At Work Within Us: Ephesians 3:20-21
July 23, 2018
In examining Paul’s closing lines of Ephesians 3, one must take a moment to assess the full message that Paul is presenting throughout this chapter. In the opening verses of the chapter, Paul introduces the idea of the mystery of the gospel. This word, mystery, was familiar in Paul’s world, commonly used in pagan religions and even in Jewish wisdom and apocalyptic literature. A mystery in these contexts commonly corresponded with the idea of a secret, “an eschatological mystery, a concealed intimation of divinely ordained future events whose disclosure and interpretation is reserved for God alone.”1 For Paul, this mystery that was once concealed is now made known in Christ; the secret of the ages has been revealed.
So what does this mystery have to do with Paul’s words at the conclusion of this chapter? Markus Barth sees that the entirety of Ephesians 3 is dedicated to an explanation by Paul as to why he would risk his own reputation with an event which directly benefits Gentiles.2 This revelation – a word that originally denoted a “removal of the veil”3 – led Paul to rethink his total life purpose. This was not a light decision for Paul, and he certainly did not think it should be for the Ephesians either.
In verse 14, Paul feels the weight of this revelation and closes his thoughts on this mystery with a solemn prayer: “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father” (Eph. 3:14). It is notable that in Paul’s closing prayer here, he calls not only on the Father but on the Father of all fatherhoods, “from whom every family in heaven and earth derives its appellation.”4 Paul knows that to carry out his mission, to be true to the disclosure which has been granted him, he must be dependent on the One whom he describes as “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” in Ephesians 3:20.
In this petition, Paul knows of whom he speaks; he is speaking of the One who has made this mystery apparent and who had intended it all along. He knows if the church is to carry out its divine mission, she will have to rely on God’s ability, which as Barth notes is “not the possibility but the power to carry something out.”5 If the church can recognize that this is the “power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20b), then the church will be the glory of God the Father. If not, the church will not ably live up to her calling as the bearer of this mystery; the church will fail in its intended purpose. It is out of this mysterious purpose that the entire story of the church flows; as each narrative unfolds it does so only out of this ability granted by God himself – the one “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20) – to carry out this divine purpose.
1 Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP , 1993), 621-623.
2 Markus Barth, Anchor Bible Commentary: Vol 43: Ephesians 1-3, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 350.
3 Ibid, 351.
4 E.K. Simpson, New International Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 79.
5 Markus Barth, Anchor Bible Commentary: Vol 43: Ephesians 1-3, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 374, emphasis added.