The Temple of Our Triune God
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
The first three chapters of Ephesians culminate in Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus. His prayer is as dense as it is beautiful. Paul seemingly packs his whole theology of the church from the first three chapters into this seven-verse prayer for the church at Ephesus.
The richness of Paul’s prayer means that much could and should be said about it. My aim is to scratch the surface of the depths of this prayer by pointing to what I read as the main goal of this prayer and then highlighting two implications of this purpose.
The aim of Paul’s prayer is to be found in the last clause of 3:19: “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” In what follows, I suggest that this prayer is for the church to be what Paul says it is: “a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21). Two facts stand out in this prayer about the church as God’s temple. First, the filling of the church with the fullness of God is a Trinitarian work. Second, the church as the temple reminds us of the communal nature of the Christian life.
Fullness as Temple Language
Paul’s prayer for the church to be “filled with all the fullness of God” (3:19) is a prayer for the church to be God’s temple. In order to demonstrate this claim, I will begin this section with the rationale for reading this filling as the goal of Paul’s prayer. Then, I will set forth the evidence for the connecting between this filling and the temple.
Three ινα (‘in order that’) statements mark out the purposes of Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3, and these purposes culminate in 3:19 with his prayer for the fullness of God. The first ‘in order that’ comes in verse 16 where Paul prays in order that “according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (3:16). His desire is for the Spirit to work so that Christ dwells in their hearts by faith. The second purpose statement begins at the start of verse 18. Paul prays that the Ephesians “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (3:18-19a). He calls on the Lord to grant that the Ephesians would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. The final ‘in order that’ comes in the middle of verse 19 when Paul asks, “That you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:19b).
The final phrase at the end of a list of purpose statements marks it off as the conclusion of all these other purposes. More than its placement, the logical flow of the prayer points to 3:19b as the ultimate goal of the prayer. The prayer itself suggests a progression. By the work of the Spirit, Christ comes to dwell in believers. Once in Christ, his people are rooted and grounded in love and are coming to an ever-increasing knowledge of his love. Such knowing the love of Christ leads to being filled with God. In other words, the goal of being filled with all the fullness of God comes from knowing the love of Christ, which comes through the Spirit’s work.
Paul’s understanding of God also points to being filled with all the fullness of God as the purpose of this prayer. He prays for the Spirit to strengthen the inner beings of the believers in Ephesus. Then, he prays for Christ to dwell in their hearts. Notice, then, in 3:19 the totality of language he uses: “all the fullness of God.” Paul emphasizes that it is all of God that dwells in his people. He completely fills them. The Apostle corrects any incorrect understanding of the nature of our Triune God that would think that if only the Spirit dwells in believers then not all of God is there. Or, if only Christ dwells in their hearts, then not all of God is there. Paul’s Trinitarian theology will not allow for such a misunderstanding. If the Spirit is there, then all the fullness of God is there. If Christ is there, then all the fullness of God is there. God dwelling in his people by his Spirit means that God, and all of God, is there. He is indivisible. His fullness, in fact all of his fullness, fills his people. Paul’s purpose in his prayer is that the church would be filled with all the fullness of God.
The context and the language of Paul’s prayer points to the connection between the fullness of God and the temple. The first phrase of 3:14, “For this reason,” leads us to ask: for what reason? Most commentators agree that the prayer that begins in 3:14 is the prayer Paul begins in 3:1 but then interrupts with an explanation of his ministry to the Gentiles. Thus, we need to look back to the second chapter to understand “this reason.” Chapter two starts with Paul outlining the gravity of human sin and salvation by grace alone. He then goes into the unity of Jew and Gentile as the one people of God. As Paul highlights this unity, he speaks to the Gentile Ephesians about their new status as God’s people:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).
Paul explicitly calls the church as a people “a holy temple in the Lord,” and then he reiterates that same idea in the next sentence where he speaks of how the Ephesians “are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Paul identifies the church as the temple, and his next phrase is, “For this reason.” He interrupts his own reasoning, but then he picks up again in 3:14.
This argument from context becomes more compelling when one sees that Paul uses the same language and themes in his prayer that he brought to his readers’ attention in the second chapter. His prayer in 3:17 is for Christ to “dwell” in their hearts. In 2:22, he has already identified the church as a “dwelling place” for God, which is, in Paul’s mind, a temple. The temple in Jerusalem was considered to be where God dwelt on earth. Consider Solomon’s prayer as he dedicates the temple, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold heaven the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Understanding the temple as God’s dwelling place even predates the temple. The mosaic law speaks repeatedly of “the place the Lord will choose to make his name dwell” (e.g. Deut. 16:2).
Similarly, the language of “grounded” in 3:17 harkens back to the temple. Whereas “rooted” is an agricultural image, “grounded” is an architectural one. “Grounded” here translates the verbalized form of themelios, which is the word Paul uses in 2:20 that English translations typically render “foundation.” The “cornerstone” language of 2:20 draws upon Psalm 118 and also has strong connections to the temple and further emphasizes Paul’s theme of the church as the temple. From the clarity of 1 Peter 2:4-7 where Peter plainly identifies the cornerstone as Christ and the church as a spiritual house, we can look back on Jesus’s quotation of Psalm 118:22-23 in the gospels and see that he was speaking of himself as the cornerstone (Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17). Each Synoptic account has Jesus quoting this Psalm in the temple. For his first hearers and for the attentive reader, Jesus is showing himself to be the foundation of the true temple (cf. John 2:13-22).
Finally, Paul’s choice to employ the language of “filled” further draws the connection between the church and the temple. After the construction of the temple during Solomon’s reign, Solomon dedicates the temple through prayer. Then, Scripture records, “As soon as Solomon finished his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (2 Chronicles 7:1). Similarly, the language of filling occurs earlier with the making of the tabernacle during the exodus: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34–35). With both the tabernacle and the temple, the biblical authors use this language of the Lord’s dwelling place being filled with his glory. In Ephesians, Paul picks up on this language and prays for the church to be “filled with all the fullness of God.” This prayer for filling is a prayer for the church to be God’s dwelling place.
The Church as God’s Temple: Two Observations
Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 for the church to be filled with all the fullness of God is a prayer for the church to be what it already is and is continuing to be built into: “a holy temple in the Lord. . . a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-22). Two observations about the church as the temple stand out from this passage. First, the church is the work of our Triune God. Second, the Christian life requires the community of faith.
The church is the work of our Triune God. More specifically, Paul reveals with this prayer that the filling of the church with the fullness of God is a Trinitarian work. Notice the Trinitarian nature of Paul’s prayer. He prays to the Father (3:14) that the church would be strengthened by the Spirit (3:16) in order that Christ would dwell in their hearts (3:17). He calls on the Father to work by his Spirit so that the Son would come. From these petitions, Paul proceeds to ask that the church “be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:19), and I would suggest from the preceding context of the prayer that when Paul prays for the “fullness of God” he has in mind Father, Son, and Spirit. He begins with the prayer for Christ to dwell in their hearts (3:17), but he wants his readers to know that the nature of our God is such that this prayer entails the whole of the Trinity taking up residence in the people of the church.
Each person of the Trinity participates in this work of filling the church. The goal of fullness comes from knowing the love of Christ (3:19), which comes as Christ dwells in the heart (3:17), and this dwelling of the Son only comes about through the work of the Spirit (3:16). All of these actions are predicated upon the Father’s work, for which Paul prays (3:14).
The emphasis on Christ in Ephesians 3:17-18 in the midst of this Trinitarian work should not surprise us, for being filled with all the fullness of God comes through union with Christ. As Paul teaches in Colossians 1:19 about Christ Jesus, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” More explicitly, Jesus identifies himself as the true temple (John 2:18-22), and so it is only as we are united to him by faith that we can be part of the temple. Such union with Christ (Rom. 6:5-11) comes through the work of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9-11). Looking back to the beginning of Ephesians, we see that the work of the Spirit in uniting people to Christ comes about because of the sovereign choice of “the God and Father of Lord Jesus Christ” before the foundations of this world (Eph. 1:3-4).
This Trinitarian work of filling the Lord’s people with all the fullness of God means that believers now experience the intra-Trinitarian love and communion of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As we participate in this divine communion, we are also brought into the community of faith. Indeed, the church as the temple of God means that as individual believers we each need to be joined to a local church. The Christian life requires the community of faith.
Paul’s language in his prayer highlights the community that comes through our shared faith. The “you” in this prayer is plural. He is speaking to the “you all” of the church at Ephesus. His prayer is a communal prayer.
Likewise, the image of the temple reinforces the communal nature of Christianity. Consider how Peter makes use of this temple imagery:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5).
Peter pictures individual believers as stones, and together, God is forming us into his temple. John Stott helpfully elaborates on this picture, “The primary function of stones used in building is to be part of something else. They have surrendered their individuality to the building. Their significance is not in themselves but in the whole” (The Radical Disciple, 98). The whole of the temple of God becomes greater than the sum of its parts because of God’s work in us by his Spirit to join us with Christ, the true temple.
The implication for our lives as believers is that we cannot experience the fullness of what it means to be God’s temple, and thus cannot experience being filled with all the fullness of God, apart from the church. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the church as a body and the necessity of every member to join in God’s mission (1 Corinthians 12-13), but here, he reveals to us the importance of being part of a church in order that we might experience the fullness of God.
Such is God’s grace to us that he redeems broken and sinful people like you and me. He takes his enemies and adopts them as his children. He takes those who hated him and forms us together into his temple built upon the foundation of his Son in order that he might fill us with all the fullness of God.