Strengthened with Might – Ephesians 3:14-16
The Christian is the possessor of incredible privileges, for we are through the merit of Christ entitled to the riches of the glory of God. In chapters 1-3, the apostle has reviewed many of these riches with us. It is important that we know what we have in Christ. It is important not only for the comfort and peace that such knowledge brings, but also because such knowledge is essential for living out our Christian identity. Our life of obedience to Christ ought to be rooted in the gospel and related truths. All sorts of problems that Christians struggle with can often be traced to the fact that they are not really embracing who they are in Christ. Those who are constantly struggling to gain God’s favor instead of embracing the grace of God in Christ have simply failed to understand the Biblical theology of grace. Or, those who deny that obedience has any place in the Christian life also have misunderstood the theological implications of the gospel. In other words, theology is fundamental to the Christian life.
You see this in the overall structure of Ephesians. Paul has just spent almost three chapters, not in exhortation, but in theology. Paul has touched on the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of the church, the doctrine of last things, among other things. He does this first, in order to establish the ground of and to give motivation to the life of obedience that he will move into in the second half of this epistle. When Paul begins chapter 4 with the words, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,” he is grounding everything he is about to say in what he has already said. You cannot properly move into the application of the gospel unless you have first mastered the theology of the gospel.
This is perhaps most pronounced in the book of Romans. The first eleven chapters are theology. The last five are application. The bridge between theology and application is Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore brethren by the mercies of God. . .” The meaning of the “mercies of God” are to be filled up by the teaching and theology of the first eleven chapters.
Paul sometimes does this in reverse order, as in Titus. There application comes first, but he inevitably ties it back to the theology of the gospel (see Tit.2:12-15). We are to “speak the things which become sound doctrine” (Tit. 2:1), not just to be theologically correct but also because the Christian life cannot be lived out in a vacuum. There must be context and motivation for the life we are called to live, and theology does that.
So beware when people tell you that theology is unimportant. I realize that there are people out there who master theology on an intellectual level but who don’t show love and grace to others, who can tell you all about the nature of Christ as the God-man but who won’t live like Christ before others. And that is truly repugnant. But the answer to this kind of hypocrisy is not to rule theological knowledge out of bounds. The answer is to live a life that loves theology and lives theology. After all, what is theology anyway? It is not so much an academic discipline as it is the study of God. Which means that everyone in the end is a theologian. The question is not whether you will be a theologian; the question is what kind of theologian will you be? Will your theology be based upon a thorough knowledge of the word of God or will it be based on whim and cultural influence? Unfortunately, a lot of Christians who decry the study of theology don’t realize that they have a theology that has been filled up with unbiblical thinking.
We need to be people who live out our Lord’s words in John 4:23-24: “But the hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Worship, which is the chief thing that we are called to do in this world and the next must be done in spirit and in truth. And this means that it is not only important to be sincere, but that our worship be true. But worship cannot be true if it is not motivated and informed by the knowledge of the true God. Which is to say that you can’t truly worship God unless you are a theologian.
The fact of the matter is that eventually you are going to be faced with the question, “Why am I doing this?” For the Christian life is not easy. Our Lord himself described it as taking the cross. The apostle Paul described it as enduring hardness. It is a warfare, not a vacation. And when the world, the devil, and the flesh are pressuring you to give in and take the easy way, it will be very easy to give in unless you have a powerful motivation to do the hard thing. That motivation is not going to be found in, “This is just the right thing to do.” Or, “The Lord commanded it, therefore I must do it.” You are going to have to persuade yourself to do the right thing, not just know that it is the right thing. And I would argue that the way to persuade yourself to make the difficult choice, to deny yourself, is to preach the truths of the gospel of grace to yourself. You will need to sing to yourself the beauty and glory and majesty of God in Christ. In other words, you will need to draw from the rich theological implications of the gospel if you are going to withstand in the evil day.
But as we have seen from our Lord’s words in John 4, you not only need “truth,” you need “spirit.” You not only need light, you need heat. It is not enough to simply know truth. We must apply it to our lives. However, again, this involves more than just knowing that we need to apply it. Living the Christian life is much more than knowing what we must do and why we must do it. We need to be empowered to do it. Remember that we are in a warfare. You don’t only need to know how to fight and be motivated to win, you have to have the ability and strength to fight. An army can be very motivated to win, but if it doesn’t have superior resources than the enemy, it will almost certainly lose. Witness the Confederacy in the American Civil War or the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars.
We are up against a very motivated and powerful and smart enemy. The apostle will describe them in the sixth chapter: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (6:12). Our enemy has resources. He is very powerful. He is not a poodle snapping at your heels, but “a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). He is not out to make your life miserable; he is out to destroy your faith, and he will if he can.
So how do we persevere? How do we fight and live out the Christian life? How to we live out the realities that the apostle has described for us in the preceding verses? The answer is found in the prayer of the apostle in Eph. 3:14-21. And it is very important to see how the apostle begins this prayer. It is a prayer for strength: “That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.”
Paul would not be praying this prayer if his readers didn’t need strength. You and I need strength as well. And you need strength that comes from outside yourself. In yourself, you do not have the resources to defeat the world, the flesh, and the devil. You need God’s strength to live out the life that Christ is calling you to live. The first thing this text teaches us is that we need the help of the triune God – God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us this help through the Spirit.
I think it is important to note that Paul is not praying for unbelievers here. He is praying for believers. He is praying for people who have already been given spiritual life. And yet he prays for strength for them. Why?
One reason is that God never intended you and me to live our lives apart from his constant help and grace. In the Christian life, we don’t grow up to a point where we don’t need God to hold our hands anymore. We are always in some sense to be like “newborn babes” (1 Pet. 2:2). God did not create us to be independent of him. Our identity as creatures of the living God means that we never outgrow our constant need of God. Maturity in the faith does not mean that we can do more and more on our own; it is actually the reverse. As we grow in our faith we become more and more dependent upon God, we grow to realize more the reality of just how much we need him. Self-sufficiency is not a sign of spiritual growth; if anything, it is a sign of spiritual decay.
The church of Laodicea is an unfortunate example of this. Their thought was, “I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.” But God’s verdict was the very opposite: “…and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). They thought they were strong, but they were weak.
The opposite attitude, and the one we ought to have, is exemplified in the apostle: “For when I am weak, then am I strong” (1 Cor. 12:10). In fact, the apostle constantly gloried in his dependence upon Christ. To the Philippians he would say, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). And our Lord reminds us, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (Jn. 15:4-5).
All of us need to realize that we can do nothing apart from the help and grace and strength that Christ provides. Left to yourself, no matter how far you have come in the Christian life, you will shrivel up and die, like a branch that is severed from the vine. You have no grace in yourself. It comes from Christ, and Christ alone. You have no strength in yourself and you will never have strength in yourself. For that, you must look to the grace of God, every minute of every hour of every day.
There are some great pictures of this in the OT. Have you ever wondered why the Philistines didn’t know where Samson got his strength? You know, if the pictures of Samson are right, I don’t think the Philistines would have been confused. There is no doubt where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets his strength – he got it from body-building! Personally, I think the reason the Philistines were confused is because Samson looked just like any other man. Just looking at him you would never have guessed he had this incredible strength. And the reason is that the strength was not in himself – it was a gift given to him by God. It was grace that gave Samson his power! And when he became cocky and self-sufficient and lazy and careless, he lost it. And so will we, unless we remain dependent upon God for all the tasks set before us.
Another example of this is found in the confrontation between David and Goliath. Goliath had spent his entire life in the study and practice of warfare. On top of this, he was an obvious giant of a man. He was armed to the gills. His appearance was so fearful that the entire Israelite army refused to face him. And then there was David, a little shepherd boy armed only with a stone and a sling, who hadn’t had a day’s military training in his life, and yet who took down this monster with a single stone from his sling-shot. Why? David himself gives us the answer, as he put it to Goliath: “Thou comest to me with a sword, and a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand . . . that all the world may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Kings 17:45-46). David had it right; the difference was not in David, but in the God who empowered David to smite the enemy of Israel.
Let us beware of self-sufficiency. It is rooted in pride and there is nothing that will kill our spiritual walk with God faster than pride. We are told to “be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace unto the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” [then follows the caution about the devil who goes about like a roaring lion] (1 Pet. 5: 5-7). Instead, let us pray that God would strengthen us with might by his Spirit in the inner man.
Another thing this prayer teaches us is that we not only need to realize our utter need and dependence upon God, we also need to pray out of a sense of that need. And we need to pray for power. It is not enough to know we need God. We must bring to him our every need. If we cannot take one step apart from the grace of God, then we need to be praying over every step that we take.
This truth deals with another problem that Christians face. There is the problem of self-sufficiency and pride. But there is also the problem of a sense of helplessness and defeatism. The feeling that we can just go no further. The feeling that God has abandoned us in the wilderness and left us to die. The feeling that we are on our own and that we are therefore defeated. The feeling that we will be overcome and overwhelmed by our enemies.
But this is a lie. Because if so, why would Paul pray for this? He prays for this because there are infinite resources available to the Christian. He prays for it because there is “the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power” (Eph. 1:19). Paul in fact begins and ends this prayer with a contemplation on the power of God. He prays for God’s power on behalf of believers in verse 16, and then in verse 20 he exults in it: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.”
Yes, we have a powerful enemy. Yes we are in ourselves very weak. But “ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4). Like Elisha’s servant we need to see that surrounding all our enemies are the horses and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:15-17).
The Christian who leans upon the grace of God has no reason to fear being defeated, for he or she has all the resources of heaven at hand. We are strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man. It is the Spirit of God himself who comes down to help us. In other words, God does not just send help; he himself is our help. It is his power that works in us.
That is why Paul begins this prayer the way he goes: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (14-15). In opening this way, the apostle again reminds us of the special and close connection that each believer has with God. In Christ, God the Father is our Father. We bear his name. We are his children. And because we are his children we can be sure that he will look after and take care of us. He will not leave us as orphans. He will come to us. He will send the Spirit of his Son to us to strengthen us in our time of need. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Lk. 11:13).
And so, if we are in want, it is not because we lack the resources, or because our Father doesn’t care. Rather, “ye have not, because ye ask not” (Jam. 4:2). God waits for us to ask him because it is only in this way that we will be constantly reminded not only of our need for him but also of his care for us. The call to prayer is a call to remember again that God our Father loves us and cares for us and will strengthen us for the road ahead.
Now, before we end our consideration of this part of Paul’s prayer, I think it is important to see where this helps goes. It is aimed at “the inner man.” That is so say, it is aimed at the heart and soul and mind. That is not to say that our bodies will not be redeemed. And that is not to say that God does not sometimes slow down the process of death which grips every one of our bodies by healing us of our diseases. But the reality is that unless our Lord returns, this temple will crumble. Nevertheless, the promise of our text is that, whatever happens to our bodies this side of the resurrection, God will never allow the saint to lose continual access to God’s power and strength for the inner man. Paul put it this way to the Corinthians: “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). We may even lose the ability to use our ability to think insofar as it is connected to the function of our brain, but we will never lose the help that God gives the inner man.
We must never forget that every gift, including spiritual strength, is not based upon our goodness but upon God’s free favor and grace that comes to us through the righteousness of Jesus Christ on our behalf. All the riches of the glory of God are rooted in the riches of his grace. And his grace comes to us solely through Jesus Christ. And so let us look afresh to him, approach the throne of our Father which in Christ is a throne of grace and find strength and grace and help in our time of need – which is right now.