My mother is planning on flying to South Africa soon for our youngest daughter’s wedding. At her church the other evening, someone asked her if she was going to cancel her trip in the light of terrorist threats and the danger of bombs on aeroplanes. She replied, “No. If I go down, I’m going up!” That is the worldview of someone with biblical hope because she is an heir of God, who gives her power to be an overcomer in this world. Her response is a practical example of an answer to Paul’s prayer recorded in Ephesians 1:15–23.
James Boice summarises this prayers a follows: “It is really one great prayer for knowledge: knowledge of God and a fuller knowledge of the elements of salvation, consisting in our hope, our inheritance, and the power available to us through the Lord Jesus Christ. The chief idea is that we might know God.”1
And those who know God, like my mom, show God in their walk and worldview.
To know and show God requires the power of God. After all, this is a counter-cultural way to live. It is a holy way to live. And holy living requires the power of God; it requires the power of the gospel.
Paul desired for these believers to know and to show God experientially. But his concern centred on them doing so together.
The community of faith is the setting, the experiential context, for the experiential knowledge of God. The sooner that we grasp this, the sooner we will know God, together. This is made patently clear in the closing verses of this chapter.
The context of this prayer, as we have been observing, is the community of faith. This is the overriding context of the entire epistle. The church is central to this letter; it is the concern that drives Paul to write. He wants this church to glorify God, together. This is the purpose of the church. And therefore the church is to be a priority. We see this in the final two verses of the chapter and of the prayer.
In (what may be) our final study of this chapter we will focus on two important truths: (1) The Christian who knows God will be energised by Christ (vv. 19–21); and (2) the Christian who knows God will prioritise the church (vv. 22–23)
I trust that our study will result in our community of faith (and others) being energised and being prioritised as we seek to know and show God, together.
Energised by Christ
First, we need to consider that the Christian who knows God will be energised by Christ. Paul writes of
the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.
We need to return to these verses to more fully appreciate all that we have in Christ. As we grow in our knowledge of God we will grow experientially in “His power toward us.” That is,, we will grow in the experience of being energised by and for the Lord Jesus Christ. We will increasingly come to appreciate, by experience, what it means that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
J. I. Packer identifies four characteristics of those who know God, and the first is that those who know God have great energy for God. As Daniel wrote, “the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32).
How we need this! How the world needs to see this! And, oh, how we can know this by experience! Consider the encouragements regarding this that arise from the text.
The Discovery of the Energy
We return to this section because we need to meditate on the tremendous gift that belongs to the Christian. We are attached to each other and to God by the “HIP”: hope, inheritance and power. We are to live characterised by hope, content with our identity, and counter-culturally powerful.
Paul prayed that these believers would discover (“revelation”) this. And the third issue (power) gives us encouragement that we can live this way. In our knowledge of God, we experience supernatural energy that is out of this world that we are to demonstrate in this world. But what does this energy look like?
The Definition of this Energy
Let’s unpack this important phrase. If we properly grasp its meaning, we will be committed to never again being unplugged.
How great is this power? A look at the superlatives he uses helps us. “Exceeding” means immeasurable or surpassing. “Greatness” really means mega great. “Power” speaks of force or ability. We might summarise and say that God has provided believers with mega great ability. We have access to incomparable power to live out our faith.
Those “who believe” have been provided with power for living the Christian life. Believers have been provided with power to know God and to live like we known Him. If this is not enough to encourage the Christian and the Christian church then consider what follows.
Paul says that this happens “according to the working of His mighty power.” The word translated “working” speaks of superhuman power. The term is only used in the New Testament of God’s supernatural power. God is the great Energiser of those who believe, of those who are in Christ.
The word “mighty” speaks of vigour or dominion. It is often used in a political context of ruling. “Power” speaks of raw strength, forcefulness. It was often used to speak of physical stamina.
The point of all of these descriptively powerful words is to highlight that Christians are divinely energised to face life with vigour, strength and courage. We are made capable for whatever life throws at us. We can conclude that those who know God experientially have an energy that is out of this world but is to be experienced and displayed in this world. Those who therefore know God will show God.
What are you facing? It doesn’t really matter for those who are energised by Christ. As we face troubles, temptations, terrorism or threats, our experiential knowledge of God will enable us to show Christ. Consider the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, where Jesus displayed this kind of power.
The Display of this Energy
As we touched on previously, the power that is available for the Christian (“toward us”) is synonymous with the power of God exercised in bringing Jesus back from the dead. And that is a lot of energy.
The phrase “according to” is key. It means, “in consequence of,” “in virtue of,” “because of,” or “by.” In other words, we believe because of the same power that was demonstrated and displayed in the resurrection of Jesus. The power that commenced our journey is the same power that continues our journey. It is the power of the gospel.
God exercised His power in bringing Jesus to life from the dead. How powerful was this? Let me put it this way: The resurrection of Jesus was the most powerful act of God in history. The god of this world, no doubt, would have done all that he could to keep Jesus in the grave. For Jesus to rise was the beginning of the new creation and it conquered humanity’s greatest threat and enemy. It is this power that God has “toward us.” It is this dynamic that we need to discover. It is the dynamic that empowers us to overcome (John 16:33; Romans 12:21; 1 John 2:13–14; 5:4; Romans 8:37; 1 Corinthians 15:54–57; Revelation 6:2). It is power that enables us to walk in newness of life. It is the power of the gospel.
The Direction of this Energy
Having defined the energy that we must discover by the aid of the Spirit, and having been encouraged by the display of this power in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, let’s now note the principled and practical encouragement that arises from understanding toward which it is directed. It is bequeathed “toward us who believe.” All others are off the grid, but those saved by the grace of God are connected. It is our inheritance! It is connected to our identity; to our birthright.
The picture is as if God is coming toward us with the gift of power. Don’t neglect it! Reach out and get plugged in. There is no load shedding from God’s side; we can only blame ourselves if we are not energised.
Again, this is not something that we pray to receive but rather this power is already “toward us.” It is given to us. We have all the power that we could possibly need to live as hopeful and holy heirs. It simply needs to be acted upon. We simply need, as it were, to hear his voice and to then follow!
When Jesus called to Lazarus He gave a wonderful example of God’s power toward one of His chosen. And though the parallel is not perfect, Lazarus did hear his Shepherd’s voice and followed.
Consider the example of the disciples when Jesus fed the five thousand. It made no sense when Jesus told them to give the crowd food to eat. But the disciples heard the word from Jesus, obeyed it and experienced God’s power toward them.
We all have this power available to us. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).
So what does this mean for us practically? We are to be energised by this. We are to act upon this. This energy is ours for the exercising.
First, Christian, there is no excuse for you to be low on energy. And there is no excuse for being an energy drainer. When people connect with you then they should leave charged up, not drained. Like Barnabas, you should be an encourager, not a discourager. “Let us consider one another to stir up love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).
Second, keep believing the gospel. If the biggest problem ever faced in the history of the world was overcome by the power of God, and if this same power is available to we who believe, then we should take great comfort that no problem for the Christian is insurmountable. In other words, as we know God experientially, we will live exceptionally. As Stott comments, “This is the power of God which raised Jesus from the dead, and raised us with him. It has put all things under his feet; it can put all evil under ours.”2
What struggles are you facing? Perhaps broken relationships, sinful, destructive addictions, or destructive habits of the heart. Perhaps you are overwhelmed by the thought of discipline the nations. Perhaps you battle with the ability forgive those who have wronged you. Perhaps you face the uphill battle of persevering in the face of persecution or of fruitfully facing persecution. Regardless, you have the energy of Christ available to overcome.
In sum, the matter of powerfully and energetically knowing and showing God is ultimately a faith issue. We discover this energy by the obedience of faith. A major means of such discovery is by doing what He tells you to do. But again—and again and again!—this discovery is to take place, together. This brings us to the final verses of the chapter.
Prioritise the Church
Second, the Christian who knows God will prioritise the church: “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (vv. 22–23). These verses are intimately connected to what has just been said.
Jesus, having been exalted to the right hand of the Father, is “far above all principality and power.” He is sovereign over all. He is more powerful than the most powerful potentate on earth. He is more powerful than the most powerful temptation we face. He is more powerful than the most powerful foe of all: death and the devil (Hebrews 2:14). He has more authority than any earthly authority. He has more authority than any self-serving dictator. He is the Governor of all governors. He has more control than the most controlling of any sin and/or substance. He is Lord. And this matters. It matters in a particular way to the church.
The church is energised by Christ, for Christ, and therefore an energised church prioritises the church. This is the point of vv. 22–23.
Christ, God’s Gift to the Church
Verse 22 is an amazing statement: “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church.” Let that sink in. Paul reveals that a major reason that Jesus was exalted and enthroned above all things—spiritual, physical, and political—is because this is the kind of Head that God the Father desired for His church to have. This exalted Lord is God’s gift to His church. Wow.
This is the first time that Paul mentions the “church” in this letter, and of course this is the theme of his letter. It is the priority and concern of Paul as he writes. It is God’s priority. Is it yours? It should be, for as Salmond highlights,
Christ in the capacity … here ascribed to Him is presented as a gift of God to the Church. Having exalted Him to the highest and invested Him with supreme dominion, God gives Him to the Church…. The Church is not merely an institution ruled by Him as President, a Kingdom in which He is the Supreme Authority, or a vast company of men in moral sympathy with Him, but a Society which is in vital connection with Him, having the source of its life in Him, sustained and directed by His power, the instrument also by which He works.3
Shame on us for ever for minimising rather than prioritising the church.
The Church, God’s Gift to Christ
The word “head” in v. 22 speaks of origin and source. In v. 23 Paul identifies the church as being the body of Christ. The head is that which directs and gives life to the body. So with Christ and His Body, the church. The church is incomplete apart from Christ and, yes, in another sense, Christ is incomplete without the church. This is a rich truth.
And again, this gives us every reason to prioritise the church.
Filled to the Full
There is much disagreement concerning how to interpret the phrase, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” The debate centres on whether “fullness” is passive or active. It is a difference of meaning between the contents of something and the container itself. That is, does Christ fill (complete) the church or does the church fill (complete) Christ? Let me explain.
Paul clearly says that the church (“His body”) is “the fullness of Him” (Christ). If Paul is using this in an active tense then he is saying that the body of Christ (the church) fills up Christ; the church is the contents that actually completes Christ. The active tense interpretation says that, in some way, Jesus Christ is incomplete (by His own volition) apart from the church, His body. This interpretation concludes that, in some way, Jesus Christ has chosen to make Himself incomplete apart from the completed and perfected church.
Since we are told that He is “head over all things to the church,” it stands to reason that a head cannot exist without a body. And this fits other metaphors in Scripture concerning Christ and the Church. For example, the bridegroom is not complete without the bride, the vine is incomplete without the branches (cf. John 15), the shepherd is incomplete without the sheep, and so the head is not complete without the body. John Calvin held to this view. He wrote, “This is the highest honor of the church that until He is united to us, the Son of God reckons Himself in some measure incomplete. What consolation it is for us to learn that not until we are in His presence does He possess all His parts, nor does He wish to be regarded as complete.”4 This interpretation views Paul’s words as teaching that the church is the complement of Christ.
As commendable as the above interpretation is, I would argue that, in keeping with the majority of uses of the Greek word in the New Testament, we should understand “fullness” passively.
In other words, rather than the church being the “contents” which “fills Christ,” the church is the container for the content of Christ. This interpretation fits the context of the passage.
Paul has been exulting in the exalted Lord from v. 19. Jesus was resurrected, ascended and enthroned “above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (v. 20). Therefore it would be strange at this point for Paul to reverse gears as it were and say that Jesus Christ is at the same time “incomplete.” No, clearly it is Jesus Christ who fills the church, thereby making her complete.
Salmond is spot on when he concludes that
this plenitude of the Divine powers and qualities which is in Christ is imparted by Him to His Church, so that the latter is pervaded by His presence, animated by His life, filled with His gifts and energies and graces … and is endowed by Him with all that it requires for the realisation of its vocation.5
Now, let’s connect the dots between vv. 22 and 23.
Having highlighted that Jesus Christ is exalted as absolute authority over all, Paul now tells us that, in this capacity, God has placed Him as head over the church. We are His body and He, the one with all authority in heaven and on earth, is our Head. “The church is the fullness of Christ not because it fills him, but because he fills it…. Christ who fills the church fills the universe also.”6
The one with all authority guides, directs and energises His church. His church is energised and therefore His church is to be prioritised.
Though I do not accept the active tense interpretation, nevertheless it remains true that the Body of Chris is intimately connected to Christ and so, in that sense, Jesus Christ is “completed” by the church. To put it another way, the church is God’s gift to Jesus Christ as the means by which He makes His sovereign authority known. As we live energised by God in Christ, Jesus rules and is honoured. We do this in community, in the church. And for this reason, again, the church is to be prioritised by Christians who will know and show God.
Let’s look at two matters related to the prioritising of the church.
Some years ago, I was blessed to attend one of the many thousands of underground churches in China. I have also met with churches in other parts of the world that, while not underground, faced some danger in gathering. As you leave these churches, you leave asking, “Why?” Why go to the dangerous trouble of meeting with other believers? After all, can we not worship God privately as individuals? Why take the risk?
I recently read about the French Huguenots who, during the time of France’s Reformation, faced severe persecution from the Catholic Church. Many were imprisoned or martyred. Protestant children were forced into Catholic schools, where they were indoctrinated in Catholic teaching. They might have been tempted to just give up. Instead, they found highly creative ways to continue gathering for worship.
For example, even as they faced severe persecution, they found ways to make wine barrels into transformable pulpits. Carrying a wine barrel through the streets of France raised no eyebrows, and when they got to their meeting place they could unfold the barrel into a pulpit and commence worship.
The point is, they understood the significance of the church and so prioritised gathering—even in the face of severe persecution. The believers openly identified with other believers in a community of faith because they understood that the church is the most glorious institution on earth.
Paul desired, and therefore prayed, that these believers would come to an experiential appreciation of their privilege to be members of the Body of Christ. “That the Father has given such a glorious One to the Church seems incredible.”7 But He has, and therefore we are foolish if we do not prioritise it.
Jesus Christ is at the Head and so why would we not make much of it? He is the source of our life and the power of our vitality. How can we not prioritise the church?
The church is energised by Jesus to give us hope, to provide us with our identity and with the power we need to live an amazingly different existence. Why on earth would we not prioritise it?
But perhaps that is the reason why so many do not. The eyes of their understanding are firmly focused on earth. The things of the world have grown strongly bright and the things of God have grown sadly dim. For this reason the church for many professing Christians has become nothing more than a box to check having “done that” for the week. The pursuit of play and recreation and material possessions along with the idolatry of family and comfort are the priority. And such professing Christians are the loser for it.
Do you prioritise this local expression of what Jesus is universally? Do you prioritise connecting with this community? Do you schedule your life around it? Yes, in fact, you should!
I am not merely speaking about how you treat the Lord’s Day, though this is a very important matter. I mean much than church attendance. I mean body life involvement. I mean loving one another. I mean practically serving one another. I mean sacrificially helping one another. I mean forgiving one another. I mean encouraging one another. I mean admonishing one another. I mean praying for and praying with one another. I mean grieving with one another. I mean rejoicing with one another. I mean connecting with one another. I mean being patient with one another. I mean being kind to one another. I mean seeking peace with one another. Yes, I mean arranging your schedule to be with one another. I mean dying to self for one another.
All of the above, and more, is what it means to prioritise the church.
Knowing God and showing God is primarily why we exist. But to try and experientially know God apart from God’s prescribed means is ludicrous. Yet, sadly, too many attempt this very thing. God’s community of faith is a nonnegotiable means towards experiencing the knowledge of God. In fact, in some ways, it may be the primary means.
Let me state it this way: It is within the community of faith that we will experience communion with God. As we worship together, as we work together, as we war together (chapter 6), as we hear God’s Word together, as we rejoice together, as we mourn together, and in many other experiences of togetherness, we will find ourselves learning and experiencing more of God. This is how God has designed the local church to function, and we are the poorer if we neglect this gift. And so will be the world. This brings us to our final observation concerning why we who want to know God should prioritise the church.
We must prioritise the church because it is God’s means to transform the world. If we aren’t careful, we will miss this.
Verse 22 makes it very clear that the Lord Jesus Christ, who has authority over the universe (vv. 20–21), has been given as Head to the church. We are His body. Therefore, Christ’s rule over all means, not only that He rules also over the church, but that, in a very real sense, He rules through the church. It is an amazing truth, but it is true, that “Jesus is changing the world for the good of the church by means of the church.”8 It is for this reason that Boice can say, “The church is to be a transforming power—indeed, through the presence of the risen Christ within, the greatest of all powers in this world.”9
The only hope for the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The chaos that is this world is the result of sinners and their sin. We need a Saviour. And in Jesus Christ we have one. But sinners need to hear this good news. They need the church to not only be energised but also to be mobilised with this message on its lips and its impact seen in its members’ lives.
We are called to be holy and we are called to disciple the nations. And with Jesus Christ as our Head we have every reason to believe that this can be accomplished. So, what will mobilise us? The experiential knowledge of God.
To the degree that the eyes of our understanding are enlightened, to the degree that the Spirit gives to us wisdom and revelation of who Christ is and all that we have in Him, to that degree we will have a gospel impact on the world around us. As we are energised by the knowledge of God in Christ, we will go forth with confidence to evangelise and to make disciples. Let me illustrate.
Have you ever met anyone who professed to be an atheist and who vehemently, even blasphemously, rejected the gospel but who sometime later became a lover of the God they rejected and a proclaimer of the gospel they reviled? I have. What made the difference? The Lord Jesus Christ who has all authority in heaven and on earth.
Have you ever known anyone who was addicted to alcohol, who would spend his meagre pay check on liquor rather than on feeding and supporting his family who then stopped drinking all together and who loved and cherished his family? I have. What made the difference? The Lord Jesus Christ who has all power in heaven and on earth.
Have you ever known anyone who was the poster child for self-centred self-indulgence who became known as a giver and a lover of others? I have. What made the difference? The Lord Jesus Christ who has all authority in heaven and on earth.
Have you ever known anyone who left his wife and baby for another woman but who many years later worshipped the Lord with that woman and raised their children for Christ? I have. What made the difference? The Lord Jesus Christ who has all power in heaven and earth.
Have you ever known anyone who was addicted to pornography and who was a millimetre from losing his marriage but who completely turned away from it and was used to help others to escape this destructive addiction? I have. What made the difference? The Lord Jesus Christ who has all power in heaven and on earth.
Have you ever known anyone who was so self-righteous that they would become enraged when told that they needed a Saviour but who became characterised as humble, teachable and self-denying? I have. What made the difference? The Lord Jesus Christ who has all power in heaven and on earth.
Have you ever heard of anyone who was steeped in idolatry and who invested their wealth in pursuing this but who turned away from it completely, throwing their expensive idols in the fire who then faced cultural ostracism and even violence without flinching? I have, and so have you: these Ephesian believers (Acts 19). What made the difference? By now you can answer with me: The Lord Jesus Christ who has all authority in heaven and on earth. It is these believers for whom Paul prays. It was the sovereign and absolute Lord who had made the initial difference in their lives and it was this same Lord that would continue to make them different. The same power that raised Him form physical death raised them from spiritual death (2:1–5). And having all authority, Jesus would continue to empower them to walk in the newness of this life. He would energise them for this.
Transformed by Teaching
As we teach believers that Jesus is Lord of all souls and over all spheres, His ruling impact will be detected in society: in the marketplace, in the hospitals, in the factories, in the academia, in the halls of government—everywhere! In other words, as we know God then we will consequently also show God. And this will be displayed in a myriad of ways.
As we grow in our knowledge of God together, we will show this God to others who also need to know Him. The church (and I am emphasising the local aspect) is to prioritise being energised together. As we grow in our knowledge of God we should be growing in what we expect and therefore in what we attempt.
As a church, we have recently been challenged to rise to the occasion with regard to a number of orphans we have been ministering to. The orphanage that houses them is facing imminent closure, and the question now presents itself, will those who know God step out in faith?
We need a long view of history. Societal impact takes time. But God has plenty of it! We are called to be faithful in the time in which He has placed us and with the time He has given us. Jesus will not give up on His church. He has no Plan B. He will build His church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
A commentator I was reading tells of his visit to France and meeting the descendants of the French Huguenots. Generations of faithful believers have persevered because a previous generation, under severe persecution, took Christ and His church seriously.
As we experience the knowledge of God, together, and as we therefore experience His power, together, we will live in this world manifesting the embodiment of God in Christ. This is the calling of the church. It is a marvellous position to have, a magnificent privilege and a great responsibility.
May we so pray, knowing that God is pleased to answer. After all, though the church at times can appear to be “an ugly bride, she is beloved of Christ and the only instrument that will ultimately fulfil his purpose on this earth. That is why she is worth the effort, and worth the dedication of our lives.”10
- James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 34. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 69. ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:280–81. ↩
- John Calvin, Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 49. ↩
- Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 3:282. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 64. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 59. ↩
- Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 72. ↩
- Boice, Ephesians, 44. ↩
- Chapell, Ephesians, 74. ↩