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06 August 2018

God’s superabundant riches.

If we could only grasp how much of them there are.

Ephesians 3.13-21

God’s great mystery, now revealed to the world through Paul, was God’s kingdom now includes gentiles. Previous generations didn’t realize this, despite plenty of hints in the Old Testament; it’s why Pharisees were regularly so dismissive of gentiles. But God now wants his church to make it crystal clear: The good news is for everyone. No exceptions. Jesus is Lord of all.

This was why he was in chains, Paul explained. Ep 3.1 In Acts he proclaimed Jesus had sent him to the gentiles—in temple, of all places. Ac 22.21 The resulting riot got the Romans to arrest him, Ac 22.22-24 originally to flog him and silence him, but Paul’s citizenship meant it quickly turned into protective custody, as the Judean leadership sought to get him killed. At the time he wrote Ephesians, we figure he was awaiting trial in Rome. His legal woes were entirely provoked by the very idea of including gentiles in God’s kingdom. But Paul wasn’t so petty as to blame gentiles for his situation. Wasn’t their fault.

On the contrary: The gentiles drove him to rejoice.

Ephesians 3.13-17 KWL
13 So I request you don’t despair over my suffering for you—which is in your honor.
14 It’s why I bend my knees to the Father, 15 for whom every “fatherland” in heaven and on earth is named.
16 So he could give you power from his glorious riches, make you strong in his Spirit in the person within,
17 and settle Christ in your hearts, planted and established through faith in love.

When Paul wrote of bending his knees to the Father, Ep 3.14 Christians miss the importance of this, ’cause it’s an old Christian custom to kneel to pray. But first-century Judeans (and Christians) didn’t pray like that. They prayed standing up, facing the sky, arms outstretched. Mk 11.25, Lk 18.13 You didn’t kneel unless you were begging God to answer your petition—like when Jesus begged not to suffer, Lk 22.41 or Simon Peter begged God to raise a dead woman. Ac 9.40 Paul was begging God for his prayer requests. Begging the Ephesians would get “power from his glorious riches,” would be “strong in his Spirit,” that God’d “settle Christ in [their] hearts.” He wanted the Ephesians to become solid Christians. (’Cause they were good Christians, Ep 1.15 but could always be better!)

Every “fatherland,” Paul pointed out, is named for the Father. This is a bit of Greek wordplay, so it’s a little tricky to translate. Paul compared patír/“father” and patriá/“homeland.” He correctly pointed out the word patriá comes from patír. Originally patriá meant “family,” and the KJV translated it that way: “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” Ep 3.15 KJV But a patriá wasn’t just one small little family, but a national family—the ethnic identity of an entire nation. Back then, nations figured a significant part of their national identity was in being descendants of a common ancestor. You know, like Judeans all figured they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah: They were “the children of Israel.”

Nowadays we consider that idea racist… ’cause it is. Especially in empires like the Roman Empire, which were multinational; or nations like the United States, which are based on shared ideals and rights instead of culture and ancestry. And God’s kingdom is both of those things: It’s an empire where everyone’s adopted, Ep 1.5 where our common allegiance to Jesus and his teachings mean race should make no difference. And lest anyone forget this, Paul pointed out how every ethnic identity has its origin in God the Father. He put people-groups where he wants ’em, Ac 17.26 and now he wants ’em in his kingdom, the patriá of heaven. A one-world government, under God, indivisible.

Paul’s prayer was for the Ephesians to get power from God’s riches: He has more than enough power to do whatever, and more than, we can ask or imagine. Jesus invites us to ask him for anything. Jn 14.13-14 We just gotta trust him enough to really ask—and start doing miracles.

At the same time, Paul prayed the Ephesians would grow “in the person within.” Spiritual might, wielded by someone who lacks spiritual fruit, who lacks character, can quickly turn into nothing. 1Co 13.1-3 God doesn’t just want us to do mighty deeds, but wants us to grow as human beings, get better, and be more like Christ Jesus. Have Jesus be the foundation, the basis, of everything we say and do. You know, be Christian.

Knowing Jesus.

More of Paul’s request: So the Ephesians would know Christ’s love.

Ephesians 3.18-19 KWL
18 So you could be capable of grasping—with all the saints—
what’s its nearness and farness, lowness and highness.
19 You could also know the knowledge-overwhelming love of Christ,
so you could be filled with all God’s fullness.

Since the KJV translated to plátos kai míkos kai ýpsos kai báthos as “the breadth, and length, and depth, and height” Ep 3.18 KJV we wind up with a lot of Christians who immediately start plumbing their memories of geometry: Dimensions! Paul’s describing dimensions!

And sometimes we then get weirdness: “Paul listed four dimensions. Not just three; not just height, length, and depth. There’s also ‘breadth.’ What’s breadth indicate?” There’s an x axis, a y axis, a z axis… and now we’re out of letters. And how do you draw this fourth axis on graph paper?

Every so often I’ve heard a preacher speculate “breadth” means the t axis: Time. And then they get all science-fiction about this verse. Although I’ve heard other preachers speculate it’s an s axis, speaking of a spiritual dimension which is greater and more profound than the three spatial dimensions we typically think of.

All this speculation is really a waste of time. Paul wasn’t describing four dimensions, but two. Plátos, short for pelatós, means “approachable”; míkos means “distance.” This describes how near and far Jesus’s love is: That’s one axis, not two. The other two adjectives, míkos and bathos, describe how low and high Jesus’s love is: A second axis. Paul wasn’t describing a cube, nor a tesseract. It’s a flat map—and considering how much Jesus loves us, there really are no limits to these distances.

True, Paul did want the Ephesians to imagine Jesus’s love in real space. Not just as an abstract idea, only to be found in our own brains. Love is an object in the real world. More: It’s an object we need to put in the real world. Stop internalizing it, and start doing it.

And if love’s an object in the real world, how big should it be? Well, there you’re gonna get Christians trying to outdo one another in our descriptions. “Bigger than anything! Bigger than the universe!” Hyperbole like that. Which is fine; it should be big. Big enough to include everyone. Big enough to achieve big things.

Paul also prayed the Ephesians would “know the knowledge-overwhelming love of Christ.” You realize that’s a paradox. Know the unknowable? Fathom the unfathomable? Grasp infinity? But hey, if we know it in part, that’s still really good.

Likewise being filled with God’s fullness: Also impossible-sounding, since we’d reasonably expect God’s infinite fullness to burst any finite human, like a water balloon hooked up to a firehose. But humans aren’t containers so much as sponges. The whole point of the Holy Spirit’s fruit is his goodness doesn’t just fill us, but overfills us, overflowing into everyone around us, affecting them, and maybe producing good fruit in them too. Imagine how such Christians could affect their communities. Imagine how you could.

Praising our super-more-extraordinary God.

Paul wraps up his discussion here about God’s magnificent plan of salvation. The rest of Ephesians is about how, now that we’re saved, God expects his kids to live. So Paul caps it off with some more praise to the Father for all he’s done.

Ephesians 3.20-21 KWL
20 To the one more capable than anyone
to do superabundantly whatever we ask or imagine, by the power operating in us:
21 Glory to him in the church, and in Christ Jesus,
in all generations of the age and ages. Amen.

Plus a little reminder that God’s able to do yper-ek-perissú/“super-more-extraordinary.” It’s a word we only find in the bible, in Paul’s letters. Betcha he coined it. But how else can we describe almightiness?

Really that’s always been a problem for us. We know God’s almighty, but we don’t entirely grasp just how almighty. Blame our finite minds for that one; blame also our lack of faith. We intellectually know God can do anything he wants; we just can’t imagine the grandest, mightiest thing he could do. (Mightier than creating the universe.) We can come up with something grand, but almightiness means God can actually do greater than that. Twice as great. Two billion times as great. We fling around the word “billions” all the time in our culture, yet still struggle with that concept—and yet God’s more almighty than that.

So why don’t we see him doing such things among us? Well we could—if we stopped limiting him with our tiny finite minds. God can do more than we ask or imagine. Let’s stop imagining, or asking for, such small things. Dream bigger.