July 23, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Ephesians 3:14-21 (NRSV)
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is extravagant. He wants them to be strengthened with power, to have Christ dwell in their hearts, to be rooted and grounded in love, to see God in all God’s “breadth and length and height and depth”—really an amazing wish, when you stop and think about it—and to know the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ and be filled with God’s fullness.
When I was in seminary, we took classes on how to interpret the Biblical text in English, and there were also classes on Biblical interpretation in Hebrew and Greek (The technical term for this, whatever language you are using, is “exegesis”). In my Greek exegesis class, our final paper was on this passage. Now, twenty-five years later, I don’t remember every grammatical point I learned while working on Ephesians 3:14-21, but I do remember immersing myself very deeply into the text—thinking about what each word meant, how it was used elsewhere in the New Testament, what Paul might be trying to tell us by using it in this context.
Studying the passage very closely in that way, I came away with the distinct sense of sentences that simply overflow with words. Even if you are reading it here for the first time in a while, you may get that sense, too. Paul’s prayer here for the church in Ephesus is extravagant. He wants them to be strengthened with power, to have Christ dwell in their hearts, to be rooted and grounded in love, to see God in all God’s “breadth and length and height and depth”—really an amazing wish, when you stop and think about it—and to know the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ and be filled with God’s fullness. I get exhausted just trying to summarize it!
Paul is so excited, so bowled over by the love of God, so desperate for us to know how extravagant God’s love is that he can’t even keep control of his metaphors and syntax—how do you know something that surpasses knowledge? (It reminds me of something N. T. Wright once said in Surprised by Hope: “Paul was good at richly mixed metaphors: in. . . 1 Thessalonians 5, he says that the thief will come in the night, so the woman will go into labour, so you mustn’t get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armour. As the television programmes say, don’t try that one at home.”)
It’s a very audacious prayer. Working through it word-by-word all those years ago, it became a prayer for me on behalf of all of those I loved, and hoped would experience God in all his breadth and length and height and depth. There are many other prayers in the Bible which are good to pray through for ourselves and for the world around us (Mark Roberts has just finished a series on the Lord’s Prayer, for instance), but this is certainly one to add to your list.
A few weeks ago, I told you about my mother and her love for John 15 and her emphasis on how God wanted us to bear “much fruit.” It will surprise no one that one of her favorite things to remind anyone when they were being stingy in church contexts—with money or love or grace or kindness—was that “God is extravagant.” Here, she said, was this whole beautiful world, given to us to enjoy, and we were fighting over whether the church ought to have new carpet. Instead, we ought to be praying that our church and our community might have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what was God’s breadth and length and height and depth.
I think we probably ought to try that one at home. And in church, and at work, and everywhere.
When and where have you seen God’s extravagance displayed in your life? In the lives of others?
How can you show forth the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God to those around you?
One of my favorite 20th-century hymns is “For the Fruits of This Creation,” a wonderful hymn about God’s extravagant love and our response, by British hymn writer Fred Pratt Green. Here’s a version with the lyrics right on the screen. Listen and pray about how you can respond to God’s extravagant love.
Lord, help us to know the love that surpasses knowledge and be filled with your fullness—and then to share it. Amen.
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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: God’s Grand Plan: A Theological Vision (Ephesians 1:1–3:21)
Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project. She is a priest in the Episcopal Church and an adjunct faculty member at Asbury Theological Seminary. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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