“Please pray for my strength in the Lord”—that’s one of the many sayings I heard a lot growing up in the black church. Don’t know what to pray for in the prayer circle? Ask for strength in the Lord. Need to figure out how to end your testimonial? Just ask everybody to pray for your strength in the Lord. Put on the spot during the response to the welcome? That’s right—pray for strength in the Lord. It didn’t take me long to figure out the importance of praying for strength in the Lord, even if I didn’t really have a clue what that meant.
I often took it to mean that the person making the request was struggling with some hardship like late bills, a bad boss, or problem children. Maybe they were feeling weak in the faith and just needed a little push to get on the right track. Others seemed to be perfectly content with life and, not knowing anything else to ask, could rely on the same basic petition.
Then I ran across Ephesians 3:14–19 after reading an article from Pastor John Piper entitled Tips for Praying the Word. As I studied the passage, I discovered what Paul meant when he prayed that God would grant the Ephesian believers spiritual strength.
In this article, I’ll share with you the source, the means, and the purpose of God’s strengthening power for believers. But first, let’s talk context.
The key to understanding the epistle (or letter) of Ephesians is to realize that Paul wrote it in two parts.
The first part of the letter found in chapters 1–3 speaks to the glorious riches that believers have from God, in Christ Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit through whom they are sealed (1:3–14). He also discusses what it meant to be saved “by grace…through faith” (2:8), no longer “dead in our trespasses” (v. 5) but rather “made…alive together with Christ” (v. 5).
After speaking to the riches in Christ, Paul spends chapters 4–6 in the latter half of the epistle teaching the Ephesians how to live a life of godliness using the spiritual wealth that God has granted them. He urged them to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [they] have been called” (4:1) through humility, gentleness, and peace with one another. They were also exhorted to stay away from ungodly living (vv. 17–32), to walk in love (5:2), to put away “sexual immorality and all impurity” (v. 3), and to humbly submit to one another as husbands, wives, children, parents, slaves, and slave owners (5:22–6:9).
Paul wraps up his letter by encouraging the Ephesian believers to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (6:10) by putting on “the whole armor of God” (v. 11). He tells them to be en garde against the forces in the “heavenly places” (v. 12), the same places where spiritual blessings originate (1:3) and where believers are seated with Christ (2:5).
The Source of Strength
“14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”
Now that we know the context of Ephesians, we see that Paul’s prayer for strength is actually sandwiched right in the middle of the two halves of the letter. That’s important because this prayer is what glues the riches in the first half of the letter to the practical application in the second half.
As Paul prays for strength, he does so with humility, bowed on his knees (v. 14). His focus here isn’t to emphasize a particular prayer position. Multiple forms are mentioned in Scripture (Matthew 26:39; Luke 18:10; 1 Timothy 2:8). Rather, he’s conveying an attitude of lowliness. We are never to make demands of God. Humility is crucial in the life of a believer.
He appeals to God as the ultimate Father—the patriarch of patriarchies “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (v. 15). After talking about the unity of Jews and Gentiles in chapters 2 and 3, Paul again reminds them they are all united by God who is Father of all creation. All saints are unified in the brotherhood of the universal church over which Christ is the head.
The Christian bond is way more important than any other of blood or water, familial or fraternal. That’s because it grants every believer access to God through Christ. It is the most inclusive because it is made of all peoples of every tongue, tribe and nation on earth, and equally the most exclusive of any club because it is only through Christ that membership is obtained. That’s why the Gospel is the only real foundation of true diversity and meaningful inclusion.
The Means of Strength
“16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”
Going to the source, Paul wants God to strengthen them with power “according to the riches of His glory” (v. 16, cf. Romans 9:22–24; Philippians 4:19). The word “glory” refers to the revealed perfection of God’s attributes. It speaks to the fact that God is perfectly holy, loving, kind, just, righteous, and hateful of sin to such a degree that no one or nothing else can compare. The glory of God is the essence of what makes God who He is.
It is the immeasurably infinite wealth of God’s glory that supplies believers with strength “through His Spirit” (v. 16) and “in your inner being” (v. 16). This cannot be overstated. God provides the full power of the Godhead — working through the Spirit for the Son—working within the Christian (cf. Philippians 2:12–13).
Why would God do that? So that Christ will make His home “in your hearts” (v. 17) through the faith that God Himself also supplies (2:8). Jesus prayed in the gospel of John that believers would be united together with Him in the same unity that He and the Father shared (John 17:22–23). Furthermore, He also commanded His disciples to “abide” in Him as He also would abide in them (John 15:4).
The Purpose of Strength
17b that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now that we’ve discussed the source and the means of strength, let’s finally talk about the purpose. The purpose of this divine strength is to know the love of Christ. That is the goal. If that sounds simple, Paul would have you know it’s anything but.
Paul identifies his audience as those “rooted and grounded in love” (v. 17b). William Hendriksen in the New Testament Commentary on Ephesians believes the words “suggest a twofold metaphor: that of a tree and that of a building”. If true, that would pull us towards the words of Christ in John 15:4 about abiding in Him as the true vine. I’m also reminded of Paul’s words in chapter 2 when he tells the Ephesians that they were “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (2:20).
It is only those first rooted and grounded in love that can “comprehend with all the saints” (v. 18) the sheer magnitude and immensity of Christ’s love as the very objects of it. To comprehend that love requires strength because we are feeble, moral creatures prone to both ignorance and laziness (humility, remember?).
Too often, Christians are merely satisfied with having Christ’s love instead of trying to understand it. Paul prays for comprehension here because of what it leads to—being “filled with the fullness of God” (v. 19). The capacity to love others and to live a life of godliness begins with the comprehension of Christ’s love. It’s the love that Paul speaks about in Romans:
“for I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, not anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
Obviously, such a love is beyond all comprehension. But notice what Paul prays—that we will know this knowledge-surpassing love! Is that cool or what? This is certainly impossible with man, but Paul knows that God exceeds all expectations, “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (v. 20). With eternity in view, Paul understands believers are continually transformed to conform more and more like Christ until we experience final glorification in heaven. It is the very process of sanctification that begins in this life and culminates in glorification at Christ’s return.
In the interest of keeping my own words short, I thought it fitting to end with a passage from 1 John. May we pray for the strength both to know and to live out Christ’s love.
“7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
1 John 4:13–21