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Most people pray. But not everyone prays in the same way.
What’s your experience of prayer? Is prayer something that comes to you easily, or something you seldom consider? Is prayer a burden, a delight, a struggle, a reflex, a source of strength, a duty, or a distraction? Is prayer at the centre of your life, or somewhere on the edges? Is prayer your first response, or your last resort? Are you too busy to pray, or does your busyness make you so overwhelmed that you feel prayer is your only option? Do you feel thankful for the privilege of prayer, or guilty about not praying enough (or both)? In fact, behind all of these questions, there’s something even more basic: When you pray, who are you praying to? Our view of God will have a profound effect on our prayers. This question of God—the God to whom we pray—is in the front of Paul’s mind as he starts to tell his readers about his own prayers in Ephesians chapter 3.
For this reason, I bend my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.Ephesians 3:14–15
This isn’t the first time in Ephesians that Paul has written about prayer. His earlier prayer for his readers (Ephesians 1:15–23) has already given us many insights into what we’re doing when we pray. In Ephesians chapter 1, we learn that prayer begins with an attitude of praise, humility, and thanksgiving; prayer involves asking God for things, as an expression of our trust and dependence; and prayer is something we need to persevere in. Now, here in Ephesians chapter 3, Paul returns yet again to talk about his prayers for his readers. Why does he raise the topic again? Because between the last time he raised the topic and this time, Paul has said even more about God. And here, we see that all the things Paul has said about God have a deep impact on how he prays.
Prayer to the God whose wisdom is vast
Paul starts verse 14 with the words: “For this reason”. He’s picking up where he left off back at the start of chapter 3, where he also used the words “for this reason”. But since he last used those words, he’s said many significant things about his own ministry, and how that ministry fits in to God’s vast, multidimensional wisdom. Paul has described his ministry as a task to proclaim an unfathomably wise God with enormous designs for his universe. These truths about Paul’s ministry and God’s wisdom that Paul has just been recounting are so great that they now bring Paul to his knees. Paul realises that his ministry of the gospel requires him to pray, humbly, to the God whose wisdom is vast.
The knowledge of the God to whom Paul prays affects his own prayers—and they should affect ours as well. Let’s recall what has Paul said about God’s wisdom so far in Ephesians. There are so many dimensions to it, and each dimension will impact our own prayers. Here are some examples.
There’s the time dimension. We’re living in the time when Jesus has come and the secret of God’s plan to bless the world through the gospel of Christ has been revealed. The gospel is going out to the world! Knowing this, we should praise God and ask him to fulfil his plans and bring his kingdom through the preaching of the gospel.
There’s the knowledge dimension. God has graciously made himself known and revealed his plans to us, plans we could never know by ourselves. Knowing this, we should ask God to reveal this truth to more and more people, and that we would grasp it more and more.
There’s the personal dimension. God has been gracious, personally, to each of us who believes in his Son. He has given us forgiveness, gives us hope, and leads us to holiness. We should be deeply thankful for his salvation that is by grace not by our own works. And we should ask God to continue to be gracious to us, to help us grow in love and holiness, and to give us more opportunities to live and speak for him.
There’s the social dimension. The gospel brings about a true equality of status between believers. The gospel brings reconciliation and peace. We should ask God to bring about that peace and reconciliation in our own lives, and to help us when it’s a struggle to love and be at peace.
There’s the international dimension. The gospel is going out to the world, to many nations and peoples. We should pray for that gospel to go out more and more. We can pray for specific missionaries and Christians in different parts of the world, and ask God to protect and increase their gospel ministry.
There’s also the cosmic dimension. Christ is Lord of all, and he is seated now in the heavenly realms above all authorities. We should pray that God would continue to bring his cosmic plans about through the gospel (see more in Ephesians 6:18–20). And we can pray even for earthly authorities, who are also under Christ’s Lordship, that God would help them to rule rightly and would use them for his purposes.
The God to whom we pray is a God whose wisdom is vast and multidimensional. So our own prayers should reflect these truths.
Prayer to the Father who defines all fatherhood
Paul here calls God “the Father”. This reminds us of what he’s just said in verse 12 (and back in Ephesians 2:18). God is great and wonderful, vast and unfathomable, holy and awesome. Yet through Jesus Christ, by his Spirit, we can have access to him. We can approach him with boldness and confidence. We can come to him and call him Father. We are dearly loved children of God, adopted by him in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:5–6). And that gives us many more great reasons to pray.
It’s important to understand God’s fatherhood rightly. He is, as Paul says, “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”. The ancient Greek word for ‘family’ here is closely related to the word for ‘father’—it’s talking about the basic structures of relationship in a household, which normally had a father at its head. Paul is saying here that the basic structures of relationships in our world—even the heavenly ones we don’t really understand—derive their meaning, their character, and their existence from God. And that order really matters: it’s God first, then all the other families in the world. If we reverse the order, we will end up in big trouble.
For example, we might try to understand God by thinking firstly about our own earthly families and human fathers and then extrapolating it all to understand what God is like. But this approach is full of problems. For example, many of us have bad fathers. They won’t show us what God is like. Others of us have absent fathers. They can’t show us what God is like. But even if our fathers are quite good and our families are relatively intact, still God is far greater and more perfect. Yes, earthly families are important, and they matter, and they may give us glimpses of God’s perfect fatherhood. But earthly families aren’t everything. By themselves, they will never tell us the deepest truths about God’s fatherhood.
How does that shape our prayers? The God we pray to is our loving heavenly Father. This means we can approach him, secure in his love for us. We can approach him as a Father who is patient and kind and willing to forgive. We ask him to help us grow in holiness, knowing that this is his will for us. We can ask him to be generous to us and others. We can trust his wisdom when his answers to our prayers don’t seem to fit with what we think is best: when he says “no” even though we want a “yes”, for example. And we can be sure that he is faithful to his promises to bring us to eternal life in Jesus.
So how do we understand God as Father? We look, first and foremost, at how he relates to his Son Jesus Christ. And we look at the way that God has related to us through his Son. When we do this, we see all sorts of comforting and powerful things about God’s Fatherhood. We see the depth of God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus’ death on the cross. We see God’s patience and his kindness towards us. We see God’s plans to sum up all things under his Son Jesus Christ. We see God’s plans for us to grow in holiness, to become more and more like Jesus. We see God’s love and generosity, his wisdom, his faithfulness to keep his promises, and more. In fact, the more we see what God is like, the more we will be able to understand our own human families—and the more we will be able to live rightly in those families, and see how the wrong aspects of those families can be changed and transformed. So we need to get it the right way around. They only way we’ll truly understand God as Father is by coming to know Jesus Christ more and more.
God and prayer
Do you see how the way we view God will have a profound impact on our prayers? The more we see how vast is God’s wisdom and plans for the world through Jesus Christ, the more we’ll see how significant prayer is. And the more we see what it means for God to be Father, the more we’ll see how much of a privilege prayer is.
Choose one of the truths about God’s multidimensional wisdom that you’ve learned from Ephesians. How does that truth help to inform your prayers?
How does knowing God as your loving heavenly Father help you to pray to him?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.