Reflection on God's Word


by Tim Thomas

August 16, 2008

Ephesian 3:16-19

New International Version

    16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge -- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

For me, this passage is among the most powerful and important in the entire Bible. It tells us the secret of how to be filled with "all the fullness of God". For those who have not memorized these verses, the answer will probably be quite a surprise. Even for those who have memorized these words, it warrants more than a double take to see if the Apostle Paul is saying here what he appears to be saying. Yet at some deep and intuitive level, we sense that in fact it must be just as Paul says. The punch line comes in the final verse of this passage, so please hang in there with the comments on the earlier verses, because the wait is well worth it.

Paul begins his prayer for the Ephesians -- and for us -- asking the Lord for us to be strengthened on the inside. That is to say, that we would be built up, fortified, encouraged, and made courageous in hearts, minds, souls, wills, and personalities. He is praying that God impart to us peace, confidence, and boldness through the working of the Holy Spirit, who lives in all who profess faith in Christ. It is through this indwelling and our rich relationships with God that we realize our true identities.

Some translations and commentaries suggest that the strengthening of our inner beings is so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith; while others suggest that "Christ dwelling in our hearts" is actually the second prayer that Paul makes for the Ephesians. In the Greek, the "so that" is not there, so the question is whether "so that" is clearly implied or not. If it is implied, it seems to say that unless God first strengthens us on the inside, Christ cannot dwell in our hearts. It seems more natural to me that Paul was praying that the Holy Spirit strengthen us AND that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith.

Jesus already promised He would make His home with us (John 14:16,20,23), so why would Paul pray this if it automatically happens? The word "dwell" gives the impression of permanence, the sense of not coming and going all the time, but staying put. When we think of it this way, it seems clearer what God is talking about. We all know believers who seem to be at best vaguely aware of God in their lives. They live scattered lives, sometimes concerned with their relationships with God, but a lot more of the time with all of the concerns of this world. Truthfully, it describes almost all of us, at least at times. I think that what this part of the prayer means is that it is only through our constant exercise of faith that in any practical sense we are aware of Jesus' presence in our hearts, and to the extent that we are aware of Jesus living in our hearts can He be said to "dwell" there.

This may reconcile the "so that" controversy. It seems to me that we need help on the inside to have the kind of faith that is aware of Jesus in us and with us. It's humbling that we need that kind of help. Shouldn't we be able to at least be responsible for rousing our faith? But the truth is, apart from God, we are weak. The Holy Spirit helps strengthen our faith, so that Christ can dwell in our hearts. So, whether we prefer "so that" or "and", we are ultimately led to the same understanding of this passage.

The second part of verse 17 is a clear transition in the prayer. Paul begins focusing on God's love for us. He begins by pointing out that when we came to faith in Jesus (i.e., when we were "rooted and established"), it was in love and because of love. One of the first verses most of us hear is John 3:16, which says that because God so loved the world, "He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (NIV).

In my own faith walk, even though I did not know this Scripture when I put my faith in Jesus, I did so because I believed that He was really God, and that God loved me very much. Over the years as I "matured " in the Christian faith, however, I somehow got away from the primacy of God's love, until I effectively had a "work to please God" mentality. But Paul's prayer here takes us back to the primacy of God's love for us.

Paul prays in verse 18 that we could have power to grasp the dimensions of God's love for us. He emphasizes that this is something that all believers -- Paul uses the word "saints" here to refer to all followers of Jesus -- might gain this knowledge. He makes it very plain that he is praying for each believer. God's love for me (and you!) is so magnificently huge that we cannot ever hope to really grasp its full dimensions. Even so, Paul prays that at least we begin to grasp and expand the boundaries of what we understand as God's love for us.

In verse 19, Paul takes his prayer for us from the level of a mere academic exercise to the level of the heart. He prays that we might "know this love" (NIV). The word "know" here is suggesting that we "personally know at the heart level". In other words, he is saying that each of us needs a "personal revelation" of God's love for us as individuals. The Amplified Bible translates the first part of verse 19 as "[That you may really come] to know [practically, through experience for yourselves] the love of Christ, which far surpasses mere knowledge [without experience]".

As we continue reading verse 19, we see that the amazing secret to being filled with God to overflowing (i.e., with "the fullness of God", as the NIV says) is simply this: we become aware of the depth of His love for us. What does "the fullness of God" mean, anyway? It certainly sounds pretty good, whatever it is! I love what the Amplified Bible suggests to be its meaning: that you "may have the richest measure of the divine Presence, and become a body wholly filled and flooded with God Himself!"

But why should we receive such a blessing simply as a result of knowing in the depth of our being that God is incredibly in love with us? To paraphrase Mike Bickle, we love God only as much as we are aware that God loves us.1 This means that we cannot live a passionate life for God until we realize how passionate He is for us. Our lack of fullness of God is because we cannot let God fully take control of our lives until we are convinced that He is trustworthy. And we cannot believe He is trustworthy if we are unaware of the depths of His great love for us.

As I have grown in my awareness of God's love for me over the last few years, I have been amazed at how things that used to worry or irritate me or throw me into depression don't as much as they used to. And why not? Because I know that I am loved deeply by a God who is trustworthy, all-seeing, and who has a good plan for my life. I trust (most of the time!) that God sees and will meet all of my needs, even when on the surface the situation looks anything but good.

I believe that the foundation that is either missing or not built very well in the lives of most Christians is the truth found in verses 18 and 19: we are deeply loved by God. It is impossible to over-emphasize this truth, because it is meant to be the foundation of our new lives in Jesus. If that foundation is not laid, or if we move the "house" of our faith off this foundation, we find that the house will eventually crumble. Any activity that does not originate from the foundation that God is incredibly in love with us, and that He has a plan for how He can partner with us, will not bear the kind of fruit that God desires.

Jesus tells a parable about a tree that did not bear fruit (Luke 13:6-8). The owner ordered that it be cut down, and implied that a new one would be planted in its place. The gardener pled with the owner to let him put fertilizer around it, and give it one more year. The owner agreed. I have generally understood this verse to be an ominous warning to believers that we need to "get to work" bearing fruit, or we'll "get the boot". But that understanding is so inconsistent with other things we know of God's faithfulness and love. My old interpretation of the parable has the understanding that we are the tree. But what if we are not the tree but the soil instead, and the tree represents our faith? Perhaps this parable simply means that if the foundation we have built upon does not lead to the kind of fruit that lasts, He gets rid of that poor foundation, and lays a new one. (How's that for mixing metaphors of building and gardening?!) This often comes through an event in our lives which makes us question our beliefs, resulting in a new set of beliefs which allow fruit to burst forth.

I know that some faith traditions emphasize evangelism and converting people to faith as the main or only fruit. I reject this notion. While I do believe that it is a fruit, I think too much emphasis has been placed on the importance of evangelism as the main fruit. Instead, in referring to "fruit" in the preceding paragraph, I am thinking more of the fruits of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (according to the NIV).

Why is it useful for us to understand that God wants us to know how deeply He cares for each one of us? If an act of God is required to reveal things to us (since Paul is praying in verse 19 for God to give that revelation), is there even a role for us? The answer is yes, there are two things we can do. First, we can join Paul in praying this for ourselves and others. Second, we need to cooperate with God in this, at least in agreeing that God's Word is true. If we are intellectually opposed to receiving an experiential understanding of the depth of God's love for us, then we can resist the work of God in our lives. This means that either we will perpetually reject God's revelations of His love, or God will end up cranking up the volume loud so that we can hear. Often that involves years of frustration on our parts, and possibly some pain, as when Saul was blinded by God on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), because there was no gentler way for God to override Saul's preconceived ideas about what the Kingdom of God looked like.

May we never get away from the foundational truth of being a Christian: God is incredibly in love with us!


1 Bickle, Mike. 1993. Passion for Jesus: Perfecting Extravagant Love for God. Orlando, FL: Creation House, p. 98.

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