conformity (v. 19b). But as the opening words indicate and illuminate, they arise out of supernatural concern.
We see Paul’s supernatural concern for his readers in vv. 14–16a: “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you.”
Preaching and Prayer
Paul, having “preached” to his readers in the first part of this chapter, now returns to his intended prayer. He began v. 1 with “for this reason,” but then interrupted his intended prayer in vv. 2–13. Now he returns in v. 14 to his original intent: “For this reason.”
“The thought of the new relations into which the Ephesians had been brought by grace toward God and toward the Jews—the reconciliation of the Cross, peace effected where once there was only enmity, the place given them in the household of God—gave Paul cause for prayer in their behalf.”2 In other words, Paul, realising that the church is a supernatural entity, with a supernatural destiny, knows that it requires supernatural means towards this end. And prayer is one of those means—a large means.
John Stott pastorally writes, “One of the best ways to discover a Christian’s chief anxieties and ambitions is to study the content of his prayers and the intensity with which he prays them. We all pray about what concerns us, and are evidently not concerned about matters we do not include in our prayers.”3
Paul’s prayers reveal a lot about what is important to him. The same should be important to us.
What should not be missed, and what should be emphasised, is the connection between preaching and prayer. Having expounded truth about the church, Paul quite naturally (supernaturally?) breaks out in prayer. This is his usual pattern.
This is the pattern of true Bible study and preaching: Doctrine leads to an awareness of our dependence upon God, and this awareness will produce prayer and praise. As here.
If the Bible is properly, as in appropriately, expounded, then hearers—graced by God—will become aware of God’s greatness and of their dependence on Him. We will appreciate increasingly our insufficiency but His sufficiency; our inadequacy and yet profound opportunity. This will drive us to prayer. Nehemiah 8 is one example of how the reading of God’s Word leads to passionate, honest and hopeful prayer (chapter 9).
God’s revelation produces a response from those who hear it. And for those whose eyes have been enlightened by the power of the gospel, our response will be to pray.
Note that there is an important relationship between ecclesiology and kneeology. Prayer is driven by a proper appreciation of what the church is: God’s supernatural community. As we grow in our affection for the church, as we grow in our amazement over what the church is, then we will be driven to our knees to pray for her growth in glory. We will pray that her members appreciate all that she is and all the benefits she offers.
Passion and Prayer
Paul’s passion in prayer is also revealed in these verses: “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The normal posture of prayer in ancient times, was that of standing (see Nehemiah 8:5; 9:3, 5; Luke 18:13, 15). Abraham Lincoln once said that his posture in prayer was to stand. He said that, as president, he was accustomed to people standing when he walked into a room as a sign of respect and deference. Accordingly, he stood in prayer as a reminder of his deference and respect to God.
Today, as is occasionally the case in the Bible, kneeling is a common posture in prayer. Kneeling in prayer indicates a deep passion, a profound sense of one’s inadequacy; it reveals one’s insufficiency coupled with a disposition of dependence upon the Lord (cf. Ezra 9:5ff; Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:41; Acts 7:59–60). This may be the intention of Paul’s mention of “bending” in prayer to God.
Paul was passionate that these believers come to appreciate their privilege to be a part of the church. But he also knew that it would require a supernatural work of God for them to do so. He knew the sins they were battling, both individually and corporately (4:17ff; 5:1–17; 6:10–18), and so he knew that they would need help to see beyond the ugliness to the beauty of the church.
His prayers for these believers indicates his concern for God to do something supernatural in their midst. He wanted no one left behind.
But there is another indication in this verse of Paul’s concern for the supernatural and therefore of his supernatural concern. It is found in the closing words: “to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It was Jesus who taught His disciples, and us, to pray, “Our Father in heaven.” This is an inestimable privilege. And it is a privilege that testifies to the supernatural power of the gospel. We were once enemies of God and now we are His children. The Judge not only declares us to be righteous but actually adopts us as His own! We may (and will) still sin, but we can be assured of God’s love for us.
Perspective and Prayer
In vv. 15–16a, Paul gives us some important perspective in prayer. He speaks of the Father “from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you.”
Is this referring to what is sometimes called the church militant (on earth) and the church triumphant (in heaven)? From the context (2:19–22), this would seem to be the correct interpretation.
Paul is most likely emphasising the scope of God’s Fatherhood to drive home His enormity and therefore His ability and His commitment to the church. It is a confidence-building statement that fuels his passion in prayer. As Foulkes highlights, “To such a Father, Father of all, the one in whom alone fatherhood is seen in perfection, men and women come when they come to pray.”4 In other words, this great God, who is the Father of all who believe, is your Father of all. Trust Him for great things.
Another interpretation says that Paul is actually emphasising God’s sovereignty over all. In other words, Paul is saying that God is the source from which all fatherhood derives, wherever and in whomever it is found.
Regardless of which way you interpret it, the point remains the same: God is the sovereign Lord. He is the creator of both the world and the church in the world (2 Corinthians 5:17). How does this help our prayers?
It empowers us to ask for those things that are large. It empowers us to believe and ask Him for that which is super- and supranatural.
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.
This is the kind of perspective that we so desperately need and for which we should so dependently and desperately plead.
Consider what God can grant and therefore do in a church of sinners. Consider what God can grant and therefore do through a church of sinners. Consider what God has done in and through a church of sinners.
BBC has a legacy of God doing great things: lives changed, marriages saved, churches planted, godly homes flourishing, the needy cared for, love persevering, missionaries sent and supported who are making a difference, leaders developed, etc.
In vv. 16b–17b, we see reference to supernatural communion. Paul prays “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
We now begin to unpack the actual words of the prayer. As we do so, what stands out is Paul’s first request that these believers come to experience supernatural communion with Christ and that they do so together. In other words, this supernatural communion with Christ will be shared in community. This supernatural communion/fellowship is among Christ and Christians.
John emphasised the corporate nature of this fellowship in his first epistle:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.
(1 John 1:1–4)
Praying in Proportion
Paul knew the ability of the sovereign Lord to whom he was bowed and to whom he prayed. His prayer was “according to the riches of His glory” (v. 16).
The apostle did not ask God to answer this prayer from a portion of all that God is and has, but rather in proportion to all that He is and all that He has. This is indicated by the words “according to the riches of His glory.” “He wants them to live lives that correspond to the spiritual wealth they have in Christ.”5
Paul uses these two words several times in Ephesians and he joins them together here as well as in 1:18. The “glory” speaks of God’s person (Exodus 33:18). So Paul is asking the Lord to hear this request for something supernatural, knowing that God has all of the resources necessary and available for such a request.
If a millionaire was to give R1,000 to a particular cause, he would be giving a portion of what has. If he gave R100,000 to that cause, he would be giving in proportion to what he has. He would be giving, in the latter case, not “out of” but “according to” what he has.
The point is that Paul was praying to a big God who could do so much more than we can even think or imagine. As Stott puts it, “Paul has no doubt either that God has inexhaustible resources at his disposal or that out of them he will be able to answer his prayer.”6 We should be encouraged by this knowledge to pray!
We can live so much more supernaturally than we even think. We can be so much more forgiving, so much more expressive of a supernatural unity in the midst of our diversities, so much more loving, and, yes, so much holier. We can be supernaturally countercultural and therefore so much more effective.
Even the sky is not the limit to what God can do and to how He can use our churches.
We need such a vision of God’s glory if we will be much and if we will do much good as churches (see Proverbs 29:18).
Praying for Power
The rest of v. 16 informs us of what Paul is praying particularly about: “to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man.”
In a word, Paul is praying for power—not physical power, or political power, or economic power. These things are not wrong in and of themselves, but they are not the priority of the church. The priority of the church, and therefore of the Christian, is that we live to the glory of God by becoming more and more like God (v. 19).
MacArthur helpfully comments,
Two things a pastor should be most concerned about are telling his people who they are in Christ and then urging them to live like it. In other words, the pastor helps members of the flock understand their spiritual power, and then he motivates them to use it. Like the apostle Paul in this letter, the faithful pastor seeks to bring his people to the place of maximum power as full-functioning Christians.7
This is the power for which Paul is praying here. The church needs to believe God for power to live counterculturally; that is, to live holy.
As I type these words, it is exactly one year since my father died. I remember coming out of a church service a year ago and receiving a text message from my sister informing me of his death. My mind immediately went to 2 Corinthians 4:16–5:1, where Paul writes,
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
(2 Corinthians 4:16–5:1)
I was obviously saddened, but I knew that my father was in the presence of the Lord, that he had been transferred from the church militant to the church triumphant.
The word translated “strengthened” means to be empowered. As used here, in a passive sense, it means “to increase in vigour.” Paul is praying that these believers will become stronger.
The word translated “might” derives from the word dunamis. We get such words as “dynamic” and “dynamite” from it. It implies the ability to overcome.
Again, Paul is clearly praying for something supernatural. That is why He is praying! And to prove the point, He is praying that this strength and might will come from the Spirit of God. This is not a natural strength but rather it is a prayer for power from on high. “The strengthening was to take effect by means of power imparted or infused, and this impartation of power was to be made through the Spirit of God.”8 It is a prayer for power to live like the remarkable church of which we are a part.
The “inner man” speaks of the “ego,” that is, of the real you. Yes, your body is important, but not nearly as important as that which will transcend your earthly body. Paul is concerned about the kind of body building that really matters: the building up of believers in Christlikeness (Ephesians 4:11–16).
There are plenty of nemeses to our pursuit of that which is most important. And these enemies—selfishness in the form or self-preservation, self-promotion, self-sufficiency, self-gratification, etc.—are fierce. We need God’s Spirit to continue to point us to Christ, to convict us of sin, to illumine truth to us, and to empower us to guard our hearts in these ways. And when such a prayer is answered, then we will experience more and more of what it means to be the church. As we rely increasingly on the person and work of the Spirit, then we will increasingly experience what it means to be a supernatural community. That is, we will be like Jesus and will perseveringly love one another—to the end. When this is true in our experience, then we will indeed experience the greatest of miracles and many of those in the natural community will take notice, to the glory of God and, in many cases, to the salvation of their souls (John 13:35).
But how is this prayer answered? By preaching and prayer and practice.
As we are exposed to God’s Word, we need to pray for the Spirit to continually point us to Jesus Christ and to continue to preach this to us. This is why it is important to store up God’s Word in our hearts. This is perhaps a benefit that can derive from often having earphones in your ears! Be exposed to truth. But then apply the effort required to obey what the Holy Spirit teaches you. We must put feet to our prayers and we will be amazed at the feats that God will perform.
But there is one other important element: partnership. We pursue and pray and believe and practice this power of God together. As Austen says, “Paul’s concern is not only for a personal experience of the love of Christ, but for a corporate understanding which affects the life of the church.”9 This communion is in community. Help one another and be willing to be helped by one another. Rebukes are often as productive, if not more so, than encouragements.
Praying for Presence
The end of this first request is found in the words “that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” (v. 17). The purpose (“that”) for the power of the Spirit is so that we will be at home with Christ in our midst and that He will be at home with us. The title of the book, My Heart, Christ’s Home, summarises this well.
We should note that Paul is not praying for two different things. Being strengthened with might through His Spirit is synonymous with
Christ dwelling in our hearts. They are two sides of the same coin (see Colossians 1:27).
In other words, Paul is not saying that there are different stages to the Christian life. He is not saying something silly like, “First you are saved from your sins and then you have a second work of grace through the Spirit and then you experience Jesus Lord.” What he is saying is that, as the Holy Spirit continues to strengthen our inner man by pointing us to the glory of Jesus Christ, we desire the sense of His presence more and more. John Stott says that Paul is praying “that Christ by his Spirit will be allowed to settle down in their hearts, and from his throne there both control and strengthen them.”10 Or as Boice writes, “The prayer is that Christ might settle down in our hearts and control them as the rightful owner.”11 This request is more than the desire for bliss, it is a prayer for obedience, which honours the living Lord who indwells us—individually aa well as corporately as the church. Obedience—holiness—matters!
This experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ has already been alluded to in 1:17ff. And the more that we experience Jesus Christ the more we will desire of Him. And the more conducive our conduct and attitudes will be to His presence.
Practically, this means that the world’s value systems will be jettisoned as our love for God grows (1 John 2:14–16). It means that the household of God, in which Jesus is the cornerstone, will increasingly be our passion and our priority. It means that the condition of the household of God will increasingly be our concern—beginning with our own selves.
Do we not want Christ to dwell with us? Do we not desire His presence and His power to save us from our sins? Of course we do. But there are requirements for this. We need the Spirit to empower us, and that means He will purify us. Holiness is still beautiful, it still becomes the house of the Lord. So let’s be holy.
Let us pray and strive towards a supernatural communion; one that transcends merely religious ritual and spiritual box-ticking. Let us pursue the knowledge of God. That is supernatural. And that is truly powerful.
Third, v. 17b speaks of supernatural confidence. The first request ends with the words “through faith.” This is how we experience Christ dwelling in our hearts. This is how we become what we are.
Sometimes, Christians and churches approach this remarkably moving prayer as though we must experience something like tongues of fire in order to have its benefits. But these last two words refute such an interpretation. Rather, Paul prays that these believers, and believers everywhere, will be blessed by God to be confident in God. This really is a prayer for confidence in the Lord.
Think about it: Is this not our problem? The reason that we live such sub-Christian lives, the reason that our body life at times is so flabby and natural, is simply that we do not believe what God can do. In fact, we have forgotten what He has done. I raise my hand and identify my own guilt in this. What we need is to believe God. You see, we are justified by faith alone in order to continue to live by faith alone (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Hebrews 10:38).
And since faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God, we are now back to the beginning of this study. Paul’s exposition of the Word led to intercession because of the Word. He has faith, he asks for more faith, and this is found in our confession of faith: Jesus Christ is our Lord.
May God grant us grace to pray this and to experience Him answering this prayer—our prayer for a supernatural community.
The fourth major part of this prayer speaks of supernatural comprehension: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” (vv. 17–19).
John Stott comments, “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.”12
Paul passionately desires for the community of believers to comprehend something of this love. He wants them to swim in this.
This is the fruit of Christ dwelling in their hearts by faith. When we know that Christ is with us, when we know that He is ours and that we are His, then we will be moved by His love. The assurance of His love will move us in a couple of ways.
First, we will be moved to love Him (John 14:15). This will result in obedient living. As we have seen, the experiential knowledge of Christ’s indwelling is largely an experience of His lordship. When we realise His presence, then we will submit to His rule.
Second, will be moved to love others (John 13:35). This will result in supernatural living.
Considering these results, let us pray as Paul does.
Finally, we read in the second part of v. 19 of supernatural conformity: “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” This means just what it says. It means to be godly. It means to be godlike. It is akin to Paul’s teaching in 1:22–23. Paul prays that the church will increasingly be conformed to the image of Christ who, after all, is God. This is the ultimate fruit of knowing the incomprehensible love of God in Christ.
As we grow in our knowledge of God’s love for us, we will grow in obedience to Him. And we will grow up more in Him (4:13–16; see Matthew 5:48).
In essence, Paul’s prayer is for nothing less than holiness for the church. It is no wonder that he falls to his knees. Holy living is a supernatural thing. We need God’s help!
But when we receive God’s help then our community becomes a supernatural one. And people will notice that we are indeed different—because we have the Spirit of God.
What will this look like?
It will look like practically loving one another by speaking to one another. We will encourage one another rather than silently screaming rejection. We will confront one another rather than passively observing destruction.
We will, if necessary, separate from one another (as a form of restoring one another).
We will serve one another, and not merely receive from one another. We will sup with one another around the Lord’s Table. We will duplicate with one another. We will support one another. We will strengthen one another, not only by the above, but also by faithfully gathering with one another.
Just sitting with one another can have a powerful effect. Discipling one another can do so too. Just getting together to read and discuss a book together can do so. So can forgiving one another.
How will God answer such a prayer? By you and me doing the above (see John 14:19–21).
Yes, the answer to this prayer comes by the power of the Spirit. But it does not come in a vacuum. The Spirit works in conjunction with obedience, at least in the lives of Christian. There is no real dilemma between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Obey Christ because He loves you. Obey Christ and you will know more of His love. Love Him and obey Him; obey Him and love Him more.
When a church is characterised by such loving obedience, then it will truly be a supernatural community.
- Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), Kindle edition. ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 5:311. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 131. ↩
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 108. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 104. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 134. ↩
- MacArthur, Ephesians, 100. ↩
- Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 5:313. ↩
- Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus 2012), 120. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 136. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 110. ↩
- Boice, Ephesians, 111. ↩