Ephesians 3:1-21

The introductory words, “thanks to this” or “for this reason,” appear to relate to what non-Jewish believers had come to enjoy on account of what Christ Jesus had done for them. The apostle’s referring to himself in a solemn manner as “I, Paul,” may have been intended to remind those to whom he wrote about everything that had become associated with his name as an apostle, including his labors, the truth of the message he proclaimed, and his suffering for the sake of Christ. (3:1; see the Notes section.)

After referring to himself as “the prisoner of Christ,” he added, “for you of the [non-Jewish] nations.” He was then imprisoned, presumably in Rome, enduring for Christ, the one to whom he belonged. This imprisonment had resulted from his ministering to the Gentiles. (3:1)

At the temple in Jerusalem, Jews from the Roman province of Asia falsely accused Paul and incited mob action against him. If it had not been for the intervention of Roman soldiers, he would have been killed. Subsequently, the Roman commander (the chiliarch) permitted Paul to make his defense. When the apostle mentioned his commission to people of the nations, his Jewish listeners became enraged, declaring him to be deserving of death. Thereafter, under Roman authority, he was confined first in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, and finally in Rome, where he waited for the time when Caesar would hear his appeal as a Roman citizen. (Acts 21:27-40; 22:21, 22; 23:12-35; 24:27; 25:8-15; 26:30-32; 27:1; 28:17-20, 30, 31)

In the Greek text, verse 1 is not a complete sentence, and the words from verse 2 through verse 13 do not finish the thought but are parenthetical. Not until verse 14 is the thought (begun in verse 1) completed, indicating that Paul prayed for the believing Gentiles. A number of modern translations make this explicit. “With this in mind I pray for you, I, Paul, who for the sake of you Gentiles am now the prisoner of Christ Jesus.” (REB) Weil ich, Paulus, euch Nichtjuden diese rettende Botschaft verkündete, bin ich nun im Gefängnis. Als Gefangener Jesu Christi bete ich für euch. (Because I, Paul, declared this saving message to you non-Jews, I am now in prison. As a prisoner of Jesus Christ, I pray for you.) (German, Hoffnung für alle)

The apostle’s words, “if indeed you have heard,” may be understood to mean “surely you have heard.” Those to whom he directed his letter must have come to know about the “stewardship” of God’s gracious favor that had been given to him for them. This stewardship referred to his service as an apostle to the nations, making known the glad tidings about Jesus Christ and how individuals could become recipients of God’s gracious favor or kindness. Divine unmerited kindness made it possible for people of the nations who put their faith in Christ to be forgiven of their sins and to be reconciled to his Father as beloved children. So, as the apostle expressed it, the stewardship of God’s gracious favor was for the benefit of those to whom he had written. (3:2; see the Notes section.)

Previously in his letter, Paul, in a few words, had written about the divine “mystery” (1:8-14; 2:11-22) as it related to Jews and non-Jews. “According to” or by revelation, Paul had come to know this long-hidden divine secret. (3:3)

In his encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ while on his way to Damascus in the role of a persecutor of believers, Paul heard the basic message of the mystery. Jesus Christ then told him that his commission to people of the nations would be “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:15-18, NRSV)

Upon reading what Paul had written in this particular letter (or hearing it read to them), those whom he addressed would perceive his comprehension of the “mystery of Christ.” It is the “mystery of Christ,” for he is the one through whom his Father disclosed the previously hidden secret and who also fulfilled his Father’s will respecting it. (3:4)

In “other generations,” this mystery “was not made known to the sons of men” (humankind). To the “holy apostles and prophets” of the first century CE, however, it had been revealed. Possibly to distinguish the true apostles and prophets from false apostles and prophets, Paul called them “holy,” indicating that they were holy or pure as divinely approved persons. The disclosure regarding this mystery came to the holy apostles and prophets “in spirit” or through the operation of God’s holy spirit upon them. (3:5)

The revealed divine secret is that, with believing Jews, believers from the non-Jewish nations would come to be fellow heirs, members of the same body, and “joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the evangel.” “In Christ Jesus” or through their union with him, believing Jews and non-Jews become fellow heirs as God’s children, form one corporate body with Christ as head, and share in all the benefits and blessings included in the divine promise. With reference to the mystery, the promise made to the Israelites and their forefathers pointed to the coming of the Messiah and the resultant benefits and blessings. “Through the evangel” may be understood to mean that what the non-Jews would come to enjoy is revealed in the evangel or good news about Jesus Christ or that, by their response to this good news, non-Jews would come to be fellow sharers with Jewish believers. (3:6)

In connection with the evangel, Paul became a servant, for he was divinely commissioned as an apostle to proclaim the glad tidings about Christ Jesus to people of the nations. It was not on account of any personal merit that Paul was entrusted with this ministry nor did he carry it out in his own strength. God, in expression of his gracious favor, granted it to him as a free gift “according to the working of his power.” Divinely empowered through the operation of God’s spirit, Paul faithfully discharged the sacred trust that had been committed to him. (3:7; compare 1 Corinthians 15:10.)

In view of his former course as an insolent persecutor of believers, the apostle referred to himself as the least of all of God’s holy ones (his approved people) to have been granted this gracious favor, being commissioned to proclaim the glad tidings of the “unfathomable riches of Christ” to peoples of the nations. Everything Christ made possible by laying down his life in sacrifice, and can do now that he lives, is of such greatness as to exceed human comprehension. Appropriately, therefore, Paul spoke of the “unfathomable riches of Christ.” These riches would include being forgiven of sins on the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death, reconciliation with God as beloved children, the prospect of life in a sinless state for all eternity, and the enjoyment of the blessings resulting from a never-ending relationship with God and his Son as part of the family of his beloved children. (3:8; compare 1 Timothy 1:12-16; see the Notes section.)

Another part of Paul’s commission related to bringing to light for “all” or “everyone” the nature of the “stewardship of the mystery” that had for ages been hidden “in God, who created all things.” This stewardship is God’s own arrangement for having his Son be the one with whom everything in heaven and on earth would be brought into a state of unity. Through this divine stewardship or manner of working, humans who had been alienated from God would be reconciled to him as their loving Father. In past ages, this remained a secret “in God,” for he did not reveal just how peoples of all nations could become reconciled to him through the arrangement he would make through his Son. As the Creator of all things, God does everything according to his will and purpose. This included the time for revealing the long-hidden mystery by having his previously purposed “stewardship” or his own predetermined arrangement for unifying everything in heaven and on earth become operative. (3:9; see the Notes section.)

The revelation of the mystery, by what would become evident “through the congregation” (the community of believers united to Christ as members of his corporate body), would serve to make known to the “rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” the “manifold wisdom of God.” The Scriptures reveal that angels have various functions and responsibilities, with certain ones being “chief princes.” (Daniel 8:15, 16; 9:20, 21; 10:13) Accordingly, the reference to the “rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” may be understood to designate the angels as occupying positions of divinely granted power and authority. As they observe the outworking of God’s arrangement in connection with the congregation, they come to see to an increasing extent his multifaceted wisdom. (Compare 1 Peter 1:10-12.) The many-sided aspects of divine wisdom are seen in the rescue of humans from sin and condemnation, their reconciliation to God, and their inclusion in his family of angelic sons through their coming to be at one with his unique Son, Jesus Christ. (3:10)

The unifying of everything in heaven and on earth that is effected “in Christ Jesus our Lord” (or through oneness with him) constitutes God’s “purpose of the ages,” that is, his purpose from past ages or from the start. As his original purpose, it was no afterthought. (3:11)

In Christ, or as a result of having become united to him, believers have boldness, approaching God with confidence through faith in his Son (literally, “the faith of him,” signifying the faith that has Christ as its object). Because of what the Son of God has done for them, believers do not fear making their approach to the Father. They are confident that their faith in Christ and his sacrificial death for them has made them acceptable. (3:12)

In view of all the benefits that had come to them upon hearing and accepting the glad tidings about Jesus Christ that Paul proclaimed, non-Jewish believers addressed in this letter were not to become discouraged on account of the apostle’s tribulations or afflictions for them, as these meant “glory” for them. Paul’s willingness to endure hardships for the sake of Christ and making known the good news about him revealed that what believers enjoyed because of their faith in Christ proved to be of inestimable value. It was worth suffering for, and so Paul’s confinement and associated difficulties signified glory for those to whom he wrote. His tribulations, which had resulted from laboring among non-Jews, including people of the nations to whom he wrote, proved that what they possessed because of Christ had priceless value. Paul’s suffering confinement for non-Jewish believers or because he had ministered among them, therefore, was no reason for shame but proved to be a basis for proper pride. (3:13)

Verse 14 starts in the same way as verse 1, “thanks to this” or “for this reason,” and appears to relate to the words of Ephesians 2:19-22. There the reference is to the changed status of believing non-Jews because of what Jesus Christ had done for them. The marvelous change non-Jewish believers had experienced, along with their sharing in accompanying blessings, prompted Paul to pray for them. He would “bend [his] knees to the Father,” assuming a kneeling position when praying. (3:14; see the Notes section.)

From the Father, “every family in the heavens and on earth is named.” The Greek word for “father” is patér, and all who owe their existence to him are designated as patriá (commonly rendered “family”). Accordingly, the reference to “every family in the heavens and on earth” does not mean that there are family arrangements in heaven as there are on earth, but the expression “every family” denotes all who are sons or children of the heavenly Father, both angelic and human. To him, they owe their name, their real identity, or what they truly are as persons. (3:15)

In the case of those to whom he wrote, Paul prayed that the Father, “according to the riches of his glory,” would give them power, strengthening them in the “inner man” through his spirit. The “riches” of the Father’s “glory” are his vast resources of matchless magnificence or splendor from which he can supply the help and strength that his children, members of his beloved family, need. The “inner man” designates the believer’s real self as one who enjoys a newness of life as a child of God. Through the working of God’s spirit within the believer, the inner man is energized and strengthened to pursue a divinely approved course regardless of the circumstances. (3:16)

Paul also prayed that those to whom he wrote might, through faith, have Christ dwell in their hearts. Christ’s dwelling in their hearts may be understood to mean that he would continue to be the controlling principle in their inmost selves, guiding their thoughts, words, and deeds. Through their faith in Christ, their life would be so bound up with him as to indicate that they lived for him and that he had totally taken possession of them. (3:17)

The words “in love” could be linked to Christ, which would signify that Paul prayed that Christ, in love, would make his home in the hearts of believers. A number of translations convey this significance (“that through faith Christ may dwell in your hearts in love” [REB]; “through your faith to let Christ in his love make his home in your hearts” [Goodspeed]). (3:17)

Another possibility is that the phrase “in love” relates to being “rooted and founded,” that is, firmly established like a tree with deep roots and a building on a solid foundation. Numerous translations have adopted the meaning that links “rooted and founded” to the words “in love” (“that you, rooted and grounded in love” [NAB]; “that you, being rooted and established in love” [NIV]; “planted in love and built on love” [NJB]). (3:17)

It was Paul’s prayerful desire that the believers whom he addressed would have the capacity (literally, “be strong”) to comprehend, “with all the holy ones” (all others of God’s own people), the breadth, length, height, and depth, “to know the love of the Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [they] might be filled with all the fullness of God.” There is no object with which the breadth, length, height, and depth are associated. Possibly they relate to Christ’s love and the believers’ being able to grasp it to the greatest extent possible. (3:18, 19) A number of translations are explicit in making the application to the love of Christ. “May you, in company with all God’s people, be strong to grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge.” (REB) “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.” (NIV)

Christ’s love, expressed in the surrender of his life for sinners and his concern and care for all who have responded and will yet respond in faith to him, is of such greatness as to defy any comparison. It is a love that goes far beyond anything that humans have experienced and so surpasses knowledge. Nevertheless, Paul desired that fellow believers would comprehend the greatness of Christ’s love to the fullest extent possible. (3:19)

In the context of love, the believers’ being “filled with all the fullness of God” may denote their being like their heavenly Father in manifesting love. By his dealings with them through his Son, he has filled believers with his love, impelling them to let love guide their thoughts, words, and deeds. (3:19; compare Matthew 5:43-48; 1 John 3:13-18; 4:7-11.)

Paul acknowledged that God, by the “power” at work in believers, could do exceedingly more than all that they could request or imagine. As the apostle had stated earlier, this power was revealed when God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand, granting him a highly exalted position of unparalleled greatness. (1:19-23) With such incomprehensibly great power at work for the benefit of believers, Paul’s prayer for them would be answered. (3:20)

“To [God] be the glory in the congregation and in Christ Jesus to all generations” of the ages to come (literally, “of the age of the ages”). This may be understood to mean that God’s glory, magnificence, or splendor is to be revealed for all eternity in the congregation and in Christ Jesus as the head with whom the community of believers forms a united whole. Another possible meaning is that the congregation would ascribe glory to God, doing so for all eternity. Because Jesus Christ is the head of the congregation, the ascription of glory “in” the body would also be “in Christ,” the head with whom the body forms a corporate whole. The apostle concluded his prayerful expression with “Amen,” meaning “surely” or “so be it.” (3:21; see the Notes section.)


In verse 1, numerous manuscripts do not include Jesus after Christ, but this has no bearing on the meaning of the text.

As the absence of “Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1 suggests, Paul intended this letter to be read to believers besides the original recipients. There is a possibility, therefore, that his use of the words (in 3:2), “if indeed you have heard,” indicated that not all would have been personally acquainted with him.

The oldest extant manuscript (P46, c. 200 CE) does not include the expression for “holy ones” in verse 8. According to this shorter reading, the apostle identified himself as “the least of all.”

According to another manuscript reading of verse 9 (which does not include the word “all” or “everyone”), Paul’s commission included bringing to light what the stewardship of the mystery is. After the reference to God’s having created all things, many later manuscripts add, “through Jesus Christ.”

After “Father” (in verse 14), numerous manuscripts add, “of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In verse 21, many later manuscripts omit “and” after “congregation” and read, “in the congregation in Christ Jesus,” meaning in the community of believers that is at one with Christ.