January 4, 2020 Afternoon Verse Of The Day

The Lord’s Glory

Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (3:20–21)

In culmination of all he has been declaring about God’s limitless provision for His children, Paul gives this great doxology, a paean of praise and glory, introduced by Now unto Him.

When the Holy Spirit has empowered us, Christ has indwelt us, love has mastered us, and God has filled us with His own fullness, then He is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. Until those conditions are met, God’s working in us is limited. When they are met, His working in us is unlimited. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:12–14).

There is no situation in which the Lord cannot use us, provided we are submitted to Him. As is frequently pointed out, verse 20 is a pyramid progression of God’s enablement: He is able; He is able to do; He is able to do exceeding abundantly; He is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask; He is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. 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.

Paul declared that the effectiveness of his own ministry was that “my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4), because “the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power” (4:20). Throughout his ministry the apostle was concerned about “giving no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited, but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:3–7). Everything Paul did was in the power of God, and in the power of God there was nothing within the Lord’s will that he could not see accomplished. That same power works within us by the presence of the Spirit (Acts 1:8).

When by our yieldedness God is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, only then are we truly effective and only then is He truly glorified. And He deserves glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, not only now, but to all generations forever and ever. The Amen confirms that worthy goal.[1]

A Great Doxology

Ephesians 3:20–21

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Bible study is a kaleidoscopic experience. The lessons we learn and the experiences we have are multiple. At times the Bible humbles us, making us conscious of our sin. At other times it thrills us as we think of all God has done in Christ for our salvation. Some Bible passages instruct us. Some rebuke us. Some stir us up to great action. In some passages we seem to gain a glimpse into hell. In others, a door is opened into heaven.

The last is the case as we come to the closing verses of Ephesians 3. They are a great doxology, perhaps the greatest in the Bible. In the verses just before this Paul has reached a height beyond which neither reason nor imagination can go. He had been speaking of God’s purposes for his redeemed people, and he had expressed the wish that we should “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (v. 19).

This is beyond comprehension; we cannot even begin to imagine how we can be filled with God’s own fullness. We stand on the edge of the infinite. And yet, Paul is still not satisfied. He has prayed that God will do something we cannot even imagine; and now, having exhausted his ability to speak and write along that line, he bursts out in praise to God who, he says, “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (v. 20).

What an amazing doxology! In the last study I spoke of Paul’s ascending requests for the Ephesians as a “prayer staircase.” But here is another staircase, a “doxology staircase.” Ruth Paxson makes this vivid by arranging the doxology as a pyramid (kjv).

Unto him

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 worketh in us

A verse of this scope deserves careful consideration.

The first thing the apostle says about God is that he is able to do something. The word for “do” is poieō, which actually means “to make, cause, effect, bring about, accomplish, perform, provide, or create,” as one Greek dictionary has it. It points to God as a worker, which means, as John Stott says, that “he is neither idle, nor inactive, nor dead.”

What a contrast then between this God, the true God, and the so-called gods of the heathen! In Isaiah’s day the people of Israel had fallen away from the worship of the true God and were worshiping idols, and God gave Isaiah words for that situation. He described the idols. They are, he said, nothing but pieces of lumber carved up by the worshiper. “They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand” (Isa. 44:18). God calls an idol just “a block of wood” (v. 19). He issues this challenge:

“Present your case,” says the Lord.

“Set forth your arguments,” says Jacob’s King.

“Bring in your idols to tell us

what is going to happen.

Tell us what the former things were,

so that we may consider them

and know their final outcome.

Or declare to us the things to come,

tell us what the future holds,

so we may know that you are gods.

Do something, whether good or bad,

so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.

But you are less than nothing

and your works are utterly worthless.”

Isaiah 41:21–24

According to these verses, the proof of the true God’s existence is that he is able to do things. The idols can do nothing, not even evil.

Ask and Receive

The second thing Paul says about God is that he is able to do what we ask. That is, the ability of God to work is not related merely to his own concerns and interests but extends to the concerns and interests of his people. It is a statement about prayer.

Most of us are probably quite cautious in our prayers, unless we have learned to pray through a lifetime of growing in this discipline. So often we hold back in asking, afraid of embarrassing either God or ourselves. But that is not the kind of prayer God commands in the Bible.

To be sure, we do often pray wrongly. James says, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). But for every verse that warns us about wrong prayers there are others which by example and precept teach us to pray frequently and with confidence. A favorite of mine is 1 John 3:21–22: “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.”

That verse is a great prayer promise. It says that (1) if we are praying with a clear conscience, that is, if we are being honest and open before God, and (2) if we are doing what God in his Word has commanded us to do, and (3) if we are seeking to please God in every possible way, then we can know that what we ask of God we will receive. We can know, to use Paul’s words, that God “is able to (and will) do … [what] we ask.”

What about our thoughts? Have you ever had the experience of thinking about something you would like to ask God for, but not asking him because you had no real confidence that the thing was God’s will for you? I have. There are things I pray for with great confidence. I know it is God’s will for me to conquer sin, to bless my preaching of his Word, and many such things. There are other things that I would like to see happen—the type of things God blesses and that I think would please him—but I do not always pray for them, because I have no real confidence that God wants to do them through my life and ministry or that he wants to do them now. So I hold back, only thinking about them and only occasionally mentioning them as possibilities in my prayers.

I do not know whether I am right in this. I may be wrong. I should probably be much bolder in what I pray for. But whether that is the case or not, it is a comfort to come to a verse like this and read that “God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. It says that God is able to do those things that I only think about but am afraid to ask for.

All We Can Ask or Think

Paul’s doxology would have been great if he had stopped at this point, for it would be wonderful to know that God is able to do what we imagine (or think) as well as what we explicitly ask for. But at this point we are only halfway up this great ascending staircase. The next thing Paul tells us is that God is able to do all we can ask or think. It is not a question of God being only fifty percent or even ninety-nine percent able. God “is able to do … all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

It is God’s ability to do all we can ask or imagine that encourages us to stretch forward spiritually and ask for more. My father-in-law was a banker in New York City, and he frequently passed on to me the kind of jokes bankers tell one another. One was about a loan officer who tried to run a gas station in his retirement years. He had been a successful banker, but failed at running a gas station. Whenever a customer came in and asked for ten gallons of gas, he would respond, “Can you get by with five?” Paul tells us that God is not like that. He does not give half of what we ask for (if we ask rightly), but all. Indeed, it is his ability to give all we ask or imagine that encourages us to come with big petitions.

More Than We Ask

It is greater even than this, for Paul has amplified his doxology to say that God is able to do even more than all we might ask or imagine. I put it to you: Is that not your experience of God? Have you not found it to be true that whatever you ask of God (assuming you ask rightly and not with wrong motives, as James warns), God always has something bigger and greater for you—something more than you asked for? It is generally something different, something you would not have anticipated.

That would have been the testimony of all the great biblical characters. I think of Abraham. God called Abraham when he was a pagan living in Ur of the Chaldeans. He told him that he would make him into a great nation, that he would bless him and that he would make him to be a source of blessing to others. I do not know what Abraham would have understood by that at first. In time he probably came to see that the blessing to others would come as a result of the work of the Messiah who would be born in his life. But I suppose that at the beginning he just thought about having a large family which would eventually become a nation similar to those around it. Through most of his life his prayers would have focused on his lack of even one son, and he would have repeatedly asked God to give him children.

How did God answer? We know the story. We know that God did eventually give him a son, a son born to him and Sarah in their old age. And we know that Abraham had other children after that—Genesis 25:2 lists six—and that Abraham’s immediate clan grew substantially so that, at the time of the battle against the four kings of the East, Abraham was able to muster 318 trained men of war to pursue them.

But that is only the most obvious of Abraham’s blessings. In Abraham’s case the “much more” would have included the fact that Isaac, the son of promise, became a type of Jesus Christ and was used to teach Abraham about the future work of Christ, and that the nation promised to Abraham was not limited to his natural descendants, the Jews, but included the entire family of God collected from among all nations throughout all human history. These are the people who have become “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17).

Certainly Abraham would testify that God is able to do more than we can ever ask or think.

Moses would say the same thing. God told Moses that he was going to cause Pharaoh to let the people of Israel leave Egypt, where they had been slaves for four centuries. Moses did not want to go. He had failed once, and did not want to fail again. But when God insisted and when he showed Moses that he would work miracles through him, changing his staff into a serpent and then back again and making his hand leprous and then healing it again, Moses went.

Could Moses have anticipated the full extent of the plagues God brought on Egypt: the turning of the water of the land to blood, the multiplication of frogs, gnats, and flies, the plague on the livestock, the boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and eventually the death of the firstborn? Could he have anticipated the miracles of the Exodus: the parting of the Red Sea, the destruction of the Egyptians, the cloud that accompanied the people during their years of wandering and protected them, the manna, the water from the rock, and other miracles? Could Moses have guessed that God would appear to him again and give him the law or that he would work through him to give us the first five books of the Bible?

Moses would not even have dreamed of these things. He would have testified freely that God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.

David would speak along the same lines. God called him from following after the sheep. He made him the first great king of Israel, replacing Saul. He blessed him beyond his greatest dreams. At the end of his long and favored life God announced that through his descendant, the Messiah, his house and kingdom would be established forever. David replied, “Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O Sovereign Lord, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant.… What more can David say to you?… How great you are, O Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears” (2 Sam. 7:18–20, 22).

David would have joined others in confessing that God is able to do more than any of us can possibly ask or think, and that he does do it.

Is this not your experience? Life may not have gone exactly as you would have planned it for yourself; you may have had many disappointments. But if you are really trying to obey God and follow after him, can you not say that God’s fulfillment of his promises toward you has been more than you have asked?

Immeasurably More

There is one more statement in Paul’s doxology in which he says that God is not only able to do more than all we can think but that he is able to do immeasurably more than we can contemplate. The word translated “immeasurably” (niv) is another of Paul’s coined words: hyperekperissou. It occurs only here and in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 in Greek literature. It can be rendered “exceeding abundantly” (kjv), “infinitely more” (Phillips), “far more abundantly” (rsv), “exceeding abundantly beyond” (nasb), and so on.

How can this be? Even though Abraham, Moses, David, and others may not have anticipated the full measure of what God was going to do in their lives, what they experienced is measurable. It may take time, but it can be spelled out. Was Paul just carried away in this passage? Was he exaggerating for effect? I do not think so. After all, in the previous chapter, in a complementary passage, Paul wrote that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6–7). In this verse Paul uses the word “incomparable” rather than “immeasurable” but his thought is much the same and indicates to my mind how the word in Ephesians 3:20 should be taken. Paul is not thinking of earthly blessings here. He is going beyond these to think of the blessings of God’s inexhaustible kindness toward us through Christ in eternity. Since eternity is immeasurable, so also are the works that God will do for us in the life to come.

In this sense the doxology ends as the prayer ended just a verse before, with reference to our being filled forever to the measure of all the fullness of God, which is immeasurable.

Power and Glory

After a doxology like this we may be so overwhelmed by the promises implied in it that we find ourselves thinking that it cannot possibly apply to us—for others maybe, for Abraham (he was a giant in faith) or Moses or David—but not for normal people like ourselves. Paul does not allow this. He ties it down to our experience by showing that the power of God which is able to do these things is the same power that is already at work in all who are God’s children. It is “according to his power that is at work within us.”

In other words, although we have not realized the full extent of God’s working—and never will, precisely because God is infinite in his workings—what we are yet to experience is nevertheless of the same substance as what we have already known, if we are genuine believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Our salvation in Christ is a resurrection from the dead, for we were “dead in … transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1), and it is precisely that resurrecting power of God that we are to go on experiencing. It is by that power and not by our own that these great promises are to be accomplished.

What can be added to this? Nothing but the final, direct ascription of praise to God, which is what Paul does. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” John Stott says, “The power comes from him; the glory must go to him.” And so it shall![2]

20 Paul concludes the first half of his letter in grand style—with an exalted doxology that both exalts God (it may even be part of the prayer, though the conjunction de clearly signals a break from what preceded) and assures the readers that God is completely able to answer his elevated prayer for them. In the event that anybody, wondering whether Paul’s request has been too expansive, should ask whether God can really grant to his people this “fullness,” Paul answers in no uncertain terms: “Yes, he can! Nothing limits God’s ability.” Power language dominates what follows: “him who is able” (dynamenos, GK 1538), “power” (dynamis, GK 1539), and “at work” (energoumenēn, GK 1919). God can perform the unthinkable in his people because of his invincible potency and his indwelling presence. Paul directs his praise to the one “who is able to do [above all] immeasurably more” (hyper panta poiēsai hyperekperissou). The adverb hyperekperissou (GK 5655) conveys something “quite beyond all measure (highest form of comparison imaginable)” (BDAG, 1033). With this hyperbolic expression (note the two uses of hyper), Paul pushes the boundaries beyond limits.

Paul then extends what God is able to do beyond what humans may ask of him or what they are capable even of imagining. Paul used the common verb noeō (GK 3783) in v. 4 with the sense of “understand”; here it has the extended sense of “imagine, think” (BDAG, 674). Paul explains that beyond the boundaries of our asking or even imagining for ourselves, God is able to do according to (kata; the basis or norm of his operation) his power (dynamis) that keeps on working (present tense and middle voice of energoumenēn) within or among us. In other words, it is well within God’s ability to accomplish far beyond what his people can ask for, or even imagine as possible, because God keeps working in ways that are in keeping with his mighty power. Recall, this power raised Christ from the dead, seated him in the heavenly realms, and made him head over all things “for the church” (1:19–22). Paul has made an incredibly audacious claim. As Lincoln, 216, affirms, “Neither the boldest human prayer nor the greatest power of human imagination could circumscribe God’s ability to act.”

We may translate the last phrase, en hēmin, as either “within us” or “among us.” Does Paul pray for this power to work inside individual Christians, or in the framework of the body? The answer must be, “Both.” The love Paul has requested for his readers must be demonstrated in the body of Christ, the local church. This requires God’s powerful working “among us.” This, I believe, is the primary focus here, as we’ve seen corporate emphases throughout. For this to happen, however, it requires the work of God’s power within each individual believer. It would diminish Paul’s request in this context to ignore either of these components—individual or corporate.[3]

20  Has Paul sought too much from God for his fellow-believers—praying that they may be filled up to the level of the divine fullness? They might think so as they heard this letter read aloud, but Paul reassures them: it is impossible to ask God for too much. His capacity for giving far exceeds his people’s capacity for asking—or even imagining.

The contemplation of God’s eternal purpose and its fulfilment in the gospel calls forth a doxology. A doxology takes the basic form, “To God be the glory,” but it may be variously expanded as the immediate occasion for ascribing glory to God is elaborated. Other doxologies of this pattern in the Pauline writings are found in Rom. 11:36; 16:25–27; Gal. 1:5; Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2 Tim. 4:18. Such ascriptions, together with such utterances as “Praise God!” or “Blessed be God!” were common in temple and synagogue worship and were taken over into the liturgy of the church.112

Here, in the light of the far-reaching prayer which has just been offered, God is described as the one “who can do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.” The power by which he can do this is the power which he has implanted in his people—“the surpassing greatness of his power in us who believe” which, as has been said in Eph. 1:19–20, is nothing less than “the operation of his mighty strength” exerted in the resurrection of Christ. By the Spirit who imparts this power to believers the full realization of God’s gracious purpose for them and in them becomes possible.[4]

How Much Can God Do? (3:20a–b)

The answer is, more—“immeasurably” more than we can ask, and more than we can even imagine. The Greek word for “immeasurably” (hyperekperissou) is the “highest form of comparison imaginable” and could even be translated as “infinitely more than.”

More Than We Can Ask (3:20a)

For children of all ages, Christmas is the asking time of year. While we may not be asking for “mutant turbo-blaster robo-dinosaurs” or “Diamond Dancing Barbies,” we adults still have our “asks.” The adult requests are more in the form of secure jobs, incomes adequate to pay for the turbo-blasters, good health, diplomas, peaceable families, and a world without war. There is no reproach in the apostle’s words for asking. That we would ask is, in fact, a natural outgrowth of Paul’s earlier conclusion that we have confident and free access to the Father by virtue of Christ’s work on our behalf (Eph. 2:18; 3:12). We come to a Father who is able to do what we ask, and invites us to come to him (Phil. 4:6).

But the apostle does not limit the Father’s care or ability to what we ask. There is too much of our humanity in our requests for them to govern God’s responses. Because we are human our requests are feeble and finite. We want dessert when we need meat, success when we need humility, and safety when we need godly courage—or Christlike sacrifice. We ask within the limits of human vision, but he is able to do more. He sees into eternity what is needful for our soul and for the souls of those whom our lives will touch across geography and across generations; and, seeing this, he is able to do more than we ask.

In 1983 a childless woman named Mary Nelson was working in her garden in St. Louis, praying while she worked. She asked God to help not only in her grief for the absence of children in her life, but also in her bitter awareness of women who could have children but choose to abort them. The absence of a child in her home created such a longing for life in her heart that Mary asked God, there in the garden, to help her give life to children in whatever way he would lead. Nine months later, Mary “gave birth” to the first Pregnancy Resource Center in St. Louis, and since that time literally thousands of children have been spared due to the prayers and labors of Mary Nelson and others who have followed her. She, who once asked to be a life-giving mother to one, has become life-saving mother to thousands.

Our God is able to do immeasurably above what we ask. I know to ask only what I think is good for my immediate family; he knows what is good for my children’s children, and what will bring multitudes into his kingdom from places I cannot name or imagine.

More Than We Can Imagine (3:20b)

The ways of our Lord cannot be limited to what we ask, because his wisdom and power—and, therefore, his intentions—are beyond our imagining. Earlier in this chapter of Ephesians we were told that his love is so wide and long and high and deep that it surpasses our knowledge (Eph. 3:18–19), but now we are told that this is not a passive or powerless love. His loving surpasses our knowledge, but his doing surpasses our requests and even our imagination. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9; Isa. 64:4). For those in Christ, T. S. Eliot says, “the impossible union of spheres of existence is actual. Here the past and future are conquered, and reconciled.”

He who loved us so much that he spared not his own Son to make us his children (Rom. 8:32) invites us to come to him freely and confidently, but he also promises to bring the full measure of the wisdom and powers of his Godhead to answer us. How do we measure what he can do? He holds the whole earth in his hand; he created the universe but continues to control the light in your room and the decay of an atom in the most distant galaxy; he makes the flowers grow and the snow fall; he rides on the wings of a storm and holds a butterfly in the air; and he who was before the beginning of all we know still uses time as his tool of healing, restoration, and retribution. Our thoughts are as a window to him; generations to come from us are already known fully to him who loves our family more than we do. He looks at the length of our life as a handbreadth, and makes our soul, though sinful, his treasure forever. Such is the God who hears our prayers and is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or can even imagine.

God’s greatness allows me to believe in his good will even when something I ask for is not answered when I desire or how I imagine. At this year’s Thanksgiving service in my church I listened in fresh-found awe as believers gave their reasons for thanksgiving. One gave thanks for a child soon to be born after three different doctors said a child for this couple was impossible. But this thanksgiving came just after the words of a mother thanking the church for its ministry to her during the year that her husband had been dying of liver cancer. And while the one rejoiced in the coming of a child, I watched the eyes of another couple turn red and their eyes brim with tears because no such miracle child had come to them in their years of marriage. Days later I learned that one of our alumni families, who had just suffered their fourth miscarriage, yet prepared a meal in their home for college students to celebrate the coming of the Christ child.

If the world or any cynic were to look on all of these accounts at once, I can only imagine that the response would be: “Now wait a minute. This one gives thanks when a prayer for new life is answered. That one gives thanks when a prayer for continued life seems unanswered. Then this other couple grieves because a child does not come to them but also gives thanks to God because he let his Son come for us. Does all of this make sense?” No. It does not make earthly sense. But if the God of all things earthly and eternal were at work, would you expect him to be limited by our wisdom and perceptions? No, you would expect him to be at work in ways beyond our imagining. And that is just what he is promising: to do immeasurably above all that you would ask or even imagine.

It must be this way, for inevitably that for which we pray is limited by our human perspective. We think that we shall be happy if we see the perfect sunset, meet the right person, get the right job, or get relief from the person or disease that troubles us. But the One who sees beyond the sunrise, into the heart and after the disease, knows that in a fallen world perfect solutions do not exist and their dim reflections may only distract us from dependence upon him who must redeem us from all that falsely promises fulfillment. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote that our ultimate joy “lies beyond the walls of the world.” Ultimate satisfaction is not in a lover, a landscape, or a livelihood; although they may rightly please us, they will pass. That which is eternal and on which the soul must rest is “higher up” and “further back” (as Cornelius Plantinga puts it) than those things we presently relish, and it can be provided only by the One who is able to do more than we would ask or even think. But how will he do such things?

How Will God Do More? (3:20c–d)

Sovereignly (3:20c)

Paul says that our Lord is able to do immeasurably more than all we would ask or imagine, “according to his power.” These words already have a rich history in this epistle. Paul uses “according to” as a way of indicating that something will be expressed to its full extent. In the first chapter we are told that we have forgiveness “in accordance with” the riches of God’s grace (Eph. 1:7). That is to say, God pours out his mercy from the fullness of his storehouses; he is not budgeting a meager supply for us and saving more till later. We have the fullness of his forgiveness and love. “Power” is the expression of God’s sovereign force of creation. By his power he brought the world into being, brought us from death to life, and will transform this world into a new creation (Eph. 1:4, 10, 18, 19–23). He is the One who made our lovers, landscapes, and livelihoods, along with the universe and the eternity that contain them. Thus, when Paul says that God is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine, “according to his power,” the apostle urges us to believe that God can do more than we can imagine because he is God, and will use his sovereign power—the creative power of the physical and spiritual universe—in our behalf.

Personally (3:20d)

But how will God apply this sovereign power? The answer to that question will truly stretch our imagination—and our faith. For what the apostle claims is that God will work sovereignly according to his power that is “at work in us.” God works in us personally. This is a return to the theme that Paul began at the end of chapter 1 where he identified the church as the means by which God would fill and transform creation with his own fullness. Now Paul speaks to those in the church, and he says that God will do more than we can imagine through his power (yes, I can get my mind around this, so far) and that this power will be expressed through “us” (now that is a lot for a mind to handle). You and I are the instruments by which God is going to accomplish more than we can ask or even imagine.

This sounds more than a little far-fetched and perhaps rings a bit idealistic. After all, some of us enjoy places of security and esteem, while others endure great difficulty and depressing obscurity. Some see the effects of their lives in great brush strokes of glory and accomplishment. Others look back on the last twenty or thirty years of their lives and honestly question, “Did I do anything?” How can we honestly affirm that God is doing more than we ask or imagine through us? How could Paul say it while chained to a guard in prison at Rome while he is writing to the few people in the crude and simple house churches of Ephesus?

In a photograph displayed at Auschwitz, a Nazi guard points a pistol at the head of a child. Beneath the picture there is a caption: “He who saves one soul saves the world.” Our temptation is to look for heroism, significance, and success in noteworthy deeds and great accomplishments. But faith accepts that God is working out his plan—for the world and for eternity—one moment, one act, one life at a time. Our finite wisdom in a mortal existence makes it hard to act with unnoticed integrity, to persevere without apparent results, to show courage when there is no gain and no one to cheer the sacrifice. But by such integrity, perseverance, and courage among his people in a church worldwide, God is changing the world.

Consider a woman who teaches prostitutes alternative employment as hairdressers in Thailand; a man who teaches a mentally handicapped adult to paint; a woman who offers comfort to a newlywed distressed by the unfaithfulness of her husband; a woman who gives up a holiday to spend an evening with high school girls needing a friend; a woman who changes the diaper of a disadvantaged infant saved from the uncertainties of the foster care system; a man who lingers over a catechism with an African in a remote village so that the man will be an effective elder in a church of ten; a man who refuses to pay a bribe from mission funds to a rebel leader in India; and a secretary in a government office who encourages her boss with a promise to pray for him today. None of these acts of persons I know can be counted on to make any difference in the eyes of the world, but collectively the power of God is at work in these Christians to change this world. In ways unseen, unheralded, and unknown, God is transforming the world according to his power through us even now.

It is beyond our imagining but necessary for our endurance to remember often that it is God’s way to work his infinite wisdom and divine power through us. This is something that we will need to remember when we face obscurity while serving in a small church, when God chooses others for recognition, when failure knocks at our door, when we face anger or ridicule from foes or friends, when our envy of others in more prestigious or lucrative positions threatens to rob us of our commitment to our calling, or when we wonder if the spouse that God gave us is the right one. Because God is working sovereignly and personally we know that for the purposes of our own Christlikeness and his own glory he gives us the spouse he intends, the church he intends, the position he intends, and the challenges he intends. God’s provision may not always be what we would ask, and often stretches what we can imagine. But God gives us what he does in order to prepare us, to strengthen us, to humble us, to bless us, and to grow in us a greater dependency on himself and a lesser attraction to this world, according to his power in us.

When God put his Son in a stable, it must have been hard to imagine that there was “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). But what may be harder yet to imagine is that we too “are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). In each activity of the Spirit, in each transition of our lives and in each challenge that makes us question how something so humble, difficult, or unnoticed could be significant, there is a new advent of the glory of God, a new incarnation of his presence and power. Think of that: no matter how obscure or insignificant the act, when we serve the purposes of the Savior, the glory of the Son of God shines in us with increasing glory because of his power that is at work in us.

How shall we treat a God who so dignifies and empowers the humble offerings of service that we give to him? If what we do is, in reality, the result of his power at work in us, then there is only one thing to do: give him glory.[5]

Paul’s praise to God (vv. 20–21)

God “is able,” Paul says in verse 20, “to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think.” Witness the salvation of the Gentiles! Who would ever have asked or thought that God would save such spiritually profligate people! But he did! And God has done the same for many reading this book as well! Perhaps, in former days, you were just the sort of “far off” and spiritually mixed-up person we thought about in the last chapter. Who would have dreamed that you would be sitting where you are at this moment, enjoying a commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians? But look at what God has done! God is indeed “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think.” And to the God who does such things belongs great “glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (v. 21).[6]

3:20 / The apostle has prayed earnestly for certain things, but he realizes that even his requests fall far short of what God is able to do. Thus he concludes this doctrinal section with an appeal to the infinite wealth and understanding of God: To him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. He has opened to his readers the marvels of God’s secret and how they have been incorporated into the body of Christ. But in spite of this vast and eternal plan of God, he reminds them that God has the resources to do much more according to his power that is at work within us. “Our experience of his power, as it is brought to bear within us, is a limited but true index to the nature of the power that governs the universe and brings all things to their appointed end” (Beare, p. 680).[7]

20, 21. When the apostle surveyed God’s marvelous mercies whereby, through the supreme sacrifice of his beloved Son, he brought those who were at one time children of wrath into his own family, and gave them “the courage of confident access,” the privilege of contemplating in all its glorious dimensions the love of Christ, and the inspiring task of instructing the angels in the mysteries of God’s kaleidoscopic wisdom, his soul, lost in wonder, love, and praise, uttered the following sublime doxology: Now to him who is able to do infinitely more than all we ask or imagine, according to the power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever; Amen. It is immediately clear that this doxology is not only a fitting conclusion to the prayer but also a very appropriate expression of gratitude and praise for all the blessings so generously poured out upon the church, as described in the entire preceding contents of this letter. Besides, it is Paul’s way of making known his firm conviction that although in his prayer he has asked much, God is able to grant far more. On this point the apostle, who relished superlatives (see N.T.C. on I and II Timothy and Titus, p. 75), speaks very strongly. Literally he says, “Now to him—that is, to God Triune—who is able to do super-abundantly above all that we ask or imagine (or: think, conceive),” etc. In order to appreciate fully what is implied in these words it should be noted that Paul’s reasoning has taken the following steps: a. God is able to do all we ask him to do; b. he is even able to do all that we dare not ask but merely imagine; c. he can do more than this; d. far more; e. very far more. Moreover, the apostle immediately adds that he is not dealing with abstractions. The omnipotence which God reveals in answering prayer is not a figment of the imagination but is in line with (“according to”) that mighty operation of his power that is already at work “within us.” It called us out of darkness and brought us into the light, changed children of wrath into dearly beloved sons and daughters, brought about reconciliation between God and man, and between Jew and Gentile. It is God’s infinite might which he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead, and which is now operative in our own, parallel, spiritual resurrection.

Therefore to the One who does not need to over-exert himself in order to fulfil our desires but can do it with ease, “be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.” In other words, may homage and adoration be rendered to God because of the splendor of his amazing attributes—power (1:19, 2:20), wisdom (3:10), mercy (2:4), love (2:4), grace (2:5–8); etc.—manifested in the church, which is the body, and in Christ Jesus, its exalted head. (On the concept glory see N.T.C. on Philippians, pp. 62, 63, footnote 43.)

The apostle’s ardent desire is that this praise may endure “to all generations.” The word generation, in addition to other meanings, has especially two connotations that should be considered in the present connection: a. the sum-total of contemporaries (Matt. 17:17); and b. the duration of their life on earth; that is, the span of time intervening between the birth of the parents and that of their children. In the present case, as well as in verse 5 above, the latter or chronological sense is indicated, for the phrase “to all generations” is reinforced by “forever and ever.” The latter expression means exactly what it says. It refers to the flow of moments from past to present to future, continuing on and on without ever coming to an end. Rather strangely it has been defined by some as indicating “the opposite of time,” “time without progress,” “timeless existence,” etc. But as far as creatures and their activities are concerned, the Bible nowhere teaches such timeless existence. The popular notion, also found in some commentaries and in religious poetry, namely, that at death—or according to others, at the moment of Christ’s return—believers will enter upon a timeless existence, finds no support in Scripture, not even in Rev. 10:6 when properly interpreted. If in the hereafter believers will acquire one divine “incommunicable” attribute, namely, eternity, why not the others also, for example “omnipresence”? For more on this see the work mentioned on p. 174, footnote 97.

The blessed activity of which believers have a foretaste even now but which in unalloyed and superabundant grandeur will be their portion in the intermediate state, and far more emphatically in the day of the great consummation, an activity with which the apostle is deeply concerned and for which he yearns in prayer, consists, therefore, in this, that forever and ever the members of the Father’s Family ascribe praise and honor to their Maker-Redeemer, whose love, supported by the illimitable power which raised Christ from the dead, will lift their hearts to higher and higher plateaus of inexpressible delight and reverent gratitude. Arrived in glory, their minds unobscured by sin, advance from one pinnacle of spiritual discovery to the next, and then to the next, in an ever ascending series. Their wills, then fully delivered from all the enslaving shackles of willfulness, and invigorated with a constantly growing supply of power, find more and more avenues of rewarding expression. In brief, the salvation in store for God’s children resembles the Healing Waters of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 47:1–5), which, though when one enters them they are ankle-deep, soon become knee-deep, then come up to the loins, and are finally impassable except by swimming. And because of this constant progress in bliss, the answering progress in praise to God also never ceases, for

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we first begun.”

(John Newton)

When the Holy Spirit inspired the prisoner Paul to write this overpowering doxology, Paul’s heart was moved by that same Spirit to express hearty approval by means of the solemn “Amen.”[8]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 112–113). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 113–119). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.

[3] Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 101–102). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (pp. 330–331). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[5] Chapell, B. (2009). Ephesians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 169–175). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

[6] Strassner, K. (2014). Opening up Ephesians (pp. 75–76). Leominster: Day One.

[7] Patzia, A. G. (2011). Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (p. 227). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[8] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Ephesians (Vol. 7, pp. 175–177). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

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