Elf on the Shelf Balloon. Photo by Kim on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/thegirlsny/8208193899

God: Beyond us—and with us (Ephesians 3:20–21)

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

Christmas Day was almost here. Izzy LaPeruta, aged 7, of New Jersey, USA, was in her living room, near the Christmas tree, playing with a ball. In one terrible moment, the ball flew too close to the tree and knocked it. Tumbling down to the floor came a little doll: an “Elf on the Shelf”. This event was, of course, an unmitigated disaster, a terrifying catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

Izzy knew exactly what the Elf-tumbling incident meant. She’d read (or heard read) the book that came with the Elf on the Shelf. And the book was very clear. The Elf was, in fact, an agent of Santa, sent to spy on children and register their levels of niceness and naughtiness. Each night, when everyone was in bed, the Elf’s job was to fly back to the North Pole to give a morality report to Santa, for his records, to ensure his distribution of rewards was based on the most accurate and timely data. The Elf’s power to fly was derived from its being loved by a child. But if the Elf were to be touched by the child, the magic—and thus all hope—would be lost. Disaster.

What was Izzy to do? Her mother was having a nap, and her father wasn’t at home. Well, it was an emergency. So she called the American emergency number 911. But it was such a catastrophe, she couldn’t put the words together to explain it to the operator. She just panicked and screamed for them not to come. When police officers came around to the house, they quickly assessed the situation and reported back that all was fine. Eventually, according to the news reports, all the adults were quite amused by the entire incident. But I’m still wondering if Izzy is OK. Her final words in the report I read were: “I didn’t want to get into trouble.”

Elf on the Shelf Balloon. Photo by Kim on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/thegirlsny/8208193899
Photo by Kim (thegirlsny) on Flickr.

Well yes, it is a little amusing. But it’s also a little tragic, isn’t it? It shows the kind of thing that can happen when we let our own imaginations determine the things that run our lives and shape our desires. Izzy’s experience was the childhood version, but we adults can also create scary metaphorical elves-on-the-shelves in our own lives, can’t we? The things we desire, the things we live for, the things we ask for most and imagine: these are the very things that frighten us most deeply when we think we might lose them. Whether it’s morality or money or relationships or happiness or fame or family or work or anything else—if we live for them, they become our gods. And because these gods are born from our own desires and dreams, and need to be maintained by our own efforts, they are as weak and vulnerable as we are. Yet because they are the things we desire and worship, it is such a catastrophe if we lose them.

But the God that Paul writes about here is entirely different to this. His power is beyond us: beyond our desires, and indeed beyond our wildest dreams. This, says Paul, is the source of great comfort and strength for us. And it leads us to praise and glorify God because of it.

So to the one who is able to do far, far more than anything we could ask or imagine, according to the power that is active in us: to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20–21

God’s power is far beyond us

Paul describes God here as “the one who is able to do far, far more than anything we could ask or imagine”. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a domesticated god, born from our imaginations and fuelled by our desires. So his ability to act is not limited by our own ability to think of things for him to do. He doesn’t exist just to solve the problems we’ve identified in our lives. He’s a God who is so powerful he can solve all the problems we never even realised were problems: not just issues in our own lives but also in the whole universe. Up to this point in Ephesians, Paul has spelled out some of the vast dimensions of God’s ability and purposes: forgiving our sins, bringing sinners from death to life, saving us from being under his wrath to a life of glorious hope, uniting believers from Israel and the nations, exalting his Son over all the cosmic powers in the heavenly realms, and more. Many of these things are things that, left to ourselves, we wouldn’t even have asked for. Indeed, we wouldn’t even have imagined asking for them. Yet this is what God can do; in fact, it’s what he has done and what he is doing. This is a God to approach humbly, with awe and wonder.  He is a God whose power is far beyond us.

Yet God’s power is at work in us

And yet, says Paul, even though God’s power is far beyond us, his power is also “active in us”. This is not a God who chooses to stay away from us. Through his Son Jesus Christ, he has come to us and works in us. In his letter so far, Paul has spoken about many ways that God’s power is at work in those who believe in Jesus Christ. God has blessed us in Christ. He has predetermined that we should be adopted as his children. He has forgiven our offenses through Jesus’ death. He has given us the hope of redemption and a rich future inheritance. He has granted us the Holy Spirit. He has revealed his plans and purposes to us. Not only has he raised Christ from the dead and seated him above all the powers and authorities of the universe, he has also made us alive with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. He has saved us by his grace. He has put to death hostility and brought peace. He has enabled the gospel to be preached throughout the world. He has given us an equal status and hope. He has given us access to him so we can approach him with confidence, in prayer. And he has come to dwell with us through his Spirit and his Son. These are just some of the ways that God’s power is at work in us. None of them rely on our own power or goodness, do they? And this fact makes God’s power for us even more sure—and glorious.

So God’s glory is our joyful goal

So, says Paul, to this God belongs “the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and ever.” Because his power is both beyond us and also at work in us, God deserves praise and glory from us, always and forever. Glorifying God—giving him praise for who he is and what he has done—is our joyful goal, now and forever.

This sentence, verses 20–21, is the climax of the first half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In chapters 1–3, Paul has described some incredible truths about God and his plans to sum up all things in his Son Jesus Christ. In chapters 4–6, he will go on to talk more about how these truths must make a profound difference in our daily lives and relationships. But here, at this hinge between the two halves of the letter, he reminds us of the great goal of it all. It’s not just about what we know, and it’s not just about what we do. It’s about the God whom we are to glorify and praise.

Notice that Paul says this glory is in “the church”. God’s glory is not just the goal of individual Christians. It’s the goal of us together, as the church. Whenever we gather together as church, we need to remember that giving glory to God is the aim and goal of what we’re doing. That doesn’t mean that our gatherings must consist of nothing other than glorious singing and praise. After all, this sentence of Paul’s is the climax of three chapters where he’s outlined many profound and amazing truths about God. We glorify God because of this truth. So in church, if we only have “praise” without a rich appreciation of the truth about God, it’s not really praise at all—it’s just empty emotion directed to a god of our own imaginings. On the other hand, if we only care about getting the “truth” right but never end up praising God, then it’s not really truth—because this truth about this God who is powerful and active in us must lead us to praise, now and forever.

God’s power is far beyond us. Yet God’s power is at work in us. So God’s glory is our joyful goal.

For reflection

God’s power is far beyond anything you can ask or imagine. How does reflecting on this truth lead you to praise and glorify God?

As a believer in Jesus Christ, God’s power is at work in you. How does reflecting on this truth lead you to praise and glorify God?

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

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.