John Lennon wrote that awful song, “Imagine,” in which he exults in a world without belief in heaven or hell, and one without religion so that “the world will be as one.” The apostle Paul would have been Lennon’s severest critic.
Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus to exhort them to not only imagine the truly religious society, but to embrace one another in a religious community in a supernatural unity. To rephrase John Lennon’s words, those who have been born again by the grace of God are to “all live as one.” That is, we are to live life together without ethnic animosities, demographic discrimination, personal prejudices or cultural divisions.
The church, by biblical definition, is a diverse group of people lovingly living in community. But to move beyond a merely theoretical understanding we may first need to engage our imaginations.
Imagine our church empowered by God’s Spirit to live as though Christ is continually present with us (vv. 16–17a), influencing our attitudes, actions and aspirations, as well as how we handle our afflictions.
Imagine our church so settled in the love of Christ that we soar in this love, both showing and sharing the love of Christ with one another and with the lost world,(vv.17b–19a).
Imagine our church so sanctified that we begin to take on the stature of Jesus Christ, looking increasingly like Him (v. 19b).
At times, this may stretch our imaginations. After all, we are saved and yet still sinners. And so to even imagine the above may, in fact, only discourage us as we contemplate our failures in these very areas. We may find ourselves discouraged that, at the end of the day, we hardly gave any thought to the presence of Christ during our busy schedule. We might confess little sense of the love of Christ, and that we do not express His love in a meaningful way to others. And we no doubt lament that we don’t seem to look any more like Jesus when we go to bed at night than we did when we woke in the morning.
But before we despair, we need to pay heed to Paul’s doxology as he brings his prayer to a close. This doxology tells us that there is so much more that we can experience, both as individual Christians and as a corporate church.
This is not pie-in-the-sky-until-we-die-and-go-to-the-great-by-and-by theology. It is, in fact, what Scripture tells us to imagine—and to ask God for. And if you can’t imagine this, that is okay, because according to our text, God is able to give us even more than we could ever imagine!
As we study these closing words of chapter 3—this wonderful doxology—I trust that not only will we feel convicted that there is so much more for us as Christians and as a Christian church, but that we will arise with fresh courage of conviction to live so much more for and like our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Character of the Doxology
We must first pay attention to the nature and purpose of the doxology. These verses form what we might call a “doxological benediction.” It is directed upward to the glory of God and also outward to the good of the church. This doxology is to both bless God and to be a blessing to the church. It is deeply motivational.
Paul was prone to break out into doxologies after expounding theology (Romans 11:33–36; 16:25–27; 1 Timothy 1:17). Doctrine was not theoretical for Paul; it moved him. It should move us too. Like Paul, as we learn about the glory of the church, as we come to appreciate that it is the greatest thing in the world, as we appreciate God’s power in producing the church, we will break forth in both prayer and praise to God. And by doing so, we will find ourselves encouraged to imagine that God can do so much more for us; He can do so much more both for and through our church.
This doxology is dynamic. A grasp of its content will empower us to seek and to experience so much more. You see, fundamentally, biblical doxologies serve both to glorify God and to help us to believe this glorious God. In a sense, Paul is saying, “Now, having made these rather impossible-looking requests, believe in this great prayer-answering because all powerful God! We need this, for as Simon Austen very honestly and helpfully writes,
As we look at our fellowship with the mess and muddle of church life, the difficult people, the failure to evangelise or to integrate new Christians, the back-biting, gossip and factions, we might begin to ask if this wonderful picture of church can ever become a reality. That is why we need to take 3:20–21 to heart. Far from being a rather memorable liturgical conclusion to a prayer meeting, these words confirm to us that what Paul has just prayed for can become a reality.1
The Context of the Doxology
Paul has explained the mystery of the church. He has highlighted its supernatural character as expressed by an amazing unity in the midst of what would be otherwise an animosity of diversity. But as great as the church in Ephesus was, it could be so much more. And “for this reason” (vv. 1, 14), Paul prays for her. And what he prays for, we too should pray for our church—for all churches, in fact.
In this “staircase” of prayer there are three fundamental petitions (each indicated by the introductory word “that”).
First, he prays “that” they may be strengthened to live with Christ (vv. 16–17a). That is, he prays that believers will be aware of the glory of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Jacob became aware of this when he wrestled with God. After that encounter, he “called the name of the place Peniel: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved’” (Genesis 32:30). We must pray for a similar strength to overcome everything that would push Christ out.
Second, Paul prays “that” they would be structured and settled to love like Christ (vv. 17b–19a). He prays that they will be assured of Christ’s love and soar in it, and that they will show it in community with “all the saints.” He prays for true, biblical unity.
Third, he prays “that” they will be sanctified to look like Christ (v. 19b; see 1:22–23). In this staircase of prayer, he Paul builds to the pinnacle, asking God to grow the church in godliness. He defines this godliness as “the fullness of God.” Now, that is godly! It is similar to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven in perfect.” This was not a suggestion, and neither was it a theoretical exhortation. It is not a case of exaggerated motivation. The reality of biblical revelation is the expectation of glorification (Romans 8:29–30).
Paul is praying for what he knows will one day be true of every truly Christian believer: perfection; the fullness of the glory; godliness of character and body. And though, as he makes clear elsewhere, we will not fully attain this on this side of the grave, yet we are to be progressively conforming to the image of God in Christ (Philippians 3:10–14).
Because he was persuaded of the purpose and the power of God, Paul knew that these believers could experience so much more of personal sanctification. He knew that they could experience and achieve so much more Christlikeness. He knew that this congregation could achieve so much more supernatural power in their community of faith. And so can we.
So, as we study this benediction, may the Lord open our eyes to see how much more we can have of the so-much-more grace of God (Romans 5:9–10, 15, 17, 20). This is the “body building” that truly matters (4:11–16).
The Content of the Doxology
The staircase of prayer culminates in a staircase of praise. Paul uses several superlatives to describe the power of God to effect change in our lives. Someone has structured it like a pyramid:
That is able to do
All that we ask or think
Above all that we ask or think
Abundantly above all that we ask or think
Exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think
According to the power that works in us.
Three main truths stand out from this pyramid of praise.
We Are Able to Have So Much More
First, we see in v. 20a that we are able to have so much more. God, says Paul, “is able to do.” We need to cease with a self-focused and thus debilitating and disabling life. We need to believe that vv. 14–19 are possible because God is able to do it.
This doxology is didactic. That is, it teaches and exhorts us in several practical ways. And its first lesson is that the Christian and the Christian church is blessed by God with what we might call the abled life. Because of who God is, the Christian is empowered for so much more. We need to be persuaded of this. These opening words should help us to be so. As Robinson says, “Unabashed by the greatness of his petition, he triumphantly invokes a power which can do far more than he asks, far more than even his lofty imagination conceives.”2
There are two related ideas in this opening sentence.
The Perspective for the Abled Life
Paul gives us the perspective for the abled life when he writes, “Now unto him” (cf. Romans 16:25; Jude 24). This is significant. It is, in fact, very Pauline. It is an important trio of words—especially after such a bold prayer request.
Paul prayerfully desired that these believers be strengthened by the Spirit so that they would be rooted and grounded in love so that they might be able to grasp the incomprehensible love of Christ (vv. 17–20). But this experience of the love of Christ is to result in more than a feeling of ecstasy. It is to produce a life of devotion to God. In the words of Psalm 128, it is to yield a harvest of the fear of the Lord, bringing forth a life of obedience. In a word, it is to produce Christlikeness. And that is a tall order. But Paul points his readers here to the one who indeed can answer this prayer: “Now to Him who is able” to answer such a huge prayer.
We need such a doxological outlook.
Paul’s high view of God enabled him to be confident about what God can do. His vision of God gave him a vision for victory. His worship of God empowered him to believe God for great works. This is always the case. True worship will stimulate and grow our faith. It is the means to, as William Carey famously said, expect great things from, and to therefore attempt great things for God. Because, in the end, it is God doing the great things with us that He has promised (e.g. Matthew 28:18–20).
This is, in fact, the purpose of closing with a doxology. The biblical writers so often close with doxology in order to remind us of who God is and that what He says is believable. They want to remind us of who God is and to stir our adoration, and for our adoration to lead to implementation of what we have just heard.
A proper appreciation of this outlook will prove limitless when it comes to believing God in our prayers. It will prove powerful in motivating us to persevere in and with the Body of Christ. It will prove immeasurably powerful in our pursuit of godliness.
Sanctification begins, and continues fruitfully, with the upward look. And this upward look is transformational: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
You will remember Moses’s request to God to show him His glory (Exodus 33:18). The result was that his face literally shone. Paul’s desire was similar to Moses’s: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11). And what would be the result?
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Don’t lose sight of whom it is that you are praying to.
Sometimes we need to pause with a “now.” We need perspective. We need encouragement. We need to view the possibilities of what seems to be an otherwise impossible goal. But it is this very statement, this very awareness, that drives us to look upward. If our petitions do not require the intervention of such a God then we should not offer them. But when our petitions drive us to look to Him then we are truly on praying ground.
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.
The more we look upward, the more we will pursue living upward. And the less we will be pulled downward.
The Power for the Abled Life
In the second part of v. 20, we read of the power to live an abled life: God is “able to do.” This is an exhortation to stop living the disabled life.
The phrase “is able to do” translates the same word found in 1:10, 21; 3:7, 16. We get our word “dynamic” from it. It literally speaks of the ability to do something.
Paul assures his readers that God is able to accomplish far more than we can ever imagine. This is why he prays such a big prayer. In the words of Hughes, “The God to whom Paul makes these requests has a capacity that exceeds the people’s capacity of asking—even imagining!”3 This concept was grasped by the little boy who fell into a barrel of molasses and prayed, “Lord, grant me the capacity to match my opportunity!”
This speaks to us of the power of God, a theme which is writ large in chapters 1–3. Paul points to the power of God as evidenced in the resurrection as motivation for Christian living (1:19ff). In chapter two he reminds his readers of God’s amazing power in raising them from spiritual death to spiritual life. And then he illustrates God’s almost incredible power in forming one new man made up of Jews and Gentiles in Christ (2:15ff). In chapter three Paul continues along this theme as he mentions God’s salvific power in his own life (3:7) and then notes the power of the Spirit to strengthen the inner man of the Christian and of the church.
Clearly, Paul was impressed with the power of God. Surely he was convinced about what God could accomplish in and through His people. He had no doubts about God’s ability and therefore of the Christian church’s ability. We need the same conviction.
Too many Christians, and therefore too many congregations of Christians, live the disabled life rather than the abled life—and with tragic consequences. One of those is a defeatist attitude and approach to life.
Someone has quipped that a pessimist can hardly wait for the future so he can look back with regret. Sadly, many Christians live like this. And perhaps even whole churches of Christians. MacArthur laments, “There is no question in the minds of believers that God ‘is able’ to do more than we can conceive, but too few Christians enjoy the privilege of seeing Him do that in their lives, because they fail to follow the pattern of enablement presented in these verses.”4
But this should not be so. By God’s grace, we have far more ability than we can even ask or think. That is why we should not be so easily discouraged or defeated when things do not go our way. Rather we should continue to persevere. As has been well said, defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.
The context here is not health, wealth and prosperity. (Remember, Paul wrote this from prison!) Rather, the context is conformity to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of God (Colossians 1:19; 2:9). Christian, you can grow in godliness. And that is the greatest of all prizes. In fact, this is our inheritance (1:11, 14; see also 1:18).
It is perhaps necessary to pause here to make a few observations.
Paul uses the Greek word dunamis twice in the twentieth verse. Clearly, he wants to persuade Christians that they have been blessed with the abled life. If we are persuaded of what God can do, it will have a number of practical results.
For example, if we are persuaded of what God can do, we will be persuaded that we can overcome sinfully destructive habits. We will be persuaded that we can experience reconciled and rebuilt relationships. We will be persuaded of our ability to persevere (see Philippians 3:10–14). We will be persuaded that we can and should persuade other believers of their potential.
It is a shame that the Christian church is too often content to mope around that we are “broken.” I understand that we must confess our brokenness, but the point of confession is that we get fixed up! We are broken, but not unfixable.
I recently heard of a church named Metanoia Church. This is a great name. The word metanoia speaks of a change in life resulting from penitence or repentance. It speaks of a change of mind that is manifested in a change of lifestyle.
We should so believe God that the world will marvel that, like the once demonised man, we are sitting, clothed and in our right mind (Mark 5:15). They should marvel as they view our lives and recognise that, indeed, we have “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). We should display a godly value system that, at the least, causes others to scratch their heads in mystified disbelief.
One might think here of the Covenant College women’s tennis team that recently pulled out of the championship game because it was to be played on a Sunday. The college has a policy that it will not play sports on a Sunday, and when the coaches learned that the final was to be played on a Sunday, they registered their objection in writing. The decision was made that the game would not be moved to another day, and so Covenant College was told to either forfeit or play. They chose to forfeit, much to the bemusement of a watching world.
This divinely provided ability to do needs to be taken very seriously. This benediction must serve as a remedy for anxiety and for needless worry; it provides us with meaningful encouragement in the toughest of times. It is an infallible promise that we are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ.
We live in what is doubtless the most medicated society in history. Sadly, the church is probably the most “sedated” in history. Antidepressants (so called “happy pills”) of all sorts are increasingly the norm. Children are medicated, at an alarming rate, in an attempt to address behavioural challenges. I question the wisdom of this approach.
Obviously, I am not a doctor. I am sure that, sometimes, psychotropic medications are appropriate. But I do not hesitate to state that, in many cases, meditation on God through meditation on His Word would eliminate the need for a lot of medication. Further, if we move beyond dependence on psychotropic medication, then perhaps we would have a greater experience of the great power of the gospel. Rather than being catatonic, we would find ourselves functioning in faith and experiencing the great power of God. A casual reading of the Psalms will go a long way towards convincing us of this. The Scriptures really are sufficient.
Take, for example, the first psalm.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. The ungodly are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgement, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
This is not simply poetry, and it is not hypothetical. It is a promise. It is the promise of a life that is so much more than we all too often experience.
We must be convinced that the the power of God is sufficient for all things. Post-partum depression, broken marriages, drug and alcohol abuse, bi-polar—all these things can be overcome by the power of God. God’s children have the ability to overcome by the power of God. In all of these instances, individuals can come to experience the truth that “God is able to do.”
We Are Able to Abundantly Have So Much More
Not only are we able to have so much more, but we are able to abundantly have so much more. God is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (v. 20b). If we really believe this, we will stop living impoverished, defeatist lives.
Connected to the encouragement of the incredible ability that is at the disposal of the church is the super-superlative coined by Paul: “exceedingly abundantly.” The word implies that, “God’s capacity to meet his people’s spiritual needs far exceeds anything that they can either request in prayer or conceive by way of anticipation.”[A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:53.]
Paul is trying to describe the otherwise indescribable. He is attempting to encourage his readers that we should think a lot about the unthinkable abundance of ability that is ours! In other words, he is intimating that those who are members of the Christian church are privileged to live the abundant life. In fact, these words are similar to those used by Jesus in John 10:10 when He said, “I have come that they [the sheep] may have life and that they may have it more abundantly.” This is the kind of life that Jesus promised to those who follow Him. And Paul is essentially saying the same thing.
Paul’s doxological benediction is an encouragement, even an invitation, to a life of abundant ability—not merely ability, but abundant ability. Superabundance! He is saying that the potential of the Christian life, the potential of the church, is limitless. Now that is abundant living!
The way that similar words are used elsewhere in Scripture help us to appreciate the implications of this verse. Mark 6:51 uses a similar term of those who were “greatly amazed … beyond measure.” Romans 5:15 speaks of God’s grace that “abounded” to many. In Romans 15:13 the apostle expresses his prayer that the Roman Christians would “abound” in hope. Second Corinthians 8:2 speaks of the “abundance” of the Macedonians’ Christians joy. Ephesians 1:8 says that God made His grace to “abound” to His children. In short, the Christian life is the abounding life.
The abundant life is the abiding life. God is able to do exceedingly abundantly “according to the power that works in us” (v. 20c). This abundantly able life is the abiding life: God’s power works “in” us. The power is not some inner light. It is not some mystical presence. It is not something in our subconscious. Rather, it is the Lord Jesus Christ who “dwells in” our “hearts” (v. 17). This is precisely what Jesus taught (see John 15:1–7).
We are Able to Agelessly Have So Much More
We are able to have so much more “to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (v. 21). We must therefore stope living the time-bound life.
Paul is pointing us to an indefinite time period in order to help us to stop being defined by the here and now. He wants us to have the perspective that he articulated in 2 Corinthians 4:16–5:7. We need this if we will experience so much more.
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. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.
(2 Corinthians 4:16–5:7)
There is so much more to history than what has been recorded and what is being recorded. In fact, as important as history is, we must realise that it is all leading to something glorious in the future.
Eugene Peterson has written, “The way of faith is not a fad that is taken up in one century only to be discarded in the next. It lasts. It is a way that works. It has been tested thoroughly.”5 One day, those on the way of faith, the Christian and the Christian church, will have come through all testing and will be triumphant (4:16). We will be unendingly glorious because Jesus is glorious. The church will forever glorify Jesus Christ in a most glorious way because we will finally and fully be so much more than we currently are. Imagine that! Hughes observes, “We the Church (though remaining finite) will keep expanding our capacity to bring glory to him for all eternity.”3 The promises of these verses was not limited to the first century church.
Such a perspective, such a sanctified imagination, will help us as we persevere through our tough and testing times. Such an eternal perspective will equip and empower us to make the most of the here and now.
There is a sense in which Paul is intimating that, since the glory of Jesus Christ is tied to the church, we therefore have every reason to expect so much more. God in Christ will perfect and glorify the church because Jesus Christ is to be glorified. It is for this reason that Paul could write elsewhere that he was persuaded that what God begins He completes “until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
God has promised us so much more, not only because He loves us but also because He loves His Son and wants Him to be glorified (see John 17:1–10, 16–19, and especially 20–24). Stott puts it well: “The power comes from Him, the glory must also go to Him.”7 And so it shall!
Be encouraged that God will not give up on you. Be encouraged that God will not give up on the church, for the glory of the church is not a passing phase. Rather, it will redound to the glory of Christ forever. As Bryan Chapell writes, “You and I are the instruments by which God is going to accomplish more than we can ask or even imagine.”8
Be encouraged that your glory, and the glory of the church is certain. Be encouraged that your troublesome fellow believing church member will be glorified—just as he or she is to be encouraged that you, a troublesome fellow believing church member, will be!
So let us pray together and praise together and partner together with the conviction that there really is so much more.
- Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus 2012), 122. ↩
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 113. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 117. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr. Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 113. ↩
- Eugene H. Peterson, The Journey: A Guide Book for the Pilgrim Life (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), 113. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 117. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 140. ↩
- Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 173. ↩