A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 3:14-21. Confidence on God’s power.
One of best way 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. Prayer expresses desire. For example, when Paul prayed for the salvation of his Israelite kinsfolk, he wrote of his ‘heart’s desire and prayer to God for them’ (Rom. 10:1). As the hymn puts it, ‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed.’
This is certainly true of this second prayer of Paul’s in Ephesians in which he pours out his soul to God. He has been explaining both Christ’s peace-making work, which resulted in the creation of the new society, and his personal involvement in this because of the special revelation and commission he had received. Now he turns from exposition to intercession. He prays that God’s wonderful plan which he has been elaborating may be even more completely fulfilled in the readers’ experience. Prayer and preaching should always go together. As Jesus watered with prayer the good seeds of instruction he had sown in the Upper Room (Jn.13-17), so Paul follows up his teaching with earnest prayer, and by recording it enables us to overhear him. As Bishop Handley Moule put it: ‘Who has not read and re-read the closing verses of the third chapter of the Ephesians with the feeling of one permitted to look through parted curtains into the Holiest Place of the Christian life?’
1). The introduction to his prayer (verses 14-16a).
The apostle begins *For this reason…*, resuming his train of thought where he had left it in verse 1. What ‘reason’ is in his mind? What is it that moves him to pray? Surely it is both the reconciling work of Christ and his own understanding of it by special revelation? These are the convictions which undergird his prayer. This being so, an important principle of prayer emerges. The basis of Paul’s prayer was his knowledge of God’s purpose. It was because of what God had done in Christ and revealed to Paul that he had the necessary warrant to pray. For the indispensable prelude to all petition is the revelation of God’s will. We have no authority to pray for anything which God has not revealed to be his will. That is why Bible reading and prayer should always go together. For it is in Scripture that God has disclosed his will, and it is in prayer that we ask him to do it (See e.g. Jn.15:7 and 1 Jn.5:14).
Paul goes on: *I bow my knees*. The normal posture for prayer among the Jews was standing. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican both men stood to pray (Lk.18:11,13). So kneeling was unusual. It indicated an exceptional degree of earnestness, as when Ezra confessed Israel’s sins of penitence, Jesus fell on his face to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Stephen faced the ordeal of martyrdom (Ezr.9:5ff.; Mt.26:39; Lk.22:41; Acts 7:59, 60). Scripture lays down no rule about the posture we should adopt when we pray. It is possible to pray kneeling, standing, sitting, walking and even lying, although we may feel inclined to agree with William Hendriksen that ‘the slouching position of the body while one is supposed to be praying is an abomination to the Lord’.
*I bow my knees before the Father*. Already the apostle has called God ‘the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ and therefore because we are in Christ ‘our Father’, from whom all blessings flow (1:2-3). He has also declared that Jews and Gentiles are fellow members of the Father’s family, who enjoy equal access to their Father in prayer (2:18, 19). Here he goes on to affirm that from this Father, before whom he kneels in reverent humility, *every family in heaven and on earth is named*. At least, this is the RSV and NEB translation, and *pasa patria* may quite properly be rendered ‘every family’. Yet there is something inherently inappropriate about this reference to a multiplicity of families, since the dominant theme of these chapters is that through Christ the ‘one God and Father of us all’ (4:6) has only one family or household to which Jewish and Gentile believers equally belong. It seems better, therefore, to translate *pasa patria* ‘the whole family’ (AV), ‘his whole family’ (NEB margin) or ‘the whole family of believers’ (NIV). Then the addition of the words *in heaven and on earth* will indicate that the church militant on earth and the church triumphant in heaven, though separated by death, are nevertheless only two parts of the one great family of God.
At the same time, there is a deliberate play on words in the Greek sentence, since ‘father’ is *pater* and ‘family’ is *patria*. In consequence, some translators have tried to preserve the verbal assonance in English, and have rendered the phrase ‘the Father from whom all fatherhood…derives its name’ (JBP, NIV margin). Commentators point out that the word *patria* does not normally mean ‘fatherhood’, but rather ‘family’. Nevertheless, it is a family descended from the same father, and so the concept of fatherhood is implied and ‘the abstract idea of *paternity* seems uppermost here’. It may be then, that Paul is saying not only that the whole Christian family is named from the Father, but that the very notion of fatherhood is derived from the Fatherhood of God. In this case, the true relation between human fatherhood and the divine fatherhood is neither one of analogy (‘God is a father like human fathers’), nor one of projection (Freud’s theory that we have invented God because we needed a heavenly father figure), but rather one of derivation (God’s fatherhood being the archetypal reality, ‘the source of all conceivable fatherhood’).
To this Father Paul prays that he will give his readers certain gifts *according to the riches of his glory*. Both ‘riches’ and ‘glory’ are characteristic words in this letter, and here as in 1:18 are in combination. 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.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 3:16b-19. 2). The substance of his prayer.