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In 2010 and 2011, a series of earthquakes devastated the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. As I’ve visited Christchurch since then, I’ve seen the residents’ heroic efforts to restore their city. I’ve seen how ruined building after ruined building and city block after city block is being slowly demolished, reclaimed, and rebuilt. One day, as I was in town with a friend, I saw this ruin. It’s the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (not to be confused with the more famously ruined Anglican Cathedral):
It’s a poignant sight. Like many other buildings in the city, the ruin tells a story of a particular community suffering loss and devastation. But in this case, something further caught my eye. There are words inscribed in stone above the pillars at the entrance: ECCE TABERNACULUM DEI CUM HOMINIBUS. This is a quotation from the Latin translation of the Bible, from Revelation 21:3. The Bible is speaking about the future of God’s people, when God finally restores his creation, brings a new heavens and a new earth, and wipes away every tear from their eyes. In English, the words say this:
Behold: the dwelling-place of God is with human beings!
There’s something tragically ironic about these confident words carved in stone, isn’t there? It’s because God is not dwelling with human beings in this place. It’s a ruin. And in fact, the more we think about it, the more it raises questions for all of us. Where does God live? Can we ever say that God dwells among us? Even though the Bible tells us that there is a future new creation where God will dwell with us and wipe every tear from our eyes, does that make any difference to us now? What about those times when our own world is shaken—literally or metaphorically—and the things that seemed firm in our lives or our relationships or our Christian community lie in ruins? Is God with us then?
This is the question that Paul addresses in these verses from Ephesians:
I pray that the Father would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being—that is, to have Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, having been rooted and founded in love.Ephesians 3:16–17
As Paul writes these words, he is in prison, bound by the powers of the Roman Empire. Humanly speaking, he’s weak and vulnerable. He’s now writing to people who had placed their trust and hope in the gospel he preached. But if Paul’s lengthy imprisonment is anything to go by, this gospel seems to be in ruins. Naturally, Paul is concerned that his readers might be tempted to lose heart and give up. So what does he do? He prays for them. He prays that God would strengthen them, and that God would be with them. It’s important for us to grasp the truth behind this prayer. But what we need to grasp here is not only that God is with us, but how God is with us. Because when we see how God is with us, and what that means, it makes all the difference in the world.
The need for strength
Paul’s first request is this: “I pray that the Father would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” Paul’s readers needed inner strength, because to all appearances it seemed like there was only weakness. Paul and his gospel didn’t look strong and powerful. And of course, the lives of Paul’s readers—like our own lives—would also have had their share of weakness. They were living in a world of sickness, opposition, struggles against sin, and death. So they, like us, would certainly have been tempted to look elsewhere for strength and power.
That’s why they—like us—needed the work of God’s Holy Spirit, to strengthen them in their inner being. And this is what Paul prays for. He knows that God can grant his prayer for strength; after all, God has already displayed his limitless strength and glory and riches by raising Jesus Christ from the dead and exalting him to heaven above all the powers of this world. But what does it mean for God to strengthen them? What was Paul actually expecting God’s Spirit to do?
Faith: Christ dwelling with us
Paul explains what it means for God’s Spirit to strengthen them: it means “to have Christ dwell in your hearts through faith”.
Previously in Ephesians, Paul has focused on the fact that we are living with Christ. God has raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to the heavenly places, “far above all rule and authority and power and lordship” (Ephesians 1:20-21). And God has also “raised us together with Christ, and seated us together with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). But it’s not just that we are living with Christ. Our hope in Christ is not just a hope in some distant figure way out there in heaven. Paul’s prayer now focuses on the great truth that, through his Spirit, Christ comes to live with us.
Paul has already described how Christ has come to us through the preaching of the gospel. Through the apostles and prophets and others, Christ “came and preached the gospel” (Ephesians 2:17–18). And through the preaching of this gospel, we are “being built into a dwelling-place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). While Christ’s physical body is in heaven, he truly comes to live with us by his word and Spirit. Paul has spoken about this as something that affects believing communities throughout the world. But now, Paul focuses on believers as individuals. He wants to talk about our “inner being”, our hearts and lives and what that means for each one of us. Christ dwells in us.
How does Christ dwell with us? He dwells in our hearts through faith. What does this mean? “Faith” is a word that Paul uses in relation to the gospel, and needs to be understood according to what Paul has already said about the gospel. Faith is about believing and trusting in what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. God loves us deeply in his beloved Son Jesus Christ; he has adopted us as dearly loved children; he has brought forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death on the cross; he has raised us with Christ and given us security and a hope of future redemption. Faith is about knowing and trusting these truths. So Paul prays here that this faith would be more and more real in the lives of his readers. How does this happen? This is what Paul goes on to spell out—in this verse, and in the rest of his letter. Because through faith, Christ truly dwells in our hearts.
Love: The root and foundation
Paul is not praying here that God’s Spirit will start something entirely new in the lives of his readers. He reminds them that they, like all those who have come to trust in the gospel, have already “been rooted and founded in love”. Paul combines two images here, one from the world of plants (“rooted”) and the other from the world of building (“founded”). Both these images are about a firm and secure basis for our lives and our faith. That firm and secure basis is “love”. Love, says Paul, is the ground and soil that we’re planted in, and love is the bedrock on which we’re founded. This love is deeper and more solid than anything that can shake us. The love Paul is talking about is God’s love for us through Jesus Christ. It’s the love God has shown us in determining to adopt us for himself through Christ (Ephesians 1:4). It’s the grace that God has richly given us in Christ, “the one he dearly loves”: the grace of redemption through Christ’s death on the cross, and forgiveness of our sins (Ephesians 1:6–7). It’s the great love that God has shown us by raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life—not because we deserved it or were worth saving, but because he loved us (Ephesians 2:4). Now as Paul goes on in Ephesians, we see that God’s love for us also makes us into people who love others. But at this point, Paul wants to focus on the love of God, the love that grounds us and roots us and is the bedrock for our faith: God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
So Paul’s prayer is that Christ will keep doing more and more what he is already doing. In the face of our own weakness, Paul is praying that Christ will dwell in our hearts, through faith, having been grounded in his deep and unshakeable love.
Where Christ isn’t
God does dwell with us now. What a profoundly comforting truth! Christ, by his Spirit, dwells in our hearts, through faith. This is a truth that is important to grasp and hold onto, especially when our weaknesses and failures make it seem like God is absent. We should pray for ourselves and for others, that we will keep being strengthened by this truth. That’s because it’s a truth that we can so easily forget. Indeed, there are plenty of alternatives on offer that claim to provide us with the presence of God in ways other than faith and the Spirit.
One alternative is actually raised by the inscription on the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. In this context, the words “Behold! the dwelling-place of God is with human beings” means something quite specific. It’s the idea that God dwells with us through the elements of the bread and wine in the “sacrament” of the Roman Catholic Mass. There is a history to this idea. In the Medieval Church, the Mass became very important. An official view began to take shape, that when the priest says the words (in Latin), “this is my body… this is my blood”, he actually transforms the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. Even though the bread and wine still looks and feels and tastes like bread and wine, in its true substance it becomes a “host”, that is, a dwelling-place for Christ. So, the Medieval Church said, coming to Mass is about getting an infusion of grace through a priestly sacrifice, and this is how Christ dwells with us. It’s no longer about being strengthened by the Spirit and about Christ dwelling by faith in our hearts, as the apostle Paul had written a thousand years earlier in his letter to the Ephesians.
This was a major point of contention in the Reformation in the mid-1500s, because it affected the whole way we relate to God and to Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. For example, Thomas Cranmer, a key founder of Anglicanism, insisted that Christ is not present in the elements of the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper; rather, he is present in our hearts, by his Spirit, as we hear the wonderful word of the gospel and respond by faith and trust in Jesus’ death. He’d been reading Paul! So it’s not about the priest bringing God down to us in the “host” of bread and wine; it’s about us lifting our hearts by faith to Christ. This is a truth that Cranmer eventually died for; it’s a truth that mattered to him, and it should matter to us as well, because the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church on this point is the same as it was when Cranmer was sent to the stake for opposing it.
Another alternative idea about how Christ dwells with us is quite similar to the Roman Catholic view of the Mass as I’ve just outlined, but it comes from a very different place. It’s an idea that is becoming more and more popular in the way some Protestants are describing Christian worship and music. I was just recently reading the purpose statement for a very large and influential American evangelical music publisher called Bethel Music. It describes their music and their worship this way: “worship songs that carry God’s presence” to worshippers, and worship events “to host His [i.e. God’s] presence”. Sadly, in many significant ways, Bethel’s view of worship expressed in this mission statement and elsewhere is very similar to the Roman Catholic view of worship. That is, it’s about a human activity, bringing God’s presence down to us to dwell among people, in a kind of physical way—in this case, not through the elements of bread and wine, but through the passionate experience of worship events. But again, as Ephesians tells us, this is not how the Holy Spirit brings Christ to dwell in us. Rather, the work of the Holy Spirit means that Christ dwells in our hearts, by faith. This should be the purpose of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and it should be the purpose of music and all our corporate worship—not to carry God’s presence tangibly among us, but to lift our hearts to the Lord, and to lift our eyes to see and believe Christ and what he has done for us; that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith. This really matters, doesn’t it?
Christ has loved us deeply. And Christ dwells, through faith, in our hearts. He dwells in our hearts as the gospel comes to us, as we hear this life-changing message about Jesus’ death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead, and we lift our eyes to him to see the love he has shown us which brings us strength and security and hope, because Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. Through this message—the gospel of our salvation—God’s Spirit is at work to strengthen us, and Christ lives in us. This was Paul’s prayer for his readers, even in the midst of circumstances that seemed weak and ruined. What a great prayer for us to pray too: for ourselves and others!
When life seems weak and hard, how can these truths about Christ dwelling in your heart by faith strengthen you?
How might this prayer of Paul’s help you to pray for others?
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.