Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Prayer for Spiritual Wisdom: An Exegesis of Ephesians 1:15-23

The following partially satisfies the requirements for Dr. Christopher Dickerson's Hermeneutics class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

A Prayer for Spiritual Wisdom: An Exegesis of Ephesians 1:15-23

Summary of Ephesians 1:15-23

Main Idea of the Text (MIT) 

Paul thanks God for the believers at Ephesus, prays for them to grow in their knowledge of God and their awareness of Christ, and praises God for his exaltation of Christ over all things in this prayer of thanksgiving and intercession.


            A. Thanking God for grace shown by the people of Ephesus (1:15-16[ESV])
15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,

B. Asking for illumination to know God better (1:17-19)
17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might

C. Praising God for his exaltation of Christ (1:20-23)
20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.


Ephesians is possibly the most influential document ever written, and according to Klyne Snodgrass, it is the “crown and climax of Pauline theology…[it] is the most contemporary book in the Bible. Apart from a few terms and the treatment of slavery, Ephesians could have been written to a modern church.”[1] Tony Merida also gives a few reasons why it is important to study Ephesians: It deepens ones understanding of the gospel, it magnifies the importance of the church, it provides grace-filled encouragement and offers practical answers to basic questions about Christian life.[2] By giving general instructions for growing in maturity in Christ this short letter is valuable to any believer from any age.

In the prayer of thanksgiving and praise from Ephesians 1:15-23, Paul shows us that Christians need the help of the Spirit to understand how great God is, and also to understand the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Additionally, Paul praises God for Christ’s exaltation at the right hand of God. He neatly weaves praise, thanksgiving and intercession into this prayer.


Largely, the structure of Ephesians conforms to the other Pauline letters except for the fact that the address is followed by two introductory paragraphs: a blessing, and a prayer of thanksgiving. None of Paul’s other letters have both.[3] Frank Thielman points out that although the letter seems to be well planned, there are times when the dividing lines between sections are sometimes unclear, which gives the letter a mixture of planned structure and free-flowing discourse.[4]


Although Pauline authorship has been generally accepted, some scholars propose that someone other than Paul wrote the letter. Andrew Lincoln is one scholar who does not accept Pauline authorship. For example, he points out that Ephesians does not contain any of the marks of a typical Pauline letter: the addressing of immediate and particular issues, no list of personal greetings and its issues and themes are more general than specific.[5] One could easily say that the stance for Pauline authorship is actually becoming increasingly less popular. However, as Snodgrass points out, despite the frequency with which Pauline authorship is denied, the case is still not obvious.[6] Most importantly, he says that even though those who reject Pauline authorship feel that there should be no devaluing of Ephesians, in reality most of these scholars do consider it less authoritative.[7] Harold Hoehner explains that although Ephesians differs from other Pauline literature, the differences are not significant enough to reject Pauline authorship. He also argues that the strong assertion from the early church of Pauline authorship is significant since they were not only closer to the situation, but were “very astute in their judgment of genuine and fraudulent compositions.”[8] Therefore, it seems most likely that Paul is in fact the author of this letter.

Historical Background and Purpose

It has been traditionally understood that Paul wrote this letter to believers in Ephesus. However, because the tone is somewhat impersonal, and because the words “in Ephesus” are omitted from some manuscripts, there has been discussion around the original destination of the letter. Because of this, F.F. Bruce feels that perhaps the churches in the area were supposed to insert their own name.[9] Conversely, Hoehner argues that the words “In Ephesus” were most likely in the original autographs and that the impersonal tone could have been explained by the possibility that perhaps there were several churches in the area that would have read the letter.[10] Most importantly, as Lincoln points out, the general tone of this letter is one of the reasons why Ephesians has so easily transcended the original setting and has had such broad and universal appeal.[11]

The city of Ephesus was the largest trading center in Asia Minor and it is likely that Paul chose Ephesus because of its size and influence because these large cities were great places to share the gospel. It is known that Paul visited Ephesus on three occasions and that his ministry had a huge effect on the city.[12] While it is possible that there was one big church at Ephesus, it is most likely that the letter would have been circulated among many churches, or even house churches throughout Asia Minor.[13]

There has been a wide range of ideas about the circumstances that prompted Paul to write this letter. Thielman points out the importance of two elements of the letter’s cultural environment: the religious culture of first-century Ephesus and the complex relationship between early Christianity and Judaism. He concludes that neither of these elements are convincing alone and determines that the letter simply responds to problems that developed in Christian communities because Paul was absent and that Christians in the area were feeling marginalized from their societies.[14] It is obvious that Paul cared deeply for his readers, wanted to ensure their faith was built on sound doctrine, and wanted to strengthen their faith in the Gospel.


A. Thanking God for grace shown by the people of Ephesus (1:15-16)

Paul begins this new section with the words “For this reason”, which points back to the doxology (1:3-14). As Snodgrass points out “the intent of this prayer is that people will know in their own lives the benefits mentioned in the doxology.”[15] In the doxology, Paul has already, as Lincoln says, “drawn the recipients of the letter into his blessing of God as he focused on their experience of the gospel.”[16] Although Paul may not have personally known the recipients of the letter, he has rapport with him because of his knowledge of their faith. As Snodgrass points out, the statement that Paul “does not cease to give thanks” for them is a figurative way of conveying that he prays for them on a regular basis.[17] Paul is clearly thankful for those who will receive this letter because he knows that they were believers who believe the Gospel and are filled with the Spirit.

B. Asking for illumination to know God better (1:17-19a)

Here is where Paul’s petitions begin. Merida points out that Paul uses three phrases here that point to the idea of illumination: “the Spirit of wisdom” and of “revelation” (v. 17) and “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (v. 18).[18]

Paul is praying for the readers to be given the “Spirit of wisdom”. There is some debate here around the word pneuma that is translated here as “Spirit” because this word could either refer to either the Holy Spirit or human spirit.[19] Theilman says that this phrase is practically “unintelligible as a reference to the human spirit” since God is the one who gives revelation to people.[20] The only other place in Ephesians where pneuma comes together with “revelation” is in 3:4-5 where God’s Spirit reveals “the mystery of Christ”. Both of these weigh heavily in favor of taking this to mean that Paul is asking God in this prayer to give his reader the Holy Spirit to aid in wisdom and revelation.[21] Notice also, that all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in this verse, which helps in building the strong Trinitarian emphasis throughout the letter.

Most commentators agree that the grammar connecting verses 17 and 18 are problematic. Is Paul praying here for two things: (1) the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, and (2) having the eyes of the reader’s hearts enlightened? That is possible, or is “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” simply a parenthetical explanation of “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation”? Neither is easy grammatically, according to Snodgrass, but he feels that Paul’s intent is clear: “That God’s Spirit, already given to his readers, will continually give wisdom and revelation for life and understanding.” [22]  Paul’s strongest desire is for his readers to know and understand God better for the benefit of the Gospel. This is what he means by having the “eyes of their hearts enlightened” – he wants them to be receptive to what the Spirit is revealing to them.

Next, Paul mentions three things he wants his readers to know: “what is the hope to which he has called you,” “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,” and “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.” First, Paul is praying for his readers to understand the hope that God’s call gives them for the future because an essential characteristic of Christianity is the lean toward the future.[23] Secondly, when Paul prays for the readers to understand “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,” Snodgrass shows that he is pointing to “the tremendous glory that is present when God inherits the people he has set apart for himself.”[24] Paul is not talking about something that the believers reading this letter will themselves receive. Paul is praying for them to understand their status as God’s own glorious inheritance.[25] God also has an inheritance and his inheritance is his people. The third request is that the readers will understand the “immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe according to the working of his great might.” Lincoln colorfully says that Paul “desires believers to know the greatness of God’s power and attempts to exhaust the resources of the Greek language by piling up four synonyms for power in order to convey an impression of something of the divine might.”[26] He goes on to clarify that although there may be subtle nuances in these four Greek words, “the point in the writer’s heaping up of these expressions is not their distinctiveness but their similarity.”[27] Paul especially wanted to emphasize the enormous magnitude of God’s power. In short, what Paul is emphasizing here is the Gospel. He wants his readers to understand that what God accomplished through Christ is available specifically to them as believers.

C. Praising God for his exaltation of Christ (1:20-23)

The phrase “he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” in verse 20 is simply a demonstration of God’s power. Snodgrass points out that the literal reading actually uses the plural “from the dead ones.” This is interesting since it shows that the emphasis is not so much that Christ was raised from a state of death, but that he was raised out from the dead ones. This is an important difference, because it shows that his resurrection was not viewed as an isolated event, but is in fact the first stage in the future resurrection.[28] Paul then alludes to Psalm 110:1 with the words “and seated him at his right hand”. According to Thielman, Psalm 110 likely played a role in the first century debates about the identity of the Messiah.[29] Moreover, this psalm is often quoted and alluded to throughout the NT when the main interest is the exaltation of Jesus to God’s right hand, and usually these texts emphasize the vindication of Jesus after his crucifixion or his exalted status as God’s vice regent. [30] Lincoln points out that the terminology of being seated at the right hand also had parallels in the ancient Near Eastern world where the king was often seated next to the guardian deity of a city of nation. Occupying the place at a god’s right hand meant that the ruler exercised power on behalf of the god and held a position of supreme honor. The literal translation here for the place is “in the heavenlies” and this phrase is unique to Ephesians and is used five times.[31] According to Hoehner, the phrase denotes the place where God dwells and reinforces that Christ is seated in the presence of the Father at his right hand.[32] Hoehner makes it clear that one should not relate “in the heavenlies” and “at the right hand” because the latter is a position of sovereignty. He goes on to say: “this is in contrast to believers (2:6) and satanic forces (6:12) who are also “in the heavenlies,” but neither are at the right hand of God. This is reserved only for Christ”[33] Only Christ has that position of sovereign power.

Paul now lists a string of five powerful beings: “rule,” “authority,” “power,” “dominion,” and “every name that is named.” They are used to ensure that it is known that Christ’s victory is total. Thielman explains that Paul most likely included among these powers not only the demonic forces that many people in western Asia Minor tried to control through magic, but also the alliance between the present earthly political rulers and deities of the transcendent realm. He goes on to say that this “becomes even more likely when Paul adds the comment that Christ’s victory is effective not only in this age, but also in the one to come.”[34] Lincoln points out that the explicit mention of the two ages provides the only reference in all of Paul’s writings to both ages.[35] Snodgrass emphasizes that these phrases “show a belief in the demarcation of time between this age and God’s future.”[36] Therefore, Ephesians demonstrates both a realized and a future eschatology.

When Paul mentions that Christ is supreme over all his enemies with the words “all things under his feet” he was saying that not only is every power inferior to Christ, they are also subject to Christ.[37] Moreover, the metaphorical language “under his feet” has the idea of victory over enemies.[38] Summarizing Merida, now that Christ is the seated King, he is on a throne that is above all principalities and powers. He is above creation, all earthly powers and most importantly he is above Satan. Not only is every power inferior to Christ they are also subject to Christ.[39]
The phrase “and gave him as head over all things to the church” is yet another demonstration of God’s power. Paul has already told his readers that he has been praying for God to open the eyes of their hearts so that they might understand the great power that God exerted for “us who believe.” After he expanded on the greatness of God’s power he is now telling his readers how God has used this power for the advantage for the group of believers Paul now calls “the church” (tē ēkklēsia).[40] The word ēkklēsia has usually meant “assembly” such as a political assembly in ancient Greek literature. According to Hoehner, it occurs one hundred times in the LXX and in the canonical books it appears seventy-seven times, and is usually translated from qahal meaning “assembly, congregation”.[41] It is used one hundred fourteen times in the NT, sixty-two times by Paul and nine times in Ephesians. [42] Therefore, in the present context it is speaking to the relationship between Christ and the universal church.[43]

In verse 23, the concept of “the body” is introduced for the first time. Snodgrass points out that while “the transition from feet and head to body is natural, Paul’s use of the head and body images in Ephesians and Colossians is different from his other letters and reflects a later development of his thought.”[44] Hoehner states that the word sōma that is translated here as “body” usually refers to the physical body of a human or animal. In the LXX always refers to human or animal bodies, but in the NT it has also referred to terrestrial and celestial bodies as well as Christ’s body in connection with the Lord’s supper but refers to the church, the body of Christ, sixteen times. In Ephesians, with the exception of 5:28 it is always used metaphorically as a reference to the church.
The phrase translated as “the fullness of him who fills all in all,” can be the most difficult part of the letter to interpret, according to Snodgrass. Being filled, or “fullness”, he says, “Can express a variety of nuances, but the primary idea [here] seems to be ‘completeness.’”[45] Based on that, we could say that Christ completes all things, and that the church draws from this fullness.


How does one now bring this text into the modern world? It obviously involves looking at both the biblical and modern culture. Sometimes, the biblical culture is not as distant as one might think, as is somewhat the case with this passage in Ephesians.

As Snodgrass points out, Paul’s prayer here in this passage is “as relevant for us now as when it was first written.”[46] Paul begins by thanking God for the believers who would be reading this letter, and he offers them encouragement based on what he has heard about their faith, even if he may not have met them personally. Paul lets them know that he is continuously praying for them and prays specifically that they may have the illumination of the Sprit and that they might better know God and the power of the exaltation of Christ.

He prays specifically so that they may have the “eyes of their heart enlightened” by the Spirit of wisdom. Today, just as then, believers always need the help of the Holy Spirit to know God and to understand his truth. In order to seek the Spirit’s help, one must first have a heart of humility. As Merida teaches: “the reason we often fail to seek the Spirit’s illumination is that we have an inflated view of ourselves.”[47] If Christians do not have the humility to see themselves as sinners, they will never ask for God’s help. It is important to constantly ask God for understanding.

Paul also prays that the recipients of this letter would know God better. Don Carson says that one thing especially needed in Christianity today “is a deeper knowledge of God. We need to know God better”[48] J. I. Packer says that those who know God have four characteristics: great energy for God, great thoughts of God, great boldness for God, and great contentment in God.[49] Christians should be continually praying for God’s help in knowing him better.

Paul then expands by praying for better understanding of the gospel blessings. Paul mentions three blessings in particular: “what is the hope to which he has called you,” “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,” and “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.” Paul wants his readers to see the hope that is in the glory of eternal salvation, no matter how difficult this life is. He wants all Christians to understand that they are valuable to God, and that they should live for God’s praise because they are his inheritance. Paul wants believers to understand that only God’s power will allow them to arrive into his kingdom, and this power is only given to us who believe. Additionally, he wants all who are faithful to understand that Jesus is Lord over the church. The church is Christ’s body, and he rules the church and he fills the church with his presence. 
Just as Paul told his readers that he prayed for them continually, modern Christians need to do the same for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Christians need to pray constantly with thanksgiving and praise, asking for illumination from the Spirit for themselves and for fellow believers. One should never stop seeking Spiritual wisdom and continue to develop the desire to know God better.

Works Cited

Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Carson, D. A. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Furnish, Victor Paul. “Ephesians, Epistle to the” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2. ed. Edited by D. N. Freedman, et al. New York: Doubleday, 1992

Hawthorne, Gerald F. Ralph P Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Hoehner, Harold W. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2002.

Lincoln, Andrew T. Ephesians Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, 1990.

Merida, Tony. Ephesians Christ-Centered Exposition. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.

O’Brien, Peter. The Letter to the Ephesians. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Packer, J. I. Knowing God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1973.

Snodgrass, Klyne. Ephesians. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Thielman, Frank. Ephesians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1996), 17
[2] Tony Merida, Ephesians Christ Centered Exposition, (Nashville: B&H Publishing 2014), 3-4
[3] Victor Paul Furnish, “Ephesians, Epistle to the” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, ed., D. N. Freedman, et al., (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 535
[4] Frank Thielman, Ephesians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker 2010), 28-29
[5] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians The Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas: Word, 1990), xxxix
[6] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 22
[7] Ibid., 30
[8] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2002), 60
[9] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 240
[10] Hoehner, Ephesians, 78-79
[11] Lincoln, Ephesians, lxxxi
[12] Hoehner, Ephesians, 88
[13] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 245
[14] Thielman, Ephesians, 22-25
[15] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 71
[16] Lincoln, Ephesians, 54
[17] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 72
[18] Merida, Ephesians, 35
[19] The word pneuma occurs fourteen times in Ephesians and twelve of these times it refers to the Holy Spirit (1:13, 17; 2:18, 22; 3:5, 16, 4:3, 4, 30; 5:18; 6:17, 18). It is used to refer to the ruler of the world in 2:2 and of the human spirit in 4:23.
[20] Thielman, Ephesians, 96
[21] Ibid.
[22] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 73
[23] Ibid., 74
[24] Ibid., 74
[25] Thielman, Ephesians, 99
[26] Lincoln, Ephesians, 60
[27] Lincoln, Ephesians, 60
[28] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 75
[29] See Mark 12:35-37; Matt. 22:41-46; Luke 20:41-44; and Jesus’s fusion of Daniel 7:13 with Ps. 110:1 in Mark 14:62; Matt. 26:64; and Luke 22:69
[30] Thielman, Ephesians, 107
[31] See Eph. 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12
[32] Hoehner, Ephesians, 275
[33] Ibid.
[34] Thielman, Ephesians, 108
[35] Lincoln, Ephesians, 65
[36] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 78
[37] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 145
[38] See Joshua 10:24; cf. 2 Sam 22:39
[39] Merida, Ephesians, 40
[40] Thielman, Ephesians, 110
[41] Deut 18:16; 31:30; 1 Sam 17:47; 1 Kgs 8:14, 22, 55, 65; Pss 22:22; 149:1; Mic 2:5
[42] Eph 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32
[43] Hoehner, Ephesians, 287
[44] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 79
[45]Snodgrass, Ephesians, 79-80
[46] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 81
[47] Merida, Ephesians, 36
[48] D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, (Grand Rapids: Baker 1992), 15
[49] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1973), 27-31

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