The center of Paul’s prayer begins in verse 16 and colors the entire prayer. But the focal point has become clouded to the point of being invisible to the reader of the English Bible. That focal point is the phrase “according to the riches of His glory” (New American Standard Bible, NASB). Four interpretation issues will be examined briefly: (1) the word order, (2) the word “glory” (δόξα), (3) the definite article (“the”) before “glory” in the Greek text, and (4) the force of the preposition “according to” and its object “riches.” The conclusion will trace “the glory of God” throughout the prayer and end with the primary practical application.
(1) Word order constitutes an important aspect of biblical interpretation. Word order helps define emphasis and focus. In Paul’s prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21 the focus begins and ends with the glory of God (verses 16 and 21).
The use of the primary verb in verse 16, correctly translated “grant” in the NASB, completes the verbal idea with its infinitive complement “to be strengthened.” Normally such an infinitive appears in close proximity to the primary verb, but in this instance the prepositional phrase, “according to the riches of His glory,” intervenes. The placing of this phrase at the front of the sentence should cause the reader to reflect on “the riches of His glory” throughout the prayer. Unfortunately readers of the English Bible rarely reflect on the rhetorical importance of word order in the Greek New Testament.
(2) The Greek word “glory” (δόξα) changed its meanings over time, and for the New Testament the significant change occurred with the translation of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint). Note Kittel’s remarks,
When the [Greek] translator of the OT first thought of using δόξα for כּבוֹד [the Hebrew word for “glory”], he initiated a linguistic change of far-reaching significance, giving to the Greek term a distinctiveness of sense which could hardly be surpassed. Taking a word for opinion, which implies all the subjectivity and therefore all the vacillation of human views and conjectures, he made it express something absolutely objective, i.e. the reality of God (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, II, 245, TDNT).
The reality spoken of by Kittel is the “divine nature” revealed in creation and in God’s subsequent actions (TDNT, 244). The Scriptures represent a prime source for that reality and without this self-revelation from God very little about the “divine nature” would be understood.
(3) The abstract English word “glory” as a reference to God, speaks of His “divine nature,” His self-revelation, those definable, and one might add measureable, characteristics revealed in Scripture. This is especially true when the definite article accompanies the term as it does in Ephesians 3:16. Robertson writes, “Whenever the Greek article occurs, the object is certainly definite” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research,756, ATR). To make definite “the glory of God” means to break away from the abstractness of the word “glory” and to reflect concretely on God’s attributes. Perhaps a paraphrase such as “the riches of the revealed attributes of God” could capture the required concreteness and lead readers to think in definitive terms.
(4) God’s self-revelation occurs in a “measureable” context. The preposition “according to” (κάτα) functions as a “rule of measure” (ATR, 608) with its object “the riches of His glory.” The primary term “riches” in the prepositional phrase foreshadows the “measurement” language in verse 18, “the breadth and length and height and depth.”
In summary, Paul prays that the Ephesians might be strengthened to expand their comprehension of the “inexhaustible” dimensions of God’s character. And those divine attributes transcend the bounds of the human mind to fully capture, as the reference in verse 19 to one of those attributes openly declares, “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (NASB).
In conclusion, the “glory of God,” His self-revealed essence, can be observed throughout the prayer. Verses 16 begins the theme and verse 21 ends it with its reference to “[the self-revelation of God] in the Church.” The “divine nature” should be evidenced within the individual as seen in verse 17, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,” and in the corporate body of the Church as prayed for in verse 19, “that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” Note the “measurement” concepts and their relationship to Ephesians 2:22, the Church as “a dwellingplace of God in the Spirit” (NASB).
Finally, the “inexhaustible riches” of God’s self-revelation asserts itself also in verse 20, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us . . . ” (NASB). The overriding focus in this prayer is on God’s glory, His self-revealed immensity. Unfortunately this focus recedes into a dimly-lit background in commentaries and sermons.
The primary practical application growing out of this prayer lies in the critical need for the people of God to expand their understanding of God’s greatness through diligent study of the Bible wherein He has revealed Himself. If this rings true, a final application question may be: Why are there so few Christians in Sunday School or adult education classes in evangelical churches where the Scriptures are taught? It would appear that Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian believers needs a fresh emphasis in 21st century American evangelicalism.