Adam Clarke Commentary
Paul, a prisoner for the testimony of Jesus, declares his knowledge of what had been a mystery from all ages, that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs and of the same body with the Jews, Ephesians 3:1-6. Which doctrine he was made a minister, that he might declare the unsearchable riches of Christ, and make known to principalities and powers this eternal purpose of God, Ephesians 3:7-12. He desires them not to be discouraged on account of his tribulations, Ephesians 3:13. His prayer that they might be filled with all the fullness of God, Ephesians 3:14-19. His doxology, Ephesians 3:20, Ephesians 3:21.
For this cause - Because he maintained that the Gentiles were admitted to all the privileges of the Jews, and all the blessings of the new covenant, without being obliged to submit to circumcision, the Jews persecuted him, and caused him to be imprisoned, first at Caesarea, where he was obliged to appeal to the Roman emperor, in consequence of which he was sent prisoner to Rome. See Acts 21:21-28, etc.
The prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles - For preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, and showing that they were not bound by the law of Moses, and yet were called to be fellow citizens with the saints; for this very cause the Jews persecuted him unto bonds, and conspired his death.
If ye have heard of the dispensation - The compound particle ειγε , which is commonly translated if indeed, in several places means since indeed, seeing that, and should be translated so in this verse, and in several other places of the New Testament. Seeing ye have heard of the dispensation of God, which is given me to you-ward: this they had amply learned from the apostle during his stay at Ephesus, for he had not shunned to declare unto them the whole counsel of God, Acts 20:27, and kept nothing back that was profitable to them, Acts 20:20. And this was certainly among those things that were most profitable, and most necessary to be known.
By revelation he made known unto me - Instead of εγνωρισε , he made known, εγνωρισθη , was made known, is the reading of ABCD*FG, several others, both the Syriac, Coptic, Slavonic, Vulgate, and Itala, with Clemens, Cyril, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Damascenus, and others: it is doubtless the true reading.
Whereby, when ye read - When ye refer back to them.
Ye may understand my knowledge - Ye may see what God has given me to know concerning what has been hitherto a mystery - the calling of the Gentiles, and the breaking down the middle wall between them and the Jews, so as to make both one spiritual body, and on the same conditions.
Which in other ages was not made known - That the calling of the Gentiles was made known by the prophets in different ages of the Jewish Church is exceedingly clear; but it certainly was not made known in that clear and precise manner in which it was now revealed by the Spirit unto the ministers of the New Testament: nor was it made known unto them at all, that the Gentiles should find salvation without coming under the yoke of the Mosaic law, and that the Jews themselves should be freed from that yoke of bondage; these were discoveries totally new, and now revealed for the first time by the Spirit of God.
That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs - This is the substance of that mystery which had been hidden from all ages, and which was now made known to the New Testament apostles and prophets, and more particularly to St. Paul.
His promise in Christ - That the promise made to Abraham extended to the Gentiles, the apostle has largely proved in his Epistle to the Romans; and that it was to be fulfilled to them by and through Christ, he proves there also; and particularly in his Epistle to the Galatians, see Galatians 3:14. And that these blessings were to be announced in the preaching of the Gospel, and received on believing it, he every where declares, but more especially in this epistle.
Whereof I was made a minister - Διακονος· A deacon, a servant acting under and by the direction of the great Master, Jesus Christ; from whom, by an especial call and revelation, I received the apostolic gifts and office, and by την ενεργειαν της δυναμεως αυτου , the energy, the in-working of his power, this Gospel which I preached was made effectual to the salvation of vast multitudes of Jews and Gentiles.
Less than the least of all saints - Ελαχιστοτερῳ παντων ἁγιων . As the design of the apostle was to magnify the grace of Christ in the salvation of the world, he uses every precaution to prevent the eyes of the people from being turned to any thing but Christ crucified; and although he was obliged to speak of himself as the particular instrument which God had chosen to bring the Gentile world to the knowledge of the truth, yet he does it in such a manner as to show that the excellency of the power was of God, and not of him; and that, highly as he and his follow apostles were honored; they had the heavenly treasure in earthen vessels. To lay himself as low as possible, consistently with his being in the number of Divinely commissioned men, he calls himself less than the least; and is obliged to make a new word, by strangely forming a comparative degree, not from the positive, which would have been a regular grammatical procedure, but from the superlative. The adjective ελαχυς signifies little, ελασσων or ελαττων , less, and ελαχιστος , least. On this latter, which is the superlative of ελαχυς , little, St. Paul forms his comparative, ελαχιστοτερος , less than the least, a word of which it would be vain to attempt a better translation than that given in our own version. It most strongly marks the unparalleled humility of the apostle; and the amazing condescension of God, in favoring him, who had been before a persecutor and blasphemer, with the knowledge of this glorious scheme of human redemption, and the power to preach it so successfully among the Gentiles.
The unsearchable riches of Christ - The word ανεξιχνιαστος , from α , privative, and εξιχνιαζω , to trace out, from ιχνος , a step, is exceedingly well chosen here: it refers to the footsteps of God, the plans he had formed, the dispensations which he had published, and the innumerable providences which he had combined, to prepare, mature, and bring to full effect and view his gracious designs in the salvation of a ruined world, by the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of his Son. There were in these schemes and providences such riches - such an abundance, such a variety, as could not be comprehended even by the naturally vast, and, through the Divine inspiration, unparalleledly capacious mind of the apostle.
And to make all men see - Και φωτισαι παντας· And to illuminate all; to give information both to Jews and Gentiles; to afford them a sufficiency of light, so that they might be able distinctly to discern the great objects exhibited in this Gospel.
What is the fellowship of the mystery - The word κοινωνια , which we properly translate fellowship, was used among the Greeks to signify their religious communities; here it may intimate the association of Jews and Gentiles in one Church or body, and their agreement in that glorious mystery which was now so fully opened relative to the salvation of both. But instead of κοινωνια , fellowship, οικονομια , dispensation or economy, is the reading of ABCDEFG, and more than fifty others; both the Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Slavonian, Vulgate and Itala, with the chief of the Greek fathers. Some of the best printed editions of the Greek text have the same reading, and that in our common text has very little authority to support it. Dispensation or economy is far more congenial to the scope of the apostle‘s declaration in this place; he wished to show them the economy of that mystery of bringing Jews and Gentiles to salvation by faith in Christ Jesus, which God from the beginning of the world had kept hidden in his own infinite mind, and did not think proper to reveal even when he projected the creation of the world, which had respect to the economy of human redemption. And although the world was made by Jesus Christ, the great Redeemer, yet at that period this revelation of the power of God, the design of saving men, whose fall infinite wisdom had foreseen, was not then revealed. This reading Griesbach has received into the text.
Who created all things by Jesus Christ - Some very judicious critics are of opinion that this does not refer to the material creation; and that we should understand the whole as referring to the formation of all God‘s dispensations of grace, mercy, and truth, which have been planned, managed, and executed by Christ, from the foundation of the world to the present time. But the words δια Ιησου Χριστου , by Jesus Christ, are wanting in ABCD*FG, and several others; also in the Syriac, Arabic of Erpen, Coptic, Ethiopic, Vulgate, and Itala; as also in several of the fathers. Griesbach has thrown the words out of the text; and Professor White says, “certissime delenda,” they are indisputably spurious. The text, therefore, should be read: which from the beginning of the world had been hidden in God who created all things. No inferiority of Christ can be argued from a clause of whose spuriousness there is the strongest evidence.
That now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places - Who are these principalities and powers? Some think evil angels are intended, because they are thus denominated, Ephesians 6:12. Others think good angels are meant; for as these heavenly beings are curious to investigate the wondrous economy of the Gospel, though they are not its immediate objects, see 1 Peter 1:12, it is quite consistent with the goodness of God to give them that satisfaction which they require. And in this discovery of the Gospel plan of salvation, which reconciles things in heaven and things on earth - both men and angels, these pure spirits are greatly interested, and their praises to the Divine Being rendered much more abundant. Others imagine the Jewish rulers and rabbins are intended, particularly those of them who were converted to Christianity, and who had now learned from the preaching of the Gospel what, as Jews, they could never have known. I have had several opportunities of showing that this sort of phraseology is frequent among the Jews, and indeed not seldom used in the New Testament. Dr. Macknight, whose mode of arguing against this opinion is not well chosen, supposes that “the different orders of angels in heaven are intended, whose knowledge of God‘s dispensations must be as gradual as the dispensations themselves; consequently their knowledge of the manifold wisdom of God must have been greatly increased by the constitution of the Christian Church.” Of this there can be no doubt, whether the terms in the text refer to them or not.
By the Church - That is, by the Christians and by the wonderful things done in the Church; and by the apostles, who were its pastors.
The manifold wisdom of God - Ἡ πολυποικιλος σοφια· That multifarious and greatly diversified wisdom of God; laying great and infinite plans, and accomplishing them by endless means, through the whole lapse of ages; making every occurrence subservient to the purposes of his infinite mercy and goodness. God‘s gracious design to save a lost world by Jesus Christ, could not be defeated by any cunning skill or malice of man or devils: whatever hinderances are thrown in the way, his wisdom and power can remove; and his infinite wisdom can never want ways or means to effect its gracious designs.
According to the eternal purpose - Κατα προθεσιν των αιωνων· According to the purpose concerning the periods. This seems to refer to the complete round of the Jewish system, and to that of the Gospel. I have often observed, that though the proper grammatical meaning of the word is ever-during or endless duration, yet it is often applied to those systems, periods, governments, etc., which have a complete duration, taking in the whole of them, from their commencement to their termination, leaving nothing of their duration unembraced. So, here, God purposed that the Jewish dispensation should commence at such a time, and terminate at such a time; that the Gospel dispensation should commence when the Jewish ended, and terminate only with life itself; and that the results of both should be endless. This is probably what is meant by the above phrase.
Which he purposed in Christ Jesus - Ἡν εποιησεν· Which he made or constituted in or for Christ Jesus. The manifestation of Christ, and the glory which should follow, were the grand objects which God kept in view in all his dispensations.
In whom we have boldness - By whom we, Gentiles, have την παρῥησιαν , this liberty of speech; so that we may say any thing by prayer and supplication, and την προσαγωγην , this introduction, into the Divine presence by faith in Christ. It is only in his name we can pray to God, and it is only by him that we can come to God; none can give us an introduction but Christ Jesus, and it is only for his sake that God will either hear or save us. It is on the ground of such scriptures as these that we conclude all our prayers in the name, and for the sake, of Jesus Christ our Lord.
I desire that ye faint not - In those primitive times, when there was much persecution, people were in continual danger of falling away from the faith who were not well grounded in it. This the apostle deprecates, and advances a strong reason why they should be firm: “I suffer my present imprisonment on account of demonstrating your privileges, of which the Jews are envious: I bear my afflictions patiently, knowing that what I have advanced is of God, and thus I give ample proof of the sincerity of my own conviction. The sufferings, therefore, of your apostles are honorable to you and to your cause; and far from being any cause why you should faint, or draw back like cowards, in the day of distress, they should be an additional argument to induce you to persevere.”
For this cause I bow my knees - That you may not faint, but persevere, I frequently pray to God, who is our God and the Father of our Lord Jesus. Some very ancient and excellent MSS. and versions omit the words του Κυριου ἡμων Ιησου Χριστου , of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in them the passage reads: I bow my knees unto the Father. The apostle prays to God the Father, that they may not faint; and he bows his knees in this praying. What can any man think of himself, who, in his addresses to God, can either sit on his seat or stand in the presence of the Maker and Judge of all men? Would they sit while addressing any person of ordinary respectability? If they did so they would be reckoned very rude indeed. Would they sit in the presence of the king of their own land? They would not be permitted so to do. Is God then to be treated with less respect than a fellow mortal? Paul kneeled in praying, Acts 20:36; Acts 21:5. Stephen kneeled when he was stoned, Acts 7:60. And Peter kneeled when he raised Tabitha, Acts 9:40.
Of whom the whole family - Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ on earth, the spirits of just men made perfect in a separate state, and all the holy angels in heaven, make but one family, of which God is the Father and Head. St. Paul does not say, of whom the families, as if each order formed a distinct household; but he says family, because they are all one, and of one. And all this family is named - derives its origin and being, from God, as children derive their name from him who is the father of the family: holy persons in heaven and earth derive their being and their holiness from God, and therefore his name is called upon them. Christ gives the name of Christians to all the real members of his Church upon earth; and to all the spirits of just men (saved since his advent, and through his blood) in heaven. They are all the sons and daughters of God Almighty.
That he would grant you - This prayer of the apostle is one of the most grand and sublime in the whole oracles of God. The riches of the grace of the Gospel, and the extent to which the soul of man may be saved here below, are most emphatically pointed out here. Every word seems to have come immediately from heaven; laboring to convey ideas of infinite importance to mankind. No paraphrase can do it justice, and few commentators seem to have entered into its spirit; perhaps deterred by its unparalleled sublimity. I shall only attempt a few observations upon the terms, to show their force and meaning; and leave all the rest to that Spirit by which these most important words were dictated. In the mean time referring the reader to the discourse lately published on this prayer of the apostle, entitled, The Family of God and its Privileges.
According to the riches of his glory - According to the measure of his own eternal fullness; God‘s infinite mercy and goodness being the measure according to which we are to be saved. In giving alms it is a maxim that every one should act according to his ability. It would be a disgrace to a king or a noble-man to give no more than a tradesman or a peasant. God acts up to the dignity of his infinite perfections; he gives according to the riches of his glory.
To be strengthened with might - Ye have many enemies, cunning and strong; many trials, too great for your natural strength; many temptations, which no human power is able successfully to resist; many duties to perform, which cannot be accomplished by the strength of man; therefore you need Divine strength; ye must have might; and ye must be strengthened every where, and every way fortified by that might; mightily and most effectually strengthened.
By his Spirit - By the sovereign energy of the Holy Ghost. This fountain of spiritual energy can alone supply the spiritual strength which is necessary for this spiritual work and conflict.
In the inner man - In the soul. Every man is a compound being; he has a body and a soul. The outward man is that alone which is seen and considered by men; the inward man is that which stands particularly in reference to God and eternity. The outward man is strengthened by earthly food, etc.; the inward man, by spiritual and heavenly influences. Knowledge, love, peace, and holiness, are the food of the inward man; or rather Jesus Christ, that bread of life which came down from heaven: he that eateth this bread shall live and be strengthened by it. The soul must be as truly fed and nourished by Divine food as the body by natural food.
That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith - In this as well as in many other passages, and particularly that in Ephesians 2:21 (note), the apostle compares the body or Church of true believers to a temple, which, like that of Solomon, is built up to be a habitation of God through the Spirit. Here, as Solomon did at the dedication of the temple at Jerusalem, 2 Chronicles 6:1, etc., Paul, having considered the Church at Ephesus completely formed, as to every external thing, prays that God may come down and dwell in it. And as there could be no indwelling of God but by Christ, and no indwelling of Christ but by faith, he prays that they may have such faith in Christ, as shall keep them in constant possession of his love and presence. God, at the beginning, formed man to be his temple, and while in a state of purity he inhabited this temple; when the temple became defiled, God left it. In the order of his eternal mercy, Christ, the repairer of the breach, comes to purify the temple, that it may again become a fit habitation for the blessed God. This is what the apostle points out to the believing Ephesians, in praying that Christ κατοικησαι , might intensely and constantly dwell in their hearts by faith: for the man‘s heart, which is not God‘s house, must be a hold of every foul and unclean spirit; as Satan and his angels will endeavor to fill what God does not.
That ye, being rooted and grounded in love - Here is a double metaphor; one taken from agriculture, the other, from architecture. As trees, they are to be rooted in love - this is the soil in which their souls are to grow; into the infinite love of God their souls by faith are to strike their roots, and from this love derive all that nourishment which is essential for their full growth, till they have the mind in them that was in Jesus, or, as it is afterwards said, till they are filled with all the fullness of God. As a building, their foundation is to be laid in this love. God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, etc. Here is the ground on which alone the soul, and all its hopes and expectations, can be safely founded. This is a foundation that cannot be shaken; and it is from this alone that the doctrine of redemption flows to man, and from this alone has the soul its form and comeliness. In this, as its proper soil, it grows. On this, as its only foundation, it rests.
May be able to comprehend with all saints - Ἱνα εξισχυσητε καταλαβεσθαι . These words are so exceedingly nervous and full of meaning, that it is almost impossible to translate them. The first word, εξισχυσητε , from εξ , intensive, and ισχυω , to be strong, signifies that they might be thoroughly able, by having been strengthened with might, by God‘s power. The second word καταλαβεσθαι , from κατα , intensive, and λαμβανω , to take, catch, or seize on, may be translated, that ye may fully catch, take in, and comprehend this wonderful mystery of God. The mind must be rendered apt, and the soul invigorated, to take in and comprehend these mysteries.
What is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height - Here the apostle still keeps up the metaphor, comparing the Church of God to a building; and as, in order to rear a proper building, formed on scientific principles, a ground plan and specification must be previously made, according to which the building is to be constructed, the apostle refers to this; for this must be thoroughly understood, without which the building could not be formed. They were to be builded up a heavenly house, a habitation of God through the Spirit; and this must have its latitude or breadth, its longitude or length, its altitude or height, and its profundity or depth.
To know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge - It is only by the love of Christ that we can know the love of God: the love of God to man induced him to give Christ for his redemption; Christ‘s love to man induced him to give his life‘s blood for his salvation. The gift of Christ to man is the measure of God‘s love; the death of Christ for man is the measure of Christ‘s love. God so loved the world, etc. Christ loved us, and gave himself for us.
That ye might be filled with all the fullness of God - Among all the great sayings in this prayer, this is the greatest. To be Filled with God is a great thing; to be filled with the Fulness of God is still greater; but to be filled with All the fullness of God, παν το πληρωμα του Θεου , utterly bewilders the sense and confounds the understanding.
Now unto him - Having finished his short, but most wonderfully comprehensive and energetic prayer, the apostle brings in his doxology, giving praise to Him from whom all blessings come, and to whom all thanks are due.
That is able to do exceeding abundantly - It is impossible to express the full meaning of these words, God is omnipotent, therefore he is able to do all things, and able to do ὑπερ εκ περισσου , superabundantly above the greatest abundance. And who can doubt this, who has any rational or Scriptural views of his power or his love?
All that we ask or think - We can ask every good of which we have heard, every good which God has promised in his word; and we can think of, or imagine, goods and blessings beyond all that we have either read of or seen: yea, we can imagine good things to which it is impossible for us to give a name; we can go beyond the limits of all human descriptions; we can imagine more than even God has specified in his word; and can feel no bounds to our imagination of good, but impossibility and eternity: and after all, God is able to do more for us than we can ask or think; and his ability here is so necessarily connected with his willingness, that the one indisputably implies the other; for, of what consequence would it be to tell the Church of God that he had power to do so and so, if there were not implied an assurance that he will do what his power can, and what the soul of man needs to have done?
According to the power that worketh in us - All that he can do, and all that he has promised to do, will be done according to what he has done, by that power of the holy Ghost την ενεργουμενην , which worketh strongly in us - acts with energy in our hearts, expelling evil, purifying and refining the affections and desires, and implanting good.
Unto him - Thus possessed of power and goodness, be glory in the Church - be unceasing praises ascribed in all the assemblies of the people of God, wherever these glad tidings are preached, and wherever this glorious doctrine shall be credited.
By Christ Jesus - Through whom, and for whom, all these miracles of mercy and power are wrought.
Throughout all ages - Εις πασας τας γενεας· Through all succeeding generations - while the race of human beings continues to exist on the face of the earth.
World without end - Του αιωνος των αιωνων· Throughout eternity - in the coming world as well as in this. The song of praise, begun upon earth, and protracted through all the generations of men, shall be continued in heaven, by all that are redeemed from the earth, where eras, limits, and periods are no more for ever.
Amen - So be it. So let it be! and so it will be; for all the counsels of God are faithfulness and truth; and not one jot or tittle of his promise has failed, from the foundation of the world to the present day; nor can fail, till mortality is swallowed up of life.
1.For the great importance of the matter contained in this chapter, and the sublimity of the language and conceptions, there is no portion of the New Testament equal to this. The apostle was now shut up in prison, but the word of the Lord was not bound; and the kingdom of God seems to have been opened to him in a most astonishing manner. There seems to have been exhibited to him a plan of the Divine counsels and conduct relative to the salvation of man, before and from the foundation of the world to the end of time; and while, with the eye of his mind, he contemplates this plan, he describes it in language at once the most elevated that can be conceived, and every where dignified and appropriate to the subject; so that he may with safety be compared with the finest of the Grecian writers. In the notes I have already observed how hard it is to give any literal translation of the many compound epithets which the apostle uses. Indeed his own nervous language seems to bend and tremble under the weight of the Divine ideas which it endeavors to express. This is most observable in the prayer and doxology which are contained in Ephesians 3:14-21. A passage in Thucydides, lib. vii. cap. lxxxvii, in fine, where he gives an account of the total overthrow of the Athenian general, Nicias, and his whole army, by the Sicilians, has been compared with this of the apostle; it is truly a grand piece, and no reader can be displeased with its introduction here: ξυνεβη τε εργον τουτο Ἑλληνικον των κατα τον πολεμον τονδε μεγιστον γενεσθαι - και τοις τε κρατησασι λαμπροτατον, και τοις διαφθαρεισι δυστυχεστατον· κατα παντα γαρ παντως νικηθεντες, και ουδεν ολιγον ες ουδεν κακοπαθησαντες, πανωλεθριᾳ δη, το λεγομενον, και πεζος και νηες, και ουδεν ὁ, τι ουκ απωλετο· και ολιγοι απο πολλων επ ‘ οικου απενοστησαν· “This was the greatest discomfiture which the Greeks sustained during the whole war, and was as brilliant to the conquerors as it was calamitous to the vanquished. In every respect they were totally defeated; and they suffered no small evil in every particular: the destruction was universal, both of army and navy; there was nothing that did not perish; and scarcely any, out of vast multitudes, returned to their own homes.
The learned may compare the two passages; and while due credit is given to the splendid Greek historian, no critic will deny the palm to the inspired writer.
As sin is the cause of the ruin of mankind, the Gospel system, which is its cure, is called good news, or glad tidings; and it is good news because it proclaims him who saves his people from their sins. It would be dishonorable to the grace of Christ to suppose that sin had made wounds which that could not heal.
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